April 14, 2009

Whadja djo in Djibouti, Djesse?

My recent travels took me first to Djibouti and then to Ethiopia. Unlike previous posts about my travels - to Uganda and Lesotho - where I’ve written a day-by-day account, I’m just going to note some of the highlights and post pictures. This post is about Djibouti; I’ll discuss Ethiopia in a subsequent one.

The impetus for the trip was a visit to a high-school friend. This trip has been in the works for a long time and I had initially planned on only visiting them. But my friend insisted that if I was going to be so close to Ethiopia, I also had to work in a visit to a few of its many remarkable sights. Plus, Djibouti is a small place without too many tourist destinations.

We spent the first three days exploring the countryside outside Djibouti City. We went to a couple beaches where I got to snorkel over some neat coral reefs, marvel at the fish, and get a modest sunburn on my back. We also visited Lac Assal, (one of) the lowest point(s) in Africa and a lake saltier than the Dead Sea. I went swimming and floated across the top of the water. As I did, an Afar nomad, as his people have for generations, approached with his camel and began to mine the salt by hand to be loaded onto his camel and traded in distant parts.
The reason Lac Assal is so low is that this marks the place where two tectonic plates are pulling apart. As a result, there’s also a lot of volcanic activity and we explored a volcano and the neat lava tubes.

I also stood on the crack (maybe) where the Arabian and African plates meet and tried to cause an earthquake by pulling them further apart. It didn’t work.
The Djiboutian countryside is remarkable. It’s desert but not in the sandy sort of sense that I’ve always understood that word. It’s harsh, dry, rocky, and forbidding. I was reminded of my previous experience in a harsh climate, in western Alaska. But in Alaska, I felt like I understood the internal logic of Alaska native life. I had much less time in Djibouti but I had no clue as to the internal logic of Somali and Afar nomadic life by the time I left.
My friend eventually had to go back to work so I had two days to explore Djibouti City, where two-thirds (more or less) of Djiboutians live. This was an opportunity for me to try out my French and wilt in the heat. The city is a pleasant place with a sort of faded, shabby French charm. Je parle francais bien… kind of. I managed to order some food in cafes and buy stamps for post cards but otherwise Xhosa kept popping into my head before French did and I had to keep shoving it down.
The rhythm of life in Djibouti is distinct. Business and social life is hopping throughout the morning. Around noon or one, however, the khat shows up and life shuts down for the afternoon. Khat (also spelled qat in Somalia) is a narcotic that is legal in the Horn of Africa region but illegal in the U.S. It has to be consumed shortly after harvest so it is cut each morning in Ethiopia and exported post-haste to Djibouti, arriving mid-day and making a mockery of the idea that Africa’s lack of infrastructure impedes trade. When there’s a market (and inelastic demand), the product gets through! It is impossible to describe how different the rhythm is in the morning - pleasantly chaotic - and the afternoon - lethargic. You just see men sitting in the shade with their piles of leaves in front of them, blissfully chewing away.
Djibouti also heavily subsidizes the price of bread. Between that and the khat, I was reminded of the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome or the soma of “Brave New World.”

I bought some postcards from a guy with one leg on crutches in the street. It was confusing because I was bargaining in French and he kept trying to get me to buy more than I wanted. In the confusion, I walked away with the postcards but forgot to pay him. As I walked away, he started shouting after me and I was convinced he was trying to make a scene to get me to pay twice. So I sped up, convinced I could casually stroll and still outwalk a one-legged man. Well, he could motor on those crutches and he could also shout pretty loudly - “monsieur! monsieur!” - so we began to attract a crowd. That made me pause, think for a moment, and realize I was still holding in my hand the money I had meant to give him. I turned around, smiled, and gave it to him and our small crowd dispersed. I can’t imagine I gave white tourists a very good name that day, however.

Djibouti is just a short boat ride away from Yemen and we went out to a Yemeni restaurant one night and had some great fish, cooked on the side of a clay oven. Like all good food, it’s eaten with your hands.

Djibouti was the first Muslim-majority country I’ve ever visited. Flying in the first night, I thought to myself, “Look at all those church steeples!” Then I realized they were minarets. I was only woken up by the call to prayer one time. Djiboutian women seemed to run the gamut in terms of dress, from a loose shawl over the head to a full veiling, though I only saw a few of the latter. Oddly, I thought, for a Muslim country, in the market there were numerous stalls that seemed to be devoted solely to selling women’s underwear on full display for all to see.

I borrowed a bike and rode out of town a ways. There are camels everywhere with appropriate road signs.
I rode past homes that looked no better than what I am familiar with in Itipini. But at least in Itipini there’s a little greenery. Here, it was just desolate and barren-seeming. Oddly, for a country where it hardly ever rains, it rained on my bike ride and I got spattered with mud.
Djibouti is a major port and, given the ongoing testiness in Ethiopia and Eritrea's relationship, the only port for getting goods to Ethiopia. There’s a road between Djibouti and Addis Ababa and it is constantly plied by a never-ending stream of trucks. It takes about three to five days for the trip, depending on whether or not the truck breaks down. There’s also an old railway line connecting Addis and Djibouti and that would be the most sensible way to transport the goods except that a) it needs a lot of repair and the two countries can’t agree on how to pay for it and b) the truckers’ union is politically powerful in Ethiopia (all the drivers are Ethiopian) and stops any discussion of switching to rail. Most of the trucks aren’t big enough to handle the shipping containers, which means they have to be unloaded in Djibouti and repacked on a truck. And because Ethiopia is such a closed society they don’t have enough foreign currency to pay for all the stuff so it just backs up in Djibouti and - literally - collects dust. The inefficiency makes you want to scream. But as I’ve learned time and again here, efficiency is a Western value and is not equally valued (nor should it be) by everyone.
(Eriteria is a tragically fascinating country, colloquially known as “North Korea on the Red Sea.” They’ve now also picked a fight - there’s no other way to describe it - with Djibouti and are even more cut off the world. Check out the excellent “I Didn’t Do It For You” by Michela Wrong for more.)

I’ve posted some of these pictures and others to Facebook. You can check them out even if you don’t have a Facebook account by clicking on this link.


Dave said...

Not always the Eritrean fault, there is a lot underneath that you are not seeing.