From Oman I got myself over to Djibouti (Jya-bu-TAAY), a small African country nestled in just above the horn. While I had a number of justifications for deciding to go to this country, none trumped the obvious fact that no one I know has been there. Located across the Red Sea from my Arabian peninsula, and marking my first foray into Africa, I was really excited about this leg of the journey. Geographically outside of the Middle East, the culture, people, and even the language were completely different from anywhere else I had ever been. While there are plenty of speakers of Arabic, Somali and Afar, once a French colony and still host to their bases, the European language serves as a national language and the lingua franca.
Arriving in the early afternoon at the small airport, it took about 45 minutes to go through immigration. Of course there wasn’t a line, but they were asking all sorts of questions about my intentions there, and claimed that my onward flights were fake. They were all ridiculous claims of course, but when we went to the arrivals hall to meet the host I said would be there, and wasn’t, it looked pretty bad. Finally after a while I got through, and when I met my host, he explained it was normal since they were just looking for money to help ‘lubricate’ the process. I made it through all the same, and rode home with Flederick to his apartment where I partook of a nap and a shower.
My wonderful accommodations – who could ask for more?
A couple hours later, we headed out to meet some of Flederick’s co-workers and friends at a juice bar and then dinner. I selected an orange & lemon mix that came out in a big mug and tasted great. On that evening, I was immersed in the French language. I had met French people at times in my life, but this was my first experience among the French like this. When talking to me, most of them could manage enough English to maintain a good conversation; Guillaume was hilarious and quite a raconteur. During our time there, a squall kicked up and for a few minutes dumped water that flooded the sewer-less streets. It only rains a handful of times a year, so I guess I got lucky.
From there we moved on to the central market, which thanks to the rain had become a mud pit. The atmosphere surrounding the shop stalls was quite authentic and despite being darkened by the now set sun, was a great place to walk around. Guillaume was humming the Indiana Jones theme, which was actually quite befitting of our surroundings. After coursing through the streets and alleyways where we were followed by begging kids, we went to a rooftop to enjoy Ethiopian entrées en masse. Throughout the meal, there was a lot of lightning tearing across the sky, but nothing in the way of rain came to ruin the occasion. We stuffed ourselves and then brought the leftovers home for the next day’s breakfast. After we returned home there was nothing to do but go to bed.
I didn’t stir until about noon the next day, and then Stephan from the night before came over for lunch. We ordered some fish and chips à la carte from the restaurant next door and then took off for the French base to do some swimming and snorkeling. Being a foreign national, I needed to have my entry approved by the commanding officer but this took only a few minutes. Once in the water, we swam out a bit and then out of nowhere rose up a pretty nice coral reef. The variety of coral and fish was enough to keep us entertained for about 40 minutes before we returned to shore. On the way back home, we visited Flederick’s wife Celine who was volunteering at an orphanage. I was keen on hanging out for a bit, but after a few minutes of soccer with one of the kids, it was nap time so we took off.
Back at the estate, we took our showers and relaxed a bit before leaving for dinner on Venice Street. Along that land bridge were a number of different restaurants, so we picked one with a great view over the bay and plenty of jumping fish. It was a nice meal and we shared a good bit of chatter about myriad topics. Once we finished up, we stopped at a junk store and then retired early to bed. My hosts both worked most days from 6am, so early nights were a necessity for them, and of great benefit to my well being as well.
The next morning saw both of my hosts on post, so I had a solo bike adventure through some not so foreigner-frequented streets. As I was rolling past, kids were often waving and shouting ‘bonjour’ or ‘monsieur’ to me. I could respond with little more than a wave and smile but that seemed to be enough. My mission that day was to check out Dolphin Excursions and the National Tourism Office to figure out some information about getting into the more rural parts of the country. The Dolphin Excursions option was going to run me as much as 700 dollars for an overnight tour, which split between myself was absolutely out of the question. At the tourism office however I got some more reasonably priced information from a really helpful worker who kept telling me that it was a bad idea to go out into the desert on account of the scorching heat. I insisted that it would be just fine though. Along the way I came across some kids who were doing shoe shines and I obliged since my filthy Sperrys were in dire need of some TLC. Not only did they slather shoe polish all over them, but they added years to their lifespan by repairing the gaping holes. These shoes have traveled with me to about 20 countries now, and I don’t want to retire them until absolutely necessary.
The central market was nearby so I decided to check it out during daylight. One English speaking shop worker coaxed me into his boutique where I tried on a couple things, and even found an shirt or two that I liked. Throughout the process he kept saying to me ”You try on. It’s your name. It’s happy!”. Once things got to the negotiation stage, it was clear that we had two very different valuations of his merchandise. He assured me that his 8000 franc ($45) price for two ‘high quality’ shirts was great, but seemed really upset when I declared them Chinese made and that a terrible price. My low ball counteroffer was not so well received either, so I bid him adieu and escaped with lots of nearby workers trying to snag his lost business. It was lunch time anyway, so I started for home. Ninety percent of Djiboutian people are Muslim, so restaurants being closed necessitated my raid of the fridge.
One of my stopping places was the Kempinski Palace Hotel, easily the nicest spot in all of Djibouti. This swanky oasis was financed by the sheikh of Dubai and looked like something out of a Bond movie; rooms start from 450 dollars a night. Inside I sought out Daphne the concierge to ask if there were any guests that had a tour planned for the next day, guests that wouldn’t mind my tagging along. As luck would have it, there was a Japanese couple staying at the hotel with plans to go swimming and snorkeling on an island who she was more than happy to ask. We exchanged contact information and then I returned home to wait for my hosts’ return.
Some of what I saw in the hotel. I was out of my element…
Flederick and Celine brought an Italian woman who had stayed with them a few months earlier that was just passing through after a stint in Ethiopia doing anthropological research. She was pleasant and we all returned to the French base to go swimming and eat a late lunch. While the on site shop prepared our under-cooked burgers and ‘chips’, we did a little swimming. My request for a plate of ”French fries” drew some glances of those in earshot.
From there we all returned to the orphanage to spend some actual time with the kids. Most of the children brought there are the result of rape, finance troubles, and abandonment. The complex was a branch of a catholic mission associate with Notre Dame, so nearly all of the children go on to be adopted by the French. I wasn’t able to talk with them at all, but most really weren’t capable of conversation anyway. The sixty or so kids’ primary desire seemed to be being picked up, held and played with but there were not nearly enough arms to go around. It was really nice that I could engage in a little responsible tourism, but it was also rather sad to see these kids without parents. After about an hour we left to bring our guest back to the airport. Back at the homestead, we had some delicious fish and rice prepped by Celine and then turned in for the night.
They were all curly haired kids like this. I don’t know why I look so manic though…
The previous evening I had gotten word from Daphne that my joining the Japanese folks was no problem at all; they were just as surprised to be offered a Japanese speaking American in Djibouti as I was to find them. We met at the port and took a small craft for about thirty minutes to the minute Maskali Island to enjoy the beach. En route, we got to know each other a little bit, and they both seemed to be really cool individuals. When we arrived at our romantic getaway, the three of us and our guides were about the only inhabitants of the island. We started with some snorkeling right away, but this particular location wasn’t exactly the best so we took to the beach.
These two were both working for African NGOs. The guy had lived in Djibouti in the past, where he specialized in coral preservation but was now developing agricultural infrastructure in Ethiopia. The woman on the other hand spent most of her time in Tokyo working in the financial arm of a different organization. I was sensitive to their being here as a couple and offered ample privacy, though they both insisted that they were happy to have me along. While wading in the water, the guy made a few typical perverted comments and was surprised to find me intercepting the meaning. It led to an amusing exchange of English and Japanese vocabulary where we all came away a bit more educated. We soon concluded that the sun was too intense and retreated to the shade where we waited until our lunch of tuna salad and BBQ chicken. Both were really tasty and prepared before out eyes. By 2pm the cooler morning air had long given way to the blazing sun and time outside was no longer pleasant. During the boat ride back, the waves grew dramatically and the ocean spray soaked us, while crashing into the wave troughs was painful.
You can’t really see him, but there is a guy sleeping above me on that wire mesh.
I was able to take a cab back with them to their hotel from which I strode back to my abode. There, I met up with Celine and together we went to the supermarket to get some supplies for my upcoming day trip. The market was modern and aside from the excessive variety of cheeses for the French populace, it was a totally normal place. After dropping my goods off at home, we went to a dinner with about fifteen other French people at a delicious Indian restaurant. Flederick and the rest of the Air Force personnel have a tradition that when new people are transferred to the base, they are ‘adopted’ by someone who has already been there for a bit. Then, within that first week or two, they are taken to all significant places in the city so that they know their way around and will be settled by the time their families come to join them. During this time, the new recruits pay for nothing but will later return the favor back to the next guy. I thought it was a great idea and really showed the camaraderie within the corps.
There were already quite a few people waiting when Celine and I arrived, but we needed to wait for a few more before we were seated. I was introduced to the group, and then got some good practice with handshakes for the men and cheek kisses with the women. Most of the people there spoke little to no English, but everyone was still pleasant. One guy’s comment: ”Tonight is your night, you will speak in French”. Au contraire, mon ami! Aside from bonsoir, I had nothing I could say. My host and her friend translated at times, but mostly I enjoyed how I wasn’t given special treatment. I much preferred sitting in my authentic situation amidst the friendly company of people I couldn’t understand – I had flashbacks to some of my early experiences in Japan. It was however a very mixed bag of culture during that dinner: there I was in black Africa, at a French dinner party, in an Indian restaurant, all while the Muslim call to prayer was blasting in Arabic from the nearby Mosque. As we feasted on our curries and naan, I listened to their nonsensical stories and laughter.
On the topic of English, one of the Frenchmen queried ”Where is Bryan?” to which everyone else answered immediately ”He is in the kitchen” and then burst out laughing. I of course had no idea what they were talking about, but it turns out that basically everyone who has ever studied English in France has had to learn this phrase. In the same way that older Japanese people joke about how they can only say ”This is a pen.”, so do the French. As an English teacher I found this quite amusing, you may not. One other highlight was when Celine was describing the Vanille Café, she brought her fingers to her lips and did that kiss thing to illustrate just how tasty it was. I was quite pleased to know people actually do that outside the context of exaggeration.
The drink in question
After dinner we walked back to the house and I got ready to go and spend the night at Guillaume’s, since Flederick was still on his 24 hour shift and wouldn’t be coming back that night. Guillaume, comedian extraordinaire, despite felling a bit under the weather was more than happy to take me in for the night. It was midnight by the time I got over there, and due to my 6am tour departure the next morning we did nothing but sleep.
That next day we rose early and drove to the French base where I was met by a tour guide. In the most economical option available, we arranged for me to be driven over to Lake Assal which after Don Juan Pond in Antarctica is the second most saline body of water on earth. It was about 120 km outside of the city and we would also be making some extra stops. So, I with my snacks and massive chest of water loaded up set off out of the capital city at last. Before long, the houses turned to shacks which turned to wasteland and nomads. Djibouti like many African countries is challenged by an arid landscape that allows for almost no farming and provides zero natural resources.
Despite the harsh conditions, among scraggly shrubs and rocks were small nomadic settlements and also some wild goats, asses, and oddly enough baboons. At one point the driver stopped the car as a troop of the monkeys had completely commandeered the roadway. I have no idea what these creatures ate out here, but it was really interesting to see them in the wild like this.
Along the way we made stops at a perch overlooking The Devil’s Cauldron, observed cracks and rifts formed by the opposing movements of tectonic plates, a steam vent that was putting out scalding wisps of vapor, and shuffled through an old lava tube. A lot of these stops took place in the foothills of the Ardoukoba Volcano which last erupted in 1978. That lava flow left the surrounding desert a black one.
After a while longer we were starting down the bumpy road towards Lake Assal. The road had a slight but steady drop in elevation that would eventually take us to the lowest on the African continent at-158m. Along the way, I saw a camel train heading towards Ethiopia packed up with salt, a trade route which has been going on now for a few thousand years. Soon the lake’s martian landscape came into view. The clear water nestled between the mountains was pretty typical, but the white beach on the far side was remarkable.
When I arrived I stripped down to my skivvies and got ready for a dip in the lake and a few photo ops. The white area was just a salt flat, and as I drew nearer the water I could see that the entire shoreline was composed of crystalline formations. Once out of my shoes moving around became a bit more painful with the sharpe edges stabbing into my dainty feet. Stepping into the water did nothing to resolve the problem, since the entire lake bed was the same if not worse.
Once I got deep enough to flail about without marring my limbs on the rough bottom, I laid into the water and was immediately propped up by an otherworldly buoyancy. I was a little bit skeptical as to how different it could really be, but I can say that just floating along effortlessly on top of the water was quite unique – I could have pulled out a newspaper without issue. I also tried my hand at swimming some breaststroke but due to my legs being forced up and out of the water behind me it was nearly impossible. Also, with a salinity of about 40%, sampling the brine had me retching just a bit. The other telling sign of the lake’s unique properties was that every small cut on my body was stinging.
After getting out, I decided to walk the shoreline a bit. As I walked I marveled at the beauty of the crystals and utter lifelessness of the area, I also picked up a handful of salt rocks to bring back as souvenirs and to show off in the classroom during my class travel report.
Once I was done there, I walked back to the car where I had to take a shower with water I prepared. As my body dried, I was coated by white deposits that unless rinsed off would have made my return trip miserable. The driver stood on top of the vehicle with my jug of water and opened the floodgates for me.
On the way out, there was a lone guy from the village a few miles away who came up to sell me some salt rocks and other goodies. I felt pretty bad saying no to the guy, since being the off season I was likely the only tourist to come all day. It does seem pretty difficult to sell something if the customers can just grab their own from the shore though. Soon we were going back the way we came all the way to Djibouti City, and after about 90 minutes I was back in the company of my hosts. This day trip was probably the single most unique experience in this country. All the animals and additional stops were unexpected and really filled out the excursion. After about 90 minutes I was back in the company of my hosts where on my last night in the country we chatted, napped and drank Ethiopia’s St. Georges beer.
Following breakfast the next morning, I got my things ready to go, tied up loose ends, and then went over to the airport with Flederick. We each sang our praises for the other and great representations of the Couchsurfing program we were. Coming to a country like this without someone to help and still get the experience I had would be impossible. There is almost no tourism industry in the country, nor infrastructure, so to spend any amount of time there sans interaction with real people would become boring fast, especially not knowing French. I certainly feel lucky about this one.
In the airport, as soon as I was through the door some employee enthusiastically snatched my bag and ran it through security and then over to my check in counter. In an airport like this, it was all of 30 feet. When I get over there he comes to me to collect on his efforts, which of course I didn’t want to pay. I think tipping is a foolish practice to begin with, but being required to pay for an involuntary service that I was quite capable of doing myself made no sense. At my refusal, he demanded two dollars and then showed me his airport ID, as if I didn’t know he worked there. In the end I conceded a dollar to the guy, and despite the insignificance of the amount I fumed for quite some time. I gave in because it was such a dodgy airport, and between immigration and security was clearly full of shady practices. I didn’t want to anything to complicate my upcoming flight. Still though, I was a bit upset at myself for yielding. The exchange left me with a bitter taste, but nothing could negate the amazing time I had spent in Djibouti. Au revoir!
– After years of foreign military presence, locals will often greet the expats with a ‘bonjour chef‘, meaning ‘Hello Chief’.
– The current president Ismail Oman Guelleh is referred to as the ‘King of Djibouti’ by many. He is presently constructing an addition to his palace that more than doubles its size, all while people sleep on the streets and starve. Though elected to the office in a generally fair election, he now represents the only political party and generally runs a corrupt regime. Having given himself carte blanch over the country, he is quite the nepotists when it comes to filling filling top cabinet positions and setting economic policy. From what I was told, the only company authorized to import khat into the country is owned by his wife. When people start to get upset about this fact, they just ban the import until they forget about the injustice again.
– Nearly all expats living in Djibouti are there on military assignment. There are American, German, Japanese, and a few French bases located in the capital. In fact, the rent that foriegn governments pay for the land represents a sizable chunk of the nation’s GDP.