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Horn of Africa Trip review by Ihab Zaki

I was to spend five days in Eritrea, dividing that time between the two main cities of Asmara and Massawa, and in the countryside, specifically Keren and Adi Keyh. I want to start by saying that this turned out to be one of those journeys that I never quite knew what to expect. I had been studying this itinerary for over a year and I had mixed feelings, as I was afraid that I had a mindset of imaginary expectations. This was due in part because I envisioned Eritrea to be a country that is similar to Ethiopia in its topography, its culture, its people, its art and its history. Another assumption was that it has the same religious fervor and intensely deep-rooted Christian heritage with similar churches and monasteries as its neighbor.

Our departure day was rather stressful as most of my group was leaving from JFK in New York and the east coast was expecting a major snowstorm. The possibility of an airport shutdown would pose a serious logistical mess for the travelers. Fortunately, their Cairo bound flight pushed back from the gate a few minutes before things got worse and the plane was able to take off early thus avoiding major chaos. I was flying to Cairo from Detroit via Paris where I would catch up with the group for our late night flight to Asmara. A short 3-hour flight landed us at an ungodly hour into Asmara airport on a typical warm African night. We hurried semi-asleep into a terminal that had unmanned immigration booths that slowly began to be occupied by staff that appeared to take an inordinate amount of time to boot up the computer system in order to process us through. After what seemed to be a very long wait, that perception was probably fueled by our weariness, we received our entry stamp and proceeded to the baggage claim area to await our luggage. Luckily, our bags began arriving and the whole process didn’t take very long as most of our group were following the “travel light” principal and had arrived with only carry-on bags.

Our set itinerary was to include visits to Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland and Ethiopia (Harar, the ancient walled Moslem city). Even though these countries share borders, one cannot take for granted that you can travel from A to B without diverting to C. The group was scheduled to spend a day in Sanaa, Yemen when traveling between Eritrea and Djibouti but due to an airline schedule change the stopover was cancelled. It may be included in future itineraries. Excepting Somaliland, there is a history of conflict between the three neighbors: Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Somaliland’s border skirmishes involve Somalia.

As I made note of earlier, we arrived to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning (more specifically 4:00 AM). After a few hours rest we partook of a quick light breakfast then checked out of this hotel before setting out on a short orientation tour of Asmara, which we would be returning to at the end of our visit. We departed shortly after and traveled north to the town of Keren. The drive was our introduction to the beautiful mountainous landscape of the country.

We experienced an amazing impromptu moment on that first day as we were driving through the countryside. We came upon a traditional wedding feast and stopped to witness the festivities. Our group of 11, dressed in western clothing and carrying cameras, created quite a contrast with the celebrants all dressed in white, chanting as they marched towards a huge tent where the ceremony was to take place. We mingled with the jubilant families and friends of the bride and groom who graciously invited us to attend the service. The tent was packed, hot and humid but we eagerly took pictures as a remembrance of this special occasion that we were allowed to share. We then continued on our way, passing colorful jacarandas, isolated villages with conical roofs typical of the highlands region and remnants of tanks from the time when Ethiopia invaded Eritrea. Interestingly, these tanks that are scattered throughout the county are a big tourist attraction.  Our guide informs us that they are used for spare parts in repairing current equipment.   

We arrived in the sleepy little town of Keren in time for dinner. We were told that despite its appearance as a provincial outpost it is actually the 2nd or 3rd in size in the country! As the following morning was a Monday we were all eagerly looking forward to the weekly Camel Market. Held in a dried-up river bed, camels, of course, are bought and sold, but the market also provides an outlet for local women to trade in various wares, ranging from fabric to cookware, cosmetics to spices, even firewood and charcoal. Anything and everything has a price and can be purchased, including empty plastic bottles. The panoply of dresses in every color of the rainbow was stunning. Our group fanned out in every direction taking pictures of the local women hawking their wares. We continued to the location where livestock was being sold…goats, donkeys, cows, sheep and horses. The air was charged with an electric spark that ignited the intensity of the transactions.

Leaving the market behind, we made our way to the Italian cemetery. It was reminiscent of many such burial grounds that have been established for people who have lost their lives far from their homeland; a manicured resting place for the Italian colonizers and soldiers. As we wandered pass the rows we discovered that the tombstone inscriptions included the names and ages of the foreign soldiers while their Eritrean comrades were listed as “Unidentified Soldier.” A stark reminder of a sad history. Our last stop of the day was to one of the most important religious sites in the country: Madonna of the Baobab. The shrine of St. Mariam Dearit, a statue of the Virgin Mary that has its residence inside a trunk of an ancient baobab tree out in the open field, over 500 years old and 75 feet high. The statue is believed to have powers of healing. It is also believed to mark the spot from which fertility springs. Local women brew coffee in the shade of the tree and believe they have been blessed fertility-wise if a passing traveler accepts a cup.

On May 29th every year, there is a pilgrimage to, and a cultural, spiritual and family event at the site. Ten thousands of people from all over Eritrea flock to Keren to enjoy the celebrations and congregate. To attend the prayers, the procession of the statue of the Virgin Mary around the baobab tree and to dance and sing afterwards.

In World War II, according to legend, a group of Italian soldiers, who were under attack from British planes took refuge inside the shrine to avoid bombing. It is believed that a bomb struck the trunk of the Baobab tree and landed between the soldiers but the bomb didn't explode and the soldiers survived. The hole can still be witnessed on the walls of the trunk.

After saying goodbye to Keren, we headed east towards the sea through one of the most picturesque passages in Eritrea, the green belt of Fil Fil National Park. Our travel time was slow as we made frequent stops to gaze upon the clouds settling over the majestic peaks and blanketing the lush valley. We had the good fortune to see a grazing herd of kudu gazelles off in the distant misty heights and stopped to take advantage of yet another fortuitous photo opportunity. After the steep descent of over 7000 feet to sea level we finally arrived at our hotel in Massawa.

Our next morning, we had a lovely breakfast by the sea, of omelets, fresh orange juice, and papaya slices before we headed out for a walking tour of the old city. We made our way towards the largest deep-water port on the Red Sea. Because of its depth and its strategic location on the coast, Massawa became the key port of Eritrea. It has frequently been fought over and the Ethiopian Air Force bombed the port during the Eritrean struggle for independence in 1990-1991. The imperial palace, once the residence of Haile Selassie, was also a casualty of that same military foray.

Along the causeway as you enter Massawa are three Ethiopian tanks, reminders of the battle that was fought here in February of 1990 that liberated this region. They have been designated as a memorial site in remembrance of the many civilians that sacrificed their lives to free their country from Ethiopian occupation. We strolled through this eerie ghost town, taking note of the vestiges that remained of this once grand place. We came across the remains of mansions, Ottoman palaces, Italian nightclubs and theaters, all now standing in total disrepair. The Bank of Italy overlooking the port was an amazing architectural dinosaur from a bygone era. Our guide told us that his father had once been the manager at that bank.

We stopped to contemplate all that we had seen and to enjoy a cold drink at a small café. As we sat down to quench our thirst with our beverage of choice, beer or coke, we struck up a conversation with 2 Americans and 2 Brits that were traveling together on a 12-day tour through the country. We said our goodbyes and headed to the old town, populated with shops, restaurants, cafés and bars. Its architecture is a combination of Egyptian and Turkish influence carried over from their presence along the coast. It is believed that the Egyptians used bricks while the Turks used other decorative features. The locals adopted both methods when building their city.

The next day we visited the ancient Adulis port laying buried for centuries near Massawa. Now one can see both the excavations as well as unearthed ruins. Adulis has been excavated; and its links with the Roman, Egyptian and Greek Empires and with distant ports are shown by broken pottery made by many manufacturing methods that can be used to date the past and its Events the vast bay, which Adulis overlooks, extends from Massawa to the Buri peninsula and is known as the gulf of zula. You can identify the site of Adulis from the large piles of tailings, repetition from excavations by archaeologists. Most of the ruins are constructed in black basalts; these are tombs and Places, the remains of what is possibly an eighth century Christian Church and an earlier temple for sun-worship Adulis' importance was eclipsed in the 7th century; probably by a combination of Arab raids and the port silting up. This site is the most important of Eritrea’s archaeological treasures.

After this lovely visit we had lunch at a seaside restaurant with superb food and then we departed for Asmara. We made a stop on the way at a semi-permanent camp of Al-Rashaydeh nomads situated along the shore of the Red Sea. We were invited into one of the tents for conversation and coffee. Afterwards, we purchased some handmade beaded necklaces and took pictures of the children.

We reversed our course as we set off on a drive beginning at sea level that took us back up to 7000 feet where Asmara is nestled. Along the way we encountered a noisy troop of Hamadryas baboons who brought us to a standstill as they were blocking our way forward. This allowed us to take an extended photo stop where both groups were able to satisfy their curiosity! Finally we made our way to the Plaza Hotel in Asmara where we were treated to an excellent meal and a luxurious night.

Asmara, an Italian city with tree-lined avenues and cathedrals is about as un-African as a city could be. Young Eritreans back on holiday from their new homes in America or Europe dress in western garb and mingle out on the street of our hotel. People speak such good English that we don't even bother learning any Tigrinya and use our few Amharic phrases when necessary.

The Italian legacy is evident in pizza, pasta, macchiato and pastries. The center is quite compact and fairly easy to get around and the best bit is that one can find a café and/or pastry-shop on every corner…a legacy of Italian rule.

The city has a wonderful collection of art deco buildings dating from the 1920s and 1930s, part of the legacy of the colonial period when Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia was under Italian rule. Many of these have survived until today, although some have fallen into disrepair. This is hardly surprising given that the Eritreans fought for thirty years to gain their independence from Ethiopia, finally achieving this in 1993. A dazzling array of shops and cafés line the manicured avenues of downtown Asmara. Historic cathedrals built by the Italians, grand mosques constructed by the Ottomans, and palm-lined city parks offer entertaining diversions for the cultured adult tourist.

Asmara reminded most of us of old Havana. It has lots of beautiful Italian villas and great art deco style buildings but most could do with a lick of paint. We visited the elegant building of the Asmara Opera House which though not in use for a long while, it still resonates with grandeur of when you imagined those Italian patrons come to attend operatic masterpieces in their elegant gowns and dresses and coming down from their beautiful cars walking on red velvet carpets and sipping their Campari in the intermission! 

Eritreans have learned to be extremely resourceful, through many years of war and a number of economic difficulties. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the recycling market of Medaber. Here you can see all kinds of materials - plastic, oil drums, cloth remnants - being used to create new and useful things. I especially liked the set of suitcases constructed from cardboard and cloth and the recycling of old tires for water carriers. During the struggle for independence the Eritreans had a saying that "everything has its use and then another use." This is very clearly demonstrated at Medaber.

Another very unique while exceptionally unusual place we also stopped by was the military cemetery… but I am not talking here of a cemetery for the war casualties in human terms, but a metal cemetery for the thousands of tanks and armored vehicles that the government collected from every corner of the country to give them a resting place in that vast wasteland at the outskirt of Asmara. Stacked up you can see the enormous feat that the Eritreans had to accomplish with barely any suitable arms against this horrific Ethiopian military might. A site that surely put us all in a state of awe while we wandered aimlessly amidst the cacophony of piles or rusted war machines.

Of all the places I have visited, very few have elicited such an emotional response as my recent trip to Eritrea. I'm not quite sure why but I would like to end with the following observations and maybe they will help to explain my mixed feelings. One could call this section “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”…in reverse order!

Asmara has very few cars in the streets, very few people in the shops and very few buyers in the markets, due in part to restrictions on basic commodities. It gives the appearance of a country that is frozen and on hold. In recent years the regime has controlled the whole economy and the private sector is now moribund. 

Eritrea also ranks as one of the poorest countries on Earth in terms of GDP per capita and one of the least developed according to the UNDP's Human Development Indicators. It has little industry to sustain it – and survives mainly on subsistence farming.  It lost its seagoing trade to Djibouti and the docks at Massawa are a ghostly reminder of better days.

Let me continue by saying that to some extent this was a heart wrenching experience. Here is the paradox: Eritrea has probably the worst regime in East Africa but, for travelers, it is certainly one of the most welcoming countries to visit, with virtually no hassles, extremely courteous people, a sense of harmony and a strong culture. With an estimated 80,000 tourists a year (mostly diaspora), the country is positioned as one of the least visited non-island nations on the planet.

As a traveler, I'm completely enthusiastic and would definitely recommend this country. Asmara is so pleasant, with lovely architecture, a civilized atmosphere, and a quality of life comparable to an old, Italian city. The evening time is when the townspeople take a turn around the streets or sip macchiato or guava juice in a café is an enchanting experience. And the nightlife is electric due to its lively bars and clubs. I recommend you visit the Hidmona, a new venue featuring Eritrean live music.

I did find the people to be very open and friendly and activities were not curtailed.  The streets were clean, no noise or air pollution from traffic congestion, and what there was, was a mix of the old - donkey carts - and the new - autos.   I found similarities with Ethiopians though the Eritreans would dispute that, after years spent establishing their own identity. 

One of the experiences I most enjoyed was simply walking about Asmara and Massawa, feeling a part of the landscape. 

The group of pioneering intrepid travelers whom I accompanied on our first adventure to Eritrea have all consented that this country is very nice and very appealing with fantastic scenery and topography and an amazing and very hospitable culture. If interested in our future trips please check it out on the web site or send me an email at info@mideasttrvl.com