Arriving in a strange place for the first time is a bit daunting especially as mine was the only pink face in a sea of black. My colleague and travelling-companion-to-be Mselenge had been left behind in Nairobi after our failure to rendezvous on his early morning arrival from Sierra Leone. I had been persuaded to leave his tickets at the closing check-in desk and pass through security lest I miss the African Express flight too.
So here I am alone in Berbera, on the Gulf of Aden, in the small terminal building with my fellow passengers, mostly Somali nationals. I prepared my passport, visa, letter of authority and $20 fee and joined the mass of humanity at a semi-lunar window where shouting, form-waving, money-brandishing and pushing was going on both sides of the glass. Inside the little kiosk big officials were doing it as much as the crowd on my side. At first I was caught up in the psychological pressure of not wanting to be the last one through. I was at the front pushed by those behind, someone took my passport and forms and I handed over the $23 demanded by the cashier who had a huge suitcase of notes which served as his till. I decided not to question the extra amount required to oil the wheels of officialdom, and then struggled for ages to extract a receipt. When it eventually came I realised that the extra $3 was legitimate too. I tried through the darkened glass to keep an eye on my personal documents as they were waved and passed from hand to hand as I thought my fate rested in the hands of the one with whom they finally stopped. It was like watching the conjuror to see under which coloured cup the coin would finally be found knowing that, not matter how keen the eye, it would be deceived by the swiftness of the hand.
Eventually one official pushed his away between the kiosks without my documents and demanded $70. But I have paid $23 already and still have no receipt for that! No way am I paying $70, you shark! I was up against the buffers and the song I had been listening to on the iPod drifted through my head, “You are faithful” and I smiled to myself and relaxed, resolved to wait if need be until everyone had gone through rather than handover another wad of dollars. At that moment another face resolved itself from the general background and pushing in my direction, he held my papers and escorted me through the customs hall out into the dazzling sunshine of the car park, introducing his name as we went. He seemed to be my driver although I was unsure since he said so little else, and I saw no luggage. “Do you have my luggage?” I ask, as he beckons me into the back of a 4×4 with darkened windows. Comes the reply, “You have luggage…?”
Returning together to the baggage hall we identified the heavy cardboard box of training items from Liverpool and my suitcase. A big porter shouldered the box, took the case in his fist and in no time we were back in the car park after a cursory inspection by customs. I fished in my pocket for a dollar bill but found that $5 was the smallest denomination to hand. Mindful of an address I heard during a recent visit to Audacious church in Manchester I decided the porter was worth a generous tip, and $5 to him was a poke in the eye for the $70 official. The first shall be last and the last first.
I was in the back of the vehicle again, an armed guard climbed in beside the driver and we swept out of the airport precincts through the police checkpoint and down the desert highway to Hargeisa 150km away. We had gone less than a mile when an approaching pickup flashed his lights and indicated that we should pull over. This is it, the driver has picked out the only white face at the airport, the guard is a rebel, here come their friends and I’ve been abducted! Fortunately not. Across the road came another young guy who climbed into the back beside me. It transpires that the $70 official has retained Mselenge’s visa letter rather than mine and we return to the airport to sort it out.
Then came the question, did I want to eat? “They have many fish. Do you like fish?” Mmm… what would be the diplomatic answer? “Fish is good,” I reply and feel among friends in familiar surroundings. Within half an hour we were in the small port of Berbera where the walls are decorated with pictures of fish and signs in English exclusively about fishing and fish. Of course, this once was British Somaliland sandwiched between French Somaliland on the north, now Djibouti, and Italian Somaliland on the south, now Somalia where I imagine the signs are exclusively about piracy and pirates. In the small port are some trading dhows and a rusty old hulk, relic of the 1977 war with Ethiopia. We are soon eating rice and fish and I’m delighted to say the Somalis have not heard of Cambodian cuisine. The fish of Madeira and the rice of Cambodia would make a wonderful combination but here we are midway between the two and the result is quite acceptable for someone who hasn’t had a square meal in a handful of days. I’ll spare you the reason behind that…
The rest of the journey was a blur partly because of the 120kph of our progress towards Hargeisa, partly because of the pleasant effects of the meal, the relaxing effect of being among friends and the lack of sleep the night before. I made notes on my mobile phone as the notepad would insist on bouncing in the opposite direction from the pen …
Hot goats shade beneath stationary colourful trucks at midday. Falling houses, rubble, dry wadis, solitary camel. Boy stands at the roadside waving an empty plastic bottle and the guard throws out a bottle of water as we slow down to pass by. Sand, rocks, grey thorn scrub, barren hills, rarely people. Bumpy tarmac descending to wadi level and up again at frequent intervals. A dozen houses, high stick fences, white goats and camels wander on road. Low buildings, round huts, patchwork quilt domed hut roofs secured to the ground with wide mesh cord net. Wooden doors; huts otherwise hidden like the women under hijab. One wadi has water pools and the thorns are tall and lush green. Thereafter there is more greenery, more white goats with black heads and many camels, habitation with herders’ huts dotted in the middle distance and traders houses hugging the roadside at intervals, and termite mounds.
Fatuma calls on the mobile to see if I’m OK as Joe in Liverpool is concerned that I am alone after losing Mselenge. No fear. I’m doing fine. With driver, courier, armed guard and fish. What more could I want?