Introduction To Travel In Eritrea
I shuffled up to the counter. I was hungry.
“Can I please have spaghetti with tomato sauce?” I inquired. I had been given a hamburger for dinner, but I had no intention of eating it. It was swamped in mayonnaise. A big no-no for me. And to be honest the meat looked highly suspect. I wasn’t that courageous. Spaghetti equals safe.
“Hold on a moment,” the girl responded as she headed to the kitchen. She returned a moment later. “No spaghetti”.
For a moment, I was dejected. I then spied a giant poster next to the register. “Eat delicious pizza!” Great, I thought. “I will take one pizza please”.
“Sorry, no pizza,” she responded curtly. “Only hamburger.”
I felt my depression setting in again. I took a final swig out of my brown-bottled Asmara bottle of beer. “OK, one hamburger, but please no mayonnaise”. My hunger won out.
“No hamburger. All gone.”
Typically at this point, I would get frustrated, but instead I just started to giggle.
“OK,” I smiled. “One more beer”.
“No beer, all gone”. I surrendered to Africa.
I was in Asmara, the capital of the east African country of Eritrea. For summer, the weather was perfect. Not hot or humid, but sunny and comfortable. The secret was being at over 7,000 feet. Asmara is dotted with numerous cafes, bars, and cinemas. The architecture for Africa is an outlier. It is Italian style art deco. Eritrea was a former colony, and in fact, its capital was known as Piccola Roma, Little Rome. The city is highly walkable, and Eritreans still take an evening passeggiata.
But this highly agreeable image is tarnished by one of the most repressive governments in the world. It is ranked dead last in the press freedom index. Eritrea has had a painful history. As a colony of Italy under Mussolini, Eritreans were subject to vicious apartheid like laws. After the Italians left after WWII, they were mashed into a federation with much larger neighbor Ethiopia. After a thirty year war, where thousands died, Eritrea gained its independence in 1993. One more hot war followed in 1998 with Ethiopia.
Eritrea is gripped with grinding poverty. Per capita income is sub $1,000 a year. GDP is comprised of 32% of remittances from overseas. The populace is threatened with the cloud of future wars. And under this threat, the government maintains conscription, and for some it is indefinite and equated to slavery, for the military and national service. The poverty and the conscription are contributing to a flight from Eritrea. Eritreans are desperate to escape the hold of the government.
While treated warmly by the Eritreans, the government is not a big fan of tourists either. Approximately, Eritrea receives 100,000 international arrivals a year. It is the 24th least visited country with most recent data from 2011, sandwiched between The Gambia and Palau.
Anecdotally, from looking at my fellow passengers on the plane, the majority of those arrivals are diasporan Eritreans. Getting a visa to visit can be very challenging. Eritrea has only 4,000 hotel rooms. The MGM in Vegas has nearly 7,000 rooms alone.
This is a small airport. When you enter, there is a small Visa office to the left, if you are doing Visa On Arrival that you have secured before you have arrived. Not a difficult process, but they are slow. Fill out one form, pay $70, and waited about an hour. Walk through immigration and get your passport stamped. There are no ATMs but there is a money exchange at the government rate.
Taxi from the airport is a mafia-like 500 Nakfa. To go back to the airport it is 250 Nakfa. The taxis in town which are numerous can be used in a share-taxi fashion at 15 Nakfa a person. Or you can use the taxi in a private fashion. No meters, start negotiating.
I imagine there is an Eritrean Wizard of Oz behind the curtain attempting to hold everything together. While you might have a shower, you might not have water. And if you do, it might be painfully ice cold. And when you have water, you might not have electricity. Eritrea requires a patchwork of generators and water deliveries to provide these basic services.
This is quite the tease. Internet cafes are ubiquitous in Asmara. They cost anywhere from $1 to $5 per hour. But they really don’t work. Three sessions lasting three hours produced 4 emails. When in Eritrea you are mostly off the grid. As of 2012, there are 48,692 internet users in Eritrea. This ranks 180th in the world at 0.8% of the population.
You need to be a resident to get a SIM card in Eritrea.
Not having consistent delivery of water and electricity stresses the hygiene situation in the country. As you might imagine, many kitchens/restaurants do not have running water and soap. Without water, toilets do not flush. At all times, drink bottled water which is accessible everywhere, but sometimes will be priced higher than beer, so substitute when desired. Bring a supply of Purell, wetnaps, and toilet paper.
Pizza and pasta. There is a lot in Asmara. For local food, you have injera and fish. You can eat meals for $5-$10.
Cold, decent Asmara beer ranges in price from $1 to $5 (one expensive restaurant). Closer to the $1 on average. I also saw Heineken twice for $5. I drank Eritrean rum for $1. And bought a bottle for $20 in one of the bars. The supply change is lacking in Eritrea. On my last night, I went out for some drinks. Two bars did not have any beer, and one ran out during the evening.
Eritrea is off the grid when it comes to international banking. There are no credit cards of ATMs. In other words, bring all of the cash that you will need. There is a black market with substantially better rates. During my visit, I received 20 Nakfa for each $1. The official rate according to xe.com is 10.5 as of June, 2016.
I won’t pretend to know how this works, but movement is restricted within Eritrea. Even while visiting some sites in Asmara, I was denied entrance for not having the proper paperwork. Leaving Amara proper you will also need to have proper paperwork. Hook up with a travel provider to help with permits as I did.
If you noted the link above, getting a visa can be somewhat difficult to Eritrea. Many of my peers of shared tales of woe. Getting rejected, not hearing back, etc. I went with Young Pioneer Tours. They arranged a visa on arrival. I sent YPT my passport scan and an application. A bit later, I received a letter of invite from Eritrea which I presented to immigration when I arrived in Eritrea.
Another option is to speak with the folks at Asmara Grande. They might be able to help with a VOA.
Check out these other stories about Eritrea.
Introduction To Travel In Eritrea