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Many Adventures of a Nomadic Poet A young poet with Asperger's makes travel his passion, and away he goes...

Somali-what?

SOMALIA | Friday, 8 March 2013 | Views [1830]

After spending more than a month in Ethiopia I crossed the no-man's land into Somaliland. At customs I was photographed and told "Welcome to Somaliland" after getting an entry stamp that most well-seasoned travellers would only dream of. When I exchanged $20 I was handed a stack of Somaliland  shillings an inch thick. Getting a cup of Somali tea was a simple matter; finding transport to Hargeisa (the capital) a little less so. When I found a shared taxi I found out it would only cost $7 (49,000 shillings) from the border to Hargeisa but I had to wait a while whilst the driver hung out with friends, did his thing, chatted, waited for more passengers, and so forth. The police, or some sort of official came and removed a passenger whom had fetched me a cup of tea and chatted with me. I don't know if they thought he was trying to get money or whatever but it didn't seem fun. All I knew is I wanted to get to Hargeisa; I was filthy and sweaty, and just wanted to sit down, eat, have a cup of tea, and have a shower. When enough passengers were found we pulled into another place nearby whilst the driver stopped for snacks and chatted some more. When I saw someone had chocolate bourbon cookies I wanted some, so a passenger fetched me some when I gave him some shillings. We seemed to sit for more than an hour, and I was getting annoyed. I wanted to get to Hargeisa, and I wanted to get there now! Like three hours after I entered the country we started driving along this dirt road.  It seemed it wasn't a real road at all but merely a line or a shortcut of sorts thought of by the driver(s) who drive this route. We seemed to drive for hours through the desert. There's something really romantic and surreal about this place; I don't know what, but I can sense it. Once we reached a road, the driver stopped again for something. He seemed to talk to his friends for awhile, and when he dropped off a passenger up the road he drove around in circles in search of another one to fill that spot. That's not to mention all the police checkpoints we passed through. I had to pull out my passport so many times I kept it in my front shirt pocket so I didn't have to dig out my wallet each time. Over a stretch of 90 km we must have gone through seven checkpoints and at one of them a passenger got out like 50 m before, walked around the checkpoint, and then caught up with us as the driver waited for him. I needed a shower like, really bad. When we reached Hargeisa I just wanted to get out of that vehicle! The Oriental Hotel wasn't a far walk away, and farther from being Oriental. There are Oriental designs hanging on some of the walls but that's about it. A room here is $15 per night, which isn't bad since I have a bed, a private bathroom, a TV, and a hot shower. Somali tea is excellent! It's usually served with milk but I could ask for it without milk, and like Ethiopian tea it's served with huge amounts of sugar. Hargeisa is very unique. Moneychangers sit outside with huge bundles of money. There is seemingly everything for sale in Hargeisa: stereos, DVDs, DVD players, exercise bikes, ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, etc. Coming into Hargeisa I saw billboards advertising attorneys, real estate brokers, exterminators & fumigation, etc. so there's definitely a sense of prosperity in this country that doesn't exist to the rest of the world. Hargeisa's main thoroughfare is a paved road that's mostly covered in sand.

At my hotel I opted for a dinner of lamb curry. In Ethiopia I totally lost my appetite for meat, so this was my first time eating meat in over a month. There is no alcohol to speak of in Somaliland, so the "bar" is adorned with Coke, Sprite, and fruit juice. As I stayed here tonight I haven't seen another foreigner but there are plenty of Somalis staying here. On the front door there are flyers advertising Somaliland as Africa's "adventure destination" with trips to Las Geel and so forth. The one thing I wouldn't find here is a post office, a stamp, or a postcard

Rising early the following morning, merchants, moneychangers, shoppers, and worshippers were out in full force. For breakfast (included in my stay) I opted for french toast and tea. A popular breakfast food in Somaliland is called loxox (pronounced something like "low-ho"), which is bread with butter, eggs, and honey. Goat meat is very popular as well. Though I'm a much more adventurous eater than I used to be, I wasn't ready for any of that. There are huge blocks of money for exchange out here on the street; Somaliland is considered peaceful enough and the value of the currency low enough that they have no qualms about it.

The largest note is 5000 shillings (worth about US$0.80), and there are no coins. What I needed to do this morning was get a new visa for Ethiopia since they're not available at the border. I took a yellow taxi to Ethiopia's "embassy" where I had to walk down a sandy alley and then to an armed guard. I had to leave my camera (taking my memory card with me though), mobile phone, sunscreen, and water filter. Then it was a waiting game as flies were annoying the crap out of me. As a de facto country, the Ethiopian Liaison Office is the only diplomatic representation in Somaliland, and the only Somaliland offices abroad are in Addis, London, and Virginia. When I was finally summoned into the office after more than an hour of waiting I was offered a cup of tea whilst I had to present two photos and $20, and fill out the usual paperwork. They had the visa stickers on hand but the official says "come back Monday" (two days later) but I wasn't interested in that because I wanted to leave for Berbera tomorrow and I needed my passport to get through the checkpoints. Then he said "OK, come back at 12:30 (two hours later). See, sometimes persistence pays off. Aside from the MiG fighter jet and a couple of attractive mosques, there is a dearth of sights in Hargeisa.

The atmosphere and euphoria of being the only foreigner is the reason to come here, as is having the braggings rights of "I've been to Somaliland." If I told my friends I was here they'd either be like "Where?" or "Are you crazy?" Heading back toward my hotel I got some seriously delicious chocolate ice cream and a non-alcoholic malt drink. A monkey called in as I sipped my brew, and even though the owner shooed him out I wanted to see him so I was given some bits of bread to feed him.

Passport and Ethiopian visa in hand at 12:30 I was happy to get that over with, but everything, and I mean everything, shuts down for about three hours for lunch. All there is to do during this time is to either chill out at the hotel, or chat with the locals. I opted for the latter and chatted to the moneychangers. They asked me "why did you come to Somaliland?" and I explained for the novelty of doing so. There's really not a lot to do here, and the internet is cheap so I went online, caught up with friends on Facebook, and tried to upload photos with no luck. When the cafe shut for the evening prayer call I was out there whilst I could hear the call from the mosque, and I thought of the mantra "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." A local man summoned me to participate and be a Muslim for awhile, so I bowed to the ground next to hundreds of locals and gave thanks for being here. When prayer finished he talked to me about Allah and explained that Islam is a very peaceful religion. I agree with that, as there are fundamentalists in every religion. What I really wanted was a copy of the Qu'ran in English but I couldn't seem to find one at the various booksellers in the vicinity. When I called into a cafe for some sambusas and tea I was greeted by a man who used to live in Chicago. He seemed intrigued at the fact I came to Somaliland, but in two days here I've experienced a lot of that. After all I haven't seen another foreigner anywhere; not at my hotel, not at the Ethiopian embassy, not anywhere! Tonight as I was trying to sleep I was all bit up by mosquitoes, and even though everything else in my room is fine, the fan didn't work. Annoyed as I woke to itching on my face at 1 AM I had to go bug the attendant for a fan. Hargeisa: it's hot, dusty, and slightly boring, but it's the kind of place that quickly gets under your skin with its dusty streets, many shops, moneychangers, and chatty locals. 

 

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