So this is a place of contrasts and is a bit different from other African cities we’ve visited. The Lonely Planet guide (last published 2009 as perhaps unsurprisingly, they focus on other more popular destinations) waxes lyrical about the Art Deco buildings that can be found in Asmara (the capital) but even in 2009, it records the fact that many are a bit faded. Fast-forward another 8 years and unfortunately the state of the buildings has worsened but, with a bit of imagination, you can still visualise a princely Italian colonial city although perhaps the Lonely Planet over-eggs the situation a little. However, it’s fair to say that the cafés certainly do make a damn fine macchiato (at least when the electricity is working).
Although tourists are few and far between, this is not a place where you get significantly stared at or otherwise hassled: yes of course there are a few beggars particularly around the religious buildings (and interestingly the different religious groups all seem to live in harmony together with lots of inter marriage etc) but the beggars (and the hawkers too) are not persistent to any significant degree. Of course you are noticed (we ourselves were surprised when we saw other tourists) and people take a good look but we soon realised that offering a cheerful “selam” or “merhaba” accompanied by a wave of the hand and a smile went a long long way and usually dispelled even the hardest of stares and often we were rewarded with broad smiles. At times there seemed to be a little confusion about our nationality: frequently it was assumed that we were either German or, more interestingly, Chinese. Given our height, this was a new one on us but does indicate from where the foreign investment in the country is coming. Perhaps, however, the chant of “one eyed Chinese” from some small school children was not a particularly flattering refrain.
Frequently we would be stopped by someone proffering their hand to welcome us with a handshake (fortunately a simple handshake and not the more complicated handshake/3 shoulder bumps routine that Eritreans usually greet each other with). At other times we’d be walking along a road and hear a resoundingly firm “Buongiorgno”, another reminder of the colonial past.
It is not a particularly cheap country – in particular, food is pretty expensive (even some local produce is surprisingly dear). Yet despite the low wages (for those lucky enough actually to be in employment), the crime rate is pretty low and we never felt threatened in any way.
There is a great sense of order – although none of the traffic lights in town seem to work, driving is done in an orderly fashion: pedestrians crossing streets are carefully avoided and car horns are only used sparingly. People also queue in single file for buses in the cities (slightly less so in the rural areas where buses are less frequent and people are just keen to make sure they get on the bus before it reaches bursting point). Once on board, everyone is very diligent about buying a ticket and even on super crowded buses, you see ticket inspectors somehow working their way down the bus to check that everyone has today’s correct coloured ticket. On one morning, at a petrol station, we saw a very orderly queue of empty containers all lined up waiting for the petrol station to open to sell kerosene. While the containers pretty much all looked identical to me, presumably their ownership was very clear to the Eritreans who had all huddled elsewhere out of the direct sun, waiting patiently to be served. You certainly did not get the sense that anyone was going to queue jump in any way.
As we were mainly city-based, we saw a significant number of official buildings (various different ministries etc). Typically during working hours, the Eritrean flag would be flown but come the evening, a whistle would be blown to signify the flag was coming down at which point all pedestrians in the local vicinity immediately stopped and fell completely silent until the flag was lowered and the 2nd whistle blown. And yes, before you ask, we did completely muck this up and managed to collide with someone who unexpectedly (to us) suddenly stopped dead in their tracks in front of us.
Another area of contrast is how people are dressed. In Asmara, the older males tend to be rather dapperly dressed in 1950s Italian suits while the younger guys are attired in normal western clobber – jeans and T-shirts etc. We only really saw traditionally dressed men outside of the capital. In contrast, quite a significant proportion of the women (even in Asmara) wore traditional clothing – brightly coloured dresses with white scarves over their heads often covering up the traditional tightly plaited hairstyles underneath. But it was also very common to see girls/young women in their 20s and 30s following the latest western trends: everyone mixing side by side blending in together.
As a tourist, it’s not particularly easy to get around (no backpacker trail here). In addition, you need travel permits to go more than 25km outside of Asmara. These have to be applied for in advance with all sorts of details (including the exact licence plates of the car in which you are travelling and/or details of any public transport you propose to take). This extra layer of bureaucracy seems a little unnecessary: given the lack of tourists/visitors in the country, we are pretty easy to spot. On various occasions, we had people tell us they had seen us in town at such and such a place so it’s not like the authorities don’t know where we are at all times. There are also various parts of the country that are completely closed to foreigners which can feel a little frustrating. But as Peter would say “TIA” – “This is Africa”.