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17 Things to Know Before You Come to Djibouti

I get many emails from people coming to Djibouti wondering about everything from where to get decent Wi-Fi to whether or not there are local classes for harpists. On days when Djibouti Telecom services flounder, I’m not sure which is more impossible to find – the Wi-Fi or the harp players. Anyway, I could write a book full of tips for visitors or people moving here (oh, wait. I did! Check out Welcome to Djibouti or Djiboutilicious, my award-winning cookbook.) but here are just a few tips, things to know to help plan your trip.

Changing money

There are ATMs, at Casino grocery store, at the banks, at Al-Gamil. Don’t try to get money out on the first of the month, they’re likely to be empty. And make sure to check with your bank on withdrawal fees, which can be quite steep. Or – bring cash and exchange it with the money ladies. These women sit on street corners downtown. They have huge bags of cash in their laps. Franc, Euros, Pounds, Dollars, Yen, Shillings, Biir…Hand them your bills and they’ll exchange it for you, with a good and honest exchange rate.

Know where you are going

If you aren’t going to a major hotel, you will need help finding your destination. There aren’t many street names that people or taxis actually know, and few house or building numbers. Check Google Maps to get an idea but don’t expect it to be super accurate, many roads (like ours) don’t show up.

Get high on khat

If you like to try your hand at local (and legal) narcotics, you’ve come to the right country. Khat is a leafy amphetamine chewed mostly by men, mostly in the afternoons. It is sold by young women from wooden stalls along every road in town. Bring a towel to wrap your bundle in, to keep it fresh and cool. Beware if the khat plane doesn’t come in for a day or two, people get upset. Also, beware of taxis or buses zooming around town at the time of khat delivery. They will stop for no one and will take any side of the road.

Go for fish

Find a Yemeni restaurant and order mukhbasa with all the side dishes. For the most authentic experience, try one of the restaurants on Avenue 13. For a cleaner, more family and female friendly (and more expensive but air-conditioned) experience, try Janateyn, across the street from the Al-Gamil grocery store.

Drink the tea

The water tastes a bit salty but is safe for drinking so pull up an overturned aluminum can near a tea stand and indulge. Don’t be surprised if someone offers to pay for your drink and feel free to engage in conversation with strangers.

Have a friendly banter response ready for anyone who offers a marriage proposal

If you are a single foreigner, one of the highest compliments a local can give is to offer you a wife or a husband. Even if you aren’t single, men can have up to four wives. One of my husband’s common responses is, “I can only handle one woman at a time!”

Dress wisely

Yes, you can wear sleeveless shirts and shorts but this is a Muslim country and doing so will likely attract at least some unwanted attention. Feel free to be yourself, but also be respectful. You’re a guest here.

Learn Fromalishicar

The official languages here are French and Arabic. But mostly, people mix it all up. A little English, a lot of French, Somali, Arabic, and Afar, sometimes in the same sentence, sometimes even in the same word. I’ve been known to start a verb in Somali, end it with a French ending and follow up it with an English word.

Save your airplane ticket stubs

All those tiny pieces torn off your ticket? The ones you usually stuff into the seat pocket in front of you or drop on the floor? Immigration officials at the airport will ask for all of them. Not sure what they do if you have an e-ticket, but be ready to pull it up on your phone.

You don’t have to stay at the Kempinski

You can, if you are able and willing to pay. And if you want to be sheltered from the rest of Djibouti. But there are lots of other hotels (and Air BnB’s) that offer decent prices, clean rooms, helpful staff.

Be discrete when taking photos

Ask permission. Many people are happy to be part of your experience, especially when you treat them with respect and ask for permission or tell them how beautiful you find their blue scarf blowing against the yellow doorway, or their line of laundry or the way the men choreograph cement-tossing while building a house. Don’t photograph the many military installations or the police or embassies.

Get out of the city

Local tourist sites include a juniper forest that is home to the endangered francolin bird, kayaking near flocks of flamingos, Djibouti’s Grand Canyon, an active volcano, the Salt Lake, Tadjourah and Sable Blanc, Obock – home of the oldest, still functioning lighthouse in Djibouti.

Expect to see military, local and international

Djibouti hosts the largest US military base in Africa as well as contingents from Japan, China, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia is currently in talks to open a base.

It is hot

Nicknames for Djibouti usually include a reference to hell or demons. Summer temperatures pass 120 degrees Fahrenheit. So yeah, its hot. I really have baked cookies in my car. But it is also so much more than hot. Almost every single news story out of Djibouti focuses on: heat, the salt lake, and the military bases. So sweat and drink a lot of water and talk about something else.

Ask for help

While rare, there are occasional muggings or issues of sexual harassment that occur. If you, especially if you are female, ever feel in danger, like you are being followed or that someone is talking to you inappropriately, you can ask for help and locals will step in to protect you. Djiboutians are kind and proud of the peace in their country. They want visitors to have a positive experience and aren’t afraid to step in, even to come to the assistance of a stranger.

Feel free to crash a wedding

If someone invites you to a party, it doesn’t matter if you know the bride or groom, you are more than welcome. Be sure to greet the wedding party with either a handshake or cheek kisses, wish them congratulations (hambalyo) and stand for a photograph, don’t smile, stare straight ahead as disinterestedly as possible.

Ask for a mélange of halwad in the market, Suuqa Riyaad

This is a sticky candy, best eaten fresh and warm and you can get a small bag full for less than a few hundred franc ($2-3.00). Cheap and delicious sugar high.

Enjoy your visit! Djibouti just ranked in #4 on Lonely Planet’s list of top countries to visit in 2018. So if you are coming based off that recommendation, I hope you have a wonderful experience. For more cool places to visit check out this list.

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Plan your trip or your move with Welcome to Djibouti: arrive, survive, and thrive in the hottest country on earth.

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Arrive, Survive, and Thrive in Djibouti

I get emails nearly every day from people coming to Djibouti either as tourists or to live and work. They need to know how to find a house, where are decent hotels, what should they do in a medical emergency? Are there playgrounds? What are the best school options?

I’ve compiled answers to these questions and so much more, in this e-book Welcome to Djibouti.

Phone numbers, websites, email addresses, tips and suggestions…you’ll find what you need here.


The Whole30 in Africa: A Runner’s Journey

One reason the timing of my Whole30 worked well for me is that, as a runner, I was already planning an easy month. I had a weird knee niggle that started after an 11-mile run in the desert and was cutting back on mileage anyway. But I wanted to keep running enough that I would feel the effects of eating this way and be able to assess how my body was responding and what I needed, both during and after the Whole30.

I average 30-40 miles per week and cut back to 20. I replaced some of those miles with more weight lifting, yoga, and the occasional bike ride, so I was still pretty active.

How’d it go?

The Whole30 and Running

It was hard. I don’t mean emotionally hard, nothing really about the Whole30 was emotionally hard for me. I never found myself staring into the refrigerator, cussing, as some have confessed to. I never had to physically restrain myself from gobbling up a piece of toast or chugging soda. I didn’t lose my temper more than I normally do.

I mean it was physically hard.

I had all this energy. I wasn’t getting tired in the afternoons. I woke up for my morning runs before my alarm ever went off (we’re talking 5:30 a.m.). I don’t think I yawned once the entire month.

But.

I was weak.

My muscles were so, incredibly, weak.

The entire first two weeks of running I couldn’t go more than two miles without being utterly exhausted in my legs. I would then walk a bit, run some more, walk, run, walk, run. It was discouraging.

I read forums and followed the advice to up my carbs. I ate bananas, potatoes, squash. I was already hungry all the time and so I just kept eating. And eating. And eating.

And I felt so weak.

By the fourth week, I felt a little better and managed a 5-mile run without walking. But having recently run for over two hours, this weakness was hard to face.

I also felt the weakness while lifting weights. I’m not a heavy-lifter but did notice how much harder it was to lift my normal amounts.

But, while it was discouraging, it was exactly what I wanted. Not the weakness, but this lesson. I entered this, like I wrote in the first post, to better understand how food affects my running. Not running in general, but mine. So this weakness fascinated me.

I could hardly wait to begin the introduction phase and to see what would happen to a run after I consumed a piece of whole grain bread.

I did wait and finally, the day for my gluten grain reintroduction rolled around.

I ate a piece of toast at breakfast and had a tortilla at lunch. Then in the late afternoon I ran for ninety minutes (the entire time my daughter was at soccer practice) and felt like a superhero. Not tired! Not walking! Not dragging to a stop at the end! Hurray for bread!

I don’t have issues with gluten, my gut is healthy as far as I know, so it was with great happiness that I realized I could not only eat bread but it would fuel me with all the energy I needed for longer runs. Bonus lesson: I don’t need to eat as much of it as I did and I can plan wisely in order to get this extra boost on the runs when I really need it. It isn’t magic, but seeing how bread impacted my run encouraged me to eat it with joy and intention.

Those last two words are key for me now when it comes to food. Not guilt, not calories, not gluten-free or dairy-free or vegetarian or any trending thing, not even Whole30 compliant.

Joy.

Intention.

More about that later…

Any runners out there who have tried the Whole30? What did you learn?

My other Whole30 posts:

Learning (again) to Cook

A Reluctant Food Post

What is the Whole30?

*image via Flickr

What Does ‘Djibouti’ Mean?

There is some debate about what the name Djibouti means. I’ve heard explanations and depending on the ethnicity of the speaker, the answer changes. But today I stumbled across a sort-of answer in a library book.

Yes, I got a library book.

arthur rimbaud cultural centerThe library is in the Arthur Rimbaud Cultural Center, a blue and white, fenced-in building on the edge of downtown. I have a love-hate relationship with this library. I love books, so automatically that is a point in the ARCC’s favor. I particularly love books in English, so that is a mark against the ARCC. I am glad for the weak air conditioning, a point in their favor. I was once kicked out, a mark against them.

Have you ever been kicked out of a library?

I was in the children’s section though I am decidedly not a child and didn’t have a child with me. However there were no open seats in the adult section and as the library is so small you can see from one side to the other, bookshelves and all, I didn’t think this would be a problem. It was. I also had my computer open, not a book. I didn’t think this would be a problem. It was. I also didn’t have a library card but intended to get one on my way out. Yet another problem. Then I made the mistake of putting my foot up on a chair beneath the table. My fatal error. And thus, I was kicked out of the library.

I didn’t get a card that day but eventually interest in the Djibouti books section drew me back. I geared up my linguistic courage for a foray into French literature and checked out my full limit of two books.

One, Lucy’s choice (she was with so I was able to sit in the children’s section undisturbed): Je m’ennui. I’m Bored. And one my choice: Traversées, histoires, et mythes de Djibouti compiled by Amina Saiid Chiré and Biringanine Ndagano.

This is what I found about the name of our host country (translated into English by me):

“Somalis brandish their jab-butti, which literally means the defeat of the female ogre (long story), the Afar rival with yi-bûti, which means my metal cooking pot (makes sense considering the temperatures), and the Arabs retort with jâ a l-bût, which means the boats comes.”

In other words, no one really knows for sure.

Djiboutians: Can you enlighten me on this topic? 

Americans: Why do you ask me what ‘Djibouti’ means? Do you know what ‘America’ means? (I had to use Google)

11 Blogging Lessons from 2013

I started blogging in 2007 when my younger sister started one for me as a Christmas present.

She said, “You need to blog.”

I said, “What’s a blog?”

Back then our internet was so slow I would hit ‘send/receive’ for emails, go make dinner, and check back for emails after putting the kids to bed. Back then it was faster to upload a photo to a blog post than to an email so that’s how I sent pictures home. Back then I wrote posts like:

Hey mom, Henry got a haircut!

Back then my mom read it. And maybe my younger sister read it. I didn’t know how to check the stats so I’ll never really know.

I still remember when the first person I wasn’t related to and didn’t actually know in the flesh left a comment. No kidding, it wasn’t until 2012 when I was published in the New York Times that I figured out I had an email address associated with the blog. I’ve been on a steep learning curve ever since.

One good thing about being such a clueless, out of touch, living in the back-country of the developing world, techie idiot is that pretty much everything is astonishing to me, pretty much everything is news to me, pretty much everything besides ‘how to type’ could be put on this list of things I learned about blogging in 2013.

blogging1

1. WordPress is much better than Blogger and owning my own domain name rocks. I can be more creative, take more control over how things look, and better understand what is going on (what resonates with people and what doesn’t, who the audience is and who it isn’t, etc).

2. Writing fewer posts with high quality content is far more important than blogging five days a week. This is also harder. Much easier to write Hey mom look at Henry’s new haircut than to write 15 things to my Third Culture Kids or articulate my thoughts on western attitudes toward the developing world.

3. Earning money blogging takes a lot of work and intentionality and that is as far as I have gotten on the financial side of things. I’m still clueless on how to make money blogging. Maybe that will be a lesson learned in 2014.

4. Hearing from readers is the number one best part about blogging. Different from articles in magazines or even websites where I’m a regular contributor, I feel connected to the people who read Djibouti Jones. Your words carry weight with me and because of the open dialogue nature of blogs, I love the ongoing interaction that is possible in this space.

5. Courage is key. Controversial posts will raise controversy. Putting my words with my face into the public space means people will feel free to write whatever they like about everything from my hair to my childbirth experiences to my character. I’m growing a backbone, I reread Rachel Held Evan’s post about turning painful words into beautiful origami, and I’ve stopped reading all the responses to things I write. I’ve also chosen to never submit articles to certain venues, to understand that cruelty says more about the person speaking it than it says about myself, and that I can be wrong, that I need to be corrected and need to apologize or retract.

6. Blogging is work. As my other writing projects grow and as writing is not my full-time gig, I need to be wise in how much time I spend blogging. Some weeks the posts are almost entirely designed to steer you to another site, to read an article somewhere else. At first I felt guilty about this, like I was cheating readers in some way by not providing original content. No more (another lesson perhaps?), no guilt. I can’t do it all, sometimes you might find a few lines and a link.

7. I love hosting guest bloggers and topical series and hope to do more in the future. The Let’s Talk about Hijab series and the Painting Pictures of a Third Culture Kid Life series were two of the most incredible writing experiences I’ve had yet. The people I met, stories I was privy to, community that was built in the comments, the ways people were challenged and encouraged…I enjoyed providing the space for that and letting others’ words fill it. How amazing was it to hear from writers all across the world? Each guest post felt like a gift.

8. Some posts will resonate with people and some won’t. Sometimes it is surprising to me which way things go. I think a post will fall flat or almost don’t publish it 20 Things Expats Need to Stop Doing and it goes nuts. I think a post is wicked good and it barely raises a flicker on the traffic stats. I’m still trying to figure out what it is that makes a post spread. Timing? Content? Style? Links? Surely content, but what kind? Content that challenges or that makes a person feel comfortable? Content that is vulnerable, but how vulnerable?

9. I have to write for myself. While I do keep my eye on stats and while I do have certain publishing goals, I can’t write exclusively to please everyone else. Never gonna happen anyway. If I want to have fun talking about what the heck am I going to wear in New York City or peeing in the desert while beach-camping once in a while, I will. However, I have to know and be okay with #2, those posts might not bring up the numbers.

10. Photos matter. And they don’t have to be my own. But I like when they are my own, that feels more personal and Djibouti is so unique and receives such limited exposure that I enjoy showcasing our little corner of the world whenever appropriate.

11. Blogging changes how I see the world. I pay more attention, I take notes, I think in story.

Did anyone else learning something helpful, cool, interesting, boring but useful?

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