Jan 1st, 2018
"Death in Somalia seldom bothers to announce its arrival. In fact, death calls with the arrogance of a guest confident on receiving a warm welcome at any time, no question asked." - Hiding in Plain Sight, Nuruddin Farah, Somali novelist
"There's no direct threat", Yusuf optimistically emailed me a week ago.
Jazeera Beach, south of Mogadishu
Operational Security clears our route, and we leave the compound in a bulletproof Land Cruiser, heading for the beach. I don't know if the six heavily armed guards walking in formation around me provide a feeling of safety or danger. We saunter onto the famous Liido beach, a popular spot for Somali nouveau rich, and Instagramers to see and be seen.
The coffee machine at the two week old Dolphin Hotel isn't working, so instead of a cappuccino, I settle for my third watermelon juice of the day. At the rooftop lounge I meet a well heeled diaspora returnee who lived in Toronto and reassures me Somalia is now "60% safe". We can't stay too long in one place so we clamber into the hefty Land Cruiser to see a few more sights before nightfall. I really wanted to visit the Bakaara market, where apparently you can buy anything such as AK-47's, ammo, or even a speedboat. Might as well throw in a fake passport for good measure.
The crash sites of the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 are in this market, although the wrecked choppers and tanks have recently been removed. Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" is a 2001 American war film that tells the story of the U.S. military raid that went disastrously wrong when optimistic plans ran into unexpected resistance. In October 1993, 18 Americans lost their lives, 70 more were wounded, and within days President Bill Clinton pulled out troops that were on a humanitarian mission. While its a great film, its NOT advisable to make your girlfriend watch it with you the night before you fly off to Somalia!
Sadly, the powers that be deem the market a no-go zone, and for good reason. The area is still somewhat controlled by al-Shabaab. The best we can do is view it from a distance, up a dusty staircase, to the 3rd story rooftop of an abandoned hotel.
"Operation Delta 4, arriving Peace Hotel", my driver speaks into the radio, and the first of three heavily fortified gates swing open as we slide around a bend. Through a metal detector and pat down, I'm now in the secure compound. Relaxing in the courtyard with a gentle ocean breeze, I'm soothed by the sound of muezzin calling from their minarets, angry kittens fighting, and the klack-klack of not-so-distant machine gun fire.
Sometimes my life descends into a boring interlude of staring at the ocean, hunting the best rösti benedict, and sipping flat whites whilst pretending to work. But it's days like today that make me feel alive. I hop in the new $200,000 bulletproof SUV to visit the fish market and see if the first early morning catch of 2018 has been plentiful. I've got a fascination with camels, a nomadic Bedouin's best friend, and this vast desert on the Horn of Africa is home to the worlds largest population of the dromedaries. Sadly it won't be safe to visit the camel market because of al-Shabaab occupation. But we visit a nice beach out of town, (with lots of wind - perfect for kite surfing!) And I come across a crashed plane.
The weather is shorts and flip-flops balmy with a gentle ocean breeze, and the beautiful beaches go on for 1000's of miles. We visit what was once Somalia's premier hotel, the al-Uruba Hotel which catered to dignitaries and wealthy tourists.
It's fun to experience something different, and this is slightly beyond my comfort zone. While out and about in the city, I'm calm, but also nervous because of the extreme danger. There's explosions going off too frequently, and machine gun fire is normal. I don't think there's a single hotel which hasn't been attacked. Even the hotel compound I'm in was attacked exactly one year ago.
All the locals I meet are extremely welcoming, and want to see more tourists. But other than those working for the United Nations and various NGOs, confined to the heavily secured Green Zone at Aden Abdulle International Airport, I don't see a single westerner around town.
The city is doing better now than it has in the past thirty years since the fall of Siad Barre. Entrepreneurs are building small businesses. My host is starting a food delivery business, similar to Uber Eats. There's a TedX event, and a few startup events. You can even buy fractional shares in camels and goats - via Bitcoin! Things are looking good, but the country still has a long way to go.
On holiday in Italy you can look at historical sites and dream of how things once were, but on a journey to Somalia, you can watch tomorrow's history unfold in front of you.
In one word, I describe the people as resilient. They haven't lost hope, and they aren't afraid. They rebuild quickly and go on with their lives.