I am the last one through immigration on the last plane of the night. I have a pretty new visa in my passport but that does nothing to satisfy me. This is a short trip just to see what I can before Micronesia. I am tired. Tired of new countries, of getting scammed, of paying for endless flights. I’ve got a job in Micronesia, and this is just means to an end. At least for now. I will be airlifted from Addis in a week’s time, first to Germany then Japan, then to Guam before I set down in Chuuk at the expense of my future employer. That makes me happy. Where I am going is remote and tickets from there to virtually anywhere worth going cost at least a thousand bucks.
I haven’t got any Djibouti money, so I go to an ATM outside the airport and insert my cash card. I get the smallest denomination, 2000 Francs, to pay the cab driver. My money pops out and I go, hailing the only driver left before the airport shuts down for the evening.
“You need money?” he asks.
“No, I have 2000. Deux mille. C’est bon?”
It is not bon, but it’s going to have to be. I’m too tired to be charitable to some bottom-of-the-barrel cabbie with ripped seats and no air conditioning. He thinks I need him, but I know he needs me.
“You have bank card?” he asks, implying that I can get more cash with a guy he knows so I can pay him more.
Instead, I receive his question as “did you get your bank card from the machine?” I search my pockets and run back to the ATM. Nothing. I check each pocket three times. Rien. I have finally lost something that is effectively irreplaceable until I land in Micronesia.
Absolutely Fucked… Pardon My French.
I have to survive for at least two weeks without access to cash because either my card was stolen or because some Djiboutian ATM ate my card. I get on my driver’s WiFi hotspot and lock my card. What do I do? How will I manage? I know the answers to these questions before I ask them.
I will get money wired from my parents, and/or pay with credit cards as much as possible. I’ll be frugal. I’ll drain the hundred bucks I have in American dollars. And I will, as I always have, get by with what I’ve got.
Though my wallet is coping well with the loss, my mind is not. How could I let this happen? Why was I so stupid? I like to think that I get better with every country that I visit. That I get smarter.
I know I put immense pressure on myself but I feel I have to, and perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe I don’t have to, but this mistake will haunt me for weeks. I know that. And while I’ll figure it out I do not like making these mistakes, especially if it means I’ll have to rely on my parents stateside to pull me out of this mess.
The driver drops me off at my place and, when he asks me for more money, I coldly tell him “je n’ai pas.” I don’t have any. I slam the door and walk past the doorman into my hotel complex. The guard tells the cabbie to “shoo” and I begin to check in with one of the employees while rapidly communicating via messenger with my bank to see if my card is in use. I ask where to get dinner nearby with a credit card, and she points me to a fondue restaurant a block away on the poorly-paved, poorly-lit road. This registers as a strange time and place for fondue, but my mind is focused on more pressing matters.
I step into the bar, where Africans are waiters and not a single customer has a complexion darker than mine. I instantly feel as though I’ve walked into a party to which I was not explicitly invited but could easily blend in with no one being the wiser. So high school. I am white. I speak some European languages. I am, according to my visa, a “tourist.” And yet I feel like I am in a place more foreign than Europe and the Horn of Africa multiplied, because I have entered the realm of unironic post-colonial puppetry.
Let me speak candidly, for I have little else to speak of than sheer emotions on this brief self-inflicted layover. I thought Djibouti was better off. They have a fancy US Army base, and they speak French. That said, I see nothing but Europeans who came to the most random possible place to spend their vacation. The streets are of unwieldy stone and dust, and desperation drives locals to pursue the American Dollar the same as anywhere else. But unlike most other places, there are carbon copied Western Europeans here with an unclear agenda and an apparent love for mojitos and camel burgers. I try both. I am impressed by neither, though I admit that this night was destined to be ruined from the beginning.
As they press their lips against one another’s cheeks I wonder if they do that to express their wishes that they could kiss the other two. Say what you will about Americans, but Europeans, when left to their own colonial devices, can yell “mojitos!” and clink glasses just as loudly as any new world sorority survivors. I hope you realize my complaints strictly come from an emotional place and not from criticism of Western Europe or it’s people. My own mother grew up kissing close relatives on their cheeks; my father, an Italian-American, passed down the hand-talking gene to me and routinely pronounces “mozzarella” as if it has way fewer vowels than it actually does. C’est la vie.
This is my last new country of adventure for awhile, and I arrive at the realization that I am, at the very least, fulfilling destiny by reentering the workforce. I have no access to cash, so the natural solution when one is penniless is to find work. It’s time to pass out in this concrete air conditioned Djiboutian waterbnb (waterboard and breakfast) , so I take a pill cocktail of antihistamines, antimalarials, and sleeping pills just like that nauseous night in Peru so many months ago.
My new objective is to survive on nothing but my remaining credit limit and the hundred or so dollars I have in my backpack, before I am airlifted by my new job to Micronesia. I have a ticket reserved to Addis, my departure point, but when I make it to their office a mile from my hotel to pay, they A) do not accept credit card and B) will only issue me a direct flight due to the visa on arrival only being attainable there. If they sold me the ticket I reserved today, I could slip out at layover Dire Dawa unregistered. Of course, I do have an expired visa from only a few days before and was admitted and documented then without a problem, but there are no multiple entries for visas issued upon arrival in Ethiopia. I must pay twice and fill two whole pages in my passport with Ethiopian visas for the cost of 50 USD apiece. My cash will be decimated and I grow nervous, considering how I don’t even have a ticket to Ethiopia yet.
This constant closing of doors allows me to see more clearly which ones still remain open. A plan quickly crystallizes. If I book online for a flight that embarks greater than 24 hours from time of purchase, I can buy a ticket online on credit. There is an 7 pm direct flight the following day, so if I make it back to the hotel before 7 today I can buy it. I will simply extend my stay another night in Djibouti, despite how much it will cost me, and try to live cheaply off of whatever I can scrounge around town. I’ll ask my owner if I can stay in my air-conditioned, WiFi-connected room until I have to leave, and I’ll just stay in much-cheaper Addis Ababa until I depart for Micronesia.
All of my bookings go well, and my Addis Airbnb even accepts to host me till the day I am to leave for Micronesia. I have shelter accounted for, and water comes free with my hotel along with tea and coffee, so now it is time to find food in this surprise survival expedition on the Horn of Africa. I thankfully find an upscale grocery store nearby that accepts cards. When I walk in it just looks like any store, but everything is imported from France or thereabouts, and most items cost more than they would in the United States. Now, I am to atone for the relatively stress-free life that credit cards have afforded me. Cash is still King in Djibouti, despite France and the United States having close cultural and military ties, respectively, with the nation. Now it will cost me dearly to survive in this country on only a visa and a Visa™, when a few dollars would have done me a lot of good.
In the grocery stores of former French Somaliland, it becomes clear that the natural response to “I don’t want to pay a lot for food” is “buy a bunch of hors d’oeuvres, that way you aren’t paying for a full meal.” While the rationale seems more Spanish than French, I have no time to question, so I seek out the cheapest meat, cheese, and bread items and buy them. I wind up with sliced sausage, a wheel of spreadable cheese triangles, and those weird miniature toast things that I cannot imagine any real person enjoys eating. Everything is on sale, and I hope to make this Kerouacian eight-dollar meal last through the following day.
My vittles hardly last through breakfast. Fortunately, I have an entire day to lay about, write, and plan cheap meals with imported French groceries. At the Cash N’ Save, I recall a story someone told me once about a person who lived for months subsisting only on beer. I buy a four-pack and some crackers and decide to explore the European Djibouti I witnessed the night before: that of getting buzzed in the hot, sandy twilight.
On a bathroom break I am apprehended by the chef-in-training at my hotel/motel/cabin in the desert. I have my living quarters, my own AC unit which I abuse, and bed. I hardly leave, but when I do I often see Aden, who is on a work visa here from Eritrea. An outspoken, worldly individual, she is now learning how to cook Chinese food for the CHINATOWN HOTEL & RESTAURANT, but spends most of her time alone in her room or assisting the housekeeping staff. She invites me to have drink with her and a few of the other guests, and I readily agree. I’m not sober enough to want to be left alone, and not yet drunk enough to want to go to bed, so I go to my room, grab my last beer, and open a box of tiny individually-wrapped cakes to share with my new friends: the Chinese chef, the Eritrean sous-chef, a stoic, sober Yemeni, and a Frenchman who now works in Ethiopia with his Ethiopian wife. Four continents are accounted for between us, and we get along fine by touting the universal world-traveler agenda whereby no one is evil due to his or her nationality, and wherein diversity builds resilience. It is close to dawn when we finish laughing and adoring and inquiring, and I sleep clear till noon in my cold desert pod.
I arrive at Hargeisa airport and pay my sixty dollars for a tourist visa. The airport folks are friendly and kind. I get the feeling, only for a second, that I might have made a mistake in coming here when I leave the airport and see no taxi drivers or buses looking to take me to my destination. Let this be a lesson on “necessary others,” to borrow a term from an English professor of mine. Sometimes, though this is certainly not always the case, you want to be harassed while leaving the airport by a taxi driver. To put it in economic terms, the perfect competition of taxi drivers outside the airport can be a comfort to the budget-minded traveler, and I have benefited in many foreign lands, from Yangon to Cairo, by being able to negotiate a better fare because there were so many people with cars looking for work, and no oppressive monopoly trying to squeeze money out of confused tourists.
That’s what they have here.
Airport Taxi at Hargeisa airport charges me 18 dollars for the ride, and then the driver asks for an extra 5 when he finds out how far the trip is. He hears this from his friend who is hitching a free ride and offers his translation services free. I tell the driver to get his buddy to pay the five, because I’m not going to. He doesn’t understand until we get to my hotel and I make a big deal out of the 2 bucks I’m supposed to get from 20. He told me at the airport that he had change, so I make him run out to change money once we get to the hotel before I pay him. Call me evil or twisted, but if you haven’t taken a Somali airport cab I’d prefer that you reserve your judgement until the fateful day that you do.
My hotel is decidedly nice, but I run into another scam when the receptionist accidentally tells me the cash price for the hotel, which is way less than the price I booked for online. C’est la Vie. My room is comfortable, however, and I make sure to shower and get settled before heading out for lunch. Breakfast is included at the hotel, and when the hotel owner tells me what is included she says I get “bread, eggs, and benis.” Everyone else at the hotel reiterates that I will, in fact, get a plate of “benis” with my meal, and I struggle to keep a straight face when they say it.
The Man Who Salivates at Goats
I discover that my hotel truly is far from downtown, but I am ready to go for a stroll so I walk the two sun-bleached miles to one of Lonely Planet’s most recommended restaurants. I order goat with rice and dates and some sort of soup. And a Fanta. If heavily spiced Ethiopian food is the Indian take-out of East Africa, Somali food is the brilliantly savory, well-considered French cuisine of the region. Though, admittedly, no Parisian restaurant would have so many flies trying to get your goat before you can. Frankly, the experience is otherwise terrific and I wish there were such a restaurant back home in Connecticut.
But I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Perhaps you heard about Somalia in the news recently when Donald Trump included it in his list of Travel Ban countries. While there are several Somali communities in the United States, my country is no longer issuing visas to citizens of that nation. But here’s where things get a little more confusing. Somalia and Somaliland are not the same place. Formerly British Somaliland, this country where I am right now is not recognized as an independent state by the U.N., and is instead regarded as a part of Somalia (formerly Italian Somaliland). According to anyone on the street, I am in the nation’s capital. But according to the U.N., I am in a rebelling region of Somalia (capital: Mogadishu). This despite the fact that Somaliland does issue their own passports and are involved in prolonged armed conflict with Somalia. When I ask Somalilanders (who confusingly just call themselves “Somalis”) their impressions of Somalia, they describe it as dangerous, violent, and no place for the likes of me. If you have seen Black Hawk Down, I get the impression that Mogadishu has not changed much since the 90s, when the film is set.
That said, Somaliland, at least Hargeisa, is not Somalia. People are generally nice and want to talk to an American visitor. I even get a job offer from a man who gives me a ride to my hotel. He is trying to start up a business and wants someone to take care of some of the finances and technical aspects of his business. It should be noted that not all interactions are positive. Seeing my skin color, Somalis often think I am a refugee from Yemen and, upon learning my real origins, curse my country. Though it’s obviously not my fault (I voted for Hilary Clinton!) I do feel a sort of guilt that my country, who had been so welcoming to Somalis in the past, is now closing its doors due to some silly Islamophobic tendencies. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: America needs more Muslims. Imagine what we could accomplish! Somali restaurants in every town! Beautiful mosques with their stunning architecture! Banks could be open on Sundays! To quote Michael Cera’s character in Superbad:
“That’s the world I someday want to live in.”
For now, I just tell the angry Somalis that I’m Canadian.
Khat is the drug of choice in Somalia, and I see the stems sprinkled everywhere as I roam the streets. Supposedly it makes one chatty, and when I visit my bodega for a water-replenishing soda a man is fingering a bouquet of the stuff while he catches up with the owner. When he offers me some I simply cannot refuse this authentic Somali experience, though I feel nothing when I chew it except the gross unsatisfying feeling of chewing a leaf. I spit it out when I turn the corner.
For dinner I visit “Best Pizza” where a small pie is 25,000 Somali Shillings ($2.75). I order two, and the owner’s friend has to run across the street to exchange my 20 dollar bill. Somaliland operates using two currencies, the Shilling and the U.S. Dollar, and people are forever exchanging the two.
Here’s why: the Somali Shilling is practically worthless, and depending on market forces, the value of one’s life savings could be halved over the course of a week. Not to mention, the largest bills in general circulation are scarce 5000-Shilling notes, with 1000-Shilling notes being much more common. As a result, a twenty dollar bill can get you a stack of Shillings several inches high, which is incredibly impractical for those making large purchases. As a result, every block has at least a couple of blue metal cages for inevitable exchanges. During business hours, stacks of Somali money sit, waiting to be purchased like recycle bins full of brown, faded paper waiting to be taken away and turned into water bottles, books, or pizza. My pizza costs a half-inch of Shillings, and while I count the money the Pizza Man doesn’t even want me to waste my time. He knows, more or less, what a pizza’s worth of bills looks like, so if he loses a couple grand on a transaction by not counting it doesn’t even matter to him.
In the morning I go to the market, where I shop for clothes and find nothing I like. I also get another free nip of khat from a nice lady, who keeps her green in the false bottom of her grocery stall counter. After two hits, I’m not hooked yet and I bid her adieu. She just seems happy that she got to share some of their homegrown herb with a white man. Khat makes everyone your buddy; what else can be said?
Fortunately, Ethiopian visas are issued to Americans on arrival for the sum of 50 dollars USD. Unfortunately, these visas are single-entry so I’ll have to get two before my time in Africa is up. I lament the space lost in my passport, but seeing as I’ll spend most of the next year trapped on a tropical island I don’t imagine I’ll need more than a few blank pages for the coming months. If anything, I am more worried about spending the cash and would rather pay with card or local currency. Neither option is feasible due to poor exchange rates, and so I buy the visa and get out.
I am able to talk a cab driver down from 500 (roughly 17 USD) to 300 Birr (10 USD) for the ride to my hostel, though I learn even that is far above market price for the 10-minute ride. It is a Tuesday night, and as the city grows dark and cold I become increasingly sick and achy. I take my second malaria dose for the day, and grab a drink at the bar before setting up my bookings for the following days. I want to visit Hargeisa, Somaliland while I am here, so I book a morning flight for the day after. I also call friends and family, notifying them of my overnight continental drift. Plus, I figure I should tell them where I am now, so that they don’t grow worried in a couple of days when I don’t tell them my location during my Somali trip. I find it is better to tell parents of a trip to places like Somalia or Iraq only after you’ve left. Tell me I’m irresponsible, but you can bet I’d be talked out of such great experiences if I gave my parents the option. I also keep my illness to myself. This way everyone is happy.
I awake feeling like a cocooned butterfly under a stack of sheets and fleece blankets an inch thick. If I had a cold, it is cured. If I had malaria, the pills wiped it out. Addis is malaria-free, so I don’t have to worry about my twice-daily doses. I still take my morning capsule, just in case, before exploring the city.
I step out of the hostel and try to make it to the main road. A Polish man, whom I shared a room with the night before, is standing on a corner, looking at a paper map and getting called at by Ababan passersby. I have a map downloaded, so I cross the street to give him some assistance. We chat, and I learn his is doing a similar trip to me, bopping around the Horn over the course of a couple weeks. He needs to get to a travel agency, and when I plot it I realize it is on my way. I happily agree to take the man, named Adam, under my wing.
We find no buses going our way, and cabs aren’t pulling over. Now, it is both of us who feel lost, and a cafe owner tells us to sit down and have a cup of coffee while she calls her cab driver-friend. We sip our 30-cent cups, which are garnished with bitter herbs that she tells us to put inside the coffee. It changes the flavor, but as a coffee neophyte I can’t tell you if it makes the cup better or worse.
Adam tells me he works for T-Mobile, and while I praise his company (who never responded to my request for sponsorship, btw) he has nothing but negative things to say. In fact, he doesn’t even use T-Mobile as his provider, and I tell him about all of the places that I’ve visited and been covered by the Simple Global plan (which I swear I am not being paid to promote, as much as I wish I was). We chat about his hometown of Warsaw, which I visited and enjoyed, and about the logistics of traveling this region. I offer what little expertise I’ve gathered. He does the same.
After fifteen minutes, the cafe owner’s friend, a beautiful, kind-looking woman named Jeri pulls over in her silver-blue sedan and smiles at us to get in. I give her the rundown of where Adam is going, and where I am going, and we plan to drop him off first. I tell him that I’ll be going out to dinner later, and if he wants to join he is welcome. He nods before exiting the car.
As we chat on the drive to Trinity Church, Jeri seems willing to give me a whole tour of Addis, then drop me off back at the hostel. When I ask ‘how much?,’ a necessity in Ethiopian taxi acquisition, she says “whatever you want.” This is unnerving, but her kindness convinces me that she actually doesn’t have a rate in mind, and would take anything reasonable. If this is a business tactic, it works. Rather than pay a flat fare for a series of rides through town, her tour skills add value to the experience, and I enjoy myself way more than if she had just driven me places. At each church, where a hefty admittance fee for tourists is charged, Jeri drives by slowly, sometimes taking my phone to snap pictures of the religious sites before peeling off back into the confusion of Ethiopian Capital traffic. We smile and nod at the church guards.
“If he see us... he will kill us,” she assures me.
At night I meet up with Adam once more, and we walk to "2000 Habesha," a cultural restaurant that promises an Ethiopian buffet dinner and a show. For 27 dollars, no restaurant could provide more. Every five minutes, a new act takes the stage and sings and/ or dances, and the beauty, movement, harmony and color don’t even begin to compare to the overwhelming flavors of the buffet. Adam only finds one lamb dish he likes; I struggle to find one dish that I couldn’t eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When one travels to Ethiopia, one may feel they are in some long-lost Indian city. Ethiopians, with their slim, statuesque figures, dark skin, and dramatically shaped faces, may appear Indian to those unaware. And, even for speakers of other Semitic languages Amharic may sound unplaceable and foreign.
I can’t wait to come back.
I awake alone in Patrick’s Airbnb property. It is a chilly morning, but ample blankets keep me warm. The owner commutes to Manzini, a city in the center of the country from where Kombis to Mozambique leave every day. He agrees to drop me off at the bus station and help me find my bus. He also takes it upon himself to give me a tour of his country, and we catch glimpses of the King of Swaziland’s Palace, the national archives, and the hills where it is rumored that the nation’s royalty are buried, the grave site protected and kept secret by one Eswati clan over the nation’s history. When we arrive at the station, the last bus has just left, and I am sent away to print out a reservation in Maputo. If I do not come prepared, Mozambican border security have the capability to deny my entrance, though any internet searches tell me that a bribe can get me out of nearly any border jam.
I print my booking and eat a shopping mall lunch of beef ribs before returning to the Kombi. A few people have arrived, but almost all of the bus is still empty, so we wait.
And wait some more.
From 10 am to nearly 5 pm, we wonder if we will even depart that day, until the bus is finally full. I am thankful I don’t have to find a place to stay in Manzini, but a night ride into malarial territory seems equally unappealing. At the border, though I communicate with the guards in Portuguese, no one can explain to me why “10 Years” is not an acceptable answer on the immigration form field asking for my passport’s validity. I end up letting the immigration officer “keep the change” and get my visa processed almost immediately.
Three days of nothing but napping and studying, killing mosquitoes and eating Mozambican burritos leads me to realize there’s something more out there than country-counting and culture-binging. I get an interview request from a tiny school in Micronesia, and tell them I’ll happily interview via Skype. Rebecca, the interviewer, seems excited to talk with me, and confidently says she will recommend me to her boss if I am interested. My only other offers are still in Taiwan and Thailand, places I have already been. In this first teaching job, I want to delve into a completely new culture, and deal with new travel challenges. Micronesia likely being one of the most remote countries, surrounded by hundreds of miles of open ocean, I am tempted to take the job despite the low pay. Fortunately, housing is included, and after talking to both my parents and friends, I accept the job the following morning, actually grateful that I’ll be able to take a break from constant traveling for a little while.
This new decision liberates me, and I find a new desire to discover Maputo. I finally visit the beaches and see some of the many impressive churches in the city. At night I visit an Indian restaurant across the street for a bowl of mushroom mutter and a beer, and befriend some of the regulars there. Among them are businessmen who give me their cards and tell me to call if I get into any trouble in Maputo or need the number of a reasonable taxi fare to the airport. I don’t entirely know if I am going to the airport yet, but I take the card anyway.
The plan was to return to Swaziland and South Africa, see Lesotho, and continue through southern Africa. But, this new job offer and the rigmarole of coming to Maputo via Kombi makes me just want to fly. After all, I will be returning to work in a few weeks, so I should make the most of my freedom by seeing as much as I can, and not wasting time waiting for buses. That night, I buy a ticket to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a flight scheduled to depart the following afternoon. If I am leaving Africa, I sure as hell am going to see the Horn, my most anticipated part of this continent.
On that last day, elections are being held in Mozambique. The results will almost certainly be faked in favor of the incumbent party. My driver is upset, but he voted anyway. I find one place open where I can buy a breakfast of Portuguese pastries before I travel to the airport, jamming to the driver’s unexpectedly bumping playlist. I content myself in the airport to buy short-sleeved, collared shirts for my new career. I realize that where I am going to teach will be hot like this, and short sleeves will be a necessity. I have an arm-tattoo of the world, and I just hope it isn’t one of those “hide your tattoos” establishments. A bright green Mozambican shirt catches my eye and snatch it up before passing through immigration.
The story of my travels to Eswatini are difficult to recount for two reasons. Primarily, I fear that the story will be considered in some way that makes me seem foolish or rash. However, I also struggle to tell the story of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, because I don’t quite recall the finer points. May admissions boards and future bosses gloss over this story or else miss it entirely in this unwieldy archive of a half-Gap Year’s education.
It starts on a Kombi from Johannesburg, from which I disembark early to try Nando’s Chicken. For those as unaware as I was about this chain, Nando’s is a South African-based Portuguese fast food chicken restaurant immensely popular among the English. As an American, it goes without saying that I knew not of the appeal prior to consorting with the English over the last six months. I walk in and order chicken wings in a hot sauce, along with potatoes in Peri Peri béarnaise sauce. The meal is a mixture of foreign and domestic that I have come to know perfectly summarizes the Portuguese palate. My intercontinental intrigue is replaced with deep satisfaction as I dig into my meal. I am a mess when I am finished, and eagerly wipe my fingers on the provided napkins at both my table and the next. Swaziland’s first meal puts a smile on my face.
Lost In Eswatini
Like any drifter, I’ve learned to not let the challenges of life bring down the simple pleasures of the road. I stroll away from the restaurant with a smile, even though dusk approaches and I haven’t a clue of where to find my bed for the night. And, I get no internet and no reception on this small country, which I will soon learn has only one sluggish internet provider. Restaurants don’t offer WiFi. Neither will my Airbnb, which I booked the night before. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Thankfully, I have a strange recollection of my booked property being on a certain diagonal street across from a golf course. I make that my destination, using the half-loaded Google Map which somehow lies saved on my phone. When I arrive, unsurprisingly, I find nothing but the aforementioned golf course where Eswatis are driving and putting on this warm fall afternoon. I should mention that I am not alone in this country. I have a friend from here (see my writings on Barcelona and Andorra for the backstory) whom I suppose I could call in an emergency, though she lives several towns away and I have no desire to bother her. Instead, I bother a few bartenders preparing for their dinner rush for a WiFi password, and I am able to locate my Airbnb-dot and read the description. Unfortunately, there is no address, but I manage to download a photo in hopes that I’ll simply recognize the property strolling down the road. I will not be able to, but lack of address makes this lead one of my strongest.
The downloaded map-dot takes me to a preschool by a high school at the bottom of a hill. I’ve hit a dead end. Not literally--I am actually on one of the largest thru-streets in Mbabane--but that’s beside the point. I see a young man exiting the preschool and inquire as to the location of my photographed Airbnb. He doesn’t recognize it, but thinks he knows of a guesthouse a block north and will happily take me there. I express my gratitude as we walk. He is in high school, and we struggle to construct a durable conversation. Instead we give one another one- and two-word answers until the guesthouse comes into view. A group of drunk men on a curb yell at us, and invite my new friend to introduce me. He smiles awkwardly and tells them he can’t.
“Those friends of yours?” I ask.
“That’s my teacher.”
The guesthouse is a bust and as the sun gets a little too close to the horizon our only option is to apprehend the corner-drunks for directions. They are friendly, courteous, and kind. Scout’s Honor. The teacher, who seems the most sober, agrees to call the Airbnb and get directions for me. I sense that none of these beer-swillers has a single bad bone in their bodies and I easily put my faith into Mr. M who negotiates with the property owner for ten minutes before he gets a sound address. When the high school student tries to sneak away, he is reprimanded for being rude, though I tell him repeatedly he can leave, hopefully saving the full embarrassment of a weekend run-in with his high school teacher. I sit on a cement slab with some of the guys, endlessly pleased at how well these first couple of Eswati hours have turned out.
“I ‘ave Victah right he-ah! We ah jus' trying to fin’ ya plehce!” Mr. M howls, as if he has engaged in some kind of reverse hostage situation where he is trying to get rid of the strange white boy in exchange for peace of mind and resumed libations.
Patrick, Airbnb host, is not having it. The exchange lasts several minutes until trust is mutually assured and Patrick shares the address.
“‘'Awp in mah cah!” Mr. M tells me.
In the car I learn two very important things: A) Mr. M teaches economics at the local high school, and B) Mr. M is much drunker than I thought. We swerve the entire block to the Airbnb, going no more than fifteen intoxicated miles an hour until we reach the gate. Patrick, and his wife Flavia, are waiting for me nervously. They are Ugandan by birth, but Eswati by naturalization. I will learn that Patrick is a doctor specializing in HIV and AIDS treatment. His career and money are apparent enough by his vest and rigid posture. I, the incredibly willing hostage, am handed over and we all shake hands and introduce ourselves.
“I can tell, you ah a good pehson. An’ Victah will be sef in yah hans,” Mr. M slurs. “Remembah: Human trafficking is punishable by LAW in Swazilan’!”
Patrick and his wife are one part amused, and three parts worried, but we all continue to shake hands nervously as if extra finger-contact will make the drunk man trust the suspiciously proper Ugandan couple. Or else make them trust the drunk man who drove up from nowhere and began discussing the legality of human trafficking unprompted. I am trying my best not to curl up in the corner and start laughing until my lungs come loose. Finally, we all exchange numbers for no reason other than this rapidly-precipitated distrust, and Mr. M eventually pulls away. I slip him some South African Rand, and he smiles appreciatively, if not hazily.
“Is that person your friend?” Patrick asks.
“Nope. Just met him. He gave me a lift” I reply, beaming.
Patrick and his wife Flavia are not nearly as amused as I am, that’s for sure.
I am one of the first to stay at this brand-new Airbnb which has no WiFi, no other guests, and apparently no formal address either. I tell Patrick he should really post the real location so this doesn’t happen every time a customer visits his place. He seems taken aback that the guy who just got a ride from a totally intoxicated stranger has criticism for his new investment property, but acknowledges that he’ll get on it. I assure him that as a Google User and Local Guide, I will even put his place on Google Maps. He smiles and accepts my critique more readily, now that I’ve done my part to rectify the situation. He assures me that--when I return to Swaziland--there will be WiFi.
Any football foodie or Superbowl Party wallflower knows that chicken wings are far from filling, and this residential neighborhood seems to offer few dinner options for me. Fortunately, Patrick, Flavia, and their tiny daughter are headed to the supermarket and offer to drive me there to purchase some food. I never get a chance to, however, because I come across Mr. M and one of his friends in the parking lot, on a beer run.
“VICTAH!” Mr. M shouts.
“Long time no see; how’s it going?” I reply, cooler than you would ever think me capable, I assure you.
The tension on my hosts’ side is palpable as my new best friend sways and yells in front of the nice family and their young daughter. I offer to buy a six-pack for my new friends, if only to save Patrick et. al. from the embarrassment of another interaction with Mr. M.
At the liquor store, Mr. M is the least popular figure, as he yells and makes everyone visibly uncomfortable. I decide that I will spend the evening with this man and his clique, curious what a group of high school teachers get up to on a Saturday-night curb gathering. As it turns out, the Economics professor talks economics, the math teacher counts beer cans, and the English teacher sits pensively in the corner, lost in thought, as their mutual farmer friends talk subsidies and Swazi politics with me. I can’t remember the consensus, but I’m sure everyone agreed the Eswatini government was doing something wrong.
As the crowd slowly pickles, Mr. M assures me that he will not be the one to drive me home. He will “tek me to his home. Intraduce mhe to [his] waf...an’ chil’ren.” I agree to the terms and when Economic Thought grows thin and Mr. M grows homesick we hop into his car and climb the hill to his on-campus home. This after quickly dropping off a friend who lives on the other side of town, but would rather be dropped off at a bar a few blocks from his place. I should have walked. I meet more Eswatis there, though, including a cop who seems to be real good friends with Mr. M.
“I tehch his daughtah,” he explains as we pull from the bar. It is only now I notice the dozens of empty beer cans around my feet.
“At least we have a cop on our side” I think.
At home I meet Mrs. M, and the two children of the M clan, plus a niece who is staying over. The energy in the room is the opposite of the liquor store. As we watch local soap operas, which I cannot understand, love fills the air. I have been invited into their home, and their beautiful faces look at me as if I am the newest addition to the family. I am indistinguishable from them, aside from my alien skin color, as we sit down for dinner of meat and pap, or maize porridge. Before long we are finished, and it is time for the Mrs. to give me a smooth ride home, only occasionally catching the gas pedal on empty cans of Sibebe.
Johannesburg, more than Somalia and Iraq combined has a bad reputation for crime and danger. I disembark at the airport, get some cash at an ATM, and hire an Uber. My first order of business is to head to the bus station and get out of Dodge. My Uber driver is friendly and nowhere on our route seems unsafe, but construction on one of the city’s major highways puts us on a significant detour. For putting up with that, and for being a kind, welcoming first South African encounter, I give him a tip of several Rand.
The bus station, though busy, is incredibly mellow for an overcrowded transit hub. Security guards, whom my Uber driver told me I could trust with my life, have no idea where to catch a bus to Eswatini. None of the bus ticket agents know either, and I start to realize I am in the wrong place. Searching the ‘net, I learn that the station’s ‘taxi rank’ is actually where the cheap international and intra-city transport awaits. This is where vans, or “Kombis,” are loaded up with locals and kick off immediately for their destinations only after selling every seat. “Friendly people” jump at the chance to show me to the international section, and when I reveal I have no extra money my chosen guide waits outside my window for five minutes, tapping on the glass to make sure, until my neighbor shoos him away. I wait an hour and before long we are on our way East.
The border crossing into Eswatini (or "the country formerly known as Swaziland") is calm, and a very tall African woman presses her breasts firmly against my back as I wait in line at immigration as if she is trying to push me over. I somehow neglect to get the gate pass, a free sheet of paper issued to everyone passing through, and have to run back to grab one before clearing Eswatini immigration. Thankfully, my bus does not leave me behind.
Word on the street is that there’s no public transport to downtown from Cairo International. But there is Uber and Middle East equivalent Careem, so I’m bound to make it on this 18-hour layover without getting scammed. The great thing is that there are cab drivers waiting to undercut Uber, so I join one of them and end up sharing it with four Egyptians who ride with windows down, cigarettes akimbo. Not only do I get to pat myself on the back for saving a few cents on this ride, but I also save the environment by carpooling.
Cairo feels like a place that hasn’t done much for the last decade. Not to say that it’s behind the times, but the airport is far from modern and the infrastructure is beginning to crumble a revolution or two after the Arab Spring. The metro is clean, but dated, and the roads are policed largely by crossing guards instead of traffic lights. Somehow the pyramids, which I am told I could see from anywhere, elude me and I spend half the day seeing mosques and Tahrir Square, and eating shawarma before I turn in for a midday snooze-and-shower at the hostel I booked for the day, before catching a Careem back to the airport.
Hitchhikers Guide to the UAE
I approach Khatm al-Shiklah on foot, walking the mile and a half from the bus station, as no one will stop for a midnight hitchhiker and not a single cab passes by. This is the boonies. I’m in the deserted no-man’s land north of Al-Buraimi, after being stamped out of Oman at the city limits. In the time it takes to get from the bus stop to the border, the desert grows pitch black and only the occasional headlights and the beacon to Khatm Al-Shiklah are there to guide me. When I arrive I get stamped out at the border with ease. No one looks at me funny for crossing on foot after sundown. I bet they get a few madmen like me a night.
That said, it may be crazy to walk down the Arabian desert highway at night, but you’d have to be suicidal to do it in the daytime. With my complexion, I’d be reduced to a pink-colored rawhide in minutes. No thanks. I’ll take my chances alone in the desert with the dust and the stars and the cool dry air. If I had a sleeping bag, believe me I’d set up camp right here.
But alas I make the border and cross without difficulty. I flag down a potato-hauling trucker who agrees to drop me five miles down the road at Al Ain Mall, where I assure myself there’s a Big Mac with my name on it. I shoot a text to my friend Natalie who’s been putting me up in Al-Ain and tell her I’ll be at her place in an hour or so.
I receive a response:
“I have no electric or water, mate... I’m not staying in the apartment.”
The truck driver says he’s going all the way to Dubai. I tell him I’ll be joining him the rest of the way if I can; he seems surprised by my instantaneous change in plans. He acts grateful for the company, though, and we are on our way. Truck drivers have to drive half as fast as regular drivers here, so with him the journey proves to be much longer than the short hour-and-change it took Natalie and I to make the same trek. But I don’t mind. Of the limited hitchhiking experience I’ve had, this will likely prove not just to be the longest, but the best. Changing plans in a split second and going to a different city than initially intended is part of the whole deal. I’m a drifter. This is, like, my thing.
After the driver prays quickly at a mosque outside Al Ain we start our transnavigation of the UAE from the border to Dubai. There’s nothing out here, so every exit is marked Al Ain and it feels like we aren’t getting anywhere, only somehow getting closer to where we came from. Not to mention we keep stopping, first for tea and pastries and then for gas. My new friend actually buys me a tea and pastry and we talk on and off for the remainder of the drive. He is from Kerala and has three daughters and a wife there. When I get out at the metro, I give him the rest of my Omani Riyals (because he’s the only person I know going to Oman any time soon) and he refuses until I tell him the money is worthless to me. He finally accepts and agrees to take a photo with me before I jump out and run to the next metro train to Jumeirah, where a couch and a burrito await me like the very salvation of my soul as my dear friend Christina lay asleep.
I transfer to Al Ain--on the south border of the UAE--with a friend who teaches down there. I have the ultimate goal of reaching Muscat, Oman, and I have almost a week to do it. I borrow my other friend’s air mattress to sleep on while in Al Ain, and I see some of that city before I leave the following day. I am most intrigued by the UAE in its more native state. Out here there is no beach, and no metastasizing business-entertainment-oil-shopping-prostitution hub as there is in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. A stroll through the mall reveals more Emiratis than obvious expats, but I would venture to guess that a third of those around are still from elsewhere. The streets are quieter here, and it finally feels as though I am in the desert. This is a border-town, among other things, and in that there is certainly more of an obvious culture, though Al Ain still has many of the pleasures of the moneyed Arabian world. Filipina maids wait for the bus on every corner, and Indian men ask to push your shopping cart through the parking lot or wash your car while you shop in exchange for a few Dirhams. It’s still a strange place to me, but my geography-teacher host has had no problem adjusting to the pleasures of the Brahmin expat class.
Foolishly I assume that there will be an international bus from Al Ain to Muscat. There is not, and I would have been better off taking the bus from Dubai rather than catching a ride here. Now I have to find a way to Al Buraimi, the Omani town across the border, and from there take the 1 pm bus to Muscat. I have hopped mysterious borders alone before. Once, in Laos. But there you can find dozens of people willing to help, or to sell you food and water. Here, there is nothing but desert on either side of the checkpoint, and so I have to hope there will be a cab or a Good Samaritan willing to take me into town.
First, I visit the main border crossing, courtesy of a roadside taxi, and learn that foreigners are not to cross at this specific juncture. Thankfully, when the guard turns me away I find my driver looking for a fare across the street and I wave him down to take me to the much more remote Shatm Al-Shiklah border post a few miles out of town. The stakes grow higher in the checkpoint where there is nothing but sand, rocks, and scrub grass on either side for several miles. We pull up to the gate, and a man outside tells me to roll down my window.
“You get picked-up on other side?” he asks.
“That’s the plan. I mean, I hope to. Is there a taxi over there?”
“Who knows. Could be. Or maybe you wait 30 minutes or an hour.” He shrugs.
I have no choice but to cross so I tell the man that I am fine, and I will figure it out on the other side. He shrugs again and walks away, thobe rippling in the desert wind.
The crossing procedure is simple enough, though I never officially enter Oman. I pay my departure tax, and get stamped out of the UAE, but there are no Omani border guards to stamp me in. I wonder if I did something wrong and missed a checkpoint, but no one stops me from walking away from the post and out into the desert. An Indian man in a big SUV rolls down his window when he sees me walking, and asks if I’d like a ride. We pass through the final passport check and continue onto Al-Buraimi. He accepts no payment, but happily takes down my contact info. He owns a store in Al Ain selling patterned cloth with exquisite Arabesques. He proudly texts me a video of his store, which is now under construction and we talk for ten miles before he drops me in front of the bus station. I thank him profusely, but he doesn’t care. He is a good man who believes in helping people. To tell him not to pick up strangers in the desert would be as difficult as convincing him water was not wet.
At the station, I buy my ticket for the one o’clock bus to Muscat, and walk a few blocks to a grocery store where I am greeted with an asalaamualaykum from the whole staff upon entry. I buy some juice, and some potato chips, and sit on a curb snacking. I am loitering outside of a dress shop, and when the owner sees me, he invites me inside to sit. I thank him for his kindness then stuff the last handful of potato chip powder in my face and stand up to leave. The bus is scheduled to depart in an hour, and I return to the station and am able to board early. The bus is state-of-the-art, with charging stations and WiFi, so I am able to get some writing done before finally coming to the Omani border post.
After getting my visa outside no-man’s-city Al Buraimi, long after exiting the Emirates, we pull off into the desert toward Muscat. It’s only a few-hour trip, but my excitement of a new nation and a new capital makes me anxious to see what awaits. Oman is a wealthy country, but much less so than the UAE or Saudi Arabia. Much of the economy is agrarian, as there is more rain here and less oil. As a result most Omanis actually have to work for a living. That said, Filipina maids and subcontinental farmhands can be found here, too, but the ratio of migrant workers to natives is much lower than in the neighboring Gulf countries.
To my dismay, the bus doesn’t stop at the company bus station near my Airbnb, but rather finishes its route at the airport. That’s right: now, even though I didn’t fly into Muscat, I still have to navigate a fare from the airport with the eternal enemy of the Bernabei clan: airport cab drivers. To make a slightly painful story less so with brevity, I do not realize that taxi drivers in Oman are, by law, Omani, and so perhaps shouldn’t have so fiercely negotiated a wage with a man who is quite possibly being priced out of his own homeland. That said, he used all the scummy taxi tactics and I don’t feel any regret. If Uber or Careem worked at Muscat airport, then I wouldn’t have fought so hard for a 10-dollar fare. When I arrive at my hostel, I leave a tip as I feel bad for my hardballing.
He peels away angrily. Fortunately there is always another opportunity to make a first impression.The people of Oman will love me. I swear it.
The owner of my Airbnb is Iranian, not Omani, but I make a good impression nonetheless. We both talk about crazy Presidents, and since this blog could fall into the wrong hands I will say no more. In typical Persian fashion, owner Ali is kind to the point where it physically hurts me, asking three times if everything is ok, and six times if I need anything before leaving me to my room. I also get a nice chocolate upon check-in.
The Soul of the City
The only other guest appears to be a gay Moroccan man with flexible plans. He is from Rabat and when I try to press him for the must-sees of his city he seems mostly indifferent. So we talk about other things. He is perfectly nice but quiet, and so we largely ignore one another.
It has already grown late, and so I scrounge around for food at a strange commercial district that glows like a beacon of excitement in this otherwise dark weekday suburb. When I arrive I realize this is the Omani Jackson Heights, where the Indians and their neighbors gather to hang out in the streets in the cool nights, and palm the occasional naan and butter chicken. I order that and a lemonade at the only air-conditioned restaurant, swooning at how a whole meal of naan, drink, chicken and side vegetables barely runs me 2 dollars. It follows both by logic and in practice that one should not go to the richest places in the Gulf for food. The poorer wage-slave immigrant colonies are where I get the best eats.
While I call this place the Omani Jackson Heights, there is something more at work here. The neighborhood’s tranquility is authentically Arab. This is clearly not Delhi or Queens. Walking in Delhi, there is always a possibility you will get hit by a car or motorcycle. There are people yelling, people harassing you (if you are white and dumb-looking like me) and jostling by leaving barely enough space to breathe. Here, there is so much space and air that whispers carry long distances as eyes stare at me, the outsider’s outsider, who wants nothing but a full belly. After my meal, I order a Nutella shake at a corner deli and slurp down every drop.
In between uninspiring Skype interviews with English schools across the world, I get to see some of the charming Muscat corniche, though admittedly the best parts of Oman are the people. Surprisingly the cab driver who takes me back from the corniche thinks Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia is crazy and that the war in Yemen is stupid. Finally, I meet a man in Arabia who is willing to openly criticize the Saudis. He also thinks, though less surprisingly, that Donald Trump is an idiot. This is the third person who has told me this, unprompted, in Oman. What did Trump do to piss off Bangladeshis, Iranians, and Omanis? I mean who knows? It could be anything.
I take a direct flight back to Dubai, and it is late afternoon when I arrive at DXB Terminal 2 which, though I don’t know it yet, has no connection to the Metro.
“No matter,” I think. “I will simply take the bus or an Uber to the nearest station and continue my journey to my friend’s house from there.”
I find that Uber will still charge me as an airport-to-downtown fare, though, so I give up and just start walking the mile to the train. I lose about a quart of sweat in the process on this Arabian afternoon, but thankfully there is a supermarket by the metro station where I rehydrate before I leave for my friend’s house.
“Where are you?” she texts.
I’m on my way. Slowly and sweatily, but surely enough. When I arrive we go out for beers and recount what has happened in each of our lives since I last visited her in Dubai.
I am to spend several days crashing on my friend’s air mattress, which is perhaps one of the best abuses of living on the road. Getting a place to sleep whilst visiting friends abroad, that is. Not air mattresses. We visit the beaches, and I fight endlessly with an induction stove which I believe to be a different beast, until I Google the instructions and triumph one hour into battle. In my returned re-domestication, I find myself job-shopping on an ESL board. For the hell of it, I send out my CV to dozens of jobs in exotic locales. I’ve barely spent a third of my travel budget, but I am beginning to grow tired of constant movement and fearful that my upcoming travels to Africa will take a stamina that I do not possess. Within forty-eight hours I take a few interviews via Skype, certain that I’ll have to find some golden work opportunity to consider pausing my global exploration. I get offers in Thailand and Taiwan, but am not sold on either place for the time being.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.