Somaliland adventure: getting to nowhere

One of the tempting things about travel in Ethiopia is the proximity to other nations offering a variety of different experiences. I decided that my two-month trip would include a side trip to Somaliland.

The first reaction most people have when I say I’ve been to Somaliland is, “You went to Somalia? Are you crazy?”

The answer is no on both counts. Somaliland is the other Somalia, the place that doesn’t get into the news because it’s at peace. Somaliland encompasses the northern third of former Somalia and declared independence in 1991. After a bloody war of independence it quietly settled down to create a nation in a region better known for its pirates, terrorists, and warlords. It’s east of Djibouti, northeast of Ethiopia, and west of Puntland, another breakaway region.

Somaliland isn’t recognized by the rest of the world. Other nations insist the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu is the legitimate government of all Somalia, despite it only controlling the airport and half the capital. Somaliland is officially nowhere.

Luckily for me, Nowhere has an efficient office in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa that issues visas. Actually getting into Somaliland is less straightforward. There are daily flights to the capital Hargeisa from Addis and other regional cities, but I prefer overland travel because it’s cheaper and allows you to see the countryside. I’d spoken with various Somaliland officials as to the advisability of this choice. Some said the overland route wasn’t safe for foreigners, while others insisted it was. I decided to visit Harar in eastern Ethiopia and check for myself.

Harar is a small city and within the first day I’d heard from three different people that the man to talk to was Muhammed Dake, a Somali-Ethiopian author and guide who has many connections on both sides of the border. I found him to be a font of information. His English is good and he can be contacted at guleidhr(at)yahoo(dot)com. Please note he’s very busy and can only answer serious inquiries about travel to Somaliland. As luck would have it, his cousin and a friend were headed back home to Hargeisa on the bus and agreed to take me along. Both were jalabis, women who wore the traditional Muslim garb of the region that covers everything but the face and hands. Traveling with them was bound to get me even more attention than usual.

“Don’t worry,” Dake said. “They’ll say you’re a convert to Islam and that they’re your wives.”

%Gallery-92636%My “wives” don’t speak much English, but as we head to the bus station one manages to tell me she used to live in Mogadishu before fleeing to Hargeisa and how grateful she is to live in a place where there’s no gunfire in the streets.

The first leg of the journey is a bus from Harar east to Jijiga, capital of the Somali province of Ethiopia. People are jammed in the rickety seats–old men and workers, women in jilabas, hordes of children and infants. A leper shoulders his way through the crowd begging for alms. We’re packed in with our luggage because the roof is covered with kegs of beer. The bus descends through a winding mountain pass dotted with villages. My attention is divided between the landscape and a poster taped to the partition behind our driver. It shows a Western model posed like a Hellenic statue, a perfect ruby of a nipple leading us on to Jijiga.

After a couple of hours we pull into Jijiga’s bus station–a clamorous, dusty, crowded place thick with flies. My traveling companions decide it’s a good place to have lunch. They take me to a stall made of a latticework of eucalyptus poles covered in plastic sheeting and cardboard. The only thing on the menu is spaghetti that we eat with our hands.

I quickly make a fool of myself. Since in this region you can only eat with one hand (the other being reserved for the final stage of the digestive process) there is no way to get all those unruly strands of pasta together long enough to make the trip to your mouth. Of course the four-year-old boy next to me is doing it just fine. He gives me a wide-eyed stare.

After amusing everyone with my bad table manners we squish ourselves into a minibus and head to the border. Soon the low concrete buildings of Jijiga disappear behind us and the road descends through rockier and drier terrain. We pass through a valley filled with boulders and eerie spires that loom over the road. Soon it flattens out and we’re speeding along a dry, featureless plain of stone and scrub. The beehive-shaped huts of wood and thatch so common throughout Ethiopia are replaced by low domes of wickerwork covered in tarpaulins, rags, and plastic. Lines of camels walk sedately along the road.

Tog Wuchale, straddling the Ethiopia-Somaliland border, has the distinction of being the second ugliest town I have ever seen. It’s a huddle of concrete buildings, shacks, and tents in the middle of a dusty plain strewn with garbage. Flies swarm over masses of rotting food. Every thorn bush is draped in plastic bags. There doesn’t seem to be a trash can in the entire province. This is what happens when a nomadic people are suddenly thrust into consumer culture. Before, a family might have occasionally thrown something away, a worn-out basket perhaps, but it would soon disintegrate. Nothing ever accumulated because the people themselves were always moving. Now they’ve settled and joined The Age of Plastic.

As soon as we’re off the bus, a “customs agent” tries to shake me down for money. My travel companions fling a few choice Somali words at him and he slinks away. Anyone who thinks Muslim women can’t stand up for themselves has never been to a Muslim country. They hire a porter with a bright yellow wheelbarrow to take their suitcases across the border and we pick our way through heaps of garbage past a sad trickle of a river choked with trash that oozes through the center of town. My poor boots. I pity the ladies in their sandals.

As we approach the border another guy comes up saying he’s a customs agent and asks to see my passport. Of course I blow him off. I mean, he has no ID, not even a uniform! But he speaks good English and is persistent.

“Where’s your uniform?” I ask. He looks confused.

We arrive at the Ethiopian side of the border, marked only by a tent in front of which two soldiers sit chewing chat, a narcotic leaf, their AK-47s resting on their laps. I try to hand them my passport but they point to the fellow who’s been following me.

“I told you I was a customs agent,” he grumbles as he stamps my passport.

A quick inspection on the other side of the border and I get my Somaliland stamp. I am now officially nowhere.

Now it’s time to get somewhere. My companions, who like all the other Somalis didn’t get checked on either side of the border, find a shared taxi. It’s a beat up old station wagon with a slow leak in two tires. The driver is a bleary-eyed maniac with chat leaves sticking out of his mouth. He’s also a sadist. He stuffs ten adult passengers, one infant, and an immense pile of luggage inside. One guy straddles the gear shift. I’m squashed between the door and my friend from Mogadishu.

Mr. Chat slams on the gas and we peel out into the desert. The only road is a groove of tire tracks over sand and pebbles. We weave between bushes and dodge the occasional camel. The view out the front window looks like some low-budget video game. I’m not afraid. Even if we hit something, the door and my “wife” have me jammed into place better than any seat belt. We head into the dusk as the broken window funnels a spray of fine sand into my face.

After a while we mercifully come to a newly paved road and speed on, halted only by regular checkpoints. My passport is scrutinized at every one. While I’m sorely tempted to use these breaks to get out and stretch my legs–they haven’t moved for hours and my knees get slammed by the driver’s seat every time we hit a bump–everyone warns me not to get out of the car. At this point my left leg is getting excruciating cramps, and for the last half hour into Hargeisa I stand up with my back pressed against the roof.

Entering Hargeisa at night the first thing I notice is that all the lights are on. In Harar I endured daily blackouts. Neon signs flash ads for expensive imports. People sit at cafes. Shoppers stroll along the street. We pull up in front of the Oriental Hotel and I thank my companions. I limp inside to discover I’m in a posh hotel.

Nowhere has a First World capital.

Coming up next: Hargeisa, a capital in search of a country.