Djibouti Charm and Madness

19 December 2013

Scorching temperatures, clogged streets and incessant hooting, these are my first impressions of Djibouti Town –a bit of a shock after the 22 hour drive from Ethiopia to Djibouti through no man’s land and breathtaking scenery. The French influence is visible in the architecture with many pleasant arcades and the overall feel of a somewhat chaotic but charming place. It is late morning and the roads in the picturesque city center are incredibly congested - this brings out what I quickly realize is a favorite pastime of Djiboutian motorists … honking! Honking in Djibouti pales even honking habits in India and I am amazed to observe how drivers don’t just briefly honk to edge on other drivers but resort to persistently howling their horn, even on a completely congested road where there is not the faintest chance that it will make any difference whatsoever. As if the suffocating traffic is not enough and in spite of spacious sidewalks, pedestrians seem to have made it a habit of walking in the middle of the streets, further contributing to congestion.

Through this madness, I am trying to find my way to the office of the logistics company that will hopefully help me to ship my vehicle from Djibouti to Oman - when asking a police man for directions, he thankfully offers to take me there and even to get a parking slot for our Landcruiser in a particularly congested part of the old town where without him I would be worried that other drivers threaten to lynch me due to the obstruction I am causing by parking there. In the next hour, my hopes of getting our expedition vehicle from Djibouti to Oman within a week are shredded – the container ship departing in two days with which I was hoping to ship my car has changed its route at short notice and instead of taking two days going straight to Salalah in Southern Oman, it will pass via Karachi in Pakistan and take 20 days to reach Salalah. Therefore, I will have to look for alternatives - but this will have to wait for after the lunch break.

When stepping out of the office around 1pm, I can't believe my eyes – the street is completely deserted and where there were bumper to bumper an hour ago, the only car parked is our expedition vehicle. I have to rub my eyes as it feels like there has been a major disaster but then I realize that all the shops around which were heaving with activity an hour ago are closed now. This is my introduction to the 4 hour lunch break in Djibouti! Around noon, all businesses close and workers go home to relax during the sweltering heat of midday, and they resume work around 4pm when temperatures have come down a bit. "Do what the Romans do" – the afternoon siesta feels like heaven after the long overnight drive from Addis Ababa and with renewed energy, I am spending the evening looking for shipping alternatives to Oman. I am surprised to realize that in terms of transparency, the shipping industry appears to be stuck in medieval times. There is no online portal that would provide an overview of vessel routings, departures and arrivals. Instead, the agent at the logistics company has to call each shipping line and inquire about shipping routes and departure dates. As she seems to receive contradictory information, I decide to walk around town from one shipping line office to the next and personally talk to each shipping line.

Walking through town, I suddenly realize that instead of using the sidewalks I am adopting the local habit of walking in the middle of the streets, right through the again maddening afternoon traffic. I am pondering the psychology of doing this – may be, there is a mischievous sense of liberation in meandering past the cars that are stuck hopelessly in the traffic jam …

After conversations with five alternative shipping lines, I realize that it will take at least 10 days to ship the vehicle across the Gulf of Aden to Oman, with no certainty when exactly it will arrive. I have no choice but to accept that this means a slight delay of our journey, but this does not affect my joy of being here and exploring Djibouti. Later that evening, I am walking through the beautifully lit streets and take in the colorful markets and buzzing ambiance – being a major port and a base of various naval forces, Djibouti Town is rather infamous for its nightlife. After my long overnight drive from Addis and the eventful day, the prospect of a long nights sleep, however, is far more appealing than a night out in town.

The next day, I am delivering the car to the container warehouse from where it will be loaded onto the ship. The vehicle is full of bags with possessions that we will need for the cold parts later on during our journey and when I hand over the keys to the employee of the warehouse, I feel some anxiety – will all the bags and their content still be there when the vehicle arrives in Oman?

Djibouti doesn't seem to have any particularly appealing beaches, as it has a predominantly rocky coastline. At sunset, I am heading out to a vantage point on the coast and watch a striking sunset with the backdrop of Djibouti harbor. As the sun sets, I am wondering whether things will work out as planned? Will we get back our Landcruiser in Oman ten days from now? How will we explore the beauty and diversity of Oman without our expedition vehicle? Will we make it to Dubai as planned in time for Christmas?

Africa to Brazil - Djibouti Charm and Madness

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Time since Start of the Journey:
Arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Day 202 after our departure from Nairobi!