Monday, February 05, 2007

Welcome To Africa

The crossing from Yemen to Djibouti was pretty uneventful, if a tad boring. The sea was relatively calm which was a blessing as it allowed me to spend the voyage on deck rather than in the hold with the other paying passengers (and a multitude of non-paying, roachy ones as well) who slowly, over the course of the trip, turned that part of the boat into a miasma of vomit. Time passed slowly as the selection of on-board entertainment was meagre to say the least. I spent a lot of time just watching the seagulls glide by and talking with some of the crew and passengers.

We arrived late in Djibouti and by the time customs had been cleared it was around midnight. I had no wish to trundle around town with no map searching for a reasonable hotel (for some reason the cheapest bed in town is around $30, which is about twice my daily budget, a fact that ordinary Djiboutians don't seem to find the least bit strange) and so I found a nice, quiet, suburban road and set myself against a comfy (at least more comfy than the others) tree - cocooning myself in my sleeping bag against the swarms of mosquitoes - and decided to wait for morning so that I could take care of business. Morning, however, did not come. Instead I was roughly awoken by some policemen, bundled into a car and taken to the central police station. They obviously don't get many tourists here (everyone was asking me if I was a journalist) but the policemen on duty seemed more curious than anything and, after a few questions, let me sleep in a side room.

Early the next day I found out why I was brought in rather than just told to bugger off and sleep somewhere else or made to go to a hotel. Inadvertently I had managed to pick a spot just behind the American embassy. Clearly not a good place to sleep on any occasion, but even more so when the country is home to America's central command base in the region; plus the fact that neighbouring Somali is undergoing a period of intense turmoil and is accused by the American government of being a safe haven for Al Qaeda (not a popular move in Djibouti where 60% of the population is Somali); and, for good measure, add to that that I had just arrived on a dodgy boat from Yemen, a country where Al Qaeda has a lot of grassroots support (not least because it was the home of Osama Bin Laden). Oh, and I was wearing my keffiyeh which I've now become adept at tying in the traditional Arab fashion. No, I could definitely see how things could be misconstrued, the notion of travelling round the world for two years just for the hell of it was one that was completely alien to the local policemen. Why was I doing it? who was paying me? what is my mission? Unfortunately I was never really given the opportunity to sit down and thoroughly prove my case to somebody (which I could easily have done with my diary, my blog and my pictures) but instead I was continually having to repeat the same story to a merry-go-round of curious policemen. Soon this stopped and I was informed that my case, and my passport, were with Le Colonel and that I would be dealt with "soon". Morning turned to afternoon which in turn gave way to evening. I was more than a little annoyed with the lack of information, bored out of my skull and hungry as hell (luckily I had some bread and cheese left over from Yemen which I ate for breakfast as I hadn't been given any food all day). Eventually, after a bit of complaining I was given dinner and allowed to see Le Colonel - a remarkably well-travelled and well-educated man - who assured me that I would be allowed to go the next morning.

Easier said than done because the next morning carried on in much the same vein as the day before with me being continually told to await word from Le Colonel. It dawned on me that the driving force in the police station was inertia: unless the officers were told to do something they did nothing, and that included me and my now frantic pleas to see Le Colonel or at least to contact my consulate. Luckily in the afternoon I managed to persuade a police secretary to let me call my consul and within five minutes of the call I had been handed my passport and was being driven to a hotel. And although I was mad, stressed and depressed by the whole experience my consul (an amiable French lawyer) calmed me down and managed to put things in perspective for me. Then in the evening my cumulonimbus got its silver lining in the form of a man called Djema who works at the American embassy. He came not only to offer his apologies, but also to pay for my hotel (damn! I should have checked in to the Sheraton). He explained to me that the eager guard who started this whole malentendu was convinced that I was a Pakistani terrorist and informed the embassy to that effect. This apparently set in motion a whole mini security alert and the beginnings of an investigation, until the embassy was finally shown my passport. Though I suspect that when I visit the States from now on I will have the right to particularly close scrutiny.

So, apart from having an over-zealous police force, what is Djibouti like? Well, apart from being a very small country it's also a very young one, having gained its independence from France only 30 years ago (an elderly Djiboutian proudly showed me his old French carte d'identite), and so luckily for me most people speak French well. It's also a strategically important country, not just because of the American base, but also because it hosts the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion in Africa and because it provides Ethiopia's only access to the sea. As such the capital, at least, is quite clean and ordered and there are a large number of expats living and working here. The country is also where the Great Rift Valley leaves Africa and so there are incredible, otherworldly landscapes in the interior, including lake Asal, the lowest point on the continent (unfortunately my experience of Djibouti's hinterland has been limited to photographs in the tourist information office). Instead I am leaving the country as soon as I can before I commit any other offences (real or imaginary) and am catching the night train (3rd class only) to the relative cool of the Ethiopian highlands.

1 comment:

Ex-Shammickite said...

"miasma of vomit"... what a wonderfully descriptive turn of phrase...
You're definitely on the USA "no fly list" after that little escapade. Better luck in the highlands of Ethiopia. Lot's of Ethiopians living in Toronto now, tall, very black, very fine features, beautiful women.