Sunday, March 04, 2012


Believe it or not but Somaliland has been awesome and probably the best part of the whole trip. In the end I crossed over to Somaliland with the 2 Canadian guys, Tyler and Charlie, as the American teachers disappeared in a flaky kind of way and we didn't want to wait around for them any longer. We had to take 3 different vehicles to finally get to Hargeisa, the “capital” of Somaliland.
What is Somaliland? We've all heard of Somalia, but what many people don't realize is that there are actually 2 breakaway regions of Somalia that have become de facto independent (yet internationally unrecognized) countries that are more stable and safe than Somalia proper. One is Puntaland, which is still pretty dodgy and a no go for tourists without a well armed escort and major visa hassle. The other is Somaliland. Somaliland itself is a bit of an oddity anyway. While Somalia historically was an Italian colony, the region that is today Somaliland was at one point a British protectorate so there is surprisingly a decent amount of English spoken. They broke away from Somalia in 1991 I think so they've been operating on their own for quite a while and have a stable government, their own ministries, military, currency, visa, etc.
None of it is recognized though so the money is more of a black market situation with guys on the street with piles of money to change. They quote you prices in US dollars all the time and it's the best currency to have here, but it's more fun to change your money over to Somaliland shillings and pay that way. $1 is worth 6200 shillings. I have seen a just-introduced 5000 shilling note, but nobody has them to use yet. They also have 1000 notes since last year which we mostly use, but most stuff seems to operate off of the 500 note. We would change between $10 and $20 at a time because otherwise we'd end up with a huge pile of bills that no pocket could hold. It's just like in Uzbekistan and fun to once again be paying your $1.5 lunch with a big wad of cash. For some strange reason Somaliland is also said to have the fastest internet in Africa and the cheapest local calls as well.

Money anyone?

We arrived in Hargeisa after dark, after a long an painful journey from the border in the trunk section of a station wagon shared taxi. 4 ½ people in a space that should've been 3 max but more reasonably for 2. My first impression of Hargeisa was that it was a lot more active than I expected. It may not be the most developed capital around, but it felt a lot more lively and interesting than N'Djamena for example. But that's a bit unfair. Hargeisa has a larger population crammed into a smaller space and upon further inspection, has nothing at all to see or do. The main attraction is a monument in the centre with a shot down MiG jet on top. The monuments all seem to commemorate the fight for independence and many have very graphic murals painted on them.

Must've been a brutal fight...

The main attraction to see in Hargeisa.

Compared to Ethiopians, the Somalilanders are super friendly. It's really night and day after crossing the border. From all the hassle in Ethiopia to suddenly everyone coming up to you to say hi and welcome and ask where you are from. Yes there are some beggars and some kids still ask for money but on the whole it’s really tame. We had a few people ask us where our armed guard was and warned us to be careful in Somaliland but actually we have felt no threats or anything thus far. There is of course a big safety risk in being here still. The border is super porous so the risk of extremists coming from Somalia proper to attack westerners is very real. In 2008 we were thinking of coming over this way but right before we would've there was a terrorist attack in Hargeisa on western targets including the Ethiopian embassy. Somaliland is also in dispute with Puntaland about where it's borders are so it's not possible to go very far to the east. Somalia of course, like everyone else, does not recognize its independence... I would say though that Somaliland tourism is starting to develop in the sense that I've met a handful of people that have been over here now as it's quite an easy process from Ethiopia. There are probably many more tourists visiting Somaliland than say Chad or CAR at the moment.
So our first night we ended up in a very nice hotel that cost too much because we'd arrived late and had no better options. The next day Tyler and Charlie checked into a cheaper hotel and I couchsurfed with Melissa.
I was very lucky with the Melissa situation. The family met Melissa in Mali in Dec 2007 through couchsurfing though we didn't stay with her at that time. We hung out a bit in Bamako and I've kept in touch since. She's also from Vancouver but has been in Africa for the last 5 years working with different aid organizations and after Mali lived in Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan and moved to Somaliland only a couple weeks ago. She sent me a message as soon as I got to Ethiopia to come say hi as she correctly suspected that I would be coming to Hargeisa. I couchsurfed with her for 2 nights in their organization's compound and got a bit of the inside story from some of the other people working there. She is currently working with the Danish Demining Group which is pretty cool. Her work range currently includes Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda as well and she's actually replacing the previous worker who was kidnapped on the job (and later released). One of the nights we hung out at the compound behind ours where the group Merlin (a British medical mission I believe) lives. It's really weird to go to a “party” of these people. Between the half dozen people in the group chatting away they've been to everywhere sketchy in the world to work. In addition to Melissa's countries, places like Afghanistan, East Timor and Congo were mentioned. It really is a lifestyle kind of career I guess and I suppose you get used to the risks, restrictions and general bizarreness of it all.
Somaliland is a boring country with no nightlife and alcohol is illegal for Muslims (which is the entire population). The American teachers, being less restricted by their company go to Ethiopia to party it up on their spare time. Other aid workers just fill their luggage with alcohol from Kenya or Djibouti and have house parties with each other. But even walking from the compound next door to ours, literally a 2minute walk max, we were escorted by the 2 armed guards that stay at the compound. Within the city it is not required to have an armed escort, nor was it in travelling from the border to Hargeisa but technically after 9pm you are supposed to have one if you are out and about. Hargeisa itself is “safe” enough that this rule is not really enforced on the street, though honestly I never went out that late anyway.
During the day we would walk around the city a lot, got new Ethiopian visas and went to the police HQ to get permission to go to Berbera on the coast. It isn't necessary to get permission, but it's necessary to get permission to be allowed to go anywhere without an armed escort. The road to Berbera and Berbera itself is considered safe at the moment and so you can bypass the need for the guard if you ask the police. So after 2 days in Hargeisa we took a minibus to Berbera, 3 hours down the road for about $6 in search of a beach to relax on. For someone like Melissa, because of their restrictions (by the DDG, though all the aid groups have similar self-restrictions) they have to take an armed escort but because aid organizations all want to be known to not be armed and not have weapons in their vehicles, they need a separate vehicle for the guard. A little trip to the beach becomes an expensive convoy and so they rarely go. Sad.
It's all pretty crazy though. After seeing missionary and NGO compounds in these types of places I can understand in some ways how people can do it. It's rough, but it's a totally different level of comfort, security and service to some dumbnut like me running around totally exposed and trying to do everything on the cheap. Just make sure you get in with a good group if you're into that life I guess....
Hargeisa was still cool at night because it's up at 1500m still. The road to Berbera was 1 long sloping road which never noticeably descended but nevertheless brought us down to sea level. The landscape is quite barren, just sand and scrub. It sounds mean but Somaliland is one of the dirtiest countries I've ever seen. There is garbage everywhere. The bushes are all covered in plastic bags blowing in the wind and there are completely crushed water bottles everywhere as well. We had to stop for a flat tire once, to discover 2 tires flat and shortly after passed a truck that had just flipped on it's side sending goats flying all over the road to their deaths. They still drive like maniacs here. It probably doesn't help that they still drive on the right, but the vehicles are mostly right hand drive as well.

The road to Berbera.

Berbera was awesome. We found a cheap hotel in town for $4 each that was quite nice and had a balcony with a view over the quiet harbour with its rusting ships. Berbera has a population of only 35,000 according to Tyler's guidebook and according to everyone it is stupidly hot and humid. We aren't quite at that time of year yet, so it is hot during the day and warm at night and I found it quite pleasant actually. The cold showers were actually bearable and the water at the beach was the perfect temperature. Berbera itself we generally tried to avoid because there was no real reason to wander around in it more than once, except to change more money or to find internet. The people are still nice but we had a problem in that everyone (and I mean really everyone) was calling Charlie “Chinese”. He's Canadian of Vietnamese decent but very Canadian and was getting totally pissed off every time people would tell him, “no, you are Chinese” in response to his answering “Canadian” to their question of where he was from. I remember Paul having this a lot in India and I guess it is a very annoying situation but Charlie wasn't really handling it very well. So we tried to avoid walking around crowds in the centre when it wasn't necessary. A lot of people guess that I am French from Djibouti and we've met quite a few diaspora guys who are from Canada, the US or even Finland that were back in Somaliland to learn their roots or get in touch with distant family for a while.
I liked Berbera right away. Low traffic and population so it's quiet, and a lot of the buildings are abandoned or partially destroyed. Obviously it's not as busy here as it once was, and I have a thing for partially destroyed towns that are still limping along. Tyler and Charlie fell in love with the fresh fish and we at a lot of fish, spaghetti and fresh guava juice while in Berbera. Everyone had a bit of time to kill (I don't really but figured it would be nicer to stay on the beach here than hassled in Ethiopia not seeing what I was trying to see) so we stayed a bit longer than expected.

I still eat from time to time...

The view from our hotel in Berbera.

Berbera from our hotel roof.

Much of Berbera looks like this...

4km out of town is the expensive Mansoor hotel with apparently a really nice beach. It's where all the foreigners go when they come to the beach. We couldn't find a cheap ride out there so decided to just walk along the coast until we got away from the harbour and found some nice water. So here are our directions to the beach: Take a right out of the hotel and walk along the road along the harbour. Pass all the blown out rubble buildings until you get to the edge of town. Continue straight past the extremely stinky fish graveyard with all the fish heads and backbones scattered everywhere (they are the perfect image of fish skeleton though). You'll see a dessicated cow lying in the sand on your left. Continue straight past the walled off compound of no buildings on your right. Continue straight off the road when you see nice water directly in front of you.


With Tyler.

Ok, not exactly the nicest and most scenic walk to the beach of all time but the beach itself was nothing but sand and hermit crabs and completely empty. Off in the distance you could sometimes see a local family in the water or maybe a solo fisherman or something, but they would never come over and hassle us. The water is warm and shallow (and shark infested at depth I guess). We hung out and collected hermit crabs, having built them a large sand maze for them to dig or climb their way through. Oh the joys of wasting time on the beach :) Eat, beach, relax, repeat. It was probably the most relaxed place I've ever been in Africa actually. One of the days we were having brunch (2 whole fish, pasta and fruit juice each for $4 each) when Melissa and a coworker showed up. They were driving through Berbera on their way east and were stopping for lunch. They were the only other foreigners we have seen in the area.
We are still in Berbera now but will leave tomorrow and split up in Hargeisa. They head to Kenya and I'm off to Djibouti next.


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