It was a short flight to Djibouti. Ahmed was surprised to find it drizzling and in the mid-80s when they landed, but he reminded himself that even arid climates have wet seasons. He flagged a taxi and asked to be taken to the Hotel Horseed where he’d been told there was a room reserved for him.
The cabbie, a young black man in khaki pants rolled halfway to the knees, put Ahmed’s bag in the trunk and held the rear door open for him. The taxi left the airport, turned onto the Boulevard du Général de Gaulle and headed northeast to the city. The boulevard took them past miles of blowing refuse, mud, and stinking hovels. People sat in the rain in front of their houses, flat-topped boxes of corrugated tin, plywood, cardboard, and canvas haphazardly slapped together. Doors and open spaces—unglazed windows, he assumed—were covered with blankets or sheets hung from ropes strung across the openings. Mud was everywhere; drainage didn’t exist.
Now and then he caught a glimpse of an alley or maybe an old creek bed behind the shacks. It seemed to be filled with stagnant water, but rain on the cab’s window interfered with his view. Ahmed rolled down the window for a better look. The acrid, all enveloping stench of raw sewage blasted up his nostrils. It was so strong in the humidity and heat that a foul taste coated his tongue.
“Idiot!” his cabbie yelled. “Don’t ever open a window in this part of town.”
Ahmed already had the window closed. He pulled out a handkerchief and spit, trying to get the odor and taste out of his mouth. The stagnant streams are open sewers, he thought.
The hovels gradually gave way to crumbling French colonial two-story buildings with arches and wrought-iron balconies. The roads in front of them had less trash lying about. Open stalls selling cooking pots and things he couldn’t identify crowded around the buildings. Oversized black umbrellas covered some of the stalls.
A bit more than ten minutes after leaving the airport the cab turned off the boulevard and onto a clean street lined with trees and graceful French colonial buildings painted white, cream, tan or pale yellow, with touches of light blue or rust-colored trim. The cabbie pulled up a drive and stopped at a two-story entrance, covered with blue-glazed panels. The two white wings of the building were built in a style Ahmed thought of as Modern American Ugly. It gave him the impression of a hotel trying to look like a cheap motel.
“That will be 800 Djibouti Francs,” the cabbie said. “Unless you want me to find a woman for you tonight. I know many girls, Ethiopians, Somali, Djibouti. Do anything you want. Very eager, very clean—almost virgins. Just got into town. Or I can bring you a boy or a big stud—all very clean, too.”
Ahmed curled his lip in disgust. He’d heard about Djibouti’s rampant prostitution and the concomitant AIDS and antibiotic-resistant STDs. “I don’t have Djibouti Francs,” he said. “There wasn’t an ATM at the airport. Will you take US dollars?”
The cabbie pursed his lips, looked at the sky and pretended to calculate the fare at the current exchange rate. He picked a number that would fuck this tourist really good. “Okay. Twenty dollars American. Women or boys extra. What kind you want?”
Ahmed gave the cabbie a twenty, took his bag from the man, and walked into the hotel without answering. He checked into the hotel in an open-air lobby shaded by palms. Not as bad as he’d expected. Through a window he saw waves breaking on a sandy beach a few yards from the back of the hotel. Gulf of Aden. Maybe things are looking up, he thought. “How much per night is the room?” he asked the clerk.
“Six thousand Djibouti Francs. That’s a little over thirty-six dollars, American,” the clerk added as he handed Ahmed a brass key.
Ahmed did a double take. “Thirty-six dollars?”
The clerk nodded as he filed the form with the information Ahmed had supplied. “Breakfast can be served tomorrow for 550 Djibouti Francs extra. That would be a little over three dollars American.”
Ahmed felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. “Then 800 Djibouti Francs would be,” he did some rough calculations in his head. “Less than five dollars American.” His fists clenched and his knee throbbed as he said it.
The clerk nodded. “About that. There is a produce market down the road and a restaurant. Return to the hotel by ten o’clock tonight or you will be locked out. The gates to the grounds are closed and locked at night to avoid theft.”
“Too late for that,” Ahmed muttered and picked up his bag.
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