We've been expecting you
Naomi Prior, 23, is studying Arabic in Yemen. She tells us what life is like for an English woman in the intriguing Middle Eastern country.
Naomi and her friend find that they are more than welcome in Asmara as they delight in eating Italian food and checking out the quirky architecture.
"If you haven't been to Eritrea, then just shut up!" "Gosh", you're thinking, "That's a bit ruder than the Naomi we know... what's put in her in such an arrogant mood?" Well, I can reassure you that these are not my words, but the words of a postcard for sale in the capital of Eritrea, Asmara. The strange message of this postcard summed up Eritrea well - a slightly bizarre and strange place, but entertaining and enjoyable all the same.
Another phrase that would sum up our trip would be: "Come to Eritrea - we've been expecting you". On our first night we were eager to enjoy the availability of cuisine that was quite different to Sana'a, where I've been staying. Hungry and excited, we sauntered into one of the capital's famous Italian eateries. We pleaded somewhat desperately to get a table, so anxious to indulge in Italian food. "Well, of course," the restaurant owner stated matter-of-factly. "There's your table", he explained, pointing to a table beautifully laid for two people in the courtyard. Before we could articulate our surprise he stated: "We've been expecting you". We were delighted, but also somewhat unnerved by his confidence that we would arrive in Asmara and choose to dine in his restaurant that very night. But our thoughts soon shifted to our salivating excitement at the prospect of feasting on beef carpaccio that our friends had enjoyed so much. But before we could gesture at a waiter and say: "We'd like to order your famous..." a plate of beef carpaccio was plonked down in front of us. There didn't seem any point asking, he was clearly a mind reader.
"Before we could gesture at a waiter and say: "We'd like to order your famous..." a plate of beef carpaccio was plonked down in front of us."
A taste of Italian
My friend Laura and I decided to have a look for ourselves at a place rumoured to have Italian food, sidewalk cafes selling coffee, and the biggest concentration of Art Deco architecture in Africa. We arrived at .at about 10pm, unable to fathom what Eritrea was like; laid out as a dark mystery below us as we flew in. Hopping in a taxi on arrival, it was a mere 6km into Asmara. 'Down town' itself was eerily quiet, a few of the famous Art Deco buildings visible as we drove past, baiting us to explore more seriously the following day. On arrival at the hotel we were quite happy with the fact that they genuinely were expecting us.
Upon waking the next day, we sought the help of our friendly receptionist to locate the recommended tour company that had proved successful for our friends. The receptionist looked baffled as to why we were asking the question. Surely the company couldn't have closed down already, after just one week? In fact the receptionist's bemusement was for another reason as she explained: "But they are here." And we turned round to be greeted by a tall gentleman called Tesfay who said: "I've been expecting you." We started to wonder why we hadn't found banners on the road saying: "Welcome to Eritrea Naomi and Sarah - we've been expecting you!" Again, we couldn't complain about the efficiency of the process - it saved us time hunting down the tourist agency premises. But it was somewhat spooky nonetheless. We guessed they didn't get many visitors. In fact, I think that's right because in our three days we only saw about 10 foreigners, half of which looked like they worked in Asmara.
With our day tour booked, we proceeded to explore Asmara, which didn't take long as the city is geographically very tiny. I was somewhat surprised to read later that just over a million people live in Asmara - I'm not sure where they are all were, it felt very sleepy. Returning to Sana'a after three days in sleepy Asmara made my adopted home suddenly feel like a booming metropolis, a Dubai in the making. But its small size certainly did not mean it didn't delight us. It was a fascinating window into a world shaped by both historical and competency influences. Less than 100 years of Italian colonisation had left a very strong mark on Asmara, most dramatic of all being on the architecture. Asmara boasts one of the biggest collections of Art Deco Buildings in Africa. It reminded me of an African version of Miami's Art Deco district without the beach culture, but certainly with all the posing!