Asmara, Eritrea Report of what it's like to live there - 09/22/18

Personal Experiences from Asmara, Eritrea

Asmara, Eritrea 09/22/18

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Fourth, as I have also lived in India, Armenia, and Lithuania.

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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?

From Washington, DC, it’s about 22 hours door to door.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Over a year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Work.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Poor construction, lots of gaps between doors and windows that allow for rain or critters to get inside. Houses are block, which echo like crazy, and your every movement can be heard by neighbors since you are most likely sharing a wall. Size is adequate for living but not really for entertaining, but it just depends. Red dust is everywhere. Commute varies from 3-15 minutes, very walkable or bikeable. Yards are mostly patches of dirt bricked off, around the house. We made gardening due with a lot of containers we shipped in via Amazon.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Very expensive and poor quality. Root vegetables, watermelons and oranges are about the only thing we buy locally. Everything else we ship in. We go for meat trips to Dubai. There is a duty free for a bit cheaper cleaning items and alcohol but they are not always stocked.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Liquid, liquids and more liquids. Oils, laundry detergent, sauces, good beer, wine, hard alcohol, beauty items, and canned items..

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are a few restaurants: Eritrean food, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Yemenese..ok. No delivery. For take-away you will pay separately for the box. Coffee places are where you see people, not really restaurants. There is an outdoor cafe every few blocks. Local beer is pretty good, so also an option.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

No.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Via work, not an issue except it can take up to a month. There is DHL and FedEx, which work fine.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Available, we pay too much at US$150 /month for twice a week cleaning the house. Others pay less and have cooking, washing and shopping done. Also some have gardeners.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Being high-altitude just walking around is a workout. Work has a small gym. No local gyms that I know of, but you see a lot of cyclists and walking.

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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?

Zero. None. Do not bring credit cards. They do not work, even in the expat hotel. No ATMs. There is no electronic banking here. Cash only.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Catholics and Luterans have english sevices. Orthodox and Muslim do not. Those are the only approved religions here.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Tigrinya is the local language, but in Asmara English is everywhere. I have not heard of formal Tigrinya classes but there are some private tutors.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. Even though a lot of fighters are in wheelchairs, the sidewalks are full of holes and most buildings are not accessible.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Local taxis have a designated route, four people per car at 10 nakfa each. Safe, but some pickpocketing has been observed. There are some reliable taxi drivers who will go anywhere for around US$8 per ride, you can ask other expats for their numbers. Local buses are super crowded, not recommended.

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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?

Any car will do, but a bit higher is better. The roads are generally okay due to great weather, but once you get off asphalt (even in the city) it’s another story. Huge ravines and holes. The government only allows cars younger than 5 years and with no tinted windows. The factory non-tint is ok, even though it’s a bit tinted. No problem with burglars or car jacking, it’s a safe place.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Zero. None. Forget it. No local ISP. People get internet sometimes via work; it’s satellite and incredibly slow, like 8mbs

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Zero. None. There is the government provder, Eritel, which does not give SIM cards easily. My spouse who is not working has been waiting a year and has not received one. SIM cards from outside do not work here.

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Pets:

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?

Zero. None. There used to be a vet but he left. Human medical personnel are sometimes helpful. Dog owners bond on this issue and may offer advice, but we don't have a dog.

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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?

Spouses don’t really work. There is the international school, the Italian school, and one Finnish NGO. Internet is not reliable enough to telecommute, in my opinion. There is no local work agreement but there are no jobs anyway.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Not formally, but there is a French and American cultural center, as well as the Sudanese club if one speaks French, English or Arabic and wants to organize language clubs.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

On the conservative side, skirts above the knee and shorts are not really common to see. No formal dress required.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Just like anywhere, be aware. Since electricity goes out a lot, streets may be pitch black at night, so flashlights are a good thing to always have, as are tissues for public bathrooms. Some heavy drinking happens at night, and the mix with unemployment makes for some potential security risks.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Altitude takes getting used to; shortness of breath and dizziness. Generally, though, you don’t need to bleach vegetables or fruit, just wash them thoroughly. Medical care is good from a skills perspective, but from a resource perspective it’s terrible. I went to the dentist and they had no exam gloves or electricity for an xray. I broke my finger and there is one radiologist in the country to look at your xray. Flights to Dubai are frequent for anything serious.

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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?

No, air is crisp and clean, the best thing about living here. Some burning of trash but it’s tolerable. There are no industies really, so no serious air issues.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Food is limited. I don’t know anyone with allergies so hard to say.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Asmara is hard for type A personalities who want to get things done. The internet doesn’t work, the government has capacity issues, so your sense of accomplishment has to be adjusted. As someone once said, “enjoy Asmara”.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Beautiful. Average 70 degrees all year. There is a chilly season, especially when the sun goes down, so you will still need warm clothes. Locals wear winter coats when it’s in the 50’s. I tend not to wear short sleeves due to the extreme UV and dry climate, because a breeze can be very cool.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

The international school just got accreditation last year, but it’s a very small school, there are several classes with more than one grade. Many Eritrean students. The Italian school is larger.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

We do not have children, but I think very little accommodation.

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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?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

About 17 embassies plus several UN agencies make a decent size expat community that is super friendly. It’s easy to make friends and find things in common to do, like hiking or playing football. There is a hiking group that meets every Sunday. Morale is pretty good.

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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?

There are official events every other week; attend and get to know people. Hiking club on Sundays, football games on the weekends. Socializing with locals is also through work; we’ve been invited several times to graduations or baptisms, which has been lovely.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

This is a “make your own fun” kind of place. Singles tend to go out together; there are a few night spots that they go to. Couples and families have each other to rely on for socializing. The limits on travel outside the capital (government permission is needed if you want to travel >25km) make for limited excursions, but there is enough to do if you put your mind to it.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I doubt it, as I understand it is illegal.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not really that I have seen or experienced. Women were very important for the fight for independence, so they are very strong and to my mind seen as equals.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The Dahlak islands are not to be missed. Best snorkeling of my life. Trips to Addis are now possible, and Dubai/Cairo are easy trips.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Toward Massawa is a beautiful drive. You can stop a cafes along the way and have a drink. There is an old coal train for tourists that goes slowly back and forth down the mountain; nice afternoon outing.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Not really. There is a guy by the cathedral who sells “old Italian coins,” and a souvenir shop near Expo circle with some handicrafts.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Weather, seeing the remarkable changes that are happening with Eritra’s neighbors, and the ability to save money.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I was told how tough the food situation was, but I didn’t really believe it. I would have brought more with me before my initial shipment came in,

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

It really depends on who you work with. Do your research. I really like Eritreans, though. Funny, hearty, intelligent.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Type A energy to get things done. You can push all you want, but it will happen on Eritran time, not before.

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4. But don't forget your:

Bicycle, cleaning supplies, gardening supplies, sense of humor, and white wine.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

I didn’t do it for you by M Wong. Dan Carrol and Martin Plaut wrote a few books, but I can’t remember the names. Eritrean Journey by Robert Papstein has amazing photos. Also, get on Twitter and search for #Eritrea. You will learn a lot.

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