“Berbera, it is a tough town,” our driver said as we approached the city. Ed, the other American and I hired a driver and a soldier to escort us on the four hour journey north to the Gulf of Aden town of Berbera. Once the capital of Somaliland; Berbera is now an important port not only for the country, but for landlocked Ethiopia as well. A young immigration officer I met at the airport told me that 70% of the people in Berbera speak Arabic due to the number of ships coming and going from the Arabian Peninsula.
When our driver said it is a tough town, he didn’t mean that it was dangerous, but instead that people only come here to work. There are a lower number of women and children in Berbera as well. I found it dustier than Hargeisa and was crippled with a hacking cough for a good portion of my stay. Berbera is generally the second stop on the “tourist” route in Somaliland. Although, we still hadn’t seen another tourist in a week since arriving to the country. Berberans were curious as to why we were there, which also speaks to the low numbers of visitors they see. Generally speaking, when I travel to Africa, it is only in the far off rural areas that I really get the foreigner stare-down. In Berbera, and Somaliland in general, it happens everywhere. Why are you here? I have to tell them, tourism even though at times I find myself asking the same question.
I guess my main reason for coming to Berbera was to swim in the Gulf of Aden, which I did do. We headed to a sort of “resort” hotel a few kilometers outside of town where we had the entire beach to ourselves. It was as natural as it gets with both, black and white sands, breaking waves, mountains behind us and several camels grazing in the sun to add a final piece of authenticity to the experience. There were a few NGO workers at the resort that we never saw in town.
While in town, we spent most of the time drinking Somaliland tea, which I’ve grown to enjoy very much. A big glass costs only 500 shilling which means twelve cups for $1. It is made with regular tea mixed together with camel milk. It is quite satisfying, especially since coffee is impossible to find.
All visitors to Berbera are first confronted with ship wreckage in the harbor. These ships have been left in their places since the civil war between Somalia and Somaliland ended in the early 1990’s. I guess scrap metal doesn’t go for much in these parts.
Another popular way to pass the time in Berbera is to chew a local plant grown in the horn of Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, called, khat. It is spelled and pronounced many different ways but one thing for sure is that it is a sizeable part of the daily life of most Somalilanders. From about 9am on into the evening men, young and old and even some women can be seen with leaves and stems sticking out of their mouth while they lounge around and chew. Khat is classified as a narcotic throughout most of the world and is certainly illegal to grow and consume in the United States. It seems socially accepted in the horn, although I spoke with a few people who disapprove of the usage. Khat seems to be the replacement for beer in a country where all alcohol is illegal. There are certainly more khat shops than any other type of business.
After two nights in Berbera it was apparent our presence was beginning to be noticed. The local authorities had asked the hotel manager about us. They were curious about our visit and wanted to know when we were leaving and where we had just come from. I had left Ed this morning and took a taxi to the airport. When I arrived an immigration agent asked me about the other American that was in town. I told them that I had only met him in Hargeisa and we were not travelnig together. That seemed to be sufficient enough.
The airport was real simple. There was a woman checking bags at the front and a small room to wait in until the plane arrived. I flew African Express Airways which, like most East African air carriers, just uses old Russian fleets. The flight I took originated in Nairobi then through Mogadishu and then on to Berbera where I got on and flew to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates where I write this. The runway in Berbera at one time was one of the longest in the world. The Soviet Union built this airstrip that was later used by NASA as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. After boarding I peaked out the window and noticed a broken down airplane just off the runway. This was going to be an exciting take off!