P. is a Korean born Californian who kindly offered me, and readers of ALITD this offering from his travels from Ethiopia to Somaliland and back again.
After leaving the fantastic city of Harrar, I had to travel for two days through two additional cities to get to the border. I first went to the city of Jijiga from Harrar, and during transit in the mini-bus I met two Ethiopian girls but ethnically Somalis. As always, I first received stares and jeers, and like usual they started referring to me as Chinese, and I would politely but firmly state with all the required gesticulations that, “I’m not Chinese, me KO-RE-AN….actually KO-RE-AN-American.” The girls were amused by this, and started trying to talk to me with their very limited English and adding Ahmeric (the Ethiopian language). On a side note, I think there are some simmering animosity against the Chinese, because much of the road constructions are being worked on by the Chinese, and I think the Ethiopians see them as foreigners taking away their jobs, so when they (Ethiopians) find out I’m not Chinese, they almost always become nicer to me. So, on with the story…as you can imagine, there was a lot of gesticulating to convey each other’s thoughts. I found out that the two girls were from the city of Wechele, which is the place I was heading to, because that’s the city bordering Somaliland. The girls were nice enough to offer me food and their company, and I enjoyed the 6 hour journey, a journey that should have taken an hour?! Part of the reason why the journey from Harrar to Jijigga took so long is because of the checkpoints and the really rough roads. When we arrived in Jijiga the bus station was rife with activity, and when I got off the bus the frenzy was overwhelming, a lot more than my usual bus exit. People or what I would like to call bus touts who are charged to get passengers to a certain bus for commission and tip (I’ll add a section in the end regarding the bus experience, because Ethiopian bus experience or adventure is one of a kind) was grabbing at me and grabbing my bag and pulling it away from me and from each other. After minutes of pulling, shoving and gesticulating, I was able to get my bag back, and the girls motioned me over to them. They then gently guided me towards the bus to Wechele and conveniently told the touts that I was following them to their bus. We boarded the bus and finally, we were out of the grasps of the bus touts! One of the girls, Nila, patted the seat next to her, and I promptly sat down. Nila and I had an instant connection, and she was the person that started offering me food and was the one that started chatting (if you could call it that) with me. Both Nila and her friend sold Khat (pronounced Chat or Cot), which is a mild stimulant and is considered a narcotic, but is not illegal in most Islamic countries. This drug is particularly popular in the Somali region of Ethiopia and all three sections of Somalia, and are used in most of the Arab countries-more on Khat later. Unlike the journey from Harrar to Jijiga, the trip from jijiga to Wechele had an inauspicious start and continued to be bad throughout the trip. The girls were harassed by many people during the trip because they were carrying large quantities of Khat, and since it’s a very popular plant, everybody and their dog were trying to get a piece of the plant. Many times, I saw them use a branch of the plant as tip. As you can image their large quantities started dwindling from either tips or people just simply snatching a little/large bits from them by force. The issue was compounded by the fact that the Khat originated from Harrar-which has the reputation of having the best Khat around-so, this prized plant was coveted by EVERYONE. The girls transport these plants to Wechele to great physical threat to themselves and sell it in Wechele. For tiny girls, (In my approximation, Nila was bit shorter than 5’ tall and less than maybe 80 pounds) I saw a lot of fight, dignity, determination, and camaraderie amongst the two girls, I figured they were best friends and business partners. Conversely, I also saw two frightened girls that were bruised and battered from transporting this awful plant for years and saw first-hand what they had to endure. I still remember Nila asking in her broken English pleading with me to take her with me to Hergeisa. I had to tell her “no,” but in my heart I desperately wanted to help both Nila and her friend. It was personally heartbreaking for me to tell her no..and seeing her reaction of passive resignation that her life will be hard for the remainder of her life was hard for me to swallow. As I was contemplating this, I heard Nila yell at the top of her lungs and push a guy through the window. I saw him through the window and gave him a very stern look, and he looked at her, and I presumed he asked, “are you with him?”, and she just nodded. He silently started walking backwards giving an equally stern look at me and walked away from the bus, and periodically looked back. Unfortunately for Islamic women in many conservative Islamic countries, especially those that has adopted Sharia Law, disallows or frowns upon women travelling alone without a male companion, doing business, or not wearing a head covering of some sorts (hijab, niqab, etc). When young Islamic men see this, they take this opportunity to take some liberties on the women (most often sexually groping and sometimes worse). They consider such women of low morals and consider them equal to prostitutes. I absolutely abhor such practices, and when I see it, I try to make sure I help however I can. In Nila’s instance she was violating all three aspects (her head coverings were half way off), and apparently this young ethic Somali was trying to teach her a lesson. However, as soon as he realized that she was with me, he immediately started to move away to avoid confrontation, but to save face, stared aggressively back at me.
As the bus continued through the Somali region, there were checkpoints after checkpoints, and most of them made all of the passengers exit the bus for inspection. This journey should have taken 30 minutes, but instead took 4 hours because of these checkpoints *sigh*. What’s the reason for these inspections you ask? For several years the Somali region has had some major insurrection activities calling for the Somali region of Ethiopia to secede as an independent state. The state of Ethiopia aggressively and brutally fought, killed and captured the insurrectionists. Most if not all of the insurrection activities has now ceased, because anyone related to such activities have been killed, jailed, or given up. I can see from the reaction of the ethnic Somalis that there are huge amounts of resentment and anger toward the Ethiopian government. When someone from Ethiopia asks me the question, “how do you like Ethiopia?,” I have a stock answer of, “I Love Ethiopia and it’s absolutely beautiful here!” They then nod their heads like they expected or knew what the answer would be. But in the Somali region when a man asked the question and I answered with my stock answer, he replied “really?” with a disgusted look. He points to the desolate desert and bumpy roads and state, “you think that’s pretty…and you love that?” Since I didn’t have anything to say, I didn’t say anything.
During the last checkpoint before Wechele, the people manning the checkpoint were REALLY aggressive. They also looked very different…most of the checkpoints were manned by police with either a police or military like uniforms, but these guys were plain clothes, which could mean that they are either special police or intelligence. One of them boarded the bus and he snapped his finger at me-which is the most accepted way of getting someone’s attention to get them to do what you would like, although it’s considered rude in most western cultures- and with an aggressive tone told me to get out. I simply ignored him. Then another guy that literally looked like a goblin-who I’ll call Gablo-came over to me and politely asked me to move to another seat and pointed to the seat across mine. While this was happening, half the bus was taken out of the bus, some forcefully. Nila’s friend was yelling and screaming outside and one of the men were yanking the Khat from her hands. After seeing this, I reluctantly moved over to the other seat. Gablo aggressively told Nila to give him the Khat and get out of the bus. Nila was holding onto the Khat and passively and silently disobeyed. Gablo then snapped, rushed right into the seat, and it looked like he was going to beat or forcibly remove Nila from her seat. After witnessing such brutal treatment from these so called police officers, I could not simply watch idly by while this man tried to manhandle Nila. I yelled, “Hey, hold on!” Gablo stopped, and I approached him and proceeded to tell him to wait, and give Nila the chance to get up out of her seat. For some reason he complied with my request (I was totally amazed), and Nila was able to compose herself, grab the bags of Khat, and exit the bus. After discussions outside and finishing up the inspections, the police allowed everyone back on-board, and it was apparent that Nila and her friend was a few bags short but unharmed and safe. I was taken aback about the girls losing some of their produce, however, I was relieved that she and everyone that exited was safe and sound on the bus. The rest of the bus ride into Wechele, the people in the bus treated me like a hero, which frankly I wasn’t comfortable with (I rather keep under the radar and avoid any attention)…and they kept on asking me where I was from, and EVERYONE was interested in getting to know me better. It was a little funny because when everyone started calling me Chinese, Nila would simply correct them and say that I’m Korean, and they would almost all repeat in unison, “Oh, KO-RE-AN…ah”. I had to really try to avoid the attention, but with no avail. We finally made it to Wechele, the town not really a city was poor, dirt tracked, and lightless, I could see why Nila wanted to go somewhere else. As soon as I exited, a very large but young looking Somali walked over with my heavy bag over his head (he seriously looked like a body builder) and gave me my bag. I reach for my wallet, but he looked at me, smiled, and motioned to me that he wouldn’t accept the tip. He gave me a very solid handshake and went around the bus. I walked towards the border and he looked at me and raised his hand to say goodbye. I’ve never had anyone in Ethiopia decline a tip, so I think he might have heard of what happened in the bus. I bid Nila and her friend farewell and proceeded towards the border.
As I approached the border to Somaliland, I met three Germans (2 men and 1 woman) that just came back from Somaliland and was coming back into Ethiopia, which is exactly what I was planning to do. After they officially entered into Ethiopia, they told me everything I needed to know to get a visa back into Ethiopia. They told me 1) I needed to produce 4 passport sized pictures, which is easily do-able in Hargeisa 2) Get a letter of support from the Somaliland immigration-Which SHOULD NOT cost anything 3) Go to the Ethiopian Embassy and get the visa-although it takes three day, I can plead my case and try to get it the same day. They also told me that both the Somaliland immigration and the Ethiopian Embassy is kinda hard to find. I was also told to ask for a receipt, if a government official asked for money for anything, and if they don’t provide a receipt, don’t pay. I was also told that Somaliland was extremely expensive. I was a bit anxious, because in approximately 4 days I have to get to Addis Ababa to fly into Uganda. It was bad enough to go through this red tape in Somaliland, but I had to do it in a short timeframe. I was up for the challenge, so I went through the exit process and entered into Somaliland.
Somaliland, Laas Geel, and escape from Somaliland
As soon as I entered into Somaliland, I was charged large amounts of money to get a car to drop me off into Hargeisa. The Toyota hatchback should have only fit 5 to 6 people max, but they managed to squeeze 13 people, and one lady was sitting between me and the driver almost on the clutch. As soon as I got into the city, I was excited and the city itself was vibrant with activity. I checked into the Al Jazira hotel based on discussions with the Germans. After checking in, the hotel looked pretty good, but nothing seemed to work properly. I went downstairs to get some help with my visa and get things rolling. I talked with the hotel staff, and one of the staff took me to the photo place, and I got the photos for 5 US dollars. I exchanged 10 US dollars and I literally got stacks of Somaliland Shillings, so much so that I could barely fit it into my pocket. I felt pretty good, and I proceeded to try to get some help to get to the Embassy and Immigration the following day. Luckily, while talking to the staff, the owner stopped by, and offered to take me to those places. I was elated that a local, especially a hotel owner was willing to help me out. I was a little skeptical, because like I said before, it seems like no one in Ethiopia was willing to help me without some sort of reward. However, I had no other choice other than accept his assistance, or I am stuck trying to get to places by myself and most likely will have to pay an expensive taxi (I mean really expensive) to drive me around. If I had time it would be a different story, but since I had very limited time I wanted to get things done ASAP.
The next day, Abdee (the hotel owner), as promised, took me to the Somaliland immigration. We arrived in immigration an hour early, because the Germans gave me the wrong information, so I felt really bad, because Abdee had to wait there for an hour with me. When I arrived there, they told me to get photo copy of my passport and copy of the Somaliland visa (which the Germans forgot to tell me). I went and got the photo copies, but while we were walking back, we met an immigration official, and he told abdee that he could help me with the process. I thought that he would be helpful, so we followed him into the office. After finishing up all of the formalities, he told me that he needed 10 dollars as a processing fee. I insisted that I was told by previous people that came to immigration that the letter of support to the Ethiopian Embassy was free, but the official insisted that the fee is mandatory, and there’s no buts about it. Reluctantly, I told the official that I would pay, but would like a receipt, and he told me that I would not get one..he said, “the letter is your receipt.” I was livid…because I knew he was pocketing the money, essentially a bribe. He then looked at me, picked up the application that he just put together, he grabbed my picture (all the while staring at me), and started to very slowly peel it off the application. I felt like I was in a really bad movie! He was in an office with me, Abdee and another immigration official, and he was literally telling me that if I don’t pay, he won’t process the letter. I could have made a spectacle and asked to see his boss, but I feel like that will get me nowhere, and result in me either getting the letter really late or worse, not get it at all. The prospect of never getting out of Somaliland hit me, and with huge reservations and compromising on my principals, I paid the 10 US dollars. I guess this official will eat well tonight, and have some nice Khat to chew! I then headed to the Ethiopian Embassy to get the visa, but since it was a Sunday, the Embassy was closed-again, another bit of information that was incorrect that was given to me by the Germans. After having a nice dinner at the Oriental hotel, I went around town, and I was received very rudely by the Somalis…they kept aggressively calling me CHINESE (although this happened in Ethiopia, I didn’t feel any malice), though I didn’t feel unsafe, however, I felt unwelcomed. I read blogs where others that have gone to Somaliland said they were received with curiosity and with open arms, but I think THAT Hargeisa is long gone, and there’s some level of Xenophobia within the city..and it has been a reoccurring theme with most of my interactions with the Somalis with some exceptions. I slept that night, but I was awoken at 3 AM in the morning with the call to prayer. During my travels, the first experienced with the call to prayer was in Damascus, Syria, and the way it was conducted there, it was almost like poetry through music, and the person chanting “Alla Hu Akbar” calmed my soul throughout the day. However, in Haregisa, it was chorus of raucous chants of several different people singing and stopping going on and on, it was one of the most horrendous sounds I’ve ever heard, it was by far the worst call to prayer, and I’ve heard pretty awful ones through the years. The call to prayer continued on until I got out of bed at 7 AM…this was a reoccurring theme, and needless to say, I was miserable with the lack of sleep. When I awoke, I knocked on Abdee’s room, and we both took off to the Ethiopian Embassy, which was behind the presidential palace. As I approached the Embassy, the soldiers told me that I was the only person allowed, and Abdee had to stay outside. The guard at the entrance told me to take out all electronics and a second person scanned me with a metal detector and told me to get in and sit. I was met by an embassy official as he literally wrote down all of the information on to the application-which I felt a little weird about-and I was promptly taken to the person processing the visa. I told the official my current situation, that I needed to catch a plane in Addis Ababa in two days. He said that the process takes three working days, but since I’m in a hurry he would process it today, but I was told not to tell the others outside, since I was the only one receiving this special treatment. He also added that since I’m an American in Somaliland, I was to pay a visa fee of 70 dollars instead of the customary 20. I was floored, but I bit my lip and gave him the $70. He then proceeded to take care of all of the visa formalities, and without me asking he gave me a receipt for the visa (which put my mind at ease that this was not a bribe). It was done! I finally had my passport with the Ethiopian visa….I thought the hard part was done, but I didn’t know what was to come.
After leaving the Ethiopian Embassy, and feeling much better about my situation, I was ready to setup my trip to Laas Geel, the place of the pre-historic cave paintings. As Abdee and I was walking back to our car, a random car approached the presidential palace, which we (abdee and I) were right in front of…5-7 well armed military guards simultaneously pointed their machine guns at the car, but one actually pointed it directly at me. I was freaking-out, but didn’t move..and the guard behind the man that was training his gun on me, smiled, pointed to the other side of the street motioning me to cross the street, and I quickly complied. I was a little freaked-out about the incident, since I’ve never had a gun pointed at me. Later that day, I talked to Abdee about the trip to Laas Geel, and he was nice enough to offer to drive me to Laas Geel. The day before, Abdee helped me rent a car from his friend’s car rental shop, and for some odd reason Abdee rented a sedan instead of a 4x4, Abdee’s decision would haunt us for the rest of my stay in Somaliland. After the machine gun incident, Abdee took me around Hargeisa, but for some reason two traffic cop stopped us, and asked for Abdee’s driver license, but he told the officers that he didn’t have it on him and that he was the owner of the Al Jizira Hotel. The traffic cops didn’t care who he was and told him that they will keep the car on the sidewalk until he can produce the license!? The cops entered the car and a heated debate ensued (cops in Africa love to get into people’s car), and a small Somali boy (maybe 10-12 years old) came to the door of the car and started mimicking a cut throat motion towards me, and an even smaller girl came to the window and gave me the finger (I was mortified as to how these kids could do such a thing). The police officers exited the car and Abdee told me to come with him. Several minutes later, Abdee came back with me and the owner of the car rental shop in toe. After more heated discussions, I was told by Abdee that the traffic cops would not release the vehicle (that was still on the side of the road!) until I gave each of them $5 US dollars each. After I gave them the $10 dollars, they were pleasant as Muppets and all of a sudden have become our best friends, apologized for the “misunderstanding,” and then we left. At this point, I was extremely disillusioned with the quasi-state of Somaliland, its officials, and frankly its people. I was treated with utter contempt by its people, and was being milked for all I was worth, having paid 2 bribes within the matter of an hour!!! Open statement to the Somaliland government: If Somaliland wants to be an official state, YOU need to somehow make the tourists feel welcome in your borders, and also YOUR little quasi-state MUST root-out corruption at EVERY level.
The next morning Abdee and I started at 10 AM, which I reluctantly agreed, since he was giving me a favor to drive me to Laas Geel. The drive was supposed to be 4 hours, and I was hoping to get there early, so we would have no problems getting back into Hargeisa in a reasonable hour. Instead of starting the drive, Abdee picked up his cousin (Eid), who is a police officer-He will make sure that I can get through all of the checkpoints without a problem. Additionally, he was supposed to be our security, which is required for anyone venturing outside Hargeisa. We dilly dallied for what seemed like forever..and even ate lunch. I didn’t mind stopping for lunch since we ate Camel at Abdee’s cousin’s restaurant, an animal that I’ve never eaten before, but I found the meat delicious. If I get a chance to eat it again, I’ll jump at the chance. After wasting 3 hours, we started our journey at 1 PM. We drove for 3 hours and we didn’t see much, but we saw an abandoned tank from Somalia’s civil war..and I saw that there was a white person next to the tank with a large SUV and an entourage. As I found out, he lived literally 2 hours from my home in LA and he came to Somaliland just to see Laas Geel. He told me that the only people that would help him get here was the Ambassador Hotel, which is the most expensive and posh hotel in Hargeisa, which meant that this man spent a pretty penny for the tour. He was travelling in a brand new spanking 4x4 with two armed guards and a guide/driver. Not to mention that he probably had to pay $25 park entrance fee to the ministry of tourism, and also pay $20 at the site. He looked at Abdee and our car and asked if I rented the car, and if Abdee was my driver. I said yes about renting the car, but told him that Abdee was my friend and his cousin Eid was tagging along as security (he was carrying an old pistol that looked like it wouldn’t even work). As said previously, the Ministry of Tourism mandated that all tourists travelling outside of Hargeisa travel with an armed guard, but this poor guy had two armed guard with AKs! When I told him that I rented the car and that Abdee was my friend and he arranged the transport and security, he ruefully stated, “how did you find such a good friend in Hargeisa? The only people that would help me was the people at the Ambassador Hotel.” I felt pretty good about my current situation, and we started our way onwards to Laas Geel. One thing that stuck me, if the road was so good, then why did they need such a good 4x4…I soon found out. As soon as we got off the highway, we started our trek towards a dirt track road on the way to Laas Geel. Before we could even get into the dirt track, the car got stuck in this very big ditch, and it wouldn’t move. No matter what we did, we couldn’t move the car forward, and the wheels were getting buried in the dirt. Seeing that we will not get out, Abdee went to get help, but came back with a Sheppard boy. He was really helpful (as he saw other cars that was stuck there previously) and recommended that we try to put rocks on the dirt road and essentially make our own rock road, but that didn’t work. After a little bit, there was a family of 10 that was coming towards us, and with 12 people pushing, we were able to move the car up the ditch. By the time we were out of the ditch and moving, the sun was starting to set, and I was really getting worried that I would not get to see Laas Geel after all of that. We put half of their family members into the car and started driving. We got stuck momentarily couple of more times, and we finally got to the checkpoint at Laas Geel. I paid the guard the obligatory $20, and he guided us through the caves. The hill/rock formation was in the middle of nowhere, and I was wondering who and how this place was discovered. As we moved closer up the rock formation, I started to see the rock art. I’ve seen a lot of monuments and stuff like that all around the world, and I simply do not get that excited or easily impressed. As soon as I started to see the rock art, my heart was thumping, and I was screaming and jumping up and down like a tween at a Justin Beaver concert. It was amazing..the rock art looked like it was literally painted yesterday. Instead of couple of pictures on the wall as I have imagined, they were everywhere. I couldn’t stop taking pictures and was giddy as a school boy. After site-seeing this awesome place, and seeing the sun set over Laas Geel, we started our journey back to Hargeisa. Since we knew where the bad parts were on the road, we were able to navigate through or around the trouble spots. We drove and passed many checkpoints, and was finally in Hargeisa around 9PM, I was done, and simply content with the day’s events. Finally, things were going my way in Somaliland….so I thought.
I convinced Abdee to drive me to the border at 9 AM, since I knew we wouldn’t leave until 10, because Abdee loves to dilly dally. So, sure enough, we left around 10 AM after gassing up, picking up his cousin and Abdee’s friend the Khat vendor (found it bit strange). Instead of getting straight on the road, Abdee, stopped to eat lunch! This time on the menu was goat, which is another animal I have never eaten, but was definitely not as good as the Camel..after lunch, we finally started moving forward. I didn’t say this before, but Abdee is an awful/careless driver, The short time he drove in Hargeisa, he almost hit dozens of people and actually bumped into a woman-which caused all sort of problems for us for a period of time. He admits he doesn’t want to drive, especially in Hargeisa, but he thought that this was the best, or else, I would have to pay extortion level prices just to get around. At any rate, during the drive to the border Abdee ran over many pot holes, as you can imagine Somaliland roads are not in the best of shape. We were on the road for couple of hours when all of a sudden Abdee started driving very fast, and he hit some really big (6 of them to be exact) pot holes on the road, and the car started losing power and essentially stopped in the middle of nowhere. Abdee (like he always does) stopped every car and their dog, and they all tried to help fix our car or offer advice, but like us, most of them were clueless. After being stranded for an hour, Abdee and his friend each hailed a passing by car and went to the nearest town. I was a bit perplexed as to why we needed to get two mechanics (which I later found out). Abdee and his friend each brought a mechanic and Abdee’s friend brought back the passing by driver with him. The two mechanics and the passer-by all started working together. One of the mechanic didn’t have a clue, while the mechanic that Abdee brought seemed to have the answers and know how….so, that was the reason why they had to get two mechanics, just in case one was clueless and couldn’t fix the car. After an hour and half of working on the car with using only a screw driver, the proficient mechanic removed the backseat, removed the fuel tank, emptied a quarter of the gas, and the car started up. I was extremely relieved, and I had hope that I may be able to make it to the border in time for me to get to Addis to fly out of the airport. It was now Tuesday afternoon, and I needed to catch a plane in Addis to Kampala Uganda by Thursday at noon. As soon as I knew it, we started having major skirmishes with the mechanics and the passer-by driver, since everyone wanted to get paid, even the clueless mechanic and the passer-by. After much haggling and money literally being thrown back and forth, we agreed on the payment and left. We were now off, and I was praying that Abdee would be a little calmer driving, but no such luck, he was even driving faster and more reckless. I was incredulous…and I was thinking- does he NOT want me to make it to the border?!?! After an hour of driving on the highway, we started on the dirt track towards Wechele. As soon as I saw the dirt road, I had flashback about the Laas Geel trip, and asked Abdee to be careful. But before we could drive into the dirt track, we heard this hissing sound. All four of us got out, and lo and behold we had a flat tire on the left back tire. We went straight to the trunk and immediately replaced the tire. At this point, I was thinking that someone didn’t want me to make it back to Ethiopia and I’ll be stuck in Somaliland forever. I literally could not have had worse luck nor could I afford anything else to happen on this trip. We all got back into the car, and I was assured that nothing else would happen and we would continue to the border-I had my fingers crossed. This time, Instead of Abdee driving the car, somehow his cousin convinced him that he would be a better option to drive. Initially, the drive was really smooth, and I felt good about the change in drivers..and the next thing you know Eid crashes the front tire on the side of a rock and we hear another hissing sound. We all get out and realize that the front left tire is now flat. Now, I’m almost sure that it’s impossible for us to make it to the border today, and I’m going to miss my flight! I’m really frustrated and angry, and the only thing I can think of is..if Abdee listened to me and rented a 4x4, we would have had absolutely no problems. Instead of going absolutely berserk with anger and sitting down and crying, I calmed myself down. Abdee continued with his tactic of asking for help from anyone. We started talking to the locals that owned a farm nearby, and they told us the border to Wechele was merely a 30 minutes drive, and that made me even more upset. Then a crazy mad driver started coming down the road, and abdee stopped him, and he told him of the situation. The driver got out of his car without any hesitation, he went to the back of his trunk, unscrewed his spare tire, and literally threw it at us, and took off driving at a very high rate of speed. The crazy driver was driving a Ford, and we were driving a Toyota...my instinct was that it wouldn’t fit, and with the luck I was having, I wasn’t too optimistic. We jacked up the car, and took out the flat tire, and since the jack wasn’t stable, the famers started digging into the ground to get the tire in alignment with the drum. The time it took to dig the hole seemed to last forever, and I was waiting in anticipation…I would either be very disappointed or elated. It was a miracle, the random spare tire that was thrown at us fit like a glove. We were all in disbelief and elated. We all boarded the car and made it to the boarder at around 8 PM. What should have taken 4 hours literally took 10, and the guys wanted to celebrate our epic journey by crossing the border and having a nice beer. Since Somaliland is an Islamic quasi-state, you cannot get beer or alcohol unless you go to the black market and buy it with hugely marked up prices. So, we passed by the Ethiopian and Somaliland military guys pretty easily, and we were now in a bar in the Wechele side of the border. We had beer and I bought Eid some hard liquor poured into a water bottle, some Khat for Abdee’s friend, and I gave Abdee little somethin somethin for his help. We said our goodbyes, and I proceeded to get a hotel at Wechele, somehow avoiding the Somaliland immigration and also avoiding to pay the exit fee of $20, which nullified my bribes to the officials two days ago. I checked into the Addis Ababa hotel, which had clean rooms, but had shared toilets and Ethiopian toilets (hole in the ground), and they were filthy. I was resigned not to take a shower or do anything in those toilets-these communal toilets and showers were generally an Ethiopian affair. After arguing with the hotel receptionist, who was high on Khat, about the price of the hotel room. The Ethiopians pay another rate while, “ferengies” or foreigners had to pay almost double. The price of the hotel rooms were literally written on the walls in Ahmeric, and I bluntly refused to pay the foreigner prices like I have done in many other places..I was simply fed up at this point, and the receptionist, who wanted to go back to his room and ching (chew)-Khat with his friends relented. I gave him 70 birr ($4 US), and I went straight into the hotel room and slept after an epic journey, and I was extremely relieved that I finally escaped Somaliland. I now had great hopes in making it into Addis on time for my flight…again, I spoke to soon.
The next morning, I awoke at 4 AM to get ready to take the bus from Wechele to Jijigga. I got to the bus station (if you can call it that) early. I saw several buses, but there was absolutely no activity, unlike any other bus stations I’ve been in, which was a bad sign. After waiting for half an hour, the guys running the bus finally awoke and came out of the bus. They dilly dallied for hours and waited for passengers to fill the bus, and we didn’t leave until 9 AM arggg! We were finally moving, but we ran into a checkpoint right away, and everyone had to exit the bus, baggage removed, and the bags were individually inspected by military or police personnel. After that, everything back on and we started moving. As I stated before, the ethic Somali Ethiopians were highly scrutinized and the goods being ferried back and forth was confiscated much of the time. Life is already hard for these people, but the Ethiopian government makes it very difficult for these people to make a living. They are treated as second class citizens in their own country, and if they somehow make it to Hargeisa, they are treated as outsiders, and never given any opportunities. These Somalis have an extremely hard life and I feel for them. Since the Ethiopian government confiscate goods travelling through the Somali region, they (vendors) setup a particular system. First, the vendors would get on the bus, then they would hire people to carry the merchandise by foot, and meet them somewhere after the checkpoint, and load their goods on the bus. One lady had a different approach, she put on most of the shirts underneath her clothes and gave some of them to other bus passengers to wear, and collected them after the checkpoints. The vendors were exclusively older women, and they would take them to the markets in Jijigga or Harrar. Unfortunately, this is the realities of life in the Somali region of Ethiopia. After several more checkpoints, and some contrabands/market goods being confiscated we finally arrived in Jijigga at 1 PM. I had approximately 23 hours until my flight to Uganda, so I promptly talked to someone offering a mini-bus ride to Addis. The price was reasonable, but I knew there would be some sort of catch. I was later told that the mini-bus would not leave until 4 hours later..so, I took it in stride, got some lunch, hung around with locals and had a good time relaxing at the bus station. At around 2:30 PM the bus was ready to leave (finally, a bus leaving earlier than expected…this is the first time for me in Ethiopia). As soon as we took-off we were grounded, the police stopped the vehicle, and deemed the vehicle to be un-road worthy..which is ridiculous, since I’ve seen other mini-vans and they were not even near the condition as this van. I felt the police stopped the car and told them to go to their garage because I (the Chinese) was in the mini-van. With minor alterations..the van was ready to drive in 2 hours, but at this point, the driver stated that he was tired and refused to drive the 12 hour drive towards Addis. As you can imagine, I was not very happy with this new turn of events…I felt like something is always going wrong on this particular part of the trip..and most of it was out of my control. So, I waited another 5 hours until another mini-van was available…and of course there’s always some sort of catch, nothing is that simple in Ethiopia. The mini-van was full with occupants, and the van that should hold about 10 people was now crammed with 23 irritated and angry people. I was the lucky one and didn’t even have a seat, I literally had a stool with a cushion for a 12-13 hour journey at night?!?! Finally we were taking off, and then we hit yet another problem. A traffic police officer stopped the mini-van, and instructed the driver to go back to the garage, and he came back with us to the garage. There were an army of transport employees talking to the police officer, and two big Somalis slow moved the police officer back as it looked like they were giving him a bribe, and next thing you know they were best friends and one of the large Somalis was wearing the police officer’s hat. We then all filed into the mini-van like sardines, and started moving again, and on the same intersection where we were turned back, there was yet another police officer and he stopped the mini-van, and instructed us to go back to the garage. This time, the police officer refused to be bought and even rebuked the other police officer, and refused to allow us to move on….I WAS BEYOND FRUSTRATED AND UPSET. I would normally be very respectful of police officers, but I had enough of these shenanigans! I walked outside the van, and started to yell at the officer, “I’ve been waiting for 10 hours here, and I have to catch a flight in Addis Ababa!”
At the same time, I’m gesturing an airplane, and there were several other employees from the transport company following my gesture, and telling the officer in Ahmeric that I will miss my flight. After that, I said very angrily, “YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE ME MISS MY FLIGHT!” He looked at me, and gestured a motion that looked like he was telling me to calm down, and immediately after that, he pulled four girls out of the van, and refused to listen to their protests. The rest of the passengers in the mini-van loaded up, and again, I sat on the stool, and we took off. We dropped off the police officer, and he shook my hand through the open window and we were off. I felt bad for the girls, but someone had to come out of the van, and it wasn’t going to me, after all I was the first passenger and was waiting the longest. We again got stopped by another police officer, and everyone in the van assured me that we would not be sent back to the garage, and sure enough, the police officer let us through without a problem. We all laughed in unison, it was more of a laugh of relief than anything else.
We now started the epic 13 hour journey from Jijigga to Addis Ababa, for me, it was absolute torture. Imagine sitting on a tool for a night journey for 13 hours through some bumpy and some not so bumpy roads, and trying to sleep with 20 or so other people in a mini-bus, you’re tired and trying to sleep on a seat with no back was almost impossible. Also, there were approximately 6 checkpoints to Addis Ababa. If the check points were one of those that check you ID and move on, it would be fine, but it’s the variety that unloads all passengers and bags, and open all of the bag and inspect each bag individually…after that, we would have to load everything back into the van. It seemed like an eternity, but finally, we got through the last checkpoint, and we started to get into Addis Ababa. We arrived at the transport company’s private garage at 7 Am-ish instead of the bus stop (where my hotel was), so I and two other passengers took a taxi into the bus station. I checked into my hotel and crashed for an hour, took a shower, took a shared taxi to the airport, and arrived on-time to the airport with couple of hours to spare. When I checked into the Emerits check-in counter, they gave me my ticket, but it was for someone else, and they proceeded to tell me that I was not booked for the flight?!?! I shook my head, and I was saying, what more can go wrong, but finally some luck, she re-checked the flight, and ‘lo and behold my name appeared. *sigh*…I boarded the plane and landed safely into Kampala, Uganda. This was my epic journey to and from Somaliland, and I joked with other travelers that this was my Jack Bauer moment, and my mission of getting on the plane on-time was accomplished!
Needless to say i won't be going to Somaliland myself.