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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Adventures in prehistory 21.II.2009 08:29
I stand before a mountainside dotted with pictures of men and of animals that represent the very beginnings of human symbolic thought. Herds of cattle and men at prayer, crudely but beautifully rendered, some of the first instances of self-representation, truly representing the origins of humanity as we know it. I am at Laas Gaal, one of the least-visited historical sites in the world, and one of its most impressive collections of neolithic paintings: unvisited because it is in Somaliland, in the picturesque plains of the countryside north of Hargeisa. The story of my how I arrived here, however, is almost as interesting as the place itself. It is the one place in this country which I desperately wanted to visit, so you can imagine my despair at being told that it would cost $170 - you needed an armed escort, a guide, and a 4x4 to travel there; an approach by public transit is - and all sources are unanimous on this - impossible. But I was determined; 'Impossible is nothing,' I thought, the traveller's spirit within me stirring - or perhaps it was an Adidas commercial. Regardless, I set myself a goal and wasn't going to leave without accomplishing it.

The first step was getting permission to travel on the roads at all. Because of an isolated incident some six years ago, when aid workers were kidnapped by Somali militants, the government here is paranoid about tourists travelling alone, and requires a second car and armed escort to accompany them outside of Hargeisa. So, on the advice of my friends Arne and Yoshi, I decided to seek out the one man who could grant this permission: the general of the police. Getting to police headquarters is a touch tricky - you have to cross a riverbed under a bridge being built, and you wind up in what are really the outskirts of town. Arriving at police headquarters, I was greeted by a man speaking perfect English - not just perfect but subtle and refined, a kind of English that has died out completely among my generation and can only be the product of the colonial era. I am informed that the general will see me shortly; he is a kindly old man, small-framed, bearded and bespectacled, not at all the imposing African strongman I was expecting to see at the head of such an organisation - though his voice carries an obvious authority that befits his station. He greets me, and asks where I am going. 'To Berbera,' I say, half-lying - the road to Berbera takes me past Laas Gaal, and this is no problem; I get my permission within 15 minutes, with a nice official stamp and the general's signature. I'm on my way.

Unfortunately, because everyone's agreed that getting to Laas Gaal by public transport is impossible, and there is genuinely no transport directly to the site itself, there was not even any information about how to approach it - so I went to the best source of information in town, Mr. Saidi at the Oriental Hotel, who informed me that I needed to go to the village of Dhubato, on the road to Berbera and about five kilometres from the site. He was sceptical of the whole endeavour, especially since it was already 11AM and I would need to hitchhike back - he said I'd have to do this at night, but I didn't believe him - I had a full eight hours until sunset, after all. So I headed down to the shared taxi station and booked the $5 seat to Berbera; after this, we needed to wait for the car to fill; there were six people and the car needed ten. 'An hour or two,' I thought to myself, Berbera being the country's second city. Alas, there was a truth about Africa that my mind, in its enthusiasm, had ignored: you will wait. You will wait a long time, and then your car will go, drive 300m, and then you will wait again. The continent simply cannot conceptualise the idea of being in a hurry, and the concept of scheduling is completely absent; it's a kind of fatalism really: things take as long as they take, period. People you thought were part of your care were really just the driver's friends having a chat; so despite having begun at 11:15, it was already 3PM when I left. Time was short, and I couldn't help but think I'd made a mistake not waiting until the next day.

This impression was strongly reinforced by the confusion that erupted at the police checkpoint when I gave them the general's letter. In the many hours of waiting, I had told my fellow travellers - or at least, those who spoke English - that I was going to Laas Gaal, and of course they felt that they should be the one's to explain things to the police, not me. The locals always believe this, that because they speak the language and you're a helpless tourist you need to just stand aside and let them sort it out for you, but it really doesn't work - they are very afraid of authority here, and besides, sometimes the comprehension gap leads the officer to just get frustrated and wave you through. So, as soon as they said the words 'Laas Gaal,' I had the letter shoved back at me with a dismissing wave of the hand: I wasn't going anywhere. I had to go back. I was getting ready to start hinting about bribes, but this didn't seem like a place they'd be receptive, so I tried a different tack: I started shouting (over everyone that was speaking for me) that I was just going to Dhubato, and that I had sorted out my escort there (untrue). This wasn't really what the letter gave me permission either, but after some back-and-forth between the soldiers and policemen and security men - all these checkpoints are staffed by men in various uniforms and some without who have no leader among them - I was finally let through. Another hurdle cleared.

We arrived in Dhubato, and I must say, I expected the place to be a bit bigger - it can't have had more than a hundred or so people, in a few houses that stretched along the road. Here, again, the locals insisted they knew best, and before I had a choice they snatched my letter and went right to the local police with it - the one thing I had wanted not to do. 'He'll go alone,' they said, 'he says it's no problem,' somehow not realising that I was not the one who would have a problem with that. Instantly, I was told it was impossible - 'there are nomads,' I was told, nomadic being a byword in many parts of the Arab world. I thought I was done, but someone called the chief of the local police to come, and he rolled up in a 4x4 and, after some confusion and a bit of negotiating over price, he would allow me to go with a guide but without a soldier. The price wound up being $30, which is very expensive, and I think I could have got it down to $20, but it was getting late and I was a bit ecstatic at the idea of accomplishing my mission at all, so I decided to take it.

I'm glad I did, because the site is truly amazing. It's a six kilometre walk from the village, which is quite long, and I realised I'd be walking back at sunset - Mr. Saidi had been right in saying I should wait until the morning. The mountain rises from what is an otherwise flat plane, and it is no mystery that the locals chose it as the place of their mystical paintings. The guide led me up to an alcove, and I was greeted by an amazing site - dozens of figures, of men and of cows and of the moon and stars painted across the wall, in shades of red and black. These, not partial skeletons like Lucy at the Addis Ababa museum, are the true origins of man, the marks of homo sapiens, not merely erectus and habilis but creans and sciens and locutus. These are the beginnings of thought, the first creations of what Aristotle would have called our rational mind, the one that distinguishes us from all the other creatures of the land, air and sea. It is also, in a sense, one of mankind's first stabs at permanence, at immortality: a representation of themselves that would survive the flesh that made it. It is these small, crudely-drawn men, arms raised in worship, that impressed me the most, for they represent the eye turned inward, drawing not what you see but what others might, and leaving it for the sight of others. The artwork is genuinely beautiful in and of itself, but it is this feeling of contact with nascent human thought that is truly awe-inspiring.

The view from here is amazing too, the African plains stretching for miles interrupted only by a few other mountains rising in the distance, islands in a desert sea. It was getting, dark though, and my guide was getting impatient, so we began the long trek back. At one point, we see a man walking down, wearing the usual attire of the nomads - a skirt-like garment around his legs and an AK-47 across his shoulder, and I am glad I didn't go alone. My guide spoke no English and only a little Arabic, and I never could determine whether the nomad was sent by someone to meet us, or might have robbed us given half the chance - my guide seemed tense and would not look him in the eye, though he was a gruff old man who might have talked that way to everyone. A few miles on we encountered a soldier as well, and meeting a series of armed men as darkness encroaches, when you are still a half-hours walk from the nearest settlement, is a bit nerve-wracking. Nevertheless, my guide talked to him a little, not breaking his stride, and we pressed on back to Dhubato.

Although humanity has made great strides since the neolithic era, we remain at the mercy of our fragile bodies, afraid when alone because we could be felled so easily by a club or, now, a bullet. I was reminded of my lack of control in another way, when my body decided, in the middle of the field, that its bowels needed to be emptied immediately. I considered trying to press on, but that could only have ended in disaster, so I gestured to my stomach, looked at my guide and said 'ana marid' - I'm sick. He smiled slightly, but understood, and so there I was, with only a few semi-tall shrubs to use as a bathroom. Unfortunately, this was one of only two or three times during the trip when I had not had the chance to replenish the supply of that most important travel essential, toilet paper, and my choice came down to my photocopy of a Lonely Planet, and the leaves of some mysterious plant. Evolution being what it is, however, the plant's leaves were designed to retain water at all costs in this arid landscape, and I was forced to use the former. Oh well, I wasn't going to Burcao or Sheex anyway.

We made it back to Dhubato, and I didn't even have to hitch a ride - the police commander had a car going back to Hargeisa at 8PM and I could get that, though when we got there they tried to charge me $10, of course. I paid $5, so in the end the entire excursion cost me $40, which isn't bad for a site of Laas Gaal's remoteness and magnificence; I'm very glad I did it, and it was much less than the $170 I had been quoted. My Somali adventures weren't over yet though: there still remained the matter of getting out of the country, a long trek by a rough road to the Djibouti border. I arranged this through the Oriental Hotel, partly because they had already helped me a lot and I hadn't given the any money, and I wasn't even a guessed - I was staying in a the Geed Debre Hotel, which was only 10,000 shillings - $1.60! - a night and therefore far more inside my budget, though if you can spare $15 the Oriental is a great value. So at two the next afternoon, the hotel cook took me down to the meeting point for cars to Djibouti, which I'd been told leave around four - they always drive overnight because in the summer, when temperatures near the coast routinely pass the 40°C mark, daytime driving would be torture. So, this being Africa, we began to wait.

The wait turned out, unsurprisingly, to be five hours long, and the only thing that made it bearable was the semi-narcotic plant that the whole region was addicted to qat. Qat, in addition to being a powerful force on the Scrabble board, is a stimulant, ingested by chewing the leaves and squeezing out the juice. This is an activity that all men (and some women) from Yemen to Ethiopia practice, and when I say all, I mean all: the cities pretty much shut down between noon and four as everyone goes to chew the weed. It's a scourge on productivity, and reading about it, I never understood how a stimulant could lower that, but I do now: for the principle effect of qat is to make nothing bearable. In addition to making your mind more active, it produces a state of mild euphoria, so although my eyes were darting around and there was an edge to my voice, I was never annoyed or frustrated or bored; for five hours, as I sat chewing, everything seemed perfectly fine and I wasn't particularly bothered about when the car would arrive. I had tried it twice before, with no effect, but then I had been in the middle of trips when my mind would have been quite active anyway; it would be like drinking a cup of coffee when you're already very busy, no discernible effect. Waiting, though, normally makes me incredibly impatient, to the point where I hate even putting in the effort to talk to people whose English isn't great, but this time everything was no problem. It saved me on the rough sixteen hours through the mountains and desert to Djibouti too - sleep was impossible because you would be woken up within minutes by your head hitting the ceiling or dashboard, depending on your position. Thanks to qat, though, sleep wasn't a problem, and I arrived without incident the next morning.

Et quelle surprise - Djibouti, c'est vraiment un pays francophone. Ici, c'est pas comme les colonies angliases, où l'anglais et une langue connue seulement par l'élite - ici, tout le monde parle français. Le problème, c'est que mon français et très pauvre, et il y a beaucoup des mots que je ne connais pas ou j'ai oublié, alors c'est très difficile pour moi comprendre les gens - je dois vraiment habiter en France pour apprendre ce langue. Aussi, Djibouti et très, très cher; dans la Ville de Djibouti, un chambre dans un hôtel coût au moins €20! Alors, je suis venu à la petit village Ali Sabieh, presque de la frontière Éthiopienne, et c'est mieux ici. La vie et les prix, c'est plus comme à Somalie ou à l'Éthiopie - mon chambre coût seulement 1500Fr, ou €6. Je veux partir demain, inchallah par bâteau mais peut-être par avion, à Yemen, et après ça ma voyage et finie et je dois travailler, presque certainement à Caïre. Mais pour aujourd'hui je vais rélaxer, boire de la thé et pratiquer mon français avec les Djiboutiens. À bientôt!

Ali Sabieh, Djibouti Dj

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