Finding my rhythm in Djibouti

Yesterday we traveled to Yemen, courtesy of Arabian Voyages Travel. We arrived in the middle of the night Thursday (seeing a variety of shops still open as we breezed through town) and left 24 hours later. I had no idea what to expect of Sana’a. I have never really studied Arab culture except in the context of French colonialism.
We were sponsored for travel by our agency, and we acquired our visas with no difficulty or delay. When we got into the taxi with our guide, he handed us each a bottle of cold water. At that moment, despite the proximity of the American drones and the warnings you hear about traveling in a conservative Muslim country, I felt immediately at ease. I also realized, after several days now in a land where heat is stifling and water limited, that if you offer me a cold bottle of water I will trust you implicitly. More on that later. Now back to Djibouti.

This morning, we went to bed at 2:30 a.m. (midnight flight) after a disappointing attempt to FaceTime with the family. I had hoped to use the hotel internet to contact them, but when planning to get the family together at a certain time, my American sensibilities did not factor that the outside area where M smokes as I play with wi-fi doubles as a bed for one person and the other place where internet is available, the lobby, also serves as a sleeping space for the person working the desk. The man outside slept on two tables pushed together with a flattened cardboard box as a mattress.

So, M and I woke about 8 a.m. to find the hotel out of coffee and croissant. We sat there with our Lipton tea and bread and the server went to the store for croissant. We then headed to Bunna House for coffee. We had heard yesterday from a cab driver that everyone knows the two white people who’ve been tooling around town. The coffee house (bunna is a green coffee that they roast, as the young woman at the Ethiopian restaurant showed us) was full of a wide range of people. At this point the staff knows us and smiles as we head in every day at some point.

Next came the ATM machine. I had been having issues getting money. It declined my requests. So a local explained to us that you have to use Fast Cash. You cannot enter your own amounts. Today, I used the Djiboutian Franc fast cash button. AND IT WORKED! I felt like I had played in Atlantic city and won (even though I completely understand it was my money the machine spit out).

We did some shopping. That in itself is an experience. For clothing, there is a pile of inventory on the table. If you don’t see what you want, the shopkeeper pulls out this giant plastic bag and starts piling his additional inventory on top of the table. If you still don’t see what you want, you tell him and he will go look for it.

I also needed stamps. The tourist office instructed us to visit the tabac. Weaving our way into a crowded group of coffee drinkers, we came to a high wooden counter where an old African woman, shriveled with gold teeth, sat at a desk with her cash box making change as quickly as her long, bent hands could do it. When we asked for stamps, once the crowd thinned, she crossed to the counter. Opening a big drawer, she rummaged within and pulled out a small plastic bag with Djiboutian francs and two stamps. She carefully unknotted the plastic. She pulled out the stamps, which had been stored decorative side in. She warned us that these were not for letters, only postcards. We paid 100 francs each for the two stamps, face value 70.

Stamps found, we went for juice at Cafeteria Sana’a. We also do this every day. Ginger is my favorite, but since our arrival the first day, there has been no ginger. It’s also a place where they have grown to know us. The juice— I got cantaloupe again— comes in a frosted mug and hits the spot when the humidity has all but melted you into a puddle.

M and I don’t design many plans for our travel, but we always develop certain routines. There’s something about a daily trip to the juice bar or an evening stop for coffee that allows me to watch the city and find a place for myself in its rhythm.

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