Asmara, Eritrea Report of what it's like to live there - 12/22/19
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?
I've also lived in Lome, Togo; Guangzhou, China; and was a student in Beijing, China.
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?
It's now Washington, DC, USA. The trip took about 14 hours, with a connection in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It's difficult to travel to Asmara, though less so than in the past, due to difficult visa policies.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Houses are nice, very large with good amenities. My employer provides it, along with a good generator for when the power fails. Unfortunately, the power fails often, so without one life would be much more difficult. Commute times are pretty short, as it's a very small city with light traffic. NOTE: If your employer does not provide housing, it seems difficult to find housing. I have friends who have taken months to find a house.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and household supplies are both much more limited and more expensive than in my home country. Eggs, for instance, cost about $0.33 to $0.50 each, making a dozen $4-6. Meat is hard to find, expensive, and tough. Vegetables and fruits, though, can be pretty cheap, depending on season. (Prickly pears in the summer sell for about $0.06 each.) Cleaning supplies can be hard to find, especially if you are used to Western brands.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We wished we'd bought and sent more Chinese cooking ingredients, particularly black vinegar. Our container still has not arrived, so we're at the stage where we don't even remember what we sent.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Roof Garden-- Chinese/Indian restaurant, run by a Nepalese chef (so temper your expectations for authenticity).
Lots of other good restaurants (Silver Star, Ghibabo, Qategna, etc.) that serve vaguely internationalish food and local food. Local food is very good, overall.
There are no delivery services. Not much takeout either, however, there is EXCELLENT coffee all over town. Possibly an Asmarino's favorite pastime is sitting with friends, drinking macchiatos.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
In theory there is the possibility of a locust swarm every year, but the local government seems to have a handle on that. We had a drain-fly incident at our house, but nothing serious.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
My employer takes care of that for us, so I have limited experience with the local postal facilities. However, there is DHL for anything you need delivered quickly. Note that quickly is still about a week...
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We employ a gardener and a cleaner, which seems pretty standard. Both fell into our laps (kept on the gardener the previous person in our house had hired; the cleaner is a friend of a friend.) I know of other people looking for work, so it shouldn't be hard. Cost is reasonable: we pay US $100 a month for people who come twice a week.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are not accepted anywhere at all, including the nice hotels. There are no ATMs, as the banking system here is not set up for them. This is a cash or check economy, and you can only use local checks.)
4. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by pretty well with English. I'm told Tigrinya classes are available, but I don't know.
5. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It's surprisingly accessible, all things considered, compared to other cities I've lived in (Guangzhou, Lome). This is likely due to the numbers of veterans from the independence war in wheelchairs. Many buildings have ramps. However, keep in mind that with electricity being hit or miss, high rises will be inaccessible during the frequent power outages. Many older buildings still have just stairs as well, so while more accessible than other parts of Africa, still not very accessible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
I'm told they are not safe.
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?
The local laws prevent us from bringing anything older than five years. In town, a sedan or coupe will do just fine, but if you plan to go to the outer parts of town or into the country you will need something that can handle rough terrain. I've not yet had to replace anything, so I don't know about the availability of parts. As for crime, it's not a high crime area; definitely no issues with carjacking or burglary, but there have been cases of smashed windows and bags grabbed.
I'm told one should not bring a hybrid or electric vehicle, as people do not know how to repair them.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The only way to get home high speed internet is if your employer is helping you. Our home has decent internet thanks to my job, and it came installed when I arrived (as I was taking over the house from a departing colleague.) However, decent is relative--it's good by local standards, but significantly slower than what I am used to in the United States.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I have my old home-country plan, but can only use it as Voice over IP, so I use it at home for calls to the States. You will also need a local provider, and EriTel has a legal monopoly on that. Getting a sim card is difficult, but once you do refilling is easy.
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?
Veterinary service is pretty poor. There are a handful of qualified veterinarians, but they lack diagnostic equipment, like X-rays and such. You should try to bring in all vaccinations and medicines. However, there is no quarantine.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Some of the international schools look for volunteers.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
This is a more casual atmosphere than I am used to abroad, closer to American standard. My office has been "business casual," but a new boss is bring us back to "business standard".
I've never seen an event requiring formal dress. I don't think I can even imagine one.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Overall, Asmara is a safe city. I would not walk alone at night down a dark road, but I feel very safe otherwise. I leave my car unlocked at work in case my colleagues need to put something in there for me.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is lacking, but there are no specific health concerns. No malaria or other awful communicable diseases. Medevac would be mostly for large accidents, I think.
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 quite good! Easily the best I've seen in my career. The air is thin (due to elevation), so it takes time to acclimate. The elevation can cause some health problems for people, esp. insomnia, until the person acclimatizes.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Know exactly what can cause it. I think my allergies are less here than in DC, overall. For food allergies, be ready to be VERY specific about what you need. Tomatoes, onions, and garlic tend to be in EVERYTHING here. Fortunately, less so peanuts, and you basically have to go searching for anything with shellfish in it.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No real ones that I can point to, but people do tend to get a sense of "island fever" and often need to take trips out. Expats can get really isolated here in Asmara. But, there's plenty of sun all year, so no SAD.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The climate is pretty even. The summer is wetter, but not by that much (evening showers, that kind of thing.) It's never extremely hot or cold. One thing to keep in mind--due to the elevation, even when the air is quite chill the sun is still extremely strong, so the difference between in the sun and in the shade can be quite extreme. Also, mind the sun, as you will burn faster than you think.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are schools, but I have no experience with them.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's a small, tight-knit community. Morale is good.
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?
Socializing with locals can be difficult. However, socializing within the expat community is good. There is a running club. Some people go bicycling together. Many expats like to throw parties, which are always a good time. It's a great community.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I'm not single, nor do I have a kids. I think it's good for couples, as I don't know how I'd try to date anyone here, but having someone at home who understands and is supportive is great. There's enough for us to do when we feel like going out, but we have each other if we choose not to.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No. The culture is very anti-LGBT and it's my understanding that LGBT relations are criminalized. Even trying to discuss this issue with more broadminded locals has been difficult, in my opinion. Please be careful.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It seems to be difficult to make friends with locals. That said, it's not impossible, especially with members of the diaspora who have come back.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
The government prides itself on the equality of its citizens, and it has reason to think that way. There are still some ethnic and religious minorities who feel they are more oppressed by the government, and unrecognized religions (Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.) are definitely oppressed, in my opinion. Women do not have as much power in the government as men, and there are definitely some patriarchal views in society, but it's better than average on that axis.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
So, I have not gotten out of the capital much yet, but the architecture and art here are amazing. I highly recommend going to any art exhibits you see advertised. You won't be disappointed. Also, just going out and getting a macchiato is a nice way to chill out and talk to people. (Bar Gianna is a great place for a macchiato, but I should say it's a "guy's bar." I've never seen a woman there who wasn't working behind the counter.) Get a good driver/tour guide to take you around to see the buildings and the escarpment.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Good restaurants: Qategna, Roof Garden, Silver Star.
Good coffee: Cinema Asmara, Bar Gianna
Sites: Main Orthodox Cathedral, the Mercado, Durfo, Medeber (the metalwork/spice grinding market.)
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There is great artwork, but it's pricey compared to other places I've been ($200+ for a painting.)
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's a beautiful place with good people, lovely weather, and good food. It's a pretty easy place to live, if you are ok with not having many of the amenities of the Western world. It's safe and chill. I'm really loving it here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I was really well prepared by my bosses. They answered everything I needed.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Tank tops and other overly revealing clothes. It's not hot enough ever to necessitate them, and they would draw a LOT of attention.
4. But don't forget your:
Blankets. It can get chilly at night. Suncreen. Sense of adventure.
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 Michela Wong.
6. Do you have any other comments?
For anyone in the US diplomatic community, most of the real hardships of living here are offset by services provided by the Embassy. This is a beautiful place with great food and good people. I'm loving my time here so far.