Some random guy asked me this at the Somaliland-Ethiopia border while I was crammed into the back of an SUV with 3 other people (this is how transportation is done here) . I was thinking I must have mis-heard him. “Excuse me?” With the most serious face he repeated, “Are you a spy for your country?”
You have no idea how much I wanted to reply, “As a matter of fact, yes, I’m Canada’s James Bond. My Aston Martin just broke down around the corner, so I am crammed into this SUV with the rest of this mass of humanity.” But, at this sketchy border crossings, I find it’s a good idea to be on your best behavior, so instead I replied, “No” with a chuckle and he walked off.
That was just one of the interesting conversations I had in Somaliland, which is a pseudo-country east of Ethiopia. In 1991, it declared independence from Somalia and claimed itself a country, but nobody else in the world, the UN included, has recognized it as such. The situation is a bit weird if you ask me.
This raises a good question: what makes a country a country? What’s the process? Who do you talk to? I have no idea. I can’t remember where I read it or who told me, but apparently Frank Zappa once said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.“
Well, Somaliland doesn’t have a national airline. I’m not sure about a football team, but I’m fairly certain they don’t have any nuclear weapons. Being a Muslim country, I can tell you they definitely don’t have any beer. So, according to the Zappa test, Somaliland is not a country.
The closest thing you can find to a beer in Somaliland is this malt apple flavoured drink. It’s a bit strange.
In another good conversation in Somaliland, a guy asked me if I was Chinese. I thought he was joking until, with a serious face, he gave me his second guess: Filipino? Hmm… well, they don’t see too many foreigners here. The usual guesses from the locals regarding my nationality are American or some European country. Btw, in these places, nobody guesses Canada. Ever. In fact, many people think Canada is part of the US.
What did I do in Somaliland? Answer: not a hell of a lot. To be honest, there is not a lot going on here. It’s another one of those places that is past the “No Attractions Past This Point” sign (to quote Mr. Downie). But, it’s cool to just hang around, be pretty much the only tourist (I saw one German guy while I was there), talk to locals and drink mango shakes.
Maybe I didn’t give the place a fair shake. It does have some beaches, which I tried to get to, but my transport fell through. It also has some ancient rock paintings, but after seeing countless ancient paintings/sculptures/art all over the world, I don’t bother with such things too much these days. Perhaps I was slacking in Somaliland. I will tighten my game up!
The currency situation in Somaliland is hilarious. Changing a mere $10 US gets you a stack of 500-shilling notes more than an inch thick. If you change any more, you will probably want to bring a sack to carry the money in. It makes me feel pretty bad-ass to be holding so much cash. To give you an idea, $1 is about 5,000 shillings. Any time you buy something, you are typically handing over 20 or more bills. As a result, the locals are incredible bill counters, they can rifle through a stack and count it so fast it’s just a blur to me!
I like the money changers here. They sit in the streets with huge stacks of money. This is nothing, right after this pic I saw a guy with so many stacks he could have built himself a small shelter of shillings.
Walking around Hargeisa you see most men have sticks in their mouths. What are they doing?? Cleaning their teeth, as it turns out. Does this really work? I decided to find out. If nothing else, I really felt like one of the crowd when I was walking around with a stick in my mouth. This is how to clean your teeth, Somaliland-style.
I’ll be back soon to tell a few more tall Ethiopian tales.
PS: No, I didn’t see any pirates