Saturday, March 29, 2008

E R I T R E A: sketches of a trip
Issayas Tesfamariam

Note: This series has an introduction and five sketches. A total of six postings. This is ...

Sketch Two

On the second week of my stay, I was notified that one of the steam-engine trains that have been meticulously renovated by Eritrean retired engineers, was going to Arbe-Robu’e. I picked up my digital video and still cameras and went to Ferrovia, as the train station in Asmara is known. We took off from the station with four or five wagons pulled by the main train engine. Each wagon has its own brake person. By the time we left the station was around 10 AM. The sound of the chu-chu train reminded me of the song by the South African Jazz musician, Hugh Maskela, who sang about the train that takes workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana to the gold mines of South Africa, but the big difference was that the sound of this chu-chu train was a sound of joy whereby after sitting idly for over forty years, the steam engine trains were resurrected from the junkyard by the highly talented former employees of Ferrovia who at the time of independence of Eritrea were in their late 70 and 80s. The ride was amazing. Looking at the train meandering like a snake along the steeply winding rail line, going into and coming out of tunnels is a must for every Eritrean. Looking through the window and get the feeling that one is suspended in the air is fun, exhilarating, joyful and exciting all at once. Once we got to our destination, the front engine was disengaged from the first wagon and reversed to be attached to the last wagon so that the journey of going up the mountains and back to Asmara begins. For the steam engine train, Arbe-Robu’e, serves as a water refilling station. At the station in Arbe-Robu’e a group of about 10 people who were friends and family members of a newly-wed couple entered the wagons to take pictures. Going up the mountains is as fascinating as going down the mountains. We returned to Asmara chuchu-ing around 2:00 PM. I thought it was an amazing trip until…..

A Ride in the Clouds

picture courtesy of Yared Teseggai.

Two days after the aforementioned, a group of about 20 German train enthusiasts came directly from the airport to the Asmara train station, having arrived at 4:00 AM flight from Cairo, Egypt, to go to Arbe-Robu’e on a 6:00 AM train ride. The morning was foggy. Some of the workers at the train station were dumbfounded to see a group of tourists going for a ride without resting or going to their hotel. This is the kind of enthusiasm that Eritrea generates! This tour had, as I found out later, an advantage than my previous trip because the tourists can request the train conductor and the coordinators to stop at any spot and ask the conductor to go forward, backward, come through a tunnel, etc. To do that, all the tourists would exit the train and run to the nearest hill to catch the best shot. The German tourists had all kinds of camera and video gear. The fog that morning was incredible. The train piercing through the clouds and chu-chuing down to Arbe-Robu’e was like riding in the clouds. I call the ride that morning the “Arbe-Robu’e Express”. We returned to Asmara around 11:30 AM to jump on a Litorina (a FIAT diesel engine train, which can hold about forty people) which I called “Janus of the trains” because of its double headed face. Again, a retired train conductor took us down back to Arbe-Robu’e with a young man as his co-conductor. By this time the fog had cleared away, but the trip was as spectacular as the previous ones with the steam engine train. At the end of the trip which ended around 2:00 PM, I had a total of 3 hours of incredible video footage of the journey. Even though the German tourists had reserved the steam engine train for the entire week so that they can travel to Massawa and back, I left the train station to get ready for my next trip to go to Kohaito, a most spectacular scenery and archeologically rich site in Eritrea with the first and foremost archeologist of Eritrea, Dr. Yosef Lebsekal, who is the director of the National Museum of Eritrea.

German tourists (train enthusiasts) relaxing .

Next: Kohaito: Archaeologically rich site in Eritrea.