Asmara, Eritrea Report of what it's like to live there - 12/23/16
Personal Experiences from Asmara, Eritrea
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I have lived in the Middle East, South Central Asia and Southern Africa.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
United States. The flights are generally very long and they leave late at night. When I arrived, there were few flight options. I hear Qatar has stopped operating now. However, you still have Egypt Air, Turkish Air, Fly Dubai. I believe there are some other regional carriers such as Sudan Airways.
Flying in and out of Eritrea are long routes, at early morning hours, and fairly expensive depending on where you are coming or going. For instance a flight from Eritrea to Cairo (which is a direct) is $745. A flight from Boston to Eritrea during the same time frame is $1100.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I worked for the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
I had a stand-alone, single family residence (3 bedrooms), (2 bathrooms). Residences tend to vary, but they all have relatively small yards. Working for the US Embassy you have a generator and 24-hour guard presence. The commute to work is less than 10 minutes at any time of day. We were satisfied with our housing. Our house was really good for entertaining.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries were expensive. The exchange rate is 15 to 1. A box of cereal costs about 300 Nakfa in town, which was $20 USD. For dry goods, I highly recommend the diplomatic pouch. Goods usually arrive within 3-4 weeks. Meat was generally 320 Nakfa which is about $21 USD. Shrimp when available was generally 5,000 Nakfa for a 5 kilo bag. That is $66.00 per kilo.
There are small grocery stores, where products can be quite expensive. There are also markets. It is highly recommended that you hire someone, who can navigate the shopping and (1) knows where to go to get what you need and (2) can get the best price.
You can eat affordably, you just have to do those things above.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I would recommend shipping as many liquid products as possible. Juices. Beer (as beer can be precarious). You have to have crates and bottles to get beer from the Asmara beer factory. Crates and bottles can be difficult to locate. There is sometimes beer at the duty free (cans) for $20.00 for 24 cans. But, they instituted a limit on alcohol purchase at duty free as well. If you go out for dinner and you buy a bottle of Asmara beer it is about 25 Nakfa ($1.60). If you buy any kind of import or Asmara beer in the can it is roughly 150 Nakfa ($10.00)
So, ship any liquids you might use. Also any kid of canned pet food.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are only a handful of restaurants. With a western palate, none of them are like home. Most people cook and eat in. I found eating out to simply be too expensive. If you go to Roof Garden, which is an Indian/Chinese cuisine, there is great ambiance, but dinner could run you 700 Nakfa per person very easily. There are no "true" fast food places and no delivery places. You can do take out at the available restaurants. We would eat out a couple times per month, just to get out of the house.
Honestly, the local food was much better than most of the restaurants. When we ate out we would generally eat pizza or fish cooked in red chili sauce.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had a problem with ants.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
It is very difficult to send anything out of Eritrea other than flat mail. We received mail through the pouch. The pouch runs roughly every other week. I never used the local postal facilities.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is fairly inexpensive. You can get someone to come 3-4 days per week for roughly $200 per month. That means they will clean and cook. You can get a gardener for about $100 per month. House help is almost a MUST in Eritrea...as it is difficult to navigate the city and markets to get goods and supplies.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are two gyms that I know of...outside of the Embassy gym. There is a gym near the US Embassy that is 400 Nakfa per month. There is a gym at the Asmara Palace hotel which I found to be cost-prohibitive and in addition they were not accepting new memberships. That said, if you are a diplomat or some other expat, if you can afford the price, the management will likely work with you, to get you a membership.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
There are no use of credit cards in country. There are no ATMs. Eritrea for the most part is a cash economy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is a Catholic Church that has an English mass at 11am on Sundays. There are 4 legal religions. Catholicism, Islam, Lutheran and Orthodox. You can be arrested for practicing an unauthorized religions. Jehovah's witnesses are often imprisoned for this.Even as an American, you can be arrested if you come to Eritrea to preach or take part in an unauthorized religious practice.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can make it without the local language. It is more difficult if you are trying to do you own day-to-day shopping however. There are always someone around who will teach local languages at a reasonable rate.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Probably no more than anywhere else. I did not see anything that really screamed to me that a disabled person would have a problem.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local buses are cheap but ill-advised. They are often very over-crowded and are an ideal place to be pick-pocketed. Taxis can be cheap if you know how to use them. They are safe. They are easily recognizable. They run a route and if you get in and get off along the established taxi route, the rates are cheap. If you deviate, they can be more expensive. Example: from the airport to the Asmara Palace Hotel, which about 2 miles is 300 Nakfa or $20 USD. A lot of people who live in Eritrea and don't have cars have "drivers" that come at a negotiable rate.
That aside, Eritrea is very much a walk-able city, with very pleasant weather.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
You can bring anything. I would recommend bringing a Toyota as an ideal vehicle, because there are dealerships and they are probably more easily fixed than other brands. A SUV is good if you plan on trying to regularly go out of the city to Massawa. When the rainy season comes, the city has a lot of flash flooding. I would stay away from anything that is highly difficult to work on and do maintenance on, and anything with a low clearance.
Carjackings are almost non-existent and burglaries are generally low.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is virtually non-existent. There is no mobile data in the country. Most people do not have home internet, as it can cost the equivalent of $2,000 per month for something the speed of dial-up. Most diplomats and expats do not have internet at home. There are internet cafes spread out around the city, but they are considerably slow. For discussion of internet for U.S. Embassy personnel, reach out to post.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There is no data service here, so smart phones only work with wireless networks and wireless networks are rare. That said, I would not invest a lot of money into a smart phone. A good phone that talks, texts and takes pictures is really sufficient.
It is also difficult to get a SIM card. Embassy employees have this done for them through the Embassy. However, SIM cards have to be obtained by providing the Eritrean government information about who you are, where you are staying, etc. Most visitors do not have mobile phones.
Outside SIM cards do not work in Eritrea.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
There are veterinarians here that in my experience appeared to be quite knowledgeable. The biggest problem is that they lack equipment, vaccines, and medication. Almost everyone at the US Embassy has a pet. They do not need to be quarantined. You will have to ship in your pet food. There is none available in the local economy. Rabies vaccinations are available, but you will have to make sure you bring other things like heart work medication, flea/tick medications, etc.
There are no pet groomers, so you will have to cut your own dogs hair.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Those working for the US Embassy tend to work at Embassy jobs, because there is no bilateral work agreement. There are some UN agencies here, that might have openings, but when I was in Eritrea all of the spouses worked for the Embassy in a full time or part time capacity.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Not really. The host government does not actively seek and sometimes does not allow American involvement in charity or community service, etc. However, there are families who can use clothing, etc. so you could always bring in stuff and give it to the orphanages, etc.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual Formal dress is never required. You can get by an entire two years with a couple dark suits.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Expats tend to be unaffected by crime (1) because they have 24/7 guards at their residences and (2) because they don't tend to be in areas where there are heightened crime. If you hang out at the night clubs until 2-3 am, and you are walking the streets at 2-3 am, then you are inviting bad things to happen.
But Eritrea is not a very dangerous place in and of itself.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care does not meet Western standards, which is one reason Eritrea is an adults-only posting for U.S. personnel. That said, there are a number of other diplomats that do have children in country. Malaria is not an issue. With increased flights, medical evacuation is also looking better if needed. In my non-professional opinion, any injury that has the potential to be life threatening, cause permanent disfigurement, or if untreated the ability to cause long term damage...I would recommend medical evacuation.
Once again, the dentists and doctors are knowledgeable, they just lack the facilities and equipment in many cases.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Good. The only thing to consider is the high altitude.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No. Just know that the Embassy is a small community, the diplomatic/expat community is small, and the city is small enough where everyone knows everyone...so it is definitely a place where it's in everyone's interest to play nice and get along.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Beautiful weather. There is a winter and rainy season, but the weather is nice and moderate year round almost. That is often the selling point of the post. The weather is absolutely great.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is a good international school here. I have heard really good things about it, and we were close with the Director. However, for the U.S Embassy, Eritrea is an adults-only assignment. .
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I don't ever remember hearing anything about a pre-school or day-care or after-school program. I think people just hired people to come and do childcare in home.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Football (American Soccer) tends to be big. There are a lot of recreational teams.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
When I was there the morale of the expat community was high. There were about 50 core expats. We all got along. Different people would host lunches, dinners, etc. at their residences. People would often throw parties at their residences. Most of the people who were there with me have moved on, so that dynamic of Eritrea really ebbs and flows. You would have to reach out to someone there to see what it was like. The Chief of Mission at the time put a priority on post morale, because in many respects it was a difficult place to work.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Most expats are quickly put into the expat scene. Most people socialize at residences or through a few bars (Zara, Macombos, etc.) Most of the Eritreans I met were "through" work on initial contact whether it be an event at the American Center or something else. There are also a number of Eritrean-Americans who live in the city. There is a group that started as a hiking group called Asmara Adventurers that serves as a social communications forum for expats.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
(It Depends). It really depends on what you are looking for. There is a night life here of sorts. The expat community tends to be young, albeit small. There are a good number of young and educated Eritreans. However, Eritrea as a whole is more conservative.
It is a good place for couples, because at the end of the day you have each other. My wife and I did a lot of entertaining that I probably would not have done if I were there single.
People with families also tend to do well.
The problem is that if you are someone who has to be out, has to be at restaurants, or some other ritzy type of lifestyle, it is going to be difficult. My wife and I both come from the Southern USA, so we are use to "creating our own fun". So if you can just enjoy great people, some food and conversation at someone's house...then you will do well.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Probably not. While I have no experience with this and it did not arise when I was there, Eritrea is very conservative in many respects. Those I have had discussions about sexuality did not view LGBT lives as favorable.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Once again. There are only 4 legal religions (Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, Islam). If you do not practice one of those, you could find yourself in jail. While I don't think you would run that risk if you were Jewish or Baptist...if you were Jehovah's Witness or Baha'i...you could find yourself in trouble. The government really cracks down on Jehovah's witness mostly because of their unwillingness to bear arms and perform national service.
There has yet to be any movement on trying to get the Government to create a system for Jehovah's Witness where they can freely practice their faith, but also do national service in a way that does not require they bear arms. But as it stand everyone going to national service, must go through training which includes bearing arms.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The highlights were really the people (Eritrean and expat) that I met while in Eritrea. We had some great times, despite the general difficulties. The country has a WEALTH of opportunity. I enjoyed the slow pace of the country. I enjoyed the trips to Massawa (the coast). I enjoyed the hospitality of people.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There is not a lot to do. If you are into photography, there are some opportunities to take photos of the Italian architecture around the city. You can go to Massawa and then on to the islands for long weekends. Eritrea is quite isolated, so outside of that...you really have to create your fun.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's quiet. It has pleasant weather with very pleasant people. While relations may be strained with our governments, I feel like the people I met were extremely nice, hospitable and judged you on your own merit and not "as a American" or as a "Canadian", etc. I have been to a lot of places where individual people are reduced to their country's policy, such as Pakistan where there is generally a negative opinion of Americans. I think a large part of the difference here is that almost everyone has family who live abroad, so they have a better understanding.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Wish I had known how much I was going to enjoy it and miss the people.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Snow Boots. Winter Coats.
4. But don't forget your:
BBQ Grills. Charcoal. Party Decorations. Beer.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I read "Menghedi," "I Didn't Do it For You," and "Surrender or Starve."
6. Do you have any other comments?
Eritrea is a unique place. It is a place with a wealth of potential. It can be a difficult place to serve if you are not use to entertaining yourself. The expat community for us made a big difference. When you cant leave the city without written government authorization, when there is not a lot of things to do, when there is no mobile data and internet is not readily available....you really have to be outgoing and you really have to get to know people.
We had people over almost every weekend...sometimes it was 1-2, sometimes it was 30...on a few occasions over 100. But I tremendously miss the people I met. I would serve there again if ever given the opportunity. I look forward to going back to visit, if I can obtain an entry visa.