Saturday, February 12, 2011

Djibouti City, Djibouti

Got up at 4.00am to get ready to catch a 5.30am bus from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa where we could connect with a bus to Djibouti City. The bus was a lovely new modern Chinese Yatong one.
We had bought the ticket the day before on our way into the city from the airport. Sometimes tickets have to be bought 2 days ahead as there is only one bus a day. The bus had a host who served a slice of cake for breakfast as well as a box of juice. Later he brought us a bottle of mineral water. He even collected all the rubbish up and put it in a box which was surprising as the locals just toss it out the window or leave it on the floor. There were two DVD screens in the bus and we could watch a movie and video clips of traditional songs. The airconditioning worked and all in all it was a comfortable nine hour trip. The roads were all sealed and the driver was kept busy tooting his horn at the people and animals moving from place to place on the side of the road.

As we got higher up into the hills there were a lot of farms growing qat (chat, hkat, jaat, miraa).
In Yemen, such farms would have armed guards in towers to stop anyone stealing their valuable crop, but it seems it is not an issue in Ethiopia. At first sight the bushes look like tea bushes and are about the same height. Where tea is grown in rows without a gap between bushes, qat has new leaves that need to be got at from all parts of the tree. The chemical in the leaves is like ecstacy and suppresses appetite.

The bus stopped at a few places for the passengers to eat and then the beggars lined both sides of the doorway as you got in and out. Sometimes the locals chased them away from us as they targeted us.

We met a young lad whose mother is from New Zealand and his father from Ethiopia. He lives in Melbourne and with some family members they were making a visit to relatives in Dire Dawa. He was able to help us get a tuk tuk to the bus station where we needed to find a local bus going from Dire Dawa to Djibouti City. We found the bus we needed but it was not leaving until 7pm so we had a five hour wait for it. The bus station was in a dusty part of town near market stalls and we were constantly followed by children and beggars so we headed back into the town centre. Across from the railway station we were able to sit in a hotel patio and drink tea and cold drinks away from local attention. After work a lot of the locals came and drank coffee or tea and coca cola or had a beer. No one seemed to mind us at all.

The bus slowly filled up and we didn't leave until about 8.30pm. Beside the driver was a padded cover over the engine and the conductor and a hyperactive Muslim lady squashed up there. On the side of them were two guys in a seat facing the driver. They had barely space for their feet and had to slot their knees in between the conductor's and the hypo lady so they could fit in. We sat at right angles to them and had to fit our feet around the engine and under the side of the boys' seat. Pretty cramped! The bus company charges the locals to put their bags on the roof of the bus but they don't want to pay and so they stuff their sacks and plastic bags of gear around them or in any space they can find. As one side of the bus has seats for three people and these three people have multiple bag. It is chaos as they spill over into everyone else's limited space. Chaos!

We later learnt that most of the passengers were traders, taking their goods to small villages near the border with Djibouti. There were sacks of grain which are very expensive in Djibouti as they have no rain and can't grow anything. The hypo lady had plastic bags full of bundles of qat leaves and the boys told us she had too many so she was passing them around for others to take. We don't know what happened but there was a huge argument with the lady and the bus driver and conductor. At one stage they pushed her out the door and she was crying and yelling. After this the bus driver crossed himself and let her back in the bus. When we stopped at one of the many police check points she complained to the police about her treatment and by now everyone was in on the argument. Eventually all parties calmed down and began chewing their bundles of qat to keep them awake.

It took seven hours to cover the 150 kms to the border town of Gelille and as the border was not open we all settled down, the 50 of us in the 45 seater, to get some sleep. The driver kicked everyone off the engine cover and plonked his mattress down and promptly snored. Some of the folk put woven mats on the ground outside the bus and slept there, while a few wandered off to some nearby by buildings. A couple of buses and trucks joined us as well.

In the morning, one of the boys told me that a woman across the aisle had never seen a white person before, let alone one in trousers. When he told her I was a woman she said 'Oh, a girl woman!'

When the border opened we had to queue to give our passports to an immigration officer but the woman traders had to go to a different place as they did not have any travel permits. There was a huge shed with open sides and several flat deck trucks with wire cages on the back pulled up in the shed. In no time they were filled with small bags of qat and headed off to Djbouti City in time for the lunch time qat shoppers.

A minimum of about five hours a day is spent grazing on qat and the reason behind the many divorces in the country!

After two and a half hours we got our passports and got into a small bus headed for the Djibouti border post. Everything was unloaded from the bus and all the bags were checked. We had to show our vaccination certificates and after one and a half hours we were ready to continue to Djibouti City. It was a dirty, dusty post and squatting in the dirt was a row of women with thermoses selling tea. There were flattened yellow plastic jerry cans for their customers to sit on while they drank their tea.

We saw a lot of people in a compound with some of them handcuffed to the iron railings. The sun was beating down on them and they looked rather forlorn as they watched us getting processed.

Djibouti bus being checked at a police check point.

The road to Djibouti City was sealed and mostly in pretty good condition but we had to pass at least three more police checkpoints. At the Tadjoura road junction there were dozens of stalls set up selling qat.

Outside Djibouti the rural villages looked poorer than anything we had seen in Ethiopia. The houses were 'humpies'- round shaped dwellings covered with hessian, rags, bits of old clothing, flattened pieces of tin cans or drums.

The bus stopped in the African Quarter of the city and we got a taxi to an ATM to get some local
currency. The taxi was a wreck!

The first guesthouse we went to was noisy as they were renovating some of the rooms so we looked for another one. A local guy followed us and took us to a place but it was too expensive. We finally ended up at a hotel near the city centre for a reasonable price.

Djibouti has a population of about 800,000 people and was once a part of the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum. In the 19th century, Europeans carved up parts of Africa and as the British had Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea, the French countered by developing French Somaliland. In June 1977, the colony won sovereignty from France and became the Republic of Djibouti.

Some of the old colonial buildings in the European Quarter of the city.

A local mosque. Islam was introduced by the Arab traders in AD 825.

We found Djibouti very expensive. A restaurant we had a coke in charged 12 times the price we could get it in a small shop. We found a large supermarket and bought some food there to keep costs down. Most of the food was imported from France.

We saw several military men about the city from Japan, France, Britain and US. Djibouti has a huge port with a large-capacity oil terminal and container terminals partly funded by Dubai Port International.

These city goats had to find shade under a broken down abandoned truck in the middle of the road as there are hardly any trees.

Near our hotel was the Djibouti University and we heard lots of shouting and saw large groups of students walking in the middle of the street. At first we thought the noise had something to do with President Mubarak resigning in Egypt but the hotel receptionist told us that the students had just got their exam results. Only 10% of students passed the exams. We later saw a group of students in a square surrounded by police in riot gear.

The internet service in Djibouti was cheap and fast so we were able to get a lot of research, emails, and some of the blog done after three weeks in Ethiopia without any decent access.

We looked at some of the tours to the salt lakes but they were too expensive for our budget so we decided to head to Somaliland and look at some of the sights there instead.

The only public transport going to Hargeisa in Somaliland was a 4x4 Landcruiser. We had to wait for about four hours at the transport office to be sure we would get a 'good' seat. They put two people in the front, four in the middle seat and six in the boot- three each side on a low seat.

While we were waiting for our ride the spare parts shop owner hussled us into his shop as young men in the street were throwing stones. It seems that a group from one section of the city was having a fight with another group from a different section of town. We could hear the stones on the metal shutters as we sat inside. We had seen the stone throwing earlier but were quite a distance from them. The police came by in several vehicles and sprayed the groups with tear gas and they dispersed quite quickly.