Keren is a historical, cultural and beautiful city on the Northern foothills of Eritrea. It is the countries second biggest city, home to many of its many tribes, including the Bilen and the Tigre which account for 80% of the countries population.
To me, Keren felt a bit like Sudan, with men wearing thawbs (long white dresses) and the food was also similar, like the fool (bean dish) there being the same as in Sudan. It was much more dry and hot than Asmara as well.
The main attraction in Keren is the Church of Maryam which is inside a massive beobab tree. It was free and completely emty when I was there, but not much to see other than a statue and some pictures inside the tree.
The landscape here was also very different to landscape in Southern Eritrea. I had wanted to explore the mountains next to the city, but was told there are still landmines there. The bus ride home was with the oldest bus ever, where I had to wait for 3 hours for it to fill up before we went.
Arriving im Asmara was like stepping out of a time machine. Driving from the airport to the city center we passed art deco buildings like the Fiat Tagliero, horse and donkey carriages and small”mr bean” like fiat cars. Along the street there were coffee bars where people were sipping 50cent machiatos and reading the newspapers. Tailor shops were everywhere. The Italians sure managed to have an influence on the people here before they left the country more than 60 years ago.
In order to leave the capital you need permits that you can get in one day at the tourist office. I got mine within two hours and headed straight to the tank graveyard that is located between the city and the airport. Hundreds of tanks, buses and even planes were stacked up in this huge area and they had been there for so long that cactuses have started to grow on them and people have started to live there.
Other sights that I had a look at in the capital was the St Mariams Church next to the train station, the Mai Jah Jah Water Fountain and the Cinema Roma, which had a really old, but beautiful café inside it.
It was a really exciting time to be in Asmara as they had just lifted UN sanctions two days before and the borders with Ethiopia was opening up. People were getting beer from Ethiopia costing half of the local beer, they were watching music videos from Ethiopia which was not allowed before and foreigners were finally allowed to travel with public transport. I hope to be back here in a year or two to see the transformation that the country will have gone through but am happy to have seen it before too much has changed here.
Massawa is a city on the cost of Eritrea, about 120 kilometer North West of the capital Asmara. Buses leave all day when full, cost 31Nakfa/1,6USD and takes about five hours driving along some of the most beautiful serpentine roads I’ve seen. Alongside the road, for the most part, was a rail road built by the Italians that would could possibly classify as the Worlds most beautiful rail journey, but the problem is that there are no scheduled trains, so you would have to pay over thousand dollars to charter your own train.
Massawa is also the gateway to the Dahlak Archipelago, and I was invited to go there with some Ethiopians who had chartered a boat, but as I hadnt arranged my government permit in advance I couldnt go.
Instead I spent the days walking around the old Massawa port where there were run down buildings built by the ottomans and the French. The last day I also rented a bike and cycled to Gurgusum. The beach there was not beautiful at all, and except for a couple of souvenier sellers on camels there was nothing going on. Im very glad I went with the bike though. For about ten kilometers the roads went through some huge salt pans and the only traffic I met was people crossing it with camels. A lonely tank was also left there in the middle of the road, which was fun to explore.
I’ve had my fair share of frustrating visa experiences, but the last ones here in Africa deserves to be on the top of my list.
Sudan visa was surprisingly quick and easy after expecting the worst. They didn’t even bother including my last name!
Equatorial Guinea: is famous for being the World’s hardest visa to get. I’ve tried my luck at the Embassy in Yaounde, in Douala and lastly in Addis Ababa. Every time I have brought all the formally required documents, and every time they have just asked for more. In Douala I was asked for bank statements translated into Spanish and signed by the bank. Cholera vaccination was also the first time I heard an country require. And in Addis they kept my documents for two weeks before they finally said “sorry, we handle applications for citizens only. They could have just told me that in the first place..
The only way to get the visa in Africa that I have heard of is to pay a 3-800$ “unofficial fee” to the ambassador in Libreville and she will give it to you in one day. But in order to do that you first need a visa to Gabon, which is also not easy to get!
Gabon: has implemented an e-visa system, advertised with 72hour processing time, which practically is a joke. I have tried several times, with different passports and after weeks of checking the status in their systems every day I would get either the message”on progress” or it would say “no request found”.
I have tried emailing the address listed on the page and the ministry of tourism, but got no response whatsoever. Gabon is rich in resources and apparently don’t need tourism. On my six month Trans Africa trip I remember the government officials as the least friendly of all the countries we went through. Another traveler told me that you will meet the same careless attitude in all of their embassies too.
Eritrea: *cracking my knuckles* is my latest and maybe my most frustrating experince. It is by some called the North Korea of Africa, as you need government permits even to step your food outside the capital Asmara. I was told that all nationalities that don’t have an embassy can contact an agent in advance to get a visa on arrival. I knew it couldn’t be that easy and started the process early. The correspondence went as follows:
April 3st: Unfortunately we cannot arrange a visa for Norwegians as this has to go through the Eritrean Embassy in Oslo. Visa on arrival confirmations can only be arranged for nationalities without embassies.
April 5th: It seems that you are right that there is no embassy in Norway. Please send us the following documents so that we can arrange a visa on arrival
April 25th: We are expecting the visa to be in order by friday and will send it to you immediately afterwards
May 3rd: We are sorry to inform you that a new procedure has taken place. You have to send all your particulars to the Eritrean Embassy in Sweden so that they can give us a confirmation needed for you to get your visa on arrival
May 14th: We hope to get the confirmation for your visa on arrival tomorrow
May 22th and onwards: No more answer
I was calling the embassy in Sweden several times (which of course didn’t answer) and sent over fifty emails to the agent, every time thinking that I was close to getting the visa, but no. My Sudan visa expires today on May 25th and I will have to leave the country empty handed.
When chasing every country there will always be some that will make it extra hard for you. Then you should try to keep your chin up and remember Churchill’s famous quote:
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.