Djibouti, December 2008 – Yes, the Pearl Of Africa, but it certainly could benefit from some improvements.
We flew here under a beautiful starry sky. During the flight I saw two falling stars and made a beautiful wish for each one of them. In hindsight one of those wishes should have been for hot running water, a luxury I have had to do without for the last 10 days. A luxury also that is painfully missed. Early morning stepping into an ice cold shower is just not my thing.
Jeroen, my pilot for this trip (Captain Slow), had already told me that the Djibouti Sheraton was not exactly the pinnacle of luxury. And all I could think was Wow this kid is spoiled ! A Sheraton is a Sheraton !
How different that turned out to be. The first days I’m staying in a room on the ground floor. What a slum. Everything is dirty and broken. Nothing does what it is supposed to do. The airco sound like an old Russian cargo plane. The bathroom has a permanent and very pervasive smell of stale urine. The TV only has one channel. With lots of noise. The toilet does a good job of imitating Niagara Falls all through the night and the towels are fitted with lots of extra holes. On top of it all internet comes by the (outrageously expensive) hour and doesn’t work half of the time. All of this for a healthy 130 dollars per night. It doesn’t make me happy and it enforces once again all the preconceptions I have about this continent. It could benefit from some improvements.
The next day we decide to visit the Chieftain with the Gold Tooth in charge of reception. After complaining, negotiating and threatening to leave we get him to change our rooms to the ‘executive floor’. Six floors up for a little bit more money, but with free internet, a reasonably clean room where the airco hums instead of rattles and the TV has CNN and BBC World. Internet is still slow and unreliable, but bearable.
However we are still in an African hotel. In preparation for a wedding party, the tables at the pool are being decorated with fresh covers and laced edges. With the tip of the tongue firmly wedged between their unbrushed teeth four guys spend a whole day pinning them down. Such a pity that the fresh covers have huge brown stains in them. It looks just the thing, but ‘not quite’.
In the morning an invitation is shoved under your door. It’s an invitation for a “Cocktail Party at the Pool” with free drinks and some small snacks. The date of this wonderful event ? Yesterday….
You order a hamburger for lunch. You spend five minutes explaining to the waiter that you do not want cheese on your hamburger. You do want egg on it. He understands it. Fifteen minutes later the hamburger is in front of you. With cheese. Without the egg.
Order an espresso and a ‘cafe normal’ and you get two espressos. Or two normal coffees.
Jeroens room hasn’t been cleaned for three days now. Because the maid can not clean all of the rooms in the time she is working her shift. To start the next day on the other end of the hallway is a concept that is way beyond her grasp.
The hotel here is full of blockheads. Crew cut Schwarzeneggers from the German Wehrmacht. I proceeded to chat up the only female specimen of the lot to find out what it was they were doing here. But she was not at liberty to tell me. “Dass ist geheim!! ” . Oh well, whatever. A few days later she doesn’t even dare to look at me anymore. Probably I have been designated a security risk by the OberstSturmbahnFuhrer. Or her blockhead friend has had a good talk with her, and pointed out that this Dutch Mr Bean doesn’t even have any tattoos. And an inkling of belly fat. There’s about eighty of those iron men in this hotel.
Receiving text messages in this country can be a hoot. Sometimes a text message received once, will be received again five minutes later. And again. And again. And again. After about twenty messages, the frequency drops down to once every fifteen minutes for half a day. Then it switches to once every half hour. Usually this stops after a couple of days. But by then there will be another message to continue this terror of repetition. The markings on my phone’s ‘delete’ button are fading.
I need an extension chord for my computer. On the way back from the airfield we stop at a contraption of corrugated metal sheets with a promising sign above it. “Electronique”. The taxi stops, and as I walk to the little shop, dressed in my pilot outfit, the khat chewing shop owner starts to smile like he just got signed up as the next Weekend Millionaire. Using sign language and all of my French vocabulary I manage to make it clear to him what it is that I need. Upon which he immediately disappears out back, steals the one and only extension chord from his mothers kitchen, puts it in a green plastic bag and hands it to me. The price ? 5000 francs, a week’s salary. I laugh at him, shake my head and walk away. This startles him and he begs me to come back. In the end I buy a filthy secondhand extension chord covered in goat shit for 1500 franc. At least five times the going price, but ok, sometimes life is not fair.
Taking a taxi here is an adventure all on its own. Almost without exception the driver has his mouth and teeth covered in green goo: Khat. It makes them happy and (regrettably) brave and sometimes suicidal. Almost everyone here is carrying a supply of those grean leaves in a plastic bag. Drugs for the poor and hopeless. There’s a lot of those on this continent.
Sometimes the driver turns his key and the car starts. Sometimes he has to get out of the car, open the hood and short some wires to make the engine start. Sometimes the door opens without problems. Sometimes it needs the help of the driver, or a firm pull on some wire sticking out of the door. Windows are usually open and can not be operated. There’s a gaping hole where once was the window switch. There’s a rusty axle where once was the window crank. When driving, expensive silver fillings will part company with your teeth in no time at all due to the complete absence of any useful suspension.
Taxometers are an unknown phenomenon here. If you ask for the price, he’ll give you a figure at least three times too much. We learned not to say anything, give what we think it is worth and leave the car with “We live here, you don’t fool us..” written all over our faces.
Taxis always drive very slow. Which is good. Speedbumps are taken at walking pace to prevent too much bits and pieces of the car falling onto the tarmac. Tape and ropes assist in keeping the car together. Most all cars here have died a while ago. Sometimes the driver did too. But due to the slow, crawling African pace it takes a while for everyone to find out.
Yesterday we suddenly found ourselves inside a complete, tidy and shiny taxi where even the electric windows were working. It was an eery experience. Most of them look like they’ve been picked up from the car recycling facility. On the inside they’ve been pimped with smelly sheep fur on the dashboard and dirty carpetry on the ceiling. The seats are worn so bad one finds oneself painfully sitting on the chassis. Usually these seats are covered with some textiles that have never seen the inside of a washing machine since they were put there. On those you can find a rich collection of foodwaste, oil products and bodily fluids that have firmly mixed with sand, dust and goat’s hairs, making every taxi seat a standard research library called “Life in Africa“.
A visit to the local marketplace is a social event. You will meet all your friends here, even those that, as far as you can remember, have never been part of your ring of friends. Everyone is your friend, you are white, you are rich. You’re expected to shake many hands, and to take a route across the marketplace that will take you (oh wonderful coincidence!) past a little shop where your friend has a business partner. Once you have been smilingly ushered inside the haggling can start. On all the chinese junk that is shoved in your hands. Brave man who will leave this place empty handed. I bought a real Lacoste shirt for 3 euros and was happy to be waved goodbye. Walking around the marketplace you have to have a watchful eye on the ground or you will spend another half hour holding a little stick scraping off goat droppings from under your shoes.
The city center, or Centre Ville as they call it here, is built on top of a landfill. I think. There is garbage spread on the streets everywhere. Sometimes you’ll see a little lady sweeping a part of the sidewalk with a broom. Watching such a scene is really emotional. As if you’re watching Al Gore taking a piss out in the Kalahari Desert in a valiant effort to put a definitive stop to the world’s deforestation. Very touching.
Finding restaurants where you can eat without contracting some form of food poisoning can be a challenge when you’re new to this place. One evening we decide to visit an Indian restaurant with a good review on some internet page. The first time we fail miserably in locating it. Although the taxi driver claims to know the whereabouts of the ‘Rue de Brazzaville’, his nervous scanning around and silent mumbling as we get near the city center tells a different story. A search expedition on foot leaves us with nothing but sweaty armpits and general disappointment. It’s hard to find the ‘Rue de Brazzaville’ if the streets have no name signs. The next day, with a different driver, our luck changes. He delivers us right to the restaurant’s doorstep.
The entrance is hidden behind a pack of sleeping dogs, piles of garbage, a couple of khat chewing locals, size ‘Anorexia’ and a broken washing machine. One of the khat chewers attempts a non convincing “Bon soir mon ami…” and raises his hand to us. We’re not giving any money to our ‘ami’ this time. Because of the positive review we read on the internet we do not turn back and continue to look for the entrance. And once inside it is not bad at all. There are hardly any Indian dishes on the smudgy menu, but there are fellow westerners sitting at tables around us, which always is comforting. A few minutes behind us an elderly couple enters the restaurant. After conquering the hardly inviting entrance to this place, the lady is so happy to see fellow westerners that she greets us with such enthusiasm that it almost seems we are long lost relatives, found again. The smile is heart warming.
The thing I like about Djibouti is the sea. In front of the hotel is a sort of shallow plateau that dries out at the outgoing tide. Behind the ebb numerous little pools of water remain, and in each of these all kinds of sealife await the next flood. We saw beautiful sea snails, starfish, corals, crabs, huge clams, seashells. The heremite crabs are also funny to watch. You walk across the beach, and as you get near, the shells lying on the beach pick themselves up and make a run for it. The first time I had no idea what was going on. And I was sober…
Tomorrow we’ll see if we can rent a couple of dirt bikes and pay a visit to the volcanic area that we are surveying. Should be fun. Our client says the area is so active the ground constantly moves.
But first, a nice cold shower. Like I said, everything here is just… not quite…