Shop the Bakaara Market: five gifts from Somalia

It’s always hard to figure out what to get your friends when you’re on vacation. I usually just give up, and they’ve learned to accept that my gift-giving ineptitude has led to laziness. There are some trips, however, that leave you with no excuses. If you decide to head into Mogadishu, for example, you’ll be expected to bring home plenty for your friends and family.

In a place like Somalia, it can be hard to figure out where to shop, let alone what to buy. Fortunately, you can start in the capital’s shopping district (the last three words used very loosely), the Bakaara Market. This spot was made famous a little over 17 years ago when a U.S. mission went awry, and it remains incredibly unsafe for outsiders everybody. When you can’t ignore your obligations to the folks back home, though, this is probably the best place to start.

Keep in mind that the Bakaara Market is a dangerous place. Only two weeks ago, fighting broke out between the Al-Shabab and Hizbul groups, leaving five dead and more injured. According to

The movement of the market was halted for a while shortly as the gunfire spread further into different sections of the market according to the businessmen adding that the clash was ceased as officials from both sides started mediating them.

It pays to be careful.

To help you make the whole process easier, here are five gifts to get at the Bakaara Market for the person who already seems to have everything:

1. Weapons: you can get all kinds of firearms in Somalia, including AK-47s, favorites of insurgents, terrorists and combatants around the world and since its introduction in 1947. For those truly special to you, splurge for a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. You may get better deals outside the Bakaara Market, but you may be putting yourself in even more danger.

2. Counterfeit Currency: real cash isn’t good enough for you? You should be able to get some of the fake kind in this part of town. There was a big problem with counterfeiting in 2001, when U.S. dollars were the standard for trade, but this caused prices to skyrocket.

3. Memories:
there are many photo opportunities – especially since you aren’t likely to make a repeat trip. Take as many pictures as you can, but do be smart enough to remain unobtrusive. You don’t want to attract the sort of attention that could lead to a kidnapping. Wait until you get home to have the shots framed.

4. Influence: Somalia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, so there’s a good chance you can use some cash to buy influence and favors. But, don’t expect to find any honor among thieves.

5. A Big Payout: make sure your life insurance policy is up to date before you leave – and that the company will write a check if you do something stupid that costs you your life in Mogadishu. You won’t be around to see the smiling faces of your beneficiaries, but you can meet your end knowing that a boatload of cash will be delivered to them.

[photo by ctsnow via Flickr]

Uganda defies terrorists and remains open for business

Way to go, Uganda.

A week after a bomb ripped through a crowd watching the World Cup, Uganda has thumbed its nose at the terrorists and declared it is open for business.

The country’s tourism minister says they’ve beefed up security at public gatherings and are checking public places such as bars and restaurants to improve day-to-day security. Serapio Rukundo, the tourism and wildlife minister, said in a recent statement that the terrorist attacks in the capital Kampala were “meant to scare and discourage visitors.”

Al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist group, has claimed responsibility for the bombing. Uganda is one of several nations in the region supporting the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, which is fighting Al-Shabaab.

This weekend Uganda hosts the African Union summit, so security will be a key issue. It’s a key issue at any time, because Uganda has a thriving tourist industry based on its teeming wildlife and beautiful landscape. One Ugandan newspaper recently reported there has been no reduction in reservations for safaris, an indication that tourists are thumbing their noses at the terrorists too.

Another tourism official, Edwin Muzahura, said, “These scares happen anywhere and tourists cannot stop to come because two bombs are detonated in some parts of Kampala. . .People out there understand that there are security concerns in America, Europe, Asia and everywhere.”

While the death toll from terrorism keeps rising, its impact may actually be on the wane. As Mr. Muzahura points out, terrorism can now happen anywhere. Nowhere is totally safe, therefore there is no compelling reason to avoid certain areas. I even had a safe and enjoyable trip to Somaliland, the northern breakaway region of Somalia, where I found the Somali people to be warm and welcoming, certainly not the image Al-Shabaab wants to project. The terrorists may be losing some of their ability to assert terror.

I wish I had the money to go to Uganda right now.

Image courtesy user dog blue via Gadling’s flickr stream. Check out dog blue’s excellent
Uganda series for more reasons to visit this beautiful African county.

Six tips for travel to Mogadishu

Obviously, I mean five tips for travel to Mogadishu if you ignore the most important one: Don’t go!

This is perhaps the most dangerous city on the planet. Its citizens, if you can call them that absent any meaningful form of government, often opt for piracy given a dearth of viable alternatives to poverty or an early, unnatural death. Visitors are encouraged to stay away, as renting a militia to protect you is unlikely to top the odds in your favor to any compelling degree. From the minute you arrive at the airport, you are an attractive kidnap target; you are effectively the food on someone’s table.

So, just why the hell would you travel to Mogadishu? This is the truest form of adventure travel. Forget about the hiking and climbing and wilderness trips that the so-called adventure guys rave about. That’s all bullshit. They are designed for you to come home alive. Mogadishu, on the other hand? There are no safeguards, and you won’t be asked to sign a release. Welcome to a world that’s more than arm’s reach from the calming presence of law.

Still intent on going to Somalia? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

1. Safety ends when the wheels drop
Jubba Airways is the only commercial airline that services Mogadishu, and it claims an impeccable safety record. Once you get on the ground, however, the rules change — immediately. I kicked around taking a trip to Mogadishu last spring and spoke to the general manager of Jubba about arranging a same-day arrival and departure. He wouldn’t take my money … telling me the closest he’d bring me to Mogadishu was Hargeisa, Somaliland.

2. Get some security
Asking your Kung Fu-master buddy to hang with you on this trip is not enough. You need firepower, lots of it. Fortunately, there are militias that can be hired en route from the airport to the city. They are said to be generally unreliable, but at least you’ll have something. Go into Mogadishu without protection, and you are fucked. There’s no other way to put it.

3. Pick up some of your own heat
Since you won’t be able to tote weapons to Somalia all that easily, you’ll probably have to buy something when you get there. The Bakara Market can handle all your small arms needs. Pick up an AK-47 and enough ammo to last you a few days of intense fighting. Rocket-propelled grenades are probably overkill, since you’ll be defending yourself from ground forces, not helicopters. And, don’t forget to haggle — they love that.

4. Avoid the crowds
It will be easiest to move after a call to prayer, but you still won’t be safe. Nonetheless, this is one of those rare cases in Mogadishu when things will get (slightly) easier for you. Don’t be a dumbass: use it. In general, you’ll want to steer clear of crowded spots, jut because crowds mean more people who could kidnap you, and you probably don’t want that.

5. Bring cash
Your plastic promise “everywhere you want to be,” but it’s working on the assumption that nobody would want to be in Mogadishu under any circumstances … even with a battalion of Rangers behind you. The good news is that greenbacks still mean something in Mogadishu. So, you’ll have some negotiating power. Just don’t go flashing your wad around, or your trip will last a lot longer than you planned.

6. Check out the sights
There’s more to Mogadishu than the Bakara Market. You could always go to the beach. But, you’ll probably have more fun viewing the Arba-Runcun Mosque or the Mogadishu Cathedral (which was built by the Italians, according to Jubba’s website). Both are close to the waterfront and the old city.

Five great reasons to travel now

You’ve been bombarded with pessimistic accounts of the travel industry’s decline. And, yes, I am fully aware that I’m part of it. Frankly, these reports are true. There is a problem – i.e., people aren’t traveling – and it’s driven by a combination of macroeconomic challenges and company mismanagement. But, these conditions also mean there’s no time like the present to get out on the road and satisfy your wanderlust.

To really understand why now’s the time to travel, though, you need to look past the economy. Instead, think about opportunity. Yeah, some of this is derived from a depressed travel market, but stick to the bright side. This isn’t about the airline industry: it’s about you.

Need to “justify” your urge to toss your clothes in a bag and explore? We have 10 to get you started.

1. The inaccessible is now within reach
Everybody has a dream vacation, a place (or list of places) that has always gripped your imagination. Some have never seen the ocean – except on television – and desperately want to remedy that situation. Others set their sites on the absurd and want to brave the threats to life and limb offered by Mogadishu, Baghdad and Kandahar. Whatever the wish, prices are now on your side. You can cover the basics or the exotic for a fraction of what a similar trip cost in recent years. Hell, check out Abercrombie & Kent’s recent travel sale if you need proof. Every travel dream is closer to reality than it was at this time last year.

Maybe you can go to North Korea … there’s space open for Arirang in the Fall.


2. You need it … badly
Obviously, economic realities can’t be ignored. If you aren’t working and haven’t had a steady paycheck in a while, it probably doesn’t make sense to drop $10,000 on a jaunt to Monte Carlo. Let’s be realistic. But, if you have access to disposable cash, you may want to invest some of it in recreational travel.

Yes, invest it.

The pressure that comes with working under adverse economic circumstances is extraordinary. A colleague gets laid off, and you’re supposed to pick up the slack – and be happy about it! After all, you still have a job. Even if you keep a positive attitude, you’re working longer hours for less appreciation. Your morale sits deep in the chilly waters of the nearest toilet.

You need to do something about this.

Get out of town a little bit. Decompress. Even if you don’t think you need a break, as your friends, family or coworkers what they think. You may be surprised at how you appear to other eyes. I lived through something similar to this in the post-dotcom recession – refusing to sacrifice billable hours for an investment in my mental health. I finally booked a short trip to San Diego and didn’t realize how much I’d needed it until I was on my flight back to Omaha (where I was working at the time).

Those who need a break most may not even know it.


3. Everybody wants you
I’m not going to dwell on airline pricing yet again. I’ve covered enough of that topic for Gadling, and I know I’m not the only blogger on the staff who has. So, just remember that flights are cheap. The interesting stuff, though, is going on at the hotels. Sure, rates are dropping. Again, that’s not a surprise. What you should remember, though, is that the perks are going up.

A lot of upscale properties are trying their damnedest not to lower room rates too much. For them, it’s a brand protection move. A property like the Fairmont or Ritz-Carlton, for example, doesn’t want you to get accustomed to paying dirt cheap prices. And, I get it. Their identities are built around treatment and luxury and attention – not the bargain-basement concept. While you’ll see upscale properties’ prices drop, don’t count on getting the ridiculous deals that you’ll find at mid- and lower-tier hotels.

That being said, don’t be afraid to ask for extras. Even though you’ll be paying a premium for some resorts, you can certainly stretch your dollar – probably more than you think. Ask about free access to the gym, spa credits and discounts on greens fees. Try for an upgrade to an “exclusive” floor.

Many properties are actually building amenities into package that you may not have thought to request. Eden Rock is offering free lessons for kids from the artist in residence.

If you want to go to a particular hotel, get a sense for how badly they want you as a guest. There are plenty of travel deals on the web, but don’t be afraid to make a few phone calls, too.

The secret to understanding hotels is the “room-night” concept. A room-night is the basic commodity of the trade. On May 30, 2009, a hotel has a vacancy in Room 111. If it does not sell that space, it can’t try again on May 31, 2009 – after all, that’s a new room-night for Room 111. So, hotels get one chance to sell each room each night. If they fail, the opportunity is lost. With this in mind, you can see why hotels will be willing to play ball with you.


4. Everyone else is stuck with a staycation
We’re all sick of the word, and the ultimate act of defiance is not to participate in that stupid concept. While people are trying to make the best of a shitty situation, understand that you can create one that’s pretty close to ideal – especially considering #1 and #3. With fewer people traveling this summer [LINK], you’ll have more space on planes and can beg for hotel upgrades with a higher likelihood of success.

Hell, try for a yaycation instead. Celebrate the fact that everyone else is stuck playing tourist in their local strip malls while you’re out seeing something incredible for the first time. Oh, and celebrate the new word that Brenda Yun gave us.

5. You’re the only piece that’s missing
We’re giving you updates on the latest travel deals steals, offering up unusual destinations and providing the occasional tip that could make your travel plans easier. There’s only one component we can’t provide: you. Read about some of the recent destinations covered here on Gadling. Check out our latest bargain travel spots (hell, there’s no reason to spend a lot of money to get out of town and relax a bit).

Then, just add you.

Destination on the edge: Mogadishu

Mogadishu is the adventure traveler’s version of sex in public. The risk of getting caught defines the thrill. Unfortunately, the consequences cannot be compared. While a romp on your neighbor’s front lawn might get you a fine or some community service, a misstep in Somalia can cause nightmares for the rest of your life.

So, quiet simply, don’t go. If you don’t believe the United States, then listen to Canada. Listen to anybody who speaks sensibly on this. Don’t go to Somalia.

For every American who remembers October 3 and 4, 1993, Mogadishu’s Bakara Market brings a rare chill to the most resilient of spines. Visions of swarming Somalis rush into your mind, and nobody has forgotten the soldiers killed and wounded in the effort to capture warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. The situation on the ground isn’t much better today, but if you crave increasingly greater thrills, this is about as crazy as it gets. Despite being one of the most dangerous places on Earth, you can explore Mogadishu without a military or United Nations escort. But, doing so would rank among your most foolish decisions.

The challenge begins when you are planning your trip. Online booking, you’ll realize, is a luxury still. There are some corners of the world that have been sidestepped by the internet age. In some cases, you won’t even be able to rely on the telephone. The hotels in Somalia do not take phone or online reservations, so your best bet is to find a travel agent that specializes in this sort of absurdity.

Work with the travel agent to book your flight, as well. The most reliable method appears to be chartering a flight that will drop you on a private airstrip outside the city. There is an airline that services Mogadishu via Dubai: Jubba Airways. So, if you insist on doing everything yourself, you do have options. The airline claims to have a strong safety record, but it obviously can’t help you once you’re on the ground. These days, a round trip ticket will set you back around $500. You can try to use FareCompare, but you already know that your comparing one airline to itself.

Of course, there’s a catch.

So, here’s the drill. You have to stay in Somalia for a week if you fly Jubba Airways. I tried to book a same day round trip, but had no luck (no, I wasn’t planning to buy the damned thing). Flights only pass through Mogadishu once a week, so you have to be really committed to this trip.

Flights are easier to book than accommodations. You can research hotels, but only a few are listed. So, you’ll have to take what you can get. As you make your selection, don’t sacrifice safety. There is no substitute for coming home alive. Tk appears to b the best alternative, but you will notice that security is not listed among the amenities. Also, there is another hotel with the same name – one that is considerably less desirable. Take notes, and make sure you study every detail. There are pitfalls everywhere, and some are avoidable.

There isn’t much to see and do (safely) when you cruise around Mogadishu. The main attraction is the Bakara Market, a large outdoor bazaar. You can haggle with the merchants and take full advantage of the decimated local economy. This is one place where the exchange rate will always cut your way. Also, you’ll be treading the same turf that was home to the famous operation immortalized in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. It all started at the Bakara Market.

For a unique type of shopper, the Bakara Market is nothing short of amazing. You can find deals on the basic goods that you’d normally pick up at a supermarket or drugstore, from basic medicines to food. Also, you’ll find the products that CVS just doesn’t want to carry. If you need to buy a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), mortar or antiaircraft gun, look no farther! And, since no toy is worth a damn without batteries, there’s plenty of ammunition for sale in the Bakara Market. If you hear gunfire, someone’s probably just kicking the tires on a new AK-47. Think of it as giving Elmo one last tickle before whipping out your credit card.

It’s not all guns ‘n ammo, however. You can pick up a forged passport (for Somalia, Ethiopia or Kenya), fake birth certificates and diplomas (convince your mother you didn’t drink your tuition cash) and counterfeit currency.

Bakara Market can be crowded, and it is in a dangerous part of the world. So, you need to say alert the whole time you’re on the ground. The entire spectrum of risks – from pick-pocketing to kidnapping – is possible. Your odds improve if you don’t do anything stupid, though you violate that tenet simply by taking the trip.

Want to see what happens in the Bakara Market? Take a look below, unless you aren’t comfortable with graphic. If you can’t handle this video, though, you certainly don’t belong in Somalia.