Recently I have been to Eritrea for some days. It was in the early days of November 2018. I was guiding a group of 5 people, while I was a stranger too. We took a flight with Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa to Mekelle, and then rented a 105 type Toyota Cobra from Mekelle.
We set off on November 9, 2018 from Mekelle. We followed the road through Wuqro, Adigrat, Zalambessa, Senafe, Adi Keyih, Segheneyti, Dekemhare to Asmara. Due to many people traveling to and from Tigrai and Eritrea, the road was too busy. Throughout our journey, Eritrean soldiers were seen making amendments for the Italian made old road. There was a warm vibe of welcoming from most people in the towns we crossed.
Right after we crossed the border at Zalanbessa, there was a checkpoint by the Eritrean police, in a tent setup near to a small town whose ruins from the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000 can be clearly seen. We had to present our IDs, get registered and give details. Then we drove through the beautiful landscape of the Senafe area and then to Adi Keyih. Through many ups and downs, we passed Segheneyti after mid-day. The road was narrow and full of twists, especially from Adi Keyih to Segheneyti. Descending to Dekemhare was somehow easier, but we had to face the afternoon sun which was directly falling on our dashboard. Dekemhare to Asmara was a more or less smooth and relaxed drive.
On both sides of the road at some intervals, there were small drinking water wells dug and small dams for irrigation. I was impressed by those agricultural works during the dry season. Rain is scarce in those areas, complementary irrigation is a good way to improve productivity.
Although Mekelle to Asmara is 312kms, due to the rough nature of the road, busy traffic and a minor accident that blocked us for about an hour, it took us almost a full day’s drive.
We arrived in Asmara after the sun almost set. We booked in Khartoum Hotel located in between Cinema Impero and Mai Jahjah. Booking in a hotel wasn’t enough, we had to go to a nearby police station and get registered where we are staying along with many more details.
The young police officer who registered us was too nervous for no reason, he was smoking in the office in front of us and was asking us our names now and then. We couldn’t say anything but just do as ordered.
After having dinner in a restaurant close to the hotel and having some beer. Most of the beers we knew back home were right there, on the table. I was curious to test Eritrean only beer, Meloti. But they told me it was finished. Many guests like me prefer to test it and it was completely out of order so soon.
The way they present the food has some standards better than we do in Ethiopia, but prices are high. We went back to our hotel and had a peaceful sleep, as we were exhausted on the road.
In the morning, we had breakfast in the hotel and delivered our guests to the airport. While my guests were doing what they came for I had the chance to visit a sister of my friend at the outskirts of Asmara.
I visited Asmara and some beautiful remote rural areas to the north of the capital. This younger sister of my friend took us to their home far in the north, some 40kms. The place is known as Zagir. Foggy highlands of the northern Red Sea can be felt and seen closely. Zagir is a small urban village on a completely deforested red soil land,
Most of the names of places we crossed on the way have strange names to Tigrigna. We share many common things from landscape to agricultural products, from weather conditions to clear sky, etc.
At Zagir, we reached Enda Aboy Mehari, parents of a friend of mine I know on Facebook, but felt so close to. The way they welcomed us was amazing. I have no words for their hospitality. Their traditional house reminded me of my parents’ house back home. They provided us with cultural foods and drinks. We felt completely home and family. I loved them. I know I expected such a humble family, because I know what type of person my friend is. She is really human. And they were the type of people who exceeded my expectations.
I know very few days are not enough to prove something right or wrong. But I wanted to pinpoint my observations, so that people can get informed and further digout by themselves about Eritrea and Eritreans whom I came across in those few days.
Most of the people I talk to don’t complain much about the regime as we do. In fact, they feel the opposite. They are proud of their president and happy about the ‘changes’, including those in the military service.
Isayas is much hated by Ethiopians (especially Tigreans) than by his own people. I don’t know why. I personally used to hate him, because I thought he killed Eritrea and the Eritreans. But that’s wrong, I can’t be a more perfect witness to their lives than they do themselves.
Although almost all of the landmarks, infrastructures, industries, etc I saw are finger prints of Italian colonial system, many still believe that sovereignty accounts for each other would be physical development, and it was achieved by the current government.
Asmara is clean and neat with beautiful international standard design. The rural villages are also very clean, organized and in place. Streets are wide, labelled, and trees planted along sides. There are no banners, commercials etc in the cities and towns messing with pedestrians. Everything is in place.
If you happen to be in the district of 22, Addis Ababa or other parts of Ethiopian cities, music is played out loud in the streets, and you can’t differentiate between a bar and a boutique. Whereas in Asmara, you don’t hear any noise disturbing outside of the bar or shop.
They are extremely nationalist, honest, very cooperative, respectful, and friendly. If you stop at a point to ask for directions, everybody will stop, listen to you and direct you until you completely understand where to go. In Ethiopia, many people will not give a shit and will not kill a minute to listen to your inquiry.
Unlike Ethiopia, where the streets are full of beggars and shoe shiners, no one will bother you in Asmara. When you like to have your shoes clean, you can go to where they are. In Mekelle a thousand shoeshiners will ask you at a half-an-hour sit. Sometimes, they will push your patience by asking to shine an already shining shoe.
Although drivers are extremely impatient, they respect zebra and other basic traffic rules. There are few vehicles in the capital relative to Ethiopia’s major cities.
Another astonishing thing is, Eritreans respect the law. They may not feel comfortable with some laws imposed on them, but they will still respect them. Don’t do’s are just don’t do’s. In Ethiopia, as long as the police are not nearby, many people proudly break the rule.
The bad things:
It’s hard to find non-smokers. Unlike Mekelle, where smoking is forbidden in public areas, it’s normal to smoke in Eritrea. It’s common to see teenagers smoking in cafes, restaurants, hotels, etc. While you may stare at them strangely, they will not give a shit.
Drinking and getting drunk is another free bonus to enjoy. Most youngsters prefer drinking to eating. As many Ethiopians say, there is no hidden eye on the wall that counts the number of beers you drink; no limits.
Bonus: it’s hard to find a SIM card. And when you do, you can only find one type of rechargeable card. 110 NKF. There are no alternatives like the 5, 10, 15, 25, 50, 100, etc birr cards in our case.
Although we still wanted to do more travels in Eritrea, we were afraid of moving to more places due to economic and time constraints and the still fresh hostility that had happened less than a decade years ago. During the days we spent in Eritrea, their president was in Ethiopia, making visits in Hawassa. Helen Meles was also in Mekelle, Bahirdar and Gondar doing friendship music concerts.
We drove back to Mekelle, Tigrai, enjoying the white clouds on the blue sky and the beautiful landscapes extending from Eritrean highlands to Eastern Tigrai.