Posted in Climate on May 2, 2011 by Home Strange Home

A full rainbow arc across the sky after one afternoon storm.

Last night I experienced the most extraordinary storm of my life. I was woken up close to midnight (having gone to bed quite early) by all sorts of noise – glass breaking, wind blowing, and rain pounding.

I groggily got out of bed and, upon placing my bare feet on the floor, confusedly stepped into a puddle. I walked across the room to shut my window and realized that the curtain was completely soaked. The rain had blown horizontally into my room and the floor was covered in water.

The storm was absolutely raging outside, like nothing I have ever seen before. The electricity in the house had gone out, but my room remained fully illuminated by the lightning. Not a flash of lightning, but a continuous flashing of lightning so frequent that you couldn’t distinguish individual bolts. I didn’t know such lightning was even possible.

I walked out of my room and found my house mates closing all the windows; rain had poured in onto the floor and cushions, and the wind had blown our dishes off the drying shelf in the kitchen, breaking a glass. I opened the back door to have a peek outside, and the instant it was open a howling force of wind and water was blasting at me. I quickly shut it and crawled back into bed.

I lay in bed, watching the strobe-lightning through the (now closed) window and revelling in the glorious monstrosity of the storm. Having grown up on the East Coast of the United States, I am no stranger to storms, and I have childhood memories of Hurricane Gloria, which took down a large old tree in our backyard. But before last night I had never heard a storm with so much energy and force, or seen such spectacular lightning. It was chilling and beautiful.

While this most recent rain was excessively strong, making some Somalis say it was “too much,” the usual reaction here to the rain is joyous– smiles, shouts of glee, and exclamations of “Allahu akbar!”  The rainy season has come late this year, and as a result the country has experienced drought. The arrival of the rain has been sorely needed.

When I lived in England, I used to complain about the regular rain, but here rain is anything but regular, and so its appearance is a reason for excitement and celebration. And, after the storm clears, the gift of rain is iced with the most spectacular of rainbows arched across the sky.


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!


Posted in Animals / Fauna on April 29, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Come pet me.

The other night we were all chilling out in the living room, enjoying the comfort of being indoors while a glorious storm gathered outside (the rainy season has finally arrived!). My housemate was sitting on one of the long  cushions on the floor (a typical piece of “furniture” in a Somali household).

Apparently she felt something on her skirt, looked down, and saw a scorpion crawling over her. At the moment she jumped up and proclaimed this, I was personally very happy to have been located on the sofa, with my feet well away from the floor. I stayed firmly put on the sofa while our other house mate quickly went to get a bowl to trap to scorpion.

Once the scorpion was safefly trapped under the bowl, we all gathered around and debated what was the best way to kill it. The final solution was: one guy gets his shoe ready, and another guy lifts up the bowl at the count of three. It worked, and the guys smashed the scorpion to bits.

I had never seen a scorpion before in my life.  It was not very big, about a couple inches long, and sand-coloured. We were very surprised to see one in our house, because Somali people had told us scorpions didn’t live in the city, but out in the bush / desert.  We suspected that the scorpion took refuge in the house because of the rains.

In any case, I don’t plan to walk around barefoot in the house anymore!


Posted in Food / drink on April 28, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Juicy goodness.

My childhood is laced with memories of eating watermelon in the summertime… at barbecues, at the beach, at picnics, in the backyard. So it always puts a smile on my face when I eat watermelons here in Somaliland, called xabxab in Somali.

We are entering watermelon season, so you see more and more roadside and street-side stalls with towering piles of massive watermelons. You can buy a whole watermelon for about $3 or $4, or you can buy a slice of watermelon that the seller has chopped up for customers to eat on the spot.

Like most fruits and vegetables, the watermelons aren’t grown locally but are imported from more fertile Ethiopia. They are tremendously juicy– eating a few pieces is like drinking a glass of water! And they are way pinker and tastier than any of the bland, white-ish watermelons you’d buy in a supermarket back home.

Livestock market

Posted in Animals / Fauna, Shopping on April 27, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Owners marking their camels.

Hargeisa doesn’t have much in the way of sights, but one that is definitely worth seeing is the livestock market. Located about a 20 minute walk from the main drag, it takes place daily in the morning, and it is best to go early to see the most animals and activity.

As I have mentioned before, the livestock trade is the backbone of the Somaliland economy. Most of the livestock are sent to the port of Berbera, where they are exported to the Middle East. At the Hargeisa livestock market, animals are traded for both domestic use and export.

The market is a large open dirt plot, with a handful of shelters.  Essentially, it is just a gathering of animals and people under the hot beating sun. There are a couple crowds of docile camels that just stand there with their camel perma-smiles and occasionally get herded around by their owner.

The owner of the camels welcomed us to have our photo taken with his animals. In doing so, we soon attracted a crowd of curious Somali observers, so that we were soon squeezed in between a crowd of camels on one side and a crowd of people on the other side.

Also for sale are goats, sheep, and a handful of cows. Although there is lots of open space in the market, the owners keep their herds together in a dense little pack, so you will come across a cluster of twenty goats huddled closely together as if they were packed into a small room.

The price of the camel depends on the sex of the camel, its age, its size, and its state of health; an average adult male camel will cost $800. Goats cost between $50 and $100 dollars. We left without buying anything!

Like a goat night club.

Like a goat night club.

A crowd of camels - for sale!

Fresh juice

Posted in Food / drink on April 26, 2011 by Home Strange Home

Guava juice, freshly pressed.

If you are big juice fan, you are in for a treat in Hargeisa. All over town there are places selling juice, from the small corner shop to the nice hotel. And we are not talking about boxed juice from concentrate here – it is juice that has been freshly squeezed that day. The flavours I’ve seen include orange, mango, papaya, guava, prickly pear, and the so-called “cocktail” (meaning a mix of different juices).

Just down the road from our house is a small shop with a comfortable seating area inside that sells juice, tea, drinks, sandwiches, sambosas, and other snacks. We go there often for an afternoon pick-me-up. The juice costs only 2,000 shillings ($0.33). Slurrrppp!