The bartender looks me up and down. Somalia is an incredibly dangerous place for someone who actually belongs there, and about ten times more so for someone as improbably white as I am. To improve my odds of survival, I had shrewdly elected to wear an Obama 08 t-shirt. The bartender takes this in, and says nothing. I take a deep breath, having already rehearsed some critical phrases in Somali. "I would like to meet a pirate." His eyes widen, then lock on my own. Years of hard talk with hard men has given him a preternatural ability to sniff out weakness. "And," I say in a firm voice, remembering my guidebooks advice, "I don't mean I want to be taken to a back room where men will have rough sex with me." His eyes narrow slightly. We stare at each other for eight seconds. Finally, a decision having formed in his wrinkled head, he jerks his head towards a door in the back. "No, I said I don't..." I'm interrupted by his extended arm, pointing at a group of men sitting at a table beside the door leading into the storage room/potential rough sex emporium. I walk over to them. "Are you guys pirates?" Silence greets me in return, punctuated by the sounds automatic weapons make when they're being booted up. I don't really know how guns work. Having run out of Somali phrases already, I switch to English. "I'm from the Internet. I don't know how to say this, but... you pirates are a pretty big deal." I wait for the obligatory chuckle. I keep waiting. It's failure to arrive worries me somewhat. "They don't speak English." At another table beside them sits a man, who judging by his lack of weapons would make him either the least powerful man in the room or the most powerful. Judging by the fact that he isn't ball-flatteningly terrified, I guess it's the later. "What do you want?" he asks. "I just want to talk to some pirates. Find out what your whole deal is. How you make money." He considers this for a moment. "Sure, let's show you how we make money. Why don't you come with us?" "Can't we talk here?" Several guns are raised to point at parts of my body I enjoy/need. "Hey, why don't I come with you."
My kidnappers/new chums march me out of the bar. A truck takes us some miles away to a beach camp. Along the way I learn the leader's name is Mustapha. When we reach the camp they politely relieve me of the burden of my clothes, and bind my arms behind me. "You come from big newspaper, yes?" Mustapha hisses into my face. "Cracked is basically a very successful newspaper," I confirm. "We'll ransom you then. Your newspaper will pay big money to bring back their star reporter." I suck air through my teeth noisily. "Ooooooooooooh. I don't know about that." "What, why not?" "One, I'm only like the 8th best guy they have. You know? Like David Schwimmer?" I make a poopy face. "You know? Not super valuable. And second, Cracked probably doesn't have much money right now." "You say Cracked very successful!" "Cracked is very successful. Many many readers. But we only make like, twenty bucks a day." I look up at him and shrug. "The economy." Mustapha looked at me for a long time. "Twenty dollars a day?" I nod. "There's this credit crunch I guess. Also Bush." I make another poopy face. He considers this for a moment. "My sister, she has a son. He is an idiot. He sits in front of marketplace all day, and he makes sex with his hand. You know?" I nod. "I've done that." "He makes more than twenty dollars a day!" I shrug. "Twenty dollars is pretty good for a web site." Mustapha turns back and begins chattering with the other pirates in rapid fire Somali. I guess they are running through various scenarios for how to prepare and cook my flesh. "You guys are doing this all wrong," I say, a slight tint of panic coloring my voice. "This ransom stuff is too complicated. Too many opportunities to get screwed over. Why aren't you stealing cargo?" Mustapha looks at me. "We tried that. But we have no way to sell cargo. No-one in Somalia can buy anything." "Have you tried eBay?" "This Eebhay - he is fat scum middleman? He is fence for stolen goods?" I considered all the ways to correct this, and all the ways it was already pretty accurate. "Yes." "And what do we steal? What does Eebhay want?" "Oh christ man, everything. You want to sell a stick you use to pick your ass with, someone will buy it." Mustapha holds up the stick he had been poking me with for the last half hour and looked at it, squinting. I continue, stammering, "No seriously though, what you do is you steal small and valuable things. Jewelry. Cameras. Ipods. Anything shiny really." __ It was early morning. I had just been prodded out of my cage, and along with the rest of the pirate clan, I walk down to the beach to meet the raiders who had just returned from the sea. "What'd you get?" I ask Mustapha as I approach his boat. "This. These were the shiniest things we could find." Mustapha pulls the lid off a crate. I peer inside. "This is pantyhose." Thousands of packages of pantyhose. Well, it was shiny and light. "What is pantyhose?" I bite my lip, thinking. "It's used to make your legs look pretty." I pantomime making my legs look pretty, to demonstrate to everyone. "Some kinds are used to make, uh..." I pull up my shirt to reveal my bare torso, and suck my gut in. "Like this." "Ahh! Like Bulah!" Mustapha points at Bulah, the fat pirate. "Yes! Like Bulah!" We all start dancing and pointing at Bulah, slapping our tummies as we caper about. Bulah sulks away. "Hmm," I say, after things had quieted down. "Well at least you now have uniforms." ___ "I don't understand why we need a catchphrase." "It's called branding Mustapha. You've done well the last couple months selling your raids on eBay, and you're gaining some notoriety. There's merchandise opportunities coming for you, I'm sure of it." He shakes his head. "I don't know." "Try it again for me. Really try this time." He takes a deep breath, cocks his AK-47, then belts out, "Helllllo Sailor!" ___ The wind picks up, blowing sand into my teeth. I can see a figure plodding up the beach towards me. From a distance, I recognize it as Mustapha, his legs clearly identifiable by the Sheer Vitality Nudes he wears as a mark of his high rank. "Good news?" I say as he draws near. Over the intervening months, Mustapha and his men had grown wealthy and powerful, feared up and down the coast for their naval prowess and daring attire. "Only if you call 10,000 box sets of the second season of Caroline in the City good news!" An enormous smile stretches across his face. "Few would." Seeing the disappointment in hie eyes, I add, "But I guess it's good news for you." He sits down beside me. We stare at the ocean for a time. "I'm going to have to go soon Mustapha." He nods. "I was wondering how long you'd stay with us. I am sad, for we were nothing before you. You have taught us so much about business and avant-garde pirate marketing. Thanks to you, all tremble at the mere mention of The Hotty Somali Tamales." He sighs heavily. "But yours is a gift that must be shared I think." He hands me a package. "As is this." I open it. A box set of the second season of Caroline in the City. Well. I guess he tried.
The next day I'm flying home. In retrospect, I didn't learn that much about the pirate lifestyle as I would have hoped, and ended up being forced to perform rather a lot more oral sex on strange men than I was truly comfortable with. On the flipside I did manage to transform a group of strange men into sashying fancy-dans of the sea. That should look good on the resume. All in all I give Somalia 3 stars. ***