Letter from Eritrea / Motorcycle Diaries

December 28, 2008: It has been so long since I last wrote. I’ve never really been successful at being consistent with things like journals. So much has transpired since I last wrote. I finished working on my friend Nadia’s Thesis film. I was the production designer. Learned, laughed, and got pissed off, a lot. I also met with the folks that I’ve been working on the human trafficking documentary with. It’s finally finished and our hope is to get it viewed in every church possible. Hopefully we can get funding and hopefully we can expound on the idea. I’m starting to feel like a real filmmaker these days. I actually make films and people like or dislike them. Making films was something I used to talk about a lot but now it’s actually happening, I truly believe that once you not only decide that something is going to happen but you start to speak it and say that it is going to happen then it actually will. Sometimes those things that do happen are not always for the best, but they happen. Similar to affirmations...I guess?

So, back to this journey to Eritrea to begin this documentary. It’s funny to me the connection between African peoples and their way of interacting with one another and other non-African folks. It is frustrating sometimes, but I love it.

Initially there was trouble getting the visa to Eritrea because of the fear that an arrangement had been made for Marriage in exchange for money and U.S. citizenship. My response was that if I were interested in this type of activity I would just find a prospect who was already in the United States. I think I would be a lot more convenient for all parties involved. Anyway, I had a very good friend make a phone call and vouch that I good intentions and a character. I realized I had to go there in person and speak to them as well. What a wonderful experience. I was received so well by the folks in the embassy. They were all so willing to help me and they gave me contacts that would have taken me two weeks to find. They really helped to ease me fears of finding artist and the particular music that influenced the Eritrean people to fight for independence from Ethiopia. I spoke to the people at the embassy for over an hour and I loved every bit it because I feel that the interaction I had with them set the tone for the interaction I will have with the people of Eritrea. I have only heard good things about the people of Eritrea and now I am sure it is all truth.

December 29,2008: I’m on a plane now to Rome. I have several stops, Rome, Yemen and then Eritrea. I actually Love Rome and since my layover is almost an entire day I have planned to meet up with a friend of mine who lives there. I met him at AFI in California he is an amazing filmmaker. I even thought I was in love with him for a while. I think I just like the idea of being in love. The initial feeling is always so perfect but beyond that...I get board. I guess that is the struggle of most relationships, how to keep love fresh even as is grows very old.

The entire day is planned and I’m pretty excited. There were a few requests I made like having breakfast comprised of blood orange juice and a croissant near the market and there is this amazing gelato place I just have to go to, a hip-hop club that always has live performances and I maybe make fresh pasta and a cream sauce for dinner. Lets see how things pan out. I find that whenever I plan several things to do in a given day with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, we actually end up somewhere talking for hours and only getting about 10% of the planned activities done. There isn’t really too much that is more fun that shooting the breeze with friends. But anyway, how much fun is Rome? I think Rome is one of those cities that everyone should visit more than once.

Flying in to day is also something I look forward to. I love the way the sun greets you. The sun on these occasions reminds of a sunrise I shared with a friend, where the sun looked like a ball of fire flirting with the ground. It was the first time I ever felt a connection with the sun. But when you fly onto the sunrise and as the horizon disappears the burning ball of fire greets you...there is something about that experience that makes flying feel like the most organic thing in the world. Even now as I look into the sky and the stars are so bright plentiful, I can’t stop myself from looking out the window at them. I am amazed. And I fall in love with the stars all over again.

December 29, 2008: I think it’s still the 29th of December. I hate dealing with time changes. I’m waiting on my friend so come and pick me up from the airport. This has been an interesting ride. My bags were not checked all the way through to Eritrea due to the extended layover in Rome. I needed to ask a few questions and my Italian is horrible. I was so embarrassed not to be able to speak Italian to folks who were not at all interested in speaking English that I resulted to speaking Spanish instead. Once I figured out that I could not check in early and would have to put my bag in storage I proceeded to look for the storage place, I stumbled upon a stand selling post cards and decided I would get one for my nephew, who collects them once I changed money. I figured it would be wise to look for the post office and to my surprise it was near the luggage storage. I was pretty excited because that the luggage storage was only 6 Euro and that I would pay only at pick-up.

I went against one of my core travel values, which is to never change money in the airport, but I did not want to waist time searching for a money exchange. I was shocked! Of course the euro is worth more than the dollar, but dang! 8 Euro to every $20 bill? That’s nuts! I only exchanged $100. I was told not worry about money for Rome, but I am my mother's child and I always like to make sure I have my own money. Always have emergency cash, I might get pissed and need a cab back to the airport, or I might see something I want to purchase, and the list could go on forever.

I was so frustrated getting back to the pick-up area because these rude people kept walking into me and acting as if I didn’t exist. I was reminded of one of my favorite books Invisible Man. I was so angry that I just wanted to punch everyone that came near me. Then I though about what I had just read about the apartheid system in Eritrea inflicted on them by Italians. It was very similar to apartheid in South Africa. In their own country, only allowed education up to the fourth grade, not allowed to walk down certain streets, forced to sit in the backs of busses and not allowed to perform in plays. Apparently the people of Somalia had the same experience with the Italian colonizers as well. I remember a Somali friend of mine saying that one of her relatives was asked to lay in a puddle of mud so that two Italian folks could use him as bridge. So why was I so surprised? After I stopped being so shocked, I said to myself just because you are not in America anymore doesn’t mean that folks stop seeing you as an ignorant Black person regardless of the fact that you probably have more education than most of the idiots acting this way. Looks like my ride is here Chio!

Dec 30, 2008: Wow! I had an amazing time in Rome! I love the little cars people drive in Rome How much fun. They are so cute and compact. They make a city look very interesting. Anyways, the first stop was a cafe for breakfast, Blood orange juice and a croissant with Nutella. Which for some reason I can’t really get down with. I love Nutella and I love croissants but the chocolate sandwich idea bothers me a little. But not to worry there were a multitude of delicious pastries to choose from and boy did I have my fill. Next off we went to the market to buy fruits and fresh mozzarella. Yum! There is something wonderful about purchasing fresh goods from an open market. Even at home I love to frequent farmers markets. Once everything necessary had been purchased off we went to store our goods at his place. He wanted to go to an ice skating rink he had discovered. Who doesn’t love to ice skate? It’s so much fun. Once I got used to the ice and being on ice skates again I was like speed racer. A few falls and great laughs, a surprisingly good combination!

I had wanted to go to the National Gallery of Art since I wasn’t able to go the last time I visited Rome. I love that art speaks such lovely words. I love that art makes the face tell you what the mind is thinking. While in the presence of art we all have silent conversations. Whether with friends or around strangers not much needs to be said. A few glances, returned with smiles, frowns, intense looks, points, shrugs of shoulders, etc. It’s beautiful, the entire experience is beautiful. So we were silent for a long time because we visited two more museums, but I feel like we had a about forty conversations, I love museum buddies, I am one of those people who needs a while in a museum so I often take a long time visiting, thus not too many people I know like to go museum hoping with me. But that’s ok because I usually prefer to be alone in these types of places so I can deal with my thoughts.

As expected we took a very long lunch and talked for hours. We talked until we were hungry again. We went to look for the hip-hop club but I couldn’t remember exactly where it was and he couldn’t figure it out from the descriptions I gave. So we went to get gelato, cones and a few pints to have after dinner. We cooked and drank wine. I drank only one glass. I watched a few of the films Mike (Mike is my friend I don’t think I mentioned his name yet. that’s funny) had worked on in the past year. They were very nice and will float a few of the film festival circuits. I am so proud of him.

Last we watched a few Italian and French films I had never heard of nor do I remember either of them. I guess we didn’t actually watch the films. The television played, Michael Jackson belted out of the radio as we did our own renditions of his dances, we snapped funny photos and loaded them onto his computer and we ate the remainder of fruit, cheese and gelato.

December 30, 2008: I made it to Eritrea safely! The plane ride was pretty cool; I slept most of the way to Yemen, but was awaken by the loud conversations going on. I have to say it was the loudest plane I have ever been on. When I woke up the lights were on full blast and it was a night flight, those usually turn the lights off and you can use your overhead light if you need to read or get something.

When I woke up there was a man from Somalia speaking Italian too me, I had no idea what he was saying. I guess from my prior experience in Italy I started to speak Spanish to him but I was still half sleep so it was really broken and he looked at me like I was crazy. We both started to laugh and I immediately felt my face to make sure I wasn’t slobbing. To my surprise I was slob free. I sat up in my chair and then the man asked me in Italian to repeat myself. I did in Spanish; he then realized I wasn’t from Italy. He didn’t know English but he thought it was funny that he could understand the Spanish I was speaking. I learned Spanish in Central America and from my Puerto Rican and Cuban friends so I laugh to think about how my Spanish would be received in Spain. My mother told me she spoke Spanish to the folks in Spain and they were so rude to her either because she’s Black, the way she in which she spoke, or both. She got pissed off and refused to purchase anything from there after several similar encounters.

Anyway, After figuring it would be way too hard to have a conversation with this man who was having a boisterous conversation with the man behind me, I took out my lonely planet book and tried to practice some Tigrinya words. How insane! I though, ok if I can remember how to pronounce these words, am I remembering the correct pronunciation? I figured why not test the waters? I hear the man behind me tell the Somolian man that he was going to Asmara I figured he was Eritrean, they were both speaking Italian. So I said yikrai-ta, which means excuse me in Tigrinya. He looked at me funny, I guess he was wondering what the heck I said. Then he uttered a bunch or words really fast and without much facial expression, we both stared at one another, me blankly, him waiting for a response. Not being able to piece a single word out of his sentence. I forgot all the words and phrases I had just studied for an hour and I broke. In English I asked him could you please help me with a few Tigrinya words? He laughed and said sure. I handed him the book and asked him to pronounce the words that were written there. He told me how to say them. where a word was accented and what sounds I didn’t have the capability to pronounce. He tutored me for about 20 minutes then the Somali Guy I guess having been board by our conversation asked me if I was Eritrean and why didn’t I speak Tigrinya, I told him I wasn’t. Then he asked me what language I spoke, I told him English. He said no what is your natural language. I just thought oh no, not this conversation about native languages and where your grandfather comes from and what part of Africa you come from with another African. I thought they taught about the whole issue with enslaved Blacks from Africa in African schools, I guess I thought wrong. So of course I had to explain to him that most Blacks in the US do not know what part of Africa they came from, and if they do, they definitely do not know their indigenous language. We do not have records of this stuff for the most part. Although there are some. When humans are treated like cattle or even worse than, the main priority isn’t to make sure that their great great grand children know where they came from. We are Americans. That is it, Americans. And honestly, now that Obama is president-elect I don’t really feel so bad saying that. America is changing I pray.

My Eritrean tutor is named Dawit, and the Somali guy...I can’t remember his name. He was really a lot of fun. This was the first time I talked so much and so loud on a plane. People were walking around; the Somali guy faced me with his legs hanging over the chair into the aisle. It was different. Maybe Americans are uptight when it comes to things like that. I remember traveling from California to New York once and when I stopped to switch planes I went to the rest room. There was a Persian-American family in there and a European girl from somewhere. They were giving each other very evil looks and finally the European girl started to scream at the youngest Persian girl saying “don’t treat me like dog, I am not an animal.” Blah blah, the Persian girl who was a serious Orange County, CA chick started to laugh while applying her make up and said “You are an animal” Blah blah blah. With me being the only other person at the sinks in the bathroom they started to plead their case to me. I was way more concerned with trying to make sure I had remembered to pluck my two reoccurring chin hairs I didn’t see but could feel and considering electrolysis instead of the nerve racking process every month. I didn’t move my head; I just adjusted my eyes to look at the both of them in the mirror with my tweezers in hand and shrugged my shoulders. The European girl left and the Persian girl said that the European girl and her friends were so loud on the plane they talked the entire ride. At the time I thought I would be a little annoyed with them too. But now I think it’s just a cultural difference or personal preference.

Excitement flooded my heart when we landed in Yemen. I didn’t know what to expect. I got my cloth ready to cover my head in the event I felt uncomfortable and had to, I had a few Arabic words ready in the event someone spoke to me, and I wanted to see what the airport looked like. I think it was the only airport I was ever interested in exploring. I wondered what kind of food they would have and if they have a duty free shop with nice perfumes and those date filled cookies that I love. I had decided I would buy some for sure. The flight was late so I thought the connecting flight was gone and that I would have to wait. I was ready, even willing to change money in the airport, I still had all of my Euro and just as I was walking toward the door of the plane and trying to figure out if I would keep my Euro and change dollars or vis-a-versa a man started screaming at me in a thick accent but in English “hurry up hurry.” There was a bus looking vehicle waiting, attendants were handing out tickets as we got on. There was no order people were pushing and screaming and putting their hands in my face and speaking to me in languages I couldn’t understand. It was nuts, little did I know this set the tone for the rest of the night. Chaos! The bus vehicle looking thing dropped us to the plane there we got on and people were pushing and almost knocked me over while I was helping a lady who had a baby with her 4 carry-on bags. I was so surprised that the men just pushed us out of the way they didn’t even stop to help. I was proud of Black American men at that point because I knew thay would have stopped and helped for sure. On the plane I sat next to a few women who kept talking to me. One elderly Eritrean lady who kept speaking to me in Italian and didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t understand what she was saying. Her face was beautiful, there were so many wrinkles on her face each one seemed important, like if her wrinkles could talk they would go on until the end time telling story after story. I hated myself for not being able to draw well. I would have loved to sketch her face. There was another Eritrean lady who kept asking me why I was alone and if I was afraid. I was so happy when the food came I could just eat slow and act like my mouth was full. The best part...they gave us a date filled cookie, YUM! I was excited about that. I didn’t get to see the Yemen airport though, too bad maybe on the way back.

When the time came to fill out our immigration cards I was given an Eritrean citizen card, I tried to explain to the man that I am not returning and he said I was supposed to have a blue card. Whatever. The men in front of me were Muslim and asked me to fill out their cards for them. I told the man that I didn’t speak Arabic. I thought his passport was only in Arabic but had I turned it over it was both in Arabic and English. I figured he should know how to at least write in English, Arabic, or Tigrinya but he couldn’t, I tried to ask a few people if they knew Arabic and could help him out. Nobody would. I took his card back and figured I should be able to copy the characters even if I can’t understand them. I turned the passport around and there was English. I hoped I filled everything out properly because I tried to ask him a few questions and he just kept putting his hand up to me as to say whatever. I wanted to rip his passport and card up. How rude of him. These men, the way they treat women is insane. Once again I appreciated Black American men, the way they talk to you, the patience they try to keep in their eyes even when I know they want to go off. Most of them at least, I would by a complete liar if I said all were like that.

On the immigration line and of course I have the wrong paper filled out. It took forever to get to the counter so I negotiated with the officer/clerk? That I would fill out a new paper but that I could come right back and he would take me. Folks really would not let me get to the booth. I had to bang on his window so that he could save me from the angry mob of people trying run me down and not let me in. That was the easy part. I also had two bags of a lady who could not carry all her carry-ons. Once I got into the baggage claim area after about forty minutes on line. I found her and gave her the bags. I the waited another hour and thirty minutes for my bag to come out onto the belt. But it wasn’t just waiting, it was pushing and people speaking to me in Tigrinya and getting pissed off thinking I was being rude but I just didn’t understand them. I only had one bag and people were getting five and six bags and I only had one I just wanted it to come on out. I finally got my bag and turned around to bag check. Not cool at all. That was another two hours in line, I reached the airport around 11pm I left the airport at 3:30am. I felt so bad for Biniyams family who was waiting for me.

My friend Biniyam’s mother was waiting for me outside the airport and grabbed me as soon she spotted me and gave me the three-cheek kiss. I think it is considered Semitic but I am not sure. Biniyam’s brother-in-law Abraham was driving, his sister Ruta is married to Biniyam’s brother Fitsum. As we approached the car, running towards me was Yordanos, who I had really wanted to meet. She is the widow of Biniyam’s brother Hawki who died fighting in the Ethio-Eritrea war. Her son Abraham is like my little brother. He came to the US when he was 13 to live with Biniyam’s family. He is such a cool kid. She got word that I tutored him in English and forbade Biniyam to speak any Tigrinya to him until he learned English. We also went a few places on weekends and occasionally I would take him and a few friends somewhere. I don’t think she knew I was also responsible for getting him lost on the subway alone, thank God we had a meeting point if he got lost and he had pocket change to call my cell if anything happened. Our safety plan put into action worked out pretty well.

Yordanos doesn’t speak much English, practically none. She only went to school up to fourth grade and was married when she was 15 and had her first child at 16. She is lovely. She held my hand the entire ride to the house. We would both look at one another and then smile or hug each other. It was interesting because I am not very affectionate, but I wanted to make her feel comfortable as well. So I returned hugs and allowed her to lay her head on my shoulder. Not too much was said during the car ride. Biniyam’s mother, Bellanesh, spoke very broken English to me. We struggled to converse using wild hand signals, repeating words several times, and occasional awkward laughter when we thought we understood one another but weren’t really sure. In those cases nobody wants to disappoint the talking party so they laugh or smile in the place of an erroneous verbal response.

The huge metal gate to the house was opened and I thought it was really loud. I guess a kid in Eritrea could never sneak out of the house. Yacob, Biniyam’s father stood in the driveway. There is something about the mans disposition that makes me laugh. I know him from the states so I know he is a guy that sometimes takes life a little too seriously. Still, he was very pleasant. He greeted me and took my bags. He showed me my room where I would stay and set some things up. What he was doing? I am not quite sure but he way busy. I sat down in the living room, and Yordanos began to run from the kitchen outside to the kitchen inside then back to the living room to hold my hand some more. I realized that she was heating up food. I wasn’t really hungry and I wanted to sleep but I knew there was no escaping the food. So I took a small amount of injera (the sponge sour bread that doesn’t taste so bad after you get used to the taste) and there was meat and mixed vegetables. I had forgotten how much I hate the taste of meat in most countries outside of the United Sates and most of the time within. I really do not like Goat, sheep, lamb, or any type of game it’s just too much. The meat taste the same way a farm smells to me. I have heard that the taste means the meat is fresh. Who knows? I just can’t stomach it. There was no way that I could tell the people I would spend the next month with that I don’t like their meat so I just ate it. I felt nauseous several times because I the meat was tough and the fat and gristle was still attached to the meat. I just swallowed as much as I could. I was so proud of myself when I realized I had one small piece of Injera left to eat and a piece of meat. I was so relived, and then to my disappointment more food was slapped on to my plate. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did. I finished it all and tried to express the sentiment that I was full and couldn’t handle another bite of food. Finally after a hard battle they agreed. I washed up in the sink and went to bed.

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