Where the heck is Djibouti and what are we doing here?

I was surprised to hear a mention of Djibouti on the Ellen DeGeneres show recently,  since it isn’t a place that gets a lot of press!  The reason why it struck me is that when I was in my early 20’s, my former husband and I were on our way to Madagascar where he was being assigned to work at a NASA tracking station on that island.

We were to fly from Paris to Tananarive (now called Antananarivo), the capital of Madagascar, overnight with a stopover to re-fuel in Djibouti, French Somaliland (now called Djibouti, Djibouti).  Looking down as we were landing, it looked as though someone had painted an X in the middle of the desert!  We landed to 108 degree temperatures in November, were shepherded into a steel hangar for a “breakfast” of warm lunch meat, warm orange juice, cold croissant and a pickle (!) while the plane refueled.

Our Air Madagascar flight took off a short time later and immediately returned to Djibouti as our plane had lost an engine!  They kept a planeload of passengers in the hangar all day while assessing the problem, and since my husband, another NASA worker, and I were the only Americans on the plane, no one would talk to us!

Finally, with my fractured high school French I was able to discern that we were staying overnight while another plane was being sent from Paris!  After over eight hours in the heated airplane hangar (and we were all in winter clothes from our trans-Atlantic flights from New York and Paris), the airline personnel let us take one piece of luggage from the plane, shepherded us onto buses and drove us into town.

I felt as if we had entered an old movie about the French Foreign Legion and discerned later that there actually was a Legion outpost outside of town. Trying to find lodging for over 200 people was quite a challenge for the airline personnel, but my husband and I ended up in a room above a bar (which we later found out was a house of “ill repute”!) The adventure continued when they sent a bus around town to corral everybody, took us on a little sightseeing tour and then to dinner!

Our meal (turned out it was just an appetizer and drinks) took place at tables scattered around a little building under trees and it was a cool and pleasant setting.  While dining, we noticed several animals – a cheetah, a monkey, a camel and a few other creatures – tied to nearby trees. We learned later we had been enjoying our snacks at the national zoo.

Next, the buses picked us all up and dropped us at our various resting spots.  When we arrived back at our “hotel”, a lovely feast was waiting for us in the bar.  Filet mignon, spiny lobsters and all the trimmings!

Very early the next morning we were picked up and taken back to the airport where we saw our wounded Air Madagascar plane and next to it an Air France jet.  We boarded the new plane and finally reached our goal of the island of Madagascar, a day late, but enriched by the unexpected adventure in an old French Foreign Legion post town!

You can see why the name Djibouti evokes memories!!

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