Who Does That?
Who goes to Somalia???!!! This guy! When your life mission is to see all 193 countries on the planet, you don’t get any passes to skip over the dangerous ones. And frankly, after getting through places like Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and Venezuela unscathed, I must say nothing much else scares me anymore; however, traveling to Mogadishu still got my blood pumping. Where else are you required to have an armed-to-the-hilt full-on security team before leaving the airport? I’d hired an outfit that would include two drivers and five security personnel. Four of them would sit in the back of a pickup truck in front of the car I was in, guns strapped and eyes peeled for any possibility of trouble. My mom demanded I not go to Somalia after I’d told her my plans—but the one benefit of her recent short-term memory loss is that she forgets things in less than a day, so I just didn’t bring it up again and we were good; it was like I never told her!
If your quest is to see every country in the world like me, but you cringe at the thought of Somalia, there is good news. There lies an autonomous region inside of Somalia—located in the middle of the country—that is fairly safe for visitors: I’d like to introduce you to The Republic of Somaliland. Reclaiming its independence in 1991, Somaliland has its own borders, currency and visas. You’re still in Somalia*, but in a protected region that is actually visited by tourists–unlike Somalia-Somalia, which is the definition of unstable and volatile, still plagued with frequent car bombs and suicide attacks, thanks to our friends over at Al Shabab. These guys have no chill.
(*I later learned that while the UN considers Somaliland part of Somalia, its government and people do not. You can see a full breakdown of the history of the governments, names and classifications of Somaliland HERE. The folks in Somaliland will tell you that they are indeed not part of Somalia.
So which part of Somalia would I visit? Both! Although super sketchy, I’d see Mogadishu because I wanted to see the “real” Somalia; some travelers don’t even count Somaliland as Somalia (but I don’t travel to please other people). And I’d see Somaliland because one day it might actually become its own full-fledged UN-recognized country. It’s on the Travelers’ Century Club‘s list of countries, which I one day hope to complete also (there are 327 on the TCC list); plus I was in the area, so it just made sense. Hargeisa, Somaliland would be stop number one, then on to Mogadishu, Somalia the next day. I planned a night in both.
It was hard to give Somaliland a fair shake until my grumpiness and frustration finally wore off the next day—the smiling camels on the road to Laas Geel may have helped.
I’d fly on over 20 planes during this three-week, eleven-country African tour, and as I deplaned aircraft number fifteen in Djibouti, I felt a sense of gratefulness that out of all these flights, none had canceled or even been seriously delayed. However, that streak of luck would soon come to a screeching halt the morning I was to board my flight to Hargeisa, Somaliland.
**If you don’t want me to bore you with my flight cancellation, delays and visa problems, just CLICK HERE to skip to the part where I arrive in Somaliland. The good stories and photos start after my travel rant. However, the info below might help you, when it comes to missing flights, rebooking, and some very tricky visa policies…but seriously, if you want skip past my complaining over missed flights, just CLICK HERE. Otherwise, read on…
No Plane on Sunday
I showed up to the Djibouti International Airport, right on time, arriving at 6AM with my eyes still burning as I’d stayed up until 3AM completing a project for work. With only an hour and 47 minutes sleep (thanks FitBit), I couldn’t wait to board my plane and just fall asleep. The journey would be short: the nonstop flight to Hargeisa was less than an hour. But something didn’t feel right when I got out of the taxi. There was nobody else at the airport.
Djibouti International is a tiny airport, with only one terminal and a small pick-up and drop-off area; and there was nobody there. I mean no one. It was a ghost town.
When I approached the front door to go through security (the first of two x-rays and metal detectors—most African airports have one at the front door just to get in, and a second one before you your gate), the gentleman told me to have a seat on the bench outside and wait. So I did, until my patience wore off about a half hour later. Why couldn’t I come in? I asked again and he told me to wait, but it was now getting close to an hour before my flight and there was no online check in, so I was getting nervous.
A taxi driver approached me and asked where I was going and when I told him, he said that my flight didn’t exist anymore. Of course it did, I thought…I had just checked the airline’s online schedule days ago, the cabbie couldn’t be right. But he was. An airport employee confirmed that this Daallo Airlines flight hadn’t been in service for months. My heart sank.
I’d need to make it to Hargeisa today, so I could catch my flight to Mogadishu the next day. And the day after that, I’d need to make it to Nairobi to catch my flight home. I couldn’t afford to lose a day.
The taxi driver held in his “I told you so” and replaced it with an offer to visit the Ethiopan Airlines office downtown. There was a flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia later that morning; Addis being the biggest hub in the region, and I may stand a chance of getting to Hargeisa from there.
I found it weird that Ethiopian Airlines didn’t have an office at the airport and wondered if the cabbie just wanted to make a fare, but I didn’t have time to investigate further, so we were off.
The Ethiopian Airlines office wasn’t open yet, so I asked my cabbie to get me somewhere with WiFi, in hopes I could find a ticket online. I was frantic, I needed to get out today. Soon I was at a restaurant, that didn’t look open, but the doors were unlocked and the lady behind the bar was kind enough to let me connect. The Ethiopian Airlines website was showing no availability on today’s flight to Addis, and that was my fear: the flight was in just a couple hours, and I was afraid I’d missed the window to book. My heart was beating and I was in a sheer panic—it was a race for time and I had to get to Addis. Not only did I need to see Hargeisa today, but I was also concerned about my trip the following day to Mogadishu: it would be the highlight of this trip and I’d already wired the $1600 for my security entourage. “The Mog” was a huge deal, and as I already know, when you schedule your countries so close together, if one flight cancels, the whole line of dominoes can topple.
Thank God the United Airlines website showed availability. In fact, they showed me a flight on Ethiopian that would not only get me to Addis, but I’d be in Hargeisa, 5PM that same day. Sure, I’d lose almost the entire day flying, but I could still have a quick city tour before losing the sun and enjoy a traditional meal; then be able to catch my Hargeisa to Mogadishu flight on Daallo the following morning.
But more bad news: that flight to Hargeisa that originally cost me $180 on Daallo, was now over $1,200 on Ethiopian. @#$% ME!!! Thankfully, this is where having a healthy supply or airline points can save your ass. I only had to cash in 17,000 miles for the flights to Hargeisa, a deal I couldn’t refuse (well, I’d no choice actually). I let out a huge sigh of relief when the confirmation screen appeared. I would make it to Hargeisa after all, even if it took me all day.
But it couldn’t be that easy, could it? Of course not. The 50 minute flight turned into a six-hour journey, with stops in Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. But the amount of flying time wouldn’t be the problem. I was stopped cold in my tracks at check-in back at the airport. I’d need an Ethiopian visa to travel through the country.
Let me see if I can make sense of this all, because I’m still confused about the issue today. Usually you never need a visa for a country that you’re simply flying into to connect to another international flight. That’s the case in Addis: you never have to leave the terminal, thus never going through immigration at all, just on to your next flight. But apparently the town of Dire Dawa doesn’t offer international connections, and since I’d be changing planes there—to then pick up an Ethiopian domestic flight to Addis—there’d be no other way to transfer than to get stamped in through immigration in Dire Dawa, thus technically “entering the country.” I understand it now, but at the time—at the airline counter—I was fuming. “I’m just connecting, I’m not entering the country,” I said. But the lady held her ground, refusing to let me on the flight, even after a trip upstairs to the manager’s office.
I couldn’t get any internet connection, even after I turned airplane mode off (there was zero Wifi at Djibouti International). But I did manage to make a call—first to my radio buddy and fellow traveler Eric Tyler from B96FM in Chicago. He knows Africa and Ethiopia much better than I. Voicemail. Then I called The Chucker and he picked up. He conferenced in the Ethiopian Airlines call center, which was no help at all. The guy kept asking for my 10-digit “ticket number” and all I had was the six digit record locator (RKN3KW). Not even 60 seconds into the call the guy was yelling at me, and I was yelling back. I was close to having a breakdown.
And then…the angels sang, as I opened up my passport and discovered that my Ethiopian visa from my March 2017 was still good…til 2019! And it was a “Multiple Entry” visa (very important)! How happy was I, that I’d spent the extra $20 on a multiple-entry visa vs. a single? Holy #$%&, it was a miracle! I hung up on the Chucker and Captain Dickhead at Ethiopian Airlines and headed back to the counter.
“Here it is!” I exclaimed, as I shoved my passport, opened to my visa, into the hands of the mean lady at the desk. “Why didn’t you tell me you had this?” she sourly screeched back. “I didn’t remember,” I replied, with a “just get me the f*ck outta here” attitude. 10 minutes later I was upstairs in the departure lounge, having a beer with a new friend, both of us talking crap about the staff and our situations.
In hindsight, the lady was right and I was wrong. It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances, all leading up to the final problem: a flight into an Ethiopian airport without international connection capabilities. The law is the law, and it’s just unfortunate that the airlines don’t do a better job of warning customers about visa policies. Most you can find online, but it gets tricky when you’re transferring through cities like Dire Dawa.
To add a little insult to injury though, try to follow this one: I had to get off the plane in Dire Dawa and jump on another one to Addis, thus needing a visa. But how crazy is it that the plane I arrived to Dire Dawa on, actually just stopped to let passengers off (like me), on its way to Addis. That first plane was going to Addis, and if I’d been booked onto that one all the way through (it was more than half empty), I wouldn’t have needed the visa at all, since I’d be staying onboard. But my ticket had me leaving this very flight to Dire Dawa, just to enter the country, wait, and then get on another plane to Addis. Made zero sense at all.
The day of travel was long and almost every possible scenario that could hold a person up happened to me. I’d be one of the first to deplane in Dire Dawa, which was great because I needed all the time I could manage for this tight connection. But when I decided to check with the flight attendant as I was making my way for the exit, he insisted I was to stay on this plane. He told me he was sure! Another employee soon corrected him, but not after the rest of the passengers deplaned. I was now dead last, standing in line at immigration. To make it worse, the people in front of me had never used a finger print scanner in their life, and it was taking a painfully long amount of time to clear each person, with only one officer managing the booth. Then, when it was almost my turn to step up, the Ebola Police called me out of line for a screening. For the love of God!!! I swear for a second I truly believed I was on an African version of Punk’d, and at any moment, a Black Aston Kutcher would step out behind the airline counter with a hardy, “Gotcha!”
The Dire Dawa airport looked like something out of a movie, and not in the good way. It was a complete dump—even for Africa—and filthy. I remember the mounds of flight and baggage receipts piled up everywhere around the check-in counters, like the piles of hair you see at a barber shop in-between clean-ups. There was only one guy working at the desk and no flight information screens. Not even a chalkboard. I usually take the idiosyncrasies of third-world airports as charming, but today I was in a pissy mood and annoyed at everything. I’d become more agitated that our flight from Dire Dawa to Addis was approaching 45 minutes delayed and missing my next connecting flight to Hargeisa was slowly becoming a reality. I’d had less than two hours of sleep and was starving.
I was finally in my seat aboard the Bombardier Q400 Dash propeller plane, which was hotter than a sauna inside, watching the rest of the flight slowly meander there way onboard, of course in no hurry at all. We sat forever before we were finally airborne, landing in Addis about two minutes before the boarding was to begin on my final leg to Hargeisa. Of course we had to board a stinking bus to take us to the terminal (no jet bridge), and it wouldn’t roll until every single passenger was aboard, and even then, the driver waited to leave as he finished up the leisurely chat he was having with his compadre out the window.
I sprinted through the Addis airport, now having to leave through immigration now. Every time I’d approach the immigration counter and hand my jumbo 100-page passport over, conveniently open to the page with my visa, the officer would lose its place to check my info page at the front, and then spend multiple minutes leafing through each page and passing dozens of visas looking for the right one. Frustrating.
I was finally in the terminal and the Hargeisa flight was nowhere to be found on the board. This couldn’t be happening! Was my flight out of a completely different terminal? I was about to go in full meltdown mode at this point, and there were nery few employees I could turn to—every one I found was in the middle of fending off a half-dozen excited Ethiopians. I just couldn’t win today! But I finally did, as I was directed to gate 16, and they were just starting to board. I would actually make it.
Things were going so bad, I only let out my first sigh of relief after I actually set foot on the concrete in Hargeisa. It was a nice cool and breezy evening, a wonderful relief after the 120 degree temps of Djibouti. It wasn’t easy, but I’d made it to Somalia!
I’d applied and received my Somaliland visa in advance, so getting through immigration was a snap. My guide Mohamed and our security officer Farah was waiting for me just outside the doors with my name on a sign. Soon we were all loaded up in the SUV and we were off, stopping first to admire the view of the city from a rocky lot above. The sun was setting over Hargeisa. I was to leave tomorrow morning at 10AM for Mogadishu, so I wouldn’t have the time that I planned, but decided on making my experience in Hargeisa all about an authentic local dinner and then some desperately needed sleep.
Daallo Déjà Vu
But wouldn’t you know our friends at Daallo Airlines would screw me again, as Mohamed informed me there was no morning flight to Mogadishu. What the hell?!
After check-in at the hotel, it was over to the Daallo office to see what was up. And sure enough, the guy there confirmed that there was no Monday Mogadishu flight. The part that makes my blood boil, is that when I was in Daallo office earlier that day in Djibouti, getting a refund for the first flight, they 100% confirmed that my next flight was happening, assuring me I’d be good to go for tomorrow’s flight. For this, I award Daallo the Ramblin’ Randy Worst Airline in the World Award. Congrats and enjoy your award, it will be mailed tomorrow (it’s made of construction paper and goat pee.)
Once again, I’m left in the lurch—with the dominoes colliding. No flight to Mogadishu Tuesday morning, means I won’t be able to catch my Mogadishu to Nairobi flight on Wednesday, and whatever happens, I absolutely must make it to Nairobi by Wednesday night to catch my flight home.
The United Airlines website and Ethiopian Airlines once again saved the day, as I was able to use points for a flight from Hargeisa to Nairobi via Addis, and there were a few options to choose to from. The good news was, I could spend more time in Hargeisa. I chose the 5:40PM flight out the next day, giving me tomorrow to enjoy Somaliland. Now, for dinner…
Let’s Eat Stuff!
Mohamed took me to local restaurant for authentic Somali food. And although he did ask me what I wanted (fish, chicken, etc.) I told him to pick—requesting that he only pick what he thought would be best and most traditional for the area. In hindsight I should’ve chose the steak!
The shurro looked like a bowl of mashed potatoes, but wasn’t fluffy not potato-y. Turns out shuuro was just a different way of preparing grilled corn. Did I love it? No. But it was edible and I was starving. The World Cup was on—the final—and we witnessed a couple great plays. We all ate pretty fast and when Mohamed asked if I wanted to stay and hang out a bit, I gave the sign language (I think) sign for sleep. I needed a bed, now. Minutes later we were back at the hotel and I drifted off in no time, enjoying the news on the only English speaking channel of 300+ that I could find. The bed was comfy at the Damal Hotel and I was so excited to finally pack in eight hours of solid sleep.
The next morning I awoke feeling refreshed and ready to go. I ate breakfast at the hotel where the food was average but the staff sure was nice. After breakfast Mohamed and Farah picked me up and we began the 90 minute journey out of town to an archeological wonder called Las Geel as we blasted classic Ethiopian rhythms on the stereo. It would be a fun ride.
Here’s the part where I should probably tell you a little about Farah. I noticed his giant gun the first time we all stepped out of the car the night before and was like, “Oh damn, it’s like that!?” While many, including Mohamed, insisted that The Republic of Somaliland was really chill, I then wondered why needed a guard packing heat? But trust me, I didn’t mind. It put my mind even more at ease (truth is, only Mogadishu scared me), and it added a cool factor to the stop. I mean, having a dude in uniform, complete with the beret, and a big assault rifle follow you around? I’ll take it! Turned out Farah was actually a police officer, and this time there would be no funny business involved unlike with our friend Festus in Burundi! That’s a great story by the way—read it here.
We drove and drove until the buildings became less sparse and more industrial, finally disappearing into the desert on a bumpy, two-lane road. My bitterness about the whole Daallo debacle finally completed dissipated when I saw camels. We pulled over for photos and I made a Geico “Guess what day it is…HUMP DAY” dad-joke to one of the camels. He smiled at me. I was happy. Yup, well rested, well fed, and now well entertained—I was officially in a good mood again; the mood I’m normally in when I travel. Being a Negative-Nancy isn’t my normal modus operandi…I guess I just needed a Snickers. Oh, there were baboons too…beautiful baboons!
After about an hour or so, Mohamed whipped a left on a gravel road. From then on the drive was incredibly treacherous, as we maneuvered up and down and around big rocks, steep dips and even through dry riverbeds. I was hoping we wouldn’t pop a tire. We did end up losing the SUV’s giant chrome grill guard, and I rode with it in the back seat all the way home, with every bump threatening to decapitate me with the grills sharp edged just inches from my dome.
There were several checkpoints along the way, including a couple back on the paved roads and a few during our off-road trip. Mohamed had gotten us the permit to visit earlier in the day, so between that and having Farah in the truck, we passed through each stop effortlessly.
And there we were, standing in front of Laas Geel, these amazing works of rock art, dating back between 9,000 and 3,000 years BC…that’s just insane! We navigated over steep rocks and tons of monkey poop to reach each cave, there are ten in total, we visited five. And while the drawings on the rocks looked like those of a five-year-old, their history is what was so impressive. Although the Laas Geel rock art had been known to the area’s inhabitants for centuries, its existence only came to international attention after a 2002 discovery. We spent about 40 minutes at the caves, and then it was back in the truck for the ride back to town. We spotted a giant turtle on the rough road out and I was able to stop and get close. He was a beauty and Mohamed told me they can live past 100!
If Laas Geel intrigues you, by all means, check out this video tour of the caves filmed by yours truly…
Paint the Town
I really liked going to Las Geel, and I knew Mohamed was so excited and proud to show me these ancient caves and their drawings, for sure the most popular tourist attraction in Somaliland, but little did he know, I was just as excited—if not more excited—to see the paintings on the storefronts of Somaliland. It’s the most bizarre yet charming thing about Somaliland and The Horn of Africa: most storefronts have pictures of the products they sell painted on their outside walls. For example, a mini-market might have pictures of soda cans and bread, an office supply store would have pictures of paper and writing utensils, a butcher, paintings of meat, etc. A fellow traveler told me that these stores use pictures because of the poor literacy rate, which makes sense: if you can’t read the words, the pictures will suffice. And while I was definitely floored by the ancient paintings of Laas Geel, I may have been just as excited to see all the stores, with their colorful paintings of the items inside painted on the outside.
Which brings me to my only morsel of disappointment on this stop: the lack of photos I was able to snap in town. My eyes, brain and heart absorbed just so many wonderful sights on the streets of Hargeisa, I just didn’t have the chance to capture them on my iPhone. Two reasons: #1 I rarely walked; I was mostly in the car. And #2: This was a country of very strict Islam tradition, where it’s not a good idea to even take photos where women are in the background. You’re just not supposed to take pictures of females you don’t know, it’s tradition, and I’d respect that. Unfortunately, it makes it hard to just snap away as you would normally do if you were wandering the streets of say, Buenos Aires.
So, I had to resort to taking photos and rolling video from the backseat of Mohamed’s truck. I hope you’ll enjoy some of these snaps—not my normal composition or even resolution, but there’s only so much you can do while your in motion and behind tinted glass.
Oh, and lest I forget the goats! I believe there are more goats in Somaliland than there are people. They were everywhere! Big ones, small ones…crossing the street, eating trash, lounging on stoops, and all unattended! Like they were just doing their thing. I asked Mohamed how their owners kept track of them, and he mentioned they were numbers. He was right! Some had big numbers painted on the side of their bodies like license plates on cars, incredible! I think I want a goat. Seriously. I’ll just keep him in the back yard.
We stopped for a mound of rice and goat meat and a killer apple Fanta before saying our goodbyes at the airport for my 5:40PM flight out. I thanked Mohamed and Farah as I entered Egal International Airport, leaving with a stomach full of food and a brain full of unforgettable images. I’d head to Nairobi that night, which would begin the long road home. I’ll be back for Mogadishu soon.
And now…the REST of the (Insta) Story…
If you enjoyed the story above, here’s actual video of my experience in Somaliland, in a series of fifteen-second Instagram cips!
This entry was posted in Africa