Thursday, November 1, 2012: Fly Addis Ababa to Berbera, Somaliland and drive to HargeisaHaving completed tours of North Sudan, Madagascar and the African Indian Ocean Island Nations I was ready to finish my 2012 trip to Africa by visiting the small Horn of Africa countries. The Advantage Travel and Tours group had been reduced to just myself, Lynn, Neal, Laurie, Terry and Linda. Cathy Prada had asked me to be the leader of the group and keep her informed of our travel.
We had an early morning transfer to the airport for our 08:30 flight to Berbera, Somaliland the first country on our Horn of Africa tour. The hotel provided a room service breakfast at 05:30 before our 06:15 departure. Befekadu, our Ethiopian Tour Agent, was in the lobby when I checked out and helped us load the bus. Ethiopian Airways considers flights to neighboring countries as domestic so we checked-in at the Domestic Terminal. Tour Agents were not allowed in the terminal so I was sort of the lead to check our small group in.We had a little confusion at check-in since we did not have visas for Somaliland, but we did have an entry permit letter with all our names listed. Since we had our reservations in their system the agent first was going to check us in as a group but after I collected all the group’s passports she changed her mind. She did check in all the “checked” bags at once and stuck all the baggage tags on one ticket which created a problem at Berbera.
Eventually we all received our boarding passes with our United Mileage Plus numbers correctly printed and processed easily through Immigration and Security. I had planned on checking my email in the Ethiopian Lounge but discovered after I had passed through a second Security that it was back in the other hall. Since the day before Ethiopian Airways had actually departed ahead of schedule I decided to wait with the group at the gate.As we waited at the gate we discovered that the same gate was used for all their Dash-8 departures to neighboring countries which used busses to the aircraft. The announcements were not clear and one group of tourists missed their flight. An American in business attire sat next to me. He was from Mississippi and was on his way to Djibouti City on business.
I was sitting close to the door and when our flight was called I was one of the first to board the bus which meant I was one of the last off at the plane. At the bus an agent took the main portion of the boarding pass and gave me just the small end. When Linda got on the bus she was very agitated because the part the agent took was the only place where the Frequent Flyer number was printed and she would have no proof if they didn’t give her miles credit for the flight. I told her that since the correct number was printed on the boarding pass it was in her flight record and if she didn’t get credit the stub she had was proof she flew the flight. She snapped back that she had been down that road before and since United switched to the Continental numbering system her records have been fouled up and she coudn’t even get them to send her a card. I asked her if she had tried to get one at Dulles airport she replied that they no longer had a Service Desk there. Anyway she was very angry with me for trying to tell her that she would get credit for the flight. (It is 431miles)The Bombardier Dash-8 does not have very high overhead bins although they are deep. Many of the passengers had trouble attempting to jam their carry-on luggage in the bins but we still were able start engines on time. I had a row of seats to myself for the little less than an hour and one half flight.
Berbera is not the normal point of arrival in Somaliland but was used due to upgrades to the main international airport at Hargeisa. The Berbera airport was built by the Soviet Union in the mid 1970's and is one of the longest in Africa at 13,582 ft. It was later certified as an emergency landing site for the U.S. space shuttle from 1970 to 1991.We had to take busses from the aircraft to the Arrival Terminal. They used tour busses and jammed people in with their carry-on bags - it was chaotic. I managed to get a single seat by the door and balanced my carry-on on top of the rail by the door.
Once inside the chaos continued since this is not a normal International arrival airport. There were three cages manned by an agent and no signs to indicate which cage should be used if one did not have a visa. I lined up on the right side Terry in the middle and Linda on the left. Linda’s line was moving fast so Terry switched and a portly woman with an ID hanging around her neck moved Terry, Linda and the rest of our group to the right side line. A couple ahead of me was in a big argument with the agent and the line was not moving but the lady wouldn’t let us switch. Eventually I got to the Agent and he took my passport and Entry Authorization Letter, he continued to argue with the wife of the first couple. Sort of multi-tasking he handed me a form to complete while he continued arguing. I attempted to get five other forms for the rest of the group to fill-in but he would not give them to me. He handed the lady he was arguing with her passport and started to process mine. He stamped a page and asked me for my pen so he could initial the stamp. He never returned the pen but did hand me my passport and motioned me to leave. Behind his cage were two white cages. Only one was manned and there were no signs over the cages. Along the wall were a money exchange counter and the toilet doors.I headed to baggage pick-up but was stopped at the door and asked for my receipt. I showed him my visa stamp but he wanted something else. Finally a gentleman explained to me that I had to pay for the visa at the unmanned white cage and would get a receipt which would then allow me to enter the baggage pick-up area. When I looked puzzled at standing in front of an empty cage someone else informed me the agent was in the toilet.
When he returned he asked for $34 and wrote a multi copy receipt, affixed two stamps and handed me the top copy which I then showed the guard at the door and was able to exit. In the baggage arrival area there was no belt, just bags on the floor. Three of our bags with the Advantage Travel & Tour tags were grouped together and a gentleman was standing guard. As I approached he identified himself as Ali from the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa. I introduced myself and counted the bags – one was missing. I spotted it in another group and found that it had a United Airlines tag. I recognized the pattern and realized it was Terry’s. He soon arrived and I asked what happened to his Advantage Travel & Tours tag. He told me he didn’t want to have a tag that identified his bag as belonging to an American. I questioned the thinking since a United Airlines tag would indicate an American. He then mentioned that it didn’t have a specific address on it like the Advantage Travel & Tours tag. Anyway I told him it caused the Guide some confusion when he was gathering the bags.We had been told that there was a mandatory exchange of US$50 to local currency at the "official rate" but no one mentioned it to us I asked our guide if people accepted US$ and he said yes and that we didn’t need to exchange any money if we didn’t want to. Only Terry and Linda elected to change money and had to go back in by the visa payment cage to the Money Exchange counter.
The rest of us started out the door to load our bags on the tour bus. I was stopped at the door and asked for by baggage tag which it turned out didn’t match so I had to go back to the Money Exchange counter and get the tags from Terry.Eventually I was allowed to exit and discovered that instead of one tour bus we had two Toyota SUV Land Cruisers with just one back seat. We split, Lynn, Terry and Linda got in the SUV with Ali with their bags while Neal, Laurie and I and our bags got in the other SUV with a driver named Mohammad and an armed guard who sat in the front passenger seat.
Laurie sat in the middle and initially I tried to sit on her left but my left leg immediately started to ache and we stopped and I switched the right side and was able to stretch the leg up between the driver and passenger seats.We had landed at 10:10 and it took us until 11:30 to start the drive to Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway democratic republic of Somaliland. Somaliland is not recognized by the countries of the world. They still are considered part of Somalia. It was formerly British Somalia, and is struggling for its identity. In 1960, the British "unified" Italian and British Somalia into one country, called Somalia. After a devastating civil war which broke out in 1988 with as many as 20,000 Somalilanders killed, the western part of Somalia (former British Somalia) declared its independence in 1991. It is not very prosperous, but the pride and independence of its people give it a unique character. Most Somalis speak their own dialect although some English, Swahili and Arabic was spoken.
We rode through Palm Springs like desert country passing by occasional camels and goats wandering around sometimes with a lone Sheperd. The road was paved but had some potholes and speed bumps where there were a group of shacks. Many were very colorful dome structures with different colored cloth, cardboard and flattened cans over bent poles. They looked like sort of makeshift yurts or gers. The terrain was littered with trash and plastic bags caught in the bushes, cactus and small trees. There were a number of large trucks with very colorful decorations on their front windshield, grill and side view mirrors. Many were hauling water. We also saw donkeys pulling carts in some of the villages.About one hour out we stopped at a monument with the inscription “1939-1945 Cumar Axmed Amaan (Cumar Ku Joog)”. As I understand the meaning of the monument is it is the spot that Omer Guguok, a local died defending the British garrison against invading Italians during WW II. He was awarded the British Victoria Cross (equivalent to the US Medal of Honor) for his action
Another hour out we left the paved road and headed over the rocky desert toward a ridge of rocks. We bounced along for about ten minutes when we stopped to pick up an armed guard. He sat between our guard and Mohammad which meant that I had to bend my left leg and fortunately he rode with us for only about five minutes when we reached a small building that is the welcome center for the ancient rock paintings of Las Geel (some archeologists date the exceptionally well preserved art back to 5,000 BC or before).We entered the building to a large single room with panel displays on the wall describing the Site of Las Geel. It was only discovered in 2002 and is described as an archaeological site with exquisite rock paintings. It is perhaps the most significant Neolithic art in the whole of Africa. The panels described the archaeological team, the studies they have undertaken at the site, their interpretation of the various pictures.
We then walked up a set of concrete stairs to the first large cave. The caves are not very deep nor very high. (Approximately 15 feet deep and 8 to 10 feet high) They would only shelter from the sun and some rain but the figures of animals and men were very vivid, painted in mostly red and black. It is amazing that they have survived for so many centuries. This first cave had a stone throne that could seat two people. After taking a lot of pictures we moved to additional caves, mostly smaller and some with challenging access. At one point we stopped to see a herd of baboons run across the valley floor below us near the Las Geel building. Between a group of caves we came upon a vista point with great views of the surrounding desert.Our path down started out as a challenge over and between rocks which at one point I encountered a rock snake that quickly slithered into a crack between boulders. The route soon turned into a gentle downhill path back to the building.
The second guard rode with us back to a point close to the main road and my leg really hurt until I could stretch it out after we dropped him off. We were close to the outskirts of the city of Hargeisa and soon we were driving by large concrete and pretty colorful rock faced buildings. But the road turned to dirt and the trash buildup worse. We traveled past the market and mosques and then onto a paved highway south of the city and up a hill to the compound of the Ambassador Hotel Hargeisa.Our vehicles had to have the undercarriage viewed via a mirror before they were allowed into the compound. Near the stairs to the reception desks we had our luggage opened and inspected. We were “wanded” and the ladies in a small room off to the side had their bags inspected and were also “wanded”.
Inside the hotel we were met by the friendless group of men that I have encountered when checking into a hotel. We had to give the Manager an envelope from Advantage Travel containing the hotel and tour fee in US$ since there is no banking between Somaliland and the US. Lynn and I each were assigned a room. It was not large but adequate. There was only one electrical outlet next to the bed and that was for the lamp so I had to jerry-rig adapters to have the lamp plug into my power strip.Internet was free for devices. They had a unique arrangement. I had to bring my devices (smartphone and laptop) to the front desk where they would connect to their router and when the reception clerk could “discover” the MAC address of each device he would assign it a user name and password.
Dinner was in a restaurant within the compound. We could either eat outside under a tent or in a small round building. There was a slight breeze so we elected to eat in the building. I ordered “Grilled Boneless Goat” and a Tuna Salad. They served a free “Meat Soup” with each meal (It was more like a vegetable soup) which was very tasty. The goat was sliced thin and well done but very good and I could cut it with a fork so it was more tender than I have had in the past.After dinner I washed my clothes and used the internet.
Friday, November 2, 2012: Tour HargeisaBreakfast in the hotel started at 06:00 but I didn’t go down until 07:00 and was the first from the group to eat. The others soon arrived. They had eggs cooked to order, cereal, French toast and pancakes. No yogurt.
Shortly after 08:00 we climbed in our SUVs to go on a city tour. There were no guards so I sat in the front and was able to stretch my leg out so it didn’t ache.Our first site to visit was the University of Hargeisa. We entered the main gate and saw posted on the bulletin board student test scores. I was interested in the subjects they offered. They listed schools of: Medicine, Engineering, Information Computer Technology, Business Administration, Economics, Law, Science & Technology, Education, Islamic Studies and Math & Statistics. We saw one large lecture hall but not much else since it was Friday and classes were not in session.
The second site was the Camel Market. There we had a lot of fun since we were more of interest to the attendees than the animals. The animals were in groups with identification marks painted on their backs. Ali told us a camel sells for around US$500. There were groups of goats in addition to the camels. Linda’s blond hair drew a big crowd.From the Camel Market we rode out of the city on the road we had come in on the day before and turned off towards Laasahablood (translated into the breast of a woman), two pyramid shaped mountains north of the city. The road was rough and at one point we had a great view of the two mountains so we stopped to take pictures. During the stop Ali and Mohammad talked and when we got back in the SUVs they turned around. Ali told the people in his SUV that the road ahead was closed.
Coming down from the mountain we rode back toward the city and turned off to the east down a dirt road to the Zoo. We entered the zoo they told us the fee was US$2.00 and we gave Ali our money but then they told us that if we wanted to take pictures it would cost an additional US$5.00. We balked at that and got our US$2.00 back and boarded the SUVs. Ali then came out and told us they would let us in and we could take pictures for US$2.00. We paid the fee and walked down a path to two large pens. In each pen were two lions looking very sad. We were appalled at the sight. A cage on the side held two vultures and another cage a hissing small bobcat like cat. We left in a hurry, unhappy at the conditions the animals were being kept in.Back in the SUVs we rode to the city and stopped near the market. Near where we parked was the Money Changers. A row of men or women sitting with stacks of paper money bound in the size of a brick stacked five bricks high. I found it unbelievable that they don’t publish larger bills or reevaluate the currency to a manageable size. We crossed the street and entered the market, a maze of alleys where everything under the sun was sold. The people were very reluctant to allow us to take pictures. The few times that I got an OK and took a picture there was someone telling me to stop. One woman begged to have me take her picture and show her the results and as she posed people were telling her not to have her picture taken but she told me it was OK.
Outside the market we gathered on a corner where a man wearing red sneakers who told us he was from Sweden asked us to take his picture. As we were taking his picture a man ran from across the street yelling “No pictures” but the Swede told us to go ahead. Ali talked to the negative man and defused the situation.The last stop on our tour was the main attraction in the city: the MIG monument. It stands on a pedestal with the 26 May 1988 inscribed on the base. It is a reminder of when the dictator Siad Barre lost control of the province and ordered the air force to bomb Hargeisa. The bombing and subsequent raids of government troops claimed tens of thousands of casualties. The war memorial in the form of a MiG-17 fighter jet was erected to mark the event. As I walked around the monument a man came up and told me he lost his father, brother and son to Barre’s bombing of the city.
We returned to the hotel and had lunch. I spent the afternoon writing in my journal. At 19:00 we met for dinner where I had a Grilled Camel Steak. Lynn had a Grilled Fillet of Steak and the two looked the same and since they were most likely cooked on the same grill they probably tasted the same. Anyway it tasted good.Back in the room I finished the day’s entry in my journal.
Saturday, November 3, 2012: Drive to Sheikh and back to BerberaWe were scheduled for a 08:00 departure from the hotel. I attended breakfast early and when Terry arrived he started a conversation with one of the guest from Scotland who is a consultant to the Somaliland Police Department. We asked him about the road to Sheikh because I could not get a clear route on Google Maps. There were two roads and he did not consider one of them safe. When I finished eating I asked the Hotel Manager what route we would be taking to Sheikh and he told me that we would return to Berbera and then turn south to climb the mountains to the village of Sheikh. That was the safer route.
I returned to my room and finished packing and Terry arrived informing me that the desk clerk was charging us US$100 for our rooms. I carried my bags down to the lobby and asked to see the Hotel Manager. Neal, Terry and I sat in his office as he showed us the correspondence he had with Advantage Travel. The misinterpretation was over the definition of the “Total Tour Cost”. He contended that the “Total Tour Cost” was for just the SUVs, drivers and guards. The room rate was separate.At first we told him to contact Advantage Travel and if we needed to pay the $100 we would do so in Berbera. I quickly set up my laptop in the lobby and emailed Advantage Travel of that plan but soon I was told that the Manager would not let the drivers take us until we paid the $100. I send another message to Advantage Travel informing them that we would be paying the fee.
All the fee discussion and negotiations delayed our departure by one hour and we were caught in a traffic jam driving through the city. It is election time in Somaliland and caravans of busses and cars with signs supporting one candidate or another were parading through the city. What I found interesting is that each candidate is assigned a three digit number, so instead of the caravans blaring out vote for Obama or Romney they had signs and were asking the people to vote for 213 or 607.It took us almost three hours to travel the 100 miles to Berbera with a few rest stops on the way. The road was paved but as I wrote before it had speed bumps at each village alone the way and a fair amount of pot holes to slow our progress.
Just past the entrance to the Berbera Airport, on the outskirts of the city we turned southeast toward a mountain range. We soon started to travel up the mountain on a winding road. About forty-five minutes on the road to Sheikh we stopped at a vista point with outstanding views of the valley all the way to the Gulf of Aden. The hotel had packed a lunch which we eat at the vista. It was a Hamburger with French fries.After lunch we continued up the mountain to Sheikh, a small town on top of a mountain range that parallels the Gulf of Aden coast. When the British were in charge of Somaliland, Sheikh was their favorite place for a retreat from the heat of the arid lands. They established schools and the remains of English style homes could still be seen. After independence, during the regime of Siyad Barre a veterinary college was built that attracts students from all over the Horn of Africa.
We stopped in the center of town and attracted a crowd. A woman with a bunch of gat branches and leaves posed for us. She struck up a conversation with Linda and danced a little jig. She was then joined by another woman who told us that she was 88 years old. They posed for pictures and asked Laurie to join them for an all-female group picture. A group of men crowded around asking questions. One young man told us he was a student at the veterinary school and how important veterinary medicine is for the Somaliland people. The old woman had disappeared but soon returned from across the road wearing the Somaliland flag draped over her body. She was carrying a small woven vase and posed for pictures until her husband appeared and wanted her to stop having her picture taken. She didn’t seem to care and was thoroughly enjoying herself.We finally boarded the SUVs and rode down the mountain. We stopped at another vista point where mountain goats are often seen but we just saw domestic goats. They were being herded across the road and it was a fun sight to see the Shepperd’s throwing rocks to herd them in the right direction
Back down the mountain we skirted the edge of town and headed north along the coast to the Maansoor Hotel. Owned by the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa it is not up to the same standards but is in a nice location with a wide-open field between the hotel gate and the beach.Lynn and I were assigned individual rooms in the building across the driveway from the registration building. Each building had four rooms. The others were assign rooms in buildings across a wide yard. When I arrived in my room there was no power but soon a man came and reset a circuit breaker and showed me the switch for the air conditioner. He also gave me the password for the Wi-Fi and I discovered that Bob Parda had sent me a message that he would resolve the hotel fee issue and the worst case would send us a refund when we returned to the US. I started to respond to his email when the power to the whole area failed.
The Hotel Manager told me it would return at 17:15 and would go down again at 08:00 in the morning. I passed the word about the refund and the power outages to the group and then walked to the beach to get a picture of the sunset. Unfortunately, there was a layer of fog or smog on the horizon so it was not the picture I had hoped to see.The group met for dinner at 18:30. After we ordered Ali arrived and handed us a refund on the Hargeisa hotel room charge. That was great news and we had an interesting dinner. Several of us ordered grilled fish and Lynn ordered grilled steak. When the meals arrived it was difficult to tell the difference between the grilled fish and grilled steak, both were pounded thin and had the same reddish color. It tasted OK but not very fishy.
After dinner I returned to my room and saw that Bob Prada had sent me an email informing me that he had negotiated a solution with the Ambassador Hotel Manager. I replied thanking him and informing him that we already had received the money.Just another adventure in our travels with Advantage Travel & Tours!
Sunday, November 4, 2012: Fly Berbera to Addis AbabaWe were scheduled to tour Berbera after breakfast, have lunch at the hotel and wait on the hotel grounds until it was time to leave for the airport. The disturbing plan was we would have to vacate our rooms before lunch. That would have us sitting under trees in the heat and humidity which did not set well with the group. With the help of Ali I was able to get the hotel management to let us stay in Terry and Linda’s room until we needed to leave for the airport.
Breakfast was interesting because we had to order off a menu and some of us were told that they were out of eggs and later arrivals were able to order eggs. After breakfast we boarded the SUV’s and toured the city. It bore the scars of the civil wars. Many buildings had battle damage and there were a number that were just a pile of rubble. The roads were not paved and we saw a lot of poor rundown areas. There were a few monuments at traffic circles but not many.We saw a number of gat stands. The most modern buildings we saw were the storehouses for the World Food Program (W.F.P.). Berbera is an entry port for food distributed to South Sudan and central African countries. Some of the literature that describes Berbera predicts that it will be a resort city in 20 years. I will be surprised.
When we returned we checked out of our rooms and parked our bags at Terry and Linda’s. We then ordered lunch. Again it was an interesting experience with long waits for some orders while others were served right away. After lunch we adjourned to Terry and Linda’s room to stay cool until we departed.Check-in was another interesting experience. I was the first in line and I showed the agent our Ethiopian Airways reservation with all our names and the schedule with all the flights to Addis Ababa and the flights from Addis Ababa to Somaliland, South Sudan, and Djibouti. It confused the agent because he didn’t have a computer and had to find our names on a printout. He had to hand write the boarding pass and luggage tag. Terry was next to check-in. When Terry came into the departure room he told me that the agent had initially checked his bag to Juba our next destination after Addis Ababa. I checked my baggage receipt and found he had checked my bag to Juba. I was able to go back to the check-in counter and saw my bag on a pile of bags and convince the agent to change the baggage tag to Addis Ababa.
Our flight departed early and landed fifteen minutes early at the International Terminal 2. Befekadu was not there to meet us so we again met at the Hilton office and had the Hilton agent call him. He assumed that since we had departed from Terminal 1 that we would return to Terminal 1.Check-in at the Hilton went a little smoother for me since I have a Hilton Honors car and all my information was in their computer and they were able to give me the key faster than the others. This time our rooms were in the main building and we could take the elevator from the lobby to our floor.
It was late by the time we checked-in and dinner was a little bit of a mix up. Apparently we needed reservations at that time of night for the buffet in the main dining room. We pleaded our case and they seated us in the Pizza room adjacent to the main dining room and we were able to enjoy the buffet.Monday, November 5, 2012: Fly Addis Ababa to Juba, South Sudan
All the SUV riding the last two days had aggravated my leg and I did not have a very restful sleep. I woke early and walked around the hotel grounds. The pool was very busy at 06:00 with lap swimmers and the gym was also busy at that time of the morning. The main dining room didn’t open for breakfast until 07:30 and we had to leave for the airport by 08:15. Befekadu was there it help us check out and leave on time.The check-in process was a little less hectic than it had been for our flight to Somaliland four days earlier. What helped was we had a South Sudan visa in our passport so check in was routine. I was able to find the Ethiopian Airline lounge this time and waited there where I could check email for the departure time. When the Lounge Agent called my flight I arrived at the gate to discover the Gate Agent could not unlock the door to the stairway to the ramp. It was a little comical but after trying many keys on a large key ring of keys he was able to open the door and we walked down the stairs and across the ramp to our aircraft. I had a window seat in the back of the plane and was able to take pictures of the South Sudan countryside before we landed at Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
The city was located between the island of Gondokoro and Rejaf (the capital of the Lado enclave). We were warned that photography is a forbidden in most of the city because of an attempted assignation of the President. When we pulled up to the terminal it started to rain and by the time Laurie I departed the plane the rain turned into a downpour and we were soaked. The other members of our group had dashed to the terminal before the downpour.I was surprised that we did not have a Tour Guide with a sign waiting for us. One of the young ladies from the plane asked me if I had the name of the Guide and when I told her it was George Ghines she replied that he is well known and reliable. There was a Tourist Desk and I asked them to call George and they got an ‘out of service’ message. I then arranged to get a cab to take us to the Quality Hotel.
When I returned to our group I found Linda in an altercation with a Security Officer. Apparently she had taken a picture of the Airport Terminal and the officer wanted to confiscate her camera and she was apologizing and told him she would delete the picture. Terry was there and we were able to calm down the situation. Linda deleted the picture and was able to keep her camera.A policeman had arrived and I took the opportunity to ask him if he knew George and he replied that he did and left us I presumed to call him. When the taxi van arrived the policeman had not returned so we piled in and rode to the hotel. At the hotel reception they were expecting us. We were told that our guide had been there and dropped off our names for registration. We went to our assigned rooms and the reception clerk called him. A short time later a man, who introduced himself as George's colleague Travis, arrived. He told us that when the other group (Edna, Bob and Mike) came earlier in the week. Their plane didn't arrive until 16:00. He claimed he called the airline and was told our flight was also not going to arrive until 16:00 so he was waiting to meet us at that time. George was out of the country which is why his phone indicated it was out of service. I had paid the US$50 for the cab and Travis told me that he would refund the cost.
As a result of the heavy rain the roads were very muddy (Juba has only two paved streets) and Travis decided to not take us on tour in the muddy roads. He planned to take us to dinner at 19:00 and then take us on the city tour at 08:00 in the morning.The rain had stopped so the group (minus Lynn) walked to the center of the city. Neal, Laurie and I toured the market in the mud. When we returned to the hotel we watched the sunset over a Nile (beer) at the hotel.
Laurie had haggled with a street vendor over the price of a bracelet. She wanted it but they would not take US dollars. As we sat drinking our beers her desire reached the point where it dawned on her that the hotel reception could exchange enough dollars to enable her to purchase the bracelet. We had another round of beers while Laurie obtained the local currency and walked back to town and purchased the bracelet.When Travis picked us up to drive us to dinner gave us some background on the country. While there have been several reports of violence in the country, they have been centered in the northern and eastern border regions. South Sudan is still a bit of the "Wild West" but with reasonable caution it Juba is similar to most large African cities. Everything is imported and there was an over-abundance of NGO and oil workers, causing prices to skyrocket. There was an ongoing road improvement program but the city still has mostly unpaved streets that can make for slow travel. Infrastructure improvements have slowed since there is serious consideration being given to moving the capital to a new location. However, in the past year, the city has rapidly transitioned from a “tent and container quarters city" to a city of over 200 hotels.
Dinner was at Notos Restaurant, which is the same building where the ex-President Theodore Roosevelt spent a night in 1910 together with his son Kermit and the members of the Smithsonian African Expedition. Notos is an old warehouse converted to a five star restaurant with multi-ethnic cuisine. The stone building represents a typical structure of the first Greek settlers which established Juba at that time. As per Mr. Roosevelt's memoirs, they spent a night at a Greek merchant's house. The rehabilitation of the building started in 2008 and the inauguration of Notos coincided with the Centennial of the visit of Mr. Roosevelt.It turned out that George was the owner and Travis was the General Manager of the restaurant. George was a native of the city. His parents had come from Greece and run restaurants eventually purchasing and restoring the Notos.
The dinner menu was impressive and I had nice poached Tilapia in lemon sauce. Travis gave us permission to take pictures of the place and even took a picture of our group but when Linda took some pictures in the bar area one of the patrons objected thinking he was in the background. Linda just couldn’t win in this country. Travis defused the situation and overall we had a delightful time.The hotel provided free internet and I was able to check my email before retiring.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012: Fly Juba to Addis AbabaBreakfast was pretty good in the hotel restaurant and Travis arrived at 08:00 to take us on the tour. He cancelled the tour of the ancient volcano because the road would still be very muddy. He told us to be very clandestine with the picture taking which drove Laurie nuts. We started out crossing the river past the Belgian cemetery of King Leopold's soldiers which was so overgrown that we could not determine that it was a cemetery, and out into the country to Equatoria (Rejaf Payam) first capital of the region. The capital moved to Juba on the Nile River. There was a large brick church, a school and some thatched roof huts and not much else in the village.
We rode back to Juba on the dirt highway which Travis told us was the main highway to Kenya. When we crossed the river in Juba Travis turn off and stopped at the De Vinci Restaurant and Bar on the river’s edge. We were able to take pictures of the river and the Restaurant. We had coffee on the deck overlooking the dock. Due the rain the water was very dirty and wild. There was a small Arts & Crafts market at the restaurant.We returned to the hotel to get our bags and check out. Travis deposited us at the airport to take a 13:30 flight back to Addis Ababa. We bid Laurie farewell since she would be leaving the group and fly later in the afternoon back to New York.
Our flight left thirty minutes early so when we arrived in Addis Ababa I anticipated that Befekadu would not be there to greet us. To compound the situation when we had returned from Somaliland we arrived at Terminal 2 but Befekadu was waiting at Terminal 1 so we told him to meet us in Terminal 2 when we returned from Juba since I figured that although the flights to the neighboring countries left from the Domestic Terminal 1 they had to arrive at the International Terminal 2 to process the passengers through Immigration and Customs. I was wrong since there were only 12 passengers on the flight from Juba so Ethiopian Airways took us back to Domestic Terminal 1.There was a small desk to process us through Immigration. I then had a problem contacting Befekadu to inform him that we were in the Domestic Terminal 1. The only Ethiopian Airways Agent in the Arrival area at first would not let me use her phone. She told me that the airline makes their decision on the number of passengers; if it is a large number of passengers they send them Terminal 2, a small number of passengers to Terminal 1. I explained to the agent that since it was their inconsistency that she should contact our guide. She finally agreed and called Befekadu. He was not happy since the parking is free at Terminal 1 and there is a fee at Terminal 2.
Registration at the Hilton Hotel was smooth but they assigned Lynn and I a room in the old section of the Hotel where we stayed the first time. When we got to the room we found that it didn’t have a working air conditioner so after lugging our bags back to the lobby we were assigned to a room in the main section of the hotel where we could take the lobby elevator to our floor.We were surprised when Befekadu told us that we were on our own for dinner. Our program stated that dinner was to be provided but his program didn’t have it indicated. We ate in the hotel buffet and I sent an email to Cathy and she responded that she would reimburse us for the dinner.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012: Fly Addis Ababa to Djibouti City, DjiboutiWe woke to the news that it appeared that Obama was winning the election. I packed my bags and took them to the lobby before I went to breakfast at 06:30. Terry, Linda and Lynn soon joined me and we finished and checked out of the hotel before 07:00. Befekadu was in the lobby waiting to take us to the airport. We loaded the bus and took a slightly different route to the airport.
Check-in at the Domestic Airport was easy; especially since we had obtained our Addis to Djibouti boarding pass the day before. I dropped my bag at the Cloud Nine (Ethiopian for Star Alliance Gold) counter and received a luggage tag. The Immigration check was quick and I proceeded to the Ethiopian Lounge where I hooked up my laptop and connected to the internet. Above my seat was the TV which had the Aljazeera International station on in English with the election results. At 08:15 I packed up to proceed to the gate for my 09:00 flight. The Lounge Agent informed me that the Djibouti flight was delayed an hour so I sat back down and listened to Romney’s speech.At 09:30 I packed up again and this time the Lounge Agent led me to the front of the Security Line. I felt a little embarrassed but it was a good thing since as soon as I got to the gate they called the flight and I walked down the stairs to board the bus to take us to the aircraft. I was one of the first on the bus so I took a seat by a door but then as the bus was filling up a family with a baby in its mother’s arms arrived and I gave her my seat and now was pressed against the door. When we arrived at the aircraft they opened the door on my side of the bus enabling me to be in the first group to board.
Having my carry-on bag checked at security twice left it in a less than compact order so it was difficult to get it in the overhead. A woman behind me told me it was too bulky to fit but I responded that this was the third time on the very same aircraft that it had fit before as sure enough as I said the bag compressed enough to fit. Ethiopian Airways has about 10 Dash-8-Q400 aircraft but in our five flights we have ended up on the same aircraft three times.It was a short one hour and fifteen minute flight to Djibouti City. There was a driver from the hotel to greet us when we exited the Arrival Hall. The first thing I noticed as we left the airport was the number of military aircraft on the other side of the runway. I saw an AWACS aircraft, several C-130s, and a couple of US Navy P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft. There also appeared to be hangers for fighter aircraft. We rode past an entrance to the US Camp Lemonnier, the only US base in Africa. The area around the airport was very flat and as we entered the main highway to the city we came upon a settlement of new buildings more modern than what we had seen in the other cities on our trip. The route to the hotel by-passed the center of the city and followed the coast line past the sea port and along a bay with a sandy beach.
The Djibouti Palace Kempinski Hotel is located on a peninsula north of the city in an area called Ilot du Heron. As we approached the hotel it indeed looked like a palace. It was truly a 5 star hotel with a gated entrance and long driveway through immaculate lawns and a large fountain. It looked very much like it belonged in Las Vegas. The hotel and the rooms were elegant in a African and Middle Eastern architecture, design and furnishings. Our assigned room was above the entrance canopy with a view of the spacious grounds and the bay toward the city.After depositing our luggage in the room we headed out to find a place to each lunch. The main dining room had an expensive buffet so we found the Pizza Restaurant overlooking the bay and next to an infinity swimming pool. We had a pizza for lunch and returned to our room to unpack. After I was able to hookup my cpap machine I left to explore the hotel and the local area.
The country is a mixture of Christian and Muslim with French being the official language. My walk took me a mile south of the hotel along the beach to the first major road to the east. There I turned and headed back north. On this back street I encountered walled houses on both sides and people sitting on the sideway, some on mats leaning against a wall, some on lawn chairs. I encountered women feeding their children on the sidewalk and men smoking and in some cases playing a board game. Many of the men appeared to be “stoned” from chewing khat. A few wild eyed men offered me a chew. Djibouti and Somaliland are a few of the countries where it is legal to grow and sell khat. It was an interesting walk and included passing by several embassy compounds. At the end of the street I came upon a number of taxis and when I took some pictures I was yelled at and realized that they were parked at the entrance to the French Army Base. I put down my camera and saw that I was at the employee entrance to the hotel. It was about a two block walk from there to the gate house. As I showed my room key to be entered they had just lowered the flags and the attendant hopped in a gold cart and offered me a ride to the hotel lobby entrance.The group had agreed to meet in the lobby at 19:00 for dinner and go to ‘Bankouale’ an outdoor restaurant next to the beach. The lobby was full of military attending a function celebrating the completion of a joint exercise. I saw many USAF Colonels, a Brigadier General, several US Navy Captains and officers dressed in their whites. There were also officers and enlisted men and women from other nations. It was a large gathering held on the lawn next to the restaurant we were eating.
We were the first to arrive at Bankouale and the staff greeted us warmly and showed us their outdoor brick open oven where they bake their own flat bread. We ordered fish which was also cooked outside. It was an interesting meal. The flat bread was delicious but the fish still had some small bones which detracted from the experience.After dinner I was able to process my email in the room before retiring.
Thursday, November 8, 2012: Tour the area around Djibouti CityThe breakfast area was in the main restaurant which was very large. I had lost my appetite and did not try the eggs. After the meal I didn’t feel well (either from the greasy pizza or the fish) but decided to go on the tour. Linda was so impressed by the Kempinski Hotel amenities that she elected to skip the tour so she could get a massage, swim and generally relax. We met in the lobby before the scheduled departure time of 08:30 and were not met by a guide. At 08:45 I asked the receptionist to contact our guide. She responded that the guide was already in the lobby sitting on his butt and not looking for us. When I approached him I asked him way he wasn’t looking for us and in almost unintelligible English just said “my name is Ali”. I figured we were in for an interesting tour. He led us outside and a beat-up Toyota four-wheel drive wagon pulled up. It had bench seats along the side in the back so we sat facing each other. There was a cooler of ice that blocked one of the four seats. Lynn sat in the front. I was able to stretch my leg straight out next to the end of the cooler.
When we pulled out of the hotel compound Terry asked Ali if he could drive us through the center of the city. We had bypassed it on the way in from the airport. It took some trial and error before Ali understood but the drive turned off the road along the waterfront and we did ride through the center of the city. It was very busy with a lot of open stalls selling goods similar to other African cities. One thing that was prevalent was the sale of khat. Several stalls had signs advertising it in different size bunches.The roads were smooth and outside the city we were on the main road to Ethiopia. There was a fair amount of truck traffic. Many were 18 wheelers and the petrol trucks were tandem trailers. We had not encountered these large trucks in Sudan (both north and south) or Somaliland. In those three countries the trucks were 6 to 10 wheel trucks and none were trailers. The smooth road made the ride almost comfortable.
Along the way we saw camels, baby camels, goats and a group of baboons. The baboons were cute because they were running around on both side of the road. We stopped and took a lot of pictures. Continuing on for about an hour on the main road we turned north on a smooth road with no large trucks. Soon we saw the Gulf of Tadjoura in the distance and turned into a vista point. At the vista we overlooked a spectacular gorge. It was a sort of miniature Grand Canyon with many layers of different colored rocks.From the gorge we rode on to the turn off to Lac Assal, the large salt lake which at 509 ft below sea level is the lowest point on the continent of Africa. There is no outflow and as a result, the salinity is about ten times that of the major oceans. It is the world's largest salt reserve.
The paved road soon ended and we descended down to the edge of the lake. There were a number of domed huts in the area and we watched the locals loading of salt onto several camels. The locals had also a lot of displays set up with sculptures of animals carved out of blocks of salt. They were also selling large salt crystals, some as big as a softball.The lake was beautiful with areas covered by dried salt that looked like it was covered by ice. The water had areas of different colors from the white salt to aqua green and deep blue. It was great sight for pictures.
We returned to the highway we turned north and drove to a picnic area on the shore the Gulf of Tadjoura. Our lunch was tuna salad and roasted chicken leg. In the picnic hut next to us was a group of Air France flight attendants and in another picnic hut was a group of German tourists. I guess that we were at the spot that all the tour agencies used for lunch.After lunch we rode back to Djibouti City. There were not more sights to stop at on the return drive. We did see some camels loaded with packs in a small caravan but it was a straight drive to the city. We were anxious to get back to the hotel and out of the old vehicle. On the way we were concerned that the driver driving under the speed limit and then we discovered the tie-rods are shot and the car would go into violent shaking on occasion if he drove too fast. We made it back OK and were glad to climb out of the vehicle.
We decided to eat on the town at the Melting Pot which was in walking distance and recommended in the Lonely Planet and also by the hotel staff. It had a rustic look with Asian decorations. The menu included Japanese, sushi, poultry, meat, fish and seafood, and special items. I had the Camel tenderloin which was interesting and not tough as I had been lead to expect. It was a fitting end to an unusual day.Friday, November 9, 2012: Fly Djibouti City to Addis Ababa, tour the city and then fly to Frankfurt via Khartoum
We had a nice buffet breakfast in the main dining room. After breakfast I went to the front desk to check out and settle my bill. There was a line wanting to be served and I engaged in a conversation with an airline pilot next to me. He flew the civilian version of the C-130 out of Myrtle Beach, SC, hauling cargo all over Africa and the Middle East. They carried a three man crew and a half dozen non-crew load masters and mechanics.The hotel shuttle van took us to the airport. On the way we encountered an interesting sight – a pedestrian and two policemen pushing a police car towards a gas station.
Check in was easy. While we waited to board our aircraft I saw an AWACS aircraft land and taxi past the terminal. It carried French Air Force markings. I knew NATO flew them but I didn’t know the French flew them.Our flight stopped in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia on the way to Addis Ababa. It is an industrial city and a lot of people dressed in business attire got on for the short flight to Addis Ababa.
Even though the aircraft was full when we landed in Addis Ababa the airline parked us at Terminal 1 which meant that we finally got the meeting with Befekadu correct. He was outside the Terminal waiting to take us on a city tour. We bid good bye to Neal since he had toured the city in the past and preferred to wait for his flight back to the US in an airport lounge.Befekadu started the tour by having the driver take us up streets we had not traveled in our many trips back and forth to the Hilton. Our first stop was The National Museum of Ethiopia. The grounds of the museum had the statues of early leaders and military weapons and a café in a tradition thatched roof building called a “tukul”. Inside the museum had four floors:
· The basement was devoted to paleontology and prehistory: Lucy, Selam (the earliest child) and other fossils including stone tools and early history.
· The first floor displayed culture items from ancient, medieval and contemporary Ethiopian societies respectively from the pre-Axumite times to the 16th century AD as well as regalia and memorabilia from former rulers, including Emperor Haile Selassie.
· The second floor was devoted to traditional and contemporary Ethiopian art in a chronological order, from traditional to contemporary works. They included murals, Afewerk Tekle and other Ethiopian artists.
· The third floor displayed traditional and ceremonial costumes, jewelry, reflecting the diverse cultures of the various Ethiopian ethnic groups.I was fascinated by Lucy because it was an exceptional fossil and constituted the most complete skeleton of an ancient hominid. Especially since my DNA traces back to the same area Lucy was discovered in.
When we exited the museum Linda remarked that she was very confused since what she had just seen and learned conflicted to her Bible teachings on the creation of man. I responded that what she saw were undisputed facts and that the Bible was a book of stories written by men without this evidence trying to understand where the earth and man came from. She responded that I’d better not have her mother hear me say that. For the rest of the day Linda kept returning the conversation back to her dilemma and questioning my belief of evolution over creation and where a belief in God fit in the equation. It turned out that she was attended classes on the belief in miracles and my philosophy also conflicted with what she was being taught in class.From the museum we drove up the mountain that overlooks the city. The city was originally built on the mountain but due to a shortage of water they moved down the mountain. Along the route we encountered several switch backs and coming down the hill was a steady stream of old ladies carrying large bundles in a roll on their backs. At some point it was difficult not to brush the bundles with the van. It was painful to see these old ladies stooped over under the heavy bundles of wood. Befekadu told it was a century old tradition. Down in the city the women sell the wood to city dwellers for heating and cooking. In a few cases we saw horse drawn carts filled with the bundles of wood.
At the summit vista point we stopped to take photos of the city and farm land below. It was very hazy and the view was not clear. Next to our parking spot was a lady selling hot tea. She had a little charcoal stove and Arabian style kettle.We then rode back to the city to visit what Befekadu called the largest market in Africa. Street after street arranged by goods took up many city blocks. We were amazed at the truck loads of khat being unloaded in one area. In another interesting area was the sale of yellow plastic bottles that originally contained cooking oil.
Befekadu then took us to an Arts and Crafts market. It was strange because it was behind a metal wall and gate but it was where people buy Ethiopian beads which I was looking to purchase for my daughter, Robin. I found the beads expensive when which Robin had warned me off. Some were priced over several US dollars per bead.When we left the market it was getting dark so Befekadu capped off the tour by stopping at the Elfigan Cultural Restaurant for a typical Ethiopian dinner were we all four of us had to eat with our right hand from one big platter of spicy vegetables and meat dishes, in the form of a thick stew, served atop injera, a large spongy sourdough flatbread, about 20 inches in diameter and made out of fermented teff flour. We used a piece of injera to scoop from the platter various items and fold the bread and eat from our hand. I don’t know exactly what I ate but it was delicious.
The restaurant was built like a tukul, round in shape with a thatched roof of palm leaves, a center pole and support beams branching out like and upside-down umbrella. The slanted ceiling was decorated in native art and the walls with pictures, a bar, a band platform and a private dining booth. We were serenaded by a trio playing Ethiopian music on drums and string instruments.Following diner we rode to the airport to check in for our flights home. We bid Befekadu good bye and proceeded through Immigration and Security. I spent the two plus hours waiting for my Lufthansa flight in the Cloud Nine Ethiopian Lounge. The flight departed on time for a stop in Khartoum on the way to Frankfurt.
Saturday, November 10, 2012: Fly Khartoum to Frankfurt to LAXIt was a one hour and thirty minute flight to Khartoum. I had a whole middle row of seats to myself on an A-340. We were on the ground for over an hour and then had a six hour flight to Frankfurt. I was able to sleep and did not feel too tired when I arrived in Frankfurt. I had a four hour wait for the eleven hour flight to Los Angeles. I spent the time on my laptop in the Lufthansa Lounge and was able to have a good free breakfast. It bothered me that I had to pass through security several times since I was always inside the terminal but I guess it is determined to be necessary although it didn’t catch the shoe or underwear bombers.
At LAX I had a little problem connecting with my driver. He called my cell phone to tell me were to meet him but since I couldn’t use the cell phone in the Passport Control and Customs areas I didn’t receive the message. Eventually we connected and I got home in midafternoon – the long trip over.