Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guide to Asmara

A guest post on a visit to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, which turns 20 today. [See Wikipedia Eritrea]

Getting There: From Nairobi, NAS Air flies direct once a week to Asmara. There are alternative, but longer routes such as KQ via Khartoum (connecting with Sudan Air) or through Egypt. NAS Air flies in on Saturday morning and returns in the afternoon, with a round-trip ticket costing ~$700. Also, a visa is required of Kenyans prior to travel.
- Upon arrival in Eritrea, officials will record details of items in your possession such as computers, phones & electronic devices in a declaration form, which will be cross-checked when you fly out.

Money: The local currency is called the Nakfa, which exchanges at about 15 to the US dollar. Though it is illegal for Eritreans to possess forex, there is a black market where the dollar exchanges for about 40 Nakfa.

Getting Around : Asmara is a small town, and people walk around, or take bicycles or buses. They also they use horse drawn carriage for goods. For visitors, taxis are available for and are clearly painted in yellow.
- It is possible to get around speaking English (which is more better understood than in Ethiopia). This is because, while the local languages (e.g. Tigrinya, Tigre) are taught in elementary school years, they switch to English for the latter years. Other languages spoken are Arabic and Italian.
- It is ok to walk around, and while there are no armed police but army is visible.
- For communications, hotels have phones and internet, and there are many cybercafés, though it appears Facebook is blocked. You can also hire a prepaid phone/SIM that costs ~ 1500 Nakfa per week .

Food & Bars: Restaurants have good plentiful meals that are based on Italian cuisine - Spaghetti, pasta, lasagna etc. Meals may be so large, that you may end up eating only once a day, and these cost 200 - 400 Nakfa.
- They drink lots of carbonated water, or Cola. There are local beers, wines, and spirits like Asmara cognac (125 Nakfa) and Asmara champagne (180).
- Coffee is common, though their pot differs from Ethiopian one in that it has no spout. It is sold in 7 different flavours, depending on the number of times it is brewed, and the seventh flavour (brewed 7X) is the lightest /weakest blend.
- They smoke a lot in bars and restaurants, so you may prefer to sit on the outside.
- There is great love for football in the country. Kids kick balls in the streets, and English premier league matches are shown. There is a strong affinity for Arsenal football team because of the high number of African players [regardless that some of them are French] compared to Manchester United, [considered racist for the opposite reason]

Business & Infrastructure: - It is an agricultural economy and they have three planting seasons, cultivating hardy crops like barley and millet, as water scarcity is a big issue in the country. The Government and the UN have built lots of water tanks for harvesting rainwater.
- A Canadian company is mining gold which was recently discovered.
- Roads are broad, but with low traffic levels.
- All land is owned by the state, lease it to improve and no foreigners allowed to own any.
- They hold Eritreans in the Diaspora in high regard, and celebrate their arrival back in the country.
- Potential investment opportunities are in leather and wool.

Sight-seeing: - Asmara, which is hilly and cool, is popular with Sudanese (North) as it is not as hot as Khartoum.
- Sight seeing is on the Eastern escarpment, which has some rocky terrain. Also there is a a steam train, and buses/taxi's to the Red Sea, port of Massawa.
- Weddings are done over a weekend; On Saturday, they dress in traditional outfits and attend the church ceremony, then on Sunday, they dress in western clothes for the reception portion, which are often held at hotels.

Oddities: - The big-brother factor in the country; you can’t take pictures or stand near government buildings, [but you don’t know what is a government building?]. Also you are warned not to talk politics or talk idly to waiters, taxi drivers etc., as they will report to the government!
- There is a distrust of the outside world and hate for Ethiopia, largely as a result of the war fought for independence during which they feel the Ethiopian side committed acts that destroyed family life for a generation. [It is not unusual to find older couples who married recently, or couples in their sixties with very young children]
- Also, other plane passengers ask to you to help carry the load on the aircraft, but decline this...
The above picture and many more, are from this site about Asmara


DMX said...

Hi Banks, I see your spreading your wings.
I would recommend that you read a book about Eritrea by Michaela Wrong (I did not do it for you: how the world betrayed a small african country)to get insight into the country, particularly their relationship with ethiopia.
I hear they have adopted alot of Italian culture, particularly cycling.

bankelele said...

DMX Thanks. Read her two other books - In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (Zaire) and It's Our Turn to Eat (Kenya), and will look for a Kindle copy of Eritrea soon. Also, the site I linked to has some Eritrean Cycle race pics


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