My first 2 blog posts about Somaliland were informational and ‘ guide-bookesque’ as opposed to a chronicle of my actual time there so I would like to remedy that with a quick chat about the surreal things I experienced while I was wondering around this mysterious country. Strap yourself in for this mental story.
I was traveling with my one of my closest friends, Handsome Paul, and he had met me in Tanzania. His one rule when deciding to quit his job and join me in East Africa was:
“I’ll come on the condition that we do NOT go to Somalia, under no circumstances will I go to Somalia, right?”.
“Sure mate, sure, when you booking your flight?”
And so it began, one month later he landed, big bromance hug, and…
“Mate, Somali LAND is much safer than Somal IA, I’ve booked us appointments for the embassy tomorrow”
A couple of beers, and a couple more, and it was decided, we would go. My evil plan had worked.
So we were going to northern Somalia (Somaliland), as a backpacker, and our visa numbers were 008 and 009, a suggestion as to how few people visit here as tourists! We had arrived to the border from Ethiopia by land. We were nervous but we exchanged pleasantries with the very stoned border official (who had, judging by the jungle amassing around his chair, had been chewing the local leaf qat, a local stimulant, since his shift started and now would be doing well to recognize what country my passport was from let alone try to identify me from the photo). The Capital of the northern region, Hargeisa, was our destination but we had no idea how to get there after we managed to cross theborder. Fortunately we bumped into a local guy who worked for Unicef. It turned out he was heading the 180km or so to Hargeisa, and he kindly offered my buddy Paul and I a lift in his chauffeur driven ride and so off we went into Somaliland proper. Whilst the north is recognised as the ‘safe’ part of Somalia, years of hearing about terrorism, and beheadings and suicide bombings have taken their toll, and I admit I was pretty nervous.
PUNCHED IN THE FACE…
We were dropped in the town centre, found a dingy hotel, threw down our bags and stood outside. Looking at each other half excited, half worried with a kinda ‘what the hell do we do now’ look.
With all the horror stories about Somalia in the western media ringing in our ears, we walked into the centre of the city. Surprisingly though Hargeisa turned out to be perhaps the most welcoming place I’ve ever been. People screeching “Hello, how are you, I’m fine, thank you bye” in one long string of hospitality, with a huge welcoming smile and a heartfelt wave. People were sprinting across the roads, from shops, getting out of cars to come and welcome us, I have never shaken so many hands in such a small space of time. It was truly amazing, and a slap in the face to everything we’ve heard on the new.
The day didn’t pass without any negativity unfortunately though. We headed to the market and on the way a few staunchly religious locals thought it pertinent to occasionally throw a rock or two at the invading infidels (read: us), but the two times it happened, we had fifty other people intervene to apologise profusely. We even sat down to eat, and when we went to pay, the bill had been paid but the table beside us, and we hadn’t even spoken to them. Beautiful.
We made it to the market, and I was buying a bunch of bananas, I got sucker punched/slapped in the side of the head, by 90 year old, long beared, man. There he was screaming something in my face. Woaaah. What the hell? Again, everyone jumped in, scolded him, kicked him out and gifted me my bananas and I went on my way, a little shaken up. I absolutely don’t want to paint too negative a picture because honestly the vast, vast majority of the locals were warmer than anything I had ever experienced and I was invited for more drinks, dinners, and qat chewing sessions than any occasional rock could tarnish.
ARRESTED ON TERRORISM CHARGES…
We headed over to an internet cafe to check our emails, and as we were leaving I hear “Alright bruv, what you guys doin here?” In perfect cockney English. It really threw me off. I turned around and see a really tall Somalian guy “Errmm, traveling buddy, where are you from??”. “Born here, grew up in London, started getting bothered by police for coming to and from here, so I quit the UK and live here now”. It was brilliant to speak English fluently with someone again, so after we broke the ice I asked him his name (Mohammed), and probed a little bit as to why he had given up on the UK. He told me there were two reasons, one was that he had more business opportunities here in Somaliland thank in England, and secondly he had been arrested and detained twice on terrorism and extremism charges. Wrongly of course, he insisted. WTF??? Ok, nice to meet you and we were out of there like a shot. Some nervous laughter from Paul and I as we retell our meeting with Mohamed as we walk briskly way back to our hotel. Strolling past hordes of guys wearing armed suits and masks wielding metal detectors, avidly searching for active land mines, didn’t help the atmosphere much either. I realized I was definitely more nervous than normal. Definitely.
When you backpack in countries which are a little more obscure than your Thailands or Austalias strange things seem to have a knack for gravitating towards you. So as we were walking up the high street in Hargeisa, a snazzy brand new Range Rover pulls up and stops in the middle of the road, quite aggressively in front of us. This would normally freak me out, but so many people had been parking their cars and running to say hello, we figured/hoped it was the same thing again. The electric window slowly winds down, and we can see the guys face. A middle-aged Arab guy with, a wonderful mustache, saying “Get in”, now in hindsight this does sound a little stupid but I guess in shock more than anything else Handsome Paul and I did just that and clambered into the back of his Range Rover.
It soon transpired that he was a big-shot Saudi Arabian property tycoon who owned a host of hotels and buildings across Somalia and was now in semi-retirement, managing a huge portfolio of his properties in Hargeisa. He enquired as to what we were doing there and he was super interested about my plans to visit evert country in the world. The whole time, we are parked in the middle of the road, people honking their horn behind us, causing a bit of a commotion, but he literally couldn’t care less.
He said, “Listen guys, I’m a busy man, I have to go, but you must come to my house for dinner tonight”. We lied, and said sure we’ll come, no problem, what’s the address. With no intention of going blindly to a part of town we don’t know, to have dinner with some big shot Saudi Arab. But we played his game. “Address? You don’t need no address. Get a taxi at seven PM and tell him you’re going to Fast Eddy’s house”. Right, no address? Hargeisa is a big city, how the hell would a taxi drive know where ‘Fast Eddy’s House’ was. “He’ll know, see you later”, and he opened up the door for us, and sped off.
Dinner time came and we went looking for food. Paul and I, from somewhere, said something stupid, along the lines of “F٭ck it bro, shall we just do it? He seemed alright, and it’ll be a hell of a story”.
To cut a long story short, we hailed a run-down yellow cab, said to the driver sheepishly “Errm, Fast Eddy’s house please?”. He whacked the car into gear and we were off. Wow. Within twenty minutes we had been let past Fast Eddy’s security, then his huge gates, then more security and we were in his luxury pad in the north of the city.
“Want something to drink guys?” . Alcohol is illegal, in both Somalia and Fast Eddy’s home in Saudi Arabai, so I asked respectively asked for a water or a coke. “I’m not serving you guys cokes, wait here”. Fast forward five minutes and we are drinking bootleg gin with Fast Eddy in some very expensive tumblers. Very crazy, probably a little stupid, but bloody good fun. And this was just the beginning.
SHOOTING A DOG…
As we’re chatting over our horrible bootleg gin, Fast Eddy tells us that he absolutely loves dogs, he had them running around all over the place, but one dog which he loved the most, which he referred to as his personal guard dog, was walking around with a horrible limp. I had to ask why, and I kinda wish I hadn’t. Basically, Fast Eddy had an altercation with someone who owed him money, then one evening this crazy guy comes looking for Fast Eddy in Eddy’s home, but Eddy was was out on business. Not to be deterred, the crazy guy unleashes his concealed handgun, and shoot Eddy’s favourite dog in fury. On hearing the news, Eddy was beside himself. He pulls out his revolver (which he had been proudly showing off to us all afternoon) and went after the guy with less than the best intentions. The rumour mill did its job and he soon found the guy, it turned out that this crazy guy had one normal leg and one prosthetic leg so Eddy took pity on him, decided not to shoot him but instead grabbed his prosthetic leg, yanked it off him and beat him black and blue with that instead, after a long painful set of apologies, they were even apparently. I think the guy probably thought twice before making his way over to Fast Eddy’s place again. I was thinking along the same lines.
Eddy said we would go for a drive soon, but he had invited one of his friends to come with us. No probs, all good. The security came to tell Fast Eddy that his guest was here, and he left Paul and I in the room. We were saying this is crazy, amazing but still crazy and were giggling like two little school girls. Then Mohammed, our terrorist friend from the internet cafe, walked in. “Alright boys, nice to see ya again”. Oh shit.
Turns out Fast Eddy and Mohammed were pals. Mohammed had called Fast Eddy earlier to say he had met two English speaking foreigners in town, and Eddy told him he had met us and already invited us to dinner, so he should come too. At least that’s the story they told us.
More bootleg gin, a lot of small talk, and a nervous energy between Paul and I and soon it was evening. Fast Eddy said we should go for a drive, so Mohammed rode shotgun, Fast Eddy drove and Paul and I sat like two little children in the back seat, vary wary about what exactly we were getting ourselves in for. Fast Eddy said he would take us out for dinner at his friend’s place first, so we had a quick pitstop at his friend’s place, ate something, and back in the car for a ‘ride around the city’ or so Eddy said…
FEARING FOR MY LIFE….
This ‘ride around the city’ started normally enough, driving through the city centre, swigging on the bootleg gin stashed in a Coke bottle, listening to Somali hip-hop, all very surreal. Then we started heading out of town. Maybe there’s another section of city, I thought, trying to stem my worries. Further out of town still, less and less traffic, almost no buildings. A little further more, then we turn off the main street up a dirt track, the street lights stopped, it was dark and we were going off road into a dusty no-mans land. This was taking a turn for the worse.
Reality bites. Suddenly I was thinking this isn’t such a cool story. We are in the back of a blacked out Range Rover, with a Saudi property tycoon driving, a convicted terrorist in the passenger seat and we are heading into the middle of nowhere. Now I was officially scared. I squeezed Paul’s knee discretely and gave him the ‘WTF’ eyes. He replied with an even more nervous version. At this point I was trying to suggest to Paul we bail, literally. We open the back doors and ninja roll out of the moving vehicle, it’s pitch black, no one will be able to find us. I had visions of a video of me on Al Jazeera news station saying “Two travellers, one Irish and one English were captured today…”. Or an even worse video appearing, you know the ones I mean, with the orange jump suits, the black flag and the knife? Yup. But through fear, awkardness, stupidity, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t open the backdoor, nor could Paul, so we stuck it out.
I wanted to face the reality and see where we stood, I couldn’t handle the fear and unknowing, so I demanded “Look Eddy, where the hell are we going, you said around the city, this is NOT the city”. “We’re here”. Ok, Good timing, we pulled up at a house and Eddy went inside. I thought to myself, it’s about to get a lot better, or a lot lot worse.
AND NOW FOR SOME ‘LADY FRIENDS’…
Yet another surreal moment was had. Eddy picked up two of his ‘lady friends’ who were decked out in full Burkas and Niqabs (the entire veil over the face, just holes for the eyes). It was a HUGE relief, Fast Eddy said these girls were his ‘special friends’ and then laughed like a little kid. All that worry for nothing, so so so relieved. Anyway, the girls squeezed into the back and we looked like a right dodgy bunch. Picture the scene now…
Fast Eddy the Saudi property tycoon, Mohammed the (wrongly convicted?) terrorist in the passenger seat, Paul, all 6 foot 2 of him was wedged behind Somali/British Mohammed, the two girls in their full Islamic dress code, niqabs lowered, squeezed between Paul and me, and then me squashed in behind Eddy. He cranks up the Somali hip-hop so we can’t even talk anymore, passed the gin-filled coke bottle around for us all to swig, and he headed right back into the city centre.
At this juncture I want to say something about traveling – to anyone who has been traveling before, you know those moments when the realization of the situation, the country, the cultural differences and everything just strikes you and you just love living life like this. Being on the road, really living, is the best feeling imaginable, this was one of those moments…
We got back to the city centre and Eddy was all over the road, driving the wrong way down the dual carriage way, yelling out the window at everyone who said hi, which was almost everyone, cos, after all, he was Fast Eddy. The police are at the end of one of the roads, I’m thinking “Oh shit”, lady friends, illegal booze, driving the wrong way up the street, drunk driving, two foreigners. This can not end well. Instead of avoiding them, Eddy drives right up to their car, they get out, march up to his window and give him the most respectful handshake ever, then the other officer does the same thing. They know who he is, and off we go, still on the wrong side of the road, waving the police goodbye, madness.
After another thirty minutes of this manic driving, loud music and waving at everyone who looked twice, I reach out and grab Paul. We’re safe (ish), but Eddy has suggested we all go back to his place. That’s one adventure too far I reckoned. So we feigned tiredness from our overland journey from Ethiopia, and after a lot of protesting, he gave in and dropped us back at our hotel, with a date for lunch tomorrow. “Thanks Fast Eddy, see you tomorrow”. Paul and I opened our cheap hotel room door, flopped on the twins beds, and burst into laughter, one of the craziest evenings of my life, and this dingy bed felt every bit like five star luxury. Traveling eh? What a life. Happy travels x