Dehai News

Onceuponasaga.dk: Eritrea - the land where I am "China"

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Saturday, 08 April 2017

Eritrea - the land where I am "China"

You'll never fully understand what this means to me
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A question has been popping up a lot lately: "how did you manage to enter Eritrea without flying?"
 
For most people that question doesn't hold much interest. And the majority who read this will not fully understand just exactly what we did with the Saga as I crossed the border. But the community of world travelers will continue to wonder as they know how remarkably difficult it is. In turn the Sudanese will scratch the back of their head and say: "difficult? How? Why? It's not difficult...you just go".
 
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Man has been created equal although some are certainly more equal than others. And while the Sudanese, as a bordering nation, enjoy easy access to enter Eritrea, the same cannot be said for most who venture to try. So how did I get across the border? The truthful answer is: I'm not quite sure. But it's safe to say that the Red Cross played a pivotal role in all of this.
 
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Khartoum, Sudan.
 
Together with a few friends I created the Saga during 2013 and left Denmark on October 10th that same year. The Saga has never been funded by the Red Cross however the Red Cross takes part as a partner for mutual benefit. Mostly in favor of the Red Cross. As such I was given the honor of traveling the world as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross before leaving home. Since then it can be said that the Danish Red Cross has taken very little interest in the Saga. But I have been taking my role very seriously. I was tasked with writing an "always present" story about each of the existing national societies of the Red Cross Red Crescent around the world. Today I have written about the Red Cross Red Crescent in 124 of the 126 countries I have visited. In total you will find the movement in 190 countries around the world. Why the Danish Red Cross takes as little interest in the Saga as they do is left for us to wonder. But nobody knows for sure. However I have met with several national societies around the world whom have been delighted by my efforts and which have treated me with great warmth upon arrival. Eritrea Red Cross would do more than that! But only after receiving an official introduction from the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) www.ifrc.org. Fortunately my relationship with the IFRC is very good and the ball started rolling.
 
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Khartoum, Sudan.
 
I had known for a very long time that Eritrea could go ahead and cause me trouble. Many travelers have had to turn away and give up. It's slightly easier to obtain a visa if you're flying to Eritrea. But I happen to know that the Danish Honerary Consul in Sudan has so far been waiting more than 6 months without receiving a visa. It's that level we are at! If you all remember David from World Adventurer (world-adventurer.com) then I can tell you that he has reached more than 170 countries now and has been trying to get his Eritrean visa without success. Eritrea does have tourism. Especially Italians and Germans as far as I understand. And then naturally a lot of Sudanese which unfortunately have a bad reputation in Eritrea for womanizing and drinking alcohol. But tourism is still a very limited business in Eritrea in spite of all it has to offer visitors.
 
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Sudan.
 
As I knew I was probably going to face difficulties I began work long in advance. More than a year before reaching Eritrea I had been in dialog with various people including Tekeste who is the owner of Asmara Grande, a touring agency located in Asmara (www.asmaragrande.com). I try hard not to involve the Red Cross in the logistics of the Saga. The money you donate should go to improve the life of vulnerable people and not to get me across a border. However if the Red Cross can effortlessly help me without cost then I'm sometimes for it. As such an invitation letter can at times be helpful but generally I don't get them from the Red Cross as they don't know who I am or that I'm coming. You can probably appreciate how frustrating that can be to me at times. 
 
As such I had 4 plans for Eritrea:
 
A) get the visa through Tekeste at Asmara Grande: www.asmaragrande.com
 
B) get the visa through the Eritrean Red Cross.
 
C) get the visa by approaching the Eritrean embassy in Khartoum and explaining how my visit would help Eritreas image.
 
D) go to Port Sudan and hope to find a boat to Eritrea. Visas are given on arrival at the port.
 
Now, plan D would by far have been the most adventurous one. But it's not easy finding a boat/ship to Eritrea. Also immigration might just disagree with the whole visa on arrival thing and send you back. But how will you leave the port to get back? Just hope for another boat? Prison or deportation could also be added to the risk. So I wasn't preferring plan D. Plan A failed. Tekeste is a great guy but it became obvious that he wasn't going to get immigrations permission to bring me across the land border. I would only be welcome if I flew. The ambassador to Eritrea in Sudan is from the intelligence department and I stand out like a sore thumb. The word on the street was that the more times you visit the embassy the harder it gets to receive a visa. This could be true or untrue? Who can say? But it's not wise to gamble with it. Therefore the Red Cross became plan B and bargaining became plan C.
 
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Kassala, Sudan.
 
Guess what? The Eritrean Red Cross came through! They applied for a visa on my behalf and when the time was right I could go to the border. Exactly why the Eritrean Red Cross chose to assist is somewhat unclear to me? I wonder if any of the kind danish delegates I know from Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan played a role in this? But really I think it was my solid relationship with the IFRC after all the work I have put into this project. I just can't know for sure. Do you remember Dafaalla? Dafaalla is my friend from last weeks blog. The one who brought me to the top of the NTC tower in Khartoum. Well Dafaalla decided he wanted to see Eritrea and accompany me if I was okay with it. Generally I appreciate company but I wasn't sure if he was going to slow me down or perhaps create difficulties in relation to the Red Cross somehow. However he is a really solid guy so I told him that he was welcome. It took me 2 weeks to get the visa after the Eritrean Red Cross got involved. Together Dafaalla and I left Khartoum early in the morning aiming for the bus terminal. Dafaalla was 20 minutes late which didn't give me much confidence. But he more than made up for that over the next few days.
 
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You should be as lucky as to have a friend like Dafaalla! :)
 
Dafaalla is a pretty big fellow and I don't want to fight him. But I also don't want him to pay for everything on my behalf. However he insisted and as long as I was next to him I didn't pay a thing. We caught a bus to Kassala in Sudan near the border. 7 hours later we reached our destination and found a taxi to the border. At this point we were unsure if Dafaalla would be able to cross with me as we suspected he would need an exit visa first. At the border we learned that he couldn't get the exit visa there and needed to return to Kassala to meet with immigration. But that couldn't happen until after the weekend so he had to wait two days. We said farewell at the border and agreed to meet in Eritreas capital Asmara asap. To my surprise a small delegation of the Eritrean Red Cross were there to meet me at the border. I was surprised because email and phone communication with them hadn't been good. I knew they wanted to know when I was planing on crossing but I didn't have any further confirmation. As such the Eritrean Red Cross became the first national society to come and greet me at the border anywhere in the world. Together we continued to Teseney to spend the night. I had finally arrived: I was in Eritrea, country no 126!
 
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Eritrea boast both traditional round huts and exquisite Italian colonial architecture.
 
Eritrea is unbelievably beautiful and I couldn't help to wonder how much tourist from around the world would pay to go on scenic photo safaris to see what I was experiencing? After a night in Teseney we drove up through  the country. It was early morning when we started and a lot of monkeys were sitting on the paved road as we began our long drive up into the mountains. The road took us to Barentu where we stopped for a traditional coffee ceremony. In Eritrea they like to mix the coffee with ginger and serve it with popcorn. Lovely - and lots of sugar of course!
 
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Traditional coffee in Barentu.
 
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In the lowlands you can find elephants - if you're lucky.
 
We eventually continued our road trip and made our next stop in the exceptionally scenic and very historic city of Keren. Immigration tried to give me a hard time in Keren for not having a travel permit. But eventually we discovered that this was the fault of the immigration at the border who should have handed it to me. It took a lot of coffee, a lunch and 3 hours to solve that because it was Friday which is the holy day for muslims. Eritrea roughly has a 50/50 mixture of muslims and Christians and that seems to work fine. In the lowlands where we were I think there was still a Muslim majority and people commonly spoke Arabic as well as Tigrinya. It took 3 hours because the key personnel at immigration were praying.
 
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Keren on a lazy Friday afternoon.
 
Eventually we could leave and headed on up to Asmara. Asmara is the capital city of Eritrea and is found high up in the mountains at an elevation of 2,325 m (7,628 ft) where it's nice and cool. To my surprise it started raining? Not much but enough to catch my attention.
 
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Eventually we had made it all the way up to Asmara and then we pulled over to the side of the road. It was slightly raining and the sun was setting. Another car was there waiting for me. It was another delegation from the Eritrean Red Cross which included Madam Nura, Secretary General of the national society. I was handed a colorful bouquet of flowers and then I was applauded and congratulated for my achievement!!! WOW?!?
 
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Secretary General, Madam Nura, gave me these flowers and told me that it was a good omen that I came with rain.
 
Together we drove into Asmara and made a stop at a trendy café called Dolce Vita. More coffee accompanied by cake. They insisted! Then we small talked for a while before I was brought to my hotel. A classy old place in the center of town. Now I'm not trying to put any other National Societies down. However if this was the norm throughout the entire Saga then I would be a lot less tired! Frankly I would probably be done visiting every country in the world by now. But this isn't the norm. This is a world first and I'm ever so grateful!
 
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Asmara.
 
The next few days went by exploring the city. It was weekend and I wasn't going to visit the Red Cross until Monday. However Yonas and Aman from the Red Cross decided to show me around town. And it's such an adorable and completely charming town. But it wasn't my first time there! In fact I had spent around 7 months in Asmara 17 years earlier as a United Nations peacekeeper. Surprised? Well I've been keeping it rather quiet due to the potential negative impact such information could have. Why would it have a negative impact? Well I don't know that it would - but it could. And as such I had been advised not to bring it up as I was applying for a visa. But I was a peacekeeper in the 2000-2001 United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE). I was a different man back then. In fact I was just a boy. 20 years old and I knew nothing of value about culture and people. But I was a well trained and disciplined soldier who knew what I needed to know.
 
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Now 17 years later I was back in what long ago became my very first African country. Who would have known that I would ever return? As Yonas and I strolled the streets of Asmara I really struggled remembering the buildings and places. It felt like trying to remember a dream where it just gets more difficult the harder you try. I almost started doubting that I had ever been there as even the most obvious buildings didn't remind me of anything. Apparently there is a very big difference between what you pay attention to as a kid and what you notice later on in life. Why was it so hard to remember? Well I'm part I guess because I never really had a chance to talk about those 7 months. I remember coming back from the mission and all people seemed to ask was: "did you shoot anyone?" As a twenty year young soldier I experienced 7 months of living in a conflicted African country with all the good and all the bad that came with it. All the meals I had. All my thoughts. Eventually I came home and every time I thought I had the chance to speak about it for more than a minute someone would interrupt and say something like: "I just bought a new toaster!!" People couldn't relate to it. They didn't know what to ask me. And as I never got to speak about it my memories got locked away deep inside.
 
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Something was still left of the camp.
 
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I might have helped to pack this container 17 years ago.
 
"China! China!! China, China, China!!" Some children on the street were enthusiastically screaming at me with widely open eyes and contagious smiles. Yonas explained that the children didn't know the word foreigner and certainly didn't have any idea about what a Dane is. But that several Chinese investors in Eritrea had made "China" a well known word - so that's what they called me :) Yonas told me many times that nothing had changed since I was there 17 years ago. But that is far from true. The fact of the mater is that you don't always notice change when you're in it. 17 years ago I remember one soldier who had a digital camera. I certainly didn't and smartphones had still to be invented. "Selfies" were not a thing yet. Nobody had heard about Facebook or flat screen tv's. It was a different world. The Nokia 3310 was still king and my laptop had an astonishing 1GB hard disk which I thought would last me a lifetime. The cars on the streets of Asmara were anything but modern. I remember getting in the back of a taxi which was from the 50s. The stores were half empty and cafes and restaurants usually only served one or two things in spite of having a complete menu.
 
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Yonas' children and I after a full meal of traditional cooking followed by coffee...of course.
 
When you look at Asmara today you see people dressed in fashion, you see smartphones, modern vehicles, you see shops with washing machines, you see DVD's and Blu-ray... it's not the same. Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and many of the buildings are over 100 years old. That doesn't mean that Copenhagen hasn't changed. And I get that the buildings and the roads are the same as they used to be in Asmara. But much has changed. And particularly Asmara has been very well taken care of. The houses and buildings are well maintained and painted. It's a city with sidewalks for the pedestrians. There are many gardens and flowers all around Asmara. The roads are good and traffic isn't heavy. Besides there is one particular thing which makes Eritrea a very pleasant country: there is always time for a macchiato.
 
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There are countless cool places like this all around Asmara.
 
Eritrea is heavily influenced by its history as an Italian colony and only gained its independence in 1991 after a fierce war with Ethiopia. Border disputes still spark armed conflict today. People in Eritrea are REALLY tired of war. You'll often hear them say that 30 years of war is more than enough. They want change. They want peace. And really there's no obvious reason why they shouldn't have it? I was recently in Ethiopia where I heard the same thing over and over again: Ethiopians like Eritreans. And now I got to hear what the Eritreans had to say and guess what: the Eritreans like the Ethiopians? It makes me wonder if it isn't really the weapons manufacturers that are keeping armed conflicts alive and not people with Pokémon Go and Candy Crush? Anyway to get back on track it's outstanding to be able to sit in a hip environment and sip a macchiato from a perfectly working expresso machine from the 1920s. And that's what many Eritreans do.
 
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Downtown Asmara.
 
Finally Dafaalla reached Asmara. He arrived 2 days after me and when we had a quiet moment to sit down he said something which made me smile: "I don't know how you do it?" he said. "I don't know how you find the strength to keep traveling for more than 3 years?" The 1,008 km (626 mi) from Khartoum to Asmara had taken a toll on Dafaalla. Ah yes :) I don't know how I keep going either? But we are now ringing in at an impressive 163,000 km (100,000 mi) and have long ago beaten my all time traveling hero from Morocco Ibn Battuta (1304-1368). Before Dafaalla arrived I managed to walk out to see if I had more luck remembering anything from the area where our UNMEE camp used to be. It turned out to be quite a walk from Asmara city center. As soon as I reached the old camp the memories began to poor down over me. I kept a journal from back then and it will be a blast to read through it some day. The outer perimeter of the camp still existed. "Camp Bifrost" was the name but the sign hanging over the entrance had long disappeared. "Bifrost" is the name for the rainbow which would connect the Gods world with earth in Norse Mythology.
 
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Market place in Asmara.
 
Over the next few days I would hang out with Dafaalla or have meetings with the Red Cross. I felt energized from the altitude which is sort of the opposite of how that should work. But perhaps it was the fresh air? I've always enjoyed altitude. Unfortunately I was in a lot of pain from a neck injury I got in the bus heading to the Eritrean border a few days earlier. I was sleeping with my head hanging down in front of me when we hit a bump on the road. My head bounced up and then hard towards my chest and a pain struck into my neck. That pain severely intensified 2 days later while in Asmara and eventually developed into a stiff neck which I partially still have. The Saga has put some mileage on me...
 
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I shared a bowl of Fata together with Yonas and Aman: torn bread pieces, tomato, chili, onion and sometimes meat.
 
I managed to get a new Sudanese visa at the embassy in Asmara. It only took 3 hours and it is a transit visa valid for 14 days. Dafaalla helped me get it and signed himself as my Sudanese sponsor. Easy as can be!! The Egyptian embassy where a bit of a heavy dance and eventually I decided to dance right out of there. The wanted 2-3 days for giving me a visa I can get on arrival in the airport (although naturally we are not flying). They couldn't tell me if I could get my visa on arrival at the land border between Sudan and Egypt. And honestly people! : if the Egyptian embassy can't tell me then who can? Furthermore the Egyptian consulate in Khartoum (Sudan) could give me an Egyptian visa the same day I applied. The trouble is that I didn't manage to use that visa before it expired and now they told me to wait a month before applying again. Here's the ringer: both the consulate in Khartoum and the embassy in Asmara have told me that I can take my visa upon arrival to the border. But I have conflicting information from a good source telling me that I cannot. It wouldn't be the first time an embassy sends me to the border and I need to come back. Luckily I do learn as we move along and it's certainly true that even embassies can be wrong...quite often in fact.
 
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My friend Tekeste who invited me out for dinner. He can get you in to a Eritrea and arrange everything for you! :)
 
The Deputy Secretary General of the Eritrean Red Cross had a meeting in Teseney Thursday afternoon and was planing to leave early Thursday morning. Teseney is right at the Sudanese border so that was very convenient for me. Both Dafaalla and I were offered a ride and with that in mind I chose to put the Egyptian embassy behind me. Time will tell how wise that was? We said farewell to Asmara and made our way back down through the mountains scenic landscape. We had a macchiato in Keren and breakfast in Barentu. My breakfast consisted of a bowl of yoghurt as I had been told that Barentu is famous for it. Generally it was good but quite lumpy and watery at the same time which needed me overcome my gag reflexes. It's just me being a girl. The yoghurt was fine :)
 
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Keren.
 
I couldn't believe the heat as we got back down. Both Dafaalla's and my smartphone overheated and shut down. Was it this hot when we left? We said farewell to the Deputy Secretary General and crossed back into Sudan where we had to spend the night in Kassala before making an early morning bus to Khartoum the next day. And that is where I am now. I feel personally connected to Eritrea. Visiting wasn't just making it to country no 126. It was in some odd way like coming home. Perhaps of the impact it once had on a young soldier from Denmark. Or perhaps because I've been away from home for more that 3 years and finally reached a country I identified with. It's hard to say. Eritrea is a young country and it's not perfect yet. But I'm fairly convinced that it's being unfairly treated by the media and that life in Eritrea isn't what it's made out to be. Not based on my recent 6 day visit but based on the many conversations I had while there. As referenced I've brought you to 126 countries and none of them have been perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect country. They all come with their own set of problems. However the dumbest thing I have heard is that Eritrea is the "North Korea of Africa"?!? If you say that To my face then I reserve the right to smack you around a bit. Anyone who says that doesn't know at least 3 things: they don't know Eritrea, they don't know North Korea and they don't know what they are talking about. They just heard something which they have no way of justifying.
 
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Sometimes I wonder how formations like these came to be?
 
The Eritrean Red Cross told me that I was the first white man to arrive at the National Society by road from Sudan. That may be true. But I checked with immigration at the border and 2 Russians came across the border 2 months ago. So while it is rare and bureaucratically challenging it isn't impossible.
 
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Eritreans are fiercely independent, kind and hospitable.
 
Eritrea is such a spectacular country and I should only be so lucky to return once again. Eritrea might have a bright economic adventure through an upcoming potash mining project. It's history dates back far, Eritrea is culturally rich and the hospitality of the people is among the finest you'll ever find anywhere. I hope to return with my wife some day. I didn't have enough time to do everything I wanted and something which should rank high on everyone's list is getting into the water around the Dahlak islands in the Red Sea. It's untouched paradise!! The best snorkeling of diving you've ever seen! It might be hard to get in - but it's definitely well worth while! :)
 
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Oh well, that's all you get this week. Have a nice weekend wherever you are! ;)

Best regards

Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - king in the land of the blind ;)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

Eritv

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