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!
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.
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.
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!
Today is my last day in Addis. I’m actually here one day longer than I hoped since I never got my bus ticket out yesterday. You generally need to do it a day in advance and finding bus stations can be quite the grueling experience. Myself and a Canadian guy I met at the guest house are both heading to Harar so we agreed to group up and search for the bus station today. It has been a long day of walking but we finally managed to get that piece of business taken care of. The rest of the day I’ll be relaxing and tomorrow we head out at 5:30am for a 10 hour bus ride.
The guy I’m traveling with right now had just come from Somaliland and in fact had passed through both southern Somalia and Puntland, two places certainly off-limits to tourists. This guy is a wealth of knowledge about travel around the world. He uses a term I haven’t heard yet called “freestyle” travel. It is independent travel but with less reservations about what is going to happen next and flexibility to deal with just about any situation that may come up. He has been country hopping for 18 years and has seen about 160 countries. He is in Addis visiting embassies and trying to obtain visas for some countries he’ll be heading to next. I find myself in awe listening to him talk. He was interviewed when he arrived in Mogadishu and there have been some reports about him. One of which can be seen here: I also find myself realizing that as adventurous as I feel, what I’m doing is in no way dangerous. I’m still on a beaten path of other backpackers.
I still don’t have an exit strategy for the Horn yet. From the two people that I’ve met so far that just came from Somaliland it seems that only a couple of days is enough. The cost of travel between towns is too expensive to stay for awhile and in general the country doesn’t offer much in the way of tourism. I’m going to start looking up flights to different places and probably decide where I’m going next when I’m in Hargeisa.
If I’ve learned anything from my current travel partner, it is to keep my options open and I’m really happy I didn’t buy a ticket out of Africa before arriving. I literally can do anything I want right now and that feeling is liberating. I have absolutely NO idea where I will be in 3 weeks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m checked in at Tampa International, waiting for my flight to Miami and on to a connection in Frankfurt. I will be en route to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia over the next 24 hours.
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…
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.
I understand not everyone has a passion for geography like I do, but I feel that a pretty basic understanding of the political and topographical lay out of our planet is important to have. Some of you may be fellow travelers and geography nuts who are are reading for inspiration or trip research purposes but I think a large number are casual friends and family who just want to see where I am and what I’m doing. So this geography lesson is more about the latter group.
So, where am I going?
I’m heading to the horn of Africa first. This is the region of East Africa that consists traditionally of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. It has long been considered one of the most volatile regions on the continent as well as the entire world. In recent years the overall situation has improved with the exception of certain border areas and of course the chaos that exists in the southern Somali states. I’m specifically flying into Ethiopia via the capital city of Addis Ababa and making an overland journey to the northern portion of Somalia (Somaliland) hopefully ending my journey in the coastal town of Berbera. “The Horn,” as it is commonly referred to, jets out into the Indian ocean and Gulf of Aden just below the Arabian peninsula. This region is diverse in landscape and climate. I’ll find myself cooler in the Bole Mountains of Ethiopia and warmer the more arid regions surrounding the Ogaden and Somali deserts. I wrote a little bit more detail about this a few months ago here and I’ll certainly be writing in more detail along the way about the people and the politics but I just wanted to show where I’m going first.
I implore anyone reading and enjoying this blog to take out a map and really get an understanding of where I am. Very few in western society know much about the Somali people outside of what the media shows. Along the way I hope to get a better understanding myself and to shed the concept that Somalia is just a land of chaos, savages and piracy. While these things certainly do exist, there is always a deeper story.
I leave in 4 days…