No Pirates In Somaliland!

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Car bombs. Kidnappings. Extortion. Pirates. These are the things that usually come to mind when people mention Somalia. But just a few hundred miles north of the most dangerous country on earth is a place just the opposite: the wonderful, peaceful (independent) Somaliland.

Though not officially recognized, Somaliland broke from southern Somalia during the civil war of the 90s. Due to its strange political status, I knew I had to visit this place!

Bussing my way through eastern Ethiopia, there were some desolate, dusty old towns along the way which reminded me of the old west.

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Once I got to the Ethiopian-Somaliland border, I was shocked to find it open and almost completely unregulated. You could easily walk between the two countries without getting anything stamped… not a great idea, but definitely doable.

Somaliland is similar to Ethiopia in the sense that the words “maximum occupancy” does not exist. The minibus from the border to the capital city was definitely an experience… I’m also really good at tying my backpack to the top of a bus now!

On the way to Hargeisa, I met Tanat, a Somali expat living in Denmark who was on his way back to visit his wife and son. He found me a great hotel and brought his son to visit me a few times!

Hargeisa, to my surprise, was a vibrant little capital city. There weren’t any paved roads to speak of, but everything was orderly and peaceful – a stark contrast from chaotic Cairo or even Addis Ababa.

In fact, the city is so safe that there are money exchange stands on just about every corner, completely out in the open.

I exchanged $50 and received a whopping 340,000 Somaliland Shillings – at 6,800 shillings to the dollar! It’s not as great as it sounds though considering it costs 3,000 shillings for a bottle of water!

Carrying around a bag full of money is pretty fun though!

Despite its stability and safety, the tarnished name of ‘Somalia’ means that Somaliland’s tourist industry is basically nonexistent. I felt like THE tourist of the entire city.

Just about everywhere I went, people greeted me,  some offered me tea, and most wanted to strike up a friendly conversation with me. Nobody had any ulterior motives or wanted money from me. It was a very genuine friendliness.

Was I in Palestine once again?

Though Somaliland isn’t your typical sightseeing destination, war monuments and colorful murals dotted the city recovering from a pretty rough civil war.

I learned the hard way that there are NO ATMs in all of Somaliland.  Luckily, I had just enough spending cash for the week – but I was strapped!

I also just happened to be there during their presidential elections. Every day it was rallies, busloads of party members, and signs – all demonstrated peacefully, of course.

For lunch, Somalilanders gather in the streets every day at noon to eat delicious spaghetti prepared by street vendors, one vestige of their Italian occupation days.

Like anywhere else in this part of the world, utensils are not so commonly used, so I ate spaghetti with my hands, just like the locals. When in Rome!

One Somali man even offered to pay for my lunch, but I couldn’t accept it. Like the other Muslim countries I had visited, Somalilanders were incredibly hospitable.

I met Ridwaan and Abdi, two restaurant cooks who introduced me to ‘shurro,’ a popular Somali breakfast dish consisting of corn, milk, and spices!

After a day and a half in the capital, I took a minibus out to Berbera, a small port city on the northern Somalian coast.

What was supposed to be a simple two-hour drive ended up taking FIVE with checkpoints, meal breaks, and even a prayer break. While the people are kind, they are also painfully inefficient…

Berbera is like the Disneyland for people who like conflict tourism. Unlike the rapidly developing Hargeisa, Berbera is a city crumbling in ruins from the Somalian Civil War.

With three incredible shipwrecks visible in the main harbor, I felt like I was in some post-apocalyptic world. It simply did not feel real to me, to see such large ships in ruins.

Berbera wasn’t just all wrecks and ruins. Just 2 miles north of the city, I discovered a completely untouched coastline.

I hadn’t seen the ocean since Alexandria, so I decided to take a relaxing beach day – picnic and all. There I was on the beach, facing Yemen, in a pirate alley. No pirates on my watch, though.

On the beach, I met Abdimajid, a talkative guy who was surprised to see me on his daily walk. Sunbathing, after all, isn’t exactly a popular pastime in the Muslim world!

“Are you a journalist?” he asked me – a popular question people ask out here.

I also ran into two Italian guys on the beach, the only other tourists I would end up seeing!

Unfortunately, my time spent in Somaliland was cut short by a terrible bout of food poisoning that left me in bed for the better of the next three days.

Somaliland wasn’t too bad of a place to get sick, I realized. Strangers came to my aid and brought me ice for my fever and when I went to the hospital, they didn’t even charge me a penny to see a doctor and get rehydration salts! Does Somaliland have more affordable healthcare than back home? Sadly, I think yes.

When the fevers, chills, and diarrhea finally stopped, I made my way back to Hargeisa and spent my last day swapping stories over milk tea with Ridwaan and Abdi!

Leaving Somaliland was a sad ordeal – not just because of the wonderful people I had met – but because I knew I had a daunting 2-day bus ride back to Addis ahead of me.

But somehow through the post-sickness haze, I survived the 30-hour bus ride.

On my final night in Africa, I met up with Feleg and Agata (the two Americans I met last month) again in the upscale neighborhood of Bole, and we went to the local ‘beer garden’ for some good old fashioned Austrian-German sized drinks!

Feleg and Agata both welcomed me to Ethiopia when I first arrived and sent me off on my last night!

In my original plan, this would have been the last stop of my trip before going home. However, I’ve decided to extend my journey three more weeks to see India while I’m in the area!

So it’s technically not 105 days of backpacking anymore… but 126. Not as catchy, as I know.

Africa this past month has taught me a lot more than I thought it ever would. It’s taught me lessons in patience and has definitely increased my physical and hygienic tolerance. I now appreciate more than ever the things I used to take for granted: a toilet that flushes, a shower with running hot water, a clean bed, and a normal car ride.

Next up… Delhi!

PS: Happy birthday to my beautiful sister, Winny!!

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