May 152015

After a solid 3-4 hour nap I woke up just before midnight, showered, and headed down to the front desk of the Asmara Palace to check out. The travel company had already paid the bill so all I had to do was sign the bill and be on my way. The hotel offered a shuttle to the airport, and it was just me and one other passenger, and soon we were off.

When we got there, the hotel doorman/concierge made a point of walking me to the check-in desk, which was absolute chaos. With Turkish and Qatar leaving within 15 minutes of each other, it was a mad scrum, with no signage anywhere. There was one desk marked business class, but it had a couple dozen people clustered around it who were most certainly not flying business. I (politely) pushed my way to the front, and was checked in all the way to Helsinki in about 10 minutes. Immigration was very quick with no questions asked, except by the driver/concierge: “perhaps you have a tip for me?” Um, no, didn’t ask for or need your help, and you insisted on following me. Grrr!

Security was somewhat silly…regular x-ray machines, and then they insisted on going through each piece of handcarry individually. Usually developing country practices in place, a quick 10-15 second check of your bag (open it up, quick look, close it up) if you were western looking, but if you looked local they basically tore it apart and flung everything out of the bag. Ugh!

Upstairs was the waiting area, which was just one big room for 300+ passengers. Just enough seats for everyone, as well as a small cafe and a couple of small shops. No lounge, of course. I decided to kill the 90 minutes until flight time (hopefully only 60 til boarding) people watching, which was reasonably interesting. Several Australian guys getting rather happy on local beer after local beer, a few exhausted looking development worker and missionary types, and lots of people looking fairly nervous like they’d never been on a plane before…you know, the usual developing country travel crowd.

At about 1:50 the plane arrived and unloaded quickly, and by about 2:30 we’d taken our bus to the plane (no special bus for business class this time) and boarded. Pushed back about 35 minutes behind schedule, which the captain said we’d likely make up in the air.

Qatar Airways flight 1444
Asmara, Eritrea (ASM) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 02:00, Arrive 05:20, Flight Time 3:20
Airbus A320, Registration A7-ADE, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2D

Unfortunately, upon boarding we were greeting with the old style A320 seats, which since I’d already been expecting them wasn’t so bad. They’re still better than domestic U.S. first class seats since they have a couple inches of extra legroom, and they’re heaps better than European business class since they’re in a 2×2 configuration. Interestingly, my seatmate was the same guy I’d sat next to on the flight into Asmara two days prior who works in the same field as me, and we knew many of the same people. Champagne (white or rosé), juice, or water was offered before takeoff, along with a hot OR cold towel service. Quite nice! My seatmate was asleep before the plane even left the ground, but I decided to stay awake.

My plan was to get four hours of sleep before heading to the airport, stay awake for the awkward 2.5 hour redeye, and then get another 4-5 hours upon arrival in Doha since it was Friday morning anyways, and everything would be closed for prayers in the morning. It sounded good in theory…it remained to be seen if it would work in practice.

Nice meal service for a short redeye, and only myself and one of the other 12 passengers decided to partake:


Pre-meal bubbles and nuts…today’s offering was Veuve Cliquot Rosé:


The prawns and salmon starter, which was super tasty, along with more bread than any one person needs:


The chicken main which was good, but nothing super special. Most surprising was the mashed potatoes…something which usually doesn’t interest me enough to partake, but which was super good. Must have been the ridiculous amounts of butter:


….cheese course one of two. Yes, it was that good, and everyone else was sleeping, soooo…. Had it along with a couple of glasses of a fairly nice tempranillo, and just as I finished the sun was coming up outside. It was about 4:15 am and we had about 45 minutes of flight time remaining:



Then, horror of horrors…there was no dessert left! It seems the passengers on the inbound had consumed all of them, and there were none at all remaining. Seriously Qatar? You don’t cater enough for each passenger in each direction? …and I can’t believe the crew served two each to every passenger on the outbound. Boo hiss! I need my Ladurée. Oh well, my pants thank you at least.

Parked at a bus gate (of course) and took the business class bus to the terminal. Short walk towards immigration (where I spied the creepy giant teddy bear again), and immigration was a breeze. Agent spoke nearly no English, but was anxious to try and chat. “W Hotel! Party! Hot girls!” So, I responded with the only appropriate thing: “na’am…shukran habibi!”  (yes, thanks my friend!) It’s amazing how many situations that basic phrase comes in useful in!

Easy to find a cab to the hotel and my taxi driver Mohammad from Pakistan was rocking out to Pitbull for the entire drive. Just what I wanted to hear at 6am…and 50 Qatari Rial later I was at the W. They’d been waiting for me, and asked when I’d like to check out. I’d asked for the 4pm SPG Platinum late check out, and that was no problem…how much later would I like? Can I do 6pm? “What time is your flight? 1am? Oh, how about 8pm, is that ok?” Wow, very nice job…so I had a dayroom for 14 hours. There’s a reason this is one of my favourite SPG properties in the world.

Plus, they upgraded me to a huge “W Suite”




Closed the blinds, cranked down the AC which got nice and frigid, and after a shower was in bed just before 7am…and promptly passed out hard until noon. Was very glad to see that my plan actually worked out! Got up, showered again, and walked the four blocks to the City Centre Mall in the 44C (111F) heat…but at least unlike Massawa it was a dry heat and actually felt nice. Got there at 12:30 and everything was still closed for prayer time…I had to wait 30 minutes to get caffeine. NOOOOO! Did laps of the mall for 30 minutes to get the legs moving, and then finally…coffee!

Uh, Jason, Andrez, sounds totally the same…right?


Walked around a bit after coffee, and found where they hide the skeletons:  😉


What’s not to love about a mall with an ice rink? Reminds me of Kettler Capitals Iceplex where I play…except the rink is supposed to be on the roof, not in the basement! Really wanted to skate, but with a torn rotator cuff decided to be smart and not risk getting hurt by cheap rental skates and out of control children:


I couldn’t resist Chili’s for lunch…I’m betting this margarita had no tequila in it, but honestly I was so tired it was hard to tell!


After lunch caught an uber to the Islamic Museum and wandered around for a couple of hours. I think this is one of the most interesting museusms in the world to me, and actually manages to hold my attention for over two hours which is saying quite a lot for a museum! After wandering caught another uber back to the mall, grabbed another coffee, and then walked back to the hotel:



Swinging chair in the corner of my room where I relaxed, blogged a big, and killed the last hour or so before heading to the airport for my onward flight. There was a sandstorm blowing in, and I hoped there wouldn’t be serious delays…


May 142015

Although I slept better at the Asmara Palace hotel and got nearly 10 hours on and off, the incredibly warm room made it hard to sleep too well. Headed down for breakfast eventually, which was included, and the spread was pretty disappointing. Toast is usually the one reliable option anywhere in the world, but in this case there were just a few mediocre baked goods, some sketchy looking cold cuts, and some canned fruits. They were making eggs to order, and I did get a pretty good cheese and onion omelette. Oh, and the coffee was reasonably good as well.

Ended up chatting with a couple of Canadian guys sitting at the next table about the Caps win over the Rangers a couple hours prior, and discussed the woes of being Jets and Leafs fans at this point in the season. They were in Eritrea for work, working on a couple of large mining projects. The government seems to be opening up a bit, and allowing a bit more outside investment which should help a bit.

If you’ve read my recent blogs, you know that in November you know I ran into the Chinese Premier in an elevator in an Auckland Hotel. Then, back in February, I ran into Ugandan president Musevini in an elevator in Kampala.

So, as I was getting ready to leave on my daytrip, there was a huge security entourage pulling up to the Asmara Palace and hustling someone very important looking in…and when I saw the flag on the car it just confirmed it: it was semi-deposed President of Yemen Hadi! This just keeps getting weirder!


My driver eventually showed up nearly 45 minutes, turned out they’d had some trouble getting a permit for me to visit Massawa (foreigners require an individual permit for each trip outside Asmara, and you can only apply for one at a time) but eventually it had arrived and he came to pick me up. The day before we’d been in a standard medium sized car, but today was a four wheel drive. Asmara is at 2,300 metres above sea level and the weather is quite nice – around 22C/72F during the day but Massawa is on the coast and rather hot…hitting 46C/115F the day I was there. Yikes!

A short way out of Asmara, we began the long, winding, gradual descent towards Massawa:


Scenic descent:



Mosque in a small village along the route:


This was a common site on the drive, local men herding cattle along the side of the road:


After about two hours, we crossed the final bridge towards Massawa:


Driving into the city, our vehicle started to overheat due to the stifling temps, so my driver stopped to add coolant or some such thing. I used the opportunity to snap some photos of some tanks from the Eritrea-Ethiopia war which were on display:


Entering down from the intersection:


Bombed out building from the war:


Finally, we drove into the old city of Massawa, and stopped on the coast to take some photos:



At this point, I was hot, hungry, tired, and a bit cranky, and asked my driver to stop at “somewhere nice on the water” so I could have some food and a drink. He dropped me at what he said was the nicest hotel, and asked “you stay for 90 minutes? I want to swim.” Swimming did sound nice, but with a healing tattoo and being tired and such there was no way I was going to. I told him to go ahead, and I would sit and have some lunch.

I sat at a small outdoor patio with maybe 8-10 small groups of Eritreans, and ordered an Eritrea Beer and tried to cool down. The fans were helping slightly, but when it’s 46C and humid out there’s not too much you can do. I ordered the “spaghetti and meat sauce” to go with it, and it was delicious despite only making me warmer. I have to say, the Italian food in Eritrea was so far surprisingly rather tasty!

Then….CRASH! My plastic lawn chair absolutely gave out from under me and two of the legs shattered into shards and I fell to the concrete floor. This, combined with all the flies and mosquitoes trying to nibble on my healing tattoo had me rather grouchy, despite having finally gotten some food and drink.

The staff were super nice, making sure I was ok, and stacking two chairs on top of each other for me. Thanks. Now I feel fat. LOL.

At this point, a Sri Lankan guy came over and started chatting with me. He worked on a ship that was in port “picking up some supplies” and then heading back. Then, he beckoned over his Captain who was also eating there. He was a Ukrainian gentleman with nearly no English spoken. They were delivering a large shipment of food and oil to Eritrea, and picking up “supplies in transit” to carry onwards. They asked what I was doing there, and I told them I’m working on visiting every country, and Eritrea was #178 for me.

We discussed which countries I still had left, and I mentioned the list, and then said Yemen, and asked if they’ve ever been there. “Oh yes, we go to Aden port all the time with supplies. I know many people there.” Hmmm…. I tried to get more info out of them and where they were going, but the Captain seemed pretty reluctant. When he left, the Sri Lankan explained they picked up cargo in Eritrea that was “in transit from neighbour countries” and took it across the Red Sea. Use your imagination…

Then, the Captain came back, and offered a “speedboat ride” east into the Red Sea. Now, Eritrea has no data roaming, I wasn’t sure just how far away Yemen was, but I was pretty sure he was offering to try and give me a quick ride there to check it off. So, of course, I agreed. I told him “I can’t pay you for it” and he said “no no, this is just for fun” so…I agreed to go. Probably the single stupidest thing I’ve ever done travel-wise, but hey, there aren’t many options yet… I asked him exactly where we’d go, and he just kept saying “onto the water to see things from the water.” Ok, vague, but at a minimum it would be an interesting little cruise!

We headed out onto the water, passed the Dahlac Islands marine sanctuary, then out onto the open Red Sea. There were several small islands sticking out and soon we were on the open water. Maybe 30-40 minutes off shore the guy piloting the boat started to freak out, and suddenly turn the boat really sharply to the side. The Ukrainian guy said “look over there – they’re shooting” and I could make out what seemed like a boat in the direction we’d been heading. I asked “who are they” and he said “I don’t know – but we cannot wait to find out – they are shooting!”

Sooooo….we turned straight around and hightailed it back to Massawa. I was mainly concerned because the three guys on the boat had seemed so confident it was safe to head out onto the water, and now they were suddenly freaking out. The boat didn’t seem to be following us, and soon we were safely back to Massawa port:


…and that’s where it started. “Perhaps you have a gift for us.” “I told you I cannot pay you.” “I know, but perhaps you have a gift.” Ended up agreeing to buy them a large pallet of beer from the hotel which still ended up being way more money than I’d planned on for a trip to Massawa, but well worth it for the story. Looking at the map when I returned, they were clearly not suggesting Yemen – way too far away, but merely just doing a joyride on the boat…which was cool!

My driver was back from his swim and just hanging around, and didn’t seem at all concerned I’d been gone over three hours instead of the 90 minutes we’d talked about…hahah. So, we packed up the car and started back towards Asmara. On the way, we drove through the edges of town and stopped outside a house where lots of little children were yelling and running at the car. So we stopped to talk.

The kids seemed very fascinated by me, and the woman I presume was their mother started talking to me. Translated by the driver, she asked “why does your God tell you to wear an octopus?” I’d noticed lots of Eritreans had a cross tattooed on their forehead, and she was genuinely confused why I had a large octopus tattoo on my arm. There was just no way to explain it, lol! I smiled, and showed the kids how to high five, and soon we were back on the road to Asmara.

A common sight along the road:


We also saw a couple large groups of monkeys along the road. My driver had some nuts to toss at them, which kept them near the car and wanting more:


Finally got back to Asmara just after 7pm, and headed to the tour company to settle my bill. The owner asked “wouldn’t you like to have another half day at the hotel to get some sleep before your flight? For an extra $60 she was able to get me midnight checkout, which was awesome, so took her up on it. Settled my bill, and then back to the Asmara Palace around 730p. Quick dinner at the Italian restaurant again, and was in bed a few minutes after 8pm. Quickly passed out from exhaustion, and slept 3.5 solid hours before getting up and preparing to head to the airport to start the long trip home….

May 132015

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!