Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region

Somali, Somali region, camels, Ethiopia
It’s the dream of every adventure traveler–to explore a region that gets virtually no tourism, to see a culture with little contact with the outside world, to be among the first to visit the sights. It can be a thrill, an amazing rush that gives you valuable insights into a foreign culture and its history.

It can also be a major pain in the ass.

To the east of Harar lies Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a vast lowland spreading out east to Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia. Home to only 4.3 million, it’s Ethiopia’s most sparsely populated region, where many Somalis still live a traditional pastoral life.

To visit the Somali Region I hired a driver with a Landcruiser (the transport of choice in Africa) and Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com) a Harar tour guide who is Somali and lived for many years in the region. “Dake”, as everybody calls him, may be Somali, but he’s lived in Harar and speaks fluent Harari, so he’s accepted as Harari. Nebil Shamshu, who introduced me to a traditional African healer, came along too.

We set out in the early morning, climbing up and over several large hills to the east of Harar and passing through the Valley of Marvels, a beautiful geological wonder of strange rock formations and towering pinnacles that reminds me of some parts of the Arizona wilderness. I ask our driver, Azeze, to stop so I can take pictures but he refuses. “”A few weeks ago bandits stopped a minibus here,” he says. “They killed nine men and kidnapped and raped six women.” Suddenly I don’t feel like taking pictures anymore. While Ethiopia is generally safe (I haven’t had any problems in four months travel all over the country) there are bandits in some parts of the countryside.

Now this section of the road is quiet. After the attack the army launched a huge manhunt but the bandits slipped away into the rough terrain or disappeared into the local population. Soldiers are everywhere now, so the bandits will have to find another road for their ambushes.

After climbing a last steep hill the road winds down to a dusty plain. I remember this road from my trip to Somaliland last year. Men lead strings of camels along the side of the highway. Low domed structures called aqal somali dot the landscape. Covered with mats and bits of cloth, they look like patchwork quilts. Muhammed Dake perks up, looking around eagerly and singing along to Somali songs on the radio. He also knows the words to every Johnny Cash song. Dake is a man of the world.

Our first stop is Jijiga, a rambling town of low concrete buildings that is the region’s capital. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is here, conspicuous by the large aqal somali in its front yard. Nearby are the foundations of the new regional museum, to be opened. . .sometime. We’ve come here looking for information about the castle of Ahmed Guray, the Somali conqueror who 500 years ago brought the great Abyssinian Empire to its knees. I’d heard his castle still stands at Chinaksen just north of Jijiga. Dake hadn’t heard of this, and the Ministry had little information about their own region, just one leaflet in nearly incomprehensible English and a promotional video in Amharic that included nothing about the castle. The officials believe it’s at Darbi, close to Chinaksen, so we head there.

The road from Jijiga to Darbi is what’s locally referred to as “improved.” That is, a steamroller has squashed a strip of ground flat and it’s used as a road. It’s not a smooth as asphalt, but it’s far better than some African roads I’ve been on. The only problem is the steady stream of dust blowing through the window and caking our hands and faces. It’s far too hot to close the window, so we just sit and deal with it.

We get to Darbi and find nothing but a village–no castle, no city walls, and nobody who knows what we’re talking about. We head to our original goal of Chinaksen and find the same thing. Confused and frustrated, we sit down to a lunch of spaghetti (eaten in traditional Somali fashion with our hands) while Dake makes a few calls to local officials. After a long wait we meet up with them only to learn that they’ve never heard of a castle here, but there’s a mosque from Guray’s time not far off. We decide to head there and one official insists on being our guide, his eyes lighting up with dollar signs.

I am not at all surprised when he gets us lost within the first fifteen minutes. He soon has us driving across farmers’ fields, insisting it’s the right way. Azeze is about to go on strike, I’m wishing I’d learned some swear words in Somali, and Dake finally gives up on the guy and grabs a local guy to give us directions.

The local, of course, knows exactly where to go and soon we make it to a strange rectangular stone building that doesn’t really look like a mosque at all. There’s no courtyard or minaret like you usually see. Another local farmer comes up to us and a long discussion in Amharic ensues. The farmer gives me a few angry looks and Nebil talks to him in soothing tones. I understand just enough to know that the guy doesn’t want me to go in and Nebil is explaining that since everyone else is Muslim, that there’s no harm in it.

Eventually the farmer relents. We take our shoes off at the nearby wall and hop across sizzling flagstones to enter the cool interior. In the narrow front hall stand long wooden boards used by religious students for memorizing verses of the Koran. They can be found all over the Muslim world. These look old, stained nearly black from generations of handling. Further on we come to the main room, a long rectangular room painted with blue crescent moons and abstract decorations. Everything emanates an air of antiquity, and I wonder if Ahmed Guray himself ever prayed here before going off to battle.

Nebil must be wondering the same thing, because he looks around with wonder and declared that he wants to pray here. The farmer is making more nasty comments and Dake is getting nervous. “No, we need to go now. Sean, stop taking pictures.” We head out and the farmer is almost shouting now. The official flashes his badge and that shuts him up. After a final poisonous look at me, he stalks off.

“What was all that about?” I ask.

“He was saying that he smashes people’s cameras if they try to take pictures in there,” Dake replies.

“Nice.” I say. “I’ve taken pictures in mosques all around the world with no problem.”

Dake merely shrugs. On the way back the official asks me for a tip. I give him 20 birr ($1.20, a day’s wage for many working class jobs).

“Only 20 birr!” he freaks out.

“How many times did he get us lost?” Azeze asks me in English so he can’t understand.

“Exactly! But he helped out by waving his badge. I’ll give him 20 birr for waving a badge,” I reply.

As we head back to Harar I try to look at the trip philosophically. I didn’t find the castle of Ahmed Guray. Maybe it isn’t there. But maybe it is. It could have stood just a kilometer away from where we were, its battlements gleaming in the sun like some Somali Camelot, but the local tourism officials wouldn’t have known a thing about it. I did get some insights into life in the Somali region, however, and there does seem to be potential here that I’ll talk about in my next post. As I shrug off my day as a fairly expensive yet educational failure, a herd of camels passes by, their tan skin turned golden by the setting sun. A little further on we spot three families of baboons crossing the road.

There are things to see in the Somali region, just not what I set out to see.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

Exploring a Somali camel market

Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is built on an oasis used by nomads since ancient times. It’s been a center for camel and livestock trading for centuries. Hargeisa’s camel market, the Senlaola Hoolaha as it’s called in Somali, is a huge and dusty field a mile from the city center. Most of the day it´s used as playground by schoolchildren, but between 7 and 12 a.m. the scene is taken over by camels, goats, sheep, cows, their respective owners and of course prospective owners.

It´s a tumultuous place. The men are inspecting the animals or standing in groups sharing the latest gossip. The women have occupied a big part of the field for their own business of selling food to hungry traders. Some have traveled for days to sell their goods. The camel herders, who generally travel without any motorized transport, have been traveling for as long as two weeks and from as far away as the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia.

A camel can cost anything from 300 to 1000 dollars depending on its age, strength, and of course the buyer’s ability to haggle. All camels have been marked with the owner’s special sign to avoid any conflicts about ownership.

%Gallery-93036%Not everyone can learn how to recognize a good camel, says Hassan, who has been buying and selling camels and goats at Senlaola Hoolaha for twenty years. He enthusiastically shows me where to check on the camel’s back to know its age and health. You have to know how what to look for or you’ll get cheated, he says. Many camel herders give their camels extra water to make them look fatter than they really are, and only a well-trained eye can spot the difference.

To make sure that your bargaining doesn’t affect anyone else’s deals, an intricate technique of hand signs has been developed. The two businessmen put a shawl over their interlocked hands, and the bids are communicated by touch. The negotiations usually last from five to ten minutes but can take up to half an hour. The system might seem complicated at first glance, but the logic is simple and easy to learn. Every finger has a number. All the numbers from 1 to 9 represented. One, for example, would be described by grabbing the index finger at the tip. In the case bigger numbers are needed a zero can be added by grabbing a bigger part of the finger. One finger can therefore describe 1, 10, 100, 1000. Since both parties know the general price for a goat or a camel the use of zero is limited.

If you’ve ever been to the camel market at Birqash, near Cairo, you’ll probably notice one significant difference. While in Egypt you’ll constantly be followed around by hustlers, in Hargeisa you won´t be offered anything but long gazes of amazement. Here you are the only tourist around and you´ll soon find yourself, not the camels, becoming the main attraction.

(Note: the photos and much of the text in this post are the work of Leo Stolpe, a Swedish photojournalist who joined me on some of my Somaliland adventures. I merely edited the text and added a few things. Unfortunately, the program I’m using doesn’t allow me to put him in the byline. Check out Leo’s website for more great photos from his epic travels in east Africa.)

Morocco by motorcycle

The guys over at Urban Daddy have been on a roll lately, unearthing some pretty cool packaged tours. First there was Urbane Nomads’ dive trip to the Great Wall of China. Now they’ve found an organized luxury tour of Morocco, by motorcycle.

Hispania Tours offers a 15-day tour through Morocco that features 13 days of riding on BMW motorcycles. The route starts and ends in Malaga, Spain, and includes stops in Marrakech, High Atlas, Fez, Erg Chebbi, and Merzouga in Morocco. At close to €4000, it’s not cheap. But for the price, you’ll get a guide who’ll lead your group of up to 8 riders along the route, a chase van that will take care of any breakdowns and transport your luggage from place to place, accommodations in 3- and 4-star hotels, breakfasts and dinners, all ferry tolls, insurance, and a camel ride at Merzouga.

The company also runs tours through Spain and Portugal, which range from €2000 to €3000 per person. Self-guided tours that include just hotel and motorcycle start at €1300 and motorcycle rentals only start at €75 per day. Pillions (riders who sit behind the motorcycle driver on the same bike) pay about 1/4 of the full rate and according to the website, routes can be tailored according to experience level.

Life Nomadic: Beating The Moroccan Hustle

I have a lot of great things to say about Morocco, and I’ll get to those soon. Today, though, I’m going to talk about an insane part of the culture that can be found everywhere from Tangier to Marakkech: the hustle.

As a visitor who doesn’t speak the language, I’m only really able to interact with a small percentage of the population. Of those people I interacted with, I’d say that a good ninety percent of them are full fledged hustlers.

What do I mean by hustlers? I mean people who are hell bent on getting money from you, whether it’s through lying, aggressive salesmanship, or cheating. They don’t cross that fine line from cheating to stealing, though.

The biggest scam is the outright price change. We became so used to this one that as shocking as it was the first time it happened, we had come to expect it by the end. Here’s a real life example of how it works:

The Price Bump

Determined to ride camels in the desert, we hired a taxi driver to take us seven hours south of Fez to the edge of the desert. On the way we made phone calls to different tour companies and arranged for a one night camel ride into the desert, including lodging, food, and return by minibus to Marrakech the next day. Already brutally familiar with the Price Bump, we three times clearly articulated how much we were to pay, 300 Dirhams each, and what we were to receive.We got to the desert and were met by a friendly man from the tour company who we had been in touch with. Moroccans are genuinely warm and friendly, even the hustlers, and he was no exception. We had a great time in the desert, and after breakfast the next day the man from the tour company came to see us.

“Do you need a bus to Marrakech? 350 Dirhams each.”

Yes, he was trying to charge us more for the bus that was supposed to be included already than we had agreed to pay for the entire tour. It was the only bus to Marrakech that day and was leaving in fifteen minutes.

How do you deal with the Price Bump? The only way to win is to refuse to give a single dirham more. When you show your surprise at the new price, the hustler will always try to act compassionate and bring the price down a bit, trying to get you to renegotiate.

I’d fallen for it the first couple times (orange juice salesman are ruthless), but I’d had enough. I made it very clear that not only was I not going to pay any more than we’d already agreed, but that I also wasn’t going to leave until he put me on a bus. I kept my feet planted and my money in my pocket.

He finally relented and let us on the bus with a smile.

Super Aggressive Salesmen

It sometimes seems like everyone in Morocco is either selling something or is acting as an agent for someone selling something. “Need hash? Get high before you fly” may as well be a national slogan. I don’t care where point A and B are; traveling between them will absolutely result in someone following you, belting out some sort of sales pitch.

If you make the mistake of actually talking to one of the would-be salesmen, he won’t leave until you get where you’re going, and often times will follow you inside.

The salesmen in shops are brutal. They’ll try to make you articulate which of their wares you like best, even if you say you’re not interested, and start the bargaining shortly after. They’ll tell you that even if you’re a poor student who doesn’t have any need for a fine wool rug, you should buy five to sell back at home.

The key to dealing with aggressive salesmen is to first realize that you’re under no obligation to buy anything, whether they approach you or you go into their store. Ignoring people who approach you, even if it’s with friendly conversation, is the only way to stave off the roaming touts.


By the end of the trip I’d started to like the bargaining battlefield and even the bait and switch price gouging. It was offensive, but somehow perversely satisfying to stand my ground and win. The casualty of being jaded, which is the only way to cope with the hustle, is that you miss out on meeting the really amazing friendly Moroccans.

In the beginning we’d talk to everyone who stopped us to ask where we were from. Ninety percent would then pester us relentlessly about something or other, but the remaining ten percent became our friends: people who showed us around Morocco, shared its stories, and became familiar faces around the Medina.

I’d recommend that everyone visit Morocco. It’s very different from Western culture, has a lot of great historic things to see, and truly has the best orange juice in the world. But be prepared for the hustle– we weren’t.

Amazing Race 14 recap 5: Jaipur, India brings some to tears

If you took two places and put them on a spectrum to show a contrast between opposites, you could do no better than Siberia, Russia and Jaipur, India. Icy, white snow switched for dry, yellowish dirt–frigid cold for scorching heat, and organized traffic patterns for chaos. This week’s Amazing Race 14 took teams from one end of this spectrum to another.

Because the teams were all on the same flight from New Delhi to Jaipur, the excitement didn’t start until it was taxi time. Ah yes. Getting from point A to point B in India is a challenge. Some taxis needed gas. Other drivers didn’t know where to go exactly; some taxi drivers walked off with bags still in the trunk; and the traffic, as typical, was horrendous.

Because I lived in India for two years, and went to Jaipur as part of a tour of Rajesthan, I was curious to see what would be highlighted. First off, it was clear once more that India is a country that would seem startling if one didn’t have much warning before ending up there. On little sleep, it can make a person weepy.

That’s sort of what happened to Luke and Cara as their taxis took them through Jaipur. Luke with his mom, and Cara with Jaime, cried buckets on their way to find Dhula Village and the sacred Peepli Ka Pedh tree, the site of the first clue.

Unfortunately, when one is only given a look outside a taxi window of what poverty in India looks like, it can be overwhelming. There’s no frame of reference. India is really a place to stay awhile, otherwise it can become a caricature in a way.

In this episode, one might think that Jaipur was merely a place of camels, men in turbans, cows that mill about garbage dumps, and women who wear clothing of the most brilliant colors. The city has a visually stunning quality and a fascinating history. It’s one of India’s cities of architectural gems that were mentioned by Phil’s narrative, but the cameras didn’t linger much.

In their disorientation of being in a new country without familiar focal points, it took the teams awhile to figure out that the red phone under the sacred tree held their next destination. An Indian voice told them to head to an Amber Fort parking lot to find the next clue. There they found a task of filling wooden trough with water and replenishing a pile of hay up to a certain height, an arduous task, mostly because of the heat. Mike felt bad that Mel, his dad was doing the task, but frankly, Mel smoked it.

One of the things I noticed while watching this section was the traditional rakes. We have one of those that we bought at the Pushkar Camel Fair. It’s one of my husband’s favorite items. Also, there was the typical camel attire of textiles embellished with intricate, colorful embroidery and mirrors. Any textiles from Rajasthan are wonderful. After two years in India, we bought our fair share.

While watching the teams swelter below the Amber Fort, I thought it was too bad that they didn’t have time to see the inside. The Amber Fort, built in 1592, is quite lovely on the inside and a testament to the opulence of the times. But no rest for the weary, not when a million dollars is at stake.

When the camels food and water stocks were sufficiently replenished, the teams were off to Johri Bazar to find a Rajasthani puppet store. These puppets make great gifts for kids. Every nephew and niece and kids of our friends have one of these as well.

At the puppet show, the teams could decide whether to dress up like a traditional Rajesthani dance troupe member to try to get 100 rupees out of passersby or to haul a cycle rickshaw loaded with barrels and hay from Sanganeri Gate to Zorawar Singh Gate, dump the load, and then search for a small silver elephant. Everyone, but brothers Mark & Mike, opted for the dance troupe task.

Before they could do the dance troupe, however, Christie and Jodi had to decorate an elephant with colored powder in a pattern typical for a festival.

The one hitch any team had with the dancing was Cara & Jaime. After they danced, they couldn’t find their taxi for 20 minutes. The driver was probably off drinking tea or something.

Taxi drivers in India are more than willing to wait since it means they can count on money, but no one likes to sit in a vehicle in the heat. They’ll go to the taxi stand where there’s shade to hang out while they wait.

Mark & Mike had a heck of a time finding the silver elephant which gave Christie & Jodi a fighting chance to not come in last after they completed their extra speed bump, a necessary task caused by their last place distinction in Siberia. Still, it wasn’t enough. Mark & Mike arrived at the Pit Stop at Jaigur Fort a couple of minutes before.

Victor & Tammy, who now are getting along swimmingly well, won this leg. For their efforts they were given two ocean kayaks. Great for them. (These are the two I like the least. They seem to really like themselves.) Of the others, I don’t really have a favorite team. They’re all likeable.

[Photos from the Amazing Race Web site]