We Met Over Coffee

                                                                                                                  We met amidst the unwashed
                                                                                             dishes in an Eritrean sink, in the aqua-coloured 
                                                                             shed situated to one side of the expanse of yard.  It was 
                                                           at the time of siesta.  Between the trees there was no grass but from 
                                  people constantly shuffling about only mud, although there was nobody shuffling about 
there at that time of the day.  The corrugated metal gates were shut.  There were tables, well spaced here and there and there was the area that in the evenings became a dance floor, a simple continuation of the mud, marked solely by a lack of tables.  It’s the dishes that pushed our acquaintance towards early friendship, when I picked up whatever cloth was there and began to clean them.

She was a good few years older than me, neither fat nor too thin, she was tall and gracious.  She had a fine rounded face that always seemed to smile and yet there was something traumatic she’d been through, I would guess.  It lurked about her smile somehow, some kind of unseeable scarring.  
Perhaps her life hadn’t been easy but it’s not for me to speculate.  
Her life belongs to her.

We met amidst the heady days in the 
lead up to international conflict.  No doubt each 
side was busy stationing troops and guns closer to the border 
in anticipation of what the other might do.  But it was all in secret.  There was 
a new currency, the nacfa, and the Ethiopians didn’t like it much; they’d closed the 
border in protest and for a port town like Assab that meant a lot.  The 
Ethiopians  must’ve wagered they could rely solely 
on Djibouti for access to the sea.

Another early sign that things weren’t right was the shortage of coca cola.  I’m unsure if all of Eritrea’s coca cola was shipped across in trucks from Ethiopia to be paid for, until the launch of the nacfa, in Ethiopian birr, but in Assab it was so.  Indeed it was the coca cola supply disruption that led to the meeting with Astor.  She still had a stash of cola at her restaurant and it was just across the road.

We met when I was stranded, having taken the plane from Asmara several hundred kilometres to the south, along Eritrea’s Red Sea dog leg that finally ends with Assab port and the Djiboutian border.  It’s an alien country down that way: from the plane I could see the massive blackened hulks of volcanoes amongst the thorny and dry scrubland of the coast.  It’s the country of the Afars tribesmen who seemed to keep apart from the Tigrigna speaking townspeople with a good sprinkling of Arabs and Ethiopians amongst them.  It’s a country of empty, pristine beaches of blond sand where the Red Sea as a jewel glimmers off towards the horizon and Yemen.

I had no return ticket.  
I’d planned to spend a few days in a jeep, 
following the coast northwards to the old Ottoman port of Massawa where 
the main Asmara highway leads to the sea.  It would’ve been a desert and volcano journey
involving camping and negotiating the way with the local Afars and hoping not to meet bandits en route.  But the night sky surely would’ve been radiant and there surely would’ve been an evening campfire. 

I had no transport organised and although I was clear that there was no bus service or public jeep that followed the dusty coast road I’d held some hope of hitching up with a convoy of some sort.  People said it was the UN trucks that plied the route mostly, and I’d asked around, but my time was too precise and there just wasn’t anything going when I needed it to.  So I had to give up on the radiant night skies, the campfires and the niggling risk of bandits.

I almost would’ve chosen to continue on to Djibouti but there was no consulate to issue a visa, and the Ethiopian consulate was there but they couldn’t issue a visa so the road to Addis, besides the border being closed, was out of the question.  Still, the consular officials had taken the time to show me the cover of an Ethiopian magazine with the picture of their president on it and a headline that called him a thief.  ‘We have a free media in Ethiopia,’ they said.  ‘And if I decided to live in Ethiopia, would you give citizenship?’ I asked.  Yes, they said, after a few years that would be possible.  It was nice to know but didn’t solve the lack of transport out of Assab.

I considered the ships.  It wasn’t far to Yemen but what would I do when I got there?  No, it was better to be sensible.  It was better to turn to the Eritrean Airlines office and organise a return flight to the Eritrean capital.  I like Eritrean Airlines.  It remains one of the most memorable of all of the airlines but not for any orthodox reason.  It was a new entity at that time and they’d just opened a rather plush office on one of Asmara’s boulevards, what had enticed me onto the Assab flight in the first place.  They had the usual tourist pictures and neatly dressed staff: my mind says they wore light blue but I’m not sure.  There was a spotless counter. 

They had everything.  Their uniforms read ‘Eritrean Airlines’ and the ticket read ‘Eritrean Airlines’ and the stairs that got wheeled out onto the tarmac to meet the plane read ‘Eritrean Airlines.’  They had everything apart from a plane.  I suppose they were in the process of buying one but in the meantime the new airline was borrowing one from Ethiopia.  I suppose that didn’t continue once the war reignited.

I found the airline office, it wasn’t difficult in Assab.  The town’s not so big.  But there was a problem.  ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no seat available for at least a week.’  It left me in the midst of the Afars country and the coca cola shortage on a standby list.  It led me to Astor.

We met because of Emmanuel.  It’s a simple fact.  Along with Sammy he worked as a waiter at Astor’s place and he’d come to the hotel reception asking for something, I don’t recall what it was, another something that was in shortage due to the closed border.  He overheard me asking the hotel manager where I could buy coca cola.  I was thirsty.  ‘We have some,’ he said.

It all sounded a bit convenient and I was wary as I followed him over what was more of a dirt track than a road, and into the back of the shed.  But it was true.  There was coca cola.  I’m sure about that because I drank one.  ‘Where are all the customers?’ I asked, noticing the entire yard empty.  ‘We’re closed in the middle of the day,’ he said.  But he said I was welcome to stay: during the noon break Astor was in the habit of making coffee.

                                           We met over coffee and in Eritrea coffee
                             isn’t simply coffee.  There’s a whole ceremony about
                        it, and it starts with a small fire of coals.  Astor was 
                 crouching, tending the fire soon enough, in the back part of 
           the shed that might’ve been a storeroom.  Sammy was there too  
      along with the cook.  Coffee is made in rounded clay pots in Eritrea with a long straight spout to them and a clay handle.  Those pots look a little art deco with their straightened spouts.  They look historical once blackened by the coffee making process.  As the base is rounded a pot holder is also required, shaped something like an hourglass although of course much larger, and often brightly painted in designs of African geometry, in black and blue, yellow, red, green or white.  The holder holds not only the pot but the coals.  And yet before the coffee reaches the pot it needs to be cooked. 

Starting with 
the green beans in a 
small pan Astor began roasting 
them.  I’m not sure how long it took as 
we sat about chatting as best we could in 
English while the coffee roasted, and eventually a 
certain amount of smoke began wafting up from the pan.  
We sat in a circle on small stools about her, and she lifted the pan 
and held it out towards each of us in turn.  I did what the others did, as the pan came my way, waving my hands about, guiding the coffee-smoke towards my nostrils like an insane conductor might conduct his orchestra.  To breathe in the coffee smoke, to smell the fresh coffee smell, was a kind of blessing, Sammy said.

                                                                            It was after that the 
                                                            water was added and the coffee 
                                                became a brew in the pot, the spout of 
                            which was stuffed shut with straw for a time such that 
the coffee could draw.  The cups were of the small Lebanese variety, the coffee black, thick and strong.  There were rules about the coffee drinking in Eritrea: you could have one small cup but not two, three or seven but not four, although the exact numbers that were 
allowable and those that would bring bad 
luck I do not recall.

Emmanuel had once been a ship hand, he told me, and he’d travelled the seas as far as Perth in Australia and to New Zealand.  ‘New Zealand is the best country I saw,’ he said, ‘When we stopped in Auckland I should’ve run away and stayed there.’

Some time after the coffee, after a small lunch and a bit of a nap, things began to stir.  The first afternoon customers were banging on the closed gate and Emmanuel let them in.  The cook was busy in the kitchen as Sammy and Emmanuel began taking orders and Astor was occupied organising something or other.  And there were the dishes in the sink that needed cleaning.

They were surprised to see me get to work; so was I.  It’s not that I couldn’t have left and met up with them again when they were less busy but I suppose I felt comfortable there.  Maybe it was Astor.  Perhaps it was the coffee ceremony.  Whatever it was, one thing led to another and shortly thereafter I was waiting on tables.  Fortunately the menu was rather short and wholly oral so the few dishes they’d order in Tigrigna I could remember in the telling to the cook.

After some time 
Astor hurried over with 
a worried look on her face.  ‘You know 
I can’t pay you,’ she said.  It made me laugh and I tried to convert what might be the minimum wage in Australia into nacfa, which was surely on the astronomical side in Eritrea, to explain to her just how much she couldn’t afford me.  But the funny
                                                                 thing is they did pay me in a way, with some shared meals over 
                                                     the course of the three or four days I took to waiting tables there, waiting 
                                   for my standby seat on the plane.  I especially enjoyed the spicy goat dish.  And the 
          benefit of not being on a formal wage was that my shifts were flexible, between visits to the beach and seeing the town.  In the evenings in particular, when the dance floor came to life, I took to relaxing at one of the tables under a tree, chatting to Sammy, Emmanuel and Astor in moments when they weren’t busy, and watching all the goings on.

But there was yet another payment for my little job, the sort of thing no amount of nacfa could buy: the reaction of the customers.  In Eritrea to gain the attention of a waiter it’s quite normal to put your hands up and clap them together.  From a western perspective however it seemed a little rude; and so I used to have a little joke with them.  On taking their food and drinks to the table I would put them down just as the local waiters did, but not remove my hands.  ‘Yekenyelei!’ I would say in a stern voice, ‘Thank you!’  To this gesture the customers without exception repeated, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you!’  They had an ocean of sincerity about them and a small inlet of shock.

They were quite 
surprised at the experience of an 
Australian waiter, the customers, and after 
their shyness and sudden politeness were overcome 
there used to be laughter.  Once there were two young women as customers, and they were visibly frightened as I walked to their table, before they understood I’d come to take their order.  It was something no doubt they’d be talking about for quite some time.  Astor’s place was busy in those days; perhaps I played a part in that as word 
got around.  I recall in the evenings people would come 
and clap their hands and when Sammy or Emmanuel 
went to them they’d say, ‘no, no, we want the white waiter!’  
It was novelty.  ‘He doesn’t work the night shift,’ 
they’d be told.

And down on the main street in a shop I was greeted with an enormous smile and hearty handshake from a gentleman who said, ‘I go to Astor’s place sometimes.’  There were many customers.  How to remember all of them?

It came to pass that Eritrean Airlines found me a seat on whatever plane they’d borrowed and it was the plane that led to my farewell with Astor, Sammy and Emmanuel in the little Red Sea port of Assab in the Afars country in the dog leg of Eritrea’s south. 

At the airport, while boarding the plane there was another unexpected greeting.  It turned out to be the Ethiopian consular official, also on his way to Asmara.  I wonder: did he make it back to Assab before all the coca cola was gone, before tragically, the war proper started?  In that war the Ethiopians, more than half the town’s population, left Assab. 

                                                                           In Asmara I made a point of buying a clay coffee pot, with 
                                                                              a brightly painted stand in the shape of an hourglass.  
                                                                                             After all, we met over coffee.

But why discriminate against other beverages?  It's not as though you can't socialise over a cup of quite gruesome tea, not as though you can't make cheap wine friends on a bus or maybe it's just as well to go and live with the kangaroos.  

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: We Met Over Coffee
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