Keren dubs itself the "cultural capital" of the country. Wandering around the barren, run-down town, one can only conclude that this title was selected because it was sufficiently vague to disguise the fact there is not much to see in the city at all. Its much-vaunted "camel market" turned out to be four or five camels standing around amid flocks of sheep. There was indeed a mosque in the town center, though it was not particularly noteworthy. The men wore white Ottoman-style robes, and some of the women wore brightly colored niqabs, giving Keren a slightly Middle Eastern feel. In fact it seemed so different from the rest of the country it was hard to see how this could be considered a capital of Eritrean culture.
We wandered around for a while in the vain hope of finding something interesting to do until our driver was scheduled to bring us back to Asmara. Finally we settled in a café for a beer, where we made conversation with the manager, an attractive woman of undeterminable age. She had the body and clothes of a young woman, but a worn face that hinted at long years of hard living.
She apologetically informed us that there was no cold beer available, and indeed we would not be able to find any in Keren as the electricity had been shut off a few hours ago. We decided lukewarm beer was better than no beer, and ordered a round.
For the entirety of our stay, she hovered around our table, seeming very anxious that we receive everything we wanted. Slightly embarrassed by her attention, we made conversation with her as we nursed our hot beers.
"Are you from Keren?"
Yes, she was born and raised here, and this restaurant was her family's. But, she added, she had traveled around Europe, to the UK and Germany and Denmark.
"Everything there is so nice," she said. "That is why I am ashamed to have you here and serve you hot beer."
"Oh no," we said, "the beer is wonderful. It's perfect. Just the right temperature." We ordered another round to prove our sincerity.
We asked if she had lived in Keren her whole life.
No, she had only recently come back from twenty years of national service. She had served in the war against Ethiopia. "It was very hard," she said, "many people died." The war ended last year and she had come back to work at the family business.
Adam and I exchanged puzzled looks, since as far as we knew the war against Ethiopia ended in 1991. But we did not question it.
"And you plan to stay here?"
No, she was engaged to an Eritrean living in Los Angeles. She would move there in six months, after the wedding.
It was hard to picture a two cities less alike than L.A. and Keren. Was she excited?
"No," she said. "Keren is home. The pace of life is slow here. It's peaceful. I do not want to leave."
"What do you recommend we visit while we're here?"
She suggested we visit the Italian part of town, which had some interesting architecture. One old schoolhouse in particular was very beautiful.
"Is it still a school?"
"No, it was shut down thirty years ago. Now it is the Ministry of Education."
"How old were you when it shut down? Did you attend?"
This sly attempt to determine her age was met with a cool stare.
"I don't remember."
Since we were short on time we decided to visit the site of the last battle between the Italians and the Brits, which had taken place a few kilometers away. In a short while we found ourselves walking along a gravel road lined with yurt-like structures and flocks of goats and sheep. Hordes of children were soon on our trail, alternatively shouting "China! China!" and "Money! Money!" There was no indication that we were on the right path to this supposed battleground, and our attempts to ask for directions were met with blank stares. Throughout our visit to date we had been consistently impressed by the English abilities of everyone we met, so this was a new challenge.
World War II? Battleground? War? Britain and Italy? we asked. We might as well have been asking for directions to Mars. Finally a young man walking by overheard and offered to take us to the British cemetery near the battleground. We gratefully accepted.
Our guide was a young Eritrean who had just returned from the University of Asmara, where he had studied chemistry. He spoke excellent English, was quietly intelligent, curious about the outside world, and gave the impression he might have had a bright future had he been born in any other part of the planet. Instead, he had been waiting for several months to receive his papers informing him where he would spend the next years of his life performing hard labor as part of his national service.
He brought us first to the British cemetery. It had the same look and feel as the endless expenses of WWII cemeteries that stretch across northern Europe, except for the addition of large numbers of Sudanese and Indian troops mixed among the Brits. The rows of white tombstones were perfectly aligned and perfectly maintained. Each bore a name, age, regiment, and inscription hinting at the heartbreak they left behind.
"Though he lies far away/We think of him/Both night and day," said one.
"Not gone from memory/Not gone from love/But gone to/His Father home above," said another.
One, of a certain Major C.L.M. Voules, of the 5th Mahratta Light Infantry, dead on 17th March 1941 at the age of 41, read with typical British taciturnity: "Well done."
The cemetery had a visitors' book, which was surprisingly full — more people than one would think seemed to have made a pilgrimage to these barren hills to pay their respects to fallen ancestors.
"RIP Tommy, God bless his soul and may he find eternal peace."
"They gave their lives for their country and we are forever grateful. May God bless them all."
There was something depressing about the thought of all these young men spilling their blood for distant empires, their bodies left to decompose on these bare, anonymous hills, so far from home.
Feeling melancholic, we asked our new friend to take us to the site of the battleground. He took us further outside of the town, past another military checkpoint, into more boulder-strewn hills. We finally reached one particular hill which, he said, was the site of the famous battle that ended WWII in Africa. There was nothing to distinguish this hill from the others, except a small cross set on top a stack of stone blocks. We took a few pictures and concluded it was time to trek back.
Keren is not far from Asmara, but our return took several hours. We drove back on dirt roads winding through the mountains, with only the exceptionally bright moon to light out path forward. Between the complete lack of electricity and the flocks of sheep and goats that occasionally blocked our path forward, it was easy to imagine we had stepped back into a pre-industrial time.
Back in Asmara it was time to prepare our return to Dubai. We had one last Asmara beer at our favorite bar, of the Albergo Italiano.
It was a bittersweet night. We were sad to say goodbye to Eritrea, the land frozen in time. Not just in one period, but across multiple time zones of history. In a week we had traveled from a late 1800s Italian city to 1500s Ottoman ruin to a village that looked like it had not changed since the days of the Silk Road. It's hard to think of other countries that offer such variety in their snapshots in time in such a compact area.
But we were looking forward to hot showers and consistent electricity and, most of all, a connection to the greater world beyond. Traveling in time is fun, but only when you know the comforts of modernity are just a short plane ride away.
Sophia Erickson is a seasoned traveler who has lived across the Americas, Europe, China, and the United Arab Emirates. She has supported this vagabond lifestyle by working variously as a waitress, teacher, and public relations executive, but her real passion lies with writing. Sophia's travel guide to China was published in 2018 by Traveler's Tales. She is French-American and currently calls New York City home — though given her nomadic soul, that will probably change soon.
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