Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Somaliland Recap

As the months have gone on since getting home from Africa I've been meaning to write some sort of post-mortem of my experiences there, more so I don't forget what all went on there than for any other reason. I didn't keep a travel journal this time around and already find myself forgetting interesting moments.

For the first few months after I got back from Africa I was too angry to write; after that I was too apathetic. The continent as a whole was a wash for me and, as I mentioned in my previous post, for the first time in almost a decade I wasn't thinking about some grand return.

That in itself was distressing, as Africa for years been firmly lodged in my dreams as one of my true loves. Of course it still existed how it always had to me - a beautiful, complicated place where anything can happen - but I wanted no part in it. The place was an adventure, to be sure, but an adventure I was content to no longer experience.

Whenever I thought of the continent I didn't think of the the beautiful sights I had have been lucky enough to experience. I didn’t think of the giddy nervousness at crossing a border or the mild jubilation at having done so successfully. Nor the taste of a goat stew after a day without food or the inevitable stranger who would approach me on every bus ride that would always help me find transport and lodging at my next destination. I didn't think of getting chased down the banks of the Zambezi River by an angry elephant or having my chicken wing snatched from me by a swooping eagle in the Serengeti. And I didn't think of the pure excitement I had in just waking up every day.

Instead, I thought what must have entered the mind of every tourist, NGO worker, and local in Africa at least once there: why the hell can't things in Africa just fucking work for once??? Why can't the papers be signed, the bus arrive on time, and the water come through the pipes? Why does the road have to be washed away, the only restaurant as far as the eye can see be out of food, and the toilet so utterly disgusting that even a whiskey-soaked handkerchief doesn't kill the stench? Why does the bureaucratic asshole in front of me who controls my immediate destiny have to give me a hard time? Why on God's green Earth can't something just go right?

It's enough to make a man go almost crazy. But Africa isn't the West. It lived for thousands of years in its own way and I know, deep down, that it borders on stupidity for me to assume, or even hope, that the world we live in today can boil down to whatever arbitrary formula I believe should rule all.

I was thinking a while back that maybe the explanation as to where I went wrong lies partially in a passage from Michella Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. She writes of her travels to Zaire in the final days of Mobutu's Zaire that "for those, like myself, curious to know what transpired when the normal rules of society were suspended, the purity appealed almost as much as it appalled. Why bother with pale imitations, diluted versions, after all, when you could drench yourself in the essence, the original?"

Realizing that, I have to acknowledge that the very adventure I sought led to my undoing last year. I was over-confident.

This hit home in Burao. It was the only time in my life where those safety precautions I had read about in the memoirs of a war correspondent or heard from some NGO worker on leave from Juba - "Take a different route every time you're out walking, always keep an eye over your shoulder, change rooms every night, always look for an escape route where ever you are" - became a reality.

Once, having a tea with the owner of my hotel, I nearly flipped over the table when I jumped up after a guy I had never seen before entered the room quickly with his hand in his pocket. The hotel owner just laughed though, and, sharing my safety concerns, said "Good instinct." The next day I began to barricade my door in a way that allowed me enough time get out the window opposite if trouble came.

By the time five or six days had gone by in my excruciatingly boring - yet equally nerve-wracking - stay there I realized that I was not going to get into the desert. Increasingly anxious warnings from friends in Hargeisa and acquaintances in Burao convinced me to get out of the city as soon as possible, telling me over and over about al Shabab's presence and wide-based support in the city. It was conventional wisdom that I stuck out like a sore thumb and was trying my luck by over-staying the generally agreed upon number of three days in Burao.

Still, I wanted to walk out on foot and thought I could talk my way out of my problems even though I knew that getting through the red tape was more difficult than in Hargeisa because of my lack of contacts here and my inability to stumble the streets in order to find people who could support me.

It was the regional governor, in all of his wisdom, who wouldn't let me leave by foot or camel even after his deputy had personally assured me I had clearance and sent me to purchase a camel. His main worry appeared to to be a familiar one; I was a liability and he didn't want to risk something happening to me in his jurisdiction.

Having been in Burao for seven days by that point, though reason he still wouldn't let me leave without a guard and, in a beautiful catch-22, also refused to release a guard to me. It took another two days to get a one who would go with me back to Berbera and Hargeisa.

Meanwhile, I ended up spending nine days pretty much locked in my hotel. It was a cheap one I had chosen because it was lower profile and had more escape routes but it had no television and I had only brought three books with me. I read them each two or three times and had little else to fascinate myself with.

For safety's sake the manager insisted meals be delivered to me, but every breakfast was Somali pancakes cooked (soaked) in a lard, every lunch was watery rice and boiled goat, and every dinner was bloated spaghetti flavored with a slight spice and, all-too often, a horse fly or two that had wandered into the pot. In unsurprisingly short order I grew weary and then revolted by that menu. Additionally, I had a bad touch of food poisoning so any food I ate simply meant more trips to the bathroom. In time I pretty much gave up on eating for the first time in my life. The thought of any food, even my favorites, just repelled me for the last two or three days.

Out of shear boredom I had to leave the hotel some moments to head to the internet cafe in an effort to occupy my mind. Other than that my time was in the little hotel. I tried to smuggle myself out without a guard on the seventh day and drive back to Berbera but was stopped at the first checkpoint and turned back.

Finally, on the ninth day I got an SPU army guard and took off as quickly as I could, thanking for hotel manager profusely for his hospitality and exiting as soon as I could.

An amusing interlude occurred right before I was about to leave. Having already purchased my camel a week and a half before, I was now in the uncomfortable position of having to quickly unload it before taking off.

I had purchased it for $400 and the previous owner only wanted to give $200 back for it. I could hardly have beaten that number with anyone else, being a white American who didn't speak Somali trying to quickly unload a pack camel in the middle of Somaliland’s largest livestock city. But still, I had nothing to lose by trying to get a little more

The governor was clearly tired of me by then but he was all-in-all a good man who truly did seem to care about what happened to me, so I came back to him one last time for help time. Through his translator, I launched into a monologue of my woes, saying that I had only purchased the camel after his deputy had told me to do so and now, after nine days of mild food poisoning and endless waiting, I was selling it back to the original owner who had never even lost physical possession of the camel for half that price because of the governor's waiting games. (Somalis, for all of their passionate arguing, seem to enjoy irony and dry humor being interjected and often use it to diffuse a sticky situation.)

Bursting into laughter when the translator was finished, he asked for a phone. He called the previous camel owner and convinced him to raise the price to $325, a price I'm guessing that probably should have been the real one to begin with anyway. The owner caught a ride over and personally handed me most of the exact same dollar bills I had handed him.

Happy with only a minimal monetary loss and aching to leave, I wasn't going to argue this price. But my new guard heard this number and lost his temper, storming back into the governor's office with me following in toe, a bit confused. Arguing in passionately Somali with a group that eventually grew to eight people, I just sat back and watched. My guess that it was on my behalf instead of against me, but I wasn't positive.

After ten minutes everyone broke up – in laughter, of course - and my guard drove me, even more bewildered and without having gotten a translation of what just happened, with two security personnel to a government fueling station which was filled with soldiers heading east to the tension-filled Sool and Sanaag regions.
One of the guys with me ran inside and came back soon after holding $75 which he gave to me with a handshake that seemed to say "we got your back". And so somehow I ended up getting all of my camel money back, even with everything else happening. Big props to the governor and my guard for helping me get that back.

On the way back to Hargeisa I was detained by the regional authorities in Berbera because I happened to be the controversy de jour for the ministries in Hargeisa. It turned out that my government fixer, a shady character named Solomon from one of the lesser-ministries whom I never should have trusted, had failed to work the proper channels in order to secure permission for my presence in the unstable eastern regions.

This was something I had had only begun to guess at in Burao but became radically clear to me when I was hauled into the regional immigration center and placed in a room with the ranking regional representatives from Immigration, Security, and the Ministry of the Interior. None of these men seemed terribly aware of anything about me besides the fact that I was a white guy coming back from a region I (technically) had not gotten permission to be in, and it soon became clear they were acting on orders from their superiors back in Hargesia. Those orders seemed to simply be to figure out just what in the hell I was doing without permission in the Togdheer.

I tried to be honest with them but I'm sure my half-coherent babbling of "I want to build a school!" and "I just LOVE the Somali desert!" only made the situation more confusing. They understandably assumed that someone like me does not make it a point to walk into the Somali bush without an ulterior motive and appeared to think I was either somehow looking for oil/minerals or attempting to make contact with one of the more nefarious groups in the region.

Fortunately I managed after a stint of questioning to convince them that I was not the rabble-rouser that both they and the authorities back in Hargeisa had somehow convinced themselves I was after Steve, the Brit who runs the dive shop in town, showed up to vouch for me. Even then it took another 45 minutes for them to let me go.

(Side note: no matter, in the end; few can say they have managed to annoy an cabinet-worth of ministers the way I apparently did. Never even thought to put that one on my bucket list.)

And so I finally got back to Hargeisa where I stayed for more than a month, trying and failing to get permission to get back into the desert.
--------------------------

With a year behind me I still look back on the two months in Somaliland as my greatest personal and professional failure. It was clear, by the time I came home, that there wasn't much of an open door. Had I stayed, I may have succeeded in setting up a trekking business as I was hoping to do in order to finance my time to build the school but I doubt very much I would have been at all successful in creating an educational institution at all as I imagined. And, as one of the most exposed outsiders in the region, had the trekking idea gone through I have no expectations that my safety would have been assured.

Part of it may have been institutional, but I'm quite sure that a very good part of it was that my patience was far lower and expectations far higher than they should have been. I'm not as familiar with Somali culture as I should be, I tried to move too quickly on everything, and I need to learn more about non-profits. I'll try to be better if I give this another shot someday.

Before I sign off on Africa, however, I 'd like to write down a few more memories for my own sake. They're in no particular order, just simply moments in Somaliland and Ethiopia that my mind occasionally tends to wander towards.

The first is of Saint Patrick's Day in Hargeisa, a memorable one not for one event but more because of how well it epitomized my stay.

Saint Patty's Day took place in the final couple weeks in Somaliland when I was to the point of overload. Unsurprisingly, Somalis take little heed of any holiday that celebrates Catholics knocking a bunch of pagans around, but I woke up determined to celebrate on my own little way.

So I broke open what was supposed to be my victory bottle of bourbon and had a few swigs. I had originally smuggled it in to be consumed upon finishing a trek or finalizing school plans. This, I realized, this would be the closest to a day of celebration that would come so I rounded up the few other western travelers in the city center - a Danish reporter, an Irish reporter, an American backpacker, and Canadian aid worker on vacation from Ethiopia - and we tipped back on our various sorrows we had been lamenting about since meeting up over the previous weeks. We planned our camel turducken for when we came back the next year even though we knew none of us would return, we got a little drunk, and we relaxed in a real feeling of comradeship that I always tend to feel with westerners in the real dusty outposts of Africa.

Upon leaving the hotel lobby we had been drinking in I wandered over to a friend of mine who made his living as a khat-seller on the street. The two of us rarely went a day without spending some time together, as situated on the main thoroughfare he was between my hotel and any ministries I wanted to get to and it was fun sitting with him and feeling comfortable with the small group of vendors and khat sellers who normally set up around him. When curious onlookers got too intense with me the regulars would shoo them away, while at the same time I drove up his business a little with those who stayed to have conversations with me.

Soon after I joined him today, however, two fellows with wild eyes wearing white who I understood to be from Djibouti showed up. Now, I have always been wary of Djiboutians because they have never treated me particularly well, but I was used to curious pedestrians approaching me on the street and I felt protected by my surrounding friends so I didn't give it much of a thought when one started in on the virtues on Allah. I was used to religious discussions here and, while I've found it surprisingly easy to discourage and upset Somalilanders in these talks – and they take perhaps a titch too much liberty in trying to convert me – my friends and acquaintances have for the most part always been able to quickly forgive what they view as my heretical beliefs.

Upon my general statement that I view service to humanity to be greater in importance to worship and obedience of God, however, instead of the usual disapproving look I got extreme shouts of anger from both of these Djiboutians. The English-speaking one in particularly started hollering at me and while I don't remember what exactly he said the general tone appeared to be: convert now or you're in trouble.

I assumed he was talking in metaphors so I started in on a spiel on local hospitality, something I've found tends to diffuse these situations by telling whoever is yelling at me that the locals treat me very well and implying that they're making themselves look bad. I was surprised, however, when my friend interrupted me and suggested that they both come back tomorrow and told them I would listen to everything they had to say. Annoyed, I asked him as soon as the pair left why he interrupted me and committed to something like that.

"You will not be here tomorrow," he replied. "Those two, they have the look of suicide bombers. They are not like us here; they are missionaries and if you see them go the other way. You can say nothing to appease them. And they could hurt you if they wanted."

The others around us agreed; the paired looked like fanatics. Having worked only just down the street from a trio of infamous suicide bombings by al Shabab radicals in October 2008, the people I was surrounded with had no sympathy for extremists. Few in Hargeisa did. So when they told me to avoid that pair, I listened. Fortunately, that was the last time we I saw the two.

Wired from that encounter, I wandered the streets still a bit knockered from the bourbon for a couple more hours and then went to the telephone shop to call Ashley, who today was being placed today for her medical residency. While I was looking forward to having a chat with her I was nervous of her being placed in a difficult location but as soon as she picked up she said "Baby, you'll never guess where I 've been placed - Boston!" It was the best news I could have gotten and finally had a reason for having been drinking.

I finished the day wandered the streets of Hargeisa long after it had been deserted, dwelling on the previous weeks. The city, for all of its bustle, gets completely abandoned around 10 or 11 PM and I can wander at will, free for the only time to walk without the constant stream of good-natured but exhausting greetings from strangers. The near-complete desolation of the normally quick-moving city may be a bit eerie, but I always enjoyed the walks.

Eventually I was picked up by an SPU army truck. While polite, he was curious as to what I was up to at 2 in the morning and rather adamant that I should stay in my hotel and not in the deserted city outskirts. I had to laugh when he insisted on giving me a ride back, as it brought a comforting sense of deja vu from my first day in Haegeisa in 2008 when a similar situation had occurred. Full circle, I guess.

Another memorable moment was from Harar, Ethiopia, on my way back home. A drying sock had fallen off my window sill to the wooden area behind my hotel and with the permission of the property owner I jumped the fence to retrieve it. Coming back the same direction, and realizing that the fence just ended a couple yards past where I had jumped, I detoured and found myself staring at a grinning truck driver, leaning against his rig.

He gestured into the woods and I looked, not seeing anything. He gestured again, and I thought he was saying he lost something there so I started in the words to look for whatever it was. He spoke sharply this time though, gesturing into the woods and walking towards me.

Still not getting it I turned back when he caught up with me and grabbed my arm, grinning even wider now. Slowly, he raised his other hand and pointed to a shape three yards away, standing motionless in the thicket.

It was a hyena. Possibly even one of the semi-wild hyenas that were fed every night by the famous Hyena Man every night outside the walls of the city. But I wasn't rational enough to remember some hyenas are treated different here than other areas I've been to. Really, my only thought at the moment was that I was staring face-to-face with straight-up hunter . . . maybe the only animal in Africa that gives me the chills.

The driver's laugh as he casually walked back to his right rather comforted me and the hyena - fortunately - appeared more nervous about the situation than I. He gave no indication of wanting to tussle. He did betray a glimpse of apprehension in its posture but after I backed up a bit towards the parking lot he settled down. We engaged in a stare-off for two or three minutes before he lost interest and wandered off back into the trees.

My final set memories would have to be my final hours in Africa.

The anger, still high upon getting ready to leave, was slightly blunted by three events in succession on the day I left for America. The first was, after packing and while waiting for a cab, the small troop of backpackers I had been chilling with for the previous days in the hostel all showed up to wish me adieu. I was particularly touched because I guess I just didn’t expect them to take the time; backpackers meet and say goodbye to so many people - especially the ones you often find in Addis Ababa who have been traveling for many months or years – that it rarely matters. That they changed their plans to bid me farewell touched me.

One of the guys pulled out a small bottle of scotch and toasted me to better days ahead and happy travels for all. With that, we parted ways.

After we dissipated I decided to walk the streets for just a few more minutes. Almost immediately a Rastafarian, probably from the south Ethiopian enclave of Shashamane, came up to me on the street, grabbed my arm, and proclaimed his love for both me and humanity. Startled, and wondering if it was perhaps simply part of a scam of some kind, I just stared at him as he continued his spiel on how we are all “interconnected through love”. But after only a minute he simply shook my hand, saying “we part, my friend, but we will always be brothers.”

I walked away bemused but charmed.

And finally, in the airport, trying to get rid of my leftover currency, I was trolling the over-priced airport stores when I came across some incense burners, small woven baskets typically used to hold frankincense. Counting my cash, I saw I had enough money for just two small burners.

The shopkeeper, noticing my counting, asked me how much I had. “29 birr,” I answered. “I’ll take these two.”

He motioned me up a shelf with larger burners of the same weave that were marked as nealy twice the price and said “You can take those if you could prefer. And you can take four instead, if you wish. 29 birr.”

That was almost street price for them and I thanked him profusely, knowing he didn’t realized how kind of a final gesture I found that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Coming home

As I hinted at in my previous post I've decided to take off from Africa and head on back to America. I could stick around until May and travel somewhere other than Somaliland but I'm a bit burned out right now and the thought of dealing with any more headaches here doesn't do my soul well.

Being back in Ethiopia is doing me some good. They've got good beer here, much better food, actual trees, fewer regulations on what I do, and I feel a hell of a lot less of a gulf between the locals and me. Harar has some of the friendliest people I've come across in my travels and it's difficult to wander for more than a half hour without being invited into someone's house. History has written unkind works about the hospitality of the Hararis but I have almost nothing but glowing things to say about them. Staying there for a few days really helped calm me down from the red blotches that I was constantly seeing from my time in Somaliland.

There's still a chance I might head back to Somaliland in the future but at this point it looks pretty improbable. there's nothing to suggest that I'll have it any easier in a year or longer if I come back. My travel bug hasn't necessarily disappeared but for now my love of being in Africa is diminished enough that, at the very least, I'm not already planning my next trip here. I think I'll write one last post on this blog in a few days when I've determined what my next move is.

--

Speaking of terrorism, an on a final note on this post, I read yesterday in the Star Tribune that Suleman Ahmed, Leader of the SSC militia in eastern Somaliland, is being questioned by Federal authorities in his home of Columbus, Ohio. (Columbus has the biggest Somali population in America next to Minneapolis.) All I can say is: it's about damn time. It's the SSC that is responsible for a number of high-profile political assassinations in Somaliland, armed attacks against government institutions, and a general lock-down of a large swath of territory that is suffering from drought and desperately needs the aid that the SSC is, whether inadvertently or not, not allowing in.

It's his group that is mostly responsible for me not being able to get into the regions I was trying to get to and it's very possible - though I don't think I'll ever know for sure - that it's the SSC who threatened me when I was trying to make my way into the east a month ago.

If you read the article his words betray his guilt and only show he has learned buzz words for the American media, such as blaming his recent arrest on "African politics." He tries to act like a moderate being blamed for the extremist actions of others in America when in fact he is among the very worst people we have in our country. And finally, he doesn't raise money for "families in the SSC region" as he claims, he raises it to fund his militia. Period.

The SSC is not designated a terrorist organization by the United States but it sure should be.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Going Nowhere

This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.
- Sloop John B, The Beach Boys


As my time goes on over here I'm coming to the realization that this is becoming one of the most boring travel blogs ever written.

Since my disastrous experience in the east I've had little of note happen here. I've wandered passed the Hargeisa city limits to camp a couple nights out in the desert but besides that have been holed up in the city center, trying in vain to get permission to visit the countryside. My problem lies with the Intelligence Chief, a guy who put what appears to be a permanent hold on my travel. I've gotten unofficial word over the last three weeks that he is willing to lift it and walk me through any other security hurdles I'm looking at, but any attempts to actually meet with him to do so have met with failure.

In fact, this "failure" thing looks to be turning into a habit. I'll have meetings set, promises made, and permission granted for what I want to do only for everything to fall through at the last minute. I've made so many plans and seen them fall apart so often that I'm starting to feel like Charlie Brown to Somaliland's Lucy. And really, there are only so many more times I can take a swing at that football before I call it a day.

I've been considering that recently, given the obstacles I'm looking at. Threats against me mean that I can't go east, red tape means I can't go west, and even if I was allowed to leave Hargeisa it would take a minimum of a week and a half to gear up and set out for what would be a three week trek to try to find a suitable project site. As of right now, it doesn't look like I'll have the time barring a miracle.

Yes, it's safe to say that the last couple months here are certainly doing well to cure my Africa Bug. If it looks as though things continue this way I may be seeing my friends and family back home sooner than I thought. I've accomplished absolutely zilch in my time in Somaliland and after two months my patience is wearing mighty thin. Right now the thought of spending a few quiet nights wandering the BWCA or on the Rum River in Minnesota sounds quite a bit more appealing than another dusty week here with nothing to show for it.

Granted, I’m in a pretty foul mood right now so I’m sure I sound more bitter than I would normally be, but I’ve had quite a few expectations for Somaliland which have sizzled. I’m fed up with the flies, the noise, and the food, not to mention the constant frustration of knowing that I'm going nowhere. I don't want to come home early having succeeded in nothing I originally set out for but in the end that's what I just might do.

On the other hand, you guys just got a snowstorm so you're not exactly sitting pretty either. Anyone heard how South America is doing right about now?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Burao

When Peace Corp volunteers return from South America they come back revolutionaries. When Peace Corp volunteers return from Asia they come back philosophers. And when Peace Corp volunteers return from Africa they come back chain-smoking alcoholics.
-Peace Corp Africa joke.



My planned trek ended up failing to materialize. In fact, the whole thing turned into a fiasco on par at least with any other travel disaster I've experienced. For the moment I'm not terribly amused with the thought of writing down all of the details. I've tried a few times over the last two days but I just get too angry, much too riled up, to write anything that's close to coherent. It's probably best I leave some until I get home anyway. So I'll leave some of the more colorful details out until I'm able to laugh about them, sometime perhaps many months (years?) down the road.

The jist of everything is that a guy I knew from last time from one of the lesser ministries who I hired as my fixer didn't actually fix anything. This is a particularly big deal because I ended up stranded in Burao for nine days, a city in which, according to a UN-sponsored poll recently, al Shabab still has a 40% approval rating and where I had no reliable contacts. Even when I was ordered back to Hargeisa it took me another three days to actually leave the city for a number of reasons. The two or three days I planned on staying I Burao were acceptable and relatively safe; the nine I was there for were not.

I was offered what I will describe as an "unfriendly" welcome by the regional authorities when I stopped in the port of Berbera on my way back to Hargeisa and by the time I got back to Hargeisa I finally realized just exactly how much trouble I was in. Half the authorities seemed to think I was C.I.A. and the other half just thought I was a complete idiot for going to Burao without "official" permission, something my fixer had told me he had already gotten me.

I'm still trying to work my way from out of this mess and at times over the last week I've been close to calling it a day here and coming home. If nothing else my stay in Burao impressed upon me just how impossible it would be to work on my educational project for any amount of time in the eastern half of Somaliland.

This is a real shame because even in Burao itself I saw terrific potential in a former vocational center build by the Germans in the 1950s. Though gutted by Siad Barre's forces in 1988 - bullet pock marks still clear on many of the walls - the foundation of the twenty buildings are still solid and would have a perfect start to a new vocational center.

For now though, with the growing instability along the border and west until Berbera, I can't do anything there. And for the moment, unless I choose to leave the country, I'm stuck in Hargeisa until the Intelligence chief comes back and gives me permission to leave. That means I can't even check out any potential project sites in the western regions until he gets back to Hargeisa from his current trip to Djibouti.

I still want to trek as well and I've come up with an alternate, though less exciting, route. I figure with everything I need to get going within about two weeks in order to give myself enough of a cushion to get back to Minnesota. The only other places I want to go in the Horn will take enough trouble to get to that by the time I actually trek them the temperatures would be much too high as the summer draws closer. Likewise, Yemen continues to have riots and nobody can tell me what South Sudan is like post-election, so I don't want to force a trip to either or those countries.

I'm down to only one region that I'm interested in working in for the school project, and that's the western coast, the areas I walked last time. I've stumbled directly into a number of walls on the school front in my time here but I still have good hope for something there; if not, I'll probably be forced to call it a day on that front, much to my annoyance.

Still, I'm holding out hope that I'll be able to salvage my time. It's be a shame to come home early having accomplished nothing. I'm working through different channels both on trekking and on the schools and the gears appear, on some level at least, to be turning. It's impossible to read the tea leaves at the moment but I'll probably know within a week.

Finally, there's a good read through the link below on a new dairy farm outside of Hargeisa that a wonderful friend of mine here, Ahmed, has been helping to set up since I met him two years ago. It is almost ready to start production and would be the first milk production plant in all of Somalia. In such a dry region it really is a coup to have a dairy farm with one hundred Holstein cows. It's a great read, written by a BBC correspondent recently on assignment in Somaliland. The article can be found here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Walls

You are very fat now!
-Everyone


It took three days in Hargeisa before I was ready for a break. Overwhelmed with the chaos in the city center I decided to travel to the port city of Berbera. On the Gulf of Aden, Berbera has a great hotel just to the east of the city limits where a friend of mine from last time, Brit Steve Atkinson, runs his dive shop out of.

Two years ago it was Steve and his wife Gill who initially encouraged me when I first thought of trekking here. The hotel owner, Abdulkader Elmi, was instrumental in helping me through any red tape that I found in my preparations. Thus, I was anxious to get to Berbera to see them again.

The city itself is nothing special to me. A little poorer, perhaps, and a little less conservative than Hargeisa. Woman are more apt to engage me in conversation here and people just seem a bit more relaxed than the capital. But there are more flies and I get just as much attention wandering the streets so I can’t actually call the city “relaxing” in itself.

Two years ago the police tried to give me a 9 pm curfew, something that annoyed the hell out of me and ensured I would stay out long past that hour if only to bug them. This time they didn't even catch wind that I was in town until the day I left so my only contact with them was a stern warning that I should check in the next time I stayed there. (Yeah, sure.)

The staff at Abdulkader’s hotel, the Maan-Soor, all remembered me as the guy who walked from Hargeisa to Zayla, something that made my chest swell with pride. I was quickly deflated, however, when the the guards and then the manager both separately exclaimed "w'Allah, Mr. Peter! You are very fat now!"

To be fair, yes, I have gained a lot of weight. From a ten year low of 183 lbs just a year and a half ago I was up to 247lbs upon arriving in Africa last month. And the guards and manager were only repeating a theme I have heard at least a dozen times since arriving here. Those who remember me all call me fat. Not big or a heavy or healthy, but fat. I still haven't figured out if this statement is positive, negative or neutral, but it's hard not to get offended at least a little after hearing it so much.

Somali bluntness aside, it was a real pleasure seeing Steve again and to wander the Berbera beaches once again. My third day there I was with another traveler, a splendid fellow from the UK whose name was Phillip. We noticed the pod of dolphins Steve had mentioned sometimes wandered up to him during dives just a little ways off the coast and quickly dove into the Gulf together to try to get a bit closer.

I was surprised when they not only failed to flee but actually swam up to us, spending some ten minutes playing around and frequently wandering within a couple yards of where we were floating before veering off.

Those were a spectacular ten minutes. Part of the time I just floated there as they swam around me. The other part I'd swim towards them and one or two would sit still in the water until I got within a yard or two. Then they would wander off, only to be replaced by another a few yards further on.

I'm PADI certified so Steve took Phillip and me out diving the next day along a nearby reef and, while it was stupendous to explore the reed and spend that hour underwater, it compared little to spending that time with the dolphins the day before.

Back in Hargeisa after five days on the coast I tried to jump into the school project I mentioned a couple posts back. My enthusiasm was quickly stamped out though when I hit up against two brick walls.

I have always wanted to work in a mountainous region called the Sanaag which lies on the Puntland border. I liked this region because it is extremely difficult to get to so the aid agencies operate there less and because it is the least-developed region of Somaliland. Unfortunately, upon in arrival in Hargeisa I was informed that minor clashes had broken out nearby between the Somaliland Security forces on one side and Puntland Security Forces, Somalia’s Taliban group Al Shabab, and the regional militia called SSC (Sool, Sanaag, Cayn) on the other side. That there were clashes was less surprising than the fact that Puntland had decided to ally themselves, however temporarily, with al Shabab, a group well-known for its atrocities in the south.[EDIT: It appears that the al Shabab-Puntland connection was false. Puntland's support seems to be aligning only with the SSC.]

I had also wanted to trek the Sanaag but the presence of al Shabab in this conflict put my hopes for any contact at all with the Sanaag in serious doubt. Then just a few days ago I arrived at one of the ministries and was told “Today, the war begins.” And while it is far from an all-out war, the two sides appear to be getting ready for a possible one if the clashes which have left some 50 dead continue to happen. This would be limited, as it has been in the past, to the eastern regions. Consequently any hope I have in even setting foot in the Sanaag without a well-armed private militia are close to nil.

The second brick wall I hit was slightly more predictably in that the ministries do not see the need to put an emphasis on girls’ education. I was even lectured the other day by a rather high-ranking official on cultural awareness after I had broached the subject.

I’d like to say I’m struggling with the morality of the situation but I’m really not. Girls education seems pretty cut-and-dry to me. I’ll hold off for now the promise from my first post to spell the tangible benefits that a region and country receive from educating its girls, but I’ll summarize everything by saying again that really it’s just the right thing to do.

To say that cultural norms have to be respected is absolutely an appropriate comment to make, but I’m not trying to do something that is out of the norm here. 36% of the students in primary schools here are girls and as far as I’m concerned there is nothing wrong with trying to drive that percentage up.

Furthermore, even the phrase “cultural norms” is misleading. Every society and culture is constantly in motion (and to assume that the forward motion is always towards a liberal or progressive direction is foolish).

Thirty years ago woman were wearing mini-skirts in Tehran, now they can be stoned for doing so. Woman were being educated in Afghanistan decades ago. This was limited under the Soviets, banned under the Taliban, allowed post-war in free Afghanistan, and now is being disallowed under regional leaders. In America there’s always something being branded a “social war” and things that were unheard of even a few decades ago are the norm right now.

Beliefs are always in flux, and the maddrassas being built by conservative (and sometimes radical) forces funded by Saudi money all over the Islamic world do not take into account cultural sensitivity during their teachings.

My hope is for something considerably smaller and less abrasive (and neither progressive nor regressive) than what would be branded any attempt to “change” beliefs here. I want things, if nothing else, to simply stay the way they are here. Educate boys and girls but try to even up the disparity between the two genders.

Right now, people here tell me it’s getting more conservative. The easiest gauge is simply looking at how woman dress. It is the older women, not the younger, who dress more liberally and show off their face. The younger generation are the ones who fully cover their face.

But the largely aesthetic covering (or not) of one’s face is less important to me than whether a woman has the ability to start up her own business, built a hut, tend crops or animals, and act as her own independent person throughout her life. I want the exact same thing for men as well; I think everyone should be educated as much as possible.

This is not a radical concept.

Even if I can make a very tiny dent in that still-too-large population of people who don’t have that option I’ll be incredibly pleased. If I fail, well, then at least I tried.

Obviously my original plans were dead on arrival and, while I find that incredibly frustrating, I purposely hadn’t made any concrete plans while back in America for the very reason that I wanted to talk to people here first. If working in the western or central parts of Somaliland then primary education is already at surprisingly high levels; I wouldn't be needed.

The vocational side of my plans, however, still is relevant. Almost everyone I talk to says that vocational centers are needed nearly everywhere. People graduate from primary or secondary school quite often here and then have no avenues open to them afterwards in which to make money. Vocational training would help solve that issue.

I’m leaving tomorrow for the city of Burao. It’s from here my new starting point for trekking has been moved. Burao deals in livestock from the surrounding nomad regions but supposedly it also has a tremendous population of refugees who have fled the fighting from south Somalia as well as a sizable population of Internally Displaced Persons (otherwise known as IDPs, a distinction from being refugees that really only matters to the UN High Commission for Refugees, an organization that for the most part only help those who have fled across international borders). Many of these people have been here for two decades, which begs the question; after how long, exactly, is one considered just part of the regular population after having fled their home?

I have a meeting with the regional governor and I hope to make inquiries as to the state of education and training amongst the refugees, particularly orphan refugees. While Somaliland understandably doesn’t want to make their refugee populations permanent by opening up schools and other institutions – as refugees are a huge drain on what are very limited state resources - there might be possibilities with setting something worthwhile up.

I’m tutoring a pair of members from the Somaliland Parliament who happen to be from the Togdeer region, in which Burao lies, as well. I’ve recently talked to one about educating the orphan population that lies within the massive refugee camps and he was extremely receptive. If I decide to take this avenue he has said he will help me along.

There are also educational/vocational possibilities I’m looking at the coast towards the Djibouti border, the region I trekked last time. Between the cities of Zayla and Lughaya for instance – more than 150 kilometers by foot – there is not a single primary school.

Any decisions won’t be made for another month or two though. My trek, if it goes through (and nothing is for sure here) will be totally off the grid and will hopefully take around a month so I won’t be able to work much during that time.

Tomorrow morning I drive out of Hargeisa and will take the Somaliland highway to Berbera and then spend a night in what is supposed to be a beautiful mountain town called Sheek. Then it’s on to Burao for two nights where I’ll be getting a guide, buying a camel, and finally starting out on a semi-circle through the mountains that will eventually lead me back to Berbera.

Obviously that time I won’t have an internet connection, but if you ever feel the need to facebook or email me with any goings-on I would really appreciate it. Whether it be personal news or national, it’s always great to hear from people back home.

(Funny story I just remembered; last time I was on trek here I heard that Congress had passed the stimulus bill from a local nomad. Somalis are always hungry for news and have a particular love of politics, including those in the USA. This Somali, a hundred kilometers from the nearest television and who had never even seen a white guy before me, told me both that the bill had passed and what Republican Senators had voted with the Democrats to do so. Even for Somaliland I found this pretty weird.)

Anyway, if there’s any awesome news happening let me know. Also, if you have any thoughts on what I mentioned above it would be great to hear from you. This is uncharted territory for me and many of you are much more experienced or have considerably more insight than I. If it sounds like I’m approaching something from the wrong angle or like I’m just being a jackass in general, I’d love to hear from you.

If not, well, I’ll talk to you in a couple months when I get back, eh?

Be well and stay warm.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Wild West With a Smile

Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need . . . {flips glasses} . . . roads.
-Back to the Future



When I first entered Somaliland I had the intention of staying five days. I left six and a half weeks later feeling a genuine appreciation about the region and its people. Traveling back into Ethiopia I took along a promise that someday I would be back.

Two years later, I’m here.

What is only very technically the country of Somalia is shaped like a 7. At the top lies Somaliland, an internationally-recognized autonomous region that is unrecognized as an independent nation. Its borders were originally drawn by their British in their almost comically-disastrous colonial tendencies from the mid-1800s. When given independence in 1960 it voted just days later to join the south and from then onward the country was simply part of Somalia.

Quickly disenfranchised from the majority south, however, Somaliland eventually launched a civil war to regain their independence. Despite being outgunned and outmanned by the Soviet-financed south led by dictator Siad Barre, Somaliland managed to keep fighting even after its cities had been leveled to the ground, many of their water sources poisoned, and its herds slaughtered by the thousands.

When Barre was killed in 1991 Somaliland won its freedom by default simply because there was no government left in the south to fight. Though left to its own devices for the last two decades and with extremely limited international support or investment, Somaliland has developed into a perfect example of just what is RIGHT with Africa.

The elections here are free and safe, a new president just having been sworn in this summer. It is moderate and friendly to the west, its citizens are safe and its security forces helpful and friendly. The region has taken surprisingly little notice to the storm of violence and protests hurtling their way across North Africa and the Middle East, evidently content with the small but clearly stable democracy that it has created. Money changers sit on the streets with giant piles of Somaliland Shillings stacked in front of them, not even considering the possibility of being robbed. And its people are absolutely the friendliest I have ever encountered.

There are some sticking points, of course. To the east Somaliland has developed over the years a sticky relationship with its Somali neighbor Puntland, a semi-autonomous region that claims part of Somaliland’s territory. Upon arriving in Somaliland, in fact, I was informed that border skirmishes had once again developed, immediately casting my hopeful treks and the school building plans into disarray and doubt.

Adding the tension, there are rumors that Puntland has teamed up for the moment with the Somali version of the Taliban, al Shabab, in this fight.

Fighting in the east aside, Somaliland is under Sharia Law and though it is a moderate form it still takes some getting used to remembering just what exactly I can and cannot do (e.g. whiskey . . . no). Westerners like me are usually forgiven for minor transgressions of course so I have little need to be worried about getting in trouble unless I open an underground distillery. But in the case of a German man a few months ago, he did something so stupid it’s hard to even fathom.

I have to preface this incident by saying that I get nervous even talking to a woman here because of the strict moral code with which Somalis in general have towards member of the opposite sex interacting. This German man, an expat who lived in Hargeisa and was married to a Somaliland woman, was caught making pornographic films with his wife and some of her friends. He was lucky to have only gotten four years in prison but westerners here – of which there are few – for the most part wish he had gotten a heavier punishment because of the uncomfortable position that he has put us in.

With so few westerners here that is a terrible impression to give this overwhelmingly conservative region. For a group of people usually so friendly and forgiving, this move was way over the line for Somalilanders. Everyone knows about it, and to make matters worse for me both times I have come here the locals have for some reason thought me to be a German. What before was only a vague insult is now an actual liability and I get the occasional Somalilander marching up to me and shouting defiantly that Germans are scum and I should go leave the country. Yesterday I had a rock thrown at me by a particularly cranky woman (though in fairness it also could have been because she just thought I was really ugly or something).

Despite the apologies to my by all the other locals who witness such incidents, these reactions have left a sour taste in my mouth in a country that otherwise has treated me better than any other I have been to.

I view all of this with a grain of salt though. I think of Somaliland – and I mean it when I say this – as safer than even the USA. As anywhere, danger lies less in where one travels than in how one travels. I am determined to travel well and be safe. In truth, my real challenges lie not in safety here but infrastructure.

After having been throttled in the civil war Somaliland was left with no infrastructure. The international help that would normally have arrived never did because of Somaliland’s curious diplomatic state, so it has been left to its own devices to rebuild. While government and aid have provided good water, business has provided decent mobile phone service, and the authorities have made inroads in education, many essential projects have been ignored if only because of absolute lack of funds from which to address them.

There is, for instance, only one tarmac road in the entire country. It is a huge, winding beast that starts in the northwest in the mountain city of Borama. It travels to the capital Hargeisa, then to the port of Berbera, onward through the livestock town of Burao, into troubled Las Anood, and then into Puntland and all the way to Mogadishu. It is up this road that incredible numbers of refugees fleeing the anarchy in the south have fled.

Other than that road I am left to 4X4s to see the country or finding a desert truck to hop atop with the locals. While perhaps a fun mode of travel for backpackers, the road system here has to be dramatically improved before and real positive change can be brought about here.

They can start that change with the city of Wachale, my entry point into Somaliland and a place in the running for Ugliest City Possible. You wouldn’t believe me if I went into detail but I’ll summarize everything by saying that the actual border is demarcated by – and this is true – a smoldering trash field. To say Wachale could be Satan’s weekend retreat would be a compliment and I never spend more time there than I absolutely have to.

If Wachale is disgusting then the rest of Somaliland’s towns might be described as just plain ugly. To get a decent picture of Hargeisa – really the entire region of Somaliland, picture Edina. Well-care for lawns, sparkling houses, perfect traffic patterns, and cliché suburban restaurants. Now that the opposite of that and you have what I see here.

Except for the pretty mountains that wind through the country the landscape that I’ve seen is mostly yellow sand with thorn trees poking up through the ground. Often one might wander into a dry river bed, but beyond that you shouldn’t expect more than the occasional hill. Unless distant from the highway or other main paths here, villages and towns are covered in litter, the plastic bags often stuck to the surrounding thorn bushes almost as kind of a discouraging Christmas tree. Buildings and structures falling down from age or war are left as they are, similar to rusting hulks that once were cars, trucks and army tanks and dot the roads and paths.

When it comes to Hargeisa I have always maintained that it acts considerably more like a frontier town or border city than the capital that it is. More than any other city, Hargeisa offers pandemonium and an overwhelming assault on the senses. The roads – bumpy dirt tracks created with no sense of planning – are filled with mini-busses and 4X4s who have little sense of driver etiquette. It is common, in the narrow lanes, for a driver to see a friend on the side of the road and stop the car in the road for a chat, seemingly oblivious to the line of increasingly irate drivers behind him who lean on their horns and yell curses.

The sidewalks are lined with hawkers and khat sellers, constantly shouting out to friends and pedestrians, all of whom shout back even if the car is right next to them. And I want to impress upon you the volume of hollering that is done here so you don’t think I’m just making some general observation. Somalis are – and I suppose this can be argued, but definitely not against my experiences - the loudest people on earth.

I do not say this lightly. They are naturally gossipy and are extremely prone to arguments, often joining a discussion that has nothing to do with them and then loudly proclaiming their viewpoint to anyone that will listen. I have been kept up to ungodly hours both in the rural and urban areas by the impassioned arguments of the locals as they beat up some inane subject long into the night. Upon questioning the next day, they deny there was any argument and simply say they were having a normal discussion, something my bloodshot eyes clearly show is false.

A nearly complete lack of white people here combined with Somali curiosity means that every few steps someone shouts "Wah-ria!" ("Hey!") at the tall white guy passing by, so if walking around for the entire day I am forced to exchange greetings and pleasantries with up to a couple hundred people. This practice alone exhausts and sometimes overwhelms me. I try not to dally long because sometimes a crowd gathers around me and I am roped into answering the same trio of questions (“What is your name? What is your nationality? What is your job?”) in a mind-numbing Sisyphean punishment until some passing elder takes pity on me and yells and everyone to leave me alone, waving his cane at the gawkers.

Mixed with all this on the streets and sidewalks are donkey-driven carts, goats, the occasional sheep, and the even less-often camel who wander the streets at will, threading their way through the crush of pedestrians and poking their heads into anything that appears as though it might possible have once been edible.

Finally, on the outside of this chaos, are the legit stores and restaurants who offer imported goods, most of which comes from the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. The stores are clean and well-kept, the restaurants are not. Most every building is one story, though some buildings are two and in the city center a small group of buildings may rise five or six high.

Flies are everywhere here and are really the most aggravating part of Somaliland. I took a repellent of 99.8% deet to help deal with them but even this is only partially effective. Somalilanders appear to have at least slightly less hatred towards them but despite my best efforts to ignore the obnoxious buzzing horrors they drive me absolutely batty. The one saving grace is that Somalilanders often burn incense, mostly frankincense and myrrh, to dissuade them. It is a lovely, calming smell. In a true contrast to the annoying flies, the incense here is among my very favorite sensations.

In short, the country is controlled chaos. It’s the Wild West with a smile. The place takes some getting used to but once that happens it feels wonderful.

This dusty region, an isolated pocket in Somalia, should make me feel lonely. Sometimes I do. But much more often this feeling evaporates because I feel so welcomed and liked by the local people. Walking down the streets can be exhausting after answering all the greetings and it can be nerve-wracking to be stared at by so many people so consistently. But many of the locals and the returned diaspora are quick to invite me to tea and I’ve found it easier to make friends – genuine friends, friends who will call me up to chat as though we’ve been acquaintances for years even after having talked to me for maybe five minutes – than any other time in my life. These people have a hospitality I have encountered nowhere else, a resilience to match, and a belief in the future that makes me proud to be here.

-----------------
Before I sign off, I want to write one final note.

Three days ago I lost two people from my life back in Minnesota. One was a relative, one a friend who I knew through my work in politics. Expressing any sort of feelings about those who have passed is difficult and, in the form of a side note on a blog post, probably trite. Maybe I shouldn’t write anything at all. But I wanted to say that both were good people – really, truly good people – who always treated me well and who will be missed by many. That is all I’ll say about them here. To those who knew them better than I . . . really, to those who knew them at all . . . I wish you the best in working through the thoughts and emotions you will be dealing with in the coming days, weeks, and beyond.

Sometimes, words will not suffice.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Back to Africa

One of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Home, one feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood... A journey, in fact, appeals to Imagination, to Memory, to Hope, -the three sister graces of our moral being.
- Sir Richard Francis Burton



I always find it a thrill to come back to a country I haven't seen in some years.

Two years back Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was my sanctuary after having fled Cairo, a city I view with extreme distaste and whose charm and allure has changed little since rioters began burning down half the city in recent days. Consequently I immediately fell in love with Addis, a city with tasty food, good beer, beautiful women, friendly inhabitants, and tree-lined boulevards. Sure, the smog was still pretty bad, the touts (Swahili, meaning "tick" . . . usually teenage boys trying to rip off tourists) insufferable, and the tap water sometimes a disconcerting color of red. But after Cairo it was a God-send.

Later on Addis was my stop after leaving Somaliland, a infinitely better experience than Cairo but still a place where I had lost twenty-five pounds in a month and a half. Addis, with its cheap food, was a brief stop for me to gain back a few pounds before continuing onward into the southern deserts.

This time, I viewed the city through the lens of someone just having left America. While it is wonderful to be back I realized quickly that I had neglected to steal myself for the this-is-Africa, inshallah, chaotic lifestyle that had seemed so natural by the end of my last trip to the continent. Africa is Africa and no matter how much I like somewhere here it is still wildly different from the comparitvely calm lifestyle in the US. My first day, dodging careening cars, avoiding the prostitutes and hearing "ferengi!" - a rather insulting term for "foreigner" - screamed at me by children everywhere, served as something of a shock to my system.

Fortunately it took only that first day to turn my mind around about the place. I remembered oddly specific directions around the city ( “ . . . turn right at the second Oil Libya . . .) and wandered to some of my old restaurants. I relaxed and read, chatted with other backpackers, got a little sunburned, and made some friends amongst the locals. I dove right into drinking tapwater but surprisingly got few results, my body evidently keeping any immunities it needed from the last time around. The food was likewise easy on me and that alone tempted me to stay a bit longer, but I was anxious to get to Somaliland.

I've made little secret in recent months over my hopes for this trip, one that will hopefully combine both business and pleasure. The recent riots have ensured my planned trip to Yemen is a no-go and a decision by the Somaliland Liason Office's in Addis to only grant me a single-entry visa has also nixed my Kenya plans; consequently my tentative schedule says that the next three months will be in Somaliland, the autonomoius enclave of northern Somalia.

For my hopeful treks everything is still up in the air for the moment. The Sanaag Region, a mountainous hard-to-reach area which lies on the Puntland border and has been my dream to explore for two years, is high on my list. Same with the lower-Awdal on the other side of the country. Maybe, if the gods will it, I'll end up heading back to my old stomping grounds from my previous Somaliland trek as well.

But my main purpose here this time around isn't the trekking. Instead, I'm going to be trying to navigate the ministries in an attempt to get permission for a small non-profit that I'm hoping to start up this summer.

I hope you'll bear with me here for a moment while I delve into a brief story that relates to this.

Last time, going from village to village in some areas that even the the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the central government failed to penetrate, I would run across the occasional and inexplicable English speaker. Regardless of whether it was a child or an elder, I always made it a point to ask out of shear curiosity what, if anything, they wanted in their village. To a person, everyone said a school.

For the first couple weeks it was a mere side-note to what I was doing and I thought little of it. Towards the end of the trek, however, still well into the interior and far from any roads or paths, I came to a small village whose name now escapes me but whose faces I’ll remember for a long while.

The village had around seventy to eighty people. The poverty and malnourishment was telling, yet the village lived because it housed the only water well for miles around. Even though I know little of grazing needs it was clear on my walk in that the soil was of poor quality and the entire area was suffering the consequences of over-grazing.

One of the men there spoke some English. He was very proud, he told me, to show the first white man he had ever seen around the village.

Clearly there was little to actually see. The goat and camel pens, the dirgid (sleeping area for passing nomads), and the various huts. The well, of course, which he saved to the near end.

Finally, he announced, we would see the school. He led me towards a small enclosure about 15X15 feet. It was supported on two sides with large pieces of corrugated tin and a third side with unrooted thorn bush. On top lay more thorn bush to shield the kids from the sun. The students, who looked as young as four and as old as fourteen, were drawing in the dirt for lack of paper and were being taught by a man holding up a torn piece of cardboard.

Looking at the only school I saw for seventy miles in each direction, next to a man so proud of it, I felt positively devastated. Angry, really.

I was angry that anyone who wanted education received one of such unbelievably poor caliber. I was angry that there was no support from anyone outside the village in what they were trying to accomplish. I was angry at myself for thinking so negatively about the place. But most of all I was angry because I knew it wasn’t enough, that these efforts would fall short of helping the village or its inhabitants in any tangible way.

Still, for the benefit of my guide I tried to look impressed and so I asked him what subject the children were learning.

“Here, there is one subject," he answered. "Math.”

I looked at the dirt. It was simple addition.

When I asked if there was any sort of vocational teaching he answered passively, saying the village had been made of a collection of refugees two decades before and any skills their home villages had once had were lost in transit. Math, he implied, was really the best and only thing they could teach. There was no resources for any further teaching. They would have liked a real school or even some teaching material I was told, but no help had come from the outside. He didn't expect any in the future, either.

These kids - the village - were trying. They all wanted to learn and were proud of this pitiful step forward, a step that ultimately would do the children no good and not change their future one iota. The land could not support their population growth without some sort of change. Proper grazing patterns, animal husbandry, frankincense collection, and any other of the possible avenues for making their lives better were simply not known and not being taught. The best that they could do was figure out their livestock numbers.

Despite their best efforts their children would not be educated. They would not have better lives.

This was not a case where an opportunity was there and passed up; this was a case where no opportunity existed . . . and one never would.

I left the village that day and continued on my trek. But that experience has stayed with me, always nagging me, always reminding me of a job that needs to be started. Because those villages are all over Somaliland and Somalia. Parents who want their children to learn and succeed, who want their children to have better lives than they had. One-room schools missing two sides held together by twine, without pencils or paper or proper teachers. Boys and girls whose future holds a way of life ever-squeezed by unsustainable population growth with no other option than to keep walking the increasingly over-herded countryside.

That was the seed that was planted in my mind two years ago. Since then I have thought more and more about education in Somaliland. There is a model of school creation and sustainability made famous by Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools) that I would like to turn into a pilot project in rural Somaliland. This model incorporates working with – and not over – local elders and officials in the building and teaching process, a vocational center for post-primary graduates that teaches local practices, the taking-over of the school by the locals as the graduates are able to start earning money, and the extremely important point of an equal participation rate between the genders within four years of the school opening

There are a number of similarities between the regions of tribal Pakistan and Afghanistan that his NGO works in and rural Somaliland. Among those similarities are populations that are under threat of becoming radicalized due to outside forces (in Somaliland’s case these forces are al Shabab from southern Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from Yemen, and madrassas being funded by conservative Muslim factions from Saudi Arabia), a rural population that is not being reached by the government or NGOs, and a marginalized female population whose collective and individual futures can be drastically improved with education. That last point is one that is the most important to me though I’ll get into reasoning in a later post.

So, in tying up this long post, I’m in Somaliland to see if I can get permission for a pilot project that incorporates much of the Mortenson model of school creation. I’ve never before delved in to the non-profit world and am quite nervous at the prospect, but a number of my friends and family have been helping and encouraging me in recent months with the initial planning stages. This has given me a huge boost in confidence and I owe everyone who I have talked with a good deal.

Still, I've approached this trip with more trepidation than any other I've taken before and that is in large part due to this potential pilot project. Truthfully, I was initially hesitant to even write anything about it because as I look at the potential hurdles ahead (unwilling officials, lack of enthusiasm from the villages, a bad education model, access to my region of choice not being granted) I'm nervous that what I've been thinking about for so long will be extremely difficult to accomplish. Time will tell, I suppose.

The ministries were extremely responsive the last time I was in Somaliland so I have great hope that they will help me along the way. Likewise Somaliland itself if filled with amazingly friendly and helpful people, some of whom I've kept in touch with these last two years and I'm sure will be able to offer advice.

One way or another it’s all going to be an adventure and those are fun, so I’ve decided not to fret too terribly much.

Cheers to Minnesota, though truthfully it is very wonderful to be back to Africa once again.

Quick Note

Everything below this post was written on my Cairo to Cape Town trip from 2008 to 2009.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Final Thoughts

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds
-Edward Abbey


I've been told that I "completely suck" at summations, so in an effort to appease certain individuals I thought I'd have a quick afterward from my travels.

I consider this whole experience a personal success. It looked absolutely nothing as I had originally envisioned given that I skipped travel to Sudan after it became clear a visa would not be soon forthcoming for me, I was denied entry into Djibouti (and nearly locked up by an over-zealous border guard in the process), didn't go the DRC, and never made it to the Tanzanian Spice Islands. On the other hand, I made an unplanned foray into the lower Middle East, took an extra month in Somaliland trekking off the grid, and spent a number of days and weeks slogging my way from Central Africa to South Africa in what retrospectively I can describe as a dash I'll never be able to match in terms of pure ridiculousness.

The most surreal experience in my months of travel, and absolutely the most unexpected, was the Christmas Eve that I spent in Bethlehem. I went from nearly skipping the entire night after my wallet was stolen to being in the inexplicable position of attending an Anglican mass in a Greek Orthodox chapel in the Church of Nativity . . . eventually high-fiving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. When that was done I wandered with two friends into the Grotto, the small room below the Church in which Jesus was born. Here I somehow was lucky enough to attend the actual midnight mass held that night with a small cadre of Italians.

If that one day in Bethlehem was unforgettable, there were plenty of other rabbit holes throughout the rest of my trip to remind me where I was. I'll never forget getting forcibly escorted to a Borena village near the Ethiopia/ Kenya border after accidentally wandering into a group of well-armed herders in what I later learned was prime cattle raiding territory. Meeting the Obama family in Kenya and having an in-depth conversation with one of Barack's cousins about electoral strategy was rather memorable as well. The feelings of revulsion and horror in Rwanda were more than enough to make me wish I had never been there, but they were unique in their blend and when they sank home were strong enough to ensure I would never forget them. Being briefly detained by their border agents under suspicion of smuggling was, while not amusing at the time, a funny memory to look back on. My dislike of Cairo is also something else if only because it's entertaining me for to say that I dislike any city, much less one as fabled as Cairo, as that. And the mere fact that I eventually got used to stumbling upon burnt-out tanks from the civil war during my Somaliland trek is enough now to make me laugh out loud.

As far as Somaliland goes, the trek there has to rank among my very favorite experiences of my life. That it was so unique, and never before traveled by an outsider in that capacity, makes me extremely pleased to have made the full length. That aside, however, the trek was a wonderful experience that makes me prouder than any other physical feat. In the twenty days of desert walking I lost a total of nineteen pounds; easily the most effective diet I can imagine. It was a beautifully varied experience that took me to regions of the country I never would have otherwise guessed at and has really encouraged me to soon return. I may be back as soon as soon as this winter. If not, I will almost definitely be back after the next election.

I've met some fantastic travelers on this trip. Some of those that I've met from North America, Europe, and Australia could be among my very best friends if we lived in closer proximity to each other. Their stories are fantastic, their plans are inspirational, and their drive to map out in their minds every inch of the world would impress everyone. They hardly think of it in that way, however; to them travel is an art which they have perfected. It's perfectly natural to wander the planet.

That we can spend time together for only a few brief days before parting ways is disheartening. These are tremendous people who will go on to do amazing things in life and I wish I could be there for when they do. Katie the Wisconsinite I met in Egypt, and two more Americans Jaci and Mitch who I met in Jordan. All three of you were fantastic travels partners who I hope to see again in America. The whole slew of Canadians I met in Israel, not to mention a fantastic American, Derek, without whom my Bethlehem experience would never have been. John, the Australian guy who had been traveling for three years that I got to know in Addis Ababa is a hell of a traveler. There was Ben, an American I met in Ethiopia; he's the one who put me in touch with the Somaliland businessman Abdulkaer Elmi, without whom my trek never would have been possible. Steve and his wife Gill, the British pair living on the Somaliland coast and opening up a dive shop, are a couple whose blase acceptence of their own pioneering spirit and adventure inspires me to constantly reach further in my own travels. Aviv and Gad, the two Israelis I stumbled upon at the ridiculous Ethiopia/Kenya border. Michele, from France, who I met on near the DR Congo border in Rwanda. Wesley, a Cape Townian who I traveled with from the top of Zambia all the way to Cape Town and who showed me a terrific time once I reached there. Miki, the Australian, who I spent time with on the Wild Coast in my closing days of the trip and whose travel philosophy comes alarmingly close to mine. And Leslie and Mary, a pair of Irish women I kicked it with in Port Elizabeth.

It's always a pity to leave people like those, but on leaving it is always a comfort to hear the phrase that backpackers so often throw out as a parting; "Maybe we'll cross paths again." Until then, my friends, keep well.

To everyone who kept up on my blog - thank you so much. It felt great knowing that even a few people back in the USA knew what I was up to and were interested enough to follow my path. If I can ever help you with any trip you're taking to the turf I covered in Africa, feel free to toss me an email or phone call and I'll do as best I can.

That being said, Cheers to Minnesota. it's great being back and seeing so many friends and relatives that I've gone without for half a year. The nomadic lifestyle is fun and one that I look forward to again, but Minnesota is always deep in my heart. Culture shock is a non-existent phenomenon to me as long as I have such terrific people to come back to.

South Africa

Why, when I had cumulatively spent less than six months of my life in South Africa, was it so often the landscape of my dreams?
-Adam Hochschild, A Mirror at Midnight


Entering South Africa was a lot like coming home. Almost from the moment of entry my mind-set changed to one of relaxtion and familiarity; I felt as if I was finally back in a setting I recognized and could calm down in.

That being said, I can say even before I type this post that it'll be the most boring and poorly-written of those I have tossed up here. That's because I'm writing it back in Minnesota and my traveling-and-thinking-in-an-Africa-frame-of-mind has worn off. Furthermore, my four weeks in South Africa were a wind-down from the previous half year. For the first time, I actually felt as though I were on a vacation as opposed to actually traveling. So anyway, this is the first post I've had to force myself to write; consequently, it'll definitely suck.

There was so much to remember and so much to consume even in the liquor and food categories that I was nearly overwhelmed. Black Label beer, Harriers whiskey, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage wine, and Paarl "wine" were my liquor of choice last time and the tastes had changed not at all in the interlude since I had left. I ate bowl after bowl of pojtie, a South African stew made over an open fire in a large cast iron pot. Once again I got to eat Khosa bread, throw chutney on my steaks, and eat cheap, well-made Indian food. There was fast food that I actually enjoyed, especially the chicken joints and the burger/steak franchise called, simply, Steers.

Speaking of meat, the best part of South Africa's food are their braais, or their version of a barbecue. I have to explain that nine of ten times back in America when people say they're going to have a barbecue, they mean a wimpy, stupid barbecue with maybe some dry hamburgers and some hot dogs. To this day I fail to understand why people spends hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on a grill that they barely know how to cook food on. South Africa has it down - their braais are simple affairs with none of the pretentiousness that American grills carry. More often than not they're stone bases with a simple grill thrown on top, easy as that. But they're usually at least twice the size of American grills and are fully stocked with numerous kinds of meat. This is possible because meat is about half the price in South Africa as the USA so they might toss on mutton, ribs, steak, chicken, boervors (the incredibly tasty version of an American sausage), game meat, or any other variety of grillables. A braai in South Africa really is an experience of its own, and it was fantastic to be back for them once again.

Traveling south from the Tanzanian/Zambian border, I got into a conversation with the only non-black on the bus, a colored guy named Wesley from Cape Town. He solved any dilemma I may of had with travel plans by insisting I accompany him to Cape Town and spend some time at his place while he showed me around. This was an incredibly kind gesture given that he had just spent six weeks away up in Burundi, but I was more than happy to not worry about my lodging. So without even thinking about it, my next destination was chosen for me. Not only was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders by finally reaching the coast once again after so many months, but it was great to hang with Wesley and his incredibly kind family. They insisted I stay with them in the suburbs and made it a point to show me the South African good life. My days were filled with braais, potjie, wine, visits to his girlfriend's vineyard, solid beer, and general relaxation.

One day he took me to the Cape of Good Hope, a location that is somewhat desperately billed as the "southwestern-most point in Africa." If that's a lame claim to fame, people are much more anxious to go here than the true southern point of Africa and the one that nobody has actually heard of, Cape Agulhas. This is for two reasons. Reason one is that Cape Agulhas is just a flat, rocky stretch of land that is far enough away from Cape Town to be unworthy of a photo. The cliffs of Good Hope are perfect photo ops. The second reason is that the Cape of Good Hope has always been thought of by the world as the southern-most point, starting from when Bartolomeu Dias became the first European, and possible the first person ever, to round the Cape in 1488. Because of a geographical glitch in the shoreline he mistook it for the bottom of the continent. This mistake continued onwards for many decades and centuries into the future and led eventually to the current state of confusion over what the true bottom actually is. (Whether the possible Phoenician expedition around 600 B.C. and the expedition of Zheng He in the early Ming dynasty around 1421 made the same mistake coming from the east is unknown, but I think it's important to at least note that both of these may have pre-empted Dias.)

Despite what I view as its inauthenticity and tourist-driven feel, I enjoy Good Hope. The monuments erected by ships and expeditions over the centuries and the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean are pleasant to check out and the whole area has one of those inexplicable feels where you don't even care about the other tourists and you're just overcome by the history and the beauty of it all. Agulhas, on the other hand, is far less interesting.

When my time in the Cape Town area felt about over I split and made it to Port Elizabeth, my home base for my study abroad. While P.E. is little more than an industrial sea port, I have a tremendous love for the city. As luck would have it the St. Ben's/Saint John's study abroad group was staying in the very flats I was in three years ago and I happened to be friends with a few of them through previous political happenings. Though they were swamped with homework at the end of their semester they were cool enough to drink with me and even made my week by spending a solid hour looking at hilarious C-SPAN clips on TouTube (yes, they were those kind of politicos.) I further looked up some other old friends from the city and spent time reminiscing over Black Label beer. Other than that I was content to take runs along the Indian ocean, cook, and begin think about my approaching return home.

With the last couple weeks of Africa in site I made plans to take one last foray into rural Africa by way of the Wild Coast, an isolated stretch of land north of Port Elizabeth in the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean settled by the Xhosa tribe. It is my favorite place in Africa. Having traveled here a number of times before and taken one enchanting trek with a solid group of friends last time, I was aware this would be the perfect end to my time in Africa.

I didn't feel up for a trek this so I chose a lodge called Bulungula for my home base. This lodge is located as far off the beaten path as any others on the South African coast and has developed a cult following amongst backpackers since it opened in 2004. It's about twelve hours from the closest major cities and completely off the grid, meaning there is no incoming electricity, water, heat, or air conditioning. But there have come up with an ingenious fuel-powered shower that gives off seven minutes of hot water and installed solar panels for a minimal amount of electricity. With nothing to else to keep me busy I was free to walk along the coast, enjoy the glorious food that the lodge had to offer, and relaxed the hell out of myself on the beaches. It's impossible to say enough about these beaches. They are vast stretches of very fine sand that are interrupted only by an incoming river every kilometer or so, shallow enough to easily cross. Some times an incoming hill may block your path and you're forced to scramble over a few rocks, but otherwise you have a straight run at the ocean shared nobody else. I often say that if they existed in the United States they would be swamped with tens of the thousands of people, but here only the cows are present to keep you company.

A favorite aspect of the lodge to me is the clientele it attracts. While it is only a small stretch to call the place paradise, only the off-track backpackers and great personalities tend to show up at the lodge. Age and country of origin are surprisingly difficult to generalize, but extremely rare is the complaint about lack of amenities. After only a couple days there an Australian backpacker, Miki, showed up and was such a ball of fun that I ended up forgoing my original leave date just because we hit it off so well. Not only was she a traveler whose shear years on the road are among the most intense of anyone I have ever met, but we also had a strikingly similar travel philosophy and sense of humor. Soon after she came the two of us got another joiner who was, oddly enough, a member of the South African Parliament. The three of us and the others took up a lot of my remaining time comparing travel stories, giving backpacking advice, and generally acting like backpackers tend to act. I loved it.

Unfortunately, the end happened to arrive. Genuinely regretting that I had to take my leave of both Bulungula and Africa, I traveled back to Port Elizabeth to pick up some remaining things. From here I bussed to Johannesburg for my flights back to the USA.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tanzania/Zambia/Zimbabwe

Let the trial come.
-Homer, The Odyssey


When I was in Africa three years ago I spent a month in Tanzania, but it was along the coast and in the north following the tourist circuit. Most of my stay concentrated on the spice island of Zanzibar and the Serengeti during migration season, an amazing experience with all of the animals you dream of in your childhood. (Dar es Salaam, on the other hand, was pretty much my own personal Room 101 and remains my least-favorite African city.)

At the root of the challenges I faced this time around was that this is the rainy season in central Africa right now so any transportation was sporadic at best. While in the end doomed to failure, my hope was to rush through Tanzania and Zambia in time for my flight from Lusaka to Johannesburg that was only a few days away.

I should have been able to guess that "rushing" through this area during the rains is like swimming through a giant vat of mashed potatoes. It just doesn't work. But, giving it a shot, I decided to make my way from Bujumbura to Kigoma, Tanzania, travel to a place called Urambo, down to a city I had never heard of called Sumbaranga, and then cross into Zambia and sprint down to Lusaka.

Don't worry about the geography in this post; it's filled with random cities and towns that shouldn't make much sense. The jumble of cities and towns in my mashed-potato journey blurred together in my mind even as I was passing through them. This post will probably seem even more blurry.

Exiting Burundi I dodged a another potential immigration snag after learning that I had been granted only a temporary three-day visa to Burundi and had over-stayed it by well over a week. The customs officials were rather understanding however and allowed me to pass regardless, leaving me with a far better taste in my mouth than I would have thought.

I decided to see if my luck would hold at the Tanzanian immigration office, inexplicably located some 30 kilometers from the Burundian post. Still annoyed that the Tanzanian visa for Americans had recently been raised to $100 and they wouldn't give me a transit visa for a measly four days of travel, I decided to pass them the fake $100 bill I got up in Ethiopia. Sure enough, they took it and I scurried away, gleeful at even one transient moment of being able to pull one over on the locals.

Unfortunately, that was the last bit of good luck I was to have on my travels to the south. Upon reaching Kigoma, I was told immediately by the crowd of people who gathered around me that the road to Urambo had been washed out by the rains and was impassable. Looking at a map, I saw another road leaving Kigoma that went straight south and led to a city called Mpanda. One guy helpfully suggested I take the train to Mpanda that was leaving in an hour, so we took a taxi to the train station to find that the train, incredibly, had already left. He looked as shocked as I felt - something leaving early in Africa? That just doesn't happen!

Nothing else was going south for the rest of the day, so the next morning I jumped on a bus down what my map had optimistically deemed a major roadway of western Tanzania to Mpanda. Unfortunately, it turned out to be little more than a dirt track with major sections washed away, but with no other option I settled in for the long haul. The road was so annihilated that it took six hours to travel one hundred and fifty kilometers before the bus broke down still north of Mpanda. I didn't want to spend the night with the bus in the middle of nowhere so I took off down the nearby train tracks hoping to find a village. After an hour or so a cargo train with about twenty cars came by and I waved, enjoying even a hint of civilization. The conductor just stared.

It took only a few kilometers to reach some no-name village for me to bed down in for the night. The reaction I received was particularly amusing but eventually I was able to sort out a room for me to sleep in for the night at a cool cost of one dollar. My sleep was interrupted numerous times by the dumb-ass roosters in the next lot who apparently had never seen a Disney movie and weren't away that they're only supposed to crow at sunrise and not during the night. Around 5 AM or so I gave up on trying to sleep and walked outside to try for an early start. It was only then, as I looked around for transport, that I realized the extent of how isolated and how small the village, which I had only seen at night, truly was.

There was nothing, nada, zilch, that could transport me anywhere. No buses, no range rovers, not even a motor bike. What I thought was a break came when a group of those from the broken-down bus of last night began to filter into the village starting in the late morning and they somehow got a range rover late in the day to come and transport us. So twelve adults and a baby were crammed into this range rover which took off in the rain on the washed-out roads through some sort of national park with a driver who kept taking swigs of some sort of homemade brew that was at his side. Looking back, I realize how drunk he actually was. I also realize that my travel standards have positively collapsed in Africa, as I wasn't so much concerned with the dangers of the road as the misery of being in the rover. As if the heat, humidity and cramped conditions weren't enough, the general horror was increased five-fold when the guy next to me threw up inside, adding a utterly disgusting smell for what turned out to be another abbreviated ride.

Liquor, rain, and a washed out dirt road are a disastrous combination that I had decided to ignore for lack of other travel methods, but there really wasn't any other option than for the Range Rover to crash at some point. In this case that point was a slight curve in which the driver apparently decided that he just didn't care and kept on going straight. So we drove off the road and directly into one of the enormous trees I had been admiring through the national park. We were going slow enough that it was more of a slide than a careen and nobody was hurt, but it was clear the transmission was demolished and the rover wasn't going anyway. In a road that saw maybe a half dozen cars in any twenty-four hours, it was equally obvious we were the last one for that day.

My quest to get to Lusaka had by this time reached crusade-esque proportions, so I gathered my things to set off in hopes I could reach Mpanda by sunrise walking on my own; sleep be damned. Before I left, however, one of the other passengers suggested that if I walked on my own I would be eaten by hyenas. This gave me pause. A quick analysis of the situation stacked reaching Mpanda with being devoured by a pack of snarling wild animals and the "being devoured" thing ultimately lost.

Instead I walked a short ways away to set up my tent. The driver soon walked over and casually told me that he was going to also sleep in my tent, and I told him just as casually that maybe if he hadn't charged me 5,000 shillings more than the others I could have seen that happening. That pissed him off pretty good, and he said there was no way he'd be driving me to Mpanda the next day. Despite my horrible mood, I had to laugh.

"Dude, your car is demolished. Of course you won't be driving me to Mpanda."

He cursed in Swahili and walked away, and I was able to salvage at least one small victory from a trip that was otherwise a complete disaster. Still, I fell asleep ready to punch someone, anyone, in the face. At this point I was nearing hysteria and was surprised I was actually rational enough to keep from tramping off through the forest by myself. My mood had remained sour from my Rwandan experience and had been helped little by the aimless waiting in Burundi. I was increasingly sure that my plane ticket from Lusaka to Johannesburg was going to be a complete waste of money, but even so I was determined to make it to Lusaka as soon as I could. And if and when I missed my flight, I decided that night to forge ahead until I reached the ocean. Any ocean.

I awoke only a couple hours later with a some others and jumped in the back of a truck slowly making it's way down the path to Mpanda. Of course by the time I got there it was too late to go any further for the day so I settled down and drank Serengeti beer for the the next seven odd hours in an attempt to drown my slowly building rage. Surprisingly, it worked, however temporarily.

In the morning it was yet another chicken bus to the city of Sumbaranga, less than one hundred kilometers from the Zambian border. Any sense of victory I felt at finally reaching Sumbaranga however was squashed after being told that all transport for the day to the border had stopped.

No, I decided. That's just wrong. Despite all my delays, if I made it to the border and even partway into Zambia during the night I could still make it to Lusaka by my deadline of noon the next day and catch my flight. So I laid down 50 US dollars for a guy on a motorcycle to drive me there as long as he took me "right now" so I could get to the border before it closed. He agreed and told me he just needed to get a jacket, and then proceeded to leave for an incredible hour and a half while I sat on the sidewalk and silently stewed. It took two more hours to get to the border and when we arrived the Tanzanian immigration official had left for the night. I had to wait a half hour for him to show up and stamp my visa, but then he told me the news that was ultimately fatal for any plans I had to make my flight the next day - the Zambian border was 20 kilometers away and there was no way for me to reach it.

Unbelievable.

After all that traveling, all that misery, there was nothing. I was gong to miss my flight, my South African trek, and now I had to travel nearly a quarter of the continent through countries I had absolutely no interest in. To say I was angry is an understatement. I hadn't showered or gotten an ounce of REM sleep in days and may as well had tossed hundreds of dollars into the garbage disposal for all the good my money over the last few days had done me. My flight was nixed, I was going to miss a trek in South Africa that had been on my itinerary for more than a year.

I slumped into the village guest house (cost: seventy five cents) and tossed my bags in my room. All I had eaten the last two days was a little bread and some oranges, so I wandered around until I found can loosely be called a restaurant and ordered three sets of "meat and rice", figuring that I might as well go to bed on a full stomach.

When I awoke in the morning I was still bitter, but upon crossing the border and being told I had missed the only transport of the day into the Zambian border city of Mbala, at least I wasn't worried. I didn't have an itinerary to keep, so who really cared anymore?

As Africa luck would have it, this was the one time that the Transportation Gods actually worked in my favor at the first time I didn't even need them to. The truck to Mbala, stacked high with giant bags of corn from the nearby farmers and even higher with some of the farmers themselves, came into view just as I was turning back to go into Tanzania. I jumped on that and after a brief forty minute ride jumped off in Mbala, finally entering southern Africa after nearly five months of traveling.

You have to understand that finally getting to southern Africa was a big milestone. For one thing, it meant for the last time leaving the Nile Basin and, more in my own mind, finally leaving the Great Rift Valley which I had inadvertently been following virtually my entire trip. Through desert and tropics, mountains and lowlands, the Rift Valley had shaped the previous months of my life. Leaving it, I entered the rolling plains of southern Africa. ("These hills are grass-covered and rolling," Alan Patton writes in Cry, The Beloved Country. "And they are lovely beyond any singing of it")

Southern Africa was familiar and welcome terrain that represented not only geographical changes but a number of changes in my actual living style as well. It meant no longer having to sit next to hostile looking men holding second-hand Kalashnikovs on the local minibus. Meat that wasn't slaughtered minutes before and a couple feet away with a knife that probably had never been sterilized. Linguini and parmesan cheese in the supermarkets. Good roads with few potholes. And it meant riding in buses which had air conditioning and honest-to-God padding on the seats. Everyone one of these things was a minor miracle and, though I had to remain stoic for the benefit of the other passengers in the back of the truck, I was jumping wildly up and down on the inside when I finally down in Mbala.

Climbing down, I was told that the bus to Lusaka was leaving in only an hour. Because the road was actually paved (whoa!), the twelve hour ride flew by and upon reaching Lusaka I joined up with a South African I traveling south. What had been my final destination of Lusaka was now just another stop-over so I decided to forge ahead to South Africa right away. At this point I was in a stage of travel numbness. I didn't care about seeing any sites or taking any more time in Africa's interior. Even if it meant busing through the last quarter of Africa over the next couple days I absolutely had to reach the South African coast or I was going to implode. From Zambia my Shangri-La had now turned into South Africa and was the be-all end-all. Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Durban were all possibilities, so long as I was at the ocean and in South Africa. That signified that I could relax and enjoy the country that I loved so much three years ago.

I had been thinking of spending some time in Zimbabwe, as this is where I traveled on my Spring Break when I studied in Port Elizabeth. It had been a terrific time. Victoria Falls in particular was unforgettable; discovered by Livingstone as he was attempting to find a navigable waterway to the interior, I'd say the discover of Victoria Falls has to be deemed one of the biggest buzz kills in the history of exploration. A glorious sight, but also a fairly large hint from God that Livingstone wasn't going to have much success in his primary goal. Three years ago though, in addition to the extraordinary view of the Falls, I was treated to the unforgettable experience of running wildly away from an elephant that chased me down the banks of the Zambezi River one day as I was exploring up-river. Best. Travel Story. Ever.

But since then Zimbabwe has careened even further out of control. When I was first there, inflation had been at 1,000 percent - pretty ridiculous, but a far cry from the two hundred billion percent (I'm not exaggerating - it really was that high) that Zimbabwe reached a few months ago before they finally scrubbed their currency altogether. Zimbabwe, once a jewel in southern Africa, is now the resident nutjob and still headed by the last African strongman still in power, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe's erratic and paranoid behaviour towards all countries including his own since he seized power from the racist regime of Ian Smith in 1980 has slowly sent Zimbabwe from a gradually tailspin to a complete nose-dive into the ground over the last three decades. The recent cholera outbreak that has infected a hundred thousand Zimbabweans only highlights the complete breakdown of the country's healthcare system, which in reality has affected far more HIV/AIDS patients than cholera patients.

Civil servants in the country make virtually no money, so tourists are prime picking to get a few extra dollars. I had been hearing horror stories from an uncomfortable number of other travelers who had given Zimbabwe a go and but were caught up in countless roadblocks and would be let through only after a bribe, having to pay hundreds of dollars for visas and/or exit stamps, and, in one case, being tossed in the clink after failing to come up with enough cash to bribe his way out of a minor alcohol offense. Definitely not a place I wanted to spend time much time alone in after all of my trouble up north. I still had to travel through Zimbabwe in order to get to South Africa, but I correctly guessed it would be far easier to travel with an established bus company and go straight through than anything else.

It's funny, really, because it was infinitely easier than I would have thought. We entered Zimbabwe territory as the sun was setting and exited as the sun was rising the next day and I experienced no problems at the borders. Except for the border stations I didn't see Zimbabwe in the light, and with the exception of more potholes than I remember I have no other observations about the country in its present form.

Finally as the sun was rising, appropriately, I crossed the border into South Africa.