Monday, January 28, 2008

Travelogue 214 – January 28
Djibouti, Adieu

1.4 When I packed for the trip, I counted costs on my fingers, and then added a few more, but I hadn’t the prodigy of digits required for this port o’call. Two days out, and I’m worried about money. I discover that the majority of my hundred-dollar bills are no good here. Money-changers have decided they won’t touch hundreds older than 2000, scared of counterfeits. Anything produced under Bush, I suppose, seems false. In desperation, I show them my credit card. They shrug.

I’m directed to a bureau de change that occupies a lower rung on the greasy ladder of respect. It’s run by two Indian guys, one slender and effete, the other too big for his clothes. The latter broods from under a low brow and the dense black hair that stands above. Despite his bulk, he moves like a cat. This is the one who deals with credit card withdrawals. He handles the phone with surprising daintiness, and responds to static and snubs from US offices with great equanimity.

The slender one and I lean against the cash counter protected by inches of semi-transparent plastic. We watch the milling henna beards and skirted loafers. There’s a constant roar of chatter. The crowd moves in waves across the plaza. Disputes erupt. Members are exiled and followed by jeering men. Old men with canes are held apart by broad-chested younger ones. Cacophony subsides into its mundane form. The outward appearance of aimless chaos is deceptive. This is very directed chaos. It’s business: commodities and ships and sales. In his gentle Hindi-tinted voice, my friend explains how these agents fluidly shift through a broad spectrum of languages moment by moment, Somali, Afar, French, English, Arabic, Amharic, Hindi, a modern Babel that’s probably little different in essence from Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean ports for centuries. It’s the ugly and cheery age-old jostle of language and money.

My transaction is a no-go. The monolithic brother hands me back my card with an expression of perfect irony, his gaze utterly disengaged and drifting out the window. His serenity is appealing. I head back to the ‘Historie’ for a beer. There’s nothing to be done. African siesta has settled in, a white blanket of finality.

I stare blankly for a while. I return to my room. It’s a long siesta, but the peace of defeat is lulling, and ultimately rewarding. When I return in the time of long shadows to my internet place, I stumble upon a key to unlock secrets. My power of money is restored. I’m flush and rejuvenated. Ah, sweet electronics. I’d share more, but I hate to burden Cheney’s vigilant web boys with more secrets. The world is so full of them now, all so threatening, all so scary.

Myself, I’m scared enough about the trip ahead of me. I’m up early, jolted out of anxious imagery of dangerous journeys. The taxi cruises serenely to the airport. I’m directed by serene cops to stinky chairs in the lounge. The place hasn’t properly opened. People in uniforms arrive in slow, staggered waves. Passengers come, too. The passengers start pacing. Something is wrong. They can ask questions in the right language, and they find out our plane is delayed. After more pacing, our plane isn’t coming. We stand outside in a group, arguing with the guards. One jilted passenger is Ali Hussein. He’s Yemeni, but grew up in Mogadishu. There is a trio of jolly businessmen from Jordan. There’s the svelte pair of expat Somalis from Sweden. Ali Hussein explains for me the comings and goings of airline and airport officials, the interminable loud negotiations.

It’s decided that we will buy tickets on a Juba Airline flight from Saudi Arabia, headed to Hargeisa and Bosaso. We have to pay cash for these new tickets. Mohammed the Swede urges me to buy, reminding me of the price of hotel rooms in Djibouti. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assures me as we’re ushered through check-in and into the departure lounge. Thank God there is a tea counter because we spend the next four hours there, among hordes of Somalis waiting to go home after the Hajj. They all have cases and bags full of religious kitsch they bought in Mecca. They are salt of the desert earth, this crowd, simple and restless and loud folk: wizened, pacing grandpas with deep beards and piercing eyes, and miserable grandmas slouching inside their layers and shouting across the wide slouching spaces between chairs. My head is pounding, and my heart groans with remorse. I consume too much tea.

We’re caged together for four hours because they’ve overbooked the flight. The solution is to change the flight plan. The plane that was supposed to go first to Hargeisa and then to Bosaso will now go to Hargeisa with its many-throated burden and then return to Djibouti to ferry the rest of us separately to Bosaso. The plan is an admirable one in the simplicity of its logic.

Weary and resigned to an evil fate, I finally do shuffle onto this plane. Distracted as I am by misery, I still feel a sense of honor and wonder entering the vessel, so venerable an antique with its low, round ceiling and round portals. After the masses have settled into their stiff 60s seats, piled their immense bags around them in precarious ways, and warmed up for the next hour of their dissonant opera, the propellers are ignited, spinning beside my portal. We’re off.

I regain some of the romance of travel as the metal beast churns through the air, laboring at a low altitude over the northern coast of the Horn of Africa. The roar of the engines would drown out the rage of the devil himself, and the rhythmic drone and vibration rises through my spine and into the serenity centers of the brain. And finally beauty re-enters the world. The view out the starboard side is gorgeous, mountains deeply creased by erosion, brown and ancient, tumbling down to the seashore, miles of empty strands beside translucent water, glowing in bands of green and blue. There’s no turning back now, and for the moment, Somalia is enchanting.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Travelogue 213 – January 25
Djibouti, Part Deux

1.3 The lead task on my leisure agenda while I’m in Djibouti is to find a beach. Supplementary task is exploration. I have one day before my scheduled departure for points east. And the day ends up being much more about the supplemental task than the primary one. Reason: for all Djibouti’s coastline, there’s precious little beach.

The city spreads along its bit of southern shore on this enormous bay, and also along the slender, hammer-headed promontory that makes the city such a good port. Today I hike up the east side of the peninsula and back down the west side. Results in the beach scan? One, and it’s such a mediocrity that I commit myself to sore feet and a brush with sun stroke looking for that pearly stretch of sand that must serve the sizeable contingent of internationals. No luck.

Here’s what I find. Not too far up the east side, past stolid bastions of ministerial power, and past one huge church and one huge mosque, almost across the street from each other, looking like the tall, official organs of God’s potency, there is a beach. It’s a lonely stretch of brown sand, not very attractive. But sea is sea, and I’m content for a while, watching the morning sun climb, already blazing at 7am, over the water. The waves are calm as lakeside.

Behind me is what looks to be a Malibu beach club and hotel, tables with umbrellas behind a wall, and a few hungover, disheveled white people standing, bemused, in shorts beside their truck. And that could be a theme to this part of the east end, a piece of California: dusty neighborhoods under lazy palms, a little tawdry, soaked in sea-salt samadhi. But there the beach ends. Further off to the right, there’s a Sheraton, according to my memorized map, and maybe they’ve cornered some choice beach, but I don’t detour, thinking that further up the peninsula must be heavenly sands.

Wrong. Further up the peninsula, diplomatic impunity closes its grip. There are miles of embassies and residences with ch’at-chewing guards leering at passers-by. It’s a dull road, unless you enjoy eye-balling modest shows of money, mostly adhering to the dubious aesthetics of Gulf Arab luxury.

Finally, the road dead-ends at a formidable fence. Beyond is a whole lot of construction – government buildings by the look of it. Behind the last little mansion on the road is a dusty lot where something else will go up. There you can stand above the shore, water lapping against massive stones, and you can look back along the exclusive line of coast. It doesn’t look like I’ve missed any swimming there.

From the fence, you can walk back down the west side. The new asphalt road matches the tone of this side, the industrial side. Though it takes a while to reach the work. First is the massive and cold face of the ultra-luxury Keminski complex, behind high walls and intimidating security. I ask the muscle-bound guard what’s inside. A hotel. And what’s the price? He smiles coldly. ‘3,000 a night, dollars.’ Right. Further down the wall, I pass an immaculately tailored and groomed Arab man, closely followed by an immense personal guard. “Good morning,” the Arab says pleasantly, and with no accent.

Past that is the briefest of interludes with the sea, almost a beach. There’s definitely a pile of dirty sand. I’m even able to retrieve a seashell or two. And the view is all Djibouti: the huge port, looking all money, sky-high cranes and stacks of multi-colored containers, looking at a distance like toys. Sadly, you only get one whiff of the hustle-bustle, further on at the heavily-guarded gate to the port. Otherwise, it’s all admiration at a distance. And everything a port should be, the stink and the noise and the crazy activity, is hidden behind walls. One watches the cranes.

Further down the road, across from the dock, is the presidential palace, another tribute to Arab sensibilities, tall, clean lines in pastel colors, with pointless balustrades and kitschy bits from the classical catalogue, standing in the middle of a heavily-guarded compound with lots of barren soil. He has plenty of windows with a view of the port. That seems appropriate.

I return from the long walk with an impression of this place as one of those millennial, rich, authoritarian city-states that channel so much of our money nowadays. All resources are ruthlessly directed toward the port and airport. There is a native population, of course, but they are very quiet. South of the palace, I enter a few of their neighborhoods, familiar hovels and dives and one-window shops. I’ve seen the stats: they’re poor. But they keep quiet, and somehow they survive among the crazy prices.

I close the day with a beer at the ‘Historie’ again. From the patio, I watch a curious ritual. There are a lot of policemen in this town. They wear quaint uniforms that appear colonial era, khaki tan and high peaked hats. They’ve parked a van in the square. Every so often, one leads a young man from among the groups hanging around here and there chewing ch’at, over to the van, one hand at the youth’s elbow. The ritual is calm. No one complains. The police are restrained. The boys sit in the van until it’s full.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Travelogue 212 – January 21
Djibouti, Part One

1.2 My journey leads far off into the lands of our dust-kicking neighbor, Somalia. And the first stop is in our mutual midget neighbor, Djibouti. I’ve scheduled a few days there because my senses are yearning for stretches of salt water. I haven’t stood beside the sea in a long time.

Our passage through the air is short and takes in lots of distressed brown lands that slowly stretch and mellow under the influence of the sea. We come upon rows of small white clouds, and we see suddenly the blue line of the sea, landing within sight of it, the runway almost an asphalt line between wastes of blue and brown.

I’m instantly happy as I disembark. The air is humid and dense with the salty smell of the Red Sea. I don’t mind the wait for my visa, since the small airport has open doors and I can breathe in the warmth and the water.

Djibouti is a one-city nation, and immediately outside the airport you’re among the suburban streets of the capital. There are other towns in Djibouti, of course, a couple across the bay with nice beaches, so they say. But I never make it over there. I call my green airport taxi, a station wagon with the steering wheel on the wrong side, and haggle the driver down, paying no more than 1700 francs into the city, or about $10.

It’s early afternoon when I arrive downtown. The sun is blazing. The streets are empty: both Djibouti and Somalia shut down between 12:30 and 4. No sooner am I out of the taxi than I’m approached by a lanky boy with fine green grit between his brown teeth, bits of leaf of khat, the brain delight of all the horn of Africa. “Bon jour.” He matches my stride and tries French, then switches deftly to English. “What you need? You from the camp? You need girls? Big boobies. Come on.” Djibouti is a military town, French and American. Thus the refined tastes in pleasure, I suppose.

I say a cheap hotel would do nicely. “Come on,” he says again and leads the way. We start among the sunny squares of the posh part of town, pretty in a run-down Old World kind of way, a meeting of worlds: Arab arches and French arcades. This vibe falls away quickly, and we’re traversing blocks of a more familiar cast, among squalid, squat buildings and roadside stalls, among the calls and comments of men sprawled against the wall, chewing. The police stop us, apparently recognizing Shaggy Tooth and concerned for my safety. He reassures the officer, and I don’t complain. That seems to be enough.

We descend a stairway hidden among stalls, and we emerge in the market, among alleys of stalls with electronics and shoes – the surest merchandise across East Africa, it would seem. And suddenly, we’re at the Hotel Banadir. It’s an obscure doorway into a shabby courtyard. The man at the desk never quite awakens, but we do wheedle a key out of him. For $20, I can rent a room just larger than the single bed and its sagging, filthy mattress. The big window overlooks the courtyard. It occurs to me that a place that sleeps away the afternoon is not likely to respond to “Shh!” at 9.

Thanks, Shaggy. I shake his hand and make clear that I’m going the opposite way. I have very quickly resigned myself to Djibouti’s biggest demerit: the prices. I trace my steps back to the cleaner section of town and systematically find the cheapest option among acceptable beds: $60. It’s the three-story Ali Sabieh, a hotel that looks much better in the lobby than in the rooms. The bed is acceptable, and so is the bathroom. Hot water is not an option in Djibouti or Somalia. There’s only one knob in the shower. You only get a sheet to sleep under, but you don’t need more.

Outside, I find an air-conditioned bar where I can say ‘un cafe, si’l vous plait’ and I don’t even have to repeat myself, so I feel very worldly. I’m enjoying the tiny cup and the sugar cube; I lazily watch the Steven Segal movie. I’m enjoying listening to the buzz of French and Arabic and Somali. In this way, I while away the African siesta.

At 4, the shadows are long. There’s a cool breeze. People have emerged: men in colorful skirts, geezers with henna-dyed beards, veiled women, soldiers, boys selling postcards and gum. Every one of them is selling postcards. I find that odd. Later, sitting serenely on the patio of the restaurant ‘Historie’, I watch a supernaturally old crone creep toward me with her box of cigarettes and gum and postcards. She meticulously takes every item in her crooked fingers to show me. I’m hoping to see something I actually need. I settle for a lighter. There’s always a use for fire. She shuffles away, spending so many of the precious minutes left to her, down the patio, across the street, until the last shadows have melded into one.