Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Long Weekend In Djibouti

Insofar as Djibouti has any claim to fame, it is in the realm of geology.  For Djibouti is the spot where the Great Rift Valley turns inland from the Red Sea and heads inland through East Africa all the way down to Lake Tanganyika.  Thus if one were to visit Djibouti one would want to get on a tour which visited Lac Abbe and Lac Assal, one of which is 500 feet below sea level, and the other of which is an otherworldly scene or bleakness and hundreds of limestone tower fumaroles.

Problem is, you need to find about three, or four other people to join such a tour in order to make it at all cost effective.  And not that many other tourists ever make it to Djibouti.  So for the past couple of months I had been corresponding with a tour person there, continuing to hope that a tour would somehow coalesce for this weekend.  On Tuesday she wrote me saying that she finally had a tour, but starting on Wednesday.  Of course I was in Hargeisa at the time.  Now it was Thursday morning, the plane was circling in, and I had set aside four whole days on the off chance that something else would materialize.

Djibouti's airport was tiny, but several legs up on Hargeisa's.  A guy semi-suspiciously grilled me for a minute, then sold me a visa for $90.  Back in Hargeisa the American girl Ellen had said that backpacker types hung around the Horseed Hotel trying to put together tours, so I had the taxi guy take me there.  But for $37 all the deserted place offered was a thoroughly depressing crap of a room with no toilet or wifi.  So I let the taxi guy overcharge me to take me to my original choice, the Auberge Le Heron, about two miles or so north, on a tiny peninsula and in the villa/embassy part of town.

For reasons unknown to all, for a pretty poor place Djibouti is outrageously expensive.  But for once the LP was correct, and Le Heron turned out to be the best deal in town.  For $61 a night I was to have a large rectangular spic and span room, fan, a/c, the works.  Plus gracious service.  Tout en francais. For you see, Djibouti was originally French Somaliland, and everybody there, while still Somali, has been successfully francofied.

I rested in comfort for a few minutes, and then took advantage of their free shuttle service to deposit me at a small Yemeni restaurant about a km south towards town.  Delicious juice, delicious spaghetti, but the Yemeni bread oven didn't turn on until night time.  A smattering of expats, mostly French, sat around me.

Now it was time for a walk in the noonday sun.  In the summertime Djibouti regularly hits 125 degrees.  No kidding.  It's about the hottest place on Earth.  That's one reason why this trip was happening in January, when it was only about 85.  I walked along one of their empty, only wide-ish streets for a little more than a mile until I hit the beginning of the European Quarter.  Within a block it was the middle of the European Quarter.

Djibouti is about the only country in the world where the weekend is Thursday and Friday.  Add to that the fact that I had just found out that around ten months ago there had been a (mostly unsuccessful) suicide bombing, so that since then the 8000 man American military base, not to mention the large French and Japanese military bases, had been all locked up tight.  So that right now 'not much happening' was about as severe an understatement as you could make.  There was hardly even a stray dog lolling around.

And the 'European Quarter' was a pretty drastic overstatement to boot.  It's a good thing that, for all its riftvalleyness Djibouti seems to lack earthquakes.  Because a 4.5 would probably knock the whole place down.

So, under latter midday sun, with absolutely nothing going on, I turned north along the town's only other wide-ish road and made my way back to the auberge.  And rest.

Which I did basically all day Friday.  As one gets older the mind still wants to do all these things and the body... just...  can't.  Funny how long squashed bus rides and waking up at 4 over and over wears you out.  Also I had developed this really bad hacking cough.  No fever or other bad signs, but still...  So it was just great to lie there in my clean, comfy room, and appreciate my current circumstances here in one of the strangest little excuses for countries that there is.

By Saturday, though, with no tour materializing, it was time to start coming up with some make do projects.  So I h3eaded over to the wharf, where I knew that a 9:30 ferry was going across the bay to the town of Tadjoura.  It was a small ferry, carrying a few vehicles and a couple hundred people, all well behaved.  I was the only white person on board, but white people are way more common in these parts, so absolutely no one in Djibouti ever pays the slightest attention.  Except of course to give a friendly 'bonjour'.  Very calm and pleasant folks.  (The suicide bomber, by the way, was a foreigner.)

It was a totally uneventful two hour journey across the water.  As we neared the other side I could see that the hinterlands were as dry and severe and mountainous as they come.  I would need a really well stocked 4WD and really good health to enjoy them.  The 'town' that we docked at, the largest settlement outside of the capital, was a squalid dump, with one paved street along the shoreline, and numerous slummy tiny dirt alleys leading away from it.  The ferry was slated to go back in about an hour, but I only walked around for twenty minutes.  I certainly didn't want to get back to the dock and see that it had taken off early.

At 3:30 we were back in Djibouti town, now looking like Civilization itself.  And I walked in the semi-hot sun back to Le Heron, not for the first time imagining just how stinking awful this place must be in July.

My Swiss friend Peter was on a different schedule and trajectory than mine, but he happened to have flown in this morning.  And we happened to successfully meet up at the Yemeni restaurant at 7 PM.  Not all that much to accomplish for one day, but given that it was Djibouti, then again it was.

By Sunday it was more than clear that no tour was going to happen.  But I still had one more day to fill.  So after my morning auberge breakfast of delicious croissants I headed north to the tip of the peninsula, past surprisingly many substantial embassies, and up to the gates of the Kempinski Hotel.  $550 a night for a single, but that does include breakfast.  I didn't care to try and make it past the armed guards, so I turned around and went back home.

I had just written an email to Peter to see if he had come up with any ideas of things to do when my phone rang, and Peter was down in the lobby.  Ever hopeful, he had put on his swim trunks, so, ever hopeful, I put on mine, too.  We already knew that the Kempinski charged $6 to use their pool, so instead we headed over to the closer Sheraton.

The guards there frisked us down for suicide vests, then cheerfully let us in.  The 'beach' there consisted of brown, garbage strewn mud lapped by putrid smelling brown water.  Enclosed in barbed wire.  We talked to an overweight British guy by the pool.  He had been there for seven months and, except, I presume, when on business, he had never left the hotel.  The scene didn't seem like ours.

By now I had gotten the Djibouti gist of things, and, save for accommodations, you could actually get by there fairly cheaply.  For instance, instead of paying $4 for a cab ride 'downtown', you could hop on a decrepit minibus for twenty cents.  Which we did.

Sunday was a work day, but the European Quarter was just about as empty and forlorn as it had been on Thursday.  The only thing that the suicide bomber had accomplished was to destroy what little commerce Djibouti had had.  Peter was staying at a hotel south of here, though, so he led me a couple of blocks to where the African Quarter started.

Somalis, like Ethiopians, consider themselves a cut above your typical African.  In my experience they are both several cuts above.  The Djiboutians, though, did look just slightly more African than other Somalis.  And the African Quarter did look way more African than any place else I had seen so far.  Paved streets now became dirt alleys.  Buildings became wood slat makeshift affairs.  Order turned to more random bustle. 

Everyone, though, was still polite and friendly.  Though very poor, there was no sense of desperation.

After about a half mile of that a poor commercial street emerged.  This was where Peter's hotel was.  But there was no place to eat or hang out.  So we turned around and went back to the European Quarter.

Everything is relative.  By comparison now, if not Paris, we were at least back in the land of rectangular grids.  We stopped at a cafĂ© that actually looked quarter decent, although stripped of customers due to the military bases being locked down.  A Coke was $6.  We went to a local bar a couple of doors down.  There a Coke was $1.  (It's fifty cents at a market.)  We passed an hour or so nursing a drink and watching relatively poor Somali men hang out and interact.

Then it was back to a roundabout and into a minivan and up to the Yemeni restaurant.  Where we nursed giant fruit juices while waiting for them to start up the Yemeni bread oven.  Then, after a lingering dinner and conversation, it was time for Peter and I to shake hands and go our separate ways.

The next morning I leisurely awoke, had my leisurely croissants, paid my hotel bill, and partook of their gracious shuttle service to the airport.  I never got the geologic drama of that tour, but then it turns out that most people who attempt to put together that tour don't succeed.

And if it so happens that I die tomorrow and Djibouti was the last new country that I ever saw, somehow, here at the sunbaked, forgotten end of the world, that would be fitting.


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.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ethiopia, Take One

I usually don't have apprehension before starting a trip. Then again, every year, every month, every day, every hour, I'm a little more feeble. Add to that the cocoon of living in the West always makes the rest of the world seem far scarier than it actually is. Plus the cold of winter and the added hassle of dealing with the business.

But I always have faith that once I'm in the air, if for no other reason than the fatigue of endless airports and waits and connecting flights, that will all fade away. And after about eight hours on the twelve hour flight from D.C, in the midst of the grog that these flights induce, I opened my little plane window, and we were right above the bright lights of the European Mediterranean coast. I knew that once we hit the African side there would just be the darkness of Libya and the long Saharan nothingness. And now I was back in my personal little world of travel.

The middle class Ethiopians sharing my flight seemed pleasant and on the ball. Brown, not black, they looked more like East Indians than Africans. Ethiopian Airlines is easily the best in Africa, but that isn't saying much. Yes, it was a Boeing 777, but there was no soap in the toilet, and the movie selection was terrible. I went back into my grog.

The sun came up over the Ethiopian plateau. Dessicated and sharply eroded. Finally some strangely shaped and colored fields, like one of those Earth From Above pictures. Then, in short order, a city and an airport.

A half hour for everyone to very slowly deplane. Then an hour in the visa on arrival line. When I finally made it out into the open air there was surprisingly low key hassle on a pleasant warm morning. My purported hotel pickup was not there, so I had to negotiate a taxi. Off we went into Addis Ababa.

Twenty years ago Ethiopia was the poorest country in the world, and in the grips of a frighteningly brutal police state to boot. So I was totally unprepared for the Third World Dubai which I was immediately thrust into. Incredible scenes of mindless construction everywhere: Buildings, buildings, buildings, virtually none of them anywhere near completion. All the roads torn up, with flyovers to nowhere and train tracks heading east. Where had the money come from to build this? Who was going to inhabit all the square footage? I had no idea.

Trip Advisor had ranked my hotel #6 in all of Addis. But it was a small, un-modern building on a dirt alley in the middle of nowhere. I'd been duped. I got my things to my room and then went out to explore my environs.

Over a half mile away was somewhat of a mall. The prices in the supermarket were really high. At least 8 ATMs in the area didn't work. I went into a bank and it took the guy twenty minutes to get all the approvals to change some money. I decided to go downtown. The cab driver wanted $8. I got into a minivan bus that I thought was going to Meskel Square. At some point a guy who spoke some English corrected me and said that if I got out immediately it was only a ten minute walk. Twenty minutes later I had found the bus company office, where I now bought a ticket to Harar.

That taken care of, now I had to get my visa for Somaliland. The taxi drivers were all blatantly cutthroat. I luckily found one who, all friendly, actually knew where their little office was. He helpfully waited outside while I filled out their half-legible form and gave them their $50. Then he drove me to an Indian restaurant. And tried to charge me a fortune for his helpfulness. I got rid of him and went inside and paid a fortune for a mediocre meal.

Sick of dealing with taxis, I decided to walk back towards my hotel. I made it a mile or so through a soulless endless commercial construction zone, with the afternoon getting steadily hotter. I finally gave up and got a taxi, who of course got lost trying to find the hotel. Which, of course, I couldn't really blame him for, since it was almost impossible to find. Did I mention that I hadn't really slept for at least 36 hours?

With the proper infusion of pills, however, I did knock myself out, break the jet lag, and get a good night's sleep. The next morning, though, my first order of business was to locate a better located hotel for when I returned to Addis. My best bet seemed to be one about a mile closer in to the center of town, so I planned to walk to it, check it out, and then take a taxi the rest of the way. Back along the endless road/building construction site. Problem was, there were absolutely no toad signs, in English or even funny Amharic script, anywhere in Addis. So I kept expecting to see the hotel at every major intersection. I kept walking and walking and walking. Then at some point I just happened to notice that I had just walked past Meskel Square in the center of the city. This was not being fun.
I was, however, somewhat around the corner from Ethiopian Airlines, so I went there to buy a couple of tickets from the nice young clerk.  A huge EEP when I realized how much my desire to go to Djibouti would set me back, but, hey, how many times does a guy get to go to Djibouti?
Now it was time for tourism.  So I overpaid a taxi to take me to St George Cathedral, one of the major centers of Ethiopian Christianity.  Which, if you are not aware, has been around since the 4th Century, and is its own distinctive branch.  Octagonal, somewhat like the churches in Georgia, I was anxious to go in and see the magnificent painted ceilings.  But a bunch of Ethiopian women, all clothed in white gauze, and standing and swaying and praying, all angrily chased me away.  Finding the men's entrance, they chased me away, too.  I sat and waited for their museum to open at 2.  But finally it dawned on me that this was the first day of Timkat, Ethiopia's most important religious festival.  So museums and churches would stay closed to the likes of me.
Okay, so off to the Ethnological Museum, which was somewhere on the University campus.  Walking up and down hills and around on winding roads, occasionally asking for the University, wonder of wonders, I actually found it on the first try.  Stucco buildings kind of still held together, this weren't the Harvard campus.  Weirdly, though, these buildings used to be Haile Selassie's palace complex.
The museum itself in fact used to be the Emperor's residence, and you can still see his bedroom and bathroom.  Frankly, even if you live in an apartment complex, you've got better quarters.  Most of the building, though, was given over to a small, but extremely well put together and intelligently described museum of the people and practices of the country.
It was after 4 now, so I walked the half mile or so down to the National Museum, which is famous for housing the bones of Lucy, our 3 million year old ancestor, plus other fossil hominids, Ethiopia being the place where the most important of them have been found.  I snapped away with my new camera.
Somehow I had lost my old camera last spring whilst Mo and I were in Granada, Spain.  Which meant that all my pictures of that trip had been lost.  So for Christmas I had bought myself a new Nikon, which I was now finding out to be a pretty neat one.
It was now 5:30 and the museum was closing.  I sat on a chair, took one last photo, and then walked out to where a nice cab driver was waiting.  He took me back to my hotel for only a slightly exorbitant fare.  I ordered a pizza at their tiny restaurant and went upstairs to wait.
While there I absent mindedly touched my pocket and realized that something was wrong.  No camera.  What???  Impossible.  I tore through all my pockets, small backpack, large backpack, then through everything again.   Unbelievable.  Writing this, at a distance, my most logical explanation is that both cameras vanished into thin air.  The alternative explanation, that somehow I have gotten so senile as to leave cameras lying around, is unacceptable.
So now I will have no pictures of this trip, either.
The next morning I was up at 4:30 for the 5:30 bus to Harar.  It was delayed for forty minutes because two different people said that their luggage was stolen, so the police had to be called.  Weird, since Ethiopia has a reputation for low crime, and because in all my world travels, I have never seen stolen luggage problems.  Good to know, though, for the future.
This was supposed to be one of the three fully modern bus companies, but the bus was only barely so, and hardly luxurious.  The first forty miles out of town were on a brand new expressway, but that soon stopped and we were on a two lane road the rest of the way.  Relatively well paved, though. 

The only other white person on the bus was sitting right next to me.  His name was Peter, he was Swiss, and when he turned 65 last year he realized that there was no way he could live at home on his measly pension.  So he decided to get rid of everything and just travel for the rest of his life.  Year one was Africa, and though he had almost died in West Africa, he was gamely following through on his plan.
It took 11 hours to get to Harar, and my first tired impressions were not good ones.  Yes, there was a hotel near the Old City gates, but it was dumpy and had no internet or running water, let alone edible food.  Of course, for $10...    Not to mention that my first brief excursion into the Old City showed something a lot drabber than the overblown descriptions of Harar would lead one to believe.
But there was one decent restaurant in the city.  Dribbling water came back on that night.  And a good night's sleep improved my outlook immeasurably.  And when Peter and I went for a stroll through the Old City on Sunday morning, it proved to be much cuter than the small part I had seen before.  I'm not sure it's worth a flight or an 11 hour bus ride, but it was suitably Medieval, with narrow twisting alleys and brightly colored walls.  Certainly more reminiscent of Morocco than the rest of Ethiopia.
And although Harar is mostly Muslim, it still has a significant Christian population (and everyone gets along just fine).  And, remember, it was Timkat weekend.  So in mid-afternoon I was delighted to come across a Timkat parade in the Old City, with hundreds of women, and men, swathed in white gauze and joyously dancing.  Plus a flatbed truck with singers and amplifiers, plus children in incredibly cute little religious uniforms, plus priests carrying crosses and sacred books, plus ornate religious umbrellas covering said priests.  Not to mention a lot of ululating.  All of it was actually quite moving and uplifting.
I followed them until they entered the new city.  Peter, who came upon them at a different point, said that they continued for about a mile, whereupon they met other groups from different directions.  Then they finally had a gigantic dancing, singing ululation.  And then everybody went home. 
Fortunately, earlier Peter had helped me buy a memory card for the $20 phone that I had brought along.  So I will have pictures of Timkat and the rest of my trip.  Just really bad ones.
Monday morning was the official Timkat holiday.  But the parade had been sufficient for me.  And I had 'gotten' Harar.  So it was time to move on.  At 7 am Peter and I went 200 meters to the little bus depot, where we got a funky Ethiopian bus for two hours to Jijiga.  Then a smaller funky bus to the small border town of Wajaale.
So far Ethiopia wasn't the most annoying place I've been to.  But it wasn't the least annoying, either.  Middle class folks are really nice.  But taxi drivers, bus loaders, and others involved with the farenji (foreigner) tourist trade can be a hassle.  Peter said that when I hit the 'historical circuit' I should be on my hassle guard.  Especially when compared with how nice most of Africa and Africans are.  We shall see.
But for now it was time to head into Somaliland.