The allure of work trips often lies in the promise of fun, minus the actual work – or so they say. I recently embarked on a work trip that defied this notion, offering a blend of both labor and insight. The journey took me to Gash-Barka, an administrative region acclaimed as the “breadbasket” of Eritrea due to its thriving agricultural activities and abundant minerals.
Our expedition commenced early in the morning, setting the stage for a day of traversing diverse landscapes. Accompanied by colleagues who were no strangers to the region, I was reassured that our exploration would transcend mere tourism and delve into meaningful interactions.
Unlike those who indulge in breakfast before a journey, I prefer sampling local fare along the route. During a tea break in Keren – a town known for its Art Deco architecture, captivating women, and robust men – I remarked on my dining habits. My colleagues engaged in a lighthearted debate on whether Keren’s charm was more pronounced in the evening. Meanwhile, I contemplated whether to break my fast as a slight unease set in, a common sensation I experience when transitioning to lower elevations.
Opting for sustenance, I ordered scrambled eggs, prompting raised eyebrows and a smile from my companions. Their amusement stemmed from the fact that I had missed out on an authentic culinary experience awaiting us at our next stop. With unanimous agreement, I anticipated our impending destination.
As we journeyed onward, work-related conversations gradually gave way to tales of monkeys that frequented the road. These amiable creatures, scaling steep mountains to reach the road, engaged in a curious ritual of soliciting snacks from passing travelers. While their intentions seemed friendly, the occasional monkey leaping through car windows could provoke a startled response. Passing the monkeys, our dialogue turned to global climate change and its impact on our nation.
Our next stop was Akordat, renowned among my colleagues as one of Eritrea’s hottest locations. Upon arrival, the sweltering heat substantiated this reputation. Our first visit was to the town’s administrative office, an Italian-built structure designed to withstand hot climates. The building featured long curved windows and Gothic rib vault-style rooms, promoting air circulation. Situated on elevated ground, it afforded panoramic views of the town, distinguished by similar buildings.
After addressing our tasks, it was time for lunch. The anticipated meal was a local favorite – Qicha Fetfet, a spicy dish blending chopped crusty bread with silsi (onions, tomatoes, and chili paste). Accompanied by fresh yogurt, the meal was a delightful departure from my expectations.
With satisfied appetites and the sweltering heat-inducing drowsiness, a nap was in order. An hour later, murmurs announced our proximity to Barentu, the regional capital. To rouse ourselves from our mid-journey daze, we paused for tea.
The tea stalls, lining the street leading to the bustling market, were a testament to the local tea culture. Upon seating, patrons were immediately served water – a custom I found endearing. Surrounded by fellow tea drinkers, the atmosphere was vibrant, intensified by the cooler air of Barentu.
Amidst the charming scene, I momentarily detached from the work trip and observed two men engrossed in a chess match. However, obligations beckoned, reminding me of the tasks at hand.
The following morning brought respite from work, granting us the opportunity to explore the town. Modern infrastructure coexisted with traditional huts, a backdrop to the town’s friendly residents who exuded warmth and hospitality. Amidst this environment, I reflected on my own possessions, comparing them to the modesty of the locals’ homes. This contrast underscored the virtues of simplicity and contentment, qualities that seemed to cultivate genuine happiness.
Barentu introduced me to Ful Meselah, a dish of seasoned mashed fava beans. Served for breakfast, it featured a medley of chopped onions, tomatoes, crushed peanuts, chili paste, and copious sesame oil, accompanied by crusty bread. The meal’s simplicity and quality resonated, as did the unique coffee infused with ginger, offering a distinctive twist on the highlands’ coffee experience.
Our journey also led us to Tesseney, a vibrant town characterized by its energetic populace. A visit to Shuke al Shaebi – the local market – on a Saturday evening offered an authentic snapshot of local life. As the sun set, vendors continued to enthusiastically advertise their wares, ranging from fruits and vegetables to electronic gadgets and sweet confections. The market’s authenticity provided a captivating window into daily life.
The scene looks straight out of movies: hot weather changed into cool breath. During the evening some soccer fans watching a premier league match screaming with every goal, some elderly drinking coffee in small groups joking with each other, and a group of birds dancing in the clear sky. It is a view that everyone should be able to witness.
The trip to Gash Barka unveiled a region brimming with experiences waiting to be explored. Notably absent from this account are various tourist attractions, such as Mount Elite and Fodie, known for recreational and sports activities. Opportunities to observe wild animals like elephants, and to immerse oneself in rich historical and cultural sites, further underline the region’s appeal.
In retrospect, Gash Barka exceeded my expectations, merging work and exploration into a rewarding adventure. Through culinary revelations, encounters with nature, and glimpses into local life, this journey offered a fresh perspective on the world and the people who inhabit it.