ερυθραία

ερυθραία

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Eritrea


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On the northeast coast of Africa is an isolated country called Eritrea. It is a nation with a rich history spanning millennia, with its strategic location on the Red Sea making it a crossroads of cultures. The region was part of the powerful Aksum empire, which controlled trade routes linking the Mediterranean with Africa and Asia.

In the 7th century, the spread of Islam reached the shores of Eritrea, shaping the coastal areas and introducing new customs and traditions. The medieval ports of Massawa and Adulis became important centers of trade, linking Africa with the Arab world and India.

In the late 19th century European powers sought to expand their empires. Italy, aiming to establish a base in Africa, occupied Eritrea in the late 19th century. The Italian colonial period left an architectural imprint, with remnants of colonial buildings remaining in the capital, Asmara and other cities.

After World War II, claims arose that led to Eritrea being annexed by Ethiopia in 1962. A bitter and bloody struggle for independence lasted until 1991, and in 1993, it established itself as a sovereign nation. In 2000, war broke out again with Ethiopia, with tens to hundreds of thousands of victims on both sides.

Independence brought hopes for a brighter future, but Eritrea faced political, economic and social issues. The political situation in Eritrea presents a single legal political party and the absence of multi-party elections. President Isaias Afwerki, a key figure in Eritrea’s struggle for independence, has been at the helm of the country since its inception, a leadership characterized by centralized power and curtailment of freedoms. The country is in international relations of isolation and many foreign powers have imposed an international embargo. Diplomatic relations with Ethiopia were restored in 2018 and the peace treaty was recognized. Land borders were temporarily opened, but now only air travel is allowed between the two countries.

The country has compulsory military service, the duration and conditions of which are unclear.

Eritrea has limited internet access and access to information is tightly controlled by the government. Independent media is virtually non-existent.

Access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and others is non-functional. No mobile data network is available to citizens and even fixed connections are prohibitive, even for businesses. Access is available in internet shops with a time charge and very slow connection speeds.


People

Eritrea consists of many ethnic groups such as the Tigrinya, Tigre, Afar and others. Tigrinya is also one of the country’s official languages.

The majority of Eritreans follow Islam or Christianity. The Eritrean Orthodox Church holds a majority and various Christian denominations follow, while Islam is practiced by a significant portion of the population.

Significant population diaspora is found throughout the world, and citizens living abroad maintain a connection to their home country, contributing to its economy.


Places

Eritrea consists of three distinct regions. To the east are hot, arid, coastal plains, followed by cooler, fertile highlands reaching 3,000 meters and finally the Afar Triangle and Eritrea’s Danakil depression, where three tectonic plates are moving away from each other.

The main cities of the country are the capital Asmara and the port of Assab in the southeast, as well as the cities of Massawa in the east, the northern city of Keren and the central city of Mendefera.


Tanglier Fiat - Asmara

The place where time stood still

January  2024

Why anyone goes to Eritrea? This unknown and rarely visited country is often referred to as “the North Korea of Africa”. With a visa that is one of the most hard to get in the world, with no internet, with special permits and paperwork to move anywhere and a dictatorship political regime, it has justifiably acquired this title and is therefore completely off the tourist map. In addition, the hard transport conditions – also known from other parts of Africa – the miserable accommodation  conditions, the lack of internet communication that makes it difficult to organize a trip and the relatively high costs even for the independent traveler, are even more discouraging. But those lucky enough to find and explore this place will discover a well-hidden travel treasure and a place of enchanting urban and natural beauty. Unfortunately or fortunately, this country is so inaccessible and without tourist infrastructure, that it remains unexplored, unchanged and authentic like few others on the planet.

After another amazing trip to the beloved Ethiopia as the leader of the Planet Voyagers group, I fly to the isolated and mysterious Eritrea. Just before landing at the airport in the capital Asmara, a barren landscape with minimal residential development is revealed. As I look out the window of the plane, suddenly a large bird hits the lip of the left engine and luckily ends up out of it. Ground engineers are immediately aware of the incident in a visual inspection when the aircraft is safely on the ground. The damage is obvious, fortunately it did not (probably) affect the turbine blade and the aircraft’s flight ability during landing. At the international airport of Asmara there is only the Ethiopian airlines aircraft, a decommissioned one of the state carrier Asmara airlines which has suspended its activity, as well as 2-3 fighter jets. The building was built in the 1960s by the English and has not been particularly renovated since then. It is smaller and more antiquated than many regional airports in neighboring Ethiopia.

The process of issuing the visa on arrival is time-consuming and highly bureaucratic, but much more so was the pre-approval of the local agent, since everyone in the country neglects to respond to electronic messages and e-mails, a fact justified by the absence of internet services in the country, even for businesses.

This social good of communication is not provided to citizens, who are forced to resort to some shops that offer Wi-Fi service by the hour, but to a tragically slow speed that essentially only text messaging can support. Given how expensive and difficult to find something that is a given for the rest of the world – except for North Korea – the conditions of information and communication remind us of the 90s. Global cellular roaming is also not applicable in the country, as the state-owned communications company has not entered into an agreement with any other state. Many more services are state-owned, even the big hotels.

With complete isolation of communication and information concerning my trip, but also with no preparation, I set out solo to explore as many points as I can in the few days I will devote.

While the immigration officials pass my passport around from office to office, I discover that one of the three whites waiting for a visa has a Greek passport. I am surprised to learn that he is coming for some business in the state television, while he is surprised that I am coming for tourism. I am not at all prepared for the trip to Eritrea, I should have been planning it beforehand. Though, my latest travel style is more adventurous. First of all, I don’t have the necessary 70 dollars to issue the visa. They don’t accept Euros but allow me to go outside to the exchange, which I will visit later to exchange for local currency. The nafka, at an exchange rate of €1 to €16, is not recognized anywhere outside the country, it is not allowed to return it and exchange it again for foreign currency, nor to export it from the country. I try to calculate how much money I will need in the days I will stay and decide to exchange €170. For various reasons such as not taking a taxi to the airport on the way back, I had some money left over. In the baggage claim hall, a single belt stops spinning, while a hundred suitcases lie unclaimed around the floor. At first I can’t find mine and I’m freaked out by the idea of having to report a loss to such a place. The staff tells me to first make sure it’s not here, and to search more carefully, I miraculously find it dumped around. There are few cars and taxis outside the airport. There aren’t many obvious ways to get out of there and a taxi driver tells me that the fare to the city is fixed at 300 Nafca (€19). Although I don’t know the prices in the country, it’s probably a classic case of a taxi driver trying to rip me off. I tell him that I will go on foot (7 kms!!). Finally someone arranges for me to share the taxi with a lady, paying 150 Nafka which is the normal fee after all. The hotel I had chosen with a quick search before arrival, is called Albergo Italia and it seemed cheaper than the – more tourist popular- Crystal Hotel. But upon arrival, the door price for a single is 1000 ERN (€66). Although it looks very charming as a place, the non-negotiable price makes me reject it. It’s not a personal vice, but when I travel to developing countries – which is often – I try to live as close as possible to the local population conditions. I try to eat, sleep and transport like the locals, instead of staying in fancy, alienated hotels and traveling with private vehicles and tour guides.

Loaded with luggage, I wander around the neighborhoods looking for another accommodation. Fortunately the climate in Asmara is cool, the altitude of 2400m makes this city pleasant to live in and very different from other African ones. Finally, I find several accommodations that are titled “pension” and are housed in pre-war, high-rise buildings. In the first one the manager is missing and I’m tired of waiting, some others are full (!) and finally I choose without much thought one of the worst accommodations I’ve ever stayed at. The room is like a prison and outside there is a semi-dark corridor with plastic barrels that ends in the common toilet for all the residents. The toilet is occupied, but without checking it I agree to the price of 160 Nafka (€10). Still I ask that my bedsheets be changed because they are full of hair from the previous client. The kind lady granted my request and I didn’t have to lay down the sleeping bag. The bathroom has a squat hole, an ancient bathtub and no running water. Of course, I don’t need to mention the cleanliness


Asmara

The city outside is surprisingly charming. Everywhere I look I see buildings of European architecture from another era that have stood time, resisting the demolition that would be their fate in Europe. The whole city is as if frozen in time, in the beige colors of the buildings, the dust in the air and the African sun, I live a surreal experience taken from a Pasolini film. The buildings are at the mercy of abandonment but this is what adds to the magic of the city. There are no new buildings.

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So, where are the cars? There is little vehicular traffic, the wide streets are mostly used by bicycles and few pedestrians. All this reinforces the feeling that this is a cinecita film set, only the actors and extras are all of African descent. Am I standing on African ground? Where are the slums  I’m used to see in sub-Saharan African cities? Where are the dirt roads? Traditional cafes host a few elderly people who enjoy their coffee in small groups. In general, all streets have little human presence, except from the central market. The city is quite clean compared to any other place in Africa, cleaners sweep the streets. The standard of living of the residents looks very decent, the youngsters are dressed in fashion international brands, which makes me wonder how this isolated dictatorship, with no international relations and a harsh embargo, manages to survive and maintain this relatively robust standard of living? The answer I’m aware  and confirm later, is like elsewhere where diaspora supports entire families back home. Of course, beggars and people in obvious poverty exist, nevertheless the general level of the locals is modern, in contrast to the buildings that surround them.

I continue my walk on the wide central avenue with palm trees. It is empty of traffic, like images from former Eastern Europe countries.

A European-style cathedral is a landmark of the city. Opposite of it I have map marked the building of the Ministry of Tourism, where I will request the necessary permission to travel outside the capital. From a side entrance marked by an old sign, I enter the building and go upstairs the old circular marble staircase. Time is 1:00pm and all the doors are closed. I knock on them, push them, ring the bells, but no one opens. I’m disappointed, as I want to travel to Massawa in the next few days and if I have time, to Kasala as well. On the ground floor I push another door which opens and I find myself in a series of apartments. Through the open door of the first one, I see an old gentleman sitting on his bed, surprised as I am. I ask him about the ministry and he makes an outward gesture. Indeed, there is an office on the front side of the road, but that is closed too. I ask an old man in a dirty uniform that looks like a policeman. I probably dropped in during my lunch break. He tells me in broken English to come again at 2:30pm. Gradually I find that in Asmara, apart from Italian, simple English is also spoken, even by the elderly. The inhabitants are kind and often ask where I come from, but generally do not bother the stranger.

After a long walk I discover the main landmarks of the city, such as the famous Fiat Tagliero building, a surreal architecture reminiscent of an airplane. Also the famous cinema with the big letters ROMA. The building that houses the Nyala Hotel is the tallest in the city, but it does not inspire luxury for accommodation. At the reception they inform me that it is full for the next few days. The Presidential Palace is located within the expanse of a large park in the center of the city, guarded all around. At some point as I walk lost in my thoughts, I hear a female voice calling my name. My mind is confused. Where am I, who knows me in this unknown place, who is playing a prank on me, am I the star of a movie like “Truman show”? Finally, a group of young people in a car, for the sake of a joke, tried to call me a random name, which coincidentally was also the name of the boy in the group. The guys are fluent in English.
I decide to try to return by local bus, of course I don’t know its destination. All non-colonial inscriptions are written in Amharic alphabet. The ramshackle bus has a toll collector and the ticket costs 2 nafka. When I arrive at the ministry again, the office is open and a young man serves me in fluent English. The permit costs 51 ERN and takes about 2 hours to issue. A photocopy of the passport and visa is required. In a country with no internet communication, where paper and fax still prevail, there are many photocopy services shops, although at this time most of them are closed. Finally I won’t need the certificate on the way, but I will be asked for it at the destination hotel, in Massawa. The food in the local restaurants varies in quality, but the worst is the bottled water. The bottle I have brought from Ethiopia is empty and the one I am buying tastes bad with an aftertaste of diesel.

I think something went wrong in the bottling procedure, but I will find out that this is common, not that much in Asmara as in Massawa.

The colors of the evening paint the city with peach hues and from the great mosque the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. The evenings in Asmara are a bit more lively, mainly in the traditional cafes, but the youth does not have much of a presence. I slept in my clothes in my humble and uncomfortable bed, and yet I was cold.


The road to Massawa

Around 7am of next morning I decide to walk to the bus station for Massawa, carrying my backpack for about 2km. It’s cold and I’m dressed in long-sleeves and a jacket. A crowd is gathered and someone places them in a row by marking with a marker a number on their hand, which probably corresponds to the number of their luggage. I probably won’t get on the first bus, but about 45 minutes later they put me first on the next one. The departure will be delayed for another hour, even though the seats have been filled. Retailers flock to the pre-departure aisle. The ticket cost 31 nafka +20 my bag. Conditions on the bus are satisfactory so far.

Leaving Asmara, the scenery takes on a new, otherworldly form. At first there are whole forests of prickly pears and other large trees, and then I perceive the altitude at which the capital is situated, above the clouds. The steep slope leading to the Red Sea stretches out majestically below the edge of the steep road that snakes out. Small stone-built villages perched on the rocky landscape are in the foreground, terraced crops can be seen below and successive mountain ranges in the background. The old railway line also follows this same route. It has ceased operation, but some tourist groups occasionally hire the entire train for the first 25 km. Along with the landscape, the standard of living outside the outskirts of the capital is also changing dramatically. The poverty is palpable, also the Islamic element dominates.

At one point I see two cyclists of African descent while at another, a coachload of Western tourists has stopped to enjoy the view. They are also the only ones I met on the whole trip. As the altitude drops rapidly the temperature also changes abruptly and I remove the clothes I was wearing all together.

We make an unreasonably long stop about 1/3 of the way that the map says is Gahtelay. Here there are some refreshments that offer tea and food that a westerner would not eat. A group of young people – boys and girls – in fashionable appearance and military clothing, remained at the scene after the departure, apparently going to enter the adjacent camp. The basic term is 18 months for men and women, which can be extended indefinitely if one is deemed indispensable to the army. This is one of the many reasons young people want to migrate.


Massawa

One should estimate 4-5 hours in total until reaching Massawa. But the bus station is in the new town on the mainland and consists of new blocks of flats on one side and slums on the other side of the main road. I can’t find a taxi or bus to go to the two successive islands connected by a causeway over the sea and forming the old town of Massawa. So I load the backpacks under the unbearable heat and head towards. I find a local bus stop, I wait, and shortly after I board one of Africa’s signature minibuses squeezed with people. My fellow passengers offer me their kind smiles and when I disembark I discover that a woman has paid for my ticket, filling me with gratitude.

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On the first island consisting of Massawa there are 4-5 hotels abandoned in time, a building complex that probably belongs to the port organization, as well as many old buildings of limited architectural interest. The island is about 1.5 kilometers long, but I don’t have the courage to look for a decent room. The Africa hotel has claustrophobic rooms, my next choice, the Central hotel, is a cluster of abandoned buildings in a large courtyard. The price of the room is 600 (€38), outrageously bad value for money. I insist on bargaining and for 400 I am given a room without air conditioning. I prefer the fan anyway. It has a double bed, a private bathroom with running water, but buckets of water are needed for flush and the whole bathroom smells bad. Although I had hopes for something more comfortable in this seaside place, I decide not to bother more with the room.

I start towards the old town of Massawa which is located to the north, on the 2nd island in the row and which is also connected by a road bridge over the sea. The first impression of the city is jaw-dropping. It is full of architectural gems, many of which are unfortunately collapsing from the weight of time, but mainly from the ravages of heavy bombings in the famous battle of Massawa, during the war with Ethiopia. It strongly reminds me of Berbera in Somaliland, but the lattest was less glamorous and less war-torn. The residents live in the ground floor spaces of the buildings that still retain some staticity, and you usually find them resting on a divan out in the street, under a shade to relieve the midday heat.

The old town has quite a few cafes, but I didn’t see anything to eat anywhere.

Some women pull up a pickup truck and I dare to get in with them. I get off at the southern end of the 1st island without the driver accepting money. At this point, in addition to the war memorial, there is also the Read Sea hotel, a hotel where I hope to have a satisfying lunch. This place has definitely seen better days. Although this is a huge building that once had luxury, it is now a ghost hotel, there is no one at the reception and even if it is open, I don’t think I will find anything to eat.

I hop into another pickup truck (again for free) and head down to the new town – on the mainland – to explore the food options, along with another attempt at limited Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi shop is on the upper floor of an old building and as usual it’s just an old hall with fans. A few girls dressed in hijabs and niqabs in the relentless heat are rather chatting. I get almost nothing done with Wi-Fi apart from some WhatsApp messages. I was lucky with the food though, since I found a restaurant nearby with a delicious grilled fish fillet (130 nafka) and despite the thousands of flies flying around. I buy a large bottle of UAE brand water which is expensive (45n – €2.8) and tastes very bad too.

I can’t find any means of transport to get back to the island, but I walk the 3.5 kilometers back to the old town. I make a stopover at the Dahlak Hotel which looks very nice and the prices start at 650 for a single bed room, multiplying for doubles etc. I want to arrange to go by boat next to the nearest island, Green Island. The price for tenants is 250 but those who aren’t have to pay 500. I really regretted not discovering this hotel earlier.

In the evenings in old town, the cafes turn into bars with music. But there are not many clients except from a few forgotten elders. One of them hears me telling my origin and speaks to me in Greek, as much as he can remember the language. Similarly to the case of the old man in Hargeisa, Somaliland, he worked for years on Greek ships and made a lot of money for that time. I try to find a shop where I had earlier bought a Yemeni brand of bottled water that didn’t smell awful, but I can’t find it again. I end up buying another big bottle of another brand which also smelled disgusting. The kind grocer offered to change it for me, but there was no reason since the whole lot would be the same.

I wake up early the next day devising a plan to avoid double charging the boat to Green island. I bypass the reception of the Dahlak Hotel and head to the jetty where I see the boat anchored but the boatman is not there. I look in the also deserted hotel with the big swimming pool which looks empty for years. I find the laundromat and ask the women about a boatman, who if he’s the same guy mentioned on some blogs, he is named Abdhala. The women call out to him and he appears immediately. He is a 60-year-old guy with blond dreadlocks, – there are probably not many in the country with such an appearance – who speaks an weird language. He tells me that I will have to do some paperwork at the reception, I act like I don’t understand. He takes me to the exterior bar where the price list of 500 and 250 ERN is clearly posted. I try to negotiate with a female staff member who is more understanding, I tell her that I am a travel agent and I ask for the most favorable amount. She convinces him with enough effort.

Green Island is a few minutes away by boat and half of it is surrounded by a sandy beach, while the rest is dominated by mangroves. The ruins of an Italian building and a wharf with rusted rails are at one point of it. Opposite are the two islands of Massawa and the harbor for commercial ships. On the island there are some locals dressed in strange costumes. At first I am surprised to see some people in convict uniforms and a little further on some people in military uniforms and old rifles. My curiousness is resolved when I find that they are actors in filming of a local soap opera. A little later, an African tourist with her children also arrives on the island. She is from Addis Ababa and her children attend the Greek school, but they do not speak Greek.

I find a mini bus and afterwards I walk some distance to the bus station for Asmara which took almost two hours to fill up and depart. The conditions are worse than the previous route. Hot, dusty and crowded. In addition, after several stops due to road works, the route will be completed after a full 7 hours. At Gahtelay, the usual stopping point with coffee shops, we waited for at least an hour. The factor of time passes slow and impatiently for a European who values this differently than an African person.

The bottled water issue has reached a dead end. I can’t stand it anymore in this heat without water and I can’t drink the waters from Dubai that smell like solvent. I’ve wasted a lot of money on non-potable water, the big bottle costs 45 (€2.9) and 25 (€1.6) for the small one and all of them are of the two brands that smell like that. I decide to hydrate with Fanta (10 nafka) or Asmara beer (15 nafka) for the rest of my stay in the country and only drink small sips of water. On the bus, someone who knows my country as well as  Plato and Aristotle, strikes up a conversation. He is a judge from Asmara and he visited Massawa for the first time, and even for him the conditions of travel and accommodation are hard. Between passengers is also an old woman with an oversized gold earring in her nose. I was told that she belongs to the Tigre ethnic group, but she got very angry when I took a picture of her. In the town of Ghinda, several people get off the bus and in combination with the climate that started to get cool again, the conditions become more tolerable, although on this particular bus the suspensions are shaking like a shaker. The clouds thicken as we approach the Asmara Plateau, then the fog becomes thick and the steep, while the winding road that has no barrier for the most part of it, becomes quite scary.


Asmara – The return

On foot again, I take the road to the hotel. With the cold prevailing in Asmara, I could not imagine taking a bath with cold water. Budget hotels usually do not have this luxury, but “Top Five” hotel that I had highlighted in my previous exploration of the city, luckily has it. It also has a nice restaurant. After so much hassle I live a slightly more upgraded experience of accommodation and food, which still is far from tourist standards.

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I’m looking for a grocery store in the middle of the night because I’m about to pass out from thirst. I finally find a store open, although the old grocer has blocked the entrance with cages, apparently to prevent theft. I buy a small bottle to test (15 ERN) and miraculously it doesn’t smell bad. The grocer tells me in somewhat poor English that the cargo containers of water bottles from Dubai, during its (smuggled) transport, have somehow been contaminated by another product (petrol???). I must have drunk enough of it, I wonder how poisoned I am? He also told me about the Greek Orthodox church that I will visit some next day.

Early in the morning Asmara is often covered with a veil of fog. This gives it a dystopian atmosphere and the cinematic setting takes on an even more mysterious vibe. Some more characteristic points of interest is a strange half stadium (Bahti Meskerem) facing the main road and the pilgrim popular, 19th century Enda Mariam Cathedral restored in 1938. Unfortunately the Greek Orthodox church was closed, possibly permanently. I buy two bananas from a street vendor, he has no change and offers them for free!

Another odd spot is a bowling club, with an old unmaintained parquet floor and a few pool tables.

The countless local bars are very interesting, at any time of the day. Also, the Total gas stations that are everywhere in the city, usually include a side cafe-restaurant with excellent food. On the northern side of Asmara are slums of brick houses that follow up a hill with a panoramic view of the city. Apparently the slums have no sewerage or toilet, as evidenced by the unbearable smell and human excrement strewn everywhere around. At the top of the hill stands another abandoned futuristic-style cylindrical building that was once a bar. Access is prohibited but the guards discover me after taking the photos I wanted.

Asmara is a small city, you can easily get around it. But the longer I stay, the more I like it, every corner of it fascinates me and I enjoy spending my time there. Eventually its retro ambience absorbs me and makes me forget the modern goods of the internet.

My short but rich visit to Eritrea concludes with meetings with my local partner to organize group trips for Planet Voyagers in this country and share its beauties and unique features. Eritrea awaits and deserves to be discovered by the pioneer traveler, before the advent of mass tourism which seems to be still late.

©Alexandros Tsoutis

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