Everyone who is heading to Somaliland puts him/herself in great danger. The danger of sounding like an arrogant asshole in all subsequent travel talks: ‘Somaliland? Yeah, been there, rode a camel and ate Al-Shabaab for breakfast!’ Al-Shabaab is not a local variety of kebab. It’s a terrorist group in Somalia and a boogeyman of East Africa. When I just arrived to Somaliland I pretty much felt like this:
When, in fact, I was a sweaty mess and wore this t-shirt.
Needless to mention, it’s now a new trend on local markets. There is a competitive side to travel culture that only long-term travellers come in contact with: all countries are categorized by their coolness. Usually, the more dodgy it is, the more kudos and bragging rights you get for visiting it. For instance, Europe is stuff for beginners. Australia, USA (except Alaska) and New Zealand is Level 2. You may as well skip level 2 and move to Level 3, Southeast Asia – stuff for mildly hardcore travellers and avid grasshopper eaters. Africa stands somewhere on the the same level as Papua New Guinea, remote islands of Indonesia and unexplored corners of the Pacific. Somaliland, due to its name, is considered an Expert Level destination, along with such never-heard-of-it countries as Chad, Mauritania, Congo, etc. Which means, if you go to Somaliland, you are bound to become an obnoxious know-it-all modern day Ibn Battuta. If you hitchhike in Somaliland, like I did, you own the right to never shut up about how amazingly bizarre that place is.
Well, first thing you must know about Somaliland is that it is an incredibly boring country bordering Djibouti, Ethiopia and Puntland, located just across the gulf from Yemen. You don’t have to dodge bullets and missiles, you don’t have to shoot kidnappers in the face, and to many places you don’t really have to go because the police simply wouldn’t let you. The civil war had hit Somaliland badly, and many people were forced into emigration to the Emirates, Scandinavian countries, UK and US. Since its declaration of independence in 1991, Somaliland has not succeeded in gaining any official recognition from the UN member states, nor did it manage to develop its touristic sector – for obvious reasons. The atmosphere in the country reminds a little bit of Kosovo, a country in progress, a country seeking recognition and a country that scares everyone off because of instant associations with war, destruction and babies chopped into pieces. Although heavy military and police presence in the country provides a relatively safe atmosphere both for locals and travellers, not many holidaymakers wake up with an idea to go surfing to Somali beaches this summer. My visa, obtained within 10 minutes after application in October 2013 at the Liaison Centre in Addis Ababa, stated that I was visitor number 635 this year. Despite the fact that many people from Somali diaspora abroad keep coming back to invest into their homeland, most of the locals remain unemployed, bored and wondering: ‘Why the hell would somebody return here if they could have a brilliant life overseas, away from camels, sand and banana peels?’ I asked Mo, the owner of Starbucks (!) in the coastal town of Berbera, why had he left the States after almost 30 years and returned to Somaliland. ‘The reason I came back is mainly adventure. Here, in Berbera, time isn’t going too fast, I can do a lot of things during the day, as well as sleep and relax, do whatever I want. In the US, there is no time, everything happens too fast, everyone is stressed out,’ he replied. ‘Having a US passport is great for travelling, and I will visit the States for holidays, but I can only imagine myself living here, in Somaliland’. Another family I’ve written about here, was forced to come back home and is definitely not as content as they’d be if Somaliland had any perspectives for young professionals. It especially concerns women, who have to get by in a traditional Muslim society, many still suffering from such practices as FGM and early arranged marriages. Hargeisa hosts one of the biggest camel markets on the Horn of Africa. The odd thing is, camels here are mainly used as meat and sources of milk, not as transport. Camel milk has several phases of fermentation, and fermented camel milk is the heaviest alcohol you can possibly get in the entire country.
Exactly how boring Somaliland is depends on your definition of fun. If you are seeking touristic sites, hundreds of Chinese armed with camera guns, exotic dancers and cosmopolitan night clubs with local flavour, brace yourself for the most disappointing and boring trip of your life. If 6,000-year old cave paintings, armed escorts with guns and smelly fishing ports is your favorite way to spend holidays, then probably this crazy crazy land is right up your Insanity alley. Las Geel is perhaps the biggest attraction of Somaliland, although not really accessible by normal transport (as of October 2013). Police must provide you with an armed soldier and a driver (unless you have your own car) that accompany you to the caves. Bad thing: you end up paying a lot. Great thing: you get to hang out with Somali soldiers and take a photo like this. They might even lend you the AK-47 to play. Las Geel caves were occupied by local pastoral tribes ca. 6,000 years ago, and bored shepherds used to hang out here and draw pictures on the walls. Most of them depict cattle, mainly cows, along with several human figures performing hunting (?) rituals. I prefer to imagine them as bored teenagers who represented the alternative culture of Somali tribes centuries ago and expressed themselves through graffitis. Later in the evening, they would probably get some bollocking from their mums. Anyway, the cave guard was telling something excitedly to our accompanying gunmen. The one word we (me and my travel companion) managed to hear was ‘f*ck’.
Surprisingly enough, not all of Somaliland is endless desert, and the colours of this country surprised me quite a lot while I hopped from Hargeisa to Berbera, from Berbera to Sheekh and back to Hargeisa. Berbera is an excruciatingly hot coastal town with decaying coral buildings, where you can eat nothing but fish in fish sauce with fishy fish on the top. Sheekh, on the other hand, is connected to Berbera by a fascinating desert highway that gradually turns into green valleys, filled with old colonial houses. Foreign travellers is a rare sighting here and can mainly be spotted if observed from a distance, must be approached with caution and offered sweet milk tea. Catching a ride with a truck is a normal thing in Somaliland for both men and women, although a small payment is always expected. I managed to hitchhike a truck that was transporting packs of money to the bank in Berbera. I guess this is what in Somaliland they call money transfer. Back to Hargeisa I hitchhiked a car. The driver was delighted to have me on the passenger seat but somehow I felt like sitting at the back instead. ‘It was rock, rock on the glass!!!’ he yelled happily. I was not lucky enough to hitchhike the fastest truck in the country – the one transporting khat from Ethiopia all around Somaliland. Running at 100 mph and almost flying on the sand ramps, this vehicle makes sure everyone in Hargeisa and beyond gets their share of magic grass for the day. Somaliland is a bit of a different planet, isolated in its territorial limbo and trying to get through bureaucracy with the help of international NGOs. The streets of Hargeisa smell of guavas. They are filled with goats and camels, along with modern coffee shops and restaurants. During the day you hide in the shade, drinking fruit juice, munching on sandwiches and answering the same question from every new acquaintance: ‘So, how do you like it here?’ __Apart from the days that I spent with a local family in the tent, I stayed at Barwaaqo hotel (around the corner from Oriental behind the mosque), for ($12), with fast wi-fi and nice single rooms. Their door has this lovely sign ’no guns, no grenades, no knives’, really hard to miss.