As I mentioned earlier, booking tickets to Somalia isn’t easy. The airlines don’t operate frequently, there is next to no information about them online, not to mention anything about how to book. Thanks to a very helpful person I talked to on Flyertalk I learned about an airline called East African Safari Express who supposedly was the most reliable (i.e. the flights actually do go when they say they are going to) option. Took about 5 or 6 e-mails until they responded, but once we’d traded emails I found a date and time that worked and voila…it was booked. Of course, they only take payment in cash, and could you kindly show up in our office in Nairobi to do that?
Since we had barely 36 hours in Nairobi this was going to be tricky, but they agreed we could pay the day before. What they forgot to advise us was that the day before was a holiday in Kenya…and they were closed! Fortunately, immediately upon arrival we’d spotted their office, walked in, dropped several C-Notes with a shady looking guy in a back office…and had carbon copy tickets that were handwritten…things crossed out, changed, etc. Fortunately, all went well!
Arrival and check-in was quite quick and efficient, and there’s not too much to say. They insisted we check our bags, but other than that…it was just like a “normal” flight. Through security, and into a very unfabulous lounge thanks to Priority Pass, and then it was down to the gate….where we saw the first glimpse of our plane!
East African Safari Express flight 1823
Nairobi, Kenya to Hargeisa, Somalia
Departure 8:00, Arrival 10:00, Flight Time: 2 hours
Aircraft: Fokker F-28, Registration 5Y-EEE, Manufactured (approximately) 1985
Now, I say approximately, because I really can’t find a production list for F28s online. I found this aircraft has been passed around Africa for over 10 years now, after doing previous duty in the US with Allegheny, Piedmont, and eventually US Air!
All the checked baggage was laid out next to the plane, and before boarding you had to point yours out before they would load it. That was reassuring…at least you knew it was on board! That said, the flight itself was quite uneventful. I’d say it was 75% Somali diaspora and maybe 25% foreign aid worker looking types. They even served a “meal” on board…you’d never see THAT in the US!
The yogurt and “Bio Crunch” was actually pretty edible…and the only complaint about the flight was actually the toddler in the row in front of us. His father was a good solid 300 pound Somali guy in a “Mogadishu Football Club” track jacket, and the child was most likely autistic. Banging back and forth against his seat the whole flight, climbing over, shouting out, etc etc etc. We decided not to repeat watching Desperate Housewives on the laptop as we did on the flight to Afghanistan (so as not to draw an audience again) so what did we choose? Yes, American Dad. Somehow…seemed funnier at the time.
About 30 minutes from landing, I looked out the window…and into the engine…which didn’t appear to be turning at all. I must have turned white as a ghost, because the on-board mechanic (I guess you bring one when you fly to Somalia?) jumped up, had a look out the window….shrugged his shoulders…and sat down. I think the “turning” part of this engine was behind what looked like the “blades” – but I’ll never know. I just know we lived 😉
Landed, off the plane, walked into the terminal…and here’s where the fun started. I’ve been through lots of sketchy immigration points, but this took the cake. Being white, we were yanked to the front of the “Happy Weekend Money” queue, and they were quite disappointed to see we’d obtained visas in advance. Passports stamped, we were shuffled over to window #2 where a guy just stared at us. For several minutes. Until finally after we asked him repeatedly what he wanted he finally said “YOU CHANGE 100 DOLLAR!” We’d heard there was a mandatory $50 each exchange at a horrid rate…and this was it. Unfortunately, the currency confused me, and we ended up getting 7 bundles. See, the largest note is 500 shillings…and the “official” rate is 2,800 shillings to the dollar….so we were owed 280,000 shillings….or 560 notes! The confusing part was 7 bundles…they were big, so we figured they had 100 bills each in them. However, for some reason, they bundle their notes by the 80. Even at the “rate on the street” of around 5,500 to the dollar this bundle of 40,000 was worth like $8. Go figure.
Then it was off to the third and final window…which is where the real extortion begins. The woman working there immediately yelled ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR EACH! “For what?” “ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR EACH!” There were a couple other people there, almost in tears….clearly this was the bribe window. The airport had VERY clear signs of all the expected fees posted, and all we saw was a $20 arrival fee and a $3 airport fee. So what’s the other $77? We stood firm, and told her absolutely not, until she could explain it. One of the women in tears, clearly a Somali expat living in the US said they wouldn’t let her go either…and she didn’t have any money on her. I still refused to pay more than $23 each, and waved our multiple passports in the air and causing a general scene. Eventually, the woman liked something she saw…and waved us out the door before others could see we were getting away with paying NOTHING. I still have no idea what it was all about….
The driver from our hotel (the Ambassador Hotel) was there ready for us, and that was it…we were in Somalia!