by Nick Welman
Since the year zero, Eritrea has surrounded the heart of the trade route from the Red Sea coast to the Ethiopian interior. Greeks, Romans and Egyptians sail on Adulis, the ancient trading port on the Red Sea, not too far from modern-day Massawa. Hence caravans moved to the heart of the Axum empire, which around the year 500 AD was considered one of the four leading empires of the world.
Eritreans are therefore traditionally people of the world, familiar with trade, international contacts and merchant navy. This is also the background to the 30-year war with Ethiopia, which occupied Eritrea from 1952 to 1991. Eritrea is at heart a commercial country, extroverted and capitalist. Ethiopia is an introverted country, feudal and protectionist. Today, the services sector comprises more than 60% of the Eritrean economy. In Ethiopia, the agricultural sector comprises almost 60% of the economy. These hard figures clearly show the life-size difference between the two countries, which makes cooperation so difficult.
In 1952, the United Nations once violated the principle of self-determination for all nations. While every other African colony was gradually gaining independence, Eritrea (since 1889 Italian) was assigned to Ethiopia. A gift for the Ethiopian head of state Haile Selassie, who had always been so favourable to the west.
Ethiopia continued to control the autonomy of its new ‘province’, until the Eritreans took up weapons in 1961. The endless civil war came to a climax in the 1980s, with devastating famines that led to actions such as One for Africa, Live Aid and Band Aid. This famine was no coincidence: in the heyday of the war, the then Ethiopian leader Mengistu took 30,000 to 40,000 farmers off their fields every year and enslaved them to the army. Of course, no agricultural economy can tolerate such an attack.
In Eritrea, the book “Even the Stones Are Burning” is in bookstores, written by Roy Pateman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Pateman did extensive research on food aid to Eritrea and Ethiopia during the war years. Although exact numbers can never be found again, Pateman writes, it is abundantly clear that the lion’s share of food aid has been used by Mengistu for weapon purchases. The proceeds of the benefit concert Live Aid, organised by Saint Bob Geldof, are known to have been funnelled to the Soviet Union in exchange for weapons. Anyone who once credulously emptied their wallets for the relief efforts in the 1980s, if we take Pateman’s research seriously, can safely assume that more bullets have been bought from them than food for the starving population.
The background to this scandal is that European governments only wanted to do business with the official Ethiopian regime, and not with informal organisations that were able to reach the hunger zones. Separately, Pateman notes that throughout the war, annual international support for weapon purchases has always been four times higher as international food aid.
When you are in Eritrea, you will be captivated by the memory of that war of independence. Eritrea now has 4 million inhabitants, Ethiopia 60 million. It’s still a “David beats Goliath” story. In the beginning, the Eritrean liberation army had virtually nothing. Slowly more and more tanks and cannons were looted on the Ethiopians. “We have defeated them with their own weapons,” Eriteians will proudly tell you.
The country remains littered with remnants of military equipment, war scrap, rustling along the roads. If you walk through the mountains, the tail of a bomb that never exploded will protrude from the ground. In the Netherlands we still find duds from the Second World War – which lasted ‘only’ five years and ended in 1945. Compare that to Eritrea: a war that lasted 30 years and ended in 1991. On 24 May 1993, Eritrea was recognized by the United Nations as a sovereign state.
An impression of the Capital Asmara
The capital Asmara is actually a city of one street: Liberation Avenue. On this palm-lined allee, about 1,5 kilometers long, lies everything you need. The terraces for cappuccino and espresso, the cinemas and hotels, the post office, the telephone exchange, the official tourism office and ministries where you can arrange necessary formalities. On Liberation Avenue are attractive bookshops, the offices of all airlines, all the banks, the supermarkets, the restaurants and the latterias for fruit juice of bananas and papaya.
Two blocks from Liberation Avenue, Eritrea seems to have only two types of middle-class people: pub bosses and goldsmiths. The Eritrean pubs sometimes look like those old-fashioned Italian ice cream parlors, painted in pastel shades of pink, yellow and pistachio-green. It comes with no surprise that this country has been Italian for three-quarters of a century. At the numerous gold and silver shops you have jewelry made to your own taste and design.
Then, five minutes from Liberation Avenue, there is the imposing Orthodox Church Enda Mariam. You can like this architecture or not, it is certainly one of the most special on the entire African continent. A little further on is the covered market. The governor’s former palace (now a museum) stands at the end of Liberation Avenue.
Asmara is a pleasantly uncluttered city with almost everything just within walking distance. When I sit on a terrace on the cappucino on one of my first evenings in Eritrea, the realization dawns on me. If this city – instead of Africa – were located a reasonable distance from the Netherlands, something like Ghent or Luxembourg, we would be happy to take our city trips there. Then Dutch house-garden-and-kitchen conversations could have gone like this.
“And you? Still planning for the crocus holiday?”
“We booked a long weekend to Asmara. Hotel on Liberation Avenue.”
“Gee, Asmara. Well, it’s nice.”
Tourists are very well-known in Eritrea and are therefore not regarded as anything remarkable or special, so do not expect an enthusiastic Eritrean to ask: “Hello, where do you come from? What is your name?” There is no “privileged” and exceptional tourist position (intentionally or unintentionally) in Eritrea which you might have experienced in other countries. As a tourist, you are generally seen as an individual who is expected to get around on your own. When you want to visit Eritrea, respect the local peoples’ culture, habits, norms and values.
With the Dahlak Islands, an archipelago and national park in the Red Sea, Eritrea holds a world-class tourism asset. The underwater flora and fauna of the Dahlaks can easily compete with the coral reefs of Cozumel (Mexico) and Sinai (Egypt). On the website Eritrea.nl it is even said that “the untouched wealth of coral reefs along the coast and around the approximately 300 islands is due to 30 years of war which has resulted in little or no exploitation of nature in the form of fishing, tourism or mining.” It goes a long way, of course, to say that the war has been good for something. Eritrea has opted for high value, low volume tourism, which means that diving trips to the Dahlak are very expensive. Whether this will be so useful in practice remains a question. The diving tourism to the Dahlaks is almost entirely in the hands of foreign, Italian entrepreneurs, who practice the controversial spearfishing, among other things.
In addition, Eritrea has a hinterland with sympathetic sights: traditional monasteries on remote mountain peaks, some ancient ruins and the remarkable city of Nakfa, former centre of the Resistance and former informal capital. Nakfa, and nearby Orota, were once underground resistance towns with hospitals and schools in a subterranean corridor system. As a tribute, Eritrea has also dubbed its new currency the ‘Nakfa’. Eritrea has a lot to offer the tourist, from diving at the Dahlaks and tours of the hinterland to a visit to Asmara.
Three factors hinder the development of (sustainable) tourism. Firstly, the country is simply hardly known to many. Secondly, anyone who has heard of it, immediately associates it with ongoing wars. In the summer of 1999, the conflicts with Ethiopia flared up again and in May 2000 the two countries again engaged in massive battles. According to BBC news reports, in the 1999 fighting, 20,000 soldiers died in the trenches in one day. As long as the threat of war persists, Eritrea is certainly not a holiday destination.
Thirdly, for the time being, eritreans are being somewhat clumsy about the development of tourism. The Dahlaks seem to have been sold more or less to foreign companies, without proper consideration of how diving tourism could generate income for its own population. To a single remote monastery one wants to build blunt asphalt roads to unlock this centuries of ‘hidden’ attraction for day trippers. The impact on the traditional monastic community is of little concern. Since Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement in 2000, tourism to Eritrea is now slowly gaining momentum. Although the friction between the two countries has not yet disappeared.
Eritrea is a mountainous country. The mountain slopes look ‘lived through’: overgrown by cacti and full of horizontal ‘wrinkles’, the traces of centuries of human activity. In this jagged landscape you are sometimes happy when your bus reaches an average of twenty km per hour. From Asmara to Massawa, the journey takes five hours. The 90 km to Keren takes three hours. But those are the two busiest main routes. Out there, it’s getting more adventurous.
Between cities, a bus leaves every hour. But if you travel to a corner, or on a long-distance ride, there is usually one departure per day, invariably at four o’clock in the morning. You book your seat days in advance at the bus station. Four o’clock in the morning is really just the check-in time. Before all seats are allocated, the tickets checked, the luggage loaded and tagged, you are usually quickly an hour further.
In between all those bus trips, one stands out. The bus from Asmara to Assab, 800 kilometres on desert roads, a three-day expedition including overnight stays. Along the way, the bus regularly digs into the desert sand or bounces over the boulders like a skippy ball. Flat tires are common. The habitat of camels, desert foxes and the hamadryas, the silver-white baboon species considered sacred in ancient Egypt, is crossed. In the hot summer months, the journey can be life-threatening for those who have insufficient drinking water or are in a physically poor condition. Every passenger who reaches the assab terminus actually deserves an award in my opinion.
Eritrea shows these two faces: a laid-back destination where the joie de vivre is rampant in the pleasant Asmara, unlike the painful bus journeys. It’s not one or the other. But this contrast makes a visit to Eritrea so special.
Is shaking hands your hobby? Then you will truly enjoy yourself in Eritrea. Never again in your life will you have the opportunity to shake hands with so many people as in Eritrea. No distinction is made between children and adults. Eritreans train their babies and toddlers to shake hands from an early age. Every official meeting, whether in small companies or large governmental agencies, is immediately shut down in Eritrea if a latecomer or visitor enters. It will only resume if this person has shook hands with everyone. This is not seen as a real disturbance in the orderly course of the meeting as it would be in the West for instance. If someone has dirty hands, for example from working in the garden, they will offer their wrist instead. If both people have dirty hands, they will press their wrists together. The duration of shaking hands underlines how happy you are with the meeting. Thus, if you keep holding each other for a long time, then there is real interest or friendship.
Therefore, if you are in Eritrea, always shake hands with everyone you talk to. Every now and then, you can even receive a hand from total strangers on the street. Additionally, if you travel with small children, you should count on unknown people passing by and touching, grabbing or cuddling your children. This is a normal occurrence.
When you eat with Eritreans, you often eat with your hands from a communal bowl. The “technique” is quite difficult. First, you should never stretch your arm. Do not reach for the other side of the bowl, but stay within your own part of the bowl. Second, when you put the food in your mouth, your fingers should not touch your lips. In addition, never lick your fingers. Similarly, putting something back into the bowl is wrong as well. Lastly, always keep your food in one side of your mouth, so never stuff both cheeks.
Eritrea as destination
Eritrea promotes itself with the one liner: “three seasons in two hours”. Indeed, the climatic differences, from the pleasant Asmara to the scorching Massawa, are enormous. That variety is also found in the population structure. As a tourist you will mostly have to deal with Tigrinya and Tigre, the population groups of the bigger cities. Indigenous peoples such as the Saho, Rashaida and Kunama generally lead a pastoral life that is hardly integrated into the national economy. When you meet these people, treat them with respect. Don’t force yourself onto them. Do not take pictures of them. It is not a tourist attraction and they are not set up for one.
Remember that taking a diving course in Eritrea is unlikely to be possible, or will be shockingly expensive. As a diving destination, it is only suitable for the experienced underwater athlete.
Eritreans will tell you that their country is a small country, where everyone knows each other, where anonymity between the inhabitants hardly exists. If you are ever convicted of a crime as an Eritrean, chances are you will continue to be recognized everywhere on the streets. For the tourist, this clarity means that you are in principle able – during a longer visit – to get to know a lot of Eritrea. And of course, you don’t see that very often on your holiday.
It may be that for most of the attractions – the ruin cities, the Dahlak Islands, the monasteries – you first have to obtain a permit in Asmara or Massawa. Your first two days after arrival, you may be in the process of arranging such formalities. But as I said, on Liberation Avenue you’ll find pretty much everything you need at your fingertips and Asmara is one of the most enjoyable cities in all of Africa anyway. If hiking through the mountains is part of your trip, always hire a local guide on the spot. He knows which routes are safe. Outside, there can always be landmines in your path.
Perhaps Eritrea is best characterized by the unsurpassed spring water. Eritrea has two variants of our Spa Red, extracted from the natural springs near Ghinda (between Massawa and Asmara). These two variants are known as Sabarguma and Dongollo. This water is considered one of the tastiest spring water in the world. Sabarguma and Dongollo come in bottles reminiscent of half-liter beer bottles. Sabarguma is a little more neutral, the taste of Dongollo is forever stuck in your memory. If that appeals to you – the country with the best bubble water in the world – then Eritrea is for you. But a selling point for the travel industry will never be such a thing.
The former freedom fighters of the war against Ethiopia use their own greeting. The greeting of this tegadelti consists of pressing the shoulders together. I don’t know if I should characterize the sight of a tegadelti greeting as heartbreaking or heartwarming.
Most of the tegadelti I saw were in the city of Keren. It seemed like all the men there were missing a leg, a hand or an arm. On the way through Eritrea I saw a man without legs being lifted up by his elderly father to be able to bring a former comrade to the tegadelti salute. There was a history behind that moment. It was clear in one fell swoop. He and his comrade had once been at the front side together as bullets whistled around their ears. One friend had been lucky enough to survive the war unscratched. The other one had accidentally stood on a landmine.
Back in Asmara, the last days before I left, I decided that I actually want to have a picture of that tegadelti greeting. But every time I see two men greet each other like this, I lose my courage to ask. This is simply not to be photographed with good decency.
Suddenly it dawns on me that my camera is just a millstone around my neck. Everything I could have ever photographed, I’ve been photographing for a long time. I entered the first best photoshop and sold my SLR camera for a fraction of what it cost me in the Netherlands. I never bought a new device again.
Extensive travel story about Ethiopia and Eritrea