Sailing to Eritrea

Nov 19th, 2008, 02:33 PM
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Sailing to Eritrea

Although this trip did involve a cruise, I thought I’d post in the Africa/Middle East forum, as most posts on the cruising forum do not include trip reports.

The trip involved a journey through Jordan, followed by a Red Sea cruise on the Island Sky with stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea.

I first learned of the British company Noble Caledonia through some travelers I met on a different trip a couple of years ago. I decided on to book this trip because it included a stop in Eritrea, a country I was not willing to tackle independently, and I could travel in relative comfort. I was also interested in seeing Saudi Arabia, another relatively difficult country to visit.

Turns out I’d forgotten about the inconveniences of traveling with large groups (primarily interminable waiting), but the trade off was the convenience of the company taking care of all the details. All visas were obtained as part of a group process by Noble Caledonia. Also all meals were included for the duration of the trip, and the buffet lunches on land were of good quality and allowed for a sampling of the local cuisine. Meals on board the ship were generally European. I found them rather bland, but they appeared to be to the taste of most of the clientele.

Coming from the US, I flew to London and met up with most of the other passengers for the flight to Jordan. The flight from LHR to Amman on Royal Jordanian was uneventful, food and service were good. We arrived at Le Meridien in Amman at about 2 am.

The following morning we were loaded onto 3 buses (~30 people/bus) and set off on a city tour of Amman which included a stop at the citadel. Lunch was at a hotel on the Dead sea, and we had another stop at the crusader castle in Kerak. The guides were of varying quality, and because of the group size, it was frequently difficult to hear and understand what was going on. As time went on I began to realise that a little more prep-work on my part would have been beneficial. With the variety of stops, an investment in several different guide books was required, which I regretted not doing, and the few guidebooks I did have, I left at home because of my reluctance in carrying the additional weight.

Upon arriving in Aqaba we checked into the Intercontinental hotel. The next day involved a full day’s visit to Petra. Petra was very crowded, and while this made the visit less than ideal, visiting in the heat of the low season would have been worse. I enjoyed the visit to Petra, but found it rather overwhelming. The crowds, heat, and having to avoid galloping horses used for transporting tourists were all quite distracting. If I were to visit again, I would plan to stay much closer and visit in the early morning. In fact the distances of various sites from the coast meant that by the time we arrived anywhere, the heat of the day was well in force.

The next day involved a visit to Wadi Rum which was a definite highlight for me. Several converted flat bed trucks had been hired and we sped from site to site in the desert. Lunch was a buffet at a desert campsite for tourists.

The day ended with our arrival at the port and embarkation on the Island Sky which was to be our base for the next nine nights. At each successive port there were three large buses to provide transportation for the day’s sightseeing.
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Nov 19th, 2008, 04:03 PM
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I'm looking forward to your report on Asmara -- I may combine a short visit with my trip to Ethiopia and Djibouti in December 2010 (I like to plan ahead). I do intend to travel independently. Did anything you learned suggest you were right not to tackle Asmara independently?
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Nov 20th, 2008, 04:05 AM
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Femi: I, too, am very excited about the upcoming report on Asmara....excellent report so far! You have a great travel spirit!
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Nov 20th, 2008, 05:18 AM
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Thanks Eks
Michael our guide did hint that it was easier to get permission for travel out of Asmara for groups rather than individuals. There is still unrest at the border towns, and there is some concern about spies. Groups are easier to keep track of, and our guide said it would be slightly riskier to accept responsibility for keeping tabs on a single client as they have been known to dissappear of their own accord. There were several check points on all the roads we traveled outside of Asmara.

Also I do not think that travel between Ethiopia and Eritrea is allowed at this time, so that may lead to rather circuitous routing.
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Nov 20th, 2008, 05:22 AM
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The next day was a visit to St. Katherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. The site was very crowded, as were most of the stops in Egypt, and the drive of several hours round trip left us with little time at our destination. I found the following day’s visit to the monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul to be much more enjoyable. The monks were very friendly and patient with questions. And I found the architecture of St. Anthony’s in particular to be much more appealing.

For security reasons our road trips in Egypt required that our tour buses travel as part of a convoy. Buses that are to travel in convoy meet up at a set point at specific times of day, and even the rest stops are orchestrated. Our trip to Luxor involved the longest convoy yet, and we lost count after about sixty buses! A lot of visitors to Egypt now come from Russia, and I think they outnumbered most other tourists. The long drive from the port of Sharm-El-Sheikh once again left us with precious few hours at Luxor, but we managed to squeeze in a visit to the temple of Hatshepsut (another personal highlight for me), the valley of the kings (with entrance into two tombs) and the temple at Karnak. Coming upon the lush fertile Nile valley after hours of hostile desert is a sight I will not soon forget.

Most of us decided that the visit was really a sampler, and the sites really deserved the dedication of a lot more time on a separate trip. We were given the option of remaining in Luxor overnight, to see the sound and light show at Karnak, but I chose to return to the ship that night.

The following two days were spent at sea, and by this point it was a well needed rest as the pace since the start of the tour had been exhausting.

During this respite, we were briefed on the requirements for our stop in Jeddah. As Saudi Arabia is officially a ‘Dry’ state with the consumption of alcohol forbidden, all alcohol on board (including personal supplies) was rounded up and placed under lock and key. Inspections were carried out by Saudi officials when we docked, and additional seals were placed over the locks.

Abayas (long black cloaks) were brought on board for the women, with instructions that we be covered from neck to ankles. Overall the prepartion for arrival at Jeddah involved a lot more excitement than was really necessary. Even the Saudi officials said that we could relax and didn’t have to wear the abayas while on board the ship.
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Nov 20th, 2008, 07:08 AM
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The Saudi guides were very gracious and flexible, making our visit to Jeddah quite enjoyable. One got the impression they hadn’t been doing it for long as at one point our guide freely admitted he was thinking up random details to fill the time.
Our half day visit included a tour of the animal market (camels, goats and sheep). Several times through out our trip we were warned that the nomads, or animal herders were ‘wild’ and not quite like normal folk. At the animal market it simply seemed that the traders had not the polished manner of the Saudis who dressed in shimmering spotless whites with gold wrist watches. However the traders were friendly enough, and when it appeared they were getting a little too friendly, our guide deemed it was time to go.
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Nov 20th, 2008, 03:21 PM
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Femi this is great...please give us every last detail..many thanks!
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Nov 21st, 2008, 07:30 AM
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One portion of the highway was lined with sofas (!) at regular intervals, before which were placed wooden tables with three metal bowls. Further from the road across an aqueduct were groups of camels. I would never in a million years have figured out what was going on. Camel’s milk for sale! At my request the guide did not hesitate to stop. He indicated what size bowl of milk he wanted, and the seller ran down and across stepping stones in the aqueduct and up the other side. There he chased away a baby camel from its’ mother, balanced the bowl on one knee, milked as if his life depended on it, and dashed back to the road side leaving flying milk froth in his wake. The milk was better than I expected, very rich and smooth. As much as I wanted to gulp it all down, I had only a couple of sips.

We toured the souk in the old town with a visit to Nasseef house, a merchant’s residence constructed in the 1880s. The city tour ended with a drive around the modern city including the corniche with its several modern art sculptures and the world’s highest (?) fountain.
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Nov 21st, 2008, 07:32 AM
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I thought I would spend more time on the Eritrea portion of the report. It's scary to think how quickly the details fade!
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Nov 21st, 2008, 07:33 AM
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Another day at sea was followed by a visit to Eritrea’s Dahlak islands for snorkeling in the warm, crystal clear waters among giant heads of coral. A boat tour around the uninhabited island included visits to a pod of dolphins, and the occasional sighting of a sea turtle as well as myriad multi colored fish. Although the island we stopped at was uninhabited, there are others with more developed tourist infrastructure.

The real adventure for me began with our final stop and disembarkation in the port of Massawa, Eritrea. Walking around the port that evening revealed a balmy, laid-back atmosphere. Several locals were out for an evening stroll. Makes sense because it was simply too hot to do much during the heat of the day. Although it was sweltering, the locals defined the season as ‘winter’ and bundled up accordingly, particularly the elderly.

Another discovery was how soft-spoken and generally quiet the Eritrean people are. For the duration of our stay I felt like I was constantly straining to hear what people were saying. It was quite a surprise on the flight back home to find I could hear the entire conversation of Americans several rows away.
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Nov 21st, 2008, 08:36 AM
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Femi - this is great!! I just skimmed b/c I am severely jet lagged (am posting from Tehran) but when I saw the title it woke me up a bit, so I hope there is more to come, along with pictures.
I looked into going to Eritrea from Ethiopia and it was going to involve an expensive flight through Djibouti to get there, and it appeared I couldn't leave asmara w/o going through some convoluted, confusing and time consuming permit process so I gave up.
can't wait to re-read when I am more awake. thanks for posting this.
Linda
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Nov 21st, 2008, 10:44 AM
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Ha ha Maxwell! I also have a beastly case of jet lag, which seems worse than usual. I imagine you feel the same. Looking forward to your report...
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Nov 21st, 2008, 10:46 AM
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Linda, wow, you made it to Iran!

I checked as recently as last week and there are no direct flights between Djibouti and Eritrea -- easiest is currently via Sana'a, Yemen, but it requires and overnight.
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Nov 21st, 2008, 11:54 AM
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Changing money was very straight forward. We had to declare all our currency prior to leaving the ship, and each time we changed money (1 US Dollar = 15 Nakfa), our currency declaration form was stamped and the balance of funds duly noted. The officials at the airport were quite strict about this form, making enquiries about why our funds didn’t tally and conducting searches for hidden currency. They found all the funds I had been too lazy to declare (ten Egyptian pounds, and some English change). Several times it was stressed that it was illegal for local Eritreans to be in the possession of foreign currency.

Most of the ship’s passengers chose not to stay for the post-cruise extension and headed to Asmara, returning to London that night. Our party of eleven instantly felt more intimate as we left the ship for a tour of Massawa. Although it wasn’t quite ten in the morning, the humidity was fierce and the temperature felt like it was already in the eighties and climbing.

Another surprise was how many people spoke English, which I found to be true throughout the country. The second, far less pleasant surprise was the presence of the pesky flies. Our guide said the numbers were unusual and probably related to the recent rainfall. While there had been some flies throughout the trip, Massawa’s were the most irritating, probably because of the combination of heat and humidity. At night I woke myself flailing, trying to get rid of the flies in my dreams.
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Nov 22nd, 2008, 03:33 PM
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The one place in Massawa that seemed free of the pests was Haile Selassie’s crumbling, bullet-scarred palace set on crystal clear azure waters of the port. We also stopped by the museum and the old post-office for post cards and stamps.

We spent the night at the Red Sea Hotel in Massawa, with the most wonderful thing about it being that it had a fan and air conditioning, offering blessed relief from the flies. The fact that it had no hot water, and cold water that only ran at a trickle (surprisingly successful at flooding the bathroom floor) was besides the point.

(I’m looking at my Massawa photos now and there is nary a fly in sight. Hmmm.)

The next morning after a visit to the Massawa Salt Works, we set out on the road to Asmara. On the way our guide agreed to stop at a Bedouin camp of a tribe called the Rashaida. Once again we were duly warned of how ‘wild’ they could be. The difference was this time, even I found the nomads intimidating. They formed quite a contrast to regular Eritreans. The women were very animated and laughed a lot. They were veiled by intricate beadwork, but from what little one could see each was more stunning than the last. We had been warned not to take pictures as they could be very aggressive, and the plan was for the guide to reach an agreed price with the headman before anyone could take any shots. Unfortunately the chief was not home, and one of my biggest regrets of this trip was not being able to photograph the women. A group of them pulled me into their tent and invited me to squat with them for a more intimate conversation. First they were surprised at the difficulty I demonstrated in squatting for the prolonged period, and next they were taken aback that I did not carry a ‘mobile’. “Where is your cell phone?” they repeated in disbelief. Unfortunately this was all I could understand of their rapid-fire questions. They were eager to communicate, pulling at my sleeves and even delivering mild slaps to get my attention.
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Dec 3rd, 2008, 02:30 AM
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Femi - I'm caught up now and waiting for the rest of this!
I can identify with your comment about the pace of the tour being exhausting.
I do not enjoy traveling at breakneck speed...

I love the story about the rashaida tribe and the cell phone - classic.

I hope you'll be posting pictures too - I'm particularly interested in your Eritrea and Saudi Arabia visit.
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Dec 3rd, 2008, 01:29 PM
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I suppose I have become a bit lazy, didn't think anyone would notice, LOL.

I'd better get to work on the pictures...

Our guide had informed us that the government had great difficulty in getting the nomads to settle down and had eventually chosen to look the other way during the numerous border crossings of the Rashaida. These days the caravans included shiny new 4x4s as well as goats and camels. He also explained that although there were no problems with the Rashaidas taking a local Tigrinya for a wife, Rashaida women were notoriously difficult to control and their male relatives would run you through with a sword given the slightest provocation. They were also ruthless when it came to money, and while ‘regular’ Eritreans did not like to bargain, Rashaida would mark up the price by 300%. All in all, within seconds of meeting them, it was easy to understand why he found the tribe so intimidating. One of the ladies motioned that I could take pictures without having to pay, but I was too chicken to take accept her offer.
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Dec 3rd, 2008, 02:35 PM
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On the drive up from Massawa to Asmara we got our first introduction to the traditional coffee ceremony. It did require some adjustment getting used to the pace of life in Eritrea, as a quick ‘pit-stop’ would stretch into nearly two hours. First a brazier had to be lit, and then the beans would be roasted in a well used pan. Then the coffee had to be brewed before it was filtered, had sugar added and finally served. It sounds simple, but it was an intricate process. When I tried my hand at roasting the beans they got a bit burnt, and I ended up having several blazing coals tumble out onto the rug (our server picked them up barehanded, and tossed them back into the brazier without batting an eye). Some of the coffee ladies would add dried ginger to the concoction.

I found Asmara to be much colder (50s Fahrenheit at night) than I expected.
My primary reason for visiting Eritrea was to photograph the beautiful people. It was rather disappointing to find most did not wish to be photographed. On the streets of Asmara in particular I found the women stunning. Even in the countryside it was difficult to get used to just how good-looking the women are.

After spending the night in Asmara, we hit the road once again, this time headed for the town of Keren. The road to Keren is particularly bone-jarring. At one point I actually lost my balance and fell over in my seat! Keren turned out to be my favourite city in Eritrea. The weather was perfect and I loved the laid-back country feel. Although it was a quiet town, we happened upon youth in the public library where they had free access to the web, and could Google all they wanted. We drove up to the fort high on a hill and were able to see how organized and well-planned a town Keren was, courtesy of the Italians of course.

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Dec 5th, 2008, 10:53 AM
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The shrine of St. Maryam Dearit is located at the end of a lovely tree lined drive. There is a baobab tree that contains a little shrine with the statue of the Virgin Mary. The shrine is apparently popular with women who hope for children. They sit along the drive and serve coffee, made the traditional way, which they present to passers-by as an offering. It is supposedly good luck to have a male drink the coffee. We stopped by one lady who was happy enough to serve the tourists in our group, but was quite insistent that our guide participate. He felt pressured to keep our group moving so we wouldn’t be late for the next stop, but she made sure he had at least two cups. He drank them to please her, gulping them down scalding hot.

We stopped by the only school for the deaf in Eritrea, and the level of dedication of the staff was very inspiring. The kids and their enthusiasm for learning were very endearing. We visited the workshop that displayed items the kids had made. Seemingly nothing was for sale. Whenever someone came across a particularly nice pillow cover or handkerchief it was ‘not for sale’. More than anything else, what was needed was a lesson in marketing! I found a lovely woolen scarf which was of course not for sale, but it was the only item that I had come across in all our travels through Eritrea that I actually desired. More firmly than I probably should have, I told the instructor I was taking it, for sale or not, and he grudgingly gave me a price for it.

During our stop at the town hall, the caretaker took us on a little impromptu tour of the buildings. He seemed quite practiced at it, keeping the group together (no small task) and moving, and pointing out the highlights, all without speaking a word. I tried to take his picture and he put out his hand to stop me. Slowly and methodically he buttoned his many layers of clothing, straightened his collar, and replaced his hat with a turban. Then when he was ready, and not a minute before, he gestured it was ok to begin the shoot. I shot one picture, when he realized the lighting was all wrong and moved over to a sunny patio. He thought our guide might like to join in, but put a hat on him before we could resume. By this time he had found his tongue and we learned he was in his 80’s and could speak Italian but no English.

When I asked a boy at the market in Keren, “What’s your camel’s name?” “Camel.” He said trying to disguise his opinion of such a stupid question.
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Dec 5th, 2008, 10:59 AM
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Pictures. Hope this link works...
http://tiny.cc/JrXZM
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