The small piece of land separated from Ethiopia is the country of Eritrea. Unfortunately religion and political beliefs have turned these neighbouring countries into the worst enemies. For the independent tourist, Eritrea is very difficult to travel to. As we landed in the capital Asmara, with Nikos and Chris, my good fellow travellers, we felt it right away. In order to move around the country, you’re forced to register in an office and give them your passport and all the details about where you’re going and how. The next day you know if all this has been approved and you can pick up your permits and head out. In our case we were issued permission only to travel all the way to the coast town of Massawa. From there I was told I should apply to another office for the rest of our trip to the south.
Asmara is a lovely city. If you arrive on a clear day, the peaceful neighbourhoods, the pavement cafes with the old Italian coffee machines and the relaxed pace of life are enough to make you fall in love with this diamond of a capital. There are not many things you can do but walk up and down Harnet Avenue and watch people go by in one of the street coffee shops. That’s enough to fill your day. If you add the cultural walk to the central market, you have seen and done it all. Asmara is one of the most entrancing cities in Africa, with a host of splendid buildings harking back to the city’s heyday as the “Piccola Roma”. After sorting out all the necessary papers, we took the bus ride to the coast and the city of Massawa. That included a downhill ride from 2300 metres to sea level and from 18 degrees to 34. Quite a shock,
The Red Sea coast of Eritrea has remained wild and untouched, nothing like the nearby Egypt. There are a lot of things to love about this area, hundreds of kilometres of luscious coastline. Sadly Massawa was almost flattened by Ethiopia during the war of independence. Although some restoration has started, the process is really slow because huge funds are required. The feeling of a deserted city for sure got to us and if it weren’t for the small group of travellers that were staying at our guest house, I would have thought that we were the only ones in the city. The next day I walked to the city “Massawa Island” as they call it because it’s attached to the rest of the land with a narrow strip of road. There you can find the port and the old town.
In Eritrea there is a population of 4 million people that has made the military orientated government to enforce an obligatory permanent army service until the age of 40 for all the men. That makes the society depend on women for everything. Out there I started realizing the difficulties of the already problematic Eritrean society. The government, although not said openly, is a dictatorship. Only very few people that are associated with the government have money. The rest are left on their own to survive. As all this became more and more clear to me, I hooked up with an Eritrean guy that was living permanently in the States and had decided to apply for permission to travel all the way to the south and enter Djibouti from there. We talked to a German named Mark that had already gotten that permission. The next day Chris and I went to apply. The officer was really rude and had no manners. He turned us down and forced us to return to Asmara at once. Later that day I saw Mark and when I told him what had happened, he told me that the previous night, although nobody knew about his guest house, the police came and removed his permission forcing him back to Asmara as well. The beautiful, untouched paradise had shown us its real face. After getting back to Asmara and with practically no permission to go anywhere else in the country, we stayed at a hotel and arranged our flight out of Eritrea. If it weren’t for the lady that ran the hotel, I would have left Eritrea completely disappointed. Her and her husband, both educated people, talked to us about everything that had happened since the independence. Every day, during the traditional coffee ceremony -definitely a highlight of my visit- we talked while waiting for the whole procedure, from the raw coffee beans to the fresh grained coffee.
Eritrea is doomed to remain a hidden gem and the fact that it falls behind many travellers’ radars is not surprising. Although this small country faces numerous hardships, plenty of political issues and in general huge surviving problems, strangely enough it’s one of the most peaceful, secure and welcoming destinations in Africa.