Saturday, 17 August 2013

Adventures in Eritrea whilst flying for NASAIR.......courtesy of NEOS!


With the winter of 2009 firmly settled in around Northern Italy and an historically quiet time for European charter airlines, my then Italian employer NEOS had managed to secure a lucrative contract to keep their crews and the company’s bank accounts by default busy and as a subsequent consequence, our families anxious.

I was to return to Africa…..a continent you either loved or hated…..for me I love the region. Yes it has its unsavory sides but there was always the notion that something was about to happen; especially if you were daft enough like I was to walk around Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa whilst wearing a gold Rolex watch! An escapade that was almost as sensible as when I was stopped with my brother-in-law whilst on holiday in Jamaica by a gang of ‘exuberant youths’; ones who wanted change of a $20 note. To which my esteemed brother-in-law replied….”I only have 100s”, you can’t imagine my brotherly advice once we had managed to extricate ourselves from an increasingly hostile situation! So, I wasn’t worried….I was street-wise, or so I reckoned!

Secretly I was looking forward to this detachment, though I kept that to myself, playing on the, “Oh well, I have to go, you see my company insists.” Scoring numerous amounts of ‘Brownie’ points as we say in England, whilst not quite suffering in silence!

So for me another adventure was about to unfold and there were new countries to visit but the same views were not held by everyone. My parents, family and even the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office strongly recommended that I stayed at home, due to the political situation in the region known as the Horn of Africa. Especially as Eritrea and Ethiopia were still at war with each other.

I am sure that my Italian masters would have responded, in a slightly more aggressive manner than Lord Sugar on the British TV Apprentice program to my ‘no’ with a very simple, ‘You’re fired!’ And being characters with megalomaniac character traits, they would not have been swayed by anyone's reasoning.

Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan and Chad, were not destinations you’d normally send holiday postcards from; ransom notes maybe. These would be the least fashionable of my impending destinations implying by default that Nairobi and Jeddah, the two other cities that I would be flying into, were chic which I knew they most definitely weren't.

Last time I was in downtown Nairobi, admittedly many years ago, my visit coincided with the death of President Kenyatta, a man considered to be the founding father of their nation. For our safety back then we were confined to the hotel for three days whilst a power struggle took place against a background of potential civil unrest. Nowadays there were just the riots and the influx of displaced Zimbabweans to cope with in this fabulously beautiful yet troubled country; to this day there are few sites more spectacular than flying above the Rift Valley.

Hopefully none of this would affect me and nor would I spend New Year’s Eve behind bars in a Nairobi prison cell, as three of my colleagues from Avient, where I was flying the DC10 had to the previous year; although my then boss had managed to arrange a couple of bottles of Champagne to be smuggled in to them. This was to supposedly ease their pain whilst awaiting the correct paperwork to be processed and the necessary officials to be paid. Can’t imagine what the murderers and rapists around them would have thought of that…..’Sharing is caring’ would have taken on a whole new meaning!

My main destination would be Jeddah, the gateway to Mecca, with the African Hajj being the reason for operating into there. Local tribesmen and their wives would be transported from their remote tribal villages on a once in a lifetime pilgrimage and for most, their first experience of the civilized world and the only time they would ever fly in an aircraft……or be faced with a flushing toilet!

At the time Jeddah was a city which I had no intention of setting foot in, although several years later I would have to, whilst operating the Hajj from Iraq, stories which I have already published, or are for another time.

A South African colleague of mine recounted the one and only time he visited Jeddah coincided with a series of public be-headings, a criminal justice system a wee bit harsher than that in the UK. A slap on the wrist in the UK meant you could still play the piano afterwards, in Saudi it meant you’d need to enlist a friend to help brush your teeth.

My friend finding himself in the main market place as the ceremonial procession, complete with Muezzin, armed soldiers and official entourage entered, was hustled forward by the surge of the crowd as they bayed for blood and revenge. His Saudi colleague standing next to him advised that they were not to look away or make eye contact with anyone as the medieval and barbaric rules of Koranic Law were acted out in front of them. If he did then the religious police would take that as a sign of disrespect…..and a beating or worse could follow.

He was not a squeamish man but you could tell that those events shocked him. Having flown helicopters for the South African Defence Force, he carried out his own atrocities on the command of his superiors, in the so called name of patriotism and apartheid. Men, women, children and livestock would be slaughtered by the firepower emanating from his and the other helicopters; all in revenge for the cross-border skirmishes against the insurgents during the ‘Border War’ which was primarily fought against Angola and Namibia. Yet as I said he was still shocked at what he witnessed, that spoke volumes.

My own doubts were fueled by the memories of my last escapade on African soil, one which resulted in me technically losing sixty five tonnes of freshly minted bank notes in Lagos, Nigeria.  At the time I concluded that it would be best if I avoided the continent, at least for a while!

Well a while was up and it was time to go back. Again, I couldn't wait!
Sana’a, Asmara, Khartoum and N’djamena were the Capital cities appearing on my schedule. Occasionally they also appeared on the television, not the holiday programs but on the news, often among the headlines which reported back on the devastating effects of bombs, rockets and the bloody marketplaces after the latest suicide bomb had been detonated.

Maybe my family were right and I was being selfish, but I had itchy feet again and needed an injection from the unknown. An unfortunate metaphor considering the number of jabs I would require just to stop Mother Nature from hurting me.

Therefore it was with a heady sense of excitement that I left my cosy family run hotel, nestled in the forest south of Laggo Maggiore in Northern Italy. Pulling the door closed behind me and stepping out into the crisp cold early morning air; finding it necessary to place my footsteps carefully as the casual leather loafers I had chosen to wear held no protection against the freshly fallen snow and resultant grimy slush, a mixture which was slowly seeping through to my socks chilling my toes and feet. I had decided to dress for comfort and in anticipation of the African heat, determined that my enthusiasm was not about to be dampened, even for a second, by the remnants of an Italian blizzard….I was headed to warmer climates! 

Having arrived at Milan Malpensa’s Terminal Two and jumping down from my cab I landed Bambi like on the ice covered surface, splayed among the colorful hoards of chain smoking, backpacking Easyjet passengers. I hauled my suitcase from the cab’s back and dragged it with my flight bag up the two flights of stairs which led to NEOS airline’s crew-room. It was time to meet my crew and I was keeping my fingers crossed.

My crew would be comprised of five flight attendants led by a beautiful and chicly dressed Ermelinda and a gentleman of a co-pilot called Leonardo. Leonardo used to be a close protection police officer and as well as being an airline pilot, also dabbled as a freelance bodyguard in Croatia, an ideal companion for where we would be travelling to.

With our noisy and excited team all assembled, chitchat filled the air, reinforcing my enthusiasm for the two or three weeks which lay ahead.

I was to shortly find that reaching our planned destination Asmara, had the makings of a quest worthy of Indiana Jones and I expected that the next twenty four hours would be the most tortuous part of our trip away.

With no direct flights operating between Italy and Eritrea, the route that our operations department had therefore been forced to book for us would start with a forty minute taxi ride down the autostrade to Milan’s Linate airport. This experience could only be compared with the scariest of rollercoaster’s but unlike in a theme park, these roads not only promised but often delivered a fatal outcome. I have been hooted at by the car behind me, on the same road, whilst stuck in a stationary traffic jam……patience is not an Italian driver’s most endearing feature!

Continuing the journey from Linate’s airport would necessitate boarding a flight belonging to another Italian charter airline, Blue Panorama, known locally as Blue Banana, for the short hop down to Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Here we would wait for a couple of hours, drinking overpriced beer and chewing on indigestible pizza, standard fare in airports from Aberdeen to Zanzibar. There were no comfortable executive lounges for us, no champagne and little triangular sandwiches, not when flying economy class on Yemeni Airways.

From Rome our flight to El Rahaba airport in Sana’a the capital of Yemen would be undertaken at the rear of one of their Airbus 330 aircraft. This was an airline banned from operating to most European countries on safety grounds and one of the reasons why I felt the need for an early morning beer or two. The other reason being that all Yemen airline’s flights were ‘dry’, no alcohol served on-board because of strict Islamic law.

With these two concerns foremost in my mind, I decided that an unusually extravagant intake of alcohol could be justified, as did the rest of my crew, even at this early hour…..well when in Rome!

Eventually our flight was called and at the inglorious hour of ten o'clock in the morning and feeling a little tipsy, I boarded the Yemeni Airlines modern European jet. Once securely ensconced in my assigned seat, it was time to relax. Even with all the distractions and hubbub around me, I knew sleep would come easy. I would be covertly mixing my duty-free vodka filled water bottle with the Arabic version of Fanta orange, a form of blending in I considered and promptly fell asleep.

Waking up from the first of many naps, I was a little annoyed that the Arabian gentleman next to me had eaten all my food from the carrier bag which I had been guarding by my feet. I pointed this out to him but he just smiled and gestured that he didn't speak English and didn't understand - his friend just laughed. I smiled too knowing that he obviously had no idea that Walkers smoky bacon crisps were probably not on a Koranic menu……and I wasn't telling porkies!

Six hours or so after leaving the madness of Rome and Italy behind us, it was time to watch our landing into Sana’a on the in-flight entertainment system. This view seemed to be fed from a camera which must have been located on the nose undercarriage and the most ‘exciting’ thing to appear on the small television screen in front of me all flight.

Civilization and the occasionally rational and random Italian behavior now lay well and truly behind me and the need for a change of mental attitude lay ahead. I needed to adapt to the African way and a slower pace of life interspersed with an oft sense of urgency.

The relief of having survived two out of today’s three landings was tempered with the realization that we only had twenty minutes before our onward connection departed. I had no intention of overnighting in Sana’a, preferring to remain safely within the confines of the airport’s perimeter fence, which would be the limit of my Yemeni adventure…..the home of Al Qaeda in this region.

Fortunately we were able to leave on the last leg of our journey, as lit up like a Christmas tree on the desert ringed ramp, an elderly Yemeni Airways Airbus 310 aircraft awaited us for the hop over the Gulf of Aden to Asmara.

Unfortunately this aircraft is no longer with us, as it crashed into the Indian Ocean a few months later and everyone perished except for one very lucky little girl, both miraculous and tragic.

This is a far too common occurrence in this part of the world and anyone who has traveled around Africa, extensively or not, could bear witness to the aviation relics littering the airport ramps, often irreparably broken after some ‘mishap’ or other.

With a short forty minute hop, the last leg of our journey was almost complete. I was intrigued to see that Leonardo’s complexion had definitely whitened a few shades after returning from watching our last landing for the day from the cockpit.

Apparently the Captain chain-smoked the entire flight, while the co-pilot sat so low in his seat he couldn't see out of the window ahead of him. Leonardo explained that every comment the co-pilot made had been met with a shouted and negative response….reminded me of my line check in NEOS…..which you can also read on this blog!

Feeling like aviation’s equivalent of the television travel presenter Michael Palin, I stepped onto the ramp at Asmara’s airport, the battered and dented Yemeni airliner which we had just arrived on looked its age when parked next to a modern shiny Boeing 737-800. This was our aircraft and it looked as if it had just been sent from the Boeing factory, resplendent in its hastily painted Nasair logo, its immaculate paintwork gleamed from the reflected flood lights around us.

Walking across the ramp to the terminal building we now had the challenge of overcoming African bureaucracy, where every uniform bedecked ‘General’ had to be seen to be more self important than the last person you spoke to. Insisting that their forms had to be completed in triplicate for everything from cameras and computers to foreign currency. I could immediately spot the flaw in the foreign currency restrictions, for local dealers would no doubt be offering much better exchange rates than the official banks, with the bonus of no paperwork!

With the administrative duties completed, passenger taxes paid and in possession of enough forms to impress any government civil service department, it was time for the important matters to be addressed. Leonardo and four of the cabin crew disappeared in search of our transport to the hotel, whereas Ermelinda and I set to the task of donating more foreign currency to the Eritrean government for what we considered would be essential supplies.

We needed to buy enough duty-free booze to see us through the first week, as I imagined that the hotel would charge extortionate prices, if they served booze at all. My Lonely Planet guide only dedicated a couple of small paragraphs to this subject and to stop any disappointment later, I thought it better to err on the safe side….well we were flight crew and flight crew do get notoriously thirsty when away from home!

Following a throng of locals who were headed away from the luggage reclaim area towards the exit signs, I rationalized that they were either off to pray, have a smoke or buy duty free, the obvious three options to exiting the terminal.

I was surprised to find a tiny Aladdin’s cave housed in a shabby annex  which as it transpired, sold surprisingly cheap beer and wine. With two crates of Heineken beers and a couple of bottles of Mumm Champagne and Ermelinda struggling with her own selections, our chores were completed.

wasn't expecting a limousine complete with motorcycle outriders but I was expecting something larger than the transport waiting for us. A six seat Japanese people carrier with a door which would only stay closed if you held it, a windscreen so badly shattered that only the front passenger had an unobstructed view ahead and air conditioning that probably worked once upon a time but not now and I had no idea where all our suitcases, flight bags and numerous carrier bags were going to go.

Fifteen minutes later and having made round pegs fit into square holes, we lurched off in our NASAIR company transport. Our drivers, Jonathon and Iggi shared the responsibility of driving whilst one steered almost blind, the other shouted instructions and evasion manoeuvres. From my viewpoint sitting side saddle whilst perched on crates of beer and a small yet bone hard suitcase, just like half of our driving team I was unable to see the road ahead and when I did try to see forward through the shattered glass, the world took on the appearance of the psychedelic patterns made from a child’s kaleidoscope.
Only what we passed or managed to avoid running over flashed past my side window as we bounced and slid around. You see driving in Africa is not unlike driving in Italy but with two major exceptions. It is generally undertaken at half the speed but with twice the terror. No rules, no street lights, no pavements and often no road, just a half hearted attempt at smoothing out a passage in the direction which the majority and their goats or cattle would want to travel in.

With each pothole and compressed vertebrae, hopes for the quality of our hotel were rapidly diminishing. The two hundred yards of brightly lit and billiard table smooth airport road lay behind us and I watched with a bizarre sense of growing excitement as we passed the heavily barricaded local United Nations Headquarters and sparsely lit roadside shacks doubling as makeshift bars.

Passing one of Asmara’s iconic landmarks, the art deco Italian Fiat garage, we turned off from its main boulevard onto a side street which had more holes than a Swiss cheese maker’s wet dream.

Using just first impressions to go on and a huge amount of optimism, I supposed that maybe the Midian Hotel, our home in Asmara, would be okay. I was secretly preparing for a bit of a disappointment and I think that we all shared the same opinion that this was to be no luxury holiday. As an aside, I was later to find out that we had been upgraded; the hotel we were supposed to be staying in had been deemed too unsavory  even for us…….being a rat infested brothel.

Unfolding my numb limbs from the claustrophobic environs of our transport and trying to walk on legs suffering from terminal pins and needles, I was assured by Iggi that he would unload our luggage, as opposed to selling the more interesting items to a small group who even at this late hour, were taking an unhealthy interest in us.

Jonathon led the way into the small reception area past the homely decorated Christmas tree towards the bar, it was closed but he said that we could have a glass of water while we checked in. With the necessary formalities being conducted by a young Eritrean girl whose classic features would not have looked out of place on a European catwalk, Leonardo hastily volunteered to liaise with her whilst we sat down and took in our surroundings, starting a theme which would last throughout our time away!

The sound of footsteps running down the stone staircase behind us and excited Italian voices heralded the arrival of the crew we would be replacing. Now I understood minimal Italian but the sentiments were obvious. We were welcomed as if we were replacing the troops on the front-line of a battlefield. There were hugs, kisses and much laughter; I likened them to a group of lottery winners meeting us who had apparently just arrived on death row.

Leonardo explained that the others had only just moved into this hotel, as they had refused to stay another day longer in their previous lodgings. There had been no water, rats everywhere and the other guests were all prostitutes, hot bedding like Filipino sailors……the prostitutes not the cabin crew!

realized that our two star hotel, if located anywhere in the western world, was the equivalent of a four star hotel here in Eritrea. The Italian restaurant served spaghetti, their only attempt at Italian on the menu and this became my staple diet during the days to follow……not unlike my first time in an equally salubrious hotel in Seoul, South Korea some years before.

Running water was available in the bathrooms which elevated it to local Spa status and the sun deck or as we called it….the roof, and advertised as an outdoor entertainment area were facilities that the hotel happily boasted of. We were advised that we had fallen on our feet!
Having completed the check in formalities and issued with a key that any gaoler would have been proud of, I set off to find my room. I wasn't disappointed - it was all I imagined and all I hoped it wouldn't be. Decorated in the style that a depressed student would aspire to, the furniture had what can only be described as a distressed look to it.

Only three of the bed’s legs were level which meant I would be sleeping downhill, or if I was to remake the bed so it was facing the other way around, then the only way to watch the television which was mounted high up on the wall, would be whilst laying in a position favored by the space shuttle crews during re-entry or in a position dictated by a particularly psychotic dentist.

There was a door leading out to the balcony, however, if the door hadn't opened inwards my African adventure would have come to an abrupt end. There was a door but no balcony. Two storeys up, the fall would have probably killed me.

Deciding to have a quick shower before attempting to sleep like a mountain goat, I opened the door to my bathroom and quickly regretted it. I had noticed that my room was not without interesting smells but nothing like the ones waiting for me behind this door, someone or something had died, there could be no other explanation. Opening the window was a mistake as it just acted as a welcome sign to a variety of winged creatures, all of which were busy sharpening their probes in anticipation of their feast once I had dropped off to sleep.

Turning on the shower I waited for the hot water to come through, five minutes passed and I was still waiting. After ten minutes of lying on my bed in a position which would have given an osteopath a nightmare, it dawned on me that there was no hot water. I was to later find out that there never would be……

Deciding to leave my shower for tomorrow as a wave of tiredness had started to envelop me, I thought that I’d just go to sleep instead. Rolling off the bed I quickly realized that it wasn't only my bed that was wonky. The bathroom floor hadn't been laid correctly and it had a shallow slope down to its door.  This meant that ten minutes worth of water had successfully drained into my bedroom and started to float items that should never have been there in the first place.

I had a Eureka moment; it all fell into place. Why you had to lay on your back to watch television, why the bed was broken and why this room’s regular customers had no need for a business style desk area. It also explained what was floating on the floor………We were staying in a hotel where the rooms were normally rented by the hour and not the day, which explained why at three in the morning there were still cleaners on duty.

It also explained why we were greeted as heroes by our colleagues. We had been duped into aviation's equivalent of a prisoner exchange and it would be several weeks before we would be eligible for parole.

couldn't believe it, two of my work shirts and several items of underwear which I had unpacked and left on a carrier bag on the floor were now soaked by this vile smelling ooze which was spreading across the floor. I had been in the hotel for less than an hour and I already needed their maintenance, cleaning and laundry services. Welcome to Africa……….or for those seasoned to this continent, TIA – This Is Africa!

Depositing a bag of laundry along with some choice words to the bemused hotel receptionist, I headed back up the stairs, my footsteps loudly echoing on the tiled staircase but I didn't care. I was tired, dirty and hacked off. Maybe all I needed was a good night’s sleep and everything would sort itself out in the cold light of day...... maybe…….once again my hopes weren't high.

Waking up with a raging headache, my neck and back muscles felt as if I’d been the victim of the rack during a particularly enthusiastic medieval torture session, I realized that I had missed breakfast and probably lunch too. It was now ten past one in the afternoon and I was starving.  At least today was a day off as we weren't due to start flying until the following day.

Deciding to check out the view from my room now that it was daylight, I slid out of my bed and with my bare feet sticking to the floor I opened the door to my invisible balcony and stared out into the harsh sunlight.

“Ciao, Alan,” I wasn't expecting that. Leonardo was ten feet below me sunbathing on the roof of the restaurant with two of the cabin crew; all three of them were topless…….at last things were looking up! I stood there shielding my eyes from the glare and realized that my disheveled demeanor probably didn't measure up to that of the three immaculately presented Italians below me.

Sitting down on my ‘suicide perch’, with my feet dangling in mid air I surveyed the scene around me. Apart from the half naked Italian connection, there was not a lot….though I surmised that there didn't need to be.

I looked out over a rundown section of housing, the brick walls mainly broken and often unfinished, roofs constructed from whatever materials could be found and a dusty courtyard area where several chickens were being scattered by a young child as a goat tethered nearby watched, bored and probably waiting for his turn to come around…….as lunch.

Among all this poverty it wasn't the ridiculously over sized satellite dishes, which looked as if they could have been stolen from Area 51 or a NASA outpost, and probably had been, which drew my attention. It was the washing line to which the goat had been tethered.

Hanging from it were my shirts and underwear which I had asked the hotel to launder for me, my trousers offering shade to the goat and no doubt if my boxer shorts were to fall off, its lunch too……was this the laundry or had they been….’recycled’?

“Alan, Kevin has organised for us to go out this afternoon. You are coming?” Leonardo shouted up to me whilst I tried to banish all thoughts on how my clothes had been washed……or who was going to be wearing them next…..I doubted that it would be me!

I nodded, smiled and decided to try the shower again before getting ready to join the others. Though where Kevin, the Captain from the other NEOS crew and an absolute no nonsense Irish gentleman would have in mind, I had no idea.

It turned out that Asmara wasn't awash with tourist attractions which is why two hours later I found myself wandering around the graves in an Italian war cemetery.

“Alan, Alan!” Leonardo was about ten yards away, mimicking the infamous YouTube clip of the merecats  which equated to about eight graves away and excitedly pointing to one of the tombstones. I wandered over and could see why, the name inscribed was the same as our tyrannical boss back in Milan and worthy of a photo opportunity and definitely one for a caption competition….once I’d left the company!

Since we had explored all that a cemetery could offer, the six of us, the entire male contingent of the two crews, strode towards the next attraction which Asmara had to offer up, a ‘fashionable’ tank graveyard.

The outside air temperature might only have been in the mid twenties centigrade but as we were at an elevation of nearly eight thousand feet the sun was exceptionally fierce and I could almost hear the skin on my exposed neck crackling as it fried. I came to the conclusion that it wouldn't take too many days under the sun here to cultivate a complexion and skin complaint not unlike that of a savory pork scratching.

There was no fence, no barricades patrolled by armed guards, it was just there. Rows and rows of tanks, armored vehicles and even aircraft, all in terminal disrepair. Kevin led the way and we all followed, scattered among the grass were rounds of live ammunition both individually and attached to machine gun belts but all highly corroded and I imagined highly volatile.

“Kevin, look!” three men came running over to us screaming waving heavy metal bars. After the initial surprise, I couldn't help but laugh as each of them must have been at least seventy years old and their weapons were probably more often used to prop them up than to beat anyone.

Realizing that they were more of a nuisance than a threat Kevin, being the diplomat that he was, just bellowed “Go away,” but not so politely, followed up with an impressive selection of international hand gestures!

For the next hour we were shadowed by these three shabby old men as they constantly harassed us. Once they realized we were staying they changed their tack and demanded money or cigarettes, all of which fell on deaf ears but still they remained. They watched us as we walked around investigating the industrial sized containers inside which everything from drums of very suspicious looking liquids to artillery shells could be found. 

With every step I expected something nasty was about to go bang underfoot and find that my dancing days would be over forever!

Bizarrely among all the weapons of war could be found the more peaceful rusting carcasses of several vintage cars, both British MGs and American Fords hidden beneath the forests of bullet ridden armor and twisted tank tracks. I am sure that there was money to be made if it had been possible to ship them back to Europe, I’m pretty sure that Kevin thought the same too.

Heading back to the hotel having lost our bearings whilst we chatted, oblivious to our surroundings among the unfamiliar roads; there were few cars, the shops were all closed and the only people around suddenly started throwing rocks at us from the street corner behind us. This was definitely not a friendly neighborhood we had wandered into and the ring leader who appeared to be a teenage boy jumping up and down squawking like a confused parrot, was not looking to make any new friends.

This was not the part of town we had walked through earlier. Unable to understand what was being shouted in our direction, it was blatantly obvious to understand the menace behind it though, ducking as another rock arced towards us as it bounced off the roof of the red Toyota taxi parked next to us. This infuriated the driver; his expression clearly indicated that somehow it was our fault and not the man throwing it.

Picking up the pace, I was on my own. Kevin was heading back to the man who was leading the melee and in his booming Irish tongue giving him a piece of his mind. Running back I grabbed him by the arm and managed to steer him away, as he muttered he’d seen worse in Ireland……which led me to consider his ‘history’.

Having safely arrived back at the hotel I bumped into Ermelinda and three other members of our cabin crew sitting and smoking on the doorstep.

“We’re going bowling, do you want to come?”  Now this came as a pleasant surprise, indoors and out of the sun and hopefully we’d be doing the throwing this time. I didn't realize how prophetic my thoughts would be.

After a fifteen minute walk down the main boulevard, passing a mosque and a cathedral but built on opposite sides of the street, we came to a large warehouse. Inside which were four bowling lanes designed many years ago it appeared, for ten pin bowling. Having negotiated a reasonable price, we were allocated a young boy who can’t have been more than about ten and who’s usefulness would shortly become apparent.

This was not a sporting complex as you would find anywhere else, certainly not in my travels. Our allocated lane, once smooth now had strips of its wooden surface missing, which made for challenging bowling, if we’d wanted to play seriously….which we didn't  even if we could. As the constant supply of glasses of cold beer on an empty stomach soon put paid to any desire to take score. Especially now that we’d seen what our young lad was needed for.

Being almost impossible to aim with any degree of accuracy as the balls provided had dents as well as chunks missing, the four of us devised a new set of rules.

Our young boy was tasked with sitting on the wall behind the pins we were trying to knock down, so that he could stand them back up again. No complex automated machinery here which made it all the more charming. Our new made up rules were to see how fast we could make him work for no sooner had the first of our balls been hurled in approximately the right direction, the second would follow. The challenge was to see how quickly he would work, or whether we could turn him into one of the faded pins. He won every time and earned a tip that he would probably be talking about for a long time to come.

Asmara was turning into the experience that I had hoped it would and we hadn't even started flying yet. Those tales will follow at a later date if interested!