I watched carefully as the linehandlers heaved on the mooring line. Burnt, sweaty, faces grimaced as they did what sailors have done for hundred of years. The ship closed the gap between herself and the pier through the brute force and determination of the men and women on deck. I was present as the Officer-in-Charge of the fantail linehandling teams. While waiting to snug the lines up again, we looked out on our new surroundings.
Through the thick humidity and blinding haze of the African sun, we looked at the rundown pier that would be our ship's home for a few days. No wonder she was resisting. The air reeked of livestock from the sheep transport across the pier from us. Every vehicle kicked up little dust storms as they passed. The buildings were made from cement and corrugated metal. The lack of closed windows, (or any windows at all), indicated an equal lack of air conditioning. It was the kind of unbearable mid-day heat that made one want to seek out a shady spot and move as little as possible. Even the flies that greeted us were lazy from the heat and dust. We had been taking malaria pills for several days now and were each wondering if it was worth the port visit. We had been warned about the mosquitoes, and for the men; the astronomically high rate of HIV among the 'available' women. "If the bugs don't get you, the women will", was the popular saying among the male sailors. But wait, it isn't always about visiting fun ports. We were putting money into the local economy by visiting, which helped the locals and demonstrated our gratitude to a people that had opened up to us despite the possible political ramifications. And not only did we already have a new base established here for the war on terrorism, but the French Foreign Legion had been based here for very long time. Their language was known by all Djiboutians. Despite initial impressions, I decided to give Djibouti, and it's people, a chance.
It was late afternoon and several of us junior officers made our way to the dusty, little bus waiting on the pier. The lethargic flies found us as soon as we sat down. The open windows gave us a clear view of this new, old world. One cannot judge a country from it's piers. Such places are made for commerce and movement of materials, not sightseeing. Nor can one judge the neighborhood immediately surrounding the piers. As we traveled down the rather well-maintained road leading us from the piers, we passed what first appeared to be a scattered dump. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that these were homes. Collections of materials from various sources bound together into walls and a roof. Jugs were nearby for the fetching of water. Children played in the dirt around the homes and goats wandered while seeking something to nibble. A Sally Struthers commercial came to mind, but these children didn't have the sad faces, blank staring eyes, and fly-crawling-by-mouth appearance of those hiding in the shadow of an overfed actress. These kids were doing what kids do. On a sunny day and in the safe presence of their families. Most adults were under some kind of shade, but some were on makeshift stools with lines in the waters of an inlet. Smiling and showing off a freshly caught fish. Waving shyly at the dusty bus full of Westerners. Women walking in small groups wearing colorful head coverings and laughing quietly behind raised hands. Some people were on the corners selling khat leaves, (pronounced like 'cot'). This is a mild stimulant, similar to the beetlenut used by locals in Guam. Folks also gathered in front of stores with worn signs written in French. This was simply how they lived their lives.
We arrived at the local American military base. It was built in the spirit of an old western fort. The Army Corps of Engineers created amazing temporary, permanent structures using a mixture of wood, canvas, cement, and of coure, painted white rocks to line the streets. The place smelled of freshly cut lumber and reminded me of a khaki version of the old M.A.S.H. tv show. We visited the base store and relaxed at the cantina for awhile. Did you know that Burger King can come in a trailer? And it actually did taste like Burger King. The cantina was plastic furniture, a stage, and a bar nestled under a huge canopy. We gathered and enjoyed each other's company for awhile. The soldiers fed us information about the country and it's people. We were encouraged to use their gym but signs warned us not to run on the trail after dark. Hyenas like to chase humans silly enough to run. For in Africa, if you are running: you must be prey. I saw some steely eyes and lithe shapes around the edges of the Camp, but decided against closing in for a closer look. I also spotted African wild dogs at dusk trotting easily through an area with fresh garbage, no doubt hoping for a stray edible.
The drive back to ship was pleasant. Djiboutians were all out and strolling in the cool night. Drivers had to be extra careful because cars were stopped in traffic lanes and families were sitting, sometimes actually in the road, enjoying a picnic. It was a lively time of night with a quiet, relaxed feeling. Couples strolled together. Children played and older folks gathered to talk. I did notice that everyone seemed to stay where there was light. And people. And safety from whatever creatures were strolling as well. Habits formed by a culture that remembers when the local animals were larger and more ferocious. A few wild, strange calls broke the general quiet talk made by locals. A man pushed an ancient Coke wagon along the street talking to folks more than actually peddling. We arrived back at the ship in time to accept an invitation to the German frigate on the neighboring pier.
The German Navy is a frequent visitor to Djibouti and invited the enlisted folks over for a social one night and the officers the following night. Their frigate had assisted us with the Somalians but this was the first time we were actually able to meet the German sailors that we had been working with. The beer they served was light and flavorful and their company was welcoming. We exchanged stories and compared navies. I found their engineers who promptly offered me a tour of their engine rooms. To my surprise, they had the same gas turbine engines as we do. And diesel propulsion as well. I was fascinated with how they use their diesels at lower speeds and then switch to their gas turbines at higher speeds. We joked about topsiders, (non-engineers), and swapped stories before returning to the wardroom. By this time, an english-speaking, drunk, German pilot was singing loud guttural German songs while wearing WWI era aviation mask and goggles. "Are you the Red Baron?" I asked. "No", he giggled, "I'm Snoopy!". He took a few of us on a tour of his helo and proudly showed me that they were named after the Blues Brothers. Yes, the names Jake and Elwood, along with pictures, were painted on the sides of the German helos. He also explained to our Commanding Officer, and a few of us, how they made themselves a hot tub out of the inside of their small boat. At the end of the night, we left with a new appreciation for German ingenuity.
Miss you all,