Thursday, February 28, 2008

Travelogue 218 – February 28
Seaside Madness

I can’t say I’ve ever seen much of the town of Bosaso: glimpses from squad cars and the sheltered tourism of a few days, surrounded by guns and hidden behind polaroid windows. But I’ll try my hand at a patchy and prejudicial portrait.

Discounting the mad fragments of city life spied from the inside of a squad car, my first calm vision of the town is from the roof of the International Village. This hotel, this haven of silence, is a series of white villas set around a broad concrete expanse dotted with spots of green: magnolia, oleander and palm, ferns and frankincense. To complement the exoticism of the human menagerie, white and Arab and black, that would normally populate these quarters, there are in residence some odd animals. There’s a ragged old ostrich and three or four lovely, delicate little desert deer of some variety with straight, corkscrewed horns. I have them nearly to myself, it still being too close to the holidays, and because of news of the kidnappings.

From the top of the villa that hosts my room, I can look out over the town and to the Gulf of Aden. The sea is sharp blue. The minarets are white witch’s hats. The dense homes and shops are colorful in a way that makes me think of the Mediterranean. Though the roofs are iron, they’re painted soft blue, green and red, like colors in children’s chalk. The sturdy walls are white and yellow and pink. Facing west, you look toward one of the formidable, tawny ridges that encircle the town, this one marching right to the sea. Out there among the scrub is the dinky airport. In the foreground are soccer fields where kids raise dust all afternoon. Turning away from the sea, you see the outskirts of town and empty desert out to the high hills beyond.

That afternoon and evening, we hear gunshots near and far. The police have found and besieged the kidnappers and the clans protecting them. I sit on the patio with a book in my lap, and I listen. It’s an odd feeling. The next morning, I hear that three bad guys have died.

Abdurashid arrives that evening. Everything seems copasetic. No more interrogations. He and his group go to sleep at a cheaper hotel. In the morning, we do some sightseeing. We go to the port. It’s a nice contrast to the Djibouti port, being just a curling finger of concrete and buttressing stones, reaching into the shallow bay to the abrupt point at which war began and funds ran out. Getting into the port area is a matter of chatting up the guards, a pleasant reflection of how everything gets done in Somalia. With so much to fear, there’s little fear. Everyone is accessible.

At dock are a fabulous collection of small ships that ply the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, many of them wooden and looking vaguely medieval. The only metal ship in the harbor looks to be from Egypt. From every long and shallow window protrudes long tawny muzzles and the sleepy eyes of Somali camels. The bustle at the docks is everything I missed in modern Djibouti. Here and there are a few small cranes, but most work is strong hands and bent backs. Trucks are rumbling in and out, all of them painted with sunset scenes and palm trees and stings of nonsense words. No one has a second thought for the white guy.

From the port, exit from town is a straight shot south, down the only paved road in town. Straight the shot may be, but choked with intense business. If you think life stops when governance stops, check out the markets of Bosaso: miles of stalls, crammed streets, and the din of happy commerce. And strangely, the guns dwindle here. One of the more remarkable sights will be the money merchants, men at stalls with boxes, bags and chests full of dollars and Somali shillings. That so much storage space is needed for shillings isn’t surprising. It takes a fistful to buy a cup of coffee. And you’ll notice that all these clean and crisp bills were printed in 1991 ...! No, it’s not the boxes and boxes that will surprise you, but the absolute lack of security. Not a gun in sight around these guys. This can stand as our parable about mysterious modern Somalia. The clans would not allow tampering with the money-changers.

Another fun item that will strike you as you crawl along the main avenue is the state of street art. Many shops have rather elaborate paintings on their walls, describing their wares, colorful representations of car parts, food items, cosmetics. And each little mural is accompanied by a proud signature and phone number. It makes perfect sense, of course, in a country where literacy is somewhere around 35%. It makes for a festive street, especially combined with the piratical art on all the trucks. It occurs to me that this might be the training of a few medieval European artists. It’s a valuable service. It’s profit and prestige for the wealthier shop owners.

Outside town, beyond the land claims in the form of rectangular plots surrounded by stones, marked off by the local bourgeoisie, the desert begins. We head toward the high, barren ridges.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Travelogue 217 – February 20
We’re the Same

1.5 I’m driven to the western precincts of Bosaso, where streets wander among random compounds, the walls and gates of which are painted colorfully. One such gate is guarded by men in uniform. Inside, the courtyard is well-tended, green with gardens and white with clean concrete. Soldiers smoke and chat.

The house is cozy. Behind a door off the foyer is a large, air-conditioned room with a long, polished conference table. On one high wall is a vast world map. On another, behind where I’m seated at the table, next to the Sarge, who has become meek in this place, are two full-sized flags hanging side by side, the Somali and the American. On the wall opposite are fuzzy photos of wanted men, presumably terrorists. There’s a smaller room through an open archway, where two secretaries and a computer sit idle.

Here I’m entertained by a succession of well-scrubbed men, always entering in pairs and always a degree higher in rank than the ones previous. Our first hosts are young. They could be Somali students from the U of M, taking a break between Micro and Macro, between stats and frats. They follow the familiar interrogative trajectory, from reassurances through the friendly and inoffensive, into the taunting and predatory.

Recess is interrupted by the adults. This pair is tall and middle-aged, casual manners draped over intensity. The first is full of concern and bonhomie. The second is dark and sarcastic. He has lines of world-weariness in his face. The first delivers his plum line right away, the line he will resort to more frequently than the thin poetic imagery can bear. He directs my attention to the flags behind me, side by side. ‘We’re the same as you,’ he says.

Mr. Sympathy pulls out a pad and pen and begins asking simple questions, gazing into the cool, conditioned air of the room and pulling non-sequiturs from it with all confidence. He meanders; he repeats. Eventually he asks how it is that I came overland from Hargeisa, though the central question in my little drama is enacted at the airport. That’s the cue for Philip Marlowe to take over. He doesn’t stand on ceremony. He repeats that there’s nothing to worry about, but within minutes he’s digging through my luggage. I name every item to relieve the tedium. ‘That’s my underwear,’ I say. ‘This is your underwear,’ he says. ‘You carry a lot of underwear!’ ‘Yes, I like variety,’ I say. ‘That’s my camera.’ The juniors are excited by this. They demand the memory chip. Sure, why not? They dash off to play on the computer.

I haven’t eaten yet, and Marlowe begins to weary me, so I become taciturn. He carries on with my stuff. He delights in the scribbles in my notebook. There are some box-like sketches from a discussion about one school’s layout that he finds particularly titillating. Mr. Sympathy says this is Marlowe’s specialty; he’s a very good artist. You don’t say. Marlowe asks about phone numbers in the notebook. ‘Yep, a guy I met in Djibouti. Try it. Say hello for me.’ Marlowe reads a bit of prose back to me. ‘Personal thoughts,’ he says with a smirk. Yep.

There’s a phone call. I don’t know it at the time, but it’s the office of the Vice-President of Puntland. This is Abdurashid reaching out to help from the capital city of Garowe. He’s on his way, but it’s a five-hour drive. What I do know is that the tone in the room changes. Marlowe starts folding my clothes and packing them neatly back into my bag.

I’m summoned into the secretaries’ office. The juniors are enjoying my photos. They’ve found some from my trip to Tigray. Several show the guys in Saba’s family fooling around with old AK-47s from the days of the civil war. ‘What’s this?’ That’s me with a gun. ‘Hm. Is that your girlfriend?’ Nope. ‘What’s HIS name?’ That’s Mark. They scribble this down on a bit of scratch paper on the secretary’s desk.

In case one should think I’m brave in being sarcastic with this bunch, I have to renounce any credit. The feeling of fatigue they inspire is just like being stuck after school with a bunch of pre-teens whose parents are late. For ferocity, the lizard cops in Ethiopia have these clowns beat.

My grim minders in the first room are concerned about me. They order some food. They tell me that everything, including my photos, will be run by the CIA in Djibouti for clearance. ‘Cheers,’ I say, raising my new bottle of water. They insist on a photo, and take it while I’m chewing the roll they’ve brought. They want me to stand in front of the Somali flag.

There are a couple more performers late for the show. They march in like firemen. The latest boss sees me and comes at me. ‘What are you doing here? Do you want to be killed?’ I pause and reply, ‘No’. There follows a beat, and the man stalks away in disgust. This might be the moment I want to be remembered by, though the comic effect was unintentional. And though this just might be the most human of this Keystone crew. He’s tall and thin, and it looks like a quarter of his skull was staved in at one time and stitched back in place a la Frankenstein. He sits calmly across the table from me, and there’s a look of intelligence in his skewed eyes. He reassures, but in a way that rings true. He then directs his attention to a series of folders that are brought in, clearly none of which apply to me.

The show finally does close. It’s been decided that I will be housed at the International Village, where by all accounts I’ll be safe. Indeed, I have to judge by the proliferation of guns on the premises of this spacious compound that they’re right. We’re all friends on my last sweaty ride on the hump in the back seat. My friends remind me of that fact with many warm-hearted testimonies. ‘Remember the flag! We’re the same!’

Friday, February 15, 2008

Travelogue 216 – February 15
The Wolf Pack

1.4 I don’t get to sleep right away the first night in Bosaso. I have a few visitors. First comes the hotel owner, obsequious but insistent, at 9pm. When did I come in? How did I arrive? Where am I from? Oh, I see, I see, with a wide smile and glittering eyes behind his glasses. An hour later, he returns with an officer from immigration and his son to translate. The same questions and more. The official wants my passport. They are stern until it’s time to leave, and then there are lots of reassurances. The reassurances will become a ritual. The official takes my passport with him. I lie in bed for a while before I can sleep, wondering who will stop by next.

The next morning, I have to take my leave of Ali, whose pleasant company has been the sole comfort of my trip to Somalia. I’m supposed to catch a ride with a friend of Abdurashid’s down to Garowe, the capital of Puntland. But first there’s the matter of my passport. Everyone is eloquent with reassurances as we drive through the crowded blocks, my face hidden behind tinted car windows, across town to the police station.

I’m guided into a large room with lots of chairs and a desk and told to wait a minute. That’s the last I see of my escort to Garowe. Men drift into the room, one at a time. Everyone is very deferential. They sit here and there. I assume they have petitions with the same officials. It turns out they are cops of some sort or another. After a while, in comes the Sarge, and everyone jumps up out of his chair in a show of respect. The Sarge wears sunglasses, a military shirt, a black Adidas cap, and a pistol in his holster. He sits at the desk, and he fidgets.

We start by looking over my passport and some other papers. There’s desultory discussion among the men in the room. Minute by minute, they lean in eagerly, inspecting me with growing hostility. I sense that it will be open season soon. It reminds me of writing workshops I’ve attended: polite comments in the margins, but once the pack is assembled, all bets are off. It isn’t long before they’re baring their teeth and glaring at me, snarling and slapping my passport against the desk repeatedly as they argue. There isn’t much questioning in this interrogation. It seems as though they’re arguing the entire case themselves, taking increasingly damning positions for the prosecution.

The central fact in my case is that they neglected to stamp my passport at the airport. They took my money, flipped through all the pages of the passport with the proper disdain, but didn’t stamp it, and I didn’t notice. Finally there’s no help for it: they have to take me to the big bad man at the police headquarters. We pile into a few of the ubiquitous white station wagons. The big, bad, and balloon-headed personage sits at a massive desk facing a long conference table, where I and my entire police escort sit. He hears them out with glowering eyes, puffing a cigarette with great malice. He asks me one question, and then immediately commands that I be silent, glaring at me for long moments as though to burn all insubordination out of me. I try to look chastened. He turns back to his empty desk and dismisses us with a few words and a wave.

Back at Sarge’s office, I’m informed that I’ll be fined $1,000 and taken back to the airport. This seems as good a cue as any. I reach down for deep indignation, and I announce with a good deal of righteousness that I have it within my power to bring half a million dollars in aid to this country’s children, but that if I board a plane today, I will make sure that not a penny arrives. What’s more, I’ll make sure everyone at all US embassies in the Horn and among my community of aid agencies knows that Puntland needs another ten years of time-out.

There’s a pause. Sarge muses behind his dark shades. The others relax into their chairs. There’s a flurry of muted discussion. The Sarge leans forward with his hands clasped on his desk. He now delivers a long complaint in his patchy English about how I’ve misunderstood. Everything they are doing is only for my safety. The logic is tortuous, and there’s little in the semblance of an argument to follow, but I become convinced, nodding with sympathy. ‘I see. Yes, I see now.’ How could I have been so selfishly blind? There are more mutterings. There’s a phone call. There’s silence.

Sarge seems very self-satisfied. He eventually tells me they’re taking me to see someone else. I cringe, but the officers are very reassuring. There’s nothing more to be done. We all start to chat like old friends. I tell them about the schools in Addis Ababa. Sarge spent many a year training in Ethiopia, so he speaks Amharic. I pull out my camera and call up photos of my kids. The Sarge consents to a picture, and I capture him and his chief jackal behind the desk. He doesn’t take off his shades, but he smiles.

Word comes that it’s time to move. We form the convoy. I take my customary position in the back seat between two of the sweaty jackals with guns. Here I go, one dark degree further into the shadow worlds of Somalia.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Travelogue 215 – February 7

1.4 The plane descends. The sharp-edged hills back away, allowing us an expanse of flat dirt for landing. The runway is unpaved. We taxi forward and as the plane turns, I catch my first glimpse of life on the ground in Somalia. The Bosaso airport is no more than a small jumble of squat buildings behind a guarded fence. Once we’re stopped, a stream of people runs toward the plane to greet arrivals.

There won’t be anyone to greet me. I have no idea what I’ll do. As I inch my way down the plane’s aisle, among piles of Hajj kitsch, I strike up a conversation with Ali Hussein, the Yemeni guy stranded with me at the airport in Djibouti. He is a short, quiet man with humor in his eyes. We disembark down the stairs, among the arrivals handing bags down to locals. He leads me out the gate and across the gravel of the yard to an office with one desk. We’re surrounded by men in uniform and with guns slung over their shoulders. One man resembling a civilian looks over our passports and our faces with distaste. Ali has to lend me a twenty-dollar bill to pay for my entry visa. I should have watched closely where the money went.

Outside, Ali bargains with a taxi driver. A crowd gathers, and they are surprised by Ali’s Somali. He makes them laugh, which I know is critical to the bargaining process in this part of the world. We get into the dusty white station wagon and we’re driven out the gate of the airport, shuddering along the desert dirt road, swinging down and up through gullies. It’s a road I’ll get to know all too well.

You enter town through the wealthy west side, big houses built haphazardly in the open spaces between old town and the airport. Here are your first symptoms of life without government. There are no services. There are no asphalt roads. And the houses are built exactly wherever home-owners feel like laying foundations. Advance into town, and you’ll encounter the legacy of law and order, though no active signs of them. The streets resolve into a grid, though they are still all dirt. And structures conform to ghostly zoning.

Ali Hussein has a hotel in mind as safe enough, the Juba. There are walls and fences. The rooms are pretty nice. There’s a clean lobby and patio. It’s beyond his budget, but I offer to pay. He has a long dialogue with the skittish man at reception, who eyes me with misgiving. We learn about the kidnappings.

It’s only been a week or two since a Spanish woman and an Argentine woman were kidnapped from these streets and held for ransom. The man at reception shakes his head with dark displeasure and says that he can’t guarantee my safety. I have to stay inside the hotel and out of sight. We have no choice but to agree.

There’s no food in the hotel, so I wait in the patio area in the day’s last light while Ali goes out for dinner. There’s a Chinese guy at the next table. He gives me a glance as dim and dismissive as does every bearded man who passes on his way to wash. I sigh with What-have-I-done on my lips. I’m well used to being despised – I’ve been married; I’ve traveled in Arab countries; even worse, I’ve traveled in Western Europe – but the feeling here is raw. It’s like I’m being sized up for slaughter. But the sun is sweet on my shoulders. It’s all I have and almost enough.

Ali returns with spaghetti. I’m to discover that Somali dishes are scarce in variety, and they all revolve around spaghetti or rice. What’s more, I have to eat with my hands. Apparently, there’s a well-evolved technique to it, involving a deft turning of the noodles around the first two fingers, while scooping other items up in the palm. I make a terrible mess and give up on technique, grabbing and stuffing with abandon. Our napkins are pages of a newspaper.

Ali and I try an after-dinner walk, seeing if we can make it around the block. One hundred meters on, an old man leaning against a wall makes a lazy comment, and Ali takes my elbow and turns me back around. Day done. I go to my room, ready to sleep.