I was wrong about Hassan. On first impressions, I thought that he was just a particularly friendly vagrant who’d hopefully refrain from pinching my stuff. But I realise I’ve underestimated him when he reappears the following day and offers me a place to stay.
Yesterday’s promised boat ride didn’t exist, and nor will there be a sailing today, so I’ll clearly need somewhere to spend another night, and I am more than welcome to come with him to his home. But out of the blue comes a distant memory – of Sebeş, of the dreary post-communist decay and rain and mud, and of Simon, his moustache and leather jacket, his underhand attempt at extorting cash in return for a night spent sleeping on his floor, and I’m frustrated that this image has reared its head, because it means that suspicion and fear still linger, despite all of the goodness that has done so much to dissolve them, and I suddenly feel less strongly about the pastor’s unpleasantness the previous night, reminding myself that we are all capable of gross errors of judgement. In a kind of self-punishment I decide to take Hassan’s every word at face value from that moment forth. So I take hold of my bike and follow him on foot down the dusty tarmac, away from the port gates. We reach a gap in a high wall and I hear the buzz and chatter of a horde of people from its far side. Rounding the corner and passing between a pair of gateposts in the wall, I am confronted with a thousand stares from another universe.
The scene is so bewilderingly chaotic that I almost instantly lose track of where I am or where Hassan is taking me, and I try to make sense of what appears to be a vast, clattering community of working men and their legions of unemployed cohorts, crammed into a walled compound a couple of hundred yards square and left to build whatever they like there. It’s the most contrived slum scene that Hollywood has ever come up with, presented in three-dimensional smell-taste-touch-o-vision, and at the same time nothing like it, because it’s real and right there in front of me with a depth and richness that fiction could never replicate. Bare light bulbs hang from knotted cables; windows of pink sunset emerge between tin sheets and walls of tarpaulin and string. Hassan brings me along a meandering walkway which seems to have spontaneously evolved out of the disordered piles of wonky tables and stools and makeshift walls that divide up the colonies of dimly lit kiosks. Below, chefs toss great wokfuls of spaghetti Bolognese into the air above roaring gas-stove cylinders. Literally hundreds of Djiboutians pause mid-mouthful, wherever they are sitting or standing, to watch my white face cross through this den. They look like survivors from some science-fiction apocalypse, closed off from the rest of the world, lost in time.
I’m expending all my energies trying to pretend that there is nothing unusual about my presence and that I am entirely unfazed by the spectacle, when Hassan stops in front of one of the little shoulder-width kiosks, shakes a few hands in the shadows and introduces me to his uncle.
‘My uncle will look after your bike for the night,’ he announces. And the shadows wait expectantly for my compliance.
My entire worldly possessions handed over to a complete stranger in a compound full of unemployed African men? While I follow another man, who I hardly know and who barely speaks my language, across this vast, poverty-stricken city on the promise of a bed for the night?
Alright then. Face value, remember?
‘See you tomorrow!’ I say in French to Hassan’s uncle. ‘À demain!’
I grab my bar-bag with my diary, passport and wallet inside it, Hassan and I leave the compound, and ten thousand permanently jobless dudes know that the white guy has left his million-dollar bike and its blatantly cash-packed panniers lying around somewhere on their sovereign territory. It’s almost dark as we wait to hop onto a minibus decked out with fluorescent trims and decals and pumping bass – the gaudiest thing I’ve yet seen in this stark, sun-baked peninsular. I look out the window and try to figure out where we’re going and distract myself from the overpowering smell of too many sweaty humans crammed into a tin box on wheels. And within minutes I am completely lost.
‘Get off here!’ Hassan shouts at me, barking something else in Somali or Arabic to the driver. Djibouti’s stew of languages is brain-melting – officially French and Arabic, as can be seen from the road signs and shop-fronts and newspapers, but Somali is what’s spoken on the ground. And there’s a fair bit of Afar here too, I’ve heard, though I’ve seen precious few Afars since I left their lands in Ethiopia.
We disembark and I suddenly realise that this is somewhere I’ve seen before: a central open-air bazaar strung with trails of energy-saving light bulbs and mountains of fruit piled high into the night sky. But we’re not here to shop; we’re changing buses. Hassan clambers aboard a bigger vehicle which looks like an antique hand-me-down from some rich European nation, pays again for the two of us, and we lurch off in another direction. It is a long time later that we climb down and onto the street, by which point I’ve long since lost my bearings. It’s much quieter here, more open, slightly hilly; I can see nothing except dim outlines of a road and walls and telegraph poles. It appears that there’s no electricity supply right now.
I follow Hassan through the pitch-black silence, the ground faintly illuminated by a full moon, and we turn down an unpaved side street. Where exactly are we going? The mystery and unpredictability, I realise, are thrilling. This is the very essence of adventure; nothing mighty or medal-winning, simply embracing the unknown, abandoning fear and hoping for some degree of joy or intrigue. And if I’ve found both in a dark alley in a Djibouti backwater, so be it.
After a few hellos to passing shadows in the street, we arrive at the large, metal gate of a compound. My companion calls softly to its occupants and the big gate creaks on its hinges, revealing several pair of eyes in the darkness: Hassan’s family.
We venture inside and I struggle to make out the figures, but it’s clear that a fair few people live here. There’s a single-storey building to the right with a few doors, a good-sized yard within the compound’s fence, dotted with white mosquito nets draped over mattresses, and a little wooden shack raised up on stilts in the far left corner, which I assume must be the toilet. I’m greeted in whispers by a middle-aged couple and one much older man, and then smaller children and teenagers erupt silently from the shadows and press around me. Everyone speaks with hushed voices, and it’s bizarrely serene for what I guess newsreaders and geography textbooks back home would describe as a developing-world slum. Not a vehicle, generator, dog, chicken or voice can be heard: the sounds that make up my normal daily life are all absent this evening, the world sitting quietly under the full moon.
A smiling face accompanies the arrival of a bucket of water and shadowy hands gesture me to follow them to the toilet block where I discover a second area for showering, and I wash myself in the darkness with the cold water. Then I’m guided to where another mattress has been laid out beneath a mosquito net in the yard and made up with fresh sheets: this will be my bed. Pleasantries exchanged and goodnights bidden, I lie down in the cool night air beneath the stars in this silent East African shanty town, my mind a world away from the endless hustle to find a ship across the Gulf of Aden.
Hassan wakes me up quietly. It’s still completely dark and silent. I throw off the mosquito net, pull on my disintegrating linen trousers and grab my bar-bag, and we leave through the big metal gate, walking back up the dirt road towards the asphalt where we’ll catch another pair of buses to take us back to the port. Hassan makes this journey every day, and it’s clear that it’s not for himself but for his whole family that he does this. He can’t afford not to – one day off and he might miss the only earning opportunity for weeks.
We stop on the corner and sit under an awning on a couple of old chairs. A man brings us two cleaned-out tin cans full of tea. There’s a dash of condensed milk in the tea, and as we drink and the purple dawn creeps over the horizon, I’m aware of how centred I feel, sitting here, drinking tea with milk, even though I’ve spent the night in a home I couldn’t see, in the company of a family I met only as spectres. I still find it incredible that I can make almost anywhere feel like home for a night, simply by accepting it for what it is, rather than dwelling on what it isn’t.
But the bus grinds up and all too soon I’m back in the roasting hubbub of the port. We walk quickly to the medieval circus where I left my bike. And, running the gauntlet of the wide-eyed stares once more, I pick out the kiosk, head quickly round to the far side of it – and all of my suspicions are confirmed.
My bike, my video camera and all of my luggage is precisely where I left it. It is completely undisturbed.
(Photo credit: Ed Ou)