Djibouti: So Many Abdis, So Little Time

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.

The Djibouti International Airport (by default only)

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).”

Right. Gotcha.

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?”

Leaving the Port of Djibouti on a speedboat, headed for Moucha Island

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.

Private bungalow on Moucha Island

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!

A beautifully rocky beach on Moucha Island, Djibouti

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.

We waited.

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.

Number Three.

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!

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Ethiopia Part 2: Haile Selassie Slept Here (plus, Donkey Business, Macchiatos, and Parts of the Body)

I believe we left off after dinner at Jewel of India. Yes.  Well, from there, things started to get even wilder, if you can believe it…

As we strolled up Gabon Avenue to Bole Road (also known as Africa Avenue, because…well, why not?) and back to the Damu Hotel, we reconfirmed our plan to walk to the Djibouti Embassy early the next morning to apply for tourist visas. With only two short days booked on Djibouti’s Moucha Island, and after our three-hour tour of the immigration queue at Bole International Airport, we wanted our arrival in Djibouti to be as smooth as possible.

This plan, combined with the spicy dosas and the dirty wine, gave me crazy thoughts. As I fell asleep, two famous – and unquestionably relevant – quotes ran through my head:

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.”

– George W. Bush

“Look, man, I ain’t fallin’ for no banana in my tailpipe!”

– Axel Foley

I think I could have slept for 48 hours, actually. But we had a mission to accomplish.

The next morning, during the 10-minute walk to the embassy, Jenny and I wondered aloud what a person from Djibouti is called. A Djiboutan? A Djiboutian? A Somali? (As you will learn in a subsequent post, the correct answer is Abdi.)

The visa application was easy, just a single form and $40. There was a space on the form for photos, but I asked the representative if we needed them and she said no. She lied. When we handed in our passports, completed form and cash, she said, “Photo?”

And, of course, we left our passport-sized photos in the hotel room. So, I ran back up Bole to the hotel, returned to the embassy and tried again. “OK, tomorrow at 2:00,” she said. We should have known.

Since we would be 100 kilometers (and several decades) away by tomorrow at 2:00, we decided to cancel the application and get our visas on arrival in Djibouti. Did we fall for the banana in the tailpipe? Reinhold be the judge.

We hoped not, but to make ourselves feel better, we went back to Lime Tree for breakfast and Macchiato #1.

From there, we hailed a Russian Blue (the word I just made up for the blue, Soviet-era taxis choking the streets of Addis) and bounced our way up to Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Ethnological Museum.

Once inside the gates of the university, my first priority was to offload some books I carried from the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria about the 30th Anniversary of the African Charter. Fortunately, one of the first buildings we saw was the John F. Kennedy Library. They were confused that I didn’t have a letter explaining who I was and what the books were, but they took them off my hands, anyway. [SIDE NOTE: In case you’re planning a semester abroad at AAU, you should a.) bring your own sidewalks and toilets,  and b.) check out one of the books.]

Though an admittedly dorky pose, the Scared Panda tee makes me look cooler

The Ethnological Museum, further in, is a magical mystery tour if I ever saw one. First off, it’s in Emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace. There’s a staircase outside, built by the Italian occupiers, that has a step for each year of fascist rule and spirals up to nowhere. One of the exhibits is Haile Selassie’s bedroom and bathroom (he had a less-than-opulent throne, shall we say). Still, the museum was quite nice. We especially enjoyed the exhibits of folktales and histories of the diverse peoples of Ethiopia. I think it helped us gain perspective and understanding that would be useful later in the trip.

Later, after a brief return to the Sheraton, we were off to yet another bathroom – this time at the Addisu Filwoha Hotel. The Addisu Filwoha is actually known more for its hot springs than its bed springs, and we, like several dozen Ethiopians that day, wished to bathe in them.

First, though, with the help of Birhanu, who just happened to be nearby, Jenny and I booked massages for the special “Foreigner Rate” of 125 birr ($7.23) each. When it was our turn, we were led into adjacent chambers separated by heavy curtains. For Phase One, we were each instructed to remove all our clothes and get into a massive, paint-chipped tub that was being filled with water from the hot springs. Phase Two involved a man (for me) and a woman (for Jenny) coming in and standing over the tub (where we lay naked) and using a high-pressure hose to massage our legs, feet, torso and arms. Though we couldn’t see or hear each other, we each thought the massage ended there.

Wrong.

Phase Three was behind Curtain #2. Walking naked out of the tub, we were led to individual massage tables and told to lie face up. We are still separated, and therefore unable to give each other the silent “OMG” faces for which the situation desperately called.

Once appropriately covered, a more traditional, if somewhat hasty, massage ensued. In the wake of all that had stressed us thus far, it was nice to find some relaxation.

However, we were now covered in oil and needed a shower. No problem! Our 28 birr ($1.61) entry fee included a hot springs shower in a separate building. Since we booked in as a couple, we were given a private “family” room with a shower and separate bath for 55 minutes. I think we stayed for five…

Shower in the "family room" at Addisu Filwoha Hotel/public baths

Later that night, we rejoined Birhanu for dinner. Pizza. With garlic chili sauce. Nice. And Macchiato #2? Not tonight. We had an early wake up call the next morning for our departure from Addis and drive down to Ziway.

Wednesday: Get Me to the Greek

On Wednesday morning, we made a discovery that was equal parts pleasing and frustrating: our hotel had free breakfast. All that angst the previous two mornings was unnecessary. There were eggs and pancakes and yogurt and orange juice every day. We kicked ourselves while sipping Macchiato #1.

After breakfast, we hauled our brand-new-but-already-broken-grocery-store-luggage down to meet our driver to Ziway: a half-Ethiopian, half-Italian, half-Greek tour guide/Volkswagen mechanic/Beetle racer named Lucca. Thank goodness he was an excellent driver. I stopped counting after the thirteenth time we almost hit a goat, cow, dog or donkey on the highway. One time in particular, as a half-dozen donkeys were crossing the road, two of them decided to “get a room” right on the center line. *Blush.*

Descending from approximately 8,000 feet in Addis, the landscape heading south out of the city was breathtaking. Expansive fields, incredible acacia trees, timeless rivers, ancient mountains and colorful people whooshed by for about two hours, until we rounded a corner and Lake Ziway came into view.

On the road to Ziway

In Ziway, we went to the home of Gary and Peggy Ifft, an American couple from Bloomington, IL (Gary was Jenny’s boss at State Farm Insurance) who have lived in Ethiopia for more than a decade. After lunch with them, and a strong cup of coffee (in place of Macchiato #2) brewed in a jebena, we toured a couple of the primary schools Gary & Peggy built and administer in Ziway. After introducing ourselves and hearing some songs, we could tell that the next few days would be really special.

Thursday: Injera, Obama, and Head! Head! Head! Head! 

Thursday began with breakfast at the hotel, which included Macchiato #1. We would need the caffeine, as Gary was taking us to school.

At the primary school in Ziway, we met the kitchen staff, learned how they were feeding students breakfast and lunch for $0.25 per child per day, and watched Jenny try her hand at making injera on a mitad. Let’s just say practice makes perfect.

Jenny making injera

This is how it's done...

Soon, it was time to introduce ourselves to the 2nd and 6th graders. As usual, Jenny was a star. Not only is she a professor, she’s a lady professor. That’s a big deal. And it was important for the students, particularly the young girls, to see what a woman can accomplish. The boys, however, did not seem to appreciate the fact that I quit my job to move for my wife’s. So it goes.

During each introduction, Solomon N., the school principal and our translator, opened the floor for questions. One student, who we later learned was Solomon’s own kid, tried to pin the professor down.

Hand up. Question. Translation. Solomon: “He would like to know, what is a noun?”

I whipped around to look at Jenny, her eyes big, her mind backpedaling into left field to catch the question and throw the answer back towards home plate before the runner tags.

“A person, place, or thing!” Jenny retorted, proudly. You just can’t get one past her. Who do you think she is? Bill Buckner?

After successfully answering all questions, and amazing the kids with the fact that Jenny and I have met Barack and Michelle Obama, it was time for lunch and Macchiato #2. Like our man Prufrock, we were beginning to measure out our lives in coffee spoons.

We returned to the school, sated and refueled, just in time for “Question & Answer.” This time, though, the students were on the spot. It was like a trivia/game show competition and there were only four contestants left. Final Jeopardy!

In the end, the winners received not only a gift-wrapped book, but a photograph with a couple of pasty ferenjis. What a prize!

As the celebrity ferenjis, we were honored to help award prizes to the winners of the Q&A contest

Considerably more impressive is the magnitude of incredible work Gary and Peggy are doing in Ziway and neighboring Adami Tulu. In addition to multiple schools and feeding programs, they also established a small home for vulnerable children. Samuel’s Home is just down the street from the Ifft’s home, and we visited the kids who stay there just before bedtime. The highlight of the night was the multiple performances of “Parts of the Body” – apparently an exercise the kids learned at school.

It begins with a child leading the other children in a recitation of parts of the face, working down to the feet while pointing at each part along the way. Eyes. “Eyes!” Nose. “Nose!” Lips. “Lips!” Chin. “Chin!” One little boy really wanted to capitalize on the rote memory aspect, and got stuck on Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” for a hilariously long time.

Speaking of which, this post has been going on for a long time. The next one will take you to a ramshackle government school, get a bajaj stuck in the muck (watch out!), treat you to a feast of sheep stomach and assorted wines, and invite you to a wedding. Do you want to come along? Please, say “I do.”

Djibouti Call?

After nine-plus days in Addis Ababa and Ziway, Ethiopia, we are now off to Djibouti. That is, if they ever call our flight. We seem to be in the right place; Kenya Airways Flight 402 does not.

It’s been an incredible, enlightening and often fun journey. Just the bullet points in my notebook fill four pages, so let this be a warning re: future blog posts. My thumbs are certainly not up to the task. However, to give you a little taste, here are are a few of the bullets:

  • multiple macchiatos
  • Haile Selassie Palace/Ethnological Museum
  • John F. Kennedy Library at Addis Ababa University
  • goats, donkeys, cattle and dogs on the highway to Ziway
  • Jenny making injera
  • getting stuck in the bajaj
  • watching men winnow tef with pitchforks and getting tef in our hair
  • Lucy vs The Baboons
  • polyglot dinner (English, Amharic, French, Spanish, Arabic)
  • injera!

I hope we will eventually have the words and photos to bring our experiences to life.

In the meantime, I’d be happy with a Djibouti call.