Departure from Mogadishu

I know it’s a tad in-contiguous to write about leaving Mogadishu before I chronicle our activities in Somalia, but I jotted notes on my phone and wanted to share my impressions while they were fresh.
This was written in the airport and on the plane using the notes feature of my iPhone.

Today was probably the most challenging of our time in Somalia. I’ve become more aware of our guide/”fixer” having more interest in his business affairs and his personal life than our comfort. As isn’t uncommon in more rustic destinations, if we don’t have exact change we can forget seeing our remaining money, despite promises otherwise.

But he delivered on showing us what we came to see and our security detail did their job. 

This morning, we got up and had breakfast intending to leave for the airport at 9 a.m. Our fixer arrives late, provides our souvenirs (and no change). Then he announces our 1:30 flight has been moved to 11 am (and yesterday he implied the flights are overbooked and we may be turned away at the gate).

So in the equivalent of a Third World hurry we hop in the truck and bring with us a Somali fellow also headed to the airport. It is our last time leaving via the hotel’s security measures and we zig zag up the route to the airport.

The airport is 10 minutes away, very close to the UN compound. We approach, walls beside us to protect from suicide bombs, barricades and barbed wire. Traffic chaos as everyone tries to reach the chute that leads to the airport.

It takes 30 minutes to get to the first checkpoint. Ugandan peacekeepers and local security ask for our passports, gaze at our white faces, greet “good morning,” scan the car for bombs.

One official wants our bags removed from our possession. I believe our staff protests that we don’t have time for that and they want to get the Americans to their flight. The bags are returned to the truck.

Two of our hotel security detail have left the truck and watch cars around us, passersby and the scene in general. I’m starting to know them: the skinny one with the full goatee, the badass looking one with his big shiny sunglasses. 

Heavy military vehicles roll by one after another.

It’s 10 a.m. and we weave to the final checkpoint, a boom arm that blocks the road in front of the actual airport. The Ugandan peacekeeper in his camo and sleek pink sunglasses waves us toward the end of terminal. A local gendarme without firearm directs us to the parking lot. After ten minutes of banter in Somali, we leave the car and walk to the terminal.

We arrive at the airport. One of my souvenirs from Djibouti raises an eyebrow at security. I knew exactly why they wanted me to open my suitcase. It’s a gift I bought for my husband.

We have to go to the ticket counter for a stamp on our e-ticket. We go to check in. We go to another desk where they match our names and passports to what looks like the flight manifest. We go to immigration, probably the quickest part of the process. Ladies in robes and head coverings check our passports and tickets again. A second round of security. Finally the gate.

Keep in mind, the international departure area of the airport is probably the size of a small elementary school gym. And all of this has happened before the departure gates.

  
At the gate, the bathroom has no water, no soap and at least a functional toilet but no paper, spray or other creative method to cleanse oneself.

M asked about smoking, and one of the staff brought him outside to smoke and back in. 

Plus, the flight to Nairobi scheduled for 2:05 left before we got here, so perhaps there is something to the panic. But the board says our flight is checking in and still listed as 1:30

At the gate, surrounded by windows, one watches the planes arrive. Then the staff comes through screaming airline names & destination cities. They give everybody about five minutes.

  
The plane arrived, a British jet or something with flight attendants that might be Ukranian or Russian. Unlike the ones on the flight down that acted like they were being punished doing a routine between Jedah, Djibouti and Mogadishu. The aircraft smelled like someone had been smoking– we’re guessing the pilots.  

  
This is a direct flight, flight time 1 hour 40 minutes. Meal service was water or pineapple juice and fish with Somali style rice. The flight attendants keep running in and out of the cockpit.

The flight attendant is spraying air freshener neurotically because someone is indeed smoking in the cockpit.

Called a Chinese tourist 

My friends mock me for taking so many photos, and truth be told most of them get deleted by the end of the day.

This morning the idea that I might need an intervention hit home when a Djiboutian man pushing a wheelbarrow saw me taking photos in the street and greeted me with a hello in Chinese.

M’s main mission for today was to buy a simm card for his phone so we’d have a local number. After coffee, croissant and bread (yes, we got up before they ran out), we headed to Djibouti Telecomm.

The day started out at 79 degrees and 50% humidity. It honestly gave me a bit of a chill. Quickly, the humidity built. The sun came out and we began to bake and sweat.

M went into the telephone office and I opted to wait outside and watch people. I noticed that I can now distinguish some basic words in Somali, which with my abysmal ear for languages is impressive.

Only one man talked to me and our conversation, in French, went something like this:

Man: How’s it going?

Me: it goes

Man: You live in France
Me: No 

Him: You live here 

Me: No

Him: But you are French

Me: No 

Him: But then…

Me: I am American

At which point he departed. Abruptly, scratching his head.

We walked town a bit and stopped for coffee and juice at Bunna House. We freshened up at the hotel and went to the rotisserie stand in front of City Burger to buy a herbed, spiced roasted chicken.

  
We ripped that chicken apart with our hands, using tissues as our napkins, picking through skin, bones and the paste remaining of chicken guts. It was amazing.

We then went for a walk, knowing full well we were approaching the 1 pm shutdown of town. Let me say that if we attracted attention in the market at other times of day, today we learned that at 1 pm, we’re the only people out there and the locals descend upon us like vultures.

  
We took brief naps and then made our daily visit to Nougaprix where today we bought two “coconut brownies.” Very dry but tasty. The two of them cost, together, about 75 cents.

  

Dress Quest in Djibouti

There’s a dress I want, but every time I step into the women’s shop, surrounded by women, a man from the street dives toward me to help me with the purchase. He will then receive a commission from the shopkeeper and it aggravates me because I only receive this treatment because I am white.

I bought two dresses, from two different shops today, with a unwanted helper, but paid 2500 Dj Francs. That’s about $13.50. It’s also what I paid for my dinner last night at the sit-down restaurant of high quality.
  
The dress I want comes with the headscarf and my first helper wanted me to pay 5,000 Djiboutian Francs. 

I returned later, hadn’t even expressed interest in the dress when a different man swooped in upon me while a woman insisted on trying to sell us incense.

Today M and I started out early and wove through the side streets and alleys of the market to sneak into my shop from behind.

We did it. Walked up to the counter and asked for my dress. An older Djiboutian woman in a mountain of colorful textiles leaned over and pinched the fabric as I held it. She nodded her approval.

And so I bought it. For 1800 Dj Fr. About $10. With the scarf. And to think I paid 2500 yesterday. 

  

At the Nougaprix

Our typical routine while staying here in Djibouti involves a French-style breakfast of bread and coffee, a late morning juice, a snack from the Nougaprix (and often a protein bar from home) during the afternoon shut-down and a nice evening meal.

Today we headed to Nougaprix for our daily liters of water and I searched for a snack healthier than cookies or chips.

I almost got yogurt but it was the equivalent of $5 for four and I wasn’t sure I wanted four. An ice cream cake was only a dollar or two more.

I checked out the bakery and found a chicken sandwich and a chicken pizza. I figured what the heck… I’d try it. Less then $2.

  
She even warmed it for me. It was like chicken parmigiana meats shredded barbecue. 

Sunday in Djibouti

Our endeavors in Djibouti have yielded success and also exposed us to some small changes in the city. The prevalence of metal detectors everywhere, a swipe with a wand to get into the grocery store or even the coffee shop.

Right now it’s Sunday afternoon and I am updating my social media and eating my Fauchon candies from the plane. 

So we returned from the Nougaprix last night and headed to Le Santal, a restaurant here that features Chinese and Indian cuisine and has a pizzeria. 

  
We discovered it during our last stay. I had lamb vindaloo and two varieties of naan. I paid for dinner since I stopped at the ATM and accidentally withdrew twice what I meant to. M and I took the long way to the restaurant and the long way home to increase our steps and people watch. Because we’re white and stand out, every woman on the street changing money asks us if we have dollars to exchange.

We had our traditional difficult night last night— when the jet lag catches up with us and we end up chit-chatting for a couple hours in the middle of the night. I finally passed out at 5 a.m. local time (9 p.m. at home) and didn’t wake until 9 a.m. I woke a tad distraught because I wanted to wake at 7 a.m. 

  
  
Breakfast goes until 10 a.m., but there was no coffee. Might be because we overslept, might be that the espresso machine is broken. Hard to tell. I did notice a sticker on the window — K’naan, Dusty Foot Philosopher. K’naan hails from Somalia. I have three of his recordings. 

  
After breakfast, we did some errands to flush out our travel plans (Lac Abbé? Whale sharks?) It’s Sunday morning, so the streets are crazy and alive with everyone starting their work week.

  
We went to Bunna House for coffee. Crowded this morning and staffed by women making coffee and men in black Bunna House polo shirts doing the cleaning and serving. Logo knocks off Starbucks, serves Ethiopian coffee.

Then I started my quest for an African-style dress. We went to the bus station/market and found one dress with scarf/shawl. M didn’t like the price so we walked. We hope to go back and haggle later. We found other dresses and I bought one for myself and something for my daughter.

  
After dress shopping complete, we went for juice. The juice bar was our favorite part of the city. It has changed. No more outdoor patio with begging children and street cats. Plus the menu has either been reduced or they are out of fruit. I used to get ginger or cantaloupe. Today the options were lemon, orange, pineapple or mango. I enjoyed the mango but it wasn’t the same.

  

We returned to the hotel to find that the housekeeper had laid our freshly laundered towels on our bed with the ceiling fan on high to dry them.

Morning upon return to Djibouti

  

The truly temperate weather as we arrived in Djibouti surprised us. Last time, in April 2014, the weather averaged 90 degrees F and 90% humidity. Today, it’s 82 degrees with 66 percent humidity “making it feel like” 88. Well, comparatively it is wonderful. Paris was cold, and Djibouti is not sweltering hot.
The international military presence at the airport seemed heightened compared to our last visit and taxis now congregate in a parking lot farther away from the actual terminal. Djibouti’s airport is very small, and there are no gates. Speaking of parking lots, the planes pull up from the runway and more or less just park in front of the airport.
We found a taxi without incident and I found it funny how instantly I relaxed as the heat built in the green-and-white cab, only the front window open and the air conditioning running as much as it could. The airport has various roadblocks that need to be circumvented to leave, weaving between them in an S-fashion. 

  
The area near the airport has a lot of what might best be described as European-style summer villas. As you come into town, the feel of the developing world increases. Men digging trenches and constructing buildings with nothing but their own hands and manual tools. Women in colorful robes and head coverings. The blend of European-influenced shops and homes mixed in with the rag-tag stalls and living quarters of the less affluent residents. And flies. Lots of flies. 

  
My traveling companion M had attempted to book a room at our regular hotel, but had been unable to reach them. So, we told the taxi to take us downtown to Hotel Ali Sabieh. When we were here previously, they had started construction on a new building across the street. I don’t think it’s done quite yet, but it is a big building and looks great.

 
The porter recognized us when our cab parked. The desk clerk is the same man it was last time, and I think he’s still wearing the same purple-and-white shirt. Our room features the same Third World rustic comfort as we’ve come to expect: a sink that pours water from the pedestal every time you use it; a toilet where the water needs to be shut off at the valve so it doesn’t overflow; a shower that’s more like standing under a hose; and my personal favorite: the curtained “window” that doesn’t have a window at all, but merely a wall. 
  
The businesses near us seem exactly what they were almost two years ago, including the man on center square who tried to get us to hire him as a tour guide every time we walked by. He managed to catch us today and present his spiel and phone number. 
We headed to the Nougaprix grocery store for water. And we slept and slept and slept. We set the alarm for a 45 minute nap and I believe reset it three times before we very reluctantly rose from our beds.
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AF 0668 into Djibouti

I left France so exhausted I went to sleep as soon as the plane took off. My rest for the first couple days of this trip has consisted of nothing but one hour naps. I think I dozed for about 3 hours, on and off, on the plane.

  
I skipped dinner, having filled up on cheese, chocolate and apple tart in the airport lounge (which I washed down with a small serving of port). M and I were both concerned that the airline food did not agree with our digestive systems.

On the flight from DC to Paris, we had the  seats in the front of premium economy. Despite the extra leg room and lack of proximity of other people, I found the arrangement difficult. 

We sat in the last row of premium economy this time and felt I had an endless array of ways to wedge my body around the seat and window.

  
I also got out my music. I hoped it would help since music is often an important part of my wind down ritual at home. All or some of these things may have contributed to my success at a longer nap.

I woke up and went back to “cattle class” to use the toilet, get a drink and stretch my legs. That was when I noticed so many families and babies hanging everywhere. I often joke that the back of the plane resembles a refugee camp. This one, between the fullness, the children, and the clothing strewn about, might have qualified for some sort of UN-sponsored humanitarian aid.

The plane also featured a lot of French and American military personnel. The main difference between the American and the French people seems to be the fit of their clothes. The French wear tighter clothes.

I woke over the Nile Valley. I glanced out the window and saw the brightest lights and thought to myself, “that looks like Orion.” I didn’t have my glasses and reached for them, sure enough confirming the gorgeous night sky and the crispness of the winter constellations.

  
I witnessed the pale blue, orange and pink stratification of sunrise in a similar fashion.

Coming off the plane, the biggest shock was the mid-80 degree F temperature, the breeze and the 60-something percent humidity. The weather is perfect.

Because the plane was so full, the baggage claim was a riotous mess of people pushing and shoving.

All and all, a nice flight.

Arrival in CDG

I have a love-hate relationship with flying. I love packing my suitcase. I love airplanes. I love the airport lounges. I love the physics of take-off. I love the first four hours in the air. Then, my ears clog. My butt hurts. I realize I can’t sleep. I have slime on my face. The plane always seems cold and the dinner gross.

That’s me at 12:30 a.m. my local time, after 6+ hours on the plane and only a one-hour nap after rising at 4 a.m. to start my traveling. And the other photo is my first plate of croissants in the CDG arrivals lounge. I grabbed the last pain au chocolat.

My travel companionIMG_7487, M, and I spent yesterday in his apartment in D.C., catching up while he packed. We had lunch at the nearby Cava. My pita had braised lamb.

We headed to Dulles Airport by bus-metro-bus and flew out on a Boeing 777-330 in premium economy.

Despite a rather disappointing dinner, only getting to watch one-third of the Little Prince movie and an episode where I nearly took out a flight attendant with projectile applesauce, I suppose it was a nice flight.

I normally have issues with my ears when flying and this time was no exception. My left ear is clogged severely and both ears gave me pain and discomfort during landing and even while on the ground. Let’s hope it clears up quickly.

It’s 9:15 a.m. Paris time, 3:15 a.m. Pennsylvania time. We hope our hotel will let us into our room early. M booked a room for the day so we can nap. Our flight to Djibouti leaves at 12:30 a.m. tonight and we have no plans for Paris other than to relax and run errands.

Leaving this week… for Paris, Djibouti and Somalia

Americans don’t usually travel to Djibouti or Somalia. The last time we went, the airline check-in agent said people don’t usually board planes for the Horn of Africa unless they have a crew cut and camo pants.

I am almost ready for my upcoming trip to East Africa.

Today there was a suicide bombing in a restaurant near the presidential palace in Mogadishu.

I leave for Mogadishu soon.

Exciting times.

People don’t understand my fascination with East Africa. And I must admit I am somewhat trepidatious to visit Mogadishu, but it’s something I want. I believe it’s a special place and significant in the political landscape. I believe that to understand the impact of French colonization on the Horn of Africa, it’s important to understand the non-colonized regions of the Horn.

Djibouti is a traditional crossroads, ethically comprised of Issa Somali and Afar in addition to many other people, from Arab to European descent. So I’m curious to see how Somalia compares to Djibouti.

Maybe it’s crazy, but I am very excited to visit Djibouti for the second time and Somalia for the first.

Holiday Upheaval

The events of the last few months have rendered my life unrecognizable, even to me.I have a suspicion that 2016 may come together in ways I never imagined or be the year that leaves me bankrupt, homeless and destitute in more ways than one.

So far I’m leaning toward and working for the former, but the worrier in me can’t help but fear the latter.

Between my broken ankle and the medical bills I incurred (who knew physical therapy was THAT expensive?) and the fact that I paid for graduate school, car repairs and a euphonium on my American Express, I was forced to ponder refinancing the house. The appraiser comes Sunday, but, again, I’m nervous because the appraisers are never generous in my experience. Last time I did this, they wanted to loan me exactly what I need now. So we’ll see. This new mortgage would shorten the length of our current loan, pay off the car and the American Express AND not add to the cost of our monthly payments.

With this and winter and travel looming, I have decided to defer enrollment at West Chester until next semester. I won’t have to commute in the snow. I can get my finances in order and proceed responsibly and not worry about classes interfering with my travel schedule.

Speaking of travel: January 7 I leave for France; I believe it’s January 8 I leave for Djibouti and January 12 I arrive in Mogadishu. Plus a trip to Lebanon may be in the works for spring.

I’m also working on some book reviews in some World War II era memoirs for Hippocampus.

Now the good news…

My poem “This Paris” has been accepted by StepAway magazine. I don’t consider myself a poet, so it’s a tad funny that I’ve placed a poem.

I believe I got an A in my grad school history class and my professor would like to see me continue some of my work, specifically on the Horn of Africa. That’s the topic, not that she wants me to go far, far away.