In the seat next to me, my neighbour coolly stares ahead as a large male baboon, blocking the open window, bares its teeth inches from his face. Fear fills the bus. Women silence their children. The rest of the screeching monkeys are blocking the closed door, putting paid to any idea of escape. I close my eyes and wonder why I have chosen to travel to Asmara by bus, instead of a nicely air-conditioned taxi.
The coastal port of Massawa is not, as you might imagine it to be, a bright and sunny place: even though it is slap bang in the middle of the western coast of the Red Sea it is often grey. After a month of sailing in transparent waters and brilliant skies, we are disappointed to find the weather overcast, drizzly and humid in Eritrea’s principal port. Since we are going to be here for a fortnight, Jamie and I decide to explore inland.
As we climb onto the bus for Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, fat grey clouds settle in comfortably for the day ahead. The oppressive heat wraps itself around us. In an effort to dress appropriately, I have swaddled myself in long cotton garments. This ensures I begin the journey wearing my own personal sauna.
Our journey begins with spluttering and coughing, as the prehistoric engine makes known its reluctance to go to work. Unmoved by the mechanical whining, our driver turns the bus inland, towards the country’s parched flat lands. An hour later the recalcitrant engine has knuckled under. We glide along a recently asphalted road, towards the distant foothills of the Great Rift Valley Mountains that run the length of Eritrea.
Eventually the dry plain gives way to verdant hillsides. Trying not to concentrate on the shear drops either side of us, we spot eagles, ravens and vultures. Weaver birds’ nests hang from trees and black kites circle. Ragged camels lope along carrying stores to market, driven by matching gnarled owners. For every mosque at one end of a ramshackle village, a church stands at the other, a reflection of the happily diverse culture of Eritrea.
Occasionally, balanced precariously on narrow ledges hewn into the rock, we glimpse a steam train on a narrow gauge railway track, as it snakes its way between the valleys and tunnels. The Wefri Warsay Yika’alo post-war recovery project was set up to improve Eritrea’s badly damaged infrastructure. As well as building highways, it has restored the railway, originally built by the Italians during their occupation.
After a midway stop for sugary, milk-free tea, with a piece of fresh lime floating in the cup, we set off again. The bus clambers still higher. We are in the cloud now. I can’t decide if the lack of a view over the edge, or round the next hairpin, is more or less frightening than before. If we are going to plummet to our deaths, maybe I’d prefer not to see it coming. Suddenly we burst through the fog into brilliant sunshine. Abandoned ancient terracing blankets the mountains. The higher altitude brings with it lower temperatures and dry air; my acres of layered cotton suddenly feel much more appropriate.
As the bus rounds another narrow bend, a troop of baboons appears in the middle of the road. They won’t get out of the way, so the driver puts on the hand brake. Jamie takes out his camera as another tourist throws bread out of the window.
Now here we are with a rampaging alpha male in the bus, his teeth looking remarkably clean. And big. I edge away. Withdrawing a stick from under his seat, the hitherto self-effacing driver’s assistant waves it in the animal’s face. Irritated, the interloper jumps back onto the road and strolls off with his troop. As we cheer the heroic assistant my neighbour just smiles.
With much chattering and giggling, we resume our winding journey towards the city in the clouds. As we enter the magnificent Italianate boulevards of Asmara, I am still wondering if turning down those anti rabies jabs had been the right decision. A little while later I find a sturdy, sharp stick and put it in my rucksack.
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