Friday, June 26, 2009

Local Flavor

 (A borrowed picture of the blue door district.  Our location was a bit more commercial, and a bit neater)

Ah, Djibouti.   So, we pile into the van at about 6:30 pm, head out the Scorpion Gate, turn right onto the Somali road, past the dead camel and the khat stands (of course the herb still remaining that late in the day is of the most inferior quality – most of the active ingredient now degraded to cathine) and we… What?  The dead camel?  Oh, well I’m no camel coroner but I’d say that this unfortunate “ship of the desert” was undone by an automobile some days ago.  This is not too hard to imagine, as the camels really do just wander seemingly at will in and out of the city.  Furthermore, they seem constitutionally disinclined to move quickly and are unimpressed with the potential lethality of the cars and trucks weaving through the streets and alleys.  In general they seem to rely on sheer bulk and a bilious stare to assert their primacy as occupants of any thoroughfare they select.  Alas, these potent assets are set at a considerable discount by the falling – with equatorial rapidity – of the Djiboutian night.  The roads are poorly lit, dust and smoke are common companions of the night-time motorist, and windshields are often glazed with a layer of baked on road film.  Moreover – and I can attest to this from personal, terrifying experience – “camel” is not a particularly high visibility color against a dark background at night, however nice it looks over your Brooks Brothers suit.

Doubtless all these factors conspired in the untimely demise of our unfortunate dromedary friend.  I can only imagine what shape the car that hit him is in.  The inertia of a full grown camel must compare with that of a moose – no antlers of course.  It may be that were we to continue down the road we’d find the carcass of the car as well.  In this littered landscape it would stand out less than the bloating remains of its camelid opponent.  And, of course, it can be raided for spare parts.  The same is apparently not true of camels.  Justin, our veterinarian assured us all that the bacteria in the creature's multiple stomachs (one less than a cow) would be rapidly multiplying and that an explosion was the inevitable outcome.  As we were on our way to dinner, even the hardened medical crew in the van exclaimed “Eeeeeewww!” and threatened to put him out on the side of the road.  The, um, decedent has been there about 3 days now.


Anyway, I’ll move on.  No sense beating a dead camel.  Sorry.  We were on our way to dinner as I say.  Now, I know that most of my posts are about eating, but absent the occasional dive trip or medical adventure that is the most interesting thing that we do.  Maybe I can publish a Djibouti restaurant guide in 6 months!  Watch this space.  The occasion this evening was the imminent departure of René, our German flight surgeon/diving medical officer.  He’s heading back to his home just a bit south of the Danish border, which sounds blessedly cool, to be replaced by another physician from the German Navy.  We’ll definitely miss him though – he was a great resource for us, and speaks better English than many Americans.   He had wanted for a while to take us to one of the German's favorite hang-outs, in the "blue door" district, behind Menelik square.  

The square has been  the main hang out for the French, and for cruise ship passengers traversing the Suez Canal since 1897 - although cruise ship traffic has dropped off a bit since then.  It was named after the Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia in honor of the agreement between France and Ethiopia when the boundaries of the protectorate that eventually became Djibouti were marked out.  It has the feel of the place of a French town (or the piazza of an Italian one), only neglected for 50 years and left to bake in the desert heat.   The "Blue Doors" is an area of labyrinthine streets and alleys, that forms a less official market district just a few blocks off the square.  I don't know the significance of the color but all the doors of the jumbled together shops, stands and kiosks are in fact cobalt blue.  On display, as we rumbled down the unevenly paved roads, working our way into narrower and narrower streets, was a huge assortment of wood carving, baskets, electronics, clothing - from t-shirts to dashikis - and almost anything else your heart might desire.  

Ultimately our German guides (we'd followed them from their hotel) stopped at a corner in the heart of the district.  In fact we were in Moukbassa central - not that you can google map it. To our right was a dilapidated low building, which could have been a warehouse save for a doorway with a beaded curtain and a small sign shaped like a fish, hanging askew from a hook overhead, that read  "Chez Youssouf".    Across from us was a vacant lot that seemed to be filled with the rubble of a building which might once have stood there.  Among the bricks and debris a number of dogs slept or scratched too enervated by the heat, even now as night fell, to even look up at the skinny cats that picked their way delicately around the  refuse.  Gulping, through the beaded curtain we went.

As we're starting to get a bit on the long side here, and as perhaps - with apologies to Tolstoy - all good meals are the same I'll just say that the food was fantastic. Fresh, plump barracuda, split, seasoned and roasted over a wood fire were served in the Yemeni manner - with copious baskets of piping hot flat bread from the same grill, lemons and a spicy sauce reminiscent of a rouille.  We ate, and tried our terrible German skills on our very indulgent colleagues, and regrouped and ate more.  Amazingly good food, and the least expensive I've eaten since our arrival.  We waddled out a couple of hours later, bid au revoir to Rene and our teutonic colleagues, and climbed back into the van (which had been watched over by one of the locals for a 1000 franc fee).  With the guidance of an enthusiastic gathering of local folk, we turned the vehicle around and we made our way cautiously through the streets - crowded now at about 10 pm - avoiding carts, animals, pedestrians and many small groups of people who seemed to just slumped down where the spirit took them, in or out of the road.  A left at Khat corner, down the Somali road, past the dead camel, through the sentries and back to air conditioned, citrus n' sage scented CLU.  

Ah, Djibouti.



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