A week ago I read somewhere that Somaliland is an interesting place to visit. It stated: "Where else can you visit a country which doesn't exist?"
It was at the border between Ethiopia and the Somali state Somaliland, that I met Rodrigo from Brazil. Rodrigo calls himself "Dida" and is 55 years old. He's visited 140 countries and has some loose plans to reach them all. But it's no life goal. He simply likes to travel and see the world. He travels exceptionally light and hardly carries anything. He doesn't have a phone and he speaks multiple languages. I felt it was a good decision to team up with him for my entry to this notorious country.
We quickly found ourselves on the backseat of a tired Toyota Corolla. While we waited for it to fill up with other passengers, we observed several people taking physical beatings. A man was being beaten in what looked like a harsh engagement, but then he jumped inside a truck while laughing? A few other people got too beatings without laughing. But to be fair most people were just people going about with life, selling goods, trading, talking, listening to music... Then we finally started moving forward towards Hargeisa. It was a relatively short drive and there was no need for any armed escort. I had chosen a hotel in advance (Oriental Hotel) which the driver dropped us off at. It ran for $15/night which included wifi and breakfast.
Hargeisa is a happening place which mostly consists of broken down roads and worn out buildings. In most cases the roads were simply dirt or gravel. But there was a lot of business going on with many colorful stands selling shoes, clothes, fruit, trading money and much more. People were friendly and curious: "Where are you from? What is your name? What are you here for?" I never felt like most people really spoke English, but the little they knew, they were happy to use. While friendly, it was also at times quite intense and slightly intimidating at times. It quickly became normal to observe a vehicle slow down and come to a complete stop next to us so that the driver could ask us where we were from. This would naturally block all traffic behind him and fire up an orchestra of horns beeping aggressively. But then life would go on.
Internet is great in Somalia and very fast. This was a welcome change from the limited Internet in Ethiopia, which is now coming to its end of the 'state of emergency'. The rooms at Oriental Hotel were quite fair and the food was great! Somalia is divided into 6 regional states: Somaliland, Puntland, Galmudug, Jubbaland, South West State and Central Regions State. But there has been no central governance for more than 25 years which complicates things. Somaliland used to be a colony under the British and it had its independence for 5 days before it became a formal part of Somalia in 1960. Much later Somaliland fought for independence and declared itself independent in 1991. This was however never recognized internationally and raises the question: What is a country?
Let's start from the bottom. What is a room? Well, I guess if you have 4 walls then you have a simple room. Put together 4-5 rooms and you have a house. If you have 5-10 houses then you have a village. More houses add up to a town and eventually a city. When does it become a country? Having been involved with the Saga on an every day basis for more than 3 years now, I get to debate this a lot. The Saga is a list of 203 countries, but http://mosttraveledpeople.com/ defines the world as 875 places. To go to all those places would be to go everywhere they say. By that they include states, territories, dependencies and much more. The United Nations has 193 member states and 2 observer states. It's basically a country club with memberships. But it's by no means a complete list. The United Nations does not recognize Somaliland as a country. It states that Somaliland is an autonomous region within Somalia. The African Union also does not recognize an independent Somaliland and continues to lobby for a united Somalia. So can you be a country if no one else says you are?
There is a mall in Hargeisa which surprised me a bit.
Ironically Somalis are seen as some of the most homogeneous people in all of Africa, so drawing borders and sectioning out countries seems fruitless. But Somaliland is by far the safest region in all of Somalia and also the best governed. It has its own currency, own passport, own government, own police force and own military. Citizens of Somaliland can however only travel to a handful countries which recognize their passport. So if Somalilanders wish to travel they must require a passport from Somalia and are you a country of your own, if you need to get permission to leave? There is no checklist for what makes a country and what doesn't. Generally, it can be said that you are a country when you have the backing and support from other countries. But how many? I could most definitely travel to other regions of Somalia, but it would require a lot of effort, money and time on my part. And to prove what? I can defend a thousand times over that Somaliland is not a country and that it is a part of Somalia. But can I defend it to myself?
People thousands of years ago knew a thing or two about reproduction ;)
The next day after arriving to Hargeisa Dida and I arranged for a driver and an armed escort to bring us to the exquisite cave paintings at Laas Geel. It's a relatively short drive into the desert outside of Hargeisa. The armed escort seemed unnecessary, but it was demanded upon us. A general theory is that the Somalilanders will go to great lengths to protect visitors as the unfortunate event of any harmful incidents could place Somaliland in a terrible position. Therefore tourist are generally over protected and ultra safe.
The rock art at Laas Geel could easily be 10,000 years old.
Laas Geel is wonderful! A team of Frenchmen were invited to come and explore it and that's how it first became famous to the international world. The tranquility which surrounds it is magnificent, and Dida and I both agreed that it could be an excellent camp sight for letting the world go for a few days or weeks.
You probably mostly know Somalia for piracy, which I'm sure you would agree is very ignorant? The reason why you don't hear much about it today is because it's mostly over. Unfortunately it may be coming back though! Somalia is a mountainous country with peaks that reach up to 2,460m (8,070ft) and Somalia has Africas longest coastline and some of the most pristine beaches. Just try searching the Internet for "Somali beaches" ;) Camels play an enormous role for business, status and livelihood. Along the coast fishing has naturally become a part of life. Unfortunately, the Somali coast has been overfished by outsiders - illegally naturally. As a result of the overfishing from foreign nations the Somalis retorted by seizing fishing boats in regular piracy. That evolved and much larger ships became targeted. The shipping industry couldn't tolerate the risk in the long run and the cooperate interests dictated joint military actions to neutralize the threat. Over the years piracy has become more rare and the fish have also returned. Because the illegal fishing was chased off with the fear of piracy. But now that the Somalis are once again returning to fishery, so are the foreign illegal fishing. And the circle begins all over again. At least this is the story some people believe in. And I've even heard it told by foreign experts. It's something to think about.
That's it for this camel! The markings signal that it will be slaughtered the next day.
Back at the hotel Dida and I met Eco and Luke from Australia. The 4 of us decided to join forces and head to the coast at Berbera. Rumors had it that we either needed an armed escort or a letter of exemption from the police or tourism authority to pass the checkpoints. But the man who owned the hotel said it would be no issue as the road was safe. So we partially agreed to get into a bus without further preparation. 20 minutes later we reached the first checkpoint which hauled us out of the bus and sent us back to Hargeisa in a taxi to arrange for an armed escort. This was a bit of a setback, but we were all seasoned travelers and could deal with it. Back in Hargeisa we went straight for the police station, where we were warmly greeted. After a while we sat in with the man in charge: Lt. Colonel Abdi of East Efficient, Hargeisa. He said we didn't need any escort as the road was safe. He wouldn't give us a letter, but I got his phone number and we were told to call him if we had any trouble. We thanked him and got on the next bus to Berbera. 20 minutes later at the same checkpoint we ran into a furious man who was unwilling to speak with us, because we had come back without an armed escort. I tried to reason with him, but had no luck with it. Meanwhile I did my best to call Lt. Colonel Abdi who of course didn't answer his phone. This time we were forced back into the bus and the entire bus was told to return to Hargeisa with all of its passengers!! The mood from the Somalis inside wasn't favorable and I kept trying to call the Colonel!! After having tried to reach him 21 times I gave up. The mood inside the bus had settled. The bus went straight for the police station which now appeared closed. The 4 of us were told to follow a man from the bus and after 10 minutes of sitting on the steps in front of the station, we were then told to get back into the bus which had been waiting for us the entire time with all of its passengers?! Then 20 minutes later we reached the checkpoint and the bus driver spoke with the guards through the window at his seat. A few minutes later we passed the checkpoint without any problems?
Luke is enjoying the fresh dusty air in our bus to Berbera.
I think this is a good story to explain Somalia. What is possible now can be impossible just 5 minutes later. And what isn't possible today can be possible tomorrow. Generally I have found it to be very hard to come by any solid information regarding Somalia. I have received plenty of information, but it has been very difficult to confirm any of it. Life in Somalia is not easy. But as you remember I mentioned earlier that the Internet is good, so you must conclude that a great many are well informed and connected to the rest of the world. It is complex as usual.
Berbera is not the most interesting village I've ever been too. The beaches there are fair, but not amazing. The water was however amazing! Pure and the perfect temperature! I suspected that just a few kilometers down the coast the beach might be spectacular, but I couldn't be bothered. The 4 of us were even more of an attraction in Berbera than we had been in Hargeisa. It was a bit intense, but at the same time overwhelmingly friendly. The fish in Berbera is good and we found a decent place to stay. Dida and I shared a room and so did the Australians. Our first night was New Year's Eve and with alcohol being banned Luke and I decided to go out and buy some khat. After chewing that stuff for a while I felt the right side of my mouth going a little numb. But that was the only effect I got out of it. It tasted horrible. Luke said he felt relaxed in his body, but refreshed in his brain. Generally people resemble the chewing of khat to be like chewing coca leaves. It's a stimulant and needs to be chewed within 24 hours of being harvested to have the effect. They don't grow it in Somalia so it comes from Ethiopia. After an hour of chewing leaves I decided I wasn't a giraffe and stopped. I guess khat is not for me. We spotted 1 and a half rocket explode into fireworks which took all of 2 seconds. 5 minutes past midnight I went to bed. Happy New Year.
In Berbera we met a traveling teacher from Luxembourg. Pit was his name and he now joined our group. Pit has also been to well over 100 countries. You can imagine the rainbow of country names we had to present every time someone shouted: "Hello!! Where are you from?" After a few nights we decided it was time to return to Hargeisa. Pit was staying behind as he had arranged to go diving. Eco, Luke, Dida and I got onboard a bus and left. We had no issues reaching Hargeisa and checked back into Oriental Hotel. The day after that Pit rejoiced with us and had quite a story!! He had been out for a run when armed soldiers picked him up at gunpoint! While he sat in the vehicle with 2 Kalasnikov rifles pointing towards his temple he was wandering what was going on?!? After a while of driving about he was suddenly released?? He never found out what it was about and returned to running. Strange?
Most buildings in Berbera weren't as nice as this one. Somalia looks as if it has been through many years of conflict. Which it has and still is having.
I had dinner in Hargeisa with Danish Michael from Danida. Great an knowledgeable guy!
Eco boarded a flight to Addis Ababa. Pit flew to Djibouti and Dida, Luke and I arranged for a 4WD to take us to the Djibouti border. When the moment came to leave Oriental Hotel Dida suddenly backed out and proclaimed that he would rather stay? This surprised Luke and I, but there wasn't anything to do about it. The driver was unhappy that he had lost a passenger and instead of paying $40 each we settled on $50. That quite an interesting ride through the desert!! I had checked google maps prior to our departure and there appeared to be a road? But we went straight into the desert which could be for various reasons? Perhaps the road was in poor condition after decades of neglect? Perhaps there was fuel to save by going in an almost straight line? Who knows? It was a bumpy ride for sure and we weren't alone. About 5 4WD's set out from Hargeisa at the same time and the entire way it seemed as we were in a race to be the lead vehicle, which kept the speeds at a maximum.
Lawyacado is a tiny village at the coast of the Gulf of Aden. It borders Djibouti which is set to be country number 124. To exit Somalia we had to pay $31 each unless we could produce a receipt for our Somaliland visa? We couldn't, because they never handed us one at the diplomatic mission in Addis Ababa. But there was no arguing. We both paid and then walked across the border land.
In Djibouti the kind immigration officers greeted us and asked us to sit and wait for their boss. After about an hour a man in a decorated uniform appeared to sit and speak with us. He looked at our paperwork and we were told that a visa would cost $90 which we excepted. Then we were told to wait again. A young immigration officer handed us each a bottle of water. We were optimistic. 2 hours later a uniformed man came to tell us that he had bad news: We were being deported?!? He actually used that word: "Deported". For a second I feared being escorted to the airport, but all we had to do was walk back to Somalia. We were however given some time to make a few calls and get it sorted. There's a Danish consulate in Djibouti, Maersk Line is expecting me there and I'm planing to visit the Djibouti Red Cross as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross. So I had plenty of people to contact. But after only a few minutes we were told to leave as they were closing between noon and 4pm.
At 4pm we returned only to be told to wait. After 30-40 minutes of waiting and upset un-uniformed man came to ask if we had a visa? As we began to reply he said: "Go back to Addis Ababa and get your visa!" I did my best to explain that I had been at the Djibouti embassy which explained to me that visas for Djibouti are issued at the border for those coming from Somaliland. They explained this at the embassy by adding that it was because there is no diplomatic mission in Somaliland. The man wasn't interested in listening at all. He was involved in a monolog and not a conversation. The man went on to preach how normal it is to get a visa at an embassy and not at border crossings!! He emphasized how he would need to visit an embassy, before receiving a visa for our respective countries. This was bonkers and highly problematic! But we had to leave the building in order not to upset him further. Outside of the immigration building we proceeded to reach the Danish consulate which confirmed that as a Danish citizen I could obtain my visa at the border. After about 10 minutes of standing outside the upset un-uniformed man came to see "What our problem was?!? Why we were still there??" We tried to reason with him, but had no chance. He wouldn't offer us his name, his rank, his position and he wouldn't take my phone to speak with the Country Manager of Maersk Line in Djibouti who was at the other end of the line. So eventually we had to retrieve to Somalia.
It's really great to have some travel companionship for a change. Even when it's an Aussie ;)
Back in Somalia we explained the situation to Yaya who is head coordination of the Somali border post. He was very cool about everything and let us enter Somalia although our visas had already been stamped with our exit. We then received help to find a place for the night. Funny story actually! Because neither Luke nor I believed in finding a proper place for the night in this small village? I figured I'd be using my hammock or I might have some sort of bed to sleep in out in the open? Luke and I made a bet in which he would pay if we found a room and I would pay if it was some much rougher setup. But we found a quite decent room with two beds and wifi for only $10/night. You just never know :)
$1 lunch which you eat with your fingers while the other hand keeps the flies away.
The next day a man showed up with a phone and said: "Do you have a friend that might be looking for you?" Luke and I had no idea and replied no. But the man insisted that the man on the phone was looking for 2 men; one tall and one short, one with a beard and from Denmark...I grabbed the phone and it was Dida! He had reached Lawyacado the day after us with another 4WD. But to save money he had been sitting on the roof the entire way with risk of falling off and loosing his life!! At times the 4WD went 100 kph! I guess I forgot to tell you that Dida negotiates on EVERYTHING! And I mean everything. In this case he got away with paying only $10 for sitting on the roof :) We all went to see Yaya at the Somali border post. The night before Luke and I had been on the phone with a high ranking government official in Djibouti who sits close to the president. He was interested in our story and wanted to help us. But now the weekend was upon us (Friday-Saturday) and Dida felt chance less to get his visa in the current situation. More so I think he was unhappy to gamble with $31 dollars exit fee in case he couldn't cross. So Dida was INSIDE a 4WD heading the 15 hours back to Hargeisa across the desert. Luke and I are still here. And tomorrow we'll know more about our possibilities of being able to cross.
Somalia is a country for seasoned travelers and of course I didn't venture into such territory without some sense of backup. You can safely visit the northern part (Somaliland) but you know: just in case!
So here's a SHOUTOUT to Secured inc. who generously had my back the entire time! :)