The place of Adventure, Travel to East Africa: Djibouti,
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Welcome to Djibouti!
Djibouti, the exotic land, where dead animals are everywhere, beer is difficult to find, photography may cause a riot and a "nice" day is only 115 degrees F or so.....
Djibouti, conveniently located just North of Somalia, East of Ethiopia, and South of Eritrea is graced with an ample coastline on the Red Sea. It could be the world's next tourist destination save for the fact that the Muslim population won't tolerate beach wear, there are few services, it's the hottest place on earth with almost no water and the sharks are ready to make a snack of you! Just the place for a little adventure! Bring money and water, brush up on your French (you'll need it!) and let's spend a day there....
To be fair, Djibouti is in a tough spot. Warlord run Somalia on one border, Dependent on Ethiopia to the east for their money as a trade conduit to the sea, and to the north - Good old Eritrea, recently having regained it's independence from Ethiopia following a 20 year civil war. They are in the unique position of despising the Ethiopians, and competing with Djibouti as a trade conduit to the sea for them. They are still spoiling for a little fight, as evidenced by a few air raids they pulled on Ethiopia in the summer of 1998. Interesting geo politics. It's not likely you ever read about it in the American press.
Here is a scan of the back of a T shirt I bought there. For a "Big" picture, click on the icon. It is a big file, so be patient!
Djibouti is virtually 100% sandy desert and has very little water so they must import a lot of their food. A former French Colony, French is their primary language. The French Foreign Legion is still there in force. As a conduit for trade and as a ship watering station, it's amazing that there is a "there" there at all! You can see most of Djibouti City in less than a day on foot. Leaving town is not a good idea as bands of Afars, Somali Issas and various bandits occupy the countryside which is best described by geographers as "A VAST WASTELAND". Life expectancy is a mere 48 years. This is one of the hottest places on the face of the planet. The emergence of the new "super AIDS" there, which has the local authorities putting up billboards warning people, means this is a less than ideal place to look for a date.
Before the ship makes port, we are briefed on what to expect. Modest clothing is the rule. Expect a primitive society. Don't expect to use large denomination bills - not only won't they be accepted (due to counterfeiting), there is little to buy. Don't take photos without permission. If permission is granted (and this is by no means a certainty), the people will expect a tip. The port briefer was right. Boy, was he right!
Off the ship we go, a fine Australian couple (James and Nikki) and myself. We hail a taxi and are headed into town when I spot the fire station. We stop there and are welcomed by some confused firefighters. They're not used to tourists visiting. They show us their apparatus, which is completely focused on oil and ship fires. To heck with the town, keep the port open! This is the only time I can take photos without payment, as the chief officer directs his men to pose for us. The only payment asked is that I stop butchering "his" language and speak English. As we leave, the officer makes his further conditions known: I am to return the pictures to him! I agree and did indeed mail them back. Whether they ever got there is not known.
As we drive from port to town, we swerve to miss a very big and very dead dog in the middle of the road. Djibouti is a little short on animal rights activists, as we shall see.
We pass the Presidential Palace, not far from the fire station. This is typical: fire stations at ports, airports, and leader's palaces -- far from where people actually live.
We are dropped off in the "tourist" section of town. Djibouti City is divided into three parts: The old French area, the Native African area, and the tourist area between the two. The tourist area consists of rough stands and huts selling everything you might need: T shirts and gray market radios and stuff. Of course, the price of everything is negotiated, usually in French. (I have several "Republique De Djibouti" T shirts to prove my proficiency in the French language). What is unusual is there is no such thing as a 'done deal'. You can negotiate a price, pay it and walk away, with the seller coming back up to you a few minutes later demanding you pay a new price, or giving back your purchases. Stick to your guns on the finality of the deal here. They're no more aggressive here than elsewhere, but the renegotiations trick a block away is unique to me.
Off to the French quarter of town, where the government lives. This was once quite a nice outpost, but is a bit run down now. At the Post Office, the three of us buy some stamps in French. During a conversation with another patron - a local man - I remarked that my French was poor. He replied: "Pas mal, Pas mal", Not bad, not bad. My highest compliment! Mindful not to take photos of people without permission, we took snaps of some of the buildings. We were surprised when people would see us taking these photos, walk across the street, spit in our path, then go back. We were a lot more discreet after that.
Photo Notes: In the French quarter, things are quiet and peaceful. The banner Welcomes the President of Djibouti back home, while the billboard promotes abstinence and fidelity as a means to prevent disease.
By mid morning it's getting over 90 degrees F, so it's time for a beer (Remember, I'm with Australians). I change US$20 into Djibouti Francs and we head to the local Hotel for a local cold one. It seems there is no such thing as a local beer there. Heineken is the only beer, period. We order up a round. When we pay for the 3 beers, my Francs are all gone! Spent! Beer is expensive there!
As we look about the lobby, we are in the company of navel officers from various countries, various hangers on, folks who look painfully like CIA, and French legionaries (we think). Can we spell mercenaries, boys and girls? All this with the latest Kenny G CD playing in the background. All in all, $20 well spent!
Refreshed, we continue our adventure. A man with a freshly caught fish offers to let us take a photo of him for only US$1. I pose, my friend snaps, and to my horror says the camera is jammed, so no picture, no dollar. After the man departs, dollarless, my friend is laughing. The camera is fine and he took the shot. The man with the fish is gone. Now that's why some folks don't like Americans! The Aussies do stuff like that and the natives think is was those Yanks again. See world, it's not ALWAYS us! Naughty boy, James.
The famous fish photo. I owe this guy a dollar. If you see him, hand him one.
The Native African Quarter
We cross the tourist zone again to the native side. The world changes in less than a block. Some of the buildings were handsome a hundred years ago, but are dilapidated and overcrowded now. Others have simply collapsed and are left in heaps where they fell. Maybe the streets were paved once, but they aren't now. Watch for potholes!
Nikki wants to take a picture of a mother and child in front of a building. "Non" is the reply to her request. She offers a tip, then a bigger one. "Non" is the last word. No photo taken. We've learned respect. It's a lesson that will serve us well.
The Native Market
As we pass through the native quarter (maybe I should call it "where the locals hang out"), we come across the marketplace. It's quite big - a couple of acres. To the left of us is the produce section, sellers of fruits and vegetables from rough stands or simply on a blanket. To the right is the meat market. In the center, although we really don't notice, is a building.
We chose to start on the left. Hundreds of people crowd the market buying and selling produce. The geographers may call this a wasteland, but from somewhere comes a plentiful ,wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although we really stand out (we are after all, 3 European descendants, while the locals are ((surprise!)) Africans), the people there are friendly or just ignore us. Save for the fact that I was out of Francs, I might have bought lunch. As we pass through, we eventually wind up on the other side of the market - the 'back room' so to speak.
The Back Room
Here we were in the service area. Water was available here, but plumbers are apparently rare ,for the hydrants leaked and MUD was the order of the day. The trash dumpsters were here as well, overflowing with yesterday's offerings. Birds flew and various rodents scurried about, looking for something to eat and finding plenty. It was back here we found the 1/2 dead cat. Not 1/2 dead, just 1/2 of a cat. Apparently this cat found something interesting to eat and didn't notice the dumpster coming down and squish , the front of the cat was under the dumpster leaving the back half standing... just standing there! It was bizarre and another culture shock! We move on.
The Meat Market
By now, you might imagine we are going in a clockwise direction and you are right. We approach the meat market from the rear. Here, there are rough stands, but nobody selling from blankets. The mood of the crowd is different here, for I believe it is pretty obvious that we aren't buying, just looking. We come across a meat seller (Goat, I believe) and he has this piece of something on the table, but it is moving and hard to see. Then we figure it out: There is a big piece of meat there, covered by thousands of flies! Whack! The butcher uses a cleaver to cut off a chunk of meat for a customer. For a second, the pink of the meat shows through, but the flies attack, and it becomes a writhing mass again. The crowd is right... We're not buying! We see this repeated over and over. Leftover pieces of meat are simply dumped in the pathway of the buyers. Watch your step! The moving clods of dirt are really rejected meat encrusted with flies!
The 1/2 dead cat and a visit to the Inner Sanctum
After this experience, we have become jaded and decide to take a picture of the 1/2 dead cat, who has become the butt (so to speak) of our humor in this situation. When we return, we see that the birds have had their revenge and are busily pecking away on what was left of the half of cat! This was too much, even for jaded us, and again no photos were taken. It was then that we noticed the middle building, with a wide open door beckoning us in!
Dark and dank, something smelled good inside. We entered, James first, Nikki next, and me at the back. That turned out to be a wise move. This is the place where cooked meat is sold. From little stalls, people sat, cooked the meat and sold it. It was very much like an American horse barn, with a floor of dirt, no lighting nor ventilation. It turned out well that we had put the lady (modestly dressed, of course) in the middle of us men. This was not San Francisco, nor is an Equal Rights Amendment likely to be debated anytime soon there.
As we pass through, the mood of the locals has changed... for the worse. The walkway is narrow, and locals have followed us in, so there is no retreat by the way we came. The only way out is a slit of light on the other side of the building. Pots of boiling oil are in each stall, and the meat is cooking.
Suddenly, a whack! hits my shoulder, then another and another. A banana peel flies off my left side. The people are throwing food (or garbage) at us! I get the attention of James (at the front and blissfully unaware of what is happening) that we had better pick up the pace and get the hell out of there. He does, we do and the sunlight (even though it about 110F by now), looks great!
Later, James figures that a flash photo might have done us in: Obviously we weren't liked, and each person in the building was equipped with either a sharp knife or pot of boiling oil (or both), and it would have been TOO easy to get rid of a few disrespectful tourists. It might have even been profitable!
We then made our way back to the tourist zone. The hawkers were selling their wares again, but we managed to link up with a group from our ship who were returning from a tour, and stopping for "shopping opportunities". That added up to a free ride for us back to the boat. A truck full of French Foreign Legionaries drives by, proving that they still exist. We bid farewell to Djibouti as the ship sails away. As the temperature continues to rise, it's a good day for a cold beer, salad for lunch and an air conditioned day inside the cabin.....
The French Foreign Legion on patrol in the Tourist "transition" zone. Here is is, before noon and it's already over 100 F. Au revoir, Djibouti! Time to wash food off the back of my shirt!
That evening at dinner, another passenger is relating HER adventure in quite a different light. All of us at the table already knew what an attitude she had, and it was not a good one. It seems that she wasn't about to let some "damned natives" tell her where she was going to take pictures! She had paid good money for this trip and was going to take as many pictures as she damned well pleased. So she hired a taxi, and went out with her fancy photography gear (we all knew how fancy her gear was because she told us. And told us. And told us.) , and was merrily snapping away when a mob of Djiboutians rushed the taxi, surrounded it and demanded the film from her camera. When she refused they tried to tip the car over, with HER in it!
Well, they got away, film and all. Do you think she learned a little cultural respect? NOOOOO!!! She was angry at them for daring to get in her way! I have wondered if the hostile reception we got in the inner sanctum had something to do with her invasion of their cultural preferences? I guess I won't know until I go back there.....
Next Adventure, The Red Sea and Egypt, Luxor and Valley of the Kings. Bill meets Tut, Face to face.