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.

Which way is up? The travails of travel writing on North Korea

It’s easy to be attracted to news about North Korea- for travel writers and every other type of journalist. So little comes out that even the appearance of information makes it noteworthy. This is why those of us interested in covering the most unusual place on Earth will run with press releases or other announcements that would make us groan if they came from anywhere else (I hope this answers an earlier commenter’s question). But, we have to be careful. So much of what is reported on North Korea comes with a clear bias that it’s impossible to get at the truth – even if you go there.

The issue of blogger and journalistic ethics regarding North Korea has been on my mind for a while, but a recent story I wrote for Gadling – which included a U.S State Department-supplied laundry list of human rights abuses – made me stop and think: can any of this be verified? I then thought back to a remark made in Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader – the author explained that he was unable to publish some of the fruits of his labor because he couldn’t get corroboration.Now, State Department reports are probably tops for reliability, but an interview that U.S. defector Charles Robert Jenkins gave after he escaped from North Korea indicates that he supplied the feds with “immeasurable” intelligence. Yet, Jenkins doesn’t have unassailable credibility. A defector from the U.S. Army, he’d been a deserter for close to 40 years and was facing prison time (ultimately serving 25 days of a 30-day sentence). Was it clemency for an old and sick man who had been punished enough already? Or, did the sentence reflect a reward for the information he provided?

In the documentary Crossing the Line, James Joseph Dresnock, the last known U.S. defector still living in North Korea, notes Jenkins’ tendency to abuse alcohol, which existed prior to his defection. And, he admits to having hit Jenkins (though not to the extent that Jenkins claimed). Yet, Dresnock doesn’t come across as a genius either, and he’s still in North Korea. Yet again, there’s a credibility problem.

Finally, we have the claims of defectors. Chol-hwan Kang wrote The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Soon Ok Lee wrote Eyes of the Tailless Animals, and Hyun Hee Kim, a former spy involved in the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, wrote Tears of My Soul. All three adopted forms of extreme religious worship upon defecting (or, in Hyun Hee Kim’s case, being apprehended). The wild swing can leave room for questions of credibility without assuming a bigoted stance on more intensive faiths.

Other defectors have voiced their views in a variety of settings, the most famous of which, perhaps, is Ahn Myong Chol (not his real name). He used to be a prison guard at Hoeryong Prison No. 22 and defected after he had become a truck driver for the prison and had better access to the means of escape. Now a freelance journalist, he dashes secretly across the border and shoots footage that would be impossible to secure otherwise. His most prominent clip is of an open market in North Korea in which human flesh was alleged to have been sold.

Yet, do you believe a guy who has been a part of the system? Maybe he’s legitimate … or he’s trying to justify any of his actions in the camp. It’s impossible to say without the sort of close look that simply will not happen. I have no reason to doubt Ahn Chol and the other guards who have defected, but there are too many ways their views may have been influenced, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, that leaves the government … the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Have you visited the Korea Central News Agency‘s website? Wow. Clearly, it’s neither unbiased nor, frankly, informative. Among yesterday’s headlines were “Kim Jong Il Sends Spread to Centenarian,” “Important Day of DPRK Marked” and “Korean People’s Just Cause Supported by Brazilian Figure.” Head over to the Korea Friendship Association‘s message boards for a more extreme version, if you can believe it. And, all of the contributors, it seems, are both non-North Korean and have opted in.

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect I’m not alone: we do what we can. North Korea provides interesting subject matter for bloggers and journalists, but there are limits to what he can do. I, for one, encourage a bit more skepticism – in general – regardless of the sources used. It’s the historians, not the journalists, who will sort out the details of live and struggle above the 38 Parallel.

[Photo by Yeowatzup via Flickr]

Delta’s checked baggage fee to go up: A flawed, unfair practice

While browsing Wallet Pop, I found out that Delta is increasing its checked baggage fee as of August 4. If you don’t check your baggage on-line before you arrive at the airport, you’ll have to pay $20 for that first bag instead of $15.

Okay, people. Okay Delta, who I’m not too pleased with already, enough is enough. Here’s why I think that’s nonsense, and I’m a person who paid $55 total for checked bags without batting an eye. On our Great American Road Trip 2009 that involved flying to Albuquerque to rent a car to get to Montana and back, we checked one bag on our way there and four on our way back to Columbus.

The fourth was because of a flimsy wooden child’s toy bow and arrow set that was purchased at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. More on that in another post. Let’s just say it was considered a weapon by you know who. All four of our checked bags were paid for at the airport. The fourth was after I found out about the bow and arrow.

I didn’t mind paying the $55 one bit. I didn’t mind having to pack the bow and arrow in one of our carry ons and checking it last minute. (The bow and arrow was small enough to fit into a carry on. The arrow didn’t even have an arrow on it. It was a stick–a skinny stick with a suggestion of a point.That’s all I’m writing in this post about it, except this one more thing. Every time I look at it now that it’s home, I shake my head and say to myself. Dumb, dumb, dumb. And I’m not talking about the bow and arrow or me.)

But, I digress. Back to why I think the practice of charging more for a bag checked in at the airport is flawed. The assumption is that everyone has access to a computer when they are traveling. Or Wi-Fi. I spent a good part of vacation traveling for three weeks with a laptop without Internet access. There are places and circumstances beyond ones control. Here’s another aside. If you’re at the Telluride public library using the Internet –kind of–with your laptop, watching paint dry would be faster.

Here’s another truth. Not everyone has access to a computer at home either for that matter. My father doesn’t have a computer, for example. My father works at a place where you are not supposed to do personal business on company time. As much as it’s hard to believe for those of you out there in the world of Blackberries that aren’t fruit, not everyone is wired to the hilt. Not everyone wants to be either.

But back to baggage. So the assumption that Delta is making is that everyone has access to a computer where they can check bags on-line. I’m thinking about those people who can’t because of not having the equipment, or those people traveling under duress, like my mother has done twice this summer because of a family emergency. My mother has a computer but using it for things business related where you have to enter your credit card number makes her suspicious. Plus, under duress one isn’t sure what one is doing at all.

There are people like that who might just say I’m through with flying. I’ll take the bus or the train. I’m retired. I have time on my hands. Why not take transportation where I’m not nickel and dimed to death and treated poorly in the process-like cattle being sent down chutes to slaughter?

So, let’s say someone doesn’t have access to a computer. Or technology is something they’re not that great with. Or a harried family isn’t sure how many bags they need to check for that trip back home. Or whatever reason someone waits until they get to the airport to check a bag. There they are at the airport and it costs them more money.

Or there they are at TSA with their tempers up because they can’t take that jar of apple butter their grandmother gave them that they forgot about until TSA pulled it out of their bag (This happened to a friend of mine), or that souvenir snow globe or that bow and arrow set–the flimsy CHILD’S toy, on the plane, but they happen to have that carry-on and the time to check it. Air travel already gets people anxious. I’ve blogged for two years at Gadling and I’ve read plenty of stories.

In any of these situations wouldn’t it be better to have them be able to check that bag without being even more ticked off or more annoyed that they are trying to turn a bad situation better or be a good traveler by using the check-in kiosk themselves and it cost them more? We checked the one bag before we arrived at the airport in Columbus, but for the return trip checked all at the airport using the kiosk for the first three without any assistance, and the 4th one with the assistance of the check in person because she wasn’t doing anything when I arrived with the 4th bag. There weren’t any other passengers in line either. If the 4th bag would have cost $20 instead of $15, I may have said forget the bow and arrow, it only cost $7.50. The airline would have not made the $15.

Personally, I think airlines are becoming less and less passenger friendly and the people who are working behind the counter or in the airplanes–and that means flight attendants like our dear Heather, are trying to do their best to make flying on their company planes bearable. With baggage fee nonsense like Delta is adopting, flight attendants and check-in folks have their work cut out for them.

Delta is not ready when you are. Not anymore. Not if you’ve only managed to get ready when you arrive at the airport.

Oh, Northwest how I miss you and am not too pleased with your substitute. I can recognize the evil twin.

*By the way, there were four of us traveling, that’s why the last bag could be checked by me under my son’s name.

So this Great Wall thing’s the real deal, right?

Forget bootleg iPhones and bogus DVDs. Just when you think China’s finally getting serious on the purveyors of dodgy counterfeits comes news that a Hamburg museum may have been duped with a touring exhibition of the Terracotta Army from Xian.

They thought the assorted statuary was the real deal, but apparently it’s not that simple.

(You would have thought the “Made In China” logos were a giveaway but obviously not).

But does it really matter, when scores of satisfied punters have been to the exhibition before this hub-bub of half-truth?

If the real thing was on display, would anyone have known the difference, and is it any different from the cosmetic surgery applied to historical sites like Angkor Wat or Knossos in Crete?

Your starter for ten: “Exactly what does authentic mean when it comes to travel?”

Thanks to mick y on Flickr for the pic (I’m pretty sure these ones are the real thing).