Video: Eritrea Through an American Eyes
By Peter Santenoello | PeterSantenello.com | April 13, 2017
When you fly into a country’s busiest airport and it only has 2–5 flights a day, you know you’re in for something different.
Secluded from the world in the Eritrean highlands lies a timeless gem of a city named Asmara. And, like unearthing a precious mineral, discovering it feels like you’ve found something rare, something of value and beauty. Asmara is a unique city, like a benevolent spell that passively guides you into a peaceful state of mind.
More than any place I’ve been to in the world, Asmara is a feeling.
Asmara is felt in the deep blue sky—the kind you can only see at an elevation of 7600 feet above sea level. It’s felt in the comfortable weather, with daytime highs in the 70’s and nights in the 50’s. In the palm-tree branches lazily waving in the breeze. In the treasured café culture….
Asmara is felt in the warm smiles and curiosity of the locals, in the curvy script of the Tigrinya alphabet on signs, and in the purple jacaranda trees. It’s felt in the many traffic lights that don’t work, but don’t matter since all movement flows slowly and methodically.
Usually, it takes a tropical island next to the sea, devoid of urbanism, to create this relaxed sensation, but Asmara is a city of roughly one million people that sits at an elevation considered a high mountain summit in most places. In a way, the city and country at large are like an island. The only way into Eritrea is by flying; there are no land crossings open to foreigners. The country is on lockdown, and its most remarkable success is that it’s a safe place in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods.
Asmara is a city stuck in time, and while most of the world has grown rapidly, very little has changed here in the last thirty years. There are no major western brands taking up storefronts, and no chain businesses (with the exception of the bulletproof companies, Coca Cola and Western Union, which have somehow penetrated the sanctions and managed to thrive here).
Old cars dominate the roads (apart from a few Toyotas and Hyundais), people use functioning payphones, and there are no overt advertisements on billboards, except those for the nation’s one condom company, which uses the tagline “Because Life is Everything.”
But what Asmara lacks in technological advancement and economic progression, it counters with in feel: soul, chill time, and a natural focus on human connections.
The main thoroughfare, Harnet Avenue is heart of the city, and once the workday ends, the city gets together and cruises down the long sidewalks, back and forth, on foot. I’m not exactly sure why, but there’s a palpable confidence in the air—more so than anywhere I’ve been. People walk with assurance devoid of arrogance; even the many physically disabled people on the streets have a certain amount of “heads up” attitude. It’s a city where everybody seems to know each other; they hug, kiss, and give each other the most original Eritrean-style “bro shake” (in video).
As a traveler in Asmara, you’re never alone. You’re never alone because people are curious and interested in why you are in their city. After just a few days, people knew us; it was normal to get a loud “hello,” a bright smile, and a wave from across the street. It’s impossible not to feel connected here. There are virtually no tourists, so it’s mostly you and the locals.
There are some simple gateways into locals’ friendships, starting with that radical handshake. It’s made up of a slap of the hand, an embrace, and multiple shoulder bumps. Dropping one word of the local language, Tigrinya, is like the key to a chest of treasures. They have this word—“Gaila ient”—which means something like “super cool” or “awesome.” This potent phrase evokes laughter and fired-up behavior in all situations.
Life in Asmara resembles what life was like pre-Internet. People aren’t looking at screens—they are looking at each other. Technology has generally reduced face time in the modern world, shortened our attention spans, and has tried to solve the void of physical connections through platforms like Facebook and Instagram. But Asmara hasn’t lost that connection in the first place. It’s an inclusive land; there’s very little distraction from traditional relationships.
Most of the world has had a long-lasting relationship with the Internet; Asmara hardly knows of it. To open just one web page is a great accomplishment, but forget about getting two or three pages in unless you’re lucky and surfing at midnight, when online usage is quiet. The country will test your patience on this front. Nothing practical is done online; forget e-bill payments, YouTube, and buying airline tickets.