Sunday, April 27, 2008

Travelogue 226 – April 27
Wintry Interlude

Hey, by the way, I’ve been back in Minnesota almost a month now. It would be hard to imagine a place less like Somalia. (Though there are plenty of Somalis walking the streets of this burg.)

While I’ve been sitting in the café this Sunday morning, the sky has become white again, that stifling shade of white misery, the all-embracing midwestern mucous membrane called weather, gathering us into chill depressions.

How could I have guessed, as my transatlantic jet shuddered down through swirling snow, as I watched the fleet of snow ploughs clearing landing strips, as I glimpsed the familiar downtown towers through the sinister flurries and the familiar lakes covered with films of white, how could I have guessed the evil potency of this omen?

April has seen about three separate visitations of the shivering ghost of winter phlegm, leaving shallow layers of its crystalline litter. The world’s white; the world melts; the world’s a dark and persecuted green; the clouds gather and one eyes them with dread. The timid grasses visibly cringe. Just yesterday morning, there was snow on the ground. It’s the end of April!

I’m exactly where the photo places me. The photo is a good portrait of my life these days. That’s my little work station there. That’s the sturdy Think Pad donated to me and Tesfa. In four weeks, I’ve made a serious dent in its reserves of memory. It houses just about everything Tesfa that doesn’t reside inside human tissue, and I pray daily to the capricious genii of memory chips that the mysterious box will not crash – much as I pray to the cryptic dairy skies for mercy.

The backdrop is one in my circuit of work cafes. This one is Java J’s on Washington Avenue in the warehouse district of downtown. The theme is blue. The theme is dogs allowed. There is a steady stream of cable TV to distract me. They serve wine and beer at night, but I’m never here at night.

The clientele is grown-up hipsters. They have careers and money now. The neighbourhood is long rows of old Chicago-style brick that twenty years ago was decrepit and now is distinguished. It’s a zone heavy with condos, expensive restaurants and design firms.

What I like is that I can walk a few short blocks to the river. That’s the Mississippi River, congenial father of waters, cold and swift. I walk from the Plymouth Bridge down to Hennepin and cross to walk back. This side of the river is all park, and it’s pleasant on cold days. On spring days, kamikaze joggers quickly blossom, requiring all but the trees to make way for their unsightly labours.

Just before the Hennepin Bridge, you can stop for a moment’s mediation at the railway bridge where some mournful soul scribed, ‘Just this, from birth to death ….” It’s a message that appeals to large fowl, I’ve noticed. There’s always a Canada goose or two paddling nearby and gazing sadly at the words.

Anyway, I’m still enjoying the sensation of safe and solitary strolls. Things haven’t disintegrated quite so far in Bush’s America that I need escorts with guns. Not yet. But now I’ll return to the final chapter of the Somali journey.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Travelogue 225 – April 20
Escape, Part Two

Yet more about my Somali lifetime:
1.15 I’ve moved from the sterile Village, where the reptilian, two-toed ostrich struts in the yard and stares at me with its demented Daisy Duck eyes; I’ve moved downtown into Abdurashid’s hotel, the Muna Hotel. I have three beds for about half the price of the Village. The only drawback is the tight little alleyway behind my room where all the children of the neighbourhood gather for screaming relays in the evening.

The gunfire has diminished. The street battles between police and the kidnapping clans had revived by the time we returned to town, but now it’s quiet. Our guards are bored. They sip tea in the lobby watching Somali music videos on the high TV: self-conscious guys with mikes in front of patriotic slide shows.

The hotel isn’t far from the sea. One day we drive the several blocks, supplied with plenty of guns. Arriving at the city’s beach, I discover that the Somalis are subject to the same bizarre logic that drives Ethiopes out of the beautiful mountains and into the drab plain below. Who resides on this choice real estate beside the sea? Refugees in their makeshift tents. In the eyes of pastoral Somalis, dependent for millennia on their herds and the scrub grass of the interior, the seaside is fundamentally uninteresting. Item: the apathy about pirates and foreign fleets stealing millions of profit along their coastline.

In the early evening we sit outside in a pleasant alcove on the second floor, just high enough to see the horizon of the sea. We enjoy a gentle breeze and the sunset colors while the Somalis indulge in their favourite activity, talk. There is never a break in the chatter, even as the soft night becomes deep, black, and quiet as the sea.

We have a companion in the chatter and in the evening breezes. That’s lovely Hodan from Kenya. She’s in Bosaso working a stint with the UNHCR here. She’s more soft-spoken than the Somali-born folk. I’m tutored in the bias against Kenyan Somalis. They’re seen as stuck up. They’re seen as having given up on their heritage and values. Indeed, the ones I’ve met are mellow and relatively sophisticated. They have Christian friends in Nairobi and confess to going out without covering their hair!

Well it is that I’m comfortable in the Muna Hotel because I’m there for a number of days while the airline roulette wheel spins and spins. With every passing day, Abdurashid looks more tired. He begins to despise Bosaso. ‘They’re different, the people here. I don’t know.’ He shakes his head mournfully.

I’m seriously considering the goat boat to Yemen, shivering on an open deck for 24 hours, when the moment arrives: escape. It begins like one of our routine trips to the airport, but when it ends I’m dazed at tens of thousands of feet above the craggy coastal landscape of Somalia. Escape!

It seems that the usual ch’at plane has broken down. They’re bringing in another plane for the rest of the week while the original gets fixed. This substitute has seats and can be classified by the powers that may or may not be as a passenger flight.

I’m rushed into a tiny office. Jama sits behind a desk, and I sit squeezed among five fat guys from Khyrgistan. Jama launches into a florid speech and introduction, consoling the ch’at plane’s crew for their misfortune and expressing confidence that they’ll fix the plane in no time. Introducing me is the occasion of more tsk-tsking about Americans, a cross for all other nations to bear, our blindness, our blunders, this being a perfect case in point, though heart of gold I may house in my wretched breast, coming all this way to help his people, and so on. The Khyrgistanis sit stony-faced.

With Jama’s blessing, we are all crammed into a van and rushed out to the airstrip, where I stand in the sun while the crew tinkers around the wounded plane. They are men of few words, though nice enough. They’re Khyrgistani by post-Soviet nationality, but Russian by blood and language. I find out a little of their story from the youngest of them, who speaks English. They man this flight daily for seven months at a stretch and then go home for four. He smokes a cigarette and stares wearily out into the dry brown distances.

About an hour later, I discern salvation’s buzz in the sky. Among rippling waves of overheated air above the desert ridges, there it is, the sweet little dragonfly that will take me away. It lands among plumes of dust. While the ch’at is unloaded, I’m discreetly guided in through a back door. The ancient chairs are loaded up with bags of Ethiopian narcotics. Some is left onboard for our stop in Somaliland.

The crew climbs in, settles into various open seats around the plane. Several green-toothed old Somalis sit up front and commence the shouting banter that they will maintain for the whole journey. Everyone lights up cigarettes. I can report that cigarettes in ancient prop planes that sway like a dhow at sea and offer no barf bags are a true test of character. I passed, but not without some cold sweats.

Below, the land is brown and dry and carved with severe gullies severely dry except for a few short and rash seasons of the year. For a while, we’re in sight of the bright sea stretching into dreamy hazes, but eventually the coastline veers away from us. I’m sad to see it go.

There’s one stop along the way, Endayo in Somaliland. From the air, you see the oasis of iron roofs among angry rock. Cruising in for a landing, we see the SUVs and their trails of dust as they race us to the airport. We touch down abruptly on the rocky airstrip. The young Khyrgistani suggests dryly that I stay inside the plane, and I don’t argue. The mad ritual of unloading breaks upon us like a storm. The Russians stand outside smoking, quietly and utterly indifferent.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Travelogue 224 – April 13
Escape, Part One

And more of the Somali saga:
1.14 Every day we drive to the Bosaso airport, hoping I will board a plane. The airline that sold me a round-trip ticket in Djibouti has quietly discontinued its flights to Bosaso. Fortunately, Abdurashid has had a little chat with the man who runs the airline’s office (an active little office for one with zero services) and extracted a promise to refund the ticket. It’s a typical Somali encounter. We come to a sudden halt and Abdurashid jumps out of the car. His friend follows. They’ve spotted the man in question at a café. The discussion appears like any other: lots of smiles, hand on interlocutor’s elbow. But I know how direct these conversations can be. Ten minutes later, we’re on our way again.

I should add something about driving in Somalia. Steering wheels may come on either side. Most often they appear on the right. Since general practice on the road is driving on the right side, Somalia becomes the only country I know of where drivers are positioned by the road’s edge, away from oncoming traffic. It’s odd. The reason seems to be a Japanese marketing policy, the discontinuation of right-side models and dumping them cheap in the land without regulation.

Another important encounter is arranged. His name is Jama. He’s a large man, and the first time I see him he’s wearing a purple suit with broad, square shoulders. He towers over the minions on all sides as he strolls down the street. An open-back jeep creeps along behind him, two men manning the machine gun installed there.

They say Jama will run for president of Puntland next year. He has the physique and the aura for it. It’s hard to say whether his withering sarcasm will be a help or a hindrance in Somalia. I’m introduced a few times. The first time he has to cut our discussion short because he has a bad tummy. The second time he’s himself again, indulging in a long eulogy to his guest, delivered with a smirk and sketched out in rambling and satirically hyperbolic periods. Westerners are clearly the favourite objects for his double-edged accolades. In recommending me to the mercies of some Europeans who are travelling out of Somalia, he describes me in very sympathetic terms, while reminding his audience in loving embellishments how terribly greedy, sloppy, and inept Americans are.

In some undefined way, Jama has sway over airport authorities and airline representatives. He promises us to help. But even Jama has little power over the last minute bump once the crowd gathers for the flight, when family and friends of the rich and powerful show up for emergency seating. I’m left stranded a few times.

But it’s by virtue of these cold abandonments that I’m witness to the wild ritual of the daily ch’at delivery. Somalis will tell you that, in a manner very telling about their national character, there are three things you can always count on in Somalia: mobile service, internet service, and the daily delivery of ch’at, that universally beloved narcotic of the Horn of Africa.

Every day, as near clockwork as anything human in this desert, the little prop plane appears like a buzzing fly in the great blue firmament. It bobs above the western ridge beyond the airport like a spider on a heavenly thread. It arrives, kicking up dust along the earthen landing strip. Before the props have stilled, the crazed feeding begins.

About half a dozen beat trucks and vans have been held back by airport police. Now they roar into action, spreading dust and screeching to a halt at the back end of the plane, as a cargo door is lowered down. The bags are thrown down and shouting men swarm, cramming their vehicles full. Within ten minutes the first trucks are full and they scream into drive again, describing skidding turns in the dust while men sway precariously in the back on high piles of ch’at bags. Within the hour, delivery boys in white station wagons will be roaring around town with impunity.

It’s on one of these airport runs, as the dust settles from ch’at trucks that I meet the finance minister of Puntland. He’s caught a ride on the ch’at flight. Abdurashid pushes us to the fore of a small crowd greeting him. The minister seems a sophisticated man. He’s dressed well, and has a soft voice and a pleasant accent. I shake his hand as Abdurashid explains who I am. A TV cameraman records the event. Ch’at trucks rumble past. The moment passes in its own cloud of pollution, and we’re on our way back to the hotel.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Travelogue 223 – April 4
They the People

Continuing the Somali saga:
So what is it about Americans and ‘nation-building’? We are fascinated by it, like baby nation-moths to history’s flame. I’m no exception. I’m intrigued by the spectacle of an ancient land struggling to start over as one of the world’s newest states. The current administration in Puntland is only the second.

(May I insert a riddle here? How can a state named ‘Puntland’ exist among people who can’t pronounce the ‘P’ sound? It doesn’t exist in the Somali language. Answer: you just say ‘Buntland’.)

Puntland leaders only gave up on Somalia about ten years ago, after seven years of civil war. It’s been to this little state’s benefit, boosting the population of its cities, boosting trade through its ports and towns, encouraging self-sufficiency and the development of independent services. But still they say they would like to rejoin a federal Somali state whenever that happens.

The government of Puntland looks like any other compound on the street. Maybe it’s a bit larger, but unremarkable. Inside, there are three buildings around a central courtyard. Abdurashid leads me among the suits and the armed guards into the building on the left.

The vice-president of Puntland is an ageing fellow of wide girth. He’s got a few silver teeth in his broad smile. He has a befuddled air about him, but is alert enough once we’ve introduced ourselves. He’s familiar with my troubles in Bosaso, and asks about them. He reassures me. We talk about schools, and he’s welcoming.

There are plenty of marks of deference when you enter a Somali official’s office, but it doesn’t take long before the atmosphere is very casual. Abdurashid exchanges joking remarks with the vice-president, as he does with each of the several ministers we meet with afterward. It seems there’s been a recent re-shuffle, and everyone is new to his post. But the chief minister is friendly and brisk and bright. The information minister is ironic. They’re all surprisingly accessible.

Everything corresponds well to the much-repeated conventional wisdom about Somalis. ‘We’re an oral culture,’ they’ll tell you. Indeed, everything seems to proceed through conversation. After a while, you sense the hum of these conversations through the walls and earth and air, like the blood stream of the society. In office or café, the tone is much the same: informal, direct, and unconcealing. It’s the business of the nation.

Maybe the deep roots of the oral culture in Somalia aren’t too mysterious. It’s only since 1972 that the present writing system had been in use. Over the centuries, Somalis have used Arabic script and various invented alphabets, until this system based on the Latin alphabet was adopted.

And so my day goes, meeting after meeting. After a few days, I’ve met most of the high officials of the government and managers in a variety of UN agencies and large NGOs. But I don’t meet the president of Puntland until I’m back in Bosaso, awaiting my flight out.

I finally talk Abdurashid and friends into taking me to the beach. We go to the eastern edge of town, where the bay curves off north, toward some hazy, jagged ridges that reach to the sea. Our men with guns behind us, we take off our sandals and wade through the shallow waves, sinking into the wet and packed sand, where telltale bubbles indicate the location of hundreds of crabs in spiralling shells. The water is a spectrum of radiant blues, a soft and warm aquamarine close to the shore.

There’s one large compound that stands alone in the desert not far from this long, white beach. It’s not gaudy or opulent, but it denotes some wealth. Abdurashid decides to stop by spontaneously. We drive right in, after the casual conference with guards. Along one wall inside are parked a line of jeeps with big guns. Uniforms and AK-47s are everywhere.

We stroll right into the house, exchanging friendly words with guards along the way. A secretary meets us on the stairway. We’re led into a large salon, where muted images of extreme sports flash across the screen of a large TV. The room is furnished in an Arab-like style, with low couches and pillows along every wall. The tables are low. The carpet is thick.

In comes the president. He’s a compact man, also clearly of advanced age, though his hair is black. It’s the weekend, and the president is in short sleeves. A heavy gold watch hangs from his wrist. He scolds Abdurashid for arriving without an appointment. Abdurashid laughs that off. The president also scolds him for how he handled my arrival; my story has traveled. Abdurashid waves that off.

We discuss the schools; we discuss travel problems. The president shares news of current negotiations with airlines to bring in more traffic. The president is a friendly man in a vague way. He’s watching the TV as he speaks. We have tea together. I’m self-conscious of my sandy flip-flops and my jeans that are wet at the bottom. But it’s a pleasant visit. We all shake hands amicably, sharing promises of great things to come, and our crew drives out of the compound under the vigil of dozens of guns.