Sunday, October 21, 2012

Djibouti: Are We Having Fun Yet?

"You should call the Embassy travel office in Djibouti," my colleague told me.  "They can get you a sweet rate at the Kempinski."

After mentioning my intention to spend a weekend across the border in Djibouti, this was the second time I had received this bit of advice in the span of about 10 minutes.

People seemed to think pretty highly of the Kempinski, so I did in fact contact the Embassy travel office for information.

Soon thereafter, I received a confirmation e-mail.  The travel office had reserved a room for me at the special Embassy rate of 40,350 Djiboutian francs (about $230 U.S. dollars) for one night.  Just for kicks, though, I decided to see just how special this "Embassy rate" was; I turned to the internet.  Oddly enough, I found the exact same rate on several websites, including the Kempinski's own, so this rate was nothing too exclusive.

Still, all things equal, I decided it was better to deal directly with a person than with a website; I kept the booking the travel office had made.

The price was a bit more than I normally care to spend for a hotel room, but the Kempinski billed itself as a 5-star property and I decided to splurge.  Furthermore, the flight from Addis Ababa was relatively cheap, so I justified the situation by applying the airfare savings to the hotel.

The day of my trip, I headed to the airport, and after a flight of just over an hour, I landed in Djibouti at 10:30 AM.  I cleared passport control and found a taxi, and I arrived at the Kempinski with a herd of other guests.

When I reached the desk, the clerk pulled up my reservation and asked for my credit card for incidentals.  I handed over my card as requested.

"I'm sorry, sir," she told me, "but we don't take Mastercard."

I was a bit perplexed at this since supposedly my booking had been guaranteed using my Mastercard.  Apparently, the Embassy travel agent accepted Mastercard, but the Kempinski itself did not.

Knowing very well that they didn't accept it, the clerk took my Mastercard and swiped it across her card reader anyway.  It promptly spit out a rejection notice from the bank.

"Do you have another credit card?" she asked me.

As luck would have it, only a week before my trip, I had received in the mail my new card for my new Visa account.  Without this happy coincidence, I would have been left scrounging for a new hotel.  Other than my Mastercard, I had some U.S. cash on me (but not enough for the room) but no ATM card.

My inaugural Visa purchase went through without any problem, and in a matter of minutes, I was watching TV in my king-sized bed.

Nice safety signage in the Kempinski

As I rolled into a more comfortable position in my nest of blankets, something caught my eye: There were dried blood stains on my pillow case.  The stains were brownish in color, so I had no doubt that the pillow case had been laundered after the bleeding had occurred.  Even if the pillow was technically clean, though, I didn't think this anomaly was very 5-star.

I turned the pillow over and watched another movie.  Then, deciding I should probably see something of Djibouti town besides the hotel, I set out on foot for the city center.  It was about 1 PM.

The Kempinski is on the edge of town which is why most normal people take a taxi when they need to go anywhere else.  I, however, decided that a walk would be a nice diversion.

As I set off down the road, flanked by desert, sea, and houses, I started to second guess my decision after only 10 minutes.  The temperature was allegedly in the mid-90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius), but it felt to me like it was at least 150 degrees.  My coming from Addis Ababa, where the temperature is consistently in the 60s and 70s, didn't help matters.

Before long, I passed by a Big Boy restaurant, which was closed and looked completely out of place.

Then I reached the bustling heart of the city.

It wasn't long before street kids started hounding me for money.  In the heat this was even more annoying than usual.

With the help of my guidebook, I strolled through the European and African quarters.  I didn't come across any sights that were too amazing, but the walk was pleasant enough.  I encountered plenty more beggars plus dozens of would-be guides.

"Where are you going?" these guys yelled at me.  "We can show you the way."

Most of these guys, mirroring the rest of the population in Djibouti, were chewing on chat (khat) - a mild stimulant - like stoned cows.

It was around 5 PM that I felt a rumbling in my stomach, so I consulted my guidebook for a restaurant recommendation.  Le Pizzaiolo looked promising.

On my way to the pizzeria, one of the street guides asked me where I was going.  I made the mistake of telling him.

"I'm going to Le Pizzaiolo," I told him, "but I have a map."

"I will take you there," the man said.

Well, try as I may, I could not get rid of this guy.  In twenty minutes, we were standing together outside Le Pizzaiolo.

Although he had provided me with absolutely no assistance, this guy made his pitch.

"I helped you," he told me, "now you help me."  "Give me money!"

Then he continued pleading.

This would have been comical if it hadn't been so annoying.  I had followed my map to Le Pizzaiolo and this guy had orbited around me pretending to help.  In reality, he had added no value whatsoever.

"You didn't help me," I explained, "and I'm not paying you anything."

I went inside the restaurant, and the hostess seated me.  Two minutes later the annoying guy came inside and sat at my table.  He definitely had chutzpah.

"You owe me," he insisted.  "If you won't give me money at least buy me a beer."

I ignored him and pretended to study the menu.

After a moment of this routine, one of the workers walked over.  I thought he was coming to take my order, but I was wrong.

"You are disturbing the other customers," he told us.  "Please keep it down."

This was the last straw for me.  I promptly left the restaurant with my annoying friend in tow.  He perhaps thought he had broken me down, but he could not have been farther from the truth.  I was more determined than before; he was not getting a cent from me.

Once we got outside, I flagged the first taxi I saw and drove off.  For all I know, my "guide" was shaking his fist at me as I departed.

I finished my day with a burger and some beers back at the Kempinski, and then I watched more TV.

Before I went to bed, I hit the shower, and - son of a gun! - there was no hot water.  Granted we were in the desert, but still, the water was chilly.  I was not impressed with this place.

The next day I made a pig of myself at the breakfast buffet and pondered how to spend my final day in Djibouti.  I had had such a stellar day hitting the highlights the day before that I decided not to leave the hotel again until it was time to go to the airport.

After breakfast, I checked my e-mail at the business center, bought a dagger in the gift shop, and booked a massage at the in-house spa.  My massage wasn't until the afternoon, so I decided to hang out at the beach or the pool while I waited.

I went to my room to get my swim trunks, and as I was walking toward the pool, I passed two young ladies in the hallway.

"Hey there, handsome," they greeted me.

These two chicas put the booty in Djibouti, and they were doing their best to look seductive.  Unfortunately, however, they couldn't cover up the skank.  They were prostitutes, and at the Kempinski, they definitely weren't the only ones.

As my friend Kevin would later point out, "Djibouti is dominated by a military base and a port; of course the place is crawling with hookers!"


Talking only briefly with the ladies, I went out the back of the hotel toward the beach.  Unfortunately, the boardwalk was under renovation and the hotel's stretch of sand was closed.

The pool was still open, however, so I took a seat on a lounge chair and ordered a beer.

I barely took a sip before the sky opened up.  Since I had intended to swim anyway, I figured there was no harm in a little rain, and I didn't bother to seek cover.  I thought the rain would subside fairly quickly, but after 20 minutes, there was no end in sight.

lanterns in the Kempinski

I returned to my room and watched a Jackie Chan movie.

When I had booked my massage, the reservationist had told me I should report to the spa at least 15 minutes early.

Having nothing better to do, I arrived half an hour early - at 3:30 for a 4 o'clock massage.

I checked in and the spa receptionist told me to have a seat.  Twenty minutes later she finally got back to me.  She gave me some forms to fill out, which I did, and then she gave me some jasmine tea.  After that she gave me a robe to wear, and I changed and met my masseuse.  By the time she actually started on my Abhyanga massage, it was 4:15.

Abhyanga massage uses hot oil and light pressure, and it was relaxing.  I was surprised, however, when the masseuse stopped rubbing promptly at 5 o'clock.

"I'm finished now," she told me.  "I hope you enjoyed it."

I pointed out that I had paid for an hour, not 45 minutes, but the masseuse didn't care.

"Your booking ends at 5," she told me.  "We can't be held responsible that you started late."

"That I started late?"  I rolled this phrase around in my mind for a moment.  I had arrived 30 minutes early and I was completely ignored for much of that time.  The spa was totally responsible for the late start!

Being completely conflict-averse, however, I only argued my case in the weakest way imaginable.  My complaints naturally fell on deaf ears, but I did get a small measure of revenge: I left without giving a tip.

Shortly after my massage, it was time for me to head back to the airport.

I was one of the first people to arrive for my flight, and the terminal was not yet open for business.  After half an hour, though, the doors opened and I checked in.

I was the first person through passport control and the first person in the departure lounge.

I ordered a beer while I was waiting, and as I was minding my own business playing sudoku, a uniformed security officer of some sort came bounding into the room.

"I'm looking for Christopher Coal," he announced.

I figured he was talking about me, so I identified myself.

"Get your bags," he instructed, "and follow me."

I was naturally a bit curious as to what the problem was, but in the end it turned out to be nothing at all.  The guard led me all the way back to the check-in counter so the ticket agent could verify the credit card I had used to purchase my ticket.  Then the guard hurriedly returned me to the lounge.  It was fun on the way back because we got to cut both the security and the passport queues, and I'm sure the other passengers were wondering what was happening.

As my plane lifted off, I thought back on my weekend in Djibouti.  "Meh" pretty much summed it up.


Rosemary said...

Meh is right!

I had a massage at the Kempinski Spa in Budapest and it was very odd, too.

Anonymous said...

"These two chicas put the booty in Djibouti"

One of your best lines ever.


Wallyworld said...

Now that's a Djibouti Call!

Anonymous said...

Oh CC boy, what an adventure to remember! Your guranntee for warrantee,Hahaha Hehehe!


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris...been a long time. How r u? Interesting trip... I bet the experience in Papua was nothing compared to this...hopefully :)....