There’s no jetbridges at Asmara airport, and it’s a short walk to the terminal, but they insist on making you take a bus. In a surprisingly nice touch, the 12 people in business class got their own bus, and we made it to immigration ahead of the rest of the passengers. I thought this was a good sign, but alas, it was not to be that easy.
When we arrived in the small one room arrivals area, only one of the four counters was open and I was 7th or 8th in line. Shortly, a second one opened, but they were only processing one person every five minutes or so. After about 20-25 minutes I finally made it to the front of the line, where the immigration officer spoke absolutely no english. I handed him my passport, and my letter showing approval for visa on arrival…and he just started at me. After about a minute of sizing me up, he just started thumbing through my passport and saying “visa” over and over. I pointed at the letter and said “visa on arrival” which was met with him saying “visa” again. I said “no visa” and he pointed across the room and said “visa office.”
Oh, look, there’s a small room off to the side with six people and a few computers in it. They understood what was going on, took my passport and the letter, and gave me a visa application to fill out. Gave it back to them about five minutes later, and they said “wait.” At this point, it had been 30 minutes or so, and not just our entire Qatar plane of 150 had unloaded, but a Turkish 737 had arrived as well, so there were nearly 300 people in the small immigration room. About six of us were waiting for our visas on arrival after around an hour, and finally, the first guy was give his and got to join the remaining 200 people or so…at the back of the line.
After 1:15 or so, the second person got their visa. I was third of the six…but no visa for me. “You go there!” pointing at an office that had “Chief Immigration Officer” printed on the door. He didn’t speak a whole ton of English, but his point was pretty clear. There’s an embassy in the US, why didn’t you get your visa there? I tried to very slowly explain that I had tried to get it there, but due to the delays I had to ask special permission from the Immigration Dept for a visa on arrival, which had formally been granted. This was followed by “where you work? CIA?” Uhhh, no? It’s not the first time I’ve gotten that question, and no clue why…but eventually after showing him business cards, a letter explaining my job, and some other items he agreed to believe me and issue the visa. $70 later I got a nice sticker in my passport for it, and about two hours after arrival I finally had my visa.
It took another 45 minutes in the slow lines to get through to an agent, and finally at around 4am I left the airport, nearly three hours after landing. Oh well…could have been worse? Fortunately, my driver was still waiting for me, and with his limited English he took me to my hotel, the “Sunshine Hotel” for the night. When I got to the room, it was basic but adequate…except there were no blinds on the windows, and the sun would be up in 30 minutes. Unfortunately according to the hotel worker none of the rooms had blinds, because they were all out for cleaning. Ugh. Ok. I just want sleep at this point. Earplugs in, eyeshade on, and attempt to sleep. Bzzz bzzz bzzz…unfortunately, the room also seemed to be a feeding frenzy for mosquitoes. My strategy was to put the Qatar pajamas back on, crawl completely under the covers…head and all…and hope they couldn’t find me. It must have worked because I managed sometime in the next 30 minutes to fall asleep.
My driver had wanted to pick me up at 8am for the city tour, but I told him there was no way that was happening, and we agreed on 10am. Unfortunately, at 8am, there was a knock on my door. It was someone from the travel agency. They needed my passport to go apply for the permit to allow us to drive to Massawa the next day. I was still too tired to argue, so I gave it to her, and told them I’d see them at 10. Managed to fall asleep for another hour or so, then stumble downstairs for a decent, but basic, breakfast. Two fried eggs, two slices of toast, and coffee. Perfectly adequate.
The lobby of the Sunshine Motel, which also served as the dining area:
My luxury, super-bright no shades on the windows room:
Hide from mosquitoes here:
The room could definitely use some renovation:
Just shortly after 10, my driver reappeared, and said we were off. I asked first if it was possible to change hotels…I couldn’t do another night here. He said yes yes, no problem, and we headed off to the Travel Agency. The owner who I’d been corresponding with on email invited me into her office, offered me coffee, and got down to business. First “do you want to change money?” She agreed to front me 4,000 Nakfa at the official rate of 15 Nakfa to the Dollar. Now, the black market rate is closer to 50 to the Dollar, but she told me that was too dangerous. Whatever, it was only two days, and I wasn’t in the mood to argue. She confirmed the tour program, and I was off with my driver, who would also be my tour guide. Despite his basic English things worked pretty well, and we set off on Day 1’s plan, the city tour.
First stop was the Nda Mariam Othodox Church:
We walked around outside the church for a bit, but unfortunately it was closed, so we continued on. Our drive took us past the Red Sea Bottling company, producers of Coca Cola in Eritrea:
From there, we headed just outside of town to the World War II era cemetery, where the soliders of the British Empire who’d died in the area were buried. Fascinating old tombstones for members of the Sudan Defence Force, several South African units, the Punjab Regiment, the Indian Infantry, etc:
At this point we headed back into the city, and picked up the owner of the tour company, and she gave me some suggestions for lunch. We ended up at the Midian Hotel restaurant, where I had a nice plate of Eritrean “Tibs” – a beef dish and gravy, and some injera. It was also my first encounter with the local beer, called appropriately “Eritrea Beer” which came in a short brown bottle with no label on it…but it was tasty enough.
After lunch (which it turned out wasn’t included in my tour, and set me back almost $30 at the official exchange rate – extremely expensive for East Africa), we continued our tour to the Cathedral of Asmara which was also…closed:
This was followed by a stop at the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque, which was also closed to non-Muslims for prayer hour:
After this, it was suggested I might like a nap. I think I was dozing off a bit…so we headed back to the hotel just before 3p so I could check into my new hotel and get an hour or two of rest. I was moving to the Asmara Palace Hotel, which was the former Intercontinental. It was $130 a night, quite a step up from the $55 at the Sunshine, but at this point I didn’t care. Oh, and did I mention that even for $130 the “air conditioning hasn’t worked for quite some time.” That would be fine if the hotel was the same temperature as outside, low 70s or so, but for some reason it was an inferno of nearly 80F inside. Opening the windows wasn’t an option with the mosquitoes either. At least they had nice carpeting:
…and a funky atrium lobby:
…and a nice pool, complete with outdoor AND indoor versions:
Took a great 90 minute nap, and at 5pm my driver picked me up to continue our tour a bit. The next stop was the Fiat Tagliero – an old gas that was one of the best examples of art deco architecture in this former Italian colony. It was meant to have the shape of an airplane, and rumour was when it was time to remove the support columns for the “wings” the workers refused to do it because they didn’t trust the architecture, so the designer had to do it himself:
Stopped at the post office to buy some postcards and mail them next…we’ll see if they ever get delivered!
Across the way from the post office was the Albergo Italia hotel, which was listed as one of the better hotels in Asmara. The location couldn’t be beat right in the middle of the city, and it’s probably where I’d choose to stay if I was exploring the city on my own and didn’t want to deal with too many taxis. No clue how nice it was inside, however.
The Roman Catholic church of Asmara:
More art deco, the Cinema Imperio which supposedly still shows movie along with having a bar inside. Unfortunately it was taken over by a school group when we went past, so we weren’t able to go inside:
…and our final stop for the evening, the “recycled goods market.” Here you can find just about anything and everything, constructed from recycled junk that people have foraged for. This pic is a good example of the unique transport options in Asmara. Horse and cart, bicycles, I even saw one camel, and several people using donkeys to haul things:
Back to the hotel, and tonight’s two inside dining options were the buffet (which looked pretty underwhelming) or the Italian restaurant, which looked pretty lively. You can guess which I chose. Delicious lasagna:
It was approaching 10pm at this point, and I was absolutely exhausted from the last two days and managed to pass out for nearly 10 hours. There was a long daytrip to Massawa planned for the next day!