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.
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!”
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.
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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