It was early autumn, and the locals told me that I had arrived just before the seasons shifted and the rains arrived. I wouldn’t have known it. Taking a swim didn’t help either. At an uncomfortable 30°C (86°F), the salty Red Sea provided no relief from the 35°C (95°F) breeze. Air conditioning was rare. I lethargically waited under the ceiling fan for the sun to set. Why had I decided to visit Eritrea?
Months earlier, while planning a six-month round-the-world trip, my friend and I looked at a map of Asia and Africa and compromised. Both of us wanted to go to Ghana and India. But we had bought the limited-mileage ticket, and visiting both countries meant we wouldn’t be able to visit Europe. We compromised: if we were going to India, we could also go to an African country, but only if it was in the north. And now we were sitting in the heat, wondering why we were apparently the only foreigners in the country who weren’t working for the U.N.
The evening, however, brought happy activity. As the sun set, a call to prayer rang out from the local minaret. Families ordered tea and cakes at the local hotel restaurant. Music played on the radio. A wedding party began to sing and dance in the streets against the bullet-ridden walls and bombed mosque domes, reminders of a decade-old war with Ethiopia.
That evening I felt a paradigm shift and began to see that – in Rick Steves’ words – travel is a political act. I had been atop the Eiffel Tower and walked beside the canals of Venice, but neither of those experiences had prompted this shift. I no longer wanted to travel the way I had before, a guidebook in one hand, a camera in another. I wanted to know more about the people I was meeting, their language, their religions, their government.
For instance, in my passport country of Canada, I considered myself poor: I was paying off student debt and, because I was in between jobs, had no home address. In Eritrea I was wealthy. I could afford the flight there, local bus rides, and restaurant meals, not to mention the cents it cost me to order a pastry in a sun-dappled cafe, one of the many echoes of the country’s Italian past.
I could also freely leave. Behind what the U.N. calls “the façade of calm and normality,” thousands of migrants escape each year, seeking asylum due to the “indefinite” compulsory military service. In retrospect, there were signs of a quiet dictatorship: stores and restaurants frequently experienced shortages, making meals feel like gambling (“is there any tomato soup today?”). But I didn’t see them then.
Yet life is always more complex than you expect. The Jewish synagogue and Seventh-day Adventist church, both minority religions, held services next to their Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Muslim neighbors. The only Internet cafe in town took 15 minutes to send one email, but local TVs played reruns of Malcolm in the Middle. Children never begged – a rarity in my travels through Africa – but sold items like peanuts to pay for school supplies. Two of the (nine) languages of Eritrea, Tigrinya (ትግርኛ) and Tigre (ትግረ), was like nothing else I had ever seen written or heard spoken. And those pastries still make my mouth water nostalgically.
A couple of months later, I returned to my life of ease in South Korea, with its air conditioning, heated floors, and surplus of food. I was jolted by comfort. What did it mean to witness the complexity of a country uniformly condemned as the “North Korea” and “Cuba” of Africa?
It was years later that I came across Rick Steves’ excellent book Travel as a Political Act. A friend of mine, Rhonda Wiley-Jones, lent me a copy. She had her own travel blog, Finding Ourselves at Home in the World, and I already held her in high regard, so I read the book. I was familiar with Steves from his PBS travel shows in Europe, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that this book featured his travels to nontraditional locations such as Iran and El Salvador. Steves, it turned out, was happy traveling to places outside his comfort zone. In fact, he encourages it. Through his lens, I began to reframe travel as political.
For instance, like Steves, “I consume news differently” after visiting a country that has been in the news (while Eritrea is rarely in the news, another country I visited – Turkey – often is). Each country I’ve visited becomes more familiar and poignant to me as I read the news. Additionally, each time I promote study abroad, I ask myself if I’m encouraging students to see this experience as tourism – or something deeper?
As I reflect on my visit to Eritrea, I see that it has provided me with the building blocks of a more complex (if nascent) knowledge of geography, politics, languages, religions, music, and food in the Horn of Africa. It has given me context to understand an overlooked country, one that is experiencing a “strained” relationship with the United States, where I currently live. I also feel emboldened to connect with the Eritrean diaspora. For example, I initiated a couple of conversations with an Eritrean doctoral student in Utah. With him, I was able to cross a cultural bridge and develop what political scientist Joseph Nye terms “soft power.” It is unlikely that Eritreans in the U.S. will meet someone who has traveled to their country, and by doing so, the gaps between GDPs, hemispheres, and continents may be narrowed, if only for a moment.
What would my life have looked like without that trip to Eritrea? For one, there would have been a lot less potential to connect with and understand others, and a less complex understanding of this country and region.
So yes, I absolutely believe travel is a political act.
More readings about Eritrea I loved:
- This blogger documenting Jewish Africa wrote this must-read piece about the synagogue in Eritrea: “Asmara: A One-Man Jewish Community“
- This blog, written by a Dutchman and his Eritrean wife, has been active for decades (I read it to prepare for my trip in 2004) and remains one of the only travel websites on Eritrea: www.asmera.nl
- This measured publication by Atlantic Council compares Eritrea’s economy to Cuba’s: “Eritrea’s Economy: Ideology and Opportunity“
- This (glossy) New York Times travel review of Eritrea from 2008 has its moments: “Recalling La Dolce Vita in Eritrea“