Probably my favorite country name to “say,” Djibouti is pronounced “Jih-Booty.” If you say it fast, it’s almost like, “Ya booty!,” which makes the six-year-old in me giggle.
Djibouti (I’m still giggling) is situated in the horn of Africa, under Ertirea and above Somalia. I don’t know why, but I had a feeling this was going to be a good stop, and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint.
It was hot; hot as Hades as I stepped off the tarmac in Djibouti City. But I’d lived in Arizona for 15 years, so I’d handle it. I didn’t mind the heat and just two minutes into my taxi ride I’d decided I loved this place. Something about the colorful diracs the women were wearing while riding on the back of motorbikes, blowing in the wind. Plus you got the goats. Oh, the goats were everywhere! We turned a corner and suddenly I see thousands of locals cooling off in the waters of the Gulf of Tadjoura. What a sight! The $25 trip to the nearby Sheraton was quick and I ran inside just long enough to throw my bags down and pee. I had little time to spare if I wanted to walk the city before dark. The sun was setting fast.
Walk the Walk
After check-in, it was back out and into another cab that would drop me off in the center of town, just a couple minutes drive from the hotel. I had no clue where I was going and I was okay with that. I just wanted to explore.
All my research leading up to this trip (including talking to the hotel staff) indicated this was a (pretty) safe place to bop around solo. There was a large American military base in Djibouti and the country is, in general, pretty stable. During my taxi rides, we passed numerous gringos walking the streets, which reassured me that this town was friendly to foreigners. There are so many places in Africa where I never see an outsider out in public–but when I see many, wandering on their own, it’s a pretty good indicator that I’m in chill-territory. I couldn’t wait to see what Djibouti City was all about.
The first thing that caught my eye was a Bob’s Big Boy statue. If you didn’t know, “Big Boy” is a popular American hamburger joint and I just couldn’t imagine how in the world “Bob” had arrived in Djibouti! I tried to ask the employees at “City Burger” but I don’t think they understood what I was getting at. They wanted to feed me, but I just wanted to know how the hell Bob had gotten here. It’s still a mystery, so if you know, please share!
Downtown was quaint, charming and old. I loved all the French architecture. As I moved away from the center, soon I found myself walking among hoards of locals, many of them heading to the mosques as the call to prayer was played over speakers mounted on the tops of buildings. I saw two boys playing foosball outside their apartment, turning the knobs on an old wooden machine that looked like it was from the 50s. I asked if I could take their picture and they obliged, but I wasn’t able to snap the photo before their mother yelled at me from a second-story window above. She didn’t want them in my photo. Damn, missed my chance.
In fact, that was the only thing I didn’t love about Djibouti: being a predominantly Muslim country, most folks–especially the women–weren’t crazy about having their pictures taken, or even being in any part of any picture, even ones where they were just background subjects. I would respect that. But man, did I see some beautiful people I would have loved to capture on film.
The joke was on me when I took note of a “marker” so I wouldn’t get lost as I winded corners and explored side streets: I made sure to remember the “Al Taj King of Pasta” sign to help me get back to the center of town–that would be my point of reference, my “bread crumb.” But I had to laugh later, when I realized that these “Al Taj” signs were as common as Coca-Cola signs in Mexico–there was one on every corner! But it was too late: by the time I figured it out, I’d already made a dozen turns. I was hopelessly lost, but I didn’t mind. By now I was feeling such great vibes in Djibouti, even after dark. I didn’t care.
During my walk I met a nice shopkeeper and before I knew it I was sipping Ethiopian beers inside a second floor apartment with him and my new friends. I didn’t know what was going on, but there was good music on the TV and friendly people on the sofa. We sat and chatted and drank with the fan on and the windows open. I probably shouldn’t have been in a stranger’s house that night–I broke almost every “street” rule in the book–but couldn’t resist. It was a nice time. I should have taken pics with my new friends in the living room, but instead I decided to just enjoy the moment. I didn’t stay too late. I had a big day tomorrow. (Mom, Dad, I promise I will never enter a stranger’s house like this again!)
Day Two and the Salt Lake
Djibouti has a bunch of natural wonders that intrigued me and it was hard to decide which one I would see my only full day in the country. I decided on Lac Assal, or “Salt Lake.”
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If you have more time, and the season is in your favor, look into an excursion to Moucha Island; it looks amazing and I was bummed I missed it.
The two-plus hour drive to the lake was fun and full of adventure. I’d forgot to pack sunscreen and there was no way I would survive even three minutes in that sun without protection, so we spent the first half-hour stopping into pharmacies looking for sunblock. You’d think sunscreen would be a common, readily-available item here, but for some reason it wasn’t. We finally scored some on our third attempt. And while having to hunt down sunscreen was a minor setback, I enjoyed the detour, which had us rolling through some really cool residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, areas I normally wouldn’t have had the chance to see, complete with lots of goats and kids kicking around soccer balls.
Life is a Highway
The drive was an adventure, with lots to see along the way. But dear God, it was hot…120 degrees during parts of the trip, and the air conditioning in our Toyota SUV could barely keep up. I remember thinking that this excursion was a little expensive when I booked it months ago ($275 USD)…but now I realized it would be worth every penny. There was no way I could have made the trip in a typical Djibouti taxi: these cabs were more beat up than the cars you see run over at a monster truck show, and most of them didn’t have air conditioning. I’m not a prima donna, but I wouldn’t have survived the ride in one of those junkers.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If you’re taking a trip out of the city, spend the extra money hiring a reputable tour company like I did. I used Bambu Tours. The owner, Daniel, even showed up at my hotel in the morning, just to introduce himself and present to me my guides for the day. He’s a class act, and so were my guides.
Last One in is a Rotten Egg
The lake was absolutely stunning. Hands down, Lac Assal was one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited in my entire life, and as I write this, over a month later, I still don’t understand why I was the only one there. I had the whole giant lake to myself! Not another swimmer in sight! My guides told me it was because it was just too hot for most. And it was. Boiling hot. In fact, my iPhone got so hot it started to shut down. I took some quick video and a few selfies in the water and then ran back to the car to let the phone cool down inside in the shade.
To even get to the water I had to walk at least a couple hundred feet over bright, brilliant salt. But it wasn’t loose like sand–it was calcified and hard as stone; brittle with jagged edges that would’ve cut my feet down to stumps if I wasn’t wearing shoes. What looked so beautiful could actually be very dangerous if you weren’t careful. Thank goodness I brought swim shoes with thick rubber soles, although I have a scar on the top of my foot when I lost my balance in the water and cut myself. That’s okay, it’s a nice reminder of the wonderful trip!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Swim shoes with thick rubber soles will not only save your life, but make your visit to the lake super fun, giving you the freedom to walk, run, swim, without damaging your feet. Don’t trust flip-flops: you’ll lose them in the buoyant salt water. Trust me on this: invest in some actual swim shoes. Oh, and buy them before your trip, they may be hard to find in Djibouti!
I can’t tell you just how awesome my swim was. I still couldn’t believe I was the only one in the lake–not another soul was in the water besides me. During my 30+ minute dip, a couple cars of tourists pulled up close to the banks, with the passengers getting out to walk up to the water and take pictures–but no one swam. What a pity, I thought: to come all the way to such a majestic, one of a kind place–an experience like nothing else in the world–and not enjoy the water.
Oh, the water was fantastic: as warm as a bath, clear with an emerald tint, and as buoyant as The Dead Sea. And so salty it stung my bunghole! I must have ventured out 1,000 feet into the giant body of salt water; until I could barely see the speck that was our car back on the shore. I was so far out, my guide later told me he’d never see anyone go out that far; yet the water was never deep enough to prevent me from touching the lake’s salt floor. I wanted to go out further, and spend hours in the water–it really was something out of a movie, and the fact that I was the only one enjoying this massive lake was a memory I would cherish forever. I’ve swam at some really amazing places, but most of them were jam-packed with other humans, like The Blue Lagoon in Iceland. This isn’t a complaint, but it just made Lac Assal that much more special. It was all mine.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that there were two children out here in front of the lake, selling salt-themed souvenirs…just out there baking in the heat, attempting to sell their goods of bagged salts and crystals to the very slow drip of tourists that were stopping by. I was only one of three cars that arrived at the lake in an hour. I was so impressed (and also a little worried) by these kids. There is no way I can describe with words just how hot it was–but I grew up in Arizona I could barely stand it; if I’d stayed out under this sun for just five more minutes I think I would’ve passed out. It was that bad. How these kids did it, I have no idea. Of course I supported their cause by buying some salt and handing over a generous tip. What other choice did I have? I know you would do the same.
The Road Home
The drive back was just as fun. We stopped by some pools, a volcano, and fed roadside monkeys. I should’ve brought food; I would’ve loved to spend more time with those baboons. Once we started tossing out pieces of banana, dozens of monkeys seemed to appear out of nowhere. This monkey was hungry too, and I enjoyed the steak sandwich on French bread that my guides had prepared for me.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If it’s convenient, buy a couple hands of bananas before you start the trip. They’ll come in handy if and when you run into monkeys. (Never take produce on planes though!)
Come On Ride The Train (Just Don’t Take Photos)
Derege and driver Bourhan were excited to show me the new train station before finishing the tour, but security was pretty tight there: just getting in the parking lot was an ordeal because I didn’t have a ticket. My guides convinced the man at the gate to let us in, but only under the guise that I was here to buy a ticket. Needless to say, it wouldn’t have been a good idea to take photos here, so I didn’t. A giant, new train station like this was a terrorist target, so I understood why they were leery of strange foreigners snooping around and I know they would’ve freaked out if I started taking photos. It’s just the way things are in many places, and I do my best to understand and not get frustrated. It’s only an Instagram photo opp to me, but it’s about saving lives and protecting infrastructure to these guys. I get it.
That being said, the train station was massive, modern and pristine and how I would’ve absolutely loved to take a train ride from Djibouti to Ethiopia–I bet that would be one amazing trip.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Take the train! Research routes and take a trip from Ethiopia into Djibouti City; I bet it’s awesome! And do let me know if you do this! Here’s a LINK with more info on Djibouti train travel.
We arrived back at the hotel close to four and though I was hot and exhausted I was not quite done with Djibouti. I’d started my city stroll the day before with only about 45 minutes of daylight. If I left the hotel before 5PM, I’d have at least three hours before dark. This time I opted for no cab, as I exited the grounds of the Sheraton and hung a left to get close to the crowded beach I’d spotted from my taxi the day before. Seeing the beach up close was much more cool than just grabbing a quick glimpse through the window of a speeding cab. From there, I tried my best to use my awful sense of direction to make it back into the center of town, and I don’t how, but I made it!
One of my favorite places in the city was the main square, simply because of its color and chaos. It’s where all the buses meet to take people home at the end of a work day. The masses of people, the noise, the vendors, the taxis…all coming together to form a sort of nucleus of the city; a beating heart that all the veins are connected to; I just loved it. I tried to be quick about snapping photos and to make sure the camera wasn’t in anyone’s face, but it was hard–people were just everywhere. Just when I thought I had a clear shot, a group of people exited a bus or came around a corner. Then I looked up.
Directly behind me was a five-story hotel that had corner rooms with windows looking right out over the busy square. I immediately thought what a luxury it would be to be staying in one of those rooms: how awesome would it be to have the liberty to take as many photos as you wanted of the square, up above the crowd and in the confines and protection of your own room. Man, I should’ve booked the Comfort Hotel!
Then I had an idea. I’d march right on in and ask the person at the front desk if they’d allow me to enter one of the rooms to take a few photos. Why not? Regulations and “rules” aren’t as strict in other places as they are in the U.S., so I figured I’d have about a 50/50 chance. I explained to the man at the front desk that I was a tourist and I just wanted a good photo of the square. And then–hearing how ridiculous I sounded asking for such a bold favor as letting a non-guest into a room–threw in the “I don’t mind paying” line. And I really didn’t. $20 would be well worth getting some good, unobstructed shots of the square. To my surprise, the gentleman welcomed me in, and told me to just take the elevator to the fifth floor. Holy crap, it worked!
All of a sudden a young man followed me into the elevator. Stranger danger! But he turned out to be my new “photog-friend,” showing me how to get up to the roof and where the best shots could be taken. To make it even cooler, Khalid was from Yemen. This is probably the appropriate place to bring you in on my obsession with Yemen.
Yemen is currently the world’s least visited country. And for good reason. They’ve been going through a brutal war over the past few years, many of their cities just absolutely turned to rubble. Of course, what’s worse are the casualties. I hate seeing the news stories showing all the children hurt after the bombings. So why in the world would anyone want to visit Yemen now? I can only speak for myself, but like a couple other countries on the Do Not Travel List, Yemen is definitely a forbidden fruit–probably the most forbidden of them all. Tourist visas simply aren’t offered and a few of my fellow extreme travelers have even gone to such lengths as to try and bribe their way in, unsuccessfully. And like most humans, I want what I can’t have: it’s like when your parents don’t tell you to do that “one” thing, or don’t date that “one” person, or don’t open that “one” box: them telling you not to do it makes you want it even more! This mystique, combined with the beauty and culture of Yemen makes it the Holy Grail of travel.
Anyway, that’s the long story of why I was excited to meet Khalid: I now officially had a Yemeni friend, and that made me so happy. I asked him a million questions and was so curious about his life and why he was in Djibouti. Khalid is a helluva photographer as well. You can (and should) follow him on Instagram at @khalid_nqeeb.
Oh yeah, couple quick, random geography facts here: Aden, Yemen is only 177 miles from Djibouti City (by plane)…I was so close, and there were flights–that drove me crazy! And you can see that awesome list of the 20 Least Visited Countries in the world HERE. It’s one of my favorite lists and has inspired me to see places like Nauru, Tuvalu and Libya!
On the way back down, I made it a point to thank and shake the hand of the man at the front desk; he was so kind to let me up on the roof even thought I wasn’t a paying guest. Well turned out he, too, was from Yemen! His name was Rashid, and I’d hit the Yemeni jackpot. Now I had two friends from Yemen! Khalid and Rashid would be the closest I’d get to Yemen on this trip, but it was closer than I expected, so I was content. For now.
The Third Yemeni’s a Charm
The next morning I headed to the airport to catch my 8AM flight to Hargeisa, Somalia–a flight that never came. But I’ll save that mess for my Somalia blog (coming soon). I did meet another Yemeni friend that morning: Kharim worked for the UN and would be traveling to Yemen that morning from the Djibouti airport and I just thought that was awesome. Oh, how I wanted to stow away with him! I’d only met three people from Yemen my entire life, and all three were very friendly, kind and outgoing. Now I really had the fever to visit. Yemen, I’m coming for you!
As for Djibouti, it goes down as one of my favorite African countries and one I totally want to revisit one day soon. Maybe on my way to Yemen!
And Now, the Rest of the (InstaStory)
Just about everything you just read above, was captured in a bunch of fifteen-second clips on my Instagram. Here’s the video: