Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Long Weekend In Djibouti

Insofar as Djibouti has any claim to fame, it is in the realm of geology.  For Djibouti is the spot where the Great Rift Valley turns inland from the Red Sea and heads inland through East Africa all the way down to Lake Tanganyika.  Thus if one were to visit Djibouti one would want to get on a tour which visited Lac Abbe and Lac Assal, one of which is 500 feet below sea level, and the other of which is an otherworldly scene or bleakness and hundreds of limestone tower fumaroles.

Problem is, you need to find about three, or four other people to join such a tour in order to make it at all cost effective.  And not that many other tourists ever make it to Djibouti.  So for the past couple of months I had been corresponding with a tour person there, continuing to hope that a tour would somehow coalesce for this weekend.  On Tuesday she wrote me saying that she finally had a tour, but starting on Wednesday.  Of course I was in Hargeisa at the time.  Now it was Thursday morning, the plane was circling in, and I had set aside four whole days on the off chance that something else would materialize.

Djibouti's airport was tiny, but several legs up on Hargeisa's.  A guy semi-suspiciously grilled me for a minute, then sold me a visa for $90.  Back in Hargeisa the American girl Ellen had said that backpacker types hung around the Horseed Hotel trying to put together tours, so I had the taxi guy take me there.  But for $37 all the deserted place offered was a thoroughly depressing crap of a room with no toilet or wifi.  So I let the taxi guy overcharge me to take me to my original choice, the Auberge Le Heron, about two miles or so north, on a tiny peninsula and in the villa/embassy part of town.

For reasons unknown to all, for a pretty poor place Djibouti is outrageously expensive.  But for once the LP was correct, and Le Heron turned out to be the best deal in town.  For $61 a night I was to have a large rectangular spic and span room, fan, a/c, the works.  Plus gracious service.  Tout en francais. For you see, Djibouti was originally French Somaliland, and everybody there, while still Somali, has been successfully francofied.

I rested in comfort for a few minutes, and then took advantage of their free shuttle service to deposit me at a small Yemeni restaurant about a km south towards town.  Delicious juice, delicious spaghetti, but the Yemeni bread oven didn't turn on until night time.  A smattering of expats, mostly French, sat around me.

Now it was time for a walk in the noonday sun.  In the summertime Djibouti regularly hits 125 degrees.  No kidding.  It's about the hottest place on Earth.  That's one reason why this trip was happening in January, when it was only about 85.  I walked along one of their empty, only wide-ish streets for a little more than a mile until I hit the beginning of the European Quarter.  Within a block it was the middle of the European Quarter.

Djibouti is about the only country in the world where the weekend is Thursday and Friday.  Add to that the fact that I had just found out that around ten months ago there had been a (mostly unsuccessful) suicide bombing, so that since then the 8000 man American military base, not to mention the large French and Japanese military bases, had been all locked up tight.  So that right now 'not much happening' was about as severe an understatement as you could make.  There was hardly even a stray dog lolling around.

And the 'European Quarter' was a pretty drastic overstatement to boot.  It's a good thing that, for all its riftvalleyness Djibouti seems to lack earthquakes.  Because a 4.5 would probably knock the whole place down.

So, under latter midday sun, with absolutely nothing going on, I turned north along the town's only other wide-ish road and made my way back to the auberge.  And rest.

Which I did basically all day Friday.  As one gets older the mind still wants to do all these things and the body... just...  can't.  Funny how long squashed bus rides and waking up at 4 over and over wears you out.  Also I had developed this really bad hacking cough.  No fever or other bad signs, but still...  So it was just great to lie there in my clean, comfy room, and appreciate my current circumstances here in one of the strangest little excuses for countries that there is.

By Saturday, though, with no tour materializing, it was time to start coming up with some make do projects.  So I h3eaded over to the wharf, where I knew that a 9:30 ferry was going across the bay to the town of Tadjoura.  It was a small ferry, carrying a few vehicles and a couple hundred people, all well behaved.  I was the only white person on board, but white people are way more common in these parts, so absolutely no one in Djibouti ever pays the slightest attention.  Except of course to give a friendly 'bonjour'.  Very calm and pleasant folks.  (The suicide bomber, by the way, was a foreigner.)

It was a totally uneventful two hour journey across the water.  As we neared the other side I could see that the hinterlands were as dry and severe and mountainous as they come.  I would need a really well stocked 4WD and really good health to enjoy them.  The 'town' that we docked at, the largest settlement outside of the capital, was a squalid dump, with one paved street along the shoreline, and numerous slummy tiny dirt alleys leading away from it.  The ferry was slated to go back in about an hour, but I only walked around for twenty minutes.  I certainly didn't want to get back to the dock and see that it had taken off early.

At 3:30 we were back in Djibouti town, now looking like Civilization itself.  And I walked in the semi-hot sun back to Le Heron, not for the first time imagining just how stinking awful this place must be in July.

My Swiss friend Peter was on a different schedule and trajectory than mine, but he happened to have flown in this morning.  And we happened to successfully meet up at the Yemeni restaurant at 7 PM.  Not all that much to accomplish for one day, but given that it was Djibouti, then again it was.

By Sunday it was more than clear that no tour was going to happen.  But I still had one more day to fill.  So after my morning auberge breakfast of delicious croissants I headed north to the tip of the peninsula, past surprisingly many substantial embassies, and up to the gates of the Kempinski Hotel.  $550 a night for a single, but that does include breakfast.  I didn't care to try and make it past the armed guards, so I turned around and went back home.

I had just written an email to Peter to see if he had come up with any ideas of things to do when my phone rang, and Peter was down in the lobby.  Ever hopeful, he had put on his swim trunks, so, ever hopeful, I put on mine, too.  We already knew that the Kempinski charged $6 to use their pool, so instead we headed over to the closer Sheraton.

The guards there frisked us down for suicide vests, then cheerfully let us in.  The 'beach' there consisted of brown, garbage strewn mud lapped by putrid smelling brown water.  Enclosed in barbed wire.  We talked to an overweight British guy by the pool.  He had been there for seven months and, except, I presume, when on business, he had never left the hotel.  The scene didn't seem like ours.

By now I had gotten the Djibouti gist of things, and, save for accommodations, you could actually get by there fairly cheaply.  For instance, instead of paying $4 for a cab ride 'downtown', you could hop on a decrepit minibus for twenty cents.  Which we did.

Sunday was a work day, but the European Quarter was just about as empty and forlorn as it had been on Thursday.  The only thing that the suicide bomber had accomplished was to destroy what little commerce Djibouti had had.  Peter was staying at a hotel south of here, though, so he led me a couple of blocks to where the African Quarter started.

Somalis, like Ethiopians, consider themselves a cut above your typical African.  In my experience they are both several cuts above.  The Djiboutians, though, did look just slightly more African than other Somalis.  And the African Quarter did look way more African than any place else I had seen so far.  Paved streets now became dirt alleys.  Buildings became wood slat makeshift affairs.  Order turned to more random bustle. 

Everyone, though, was still polite and friendly.  Though very poor, there was no sense of desperation.

After about a half mile of that a poor commercial street emerged.  This was where Peter's hotel was.  But there was no place to eat or hang out.  So we turned around and went back to the European Quarter.

Everything is relative.  By comparison now, if not Paris, we were at least back in the land of rectangular grids.  We stopped at a cafĂ© that actually looked quarter decent, although stripped of customers due to the military bases being locked down.  A Coke was $6.  We went to a local bar a couple of doors down.  There a Coke was $1.  (It's fifty cents at a market.)  We passed an hour or so nursing a drink and watching relatively poor Somali men hang out and interact.

Then it was back to a roundabout and into a minivan and up to the Yemeni restaurant.  Where we nursed giant fruit juices while waiting for them to start up the Yemeni bread oven.  Then, after a lingering dinner and conversation, it was time for Peter and I to shake hands and go our separate ways.

The next morning I leisurely awoke, had my leisurely croissants, paid my hotel bill, and partook of their gracious shuttle service to the airport.  I never got the geologic drama of that tour, but then it turns out that most people who attempt to put together that tour don't succeed.

And if it so happens that I die tomorrow and Djibouti was the last new country that I ever saw, somehow, here at the sunbaked, forgotten end of the world, that would be fitting.



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