I am a map person. I can spend hours exploring the geography of a hemisphere, examining borders, learning capital cities, etc. Certain places on the African continent have always captured my imagination. There were the usual suspects, of course, like Cairo, Timbuktu, Marrakesh, Cape Town and Kilimanjaro. But there were also places with more unique names, like Kinshasa, Bujumbura, Kigali, Ouagadougou (Jenny’s new favorite) and – for some reason – Djibouti.
Why the attraction to Djibouti? Good question. I suppose part of it was the whole “dj” thing. You just don’t see many words that begin with “dj.” And, indubitably, it had something to do with the fact that the word Djibouti is an all-too-easy setup for my penchant for sophomoric humor (see Djibouti Call, et al.).
Never in a lifetime of lifetimes, however, did I think I would set foot in Djibouti, unless, dare I say, I was kicking your a**, in which case my foot… (wait…sorry…there’s my predilection for puerility again).
But, seeing as Djibouti is just north of Ethiopia (wedged between Eritrea and Somalia), and figuring the odds of ever again being so close, Jenny and I made plans for a quick trip to this tiny nation. More to the point, we made plans to sit on a tiny beach on a tiny island off the coast of this tiny nation.
Flying from Addis to Djibouti City was a breeze, once the plane arrived from Kenya. When we boarded, there were already several passengers from the flight’s origin in Nairobi, including a 7-foot tall gentle giant from Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, who was occupying my aisle seat. (Occupy Aisle Seats!) At barely 6-feet tall myself, I decided the additional legroom would be better appreciated by Thok Pal than Ryan Kilpatrick. He was on his way to Djibouti for a conference on reproductive health, so we chatted briefly about that, about my previous experience in education and advocacy for Planned Parenthood, and about consulting opportunities in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. (Hey, stranger things have happened.)
The Djibouti International Airport is an international airport in the same way a Lada taxi is a real car. They both (seemingly) have all the necessary functions, but possess none of the typical amenities. Where there may be only one window crank in the Lada, there may only be one toilet seat in the airport. And so on.
If there’s one constant about immigration procedures, it’s that they’re different at every airport. In Djibouti, each passenger was instructed to present his/her passport and completed immigration form to an officer in a small box made of glass and wood. There were three boxes, so the small number of passengers was processed relatively quickly. Except not really. As only makes sense, the actual tourist visas were processed by a single man in a tiny office.
And so the wait began.
Working nationality by nationality, we two Americans were among the first called into the office. After a brief interrogation about why we were in Djibouti and where we were going, the officer started printing our visas.
“How much?” I asked, thinking that we would be charged $40 USD each, as we had initially paid at the Djiboutian Embassy in Addis Ababa.
“Uhhh…,” he thought aloud, “Give me sixty.”
I handed him three $20 bills.
“No,” he said curtly, but with a sly smile. “Each.”
Welcome to Djibouti, an African country.
Once we cleared immigration and customs, we were whisked away by a man named Abdi, with whom we had somehow managed to make the hotel booking and secure transport, even though our various email exchanges were in broken, befuddling bits of English.
OUR QUESTION: “Do you have a phone number in case we miss each other at the airport?”
HIS ANSWER: “Hi Let me tell you to December 13, as I was not a departure 14h I will put at your disposition a private boat and the price is: XXXXfd or XX$ (go and back).”
Abdi drove us into Djibouti City, past the Presidential Palace and to the Port of Djibouti, where a definitely-too-small-to-be-seaworthy speedboat and its captain, also named Abdi, awaited to transfer us to our destination: Moucha Island.
Moucha Island is a wee spit of land off the coast, where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean in the Gulf of Aden. Popular with members of the multiple militaries stationed in Djibouti (including the French, Japanese, Germans, Dutch, Russians, Chinese and Americans), the island is known for its diving school and center, and the Lagon Bleu Village, our home for the next two days.
During the 25-minute boat ride to the island, we passed numerous container ships heading for the Port of Djibouti, where they would offload goods destined for all corners of East Africa. Though it was really too loud to talk, Jenny and I did exchange looks loaded with language, such as “Wow, can you believe we are here?” and “What the hell are we doing here?” and “What the hell will we do if this speedboat capsizes out here?”
Once safely on land, we met the lovely Gassira and the rest of the staff, ordered tuna sandwiches and took in the landscape…
…which, aside from the beautiful seashore, looked like it could have been used by NASA to stage a fake landing of the Mars rover. Dry, rocky, broken, desolate. With private bungalows.
Whatever. There’s a beach. And we’re in Djibouti!
The next day, we woke early to go snorkeling off of a boat ferrying scuba divers out to a nearby reef. We were fitted for masks, snorkels and fins at the dive shop, and waited for the boat to arrive. When it did, more than a dozen French-speaking divers jumped off and ran up to the shop to ready their tanks and equipment. No one said a word to us, other than a passing “Bonjour,” until the boat was ready to leave. That’s when we learned that we were not invited.
Apparently, the boat was going out to a deep dive spot, not the reef, so they thought it was too dangerous (and probably not very exciting) for us. Djerks!
Whatever. There’s a beach. And we’re in Djibouti!
Moreover, that night, there was only one other couple staying on the island (all the divers come from the mainland for day trips), so the hotel staff prepared separate candlelight dinners for us on the beach. And by “candlelight” I mean battery-powered fluorescent lamps. Even so, it was quite nice.
The following morning, our last on Moucha Island, opened with perfectly French crepes for breakfast. Unfortunately, that may have been the highlight, as there was barely enough time for a nap on the beach before it was time to meet Abdi #2 (aka “Speedboat Abdi”) for our return to Djibouti City.
Instead of taking us all the way back to the Port of Djibouti, however, Abdi #2 dropped us at the jetty adjacent to the luxurious Kempinski Hotel. Apparently, we were either waiting for another boat to take us to the port, where we would be met by a car and be driven to the airport, or there would be a helicopter. It was a bit unclear. Abdi #2’s English was at the same level as that of Abdi #1, we didn’t speak any Somali, and the six words I remember from my 4th grade French classes were of no use in this particular situation.
After about 20 minutes, an older man and two tourists walked up the jetty from the hotel side. The tourists said, “Bonjour,” and apologized for being late. The man introduced himself as…wait for it…any guesses?…That’s right, Abdi.
Now in Abdi #3’s care, we tugged our suitcases by their broken handles across the jetty towards the Kempinski. [Before we left South Africa for this trip, we picked up some super cheap luggage called Eco Earth at a grocery store. There was nothing eco, earth or quality about them. Unless they are recyclable.] If we were getting on another boat, it seemed strange to walk further inland towards the hotel. Confusion reigned.
Long story short, after walking around the hotel to an employee parking lot, we all crammed into Abdi #3’s little truck and drove to the airport.
It was time to say goodbye to Djibouti, a strangely named place on the map we never imagined we would actually visit. A place busying itself both fighting and catering to Somali pirates. A place with such extraterrestrial terrain, a newly landed Martian may think he had taken too many left turns. A place with so many Abdis, they need to be called not by their names but by their numbers.
Whatever. There was a beach. And we were in Djibouti!