My Trip to Eritrea: Africa's Little Rome
Unusual First Impressions
A bowling alley manually operated by young boys who work as pinsetters, return the balls after each shot and maintain score on a piece of paper is not an everyday sight. But for a country strategically located on the horn of Africa, once a hotspot of Italian colonialism and trading across the Red Sea, Eritrea is a land of anomalies. And I was curious to experience firsthand the “new Roman empire” of the 19th century.
I hopped on a 4-hour flight from Dubai to Asmara for a weekend getaway with my friends. February is still a pleasant time of the year, especially since the capital sits at 2,325 metres above sea level. Feeling somewhat light-headed, we started out to Massawa, the deserted port town that shocks and awes you in equal measures.
“These winding roads are built by our war veterans,” our taxi driver said. We made our way down the scenic road through the lush Green Belt. The smooth, 2-hour road trip took us through small villages lined with beautiful lavender Jacaranda trees. The village folk looked busy going about their daily business.
World's Least Internet Penetration at 0.91%
We checked into the Imperial Palace hotel. It looked quite promising on the outside, given the rundown state of affairs around the property. The building wowed us with its old-world Italian charm and beautifully carved teak columns around a sprawling circular lobby.
Right then, the receptionist informed us to our horror, “Sorry, we’ve run out of WiFi passwords for the day". Eritrea has an Internet penetration of about 0.91%. Visitor SIMs for tourist is unheard of and poor WiFi connectivity in hotels and other public places is acceptable. What was going to be a digital detox for us is a norm for the locals.
Massawah dates back to 1,500 years and records early beginnings of Islam in Africa. Masjid aṣ-Ṣaḥābah was built in early 7th century CE. “We are waiting for UNESCO's acceptance to list the mosque as the first on the continent,” said the guide. We casually strolled past remains of the Eritrean military equipment, arms, uniforms, blood bags (!) and first aid kits at the ….ermm...museum.
Glorious Port Town No More
Massawah, in particular, is also home to the heavily bombed Imperial Palace, which stands as a testament to a destructive 30-year struggle of Independence from Ethiopian occupation since the 1950s.
We took a risk and walked into the building through a discreet opening and discovered rooms replete with Italian furniture, décor and fittings. “A column fell and crushed a man last week,” a passerby warned. It was cue enough for us to stop fooling around.
We started out to the capital, making pit stops for a seafood lunch and freshly brewed street-side Eritrean coffee, inspired by the popular Ethiopian style.
We reached the capital and checked into the Diplomat hotel, feeling somewhat queasy from the food and the drive. As I received my room key at the reception, I asked, “Is there hot running water in the room?" She answered, “There is no running water in the hotel”. She then quickly added, “But we will place buckets of water in your rooms for you to shower upon your return”.
Well, problem solved.
The city has massive welding workshops, a grand cemetery on a hill overlooking the city, small pizzerias and fascinating boulevards built for bicycles. But we were all eager to get to the infamous military tank graveyard. It is 20 minutes from Asmara, accessible with a special permit our guide had prearranged from the Ministry of Tourism. The wait paid off.
Hundreds of rusted military vehicles and cars stacked on top of each other made for an intimidating sight. Not to mention the cacti that have taken over the dump yard. The site with dead tanks and military vehicles stands as a symbol of national pride and victory over Ethiopia.
Our last stop for the day was the bowling alley in Asmara. The complex was purposefully built in the 1950s for US service members who manned the military bases in Eritrea. It is possibly the only entertainment hub in the capital with snooker tables, a gaming arcade and a mini rail ride, all under one roof. Archaic but interesting, the center was abuzz with locals sipping on their beers and playing their game of choice.
For a country where the Internet is heavily censored, movement of people and goods highly restricted and infrastructural development massively thwarted, Eritrea is special. While it continues to struggle and reel from its setback after the war, Eritrea is a land of fascinating contrasts. Its people, disconnected from the outer world, are hopeful—poor from the lack of opportunities, but rich with the legacy that the Ottomans and Italians have left behind. It’s a country unlike any other African nation, frozen in time and not metamorphosing anytime soon.
Visa and Flight Matters
Indians require a visa to travel to Eritrea. Those living in the UAE can obtain it from the Eritrean Consulate in Dubai. Professionals employed on a residency visa need to bring in all the usual documents. It took about 4 days for me to get my visa.
Fly Dubai flies direct to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. It takes about 4 hours.
Travel Date: February 2018
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2020 Zulekha Huseni