My first day in Asmara was a shock. I couldn't recognize the city I had covered three years ago for the 2nd edition of the guidebook. Very few cars in the streets. Very few people in the shops. Very few buyers in the markets. Restrictions on basic commodities. Power cuts. A currency declaration form to fill at the airport. A travel permit to obtain at the Tourism Centre. Where was the dynamic, buzzing, self-confident Asmara I remembered? Everything seemed at a standstill. And not only in Asmara. The whole country is 'frozen', on hold. In the recent years the regime has controlled the whole economy and the private sector is now moribund. Everything is in the hands of the government, and you can feel it. The political situation is not better; freedom of press is non-existent and there is no official opposition, let alone elections. The pretence? The border with Ethiopia is still not secured (which is partly true), so the government has to hold all the reins to protect the country.
This is so heartbreaking. Here is the paradox: Eritrea has probably the worst regime in East Africa but, for travellers, it's certainly one of the most welcoming countries to visit, with virtually no hassle, extremely courteous people, a sense of harmony and a strong culture. Since my arrival, I've felt torn apart, divided.
As a traveller, I'm completely enthusiastic and would definitely recommend this country. Asmara is my favorite city in Africa, with lovely architecture, a civilized atmosphere, and a quality of life comparable to an old Italian city. The evening passeggiatta (between 6pm and 8pm), when the whole town takes a turn around the streets or sips macchiato or guava juice in a cafe, is an absolute must. And the nightlife is not to be missed, with a couple of lovely bars and clubs. Yesterday I checked out the Hidmona, a new outfit with Eritrean live music only. I was the only white and was most welcome on the dance floor, trying to follow the pulse of "sikkista".
As a person or a citizen though, I tend to be much more distant and critical, just because I can't be ignorant of the plight of the people. One compelling instance: when eating out, I was the only customer (plus some diplomats and the odd expat) who did eat - Eritreans just sat and ordered a bottle of water or a cup of coffee. I felt a bit indecent, to say the least. Belt-tightening is the order of the day in Eritrea.
You know what? If an official of the Ministry of Information in Eritrea reads this blog, I'll probably have to leave the country within 48 hours.