From: Dave (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To: Annette (email@example.com)
Date: Jan 9, 2002 12:39 PM
Subject: Chewing The Chat
I'm sitting in front of a creaking fan and a broken window here in an internet café in Djibouti. The call to prayer is coming from a nearby mosque along with a heavy reddish dust from the unpaved streets. It is noon and I'm the only person typing. Everyone is praying. The manager just left and told me to leave the money on the table when I'm through.
That's a first.
And here's another: I had a woman shake her fist at me in the market, yelling Bin Laden! Bin Laden! The first day I was here. It’s only a few months after 9/11 and I have already felt in certain instances a colder shoulder while traveling, not only from locals, but other travelers too. You open your mouth and there’s a lip curl and narrowed eyes when they hear the accent.
Getting yelled at in public and then getting FISTED by a woman in a Burka?
Definitely a first for me.
But it doesn't surprise me. In the week I have been here I have not taken out my camera to take a single photo. The looks from locals and the heavy atmosphere here have been enough to convince me to take pictures with my eyes instead.
This strangeness was first evident on the flight in. Passengers on the plane included a Somali man who worked in 'the herb trade' and a shifty Brit who wouldn't explain why he was coming to this tiny country.
Well, neither could I really….
When the Ethiopian Airlines Fokker 50 touched down on the barren runway in Djibouti it was surrounded by land as barren as Iceland or the Big Island of Hawaii. Black. Volcanic. Hot. Dusty. Africa.
We had just flown over the most inhospitable desert in the world and passing over ancient, gaping volcanic vents poking up through East Africa's winding Rift Valley, then the salty, ghost white Lac Assal and Lac Abbe had passed like ghostly apparitions under the plane's wings, the only water for hundreds of miles.
After a short taxi ride through deserted, dusty streets, the town looked straight out of Star Wars: dun colored buildings, a camel here and there, and a few women with kohl smeared under their eyes were selling piles of tomatoes. And that was about it. Though it is the end of winter, it was already thirty-five degrees Celsius.
And it wasn't even noon.
I found a hotel near the main square in Djibouti town and the manager inspected my blue passport as carefully as a customs official. After a few phone calls, including one to the owner, he reluctantly rented me a room on the second floor. After stowing my bags, I stepped out into the harsh desert light, and walked down the street in the direction of the city's port, looking for a bank.
When I turned a corner I nearly collided with a long column of French Legionnaires marching down the road, goose-stepping in tan knee high socks, tan shorts, and matching pillbox hats.
Smack in the middle of Africa.
Taking a shortcut down a side street I found dozens of women swathed in colorful veils wrapped around their heads, leaving only their eyes exposed, marked with kohl to ward off the sun's powerful rays. Wilted vegetables and bits of fresh goat meat was all that was for sale, and as I walked down the alley, people stopped talking and turned to point, stare, and pin me to the opposite walls with piercing glares shot from their eyes.
Suddenly a woman in a black veil broke ranks and started shouting, 'Bin Laden! Bin Laden!'
No one joined her. They just continued staring at me in that way I have become used to in Djibouti: an expression of coldness mixed with curiosity and blended with awe. Whether it was the fact I was an independent traveler, and not a Legionnaire, or something else, wherever I walked in the town, conversations stopped, school children gaped, and old men pointed at me with long fingers.
Clearly this woman was no wallflower. As her rants echoed off the whitewashed walls I kept on walking, stepping over filthy puddles and potholes, still in search of a bank. Then, she ran around from behind her pile of tomatoes, rushed over to me and punched me in the stomach with a clenched fist.
'BIN LADEN!' she screamed again, smashing her fist against my shoulder.
This was not the welcome I had expected in Africa. I had been in Djibouti less than two hours at this point, and the cold stares from the people in that alley pushed me around the corner and down into an even narrower alley, where I stumbled on, looking for an escape.
And a bank.
With her shouts still echoing in my ears I finally found a bank, crowded with German sailors and chain smoking European expatriates cashing in their paychecks. Chattering away in French and
Spanish and Italian as they waited for their money, I noticed they wore the same expressions as the locals, eyeing me coolly. When one man asked me which company I worked for, my bright explanation that I was in fact traveling here was met with derision, even hostility.
‘Why?’ snarled an unshaven Brit.
I shrugged, changed money, and when I walked out of the bank my stomach was twisted into a knot, questioning the seven weeks that lay ahead of me. After two back-to-back flightmares, I was clearly already on the shit list of the Travel Gods; if getting fisted by a woman in a Burka was what they had in store for me here in Djibouti, what beasts did they intend to unleash on me in the rest of Africa?
After a sleepless night, I found my footing the next day.
Friday is the weekend in the Middle East, and in Djibouti, where the expatriate community is distinctly French and nearly all linked to the military they used their only day off to make the de rigueur boating excursions to the Mouchas islands off the coast in the Gulf of Aden. There, amid these dazzling white sand beaches and blue waters, they swim, snorkel and sunbathe, recreating a version of St. Tropez in Africa.
I self-consciously wandered around the bustling harbor, random French words tumbling through my head like in a washing machine as I struggled to form grammatically correct questions. Looking for a boat I was rudely told by one ugly Frenchmen that his boat was 'for French only,' but it hardly bothered me; getting the cold shoulder in this strange country was normal. (Even restaurants refused to serve me because I was not French.)
So I kept on walking.
I eventually found a dive boat heading out to the islands, negotiated a price, and I was immediately asked to help them do some shopping in the only store selling foreign food.
'Could you drive a stick shift?' asked the Swiss Dive Master.
'Sure,' I said nervously, remembering it was about five years since I had shifted.
'Ok, here,' he handed me a wad of money, then the keys and pointed in the direction of the supermarket. I hopped in the drivers seat and drove off right under the nose of the ugly Frenchman who had refused to let me share the cost of his boat as he yakked into a cell phone.
The cramped aisles sold outrageously overpriced tins of pate and jars of fruit preserves with baskets full of long baguettes. As I waited in line behind some scantily clad jeunes filles they sucked languidly on cigarettes as the black veiled woman added up their purchases. The girls were complaining to each other in hyper speed Parisian French about the boring life in Djibouti.
After steaming out of the crowded harbor, where sailboats carried chic French housewives carrying
wicker picnic baskets stuffed with baguettes and Brie, I was paired up for diving with a German Navy captain who was stationed in Djibouti. ‘Why are you here?’ I asked him.
'To find Bin Laden,' he said morosely. 'We think he's planning an escape from Afghanistan and go off to Somalia. He's donated money to mosques all along the way from Kabul to Mogadishu.'
It turned out that the expatriate numbers in Djibouti was soaring due to this search for Bin Laden, and prices for everything were going up in response.
An hour later we arrived at the Mouchas Islands, donned our dive gear and were soon descending through a soup of plankton that cleared instantly at fifteen meters, like a curtain being drawn back, revealing a large shipwreck, it's masts circled with schools of large, lazy barracuda, silvery trevally, and big eyed tuna. As we descended further, two bands of circling barracuda circled above and below us and a stealth of eagle rays passed by, soaring majestically through the blue water.
The German Navy captain explained that the locals shunned the sea: the main bay in the country is called the Gulf of Demons, and they believed the seas were full of evil spirits and malevolent beings. They didn't even eat much seafood, preferring a diet of goat and camel meat to fish. The only fishermen in the country caught just for the expatriates, who consumed the lobsters, prawns and squid that cost a fraction of what they did in Europe.
As we dived again that afternoon, I had never seen seas so thick with fish, so untouched; the dive masters begged me to come back to see the whale sharks that frequented the seas in the winter.
After two amazing dives, we anchored on a deserted island, swam ashore with our backpacks balanced on our heads and ate Poisson Yemenite, a dish of grilled, salted fish drizzled with honey and served on flatbread cooked by one of the boatmen's wives.
As we sat on the beach, squinting in the blinding light reflected off the pure white sand beach, French Legionnaires, tattooed, muscled, and speaking in Arabic, French, German and Russian, sunbathed naked near us with their local girlfriends as locals watched the scene with slack jawed bemusement.
Later, I fell into conversation with a group of French engineers, building roads in Djibouti, who refused to speak English and described the crippling effect that chat, the tobacco-like leaf chewed by all in Djibouti, had on the country.
They balked when they heard that I was traveling overland into the heart of the horn of Africa.
'C'est bizarre, non, ami?' quipped one of the older ones, as he flipped his arm up and down to ward off the flies.
'L'Ethiopie est chaud,' he went on.
That afternoon, sunburned, exhausted, and my mind reeling from speaking pidgin French for hours on
end for the first time in years, we unloaded the dive boat's tanks where the same chic French housewives walked down the gangways of their sailboats, sporting bored smiles, escorting their blonde, sunburned kids back to their drivers who took them back to their massive villas. And the housewives would do it all over again the next weekend, because there was simply nothing else to do in Djibouti, the hottest country in the world.
That night in town, I found a friendly restaurant owner.
'What are you doing in Djibouti, friend?' shouted the Vietnamese man running the country's only Chinese establishment, a question I could have asked him as well. I never ran into another lone traveler in the country, and neither had he served one, in six months he reported only two as he brought me my food.
The next day I packed up my bags and hitched a ride to Tadjoura, a one-lane town around the other side of the Gulf of Demons, where the French poet Rimbaud had once lived. When I took my seat in the front of the car organized by my sullen hotel manager, the driver asked me my hometown.
'New York City,' I said.
He shook his head and said something in Afar to his friends in the back seat. When I turned around the four men opened their shirts and revealed Bin Laden T-shirts underneath. When I looked back at the driver, he also showed me his T-shirt: it had a picture of Bin Laden printed over a mosque.
We left Djibouti town, snaking through the Afar and Somali neighborhoods that were completely segregated on tribal grounds. We were heading towards Afar territory, and I got an earful of how wicked the Somalis were. (Later the Somalis told me how nasty the Afars were)
Within ten minutes we were out in the moon-like countryside where tiny villages of humpbacked houses looked like a movie set straight out of Star Wars. To the horizon, it looked like the surface of the moon. This was made all the weirder when I saw teams of French Legionnaires kicking up clouds of dust as they hiked across the desert, with backpacks full of rocks.
Later, we passed the craggy throat of the Gulf of Demons, where the rift valley met the Indian Ocean, where the African continent was ripping apart. The spectacular blue ocean contrasted sharply with the inky black volcanic rocks.
'We could leave you out here, friend, and you wouldn't last a day,' cackled the driver.
With this warning I didn't ask to stop the car to photograph the gulf, instead shooting it through the window. When we got to Tadjoura town, I gratefully hopped out, took my bag, and when I found the only hotel was full, I was rented a cot on the roof of the towns' only restaurant.
A half an hour later I heard a machine gun fire off, the bullets whizzing into the sky. I hit the deck, thinking of bandits; but when I looked towards the port, where people were running at a
small speedboat from all directions, I knew it was something else.
It was the daily chat boat, delivering the enormously popular leaf-stimulant to the small town from the capital, the sole social activity in Djibouti. In less than a minute, the boat's leafy cargo was emptied, and as the town's residents walked slowly home, clutching long, curled branches of leaves, one by one the shops closed down, as the citizens slammed their doors shut to chew the chat.
The restaurant staff invited me to chew-the-chat on the roof, and I gratefully accepted. It seemed Tadjourans were friendlier than the cold shouldered residents of Djibouti town, and as we swung side to side in hammocks, we watched the ancient camel caravan that were preparing to leave that night as they had for hundreds of years, continuing the salt trade into Ethiopia's interior, harvesting salt there that was ferried back to the coast for sale.
'Bin Laden, man, Bin Laden,' said one of them, pointing to his T-shirt. His friend nodded and pulled out a pack of cards embossed with the same picture. He reached over and shoved another fist full of green leaves into his mouth, which he devoured like a goat.
Unemployment was over fifty percent in Djibouti, and the government had even commissioned a study to find out how much tax money they were losing to the weed that sucked up of everyone's afternoon. And energy. I heard men often chose the weed over the wife.
Thirty minutes later, as the chat took effect, words slurred, and talk turned to September 11th.
'Bad man, Bin Laden, bad man,' said my new found chat friends. As their words tumbled from their mouths, a sharp, mournful cry went up: the camels were finally finished being saddled, and the long, dusty caravan left the tiny, sleepy town behind for the desert, traveling through the night to avoid the searing daylight heat.
Tomorrow I'm off by train into the center of Africa: Ethiopia. If that country is as intense as Djibouti, then I know the next seven weeks are not going to be easy.
I am glad to leave Djibouti.
The oil and water local and expatriate culture and the unending heat and dust have gotten under my skin here, and into all my clothes. The inward, insular attitudes everywhere are too tough to crack, even with the assistance of a mouthful of bitter, head spinning chat leaves. For the first time while traveling I have actually asked myself, what am I doing here? The locals wont miss me, the woman in the market who screamed Bin Laden certainly wouldn’t miss me.
There was however, one exception: the sullen hotel manager shook my hand this morning when I told him I was leaving, not happy to see me go, but eager for me to tell my friends about his country, so more travelers would be sent his way.
It was nice for a change to be a pioneer in a way rather than following the guidebook trail.
More news from Ethiopia.