Sunday at 0730 I made my way to a bus waiting outside our little air terminal here on base, and there joined about 30 other adventurous souls en route to “Moucha Island”, one of a smattering of small islands that lie about 10 miles to our Northwest in the Gulf of Tajura (Tadjura is an alternate spelling for you Google Maps aficionados). We made our way along the port road, wending a path around the traffic circles, to one side or the other (the choice is evidently arbitrary) of slower moving cars, donkey carts and trucks, finally turning off just short of the huge cranes and hulking freighters that signal the start of the Port itself.
We clambered over a lively floating dock, and found seats aboard “Lagon 1”, a 30 foot power cat that soon thereafter backed out of her slip and launched us into the warm waters of the gulf. We travelled slowly at first, skirting a French frigate tied up at the corner of the opposite pier. Her gray, nearly windowless, radar-deflecting, asymmetrical shape (the stacks angling off to port) reminded me of a building by Gehry. Turning to starboard as we exited the channel, two Turkish frigates – much more conventionally shaped - bobbed at their moorings, one tied up outboard of the other like two amicable friends shoulder to shoulder in the light of early morning. At this point our pilot pushed in the throttles and we were off.
I'm always intrigued by the different colors of the sea in various parts of the world. The ocean off Hawaii for instance, once you're well off shore, I remember as an implausible indigo shade, The Persian Gulf as a light blue with a yellow green cast, the Mediterranean as wine dark (but I blame Homer for that) and the Caribbean - in my honeymoon recollection - is azure. The Gulf of Tajura is a medium blue, darker than the sky but just by a shade or two. The spray that splashed up over the gunwales of the boat felt as warm as bath water.
It was about a half hour's ride to the island - a flat, obviously sedimentary atoll, with several sandy beaches. At 0830 the sun was already a tangible presence, so we paid our $45 dollars and scattered to the palapas that stretched along the cove, arranging the lounge chairs so as to be out of the direct rays. I took a few minutes before the heat really started to build to explore. The ground, where not covered in sand or the sparse vegetation, was made of honey colored rock, studded throughout with embedded shells, impressions of corals and various maritime fauna, like a geologic version of peanut brittle. Lined up at the margin of sea and shore were a collection of what I imagine were terns – a bit bigger than our San Diego exemplars but with the same black heads and general body shape. They did have an odd cry, which sounded sometimes like a cat, sometimes like a startled infant. It was an impossible sound to ignore, and I’m afraid my attempts at novel reading were often frustrated - reflexively looking up at each utterance. After a few moments, I donned snorkel, mask and fins and shuffled over the warm sand and rocks to the water. Sitting down a few steps in to get the fins on, the sea was slightly cooler than blood…slightly. Mask on, I kicked my way out to see what I could.
Corals, more varieties than I had seen intact in one place before, were scattered along a sandy bottom. Both hard and soft corals – brain, staghorn and table corals, gorgonians and sea pens and many more flourished within easy free dive depth. Scattered among the corals were myriad fishes in the riot of colors one expects from the reefs of Hawai’i or Tahiti. Amazing! Parrot fishes, and Moorish idols, angel fishes and wrasses flitted among the folds and branches of the coral. Gobies nervously guarded their little sand caves, eyeing the clumsy human interloper like suspicious shop-keepers. In the plains and valleys between the coral communities bigger fishes – colored like the sandy bottom - glided in and out of the middle distance. An amazingly rich eco-system lay just feet beneath my slightly leaky mask, and I bobbed happily for hours just watching it all unfold. Moucha island and nearby Maskali are maritime preserves, and I must say that after the garbage strewn aridity of the mainland, this was as a balm in Gilead for the nature lover’s soul. In all likelihood – at least according to Wikipedia – the balm of Gilead mentioned in Jeremiah was an ancient trade item now known as balsam of Mecca, produced from the tree Commiphora gileadensis (syn. Commiphora opobalsamum), native to southern Arabia. Small world, eh?
Anyway, I passed a pleasant day between snorkeling, relaxing with a novel and an iPod under my shelter, and cooling in the breeze which picked up as the day went on and the air over the mainland heated and rose. Luncheon was served at 1 pm at the little open air self proclaimed “bistro” just off the boat dock and was surprisingly good. At about 4, we packed up and made our way back to the boat – salt crusted, sand scraped and sun burnt, but happy. I think – for me – the happiness was in part inspired by seeing the first beautiful things that Djibouti has had to offer, poor shattered place that it is. Bright fishes and the occasional smiles of children – I think I can make it for 6 months on that.
Today is my 48th birthday. Odd to think that 48 years ago, on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, on another French base on loan to the USA, in a little Navy hospital, I first saw the light of day. Ain’t life interesting?