I previously had no idea that Eritrea had been an Italian colony part of Mussolini’s “New Roman Empire”, until the planning stages of this trip. It was crazy seeing this mix of old Italian stuff in Africa with such a mash-up of cultures.
From Juba, it was through Addis again and on to Asmara, capital of Eritrea. This border crossing between Ethiopia and Eritrea had been closed for a long time after the civil war that led to Eritrea becoming independent (6th youngest country in the world at present), so most of Eritrea had been essentially trapped in their homeland for a long time. Crazy.
I arrived and went to my hotel, the Albergo Italia, one of the oldest hotels in the city and built in classic Italian marble styles. It could use some upkeep, but it was super cool. Checked in and walked around a bit before dinner in their (of course) Italian restaurant in the hotel.
From there, I walked down the main street just to see what was going on.
ATMs and credit cards 100% don’t work in Eritrea, so I walked around to 5 different Western Union locations until I found one actually operating to pick up the money drop I’d set up. That was a great tip from a travel forum recently: if you’re going to places without reliable ATMs, set up WU before you get there. If you wind up not needing it, cancel for a small fee to get your money back.
Anywho, I got a basic feel and then negotiated a taxi to take me out to the Military Vehicle Graveyard at the edge of the city. Wow, was this crazy!
From here, I walked over to the orthodox church and was interested in the fact that the women all stood outside during the singing and praying (seeking relief in the shade) while the men were praying inside the church. There was a speaker system for the women outside.
The sounds of their chanting were pretty cool, though.
More walking, more “I can’t believe there’s a white dude walking!” faces, and more of my mind being blown.
Look at that old Fiat service station!
Seriously, walking through Asmara at times felt like being in Hollywood but maybe in the 1960s. Palm trees, warm weather, some classic cars…oh, then you see an Eritrean person and realize you’re in the Horn of Africa, and the mixture is super interesting.
Of course, I stopped in an old Catholic church where EVERYthing is in Italian still.
Outside, there was a guy selling old coins from Italian Eritrea, and I was really interested in seeing them, but I wasn’t interested in his $25 per coin price.
It had dawned on me at the church that the only white people I was seeing in Asmara were at my hotel, inside this church, and then the guy I saw going into this Jewish temple.
I continued walking, the only foreigner, feeling welcome and super safe, lots of smiles from everyone. The current generation was definitely taking English at school, no longer Italian, but I did encounter some elderly people who assumed “white=Italian” and tried speaking to me in Italian.
Passing through the market to the mosque.
And then look at these government buildings!
Asmara is amazing.
For dinner, I got a tip to check out Ghibabo, a restaurant super popular with the locals that also has a huge vegetarian section of the menu. I got the mixed plate of Eritrean traditional foods and ate until I was stuffed. I was out like a light at the hotel.
The next morning, I was up early and walked up to the Enda Mariam Orthodox Church, which was PACKED. Well, the courtyard, anyway. The doors were closed.
From here, I walked up to the Medebar Market.
I had never heard of this place and appreciated the tip. Wow. Just banging and banging and banging. All kinds of metal, scrap metal, new stuff, sheet metal, rebar…if you could make something with it, it’s being made here. I was super fascinated. I was also mesmerized by the amount of work being done in flip-flops, no gloves, shorts, t-shirt, no goggles–even while welding. Just close your eyes or look away.
I walked down to the main road to…this place. I still can’t figure out exactly what the history/story of this place is. The main road passes right through it. It’s like half of a stadium, maybe a military parade reviewing area…I have no idea. I couldn’t get anyone to explain it, either.
I got a tip to go look for the bowling alley, so I checked that out. The lanes haven’t been repaired since before I was born, but the people watching here was 2nd-to-none.
There were some guys playing a version of pool I’d never seen before. I watched 3 games and couldn’t figure out the rules at all, and I should’ve asked. There’s a bar and coffee shop in the next room, and that place was packed! with people having afternoon coffee.
Outside, I ran into a guy and his son from the US, but the guy had grown up in Eritrea. His family fled the violence when he was 15, and it was his first time back in the country since then. He said it felt like everything had changed, yet nothing had changed, and that was 35 years prior.
I walked back over to Ghibabo, and it’s definitely empty at lunch time. The manager came and talked to me for a bit, asked me how I’d heard of it, and recommended that I try Kitcha. Kitcha is a pan-fried unleavened bread then coated in a sauce. “Do you like spicy food?” “Sure!” Famous last words. Their definition of spicy is pretty serious.
Kitcha apparently comes with chicken most commonly, but he said I could get it on top of a salad of fresh vegetables, so I burned my mouth and intestines through this delicious spicy tomato sauce-covered bread thing. It was delicious, but I had 3 Cokes during my lunch to go with it.
Back at the hotel, I packed up and took a late afternoon taxi to the airport. Here’s where things became “that’s so Eritrea”.
At the airport to leave, I tried to exchange my Nakfa to something else, like dollars or Euros or pretty much anything, because their money isn’t recognized anywhere beyond exchanges at the land borders.
“We don’t exchange back?”
“We prefer to keep your dollars. We don’t want your Nakfa.”
AKA: ‘our money sucks, we prefer to keep yours’. You cannot exchange your money back before you leave.
At the cafe at the airport, I had 2 Cokes, a bottle of water, and 2 coffees while I was waiting, and I still left with some Nakfa, but only about 70 cents worth.
Also, the airport security actually unzipped and looked around inside in my clear zip-up bag with a travel toothbrush & toothpaste. Guys…it’s clear. Transparent works the same in your country as mine.
All in all, Eritrea was crazy and mind-blowing in so many ways. It’s definitely a great place to visit.This entry was posted in Africa, Asmara, Eritrea