March 2017: I visited Eritrea for 4 days with my friend Richard as part of a longer 10-day trip that also included southern Iraq. Eritrea was one of my last “Badland” countries, a country with a reputation for having one of the worst governments in the world that has 40,000 refugees flee nationalized slavery every year. But I wanted to see Eritrea mostly because in my experience harsh governments also have a kind of time reserving side effect that keeps whatever era the country was in before the government takes over kind of unaltered in change. Eritrea has an Italian influence with lots of Art deco architecture and the capitol Asmara is a perfect example of this era. The rest of the country has Ottoman influence and is known for having some of the best-preserved tribal culture left in Africa. This is what I mostly came to Eritrea to see, and I definitely found it.

 

 

About Eritrea

Eritrea is a country borne from a 30-year war with Ethiopia that saw Ethiopia lose its access to the Red Sea.  It is dubbed the North Korea of Africa with one of the worst human rights records of any country in the world. It has been ruled by a government ruled by a dictatorship under President Afwerki and the rebel group PFDJ People’s front for Democracy and Justice have ruled the country since. The country is tightly controlled and has had a reputation for being one of the most difficult for foreigners to visit. being difficult and not only are visas often not issued, but some passports are also not even returned. The embassy is notorious for Even if a tourist visa is issued, most of the country remains off limits to foreigners, checkpoints are common and travel via a government approved travel agency is required. Eritrea is one of the top ten countries in the world for refugees and this is significant considering the small population. besides flagrant human rights abuses, citizens are required to attend national service which is essentially legalized slavery. National service can range from administrative work to hard labor and can last from 18 months to indefinite. The citizens have no say in the matter and many young Eritreans to avoid national service flee the country. Those that are caught are put into one of 200 special prisons that are also prison camps. As a foreigner in Eritrea, there are many eyes and ears keeping tabs on what is said and done, and it is definitely not advisable to discuss politics when visiting.

 

 

Location of Eritrea

The revolutionary government still promotes a kind of Marxist ideology and propaganda murals are common throughout the country. Whereas internet is improving in the rest of Africa, bandwidth is deliberately limited in Eritrea to prevent the internet for being functional. press and speech are strictly regulated and there is no political opposition. The isa process improved before my arrival and it became possible to obtain a visa on arrival providing, I received a visa authorization in advance from Asmara. To do so I had to work with an Eritrea travel agency in Asmara. The owner of the agency claimed to have contacts since he was an ex-military general. regardless, it still took a month to get the visa authorization. Once obtained, i flew from Dubai to Asmara and met my friend Richard.

 

 

Revolution Murals

Revolution Murals

Revolution Murals

Asmara

I met Richard and our driver at the airport to begin our travels of Eritrea in Asmara. We would have to spend the night in order to process our permits to leave the city. Asmara was like nothing else I have seen in Africa. It was truly unique with its Art deco Italian style of buildings. It wasn’t crowded, the buildings were allowed to gracefully decay, and the city was pleasant and easy to explore. The people also unaccustomed to seeing many foreigners were friendly and always happy to pose for a photo.

 

 

Asmara Movie Theatre

In World War II, Italy’s Mousseline attempted to take control of Ethiopia which back then included Eritrea and large WWII battles occurred in Eritrea. This was a cemetery where many of the fallen soldiers remain.

 

 

WWII Cemetary

Friendly curious kids were everywhere to be found.

 

 

Eritrea kids

In a country as poor as Eritrea, even garbage is valuable and Eritrea a sanctioned country but most of the west stives to be self-sufficient and one way to do this is by recycling scrap metal into useful equipment. We visited this market where garbage is refashioned and sold into various items.

 

 

Recycling market

Recycling market

Recycling market

The bowling alley was a highlight. It was easily my favorite bowling experience. The bowling alley and bar was frozen in in the 1940’s, old school Blues music played on the radio, while old men played pool and the bowling lanes were full of local Eritreans. Everything was manual. Small children received the bowling balls and rolled them back. Richard and I played a couple of games against some Eritreans and had a few beers from the bar. I could have spent all day at the bowling alley and then some.

 

Asmara Bowling Alley

Asmara Bowling Alley

Asmara Bowling Alley

Asmara Bowling Alley

Another highlight in Asmara was the military equipment junkyard where lots of tanks and random military equipment from the war with Ethiopia was kept. To visit this place, we needed a special permit that was checked at the gate.

 

Military equipment junkyard

Military equipment junkyard

Military equipment junkyard

Military equipment junkyard

Asmara is one of my favorite cities in Africa and it is truly unique. I stayed two nights in Asmara in the Serena Hotel, the only so called 5 Star Hotel, which is more like a 2-3 but it was nice.

 

marketplace

Richard and I walked around by us and entered the Italian Art deco styled post office. it was pretty empty, and I took a photo. This captured the attention of a random man who started to follow us and when he caught up to us, he started to ask us questions like where is your guide, what are you foreigners doing here, photographing? I tried to be polite realizing the man was probably some kind of shadowy government agent and so I told him our guide had our permits in the car and he was welcome to speak to him and we kept walking.

 

Post office

From Asmara, we descended down the winding mountain roads passed huge mountain baboons sitting along the side of the road accustomed to being fed and trying to aggressively seek handouts and sometimes even trying to get into the car. The road was not a good one and riddled with potholes but at least there wasn’t much traffic in Eritrea because most people can’t afford a vehicle. We entered Karen at night, a predominantly Muslim town after 4-5 hours driving.

 

Karen bus

View from mountains

Mountain baboons

Mountain baboons

Mountain baboons

Sunset over mountains enroute to karen

Karen

We spent the night in Karen in a guesthouse and the next morning I wandered the town, a conservative Islamic rural town that seemed largely based on agriculture. There were lots of nomads in town riding their camels coming to trade agricultural goods. The people here were more averse to photos than in Asmara.

 

man walking to a mosque

Camel market

Friendly man posing for a photo

Nomad on his camel

Friendly school kids

In the afternoon we drove from Massawa, an old Ottoman era red Sea port town. Along the way we stopped in small villages, and we were invited into a house of an elderly blind man and his wife for tea.

Drinking tea with an elderly blind man in his village

When I saw a fort in the desert, I asked if we could stop and climb it. it was 100 plus degrees outside and there was no road to the fort, which I found out was an old WWII era Italian fort built to suppress the Eritrea people. I raced up the mountain to the fort and found an entrance through some tunnels. The fort appeared to have been abandoned for some time.

 

WWII Era Italian Fort

WWII Era Italian Fort

The best part of the drive was seeing many nomads on their camels like this family I stopped to visit. This was a wedding party, and the new bride was being carried on top of her husband’s camel.

 

Nomads on side of road

Nomad man

Massawa

my favorite place in Eritrea besides the Asmara bowling alley was Massawa. We arrived at sunset, and I immediately took off on foot to explore its old alleyways in between some of the most beautiful decaying ottoman buildings I have ever seen. Many buildings were still damaged from the war with Ethiopia. People sat in cafes outside of the buildings drinking tea smiling and waving at Richard and i when we walked by.

Ottoman era buildings

Massawa

Massawa

Massawa

Massawa

massawa

The only hotel in town appeared in its website to have a luxurious pool overlooking the Red Sea but in reality, the pool looked like a sewer pit full of murky water and naked village kids swimming in it. The hotel again promoted as 5 star was actually 1-2 star and the A/C didn’t work, and the ceiling fan went out at night due to back outs. The humidity in Massawa was overbearing but I still loved this little town.

Our hotel

I really wanted to try and meet the Rashieda nomads. The women w=are well known for their hand-crafted embroidered head veils and the Rashieda are prized camel breeders. We met a village chief who volunteered to take us to some tents for a small fee. We drove around the desert looking for them and found some tents, but the women were not thrilled about men visitors and would not let us photograph them. They asked for 150$ for a photo because they claimed they would be killed by the men in their family if they knew they were photographed. We declined and settled for a photo of their tent and the chief. The Rashieda were probably my least favorite people in Eritrea.

 

Rashaida Nomad tent

Rashiada cheif

We drove back to Asmara for one more night and the next day departed to Dubai. 

 

14 + 12 =

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