Sunday, September 12, 2010

38 - Some Like It Hot

Part of Djibouti from the air
 Flying from Addis Ababa to Djibouti in a small Bombardier Dash 8 Q-400 turboprop brings two different visions of Africa. Sitting right at the front next to me is a French navy officer on his way to join the international flotilla patrolling the seas off Somalia against pirates - with mixed success. And just across the aisle a man returning from the World Cup in South Africa cradles on his lap a couple of vuvuzelas, which he now proceeds to try out to see if they're still working. They are indeed, to magnificent effect, giving a whole new dimension to taking off.

From the air Djibouti looks like a moonscape of stark crags and sand, but once on the ground there are green bushes and many more rather colourless thorn shrubs. The city itself is low and not unpleasant with  Moorish architecture and colonnades, trees, and parks here and there. The facade of the old synagogue - all that is left - is equally Moorish. There used to be a fair community of Yemeni Jews, but most left after the Six-Day War and none are now left.

City Hall
It's very hot, but not as bad as I anticipated. I was prepared to say that as the airplane door opened we were gob-smacked by the searing heat of a blast furnace, but that would just be journalistic hype. It's about 39 Celsius, 102 Fahrenheit. An early afternoon stroll is in order; the streets are virtually abandoned, except for a few soldiers drinking soda round the park leading to the presidential palace. Where is everybody? Getting zonked or already zonked out on qat, of course!

Djibouti, as opposed to the other capitals visited this time, is considered pretty safe to wander round. An afternoon stroll toward the port brings into view a large modern mosque with lofty minaret, a palm-strewn esplanade, and a statue in front of the white People's Palace, at present used for the legislature. A side lane leads up to the grand presidential palace, the former French governor's residence; not only can I not take a photo of it, I'm not even allowed to walk past, or even approach as soldiers gesture verboten in a variety of sign languages. Still, there's a good photo op way back near the port when nobody's looking.

Building in June 27 square
There's very little traffic, and no such thing as a traffic jam (Luanda and Kinshasa, take note), but plenty of pedestrians, beggars and cripples. Nearly all the women wear flowing brightly coloured head scarves with equally colourful flowing robes. A few are completely incognito in black burkas. Near the Djibouti Broadcasting (RTD) building two men loll on the pavement, preparing their qat. A few minutes later, they no longer have qat in hand but huge bulges pumping out from their left cheeks. One shouts 'Vive la France' but turns negative when I propose a photo op.
Crippled street kid
Across the road at one of two side-by-side scruffy pavement cafes, imaginatively named RTD 1 and RTD 2, a quick overall impression is in order: a look into passing faces suggests a little too much intermarriage among some - buck teeth, receding chins, asymmetry.

Djibouti By Night, La Nuit, Bei Nacht - At last a city to walk around at night; no fears of muggers, bandits, cut-throats and the other usual suspects in the centre. The place is fairly hopping, the streets well lit, coloured lights from Sunday's Independence Day celebrations still twinkling, people everywhere, pavement cafes doing a brisk trade, an air-conditioned Italian ice cream parlour offering excellent sorbets. Nightclubs, bars, casinos are here for the taking - L'Oasis, New Delhi, Hermes with reclining Greek statues and faux ionic columns, disco music, flashing disco lights, flashing disco floors, flashing 'disco' women too in short, short skirts. How many of them are incognito in burkas by day?

Kids play soccer near new mosque
Djibouti by day - The countless market lanes by Mahamoud Harbi Square are swarming, echoing with what at first seems like explosively guttural Arabic. But then both the Afar and Somali languages have their own fair share of detonations. A group of men squatting on a dusty little median in front of the collective mass of minivan buses is selling qat, their customers, mainly scarved women, handling, sniffing, palpating, assessing the produce like pros; likewise at stalls down a lane where the vendors are women.

The excellent photo ops, of course, elicit shouts of verboten from passing males; too late, already snapped. Qat plays only a small part, though, in the alleys lined with little shop fronts selling leather, electronics, dresses, everything. Barrows overflow with every kind of fruit, much more than seen in West Africa. And everywhere little beggar kids run up for alms. The anti-camera shouts aren’t restricted to qat only.

Presidential palace from waterfront
High Noon - OK, I seem to be making a habit of this, giving further corroboration to 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen...,' except this time there ain't even a mad dog around. The blindingly sunlit streets are deserted, not a canine in sight, only a couple of shrivelled old beggar women crouching in the shade of an arcade. It's over 100 Fahrenheit again, expected to drop to around 90 after dark. Yes, this is clearly not the tourist season. When muggins asked a tour guide here if there might be others to share the costs of a four-day trip into the boondocks (where the thermometre can top 50 Celsius, 122 Fahrenheit), he e-mailed back: 'You're the only one to venture here at this time; it's rare to see visitors between July and August; even locals leave the country in search of cooler climes. Those who remain in Djibouti during this period must have a good reason for doing so - work or no means of leaving.' Furthermore, dear old muggins is wearing a dark T-shirt, absorbing instead of repelling the sun's rays. Time to nip indoors out of the sun, as the locals, sane dogs and other nationalities have done.
Street scene
Late afternoon - Vuvuzela boy on the flight in is not alone. At the Paraguay-Japan match on TV at Djibouti's Planet Hollywood cafe a huge guy, whose girth would make him a clear shoo-in for Rio Carnival's King Momo, raises a lengthy red vuvuzela to his pursed lips whenever he approves, disapproves or none-of-the-above of the play, deafening us all. There are lots of shouts for Japan's fast, smart play, even though they loose on penalties. I think everybody in Djibouti just supports a good game, even if no African team is playing. The vuvuzela's still going strong in the evening when Spain (and doesn't their coach look just like the son Franco never had?) beats Portugal.

Woman buying qat
Street in main market
Buying qat under expatriate Israeli Nestle umbrella
Mian mosque in market

Synagogue facade
Kids 'arcade' in market alley

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