Back and forth in Ethiopia, hyenas, checkpoints and visas
Ethiopia just couldn't let me go
Once Upon A Saga is perhaps the only project in the World which aims to send 1 man through every single country within 1 single unbroken journey - completely without the use of flight. It's a world record attempt, it's a humanitarian project, its for inspiration, entertainment and education. It's for you.
The ever so lovely family of Derejes parents (Alemu and Almaz) have been taking good care of me. Their son Dereje is married to Kathrine who went to school with my fiancées sister. And that's exactly 1 way of ending up in an Ethiopian home. Links and connections - sometimes it feels like that's what carries the Saga forward.
Alemu was kind enough to get up before 04:00am (10:00 Ethiopian time) to drive me to my bus at Meskel square, Addis Ababa. The bus departed at 05:00 which is early for someone who commonly stays up till past midnight. I said farewell to Alemu and the bus took off. 10 minutes into the bus ride I suddenly and very unexpectedly flew straight into the air and came crashing down again. The lunatic driver had hit a pothole really hard! When I landed I felt a sharp pain in my upper back. A pain which would make it a really long trip to Harar in the east.
The best thing I can say about the bus ride is that Ethiopia is unreasonable beautiful to rest your eyes upon. At first it all looks a little dry. But as you're eyes adapt it's simply stunning! It's also the most mountainous country throughout all of Africa which is to say a lot. Even Addis Ababa (meaning new flower) sits as a mountain capital at 2,300 meters (7,500 ft) above the sea. Now I'm at it, I might as well remind you that to go once around the African continent is equal in distance to going once around the planet.
I was really in pain and wondering what could have happened to my back? But gradually over the 12 hour bus ride the pain shifted from my upper spine to my left shoulder blade, which had me worry less. I'm probably just getting too old for this. Certainly to unfit for this... We reached Harar, a former regional capital, before the sun set. I went straight for my hotel which I had picked by looking at google maps for a bit. I needed a little luxury and this was December 24th. Friends and family in Denmark were definitely getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Soon they would rejoice around a well set table, eat a Christmas meal, play a game, dance and sing around the Christmas tree, open presents and exchange polite thanks to each other. That's December 24th in Denmark for you. We call it "jul" and not Christmas. It's derived from the much more ancient "yule" which we have from our Viking forefathers.
My room was nice and cost me $17 so it was a rather expensive night. I just wanted to sleep. But I hadn't had lunch and a headache was coming on. So after about 10 minutes in the room I headed to the hotel restaurant and had a huge Ethiopian meal. I just can't get enough of that stuff. Now I was really tired, but Harar has a historical downtown with some old gates. And I knew I'd be leaving Harar in the morning. Sleep or history lessons? Besides at nightfall there's a chance to met the hyena men and feed wild (slightly domesticated) hyenas. Where else in the world?
As I walked down the street my back and head were begging me to stop. But then the aspirin began to kick in. Around here we keep on keeping on? I reached the first gate and took a minute to savor that memory. Too often we take photos and move in too fast.
Beyond the gate the roads turned narrow and the atmosphere became calm. It was a welcome contrast to the vibrant market on the other side. I decided to wander through the narrow streets to see where it would bring me? I passed a mosque, a church and many residential houses before I reached another old city gate which got me to the outskirts of Harar. Okay? Time to find the hyena men. I walked around, found several tuctuc drivers which are called "Bajaj" in Ethiopia. 3 wheeled motorcycles. One knew what I wanted and drove me out to a very young hyena man who seemed more focused on money than giving anyone a good experience. There were about 3 other people there and more would arrive. Eventually we had several cars parked on one side of us and the openness of the wild on the other. Harar has a long standing history with the spotted hyena. And about 100 years ago someone began feeding hyenas to keep them from attacking livestock. I believe that the experience I was about to have would have been a lot more special and far more authentic just a few years ago. There used to be many hyena men, but now there are only few. And it's clearly little more than a tourist attraction now. But still...if the hyenas are having a bad day you might feel the full wrath of a pack of powerful carnivores. And as the sun had set and it became almost pitch black there was certainly still something very special about feeding them at a hands length! A chunk of meat goes on the end of a small stick and that's how you feed them. I was told that you could hold the stick between your teeth and feed them like that for an extra thrill! But I didn't get that chance. No one did. But the hyena man himself did it a few times. I really wanted to try that though.
I slept like a baby that night. Then I got up early, had breakfast and headed to the next bus which would get me to Jijiga. Jijiga used to be a caravan stop back in the day. It's referenced several times throughout history. Today it's a busy place with many cars and few camels. Another bus got me to the border with Somaliland at Wajale. There's good information and then there's bad information. Sometimes it's hard to know what's what? I had information that I needed a visa in my passport before I arrived to the border. But then I met a man I trusted who said that I can easily get my visa at the border. Furthermore this man gave me a number for a man in Hargeisa (Somaliland) who I could call if I needed to. Because with the help from that man I would definitely get my visa on the border! Well guess what?
The Wajale crossover is not a nice place. Not at all. I wouldn't want to be there after dark. It looks like a landfill which people have decided to live upon. But I suspect that it's simply waste from those who live there or pass through. Throwing waste on the ground has little importance to those who struggle with other and more pressing matters than global warming and pollution. Ironically these are the same people who end up with cholera or diarrhea due to poor waste management. More work for the Red Cross.
I stamped out of Ethiopia feeling confident. I then walked over the small path between countries which is set in the middle of the desert. Surely anyone could walk around it and I'm sure farmers and herders do. Believe me I received many comments from many people who couldn't believe the direction I was heading in. But also from many opportunist who wanted to make a buck or two off this misplaced European. There was nothing I could have done! No visa no pass: "Go back to Addis Ababa. Good day sir". In relative confidence I called my contact in Hargeisa. He tried but couldn't change the situation. I grew desperate and contacted the other guy who then called to press the man in Hargeisa to push harder on immigration. But the outcome was the same. I couldn't believe it. Return 14 hours to Addis Ababa, apply for visa and then come back once more? I was in pain. I felt stupid because this could easily have been avoided. I didn't need the extra mileage! I needed to cross this border!! But what can a lone European do when after he made a bad decision. It was back to Addis Ababa for me - but the re-entry to Ethiopia had a surprise in store for me! First off I had a single entry visa to Ethiopia so now that I had stamped out I couldn't technically re-enter Ethiopia. But I managed to explain the situation to the immigration officer who was kind enough to understand and cancelled my exit.
Then I got into a minibus to Jijiga which cost me 100 birr. I thought that was a bit much because the ordinary bus from Jijiga to Wajale had only been 30 birr. But I accepted. Once inside they made a huge fuss out of something and I had to pay more? I didn't understand exactly what was going on because the conversation from the angry steward was in Amharic and I hardly understand more than to say thank you. But I had paid my 100 birr. After about 20 minutes discussion the guy sitting in front of me (Sahnuun) revealed that he spoke some English. He also revealed how much he had paid and how much the woman next to me had paid. Apparently I had been given the right price, but everyone else had paid 50 birr extra. So the steward wanted an extra 50 birr from me. 50 birr is around $2 so it's not the end of the world, but I'm really running low on finances and a deal is a deal. Given the situation I had to give in though. I couldn't be the "rich" European who paid less than everyone else. So I caved and paid. In a second the steward went from being the angry man who could kill me to being my best friend and harmony was restored in our minibus.
20 minutes later we hit a checkpoint which looked like a long line of refugees being held back. There was also a long line of busses and minibuses which quite dramatically were being emptied completely for anything which could be removed from their insides. Carpets, tools, bags, goods... All of it on the side of the road for some sort of extreme control.
Men lined up in two long lines in front of all the buses. Women lined up in two long lines further ahead of the men. Everyone was almost violently searched including whatever bags they might carry. When the inspector saw me (after 30 minutes of standing in line) he pulled me out and up in front of everyone. In Amharic I was commanded to open both my bags. I really wish I travelled more light!! I have a superb system and order in both my bags. It's quite optimal after 3 years on the road. I can find anything I need in both bags with my eyes closed if I need to. This razzia was chaotic and violent. I never found out what they were looking for and I halfway suspect they didn't really know themselves? It often seemed as the goal was to create a mess over actually searching for something. Everything I had came out and was pilled up on the middle of the road. My sleeping bag, my hammock and my mosquito net were all drawn out of their holsters to add to the mess. My medicine bag was likewise turned upside down. All my clothes unfolded. Cotton buds were now all over the place...it was a mess and looking at the enormous pile of electronics and clothes I wondered how on earth all of that ever fitted into my bags?!? Eventually the inspector detected my VHF radio (which has been handy at marinas) and my GPS transmitter which enables me to plot my position all around the world. Those items were confiscated. Then I was clearly commanded to fit my mountain of belongings back into my bags?!? I was chance less!
Sahnuun (who's from Somaliland) was very well dressed and standing next to me the entire time. He tried to help as much as he could. Especially with conversation and commands). He also helped me pack the chaos the best we could. I had a sharp eye on several of the nearest people safeguarding my belongings for as long as I could. But also I had my eye on the inspector so that I wouldn't loose my radio and GPS. Then it was time for my strip search which was very thorough!! The inspector certainly confirmed that I belonged to the male species! Next step was to present me in front of his 2 khat chewing superiors. Sahnuun follows and translated. An hour had already passed and now I was looking at these 2 superiors of which one of them wore a flashy leather jacket on top of his uniform. He also wore a sparkling golden watch, golden rings and golden necklace. Several cellphones were spread out in front of the 2 men who sat on a carpet with their backs cushioned against the wall. A suspicious girls sat next to them. A personal servant? This looked pretty bad! But I'm no spring chicken. 20 minutes later I was sitting next to the superiors and had been offered both khat and cigarettes. After another 20 minutes I could leave with my belongings. And 20 minutes after that we were all back in the minibus heading west into the sunset. My back was in pain, my head was tired and my spirits were rather low. Then we hit another checkpoint!!
After 3 checkpoints we reached Jijiga. I had hardly traveled anywhere on my long way back to Addis Ababa! It was late, I arrange for a bus ticket and departure the next day. Then I had dinner and fell asleep in a substandard room near the terminal.
I was up the next day at 04:00am and the bus left at 05:00. 13 hours later we rolled into Addis Ababa. I had spoken to Alemu who told me that I was welcome back at their house. A taxi got me that far. Alemu and Almaz practically felt like family at that point. I told them all which had happened and went to bed. The next day Alemu had to go to town and gave me a ride. But as we got closer to town he decided to bring me all the way to the Somaliland diplomatic mission. Addis Ababa has both a Somaliland diplomatic mission and a Somalia embassy. The United Nation only recognizes Somalia which to them includes Jubbaland, Puntland, Somaliland or any other fractions within. It gets a little complicated which I'll dive into in the next blog. The Somaliland diplomatic mission had moved and we went for the newly advised location. But it wasn't there neither. At this point it had gotten personal for Alemu who now wanted to deliver me at the door even if it took him all day!! He's such a great guy and the conversations we've had in his car are priceless! Eventually we ended up at the Somalia embassy which of course couldn't recognize Somaliland as a sovereign entity. So in stead we were directed to the Somali part of the city. From there we were directed to the new address of the Somaliland diplomatic mission. At this point I was quite happy that Alemu was stubborn and that I was still in his car. We reached the place and I said farewell to Alemu. 20 minutes later I had my visa which cost $70. It took more time to fill out the paperwork than for the lady to issue the visa. Top efficiency!
I then walked to the Djibouti embassy because now I wasn't taking any more chances. They confirmed that if I wanted to enter from Ethiopia then I needed a visa. But if I entered from Somaliland then I could get my visa at the border. In order to get my visa in Addis Ababa I had to present a ticket and a hotel confirmation. The embassy had closed 10 minutes before I arrived and it was only a courtesy from their part that they let me in to ask my questions. So I didn't get a visa - but I didn't need one...right? I then walked the 45 minutes it took to get downtown. On my way to the bus company I noticed suspicious behavior from two young men approaching me in the crowd of city folk. I ignored them until the one on my right approached me from behind and grabbed my left arm hard!! This was a distraction to let the other smaller one, holding a homeless magazine, try to pick my pocket. Fortunately I was alert and far taller than both, so I raised my right arm threatening to punch the one who grabbed me in the face!!! Almost magically my left hand defended my other side from the pickpocket and got a hold of his magazine? As I stood there towering over the distractor I noticed that his biceps were pretty much twice the size of mine. But being tall has scared people off before and I was relatively in control. In a firm voice I uttered: "TRY THAT ONE MORE TIME!!" While I pointed at them with my angry index finger. Then I threw the magazine at the little one as they both startled made their escape. All of that took but a few seconds and I spun around and continued my stride as if nothing had happened (although my heartbeat was racing at a higher pace). I got my bus ticket for a next day departure at 05:00am. Then I made my first metro ride onboard the "Ethiopia Metro" which is spectacular as far as I can tell. From one end of town to the other it's only 4 birr which is practically nothing. The last metro I saw was in Morocco 46 countries ago...and I hear that Cairo also has one. If you ask me then all the African capitals should have one.
From the final station I walked about 90 minutes to reach Alemu and Almaz. I was beat. We had a delicious Ethiopian dinner together and then I said goodbye as I would be getting up before 04:00am to catch a taxi to the bus. Here we go again. This bus driver wasn't a madman and it was a rather pleasant journey (although my back was still aching). The landscape was as spectacular as it had been the first 2 times. I'm such an idiot.
Somewhere along the bus ride I received notice that I might not be granted entry to Somaliland without an armed escort. And I was furthermore informed that I probably couldn't arrange for an escort at the border. This contradicted the information I had about being able to travel from the border to Hargeisa without armed escorts due to the region being safe. But things change all the time... Oh no? If I could cross would I then need to return to Addis Ababa once more? No - I could make my way to the Djibouti border and then...uhh...ehh...ups...not without the visa!! Then back to Addis Ababa?!? Please, please, please...let me cross or be able to arrange for escorts at the border!!! Please!! The thing with a country like Somalia or Somaliland or what you prefer to call it is, that it's hard to come by good information. Generally there seems to be a wealth of information and then the trouble is to work out what's not true. Fun times...
Back at the border I passed the massive checkpoint and dreaded having to come back through it one more in case I couldn't enter Somaliland! The inspectors solely address those coming into Ethiopia and not those leaving. That the almighty universe for that! :) I once again walked towards the Somaliland immigration and minutes later I was welcomed into the "country which doesn't exist". Minutes later I was being hassled by the many drivers anxious to drive me to Hargeisa. This is when I met 55 year old Rodrigo from Brazil. He has been to 140 countries.
The blog about what happened next will start next Friday. Happy New Year! ;)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - 123 countries!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga