The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

travel, travel companion, HararThis week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.travel companion, travel, HararHere he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Six things I’ve learned about travel writing after submitting 1000 posts for Gadling

SOmaliland, Sean McLachlan, travel writing
My blogger dashboard tells me, “you have written 465,451 words in 1,000 posts since you started publishing 1,048 days ago.” Wow! I’ve been working for this wonderful blog for that long? It’s been fun and I’ve learned some important things about travel writing.

The subjects are endless
I got into travel writing years before Gadling hired me, but working for a daily blog made me worried that I wouldn’t have enough material. Boy was I wrong! There’s always a new place to explore or a new exhibition opening or a new archaeological discovery. Instead of having too little to write about I’ve discovered that there’s too much to cover.

For some people, your work is a blank slate
A playwright I know complained to me that, “Some people will use your work as a blank slate on which to project whatever they see in the world.” While the vast majority a Gadling readers understand what they read, there’s a vocal minority who see whatever they want.
A couple of years ago I reported on a smoking ban in Egypt. The comments section erupted with dozens of tirades against the U.S. government restricting our right to smoke. Only a couple commenters acknowledged, “I know this article is about Egypt, but. . .”

It got so bad that one reader exploded:

“THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!! EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT THE USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ALL YOU SMOKERS STILL HAVE YOUR RIGHTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SO SHUT UP AND TALK ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Nice try, buddy. Nobody listened to you.I also did an article about the Loch Ness Monster going extinct. With tongue firmly in cheek, I wrote, “In the United States, liberals are saying Nessie died of shame from being called a ‘monster’ instead of the more politically correct term ‘evidence-challenged endangered species.’ Conservatives claim Nessie was the first victim of the death panels set up by Obama’s America-hating, terrorist-loving national health care.” Everyone got the joke except for some Obama supporters who piled on me, assuming I was some Bush-era devil. I even got messages in my public email account screaming at me about that one.

My public email address is easy to find if you Google me. I’m always happy to hear from readers. I had an interesting conversation about the Kensington Runestone just last week. The reader disagreed with my debunking it, but he was civil and cited sources. If only all such emails were so polite. I’ve been called a patriarchal Christian, a godless atheist, a fascist, a communist, a stupid American and an America-hating foreigner. Send me a nice email and we’ll chat. If you email saying you want me to be eaten by cannibals then the next time I go to Africa I’ll mock you and block you.

Want to cause controversy? Challenge basic assumptions
Sometimes I like poking the public with a stick by challenging long-cherished beliefs that have never really been thought through. I’m ornery that way and I like watching my editor’s hair turn gray. Saying stuff like “God should be referred to as and ‘it’ and not a ‘he,‘” or “you don’t have to bring your camera when you travel” challenges so-called truths that most people have never questioned. The knee-jerk reactions are predictable and fill up the comments section and my inbox.

I’m doing this less and less, because it has the opposite effect from what I intended. Instead of getting people to question their assumptions, most simply react angrily and strengthen their preconceptions rather than think about them.
I still might do a post on “Top ten reasons not to travel.” :-)

The more obscure the destination, the more they pay attention
When I wrote my series on Ethiopia and Somaliland I received a wonderful surprise — the wave of positive feedback from those countries. I got lots of happy comments and emails from Ethiopians and Somalis, and several local websites and even a Somali newspaper picked up my posts. These two nations unjustly suffer from negative stereotypes and so the locals were glad to see someone writing about all of the good things they had to offer.

An even more amazing response came when I wrote about the Athens War Museum as part of a series of how the Greek tourism industry is dealing with the economic crisis. I mentioned how I was disappointed because I couldn’t buy a copy of “A Concise History of the Balkan Wars 1912-1913″ displayed at the counter. They didn’t have enough money to reprint it and so the last few copies were reserved for veterans. Only a few days later I got an email from a major in the Greek army offering me a copy! I have it on my desk now and it’s an excellent read.

Locals are your best coauthors
Before I go somewhere, I usually ask for tips from the Gadling team, other travel writers, and friends. Posting questions at the end of my articles always gets some great feedback from well-traveled Gadling readers. While this is all useful, the best help always comes from the strangers I meet while traveling. This works best when I stay put for a while, like when I lived in Harar, Ethiopia, for two months. Everyone was eager to tell me about their culture and show me the sights. People love it when you write about their hometown! They make my job easy.

Travel writing is important
Despite the many frustrations of travel writing and the (ahem) low pay, I think it’s more important than my history and fiction writing. This is such a divided world, filled with hatred, ignorance and fear. Chipping away at that negativity by showing people all the wonderful things other cultures have to offer is a noble profession, and I’m grateful to Gadling for giving me the chance to do it, and I’m grateful to all of you for the support I’ve received for my last 1,000 posts.

Adventure travel in Somalia?

Adventure travel in Somalia

Will Somalia become the next big adventure travel destination?

Short answer: Not anytime soon.

Long answer: For the first time in two decades, there’s a ray of hope shining across that chaotic land. The Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabab is on the defensive as it gets pummeled by Kenyan, Ethiopian, African Union, and Somali “government” forces. They’ve fled Mogadishu and several other key areas. The battered capital is beginning to enjoy something resembling normal life, as a BBC report shows. They even have traffic police!

Earlier this week, amid much fanfare from the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, a Turkish Airlines flight landed at Mogadishu airport. This was the first flight from a major international carrier to land at the airport in years. On board was Turkey’s deputy prime minister on a goodwill mission. The airline has scheduled twice-weekly flights from Istanbul to Mogadishu via Khartoum. In a statement, it said that it hoped Somalia would soon be “a very normal country.”

A “very normal country,” or even just a “normal country” has a tourism industry. Is this possible in Somalia? Is it even desirable?There’s certainly no shortage of interesting things to do in Somalia. The Somalis have a distinctive culture made up of clans and many are still pastoral nomads wandering the dry scrubland with herds of camels like they did centuries ago. Somali cuisine is a strange mixture of African and Italian, with one of the favorite foods being spaghetti, eaten by hand. There is also the possibility of it having a rich archaeological heritage of painted caves, like the one I visited at Laas Geel in the breakaway northern state of Somaliland. For more contemporary art, check out the funky murals adorning shops and public buildings.

You could even see a “technical” like that shown in this Wikimedia Commons image. Technicals are a favorite weapon of African states and militia. They’re basically vehicles with a machine gun or recoilless rifle mounted on top. I’ve come across these several times in the Horn of Africa. Trust me, when you see one at a roadblock, you stop. And no, I don’t have any pictures. There’s a difference between an adventure traveler and an idiot.

Which brings me to my point. Yes, with enough determination and bribery you could probably take a tour of Somalia. You’ll need to get in good with one of the clans and get some bodyguards, of course. A few people have done this. To say that it is dangerous is an understatement, but that’s neither here nor there. Every individual’s life is their own and if they want to risk it seeing a bombed-out country that’s their business. The problem comes when you look at the ramifications of such an action.

While making yourself a target for kidnappers and suicide bombers will give you some cool stories when, and if, you get back home to your friends, it’s good to remember that the people you pass in the street are home. Walking in Mogadishu puts everyone at risk. There’s enough trouble in Somali without adding a photo-snapping Westerner into the mix.

Luckily, if you want to explore Somali culture, you can still do so without risking getting shot in Mogadishu or kidnapped by pirates in Puntland. Two years ago, I spent an enjoyable ten days traveling in Somaliland without experiencing any threats, although it was a tough trip on many other levels. You can also visit Ethiopia’s Somali region. If you’re serious, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with my contacts.

Somali culture is relatively untouched by outside influences. This makes it very appealing to the adventure traveler. Hopefully, some day soon, Al-Shabab will be defeated, peace will come to Somalia, and visitors will be able to come in. This montage of Wikimedia Commons images shows what Mogadishu used to look like. Sadly, the city doesn’t look so good these days. Here’s hoping it will improve. For now, though, those Turkish Airlines flights will mostly be carrying Somalis coming on business or visiting loved ones.

Adventure travel in Somalia

Somali murals: funky advertising in the Horn of Africa

SomaliOne of the fun parts of travel is discovering the street art of a new place. Whether it’s the elaborate graffiti of New York or Madrid, the political murals of Mexico, or the current craze of Yarn Bombing, there’s always something cool happening on the street.

In the Horn of Africa, street art takes the form of murals. I believe this is a Somali development, because I’ve seen it much more in Somaliland and the Somali region of Ethiopia than I have anywhere else. There’s a fair number of murals in Harar, Ethiopia, but that has always had close trade connections with the Somali region.

Some are simple, like this ad for a dentist in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. I don’t know why this guy jumped into the frame and bared his teeth but hey, it made for a better picture so I’m not complaining.

Then there’s this mural inside a bakery in Harar. It shows the founder, an Greek expat who opened the most modern bakery in town. One day I met his aged widow, who still presides over the family business. She treated me to tea and regaled me with tales of the old days. She was very proud of the mural and in fact that’s what drew me inside in the first place. Another example of art bringing people together.

Check out the gallery below for more images from Ethiopia and Somaliland.

What kind of street art did you discover in your last trip? Tell us about it in the comments section!

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Eating in the Horn of Africa: camel, goat and. . .spaghetti?

Horn of Africa, Somaliland
When my wife and I went to the Horn of Africa last year for our Ethiopia road trip, we were eagerly looking forward to a culinary journey. We weren’t disappointed. Ethiopian food is one of our favorites and of course they make it better there than anywhere else!

While it came as no surprise that the food and coffee were wonderful, the cuisine in the Horn of Africa turned out to be more varied and nuanced that we expected. The two countries I’ve been to in the region, Ethiopia and Somaliland, have been connected to the global trade routes for millennia. Their national cuisines have absorbed influences from India, the Arab world, and most recently Italy.

Ethiopians love meat, especially beef and chicken. One popular dish is kitfo–raw, freshly slaughtered beef served up with various fiery sauces. I have to admit I was worried about eating this but I came through OK. Chicken is considered a luxury meat and is more expensive than beef. One Ethiopian friend was surprised to hear that in the West chicken is generally cheaper than beef.

Ethiopian booze is pretty good too. Tej is a delicious honey wine and tella is a barley beer. They also make several brands of lager and one of stout.

I’ve also spent time in the Somali region of Ethiopia and Somaliland. Living in arid lowlands rather than green and mountainous highlands, the Somalis have a very different cuisine than the Ethiopians. A surprising staple of Somali cooking is pasta. Actually on second thought it isn’t so surprising. The former Somalia was an Italian colony for a few decades. Italian food is popular in Eritrea and Ethiopia as well and makes for a refreshing change from local cuisine. Some Somalis are still pastoral nomads, moving through the arid countryside with their herds of camels and goats much like their ancestors did centuries ago. Pasta is a perfect food for nomads–compact, lightweight, nutritious, and easy to prepare.

The only downside to eating pasta in the Somali region is that Somalis, like most Africans, eat with their hand. I made quite a fool of myself trying to eat spaghetti with my hand!

%Gallery-136247%Goat is a popular meat in the Somali region and is served in a variety of ways. I love a good goat and have eaten it in a dozen countries. It’s tricky to cook, though, and can easily be overdone and end up stringy and flavorless. Good goat, however, is one of the best meats around. For some expert opinion, check out Laurel Miller’s fun post on the cultural aspects of eating goat.

While goat is the main meat for Somalis, what they really like is camel. These ships of the desert are expensive, so camel meat is usually reserved for special occasions like weddings. Wealthy, urban professionals eat it fairly regularly, though. At the Hadhwanaag Restaurant and Hotel in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, expert chefs slow-cook goat and camel in clay ovens that look much like tandoori ovens. The meat comes out deliciously tender and fragrant. Lunch at the Hadhwanaag was easily one of my top five meals in Africa.

Oh, and don’t forget Somali tea! A mixture of black tea, spices, and camel’s milk, it’s almost identical to Indian chai. The perfect pick-me-up after a long day seeing Somaliland’s painted caves or looking for your next edible ride at the camel market.

The Horn of Africa has an unfair reputation for warfare and famine. This is because it only gets on the news when something bad happens there. It makes a great adventure travel destination, though, and the determined traveler will find fascinating sights, friendly people, and great food. With any luck I’ll be back there in 2012!