Djibouti: One Giant Game of Frogger

So I’ve been promising some of you a post about my daily adventure here: specifically, driving.  Wow.  This country is chaos on the roads!!  On my daily commute, the scene I pass is very far removed from what I’m used to in the U.S., but no less chaotic than a big American city.  For those who are familiar, think Canal Street/Chinatown in Manhattan, but with less organized vehicular traffic.  The reason for this chaos isn’t the volume of traffic, though, it’s the pedestrians, animals on the street, and other vehicles. What I see on a daily basis has not yet become normal to me.  Now, camels roaming around the road are not uncommon, though thankfully I have yet to have any close encounters with them… much like Moose in the northeastern US & Canada, you hit a Camel and you’re likely to total your car.  And also much like Moose, Camels can run faster than they look like they’d be able to!  One difference though: Camels seem much less skittish than any Moose I’ve encountered, and will not hesitate to wander towards your car – and I’m told they kick!!  (Knock wood that I won’t be able to ever give a first-hand account of that!!)  And the funny thing about the Camels is this: if one causes property damage by kicking or hitting your car, but the Camel is fine and injury-free, it doesn’t seem to have an owner.  But I’m told that if you hit one and kill it, its owner will come out of the woodwork and demand payment for his livestock.  When I first arrived here and was given the run-down of things by a coworker charged with orienting me to life in Djibouti I was given this advice: if you get into an accident and kill a goat or camel, don’t pay for it on the spot.  Give them your contact info, and tell them to come in to the office the following business day, and a local, non-American, employee will help to negotiate a fair price for the dead animal.  Otherwise, you might get ripped off.  Good to know.  Where am I again????? 🙂

More common sightings around the streets of Djibouti are stray pack-dogs.  Most Djiboutians don’t keep dogs as pets, so the dogs that are here are mostly wild, travel in groups, and have been known to aggressively approach and gang-up on people and other animals.  They don’t seem to be too scared of cars and can never be counted on to stay to the side of the road when you drive by… I’m sure many of them get hit regularly with that kind of behavior.  And after having gone on evening walks only to be growled at, barked at, and chased by them, and having watched them harass people and domesticated animals alike (those pets being mostly dogs owned by ex-pats, being walked on leashes – Djiboutians think this is a strange sight, as they really don’t seem to understand keeping dogs as pets), it’s hard to muster up too much sympathy for the ones that do get hit though.  Other animals that are likely to meet their untimely demise under the wheels of a motor vehicle here are goats.  Goats are everywhere.  It seems that people who raise goats (much like camels) just let them wander around and eat garbage.  I suppose it’s cheaper than actually having to feed your goat, and it does take care of some of the garbage problem, as people seem to think nothing of littering here and there is trash everywhere.  I will say this for the goats though: they seem to understand and accept their lot in life, and mostly keep to the edges of the road, avoiding traffic.   I have had to actively avoid people, buses, stray dogs, mopeds, trucks, and other cars, but the goats have pretty much stayed out of my way.  Maybe they’re smarter than they look!

Now, we’ve talked about the animals that make driving a challenge here, but I have yet to even mention the people.  Their role in making this area tough driving is not a small one!  Pedestrians and drivers alike increase the challenge of driving here.  What I don’t understand is why the pedestrians don’t have a healthier fear of getting hit by a car… it must happen all the time, based on what I see on a daily basis.  But they don’t seem to think anything of wandering out into the middle of the road whenever the whim strikes.  There are crosswalks (in some areas too many – you don’t need to have one every hundred yards.  All that does is impede traffic too much on busy streets) but no one seems to worry about whether or not they are in one, even though there are more than enough of them.  They cross the street without looking whenever the urge hits them, and they walk in the street as a matter of course.  There’s a sense of entitlement to be in the street that pedestrians have here that I’ve never before encountered anywhere.  It has not yet ceased to amaze me.  And that’s just the pedestrians!!

Lets talk a little bit about driving laws and other cars!  Driving laws seem to be fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-make-them-up-as-you-go-along.  As I’ve understood it, if you come to a circle (or round-about, as some call them), the traffic on the circle has the right of way.  Well, that’s true for all of the circles in town except for one, right by the main part of downtown.  For some reason, that’s not the case for that circle, and traffic on the circle yields to traffic coming in, but apparently only from certain directions – which makes no sense at all, but every day I drive past here, and that’s what happens.  In general, defensive driving is a good plan.  Don’t count on any other vehicle to stay in its lane, or in any way do what you expect them to do.  There’s a certain sense that if you don’t just throw yourself into the mix and go with the flow, so to speak, you might never get anywhere, so to some degree or another, everyone just holds their breath and jumps on in!  It’s not uncommon to see cars driving down the wrong side of the road, almost daring you to play chicken with them, only to swerve back into their own lane at the last possible second.

From:, a picture of a Djiboutian bus

And the buses (think old-school VW vans, or the Scooby-Doo Mystery Van – same psychedelic, do-it-yourself paint jobs.  And interesting and creative names that always crack me up.  Here are some of the names I’ve seen so far: Kanye West, J Bauer, Obama …. It’s a varied and interesting list.  I’ll try to snap a picture sometime, but for now I’ll just borrow someone else’s!)  Oh, the buses.  So these “buses” are all colorful, which might be the best thing I can say about them, because it makes them hard to miss.  I suppose they need to do something to draw your eye, since they swerve out in front of you with no warning signs, so spotting them from a distance gives you a chance to prepare!  I’m guessing the indicator lights are out on most of them, because you often see people waving their arms out one side of the bus or the other, though you can’t always tell if they are indicating a turn, or just waving hello to someone they see along the side of the road.  I haven’t entirely understood the bus “system” – there are literally men/boys hanging out of the door/side of each bus, and I think these are the driver’s assistants, though I don’t really understand what it is they do.  I haven’t had to take bus yet, and I don’t really plan to, as I don’t speak the local dialect (sort of a Somali-French patois, so I understand every 10th word or so as I speak French, which is the official working language, but that’s about it), and have no idea what the bus routes are (if there are even formal bus routes – I haven’t even figured THAT out) so I’m afraid of where I’d end up, and how I might get home if I attempted it!  And the taxis are no better.  Thankfully, I haven’t had to rely on them much.  I can say the taxis are unpredictable, and I’ve been cut off by at least one every time I’ve driven anywhere, which gets tiresome, to be sure.

One thing was explained to me that helped me understand the Djiboutian driving-style a little bit better though.  One of the ex-pats told me that when he was in another part of Africa a local explained it to him like this: ‘we (i.e., the locals) are not very far removed from small village life.  We drive the same way we walked around town.  If you see someone you know, you go to that person and you say hello, no matter if you’re in a car or on foot.  So if they’re across the street, and you have to swerve across the street in your car, going the wrong way against traffic that’s what you do.’  Maybe understanding that Djiboutians drive like they walk will help me… but then again, understanding that they constantly walk out into traffic doesn’t prevent it from happening right in front of me at any given moment, so I think it’s just going to remain a challenge.  Like one giant, live, blood & guts version of the old Atari game, Frogger.  Perhaps I’ll call it Cameller.  Goatter?  Whatever, welcome to Djibouti!!

Signing off for now,

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