Dust on the Djibouti Trail

Rockfish, hand grenades, and helicopters, all in a day's jog in Arta Plage.

By / September 2012

The best way, I’ve found, to experience Djibouti is in my tennis shoes. I run slowly. It enables me to notice small, ephemeral details: the disappearing tails of rock badgers, the flies buzzing over a bird carcass. Last October, on a camping trip with my family to Arta Plage, a beach a hundred kilometers outside of Djibouti City, I slipped on my white running skirt, laced up my Asics, and took off.

After jogging in long pants and baggy t-shirts in Djibouti City, I felt almost naked with my arms and calves exposed to the sun. I also felt light and singular. Only one other woman I knew had ever run on these trails, between these hills, on this beach. Few Djiboutian women run. My friend Awo believes it will hinder her ability to get pregnant. “And,” she says, “I don’t want to be skinny, get muscles, and look like a man.”

I do not tell her that, at sixty pounds overweight and with a headscarf wound tightly over her hair, she has little chance of ever being mistaken for a man. I have already given birth to three children and do not mind developing muscles, so I run.

On this October morning, I veered away from the beach toward the hills of Arta village. Behind me, Tom, my husband, unfolded beach chairs and set out a cooler filled with baguettes, water bottles, and chicken salad. Our ten-year old twins climbed the hill that would shade us in the late afternoon. They were scavenging for discarded bullet casings and exploded hand grenades. The French military has a permanent training facility at Arta Plage. Djiboutian and US military occasionally use the beach as a training ground whenever beach bums, desperate for a break from the city, do not interfere. At the crest of the hill the kids scrambled over a marble memorial with the names of French Legionnaires killed during an exercise in 2006.

I could see the two of them, peach and red in their bright swimsuits, against the gray and black of volcanic rock. As soon as their cheeks reddened from exertion, I knew they would plunge down the hill, straight into the blue-black water of the Gulf of Tadjourah, which feeds into the Red Sea.

I passed between two buildings. They had once been white-washed, but were now the color of stained cement and peeling paint. Someone, sometime, had dreamed of making Arta an oasis, with individual motel-like rooms. But the government had never paved the road and only the brave and intrepid made the adventurous drive to swim here. The buildings were abandoned decades ago, remnants of colonial visions. For a while, they were toilets and changing rooms, but now the stench drove people further out into the desert to do their business.

Large chunks of cement fell from the buildings, stairs were split open, and torn cloths lined cracked lattice windows. The row of dilapidated houses reminded me of photos of bombed-out Mogadishu.

A camel leaped into my path, startled by my footsteps. We eyed each other patiently. She stepped aside, stretched her neck, and nibbled on a yellow plastic bag tangled in a thorn tree. Three diagonal lines were carved into the skin of her long neck and she wore a wooden camel bell, simply and elegantly carved.

My progress was slow, the path led over pebbles and through shifting sand, and I had to concentrate on not rolling my ankles or stepping on three-inch thorns. On my left was the hillside and I was saddened to see more garbage caught in thorns and bushes than I remembered from our last campout. Beer cans, candy bar wrappers, used toilet paper, and cracked beach toys.

Usually, on my right, there would have been open space dotted by boulders and acacia trees and sometimes a herd of goats led by a young Somali girl in a colorful, flowing dress. Today though, the US military had set up camp. Djibouti is home to the only US military base on the African continent. The troops, it seemed, had invaded our beach.

They set up a perimeter fence and posted tanks and armed guards every twenty feet. I knew the soldiers weren’t allowed to run off of Camp Lemonier, the base in the city. I’d heard their stories of one-mile lap after one-mile lap and felt bad that even here, in the open spaces, they were still confined by rules and security concerns. I felt their eyes on me as I ran by, felt their silent surprise at the sight of a woman running alone in the steamy desert. I waved at them, but knew they couldn’t wave back. I felt joyfully free and hopped over a gully left behind by flash floods during the last rain, months ago.

Three kilometers inland, I turned around. I hoped the kids or our fellow campers had been able to catch a fish. Sometimes the net would pull in puffer fish, which we threw back, and sometimes baby black tip reef shark, which we grilled.

I waved again at the US military personnel but they weren’t looking at me. They were watching the sky. I heard the helicopter before I saw it and then, there it was, a black speck over the distant hill. The speck grew and zoomed closer. I started to feel wind on my neck, then there was the zing of grains of sand, like a hundred biting ants. The acacia trees were bending low and the camel was long gone.

I was in trouble. If I didn’t pick up the pace, I’d be caught in the middle of a vicious, blinding dust storm. Ahead was the frothy blue of the sea, behind, Arta village, and between us, helicopter propellers about to zap me with thousands of pebbles, thorns, and a curtain of dust.

All I saw was brown: military fatigues, rocks, dust. I pictured myself running straight into the coral reef: fluorescent pink and green formations, clown fish, octopi, eels, sea turtles, blue sea anemone. And the massive, spotted whale sharks, as long as a city bus. I had to get there, I had to run through this tornado of stinging dirt.

The helicopter hovered over the US camp. Suddenly, it plunged down and I sprinted forward. I burst through the space between two of the rundown, white-washed buildings just as the helicopter landed. A billow of dust swirled up behind me and rolled toward the ocean. I could taste it on my tongue and ground dirt between my teeth. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw tanks and soldiers, machine guns at the ready.

Tom looked up from tending the fire, where a fish lay split open over the coals. The sound of the helicopter blocked all the noise of my breathing and my pounding feet. I knew my face was red and dripping with dirty sweat streaks. My white skirt was now dingy and brown.

That last sprint to keep ahead of the dust had exhausted me and I collapsed into a beach chair. Tom stared at me a moment. He touched my hair, which had turned into a frizzy, blond halo. “You looked like you were running through Mogadishu,” he said.

I looked behind me. The military, the bombed out buildings, the swelling dust storm.

A French woman approached us with an octopus dangling at the end of a spear. The twins sat near the water, Maggie with a string of shells and Henry with a string of casings. Our youngest, Lucy, splashed in the water with an inner tube tight around her middle. Two donkeys hovered near our fire, probably hoping for fish.

Someone further down the beach shouted and pointed and we saw a whale shark’s fin saw through the waves less than a hundred meters from shore. I grinned, grabbed a pair of goggles and flippers, and, still wearing my running clothes, ran straight into the unpredictability and wide openness of the sea.


Rachel Pieh Jones has written for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, EthnoTraveler, and Running Times. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children and blogs at www.djiboutijones.com.