Today, though, Massawa exudes a languid small-town atmosphere. After a meal of buttery red snapper from an outdoor restaurant's tandoori oven, we wander the narrow, sandy alleyways. Crows caw above the palm trees. "Allah-u-akbar" rises from the spires. Women in colored robes braid each other's hair and slow-cook coffee on little braziers. "Want a braid?" one asks. Another invites us into her house, a beautiful, two-story coral structure. She looks at the second floor ceiling and throws up her hands; it is blasted away. "But I'm lucky," she says with a soft smile, indicating her still-intact rooms. Beyond the broken arches, the moon rises behind a silver filigree of clouds.
"You're driving to Aseb?"
Our Eritrean friends' eyebrows are raised in disbelief—but also approval. Eritrea is small, but most people here have never driven down the coast to its southernmost port. This is partly because, until recently, there wasn't a drive to be made. The coastal road was completed this year and it requires an SUV. For us it also requires two guides—one who speaks English and Tigrinya, and another who speaks Tigrinya and Afar, the local language. Abandoning thoughts of hotels, phones, restaurants, or toilets, we set off down the elephant's trunk for a two-day journey through Dankalia, billed as one of the hottest and most inhospitable regions on earth.
It is also one of the most spectacular. If it sounds shocking to be able to find 750 miles of untouched coastline anywhere in the world, it is all the more so when that coastline is graced with white sand beaches, limpid water, green cliffs inhabited by baboons and eagles, and pristine coral reefs that shimmer with tropical fish. Every half-hour the horizon transforms itself; a windswept desert dotted with camels and acacia trees gives way to a grassy yellow plain populated by ostriches and then to a stark lavascape that spills down to the sea, its blackened peaks rising in sharp relief against the turquoise water.
Afar villages consist of a few twig huts. The men fish and the women tend to children and livestock, dressed in the vibrant sarongs their ancestors wore. But if the war didn't have much obvious effect here, the new road will. Resorts are planned for some of the most beautiful coastal spots, and some villagers have already moved their huts from the beaches to the roadside in anticipation of the traffic that will arrive. Ishmael, a village leader who wears a loincloth and a thick, curved dagger at his hip, also wears mirrored sunglasses and has opened a "café" along the road. For now, it sells only Coke, and the cars that pass each day can probably be counted on one hand, but the entrepreneurial spirit is willing.
In Beylul, an oasis of palms, we stop to buy douma, a sweet, fermented palm liquor, sold by boys who tap it from the trees. In a spot called Askoma, we swim at an otherworldly crossing of volcano and sea. In a small hut in the stark desert village of Soroito, we drink hot tea with three generations of Afar women. Twenty-year-old Aisha, a slim girl whose smooth cheeks are striped with ceremonial scars and whose front teeth are filed into sharp points, stands with a year-old baby slung on one arm as we talk.
I ask Aisha and her mother whether they are worried about their traditional way of life being lost when the resorts come. They shake their heads emphatically, saying the resorts will bring jobs. I don't like to imagine Aisha in a crisp maid's uniform. Still, I get the feeling that the Afar, a fiercely independent group known to make good use of their daggers, will not be pushovers for the arriving visitors. When I ask what message they'd like to send to outsiders, a sweet old woman begins a speech that soon becomes a diatribe. Our translator turns to us. "She says white people always come here with their cameras and notebooks and ask questions. They always promise to send the pictures to us but they never do. My message to them is to stop coming here to take pictures if they're not going to send them." The translator adds, "She's right."
We finish our tea. Aisha kisses my hand and I kiss hers. We take a few pictures, and promise to send them.