Torture by Crow

There are many lovely birds in East Africa, but the Indian House Crow is not one of them. Small, but noisy and aggressive, these brutes are everywhere on the Red Sea coast. Thankfully, there is a plethora of other, rather more pleasing birds and an interesting array of other wildlife.

Assab, unfortunately, is overrun by crows, a fate shared by the other large town on the coast, Massawa. The birds are not even big, roughly the size of a jackdaw, but they are everywhere and they are not nice. Even worse, they are not a native species. Somebody, possibly with a long-standing grudge against the entire eastern coastline of Africa, imported them and they have proliferated to the point where they are a genuine pest. These really are birds that could start a fight in the proverbial empty room.

Hilariously, these psychotic birds glory in the Latin name of Corvus splendens, which at least proves that the scientific community is possessed of a well-developed sense of irony. Personally, I would have opted for Corvus absurdis.


The only other bird that exists in large numbers on Eritrea’s coast is the Sooty Gull. These are also quite small for their species, but in contrast to the rancorous crows, are virtually silent. In this, they are not a typical gull. They lead a rather peaceful life and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they used to be more like most other gulls, but once the crows had arrived, gave up any vocal activity as a lost cause.

Unsurprisingly, given the heat and humidity, Assab is not teeming with birds, being especially barren during the intensely hot months of June, July and August. However, a bit of time and patience can be very rewarding and spending enough time there will reveal a few treasures. It’s not the sort of place for a birder to compile a long list in a short space of time – Asmara is a much better bet for that kind of thing – but a couple of years in the area guarantees an impressive collection.

The local stars were ospreys. It was common to see two pairs of these raptors fishing in the Red Sea near Assab. The pairs were in surprisingly close proximity, but presumably the fishing was so good that there were no territorial disputes. Having come to the conclusion that afternoon siestas were not for me, I would often wander down to the coast for a swim and in hope of spotting the ospreys. More often than not, I was rewarded.

Watching them hunt, you realised that catching a fish takes a lot of work, even for these skilled birds. There is a lot of hovering and quite a lot of backing out of dives. The feet-first plunges often produce no result, but when the strike happens, it is spectacular and one of the great sights of nature, as the bird struggles to get airborne with a large fish in its talons. Once the fish is hooked, it is rarely dropped.

It’s much easier to tick off species in the highland areas. Even a day or two in Asmara should provide a sizeable list. Asmara has some pleasant residential areas with lots of gardens and brightly coloured flowers, and these attract plenty of small and often equally brightly coloured birds. Clearly, the numbers depend on the amount of interest of the observer and anyone with an enthusiasm for birds, even quite experienced birders, will find it easier with a book. I was rarely without my Birds of East Africa guide.

The guide book is invaluable, but it’s still hard at times to be certain of something you’ve spotted. A lot of weaver birds, for example, are very similar in appearance and it can be very difficult to be certain of a particular species, even when you’ve been staring at it through binoculars for some time. When even an internationally respected ornithologist advises that it’s difficult to tell the difference between certain species, there isn’t much chance for the rest of us.

Happily, there are lots of birds that can’t be mistaken for anything else. In Asmara, a common sight is that of a smallish brown bird with a long tail and stumpy wings flitting into a palm tree. This is the Speckled Mousebird, an engaging character that scurries around trees searching for fruit and berries. The punky crest on top of the head adds to its endearing appearance, which is indeed rather mouse-like when it is bustling around in the trees.

Speckled Mousebird

Another bird that it is impossible to mistake for anything else is the extraordinary Hammerkop. These moderately large waders are found around lakes and have the appearance of a brown heron that has been hit over the head with a blunt instrument. They also possess an unrivalled enthusiasm for building nests, even constructing them when they are not breeding. Hammerkop nests are huge, built of sticks and often covered in any shiny objects they happen to come across.


There are lots of different doves and pigeons throughout all of East Africa. Even in Assab, there is a variety of species, including two at either end of the size range. In the heavyweight corner is the Speckled Pigeon, a bulky bird with a very distinctive red patch around the eyes. It is also – forgive the element of surprise – speckled. In the flyweight corner is the tiny Namaqua Dove, which is the size of a sparrow and stands out because of its remarkably long tail, which serves to make it look rather bigger than it really is. Namaquas often feed on the ground and the first sighting of one can take the observer by surprise. They look like pigeons, move like pigeons and, of course, are pigeons, but they look too small to be real, appearing to have been imported from some miniature Swiftian world.

Namaqua dove

Along with my bird guide, I had taken a pair of binoculars and also packed a snorkel and pair of goggles. I did without the flippers, as I wasn’t the strongest swimmer and wasn’t planning to go that deep, but there was enough underwater life near the coastline to keep me interested. The life around the coral reefs is especially diverse and often very colourful.

Unfortunately, a combination of short-sightedness and a complete lack of knowledge regarding marine life rather curtails any in-depth analysis. I can safely say that there were lots of gaudy butterfly fish and a fair collection of crustaceans. One day, I came face to pincer with a substantial lobster. I backed off. I had further uses for my nose.

If the lobster looked as though it could dish out a bit of pain, the sharks that appeared around the reefs from time to time were certainly worth avoiding on that score. These, I learned from the people at the Ministry of Marine Resources, were Black-tipped Reef Sharks. They weren’t, it must be admitted, exactly the stuff of scary movies, being around four feet long, but they were nevertheless sharks and sharks have teeth. Very sharp teeth. They are, however, just as nervous of people as people are of them and making a bit of noise and stamping your feet on the sand was enough to send them scuttling into deeper water.

Black tipped reef shark

While I managed to avoid injury by lobster claw or shark tooth, I wasn’t so lucky with the coral. Corals are, of course, living creatures, marine invertebrates and, as such, animals. It’s probably safe to say that there was no intention on the part of the corals to cause me damage, but cause it they did.

It can often be quite windy on the Red Sea Coast and the sea can become a bit choppy at times. I never used to venture out too far, but even within my limited orbit, it could throw you around a bit. So it was one afternoon when I took a swim. Finding myself being churned around in increasingly vigorous waves, I decided to get back to the beach and struck out with a vigorous breast stroke.

What I struck was a very sharp coral. I’d avoided drowning, which was a distinct positive, but now I had a big gash in the palm of my right hand. I washed it and surveyed the damage. It was bleeding quite a lot, but didn’t seem to be life threatening. I was quite near the group of houses where the UN volunteers lived, so I wound my tee-shirt around my hand and set off for the house of an Australian UN volunteer called Michael. He was bound to have a first-aid box or something similar.

Michael and his wife cleaned and patched me up. I’d live to fight another coral. We had a couple of bottles of beer, which helped to numb the pain a bit. Restored to some sort of functionality, I proffered my thanks and wandered off towards home. When I’d got about a mile down the road, I suddenly realised that I had another, albeit more minor, problem, this one more socio-cultural than physical.

It’s all very well wandering about on the beach without a shirt on, but it’s not really polite to do it in other areas. I would need to walk past the Port Club, the church and quite a few houses before I got home. Of course, what I should have done was to borrow a shirt, but I wasn’t going to walk all the way back to Michael’s house again. I had a shirt, but it was covered in blood. I pondered the dilemma.

It was a simple enough choice. Either I went topless and offended social norms or I put on my blood-drenched shirt. I decided to wear the shirt. It was still daylight and I wasn’t going to hang around in hiding until it was dark enough to sneak home unnoticed. Besides which, more people came out after dark when it was cooler, so that wasn’t going to work, anyway. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter too many people and even better, didn’t bump into anyone I knew. The few people who did spot me, I noticed, kept a considerable distance. I clearly had that authentic street fighting man look.

In my two years in Eritrea, I did not see one snake. They certainly existed, a fact which one unfortunate Norwegian visiting Assab would have testified to readily. He was bitten by one, thankfully without any form of lasting damage. This, however, was the single occasion on which I heard anything about snakes.

I did, after a fashion, see a scorpion. More accurately, I saw the shattered remnants of the creature after it had been battered to death at the teachers’ house. Steve had an even closer encounter with it. Waking up one morning, he distractedly reached out to remove what he thought was a leaf from the top of his mosquito net. What he actually picked up was a small scorpion. Luckily for Steve, the arachnid had evidently been somewhat knocked out by the chemicals sprayed onto the net and was not in any shape to retaliate. I usually wore sandals, but I got into the habit of checking my shoes or walking boots before I put them on.

One common arachnid was the little black and white jumping spider that seemed to be everywhere. As the name suggests, they do not spin webs, but capture their prey by the simple, but evidently highly effective, expedient of leaping on it. They seemed to be able to jump in any direction and with considerable accuracy. Along with the ubiquitous geckos, these spiders were quite welcome in my house. Anything that disposed of insects was a friend of mine, unless it was a crow.

Even the geckos and spiders might have steered clear of the large black wasps, one of which decided to build a nest on the door of my office. Architecturally and aesthetically, the nest was a wonderful domed structure, carefully put together from chewed wood, and really quite impressive. From a practical point of view, trying to bypass an angry wasp protective of its nest and young was not the most appealing prospect. The refinery’s maintenance men duly removed the nest, only for the wasp to start again in the same place. The maintenance men shifted it for a second time. Thankfully the wasp appeared to be aware of the WC Fields adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. No use being a damned fool about it’ and duly vanished to rebuild in a quieter spot.

Insects were not in short supply. It would have taken millions more insectivores to keep the population down to even plague proportions. It was almost impossible to be outside for a few seconds without having flies buzzing around your head. I decided to watch the sun rise one morning when I was at the VSO annual meeting in Massawa. I got up at five o’clock and walked to the beach. Even at that hour, it was blisteringly hot and I seemed to have attracted more flies than a herd of cattle.

It’s impossible to forget one sight. We – the Assab volunteers – went to a small restaurant one day to have some lunch. From a distance, it seemed that the place had acquired a job lot of black tablecloths. It was only when you got closer and the waiters started waving tea towels around that you realised that the ‘tablecloths’ were, in fact, vast swarms of flies. Suddenly, everybody experienced a loss of appetite and we settled for a cold drink instead.

And then there were the mosquitoes. VSO must spend a fortune on anti-malarial pills. It’s just as well, because it’s impossible to avoid bites, however many precautions you take. You can cover yourself in all kinds of repellent sprays, creams, gels and liquids. You can sleep under netting. You can – if you can bear wearing extra clothing in such high temperatures – cover yourself up. One way or another, they will get you.

Sometimes, it’s in unexpected ways. On a visit to Asmara, I stayed in the same hotel as John, a UN volunteer who was in Assab as a fishing advisor. One morning, he appeared with a nasty gash above his left eyebrow that made him look as though he had taken up boxing and come through a 12-round bout against a particularly aggressive opponent. What had happened in reality was that he’d had a mosquito in his room. In his desperate attempts to swat the pest, he’d fallen out of bed and cracked his head on the bedside table. Directly or indirectly, they will always find a way to inflict damage.

Usually, though, it comes down to more traditional methods. After a long and thoroughly enjoyable Christmas Day party, which had inevitably involved a considerable amount of alcohol, I fell asleep on the large and comfortable sofa at the large house occupied by Michael. Being clad in only tee-shirt and shorts, I had no chance. A couple of days later, I looked like an overcooked pizza. Things were so drastic that people began to visit my office on the flimsiest of excuses just so they could survey the damage. In fact, they often didn’t have excuses. I took the only reasonable course of action. I locked the door.

One of the many beauties of the air conditioning in my house was that doors and windows could be kept shut, with the result that incursions by mosquitoes and flies were rare. It was easy enough to deal with isolated insurgents. I wasn’t spared irritation, though. Crickets seemed to find ways to get into any house and had a trick that seemed especially vindictive. They would wait until you’d put the lights out and then start chirping. It became a game. Put the lights on and the chirping stopped. Put them off and the racket resumed.

It was hard to know whether the crickets were more annoying than the cockroaches. It was a close run thing. Cockroaches are in no way lovable and Western culture, in particular, has demonised them into a Kafka nightmare. On the other hand, at least cockroaches don’t make an infernal din when you’re trying to get to sleep.

Cockroaches are rather cumbersome creatures and I got a bit of a shock one day when something cold, solid and unpleasant landed on me as I lay on my bed, reading. The cockroach must have been attempting a crossing of my ceiling and fallen off. It certainly made me jump and I flung the thing across the room, where it cannoned off the wall and onto the floor, where is spun around on its back. Seizing my advantage, I kicked it towards the front door and booted it into the street, whereupon it was seized by a crow. It was the first time I’d realised that the crows had any practical use. It may well have been the last time as well.

A more painful encounter involved a beetle, the make of which I have no idea. It was, presumably, some kind of stag beetle and it certainly had a powerful set of pincers. This I knew because they were embedded in my left arm as I sat at the table in my house, writing a letter. How the beetle arrived there, I cannot possibly guess. The point – or rather, two points – was that it had attached itself to me in a very determined manner.

With surprisingly cold and logical judgement, I assessed the situation. Instinct would have been to attempt to pull the thing off. Clearly, this would not be a good idea, as it would involve losing a portion of my skin. I was holding a pen and this provided the obvious solution. With great care, I prised the pincers apart and the insect, with some reluctance, released its grip. I scooped it into a cup and put it outside. My arm suffered a bit of damage and it was a long time before the scar disappeared.

The place had become something of an entomologist’s paradise, but even so, I was reluctant to use the various aerosols and sprays that were available in the local shops. While I wanted to get rid of the battalions of insects, I was worried that I might do some damage to the more welcome visitors like spiders and geckos.

I discovered that geckos had an interesting mechanism to deal with one type of threat. I had been doing some laundry in the shower room and had left some clothes to soak in a bucket. When I went to retrieve them, there was also a small lizard splashing about. It had evidently fallen in from somewhere and despite the renowned ability of lizards for clinging to pretty much anything, didn’t seem to be having any luck in getting out. It was perfectly undamaged, but clearly a bucket of water is not ideal lizard habitat.

Carefully removing the reptile, I was startled as it leapt from my hand and scurried away. I was even more shocked to find that most of its tail was still in the palm of my hand and wriggling around, apparently with a life of its own. As I stared at the writhing tail, somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recalled that lizards could shed their tails when trying to escape danger. I couldn’t have scared it too much, though, as I continued to see the by now tailless gecko scampering around my house and I was able to check its progress as the tail grew back.

Mammalian life was quite hard to find. In the semi desert areas around Assab, one of the few mammals to be found was a small ground squirrel. There are also mongooses, though my only encounter with them was a fleeting view from a car. In the highland areas, it’s not too difficult to come across the Hamadryas Baboon or Vervet Monkey. To find the charismatic, grass munching Gelada Baboon, however, one must cross into Ethiopia, as this species lives only in the Ethiopian mountains.


Something that it’s impossible to miss is the omnipresent camel, or dromedary to be precise. These haughty beasts are the symbol of Eritrea and appear on all sorts of official documents. The emblem of the country depicts a camel surrounded by a laurel wreath. Camels also appear in great numbers in real life. In the town of Keren, to the north of Asmara, a wood market is held on Saturdays. The visitor is treated to the remarkable sight of hundreds of camels, bearing enormous quantities of wood, arriving from the surrounding towns and villages.

The intrepid explorer, if very fortunate, can find exotic mammals. A few elephants survive in Eritrea, in areas to the west of Asmara. The same region throws up the occasional report of a lion, though there has been no concrete evidence recently. Leopards are certainly found in Eritrea, though they are largely nocturnal. There are, reportedly, several species of dolphin to be found off the Red Sea coast and the rare dugong is also an inhabitant of the area. Sadly, I had no joy in spotting any such creatures during my very occasional boat trips.

Nor did I have any luck in seeing a bird that I’d always wanted to see, a hornbill. It didn’t matter what sort of hornbill, any hornbill would do. I was thrilled, then, when I heard from Clare, a volunteer (and fellow birder and Scrabble fan) based in Mai Habar, a town to the east of Asmara. Hornbills were, she wrote, regularly found in the grounds of the technical college where she taught and lived.

I had some leave available and Clare invited me to come up for a few games of Scrabble and some birdwatching. This was a very appealing prospect and I duly arranged my flights to Asmara. I caught the bus to Mai Habar and after a bit of confusion, found my way to the college. It was too late for watching birds, but perfect time for dinner, followed by a few bottles of Melotti and a game of Scrabble.

It was, of course, entirely predictable that in the two days I spent in Mai Habar, not a single hornbill would make an appearance. It was a lovely place to wander around, with its abundant orange and lemon trees and we saw lots of birds, but not one of them a hornbill. A few months later, Clare sent me a photograph she’d taken of two hornbills in the grounds of the college (‘just to prove I wasn’t making it up’). It took me a long time and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa before I saw one, the small black and white Von der Decken’s Hornbill near the town of Mekele in the north of Ethiopia.

Among the birds we saw in Mai Habar were various types of sunbird, relatives of hummingbirds and often just as dazzling in terms of plumage. The highland areas were full of sunbirds and Asmara had its fair share. A trip to the VSO field office in the capital was a pleasant experience; you usually bumped into somebody you knew and you could spend an hour or so sitting in the front garden, having a chat and a cup of tea while watching the sunbirds flitting in and out as they fed on the nectar from the flowers.

We didn’t get too many dazzlingly bright birds in Assab, but one of the oddities of the place was that you could go for weeks without seeing anything interesting and then be completely taken aback. So it was one afternoon when, walking along the beach, I saw a pelican perching on a rock. A few weeks later, I saw another pelican. Even more strangely, they were different species. The first was a Pink-backed Pelican, the second the much larger White Pelican.

If I’d been surprised by the pelicans, the kingfisher astonished me. Walking into town to do some shopping one day, I saw a bird perching in a tree near the port. I didn’t have binoculars with me, but luckily it was very close and it was immediately obvious that it was a kingfisher. I stared at it and puzzled as to why a kingfisher would be here, in this searingly hot place on the edge of a desert. If there were any rivers or streams, I certainly wasn’t aware of them. Nor, as far as I knew, did kingfishers catch sea fish.

In fact, this particular kingfisher didn’t catch fish at all. My bird book was able to explain everything. It was a Grey-headed Kingfisher, a dry-country and completely non-aquatic bird. Hunting from tree perches, it fed on insects and small lizards and we were not short of either.

The only other time that I was completely stopped in my tracks was when I saw a bright flash of purple hurtling into a tree near the beach. The culprit was the glorious Violet-backed Starling, a riot of iridescent purple with white underparts. I’d seen plenty of flashy starlings in the highland areas, but this was the only one that I saw in Assab.

Violet-backed starling

At least this one was easy to recognise. Some starlings can look completely different depending on the light. Two people standing in different spots can look at the same bird and see different things. Bird books can never do justice to the colours. Blue-eared Glossy Starlings, for example, can look bright blue from one angle, but deep green from another. Identification can be hard work and often comes down to a process of elimination. There is an element of the Sherlock Holmes method about it, whereby the impossible is eliminated and the truth is found somewhere among what remains.

It felt just as strange to see the odd bird that gave you a reminder of walking by the coast at home. Now and then, you would spot redshanks, oystercatchers, knots or other types of wader that are so familiar in Britain. It felt odd to see birds like this, as they appeared totally out of context. I was used to seeing them when the temperatures were around 30 to 40 degrees less than they were in Assab.

Something that I saw every day, albeit from a considerable distance, was a flock of Egyptian Geese. They evidently roosted on one of the small islands in the Red Sea, flying back on to the mainland early in the morning. Their arrival usually coincided with my arrival at the gates of the refinery at six o’clock in the morning. Doubtless they returned to their island when the sun went down in the afternoon.

It was crows, though, that dominated the scene in Assab. They were unavoidable in terms of both sight and sound. They weren’t perturbed by people very much, either, being quite happy to treat people with the same naked aggression that they showed towards everything else, including each other. Heather, a volunteer who had very blonde hair, seemed to suffer worse than most among the human inhabitants. Sensibly, she wore a hat much of the time, but even in the sea she was not immune from crow bombardment. There seemed to be something about her hair colour that appealed to the brutes. Nobody else suffered in this way. Even Ursula, another VSO colleague, whose hair was quite fair, had no such problem. Evidently, crows prefer blondes.

I suffered little physical harm from crows, the damage being mostly psychological. I didn’t escape completely, though. I’d wandered out of my office one morning to have a cigarette and I received a sharp clump on the back of my head. The offender, predictably enough, was a crow. My crime had been to walk underneath a nest and the crows, who seemed permanently enraged at the best of times, had taken exception. A pair of them continued to scream at me from the tree under which I’d sought shade and I made my way back to my office by sliding carefully along the wall of the building to make further attacks a trickier operation. I made sure that my future strolls took me in the opposite direction.

At the Port Club one Sunday afternoon, I was having a drink with John. Some people had recently left and their plates and glasses were still on a table near us. One of the glasses had some beer left in it. A crow landed on the table, and finding the plates empty, hopped up onto the rim of the glass. It duly stuck its beak into the glass and slurped up some beer. It did this a few times before being disturbed by another crow. The pair then engaged in a vigorous skirmish, thrashing around on the table, chairs and ground before flying away.

We had to laugh and we did. In fact, we laughed for quite a long time. Lager lout crows. It could only happen in Assab.

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.