The first thing the ambassador at the Somaliland liaison office in Addis Ababa said to me as I handed over $40 for my visa was that he thought I was a journalist… My heart dropped.
It looked as if my plan to get a succession of buses from Addis to Berbera on the Gulf of Aden were stymied before I had even begun so I mumbled that I wasn’t. ‘But we love journalists!, he said. ‘I AM a journalist, how did you guess, you clever chap?’, I replied as my endorsed passport was handed to me.
The reason he loved journos was that Somaliland has been an unrecognised country with a free press, an open economy and was about to hold free elections that the incumbent President would not only go on to lose, but hand over power with grace. He wanted the world to know about his country.
I had plotted a course that would take about a week but I had missed all the early morning buses so jumped into a minibus after doing some dollar black market business (a surprisingly big deal if caught doing so) and said farewell to wonderful Addis.
I finally found out why there are no motorbikes in the city because they were banned by the previous Russian-backed Mengitsu government because they thought they could be used by bikers to assassinate Mengitsu. Big business opportunity there.
But finding that out was nothing like the joy I felt when I finally found out how Ethiopians tell the time. Even allowing for my defective mobile and the time difference with India I was still getting confusing replies whenever I asked. That’s because in Ethiopia sunrise at 6am is referred to as zero O’Clock and an hour is added as the day goes by.
Ergo, at 10am it is 4 O’Clock, at 3pm it is 9 O’Clock until the 12-hour cycle begins at sunset, so at 8pm it is 2 O’Clock and so on. The country also uses an old calendar so there are 13 months a year, but that’s another (time-consuming) story.
So I hit the road and crammed into three buses finally making it to Awash, a dusty town that did have a bar, a projector, a dirty sheet as a makeshift screen and a World Cup match where Ghana beat USA 2-1. Unforgettable.
Up early in the morning and eventually arrived in Harar, the weird city where the French poet Rimbauld lived for many years. Explorer Richard Burton was the first white man to ‘discover’ the town by disguised as an Arab merchant, a story that had enthralled me as a kid.
Amazing place, more like Morocco’s Fez than anywhere else in Ethiopia and a place where I ran around a beer factory screaming when England scored against Germany, then at dusk held a stick in my mouth while a hyena grabbed raw meat from the end of it (long story).
Another early start and through The Valley of Marvels after finally convincing the driver to spend 80 miles on the roof before going through Jijiga as the checkpoints began and the Somaliland border beckoned… TO BE CONTINUED