Archive for the Travel / Transport Category

Flying without seatbelts

Posted in Travel / Transport on May 1, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Dmytry, did you remember to flick that switch?

Last week I flew from Hargeisa to Djibouti City in Djibouti, Somaliland’s neighbour to the north, on Jubba Airways. I have flown hundreds of times in my life on dozens of different airlines, but this was by far the most bizarre flight of my life. I am glad I have absolutely no fear of flying, because I think most people would have been freaking out and/or wetting their pants by what I experienced.

Let’s start with my experience in the terminal. My flight was scheduled to leave at 2:00pm, but check in didn’t even start until 1:30pm. The process was done entirely manually, without a single computer or printer. I mean this must have been what it was like to fly in the 1970s – they have a hard copy list of all the passengers booked on the plane, and then they check your hard-copy ticket against the list. They then hand-write a boarding pass for you on a stub of paper.

I then passed through immigration and a very minimal level of security (basically an old man asked me to open my bag, and then I walked through a metal detector which I’m not convinced was even switched on). The departures area is a small room, given that Hargeisa Airport (spelled Hargeisa Airprt on the sign, by the way) handles only one flight at a time. I took out a thick book and made myself comfortable because nobody was making any move to depart soon. Indeed, the plane wasn’t even there yet.

My hand-written boarding pass. At least it's not on a post-it note.

I think the plane made an appearance on the Hargeisa tarmac around 3pm, after our scheduled arrival time of 2:45pm in Djibouti City. There are no departure screens of course, an there was no announcement or call to board. Everyone just saw the plane arrive through the window and started to get up and filter outside onto the runway. There was a man at the door checking our boarding passes, but I didn’t know at the time that he was the last airline staff I would see, save for the pilots, until I arrived in Djibouti.

First, find a seat that isn't broken. Second, forget everything you ever learned about the necessity of seatbelts.

First, find a seat that isn't broken. Second, forget everything you ever learned about the necessity of seatbelts.

Flying on Jubba the Hargeisa-Djibouti short-haul was in all respects like riding a bus – you board the bus yourself without assistance from anyone, nobody checks your ticket/boarding pass, you find your own seat, the seats don’t have seatbelts, there are no safety announcements, there isn’t a single flight attendant, and you just take off and go. And when the bus arrives (I mean, the plane lands), within minutes the door is open and the mobile stairway is positioned at the side of the plane. It’s up to the passengers to find their own way out.

When I first boarded the plane, I changed seats about three times, trying to find one with a working seatbelt. When I realized that in fact none of them worked, I gave up and settled on finding the seat that was least broken and least uncomfortable (note from the photo how the seat-backs were leaning at every which angle).

While I was making myself comfortable, other passengers behind me were helping two very elderly and immobile men into seats near the door.  Why employ air stewards when the able passengers can take care of the disabled passengers? Brilliant. Meanwhile, across the aisle, a man was taking out his bushel of khat and starting to chew (see my previous post on this mild drug). Never mind that there were “No Khat” signs throughout the airport; I saw many men sitting right underneath them and chewing.

Please ensure the overhead luggage compartment is closed.

The plane itself was ancient, and old Soviet-era Russian craft. Such planes are no longer allowed to fly anywhere else in the world because the respective aviation authorities won’t allow it. For example, when I flew on the same airline from Dubai to Berbera, the plane was a regular Boeing 747, because the United Arab Emirates Aviation Authority has certain safety standards. But, because of the relatively low aviation safety standards in Djibouti, and the absence of any effective aviation authority in the failed state of Somalia, airlines like Jubba and Daallo can use these old-school planes.

So that’s how you end up flying on an over-the-hill, unmarked plane without seat belts and an “overhead baggage compartment” that amounts to a shelf (again, it’s more like being in a train or bus than on a plane).

The crew is Russian, but by “crew” I mean two people – the pilot and the co-pilot. They shut the doors themselves before moving into the cockpit to fly the plane. Of course, given the non-existence of any air stewards, there are no safety demonstrations and you won’t hear any of the familiar refrain that frequent flyers have ringing in their ears (“Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position”). I mean, there aren’t even any tray tables to speak of. I’m not sure there was even a toilet on the plane, for that matter. What, you want a glass of water? Or a landing card? Just knock on the cockpit door and ask Ilya, I’m sure he will help you out.

The advantage of the lax security and safety controls is that you can move freely throughout the plane during the flight, and even take a stroll along the aisle during take-off if you wish. I wouldn’t recommend it though, as the take-off caused the entire plane to shake violently. The rest of the flight was smooth though, and literally within minutes of hitting the runway in Djibouti City the passengers were disembarking the plane. No need to waste time buckled-up in your seats while the plane taxis, waiting for that pesky beep to give you permission to get up. Just go for it!

Free lifts

Posted in Travel / Transport on April 30, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Need a lift?

Most foreign workers who live in Somaliland have their own cars and or a “company car” with a driver, owned by their organisation, that escorts them around town. Since I work for a local institution that doesn’t have nearly enough money for that, they arrange to take us to and from work in a shared van, but other than that I am car-less most of the time. That means I often take the local buses (see my previous post on this), and sometimes accept free rides.

In fact, not having a car isn’t much of a problem at all, as Hargeisa is a fairly easy city to get around. Also, people are very generous with offering you rides when they see you walking down the street under the hot sun. It has happened to me several times that random Somali people driving past have offered me a lift. I usually always except, unless if I am alone at night, because it is very safe here.

One time I was walking from the airport, since there is no public transport direct from the airport, and a man stopped to offer me a ride. I initially expected him just to give me a lift to the closest bus stop (which is where I was walking to), but when he asked me where I was going to and I told him my neighbourhood, he said he would take me all the way there. It was clear across town, and completely out of his way, but he insisted and dropped me off at my door!

We have also had a few Couchsurfers come through that managed to hitch-hike through Somaliland. They did it the old-fashioned way, standing on the side of the road with their thumbs out, and were able to get to Berbera and Ethiopia this way (there are, however, serious issues around travelling without a guard, and obtaining police permission to do so). But the point is, you can get far around here with your own two feet and thumb!

Djibouti Detour

Posted in Travel / Transport on April 23, 2011 by Home Strange Home

To my posse of loyal readers who check back regularly for my daily posts, I just wanted to give you a heads up that I’ve gone to Djibouti (Somaliland’s neighbour to the north) for a few days. So sit tight, I’ll be back with more Somali goodness!

Police permission

Posted in Travel / Transport on April 18, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Somaliland's answer to a Freedom Pass.

In an earlier post, I talked about the difficulty of independent travel in Somaliland and the requirement to have an armed guard when moving outside the capital city. In that post I wrote that “The Somaliland government requires all foreigners to take so-called Special Protection Units (SPUs) when travelling outside the capital and/or to otherwise get permission from the local police station.”

Personally, on the several occasions I have travelled outside of Hargeisa, I have always been accompanied by an armed guard. But since I made that post, several people I know have now managed to travel without an armed guard, so I thought I would write more about the “otherwise getting permission from the police station.”

So here is how it works. You go to Police Headquarters in Hargeisa (located near the University of Hargeisa and the Imperial Hotel) and you request permission to travel to Berbera, Burao, or wherever it is you wish to go. The letter has to be signed by the head Police Commissioner, who is based in Hargeisa, so you can only get this letter in the capital, and specifically from the Police Headquarters (not just any police station). The letter (written in Somali) will state your name and the place to which you wish to travel.

If you then hop on a shared taxi to Berbera, when the taxi stops at the check points and they see a white person inside the car but no askari (guard), you whip out your official-looking letter, signed by the big cheese, and they let you through. Voila!


Posted in Travel / Transport on April 11, 2011 by Home Strange Home

The beach in Berbera is populated by camels, not people.

Over the weekend, I visited Berbera for the first time. It’s not a particularly large city; it’s only the fourth city in Somaliland, after Hargeisa (the capital), Burco, and Borama. But it’s the closest it gets to a holiday destination Somaliland, and is therefore a popular weekend destination for people who live and work in Hargeisa. I actually went with several backpackers (yes, backpackers – they are few and far between in Somaliland, but they do appear occasionally). Berbera is probably the only place firmly on the “tourist trail” in Somaliland (to use that term liberally).

But once you get there, you see why it is talked about so much. Berbera is a port city, on the Gulf of Aden, and it has its own distinct feel which is very different from Hargeisa. Most of the city centre is in a state of advanced decay.  It has a spectacularly dilapidated, crumbling aura that conjures up the feeling of an abandoned city lost in time.

The streets in the “old town” (if it can be called that) are lined with trees (a rare sight in Hargeisa) and are mostly pedestrian, with cars replaced by frolicking children. This gives the neighborhood a wonderfully lazy feel, characterized by a perpetual late afternoon lethargy.  The only movement is the slow gait of a woman meandering down the street, and the only sound is the cawing of the many crows on the power lines overhead.

But the real highlight of Berbera is the beach. In hot and dusty inland Hargeisa, we are far from any body of water (and in such a drought-prone country, pools of course don’t exist). The beach in Berbera is completely natural and entirely undeveloped. The closest thing to commercialization is a seaside hotel, set a fair distance back from the coast line. The beach itself remains untouched.

There were a sprinkling of local people hanging out on the beach, but we only had to walk 15 minutes to reach a completely desolate strip of sand, populated only by camels. I can’t tell you how good it felt to rip off my shawl, headscarf, and direh dress and plunge into the warm water in my bikini. I think I screamed with joy.


Road rules (or not)

Posted in Travel / Transport on April 9, 2011 by Home Strange Home

A car filled with 8 children...

Yesterday morning, I was walking with a friend in our neighbourhood to go grab some breakfast. A car drives past on one of the quiet side streets, and a chorus of screaming and giggling children inside ecstatically greet us. Nothing abnormal here so far; we replied to the standard “How are you!” greeting with “Fine.”

We walk a bit further down the street, and notice that the car has done a U-turn and is driving back toward us. As it passes, the children lean out the windows in excitement to greet us again. It’s only that we notice something odd – there is no adult in the car. Behind the wheel is what looks like a 10 year-old boy. And he’s driving around 7 other children. As you do.

After speaking briefly with the children, we asked to take their photo. They posed for the photo, and then the boy did a three-point turn and drove off in the other direction. Welcome to Somaliland.

...including the driver!

The flashy bus to town

Posted in Travel / Transport on March 20, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Rear-view mirror with BLING.

Despite the dearth of paved roads and traffic lights, Hargeisa does actually manage to have a city transport system (whether this is organised by the minimalist government or private entrepreneurs, I have no idea, but it’s there).

There are several buses that run through town and, as the city is quite spread out, I need to make frequent use of them whenever I go down town. Of course, there aren’t really any formalised bus stops, or any ticket booths, or any bus numbers (or at least, any numbering system that makes sense) – let’s not get carried away here.

Basically the way it works is that you just know (well, at least the locals just know – hopefully someone tells you) which routes the buses ply and, as you see one go past, you wave it down. If it has seats left, it will stop, and you take a seat.

At some arbitrary point during the ride, the “ticket agent” (that term is somewhat glorified, really it’s just a youngish guy who hangs off the doorway) will snap his fingers, indicating to the passengers that he wishes to collect their fares. Starting from the back of the bus, the passengers then gather their bus fares (1,500 shillings or $0.30) together, accumulating the notes in an ever-thickening pile as it moves toward the front of the bus, before passing it to the money collector who stands there and flips through the notes to count them (all the while casually half-hanging out the door of the moving bus).

If you want to get off the bus, you just yell out to the driver to stop, and this can be at any point along the route (even if someone else just got off the bus 100 metres beforehand). The whole thing ends up being a bit like musical chairs, because in addition to the seats down either side of the aisle, there are also fold-down seats in the aisle. Once the regular seats have filled up, people start putting down the seats down the middle, thereby blocking the aisle and the exit route of the passengers behind them. So, if someone in the back decides to get off the bus, everyone in the aisle seats has to get up and shift around to let them past.

It’s all quite an adventure. And if the set up wasn’t comic enough as it is, on top of it all, the buses are often decorated in an ostentatious fashion – think plastic chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, tassels galore, superfluous curtains, excessive trims on the rear-view mirrors, and painted wind shields.

Cool kids ride at the back of the bus.

A typical gaudily decorated bus.