In short, most people probably know about Somalia, a more or less completely lawless country/failed state/terrorist haven/Disneyland atmosphere in the Horn of Africa that has no government (or at least none outside the capital, Mogadishu), and is one of the least developed nations in the world. Most people have probably heard of Somalian pirates taking ships in the Gulf of Aden, and most people have also probably heard of/seen Blackhawk Down, a film about a failed US military mission into Somalia which highlights a lot of its tourist attractions, such as large robed men carrying AK-47's, bombed-out buildings, malnourished children, and general crippling depression.
However, few people know about Somaliland, a breakaway region of northern Somalia that is universally not recognized as a state, despite the fact that it is more developed, more lawful, and generally more pleasant than its neighbor to the south, Somalia. Somaliland (whose legitimacy is even questioned by spellcheck, as it is apparently not a word) is a fairly interesting case of a state that's completely unrecognized by anyone, despite being, at least in theory, better than what it's trying to break away from, which begs the question--why the hell does no one recognize it? I guess given the fact that I have no idea what the answer to that question is, it was more directed towards the reader, so have fun with that one. And if you find out the answer, email me.
Anyway, our cab driver Ali was from Somaliland, and he was an absolute mad-dog. In addition to speaking very good English (and also having a brilliant sense of sarcastic humor!), he seemed very well-educated and fairly worldly. He'd come to Colorado to go to University, but had to leave school for financial reasons, and is consequently now driving a cab whilst playing Arabic music that made the drive from Denver International Airport to the downtown area far more... Somalian. Interestingly, Ali had the following bits of advice about travel in Somalia/land--
Ali informed us that travel in Somaliland was very safe and convenient, as most people speak pretty good English. He gave us some advice as to what to see, where to go, etc., and really made the place sound very pleasant. On the topic of Somalia, however...
He basically said that travel in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, is completely safe for foreigners. This would absolutely, 100% contradict ANY travel guide that you read. Certainly, the Wikitravel guide seems to disagree slightly with Ali, when, in the first sentence it informs you that "WARNING: Mogadishu is regarded as the most lawless and dangerous city on Earth. It is not safe for leisure or tourism."
Is THAT all?!
Mind you, I suppose the word "safe" is certainly used in a relative sense, but even so, to have such incredibly contradicting opinions on the same topic is a pretty interesting (and quite common) situation I've found when it comes to travel (and indeed, everything else in our daily lives). Now mind you, Ali did inform us that travel anywhere in Somalia other than Mogadishu is basically like playing Russian Roulette with a completely loaded revolver, but even so. Interesting stuff.
Which brings me to my point, I guess. In these blog posts I like to try to be a bit more insightful than "well this is what happened. enjoy", so I'll go with something to the effect of the incredibly oft-quoted "don't believe everything you hear". I've travelled to many places (most notably Colombia) that I've been told to avoid for fear of being killed. And generally (i.e. exclusively), I've found these places to be wonderful, amazing, interesting places (with the exception of Colombia's hostal system, which was (continues to be) thoroughly demoralizing).
It should probably be noted that I'm not encouraging any of the 4 readers of this post to travel to Somalia. As awesome as I'm sure parts of Somaliland, and maybe even Mogadishu are, I'm not taking responsibility for anyone who travels to the Horn of Africa because I said it was safe, then gets kidnapped by Somalian pirates who then take them to South Africa, before then having to use one's (insert nationality here) charme (clearly spell check is not working) to get out of this devastating situation. But if you DO end up considering going to a place that you hear is nothing but unsafe, unsafe, and more unsafe, at least consider asking around, because you never know what you'll find out.
For more information about Somalia/land, here's a fantastic and pretty current National Geographic Article from September 2009. If nothing else, for the illiterate people who have managed to read up to this point, there is a really interesting (read: depressing) photo gallery as well.