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Revisiting Africa: Egypt, Eritrea

Joe Gillam's wife, Chong, stands in dowtown Asmara, Eritrea.

By Joe Gillam | Coastal Courier

I finished my Vietnam tour in the early ‘60s before the big build-ups, so when we left in those days we generally got our next assignment as requested.

My patrol partner had been stationed in Eritrea, and talking about his tour there was all he could do. The great MP duty, nice climate, hunting, fishing and the city full of beautiful Italian girls. Day after day on patrol he pounded his African tour into my ear – and like a good used car salesman, he sold me the goods.

Sure enough, a few weeks before I was to leave, along came my orders assigning me to the MP Company, Kagnew Station, Asmara, Eritrea. It seemed that Tom was more excited than I was.

For the last few weeks he gave me explicit instruction on fishing, hunting, places to eat and he threw in all he knew about the Italian girls. I left Vietnam and took a couple of weeks stateside leave, and then was off to Africa.

Tom had not missed a beat. A wonderful place, great duty and of course the sports and girls were just as he had promised. I met one of the before mentioned Italian girls, got married, and we had three wonderful daughters. But God took her home after many great years.

The God that took Lidia was gracious enough to give me Chong in my later years, and we have become great travel nuts. Around the country and world as best time and money can permit.

I’ve often told Chong about the beauty of Eritrea and she suggested we put it on the bucket list. So, like the rest of our travels, we started our homework. My initial thoughts were that a trip like that would cost a small fortune, but I was wrong. It’s a great trip and affordable.

We searched through the airlines and their varied rates by dates and found that Egyptian Air was by far the best deal. Another fact we have learned is that a cruise ship repositioning voyage from Europe back to America can be cheaper than airfare. Go figure that, 14 or so cruising days with several stops along the way with free meals and Broadway-type shows.

So we booked our round-trip travel then dug into hotels. We wanted to see Egypt along the way, so a week in Cairo at the Five Star Intercontinental Hotel with a daily exotic full breakfast included, overlooking The Nile River was a scant $97 US per night.

We took in all the Cairo adventures, including a Nile River dinner cruise with belly dancers and a private car tour of the Pyramids, Sphinx and all the ancient things for a scant $47 US. Cairo is full of history, most interesting and extremely inexpensive. Roundtrip airfare with a no corner cutting and a week in Cairo is easily doable for two under $2,500.

We finished the week in Cairo then went on to Asmara, Eritrea, on a short three-hour Egyptian Air flight. By now I was on the edge of my seat. I had first arrived in Eritrea as a young kid with no responsibilities and literally burning the candle at both ends.

Like so many more of my friends, the years in Eritrea became a pivotal point in our lives. We met many people from many countries, traveled East Africa, had great experiences and fostered our friendships, many that last to this day.

The MP company has an annual reunion each year in Myrtle Beach. The company was deployed from 1956 to 1974 and during that time about 2,300 MPs rotated in and out. Each year we gather and there are about 100 or us at the three-day reunions.

Chong and I arrived at the Asmara Airport about 4 in the morning. We had obtained visas before we left the states, so we briskly cleared customs and found our hotel shuttle right outside the terminal. The same terminal, with very little changes, that had delivered me then taken me away some 50-plus years ago.

There are a couple of new and rather nice hotels in Asmara, but our reservations were for the Crystal Hotel, one I remembered from back then and which is still thriving. Our room was nice, the hotel bar was quiet, and the dining room served a good variety of native and European dishes.

My first meal was the famous zigni and ingera. Zigni is a very spicy stew like dish served with the ingera, a flexible thin pancake type bread. Tare off a square of ingera and pinch in the stew and away you go. An acquired taste, but I loved it.

We wanted to drive around town and take a trip from the 8,000-foot elevation of Asmara down to sea-level at the Red Sea port of Massawa. I had been at the two-man MP detachment at the Massawa R&R Center for a year and just had to see how that town was doing.

Travel outside the city of Asmara required a travel permit and renting a car required an Eritrean driver license. Three trips to the Minister of Transportation and two trips to the Minister of Interior got us the documents. The rental car, less than $25 per day with unlimited mileage was the best the agency had, a 5-year-old Honda with more than 300,000 kms on the clock. It was sometimes hard to start and had a somewhat slipping clutch but away we went.

We spent one day driving around Asmara, about the size of our Hinesville. I was surprised to see that not much had changed. Asmara was constructed and built by the Italians in the 1920s and 1930s – a huge Italian colony with a population of some 60,000 before World War II.

When I was there, the city was supported by an Italian population of 40,000 and an American population of 10,000. This trip we met no Americans and only one Italian, a school teacher. She told us that there were less than 20 Italians left and that of course when the base closed the Americans all left with now just a few with the embassy.

She was correct. There were no more Italians ripping down the street in their Alfa Romeo sports cars and, of course all the Italian girls were now back in Italy. Gone, too, were most of the great Italian restaurants, but a couple remained as Eritrean cooks copy the old receipts. They do a wonderful job, too. We had a couple of great meals downtown. Still there are the sidewalk cafes. The huge Italian community passed on much of their culture to the Eritreans over the years, and you still get a taste of Italy in the city.

Chong and I walked for hours taking in the old Italian buildings, very well maintained and still in service. Many with their names and functions still set in the stone in the Italian language. Then we went on to the old U.S. Army post.

Us vets have followed the status of “our” post over the years. A couple of guys before me had ventured back to Asmara but were not allowed on the former U.S. Army installation. After the Americans left, the Ethiopian Army took it over, then after the war of independence in the ‘90s the Eritrean Army used it.

Chong and I drove to the front gate not knowing what to expect. I was prepared to beg and use my very best negotiating skills to get a peek inside, but was totally surprised to find the old MP gate and guard shack still there but no guard or policeman.

I slowed to almost a stop, expecting to be challenged at any time, but nothing. I stopped and saw that the entrance was totally open and unguarded. So in we went. Of course, my first stop was the old MP station where I met an official. He told me that half the post is used for disabled veterans of the war of independence and the other half for orphan children. The MP station is now office space of the library for the children.

Nobody was there so I was not able to go inside for a look-see, but I did notice that the rather tall telephone pole that post engineers had planted for our new police radio system along about 1965 was still in the ground with the same antenna swaying in the breeze some 50 feet in the air. I looked up at that, and as I brought my eyes back down I fully expected to see a 1965 Ford police car backed into a parking slot.

The post was a shamble, sadly run down. The former Army hospital looked in OK shape as it cares for the vets and kids. The commissary was totally missing, and I was told it had burned down some years ago. The former movie theater was boarded up with “danger do not enter” signs, and the PX had been converted into some type of living quarters.

All the barracks and family housing were in really poor shape and appeared to be used for living space. The swimming pool was bone dry and the edges were falling apart. There was no more green grass tended by post engineers, just sand and bare ground.

We rode around for a couple of hours as I pointed out the former use of the building to Chong, and we took pictures for my presentation at the next reunion. We drove out the gate and stopped. I got out and Chong took a picture of me as I said goodbye to an old friend for the last time.

Asmara is often called the city above the clouds because of its 8,000-foot elevation. The next day we drove our questionable rental “down the mountain” to Massawa – 8,000 feet down to sea level in just under 120 miles, a lot of switch-back and mountain hugging road, but an extremely beautiful trip.

Gone are the Italian cafes that dotted the road, but still there are some of the Eritrean bars where a nice cold beer could be had to fight the heat. We stopped often and took tons of breathtaking pictures, and Chong was beside herself with the beauty.

We arrived in Massawa to find that all the delicious Italian seafood restaurants were gone and that the city had been rather well destroyed in the war of independence. We had lunch in what seemed to be the only place in town to eat and it did not measure up.

I cruised the old patrol area for a couple of hours pointing out landmarks to Chong and taking some pictures for the guys then we headed back up the mountain. We stopped at the former Half Way House, a spot that had been owned and operated by a retired Army Sgt. Jessy Dobbins. Of course, he was long gone and nobody had even heard of him, but the beer was cold. Then we were on up the hill and back in Asmara just after dark.

The next day we returned the rental car and took our last walk around Asmara. I paused often to remember the city in its 1960s prime and thought about what it must have been like in its really glory days of the late 1930s before WWII.

Yes, time is a changer. No matter how hard one wants to make their change to effect society or the outcome of events, it is always Father Time that makes the biggest impression on things.

The following day was getaway day and our flight from Asmara to Barcelona, Spain, was an early one, departing at 5 a.m. The hotel shuttle took us to the airport and we arrived a bit after 4 a.m., checked in and had a final cup of the genuine article espresso coffee before boarding the Egyptian Air Boeing 737. There was a brief stop in their Cairo hub, then on to Spain.

We arrived early afternoon and found a cab to the Barcelona Best Western Hotel. Best Western is all over the world and Chong and I always check them first. They offer a strong military discount and are great on points and promotions. Their property in Barcelona is right in the shopping district and a leisurely walk to several good restaurants. We had stayed there twice before, so it was like a homecoming and a very welcome stay after two weeks in Africa.

We were in Spain four days before our cruise ship departed back to the states. One of my favorite adventures anyplace we go is the open top hop-on hop-off bus. A ticket lets you ride all day, and if you see something, get off check it out and then catch the next bus.

They usually pass about every 20 or 30 minutes so you’re never stranded. Our style is to get on the bus and make a complete lap of the route, taking note of places to see. Then on the second lap, we start our hop-offs and hop-ons. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to see things.

After some sightseeing, shopping and some great meals and too soon it was time to head home. On sailing day, we got to the port at the early check in time and waded through the crowd and got on board in about an hour’s time. Our vessel, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, is one of their mid-sized ships but still holds about 3,400 passengers. This sailing was not full by a long shot, but it was still a nice gang of travelers to be in line with.

We have made a couple of other repositioning cruises from Europe back to the states and always on Royal Caribbean ships. They are a nice line and I guess kind of a blue-collar group. No tux or formal gowns needed, dinner in the main dinning room calls for smart casual, and most guys are in slacks and a nice sport shit and the gals in a skirt and blouse.

The trip back to Tampa took us 14 days with several stops in Spain and Portugal, then the Madeira Islands before the 6-day sailing across the Atlantic. Those days can be very relaxing, sitting by one of the two onboard pools, enjoying the hot tubs, meeting the other travelers, shows, movies and of course all the food one can eat.

This crossing, like the others we have enjoyed, was smooth as silk. It would be several days between being able to see any type of white cap or bigger waves.

We arrived in Tampa right on time and sailed through customs. I had reserved a rental car and found their desk right outside the customs zone. The car was ready, and we were on our way home in less than 15 minutes. It was Thanksgiving Day, so we made a nice steady drive and got home right on schedule for the Cowboys game and my middle daughter’s turkey. It was a great cap to a wonderful trip.

Joe Gillam is a veteran and resident of Hinesville.

Joe Gilliam on patrol in 1965 while stationed in Africa.

Joe Gillam is served a dish of zigni while traveling recently in Africa.

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Revisiting Africa: Egypt, Eritrea Reviewed by Admin on 1:58 AM Rating: 5

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