The camels and donkeys convoyed out without their humans together every morning into the desert only to come back home every evening before the hyenas came out for hunting. In a sense the domesticated animals represented me, leaving home for an adventure, only coming home when the proverbial jaws of danger were hot on my trail. That was what it was like to be a traveler in Djibouti.
Flies harassed me to the point of rage as I arched my back in disgust after I pet a mangy kitty which turned its body to reveal a bad case of mange and a large open sore. I looked into the kitchen and would later relive the scarily unsanitary conditions over and over in the days to come as I recovered from Dengue Fever, only caused by mosquito bites, but I irrationally attributed to the harassing flies. Confused and shivering in my hotel bed four days later in Eritrea, the sun painfully glared in my dreams of orange teeth rotting from Chat overuse. Sunshine, orange teeth, black screen. Sunshine, orange teeth, black screen. Dengue nightmares.
The 4X4 spit sand up from under its wheels like an angry desert monster, driven by a talented member of the national police. The driver carried himself like someone who shouldn’t be messed with, navigating around quicksand. He knew the road perfectly, as he was from one of the outlying towns as we left the capital, Djibouti City, headed toward the Afar region of Lac Abbe. The driver was popular at each village as he dealt drugs between hand-slapping handshakes. At first he tried to conceal his dealings. He sized us up in his rearview mirror behind dark glasses. But each pitstop took longer, as I leered at the three sided dwellings where men stood like security guards and women slouched back on corrugated metal. Their infants stood near the road, as they looked lost, innocent casualties to the evident societal drug problems on the side of the road. It was sad to watch. People lived together according to their ethnicity. In this part of Djibouti, people were ethnically Somali and religiously Muslim. They could become easily agitated if photos were taken from the vehicle. I kept my camera down. My feelings quickly changed from sorrow to anger when I realized that our backpacks in the trunk of the vehicle were being used to haul and exchange drugs: chat, cocaine, or heroin? I was unsure. But I wasn’t about to voice my displeasure with the corrupt national policeman who moonlighted as our tour driver. It was a race to the Afar camp, which accounted for the furious driving over the sand. Only those first to arrive would receive a bed.
I tried to focus on the beauty of the desert. In moments of cliche, I was fooled by mirages out in the distance. Water? No. More desert. Dust devils paced us out in the distance. Termite colonies thrusted up from the sand. Boys selling handmade carvings and bead trinkets quietly surrounded us at every stop. They extended their goods. We stopped to examine the geological carbonate salts and karsts that rose from the cracked ground of the Afar Depression, known as one of the most inaccessible areas of earth. A warthog sprinted with it’s tail up, trailed by a stream of dust. Gazelle jumped in the desert wind. We stopped to admire a whale shark from a vantage point over the Gulf of Tadjourna. A plague of grasshoppers swarm like the locusts of biblical Egypt on road 9. We stopped at a pool beneath rock outcroppings that had small wild fish that nibbled and tickled away the bacteria and dead skin from our feet. Mohamed, our friendly guide, told a story of an old village man who carried a leopard skin over his shoulder trying to illegally sell it. He’d hunted the leopard and killed it with a spear. I contemplated the effects of human poverty and lack of human education on local wildlife populations (which when we know are healthy, can boost tourism hundred-fold, as seen in other parts of Africa).
We arrived at the camp that the Afar people had arranged to host tourists. To understand the context when meeting the elders of the Afar people, you have to understand the history of these people. Known as fierce warriors, the Afar have been a thorn in the side of the government of modern Djibouti. They are ethnically proud and fraternal. Conflicts over who has rights to the Lac Abbe region have been and are currently fiercely defended, especially regarding tourism. Land disputes have been the norm for these nomads for centuries. The Afar are sandwiched between Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, with many nomadic traders caravaning through the desert by camel without passport or checkpoints. These people could be seen loading salt by hand from Lake Assal to carry back to Ethiopia via their camels. The colors of their bright adornment contrasted perfectly against the pastel and earthy tones of the landscape. As we arrived at the settlement, we could see the arrival of a caravan, which settled in for the night. We shook hands with the camp elder. His beard was dyed with a red henna. He bowed and smiled a one-toothed grin. He said something which loosely translated to: my home is your home. I would later learn that this man was a millionaire, doing well from the profits of tourism that were also subsidized by the Djiboutian government.
We were fed, what I assumed, were dressed up rations from NGOs: warm tuna fish with canned green beans, carrots, eggs, and stale french bread. But I was happy to have it out in the desert. Dinner was finished with a jumping dance ceremony performed by the village boys. We stayed in the hut dwellings and used our backpacks as pillows. I turned my hiking shoes vertically to discourage scorpion surprises that evening and shook them out ferociously in the morning. I’d slept fantastically on my raised cot, stained with the sweat of a hundred tourists before me.
In the morning the perfect light shone over the carbonate karsts like chimneys which lit the sky on fire. We stepped over boiling streams. Following in the exact footsteps of Mohamed, who himself was part Afar but lived in Djibouti City. He loved showing people the heritage of his mother. A misstep could have sunk a foot into scalding water and warranted an emergency room visit via helicopter.
The journey to the afar region ended with a large gathering of boys and girls who had crafted incredible souvenirs of the most minimal materials. Instead of the typical chaotic bombardment by these young “entrepreneurs” as Mohamed called them, they kneeled, boys and girls separated, with the oldest lined in the back, and youngest staggered in front. I plucked the best camel that was laid in front of them. It was made of mud that could’ve been hosted in one of the most elite of Western museums. We paid extra for a beaded necklace, hoping it would keep one of the artisan girls out of a dire situation. They looked ready for a school picture on the bleachers waiting patiently by our SUV. And I strongly felt that these young people should be in a modest school built by the millionaire elder, but I suffered silently knowing that my tourism dollars were what kept them from their education and kept the status quo for the future.
On the day of departure a huge American Harrier flew over the camp, disturbing a flock of sheep in the distance. When asked, all Djiboutians supported the stationing of troops on the coast. They didn’t seem genuine with their answers when prodded. Foreign investment was obvious back in the capital. Historically, Djibouti had been overtaken by larger nations since the 1880s. Today the country hosts some of the most saught after military real estate in the world. It hosts Chinese, Japanese, Saudi Arabian, Italian, French, and American militaries. Iran, Turkey, and Russia have all also inquired about opening bases in the strategic location. But world politics seemed a world away from the Afar region.