Car bombs. Kidnappings. Extortion. Pirates. These are the things that usually come to mind when people mention Somalia. 

But just a few hundred miles north of the most dangerous country on earth is a place just the opposite: the wonderful, peaceful (independent) Somaliland.
Though not officially recognized, Somaliland broke from southern Somalia during the civil war of the 90s. Due to its strange political status, I knew I had to visit this place!
Bussing my way through eastern Ethiopia, there were some desolate, dusty old towns along the way which reminded me of the old west.
Once I got to the Ethiopian-Somaliland border, I was shocked to find it open and almost completely unregulated. You could easily walk between the two countries without getting anything stamped... not a great idea, but definitely doable.
Somaliland is similar to Ethiopia in the sense that the words "maximum occupancy" do not exist. The minibus from the border to the capital city was definitely an experience... I'm also really good at tying my backpack to the top of a bus now!
On the way to Hargeisa, I met Tanat, a Somali expat living in Denmark who was on his way back to visit his wife and son. He found me a great hotel and brought his son to visit me a few times!
Hargeisa, to my surprise, was a vibrant little capital city. There weren't any paved roads to speak of, but everything was orderly and peaceful - a stark contrast from chaotic Cairo or even Addis Ababa.
In fact, the city is so safe that there are money exchange stands on just about every corner, completely out in the open.
I exchanged $50 and received a whopping 340,000 Somaliland Shillings - at 6,800 shillings to the dollar! It's not as great as it sounds though considering it costs 3,000 shillings for a bottle of water! 

Carrying around a bag full of money is pretty fun though!
Despite its stability and safety, the tarnished name of 'Somalia' means that Somaliland's tourist industry is basically nonexistent. I felt like THE tourist of the entire city.
Just about everywhere I went, people greeted me,  some offered me tea, and most wanted to strike up a friendly conversation with me. Nobody had any ulterior motives or wanted money from me. It was a very genuine friendliness. 

Was I in Palestine once again?
Though Somaliland isn't your typical sightseeing destination, war monuments and colorful murals dotted the city recovering from a pretty rough civil war.
I learned the hard way that there are NO ATMS in all of Somaliland.  Luckily, I had just enough spending cash for the week - but I was strapped!

I also just happened to be there during their presidential elections. Every day it was rallies, busloads of party members, and signs - all demonstrated peacefully, of course.
For lunch, Somalilanders gather in the streets every day at noon to eat delicious spaghetti prepared by street vendors, one vestige of their Italian occupation days.

Like anywhere else in this part of the world, utensils are not so commonly used, so I ate spaghetti with my hands, just like the locals. When in Rome!
One Somali man even offered to pay for my lunch, but I couldn't accept it. Like the other Muslim countries I had visited, Somalilanders were incredibly hospitable.

I met Ridwaan and Abdi, two restaurant cooks who introduced me to 'shurro,' a popular Somali breakfast dish consisting of corn, milk, and spices!
After a day and a half in the capital, I took a minibus out to Berbera, a small port city on the northern Somalian coast.
What was supposed to be a simple two-hour drive ended up taking FIVE with checkpoints, meal breaks, and even a prayer break. While the people are kind, they are also painfully inefficient...
Berbera is like the Disneyland for people who like conflict tourism. Unlike the rapidly developing Hargeisa, Berbera is a city crumbling in ruins from the Somalian Civil War.
With three incredible shipwrecks visible in the main harbor, I felt like I was in some post-apocalyptic world. It simply did not feel real to me, to see such large ships in ruins.
Berbera wasn't just all wrecks and ruins. Just 2 miles north of the city, I discovered a completely untouched coastline.
I hadn't seen the ocean since Alexandria, so I decided to take a relaxing beach day - picnic and all. There I was on the beach, facing Yemen, in pirate alley. No pirates on my watch, though.
On the beach, I met Abdimajid, a talkative guy who was surprised to see me on his daily walk. Sunbathing, after all, isn't exactly a popular pastime in the muslim world!
"Are you a journalist?" he asked me - a popular question people ask out here. 

I also ran into two Italian guys on the beach, the only other tourists I would end up seeing!

Unfortunately, my time spent in Somaliland was cut short by a terrible bout of food poisoning that left me in bed for the better of the next three days.

Somaliland wasn't too bad of a place to get sick, I realized. Strangers came to my aid and brought me ice for my fever and when I went to the hospital, they didn't even charge me a penny to see a doctor and get rehydration salts! Does Somaliland have more affordable healthcare than back home? Sadly, I think yes.

When the fevers, chills, and diarrhea finally stopped, I made my way back to Hargeisa and spent my last day swapping stories over milk tea with Ridwaan and Abdi!
Leaving Somaliland was a sad ordeal - not just because of the wonderful people I had met - but because I knew I had a daunting 2 day bus ride back to Addis ahead of me.

But somehow through the post-sickness haze, I survived the 30 hour bus ride. 

On my final night in Africa, I met up with Feleg and Agata (the two Americans I met last month) again in the upscale neighborhood of Bole, and we went to the local 'beer garden' for some good old fashioned Austrian-German sized drinks!
Feleg and Agata both welcomed me to Ethiopia when I first arrived and sent me off on my last night! 
In my original plan, this would have been the last stop of my trip before going home. However, I've decided to extend my journey three more weeks to see India while I'm in the area!

So it's technically not 105 days of backpacking anymore... but 126. Not as catchy, as I know.

Africa this past month has taught me a lot more than I thought it ever would. It's taught me lessons in patience and has definitely increased my physical and hygienic tolerance. I now appreciate more than ever the things I used to take for granted: a toilet that flushes, a shower with running hot water, a clean bed, and a normal car ride.

Next up... Delhi!

PS: Happy birthday to my beautiful sister, Winny!!
Three months into my travels, Ethiopia has shown me the trials and tribulations that come with traveling in the developing world. It has definitely not been easy and, in some cases, frustrating. But man, I have learned so much. 

I also feel like my physical tolerance is much higher now than a few months ago. Although it's still hard not to go batshit crazy every now and then when it takes 4 hours to travel 60 miles...

Being all bussed out in the south, I decided this time to fly into the north, compared to the alternative of a rough two-day bus ride.
What I didn't know was that planes in Ethiopia operate like busses. My what-I-assumed-was-a-direct flight to Lalibela flew first to Gondar, then the northernmost city of Axum, before finally backtracking to Lalibela. What was supposed to be a short 45-minute flight ended up taking over three hours.

"This is Ethiopia" pretty much became my mantra every time something ridiculous or unexpected happened.
Lalibela, known as the Jerusalem of Africa, is known for having the largest monolithic churches in the world - eleven of them in fact. Monolithic meaning carved completely out of one single piece of rock!
I'm not sure why King Lalibela decided to carve these churches from the ground, but I've never seen anything like it. Amazing!
I also happened to be in Lalibela on the day of their weekly market. Northern Ethiopia being VERY cold this time of year, I quickly bought a traditional 'gabi' - a large thick blanket that Ethiopians drape across their necks. And wonderfully toasty it was.
From Lalibela, I bussed an incredibly scenic route westward towards Bahir Dar - a city situated on Lake Tana - the only coastal city in an otherwise landlocked Ethiopia. The Ethiopian highlands along the way were spectacularly photogenic.
When I arrived, I managed to hit the lottery and found a hotel that was not only clean but had hot water  and free wifi. Most Ethiopian hotels don't even offer a single of those three things, so this certainly felt like the Sheraton!
In my hotel, I met Hal and Leslie from Wales and we shared a boat out to see the monastaries of Lake Tana.
Unfortunately, boat scams in Lake Tana are commonplace. After we initially paid, they told us that "a few people cancelled" and that we would have to pay more. They also refused to return the money we already paid. Again, this is Ethiopia, I told myself.
I learned afterwards that this scam happens to basically everyone.

On top of that, the island monasteries on the lake treat tourists like cash cows. Entrance is 100 Birr (6 dollars) PER monastery, and if you don't want to visit their monastery, they basically kick you off the island. Yep.
We decided to pay to see the biggest (and oldest) monastery on the lake, this one being from the 14th century.
I've been to loads of churches over the years, but Ethiopian Orthodox ones feel and look completely different than western Christianity ones.
The lake is also known for its hippos, but we weren't lucky enough to see any that day.
The next day, I got a guide that took me to see the Blue Nile Falls outside of Bahir Dar.

On the way, we passed a religious ceremony honoring the day of the goat, an Ethiopian holiday according to my guide.
We walked through incredible scenery and medieval bridges and villages before making it to the falls.
Apparently during the wet season, the amount of water here is more than doubled!
Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Leaving the falls by boat, I was forced into paying 150 Birr (9 dollars!) for a 1 MINUTE boat ride that was supposed to cost less than 50 cents.

To make matters worse, my tour guide also tried to scam me by telling me I had to tip him a "set fee of 350 BIRR" (21 DOLLARS) for his "guide association fee" and that anything extra would be for him. He conveniently told me this while I was trapped in the middle of nowhere with him!

I threatened to call the police and demanded to be taken back to Bahir Dar, which surprisingly worked. I just couldn't believe that in two days, I had been scammed twice.

Despite these discouraging mishaps, there was a silver lining in Bahir Dar. Hal and I went out for a few beers one night and we met some college students who brought us to some cool Ethiopian bars and clubs!
They bought us drinks and showed us a pretty good night on the town, something that helped pick me up from some of my bad experiences before.
A few days later, I headed northbound to Gondar, a medieval town in northern Ethiopia known for its castles built by the emperors.
When I read about Ethiopian castles, I wasn't sure what to expect. I guess I had my bar set low because I was pretty blown away by the Gondar castles!
Inside, some of them were bombed by the British in WWII (when Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians).
Gondar is also a popular staging point for treks through the famous Simien Mountains, a popular camping spot. 

I met Maude and Osho from Quebec and Rabia from Switzerland, and the four of us went around town arranging a trek to see the mountains.

Knowing a little Amharic goes a long way! I was able to negotiate $40 off per person for our three day, two night trek - which included everything from food to tents and mules!
In our group, we also met Rhona from Ireland and Cameron from Australia, and the six of us set off for what would be three grueling, but rewarding, days of hiking!
Approximately 12,000 feet above sea level (almost the altitude of my skydiving in April), the air in the Simien Mountains was not only thin but freezing cold.
Two people in the group experienced a bit of altitude sickness our first day. The views, however, were spectacular.

I'm not much of a scarf-wearing guy, but when it's that cold, I'll take what I can get!
We also spotted wild baboons and ibexes! It was the first time I had been so close to such exotic animals without some sort of barrier...
At night, our chefs in the camps cooked us some incredible 3-course dinners, as well as plenty of snacks throughout the day.

On the last night, I witnessed our cook kill a chicken for our dinner... 
And of course, I taught everyone Daifugo, the Japanese card game I mentioned in my last entry!
During the course of our three days in the mountains, we climbed and trekked a total of 25 miles!
When we got back to Gondar, I coincidentally ran into Hal and Leslie (from Bahir Dar! It was a pleasant surprise to reunite with them for another night of drinks.
In terms of natural scenery, Ethiopia has been the most beautiful country I've seen on my trip thus far.
Though in terms of the local people, it has been a bit disappointing.

During my 4 weeks in Ethiopia, I was scammed twice, had two theft attempts, and was grossly overcharged for everything from water to bus fares.

Sadly, almost everyone who approached me wanted money, and for the first time, I had people ask for money for giving me directions!  

It's sad to me that, for such a beautiful country, there's so much blatant discrimination against foreigners, or "faranjis." Most restaurants and hotels will overcharge foreigners as much as they can get away with. Even if you know the real price, they'll tell you directly "No, you will pay the faranji price." 

It's infuriating.
As for the begging, the kids in the cities basically know two English words: "Hello," followed by "money."
In one instance, I had a security guard in a church ask me for money. "If your face is white, everyone assumes you have money to give them," one Ethiopian told me. They refer to all non-Africans as 'white.'

And the staring... oh, the staring. This must be how celebrities feel all the time.
Despite these hindrances, Ethiopia, to my surprise, will remain one of the most stunningly beautiful countries I've ever visited.
Next up... the northern Somalia de facto Republic of Somaliland! 

Yes, I really am going there!
Never in my life have I ever been as dirty as I was during my 9 days in southern Ethiopia; but it has been an incredibly life-changing experience, one that I feel lucky to have experienced.
If you've ever browsed the Discovery Channel or opened up a National Geographic in a waiting room, you have likely seen pictures of the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia - the people with the discs on their overstretched lips.
These people, along with hundreds of other tribes, all live in the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia. Getting there, however, is incredibly difficult: planes do not fly and roads are either in terrible condition or nonexistent.

Because of this, organized jeep tours cost over a thousand dollars per person for an 8 day tour of the tribes - 8 days being minimal considering it takes 2 days to get there and another 2 back.

Luckily, I met Hitomu, Akira, and Aki: three independent backpackers from Japan who had the idea of trying it ourselves - without a tour.
Very few people go tourless simply because it's very, very difficult.
Bus travel in southern Ethiopia is like a safari in itself. The roads that are paved are extremely bumpy and the roads that aren't feel like a magnitude 6.0 earthquake. Add in tribal pedestrians, large slow animals, and water crossings and the bus is going at a top speed of about 35 mph.

Not to mention the cramped conditions. In one of our minibuses, I counted 22 people in our bus built for 12. I did everything from sitting on the floor to laying in the back of a truck.

This was taken right before 5 more people came on board.
One silver lining is that the scenery along the way is quite nice.
Two days by bus from Addis, we made it to Kayefour, a town without electricity or running water, where we found a guide that brought us to see our first tribe: the Bana people.
Of all the tribes we visited, the Bana were by far the most welcoming and least exposed to tourists of them all.
We were quickly welcomed by a Bana family that invited us into their hut for refreshments and (interpreted) conversation.
They offered us roasted coffee, brewed beer, and invited us to stay with them for the night! Even hospitality can transcend language barriers, it seems.
The Bana people are especially known for their beads and bracelets in Ethiopia. I made sure to buy a few when we visited their weekly market the next day!
I also tried chewing 'chat' for the first time - a popular Ethiopian narcotic. Instead of slowing things down like marijuana, chat actually makes you incredibly alert and aware. 

The first time I tried it, I read 34 pages of my Dubai guidebook before I realized what I was doing. One guy told me he chewed chat and read the entire Quran in one sitting. Where was this amazing plant during high school?
A few days later, we finally made it to Jinka - the closest town to the Mursi people, known for their discs.
It's worth nothing that only the married Mursi women have disc lips as they consider it beautiful on women. The men just paint themselves in white and look tough.
While I was hoping for something a little more pristine, the village we visited felt more like a business than anything. The Mursi people are so used to hoards of tourists coming in jeeps that they simply ask for tips and pose for photographs. I suppose the downside of being so famous is the inevitable commercialization that follows.
"You can touch them, y'know. They really don't care," said the tour guide to me as he casually copped a feel on one of the young girls.
At the Jinka market, Tom, being a tall guy, was naturally very popular with the local kids. They jumped, climbed, and swung from his arms; he was basically a walking jungle gym! It was pretty adorable.
At one point, Akira suddenly disappeared.  A few minutes of searching later, we found him like this.
Being the only girl in the group, Aki also got a bit too much attention from the market kids. 

Wise word of advice: Never wear a skirt to a tribal market!
Sadly, Akira got pretty sick in Jinka. Turns out, he contracted an intestinal parasite and, not wanting to risk losing hospital access as we went deeper into the Omo, he decided to call it quits and head back to Addis Ababa to see a hospital.

However, at the same time we met Daisuke (also from Japan) and Jong Ho from Korea, who both decided to travel onward with us. Even with Akira gone, our group rose from 4 to 5!

We missed the last weekly bus to the next town (Turmi) so we had to contract a private one to take us. I've realized that splitting everything 5 ways is quite nice!
In Turmi, it was cheap enough for all 5 of us to get our own private rooms. 

Akira and Tom taught me an amazingly addictive Japanese card game called 'Daifugo.' We played a round of it to decide room picks and - being the winner - I got the 'suite!'

If you've ever traveled through Africa, you'd understand how nice this room is! This is like Vegas status in the Omo Valley.
From our hotel, we walked a good 4 miles with a guide to visit a Hamer village during their evening dances.
The Hamer kids were initially shy about getting their photos taken, but once I showed them pictures of themselves, they all started fighting to have their pictures taken!
Nighttime in the Omo can be pretty lonely as electricity is pretty limited, if any at all.

We resorted to hanging up some flashlights and the five of us started playing Daifugo for money. What started as 1 Birr stakes (5 cents) quickly escalated into 30 Birr stakes (2 dollar) a few hours later. With a game this fast, you'd be surprised at how much people start to owe after a while. The most we ever played for was a 200 Birr game, roughly 12 bucks!

It doesn't sound like a lot, but once you get used to spending less than $20 a day in Ethiopia, 12 dollars is a LOT. We also chewed some chat while playing, of course!
On our last day in Turmi, we were lucky enough to witness a Hamer wedding ceremony. There's a big reason why they wear bras for this ceremony.
A Hamer wedding ceremony, for those not warned about the customs, can be a huge shock to experience. 

The women wear bras because the husband-to-be and his family whip (that's right, whip) the bride(s) to symbolize them giving themselves to their husband.
Watching it was completely different than what I had expected. Not only do the women not mind being whipped, they absolutely want it! The husbands, on the other hand, didn't seem to enjoy it, but the women aggressively sang, danced, and shouted to be whipped. To them, it's an incredible honor to be whipped by your husband's family.

It got to the point where brides would actually fight each other to be whipped first. One bride almost cried because her husband didn't want to keep whipping her.
While to outsiders, the whole concept is extremely gruesome, the married Hamer women flaunt their scars with a huge amount of pride. These are, by far, the toughest women I've ever seen.

After the whipping, the final ceremony is the bull jump, where the husband must jump and run across a line of bulls 8 times to signify his manhood.
Never in my life did I think I would ever witness this type of tribal ritual. It's all been extremely surreal to me. I've definitely come a long way since Dubai!

Everyone else being on their way down to Kenya, I said a few bittersweet goodbyes to the group of awesome people I traveled with for over 9 days.

I miss everyone already!
Going back to Addis, I hitched a ride with an overnight banana truck.
A terrible 23 hours later, I finally made it back to the capital, barely intact.

As for my experiences back in Addis Ababa, this dusty city has been overwhelming, to say the least.
I've also been hanging out with three American expats living in Addis: Marie Claire, Feleg, and Agata. We've been hanging out between my trips to the outer regions of the country.
I also made an afternoon trip to the Entoto Mountains north of the city. What surprised me was how the Ethiopian highlands look more like Canada to me than the way I pictured 'Africa' to be.
And today, I had my first hot water shower in almost 2 weeks.

While I won't miss not showering for 4 days at a time and sleeping in mosquito nets, I sure will miss those kids.