Wait, you’re going to Djibouti…for vacation?

That was the follow-up question the US Embassy Officer asked us after we told him we were going to Djibouti for a few days. I’m a Peace Corps Ethiopia Volunteer. Volunteers go to Djibouti all the time. In fact, in the last three months I can think of at least six people I know who have gone to Djibouti – all for vacation.

So I guess I forgot that Djibouti is not a normal tourist destination. But on the flight over I couldn’t imagine why not. I had done my research, obviously I already knew that Djibouti was on the ocean (a major reason for going), but I had also looked into a number of delicious sounding restaurants, as well as a number of scuba/snorkeling companies. Djibouti sounded great.

And then we arrived…

There is nothing in Djibouti. I’m not kidding and I’m not exaggerating. There’s nothing there…except military outposts. But at this point of the trip I only vaguely knew that.

We stepped out of the airport just after 11 am, arriving a little late, thanks to a sick passenger who made us taxi back to the gate before we could finally take off. We hopped into a taxi, thrilled that all of the prices were predetermined and posted on a sign (in Ethiopia, taxi drivers are constantly trying to rip you off, there’s no set price or meter). We told the driver Kempinski Palace, not because we could afford to stay at the nicest resort in Djibouti, but because the company we were using for our whale shark adventure had their office there.

The smallest bill we had gotten from the ATM was 5,000 Djiboutian Francs, so I handed it to the driver expecting 3,000 in change – because the sign had clearly read 2,000 to Kempinski. Instead he handed me 2,000. Chandler was already out of the taxi, but I sat there and refused to move, demanding my change. 1,000 DJF may only amount to $5.56, but I wasn’t about to be ripped off. First, the driver claimed that the sign had really said 3,000. Then he claimed that he had to pay a 1,000 fee to park at the airport (it’s really 200 and clearly, it’s already been calculated in). I simply stared him down and eventually he threw another 1,000 DJF bill in the backseat. Classy.

Chandler and I laughed about how some things (like being ripped off by taxi drivers) must simply be universal. We wandered around and found the diving office only to be told that while they had booked us for a night on Moucha Island for that night, they couldn’t take us to see whale sharks on Friday. They had rented out all of their boats and had lost our reservation. Neat. But they promised to contact another diving agency and get us signed up. So we paid up and waited at Kempinski for about an hour before the boat arrived to take us to the island.

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We made the trip over with two others, both going to the island to scuba dive – there are plenty of beautiful reefs and fish by the island, but no whale sharks, so we didn’t join them. We soon discovered we were the only people on the island. At around 5 pm, the divers left and Chandler and I were alone with the manager, dive instructor, and chef. Awesome.

We spent the evening on the private beach just down the way from our cabin and then came up for dinner at 7 pm. We had told the cook we were vegetarians, but in this part of the world that means you eat fish. He made a delicious soup (I couldn’t even begin to tell you what was in it) for our starter, and then we had fresh fish, green beans, and french fries for our main course. Dessert consisted of pineapple in pear sauce and all of it was devoured in the soft light of the bar just meters away from the ocean.

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We awoke the next day to the light patter of rain that had subsided before we made our way to breakfast. We had been informed the day before that the dive instructor might be willing to take us to swim with the whale sharks, but that was deemed impossible due to the weather. Instead, we dined on eggs and toast and set off to explore the island on foot. Private beaches dotted the island and one appeared to belong to the family of crabs that resided on it.

By the time we made it back to the main beach, a boat had arrived full of Spanish soldiers who had come to the island on their day off. We swam together but did little conversing and then it was time for lunch. Another lovely appetizer, and then, once again, fish. Both times, the fish was incredibly fresh, and both times the fish was cooked like pork chops. Now, I know it wasn’t pork, because that doesn’t exist over here, but I swear they used paprika and somehow, they cooked it just so, because I was transported back to a childhood dinner. Served with the fish: mayonnaise raison rice with beets. I’m not making this up. And however repulsive it might sound, it was actually pretty good. Maybe I’ve been eating Ethiopian food too long! Dessert was a chocolate cake with coconut frosting, and our fears of not having enough to eat on the island had been revealed as unnecessary.

After lunch we decided to take a kayak out and explore the island by sea. A friend had lent us her underwater camera and we decided to experiment with it so we’d be experts by the time we tried to take photos of our whale sharks. We saw a variety of beautiful yellow striped minnows and electric blue fish hiding among the corals. But then it was time to return to shore and catch the boat back to the mainland. At the bar we ran into the lady who works in their office and she told us she had set up our whale shark excursion with another company for the following day (Friday) and that all we had to do was show up at Porte de Pesce the following morning at 7 am with 16,000 DJF each. Simple enough.

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We walked down to the dock only to find four boats docked. We were escorted to the largest ship and watched everyone else pile onto a smaller boat. It was sort of like watching a group of Ethiopians cram aboard a minibus, which is akin to clowns piling on top of each other in a car. They took off and Chandler and I just stared at each other. Why were we on the big boat and why weren’t we going anywhere? Two minutes later our captain arrived and said we got to have the boat to ourselves. We didn’t argue, it was a nice birthday treat (did I mention, it was my birthday? I’m now 24 guys.).

Once back at Kempinski we watched the sun set before making our way to the Italian restaurant on the grounds. Chandler ordered an incredible four cheese pizza and I tried to order the mushroom truffle risotto – only to be told they didn’t have the truffle, but would I like a seafood risotto instead? Well, after two days of fish, I didn’t think I could stomach any more, so I asked if it would be possible to make something with the vegetables available. It was – something unheard of in Ethiopia. So in addition to getting a special birthday ride on the nice boat, I was also getting birthday risotto. If you’re thinking my day couldn’t have gotten any better, you’d be wrong. Not only did I order a glass of French Sauvignon, but the meal came with homemade bread that was served with pesto, tomatoes, and olive oil – WHAT? Ethiopian meals don’t come with extras, in case you were wondering.

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But don’t worry, our night came with more than just these highlights. After waiting about 30 minutes for the car our hotel promised to send, we called, confirmed it was on its way, and waited another 30 minutes. Then we hopped in a cab and three minutes later found our way to the front door. Definitely walking distance, but who knew? We checked in, made our way to our room and were thrilled to find a working air conditioner – fyi, Djibouti is HOT. An hour later, Chandler was sleeping like a baby. I proceeded to try to burrow in the single sheet on our bed and found myself too cold to get much sleep in in-between my shivering. Happy Birthday!

The next morning was beautiful and we made our way to Porte de Pesce. Everyone was super helpful in directing us through the fish market to our ship. But once we got there, the captain gave us the bad news – once again, the water was too choppy…perhaps we could go the next day, he asked. Nope. We had a flight at 11 am. So we wandered through the market looking for a private boat, but we had only taken our 32,000 DJF with us plus another 3,000 for the taxi. The cheapest private boat we could find was 48,000.

Well, we decided the odds just weren’t in our favor and we decided to walk back into Djibouti City to see the sights – knowing there aren’t much for sights and everything in the city closes on Fridays. We had gotten away from the pier and rounded the bend only to find ourselves being shouted at by one of the guys who had tried to help us – there was a group of four on the way and they needed two more to afford a private boat. It was a miracle, so we made our way back to the docks. He stuck us in a corner of the market where we could get a full view (and smell) of the place. I’m telling you, I wish I had thought to take a photo of this place. I’ve been in fish markets before, but nothing had prepared me for this place. It was a hot mess. But we did get to see a baby hammerhead shark. Didn’t know Djibouti had those.

We waited for 5 minutes…12 times. Before finally deciding this guy was merely hoping another group would need a boat and was trying to get a finders fee. So we started walking toward the taxis only to be chased down by the guy asking for some money for his time. We were already in a taxi and we explained to him that he hadn’t helped us, he had only led us on. He was pissed, but that was all the driver needed to hear before he decided he didn’t want us to be scammed and he pulled away – a lovely guy. Very chatty. We made it back to the hotel and came up with our Plan B: a pool day at Kempinski where we’d blow the tens of thousands of DJF that we had left. If you think that’s extravagant, here’s where I get back to the point that there’s literally nothing else to do in Djibouti. You could go on a day trip to Lac Assal – too late for us. Or you could go to the market, closed on Fridays and filled with trinkets from neighboring countries…mostly Ethiopia. Don’t need any more of that, thanks!

So on our walk to Kempinski, we found Magnum ice cream bars (heavenly) and amazed children with our knowledge (ok, Chandler’s knowledge) of Oromifa – one of the languages spoken in Ethiopia, and apparently Djibouti as well. We got to Kempinski, paid for our pool passes, and proceeded to spend the day here…not bad : )

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After a few hours in the pool it was time to start spending that money. We started with another four cheese pizza and this time, a whole bottle of Sauvignon. After a bit more pool time we were ready for dessert: a fruit and sorbet plate as well as some tiramisu. We still had money left over so we decided to spend it on some Coronas (that’s right, they have Corona in Djibouti!).

We watched our final Djiboutian sunset and then made our way to a local Japanese/French fusion restaurant. Can you sense the theme here? Spend as much money as humanly possible…on food. Some sushi and a salad with goat cheese wontons later and I was sufficiently stuffed, and almost out of money. Good thing we had already paid for our final hotel…definitely my most memorable Valentine’s Day to date.

The next morning was a feast of various fresh breads with raisons, donuts, and baguettes – complementary! And then a ride to the airport. This flight was much smoother and just an hour and a half later we found ourselves back in Addis Ababa. We had taken our final flight back into Ethiopia. We’ll fly out at the end of this summer and while you have no idea how much I’m looking forward to that day, this trip definitely rejuvenated me for my final six months. Hello Ethiopia, let’s do this shit!

Paper DartsImage by Jennifer Davis for John Jodzio’s Get In If You Want To Live

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