Crossing a border into someplace new always gave me a jolt of excitement. That first impression could be warm like a hug, polite like a handshake, or rude like a middle finger. Somaliland, however, felt like a punch in the face. Was this whole trip a big mistake? For the first time in my life, I considered flat-out giving up on a country – and it hadn’t even been 24 hours.
Somaliland, Somalia’s northern breakaway state, functioned like an independent country. It was once colonized by Brits, while Italians claimed southern Somalia. Once the Europeans left, Somalis united under one flag. The marriage quickly went awry, and Somaliland broke away at the start of the civil war in 1990. So long as Al Shabaab stayed south of the border, Somaliland was perfectly safe and stable – and a fine destination for a traveler wanting to get way off the beaten path.
Since the capital Hargeisa had no actual sights, I started my exploration with the central market, the beating heart of any African city. The tarp-covered clothes section was virtually empty. It was noon, and time for the national hobby: chewing chat, a narcotic leaf native to the Horn of Africa. Shopkeepers lay underneath their counters, munching away, oblivious to the world.
“What you want?” the few awake ones asked.
At first, I was friendly towards them, but soon realized answering one curious question meant 10 more. Some sales guys even ditched their stalls to follow me around, so I stopped responding to them.
A rough tug on my baggy Cambodian pants startled me. I leaped away from the green-mouthed man lying on the ground. What was his deal? I had come seriously close to showing my butt to everyone at the market. Shopkeepers reprimanded the man.
“He’s crazy,” they said to me.
The food market was busy with shoppers, who turned to scrutinize me as I walked through. I heard laughs and comments. The attention didn’t surprise me, it was quite common in places that received few foreign visitors. Still, it was enough to make me not want to linger. I headed to the main road and got myself a SIM card at a mobile operator.
Back on the street, two black-clad women stopped me.
“What are you doing, walking around Hargeisa in those pants?”
What sounded like a confrontation turned out to be a rescue mission. The women, who were expats living in the States, explained that women in pants were taboo here. Many Somali men wore skirt-like sarongs, but I was the crossdresser, offending the conservatives with my deviant ways. The women told me about rock throwing kids, and someone spitting on a girl because her headscarf was not up to his standards. After years of treading through Africa and Arabia, despite using my best judgment, I was in fact indecently dressed on a public street. I was in disbelief.
“Why did you come here alone?” the women sighed. “Be careful. This place may look safe. But it’s not that safe.”
The idea of returning to the market was as appealing as a root canal, but I had no choice. It was a skirt emergency. To my dismay, the market had filled up with shoppers. I dove back in, agonizingly aware of the shock waves my attire sent. People laughed, pointed a finger at me, and yelled out comments. It was a long walk of shame to the five-dollar pile of second-hand clothes on a wooden cart. As I scavenged, I glanced up to see a woman pick up a pair of pants, point at me and say something to the salesperson. Mortified, I settled on the best thing I could find: an oversized red-and-white skirt. Squeezing between the tables to leave, I walked into a piece of wood sticking out. My knee buckled from the pain. I could feel a big, swollen bruise already developing in my thigh. I was already down, but Hargeisa kept on kicking me.
Maybe I had finally found that mythical place where a woman shouldn’t go alone. I’d been hearing about it for years, from friends and foes alike. Until now, I had dismissed it as an urban legend…
With my emergency skirt on, my journey across Somaliland continued with more surprises that I had not expect. To make a trip to the coastal town of Berbera, I had to hire an armed police guard and a private vehicle with driver. I had little choice, they do not allow foreigners to travel around the country without a police escort.
On the beach, the police guard went for a swim and nonchalantly left the AK-47 with the driver. There was no swimming for me, but I wanted to get a closer look at the gun. I went in closer, held the cold guns in my hands, and the driver shot a photo that speaks a thousand words.
This story is an excerpt from ‘Fire In The Belly: A Memoir of Falafel, Flings, and Shiny Things‘, available on Amazon.
TRAVEL TIP: WHAT TO WEAR IN SOMALILAND
There are two things that will cause Somali people to stare at women travellers endlessly: hair and pants. Women travellers in Somaliland should wear a long skirt and a long sleeved top, and a headscarf. Nothing tight or skin revealing, and do not wear pants. The headscarf doesn’t have to be well-fixed nor cover every strand of hair, just throwing one loosely over your head will do.
It’s worth noting that people will stare no matter what you wear, but at least this way you won’t rouse any scandals like I did!