HARGEISA (Somalilandsun) - From the cheery and colourful handpainted signages of shops, the warm smiles of locals and the wide grins of the moneychangers in the night bazaar, Somaliland turned out to be a pleasant surprise and a refreshing change from
Ethiopia where we spent three weeks for our backpacking adventure.
To many, Somaliland remains little known as a tourist destination. Many friends back home in Singapore equate Somaliland to famine-stricken children seen in posters and Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
As an intrepid traveller, unknown places intrigue me. Together with my travel mates, Arlina and Glenda, we decided to venture into Somaliland to see for ourselves the everyday lives of the ordinary people and experience the interesting facets of this country and its cultures.
The visa application process in Addis Ababa at the Somaliland embassy was a breeze. Within an hour, the friendly staff issued our visa and we happily left the office, triumphant about visiting Somaliland, a country that I know so little about.
"Welcome to Somaliland," greeted the custom officer as he inked the stamp of entry in my passport at the border office in Tog Wajaale.
Mr Abdirahman, an Ethiopian elderly man we chanced upon in the bus to the border checkpoint reassured us, "Don't worry, you are safe." He has been visiting Somaliland numerous times and was on his way to meet his sons for investment opportunities in Hargeisa. The kind man even accompanied us to the office and bought us our first meal in Somaliland, a tasty spread of spiced rice with goat meat complete with the local tea. Interestingly, the fragrant rice reminded us of the popular dish in Singapore, chicken rice and and the masala tea in my favourite Indian restaurant back home.
The first night in Hargeisa was peppered with candid encounters with the local people.
The rows of moneychangers seated along the roadside with their rusty metal cages filled notes caught our attention. We turned instant shutterbugs as one of the moneychangers candidly struck comical poses with his stashes of US dollars and the Somaliland shillings for our cameras. Curious passerbys stood around to chat with us, while others murmured words of "peace, peace" as we explored the night market near the Oriental Hotel where we stayed.
We befriended two young women cladded in the Muslim hijab and veils. Within minutes, they became our shopping guides, bargained prices with the shopowner and taught us how to wear the niqab and our new outfits.
Our second day was even more eventful. We decked ourselves in our new outfits in bright blue, purple and green, complete with the veils and
attracted many nodding looks and bemused smiles.
Mr Yusuf Mohamed Hasan, the Editor of the Somaliland Sun whizzed us around and introduced numerous interesting people including Mr Mohamed Hussein Jama, the Editor-in-Chief of Wargeyska Geeska Afrika, the Minister for Tourism), the evergreen singer, Mr Fuad Ali Hamari and Mr Ali Farah, media owner of Bulsho TV, among others. We also met the fiesty 25-year-old lady, Ms Ilham Hassin, who could become one of the youngest female politicians if she gets elected.
We had our first taste of fame when we were interviewed in the television studio about our trip to Somaliland that was to be broadcast in the news programme that evening.
Our schedule for the next few days looks jam-packed with an afternoon date with our newfound friends from the night market, camel-chasing at the famous Hargeisa Camel Market, an excursion to a local kindergarten run by an American teacher we met at the embassy, a daytrip to see the ancient rock drawings in Las Geel and visits to other sights in Berbera.
Though our visit to Somaliland is a brief one, the warm hospitality of the people and the desire to get recognition from the international community are heartfelt
As first-time tourists to the country, we were highly impressed by the efficiency of the service standard and the easy accessibility to wifi.
We will certainly spread the good word of our enjoyable travel adventure and encourage fellow travellers who are game to travel beyond the typical touristy countries to visit Somaliland in future.
For the next Singaporean traveller who visits this foreign land, you would know if the locals give you a welcoming smile when you mention Singapore as we have been going around exclaiming the name of our island country.
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