Sun 18 Apr
The border between Sudan and Eritrea at Kassala is theoretically open but the danger from rebel activity means that in practice it’s often closed. The British Foreign Office Travel Advice consistently advises against "all travel" in the area of Eritrea that borders Sudan. In the Eritrean border town of Tesseney there have been four bomb attacks in the past six months; I decide to fly.
I’m not superstitious but there comes a point when you’ve recited your plans too many times to too many people, fate is certain to intervene. I pack my bag and take down the tent. I say farewell to fellow campers and William the trusty manager of the Blue Nile Sailing Club. I return the tent to Midhat’s office and thank him for all, then make my way to the airport on a local bus arriving shortly after 10:00am, still early for a three hour check-in. An hour later I am allowed to check-in. I pay the departure tax and watch the immigration officer stamp "Exit" next to my Sudan visa. In duty free I use up my Sudanese cash on hibiscus tea-bags and tapes. I look for a VIP lounge; hopefully they will have a TV and live coverage of the London Marathon. Another hour or so passes and then it's time to board, British Airways uniforms, and English language newspapers. Wow! Suddenly back in familiar surroundings. The plane already has passengers from Nairobi; it will take us 1¼ hours to fly on to Asmara. No in-flight meal but I am pleasantly surprised to find they are serving refreshments of an alcoholic kind. I have my first beer in over a week, just the one though, the day is young and I need to sort out a few things on arrival like visa, FX and accommodation.
I learned in Chad that visas can
be obtained at the airport on arrival and in any case I have never heard of
an Eritrean embassy in Khartoum (relations were never that good). On arrival
I go straight to the visas collection counter. A couple of business men in front
of me have their passports stamped and pay the fee. When it's my turn they refuse
and say tourist visas must be obtained in advance. I insist it wasn't possible
and really would like one now that I am here if they would be so kind. "It’s
not possible; you’ll have to return to Khartoum."
"Ouch!" As much as I like Khartoum I have mentally and physically, even emotionally, moved on. I’ve read up everything I can about Eritrea. I have arrived. Surely there is a way around this problem? I mention two tour operators; one of whom I have emailed about my visit the week before (but unfortunately have not received a reply). Perhaps we can call them? They point at the public phone but assure me it won’t do any good, it's Sunday and they won’t be in their offices.
Shortly after, a delightful British Airways ground handling lady explains that they're holding the plane for me. I am being deported. I should grab my luggage from the baggage hall and run around to departures. By now I am quite upset and grateful that someone is "looking after" me, even if it's not the resolution I want. She's alarmed that I have only a one-way ticket. I helpfully explain that I have separately booked (with BA) an onward ticket from Asmara via Nairobi to London (for 10 days hence). "Ok", she said, "you can stay on the plane to Nairobi and if you wish we can even take you on to London tonight." This is too much.
“No!!!” I woke in Sudan; I expected to sleep in Eritrea. I can't possibly go home to London tonight. It would be like waking-up and discovering it has all been a dream. I am not ready to return. I am not mentally prepared and there would be a strong feeling of failure. To, as it were, press the "panic" button and be beamed up. This is all very challenging, but Nairobi sounds more like progress than returning to Khartoum so I agree. From Nairobi I can indeed go straight home or find something else to do. "Think of it as a bonus week in Kenya" I tell myself. Possibly I can even get a visa and flight to Eritrea for a few days time? The prospect of flying straight home challenges me greatly.
In the flight I try to find out if there are flights from Nairobi to Asmara and who operates them, when, how much? Is there an embassy in Nairobi? How quickly can I get a tourist visa? I thought about excursions in Kenya, perhaps Lamu? or Lake Turkana? Both have been on my list for some while. Other westerners on the plane tell me of the logistics and possibilities as best they know.
By the time we land in Nairobi I have decided not to fly on to London. I will ring my friend Rose, or if she's not around get a taxi to Nairobi Backpackers, a sort of Youth Hostel for budget travellers. That at least will buy me some more thinking time. Rose’s number was in the mobile phone that I lost right at the start of the trip. I empty the contents of my rucsac onto the floor of the arrivals hall to retrieve my emergency back-up CD and persuade a counter clerk to let me use their computer to find her number. Rose is delighted to hear from me and within 30 minutes I am sitting at her dinner table enjoying supper with her and daughters Sarah and Christine.
Mon 19 Apr
On Monday morning Rose kindly lets me use her phone and runs me around town. At the Eritrean embassy they assure me they can process the visa application within 24 hours. The British Airways office has a flight on Tuesday night but it's fairly full, only a couple of expensive seats remain. I explain the situation and persuade them to do me a ticket at their best-advertised price, which is still big money. Bingo! I can be back on track in a matter of days. A week will still give me long enough to visit the places I want to see, only a matter of paying for it. I’ve been rather set on Eritrea, and here is a way of finishing what I’d set out to do. Exhausted, I take a deep breath and flash the Amex.