29 April 2014

Djibouti, East Africa 2013

Djibouti is a country. It's also a city, a port city, located strategically on the south end of the Red Sea and passage to the Indian Ocean. It's the transportation hub for many East African points, particularly Ethiopia and Somalia. Few cruise ships visit because most are too large for the inner harbour, but also because tourism infrastructure is almost non-existent. Actually, it's questionable how well the overall infrastructure works for its own citizens.

 Our small ship sailed into port one evening. Since I failed to achieve a panoramic, or "typical" view of the city, this part of the port area will have to do. There is something to be said for public art. We found ourselves docked beside an enormous shed that looked half a mile long. Soon we realized the adjacent shed and open-air yard were filled with hundreds of, probably more than a thousand, healthy young CAMELS.

After docking, passengers with camera smarts were able to take excellent photos in the dark. Sadly, my smarts were missing. Fiddle and twiddle with camera settings. The few herdsmen seemed overcome with the unaccustomed attention. They responded little to French or English although we determined the animals were from Ethiopia en route to Saudi Arabia. My first thought was the upcoming race season. Camel racing is serious business in Saudi and countries of the Arabian peninsula. These young beauties looked like prime candidates for race training, no doubt headed to the next big auction.

But some wags would have it they were being shipped for meat. Painted with the sellers' marks, one set of initials evoked Burger King comments. A ship with animal pens awaited on the other side of the pier. Sporadic attempts were being made to load them; at the going rate, it looked like it would take days! 

Next morning, we woke to a pervasive smell throughout the ship. I do want to stress it was no different than living next to a horse barn. More annoying were the invading flies attracted to our breakfast. Some of us went off to tour the city, hoping to get a feel for this equatorial hotspot emerging from colonial poverty. We chuffed away in rickety buses that lack air conditioning — did I mention equatorial heat? A few whiney complaints could be heard from "first-class" travellers but the rest of us didn't expect deluxe and adapted with humour (and sweat).

Our guide was singularly uninformative and what he did say was inaudible over the grinding bus engine. As far as I can determine from a variety of sources, Djibouti is sustained by the official presence of foreign interests and naval bases (France, the USA, soon China and Japan). If one subscribes to less politically correct observations, it's also home to the more successful pirates. International navies now patrol the adjacent "piracy corridor" along the Gulf of Aden to support rich corporate traffic as well as happy little cruise ships.

If I believed Elmore Leonard and the Captain Phillips film, the inhabitants spend an inordinate amount of time chewing khat to anaesthetize themselves. The habit wasn't necessarily evident, but then we were not there during the traditional afternoon relaxation time. Much of the tour was pointing out the naval bases and the wealthier homes although we couldn't avoid seeing the slums. The town seemed comparatively lifeless except for the schools spilling with active, noisy, cheerful kids. Too bad we were not there on a market day. 

 Arranging a camel ride here had been far too complicated on all sides. However, stopping at a camel farm was my anticipated highlight. Driving out of town, the road immediately deteriorated. Passing roadside scenes of subsisting humanity reminded me of (crime novel alert!) Robert Wilson's memorable novels about steamy West Africa, nevertheless little different from countless third world countries.

The farm was for breeding, populated with mothers and babies. Without any introductory information or agenda, we wandered freely among these gentle animals and their shy breeders. Apparently I missed a camel-milking demonstration while trying to decide which baby was most photogenic. My friend was enviably right more into the moment than I.

The locals came out to observe us.  

Then away to a hotel patio for refreshments, juice or water. Clearly the hotel was a showcase venue for visitors. A delegation of impressively dressed African nationals was gathering for their equally impressive-looking luncheon buffet. We were grateful for the drinks and browsing in a lovely little jewellery shop on the premises.

A final stop at the main square, Place de 27 Juin (again, no history from the guide), for obligatory souvenirs proved rather discouraging. Djibouti is not known for home-grown arts and crafts. In the two or three shops open for business in the rather rundown heart of the town, most vendors lacked energy and displayed only a halfhearted interest in haggling. Maybe siesta time was already beginning. Difficult to find anything to take home that isn't bulky (wood carvings), heavy (pottery), or breakable (pottery). No-one offered to sell us any strange-looking weed.

Returning to the ship, we were wiped out and breathless from the rampant heat and humidity. The patient camels were still milling around in the shed ― daylight photo opps. Loading (reluctantly) into the hold of their transit ship had picked up the pace a bit although it still promised to be a lengthy process. Other cruise passengers had gone on a three-hour trip to the interior to see the (salt) Lake Assal. Their bus died of heat prostration and they ate their ship-provided box lunches in a roadside ditch waiting for a replacement. The day's winner among my personal social group was the man who independently booked a snorkelling trip that turned out sublime.

It was a short, one-day stay in Djibouti. While a group of tourists is a challenge for local amenities, one tourist at a time probably fares quite well with a guide and would see more than we did. Now we will cruise at sea for three days (having practised our piracy drills) in the Gulf of Aden corridor until we reach Muscat in Oman. In hindsight, the best part was the mandatory no lights after dark. Which doesn't curtail the bar service, and offers splendiferous views of a night sky teeming with stars.

We left Djibouti in the wee hours of the night. We took the flies with us.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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