It was early autumn, and the locals told me that I had arrived just before the seasons shifted and the rains arrived. I wouldn’t have known it. Taking a swim didn’t help either. At an uncomfortable 30°C (86°F), the salty Red Sea provided no relief from the 35°C (95°F) breeze. Air conditioning was rare. I lethargically waited under the ceiling fan for the sun to set. Why had I decided to visit Eritrea?
Months earlier, while planning a six-month round-the-world trip, my friend and I looked at a map of Asia and Africa, and compromised. Both of us wanted to go to Ghana and India. But we had bought the limited-mileage ticket, and visiting both countries meant we wouldn’t be able to visit Europe. We compromised: if we were going to India, we could also go to an African country, but only if it was in the north. And now we were sitting in the heat, wondering why we were apparently the only foreigners in the country who weren’t working for the U.N.
The evening, however, brought happy activity. As the sun set, a call to prayer rang out from the local minaret. Families ordered tea and cakes at the local hotel restaurant. Music played on the radio. A wedding party began to sing and dance in the streets against the bullet-ridden walls and bombed mosque domes, reminders of a decade-old war with Ethiopia.
That evening I felt a paradigm shift, and began to see that – in Rick Steves’ words – travel is a political act. I had been atop the Eiffel Tower and walked beside the canals of Venice, but neither of those experiences had prompted this shift. I no longer wanted to travel the way I had before, a guide book in one hand, a camera in another. I wanted to know more about the people I was meeting, their language, their religions, their government. Continue reading