The Oriental in Hargeisa, Somaliland (Photos by James Jeffrey)

Keep your luxury hotels

It’s the cheap and cheerful taverns that offer a home for any traveller

Artillery Row

Amid forecasts of potential economic Armageddon, are you fearful that you now might not be able to afford that snazzy holiday at a fantastic resort you had your eye on, or have you had to put your dream holiday plans on hold? Fear not, as a low-income freelancer I am here to tell you of the advantages and joys of embracing the humbler way—in essence, slumming it at less salubrious options.

I know what I am talking about. Ever since a spent a month festering inside the cramped turret of a Challenger 2 tank and living off its back decks out on the freezing Canadian plains during pre-deployment training for sunnier climes, I had my eyes opened to the ascetic rewards of the warrior monk way, which got a further boost when I swopped the Queen’s shilling for becoming a freelance journalist in the Horn of Africa, where I specialised in the art of staying at down-market hotels. 

During my reporting in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland, the identifying of a cheap and esoteric hotel from which to base myself, usually in far from respectable areas, proved the most important bedrock of survival as a freelancer—especially given the habit of fickle editors not covering expenses—but also a foundation for facilitating meaningful, and often joyous, experiences in terms of actually experiencing a place and truly meeting the locals.

When you walk out your hotel room and see a brazier of sweet frankincense burning in the corridor—The Dar Es Salam Hotel in Djibouti’s same named capital city—or walk out of the hotel front door to immediately find eyes like hot coal gazing at you through a slit in a niqab—The Oriental in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa—you know you are in the right hotel (and all for about $15 a night; admittedly the Dar Es Salam pushes $30 and in spite of its location in the city’s dingy so-called African Quarter, but that’s more a result of Djibouti City’s outlier status, with inflated prices across the board resulting from the country serving as one of most important pieces of military real estate in that part of the world, which, as they say, is another story).

The NGO and UN staff, diplomats and business movers and shakers can keep their luxury hotels in their compounds away from the action, often marooned on the peripheries or remaining aloof in supposed vantage spots, and almost guaranteed to be sterile and vacuumed of genuine local atmosphere. 

Even with the marvels of modern transport most of us actually don’t go anywhere different

The Somaliland representative from the British Embassy in Addis Ababa told me how she had never walked around Hargeisa’s fantastic downtown market—as much as she wanted to—because her security detail of ex-British Special Forces would never allow it. The main encumbrance I encountered strolling around the market that was a short walk from the Oriental, was being continually stopped by Somalilanders welcoming and thanking me for coming to their country; despite having split from Somalia more than 25 years ago, Somaliland still isn’t officially recognised by the international community and so they love it when someone indirectly recognises the fact.

Life in the African Quarter around the Dar es Salam Hotel. (Photo by James Jeffrey)
Life in the African Quarter around the Dar es Salam Hotel. (Photo by James Jeffrey)
Life in the African Quarter around the Dar es Salam Hotel. (Photo by James Jeffrey)
Life in the African Quarter around the Dar es Salam Hotel. (Photo by James Jeffrey)
Life in the African Quarter around the Dar es Salam Hotel. (Photo by James Jeffrey)

Profligacy with accommodation so often proves bland and dull. When you rough it, that’s when you find the genuine nuggets of gold. It’s a rule I’ve found true in the US too—when utilising its Youth Hostel network—and elsewhere in the likes of northern Spain when I bedded down in 60-person dorms along the Camino de Santiago route. But so many of us, bombarded by the slick advertising, have lost sight of this (though we have a chance to rediscover it post pandemic).

“Tourism is the great soporific,” said the writer and sage J.G. Ballard, ever more the man of this strange moment we are living through. “It’s a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there’s something interesting in their lives. All the upgrades in existence lead to the same airports and resort hotels, the same pina colada bullshit.”

Even with all the marvels of modern transport at our beck and call, most of us actually don’t go anywhere different. Even if you fly half-way round the world, it’s too easy to find yourself nowhere different. 

“Adventure is allowing the unexpected to happen to you,” Richard Aldington writes in his World War I novel Death of a Hero. “Exploration is experiencing what you have not experienced before. It isn’t seeing new and beautiful things which matters, it’s seeing them for yourself. And if you want the sensation of covering the miles, go on foot. Three hundred miles on foot in three weeks will give you infinitely more sense of travel, show you infinitely more surprising and beautiful experiences, than thirty thousand miles of mechanical transport.”

Hence there’s no pina cola bullshit at the Oriental, which exists likes something out of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát, and a wonderful old-world riposte to the trend around the world turning hotels into carbon copies with no sense of place or localised grounding whatsoever. Its inner courtyard is like a modern caravanserai, full of Somaliland locals in Muslim dress, being served tea and cake at 4 p.m.—a relic of when the country was a British protectorate—by female staff covered in brightly coloured Somali robes and head scarves.

“There’s a lovely worn glamor about the hotel,” I was told by Paul Holt who I bumped into there, a British plumber in his 50s who spends six months each year traveling the world, so far taking in 120 countries. “From the tired, red stair carpets to the stainless-steel tea pots—not one with a lid still attached by a hinge.”

Equally important, this type of hotel provides a genuine anchor and refuge amid the often-confusing whirlwind happening outside the front door, which, while invigorating and part of what draws you, can also be discombobulating and hard work, whether you are journalist or roving traveller off the beaten track. Hence, I appreciate the constant streams of greetings and advice from each Mohammed at the helm of the respective reception desks in the Oriental and the Dar Es Salam. And although the majority of staff at either hotel can’t speak English, their ever-present smiles and kind gestures mean I don’t feel entirely like a misplaced alien. 

This team ethos spirit reaches its zenith at the Wutma Hotel in the raucous Piazza area of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The cleaning-room ladies fetch me needle and thread when shirt buttons fall off—good luck finding a needle and thread at a shop in Addis Ababa—while the smartly dressed and ever-courteous wait staff and hotel guards practise their English on me, always remembering my name (as I added the name of another staff member who befriended me to a growing list in my notebook). Add the crisp sheets, wonderfully brewed macchiatos for breakfast and the hotel restaurant jammed with exuberant locals on a Friday night like something out of New York’s Greenwich Village in its prime, it all provides an uplifting oasis when covering the likes of Ethiopia’s ethnic troubles.

When a hotel is deeply embedded in the local action, life is never dull. No sooner had I checked in at the Dar Es Salam Hotel, then a Yemeni refugee also staying there—the war in Yemen was underway—began to choke on his khat leaves right in front of me as I looked on aghast. Another Yemeni refugee leapt in to do an expert demonstration of the Heimlich manoeuvre (he was a doctor).

Staying at the Oriental during Ramadan, each day I was invited to join the Muslim guests as they broke the daily fast at iftar after sunset with free food provided by the hotel. During another Ramadan in Djibouti City, strangers gathering on the street around their iftar meals comprising slices of watermelon, samosas and dates beckoned me to join them.

After a day’s reporting in Hargeisa, I’d usually head to an open-air greasy spoon of a shack opposite the Oriental to join diners huddled over bowls of pasta for dinner, fielding questions from earnest but friendly young Muslim men about who did I ultimately believe had created me. Afterward, I’d walk to a nearby street—on the way encountering more eyes intently gazing Scheherazade-like through slits in niqab face veils—to where a young man sold sweet delicacies like baclava and halva out of a small van. To cap the night, I’d join the crowds of men opting for the main nightlife option in a country with no alcohol: sipping sweet Somali tea at an open-air tea house within range of the mosque for when the imam called. As an outsider, what more could you ask for by way of experiencing and sharing the local culture?

Another side effect of this is that it helps keep you grounded and more in touch with reality—a challenge for many foreigners caught up in the exotic excitement of these, to our eyes, strange destinations, and usually with money to burn thanks to exchange rates that can easily lead to a decadent lifestyle that goes hand in hand with disregard for the harsh reality surrounding you as you live it up in a privileged parallel universe. 

This awkward dichotomy that permeates so much of foreign intervention and existence in Africa provided the background to my encounter with the choking Yemeni, which occurred after I had been invited to attend and report on a trade mission in Djibouti run by the British Embassy in Addis Ababa. Its staff, not surprisingly, chose to stay at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski—the inclusion of the word “palace” in the hotel’s title is not unwarranted—over the Dar Es Salam. Hence, at the start of a day of trade mission-related visits, I left the rubbish strewn streets of the African Quarter to meet with the embassy staff at the Kempinski existing serenely by the water’s edge on a peninsula at the most northern point of the city. 

OK, I’ll admit it, I was a little jealous. It was spectacular, and clearly the place to be. Standing in the Kempinski’s grand lobby, I spotted a famous CNN reporter with her camera crew lounging in some chairs reporting on the worsening violence in Yemen. I realised that the cost of one of their hotel rooms for one night was close to my weekly budget (which included a flight from Ethiopia). Later I heard how they managed to get a boat for the day—$12,000 was mentioned—whizzed over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the 30-odd-kilometre stretch of water between Djibouti and Yemen, did a piece to camera among the rubble, then whizzed back to the palace, scoop secured, with the serene surface of the hotel’s outdoor infinity pool surely offering some sort of metaphor about alternative reality and looking the other way.  

Admittedly, there are drawbacks to turning one’s back on the infinity pools. On a Friday and Saturday night at the Wutma Hotel, it can sound like there is a constant stream of drunken sailors on shore leave outside your bedroom window. At the Oriental, the daily 4:30 a.m. call to prayer from the giant four-story Ali Mataan mosque right next door is an earlier alarm clock setting than I would normally choose. But in each case a few extra yawns are worth the wider experience—a point that seems lost on many others when they choose their hotels. 

Plenty has been written about the problems of foreign NGOs and aid in developing countries, and I saw enough of those problems to leave my highly skeptical of the self-serving bureaucracies of many foreign aid organisations. But it’s never clear cut, and I encountered plenty of NGO and embassy staff brimming with intelligence and vigour and whose hearts were in the right places. I still wonder, though, how you can ever truly begin to appreciate a place and its people and achieve a genuine deeper understanding if you are always living in fancy identikit hotels, or behind compound walls that create a microcosm of your own country. 

Admittedly, linguistic and cultural barriers may ultimately keep you from ever truly understanding a foreign land. But you can make worthwhile headway, nevertheless, and at least get beyond the mirage surface of the infinity pools and well-kept compounds. You can also have some fun at the same time. Ordinary locals, even if poor, do enjoy themselves in their countries. It’s not all horror and sorrow as presented in much foreign media coverage. It’s their home, come what may, and often they are more than gracious about letting you share in it too.

Admittedly, choosing to savour local culture in the Horn of Africa just got a bit challenging with COVID-19 now on the scene. Even trips to Europe and Spain are looking harder to pull off as COVID-19 infections wax and wane (though there is a big difference in risk between going to nightclubs in Barcelona and sauntering along the Camino in the fresh, sunlit air). The UK Staycation may prove unavoidable, but there’s no shame there: British local culture contains a cornucopia of worthy options: the past few months have further highlighted to me the joys of the North York Moors and the county’s dales and valleys full of rarely mentioned village gems such as the likes of Hutton Le Hole, Lastingham, Hubberholme—loved by J.B. Priestley—as well as the ever uplifting rugged Yorkshire coastline offering surprises such as Whitby’s gothic vibe and the smuggling den atmosphere of Robin Hood’s Bay. 

That’s just the county of North Yorkshire, which I have barely scratched. The UK offers astonishing good value for adventure once you break track from the mainstream. When I was weighing up doing the Camino, I was reminded of a passage in Death of a Hero that describes a walking holiday taken by the protagonist before he enlists in the army, from which I drew inspiration: 

“They had such a good time, jawing away as they walked, singing and out of tune, finding their way on maps, getting wet through and drying themselves by tap-room fires, talking to everyone, farmer or labourer, who would talk to them, reading and smoking over a pint of beer after supper and always that sense of adventure, or exploration, which urged them on every morning, even through mist and rain, and made fatigue and bad inns and muddy roads all rather an experience.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take that over the infinity pool. 

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