Published: December 18th 2010December 17th 2010
Or, perhaps: “How I Almost Ended Up in the Wrong Country”.
While I hadn’t expected my excursion to Djibouti to be a straightforward affair, it almost didn’t happen at all. When I got up to the Ethiopian Airlines counter at Khartoum International Airport, the agent decided, on the spot, that she couldn’t check me in because I didn’t yet have a Djibouti visa. I tried to explain that as a US citizen I was allowed to get one on arrival in Djibouti. But to now avail. She claimed that the airport manager would be over in a “minute” to make the final decision…. At least twenty minutes later, there was no sign of the manager and now the agent had turned back three others seeking to go to Tanzania. They were equally baffled – it is well known that you can get visas at the border in Tanzania. Ms. Counter Agent was being overly zealous in her duties! Finally, after what seemed an interminable time, the manager appeared and gave us all the green light, and I was able to leave Sudan.
But in Addis Ababa, things continued to go a little strangely. When the flight to Djibouti appeared
on the board, passengers were told to proceed to gate 4. There was a rather large crowd already milling about, which surprised me. How many people were going to this out of the way place? There was even a line forming at the entrance ramp. I asked one of the Ethiopian Airlines personnel zipping to and fro if I should get in line; they waved me towards that line. Only when I was about to board the plane, when the flight attendant double-checked my boarding pass, did someone finally exclaim – “No, this plane is going to Luanada, Angola!” A number of us had to shuffle back up the ramp to wait our turn. Apparently, three different flights – one to Angola, another to Rwanda, and ours to Djibouti - were all using the same gate at about the same time. Confusion reigned.
But all that behind me, I fianlly got on the proper plane and landed basically on time in Djibouti. And I was indeed able to get my visa there, though it took a long while – one guy was processing everyone and taking his own sweet time. What’s the rush, when you’ve arrived at the end
of the world?
Djibouti is one of those places that have been on my travel “bucket list” for a while. I think it was its name first that grabbed my attention – it’s also one of my students’ favorites: “Shake, shake Dijbouti!”. But I also liked that it was a far-flung place, a strange little outpost on the Horn of Africa, right at the mouth of the Red Sea as it spills into the Gulf of Aden. A place best known as a home to French Legionnaires and for being the “hottest place on earth”. * How could I not go? Especially now that I live in the “neighborhood”?
While driving from the miniscule airport in an ancient, battered taxi – the driver a gregarious Djiboutian speaking to me in a mash of French, Arabic, and English (which I was soon to realize would be the norm here!) – my first impression of Djibouti City was: it looks like Khartoum. The outer edges of the city have that same low slung, incomplete – and dusty! – look. However, once we got into city center, my impression changed.
The European Quarter, where I was staying, was much
more what I imagined: decaying colonial facades surrounding the main square. Arriving during Friday afternoon, when almost all the shops were closed and the streets mostly empty, just added to the sense that I had landed in an all but forgotten colonial backwater, lost on the edge of space and time. In other words, my kind of place.
But Djibouti is not really forgotten, and it was most definitely not empty. Once I checked in to my hotel and freshened up a bit, I went out to explore. The main part of the city is quite compact; the European Quarter can be circled almost in minutes and the adjacent African Quarter, while bigger, is still manageable. North of the center, the city is more industrial, as this is where the main port is – which in and of itself is a reminder that Djibouti actually is a quite strategic place, important for the shipping business that passes between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean AND as a base to combat the Somali pirates that harass that business.
I also came to realize pretty quickly that my “khawaja” status would mean a lot more attention here than in Sudan.
Almost as soon as I left the hotel, I had to deal with hucksters trying to sell me postcards and watches and begging children pulling at my sleeve (there was one little girl who I am sure was testing to see if she could nab my wallet). I even had one crazy guy, his cheek stuffed with qat, follow me for blocks trying to get me to buy him a drink.
Overall, though, I was able to steer clear of, or at least ignore, most of this kind of drama, and enjoy my explorations. When I ducked into a juice stand milling with locals or stopped for a beer at a terrace bar populated by French Legionnaires or had dinner at a hole-in-the-wall place that only served poisson yemenite (a marinated whole fish baked to perfection), I couldn’t help but smile. I am in Djibouti!
* I have arrived at perhaps the best time of year to visit. The temperature is actually pleasant and the humidity relatively low. But somehow when the sun is high, you get a sense that under normal circumstances the weather here would be hell on earth. Blazingly hot with high, high humidity. 150F,
anyone? I can’t imagine summer!
There are more photos below