Sunday, January 25, 2015

Greetings From Somaliland

Originally there was French Somaliland, British Somaliland, and--the largest part--Italian Somaliland.  After World War II the Brits took over the Italian section, and in 1960 they created the new country of Somalia.  In 1991 the government of that country fell completely apart, bringing us Black Hawk Down, the Somalian pirates, and the Shabab terrorists.

But the originally British colony, up in the north, quickly found a way to keep it together.  They declared themselves to be the new country of Somaliland, complete with police, army, secure borders and open elections.  Everything that you would think the rest of the world would applaud, especially considering the utter chaos in the rest of that failed state.

But instead, for literally political correct dogma, not a single other country has recognized them.  Which certainly has not helped matters such as development.  Nonetheless, their system continues to hold, and the area is stable, peaceful, and in practice is about as far away from terrorists and terrorism as you are.

At least that's what they say.  I was now about to find out for myself.

The 'town' that the midi-bus had come to was actually just an overgrown border post.  Not as hectic or as sleazy that some I have been to.   The lineup of trucks wasn't too great, and we wended our way between them.  All of a sudden we were in Somaliland.  Which wasn't good, because somehow we had walked past the Ethiopian border post where we needed to be stamped out.

There had been a couple of young Somali women on our bus with us.  One of whom spoke pretty good English, and on the two hour journey she had gone out of her way to make sure no one ripped us off on the bus fare, etc.  .Now, without our asking, they walked back with us to the Ethiopian
shed, waited while we were fingerprinted and photographed (yup, that's what they do these days), and accompanied us across the border.  Then they led us for a few hundred more meters where they arranged a share taxi for all of us.

Somali women are dressed in long robes, with the top part going over their head and encircling their face.  Which is all that you see of them.  It's amazing how smoking a girl can look while still dressed that way.  Our young friend (who already has two children and is 8 months pregnant with a third) was certainly not your stereotyped browbeaten Muslim female.

It would be great to say that Somaliland is an untapped tourist paradise just waiting to be discovered.  But in truth most of it is ugly scrub desert.  And the hundred or so thrown away plastic bags stuck on each of the thorn bushes certainly don't help out at all.  On the road to Harar in Ethiopia there were several places where troops of little baboon like monkeys sat begging for scraps from passing cars.  On the road from Harar there were several places where camels were hanging out.  Here in Somaliland, as in much or most of dry Africa, it was the realm of the goat.

We were in Hargeisa, the capital of the country-let, in less than two hours.  Now the book says that there are 1.2 million people there.  But it looked and felt like a poor town of around 30,000.   A very, very, very poor town.  In all my travels I have never been to a more down at the heels capital.  Not Vientiane, Laos; not Noakchott, Mauritania.  For even they made some sort of attempt at something. But here at the center of downtown the streets were just sandy, semi-paved affairs.  A few forlorn hastily constructed hotels of five or six stories were scattered about.  And that was about it.

But what Hargeisa lacks in class, you could say it makes up in sass.  No, that's stupid.  What I'm trying to say is that most all the people on the streets and in the buildings are really, really friendly.  More of them speak English than in Ethiopia, although that's not saying much.  And it's all kind of got a ramshackle, Wild West (in a good way) goofiness about it that's actually pretty appealing.

The hotel that most westerners go to is the Oriental, a nondescript place, but that was full up.  So, after an hour of trudging around looking at various possibilities, we settled for one a block away, with hot water (after a fashion) and nice large rooms for $12.

Well, now that we're in Hargeisa, what's there to do?  Uh, not anything at all.  Have some bad food at the Oriental.  Hear the evening sermon drone on for two hours over the loudspeakers at the mosque across the street.  Wave and say hello to all the Somalis as you walk past small stalls selling mostly weird, cheap junk.

But, hey, I was in friggin' Somalia.  And not being blown apart.  Take that, all you other lame travel writers!

The next day was for hanging around Hargeisa.  And we had already done that the afternoon and night before.  Fortunately, Peter had made a contact with a Couchsurfer lady, a 24 year old American girl who was teaching here for a year before starting medical school.  We hopped on a decrepit city bus (well, at least they have them) and ten minutes later were at the hotel she had named.

But where was she?  We walked upstairs to see if there was a roof restaurant or something.  Then somebody led us back down and pointed her out.  Oh, we had been expecting to see a girl in western clothes.  But Ellen was all dolled up Somali fashion, so that all we ever got to see was the oval of her white face.

She had already done quite a bit of off-world traveling in the 2 or 3 years since she had graduated from college.  Travel I don't think I would have attempted were I a woman.  Nor would I have recommended it to my daughters.  But, like other single white females I have met who have done it, she reported few real problems.  Mostly everyone looked out for her.  Although one does have to inure oneself to an extreme amount of staring.

After a pleasant afternoon trading travel stories with Ellen, it was back on the city bus and back downtown.  The only other item on my agenda that day was purchasing my ticket out of here.  You see, the Daallo Airlines website is permanently broken, so I wasn't even sure before I arrived that the company still existed.  But the friendly travel agent next to the Oriental hotel made a call, and, after a few attempts, succeeded in printing out a ticket and taking my money.  (I could have also opted for a $50 14 hour 4WD all night ride on a hellacious road.)

Wednesday was my day to go 120 miles or so down to Berbera, Somaliland's seaport.  So at 8 AM Peter and I snagged seats on a midi-bus that was supposed to leave at 8:30.  I then wandered around the hardware oriented neighborhood until I was fortunate enough to find a lady with a pile of bananas.  Sauntering back to the bus, I got on it again at 8:14.  At 8:15 it took off.

The scenery on this road wasn't much better than that on the road to Hargeisa.  Mostly flat, ugly desert with a few scrubby bushes.  There were tiny little settlements which, along with the usual cinderblock blech, were dotted with tiny little 7 x 12 hovels shaped like little loaves of bread and consisting of stitched together old multi-colored blankets and rags.  Now that was what you call low cost housing units.

I guess that the straight road was going downhill all the way, because Hargeisa is at about 3 or 4 thousand feet, and three hours later we were at sea level.  A picturesque fishing village and port lost in the wholesome rhythms of another time Berbera was not.  Just a hot, baked nothing, with zero going on and people walking around aimlessly.

Peter was going to stay here a night or two, so we spent a little time finding him a hotel.  Then it was further along about a hundred meters to the only restaurant in town.  Next to the mudflats next to the port, notable for a few rusted out, half sunken ships, and a couple of real ships anchored off shore, as if they were actually waiting to load or unload something, we contemplated life at the end of the road at the end of the world.

After paying $1.50 (Yes, U.S. currency is what they use here at the end of the world) for a plate of quite delicious spaghetti, we continued our walk into downtown Berbera.  Now I live in New Mexico, which, because of its desolate raggedness, they always use as the set for apocalyptic movies.  But here would be way, way better.  Because the baked center of the town is completely destroyed, whether from neglect or civil war I don't know.  Just bare crumbling walls, deserted buildings with gaping holes for windows, maybe a stringy stray dog morosely standing around, for about 8 or 10 square blocks.

We kept walking on in the empty heat, hoping to find the ocean and some sort of beach.  But it was not to be.  Then the road made a right turn.  The LP said that there was a really nice beach about 4 km on, so Peter was going to try to find it.  Me, I was going back to Hargeisa.  So we shook hands at that lonely spot, and each went our way.  Another perfect scene for a movie.

The bus back was at 4:30, so I slowly retraced my route, back past the bombed out downtown, and hoping that I didn't make some stupid wrong turn and get myself hopelessly lost.  The people here, as in the rest of Somaliland, were really friendly, and, especially here, where white faces were pretty rare, were constantly saying hello.  I was always happy to smile and respond.

But as I was ambling along, all of a sudden I noticed a strange shuffling behind me.  I turned and saw a very large twenty-something man with glassy eyes and a dead expression on his face.  I walked to the other side of the street.

He followed me.  Okay, I am the world's slowest walker.  So I picked up my pace.  He picked up his, the hurried shuffling now sounding more ominous.  I was pretty sure that he wasn't menacing, but with a deranged, mentally deficient person you never quite know, now do you?  So after about five minutes of this I headed over to a small shop that was still open in the midday sun.

Not only was the guy forced to shuffle down the road, but it turned out that here there were tickets for a 2:40 bus.  The owner graciously pulled up a plastic chair and let me sit in the shade with him, so for the forty minutes or so I was able to watch him transact his other business, which was that of a money trader.  You see, Somaliland also has its own currency (7000 shillings to the dollar), and this guy, like money traders all across Africa, had piles and piles of giant stacks of bills just sitting there.  Probably thousands and thousands of dollars worth.  It's always interesting that in these 'primitive' places there is way more trust and safety than in the civilized U.S. of A.

At 2:55 I started getting nervous about the bus, but at 3:00 it showed up.  And three hours later I was back to the friendly confines of downtown Hargeisa.  That morning I had noticed out of my room window that there was a Yemeni restaurant across the street.  And Yemeni bread is about 8 times larger than your average naan, and is about 8 times tastier.  So I went over there now and filled up on bread and beans.

The flight left the next morning at 7:30, and the travel guy said that I was expected at the airport at 4:30.  So I figured 5:30 made sense.  But it took all my will power and more to actually get up at 4:15.  I really am getting too old for these third world bus rides.  I got all my stuff out of the room at about 5, woke up the hotel guard, and he opened the main door.  Now I had to walk around the dark, deserted unpaved streets looking for a taxi.  Finding one, I went back to the hotel and lugged my stuff to it.  Off we drove the 5 km or so to the airport.

The gate at the airport entrance was closed, and the guard was shooing cars away.  My taxi driver started whining about wanting more money for waiting.  Finally I went up and remonstrated with the guard, who finally agreed to let us in.  The airport terminal was only thirty meters further, so I could have just walked in with my stuff.

But the terminal still wasn't open, because everyone was at morning prayers.  Finally at 5:50 they did come and unlock the door and turn on the lights.  By 6:15 or so, having been one of the first in line, I was waiting in the tiny departure area.

Given how few passengers there were checking in at 6 (one a half hours before the departure time), and given how poor Somaliland is, and given that the airline website didn't even work, I was expecting to be one of a handful of people in a tiny plane for the 30 minute flight.  Well, first of all there was no plane.  Not until 8:30, when a gigantic charter plane with 'Air Mediterrane' on its fuselage landed and pulled up.  A South African waiting next to me said its route today was Dubai-Hargeisa-Djibouti-Mogadishu-Djibouti-Hargeisa-Dubai.  It would have been super cool if the routing had taken us to Mogadishu first.

By 9:00 we were in our seats.  There must have been about 300 of them, six wide and at least fifty long.  And almost every one of the seats was filled, with the South African and me being about the only white people filling them.  It was hard to believe that such a giant plane could serve such a tiny airport and tiny runway.  But it did.  And so we took off.



 

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