Around The World Voyage : Commentary : Leg 2

March 12, 2002

Our guest and Editor of Passagemaker Magazine, Peter Swanson, has the greatest attitude of us all and has constantly uplifted my spirits with his enthusiasm and humor. Peter says “If things go bad – it makes for a great story”. He looked at Djibouti in a different way than I did and tells a funny story of the Qat phenomena (a local narcotic like Asian Beetle Nut) in Djibouti.

Just got back from the black market. We came to Djibouti for a spare part to be delivered by FedEx. The FedEx office had no knowledge of the part. The next day, Friday, was the big Muslim holy day, but Jim, the captain, decided to check the office today anyway just in case the part, a gyro for our stabilizers, had turned up. He couldn’t find the FedEx office, but was guided by a cab driver to a second FedEx office that knew all about the part, but Jim needed money to pay customs at the airport. I came in with some cash, but it was in dollars, and the customs office only takes Djibouti Francs. The problem is that the banks and exchange offices are closed on Saturday as well as Friday, so we headed off to the black market.

The black market currency exchange is a strictly female profession. Well-fed women wearing really bright colored dresses and scarves keep bankrolls of various currencies hidden in their dresses. We pulled up to a group of them and handed them $160 and got 28,000 Djibouti Francs in 5,000 and 1,000 bills minus the lady’s fee. None of this happens discretely. There is much rapid-fire communication between the cab driver and the moneychanger, who is surrounded by other brightly clad banker ladies all jabbering away as well as beggars. One woman put her henna dyed palm though the open window and I got a great shot of it. I have been photographing life here though the windows of taxicabs for three days now. It’s not really safe to photograph people in Muslim countries, so you have to be sneaky about it. A few days ago I bought some qat, but alas it’s only good for a day, so I can’t bring any back to share. We had to chew it ourselves, but it tasted terrible and bitter, an intoxicant to fit the landscape, and we didn’t chew very much. I gave most of it to our native guide, Samson, as a tip. And no I have no idea of its effects so small was my dosage. It reminded me of chewing on a maple or oak leaf as I was hiking through the woods as a kid.

Qat is central to life here. You would not believe the tumult that surrounds its daily arrival by airplane from Ethiopia. All non-qat life draws to a halt as crowds gather on corners restlessly. Then a car horn honks somewhere. Then a hundred car horns honk. Crowds begin jostling. Cars carrying qat from the airport have a dispensation from traffic laws and careen 60 miles an hour down rutted, debris strewn streets to market.

As the qat finds its way to the retailers the crowds surge and converge. Our cab driver and guide, sensible fellows who find this phenomenon amusing and seem to enjoy pointing out inanities to us, advise us to wait to avoid harm. “No good now. Five minutes.” We finally score 4,000 Djibouti Francs worth of what we are told is high grade qat. This is two bundles inch-and-half thick of leafy sticks tied with twine and packaged in little plastic shopping bags.

Qat is legal for Djiboutians (though not the French). One theory being that the President is despised by 70 percent of the masses, so he makes it easy for them to chew their troubles away as he siphons what little wealth his nation has into Swiss bank accounts. “Big business. Qat is big business,” our guides tell us, noting the airport deliveries are often made in late model SUVs. I got caught by one guy, who had one tooth, as I was taking a picture of the qat awaiters. A hundred people surrounded the cab, and he started shaking his finger at me, saying “no good, no good.” He quickly forgot about it, though,and he and another fellow began to tease us. “You want heroin? Sensemilla? Eccstacee? All free here.”

I had a frank and open political discussion through the taxi window with another qat-awaiter in the crowd. “English?” he asked. “No, American. George Bush. George Bush,” I replied. “George Bush diable, diable!” he argued. “George Bush Satan.” “Actually,” I reasoned. “If you got to know George Bush, you’d probably get along. People say he’s a very nice man.” He was unswayed. “George Bush no good! Muslim good!” Isn’t that damn qat ever going to get here, I thought to myself.

Today we’re refueling and heading off up the Red Sea, toward Suez in Egypt. I’m going to miss my plane so I’m going to have to reschedule my flight home. I’ll get off the boat either in Suez or Port Said in Egypt.


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