Africa Eritrea

Stepping Back in Time in Eritrea

When I went to Papua New Guinea with Wander Expeditions, it didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted to go on another trip with them. We had spent a night with one of the tribes playing Werewolf around the fire and dancing in the rain, and I wanted to capture that energy again. So I looked on their website and looked at the upcoming trip options, and I picked one that went to Eritrea and Djibouti. Was I familiar with either of those countries before I picked it? Barely. But I am so glad that I picked this trip.

Eritrea is a very unusual place. It’s sometimes described as the North Korea of Africa, which I think is an incorrect characterization. It is known for being very isolated, with a visa that’s difficult to get and restrictive rules on where you can go as a foreigner once you’re there. It ranks quite low in a number of human rights indexes and has been one of the bottom countries in the Press Freedom Index as well. When I was doing my research on it, it seemed like a lot of what impacted its human rights score was related to (1) the war, which I’ll get to in a minute, and (2) the military requirement, which, according to what I read, could have somewhat arbitrary rules and could lead to vastly different lengths of assignment and situations among its citizens.

A summarized version of the history is basically that, like its neighbor Ethiopia, Eritrea was one of the cradles of human civilization and had a long period of successful empires and dynasties. Then, when Europe got involved in Africa, they were colonized by Italy and were strategically important for their proximity to the Suez Canal. After WW2, the British took over from the Italians and made them pseudo-independent in the early 1950s. One problem with this – Ethiopia thought that Eritrea should belong to them. This led to the Eritrean War of Independence, which went on for 30 years and which Eritrea ultimately won in 1993. Things were still tense for quite a long time between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Locals in both countries still reference the war, but you can tell that tensions have cooled a bit because you can fly directly between the two countries now! This is recent – I got the Lonely Planet Guide for Ethiopia & Djibouti, which was last updated in 2017, and it said that there were no air links with Eritrea at all.

I loved Eritrea. I think, of places I’ve been to, it felt closest to an Italian Cuba. Despite reading about its dictatorship and place on the human rights indexes, I didn’t feel that as strongly as other places I’ve visited in similar situations. I didn’t feel as though people were measuring their words around us or monitoring what we were doing or anything like that – I found the Eritreans to be very warm and very welcoming to outsiders. It was a bit odd being, perhaps, the only tourists in the country for the first few days we were there. The last day, we did see a few Italians checking into our hotel as we were leaving, but otherwise my group appeared to be the only foreigners everywhere we went.

We spent most of our time in Asmara, which is the capital and has this beautiful old Art Deco Italian architecture. We saw their most famous buildings, like the Fiat Tagliero building, the old cinema, and a lot of beautiful old churches.

Kinda obsessed with this aqua-phobic demon

Eritrea is primarily an orthodox Christian nation. We went in a few churches and we got to see a religious ceremony happening later in the trip in Massawa.

We also crashed a wedding! It was pretty special to get to go and observe and see the amazing dancing that they put on. I can’t even imagine how my family would react if a group of strangers wandered into a family wedding, but this family was so happy to have us. They made up a plate of food for us to split and poured us all drinks. When we tried to leave, they actually called us back to make sure we saw the next dance, where a group of men danced with bottles on their heads. Definitely impressive!

We went to a very beautiful old post office, and around that time, I also visited my very first internet café. Eritrea does not allow foreigners to get esims or use international data plans, so in theory, the internet cafés are the only way to connect to the internet. In practice, I would say even this glimmer of internet proved elusive. Not that it stopped the people in my group from trying, but there was very little internet connection to be had the entire time we were in Eritrea.

Our next stop was one of the coolest markets I have ever seen, full stop. As a newer and more isolated country, I imagine their trade options are a bit more limited. As such, there’s a big focus on being able to re-use and recycle the materials that they have available to them. Which is another similarity with Cuba, actually. We just got to walk around and watch them at work as they were welding and hammering and riveting metals. It was SO interesting to watch. No labor laws, obviously, with the children working just as hard as the adults and no safety measures to speak of. I saw men welding using what looked like cardboard eclipse glasses as their eye protection. Even the man in the picture above is just wearing normal sunglasses.

From there, we headed out of Asmara! Fun fact, as a foreigner, you have to fill out permits to do anything outside of Asmara. These get pretty granular as well – we got asked to check a box if we were planning to snorkel or swim when we got to Dissei Island. Still, even with the bureaucracy, it was worth it to see a bit more of the country. The drive from Asmara to Massawa is absolutely stunning. Asmara is at 7,600 feet in elevation, so the landscape changes substantially going down to sea level. We also saw some baboons out the car window, which was good because every coworker asked me if I was going on safari while I was in Africa and at least this way I could report seeing at least one cool type of animal.

Massawa had sustained some damage in the war, but it was still quite lively and the buildings were beautiful. I could see the vision the Italians had for the oceanside city, with lots of patios where people could sit and drink and talk. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the various cafés and another internet café that didn’t let anyone connect to the internet. I also got eaten alive by bugs.

The next morning, we got to see a religious ceremony at the local orthodox church! I don’t know much about it, and there were a ton of people so it was a bit overwhelming and hot to stand amongst the crowd, but it was cool to get a chance to attend.

After that, we headed off to Dissei Island. It was fully uninhabited. There were a few structures from when they had tried to build a resort on the island, which would have been a good idea if they had, you know, any tourists. We went snorkeling for a bit and saw some sharks and fish and rays, and then it started raining so we mostly hung around the fire and ate spaghetti and talked. It’s never ideal when it rains when you’re camping (I say, as if this wasn’t my second time camping in a tent in my entire life) but we still had a nice time.

On the way back, we stopped at the Tank Graveyard! This is basically where Eritrea put all the tanks and military equipment from Ethiopia that they destroyed in their war for independence. I have to say, given the area and population of Eritrea vs. Ethiopia, it seems like they really punched above their weight in a military capacity. The Tank Graveyard is a surreal experience, and we wandered around and took lots of photos of the destroyed tanks (and even climbed a few).

After that, we went bowling. This was one of my highlights of Eritrea – this bowling alley was SO cool. It’s all manual, so there are actually people behind the pins putting them back, and they have kids recording the scores and keeping track of who’s winning. We had a lot of fun, especially once we got the hang of which lanes leaned which direction.

All in all, Eritrea was fascinating. I loved the chance to explore a country that not many people get the chance to go to. Also, I know it’s an unusual choice for first country in Africa, but I was really happy to get to my sixth continent. The logistics are a bit complicated for foreigners, but I would highly recommend it as an off-the-beaten path destination!

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