The Journey of VISA no. 523

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Africa » Somalia
December 26th 2010
Published: January 26th 2011
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I arrived in Somaliland on the day the UN announced that troops will increase for Somalia by 50% from 8000 to 12 000 soldiers. But even though Somaliland is part of Somalia by name it is so far away from what you’d expect a portion of Somalia to be its unbelievable - There is no need for UN troops here. This is the peaceful part of Somalia. This an organised country with a recent election of a president, its own currency, flag and successful trading abilities. Unrecognised internationally, Somaliland peacefully go through their days waiting patiently to one day be recognised as their own identity. As a tourist it is a very unique destination.

Many places in the world you don’t hear about want to split from the country they are associated with but don’t have the structure or ability to truly be on their own. But Somaliland is so organised and the people seem so hard working it can’t be Somalia, it can’t be Africa, but it is!

Walking through the streets they are buzzing with shops, plenty of hotels. Even at night they have neon lights, electricity which rarely cuts out, if at all. This place has got it worked out. If it weren’t for their neighbours of their own country you can’t help but think that if this place was somewhere else in the world it would be prosperous.

I stayed at Oriental Hotel and for $15 a night you get your own room, shower, hot water, breakfast, Cable TV (including Horn TV) and a spotless room. This is a traveller’s paradise, especially after Ethiopia’s toilet offerings. Whilst in my room I hear beeping noises from the cars outside and this small city sounds like a hustle and bustle of a city 5 times the size.

Somaliland’s currency has its highest note as 500 shillings. $1 equals 5700 shillings. That is 12 notes to get a dollar. This means the exchange places on the street have wheelbarrow loads of cash bundled up. They are all honest people too. Anywhere else in the world you’d have to count every note. But even with the speed they count the notes they count correctly.

The government of Somaliland protests that it’s the successor to British Somaliland and was independent for a few days in 1960 as the state of Somaliland. The region gained independence on 26 June 1960. But merged with Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic in 1 July the same year.

Independence was again declared on 18 May 1991 after the onset of the Somali Civil War. In 1988, the Siad Barre regime committed massacres against the people of Somaliland, which led to the War. Since then the local Somaliland authorities declared the region's independent from the rest of Somalia. But neither the Somali federal government nor any other country or international organisation have recognised its independence. There is at least some recognition with representation in Ethiopia, Britain and US. These are the places to get your 5-minute VISA - The quickest visa ever!

There are some influences within the country, the British when they controlled the area. There main interest was to protect their trading routes from British India through the Suez Canal. And also the Italians, which, was the only area the Italians independently, conquered during WWII – pasta is popular with meals now. But the major influence is Islam, mosques converse throughout the day with its people. The country is a dry country (as in no alcohol) and many women walk around in Burka. Somali women express themselves with bright colours and fancy patterns to their dresses.

I felt pretty safe in town. The only thing that got to me was when people asked where I was from. The first day was “Where are you from?” Whereas the proceeding days were just “Are you German?” or “Are you from Germany?”

I soon found out that some idiot decided to do a sexual act (possibly an under aged trafficker?) with a local female in Berbera (the beach resort) and recorded it. He than put it on the Internet. Now that’s stupid but from what I heard he put it on the web whilst still in the country. He was arrested and was in goal when I was there. It was done 2 weeks earlier and the locals weren’t happy. This created a slightly uncomfortable feel sometimes when you can see some uneducated people would class you in the same caliber as this German idiot.

Safety wise the country is peaceful for the region. Violence is rare and the police are out in force. But they are respected and they respect their people.

For tourists it’s no different. They see that tourists as their promotional tool. They are a bit over protective at times. But that is because some idiots previously went to the east of the country near Puntland so now they have to keep an eye on tourists so they don’t get themselves kidnapped or killed by Somalia who try to give Somaliland a bad name.

See Somalia is split into 3 sections. Somalia (Mogadishu) this is south of the horn. Puntland this is at the horn and Somaliland to the west of the horn. There are land disputes as Somaliland claim all territory of former British Somaliland. This means that the east of the country is disputed with Puntland (who also want to be independent but not as well organised. I heard the President is from Australia) so not safe. There were kidnappings but that was years ago now.

The government requires you to travel outside the capital with guard’s known as SPU’s (Special Protection Units) it costs from $5-40 a day negotiable. I met up with the 2 Kiwi’s and walked around the city. You don’t need a guard to walk the city but with no street signs and no real helpful landmark we managed to struggle to find the camel and goat market.

It turned out to be a good thing because we ended up being taken by two SPU’s (free) and that enabled us to take photos with less worry. We heard that some tourists got spat on previously but who knows how they conducted themselves. Always ask to take a photo first.

There was not much buying and selling going on, as we took center stage. The bulk of Somaliland's exports are livestock and the camels and goats go as far as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Throughout my time here I constantly saw camels being transported with their herders through the desert to Berbera ready for shipment.
The food in Somaliland hasn’t got too much variety but why have variety when the food is so good. The goat was so meaty and this thing called Laxoox (la-hoch was how I was saying it. They got the idea) for breakfast. It was a flat bread and poured with water and onion and tomato. It wasn’t bad but I wasn’t a fan. So I stuck with porridge.

Because of the restrictions Somaliland can be expensive but surprisingly there were quite a few tourists around. Most stay at Oriental hotel because it’s the hassle free way to see the country. The owner organises the permits and guards for you. And since we were now three I was getting a good deal.

I wanted to explore a bit more than I did but I would have to do the rest on my own as the NZ guys were going on a cargo dhow with animals to Yemen once we got to the coast. You can try doing other places on your own without gaurds but its best to have another tourist with you for back up with the authorities. So I ended up doing the main tourist sites of the country. That would mean 3 things:
1) Hargeisa – walk around, go to the camel and goat market and get a photo of yourself in front of the old Somalian plane and a mosaic on Somalia’s poor treatment of their people by Somalia.
2) Las Geel – An ancient rock art discovered in 2003.
3) Berbera – the beach
Sites 2 and 3 can be combined from 1. It took 5 hours to go from Hargeisa to Berbera via Las Geel.

To get to Las Geel a private car is needed so for around $60 each we had a car for two days and a SPU guard fully loaded (with qat) and ready to protect us (from going off the beaten track). Without the guard we would be struggling to get through the numerous checkpoints along the way.

The landscape is unexciting with a dry look with occasional trees and human birds nests. The only thing that breaks the monotony is an old US tank that is right next to the road. A few photos are taken and then we are off again.

We reach a village and turn left into the desert. It takes a while to reach a lone guy laying down chewing qat under a tree next to the office. He allows us to enter the grounds of Las Geel.

Las Geel is an archaeological site showing numerous caves, which provide shelter to the harsh desert in front. On the ceilings of these caves are many detailed paintings that create some of the earliest known art in Africa. Dating back to possibly 9000 BC. The Neolithic rock art would be UNESCO listed if it weren’t for the state of the region.

It costs $20 entry and since there is nothing else of significance you just go with it. $20 is excessive but that is to help preserve the paintings. They have a book at the end of the visit, which you have to sign. There is no way of getting out of it. The original book is still being used. That is how few visitors this place gets. We went back in the book to see if the NZ guy was still in the book and sure enough there he was twice more. We compared his writing and it seemed his writing has got lazier.

A guide takes you around and after a walk up to the top of the hill he’ll take you to the caves and explain that most of the paintings are of cows or bulls with a few humans. “Dis, cow… Cow... Dis here Cow… cow…Dis one bull with cow… bull… cow with human…” and it would go on.

Comparing with aboriginal rock art it’s a poor second (there’s no real varying stories or detail) but still it has enough detail like the teat of the cow. There are even some risqué scenes with one bull standing up proud and riding a cow. There is also a cows head missing somewhere near the bulls privates (that could be just my sick mind taking over there). And there definitely was a depiction of a man sucking the cow’s teat. That was explained by the guide.

The rock art is a nice site but the true highlight is the view from the caves. I can’t believe this hasn’t been reported. After driving hours in boring desert to finally be able to get an elevated view of the desert in all its glory is really appreciated. A red earth dotted with green trees, a red rocky bolder opposite and to the left a dry river weaving itself off to the distance. This was my highlight. I felt like I could be in Nevada or Arizona (I can’t remember but that typical American desert scene.) I couldn’t help but wear my Dunlop Volleys for the occasion. Surely the first person to ever wear Dunlop Volleys in Somaliland.

After an hour we were off again and headed for Berbera. We drove along the bumpy road to get back to the main road, a bumpy road. No 4WD just a station wagon. It hurt seeing 4WD’s buzzing past.

Berbera is the economic lifeline of the Somaliland economy. As well as being a port that provides imports to keep the country running. It’s a port to ship its livestock and it also benefited from the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. Most of Ethiopia’s trade goes through Djibouti Somaliland’s neighbor. But Ethiopia does use Berbera as another port of call. Since the war Ethiopia is landlocked.

There are many Ethiopians that have come across the border for an opportunity. That’s right Somaliland is classed as more prosperous than a legitimate country. Some have spoiled the hard working community by bringing over Ethiopia’s pathetic begging. But some like the workers at the Oriental Hotel are here for an opportunity and the pride that the people have at times made it difficult for Ethiopian’s to get that opportunity. It’s the people that have come home from America and the UK who are hard working that have given them that chance. They just want hard workers who will allow their country to prosper.

Berbera is talked about being the resort of the country and I think that it’s a bit of a stretch. I ended up spending Christmas here. The beach was okay. It had a few waves to keep me occupied, it has soft sand, a bit of rubbish around but not many people. Sunset was different as many locals in the distance silhouetted with the sun kneeling over towards Mecca across the Gulf of Aden.

I left the New Zealand guys in Berbera and headed back mid to late afternoon on Christmas day. We stopped off in the town for some qat and I thought 3 hours of watching the same desert scenery was too much. I needed to do something to achieve something for the day. So I bought a bunch for a dollar

Qat (at last being explained I hear you say) is a plant generally grown in Ethiopia and distributed to the surrounding countries. It’s legal and acts as a stimulant. It provides a slight high through chewing its leaves and the locals who are addicted get really high and become useless. It’s a touchy issue with locals to suggest it’s like a drug and that it’s the cause of destruction of lives.

So there we were in the car chasing the sun chewing qat, the window open and the breeze brushing against my face. Sure it took an hour to get some kick but they were listening to Somali radio and I was on my ipod chewing qat like a camel. Not the best Christmas ever but heck I was trying to make the most of it.

Qat comes in bunches of stalks with leaves. The young leaves are best, they have a better taste and more juice. The stalk or the part near the leaf can also be eaten. When one stalk is finished you just throw it out of the window. It’s best to drink water as it does dry in the back of your throat. That is why some locals have green shit around their teeth. They don’t drink water and it crusts up in their mouth.

The drive back is an indication of Somaliland’s trade. Camel herds on the beach than more walking through the desert. All are going to Berbera port for the cheap boat to Egypt for trade. Many trucks were driving the opposite direction to us ready to pick up rice from Brazil and Thailand according to the taxi driver. A Danish team were on site tented up to help demine an area between the two cities.

The kick that qat gives is not much just a slight rush. I was head banging, sit dancing just shuffling my feet. Don’t underestimate sit dancing. I’ve always been a big fan of that! So it can be enjoyable.

I arrived back in Hargeisa to take a flight out on the 27th. I took a flight with a Mogadishu based airline called Juba Airways. For one flight for the day I can’t understand how we ended up being 90 minutes late but we were. We went through the gate and we were greeted by a museum plane that was an ex-soviet 1960’s model. The smell of urine was immediate. It hits you like when you enter an old person nursing home. Legroom was a comfortable 15cms on the emergency exit row. All the seats however did reverse recline.

Every safety precaution was thrown out the putty filled windows. There were no seat belts, no safety drill in case of a crash. When we lifted off it was a gradual rise that didn’t seem to want to increase for 5 minutes.
It seemed that they bought as many seats as they could and stacked them up as dominos. In fact when we landed the seats folded like a pack of falling dominos on the impact with the tarmac.
If asylum seekers ever upgrade to planes from boats than I think Juba Airways will be the airline to accommodate. They have the amount of seats to accommodate too. It was the first time I was truly concerned about my life.

Somaliland is not a trip to see amazing sites (bar Las Geel) it is to see how a country that doesn’t exist exists. They have made smooth transitions, which other countries in Africa still struggle to do. They went from a qabil clan or community government in 1993 to a multi party democracy in 2002. July 1 2010 was the last election, which went smooth, won by Ahmed Mohamoud Silanyo with 49.94% of the vote.

Research suggests that Somaliland has large off and on shore oil and natural gas reserves. These haven’t been touched yet by foreign oil and coal companies because of the volatile area.

Somaliland is an indication on what Africa can be like if the peoples are determined to make a life out of hard work and pride in a do it yourself attitude. Sure they are qating it up but they still seem to be busy. The capital is quite modern, they have quick Internet. Drinking water courtesy of China. But that is a rare international benefit they have received. Somaliland is a unique place in Africa. It had an Iranian feel to them when I walked the streets. They were proud, intelligent, patient and one day they will come out of the shadows of Somalia and become Somaliland one of Africa’s success stories – if they have not already.

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