The weight of my concerns with traveling to Eritrea concerned with retrieving luggage once it had reached Asmara. But until those 17 hours were spent and two time differences accounted for, all of my anxiety had to be kept at bay.
Thirteen hours in Gibtsi or Egypt was enthralling. And bumpy. Literally.
Egypt Airlines accommodated the travel buds of myself, my mother, sister and other families who wanted to explore its gems in less than a day. We relayed that interest to them after landing and within an hour a tour guide met us outside of the airport. Since dinner was six hours away, and there was only so many hours in half a day – sightseeing triumphed washing up. At around 1 P.M. on July 17, I was on the highways of Cairo – marking the first time I set foot on the continent’s soil in 15 years.
One glaring observation I noticed out of the van’s side window was the tower of sand heaped on the middle or side of the highway roads. I couldn’t say I was too surprised. I had the window seat on the plane ride there, and got a lustrous look at Egypt’s distinct trait. Seeing it 1,000 feet in the air prepared me from witnessing the astonishment on the ground.
The sand or Hutsa indicated Egypt’s inactive construction work. It also implied the priority the government’s infrastructure plan and gives the impression that a country as old and populated as Egypt would allow itself to look so disheveled. Even my mother took note of this and compared it with what she presumes is the abundance of talented Egyptians who have fallen under Africa’s doomsday: severely high unemployment. We all felt a little displeased with what we saw.
On the other hand, our driver Mohammed (not confirmed spelling), didn’t let traffic on the highway slow him down any bit. He sped past other cars as if he’d been trying to lose the cops in a chase. In spite of the speed and reckless driving, what we saw next was shocking.
Fourteen passengers in the vehicle (including myself) turned our heads and let out a heavy gasp at the sight of a woman covered in an abaya cupping her baby in front of her on the back of a motorcycle. Neither she or the child wore a helmet. For starters, common sense should tell you that’s a totally dangerous thing to do and I thought ‘how’d could she see past all that dust?’
A car almost collided with ours. My mother screamed at my younger sister to change seats immediately. Everyone gasped again. My body jerked to the empty seat in front of me.
“You’re in Egypt,” said our tour guide, who shot a look at us and chuckled.
As risky as a tour like this might seem, EgyptAir exceeded my expectations of service and provided us with care, going and returning. I even got to experience how other Muslims traveled. (A few minutes prior to takeoff, anyone of the flight attendants turns on the prayer in Arabic signaling everyone to pray for a safe journey.)
With the discontinuation of Lufthansa, which was popular among Eritrean-Americans flying from to the continent in the old days, discontinued its service in 2013 as reported by Reuters.
As a result of the halt in service, Eritreans (at the time of April when I booked my ticket) had two options: EgyptAir and Yemen Air – the latter which sounds as sketchy as it reads in print. Yemen Air doesn’t have a good reputation, and I refer to tidbits of memorable conversations with other Eritreans to back my argument. ‘They took my passport,’ ‘It’s a crazy place to be in. I saw men drive past us with AK-47s. You just didn’t know what was going to happen.’ And one more account: ‘They weren’t telling us anything. And they didn’t feed us for sometime.’
I’m not writing to bash any airline company or deter one from choosing it, but Egypt Air seemed like a safer option and am glad I stuck with my instinct.
I almost went to Eritrea alone. After tracking airline prices for months, the cheapest option would’ve been to fly with Turkish Airlines. The opening date continually derailed, and the chances of my mother making the trip lessened unless she could find a way to convince the higher-ups at her job to extend her vacation time. A solo trip back home sounded far more daunting in April then it does today. Honestly, I was shook. There was not a chance on Earth I’d go alone. But it surprisingly worked out in everyone’s schedule.
When booking the flight, I still had almost two months left complete an internship with the International Center for Journalists in Washington D.C. Knowing I’d be away for the summer meant that I’d be out of New York City, my hometown, for another two months and subsequently a big distraction in solidifying work.
Being away from New York City also gave me sanctuary and a new city to love. Without it as a distraction, who knows what type of thoughts about Eritrea would’ve spruced up. How would the locals perceive me and my American accent? Would they get offended that I couldn’t speak the language well? What if my grandmother didn’t recognize me?
The layover in Egypt acted as yet another interference in these thoughts. It was the final sign I received to know that these things didn’t matter and they won’t matter because I belonged in Eritrea, with family, neighbors, locals and other children of the diaspora.
My experience there also enlivened in the presence of other tourists: a young Catholic priest, a Minnesota resident, and a family of four, whom were all Eritrean. The others were White Americans heading to Kenya. So there I was, among Eritreans and Americans, people who I identify with everyday. I already felt like I was home.
We entered El Giza, the site of the Pyramids, about an hour later and I got to see the oldest of the Giza Pyramids. Wheezing for air, jotting notes on my phones and taking photos of everything I thought was worthy of one was overwhelming. I even climbed down a tunnel, with a downward stairwell of wood holding up my frame. It was too dark to actually think straight but I was able to discern history as I was tasting it. Realizing that I couldn’t make this moment last forever, or forecast these feelings once I had reached Eritrea, it was a layover that I’d never forget.
My favorite part of the tour was overcoming the fear of riding a camel. I missed my first chance of doing it, and then felt compelled to ask the other Americans in the van what I had missed out on. Honestly, it didn’t take much convincing because I wanted the famed tourist photo in front at Giza. I agreed to climb the gemel and sit on its hump, long enough, to have my photo taken. The tour guide, photographer (a traveler) and the herder were all in on it, until it began moving. Once the herder, a young Egyptian who spoke English fluently, tugged at his camel signaling it to walk farther away from our car, I squealed, “Oh it’s moving!”