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Published: August 24th 2005
Beautiful beautiful Djibouti
OK, not Djibouti City itself, but an Afar village the way to the Eritrean border. Now imagine the same place without the "civilizing" French influence...
X tells me “Djibouti” is French for “tiny, expensive, hot, steaming pile”. I admire conciseness in a language.
Night. Somewhere in the desert between Hargeisa and Djibouti. A couple of huts selling food. I am in full power-saving mode, stretched out on the tarp with my daypack under my head, eyes tightly shut and not a single muscle moving, even though I know there’s no time to sleep, even if I could manage to. My fellow-passengers are finishing up their meals and are assuming similar rest positions. X is somewhere to my left, taking full advantage of his Frenchness and talking to the really cute fellow-passenger (whom I saw first!). She’s telling him that she’s married to a French legionnaire who promised he would take her to France when his term expires in 2 years. The girl is gorgeous and I bet the dork she’s married to wears really short-and-tight shorts. She’s explaining the variations of female genital mutilation as practiced in Djibouti and Somalia: says she's lucky because "less is more" -- I'm trying to not be too graphic, but she was. Says she’s doubly lucky to have married a westerner, as he took her to a clinic to
Afar boy in Molhoulle
In case anyone has doubts when I say they're *really* good-looking.
have the “stitches” removed, and allowed time for them to heal. Somali men apparently take great pride in cutting open the stitches themselves and then immediately getting down to business. Later (when he translates it for me), we will marvel at how they manage to retain “concentration” (as X puts it) after having performed such an operation.
There are 11 of us passengers on the Land Cruiser, which is piled to twice its height with luggage. The road we are taking has been incorrectly described as “an alternative track used to avoid checkpoints”. The truth of the matter is it is the
one and only superhighway (a desert track) between the two countries. This is possibly the longest trip on such bad road since the journey to Dongola. I’ve also read postings saying that lions and hyenas can be seen on the way, but I don’t think it likely, considering the trip is made at night to avoid the legendary Djibouti heat. There is the usual qat consumption going on, to stay awake since it’s not possible to sleep. The girl (Hannah) throws a bit of stalk at me, and I open my eyes to give her a severe
Give me money "to eat"
The fool stuffing his face is the one who wanted 1000francs "to eat". Here he is eating a second (free) meal after sponging one off of us.
look. Don’t disturb my rest. Why aren’t there Turkish colonies with beautiful beautiful babies? We retake our seats and continue the fun. X is wide awake from his talk, but I practice the art of sleeping without resting on anything (as seen on the Flying Coach from Taftan to Quetta). Her brother is sitting directly opposite me, occasionally digging into my shins with his knees and chewing qat like there’s no tomorrow. He spontaneously spurts out questions or statements, and then tries to rouse us into talking. Qat makes one very talkative. The woman sitting next to him has a very beautiful face, and must have been a real beauty in her youth. In fact, they’re all quite attractive, with their colorful shawls (my favorite are red-and-black), petite faces with incredibly small noses and beautiful eyes, and slender figures. I was smitten by my first sight of Hannah. I sat waiting for the car to leave, sipping tea and making friends by bashing Bush, and there she was, sitting across the street: the very definition of attractive. Too bad she doesn’t speak English, and is married to a friggin’ legionnaire. At long last the car stops and I collapse on
Bowling with batteries
Not very representative of the sport, but you're lucky I have any pictures to upload at all.
the sand, exhausted. All I can think of is sleep, and the fact that we’ll start moving again when the sun rises, 2 hours from now. Naturally this thought prevents me from sleeping. My next thought takes the form of a honking car: it’s time to go already.
The border is… well, a border. It’s around 8am and it’s already heating up. I spend my last SlS on a cup of tea, and then stroll over to investigate whether that thing
is a mirage, or we’re really by the sea. Turns out we’re right next to an oily-looking grey-blue waveless sea. Djibouti, here we come! As the French-speaker, it’s now entirely X’s job to deal with people, and I point them in his direction if they approach me. His frenchness might as well be good for something! There’s a small hut to the right where passports are being stamped, but we hang out by the car, to make sure nothing disappears while our bags are “inspected”. Hannah is waiting around for us to make sure we’re OK. A couple people come over to ask if we’re journalists. They don’t seem to be checking bags so we go over to the office where we are immediately put in front of the line (racism). They accidentally give X an entry
stamp, and I’m amazed by his politeness as he asks for an exit stamp, “just in case”.
So, goodbye Somaliland, 17 days after entering. It’s around 9am and it’s beginning to swelter. Our fool of a driver manages to be the last in a long of similar cars to be searched by the thorough Djiboutians, and we take shelter in the shade of a larger truck while passers-by stare. A kid comes over to talk to X in French, and informs him that Djiboutians are very used to white people and no-one would take any notice of us, even if we were to curl up and die by the roadside. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but it would be a welcome change to be ignored. We’re out of water, and there’s little chance of getting any without paying a king’s ransom. You’d think they’d have water, seeing how this is supposed to be one of the hottest places in the world, but you’d be wrong. Our turn comes and a fool in uniform proceeds to remove and examine every item in my bag. A second guy shows up and wants to join in the fun by re-pawing through my stuff with “hmm” presumably meant to sound intelligent. I have no tolerance for retarded officials, and I’m tired, very hot, and very very thirsty. X is mysteriously calm, so I decide to play it cool as well. I repack my bag, but another all-important official wants to search me again, a mere 100m ahead. “Yes, you were searched, but this is the Department of , and we need to search you again”. It’s not like they’re searching for drugs or boomsticks, or anything else in particular: they’re just asserting their authority.
Further on we are to have our passports stamped. As usual, the geniuses look at our passports and then ask our nationality. We show them the page with our Djibouti visa, which they stare at, and then tell us to “wait”. By now all of our clothing is soaked through with sweat, and I’m not a happy camper, as thirst is becoming a real problem. About 10 minutes later X asks what we’re waiting for, and is informed they are waiting for the guy in charge to come and give us a visa. Visa? But we already have visas! “Really? Where?” You’re looking at it, fool! No, today we are very subdued and put on a remarkable show of patience. Then there is more head-scratching because the form asks for an address, and we’re not sure which hotel we’ll be staying at. Years of French education couldn’t prepare them for the moment when X declares we’ll be staying at “’Otel Go-agh”. Where? “Hotel Gohar”, I translate. One of them doesn’t like my necklace, and X explains that it’s part of the rite of passage in my “tribe”, and every man must wear one. Try arguing with that! They search my bag again before they let us leave.
In about 15 minutes (remember, small country), we are beginning to observe the signs of French civilization as we enter Djibouti City: an automobile graveyard and some shanties to the left, and a collection of army helicopters and jets to the right. Djibouti is a strategic point in the “War on Terror ”, and the Americans, in addition to the French, have a base here. The town itself is much dirtier and more chaotic than Hargeisa, many buildings being made of corrugated iron and any other materials the builders may have chanced upon. We stop somewhere to drop someone off, and Hannah gets into a heated argument with the driver. A passer-by with black sunglasses, red shorts, an Air France t-shirt, and carrying some colorful liquid in a plastic bottle calls out “Al-Qaida!” I stupidly respond “you’ve got the wrong guy”, rather than ignoring him, and he moves in for the kill, demanding to know where I’m from. “I’m Turkish and my friend here is French.” He turns to X (in French): “I am a policeman, show me your passport.” “Do you really think I’m going to hand over my passport to every fool wearing an Air France t-shirt?” “Ok, I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Whatever.
Hotel Gohar, at $12/head is possibly the shittiest dump I’ve been to in the past month or so, and outrageously priced. We have it on good authority that we can’t do better for this price, however, so we agree to stay. There are cats sprawled out and napping everywhere, and it’s dangerous walking up and down the steps because they don’t move for anything. The women working here also stretch out on the floor to keep cool.
We go out to exchange money and eat, and people interrupt their qat consumption to call out “Osama!” So much for being ignored. Money-changing women sit on chairs on the sidewalk with camouflage purses full of money on their laps. I hand over 900Birr (over $100) in brand new notes, and am given four lousy crumpled bills and a couple of coins. I feel cheated! In Somaliland I would have gotten a respectable bagful of money for the same sum. We are, however, pleasantly surprised to find we can eat pasta for 50cents. Maybe we can survive here after all. A fellow-diner speaks English with a North American accent, and explains he used to live in Vancouver until he was deported. I get ready to unleash a tirade about post-9/11 racism, but he cuts me short by saying he was deported for selling cocaine. Oh. Are we by any chance “wanted” in our respective countries? No. We are unloved and unmissed. The heat doesn’t seem as unbearable as I had imagined, but plenty of people on the street have heat rash all over their faces. I guess it’s worse if you have to slave over a hot stove in this heat. Tap-water has a high salinity which gives it a sickly sweetish taste. Thank God for French civilization!
While entering the hotel someone calls out “Mother F*ckers!” We’ve been spoiling for a fight since Ethiopia, and I’m not going to let some fool who speaks French and calls himself a “Djiboutian” insult me. Before I can poke my head out the door X has already clenched his fists and spat out a babble of French that causes the men to apologize and retreat. I ask for a translation. He triumphantly obliges: “I hasked ‘im hif is mom his sucking beers somewhere!” I’m incredulous. Beers
? What kind of insult is that? “You know, the big furry hanimal.” Blank stare. “Oh! Bears
!” I’m glad he doesn’t attempt complicated insults in English. We go upstairs and pass out.
In the evening we go out “exploring”. The streets are pretty lively, with people everywhere selling clothing, shoes, trinkets, you name it. Ethiopia doesn’t have a port (with the border with Eritrea being closed and all), and Djibouti handles all its shipping traffic. We are too poor to drink fruit juice, eat fish, or engage in other luxuries, so we go back and eat more pasta for 50cents. At a dark spot by some parked minibuses are two loafers and the thought “pickpockets” flashes through my mind. No-one has ever considered me rich enough to rob, but I’ve heard plenty of stories: someone does something aggressive like grab you by the collar or spit on your clothes, and while your mind is thus occupied his partner empties your pockets and both disappear before you realize what’s happened. They go for the right front pocket of pants, and I normally carry my money in my left pocket which has a zipper, but Somaliland has made me grow lax, and I’m carrying about $20 in my right pocket. It could happen to me!
5 seconds later one of them is trying to distract me and I feel a hand in my pocket which I immediately grab, upon which he releases his hold, letting the money go. Now both X and I turn on Mr Amateur, and X gets it in his head that he would like to punch him, and starts chasing. Bystanders join in the pursuit, and once captured begin to slap the thief. When X joins the fun it’s in the form of a flying punch dealt to the back of the thief’s ear. To his shame, the blow didn’t knock him over. X says he didn’t have enough space to “express himself”. At the police station they seem disappointed by the quantity: only 3000 francs? By this time X has worked himself into a rage and is yelling and cursing at the thief -- who doesn’t speak French. The police say he must be Ethiopian, but he has dignity and replies he’s a Somali from Hargeisa. I guess one reason Hargeisa is so safe because all the thieves have moved to the glorious Republic of Djibouti.
At the end of this excitement-packed day we retire to our rooms to suffer for past sins and soak sheet and mattress with our sweat.
Early the next morning we are at the Eritrean embassy. It takes a few minutes for what the man says to sink in: for $10 extra we can have an “expedited” visa within hours, not days. That means we can leave the country at least a full day ahead of schedule, provided the boat to Obock is leaving today. Otherwise we can try to take a bus. Either way we’ll only have spent one night in an expensive Djiboutian hotel, and even if we have to wait for transportation to the border, we’ve heard we can sleep on the beach in Obock. Excellent, we’ll take it.
Back at the hotel my attempts at cleanliness come to an uncomfortable end when the water runs out halfway through my shower and before I can rinse off. Back in Somaliland they were almost angry with the British for “abandoning” them, and admired France for their continued presence in Djibouti. What’s the point of a colonial presence if I can’t take a friggin shower in peace?
On the way to pick up the visas I am treated to a rare sight: a fully grown man wearing a cylindrical hat and the tightest most ridiculous shorts imaginable, with socks pulled all the way up to his knees. You guessed it: a member of the formidable French Foreign Legion. How can they expect to win a war if they don’t take themselves seriously?
There are tourism agencies advertising excursions and snorkeling in the Red Sea. And in fact, there are quite a few faranji on the street, apart from the obvious French and American soldiers. Who in their right mind would go to Djibouti
for vacation? I guess it’s OK if you need an urgent sunstroke and your money is burning a hole in your pocket. As for me, I’ll be glad when I’m safely in Eritrea. I have great hopes for the place, especially Massawa which used to be an Ottoman port, and where we might find sheesha. We haven’t had any since Jijiga 3 weeks ago. They say it’s available in Djibouti City, but we haven’t had the time to investigate.
We nap till 3, eat lunch, and head for the port where we are told the boat will be leaving around midnight. Only 8 hours to kill. A guy tells us we can sleep there, and that many faranji camp out for days while waiting for a boat to Yemen. We’re also headed that way but hope to catch something from Eritrea. The light breeze that made the heat tolerable drops as soon as the sun sets, and things get pretty miserable. We lay down on the sidewalk to sleep until they finish loading the boat. I take the opportunity to comment on the comforts of having a mat, even if it is a pain to carry - X doesn’t have one, and wishes he did. Eventually the boat is loaded, and the passengers spread out to sleep on sacks of flour or cement or (in my case) bread. It feels like a real refugee boat. We leave around 3am, and sleep like babies.
Obock looks like a small village. I guess they include it on maps because they’re embarassed to have only one city in the Republic of Djibouti. Moments after our arrival a man in a white pickup pulls up and declares “I am a policeman, show me your passport!” X tells him to f*ck off. We are initially told that transportation to the border “may turn up” around noon. It’s currently 9. Then someone tells us to follow him and takes us to a house where he turns on CNN and brings us coke. There’s news of the death of John Garang of the SPLA (of very dear memory), and rioting in Khartoum. Political analysts that we are, we immediately conclude it wasn’t an accident, and hope they don’t start fighting again. We’d like to go back someday. Then they take us to a pickup and - standard procedure - proceed to tinker with the engine while we wait in the sun. X asks the price 3-4 times to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises. I don’t like the looks of the guy who now decides to accompany us, but decide he’s probably harmless. These are the Afar people, famous for their ferocity, and we’ve been repeatedly told not to muck with Afars.
The “road” to the border is the usual - a sseries of tracks through the desert. The Red Sea on the right and mirages to the left. We stop at a series of watering holes, a bunch of wells dug close to each other with a few people and a lot of camels. The Afar men wear sarungs with a large knife stuck through a thick army belt. The women are draped with the usual colorful shawls. A guy riding in the back with us is a fisherman who stops over in Yemen to buy gas on his way back from fishing. It’s hot but the sky is hazy so we probably won’t fry. We pass through some small villages, and the occasional solitary tent or two on the way. Afars are traditionally nomadic herdsmen, so it’s not surprising there aren’t any real towns. On the way we are passed by a 4WD coming from the other direction, which (we are told) is coming from the funeral of the Sultan of Afars. So much for anthropological studies.
When we finally get to the border we are told that there might
be a pickup coming from the other direction and returning to Assab, but our chances of leaving today are slim as we are the only two passengers. Maybe if another pickup comes… Our “friend” asks for 5000 instead of 4000 as we had agreed. He says 1000 is for him “to eat”. X says that’s pretty standard fare in West Africa. He offers to give him everything in his pocket - 350 or so - but the man magnanimously refuses: “if you have no money, it’s OK”. He doesn’t mind us paying for his meal, though, and then proceeds to nap.
A pickup eventually comes from the other direction, bearing an unprobably Japanese traveler. He confirms that the price is 150Nfa to Assab. I talk to the driver who says he’ll only leave if more passengers turn up. Our “friend” appears and says he’ll “talk to the driver”, after which he insists on the price being 200Nfa. With such friends… At last he leaves without causing further trouble.
We go over to get our exit stamp, and they say they don’t have one. Some border crossing. The Eritrean side is tens of kilometers away, so after having our information entered in some sort of bok we have technically left Djibouti, 48 hours after entry, although our physical departure may take some more time. We spend the rest of the afternoon milling about and watching the kids pay a form of bowling with “D” batteries, and the grownups play some French game involving large metal balls. X says it’s called “petanque” and is one of France’s major contributions to civilization. We are invited for dinner with the soldiers who assure X that this is “his country”, and they love French people and France. Whatever. As long as I get my free food I don’t care whose country it is. One of the soldiers has been at this border crossing for 16 years; I can imagine few punishments as cruel and unusual. Just as all hope is failing, and we have gotten ready to spent the night under the stars, a pickup turns up, and we drive off, glad to be leaving.
Thus ends possibly the longest account of absolutely nothing. I’m accepting nomations for the “Most Wordy Blog” award. Djibouti wasn’t such a bad place in hindsight: the people are pretty eager to help, and Djibouti City is interesting enough to spend a couple of days wandering in the market (unable to buy anything). And, of course, the women are gorgeous. All the same, I won’t be going out of my way to re-visit the place any time soon.
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