Welcome to Hell

This is a little off the theme of Eastern European travel, but a touch of diversification never hurt anyone, unless of course they diversified in front of a bus. The following is a taster – indeed, the opening chapter – of Life in the Sauna, recently published by New Generation Publishing. This chapter, not altogether surprisingly, charts the initial experiences of the intrepid VSO volunteer on first setting foot in the Eritrean town of Assab.


It came to be known as ‘oven door syndrome.’ It’s that moment when you’ve been baking a potato and you absent-mindedly open the door of the oven while standing right in front of it. The heat wave knocks you backwards and you wonder why on Earth you did that.

That was how it felt when the plane door opened. You could see that it was hot out there as the plane skirted the Red Sea coast, but it was only when that door opened that you realised just how hot. This was heat like you’d never felt before (apart from that brief moment with the oven, of course). This was heat that was, literally and metaphorically, in your face. It was beyond stifling, a non-stop blast wave that threatened to choke the life out of you.

When you open the oven door, you simply curse your stupidity and step to one side. Here, in the Eritrean port of Assab, there was no escape. You laugh at the absurdity of the heat and humidity, but your brain is screaming other messages, most of which seem to be asking the question ‘What are you doing here?’

It’s a disturbing feeling. You have pledged two years of your life to VSO and within two minutes, you’re thinking ‘Get me out of this.’ You had been through all the concerns about the culture, the language, the food and all sorts of things and you’d come to the conclusion that you could cope with all sorts of stuff. Not only that, you would, by and large, positively enjoy the different experiences. Yes, you knew it would be hot as well, but this was little short of an inferno. How was it possible to live here?

Being overloaded with hand luggage well beyond the allowance didn’t help. On top of this, VSO have provided a ton of equipment, ranging from the useful (a water filter) to the palpably absurd (blankets). They have given you two heavy blankets. What, you want to shout at nobody in particular, am I supposed to do with blankets? The temperature is in the forties and you’re carrying blankets across a dusty and barren East African airfield.

Assab airport was essentially a landing strip with a small concrete terminal building. It appeared to be in the middle of a desert, punctuated by a few scruffy acacia bushes. Not that it was easy to see very much, being laden with a large holdall and having your vision blocked by water filters and those blankets. The searingly hot wind blowing dust and sand into your eyes wasn’t a great deal of help, either. Nor does this even begin to take into account the flies and mosquitoes, who will feature regularly throughout this journal.

I certainly didn’t see it and if anybody else did, they didn’t tell me. The hole was probably little more than a metre deep, but it came as a shock. One minute, you’re walking along a concrete surface, then in the next moment, you appear to have descended into the very pit of Hell that you suspected the heat was coming from.

Some kindly people helped me out of the hole I’d landed in. Quite why there was a big hole there wasn’t a question I was contemplating at that moment. The physical hole, while slightly alarming, wasn’t such a problem. It was the metaphorical hole that was the chief worry as I stumbled and sweated towards the relative cool of the terminal building.

Thankfully, the bulk of the administrative procedures had happened in the capital, Asmara, thus removing the immediate need for Eritrea to demonstrate its love for excessive bureaucracy. Another relief was the sight of a vehicle belonging to Assab Petroleum Refinery, my new employers. Not that I would have been too difficult to pick out, a hot and exhausted white, or probably bright and fluorescent pink by now, man floundering under an excess of baggage, not to mention those damnable blankets.

We drove the 20 or so kilometres into town, which did little to allay the impression that I had signed up to live in the middle of a desert. There was a lot of dust, a lot of sand and more acacia bushes. I scanned the sky and the immediate horizons, but failed to spot a single bird. Slowly, though, buildings began to appear, culminating in the area where the refinery workers lived. The houses looked small, but pleasant enough. I wondered where mine was.

“Your house is not ready yet,” one of my new colleagues told me. I’d have to go to the ‘guest house.’ I was poured, with my luggage overload, into a substantial dwelling that had a living room, kitchen, toilet and three bedrooms. This, I suspected, was considerably more lavish than what I’d be getting, but no matter. I needed anything that resembled a luxury at that moment. There was a long and comfortable sofa and, much more importantly, air conditioning. I put the air-con at full bore and promptly fell asleep.

After sleeping for about 90 minutes, I felt a great deal better, though dehydrated. Fortunately, I’d had the insight not only to hold onto a bottle of water, but also to put it next to the air conditioner. I took a swig and felt thoroughly refreshed. By now, it was just after four o’clock in the afternoon. Surely, it must be a bit cooler outside by now? I cautiously opened the front door, let out a small groan and shut it again. Alarmingly, in a reverse of that classic British situation where you enter a warm pub on a cold winter’s day, even a nervous peek outside had caused my glasses to steam up.

The refinery men had told me my house would be ready ‘soon’. As I quickly discovered, many African people don’t tend to work on the basis of specific time. ‘Soon’ can mean anything from a couple of minutes to a few days. In this case, though, it meant only a few hours and I was taken to what was to be my house for the next two years.

As I suspected, the house in which I was going to live was considerably smaller than the one in which I’d just been sweltering. The group of houses I was taken to were all for refinery workers and took the form of bungalows. There were three rooms, consisting of a living room that doubled as a bedroom, a toilet with a shower and a small kitchen. It wasn’t fancy, being in effect a studio flat, but at least it meant I didn’t have to hunt around for somewhere to live, which many volunteers did.

At first, I didn’t see it. When I did, a huge sense of relief swept over me. There was an air-conditioning unit wedged into the wall of the main room, just below the solitary window. For reasons I can’t possibly imagine, I didn’t switch it on. There was a ceiling fan and I turned that on instead. Perhaps I was subconsciously thinking that I shouldn’t use the air conditioning until it was really hot. After all, this was late September and the ‘hot’ season runs from June to August. This, presumably, was the ‘Are you seriously telling me this isn’t hot?’ season.

The bed was wooden and had a thin mattress. In fact, it wasn’t so much thin as positively emaciated. I tried lying down on the bed and immediately felt the hardness of the wooden slats beneath the mattress. After a couple of minutes, I had a brainwave. Now I knew what to do with those blankets.

I laid the blankets on the slats and put the mattress back. It didn’t make the thing a great deal more comfortable, but it was a marginal improvement and at least I had a storage place for two blankets it was utterly inconceivable that I would need for any other purpose.

Lying on the bed and staring at the hypnotic whirl of the fan, I wondered what I had got myself into. A month ago, I’d been a computer programmer for the NHS in Scotland. Now, my job hadn’t changed much, but everything else had. True, it had been a fine summer back home, but Scotland does not get temperatures in the high thirties. Neither does Scotland get humidity in the nineties. There might be a few cultural differences to consider as well.

That Friday, a month back, was my final day in my Edinburgh office. I’d given myself a few weeks to get everything ready and say goodbye to people. I’d been to The Oval to watch an England v West Indies Test match. I’d been to plenty of pubs (it’s always easier to meet people in a pub) and enjoyed lots of different cask beers. On more than one occasion, the pub visit had led to an Indian restaurant. All of these things were now on a shelf, not to be used for two years. Well, there’d probably be a pub or two, but cask beer would be pushing things a bit.

The inevitable last pint was at a bar at Heathrow airport. Then it was onto a plane to Asmara, with two cases in the hold and a holdall well beyond the limit for hand luggage. I was far from the only culprit. It was remarkable that the plane actually managed to make it to thirty-five thousand feet with the tonnage it must have been lugging.

That packed plane contained 28 VSO volunteers, 27 of whom were schoolteachers. Not for the first time in my life, I was the exception to a rule. Everyone else was going to be based at a school, college or other training establishment. I had the glamour of a petroleum refinery.

We spent two weeks in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Those two weeks provide time for some readjustment and acclimatisation, though the climate in Asmara, which is more than seven thousand feet above sea level, is very different to that on the Red Sea coast. Because of its altitude, Asmara does not get especially hot during the day. It can also get cold at night, a phrase that could never be applied to Assab or the other major Red Sea port, Massawa.

The two weeks were spent at the Teachers Training Institute (TTI) in the northern part of Asmara. The TTI is a large camp that contains a lot of long wooden huts and if it looks somewhat like a prisoner of war camp, that’s because it was. During the long conflict with Ethiopia, prisoners were housed here.

We spent part of the time learning something of the country’s history, as well as being given lessons in the Tigrigna language and a certain amount, from first hand practical experience, about the sheer amount of bureaucracy and paperwork that exists in Eritrea. There were a few points of culture and etiquette to learn, for example remembering to shake hands with people on greeting them, even if you’d already met them earlier that day. We were reminded that if eating with our hands, a common occurrence in East Africa, then the right hand was to be used (the left traditionally being reserved for toilet duties). This was something that I, being left-handed, needed to keep in mind. On a further practical note, the volunteers received some money to get us through to our first pay day, as well as allowing us to buy those items we would need in our accommodation.

Despite the rather basic facilities at TTI, those two weeks were quite a leisurely introduction, something of a beginner’s guide to Eritrea. There was plenty of time for having a stroll around town, sitting around having a chat, catching a game of football at the nearby National Stadium and having a beer or two in the local bars. There were quite a few games of Scrabble, very much a volunteer staple. For those of us hoping to see some exotic birdlife, there was a lake close to the camp that harboured a fine array of species. Having packed a substantial guide to the birds of East Africa into my heaving luggage, I was, at least, prepared for something. We also took the opportunity to try out our newly-found language skills on unsuspecting and slightly bemused locals.

Tigrigna is the main language spoken in Eritrean and it’s also spoken in the northern part of Ethiopia. Like Hebrew and Arabic, it is a Semitic language and uses a script called Ge’ez, which is also used for the primary Ethiopian language, Amharic. Thankfully, our tutor instructed us purely on a phonetic basis. Learning a completely new alphabet would be a touch ambitious.

One thing that you quickly realise, even after only a couple of days in Asmara, is that there is a strong residual Italian influence in Eritrea. The Italians’ colonial ambitions in East Africa had mixed results, but Eritrea was ruled by the then Kingdom of Italy between 1882 and 1941. A stroll around the centre of Asmara gives more than a few clues to this relationship and many of the buildings in the centre of the city were erected by the colonial regime. The imposing St Joseph’s Cathedral is decidedly Italianate and little groups of nuns are often spied wandering around the town. There are several pizza restaurants and an abundance of shoes shops, all of which seem to sell very high-quality shoes at remarkably low prices, at least to Western European eyes. Some older people are able to speak Italian.

An unexpected by product of spending more than a few days in Eritrea is that you will almost certainly pick up a bit of Italian that could come in useful during some future holiday. Even a few fairly rudimentary lessons in the Tigrigna language confirm the Italian link, particularly when it comes to food. Mushrooms are funghi, aubergines melanzane, courgettes zucchini, biscuits biscotti, beer birra and so on. This is comforting – you may expire from heat exhaustion, but at least you know that you are not going to starve.

There wasn’t much danger of heat exhaustion in Asmara, particularly in the early morning. Indeed, there was more danger of hypothermia from taking a cold shower (there was no option here, unless you chose not to wash) in temperatures only a little above freezing. The temperatures rose quite swiftly during the course of the morning, but it was very chilly before and just after sunrise. Those VSO blankets would certainly have been welcome for the volunteers based in the capital and other highland areas in the central northern part of the country.

Another shock to the pampered westerner was the lack of seating arrangements when it came to using the toilet. The lavatories were of the ‘hole in the ground’ type and thus required strong leg muscles and steady balance. This type of toilet is not recommended for those who have had quite a lot to drink. Nor are many of them necessarily recommended for anyone with a sense of smell.

A few of the new volunteers suffered from stomach problems, probably due to the sudden change of diet, water and all of the other associated factors that come with such an upheaval of location and lifestyle. The sudden change to living at altitude probably had an effect, as well. I was lucky enough to avoid any of these discomforts in Asmara. My turn would come, though, I was sure of that. You’re only ever a dodgy lettuce leaf away from that 24-hour bout of gastric mayhem.

Although I hadn’t experienced any problems yet, I was a bit concerned about diet. Food at the training institute had been decidedly on the meaty side, not ideal for a vegetarian like me. In the two weeks thus far, I’d survived on a regime of spicy potatoes, pasta, bananas and the odd pizza. This didn’t look like the healthiest mix.

Then there is injera. It is not possible to visit Eritrea or Ethiopia without coming across injera. It is a rather moist and spongy flat bread that is made from tef, a type of wheat grown in the highlands of the two nations. It is used as a base on which to pile food that is traditionally shared and eaten with the fingers. Injera has the appearance of carpet underfelt and quite often, the taste and texture as well. At best, and when fresh, it can be pleasant enough. At worst, it is sour, vinegary and leaves a nasty aftertaste.

I was, though, reasonably optimistic that I could manage to get through without biting into flesh. From now on, I’d be having most of my meals in my house, once I’d sorted out something by way of cooking facilities. Assab, being a relatively large town, would have plenty of shops and while its remoteness would mean that there wouldn’t be the same broad range of produce as in Asmara, there should be enough to provide a bit of variety. Besides, it would be a good test of my resourcefulness, not to mention cookery skills. There would be plenty of challenges, but the cookery side should prove an interesting one.

Soon, I would have the chance to have my first meal in Assab. My fellow volunteers – three of them – lived together in a nearby house and I was due to meet them at half past seven so that we could go for a meal. Two of them had arrived at the same time as me and the other had, incredibly to my mind, already been in Assab for two years. She had now signed up for another year.

Ursula, the old stager, had been among the party to meet us at the airport. She was an English teacher at the local school and even after a few minutes in the place, I was impressed with her stamina and willpower. I was glad that there was an existing volunteer, though. After two years in Assab, she would know pretty much everything that was worth knowing (and probably a fair bit that wasn’t).

The other newcomers were also going to be working at the school. Steve, a tall and thin Englishman, was a maths teacher who seemed to be possessed of that endearing lack of common sense that you sometimes see in mathematics buffs. Perhaps it’s because they operate on a different mental plane to the rest of us and consequently fail to grasp the more mundane and everyday things of life. He was, though, a thoroughly affable fellow with a ready smile. Heather, a Canadian, was a science teacher. She was less outgoing than Steve, but was perfectly amiable, albeit in a quiet sort of way.

The other three were of a similar age, all around the mid-twenties. That meant that, at 36, I was the old fogey in the Assab party. I wasn’t bothered by this in the least. VSO has rigorous assessment and selection procedures, so it wasn’t as if I was going to be surrounded by people who’d be treating the thing as if they were teenagers about to go on a first drunken weekend in Ibiza.

By the time I left my house, the burning heat of the sun had disappeared, but even though it was dark, it was still intensely hot and humid and I was sweating by the time I reached the teachers’ house five minutes later. The building wasn’t entirely a crumbling ruin, but had clearly lost something over the years, including quite a lot of brickwork and part of the roof. The house had air conditioning after a fashion, but only in the sense of missing windows and having holes in the walls. At least everybody had a reasonably large room to themselves and there was a pleasingly big kitchen to use as a dining room and communal area.

We walked to the restaurant. This provided a first look at the centre of the town and a glimpse of one or two of the more important places. We passed the post office, where there was a PO box for the VSO volunteers. We passed the entrance to the port complex, where there was always intense activity, no matter what time of day it was. Although situated in Eritrea, Assab was a very important port for Ethiopia. Part of the post-war treaty was the allowance of free access for Ethiopia. Indeed, most of the goods coming into and going out of the port were being imported or exported by the Ethiopians. This was, in effect, Ethiopia’s last remaining link to the Red Sea after Eritrea gained independence.

On the way, Ursula would stop and greet people that she knew, chatting away in Tigrigna at some speed. Admittedly, she’d been here for two years, but this still looked pretty impressive. After a few weeks, though, it had become clear that she wasn’t quite the fluent speaker I’d initially thought she was. Her conversations, roughly speaking, amounted to “Good evening, hello, how are you? – I’m fine, thank you – good night”, possibly repeated two or three times for good measure and not very much else. Even so, it does no harm at all to use a bit of the language of whatever country you happen to be in at any given time. It is usually appreciated, even if people might laugh at your inept pronunciation from time to time.

The restaurant, predictably, was strong on meat and light on vegetables. It’s a fairly safe assumption, though, that pasta will be on the menu of any non-specialist restaurant in Eritrea. All you have to do is make sure that you specify “without meat”. Pasta with tomato sauce may be a touch on the bland side, but it does the job. In fact, “without” is a handy word to learn at an early stage. Tea and coffee will come loaded with sugar unless you stipulate otherwise. Tea is served in small glasses similar to whisky tumblers and served without milk, but with a slice of lemon and a vast pile of sugar. In fact, it’s more a case of “how much tea would you like with your cup of sugar?” If you forget to mention the sugar, the sweetness can be partially ameliorated by squeezing the lemon as vigorously as possible into the drink, leaving you with something that vaguely resembles a cup of Lemsip and at least takes the edge off the overpowering sweetness.

Coffee is generally of the strong, espresso variety, though there is a version of macchiato that is a good deal milkier than what one might find in Italy, for example. This is also to assume that there will be any milk available. If there is, it will usually be in powdered form. Once again, though, expect a shovelful of sugar in whatever form of coffee you may be given.

As with people in many tropical climates, Eritreans like their food and drink spicy at one extreme and sweet at the other. Hot chilli pervades virtually any prepared food and sugar seems to find its way into most drinks. You’ll often see people with a small stick in their mouths, sucking on sugar cane. Eritrean dentists need never be short of potential customers.

Fortified by pasta and a few bottles of beer from the Melotti Brewery (even the solitary Eritrean brewery was an Italian creation), the journey back seemed a bit easier than the journey out. Alcohol, of course, is not the ideal antidote to dehydration, but I was prepared to convince myself that because beer is made up largely of water, then it could not be the worst thing to drink.

I stopped off at the teachers’ house on the way. Ursula had a spare kerosene stove and kettle that I could borrow until I had acquired some stuff of my own. My little kitchen didn’t have anything resembling an oven. A fridge was purely the stuff of dreams. I did, though, have a small collection of teabags and I decided to treat myself to a mug of tea. The stove belched out some evil black fumes that I suspected weren’t terribly healthy. No matter, a cup of tea would be a civilised way to end the evening.

While the kettle was rattling about on the stove, I made an attempt to take a shower. It got no further than an attempt. The shower head sputtered out a few drops of water, but refused to cooperate after that. Swearing at it produced no further reaction. Now, I’d filled the kettle successfully from the tap in the kitchen, so I knew there was a supply of running water. Not, however, from the shower.

I managed to have a wash by filling the wash basin and splashing around a bit. All of the flooring in the house was of tiling, so spilling water all over it wasn’t going to do any harm. One thing was very noticeable – the water coming from the taps was not cold. Given the intensity of the heat and humidity, this hardly came as a surprise, but it was difficult not to think wistfully of the cold showers in Asmara. They’d been unwelcome there, but I could have done with it now.

At the restaurant, I’d asked Ursula if it ever rained in Assab. She said, “Well, it has rained” and the emphasis on the ‘has’ was something of a giveaway. She estimated that she’d seen rained perhaps five or six times in two years. “It doesn’t help at all,” she added with an apologetic grin. “It just makes the humidity go up a bit.”

The temperate climate and lovely, vertical, stair-rod tropical rain we’d seen in Asmara seemed an awfully long way off. “The worst is summer,” Ursula said, “but the schools are on holiday then, so you won’t need to be here.” I looked at her and she suddenly realised what she’d said. “Oh God, sorry,” she said, “but you’ll be able to take leave, so you won’t have to be here all the time.” She did give me a very good tip, though. “Make sure you book your leave and a flight well in advance,” she said, “because everybody wants to get out of here in the summer months”.

My wash hadn’t exactly cooled me down a great deal and I was still feeling baked. Despite this, I continued with the incomprehensible use of the fan. I lay back on the bed and reached for my shortwave radio, when I saw a rapid movement out of the corner of my eye. The culprit wasn’t immediately obvious and I hoped I wasn’t about to encounter something vicious.

Suddenly, it emerged, from just above the strip light high on the wall. To a small insect, it probably was a vicious monster of prehistoric appearance, but it wasn’t going to threaten my wellbeing. It was a gecko, attracted by the glow or heat of the light, or possibly both. He or she was quite welcome, as far as I was concerned. Anything that devoured insects was to be regarded as an ally and I left the lizard to bask on the wall.

VSO had given me a mosquito net, but there didn’t seem to be much point in trying to set it up. My house, unlike that of the teachers, was solid on all sides. I wasn’t about to open the window, however hot it was. In fact, I thought that the lizard was probably being a bit optimistic hanging around in terms of finding a snack, but it was a nice safe place for it to spend the night.

I had similar feelings, though the gecko almost certainly appreciated the heat a great deal more than I did. I remembered to take one of the two types of anti-malarial tablet that I would need to have every day. I had two large cartons of the drugs and I tried not to think about the potential side effects (working for the NHS has its advantages and disadvantages). I felt a bit envious of the volunteers in places like Asmara, which are too far above sea level for malarial mosquitoes. I drank my tea, listened to BBC World Service for a while and attempted to get some sleep. Somewhat ambitiously, I had pulled a sheet over myself, but I rapidly discarded this. Even a thin, cotton sheet was superfluous, so the blankets had absolutely no chance.

I put the light back on and considered moving the bed (several hundred miles north was an appealing idea right at that moment). In fact, moving it several inches wasn’t plausible, as it was attached to a small table/shelf on either side. I tried lying with my head at the foot of the bed. This didn’t achieve a great deal, other than to make me sweat slightly with the exertion of moving around. I tried reading for a while, as this is generally a good way to induce sleep, but I couldn’t really concentrate. The fan continued to churn increasingly warm air around the room.

How long it took me to get to sleep, I have no idea. I did manage it, though, probably though sheer exhaustion in the end. That was my very first day in Assab. I would have another 718 to go (not that I was ticking them off, prisoner style). I had absolutely no idea what those days were going to be like or, indeed, if I would complete them. One thing of which I was certain was that I was going to give it a go. It had taken almost two years from my initial VSO application to arriving in Eritrea. ‘Technical’ placements are a lot harder to fill than teaching ones, with more criteria to be fulfilled by both employer and employee. I wasn’t about to be put off just because it was a bit hot. Well, more than a bit, but I felt that I had a substantial well of resolve. There would be times when I would need to go deep into it.

© Tom Locke 2015

Life in the Sauna is available at all good booksellers. It is also available at Amazon.

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