That’s right, I went to what’s often considered the most dangerous city in the world: Mogadishu, Somalia.
I’m not saying that to brag. I’m just being upfront. I knew what I was getting into. I’ll also add that this post contains no “where to go for vegan food” recommendations, since my hands were pretty well tied on this, and I just found what I could on the buffet.
It was amazing in so many ways, and I felt super safe the whole time, but I’ll be the first to admit that I know ‘unexpected’ is the word for what happens there with violence and terrorism, and you never know what was around the corner unbeknownst to you. It was definitely a false sense of security, and I’m well aware of that.
I’d organized a trip with a few other people online I’d never met before, and we went with the group Visit Mogadishu. After comparing all of our options, here’s why we chose Visit Mogadishu:
1-every single one of their employees lives in Mogadishu full-time. If you want to know what’s happening and know how to keep me safe, you should be on the ground where I am. I didn’t want to be emailing someone in another country about any problems. The boss could be there in 5min, if there was an issue.
2-numerous recommendations from other extreme travelers pursuing every country. Recommendations were huge.
In just over 2 hours from take-off in Djibouti City, we made our approach to Mogadishu. For security, we passed outside the city until we were over the Indian Ocean, made a right turn, and then passed alongside the city but outside effective range of handheld surface-to-air missiles. Security! Then, we made another right turn and came in on the runway that starts at the water’s edge. At no point did we fly over the city.
Passport control: they knew we were there as tourists, but we received business visas. Why? You need an invitation letter and someone confirmed at the airport waiting to pick you up to get in. Once I handed over my passport and invitation letter, the police went out to the waiting hall to find who had the matching letter and was waiting to claim me. No guide? No entry. $60 for the visa included $40 for the visa, $12 for a processing fee and $8 ‘administrative’ fee (‘this goes in my pocket’ fee, probably). Thus, they don’t give out ‘tourist visas’ to prevent people hearing there’s a tourist visa and just showing up in Mogadishu with no supporting organization. It sounds stupid, but you know it would happen.
The other 3 guys in my group were arriving on a different flight, so I told the guides about my suitcase situation, and Ethiopian airlines was supposedly bringing it later on the flight the other 3 guys were on (oh, that took a million phone calls to sort out, since they wanted to bring it to Djibouti despite the fact I was now leaving), so we cleared security, went out to the waiting truck, and said they’d drop me at the hotel to check email and freshen up.
Leaving the airport is no small feat. First, there are the slalom barricades through the blast-proof corridor, then the dogs, and then, after you get out, your private security team who isn’t allowed onto airport grounds, jumps into the back of the pickup truck with their AK-47s, and we’re off…for 2 blocks.
Welcome to what’s considered the most secure hotel outside the airport: The Jazeera Palace Hotel. The president of Somalia stays here sometimes. It’s that safe. I won’t list the safety features (for safety reasons!), but it’s solid.
Again, the security team got left outside, since they’re not hotel employees, and they looked for some shade to chill in.
I met the manager during check-in, got a watermelon juice to welcome me, and checked into my room on the top floor (5) with a view toward the sea a couple blocks away.
We created a WhatsApp group for the guides and members of our group and then headed back to the airport to pick up the other guys—and hopefully my suitcase.
Lather, rinse, repeat – clear security out of the hotel, pick up the guards, drop the guards at the airport perimeter, clear security to the parking lot, clear security to the building of the airport.
While waiting for the other 3 guys, my suitcase came rolling out with a zillion “RUSH” “PRIORITY” “LOST” stickers on it. It would’ve been hard to miss it. Amazingly, the zip tie I put on the zippers to keep out thieves was still there 72 hours later. Amazing!
We gathered everyone up, went back to the hotel for check-in, and got a security briefing before being left to ourselves for lunch at the hotel and a short nap before starting our tour of the city.
Lunch was really interesting. Numerous people asked us who we were, why we were there, etc. 4 white guys really stuck out. People told us they were really, really happy to see us there and see us outside the airport, since all of the aid workers/government/etc never leave the airport complex. Instead, we were talking to and having lunch with some locals, though obviously well-to-do locals who could afford lunch at this nice hotel. Many were also diaspora who were visiting family yet live in Canada, US, Norway, etc. It was super interesting.
Our ‘overview of the city’ tour passed the Italian arch (southern Somalia, present-day “Somalia” was an Italian colony, while northern “British Somalia”/present-day “Somaliland” breakaway nation seeking independence was…British) and went to the Sahafi Hotel.
The manager of the Sahafi Hotel had started Visit Mogadishu several years ago, and the guides and drivers are still his employees. However, the Sahafi Hotel was known as THE place foreigners and government workers stayed, so it was attacked at the end of 2017, and some people died in the attack, though the hotel was never penetrated.
They’re still rebuilding it, and it sits empty. We were taken to the roof for some great views of the city and to see how things are coming along with the hotel.
Next, we went to the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, which is a famous Mogadishu landmark if there is one. Locals were amazed when we showed up, and our watchful security team kept an eye on them as they took selfies with us and asked us about our lives.
Nearby is the site of the first legislature, from before the Civil War started in the 90s.
Here’s another bombed-out building from the war.
Next, we went to Peace Park. After years of violence and living with the worries of what happens on the streets, Peace Park was created as a place where people can sit and talk about the path of peace for Somalia. It also has some playgrounds, is popular for weddings, and a fountain.
Our guides thought we were joking when we said we wanted to play on the swings, but play we did!
As sundown approached, we concluded our drive and returned to the hotel. Getting into the hotel always took a good 15min. We hung out in the courtyard and had some “Somali Tea” (hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but it came in a tea bag that said Lipton on the side) as the sun went down. The guides and driver did their sundown prayers and then told us what time to be ready the next morning and said goodbye.
Dinner was good, and we hung around talking to some locals and then went up to the rooftop for views out over the city.
Breakfast was decent, and ‘tour start time’ was about 15min late, which was something we realized was pretty normal, but we had nowhere else to be. We also were told that our guides received live updates by text on security items, and they had decided that us having 4 people, 2 of us having US passports, meant we should actually switch to a bullet-proof truck for the day, and the shift captain had joined the police team providing our security detail. We weren’t sure if this should calm us or make us nervous.
Our tour started with the fish market. There’s no refrigeration in most of Mogadishu, so everything that people eat and that restaurants serve is cooked that day, caught that day, killed that day, unless it’s something that won’t go bad, like bananas or smoked meats. So…the fish market. It’s huge, it’s bloody, it’s busy, it’s wild.
There are even sharks, turtles, stingrays for sale…anything they can catch that people might want to buy to eat. I even saw a swordfish! It was pretty wild.
Back outside, we past this small shop and a place where people were drying some shark fins for soup.
Past the retaining wall, there are some great rocks overlooking the water. If you didn’t know this was Mogadishu, this would be a great spot to hang out. Supposedly, this eastern half of the city is more secure and has seen less violence recently, so there is that.
Some random guy stopped to tell me some info.
Back in our bullet-proof truck, where I was sharing the front seat with our guide (and thus my leg kept going to sleep), the tinted windows on the side made several of my pictures orange-ish. Any pictures through the front windshield don’t have that. Now you know!
Next, we went to the old lighthouse, which was built by the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years ago. These days, it’s not in great shape, but it’s also the spot where the fishermen come in with their hauls.
Further along the beach is the site of what used to be a hotel. I saw pictures. It was THE place that western visitors came to and hung out at the pool/swam in the ocean/enjoyed the posh life in the 70s. Now, it’s nothing. We were really surprised no one has collected all the rebar and sold it for scrap metal, but apparently there are no manufacturing companies in Somalia for this, meaning you’d have to collect it and then export it to sell it, and what poor person looking for money from scrap metal can handle export logistics?
This used to be the central bank.
Next, we drove through some residential neighborhoods, which was really interesting.
Tuktuks have obviously made their way to Mogadishu.
We also passed the outskirts of the main market, Bakara Market. We couldn’t go in, because the government doesn’t control this area, and there are too many people inside who could call and give away our location for a payoff from al-Shabaab. Supposedly, you can buy machine guns or basically anything in the world inside Bakara Market.
We passed the location of where the helicopter from “The Battle of Mogadishu” (as depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down”) crashed and then went to where this US tank still sits.
We passed the university where 2 of our guides met each other during school.
Next, we drove to the old stadium, which was the site of many African Cup of Nations games back in the day (the last being 1986) and then was the UN staging base during the early 90s (see location they run back to at the end of “Black Hawk Down”).
I tried to get a job here as a taste-tester but was told they aren’t hiring.
We passed along the other side of the stadium grounds, which used to be a world-class facility.
More residential areas. Most tour companies don’t pass these areas, because they’re organized by people who aren’t locals. We enjoyed seeing this.
We passed a huge, new hospital built by Turkey. Turkey has made major investments in this new hospital, in the new airport terminal, new aviation facilities. The president of Somalia said that he would pay out of his own pocket if anything ever happened to these Turkish investments—he’s that serious about providing for their security.
Next, we passed the monument to the October 14, 2018 bombing that was the largest in recent memory, where an entire truck filled with bombs exploded at this spot, leveling multiple buildings and killing over 300 people. There have been mass prayers here by the locals to pray for peace and remember the victims.
Back through the arch again, we crossed a bridge built by the Italians and entered another residential area.
We headed east, past where some embassies are, past the oldest mosque in the city, and out to the Beach View restaurant and the famous Lido Beach.
After lunch, we changed into swim clothes (Earlier, I had been told to please wear long sleeves all the time, in order to to cover my tattoos, by our very conservative guides, so they were a bit shocked my leg tattoos), and we were told that swimming with shirts on was the norm.
The water was amazing! We swam for a good 20min in the warm, calm waters of the Indian Ocean. Locals were surprised, we had a blast, and we got out when our guides said that was the limit of their comfort for the situation, since the guards can’t control the waters. It was incredible.
Here are some videos the guides took from the beach:
Back through the gates going out, pick our way through more neighborhoods, and to a smaller market area for some shopping. I bought some Somalia jerseys for my nephews at a whopping $7 each, and we exited the uncontrollable market area.
Through more neighborhoods and back through the security into the hotel compound.
We had some coffee and talked with our guides. It turns out there had been a bomb built into a policeman’s car earlier in the day, on the opposite side of the city, and honestly in an area we’d never visited, but they felt honesty with us was the best policy. The bomb had gone off when he started his car, which was near the area of the president’s home. 2 people had died.
This is why I reiterate that we felt super safe at all times, but it was definitely a false sense of security. We took safety and security seriously. The guides don’t tell the guards where we are going—they’re just there. The driver is only told “next stop is…” by the guide. The guards and driver are prohibited from making phone calls, so there’s no temptation for them to tip someone off about us for a bribe.
Visiting Mogadishu was an amazing, eye-opening experience. After more views from the rooftop, another great dinner, and some time to reflect, we said goodbye to our guards and guides as we prepared to leave the next morning.
The 4 of us had breakfast together, and one guy stayed to have a 2nd cup of coffee when the other 3 of us went upstairs. The actual Minister of Defense of Somalia came and sat down with him and asked him who he is/why he’s there/etc. What a missed opportunity! I’d been in that chair 5 minutes prior. They shared coffee and talked about hope for Somalia’s future.
The manager took us in his personal car to the airport the next morning, 2 leaving in the morning and 2 of us leaving in the afternoon. It was quicker and didn’t draw attention this way.
I’m more interested than ever in the history of the Horn of Africa and how the colonization has led to many of the problems faced today.
Our guides told us that the Somali flag—sky blue with a big white star—represents the blue sky of Somalia and the 5 Somali people. 1 is present-day Somalia. 2 Somaliland, who they don’t see as an independent nation but part of their full “Somalia”. 3 is Djibouti. 4 is “Ethiopian Somaliland” and 5 is “Kenyan Somaliland”. The latter 2 are parts of those other countries where the people are ethnic Somali. Back in the day, to spite the Somalis for choosing Italy as their colonial power over the British, the British chopped off some pieces of Somalia on the map and gave them to Kenya and Ethiopia. Those 2 regions are where most of the violence and conflicts stem from. The largest base for al-Shabaab is in Kenyan Somaliland.
We also talked about the massive problems with corruption within Somalia’s government, something standing in the way of a better tomorrow.
I hope peace comes to Somalia, and I hope it’s soon. The people there have been through so much, yet they are still amazing, strong, wonderful people. I hope things improve and allow me to go see more of this amazing country. I hope things improve for their sake, as well, so they can live in peace and enjoy the free lives they deserve.
I took the statistically most on-time, most reliable, least likely to strand me in Mogadishu flight out: Kenyan Airways to Nairobi.This entry was posted in Africa, Mogadishu, Somalia