I was afraid they weren’t going to let me through customs. I had film packed in every crevice of my bag, and electronics and camera equipment strapped to my back. The airport seemed low-security, but I was nervous — I knew Eritrea was hard to enter as an American, especially if you’re connected with the media. I was there for a private event, but a quick search on Google of my name would clue officials in on my background in journalism. A ceiling fan wobbled haphazardly, tempting to send dust balls onto the ground below. The airport looked like the basement of an old church. Linoleum, fluorescent lights, fold-up tables. I was alone. A driver would be sent for me, I was told by the family that had flown me out to photograph their event. It was 11 o’clock at night. From customs I could see a crowd of fifty people waiting outside in the parking lot. I felt light-headed as my bag passed through the scanner. The security guard paused on my suitcase, squinting at the blinking electronics on his screen. “We’re going to have to search your bags,” he said. “Shit,” I thought. A younger woman pulled me aside and unzipped my backpack, pulling out camera bodies, lenses, a flash, sandals, a book by Dave Eggers, sunglasses, and a pair of socks. She pulled out the batteries from my flash and walked away. My mind was flooded with visions of prison. I was definitely going to get locked away, I thought as I jammed my right toe into the cool floor. After a few minutes she came back, and told me with nonchalance, that I was free to go. I let out a huge sigh, wiped the sweat from my forehead and piled my bags on my back and set off through the glass doors into the crowd of people. I was the only woman waiting in the parking lot. I felt liberated and scared to death. Here are a few things I learned from my 15 days in Asmara, Eritrea.
1. Avoid the internet.
This was not hard to do, as internet is hard to come by in Asmara, and when you do find it, it’s unreliable and as slow as a modem connection in 1996. It’s tempting to want to stay plugged in when you travel, especially when you’re alone. I had just fallen in love with an amazing guy a few weeks prior to my trip, and would have been content Skyping with him for hours on end. We decided to talk every morning, and then I would head out for the day, unplugged and disconnected. I spent my days wandering the streets taking photos, and avoiding my email. I was happy to share my experience with him, but glad that I could forget my phone for the majority of the day and keep my eyes on my surroundings and not on my phone.
2. Kids make the best travel guides.
I’ve traveled alone before, and always met other travelers on the plane, at my hostel, or at bars. In Asmara, I only met 5 English-speaking foreigners during the entirety of my trip, and they were all doctors volunteering at a hospital in the city. So, I ended up spending my days exploring with children I would meet around the city. I was walking down one back street when a soccer ball rolled up to my feet. I kicked it back to one boy and his eyes lit up. He couldn’t believe I could play. I spent the afternoon playing with them, and losing terribly. After our game they insisted on me coming over for dinner, so I went back to their home, met their families, and then we played a post-dinner moonlight game. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip.
3. People look out for you.
I made one very close friend on the trip who was from Eritrea and spoke Tigrinya. He wouldn’t let me go shopping alone, and negotiated all of my purchases for me, making sure to get the best deals. He told me where it was safe to go, and where it wasn’t, and kept me informed one night when a big military bust happened at a party we were at. He promised to look out for me and did, checking in every day to make sure I was ok, and letting me use his phone when I had to call the U.S. I was blown away by his hospitality.
4. Eating alone can be fun.
Almost every afternoon for lunch I would go to the same place for injera, salad and shiro. I sat in the sun, reading, sipping water, writing about my day, and slowing devouring my plate of food. It was my one big meal a day, and I learned to love eating alone. Once in a while, the bartender would come over and tell me stories about his favorite cocktails, and what Eritrea was like during the war.
5. Don’t be afraid to explore, but trust your intuition.
I never felt unsafe in Asmara. Parts of the city feel like an Italian paradise. The sidewalks are lined with bougainvillea and in the Italian quarter it’s not uncommon to hear people shout “bongiorno” as they bicycle by. It was idyllic, but I was dying to see what Eritrea was like outside of the city. One of my friends from the job I was working on found me a bike to borrow for the day, so I packed my bag with cameras and water and took off for the day. I biked for as long as I could in the 100 degree heat, and found myself walking through a dry, dusty village off the freeway. Women carried yellow water jugs on their heads, and men walked cattle. The ground cracked as I pushed my bicycle further into the heart of the village. A man went to the bathroom on the side of a crumbling structure. A crowd of young men surrounded me and started touching my bag and my bike. I knew it was time to go, but wanted to see the rest of the village. I trusted my gut, getting on my bike and leaving in a hurry. I know that whenever that feeling comes, it’s time to go, no matter what the circumstance is.