Berbera, Somaliland—Let’s go swimming!

     I went to police headquarters to get my magic letter allowing me to travel back to Berbera without a guard and when I had it in my hand, I asked about Gabor, the Hungarian who was plucked by the police when he tried traveling without one. The Big Cheese said that Gabor was given a letter yesterday so he could go to Djibouti, but when I asked about what had happened the last three days and whether he was arrested, he said that he wasn’t arrested but smiled, “Don’t worry, don’t worry!” It didn’t reassure me, but I didn’t press him further.

     It is hard to get a good photo of this caravan. I've never seen so many camels in my life as here in Somaliland, a big plus in my book. Who doesn't love camels? Who? WHO? I want names!

     For the trip to Berbera, Katie and I met up with the guys who got turned back at the checkpoint before, French Nicolas and two Asians, a Japanese named Takenori and a Korean named Ryu. Local people see Asians and start yelling, “Jackie Chan! Ni hao!” but they take it in stride, much better than I would.
     Ryu said he learned his perfect Japanese just by his appreciation of anime, which tipped me off that he could only be a North Korean spy, but I told him his secret was safe with me.

     We stayed at the Yaxye Hotel in Berbera, $7 single, $8 double and free wifi(!) to go with the rock-hard beds. There's ALWAYS something that prevents me from sleeping well.

     This man has his khat and is ready for the afternoon!

     Berbera was hot, much hotter than Hargeisa, maybe 40C (105F) hot. We all had ideas of staying longer on the coast, but the brutal heat quickly changed our minds.
     The real torture of the heat is to have to wear long pants. It’s a muslim country and though foreigners’ ways are given a lot of slack, it isn’t really appropriate to wear shorts. But listen to this: it is OK to wear shorts if you are playing sports or on your way to playing sports, so what if I walked around with a tennis racket all day? Genius or what? And I blog for free!
     Somaliland is a conservative Muslim country, which may seem redundant to say, but it doesn’t mean the people aren’t friendly and curious. Once a girl walked by in full veil, just her eyes showing, and greeted me in a sing-song loopy voice, “Hellllloooooo!” That doesn’t happen anywhere else.

     Grilled fish in a sauce with potatoes. 20,000 shillings, about $3.75.

     The quintessential Somaliland photo: the restaurant bill and the stack of bills needed to pay for it.

     We went for a walk around the quiet, dusty streets of Berbera. It seemed that everyone—and I mean everyone—wanted to stop us and say hello, chat, ask what country we’re from, etc. Most were very receptive to photos, too, which was a boon for Nicolas as he is taking hundreds a day. He’s a TV cameraman in Paris who’s probably not used to asking for permission, and he gets us in trouble all the time with people howling when he points his giant lens at them. The worst was on the highway when we stopped to stretch our legs. He had been taking photos and a woman came charging to the road with a big rock in her hand, very upset, until our guard had pacified her somehow. It was the only time I was happy to have a guard.

     The town is of interest, but the beach is what we were here for. We were so focused on it that we collectively lost our minds and left at the hotel our towels, sarongs, sunblock—everything useful. We were woefully unprepared, plus we walked several kilometers in the midday sun. We all knew we were going to get fried as there was no shelter anywhere, but we had such tunnel vision to be in the sea, we damned the consequences. It’s not every day one gets to swim in the Gulf of Aden, the Horn of Africa!

     Some of you who may not travel much, you may be stopping to ask yourself why I would want to travel and go to the beach with people I just met. It’s true I dont know them, but they’re travelers; I know them. I also know that it is going to be great to hang out, hear their stories and exchange information with my “brothers”.
     In Africa (and India), you meet a different kind of traveler, someone always interesting with a good story to tell. I literally mean always; I can hardly think of a traveler I’ve met who didn’t leave an impression on me. I’m amazed how young some are. I thought Africa was a continent you worked your way up to after Europe and Southeast Asia, but no.
     I find that I am regarded differently, too. In Europe I’m seen as a nearly destitute, semi-feral ragamuffin living hand to mouth, while in Africa I’m a modern day Thurston Howell III, blowing money for no good reason. How more bourgeois can it be than to take domestic flights in Ethiopia? What, you’re too good for the bus, Foster?

     Autographed 8x10 photos available upon request. All major credit cards accepted.

     We walked forever and a mile past the last local people so Katie could wear a bikini. No burqini for her. I thought the beach would be polluted and the water worse, but it was clean, the water perfect, and for atmosphere, a few camels were hanging out. Camels on the beach! I was in the water for hours, it felt like.
     The miracle of the afternoon was when Ryu lost his glasses in meter-deep water and was freaking out because he’s blind without them, but Nicolas, who hadn’t even seen it happen, dove in and found them instantly, freaking all of us out.

     Beyond this humblest of signs is one of the longest runways in the world, a backup for the American space shuttle in the 1980s.

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Berbera, Somaliland—Let’s go swimming! — 11 Comments

  1. So some other guys got turned back on their first attempt iin getting out to Berbera? I got lucky in January perhaps in that I got there for $5 in public transport on my own with locals. But I had enough hassle at the checkpoints I didn’t want to take another chance and I came back with another westerner (who had a car and escort) I ran into in Berbera.

  2. I’m considering taking my snorkel for no other reason than Berbera. I can see, though, that somewhere about Lake Nasser I may live to regret this.
    I’m relieved to see that burkinis are optional – I was envisaging a fully clothed plunge alaparsee (like alaturca, only Iranian) as an alternative to Islamically appropriate swimwear. Not that I will wear a bikini. Greenpeace will only descend and attempt to return me to my natural habitat.

  3. Hefzi, you’ll have better success if you go with a man, I reckon. A girl on her own might not shake the local boys, and good luck finding someone as masculine as me who can instill fear in the local populace!
    Actually, a German woman came to swim with us in peace, and then four guys came and sat nearby and I kindly asked them if we could be alone and eventually they left.

  4. Well, I suppose I could always threaten to sit on them… but you make a good point: it sounds, though, as if there are a variety of travellers in Somaliland, so hopefully I’ll be able to hook up with some people as you did and have some sunshine company. I guess I’ll have to avoid running down the beach screaming “Thalatta, thalatta”, though, if I’m planning on them sitting near me afterwards.

    It looks heavenly from your pictures, and I know that even after a few days, my hair will be screaming for the sunshine. Speaking of hijab and female modesty – are elbow length sleeves on a baggy man’s shirt (or even, a man’s baggy shirt) and baggy trousers enough for women to pass by modestly, or do I need to dust off a jilbab? (You are now my guru on all things Somaliland – congratulations on your appointment.) I’d rather incite no more comment than usual for a foreigner, but at the same time, in June, I’s also rather have as few layers as possible. After an unfortunate naked burka incident in Afghanistan, I’ve learned my lesson. (So have my colleagues… that’ll teach ’em!)

  5. (I might put a note on Thorn Tree: wanted – manly man for bodyguard and cash-carrying duties…)

  6. you have to cover up completely, 2 layers minimum. Don’t be afraid to write Katie, the girl who lives there and who keeps the blog I mentioned, and ask her. And tell her it is because of me that you ask–the power of the internet!

  7. You are a star – I salute you. And today I check in at your blog to discover you too are in Kenya! Happy days – I am raising a Tusker to you at present…

  8. I still have not made it to Berbera- Met with some American workers who just came back from it and they said it was baking hot- so have been putting off. Having read your review I think I will go soon and enjoy the sea! Love the pictures.

    Hefzi, I’ll be living here till Sept 2011, so if you do make it holler at me, we will take on the locals. Did I mention I speak the language and blend in quit well! 🙂

  9. Hi!
    I lived in Berbera 1959 to 1960 lots of changes since the 13yr old white kid awoke most mornings at sunrise to meet the local fishermen for sardine bait so I could fish off the new jetty.
    Loved the climate ( no air-con ) Wonderful people loved Berbera.

  10. Hello! Great review. I am in Hargeisa and my plans are to vist Berbera do you remember the name of the hotel.I have family in Hargeisa they don’t travel to berbera they all say is to hot this is my reason why i was searching.Looking for a clean hotel

  11. Ahh, you are in good old Hargeisa now? In Berbera I stayed in the Yaxye Hotel, but this was 5 years ago! It was very basic. Are you Somali? It must be exciting to be there. I miss it.

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