There’s a competitive rule in travel culture that long-term travelers come to realize: All countries are categorized by their coolness. Usually, the more dodgy a place is, the more kudos and bragging rights you get for visiting it.
Europe, for instance, is for beginners. Australia, the US (except Alaska), and New Zealand are Level 2 cool. Level 3 is Southeast Asia — a place for mildly hardcore travelers and avid grasshopper eaters. Africa, meanwhile, stands somewhere on the the same level as Papua New Guinea, remote islands in Indonesia, and unexplored corners of the Pacific.
Somaliland is an Expert Level destination, along with such little-visited countries as Chad, Mauritania, Congo, etc. If you go to Somaliland, you’re almost certainly going to become an obnoxious, know-it-all modern day Ibn Battuta. If you hitchhike in Somaliland, like I did, you effectively purchase the right to never shut up about how amazingly bizarre the experience was.
The first thing you should know about Somaliland is that it’s an incredibly boring country bordering Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Puntland, located just across the gulf from Yemen. You don’t have to dodge bullets and missiles; you don’t have to shoot kidnappers in the face; and you can’t explore all that much because the police simply won’t let you.
Since its declaration of independence in 1991, Somaliland has not succeeded in gaining any official recognition from the world, nor has it managed to develop a tourism sector — for obvious reasons. The atmosphere in the country reminds one a little bit of Kosovo, a country in progress, a country seeking recognition. A country that scares everyone off because of instant associations with war, destruction, and babies chopped into pieces.
Although a heavy military and police presence in the country provides a relatively safe atmosphere for travelers, not many holiday makers wake up with the idea of surfing the Somali beaches. My visa, obtained 10 minutes after application at the Liaison Centre in Addis Ababa, stated I was visitor number 635 this year.
Despite the fact that many people from the Somali diaspora abroad keep coming back to invest in their homeland, most of the locals remain unemployed, bored, and wondering: “Why the hell would somebody return here if they could have a brilliant life overseas, away from camels, sand, and banana peels?”
I asked Mo, the owner of “Starbucks” in the coastal town of Berbera, why had he left the States after almost 30 years and returned to Somaliland. “The reason I came back is mainly adventure. Here, in Berbera, time isn’t going too fast, I can do a lot of things during the day, as well as sleep and relax, do whatever I want. In the US, there is no time, everything happens too fast, everyone is stressed out,” he replied. “Having a US passport is great for traveling, and I will visit the States for holidays, but I can only imagine myself living here, in Somaliland.”
Another family I spoke with, forced to come back home, was not content with their uncertain future as young professionals in a country with little economic opportunity. This especially concerns women, who have to get by in a traditional Muslim society, where female genital mutilation and early arranged marriages are still practiced.
Exactly how boring Somaliland is really depends on your definition of fun. If you’re seeking fine sights, hundreds of Chinese bristling with cameras, exotic dancers, and cosmopolitan night clubs, brace yourself for disappointment. If, however, checking out 6,000-year old cave paintings, armed escorts, and smelly fishing ports is your favorite way to spend a holiday, then this crazy land is right up your insane alley.
The rock paintings at Laas Geel are perhaps the biggest attraction, although not really accessible by normal transport (as of October 2013). The police need to provide you with an armed soldier and a driver (unless you have your own car) that accompany you to the caves. Bad thing: You end up paying a lot. Great thing: You get to hang out with Somali soldiers and take a photo like this (hey might even lend you the AK-47):
The Laas Geel caves were occupied by local pastoral tribes ca. 9,000 to 3,000 BCE. Bored shepherds used to hang out here and draw pictures on the walls. Most of them depict cattle, mainly cows, along with several human figures performing hunting rituals. I prefer to imagine them as bored teenagers expressing themselves through graffiti.
Not all of Somaliland is endless desert, and the colours of this country surprised me while I hopped from Hargeisa to Berbera, from Berbera to Sheekh, and back to Hargeisa once more. Berbera is an excruciatingly hot coastal town with decaying coral buildings, where you can eat nothing but fish in fish sauce with fishy fish on top. Sheekh, on the other hand, is connected to Berbera by an incredible desert highway that gradually transitions into green valleys filled with old colonial houses. Foreign travelers are a rare sight here, and if observed from a distance should be approached with caution and offered sweet milk tea.
Catching a ride with a truck is a normal thing in Somaliland for both men and women, although a small payment is always expected. I managed to hitchhike in a truck that was transporting packs of money to the bank in Berbera.
Traveling back to Hargeisa, I hitchhiked in the wreck of a car. The driver was delighted to have me on the passenger seat, though I felt like sitting in the back instead. “It was rock, rock on the glass!” he yelled happily, indicating the gigantic gash in his windshield.
I was not lucky enough to hitchhike in the fastest truck in the country — the one transporting khat from Ethiopia all around Somaliland. Running at 100mph and almost flying on the sand ramps, this vehicle makes sure everyone in Hargeisa and beyond gets their day’s share of magic grass.
The country is a bit of a different planet, isolated in its territorial limbo and muddling along with the help of international NGOs. The streets of Hargeisa smell of guavas, and are filled with goats and camels, along with modern coffee shops and restaurants. During the day, you hide in the shade, drinking fruit juice, munching on sandwiches, and answering the same question from every new acquaintance:
“So, how do you like it here?”
This post originally appeared at Do you want to see my spaceship? and is republished here with permission.