August 16, 2012 ·19 Comments
BY BRYN KARCHA
Somaliland is far from the first nation I’ve traveled to. What struck me most, more than the pyramids of Egypt, the beaches of Cuba, the cathedrals of Europe or the Fjords of Norway was the most important wonder of any nation; it’s people.
I crossed the border from Ethiopia suffering from a guarded wariness common to most backpackers. Fear of being scammed, cheated, or worse are normal worries that come with any new country, particularly one where you know little of the language or culture. My fears were put to ease almost immediately by the warm greeting I received at the customs office at Wajale town as they stamped my passport and welcomed me to Somaliland.
My next challenge was to get a ride to Hargeisa without spending a small fortune. I’ve found it’s been a common custom for most countries’ taxi drivers to charge outrageous prices at borders and airports, taking advantage of new travelers’ ignorance. I was quickly shown to a waiting taxi and had the door held for me, the driver even did up my seatbelt! Every country I had been to before had charged me at least $25 USD for a short trip to an expensive hotel. My ride to Hargeisa cost me a modest $7 USD. No fuss. No haggling.
What happened next far surpassed my wildest expectations.
There’s a saying in my country, Canada, that “there is no such thing as a free meal.” Backpackers know this all too well. Many times, an offer of anything free results in a scam, where you are later accosted for money or a return gift. With this is mind, I was incredibly skeptical and guarded when, while stopped to put air in the tires along the way, a man gave me a free bottle of water, welcoming me to the country. I was amazed, and a little suspicious. Every time I had been given anything free before, it was followed shortly by demands for money. It slowly dawned on me as we drove away that this was a genuine gesture, something I had rarely experienced in my travels.
It was far from the last.
A short time later we pulled over again. Everyone climbed out of the car, and the women sitting in the back seat prepared to breakfast by laying out a delicious meal of biscuits, watermelon and sambusas. I had only eaten a few slices of old pizza some ten hours earlier, and had yet to buy any food, so all I could do was look on hungrily. To my surprise, one of the women motioned me over, and began to hand me what was to be the best meal I had eaten since landing in Ethiopia two weeks before.
I spent the rest of the ride marveling at the beautiful lightning storms over the desert plains, though the challenge of finding a hotel for the night was always on my mind.
In most countries I had been to, finding a good place to sleep for the night is nearly impossible for a good price. Many drivers will take you to a terrible hotel that belongs to a friend, and then charge you an inflated price. While we were dropping off some of the passengers from the trip, my driver asked where I was staying. I still hadn’t found a place to rest my head, and he seemed very concerned. He eventually took me to the Oriental Hotel.
In Addis Ababa, I had paid as much as $50 USD for rooms without hot water, clean sheets, or even electricity. I was worried when I stepped into the clean and well decorated interior of the Oriental that there was no way I could afford it on my meager budget. When I asked at the front counter if they had any cheap rooms, the man at the desk apologetically said that all they had were doubles, and that would be $15 USD.
Fifteen dollars is a good deal for a bed in a room full of travelers in most of the countries I had been to. Getting my own room, not to mention bathroom, TV and wireless internet amazed me.
It even came with an excellent breakfast of scrambled eggs, bread and coffee.
I woke up well-rested, and after enjoying a good meal and a long-elusive hot shower, I set out to explore.
I steeled myself for the normal onslaught of beggars, scams and other dangers that tourists in a foreign country deal with. I was surprised when everywhere I went; people waved, asked me how I was doing, and welcomed me to Hargeisa and Somaliland. I didn’t experience the ever-present pickpockets and panhandlers I had in Ethiopia, and everyone was happy to give me directions when I was lost; which was most of the time.
Hargeisa was far from what I had expected. In Canada, not many people know of Somaliland. They tend to associate it with Somalia, and it brings only images of war and famine. The city I was exploring was the complete opposite: vibrant, safe and thriving. I spent the morning exploring before returning to the hotel during the hotter parts of the day. I’m still getting used to the heat.
I decided to wander about again once the rain had cooled the city, and was once again surprised. I turned down a side street and was greeted by Shafie Jama, a Canadian Somalilander. It was great to have a fellow countryman to talk with, and I spent the next couple hours sipping coffee, talking politics, learning about the new nation around me, and enjoying another fantastic meal for which my charitable hosts once again refused to take money for.
The only regret I can claim about visiting Somaliland was how brief my trip is. With only a few days until my flight leaves, I have to return to Addis Ababa almost as soon as I arrived. I can guarantee that I will be back though, as I have never experienced a people so kind or a place that defied my expectations so much. I hope that more travelers put Somaliland on their travel lists, and that the world takes notice of this hidden oasis in the Horn of Africa. Above all it offered what so many cities, towns and countries before it had failed to deliver; a home for those far from theirs.
Bryn Karcha is a 22 year old Canadian backpacker currently in Hargeisa where he arrived on a short exploration trip on 14th August.
August 16, 2012
(Photo: A camel herder I ran into on my way back from Zeila to Berbera. His big camel had just given birth and he was carrying the newborn on his back (in sweltering heat)! The neck was flopping all about its little baby cry could make the coldest human melt. The mother was so proud.
Anytime you think your job is hard, just think of this guy, carrying camels for miles on end in the sweltering heat!
I have a couple more photos from Somaliland that I was holding on to. Since I won the lonely planet competition with a Somaliland photo, I will release them this week. Go visit Somaliland if you get the opportunity! Great welcoming place (and not too photographed)! – Constantine James)Follow @somalilandpress