It has come to be that my services in Chuuk are no longer required, and though there are plenty more stories to tell from that isle, they will have to wait for another time, dear reader. Look for it in the posthumously-published box set. For reasons to go unexplained, I decide to hop some islands before I leave the region. Such does not go as planned.
I arrive at what should be Country #112, only to find that I need proof of an MMR vaccine to pass through Marshall Islands Immigration. A measles outbreak has made it so Pacific travelers must have proof of vaccination before wandering around aimlessly from island to island.
Quarantine officers lead me into the ticket office and sell me a ticket to San Francisco for $1228 dollars. I have the travel bug, it is safe to say, and I am not ready to go to New York which would cost $300 more. I lament the loss the now-thousands of dollars I have spent in my hasty getaway, though it is hard to be mad. Fate has dealt this hand, it is safe to say, and I am unwilling—or perhaps just emotionally incapable—to fight back. I could have gone to Honolulu and stayed there awhile. But I am truthfully sick of this festering Pacific Ocean. I’d rather go home, or something like it.
My brother lives in Davis, CA, and as I think about my hasty decision to go there rather than flying into Newark. I’m in the mood for Mexican. California’s much better for that. But first: Vietnamese. I book a hostel bed outside Chinatown and down a large bowl of scalding pho in cold, cold San Francisco. I sleep for twelve straight hours.
I spend an hour in the Frankfurt airport draped over my backpack like a lightly-worn dress shirt, snoozing in a position that I never thought myself capable. Eleven hours of obsessive in-flight culture-binging takes me and a hundred Japanese to Nagoya, Japan, where I spend an hour before about fifty Japanese and I arrive in Guam. That’s right: I’m in Guam, which means I have officially set foot back on American soil for the first time in since July. It may not sound like a big deal to you, but it is to me. The lady at the immigration line, who confirms my suspicion that I was the lone American on my plane, does so by looking at the plane roster. I am alone in the U.S. citizens line: America’s prodigal son, here to crash on Her couch for a night then slip out the following morning without so much as saying goodbye. But She will take me back, when our paths cross again. I hope.
But for now, I am only concerned with what nourishment I can devise. I have not been nurtured by the Soup of the Great American Melting Pot since early July, and now is the time to catch up. After checking into my hotel, the receptionist offers candy from a bucket, a mix of which looks too carefully curated to anything but Halloween Candy. Two teenage girls in black stroll behind me.
“Is today Halloween?” I ask.
“Yeah,” they utter in unison in the most blasé intonation possible. They're too old to care. But I'm not.
I am Victor Scrooge, who has survived three somnambulant nights since leaving Ethiopia--before midnight on October 29th--and still made it to America for Halloween!
I miss an Uber, that is a “Stroll Guam,” ride when the impatient driver peels off a moment after I leave the hotel. I call another, and an Uzbekistani man picks me up fifteen minutes later to convey me to the nearest mall. Oh how I’ve taken America for granted! And now I, who have a contract awaiting me several hundred miles south, must truly celebrate this beautiful holiday--this beautiful country--for all it’s worth before I go. For dinner I eat Taco Bell the American way. That is to say that, rather than order a “well rounded” combo meal like a sane person, I order 4 absurdly cheap things off of the value menu, and a large Diet Coke a la carte. They have none of this where I’m going, and so as the Mall MC begins introducing a mall-wide Halloween costume contest, I sit down and begin watching the Americanest Americans celebrate their American holiday while I stuff my face with American food. If you can call Taco Bell food, that is. And I love every minute. At the mall I shop, buying shirts off the bargain rack at a discount store that are somehow way cheaper than Ethiopian dress shirts (God Bless Us, Every One!)
Book 3. Ah Deutschland! I cannot express enough how glad I am to be in Frankfurt on my layover instead of, say, Bangkok or Manila. Not to discount either place, but the weather is cool--even cold--here and where I am going is hotter than hell. If I am not going to Hell itself. ‘Enough negativity,’ I tell myself. Micronesia will be another book in the multivolume series that is my life, and it will most certainly be a page-turning tome if I have anything to do with it. But first I have to return for a third solo visit to Germany and continue my favorite tradition of arriving exhausted in the middle of the night.
And how I urge you to do the same, dear reader. If you haven’t arrived in one of the many cities in Germany in between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am, I hate to tell you that you’ve missed out. Why? Well, to begin it must be mentioned that Germany is safe, and likely the least dangerous country in the world. So if waddling around cities in the wee small hours is something that gives you pause, a Hamburg hustle or a midnight Munich March will do you no harm. Second, you must see Germany at night because it is so empty, and you will get the city to yourself. Nowhere in the country, except perhaps Berlin, has round-the-clock nightlife, and you will be free to snap pictures of medieval churches or Soviet-era factories in their most pacific.
I stroll through the Red Light District between the metro and downtown, where it isn’t clear if the brothels, strip clubs, and sex shops are open. Lights are on, and the streetcorners are occupied by the occasional groups of homeless still out drinking and telling stories long after the bar folk have gone to bed. I make visits at all of the historic sites, including medieval town hall Römer, Frankfurt Cathedral, and the molasses Mainz. By the time I arrive at the riverfront, the morning jogger crowd is hopping around in brighter colors than the rising sun, and I am ready for breakfast. Unfortunately, no currywurst shops are open yet, so I shiver into a McDonald’s and order a coffee and some french fries to revive my now day-long conscious body. To further sharpen my mind, I do my daily language study and sip my coffee until the sun illuminates the sign across the street for aptly-named McFit Gym. The worst is over, the wurst is yet to come.
Ilse Schreiber is known for her sausage shop stationed in a food hall in central Frankfurt. I make a beeline there immediately after it opens at 8 o’clock, and am disheartened, to say the least, when I learn she neither accepts credit cards nor serves my favorite Germanish creation of currywurst. She tells me there is a cash machine around the corner, but I haven’t the heart to tell her my bank card is somewhere in Djibouti right now, either at the bottom of an ATM or in the wallet of some sly card thief. I tell her I’ll be back, though I know for a fact I will not be. The trip to the food hall is not a total loss, however, because I find a nursery that does accept cards, and I purchase some seeds hoping that I’ll be able to grow some peppers or lettuce in my new island home.
In the train station, where I await the express to Frankfurt Flughafen, or “airport,” a tiny kiosk selling various sausages (and accompanying sauces) catches my eye, my heart, and all of the blood that courses between them. I order a currywurst and a bratwurst, the latter supplied amply with a spicy mustard. To complete the Germanity of it all, I order a sparkling apple juice and go to town before leaving town.
Ethiopian Airlines flight ET365 is a popular one, and I catch a free ride on what is otherwise the Chinese National express sedan from peninsular Djibouti’s hotel district to the airport. I did well in this country with almost no money and no way of obtaining it, though I imagine Ethiopia will be different.
Thankfully, when I arrive late at night I have enough Ethiopian Birr from my prior visit to catch a run-down cab to my Airbnb and buy some groceries at a stall. I buy beans. I buy ramen. I buy tuna. A young Moldovan woman named Camellia is the only other guest in this Airbnb owned by a very Christian American couple. It’s much nicer than what I am used to and only runs me 9 or 10 dollars a night. I feel like I am staying at a distant friend’s house, and get a kick out of WiFi router “ChristIsAll” and sleeping under a piece of driftwood inscribed with some Psalm I haven’t read since church school.
Today I figure everything out. I am still waiting on my plane tickets from my new job, but I suspect I should be gone in about a week, on the 29th. Where can I get food on credit? Where can I exchange my few remaining US Dollars for Ethiopian Birr? On the unnamed main commercial street there are many banks, and the first few I visit do not exchange foreign currencies. I am able to find a “Safeway” that accepts credit cards, and buy enough groceries to make a few meals. For dinner, I make boring ziti and meatballs, and am forced to eat my dinner alone by romantic candlelight after the third power outage of the day. In the dark I break a glass, spill candle wax on the kitchen floor, and leave several dishes in the sink until the power comes back.
At this “villa,” there is both a man in charge of reception and a woman in charge of cleaning, a curious thing when you are only one of two guests. I’ve never had “Help” in my life and the whole idea weirds me out, but begins to grow on me a lot more quickly than I’d have expected. In twenty-four hours the awkwardness of having someone making my bed, cleaning the floors and bathrooms, and another person who shows up routinely to see if I need anything, melts away. In a week, I fear I will actually enjoy it. Now, that idea is repulsive. I’m a man capable of taking care of myself, an individualistic American confused by the concept of having servants. I find irony in the fact that this is the poorest I’ve been, that is to say that here I have the least access to money, and I can somehow live a much more lavish lifestyle than I ever have before. This is what I think about as I eat dinner alone by candlelight like some post-colonial Ebenezer Scrooge.
The administrator tells me not to go out today. I wasn’t planning on it anyway. There are protests in Addis, and it could be unsafe, so I resume my idleness by doing nothing but write until afternoon, when the power cuts out. I meet the housekeeper, Mimi, and get to know Camellia after she returns from work. She is in school, writing a Master’s thesis on female genital mutilation in Ethiopia. She is like me, obsessively hungry for knowledge, and we have fun speaking in pidgin Russian.
I visit a new grocery store and buy enough food to last a few days. I get into the routine of 2 hours of language study, Netflix, and some writing. I also let housekeeper Mimi wash my dirty dishes, which makes me feel dirty. I get my tickets as far as Guam from my new boss. I enjoy my schedule where I get to be alone all day, and just say hi to Mimi or Dagim if they come; at night Camellia comes home from work and we chat for twenty or so minutes before we all resume flitting around the large empty house like ghosts, either into the kitchen to eat, into the living room for better WiFi, or in our rooms to be truly alone. There is peace in being alone with other people not so far away. There is solitude.
Today is, as far as we know, uneventful; tonight is sublime. My roommate invites a humanitarian friend for dinner and I get to entertain. I cook three courses, and a sale on blue food coloring leads me to invent a picturesque sunrise highball-style beverage composed of blue vodka, pineapple juice, and ice. In Addis, stores are far from well-stocked, so I love the opportunity to use what I have to engineer interesting new things to ingest. My creations are popular amongst American, Ethiopian, and Moldovan consumer segments. As we learn traditional Moldovan dances, with lots of kicking and spinning, I grow dizzy from the synergistic effect of dance, cheap juice, and blue vodka. Almost nothing can curb the euphoria.
Administrator Dagim enters through the back door, and sees us all on the floor, laughing.
The Ethiopian news media has just released the death toll of the protests this week. 67 are dead and hundreds injured after the government makes an enemy of one foreign political analyst, condemning non-Ethiopian media. When the dust settles, it is released that protesters bombed churches and mosques, targeting those outside of a given ethnic group, which composes the plurality of the Ethiopian population. We go to our separate rooms, soberly climbing the stairs and hardly muttering “good night.”
I lounge all day, cooking and cleaning. Fearing more violence, our Ethiopian guest spent the night at our place, and passes the whole day with us. In the evening, we have a small dinner party where friends and work colleagues are invited; I get to chat with Ethiopians and Expats alike. We talk academics, like we are in some seminar evaluating the merits of certain writers’ works. Camelia has a true lust for knowledge, which has made this week with her consistently interesting. No one talks about the protests, except to say they are “stupid.”
Today I go clothes shopping. My jeans, which have survived since high school, now have three largely irreparable holes along the seams, two of which I have patched before, only to be torn again by my harsh handwashing techniques and chronic manspreading. Besides, the old ones were faded and hardly school-appropriate.
In the evening, after dinner, I feel a slight ache to the right of my belly button, and Google my symptoms until I am convinced I have appendicitis. I cannot help but think about how inopportune this is, if this is indeed the case. My new job has shelled out over a thousand bucks to fly me from Africa to Micronesia, a four-flight itinerary conveying me through five continents (if you claim Guam to be a part of North America, considering it is an American dependency). I sleep fairly well considering, and--while my symptoms have not alleviated by the following morning--they have not gotten any worse.
My final day in Ethiopia, I start to make the necessary arrangements for squaring away this East African life. I stop by the bank to exchange cash for the maid and for my cab ride to the airport. I eat one last Ethiopian meal at the nearby cafeteria, ordering a breakfast of chepchepsa, eggs, and honey. The first few bites are amazing, but I begin to believe my appendicitis is draining my appetite. I am grateful my symptoms are not so severe that I will miss the flight to Germany that evening. I’d much rather get an emergency appendectomy in Frankfurt, Nagoya, or Guam than spend several more days in Ethiopia at the whim of their healthcare system. Not that they don’t have good doctors, but frequent power outages lead me to imagine a candlelight surgery which, frankly, is not my style.
Goodbyes are oddly tearful as I hop in a “Ride” (the Ethiopian version of Uber) to the airport. One never forget the friends he makes waiting out a revolution. In this moment I am a changed man. 110 countries makes me realize that I hadn’t the guts before Ethiopia to spend more than a few days in a place. I have to face the facts that there is both nothing remarkable about my experiences in Ethiopia, and that I nonetheless fell in love with the rough neighborhood, the lack of credit card readers, and the satellite friends I made playing the role of writer-in-residence at the super-Christian villa. I’ll miss this compound in the neighborhood with three separate names, even though if you ask any Ababan they’ll have no clue this place even exists. On the ride to the airport I feverishly check my pockets, sure that I’ve forgotten something in my hasty departure from the Villa. That’s it, that is what I’ve left behind: the Villa itself. For better or worse the idle compound afternoons have become a part of me, and I feel as though I am missing that makeshift home before I’ve even completely left it.
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.
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.