Monday, April 4, 2011

The poorest countries in the world.

According to our Atlas published in 2004 Eritrea is the 4th poorest country in the world. So when we arrived from Yemen to the small town of Assab, Eritrea we expected the worst. There is no doubt that Yemen is poor but when you think that people run away from Ethiopia and, if they can, from Eritrea to get a better life in Yemen then this gives an idea of how desperate things can be in this West African country. In company of the crews of three other boats from our convoy we expected to arrive in the middle of an infomercial of World Vision with kids swamped by flies in their eyes and inflated bellies. But reality was quite different. Obviously, people here are not swimming in gold but they definitively have dignity. Assab was a town with low means but was incredibly tidy if not clean. No smells, no litters anywhere, people clean with humble but clean cloths. People as expected were very welcoming.

Eritrea just came out of a long war with its neighbor Ethiopia, of which it was part before its independence, and abandoned rundown buildings can now be seen everywhere. The exact justifications to why these two countries were fighting together are still fuzzy in our mind. You really need to land here to understand that there is nothing in this country. Normally, wars usually target the acquisition of resources of some sort but when I say there is nothing here it is not a metaphor. Everywhere we went, the ground was so arid that I think the only thing that can grow here is sand! Nobody makes a war for sand!!! Well, I assume they have somehow an idea of what they are doing and that they had very good reasons to make themselves even poorer by fighting each other. As a consequence the country and consequently Assab are not the most popular places for tourists and at our arrival it was made very clear to us that the town was very safe and we should walk the streets anytime with no worries. Of course the goal of having us to stay a few days in town wasn’t about the cultural enrichment travelers from all over the world could bring to them but for the money we would inevitably spend while probably paying 2 to 5 times the price normally granted to locals. But with that there was a small problem. Not on the prices themselves, which even at tourist prices things were relatively cheap, but on the fact that money is useful only when there is something to buy. As I said already there was almost nothing there so it was somewhat difficult to spend any money! Nevertheless, we still found a small bar where we had a well deserved beer. Well ok, we had a few more than one but this is really academic. The bar owners generously found us a nice and copious meal and even if it doesn’t look very appealing on the picture I can assure you it was very delicious and cleanly prepared. We are not sure what kind of meat it was though chances are it was goat meat. But anyway it was good and appreciated. Bread and meat were abundantly offered and it was obvious to us that even if we were paying a good price they were not products that easy to get by in this town. Also, when I say we were paying a high price I mean relative to what a local person would have paid for the same thing. At the end we still paid only $4.00 per person for a meal and 3 to 4 beers each! Really we can’t say it was expensive.

But even though we had a good time in Assab we had to keep moving north since the Red Sea is still about 1200 miles long. We stopped many places but the one worth mentioning was Mersa Dudo where we were able to visit the crater of an extinct volcano. The place was entirely empty but for the occasional passage of a few local fishermen who had a fishing camp on the shore. The landscape was so dead we felt like landing on the moon. Some trees of the type you see on the picture were growing here and there but otherwise it was only volcanic stones. Too bad we didn’t have a barbecue for which the stones would have been perfect. However, asking for burgers in Eritrea was maybe asking for too much. But we still walked around the crater by following the edge where it was so windy we had hard time breathing.

After a few days of island hopping we arrived in Massawa our last stop in Eritrea. Bigger than Assab the town had also suffered from the war. Around the port the buildings had seen better days and honestly the place must have been awesome before guns and grenades remodeled it. Again we were able to enjoy the Eritrean cuisine in good company even though it meant a mild gastric adaptation to the local bacterial fauna. But hey, we don’t travel all over the world to eat at McDonald when in West Africa are we? Food was interesting but people too. The government controls the population and we learned that people can simply not leave the country and god knows many would gladly go. We found it heartbreaking to see young men asking us to take them with us on board, without the government’s knowledge of course, to go anywhere as long as it is elsewhere. There’s maybe nothing for them here but to the point of being willing to leave their home and families to hope for a better life even if this means living illegally is something hard to hear. Obviously this was out of question for us to take them as stowaways so we gave them a few T-Shirts, watches bought at cheap prices in Singapore and a few packs of cigarettes and this made them happy. For lack of going to earn some money in exile they could at least smoke a good cigarette while wearing a T-Shirt with “I Love Singapore” written on it!

Despite the blatant lack of resources in the area we were nevertheless able to go to the market for provisioning. We stepped on a bus along with the crews of the other boats and as it is often the case the bus ride was as exciting as the place we went. We sure were squeezed a bit but as I said it already people here are courteous and clean. So no stench or any alike what we find in the buses during winter rush hours in Montreal! The market was after all well garnished with limited varieties but still with fruits and vegetables available. Bread was still a bit hard to get by. Flour is limited in the country and we were able to buy only certain breads while the others were for locals only. We also found an Internet Café but the government slowed down the transmission speed to and from outside the country to prevent the planning of rebel operations. The speed was so slow in the end that it would have taken us about 10 hours just to download our emails so we simply gave up. Like for the burger, internet in Eritrea was maybe asking for too much!