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How to watch Game of Thrones in Eritrea

So here I was,  just about to prepare a tour to Eritrea, the infamous African country often compared to North Korea. I was expecting to spend a week with next to no internet,  and I was fine with that. However,  what I was dreading was the fact that I was sure that I would come back to the connected world and get hit in the face with spoilers of the now-as-infamous-as-Eritrea series: Game of Thrones. Little did I know that I would not only get the chance to stay up to date with Daenerys’s latest war crimes and Jon Snow’s brooding, but also get an interesting peek into the fascinating pop-cultural world of a country with some of the most heavily-controlled borders in the world.

For most of its existence, Eritrea has had all of its borders closed (Asmara airport excepted). Its borders were opened last year, only to be closed again very recently. This has created a country which sees very few changes and a youth dreaming of seeing the world. For those who can’t — or won’t — leave, foreign movies and shows are probably a welcome escape.

Internet in “the North Korea of Africa”

The shuttered exterior of a game and movie center in Asmara

One is surprised at first at how contemporary and connected to the outside world the young people of Eritrea are. Contrary to North Korea, Eritreans have access to internet but it is a take on internet that is not dissimilar to that of another isolated regime: Cuba. The internet here is excruciatingly slow and localised. There is no such thing such as 3G data and people must log in to a wifi or landline to connect to the world’s worst internet. This often means going to “internet cafes”, which are small rooms with dirty couches, that make one feel more like they are in a crack den than a Starbucks. Customers buy time cards and get timed access to a capped internet, with many sites blocked and a cute bandwidth limit you’d run through by sending one post on instagram. In this setting, sending a text-only email is a painful task and streaming is just beyond anyone’s wildest dream.

How to ‘torrent’ in a country with no broadband

Watching Game of Thrones

So how did I manage to watch the finale of the world’s biggest goodwill-squandering trainwreck on the day of its release if sending three smileys made the router blow smoke? The same way Eritrean get access to any blockbuster:  game and movie centers. These small shops,  spread out across the capital, are reminiscent of bygone video rental stores. They are shops displaying hundreds of posters of their inventory of movies and series. Here,  people come with a USB stick and ask the clerk to put an item from the catalog of pirate copies of shows on it.  One movie or episode of a TV show goes for 2 nakfa, or a few cents. These shops are running business right out in the open and are frequented by hundred of customers. How can the shops have access to the latest series? That’s where it gets mad. I was told that people are taking flights daily just to bring hard drives from Ethiopia with the latest pop content. The selection is enormous and would make Netflix envious, going from the latest blockbuster to obscure Korean dramas. I went into one of them and got GoT. It took a few minutes for the episode to go from the shop’s laptop to my thumbdrive, and here I was acquiring my salvation from spoilers.

With the USB stick in hand, I rushed back to my hotel as hastily as season 8’s pacing. The quality was fine: 720p and in the original version. At such a ridiculously cheap price, it is no wonder that these shops are thriving.

The experience certainly shows the ingenuity of the Eritrean people who, while they can’t fly over the border on Drogon’s back, can certainly dream of the outside world.

To explore the mysterious republic of Eritrea, from its art-deco italian cinemas to its thumb-drive kiosks, get in touch with YPT!

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