There are times travel itself plans a day off: days left open with not much to do between bus journey and plane booking. It was on such a day in January 1998 that I lazed over breakfast in one of those small side street cafes in the small Eritrean capital of Asmara, hoping to prolong the coffee as prelude to a day given to postcard writing and laundry.
Asmara, with a population of 500,000 people, is a pretty place set among small hills atop an escarpment some 2,325 metres above and 60 kilometres inland from the Red Sea. It has fine boulevards and admirable Italian architecture, for Eritrea was an Italian colony until 1941. There's a nifty craft market to explore and both the cathedral and mosque to visit, with the approximately five million Eritreans, speaking nine different languages between them, divided more or less equally between the two religions. Yet having stayed a few days, what else was there?
The Eritrean people were complex. They spoke of hardship, not least the challenges of poverty sadly familiar to many Bangladeshis; not least the legacy of Africa's longest war, thirty years, before successful secession from Ethiopia in 1993. Like Bangladeshis, Eritreans are rightfully proud of their independence. But the tensions they spoke of took place in an atmosphere that was incredibly and strangely laid back. Perhaps that is Africa.
Was it the soft rustle of the Eritrean English accents or the easygoing manner of the people? Was it that old African lady who'd called out 'buon giorno' in Italian or facing that odd situation in small towns where beer was more readily available than water? It could have been watching camel traders pass on their way to market that slowed the rhythm. Whatever it was, despite the ongoing struggle of life, in Eritrea it was possible, even when on holidays, to feel like the least relaxed person in the country.
Casual as things were, it was hardly unusual for the guy at the next table in the cafe to start conversing. His name was Tewelde and he was pleased to know I was Australian. There was a famous Australian eye surgeon Dr. Fred Hollows, renowned for treating cataracts amongst the poor and training local doctors. He was something of a legend in Eritrea and I'd met locals who'd said they could see because of him. It broke the ice.
'I'm going to a wedding this afternoon,' Tewelde said, 'would you like to come?'
In Australia weddings are expensive and exclusive, so despite my enormous curiosity I declined. Tewelde persisted. 'Don't worry,' he said, 'in Eritrea it's allowed to invite friends.' With the weakness of my curiosity and strength of his encouragement I finally agreed. Goodbye postcards and laundry!
A few hours later we met, Tewelde now donning a sports jacket for the occasion, and set off for the church hall where the first reception was going on. Tewelde explained that in Asmara it was usual for Christian weddings to take place on Sundays in January, since it was the month following the traditional harvest season when people could afford weddings. People were already drinking, dancing and feeling groovy when we arrived. I wasn't allowed just to watch.
It must have been quite a sight, my first Eritrean dance steps. I copied those around me, shrugging my shoulders and twisting to the heavy African beat, shuffling and hissing like a steam train in time with the music, the way they express their enjoyment of the music. The only concession was that unlike Latin American dancing for example, there was no need for the coordination of pre-rehearsed steps. In Africa all there was to do was open oneself to the music and let it guide your limbs, freestyle. My arms and legs moved in ways they'd never done before.
After a while we jumped in a car and followed the bridal party out to the plateau's edge, at a place where you could look down on the clouds in the direction of the Red Sea coast: a perfect location for wedding snaps.
Then it was time for the second reception, the one that runs into the deep night. Tewelde said they're normally held in large tents pitched across one of the capital's side alleys, and it being a Sunday in January I noticed several tents on the drive to reach ours.
Inside the floor was covered with straw; not sure why. Firstly we polished off a full dinner of spicy goat meat and salads; washed down with honey beer served in metal pots large enough to have grown flowers in. They called them glasses but they were big.
The local food in Eritrea features holey, rubbery bread called injera, a single flat piece large enough to spill over a dinner plate. Onto it would be put the meat dish; and with whoever was there you would share it, eating with the hand Bangladeshi style. Injera takes some getting used to because of its unique flavour.
During the meal children came crawling under the sides of the tent and tried to steal food. I felt sorry for them. The guys beside me were furious, yelling something in Tigrigna that clearly meant 'go away!' I was just about to stick up for them, to suggest perhaps we could spare a little food for the street kids, when one of the guests noticed my concern. 'Don't worry,' he said smiling, 'it's our tradition. At first they try to steal food and we pretend to be angry about it; later we invite them to eat.'
After dinner with tables cleared, the real dancing began. I can't say my shrugging and hissing improved, but with the abundance of honey beer I was certainly feeling groovy, and lost my shyness for it.
Mostly the men danced, but also some women; and while the bridal party were dressed western style, the other ladies wore exquisite loose white cotton, hooded dresses trimmed with colourful bands of African design. In women's fashion it might be hard to beat the sari, but those Eritrean ladies were elegant.
In a circle we danced and being the only westerner I attracted attention. The kids in the corner cheered loudly as I passed; the African ladies in the middle would release that high powered whistle that only African ladies can manage; and the other guys dancing were showing the latest twisting, shrugging, hissing moves for me to emulate. I felt guilty for taking attention from the bride and groom.
After several rounds one woman proceeded to give me her outer skirt, a part of her dress! I had no idea what it meant. I confess I held a secret fear if I took it maybe I would have to marry her! So I refused and she was really insulted. I understood soon enough, when all the other men dancing were being handed skirts from various ladies and wrapping them like lungee. It must have been quite an honour to have been offered first.
The Eritreans didn't mind my poor judgement and the shrugging, hissing and feeling groovy continued. A while later an old man, he can't have been a day under seventy, wiggled as best he could onto the dance floor, using his walking stick to help him, and came in my direction. Onto my sweaty forehead he stuck a one Nakfa note, the lowest denomination in local currency. It was another custom, a compliment for nice dancing, and a particular honour: elders are well-respected in Eritrea.
'Do you know what people are saying?' Tewelde asked at the night's end. Well obviously not. It was in Tigrigna. 'He dances just like an Eritrean, they're saying, he's western but he can dance!' I blame the honey beer.
I'd told Tewelde I was to attend another wedding in two weeks, that of my Sikh friend, up the road in Chandigarh. Tewelde shook his head, 'I don't know, you come here and after a week you're dancing like a local, and soon you'll be in India and be just like an Indian!' To be as the local: every traveller's dream! While the truth was nothing of the sort, it did happen that two weeks later there was a bit of wild punching in the air and a different sort of twisting. It's hard on the leg muscles that bhangra.
The following morning I'd decided to take a day trip to Adi Quala, a town on the edge of the plateau where I'd heard there was a grand view down into Ethiopia. The bus station was both the national capital's terminal and a dirt yard surrounded by a brick wall. I was finding the right bus when a guy called across the yard, 'did you like the wedding?'
I sometimes wonder what happened to that couple. I hope they are having a nice life; because from May 1998, just four months after the wedding, a border dispute led to a second war against Ethiopia, until 2000, which claimed 70,000 Eritrean and Ethiopian lives. The groom was an army man.