Las Geels. Okay, so there’s no real reason to go there other than it’s soooooo different – I mean, different – than “places you go and need to see.” There are a thousand other places with a thousand better reasons to go. You to go Las Geels simply “because.” Las Geels is in Somaliland – depending on whether you recognize that part of Somalia as an independent country or not. Ethiopia and Russia do. The rest of the world does not. Otherwise, you are going to Somalia. So there is no direct flight. This means a two day flight. And that means hopping onto at least two planes.
If you decide to go, land in Berbera. And get a hotel in Berbera. And don’t go during Ramadan. You won’t find a place to eat from sunrise to sunset. As you leave the Berbera airport you will see the Indian Ocean on your left, so clean, and bright, and beautiful. It may remind you of a swimming pool. On your right, you’ll see the old Russian military base. You will be overwhelmed in a scary sort of way. The base was there from 1968 to 1978 (or there abouts). The hangar is nothing but a huge skeletal structure. Frightening. Massive. And as I said, very skeletal. The barracks is crumbling. And you will notice the rack of IBC missiles left out there. (They are only dangerous if the fuses are in them. And the Russians most likely just pulled the fuses out and left the shell.) (Most likely.)
And then nothing. NOTHING. There’s no way to describe it. A vastly, lung-gasping nothingness.
Get a hotel. Rent a car. Rent a guard.
Yes, that’s right. Rent a guard. Not a guide. A guard. Somaliland is trying to be recognized by the world as a sovereign nation so under UN mandate – you need to travel with a guard. There’s a Rent-A-Guard in the capital Hargeysa so I assume there must be one in Berbera. (Why are you laughing?)
They will not let folks go tramping around the wilds of Somalia or Somaliland without some protection. Although terrorists probably aren’t your biggest worry. The place is so desolate you will see terrorists coming at you from any direction and from miles and miles and miles and miles away. You will more likely be attacked by a hyena or a warthog. But again unless you are totally blind, you will see it coming from miles and miles and miles away.
The real danger is “the roads.” Dirt. Gravel. Holes big enough to fit a living room in. (Civil wars reek this kind of damage, you know.)
Start early. Make damn sure you have enough gas! Like I said, you will travel through a vast, beautiful nothingness but it is a nothingness. Gas stations are few and far between.
You will drive slowly. You drive slowly because should you have an accident, you will be miles and miles and miles and miles away from “medical facilities.” (In most countries I have visited, “medical facilities” is a relative term. I recommend having the guard just shoot you in the head should you sprain your wrist or break your bones or come down with a fever.) (If you are bleeding in any sort of way, just make your peace with God.) If there is an accident, you will never get to “medical” care fast enough.
By the time you are 45 minutes into the drive, you or someone in your party will have the real good sense to blurt out, “This is nuts!” and demand you all head back. By the time you have been on the road an hour, you may feel the same way.
You will probably miss the turn off to Las Geels after an hour or two drive. You will probably miss the sign painted on the wall LAS GEELS with an arrow. After all, it’s been there about 10 years and never repainted. And it’s between two buildings you will probably think are abandoned. And it is a narrow “road.” Dirt road. Ill-defined dirt road. Let’s just say, you will see tire tracks.
If you do see it, if you do find it, you will probably say, “This can’t be it. This can’t be it.”
It really is. And the person who blurted out to turn back will be hysterical and will no longer be your friend.
Will you keep on going? Who could blame you if you don’t? This is an insane adventure I’m recommending anyway. But if you do, you will drive through desert, a half hour, in which the car will become dusty and dirty and the bottom of it will be scraped over rocks. The hysterical person may need to be sedated at this point.
You might pass a guard traversing the nothingness. He will ask you for a pass which you should get somewhere (details are not clear as to this procedure). The pass will cost you money. The guard will want money if you have a pass. More money if you don’t have a pass. Your rent-a-guard will feel some obligation to haggle for you. If you get to this point without paying over $20.00 you are doing pretty good. (As someone who has been there twice, once I did it free.) But if you are white with only a Rent-A-Guard and a sedated hysterical person you will pay something. Bring American dollars.
You may see a camel herder. Camels are not domestic and have sharp teeth. Don’t go petting or feeding them. Don’t go near them.
You will come to a checkpoint. Yes. Out in the middle of nowhere, there is a check point. The sedated hysterical person will scream, “Why in the hell out here in the middle of nowhere is there a checkpoint!” The guard will pull a rope and a makeshift arm will rise. It looks like something a group of children made on a day-off from school.
Go through the check point and continue. You will come to a cabin-like structure at the foot of the mountain. Inside, there is a small exhibit where you will learn that the images on the rocks may possibly be older cave drawings than the ones in France. The very dawn of human history. There may even be a guide to take you up the mountain. (Again, give him some money.)
They actually have some fairly decent stairs going up the mountainside, way, way, way up. 10 stories or more until you hit the cave. You will say, “MY GOD, THIS IS FREAKING HIGH!”
And then, you’ll reach the caves. They are not like caves, more like huge crevices in the rock, deep into the mountain wall — more like an overhang. The ceilings have the paintings, the paintings believed to be the oldest in the world, indeed the very first paintings of the human race. They are more pictograms, more advanced than stick figures with lots of circles. They are excellent pictures for a three year old child. And that’s exactly what the human race was at the time, a child. And the drawings have been there ever since.
Cattle. Women. Children. Men. The very first picture of the family dog in human history. All clearly represented amidst circles. It is hard to say how many families lived in this high rise apartment, thousands of thousands of years ago.
As you look out across the land — and all you will see is land — you might be struck as to how much like the American southwest it looks. You might be struck as to the fact that whoever lived in these caves, whoever drew the pictures, probably stood in the same place and looked out at pretty much the same thing you are seeing now. Nothing really has changed in all that time.
If you look below — way, way below — you might see a girl in hijab and long dress herding goats. This, too, probably hasn’t changed in a thousand years.
Barren. Nothing. Two words you would not use with “Beautiful.” But the experience is all three. And my words fail tragically to capture it. And you do it to see how terrifying beauty can be. And how beauty can be present in nothingness.
Maybe as you are driving back along the dusty road toward the main “road,” you might — you just might — pass a bus of school children bouncing like a storm-tossed ship over the terrain. Yes! They actually have class trips to this place! For them, most of this is not all that unusual. You will see the girls in hijabs, the boys in their uniforms. They will wave or laugh or stare.
I will not say you will enjoy it. Or be moved by it. Nor that your hysterical person will sigh and say, “Well, it was worth it.” I cannot say that you will make it there without seeing the inanity of such an adventure and turn back. And I cannot assure you that you will make it there safely. I can say, that it is a place that will haunt you. It will haunt you.
It still haunts me.
BIO: MARK FITZPATRICK is basically a poet although he has had fiction, non-fiction, and drama published. Among his credits are Parting Gifts, Oasis, The MacGuffin, Whiskey Island Review, The Small Pond Magazine of Literature, Oxford Review, Dramatic Shorts, Amarillo Bay and many others. His novel-in-verse was a finalist in the Tassy Walden Creative Writing for Young People contest. Two of his plays are in catalogues. Another play, “A Holy Thursday Lament” was recently published in Qu, the literary magazine of Queens University of Charlotte.
He works as an ESL teacher with ELS schools at the University of New Haven. He worked as an ESL teacher in Brazil, Honduras, Haiti, and the Republic of Somaliland. Before that he was a child care worker for over 20 years in a low-income, African-American neighborhood of Chicago.