Calendar   Home
Previous Day

March 14, 2002

Next Day
From Dire Dawa, destination Djibouti Town: catch a train by waking up at 4:30 AM and finding your way in the dark to the station. Stand in line. The excitement starts when the gate opens. Press through the throng, reach the platform, and think, "Is this the train?" Sit on a rough bench, a grate covers the open window beside you, an aisle of humanity forms in the middle: bearded and wrinkled qat dealers, women veiled in every rainbow color, Somali tribesmen wearing long knives with worn handles. You, the passenger, hand your ticket to the conductor, respectfully, because he's armed with a machine gun. Everything's geared to move but the train goes nowhere because the locomotive is under repair, a 3 hour delay. Meat hangs on a rack under your luggage and it rocks slowly as the train lurches out of the station. The tracks roll through a cactus field, then miles of flat desert sand and scrub. It travels so slowly that hitchhikers run and catch rides. People sit in the aisle, dust comes through the window and carries the sweaty smell of cramped people, freshly chewed qat, burning cigarettes. A small girl, dressed in bright colors, flutters like a bird before a milky-eyed blind man who walks on a peg leg. Small villages grow in the desert; rock pile huts, railroad tie fences, thatch goat pens. The train brings opportunity. Villagers rush forward to sell fried bread and peppered goat flesh. Passengers buy items through the open windows in a frenzy; in minutes the train moves again. Peg leg blows his nose into his open palm. The train rolls through an unchanging scene of flat, brown sand. Finally, after many village stops and long delays at border posts, it pulls into Djibouti Town at midnight.
On this train everyone seemed to be a qat smuggler. This popular and leafy drug is ten times more expensive (due to tariffs) in Djibouti than Ethiopia. One bold lady with attitude (she glared at anyone who came too close) faked being pregnant to carry a huge load of qat over the border. Even the train conductor participated in smuggling; he stopped the train in the no-man's land between Ethiopia and Djibouti so all of the smugglers could jump off and unload their booty. Next time we'll take our own load of qat from Ethiopia into Djibouti.
Villagers rush to sell goods to the passing train. The armed conductor hangs on the outside looking for stowaways.