It is still dark and I look out the huge metal gates of my grandfathers’ house to see Asmara waking. Women draped in their traditional scarves walk hurriedly towards the Churches. Most walked alone, safety was not the concern, getting to Church on time was. Soon the clip clop of the horse driven wagons (carosas) will start and the automobile drivers will take to the streets along with the many pedestrians.
Asmara mornings have a distinct sound. You must be dead asleep if you miss the thousands of beep beeps from the cars, buses and trucks who share the roads with the pedestrians and carosas. The chatter of students, dressed in uniforms, as they head to the various schools also added to the sounds of Asmara mornings. Most of all, it was the sound of Church bells and the Morning Prayers coming from the Mosque nearby that woke you up if you were not already awake.
I head out the door expecting nothing and finding so much. Asmara’s beauty is special because you have to look for it. The elegant side of Asmara is always close by; sometimes it is just around the corner. Peeking through open gates I can see the front side of the villas, some with huge yards, and I imagine my children having this much space to run around in. Some of the homes were spectacular, with solid stone and brick walls and foundations, marble staircases, wraparound verandahs, all made of stones. Seemed like everyone’s house was of brick and stone, a realtors dream. Asmara’s landscape overlooking majestic mountains is prime real estate no matter how you look at it.
Those of us who toured together had quite a few dream sessions. We dreamt of hilltop homes overlooking the quite meadows below, we dreamt of quiet evenings watching some of the most spectacular sunsets, not to mention the unbelievable number of stars that lit up the skies night after night. Even the heavens seemed more glorious in Asmara. I believe all the women would agree that we had very few, if any, bad hair days. When it didn’t rain it got a bit dusty and we could taste the dust in our mouths. Not to worry, these were just the perfect excuses for stopping and having a morning macchiato or cappuccino, to sooth our dry mouths and quench our thirsts.
There were so many pastry shops to pick from and each one of us developed a favorite taste. It didn’t seem odd to go to one place and pick up the favorite pastry and drive or walk to another “bar” to have the favored beverage to go with it. I found out that most of the “bars” served coffee and other non-alcoholic beverages throughout the day and then served alcohol in the late evenings. These “bars” were all over the country. One particular bar caught our attention. Dorfo bar, located on the road to Massawa, a road described by many as being dangerous. A road much improved, wider and safer now than before, but still requiring a driver’s utmost attention. We all hoped that those who stopped at the Dorfo bar just had “Mai gas”- carbonated water.
These “coffee breaks” became part of our routine throughout our stay in Eritrea. I most enjoyed the homemade coffee that became a morning routine and also an afternoon routine for most of us in the group. We were addicted, not so much to the coffee, but to the ceremony. The smell of the coffee along with the incense made for a perfectly relaxing atmosphere. The lively conversations were also part of the ceremony and we talked a lot about everything. We compared everything there, with what we were accustomed to here (USA). We convinced each other the home version was better. Adinah Tuum iyu we repeated, day after day, as if we/they needed assurances.
Strolling down the streets through the various neighborhoods I found ancient looking Churches tucked between row houses and hiding behind great walls of stone. These Churches displayed beautiful stained glass windows and rugged stone structures, obviously hundreds of years old. I noticed that as the people walked by the Churches, they all did a quick bow, and offered brief prayers. As I got closer to the Churches I found many, mostly women, praying. They sat on the Church steps and some stood facing the walls of the Church. There were even more who knelt on the gravel as if to punish themselves for some sinful deed. The doors were closed but these women would walk up to the doors, gently knock and then resume their praying. I had to smile, even shed tears some days, there was something very genuine about these people, and it warmed my heart.
Next to the many “bars”, I found Asmara had a photo studio on just about every corner. With a quick change in costume and background, a city girl was easily transformed into a village girl complete with headgear and “meHzeli” for carrying a baby and “Itro” for carrying water. A picture tells a thousand words and each window adorned a thousand words. Many of us traveled with at least a camera and a video camera so we were all busy snapping our own photos, but we also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get all dressed up in traditional costumes and pretend. Asmara had a lot to say and the pictures were trying to tell it all.
My all time favorite hangout in Asmara was the “shuq”, the open markets. Now, what is it that can’t be sold here? There was chicken and eggs on one end; all kinds of vegetables, fruits and grains on another and of course my favorite, Eritrean arts and crafts in yet another section. We took turns bargaining (pleading) with the merchants for the right size “Tsahli” and “Jebena”. Yes, we also had to get the matching “Mewredi”. Shopping in these places has to be reserved for the locals. Some of the merchants offered us outrageous prices and it took quite a bit to find out what the real prices were for the various items. Of course by the time we had figured out the right prices, we had already bought enough of those items. Oh yes, we bought “Itan” and the “Shahi Qimem” and other spices. Well, everything was in this place.
By the time I got home from our walks through the “shuq” I felt I had done a years worth of exercise. That bowl of cold water for our feet was a sure cure for the night. After dinner, we took off to the streets again. Not much happens late at night except on the weekends. Asmara has many restaurants and the food is really good and fresh. We ate Italian, Chinese and traditional foods. Seafood was excellent-not to mention cheap. The vendors kept running out of beer, but there was always “Areqi”-I can still feel it trickling down my chest, almost burning, but somehow it too was soothing. Asmara slept early only to wake up and start all over again. Beep beep….
Some cities make it easy for visitors to leave their hearts; Asmara was one of them. Leave Asmara if you have to, but only to return.
This was written in 2001 after my visit to Eritrea, hope you enjoy revisiting as much as I did…