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?
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.