After twenty-five days at sea, Obelix is finally still, anchored in front of Mojeidi, a desert Island off the Eritrean coast, in the Red Sea. We have been advised by our friends on WOLO, preceding us by a few days, that the island hosts a military base, but the officers are curious, amiable, and turn a blind eye on boats recovering from their Indian Ocean passage and/or sheltering from heavy weather.
The island is mostly flat and sandy, with a maximum elevation of a few metres, no apparent vegetation, and surrounded by turquoise water. At its peak, an antenna planted on a threadbare concrete block seems to serve as their communication station and a few hundred meters away, a couple of other shabby shelters must be their accommodations. Every now and then we can distinguish black lanky silhouettes going back and forth against the ochre backdrop, a picturesque scenery I wish, had I our friend Gaspar’s talent, I could capture in watercolours.
We expect their visit all evening, trying to devise their life in this remote place, but have to wait until the morning to meet our “hosts” and learn they are posted here on a 3-month rotation, away from their families in Massawa, and seem quite entertained by the presence of visiting sailing yachts. They rock up in the morning in their outboard-powered long boat, all smiles, wearing colourful sarongs and with Ethiopian music blasting out of their smartphone. Far from the stereotype of the stern-looking soldiers wearing kaki camo uniforms and machine guns around their torso.
The communication is rough with their approximate English and our null knowledge of arabic but after introductions are made, we understand they are after fish. We have none, the only one caught during our long crossing having made its way down our stomachs long ago. I offer them chocolate instead, they’re not interested, and counter my offer with a request for English movies. That we can satisfy, and I set out to transfer some to their phone (excluding the ones I consider too sensual and potentially offensive to their Muslim culture, not sure I’m right or victim of biases). They kindly agree for us to take their music in exchange and while devices perform their cultural transaction, we, human, share coffee and biscuits which we drink and eat from the comfort of our respective boats.
Apart from clarifying our intentions and our options (interdiction to set foot on their island but possibility to go ashore on Aucan, and possibility to carry on to Massawa to clear in), very few words are exchanged from then on. I just notice then that Berkarah, who seems to be the leader of the group, has an extra-long pinkie nail, a characteristic I have observed before on other middle-eastern men, intrigues me, and that I would like to elucidate, but Internet quests for the truth so far have yielded inconclusive results.
When they finally leave, two of them jump off the boat, all dressed, and carry on swimming. Halfway to the beach, one of them seems to yell Thomas’ name and something suggesting he’s not able to make it. As we inquire what is going on, the other one yells back that everything is fine, so we stay put and observe them slowly but steadily making their way to the beach.
Later that day, after missing a big barracuda that was teasing us swimming right under our nose by the hull, Thomas successfully spearfishes three big specimens and brings the biggest to our new friends. Grateful, they exceptionally allow him on shore, even showing him around their living quarters, a dorm with four makeshift beds in one shed and machine guns hanging on the wall, and a kitchen area with open fire in the other. When he asks for some spare eggs, they’re sorry they haven’t got any but advise him to check out Aucan Island, 2 nautical mile away, on the northern side… where turtles nest.
Unfortunately, I can’t recall any more details of the alluring demeanour of the four Eritrean military men met only once, and although I asked politely, they categorically refused to be photographed, so their image will linger poetically blurry. We still have some nice music as a souvenir of another kind, however the mystery will remain of the overgrown little fingernail, the sketchy swim back to the beach, and the taste of turtle eggs.
One thought on “Cultural exchange in Eritrea”
I don’t know if it’s true … but I had a Chinese student once who had a very long pinky nail and when I asked him what it was for he said it was for cleaning his ears!!
LikeLiked by 1 person