Friday, August 20, 2010

Two Evenings in Djibouti (and One Day Outside)

Last Thursday evening - two Thursdays ago - our plans were almost rained out. Some people in the office made plans for a select few of us to go bowling, and I invited everyone under the sun to join us, including a friend from CARITAS (she just got back from Italy, with sister in tow).

Just before we were about to leave our office that evening, the skies opened up and the city began to flood. Fortunately, after 30 minutes or so, the rains let up and a taxi was able to come and get us.

To our chagrin, the bowling alley had also flooded. The employees of the alley kept telling us '10 more minutes'; '15 more minutes'; and after a little over an hour of that we were finally able to hit the lanes.

And then the ants came.

They were everywhere; they were huge; they were flying; and they bit! I got a nice bite on my left shin, but was otherwise alright (one of my colleagues got multiple bites on his neck).

We all had terrible bowling scores, but as no one among us was particularly adept at bowling, most people thought we did rather well (I'll note that none of us broke 100, and if you're not very familiar with bowling, the best possible score is considerably higher than that). There were pool tables in the entrance area of the bowling alley, and my Italian friends remarked that it was unfortunate we didn't try 'billiards', as they are much better at that.

After bowling, we went to 'The Melting Pot', where several other expats - all Italian - joined us on the patio. We were originally to be eight, so a table was reserved for us inside; but we arrived as eleven, and eventually became fourteen, so our only option was to be seated at a ridiculously long table on the patio.

I was seated next to the sister of my friend from CARITAS, and at one point in the evening, she leaned over and asked me, "why don't you learn to speak French while you are here?" It was a straightforward question, deserving of a straightforward reply, but I've always got to be 'the funny guy', so I remarked "because French is an ugly language and I refuse to learn it." Before I could say I was kidding, and that I have just been delinquent with my studies, to my surprise she was in complete agreement with me and wished that everyone at the table would stop trying to speak with her in French. Incroyable!

By the time our meals were served it was relatively dry on the patio, the wind was no longer as intrusive as it had been, and apart from the miserable weather early on - and the ants - it was a rather nice end to a rather interesting evening.

Last night - which also happened to be Thursday - I went out with my friend from CARITAS with her sister in tow. Our first stop was for some burgers at 'The Beverley'.

'The Beverley' is a place which is a very tiny elevator ride four floors above some kind of eatery, or convenience store, or pharmacy - I'm not sure which - that has very mysteriously, and misleadingly, borrowed it's name and logos from 'Planet Hollywood'. 'The Beverley' doesn't have a washroom inside the restaurant: one is required to pass through the entrance, follow a series of signs that say 'Toilet' - all with arrows pointing in surprising directions - until one walks through a construction zone and arrives in a tiny room with a toilet, a sink, and a bucket filled with water (because there is no running water, obviously).

Before our meal arrived, I journeyed to the washroom adjacent to 'The Beverley' and when I returned to the restaurant, our waiter - whom I'll describe as being 'super jazzed' - asked me if I wanted a serviette (he said the word 'serviettes' with an inflection at the end, so I could only assume it was a question concerning serviettes and my desire to have one). I answered in the affirmative. He put a small plate on the counter, placed some paper napkins on that plate, and smiled at me. I thanked him for the paper napkins and returned to my table; I told the girls I had no explanation as to why I was carrying a small plate of paper napkins, but that our waiter was super-jazzed.

The burgers were pretty good; the waiter was a riot. I'll recommend 'The Beverley' to anyone.

The evening's post-burger activities were advertised as 'billiards', and there were two places my Italian friend and her sister said we could go: to one place with 'red and yellow balls', or another place with 'numbers on the balls'. I opted for the numbered balls and showed them how we play 'billiards' in Canada (Final Score: Canada 3, Italy 0).

After billiards we went to 'Scotch', one of the local, seedy, discotheques, filled with Legionnaires and 'ladies of the night' (a typical Thursday night, really; we may substitute bowling for billiards, but we can always count on plenty of Legionnaires being around Djibouti-ville after dark, and on the red lights being turned on). We didn't stay there long, as we really just spent our 20 minutes sitting uncomfortably in one of the booths, gawking at everyone enjoying themselves on the dance floor in whatever way they might.

On leaving, my Italian friend and her sister wanted to go to another, equally desirable place, but as it was [enter some excuse for not wanting to go to another discotheque here], I said my good-nights and walked home.

Earlier that evening I'd agreed to join them on a beach adventure the following day - that day being today, which is Friday. They'd already formulated the plans, but offered to include me in them, which I willingly accepted.

Today - Friday we congregated around 'Planet Hollywood' in the city centre and at shortly after 10:00 we left for the beach. We spent close to six hours at the beach (the name of which starts with a 'K', has two words and three syllables), and I spent probably 2.5 hours snorkeling spread out over two visits to the water (there were other visits to the water but only two for snorkeling).

On my first snorkel, a solo snorkel, I went about 100 meters out, another 100 meters left, and discovered a coral shelf with an astonishing variety of fish (I wish I could tell you what each one was called, but I can only describe them as ranging from the size of my pinky to the size of my arm, and being assorted combinations of every colour imaginable).

On my second snorkel, this time accompanied by a new Italian friend (we were six Italians, one Swede, and one Canadian in a convoy of two Japanese SUVs today), I came upon a sea turtle grazing some sea weed. I came upon him first and motioned to my Italian friend to join me where I was. He was a good size, with a shell diameter of almost one meter, maybe more given the distance between he and I.

The turtle saw me.

I don't know if turtles are capable of thoughts beyond 'hungry' and 'afraid', but when I looked at this turtle, I could definitely sense alarm, and deduced this turtle's thoughts had migrated from the former to the latter.

The turtle slowly started moving, with me in hot pursuit and my Italian companion in tow. As I was using a borrowed snorkel and mask, my mask was not sealing correctly, and by this time had slowly filled with water. I breached and emptied my mask as quickly as I could, but when I returned under water the turtle had vanished.

I breached again, along with my Italian companion. She remarked how incredible it is to see the turtle take off as fast as it does. "Yes," I remarked, "that must have been incredible to see."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hello Kitty

I attended at the CARITAS compound this morning, which is located a few kilometers away from our branch office, as a member of the reception team for urban refugees. Interestingly, the only refugees I received this morning are registered in the Ali-Addeh camp, but I'm beginning to realize it's not uncommon for refugees in the camp to spend the majority of their time here in the capital.

The morning began as reception mornings typically do, with members of the Protection Unit standing outside the gate screening refugees. Many of them have appointments and are allowed to enter for their appointments; many of them have expired attestation papers and are allowed to enter to renew their attestations; many are just waiting for appointment slips, which we fill out, and which they take and leave. Many, however, are refugees from the Ali-Addeh camp who want to be received here in the city. They are advised to return to Ali-Addeh to be received there, though this is advice to which they are not overly receptive.

Today is the first day of Ramadan so all of the Muslims in this country, in theory, are fasting. My supervisor thought this might mean that most refugees would stay home, but the refugees at the gates were just as numerous today as they were last week (though not nearly as aggravated).

My reception interviews today were four: one refugee from Ali-Addeh who has been in the capital for some weeks now, in part due to a security concern in Ali-Addeh, and in part to attend to some medical concerns with his children; one refugee from Ali-Addeh who is here attending to some of her own medical concerns at the hospital; one refugee who is here attending to some medical concerns of her children; and one refugee with his own medical concerns who actually resides here in the capital for reasons I won't get into (but will note my interview with him was the most colourful of the morning).

After four or so hours of receiving the refugees, for want of a vehicle (these are difficult to come by for one reason or another), my interpreter and I set off on foot for our office. Yesterday was quite cool - or relatively cool - as there was a strong breeze in the morning; today the air seemed dead so the walk was unbearable.

After a few minutes of walking I suggested to my interpreter that we just stop at a convenience store for some water and then I would hire us a taxi to take us the remaining few kilometers. He was amenable to this. We walked into the convenience store, I grabbed two bottles of Tadjourah water (this is premium Djibouti water, but at the YES Market it is priced the same as any other water); but as today is the first day of Ramadan, my interpreter informed me that he is fasting and unable to drink the water. On informing me of this I felt a little sorry for making him walk as far as I did in this heat.

As I've noted before, my work space in the branch office is located in the second floor annex with the program staff. When we returned to the office I walked into the area where the members of the Protection Unit are located to brief someone in the Unit on my activities of the morning. One of my colleagues appeared to be having some difficulties around the printer, so I went over to greet her but as I passed her office door I caught the eye of some other colleagues and went in to greet them first.

I walked over to shake one colleague's hand and in doing so heard a shreik from the colleague at the printer. We all went into the hallway to take a look at what the commotion might be. It turns out a cat had a litter of kittens in the cabinet on which the printer is located. What the cat was doing in the cabinet with a litter of kittens is anyone's guess, but a number of my colleagues, as we stood around gawking, commented on seeing the cat coming and going from this office but thought nothing of it.

How is a cat coming and going from this office an unremarkable event?, I thought to myself. But this piece of information didn't seem to pique the interest of anyone else.

Some people noted that if the kittens are touched by anyone then the mother will abandon them; others noted that there's no harm in a litter of kittens remaining in that cabinet. I stood by with a huge grin on my face, unsure of what the culturally appropriate response might be.

My other supervisor attempted to employ rhetoric to get everyone on board with removing the litter of kittens from the office but no one was biting. Action was required. We found another cabinet, moved the printer onto it, and wheeled the cabinet full of kittens out to the front entrance. The kittens were not at all amused by any of this and became alarmingly vocal; but my interests lay elsewhere so I returned to the annex.

Sometime later I returned to the Protection Unit and in doing so passed by the entrance to the building. The cabinet had been removed and the cries of the litter of kittens were no longer present. I attended at my supervisor's office to brief her on the events at CARITAS but she interrupted me before I could start. "One moment," she said, as she stood and opened her window. "I just want to check on my kittens."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chicorée Café

I've already noted how French is not my lingua franca.

When I first went to Ali-Sabieh I stayed at the Hotel Palmeraie with my colleagues from Nairobi; thereafter I stayed in the guestroom at the LWF compound. In between I returned to the capital for a few days and, while there, purchased a few things from the 'Cash Centre' (this place, and 'Casino', are the two places in this country that mostly closely approximate the grocery stores I am used to in Canada).

I'd been drinking far too much Coca-cola in the morning - throughout the day, really - so I was determined to resume drinking far too much coffee instead. I attended at the 'Cash Centre' and purchased an electric kettle and what I thought was instant coffee. The packaging was a little different from what I was used to, and it purported to be invigorated with various vitamins and minerals. Inside the container was what appeared to be dehydrated, instant coffee.

On returning to Ali-Sabieh I awoke the next day to make instant coffee that first morning back. To my surprise I discovered I had, rather, purchased a delicious chocolate breakfast beverage. On further examination - trial and error, really - I discovered it could be mixed with either water or milk, hot or cold.

While this delicious chocolate breakfast beverage was a welcomed surprise, it was not the hot caffeinated coffee-like drink I'd planned to have purchased.

The next trip back to the capital, some three weeks later, featured another trip to the 'Cash Centre' and another attempt to find instant coffee. I did manage to find it in a small aisle of all those things you might associate with coffee: filters, sugar, coffee whitener (probably), and tea. On comparing the different brands available to me, I selected to one that not only provided me with the best value (the brand name appears to be 'Le Prix! gagnant'), but one that also appeared to be the most fancy.

The picture on the jar looked more exotic than regular coffee - one of the reasons I purchased this brand over the others (not being able to distinguish between them by what was written on the labels). In Canada I typically drink coffee, where possible from Tim Hortons. There are fancier places, serving coffee-like beverages with fancier sounding names, which come in cups of fancier sounding sizes. I'm really just sure about what coffee is, though, and I'm not too sure about those other things; and if it is just coffee, why it's just not called coffee.

I never actually used the instant coffee after returning to Ali-Sabieh; I'd already formulated the routine of Coca-cola and canned mango-drink in the morning (I think you have to call it 'drink' when it's mostly made from sugar - but the cold mango pulp and sugar beverage is really quite good). Part of my breakfast routine of buying one or two baguettes from an old woman who show's up at Ali-Sabieh's roundabout at 7am or so, then buying my Coca-cola and canned mango-drink, before I head to Ali-Addeh for the day.

As I've already related in an earlier post, I've since relocated from Ali-Sabieh and am now back in the capital, having largely completed my field research in Ali-Sabieh. I returned on Tuesday to collect my things. I might have returned on Sunday or Monday but over the course of the weekend (last weekend, not this weekend) I came down with my first case of food poisoning since arriving in this country. The early part of last week was consequently a write-off.

In the capital, at the branch office, I've been assigned a new desk after having played musical chairs during my last few visits: I'd begun in the resettlement office; was relocated to the protection office; and now finally find myself sitting with the Associate Liaison Officer to IGAD in an area I refer to as the Annex. I keep my electric kettle on the floor, behind my desk, and I keep my instant coffee in one of the desk drawers along with a variety of other things. (Wednesday or Thursday of last week was 'Toilet Paper Ration Day' so I have two rolls in one of my drawers to get me through the next month.)

Yesterday, Saturday, I came into the office to do some work. I like coming in on the weekends because it's a little more quiet and I work on the weekends because I'm boring. But because it's my own time I can also occupy myself with whatever I might choose to occupy myself with (like a child who sees something shiny, I'm easily distracted by any foreign stimuli).

On paper I seem pretty exciting, having travelled to far off places and having done some pretty interesting things. Pictures of me posing with cadavers and live crocodiles exist. In practice, however, I'm really quite boring. Thursday after work I went out bowling with some colleagues, and while I won't say what any of our scores were, I will say that I had the highest one. But when left to my own devices I prefer to sit with an internet browswer open on my laptop so I can look up whatever might come into my head.

Yesterday, in the office, while making my coffee I came to wonder what it was I was preparing. I entered the name into Google and was directed to my favourite place to spend time (though en francais, as I wasn't yet aware of the proper English translation).

Evidently, whatever it is I'm drinking, it's just fancied-up poor-man's instant coffee. On learning the history of 'chicory', and how it has been used as a coffee substitute for poor people and in war time conditions, it doesn't seem so fancy anymore.

I don't think that really matters though. I think chicory is always going to taste a little more exotic than just plain coffee, because I now associate this different-tasting coffee with an odyssey of multiple trips to the 'Cash Centre' and arduous research in the Annex. It will always remind me of Djibouti somehow.