I know I’ve been off the map for a couple weeks and I apologize for not writing anything in over a month. Classes at Abaarso Tech finished on December 21st and I spent three weeks over Christmas and New Years traveling through Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. All excuses aside, I finally found the time to sit down and do some writing, and I felt it would make sense to make my first post of 2012 a summary of my epic adventure to the Swahili coast.
Stressed out and eager to leave Somaliland, I left for Harar on the first possible day I could. You can fly from Hargeisa to Nairobi, but it is expensive and the flight connects through Mogadishu. I’m not sure which one of these factors was a bigger deterrent, but either way, I booked a flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and saved a lot of money and any risk of being kidnapped.
I arrived in Harar with a fellow teacher who was going to Cairo for the break. Harar has begun to feel like a second home for me and coming from Somaliland, it is the perfect haven where I can walk around freely, eat delicious injera and tibs, and drink cheap St. George’s beer. We booked a bus ticket for the next morning to Addis and spent our one night barhopping and tracking down hyenas.
Buses in Ethiopia leave at 5 am and I groggily woke up on the bus to take in an unbelievable panoramic view of the valley stretching beneath the Arba Gugu Mountains. Thankfully, I was able to keep myself amused for most of the 10 hour busride simply by staring out the window and by watching the absurd Amharic soap operas on the bus’s television.
I immediately took a liking to Addis Ababa. With its refreshingly cool climate, laidback atmosphere, and sidewalk macchiato cafes, Addis feels much more European than any other African city I have been to. I was only in the capital for a day and a half, and spent most of my time eating delicious international cuisine and exploring Merkato, which is reportedly Africa’s biggest market.
My flight left Bole Airport at nearly midnight and arrived in Nairobi at 1:30 am. My plan was to crash in the Nairobi airport for the night and then get a bus to Mombasa the next morning. It turned out that my bag had been left in Addis by the airline and that I would have to get my bus to Mombasa with only the clothes on my back and my camera. ‘Sleeping’ in the Nairobi airport is something I would not recommend – it got really cold at night and I was kept awake by cleaners who swept, mopped, and polished the floor underneath my feet for five hours straight. The baggage claim office assured me that my bag would be forwarded to Mombasa the next day, and running off of about fifteen minutes of sleep, I got a taxi to the bus station. The ‘luxury’ bus I was riding to Mombasa was shabby and downright ghetto compared to its Ethiopian counterparts. The A/C didn’t work, my window was missing and taped up, and there was no TV showing Amharic movies. I slept the entire way to Mombasa, which is a shame because the road passes through some amazing scenery and national parks.
Even having been warned ahead of time, I was in no way prepared for the temperature and humidity change in Mombasa. Somaliland and Ethiopia are quite hot and dry and it gets cold at night. Mombasa was totally different – tropical, humid, and hot. I was met at the bus station by Cindy, a good friend of mine who was in the same course as me a couple of summers ago at the LSE and is from Mombasa.
I was in Mombasa for five days and it was a really nice, relaxed visit (after I finally got my bags from Ethiopian Airlines). Cindy’s family was incredibly welcoming and generously hosted me for many meals and barbeques while I was in town. The lively family atmosphere took away any potential feelings of homesickness I might have had in spending the holidays 15,000 miles away from my family. I’ve also decided that I prefer celebrating Christmas the Kenyan way. Instead of snow, candy canes, and wool socks, this year’s Christmas season consisted of swimming in the Indian Ocean, barbequing racks of goat ribs, drinking Tusker beers, and getting repeatedly beaten in Scrabble by Cindy’s mom and nephews. I don’t know if I will ever spend another winter in the northern hemisphere…
For New Year’s Eve, I decided to join some other friends I had met at my hostel in Mombasa and head to Diani Beach on the southern Kenyan coast for a massive party that was being held there. The party had supposedly only just been called back on and there had been talks of cancelling it due to the risk of a terrorist attack. Since Kenya invaded Somalia in the autumn, there have been a series of bombings in Nairobi, and the threat level has been pretty high. The US embassy in Nairobi has emailed me so many travel warnings and terror alerts that I have instructed my email server to send any messages from them straight to my junk folder. There was a planned Christmas Day bombing in Nairobi that was foiled and a raid in Mombasa which seized some bomb-making materials.
The party attracts thousands of foreigners every year, and if I were an al-Shabaab fundamentalist, it would be an ideal target for me to take out a large number of people in a single attack. With this in mind, I headed to the party legitimately thinking that there was a 50/50 chance I would not make it out alive. My concern was deepened when I went to get my wristband at 3 pm, the time that the doors were supposed to open, and was told to come back at 5 because they were “just doing one final bomb sweep”. Call me a cynic, but I really doubted the capability of a bunch of privately-hired security guards to find and defuse a bomb with no visible bomb-detection equipment.
Thankfully, the party came and went with no al-Shabaab attack. There were three international DJ’s spinning and the event officially ended at 11 am on New Year’s Day. I was proud that I somehow managed that stay up until 9 am – my partying prowess has declined significantly since moving to sober Somaliland. Throughout the night, a police helicopter with a spotlight circled the beach scanning for any signs of danger. I think the Kenyan intelligence service could have at least used a strobe light to add a little New Year’s Eve fun to their anti-terrorism ambitions.
I woke up at 4 pm on New Year’s Day feeling more like one Kenyan shilling than a million American bucks and decided I needed to get myself to Tanzania. I promptly bought a bus ticket to Dar es Salaam after the guy at the ticket office assured me that the bus would arrive in Dar at 3 pm, giving me plenty of time to catch the final 4 pm ferry from Dar to Zanzibar.
Surprise, surprise…the bus stalled and moved at a snail-like pace through northern Tanzania and I arrived in downtown Dar es Salaam after dark, by myself, with zero information about the city, no map, and no previous plans to spend any time there. I was also the only mzungu on the bus. And I had no Tanzanian shillings. The combination of all of these factors meant that it would be nearly impossible for me to find a hotel by myself and that I was a disoriented, easy target prime for getting robbed.
As soon as I stepped off the bus, I was mobbed by Tanzanians trying to sell me necklaces, drugs, women, or offering to drive me to Zanzibar (keep in mind that Zanzibar is an island, and there is no landbridge connecting it to mainland Tanzania…). I swear if I hear another rasta hustler ever say “hakuna matata brothaaa”, I will lose it. I blame The Lion King and globalization.
One of the less sketchy lurkers said he could show me a hotel and wanted to be my taxi driver to the ferry terminal tomorrow morning. I figured he would get a commission from whatever hotel he took me to and that he wanted my business in a city where taxis are everywhere. He showed me an ATM so that I could withdraw some Tanzanian shillings and then passed me off to his friend, saying he had to meet someone at the bus station and that his friend could show me the hotel. The hotel seemed legitimate and his friend agreed to meet me at 6:30 the next morning to drive me to the ferry terminal.
I woke up around 6:15 and still half-asleep, walked out of the hotel to find my two ‘friends’ from the night before and a driver waiting for me. They had seemed alright the previous night and to my not-completely-awake mind, nothing seemed dodgy. I got in the backseat with one of the guys and wedged my backpack between my legs. After driving down the street for about a minute, another guy got in the backseat – they said he was also going to the ferry terminal. I should have realized this was dicey, but I was too out of it to even notice. We drove for about five minutes and I realized that I was boxed in the middle backseat with a guy on either side of me, and that the rolled-up windows were tinted a disturbingly dark shade.
Suddenly, one of the guys told me that we were in the ‘mafia’ area of Dar and that I was being robbed. I was surprised how calm I remained throughout the whole thing and, after I realized that running or attacking four Tanzanians at once was out of the question, I gave them my wallet as asked. I only had about 90 USD total in my wallet in a combination of US dollars, Kenyan shillings, and Tanzanian shillings. They asked for my money belt, which luckily contained no cash, only my passports. Incredibly, the robbers told me that they were only interested in cash and that they had no use for my passports or camera. They explained it to me that they were “nice people who needed money”, and not thieves. Hahahaha.
One of the guys took my ATM card and asked for the pin number. I told them that I would just withdraw money and give it to them. They laughed and said that I would stay with them in the car while one of the guys took my bank card and got the cash. I thought for a second of giving them a fake pin number, and realized that this would probably just lead to my execution in the shantytowns of Dar es Salaam. I gave the guy the actual pin number and he got out. We drove further into the slums of Dar, to an area where I actually felt safer inside the car with the robbers than I would have had I been tossed out into the streets. We sat there for about 45 minutes waiting for their friend to return, me staying calm but increasingly thinking that I might actually be in the process of getting kidnapped and the thieves texting, smoking cigarettes, and arguing loudly in Swahili. Finally, their cohort came back with my ATM card and gave it to me, saying that it “didn’t work”. I asked the thieves frankly what the hell I was supposed to do from here with no money, no sense of direction, and an empty bank account. In a surprising act of morality, they decided to give me 50 USD back for my ferry to Zanzibar and 30 USD in Tanzanian currency for a taxi to get myself out of the slums. In retrospect, it is pretty funny that they gave me some money back, and I mistakenly almost thanked them. Then I remembered that they had just drained my bank account and held me hostage in the ’hood for over an hour, and I slammed the cardoor and their faces and went to find a taxi.
The US Embassy gave me free internet and international phonecalls, and that was about it. I guess I had expected that they might be able to feed or house a victimized American traveler, but that was naïve of me. My bank informed me that in the span of five minutes, five withdrawals had been made for a total of $907 – all of my money. I woke my dad up at 4 am California time and explained what happened. Luckily, I had another debit card that they hadn’t found and my dad said he would make sure that the account had enough money to last me until I got home to Somaliland.
Disheveled, dirty, and disgruntled with Dar, I decided to catch the ferry to Zanzibar.
I spent three days in Zanzibar, and although I enjoyed it, it didn’t nearly live up to my expectations. To be fair, a large part of this is that I was in a bad mood having just lost a lot of money in a robbery. But Zanzibar felt exceptionally touristy and I saw scores of European families with their young children, dining at fancy restaurants and going for package snorkeling trips. The mystique and allure that I long associated with the name Zanzibar was lost upon realizing that probably everyone else in the world had the same fantasies about the place and also decided to book a trip there. Stone Town’s narrow alleys and spice street vendors were cool, but not incredibly different from the old towns of Mombasa, Harar, or even Fez in Morocco. The beaches were fantastic, but I thought Diani Beach in Kenya had been just as good.
Two Australian guys staying at my hostel were heading back to Dar and then onward to Nairobi, and I decided to join them, unwilling to hang out in Dar by myself again. We took the ferry back to Dar and somehow survived the next day’s hellish 14 hour bus journey from Dar es Salaam to Arusha, Tanzania’s second biggest city. Arusha is the jumpoff point for most safaris to Tanzania’s incredible game parks. It is where most travelers set up their safaris to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. The three of us wanted to try and do some sort of safari, so we walked around town checking out prices.
I was mind-blown by how expensive the safari options were. The cheapest tours we could find at the “budget” tour operators were all about $100-$120 per day. They also told us that it took about 3 solid days to do Ngorongoro and five to see the Serengeti. These were also no-frills packages where we would camp outside the parks and have to provide a lot of our own food and drinks. I was in no position to blow $600 on a safari and was running out of time, so the Aussies and I decided we were too broke for a safari and that we would spend our two days in Arusha simply wandering around the city before catching a bus north to Nairobi.
We arrived in Nairobi safely (and in daylight) and I spent my one full-day in the city walking around the downtown and exploring the tree-lined, cool neighborhood where our hostel was located. “Nairobbery” is vilified as the most dangerous city in Africa, but for all the talk, I found it to be cosmopolitan, developed, and safe to walk around during the day. Most of Nairobi’s desolate shantytowns, such as the massive Kibera slum, are located quite far outside of the city center and although I did get nagged by a couple of street kids, I was surprisingly impressed by Kenya’s capital.
I said goodbye to my Aussie travel mates and met up with Cindy briefly before heading to Jomo Kenyatta Airport to fly back to Addis. From there, it was a tiring two-day trek back through Harar, Jijiga, and Wojaale before finally ending up back at school in Abaarso, where I immediately fell asleep in my own bed and reminisced about the amazing adventures I had just had over the past three weeks.
**After filing a fraud claim with my bank, I ended up getting the $907 refunded. The robbers also gave me $80 back, so in total I lost 10 bucks from the robbery. As far as robberies in Africa go, I was incredibly lucky – I didn’t get attacked and only ended up losing a very small amount of money.