June 10, 2011

At the edges of the world

I'm always amazed by how quickly the alien becomes familiar. On my first day in Mombasa it seemed strange and surreal to be the only guest in a 100-room Indian Ocean beach resort at the very end of a long, winding road; two days later it seemed perfectly normal. Two weeks ago I flew into Addis Ababa and made my way through and from the airport dazed and confused, uncertain and nervous lest something go wrong; two days ago I did the same thing and cruised through impatiently without even really bothering to think about the process.

I do not think that will happen if I ever return to Djibouti, though, as the airport process is so comically chaotic. After dancing back and forth and back and forth between three different locations in the arrival hall to get my visa, I emerged into the suffocating heat only to find that the only bureau de change had closed for the next few hours. Fortunately my enterprising taxi driver took US dollars. Fortunate and unsurprising; we passed a vast US Air Force cargo plane on the tarmac -



- because Djibouti is home to 2000 US soldiers and 800 members of the French Foreign Legion. The latter is the reason I know anything about the place; it's the setting of Claire Denis's brilliant film Beau Travail. Otherwise this really is an obscure little nation. To the best of my knowledge, nobody I know has ever been here, which is practically nonpareil. (The only other such countries I can think of are Gabon and various tiny island nations.)

It's easy to see why. To be honest it's a profoundly unattractive city, low-rise and industrial, leached of all colour by the hammering sun, strewn with trash, jumbled with crumbling or half-completed buildings, full of aggressive touts and taxi drivers. On paper it's wealthier than any of its neighbours, thanks to its busy port (and military bases) - which also makes it more expensive than any of its neighbours - but you remember that "poisonous stagnation" I was talking about? Djibouti has it in spades.



It's not the hottest place on Earth. Quite. That's in the Danakil Depression, on the Ethiopian side of the border. But it's a contender. My hotel room has only a curtained slit for a window, because the sun is the enemy. There is only one faucet in the bathroom - but it provides hot water, not cold. The city essentially shuts down from 12 to 3 every day. Refrigerator-sized air conditioners dominate all the more expensive establishments, and water is sold at roadside stands by the keg. It's actually pretty mild right now, highs circa 40C/105F, but it cranks up to 55C/130F in July and August.

But at least it has the ocean -



- and goats -



- and chat, aka khat, a mildly narcotic leaf imported from Yemen (which is so close you can practically see it) and chewed all day by pretty much every male inhabitant of the city. Pickup trucks overflowing with the stuff cruise by regularly. Yesterday I wandered past a huge police 4x4; the two officers inside were busily stuffing their faces with chat.



I'm mostly here because South Sudan fell through. Originally I was going to spend two weeks there and one in Ethiopia, but the Abyei crisis torpedoed that plan; then MSF informed me I wouldn't be able to visit any of their projects after all; then I was going to get my visa-like South Sudan permit in Kampala, but crazy airline prices torpedoed that plan; then I realized I was looking at US$1500 to spend four days in-country, which just seemed dumb. So here I am in this strange place. Last night I had a beer at a five-star hotel largely populated by Foreign Legionnaires and US military. It was an odd mix. Tomorrow, with luck, I'll visit Lac Assal, and I've booked some diving for Sunday. But I suspect that when Monday rolls around I will have had my fill of Djibouti.

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