From Harar to Hargeisa: The Border Crossing

Border crossings are often the most exciting parts of travel. Flying into a new country takes away the transitional phase of leaving one place behind and being welcomed by another. Border crossings are generally where one must be at their most vigilant and aware. Since very few major cities lie on the borders between African nations you tend to find yourself in seedier “wild west” type towns where law doesn’t quite hold up the same as it does in the interior. Border skirmishes and banditry are common as political lines often overlap tribal and clan territory.

The U.S. State Department and British Commonwealth both offer significant warnings of making the overland journey from Ethiopia to Somalia or Somaliland. The plan was to do it as quickly as possible and to aviod any overnight stays until I reached my final destination in Hargeisa, where I write this.

Harar to Jijiga

I went to the bus station in Harar with my bag over my shoulder and just asked around for my next destination. “Jijiga?!” I would say as I approached a kid who looked like he knew what he was doing. “Yes! Jijiga Jijiga Jijiga!” and pointed me in the right direction. I got on a bus and was told 13birr (less than $1) for the 2.5 hour ride. The bus was empty so I figured it might be awhile before we leave. In Africa, there is no real time table for bus departures as they leave when they are full. I was told 11am but that really meant nothing. An Ethiopian who spoke a little English started talking to me and told me the mini buses might be better if I’m looking to get somewhere faster. So for twice the birr I left the normal bus and hopped into a minibus. We were off within minutes. The gentleman that helped me out also decided to get on the minibus. I got the front seat in between the driver and the front passenger. I had to put my bag on my lap and keep myself from bumping the stick shift. The driver was fast and we made it in very good time. There was no seat belt and a lot of oncoming traffic. I just had to hope for the best and maybe my pack would act as an air bag.

Inshallah, I made it to Jijiga in one piece.

Jijiga to Wajaale

Jijiga is the last outpost before the Ethio-Somali border. If I was going to need to stay overnight before making my way to Hargeisa this would have had to be it. I was early enough to Jijiga that I wasn’t too concerned. As I was getting off the minibus two young Somali girls had asked where I was going. When I said, Hargeisa they both replied that they too were on their way. Two men had translated for me and were asking me which one I thought was prettier. This would be my third marriage proposal since arriving to the continent. They asked if they could go with me and I said yes but had lost them in the crowd of people at the bus station. I wasn’t exactly sure what the name of the border town was but several people asked me if I was going to Hargeisa or Harar. As soon as I said Hargeisa I was told what to do. Make my way by another minibus to the border town of Wajaale and from there go through customs into Somaliland.

I got myself on the next minibus to Wajaale and before heading off the two Somali girls from the prior leg joined me. The road started out rough and unpaved and went back and forth between paved and unpaved for the next 1.5 hours. 15 minutes into the trip they collected 20 birr from each passenger. As we’re approaching the border I hear “ferenjo! ferenjo!” from behind me. One of the two Somali girls had her cell phone out and said, “number!?, number?” I signaled to her that I did not have a cell phone.

We arrived at Wajaale-Tog on the Ethiopian side at around 2pm. This would be the last time I would see my new friends.

The Border

Before we could enter the town we were taken off the buses and everyone was searched except me. I only had my passport looked at and was let back on the bus and brought across the big dirt lot to the immigration area. A local helped me directly to the Ethiopian office where I was quickly stamped out and told to walk about a quarter mile down to the Somaliland immigration office. I actually missed the office but heard a “hey, hello! you!” coming from a small room that said “immigration” above the doorway. The officer was just a young guy with no shoes on washing his feet in the middle of the floor. He told me to have a seat and reviewed my passport. As usual, the question of my occupation comes up. I typically say, student. His reply was, “I do not think you are a student, I think you are FBI.” He had quite the sense of humor and I chuckled along with him.

Wajaale-Tog to Hargeisa

Then he asked me how I wanted to get to Hargeisa. I had two options: either a contracted car by myself for $80 or a shared station wagon for $5. I asked him for whatever the cheapest is and he replied, “Cheap!? but you have Obama!!” and laughed once again. I opted for the $5 shared taxi even though I understood I was probably in for a difficult leg.

I was the last to be loaded into the station wagon and was stuffed in the back with 4 Somalis. The vehicle itself had a total of 14 people in it (including a baby). We were forced to cramp in with our limbs folded against our chest. The driver took off with a mouth full of khat (a plant that is chewed in order to get high, popular in the horn of Africa.)

We took off and spent a good hour on complete dirt roads crossing the Ogaden Desert. There are about 6 police check points. I was only asked to show my passport once. At several check points I was welcomed with thumbs up and “Thank You!” for coming to Somaliland. They must wonder what the hell an American guy is doing stuffed 14 deep into the back of a station wagon crossing the desert to get into their country. The driver refused to roll down the back window so after awhile it turned into a sauna The entire ride I thought to myself, this has to be some sort of travel badge. It wasn’t until I arrived and found out the 20 hour Djibouti crossing is far more adventurous.

I arrived in Hargeisa just before 5pm. The shared taxi wouldn’t drop me off at my hotel so I had to hop on a local bus not exactly knowing what I was doing. I didn’t have any local currency so the taxi driver handed me 1500 Somaliland shilling. A couple of Somalilanders on the bus helped me to know what stop I should get off for the Oriental Hotel, where I was staying. Once off the bus more people offered to help. One Somalilander actually walked with me until I saw my hotel. He did not ask for money and that was incredibly refreshing.

I’m now comfortable in my hotel where I write this figuring out my next move! I apologize for the lack of photos from this crossing. I never really felt comfortable pulling my camera out to draw attention to myself. If you’re reading this and wondering if the journey is safe to do yourself, I wouldn’t be too concerned. The only problems you’re likely to encounter is a bit of butt numbing and a sore back when it’s all finished. Just enjoy ourself and have a sense a humor about it all. Of course as with any border area, things can change quickly so make sure you find up to date info. But you knew that already!

Hyena Feeding

Every night outside of the walled city of Harar a ritual takes places that dates back hundreds of years. The Hyena Man feeds the local hyenas that come from the forests outside of the city. Every afternoon the hyenas begin making their 10km walk to the feeding site where locals and tourists gather to watch the Hyena Man feed them with his hand and mouth. The tradition began in order to appease the hyenas during times of droughts so they wouldn’t attack livestock and people. The greatest part about this ritual is that I was able to take part as well! I sat myself next to the Hyena Man and put a stick in my mouth with a chunk of raw meat so the hyenas could come snatch it out of my mouth. It was quite the rush! I fed a few more with my hands. There have never been any incidences with the hyenas and they are very timid when it comes to grabbing the meat. This will definitely be a travel highlight!

Omnomnomnom

Omnomnomnom

Harar

After a 10 hour bus ride Mike and I arrived in the eastern Ethiopian town of Harar. The bus ride was comfortable compared to the last time I was here. Ethiopia is undergoing quite the transformation with high-rise buildings going up in the capital and fast non-stop bus routes in between major towns. This is a far cry from the cramped local buses that tourists used to take in order to get from place to place. I can say I’m happy that I got to experience the more grueling ride and as happy to no longer have to do it again.

Textile Shop

Textile Shop

When arriving, you quickly descend into the valley. You’re greeted by tour guides, beggars and a general audience of locals interested to see the arrival of the ferenjo (an endearing term they use for the white people who show up in their city.) Mike and I were the only two frenjo arriving this evening so we probably garnered a bit more attention.

Our first order of business, after finding our quaint family-run guest house in the old city, was to find food. Harar is divided into two major parts, the old walled city and the new city. We figured there should be no problem finding a simple restaurant where we could get a good meal after not eating a lot on the bus. Block after block and turn after turn in the old city, we came up empty. There were several cafes and bakeries but nothing offering substantial food. We finally decided it might be a good idea to just sit and have a beer and gather ourselves. The only food available was slabs of raw meat on a plate of injera. We weren’t in the mood for raw meat so we carried on and eventually found food a little more fitting for our style.

The Old City

The Old City

Harar is unlike any place I’ve been before. It is a spiritual and colorful town. UNESCO was so impressed with its walled city that it gave it world heritage status and deemed it the fourth holiest city of Islam. Every morning the waling of prayer can be heard from throughout the city. Enjoying Harar is to enjoy the people who live there. Harari people have called this valley their home for over 1,000 years. While there is still a fair amount of hassle in Harar, there are still plenty of genuine people who just want to say hello or lend a hand. Harari of all ages will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. “Ferenjo! Hello! How are you?! Welcome Harar!” The lack of a lot of tourists really reinforces the vibe of Harar and convinces you that you have traveled a long way to get there.

I spent two nights in Harar. During the day I wandered around the old city in search of the six gates and a few mosques that date back to as early as the 10th century. The other main attraction in Harar is the hyena feeding that goes on outside of the walled city every night at sundown. More information on that coming up next!

The Merkato

I recall Anthony Bourdain saying that the first place a person should go when arriving into a new town is the local market. It is in the market that you get a feel for the people. Addis Ababa is home to the Merkato, Africa’s largest open air market. It was one of two things I told myself I must do before leaving Addis this time. The other is to check out the night life. I meant to see the merkato my first time through in 2007 but I ended up passing on it.

Before leaving I had been warned by fellow blogger Adrienne-is that the merkato was nothing special and that she didn’t care for it. I told her that I’ll go ahead and see for myself and let her know. Well, after spending the morning wandering through its many streets of import knock-offs, textiles, spices and animal carcasses, I decided for myself that this could have been skipped once again and I wouldn’t have missed much. The merkato is a mess of people and very uninteresting in terms of a market. The size is about the only thing it has. I’ve been more impressed with the souqs of Marrakesh, which may not be as big as the merkato but pack a much greater cultural punch.

After about 2 hours I was spent from the dust, dirt and odor of Addis Ababa’s heart. I didn’t carry much with me since I’ve been warned of pick pockets and scammers in the merkato. I did bring my camera but was reluctant to take it out for fear of drawing attention. It was bad enough having to say no to thank you to every self employed tour guide in the market.

Obtaining a Somaliland Visa: My Way

You can only research before you leave the country so much and even then the practicalities on the ground tend to be so different that it can be difficult to compare two experiences. My goal for the first day in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, was to apply for my visa into Somaliland. I wanted to get this done before anything else in case there was a delay. I had read that sometimes the laison officer isn’t at the embassy and that some travelers are told to come back at later dates.

That way!

That way!

Somaliland itself is not an internationally recognized country so there is no official embassy in Addis Ababa. What I needed to find was the Somaliland Laison Office. When I woke up this morning I talked to Darwit, the receptionist at my guesthouse. I asked for directions. He brought me to the map on the wall and pointed to the Somalian embassy. I told him I needed a visa for travel to Somaliland and that Somalia’s embassy wouldn’t work. He insisted that this is the office I needed to visit and so I reluctantly ventured on foot. Most of the African embassies are pretty close together so I started seeing a few along the path.

Here is where my search got a little interesting, albeit, unnerving. As I was walking I hear a voice from behind, “Alo, Alo! Where are you from?” I’ve been through this before. When you walk around by yourself in any city in Africa you’re likely to encounter people eager to talk to you. He was dressed decent and introduced himself as a Somali from Mogadishu. I told him I was actually on my way to the Somalian embassy right now and he continued walking with me to show me the way. The conversation was pleasant at first but then turned sour. He told me about his aspirations to work in England and that he is in Addis working towards that. Then he asked if I would go with him to a market nearby to buy milk powder for his baby so he can bring it back to him. I told him that I’m sorry but I won’t be able to go with him and help him out and that I have to get to the embassy. He mumbled something about white people that I didn’t understand and then as I proceeded to apologize for not walking with him he interrupted me and said, “If I ever see you in my country, I’m going to kill you!” and walked off in front of me.

I wasn’t sure what to say or how to react but I muttered the words, “That was mean.” I have to be careful not to take this one interaction and let it effect my feelings towards the people who live in this region. I’ve seen this before. There are certainly individuals in every country that are looking to take advantage of western travelers and when it doesn’t go their way they lash out. I can’t say I was comfortable after talking to him but I continued on to the Somali embassy.

When I arrived I was greeted by some men standing outside who confirmed what I had already known. I needed to go to the Somaliland office which was in a different location. He guided me in the right direction and I back tracked. Ethiopian military and police are scattered throughout the district where most of the embassies are so when I would ask one for help he would watch me till i was out of his sight and then I’d ask another for further directions.

I eventually made it to the Somaliland Liason Office and went directly to the visa section. There were two ladies in there who handed me a visa application and asked me to submit it with $40 and a passport sized photo. I ended up having to run back to the guest house and grab my photos but it wasn’t too far. The process itself, not including my wandering around, took about 15 minutes. They stamped my passport with the visa and I was on my way!

I had read prior blogs about getting to the Somaliland embassy which were very little help. All you have to do is ask a taxi to take you to the South African embassy and it is about 50 yards up the road. I now have my 30 day tourist visa for Somaliland and should be making my way that direction later this week.

The Draw of the Nubian

I again find myself in awe looking out over the Egyptian and Nubian deserts from the right window of my Lufthansa Airbus, just as I did in 2007 en route to Nairobi. I decided for this leg of the flight I would take a window seat and chose the right one. The vast desert that stretches from just south of Cairo all the way to southern Sudan has so little to look at, yet so much to see. I gazed out over the sunset and was met with the overwhelming sensation that I’m back. Just as the sun went down I was able to catch a glimpse of the Nile twisting and turning hugged by city lights, the only sign of development for miles. The continent that has fascinated me for my entire life looks to be welcoming me once again. There must be a certain draw to this particular section of the Africa too. Whether it is hearing the tales of past travelers making the journey from Cairo to Khartoum or the mystique of overland travel in such an empty space.

I’m going to eventually do it myself, however for now I’ll be making my landing in Ethiopia in approximately an hour and a half and will set off on a different type of journey east towards the Gulf of Aden.

The South Terminal

Frequent flyers through Miami International Airport’s south terminal know about it. Well, the male ones do anyway. I had just finished putting myself back together after the security check point when a young male TSA agent came up behind me and said, “Man… that right there is why I love working in this terminal!” I glanced at what he was pointing too and it was two young, good looking women with dark skin and black hair. I immediately turned to him and said, “This must be the terminal that serves South America.” He replied, “Yep!” He wasn’t kidding though. Gate J-12 Buenos Aires, Gate J-17 Cali, Gate J-11 Quito, Gate J-4 Medellin. I was tempted to change my flight and get myself back to Colombia, especially since I found out my flight is delayed.

I guess I could be stuck in worse places for six hours. My dad warned me earlier in the day that the flight coming in from Frankfurt to Miami was running late. Five hours late to be exact. So, I’ve been keeping busy, walking around, people watching and generally just trying to take in the journey. Due to the flexible nature of my travels I’m not overly concerned about the delay. Sure, I’m going to miss my connection to Addis Ababa, but maybe in return I get an overnight stay in Frankfurt and get to see Germany for a night. Das ein gud!

UPDATE: I actually made my connectection. Lufthansa had employees with a sign for passengers connecting to Addis Ababa. Myself and three others were whisked away on a bus, rushed through security and boarded the jet from the tarmac. I had literally no time to stretch my legs and relax before I was on my second consecutive long haul flight. I have made it to my hotel in Addis with ease and settled in for a good night sleep.

Avoid the ‘Phoid

He ruins everything

He ruins everything

It’s the first question people usually ask when I tell them I’m heading overseas again. “Did you get all your shots?” It’s as if they think I’m just jumping into this carefree and irresponsibly. How dare people question my planning and research? How dare people ask me such a silly inane question? The nerve of family and friends to even consider for a moment that maybe I won’t take full precaution before I leave the country! As an experienced traveler you can never be too careful and you must make sure that you do not make mistakes when it comes to vaccinations and immunizations… apparently though, I am not an experienced traveler. Oops!

The sarcasm is off now. I messed up. In all my infinite travel wisdom I decided it would be fun to wait till the very last minute to update my typhoid fever vaccination. Luckily this is my 2nd shot and it only takes a week to become effective. Also, looking up for me is the fact that I plan to stay in Addis Ababa for a week where the water is generally pretty safe compared to rural towns and villages in the countryside. The good thing about typhoid is it is pretty easily avoidable if I stick to bottled water, even for brushing my teeth, as well as making sure I keep my mouth shut in the shower.

So, if you were to ask me yesterday if I got all my shots… I would have said no. Also, I got what I deserved. A nice heavy feverish reaction a few hours after the shot. I took some Advil and laid down for a nap and it went away.

2 more days…

5 Things I’m Going to Miss

The last time I left the country for a long period of time proved that no matter how tough I try to convince myself that I am, I truly miss family and friends when I travel. So, putting the obvious aside for just a moment, these are some things I’m going to miss when I’m gone.

1. My car: I haven’t always loved driving a lot but I sure do enjoy blasting my music while on the highway. I’m going to miss that part of it. I’ve loved my Jetta since I bought it in 2002 and when I return to the United States I don’t see myself investing that much in a new vehicle again. Now I will have to rely on headphones and public transportation.

2. Quality Hispanic food: This is tough to come by outside of the United States and Latin America. I have had the chance to occasionally find tasty Mexican joints in Asia but nothing compared to what I get here at home. I can probably kiss the Cuban Sandwich goodbye as I don’t see getting a good one for awhile.

3. Cheese: Somewhat related to #2, I don’t know what it is about being outside of the country but I rarely come across good cheese of any kind. I know I probably just need to hit up a grocery store but as a whole, in restaurants it is never available. And I can forget shredded or melted cheese. It is nearly non-existent at Mexican or Italian restaurants. I love cheese. I love it a lot!

4. High fives: Seriously, this has been one of the most exciting NFL seasons I’ve experienced in a long time. I’m going to miss hanging out with my friends during Bucs games and giving high fives. Do people do that in other countries? Even if they do, will they be as meaningful with out having a true team to root for? What’s my favorite football club going to be? Should I root for Manchester United since the Bucs owner’s also own them? A high five is nothing with out some real excitement behind it. You don’t fake high fives.

5. Jeopardy!: I must confess my geeky side. I’ve enjoyed weekly Jeopardy! competitions with my roommates for quite sometime. Such a simple pleasure but it will be strongly missed. I may never answer the most questions but it sure is a good time trying.