Asmara, Eritrea Report of what it's like to live there - 02/23/19

Personal Experiences from Asmara, Eritrea

Asmara, Eritrea 02/23/19

Background:

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

No. I've lived in two Balkan posts, one in the Caucasus (former Soviet Union), and one in the Caribbean.

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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?

Washington, DC. About 17 hours via Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines. Similar time on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, but the US government currently doesn't allow the direct Dulles-Istanbul flight because they haven't negotiated a discount deal for that route. To go via Istanbul for the government requires an additional Frankfurt stop. Some people still like the Emirates connection via Dubai, if they consider the 19 hour Dubai layover a feature instead of a bug. It has the advantage of arriving rested in Asmara.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Almost six months.

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

Diplomatic mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Housing is spacious and has some very nice features (high ceilings, big windows, lots of natural light, outdoor space, flowering or fruit trees), but also quirks and idiosyncrasies. Asmara is small, with light traffic. Commutes are fewer than 10 minutes by car. Many people walk or bike. Houses are scattered in residential neighborhoods.

Many embassies and international organizations require their staff to locate their own housing, which many find a bit challenging. Most choose to spend the interim in apartments provided at the Asmara Palace hotel, the one more or less international standard business hotel in Asmara. The apartments are reportedly reasonably comfortable, and guests can take advantage of hotel amenities.

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

Imported items are rather expensive, and availability is variable and somewhat limited. However, ever since the Eritrean-Ethiopian border opened in mid-September 2018, goods availability (especially foodstuffs) has gone up and prices have fallen considerably. Even before that, availability had gotten better in the last 2-3 years than they had been longer ago. So, if you look at older Real Post Reports on Eritrea, the situation now is definitely much better than it was several years ago. A wide variety of dry goods are available in stores.

There are foreign exchange stores where diplomats can buy wine and liquor, cleaning supplies, etc, for fair prices. The selection can be limited, sometimes.

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

Wines (especially white wines) are limited, and a good thing to ship in a consumables shipment if you have that opportunity. Sauces and liquids (especially for ethnic cuisines/flavor palates other than Italian) are worth shipping. Italian food, as well as Eritrean/Ethiopian food/spices are widely available. Also useful to bring over the counter medicines. Many people enjoy having a bicycle too, for both transportation and recreational riding. Eritreans are big into cycling, again both for transportation and competitively.

It's not uncommon for expats to plan weekend getaways to Dubai periodically and bring back meats, cheeses, or butter in insulated bags, to get a broader variety than is available locally. Beef, lamb, and seafood are available here. Chicken and pork are scarce.

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

There are a good half-dozen or so restaurants in Asmara routinely frequented by internationals. Probably the best (and most expensive, at $15-25 per entree) is an Indian/Chinese restaurant known as Roof Garden. There's a good handful of places that provide pretty good Italian food and/or Eritrean cuisine, as well as general "international" cuisine, such as steaks, hamburgers, seafood, etc. There's a place that makes pretty good brick over pizzas. Seafood comes up fresh from the port of Masawa for the better restaurants or you can order for yourself if you get to know one of the guys who bring it up from Masawa. Food delivery services aren't available, but takeout is an option from many places. Also, day or overnight trips down to Masawa (~two hours from Asmara) feature excellent fresh-caught seafood meals.

Some of the popular places include:
Ghibabo (Eritrean, Italian & international in a great setting)
El Sycomoro (Italian)
Roof Garden (Indian/Chinese)
Silver Star (modern cuisine in an art-filled dining room)
Family pizza/pasta
Mar Rossa (Ertirean)
Ghirmay (really good Eritrean traditional cuisine in an Eritrean house setting)
A couple of restaurants in the Expo fair grounds whose names I don't remember
The Asmara Palace hotel has several restaurants and an Irish pub, but honestly I haven't eaten there yet.

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

Not really. Some houses have a bit of an ant problem. Seasonally crickets.

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Daily Life:

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

We use the diplomatic pouch, which usually takes about two weeks, sometimes a bit longer. Haven't tried the local postal service.

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

Household help is available. I don't know many, other than chiefs of mission, who have full-time help. More common is a couple days per week which can be had for US$150-200/month.

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

The Asmara Palace hotel offers memberships, and is really the only private/commercial gym in town, so far as I am aware. I believe it's $1,500/year for a membership. They have two pools, one indoor, one outdoor, tennis courts, sauna, cardio and weights. This also functions as a bit of a social center for some non-working diplomatic/international spouses during the day.

The US Embassy compound has a modest gym, a pool, and a clay tennis court.

Bicycling is a widespread hobby for local and internationals alike.

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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?

There are no credit cards and no ATMs anywhere in Eritrea. Cash only.

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

Roman Catholic and Lutheran.

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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?

Not necessary. Eritrean schools are conducted entirely in English from grade 7 up, so most Eritreans, especially younger ones, have at least some working knowledge of English, though most are not fluent. Although the dominant local language in Asmara is Tigrinya (related to Amharic), Arabic is also an official language, and many Asmarinos have decent Arabic, so that can be useful if you speak it. Older Eritreans may speak Italian. I've seen few formal Tigrinya teaching programs, but it should be pretty easy to arrange lessons or tutoring affordably if desired.

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

No worse than any other developing country, and perhaps better than many, but still has challenges. There are many disabled Eritrean veterans from the wars. One routinely sees wheelchairs (motorized and not) on the streets and sidewalks. However, many older buildings are not easily handicapped accessible. Asmara is a city of almost entirely mid-20th century buildings.

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Transportation:

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

Public transportation is relatively scarce, and generally not recommended. Many locals rely on a small number of buses and minibuses, bursting with humanity, which are not recommended for foreigners. Taxis are somewhat better, but scarce aside from a few well-traveled routes, and safety/security is only so-so. Fortunately, Asmara is compact and relatively walkable. Many get by on foot or using bikes for their transportation needs.

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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?

Toyota is the easiest for parts and servicing; the only car company that currently has an authorized dealer/repair shop. I say "dealer" but that's misleading because Eritrea has banned private car imports since 2011. Only diplomats, embassies and international organizations have been allowed to import cars since then. So the local car market is distorted.

Although I've definitely seen worse, some roads in Asmara and Eritrea are potholed and a bit rough, so an SUV with a bit of ground clearance and good suspension isn't a bad idea -- especially if you're interested in joining the weekly Sunday hikes in the countryside surrounding Asmara.

Carjacking is non-existent in Eritrea, though nighttime vehicle break-ins -- breaking a window to grab property left inside -- has been happening some, off and on. Most diplomats have secure parking at their homes, inside the garden wall, as well as (unarmed) guards to keep an eye on things at the house. The vehicle break ins are mostly an issue when parked in dark downtown areas in the vicinity of bars and clubs.

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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?

Internet is quite limited in Eritrea overall. Embassies and international organizations make arrangements to provide it for their offices, and some of them may make arrangements to provide connections at home as well. Our embassy-provided home internet connection is usually fine for web browsing, texting, and voice calls over Facetime, Skype, WhatsApp, etc. Video chat is more hit or miss; sometimes it works fine, other times not. Video streaming is more problematic. The internet quality varies with how much demand is put on our limited bandwidth at any given moment. Since there's no commercial provider to install internet at home, how quickly it's installed depends entirely on your sponsoring organization. We tell people to bring their own WiFi router from home in their luggage.

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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?

There is no international mobile phone roaming in Eritrea. None of your American, European or other international cell phone plans function on Eritrea's network. However, I've kept my US. T-Mobile account active, and use their feature to place and receive phone calls over WiFi connection as a way to have a valid U.S. phone number and the ability to call the U.S. like a domestic call. This works well for me. I presume other international providers offer a similar service.

The state-owned Eritel monopoly is the sole provider of mobile phone services in Eritrea. There is no data service, only voice and SMS. It takes some weeks after arrival to receive an Eritel sim card.

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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?

There are veterinarians with decent training, however facilities, equipment, medicines, and supplies are sorely lacking. If you bring a pet, bring as many supplies as you possibly can with you. I'm unaware of any quarantine requirement.

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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?

There are comparatively few opportunities outside of the diplomatic missions and international organizations. The US Embassy usually has more positions than available applicants for our in-house family member employment positions, but these are only open to U.S. Embassy family members. Some spouses/family members can work or volunteer at the Asmara International Community School (an IB-accredited grade 1-12 school) or at the Italian School. I've heard of one UN spouse getting a job with Finn Church Aid, the only international NGO in Asmara, and I've heard of one person volunteering with FCA.

Telecommuting may be limited by the poor internet reliability. Anything that requires steady or frequent real-time online presence (e.g. videoconferencing) might be hard, given that the internet comes and goes. However, telecommuting could work if you only need to send and receive documents over email.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

See above answer. Not a great deal of formal opportunities, but opportunities may come up serendipitously. You might lead a book club or discussion group at the American Center. I know of a qualified music teacher who volunteers teaching advanced instrumental performance at the music school. People willing to be organizers of community events, hikes, bike rides, snorkeling trips to the Red Sea islands, house concerts, art shows, lunches, dinners or house parties, will always be appreciated.

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

Eritrea is somewhat more relaxed than many other places I've been. Diplomatic functions normally do call for business wear. Many Eritreans are likely to go tie-less. Formal attire (e.g., tuxedos) is not seen here.

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Health & Safety:

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

Most people feel pretty safe in Asmara, especially in daylight hours, though common sense precautions apply. Most crimes happen at night, especially late night in poorly-lit areas.

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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?

No particular health concerns. Some people find the altitude takes getting used to. Medical care is uneven, shading toward poor. Doctors and nurses may have excellent training, but resources are lacking. Some embassies and organizations have well-stocked and well-equipped health units. Treatment beyond that calls for going abroad.

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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?

Air quality is great. The air is a bit thin due to altitude.

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

Nothing comes to mind.

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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)?

Definitely not SAD. The weather here is bright and beautiful with mild temperatures virtually the whole year round.
While no particular mental health challenges come to mind, many people find they like to travel abroad every few months. Asmara can be a small place, and sometimes it's nice to get away to a more developed consumer economy.

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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?

Mild, sunny and beautiful! There is a summer rainy season, but even that is not as rain-soaked as I knew in the Caribbean. It gets just slightly chilly (sweater or jacket weather) in the evenings in Dec-Jan. Otherwise, it's mostly blue skies, mild temps and bright sun. The normal daytime temperature is in the 70s F (mid-20s C)

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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 Asmara International Community School (K-12) has just been approved for IB accreditation. I think it's a reasonable school, but we don't have kids, so I have no direct experience and nothing to compare it to. The Italian government also runs an Italian school (K-12) here.

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

I have no information

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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?

I have no information

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

Some, I think, but maybe not a whole lot.

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Expat Life:

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

The expat community is richly inter-connected, with lots of opportunities to socialize with members of other organizations. I don't really know the size, but I'd guess probably about 100 or so people. The Italian community is the largest single group, and a bit of a community unto itself, though we certainly do interact with them. Alleance Francaise has a weekly movie night (customarily French movies with English subtitles) at which the whole expat community is welcome. The American Center also shows movies, perhaps monthly. There is a weekly Sunday morning hiking club, whose listserv is often used to publicize other events and opportunities in the local expat community.

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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?

House parties, diplomatic functions, hiking club, biking, tennis or swimming at the Asmara Palace gym, shared meals, game nights, movie nights, art gallery openings, classical music concerts, trips down to Masawa or the Red Sea islands (where people camp and snorkel). Locals may invite you to weddings or birth celebrations. There's a regular weekly Wednesday lunch group of expats and a smattering of Eritreans involved with the expat community at a downtown restaurant.

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

Maybe not the best place for a dating scene for singles. Good for couples and reasonably good for families. Organized kids activities are probably more scarce here than other places, and older kids in particular won't find many expat kids their own age.

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

There is no open LGBT community, so far as I'm aware.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Locals tend to be warm and friendly, but for many there's also a certain reserve about how close and in what context they might want to be seen with foreigners. No prejudices or ethnic concerns come to mind.

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

Comparatively few. Unregistered religious groups (e.g. Jehovahs Witnesses, Pentecostals), in my opinion, may feel pressure and disapproval. The registered religious groups (Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Islam) practice freely but are strongly discouraged from political or social activism.

Eritrea has nine ethnic groups, but Eritreans have a strong, patriotic, national identity as Eritreans, which transcends group difference. There is no sign of ethnic discord among Eritreans of different backgrounds. Eritrean women fought side by side with men during their decades of war with Ethiopia, and a certain ideal of gender equity remains part of the ethos. However, there are also strong gender roles, and I would not say there is gender equality.

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

Asmara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its mid-20 Century Art Deco and modernist architecture, mostly built by the Italians during the colonial period. Architecture buffs will be delighted, though many things are a bit dilapidated around the edges. It's also a city fully of flowering hedges and trees. Old coffee houses and cinemas delight. I also find the Eritrean people warm and delightful.

This is such a thoroughly unique place, unlike anywhere else I've ever been. Everyone says that. It's a singular place and culture, whose past cultural influences interweave Ethiopian civilization, the Ottoman Turks, the Italians, the Egyptians and other Arab influences, the Brits (briefly), and their own rich local tribal traditions.

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

Just see the city, and other Eritrean cities, and keep an eye out for architectural flourishes. Outside cities, the landscape is austere but compelling. Many people particularly love going down to the Red Sea islands for camping, swimming and (i'm told) incredible snorkeling.

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

Not so much, although there are some very talented painters and artists. Art buyers will find things to appreciate. Some people buy the colorfully embroidered women's traditional dress.

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

Great weather! Light traffic. It's walkable & easy to bike here. Compact. Cool Art Deco architecture. Fascinating history, people and culture.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

It's a place full of nuances and subtexts. Its international reputation can be misleading. It can be a tough place for many of its citizens, in ways that a foreigner often may not see, but there's a lot to admire and appreciate, too. Not least of which is the grit, self-reliance, and resolve that saw Eritreans through almost six decades of war and/or cold war with the former Ethiopian regime. However, it's fascinating also to see the joy Eritreans take in the new peace with Ethiopia and the sincere goodwill they have for most Ethiopians, and many family connections across the newly-opened border.

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

Definitely.

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

Winter gear.

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4. But don't forget your:

Empathy, curiosity, and flexibility.

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

There's a surprising array of books about Eritrea. I haven't read as many as I should. I did read "I Didn't Do It For You" by Michela Wrong.

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