I woke when the day started. The bright sun was up in a few minutes and the heat was already beginning to rise when I came off my perch (one last glance around the bay and across the causeway onto the main land).
After a light breakfast, I set out alone to explore the city. It was one of the strangest places I had ever come across. I’d never really been to a proper desert city, and Massawa’s position on the Red Sea meant it mixed black Africa with Arab, as well as the Italian and English influence of its brief colonial history. Whereas Asmara had been fairly unscathed by the recent struggle or independence from Ethiopia, Massawa had nearly been blown apart. And the poverty of the new country mixed with a sense of doing things right that, even seen years after Independence, many of the battle scars were still in evidence. I have already mentioned the tanks standing as monuments at the end of the causeway, immortalised, it is said, in the very spot where they liberated Massawa from the Ethiopians.
Many of the major buildings are holes. Massawa was at one time a grand trading port, with all the wealth that came with it. The huge palace building on the outer island still stands, but a vast shell hole in the golden dome has shattered its soul, along with a hundred bullet holes in the plaster. Many other buildings are holed, and you walk among the ruins of houses, offices, shops and schools, and can only wonder at the human suffering that went along with the remaining physical destruction.
A large ornate Italian Bank in the centre of the city was also shelled, and only its shell still stands. But amongst this destruction two things are self evident. One is that the spirit of the people carries on, and people still work and live among the cities rambling streets. The second is that rebuilding continues, but they are not rushing it.
Piece by piece they are rebuilding a new Massawa, new office blocks in some areas, new paving stones next to newly tarmacced roads, reconstruction of old houses, rebuilding of larger villas on the outer island, along with the expansion of the housing stock on the mainland. But carefully does it. The rebuilding of the railway is one thing. They bought a small diesel locomotive that dragged a couple of open sided coaches from the centre of the old town across the causeway to the other side. That is Massawa’s equivalent of a commuter trip. Some say it will take twenty years to rebuild the railway to Asmara.
I was only hassled once in Eritrea, and it happened in Massawa. Every where else people would let me get on; they may say hello or ask how are things, but no one had an ulterior motive. Except here. I knew it was going to happen. I was staring off the second causeway that linked the two islands, looking down and wondering where else in the world was harbour water was so clean, so crystal clear. I could see fish darting in and out of some inferior coral and a hundred spiny urchins squatting against the sides of the breakwater. A man was approaching me from the old town. I tried to ignore him, but he insisted on talking to me. I felt it strange that someone in Eritrea could be so annoyingly inquisitive. Then it became clear. He was actually a Tanzania who somehow had got himself on a boat from Dar es Salaam and had got stuck in Eritrea.
I eventually extracted myself from where he was leading – i.e. to get him some money so he could get his passage home, and I carried on along the causeway. It unsettled me quite a bit to have had a week free from this in Africa, only to have it thrown back on me. I do hope that Eritreans remain as friendly and open as they are now, but even during my trip, I found that there was the edge of tarnish. My boss, Judith , told me about more recent trips of hers, that she saw more beggars on the street than before, and they were being more forceful than ever before.
Even with the weirdness of the city and its circumstances, normal Sunday life was going on as it does in any city. In the burning heat, I wandered across a wide open space near the Red Sea. In a small Fiat car, built sometime in the 16th century, a woman was learning to drive. Out here with no obstacles she was studying the rudiments of moving off and stopping, turning the steering wheel and how to stall. I watched the little blue car with the L sign on the roof judder around this wasteground for a few moments before the heat pushed me on.