June 14, 2011

The world is salt

There were six crew and twenty divers on yesterday's expedition: two Frenchmen who owned the boat; two South African women who were the divemasters; two Djiboutian crew; nineteen members of the US military, ranging from career desk jockeys to some Special Forces dudes, all using their Sunday off to go diving - and one random Canadian tourist. Although at first everyone just assumed I was a new contractor or something, and I wasn't actually outed until just before the second dive.

It wasn't until then that the Special Forces dudes started talking to me. It seems the military has implicit but clear social hierarchies. They seemed to approve that I had randomly come to Djibouti, and they seemed pretty plugged-in, too; when I mentioned I had originally planned to visit a friend in South Sudan, they started joking that it was Joseph Kony, a name none of the regular military recognized. Alas, I think they started watching what they talked about, then, too; the best semi-overheard stuff came before that -

"...suddenly every Polish joke I had ever heard made sense to me. Yeah. But the Gorm (sic?), their special forces, those guys were squared away, and they didn't like their regulars any more than we did..."

"dude I was back in Puerto Rico, man, he was stupid. I learned so much here. It's been a great deployment."
"So you're going career?"
"Yeah, man, totally. I love it. I love being a soldier."
"That's awesome."

"...dude ITMed (sic?) for like an hour, we were watching the whole thing. There were three guys who came in to set an IED, I was watching them from the blimp the whole time, they lit up one guy, shot his arm off, he died, second guy got away on a motorcycle with them shooting all around them, but this guy in a ditch, he'd elbow-crawl, and they'd shoot, and he'd stop moving for five minutes, and we'd start thinking, well, we got him, but then he'd start moving again, and they'd start shooting again... this went on for like an hour 'til he got to the end of the ditch and just booked it into these ruins, and he made it, and they didn't chase him. Low-crawling works."

"...we got three broken treadmills in the gym. Get them from Seychelles, they'll cost like, three thousand -"
"- like five thousand -"
"- yeah, maybe, but we gotta get 'em from there, we can't requisition straight from Bahrain, it all has to go through Seychelles."

"...yeah, we got great video, you can Google it. 'Course all the media reports say it was Afghan special forces, they don't say nothin' about us..."

About twenty minutes out of harbour we passed a dead cow floating in the water. Twenty minutes later we passed a pod of dozens of frolicking dolphins, leaping out of the water all around us, flashing silver. "Any day you see dolphins is a good day," said Kristen, the lead divemaster, happily. We saw a few on the way back, too -

leaping-dolphin

It was indeed a good day. We parked first at Shark Island -

- named because it looks like a dorsal fin, not because there were sharks. It was still a good dive, though, and the second one was downright awesome. Bright coral, huge schools of dozens of kinds of fish, lionfish, groupers, and at the very end, I and my dive buddy Gareth (a Navy Reservist with an MBA who went through, like, half the air I did) found a big ol' sea turtle resting between two shelves of rust-coloured fan coral.

Back we rode, more of a big happy family now than we had been at the beginning, in the way all dive boats get - though the military lines of social demarcation were still quite apparent - along the unforgiving shore



and then back at port their bus picked them up, and I shouldered my bag and walked past them to the gate of the port to look for a taxi. Some of them looked envious. The hotel in which I type this is off limits to them, and there are other strict restrictions on what they can do in town. "I've been here five months and I've lost 25 pounds," Gareth said, "nothing to do but work out and dive. Thank God there's diving. Got to spend my money on something."

I got back just in time to make arrangements for today's trip, to Lac Assal, an inland salt sea that marks the lowest point in Africa and third lowest in the world, after the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee - 150m/500ft below sea level. And am I glad.

the-salt-horizon

On the way in there's an amazing thermocline:

thermo-cline
...the blue water to the left is 30C/85F, saltier than the Dead Sea, and very dead; the green water to the right is naturally geothermally warmed to 90C/200F, and full of algae.


Those are pearls that were his eyes of 100% pure table salt.

by-the-seashore
So is that. And the 60m/200ft of ground beneath it.

We (that being "me and the driver I hired"; I'd say it's low season here, too, except I'm not so sure there's really such a thing as high season) also passed a vast canyon


and endless fields of lava, and a desolate campement
desert-camp

and stubborn trees


and monkeys and camels, nibbling on acacia trees, or simply wandering by.


A long, hot, tiring day, but a great one.

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