55 – Vous voulez aller a Djibouti? Pas de problem!

Wed 20th Jan, Horseed Hotel, Djibouti City
We got up early in the morning and went out to the main drag. We will need to approach the many truck drivers by the road and try to flag one down. One who would be willing to take us down to Djibouti not at cutthroat prices. It would be difficult, since we didn’t arrange something the night before.

Fortunately, at our 5th or 6th try, a friendly Ethiopian trucker who spoke decent English stopped for us. He was willing to take us to the border and no more. Better than nothing, we thought and took up his offer.

The terrain on either side of the road into Djibouti was described on the maps as plains. I stared out my window. A plain of rocks. Flanked by more rocks. More Afar houses and yet more rocks.  After the border crossing though, i begin to see sparse patches of green here and there. It was pretty boring watching these go on for hours and hours. I wonder how truckers break the monotony of driving down the road for 8 hours straight. And our driver will drive for 4 days in total, to and fro. It was easy to fall asleep at the wheel, even in the day. And this was evident from the many carcasses of trucks we see littering the roadside. Little remained of these trucks, anything that was useful from them would have be removed.

The border crossing at both sides was pretty painless. Our driver worried that Ethiopian vehicles were not supposed to carry passengers through to Djibouti. But the customs officer waved off a tout who was trying to get us to go aboard their 4WD. So, we stayed aboard our truck and carried on. At another checkpoint along the way, a Djibouti officer made us open up our baggage and rummaged through everything, going on and on about Al-Qaeda suspects, just because he can. According to our driver, all the guy wanted was a bribe “some Qat money” to let us go through, but no. I was not going to give him the satisfaction. It was a hassle, and yes, he had that smug look on his face, but in the end he let us go. On hindsight, he was probably just doing his job.

We reached the outskirts of Djibouti City which is as far as the truck went and paid our driver (200   birr each). This was an Ethiopian shanty village located outside the city. A minivan took us into the city proper and charged us 50 birr each (the locals we saw paid less than 10 birr). The driver came out and created such a scene until we backed down and just paid him his 100 birr. For a 10 minute ride into the city.

In Djibouti City. Finally, after three solid weeks in Ethiopia, i was exploring a new place. Everything here is in French. The signs, the french foreign legion, the french speaking locals. It was a place to explore, albeit an expensive one where we would not stay more than a few days. But first, we would have to look for our budget hotel. The Horseed Hotel is a budget hotel located at the edge of the city area. It has shared bathrooms and is pretty much what a similar hotel in Ethiopia would look like. The cost of the Ethiopian hotel – 7 SGD, benchmarking the Dessie twin-bed one. The cost of the Horseed Hotel (one of the cheapest, if not THE cheapest, in Djibouti) – 48 SGD.

I went out by myself in the evening to look for the ATM (we had no Djibouti francs with us). The Islamic Saaba bank was the only one that accepted VISA and Mastercard. Walked around a bit more, a foreigner here is a common sight, though in the European quarter, there was the same extraordinary amount of hassle from people wanting to help you with something you don’t need, and then demanding payment. I bought some water and baguettes, getting the change in coins. I noticed that i have to be careful with my coins here. Back in Ethiopia, i give out my spare change once in a while to those beggars who are unable to make a living themselves, due to some disability for example. That would set me back 2 cents SGD. Here a coin could have a value of up to almost 4 SGD!

54 – Of crocodiles and giant pythons

Tue 19th Jan, National Hotel, Logiya

We woke up at 6 and found our security detail, two policemen, one armed with a rifle, looking over us. We set off, armed only with some biscuits and 4.5 litres of water between us, not knowing how far the lakes were, or even how many days we would have to stay out. This was because we had no way of communicating clearly what we required, which was a trip to the 5 lakes around the region. The two policemen were dressed in uniform on this day, but they were carrying little else, so we figured whatever supplies we had with us would be sufficient.

We carried on the gravel road, continuing where the bus dropped us off yesterday. According to them, it was an 8km walk to the first lake. Along the way, we passed by several Afar homes, many herds of goats, some camels, and locals headed in either direction. All throughout, the birdlife was spectacular. It would need a birdwatcher to truly appreciate the birdlife on show. My point and click Olympus fails miserably at capturing the sights.

We reached a large stream where the bridge was long gone. We had to ford the river further upstream. In the meantime, there was the show of a herd of cows trying to cross the stream. They simply refused to step into the knee deep water even after being cajoled by their minders. It was quite a hilarious sight watching the cows making a beeline for the same bank after they had been pushed halfway across the stream. In the end they did the same as us and forded elsewhere along the stream.

We reached Lake Afambo and Lake Gamarri after two hours walking. The lakes were set against the backdrop of the mountains bordering Djibouti. They were murky swampy lakes, filled with crocodiles, especially on the opposite bank of one of the many tributaries. A few had their mouths wide open on the banks. Another highlight was when we were walking along the lake’s shoreline. Nestled on a tree barely metres away from us was a huge python. We did not manage to go further down the shore though, the undergrowth was too thick.

Then came the surprise. The guides signalled we are done and should go back.

“Back? But what about the rest of the lakes?”

They waved their forefinger tellingly.

“But we specfically stated we want to go to all of the lakes, especially Abbe with its Mars terrain setting”

But there was no way we could convince them otherwise, and we ended up hanging around the lake for maybe 15 more minutes before they again told us we had to go back..

Well that was silly, we going through all the trouble, including a couple of days waiting in Logiya, just for the hour by the lakes. We were pretty annoyed that the excursion was so brief. And the bit that takes the cake was that the fee for each policeman guide was 150 birr. Of course we were adamant that we will not be paying 300 birr for half a days work. Our justification was that we did not ask for two guides (the three 4wds we passed by on the way back had 2 police guides for the 10 foreign tourists), we had spent only half a day and we did not get to see our intended lakes. Instead we will offered 200 birr, which resulted in a protracted negotiation before they finally gave in.

We had reached back by noon and decided to go back to Asaita then Logiya. We will spend the night there (yummy fuul and chilli powder yoghurt) before making our way to Djibouti. At night, we tried to arrange for transport on one of the many trucks that ply their way down to Djibouti City after overnighting in Logiya but the initial price quoted was 1000 birr (why do they even quote us such ridiculous prices!) This eventually went down to 300 but our LP published in Oct 2009 says 200 so we stood our ground. After all, this guy we are dealing with is a middleman. Tomorrow early morning, we will stand by the roadside and try to hitch with the truck drivers themselves, effectively bypassing the middleman.

52 – Fact: Tourist offices are closed on weekends

Sun 17th Jan, National Hotel, Logiya
Now the Afar region we were in is decidedly Muslim, and the locals were dressed in sarongs. They would be able to pass off as dark skinned arabs easily, especially the older folk, if not for a couple of things. First, the young guys had their funky hair. The locals here grow their hair long, in neat afros, and the epitome of fashion here is to have a twig or a leaf sticking out of their hair. The women, on the other hand, had theirs delicately plaited. The other standout feature was their teeth. I tried hard not to stare, but i could not take my eyes off their sharpened teeth (incisors included). Not all of them had them, but those that did, looked fearsome indeed. Photographs of people were a rarity here, for the locals did not want some faranji coming along and making them some sort of exhibit.

It is Sunday so the tourist office was still closed. I spent the rest of the day reading. Chris lent me one of his many books, Shadow of the Sun, and anecdotal account of the author’s (Ryszard Kapuscinski) travels in Africa over 40 years. It was a good read, and i’d recommend it.

Meals in Logiya were a heartening affair. Possibly here in the far corners of Ethiopia, injeera was not the de facto dish. Over the past couple days, i have had spaghetti with local sauce (10 birr), their version of fuul (my favourite, possibly 8 birr), and a peculiar yoghurt-like cold dish which you eat with bread and chilli powder mixed into the yoghurt (?? – sometimes sugar in place of the chilli powder also works). For drinks, i had, besides the usual bottled coke, a malt like cold drink in a mug and fresh milk in a recycled bottle (goat, sheep or maybe camel). After each meal, i would be happy (since its not injeera based) and Chris would be happy (cos he ate a lot).

51 – Land’s End (Into the back of beyond)

Sat 16th Jan, National Hotel, Logiya
The bus from Dessie went east towards to Asaita, but we would be stopping halfway in Semera (41 birr). Semera is the administrative capital of the Afar region, and we are headed there to pick up the tourist permission and compulsory guide to travel the lakes. For the purpose of this and the next couple of entries, the bus route through the towns is in the following order: Dessie –> Bati —> Mille –> Logiya –> Semera —> Asaita. From Asaita, a little local bus goes to Afambo village.

We started off in Dessie, made good progress on good sealed roads, hitting Bati for breakfast. Bypassed Mille, which was on a T-junction joining the road from the south and going northwards The terrain started to change dramatically as we moved northeastwards. From the cold highlands of Dessie, we traversed into the sweltering Afar region.Trees gave way to sparse bushes and rocky expanses of wasteland made more obvious by the complete absence of a water source. And in the midst of all this are the Afar people. Their domed huts dotted the side of the roads. One hut here, a few there. How do they survive in this heat? Why do they live here? Is there a settlement nearby? Where do they get their water supply? It is truly mind boggling, and i think i will not last a day out here. More on the Afar later.

When we hit Logiya, a bunch of passengers got off. Next stop was Semera, a mere 8km away from Logiya. The bus nearly skipped the town, not stopping till i yelled Wora Jaale! Which means stop! We were the only ones to get off, and we should have seen this as a warning of things to come. For Semera, the regional capital, with its stone buildings, is a ghost town. There were buildings, barracks aplenty, but there were no shops in sight, and hardly any activity going on. And it was hot, oh, it was HOT. We got off and found the one hotel in town, a seedy 5 room place by the side of the main road (oh look, a made-in-the-USA condom supplied on the dresser).Placed our things (man, this place is hot) and looked for the tourist office.

It is difficult to find anymore English speaking locals up here, so we were in trouble with our non-existent Amharic. Fortunately, there was a french speaking security guard who tried to help us. Unfortunately, he couldn’t, for it was a Saturday and all the offices were closed. Two options, skip the lakes and go up to Djibouti directly tomorrow, or stay the weekend and come back here on Monday. We took up option 2, and decided to make our way back to Logiya, 8km down south, where there was some semblance of village life. Semera is a dead town, the kind you imagine in those old westerns, with balls of straw rolling on the sandy ground. And it is hot.

We had to flag a passing truck to take us back into Logiya. Now this was a proper little town. We took up a coupld of rooms at the National Hotel (25 birr each) and went out for lunch. Lunch was in a restaurant with a sheep on the restaurant floor (we had tibs for 20 birr). Yes a live sheep, nonchalantly going about its own business. It could be their pet, or potentially dinner, i really don’t know.

There was no power supply in the hotel, and the barely there light emanating from the light bulb in my room was powered by a generator that ran from dusk till 11pm. There were communal toilets, and the shower was a little straw shack placed over some rocks. We had to get buckets and collect water from the trough to bathe with. Sigh. We had Sunday as well in this town, so we might as well get comfortable. Oh and somewhere on the journey from Addis to here, i lost my headlamp. I replaced it with a chunky made-in-china torch (25 birr).