Monday, May 18, 2009

First impressions...

After we took off from Bahrain our air crew en route to Djibouti asked us to close our window shades so that those who wanted to watch the in-flight movie could do so - it being the bright morning of another day here in the ancient middle east.  (As an aside, does nobody sit with their heads resting against the plexiglas window of the plane just musing as the world slips by below anymore?  It seems now that plane travel is assumed to be the occasion for watching expurgated versions of movies I either didn't want to see or would like to have viewed in more congenial surroundings.  We are not, it seems, a planet full of contemplative musers  but instead want our experience of the world to have some explicit content...).  Anyway, it was only as the aircraft started to descend that I pulled up my shade and watched the rugged, secretive hills of  Saudi Arabia slipping by underneath.  The Gulf of Aden next leapt into view - a breathtaking aqua blue in the middle of this dry, dry land -  and as we banked, the tan and grey coast of Djibouti and Eritrea.

We continued down into Djibouti from the northwest, details emerging as we dropped lower and lower.  The initial impression I had was of brokenness.  The landscape from the air is brown sand and dirt, scattered with grey and black boulders that seem to have been tumbled off the grey and jagged ridges that march off to the South.  A few trees and shrubs - acacias and other hard-scrabble flora -  traced out the lines of the dry stream beds, and away far south rows of hills  shimmered in the noontime heat as we made our approach.  The image of a broken land was enforced from this less lofty vantage by the endless scattered piles of rusting machinery, buses, trucks and motorcars that seemed to line our approach vector as far as I could see (turns out we came in over the junk yard).  Interspersed with the detritus of mechanical artifice, tucked in dusty crevasses and under the scrubby trees one sees human habitation - from cinder block and tin shacks to crude shelters of bent branches and rags.   The impression one has is of a land so harsh that machines fail and are discarded; where humanity has abandoned its sophisticated material culture as too fragile, relying instead on its own ancient and fierce gift for survival, clinging to life in the face of drought and aridity, as unbowed by its surroundings as a dandelion pushing its stubborn head through the middle of your driveway's asphalt.  As I'll tell in a later post, to some extent this is an artifact of the flight path - there certainly is luxury, vibrant culture and and civilized life to be found here.  The first look however seems unrelievedly least to the kind of person who likes to gaze out the windows of airplanes.

We got off the plane, and boarded a crowded bus that took us the 30 feet to the air terminal.  Passports and military ID's were presented to the Djiboutian immigration authorities, and we piled back on the bus for the 10 minute ride to Camp Lemonier.  The AC units seemed short on coolant, and strained mightily to blow tepid air as we went through the multiple layers of security, along the dirt and gravel road limned by cement walls and concertina wire.  The bus coughed to halt and we were here.

Those of you kind enough to follow along in this journal will rapidly get tired of my description of the heat, so indulge me here and I promise only to mention it in unusual cases from here on.  It is hot.  Silly hot.  Crazy hot.  As I got off the bus I giggled - the wave of steamy, viscid warmth that surrounded me as I stepped down was just so over the top, like a practical joke or some Disney ride effect.  These were of course but the balmy zephyrs of Spring.  We all looked nervously or sympathetically at each other.  Everyone's unspoken thought was of the fiercer days of summer even now slouching toward us, of which the current discomforts were but a foreshadowing.  Hot.

In fairly short order we were met by our sponsors - those folks for whom our arrival signaled that their return could be but a week or two away.   They were the souls of caring, solicitousness and kindness and so sincere that it was impossible to mentally accuse them of gloating.  I hope I am so kind to my eventual replacement.  In any event, after a brief welcome aboard brief in the comfort of "The Oasis" - our movie theater - we were off to our CLU's and left to unpack and collect ourselves.  

More on CLU's and camp in my next.

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