I am the last one through immigration on the last plane of the night. I have a pretty new visa in my passport but that does nothing to satisfy me. This is a short trip just to see what I can before Micronesia. I am tired. Tired of new countries, of getting scammed, of paying for endless flights. I’ve got a job in Micronesia, and this is just means to an end. At least for now. I will be airlifted from Addis in a week’s time, first to Germany then Japan, then to Guam before I set down in Chuuk at the expense of my future employer. That makes me happy. Where I am going is remote and tickets from there to virtually anywhere worth going cost at least a thousand bucks.
I haven’t got any Djibouti money, so I go to an ATM outside the airport and insert my cash card. I get the smallest denomination, 2000 Francs, to pay the cab driver. My money pops out and I go, hailing the only driver left before the airport shuts down for the evening.
“You need money?” he asks.
“No, I have 2000. Deux mille. C’est bon?”
It is not bon, but it’s going to have to be. I’m too tired to be charitable to some bottom-of-the-barrel cabbie with ripped seats and no air conditioning. He thinks I need him, but I know he needs me.
“You have bank card?” he asks, implying that I can get more cash with a guy he knows so I can pay him more.
Instead, I receive his question as “did you get your bank card from the machine?” I search my pockets and run back to the ATM. Nothing. I check each pocket three times. Rien. I have finally lost something that is effectively irreplaceable until I land in Micronesia.
Absolutely Fucked… Pardon My French.
I have to survive for at least two weeks without access to cash because either my card was stolen or because some Djiboutian ATM ate my card. I get on my driver’s WiFi hotspot and lock my card. What do I do? How will I manage? I know the answers to these questions before I ask them.
I will get money wired from my parents, and/or pay with credit cards as much as possible. I’ll be frugal. I’ll drain the hundred bucks I have in American dollars. And I will, as I always have, get by with what I’ve got.
Though my wallet is coping well with the loss, my mind is not. How could I let this happen? Why was I so stupid? I like to think that I get better with every country that I visit. That I get smarter.
I know I put immense pressure on myself but I feel I have to, and perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe I don’t have to, but this mistake will haunt me for weeks. I know that. And while I’ll figure it out I do not like making these mistakes, especially if it means I’ll have to rely on my parents stateside to pull me out of this mess.
The driver drops me off at my place and, when he asks me for more money, I coldly tell him “je n’ai pas.” I don’t have any. I slam the door and walk past the doorman into my hotel complex. The guard tells the cabbie to “shoo” and I begin to check in with one of the employees while rapidly communicating via messenger with my bank to see if my card is in use. I ask where to get dinner nearby with a credit card, and she points me to a fondue restaurant a block away on the poorly-paved, poorly-lit road. This registers as a strange time and place for fondue, but my mind is focused on more pressing matters.
I step into the bar, where Africans are waiters and not a single customer has a complexion darker than mine. I instantly feel as though I’ve walked into a party to which I was not explicitly invited but could easily blend in with no one being the wiser. So high school. I am white. I speak some European languages. I am, according to my visa, a “tourist.” And yet I feel like I am in a place more foreign than Europe and the Horn of Africa multiplied, because I have entered the realm of unironic post-colonial puppetry.
Let me speak candidly, for I have little else to speak of than sheer emotions on this brief self-inflicted layover. I thought Djibouti was better off. They have a fancy US Army base, and they speak French. That said, I see nothing but Europeans who came to the most random possible place to spend their vacation. The streets are of unwieldy stone and dust, and desperation drives locals to pursue the American Dollar the same as anywhere else. But unlike most other places, there are carbon copied Western Europeans here with an unclear agenda and an apparent love for mojitos and camel burgers. I try both. I am impressed by neither, though I admit that this night was destined to be ruined from the beginning.
As they press their lips against one another’s cheeks I wonder if they do that to express their wishes that they could kiss the other two. Say what you will about Americans, but Europeans, when left to their own colonial devices, can yell “mojitos!” and clink glasses just as loudly as any new world sorority survivors. I hope you realize my complaints strictly come from an emotional place and not from criticism of Western Europe or it’s people. My own mother grew up kissing close relatives on their cheeks; my father, an Italian-American, passed down the hand-talking gene to me and routinely pronounces “mozzarella” as if it has way fewer vowels than it actually does. C’est la vie.
This is my last new country of adventure for awhile, and I arrive at the realization that I am, at the very least, fulfilling destiny by reentering the workforce. I have no access to cash, so the natural solution when one is penniless is to find work. It’s time to pass out in this concrete air conditioned Djiboutian waterbnb (waterboard and breakfast) , so I take a pill cocktail of antihistamines, antimalarials, and sleeping pills just like that nauseous night in Peru so many months ago.
My new objective is to survive on nothing but my remaining credit limit and the hundred or so dollars I have in my backpack, before I am airlifted by my new job to Micronesia. I have a ticket reserved to Addis, my departure point, but when I make it to their office a mile from my hotel to pay, they A) do not accept credit card and B) will only issue me a direct flight due to the visa on arrival only being attainable there. If they sold me the ticket I reserved today, I could slip out at layover Dire Dawa unregistered. Of course, I do have an expired visa from only a few days before and was admitted and documented then without a problem, but there are no multiple entries for visas issued upon arrival in Ethiopia. I must pay twice and fill two whole pages in my passport with Ethiopian visas for the cost of 50 USD apiece. My cash will be decimated and I grow nervous, considering how I don’t even have a ticket to Ethiopia yet.
This constant closing of doors allows me to see more clearly which ones still remain open. A plan quickly crystallizes. If I book online for a flight that embarks greater than 24 hours from time of purchase, I can buy a ticket online on credit. There is an 7 pm direct flight the following day, so if I make it back to the hotel before 7 today I can buy it. I will simply extend my stay another night in Djibouti, despite how much it will cost me, and try to live cheaply off of whatever I can scrounge around town. I’ll ask my owner if I can stay in my air-conditioned, WiFi-connected room until I have to leave, and I’ll just stay in much-cheaper Addis Ababa until I depart for Micronesia.
All of my bookings go well, and my Addis Airbnb even accepts to host me till the day I am to leave for Micronesia. I have shelter accounted for, and water comes free with my hotel along with tea and coffee, so now it is time to find food in this surprise survival expedition on the Horn of Africa. I thankfully find an upscale grocery store nearby that accepts cards. When I walk in it just looks like any store, but everything is imported from France or thereabouts, and most items cost more than they would in the United States. Now, I am to atone for the relatively stress-free life that credit cards have afforded me. Cash is still King in Djibouti, despite France and the United States having close cultural and military ties, respectively, with the nation. Now it will cost me dearly to survive in this country on only a visa and a Visa™, when a few dollars would have done me a lot of good.
In the grocery stores of former French Somaliland, it becomes clear that the natural response to “I don’t want to pay a lot for food” is “buy a bunch of hors d’oeuvres, that way you aren’t paying for a full meal.” While the rationale seems more Spanish than French, I have no time to question, so I seek out the cheapest meat, cheese, and bread items and buy them. I wind up with sliced sausage, a wheel of spreadable cheese triangles, and those weird miniature toast things that I cannot imagine any real person enjoys eating. Everything is on sale, and I hope to make this Kerouacian eight-dollar meal last through the following day.
My vittles hardly last through breakfast. Fortunately, I have an entire day to lay about, write, and plan cheap meals with imported French groceries. At the Cash N’ Save, I recall a story someone told me once about a person who lived for months subsisting only on beer. I buy a four-pack and some crackers and decide to explore the European Djibouti I witnessed the night before: that of getting buzzed in the hot, sandy twilight.
On a bathroom break I am apprehended by the chef-in-training at my hotel/motel/cabin in the desert. I have my living quarters, my own AC unit which I abuse, and bed. I hardly leave, but when I do I often see Aden, who is on a work visa here from Eritrea. An outspoken, worldly individual, she is now learning how to cook Chinese food for the CHINATOWN HOTEL & RESTAURANT, but spends most of her time alone in her room or assisting the housekeeping staff. She invites me to have drink with her and a few of the other guests, and I readily agree. I’m not sober enough to want to be left alone, and not yet drunk enough to want to go to bed, so I go to my room, grab my last beer, and open a box of tiny individually-wrapped cakes to share with my new friends: the Chinese chef, the Eritrean sous-chef, a stoic, sober Yemeni, and a Frenchman who now works in Ethiopia with his Ethiopian wife. Four continents are accounted for between us, and we get along fine by touting the universal world-traveler agenda whereby no one is evil due to his or her nationality, and wherein diversity builds resilience. It is close to dawn when we finish laughing and adoring and inquiring, and I sleep clear till noon in my cold desert pod.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.