Tuesday, September 21, 2010

43 - On a Wing and a Prayer

Market outside Hargeisa's Oriental Hotel
Well, it does at least have two wings - but that's about all you can say for it – and many a prayer on the part of yours truly. Jubba Airways 1,000-year old four-engine Russian Ilyushin 18 turboprop is something out of science retro-fiction. It's filthy, the seat belts don't work properly, corroded immutably and for eternity into maximum stretch for vast vodka-filled bellies; and don't even think of pulling down the table in the seat back – I did, and it had repulsive calcified food remains from the 60s. Come to think of it, they could be mine; the last time I flew an Ilyushin 18 was in Cuba in 1966; perhaps this is the very same plane, and these the remains of my 1966 repast.

You could call Jubba the 'NO' airways, at least for the Djibouti-Somaliland flight. There are no safety instructions, at least not in our section at the back; nobody making stupid stylistic gestures to show you where the exits are in case of an emergency, which seems inevitable; no shapely stewardesses demonstrating how to put on your life vests should we unanticipatedly venture out over water; no life vests at all in fact, at least in the back section; no announcements, even incomprehensible ones, from the flight deck on expected arrival time, altitude etc. (in fact perhaps there's no flight deck at all); no splendiferous views out of the windows because the windows are so scratched as to be opaque – and no friendly air emitting from the ventilator nozzles as we sit on the ground stewing and liquefying in the sauna. However, once we do grumble into the air, a little breeze does exit them.

Qat seller at her post
Fortunately it's only a 45 minutes to Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital, and we do in fact arrive. On landing, the Russian pilot is out on the tarmac giving a very suspicious glower at the outer right engine, tapping it as though it were a tuning fork to see if it sounds safe to take off again.

A Fistful of Dollars - There's a lovely cooling breeze after Djibouti's oven as we emerge at 4,300 feet above sea level to go through immigration. For reasons best known to themselves, immigration officials insist on everybody changing $50 into the local Somaliland shilling. Now there are some 6,000 shillings to each dollar, and 500 shillings (about 8 cents) is the highest denomination, so I now have a bundle two to three inches thick with about 320 notes that won't fit into my pockets. Fortunately they also use US dollars.
Ubiquitous water cart
The area around is dun-coloured and sandy but with much more vegetation than Djibouti, and with seemingly an even more humongous collection of discarded plastic bags and other refuse flapping from tree branches, entrapped by lower bushes, or lying disconsolately all over the bloody place. The town is low, generally one or two storeys, with a few higher beasts and one or two minarets poking above the usual squat design. And we're back to traffic jams as cars try to negotiate the multiple donkey-drawn water carts, stalls and pedestrians clogging the rutted and mud dirt streets. But it certainly has character.

Blind beggar
Virtually all the women are amply head-scarved and robed in colourful fabrics, traffic police wear smart white shirts and black berets, the bustling markets overflow with stalls and barrows selling mountains of fruit, from water melons and mangoes to bananas, melon and soursop. There's no shortage of women and kids begging. In fact there's quite a wild market right outside my hotel merchandising everything from shirts and jackets to suits and qat (Adam, the Djibouti driver, would have a ball here).

My photo ops get a mixed reaction – the kids love it, beg me to snap them and I become a regular pied piper, but older men shout, growl, wave walking sticks at me and generally react like Gadarene swine (I've absolutely no idea if that fits here, but I like the sound). The hotel itself, the Oriental, is a little oasis with a huge covered courtyard bedecked with flowered balconies, fountains and four tented gazebos. The room is ample with fan (you don't need more), shower, free internet, breakfast, all for $15. And everything else here is cheap after what I've been through. I'm now eating a three-course fish lunch at the hotel for $4, with wonderful fresh mango juice for an extra $1. In fact the only fly in the ointment is the amplified muezzin in the nearby mosque who sounds like an elephant's fart.

Camera-loving kids
Rothschild a la Somaliland - One lane in Hargeisa's expansive market is lined with money changers sitting on the ground, their little tables piled high with huge bricks of bank notes in bundles a couple of feet high – not only the highest denomination at 500 shillings (8 cents), but also 100 and 50 shilling specimens. Some are using the loot as foot rests. The donkey water carts pull past with increasing frequency; the donkeys here are very sexy. Meanwhile there's a doubly misplaced umbrella covering a clothes barrow – it says Nestles ice cream, with the ice cream in Hebrew, in a country that when it was part of a united Somalia was a member of the Arab League and strong on anti-Israel rhetoric. Interestingly, they had one of those in Djibouti’s market over a qat barrow; some Israeli entrepreneur must be making a bundle.
Currency exchange
Meanwhile the photo op saga continues; the kids flock and beg with winning smiles, but a surly individual has just come over outside a bank and asks me: 'Who are you?'

'I am who I am,' quoths I, reprising the good Lord's identity declaration from the Bible.

'Why are you photographing,' he asks.

'The Good Lord commanded it,' quoths I, bucking my upper teeth on my lower lip and playing real dumb, the one thing I have a doctorate in – Imbecilitatis Maximae Phd summa cum laude.

'The policeman over there wants to check your camera,' quoths he, pointing to a bank guard in a bright green uniform as the crowd swells.

At this point a well-built man in a red jersey comes over. 'Ignore this bunch of idiots,' quoths he, 'you can take photos of whatever you want.'

I do one of those idiotic yeses, pumping my elbow back as though withdrawing my fist from oh-you-don't-want-to-know, and withdraw with dignity to my inn, where that elephant fart muezzin has now encroached upon my evening repast.

Ice cream in Hebrew
Main downtown mosque minaret
More camera happy kids
So you think you can drive?
Wired, too
And get a degree
Sunset over Hargeisa

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