If tourism means going places for pleasure or for adventure one might as well try one’s attic or backyard. The old photo that you had tossed as useless five years ago may now be worth thousands of dollars, and the turf in your backyard could be hiding the skull of a Neanderthal man or the temple of a very ancient civilization.
Long before tourism became commercialized, people went to their old aunts’ houses in villages for a visit and for an informal tour. There they found things that they never thought had existed before and expressed their admiration telling bedridden aunts or crippled uncles that they would come back next Christmas for more stealing…… er…chatting. Under their coats are hidden precious vases, paintings or even gold coins of the previous century.
When you go to Keren or Massawa, don’t always think of visiting the tourist sights that are portrayed in colored post cards or in travel brochures. Open your eyes and take a look at things that people seldom stop to admire or contemplate. Have you ever seen a sky as blue as the Eritrean sky? What about the tea shops in some human habitations along the road? Get out of the bus or whatever it is you are riding and talk to the children or peanut vendors. Look at the way they dress, their hairdos and watch their manners.
A German tourist was once traveling to Keren with his Eritrean colleague. On the roadway he spotted the hulk of a burned out tank in the ravine rusting in the sun. He told his Eritrean fellow to stop the car, took out his camera and began to take shots.
“What’s so important about it?” asked the Eritrean.
“That is East German tank brought here by the Soviets,” he explained.
On the way the Eritrean told him a lot about the liberation struggle that he had never known before.
“Did the freedom fighters have similar tanks for driving away the enemy?” asked the German.
“Sir,” the Eritrean said, “When the East Germans made or assembled the tanks, they did so for the freedom fighters,”
There are many things to discover if one opens one’s eyes wide enough. You can ask about the road itself, when it was built, by whom and for what purpose.’
If people were to open their eyes and minds, they wouldn’t have to go further than their own neighborhood to look at the hidden things waiting to be discovered and appreciated.
Once upon a time a man who happened to walk in the midday sun felt exhausted and strolled into a small teashop and ordered a tea and began to look around. And what did he see? Old mineral-water bottles tucked in a rusty crate. He took out one and examined the label. He couldn’t believe what he saw. There in bold letters were printed FORTEMENTE RADIOATIVA. Imagine a label telling you that radioactivity is good for your health. He looked at the date: 1935! That’s more like it. In the early days of the discovery of radium by Madame Curie, people thought mistakenly that radioactivity was good for health and I can imagine Parisian gentlemen getting a lethal dose of the deadly rays in the hope that they would be relieved of their tuberculosis or even syphilis. The Italians who arrived in Eritrea brought the mistaken notion with them and made promotional ad to attract health nuts in the colony.
There are many types of tourism. There is sex tourism, gastronomic tourism, tourism to find oneself, tourism to lose oneself, eco-tourism, and tourism to revive what othes have given up for dead.
In ancient times, the seers and sages toured the world to find out and befriend good and virtuous people. They traveled on foot to find God among men. Why not try it in these modern times? It may take you a life time, but it is worth trying. In such a search for goodness, one can find oneself in the end.
For the less spiritually inclined, a simple trip with an open and tolerant heart and mind can result in a wealth of experience and a closer encounter with the mysteries of the past. One day a group of Swiss tourists were on their way to Massawa. Their mission was simple: visit the Red Sea, take pictures, sunbath, mechanically express admiration of what they see, and finally send postcards home to relatives and friends, with a view to tormenting them with a series of video or slide shows for the rest of their lives.
But one lady among them seemed to have more discerning eyes and an analytical mind than the rest. She was going to a seaside resort, okay, but she developed more interest in the baboons that crossed their path about fifteen kilometers from Asmara.
“These are the Hamadyas baboon of the Egyptians,” she said.
“What?” one of her friends asked quizzically.
“They used to be worshipped by ancient Egyptians,” she continued.
Earlier on, a visitor to my aunt’s house had told me that the cat they kicked around and tormented for not catching mice had once upon a time ruled over Egyptian souls who whenever it died, the entire household had their eyebrows shaved as a sign of respect. Some story that is!
Some of us have probably taken a steaming ride on the Eritrean ride that looks like it has just stepped out of early cowboy films. Were you curious enough to get down from the train and read the letters that spell its origin? Some are from Krup, some from Fiat.
In Asmara, there are many things to see, such as the Mosque, the Latin Cathedral, the Market place, lots of art deco buildings, etc. But what about Haddish Addi, Akhria, and Geza Banda. Go there and ask the people the way they live, look at the mud wall building, you will learn a lot.
As you stroll along the streets of Asmara, don’t just look only at the buildings. Look at the walls and the streets, you will discover a lot of things.
This will increase your wonder at your surroundings and will make your stay in any town very rewarding.