Thursday, November 11, 2010

One last sea turtle

Towards the end of August I received a call on my mobile at around 9:30am about going to the beach.

At the time I was already up, sorting through laundry, and had been expecting the call. At the time I was staying in one of the spare rooms of my supervisor, which she graciously allowed me to stay in shortly after returning from the field and finding myself without a a place to stay. As it happened, her daughter was in Belgium visiting her grandparents, her daughter's nanny was in Ghana visiting her friends and family, and she therefore was in large house with rooms to spare. At the time I was very lucky to have a colleague with room to spare (and also lucky to have another colleague looking out for me, making arrangements for me to stay in the empty rooms of colleagues).

The proposed beach trip was to be to the same beach that I had previously visited with my Spanish and Italian friends. I was thus required to attend because I was the only one who knew how to get there. In truth, while I could visually picture the route we could take, I couldn't recall names apart from the need to pass through 'Doralei'. Beyond that, I knew we needed to pass on the left when the road forked and became unpaved; I also knew we'd need to pass on the left when approaching the Sultan's Palace, and that as the road leads down the mountain towards the beach it becomes incredibly steep and appears to further erode with every rainfall and we would need to proceed cautiously and slowly (at the time there had been many a rainfall).

The five of us who would be attending at the beach were to meet at my Spanish colleague's house at 10am. The five of us included a Spanish colleague, her uni-lingual Spanish son, an American-Romanian colleague, a Swiss intern, and myself the Canadian. The previous evening there was an interruption to the water supply which may or may not have been city-wide. I discussed this with one colleague, and the possibility of a cessation of water services potentially lasting until October, and our imaginations ran wild with how unsettling the prospect of six months without running water seemed (until that point, I had been without running water while living in the field, but I was carrying buckets from a running water source: I could not imagine what would happen without a running water source from which I would carry buckets).

On the way to the beach we stopped at a fruit stand and purchased some bananas and a very large watermelon to take with us. I sat in the front seat and navigated as best I could. Sure enough, my directions proved correct, and we established ourselves at the same tent, table and chairs as I'd used the previous weekend.

After we set up our chairs, some of us tested the water and some of us tested reading in the sun. Once my colleague and her son had been in the water for a while, Fabien and I borrowed two sets of goggles from them (though just one tube, which Fabien used). Right away I spotted a sea turtle in the same bed of weeds in which I'd spotted one the previous week - it could very well have been the same turtle, but that would only be speculation, and the identity of the turtle is truly immaterial. Fabien and I followed it along the weeds, until it dove down and perched on some coral about 15 feet deep. Fabien hovered around the surfaced and I kept diving down to take a closer look (despite years of smoking I'm still an incredible under-water breath-holder). The turtle put up with us for a few minutes longer before finally having its fill of us and propelling away like a jet engine.

We arrived back on the beach at about 11:45am to find that the three land lubbers had ordered lunch (there are two 'restaurants' on the beach, though no power supply to speak of, and I later learned that food and ice are brought to the beach every day and that it is best to phone ahead to alert the restauranteurs of your intended presence so that they know to bring enough on any given day). Three courses of lunch - and two rounds of desert - arrived around 1pm for each of the three land lubbers, of which none was prepared to finish; Fabien and I gratefully wound up eating half of it.

Around 2:30pm, while I was still in the water, two of our Spanish friends arrived (one of whom had previously worked in my office, and was then working for one of our implementing partners). They were both there for snorkeling, so I and Fabien returned to the beach to each retrieve a mask and tube and join them. It didn't take long for me to break away from the larger group to test the waters and see what I could see on my own.

I guess I spent about an hour in the water, and when I got back found out that the group with whom I'd come to the beach had all left without me; fortunately for me, and I must presume that my previous companions had figured as much (though, to be true, this was never confirmed), my Spanish friends were in a position to offer me a ride home. The driver, whom I had attended the beach with the previous week, informed me he had actually planned to spend the night sleeping on the beach - an idea he got from a Scotsman at the beach the previous week - but because his Spanish companion was pregnant he acquiesced to returning to Djibouti that evening (I was good either way, but returning to bed and food was in all likelihood the more preferable option). I had the remainder of my bananas, the Spaniards shared some sardine and tomato sandwiches, and together we watched the sun go down behind the mountains before leaving.

On the way to the car, one of the local Djiboutians working at the beach asked us for a ride into town, so the two Spaniards (both fluent in French, and therefore conversing with the local) asked if I would be okay with that. My response was that "I was totally fine with anything, it's his car, and I'm also just hitching a ride." We left and, as noted, the road in and out is treacherous like you wouldn't believe. Before coming to the main road, the driver spotted a partridge at the roadside, so he stopped the car to take a picture of it. As it happened, just before seeing the partridge, some guy had waved to us trying to get a ride, though we didn't stop for him. Some 50 meters later, our vehicle - the object of his wave's desire - by coincidence stopped so the driver could take a picture of a partridge. The guy, having no reason to think otherwise, ran to the car for his ride. We all laughed, agreed that the partridge was God's hand interceding on behalf of this man, and allowed him to travel with us. So now I was in the backseat with two Djiboutians (who, it seems, have their own difficulties with accessing water with which they might wash themselves), and everyone in the car was speaking either French or Spanish.

We dropped each of the Djiboutians at different places and in so doing I received a mobile call from Fabien: he informed me he was sitting at the Hotel Alia, so I asked if he wanted to meet at Saba Restaurant for dinner - to which he agreed - and he suggested I invite our Spanish friends - which I did. We all got fruit smoothies and remarked on how they could pass as entire meals, and how they are so great, and how we wish they were available (as readily and at such low prices) in our own countries, etc. Fabien and I were the only ones to eat.

After dinner, Fabien and I walked to the house of the colleague with whom I'd been staying for the purpose of collecting my things. Fabien had wanted to walk, mostly to try to capture the lightening on his camera, and I had no reservations. Before we arrived, as his internship was ending in a few short weeks and he'd not done so to that point, Fabien asked if I wanted to visit the 'Sky Bar' with him at the Kempinski Hotel. I said sure, and we went to the 'Sky Bar', which is on a rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean and the city. We each had an $8 pint of Stella Artois and reminisced about our shared experiences with our colleagues, our office, and the country. Fabien asked for one of my cigarettes, which he awkwardly attempted to smoke in front of me (I've never seen him smoke since arriving in Djibouti, and he says he smokes very infrequently, but when he was trying to light and smoke the cigarette, it's as if he'd never smoked or even seen another person smoke a cigarette before: it was truly a sight to behold).

After an hour of reminiscing, and attempting to capture lightening with a digital camera (note: this is difficult), we left the 'Sky Bar' and the Kempinski Hotel and wandered over to our colleague's home so that I could grab my belongings. We carried the things back to Fabien's studio apartment, which overlooks the city's train station where it appears every homeless person and urban refugee in Djibouti congregates in the evening. Fabien watched some of the movies I'd transferred to his laptop, and I took a shower and attempted as best as I could to sleep on Fabien's vinyl couch-like love seat.

(This is, in all likelihood, the penultimate entry for this blog, and happens to be the entry I'd intended to include at the end of August. Due to circumstances, as they were, I left Djibouti on 4 September and completed my final report from a library in Canada. I intend to write at least one further blog entry - perhaps two - to wrap my experience as best as I can and provide some final thoughts on what I'd hoped to get from the experience, what I in fact got from the experience, and what I plan to do with it all.)