A visit to the ’North Korea of Africa’ – or an African Cuba with an Italian twist.
We have flown all night, but I have only slept a little when our Boeing 737-800 from AirDubai touches down. This moment is one, I have been waiting for almost as long as I can remember. My quest of visiting every country on the planet has taken my 25 years. Here we finally are. In my last country. Eritrea.
Our first leg was Copenhagen – Dubai with Emirates on the Airbus 380. My first ever trip on the biggest passenger aircraft ever made. We landed at midnight in Dubai Airport. I am not sure if this airport spans a larger geographical area than most others – but it took us almost an hour(!) to transit in a bus between Emirates terminal 3 and the FlyDubai terminal 2. There Charlotte and the kids slept a bit on the floor before our 03.45 take-off for Asmara, Eritrea. I only slept perhaps an hour or two on the last flight – and now as we finally land, I am knackered as ever.
I make a short video in my flight seat saying that now I am here. At 06.20 am we decend the stairs and I set foot on my country no 196/196. I am very tempted to also make a little video of this moment, but security in airports are normally not too fond of filming and given the fact that my visa has been extremely hard to obtain (read here) I am not taking any chances.
Quickly and easily we are stamped in. All the kind immigration officer asks us is the name of our hotel. My final passport stamp is in the book. Outside everything is peaceful. Morning has only just broken, not many flights arrive here and not a single taxi driver (or anyone else) approaches as we exit the terminal. We wait at a nearby café until Aron – 35 years and not married – arrives 20 minutes late in his old white Austin Montagne car. Aron is the son of Tekeste, the director of the tour agency Asmara Grande – the man who helped us secure our visas, the man who is the single reason we have just been able to enter Eritrea. “I was stuck in traffic” Aron says. Considering the fact that we see very few cars during our 6-day stay in the country, we find that a little peculiar.
Eritrea is quite different from every other country. It is one of only three former Italian colonies on the African continent – the two others being (parts of) Libya and Somaliland. It is situated across from Yemen, on top of Africa’s Horn and borders Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti. All countries Eritrea has fought (tjek). Only recently things have bettered with Ethiopia, flights from Addis have been resumed and the land border is (perhaps) open to locals. The border to Sudan and Djibouti?
‘Piccolo Roma’ – little Rome – Asmara is called. Like an African version of Cuba it is as time has stood still since the Italian occupation endedin in 1941. The capital is one of the best-preserved colonial cities on the continent and many traditions are still honored. Daily evening strolls – passeggiata – are still a common part of life. Facades are in the retro Art Deco style; The Cinema Roma still has red velvet seats and a café in the hall looking like the good old times in Rome. The Alberto Italia hotel looks like a setting from a Fellini movie and even the smallest of cafes has an over-dimensioned old espresso machine that is still operational.
The most special construction in the city is also the most famous one. The Fiat Taglitello building with it’s giant wings is made to look like an Art Deco airplane. It used to be a gas station – now it is abandoned and lived in by stray dogs.
At the edge of town lies the ‘Tank Graveyard’. War junk galore – planes, busses, normal cars, jeeps and – of course – tanks litter the massive grounds. Upon arrival our entry permit is checked by an armed guard.
All travel to the outside of Asmara (including the graveyard at the edge of town) requires a special permit obtainable from the Tourist Ministry. Still only a very few selected places in the country can be visited when having this permit – that (of course) needs to be date specific (ie. you are only allowed to travel on the days listed on the permit).
”You are from Demark” John from Singapore said, as we arrived to the Tourist Ministry office the day prior to our tank graveyard visit. “You always post pictures of your family” he says and points to Charlotte, Jonas and Ava. “Now you are only one country short of visiting them all. And that country is Eritrea and you haven’t yet posted, that you have arrived here” he surprisingly says. I cannot believe it. I may have a few travel-interested social media followers, but the number of times I have been recognized abroad can be counted using a single hand. But on the actual day where I arrive in my final country someone now already knows! Strange.
Immediately John starts asking me about the hardest visas and a few other somewhat controversial questions that I (in my state of paranoia after the visa process) do not feel like sharing with the (otherwise nice) clerks at the Ministry of Tourism. They seem to be listening so hard, that I can almost see their ears grow. John then wants to see my big Nikon and the female clerk then asks me: “Are you an artist? – or perhaps a photographer?” I tell her that I just have a little personal travel blog with a few followers. She then starts displaying hundreds of her own images on her phone and I try to view them enthusiastically.
Days in Asmara are spent sipping ace espressos, wandering among Art Deco buildings, browsing through old markets and in the bowling alley. Inside the so-called Multi-Sport Arena we find one of the oldest alleys still in operation. Presumably constructed by the Americans when they had a base here in the 50s. We also visit an Italian private school where bright teenagers are preparing for their final math exams (while most other kids in the country are already on holiday).
Unfortunately, Eritrea is not only colonial charm. I cannot recall ever being to a country cut that much off from the outside world. During our 6-day stay we never have mobile reception and the WiFi is just ridiculous. I pay for several hours of internet access at a luxury hotel nearby our pension. But not until my last day I am able to open a single webpage(?!) (using a VPN – I get one or two webpages loaded after a looong time). A few mails (text only) and access to Facebook updates (text only) is all I manage to load. No Messenger (until the VPN is in place), no Insta, no news, no communication with the outside world except old fashioned e-mails, where you can check for replies a few days later. Just like in pre-historical times… At our very far from luxurious Africa Pension power comes and goes. As does running water in our smelly bathroom. At least they seem to acknowledge the problem – apocalyptic noise is coming from the room next door where they are performing a (much-needed) demolishing of the bathroom.
Our planned 2day/1night trip to Massawa unfortunately never happens. Hygiene in our preferred restaurant (coolly named “New Fork Restaurant..”) is perhaps affected by the frequent power cuts and the lack of clean water. Hence, we take turns (except Ava) running for the toilet. The day of departure to Massawa I am simply not up for it. I am not feeling well and ahead of us is 3-4 hours of descending 2.500 meters down to the sea on hairpin roads in the fog and perhaps in the rain (it is rainy season now) to get to a place with not many attractions – only to return the next day on the same road. So even though a day of beach and sun would have done us well – as opposed to rain and sub 20 deg. Celsius temperatures – we only manage to see the capital.
Not getting to Massawa means more time in the capital og Asmara. While Charlotte is sick and the kids entertain themselves with their iPads I go out to explore. Friendly Bereket – who works in the nearest local shop and who likes the fact that I am able to shout ‘Hawei Kemei’ – hello brother in Tigrinya – every time I see him – introduces me to his friend who is throwing a baptism party in a big tent in the street. Why I am so often getting invited to weddings and other celebrations in third world countries 8when nobody invites third world people to anything in the first world) I have never quite understood. But it is a great party with local wine, te-ceremonies, popcorn, food galore and a professional photographer and DJ,
The same day most of old town Asmara is fenced of because of a bike race. Cycling is almost the national sport of Eritrea and the star of todays race (who became the first rider from an African team to hold the mountain jersey in the 2015 Tour de France) is Daniel Teklehaimanot.
Also we are invited to dinner at Tekeste (and his son Aron and his wife) from Asmare Grandes place. Tekeste is such a distinguished and well-educated gentleman. We haven’t even bought any of his tours around the country (since we like to travel independently without a tour operator) and I have had to insist to even pay for his (invaluable) visa assistance. He lives in a big house that he says has a market value of one million USD(!). (Bought in 1987 for 85.000 USD.).
The traditional meal (of course) consists of njara (a sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture) with meat-stew, potatoes and rice. For dessert we get oranges and popcorn and coffee. After that Tekeste brings a 12-year-old scotch single malt whisky to the table (!). The family dog is named ‘Shaft’ (American movies are a big thing in Eritrea) and the kids have a fun time playing with it. ). It is such a great evening. Tekeste tells us he doesn’t invite his clients home often – and that the only visitor he has ever had living in his house with them was my facebook-friend and way to cool travel colleague Tony Giles (check his website here) who is blind and trying to visit every country in the world.
This great dinner ends our trip to my country no. 196/196. Eritrea may have a very isolated position on the map and strict one-party ruling system – but it is also a country with resilient, clever, proud, friendly and hardworking people – who seem to never give up hope.
That’s it from my final country – Future trip reports will be revisits, top-10s etc. – coming up form the current trip is United Arab Emirates and Oman – previously visited by the three of us – but will bring Jonas’ country count to 66/196 – still a bit of way to go for him…
Quick facts (august 2019):
Black market still exists but rates (1 USD = 17 Nakfa) are almost the same as the official rate (1 USD = 15 Nakfa). Severe punishment apparently exists for black market changing (but many both locals and visitors still seem to use the black market)
You are no longer required to officially declare (or inform of) the amount of hard cash you are bringing in to the country (no checks upon entry or exit).
Hotel prices range from USD 30 at Africa Pension (family room) to 100+ USD. AirBnB is also possible. Power cuts occur and water outages are frequent.
Price range and Internet:
Bottled water is super expensive. (1 litre = 10 Nakfa = 3 USD in shop). Eating out: A spaghetti Bolognese ranges from 20 Nakfa (3USD) at local cafes to 40-50 Nakfa at midrange places like the ‘New Fork restaurant’ up to a 100 Nakfa at high end places. Internet typically costs 15-25 Nakfa (2-3 USD) pr hour – pretty much nothing ever comes through in that hour..