“Who decides to spend a weekend in Djibouti? I don’t think I have heard that before”
“The same person who decided to spend a weekend in South Sudan.”
(Conversation between my friend M. and myself, 23/02/2011)
To the Horn
When people think of tourist attractions in Africa, the Serengeti, Masai Maara or the beaches in Mombasa. However, outside of this, Africa has so many other attractions to offer and to a large extent they are raw diamonds untouched by the growing mass tourist industry. It is visiting these places that particularly fascinates me, and therefore I jump at any opportunity to do so. Therefore, since I have never been to the Horn of Africa and since I thought Mogadishu was not an option* I jumped at the opportunity to visit the Horn as one of my best friends from SAIS has just moved to Djibouti for a couple of months.
It was however easier said than done because due to recent developments in the region, getting a visa was very difficult. In fact it was the most difficulties I have ever had getting a visa. However, the embassy officials here in Nairobi were incredibly friendly and through perseverance, I managed to convince them that I was really only going as a tourist. So Thursday afternoon, I finally walked out of the embassy with my passport with a shiny green Djiboutian visa in it.
Cows and Khat
I arrived in Djiboutiville on a Friday lunchtime and was struck by how empty the city is.
Djibouti works on a six day week as they work half days from Saturday to Thursday (due to the heat in the summer, it is unbearable to work in the afternoon) and then, as a Muslim country, they have Fridays off. It was so refreshing having come from the crowdedness of Nairobi to drive on streets where you could be the only car for miles on end yet still be in the middle of the city. During the actual week it is only slightly more crowded but there are definitely still less cars on the street than there were when we were driving to Nairobi airport at 5 am in the morning. Another very refreshing feature, after coming from Nairobi, is the safety in the city. It is incredible to have the freedom to walk around a city with absolutely no problems after dark.
Djiboutians just go about their way of life in a very laid back, relaxed manner.
A very prominent feature of life in Djibouti, as is the case in Somalia, is chewing Khat, a plant which acts a stimulant. Women sit at the roadside in little kiosks selling, what looks like bundles of parsley. But it is the men who chew it when their work day finishes at lunch time. It reminds me of cows chewing cud, as they chew it for hours on end and then keep it in a bundle in the side of their cheeks for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Armies and Ports
The Djiboutian economy is extremely interesting. It is an incredibly dry and arid place. In fact, probably the most dry and most arid place I have ever been to.
And it can get hot. In fact, I am told that some of the highest ever recorded temperature on earth were recorded in Djibouti. However, it makes life for the average Djiboutian very difficult as farming is practically impossible. It is also touches you very deeply when people come up to you and instead of begging for money, they are begging for water.
Therefore, about 80% of Djibouti’s tiny population (a total of about 864,200 people) live in Djiboutiville, the capital. Djibouti’s economy is visibly dominated by the service sector. There is a huge port and you see numerous trucks from Ethiopia crossing through Djibouti to make their way to the port to deliver their goods.
However, although the port is huge, it is still not the biggest employer because, as is the case with most African countries, the government remains the biggest employer with an inflated civil service.
Another major source of income for Djibouti is the enormous army bases that are there. Djibouti is the location for both the US and the French Armies’ main Africa bases and the Japanese are building their base now. When we were there there was also a large German navy ship docked in the harbour of Djibouti. So it is fascinating in that respect too as I have never been in a place with such a high foreign military concentration. This contributes significantly to the Djiboutian economy, although apparently the American army base does less so, as their army is not permitted to leave the base as often as the French and furthermore, the French army can be located in Djibouti with their families. Djibouti was chosen as a location for a variety of reasons: the French have historically had their base there through the colonial times; for the US it was a strategical positioning in 2002 to fight the war on terror and for the Japanese, their base will be focused almost exclusively on anti-piracy operations. And above all, it is due to the fact that Djibouti is one of the only African countries that is willing to allow foreign army bases locate on their territory.
Coral Reefs and Salt Lacs
So far this posting has been focused on setting the scene of Djibouti as a country. Hopefully it has provided a good overview for those who have either never heard of Djibouti or have a limited knowledge. But of course, I went to Djibouti as a tourist. And since tourist guides on Djibouti are few and far between, this blog posting is also to give you a flavour of the amazing natural sites to see.
On Saturday we rented a boat for the day and went boating around the Gulf of Aden (infamous for its collection of Somali pirates – but due to the army bases they do not venture close to the Djiboutian coastline). We actually went in search of whale sharks, however, unfortunately due to their migration patterns we only saw a few. But disappointment on that was quickly swept aside when we saw dolphins jumping out of the water next to our boats and went snorkling in a phenomenal coral reef. I have never seen such an array of fish before, my highlight being a fluorescent stingray. And in Djibouti the coral is near the surface so you don’t need to be a diver to see all the stunning sea life. I felt like I was in a national geographic documentary/on the set of Finding Nemo. Unfortunately I don’t have an underwater camera, so there are no pictures of the pretty fishies. But here some of the scenery from the boat:
Djiboutiville also has a very wide array of international restaurants. Unfortunately, although I tried, there does not seem to be such a thing as Djiboutian cuisine. I even consulted the one guide book I found and it stipulated that Djiboutian cuisine is “pasta and rice”. Oh and of course, in true coloniser style, the French left their mark with baguettes and pain au chocolats. However, not to be completely defeated, we went to this wonderful rooftop Yemeni local restaurant on Saturday night and I had some Yemni fish with gallette, which is a Yemeni style flat bread. I also tried some of my friend’s camel. Camel steak was somewhat disappointing because if I had not known it is camel, I would have thought it was a beef steak in sauce.
On Sunday we drove through rural Djibouti to the other main attraction in the country – Lac Assal.
Lac Assal is one of the largest salt lakes and flats in the world:
Again, we were the only people there and had this beautiful little secluded beach all to ourselves:
As I have never been to the Dead Sea, this was my first experience of floating ontop of water. Until trying it out myself, I was not sure what people were referring to. But it is an incredible experience – You literally just float on top of the water and it takes some work on your part of you want to go under the water.
Although absolutely beautiful, there are two down sides to Lac Assal. Firstly, due to the fact that it is salt and not sand, it can be painful to the soles of your feet. So it is definitely advisable to wear shoes at all times. And secondly, it is the fact that such a beautifully large patch of water is undrinkable for the local population. Therefore, driving up to the Lac, you see all these villages with water drums lined up by the road waiting for the water trucks to come by with their meagre water rations:
Djibouti, therefore, would definitely be a country that would benefit it we could hurry up and invent a cheap and efficient way for desalination.
So that is again a slightly lengthy description of an incredible and fascinating weekend trip away. However, my blog posts are never complete without a final anecdote. This one takes place at 2am at Djibouti Ambouli International airport immigration desk. Although there are two Kenya Airways Flights per day to Djibouti, they are at inconvenient times. So my flight back to Nairobi was at 3:30am this morning, hence my appearance at the aforementioned immigration desk was at 2am. The officer in charge took my exit form and my passport and was just about to stamp my passport, when he put the stamp down and looked up at me and asked “Are you really born in 1986?” This worried me as it seemed like a trick question. So I said “Yes I am born in 1986.” He looked genuinely confused and responded “But then I don’t understand why you are not married?”
Note: Full set of photos are available on my Facebook page.
*I stand corrected as I just found out on Friday whilst at the airport, that there are at least two direct passenger flights from Nairobi to Mogadishu per day. This intrigued me so I did some investigations as I was not sure how the logistics of this would work. However, apparently Southern Somali airspace is controlled from Kenya, the Mogadishu airport is in the African Union’s “Green Zone” and pilots apparently use there own visual judgement when to land and take off (yes, in this day and age of air travel). My investigations are still ongoing as to who issues a visa for Somalia and what happens once you exit the airport, given that the Trans Federal Government and the African Union only control a very, very limited area of Mogadishu. So unfortunately, although there are international flights to Mogadishu, it probably still is very much a no go area for foreign tourists. Although, hopefully one day the situation will improve as I here there is some beautiful old Italian architecture in the city.