This blog sprouted from a memory stirred up by a Skype conversation I had this weekend with my grandson and his girlfriend whose family came to New York City from Yemen. I asked her how Yemenis came into the U.S. She responded either through Malaysia or Djibouti adding that Malaysia was faster and more efficient. She didn’t say that Djibouti was not only slower but more corrupt, although I felt that was understood.

Djibouti is a country, a member of the United Nations, of 900,000 people in an area of 9,000 square miles positioned between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden on the horn of Africa. It’s capital is also named Djibouti. It is perfectly located for trading and smuggling. In 1977 it voted itself independent from France. The average temperature is between 32 and 41 Celsius, 89 to 104 Fahrenheit. There are 18 doctors for every 100,000 people. Many countries have a small military presence there—France, the U.S.—and according to a friend of mine who knows about such things, a CIA encampment.

I knew Djibouti existed but knew nothing about it when I went to Ethiopia.  I have often gone to places on a whim—to Thailand because my mother said that women sold vegetables in the canals from peapod boats, to Inle Lake in Burma because I saw a picture of the spires of temples rising from its waters, to Guangxi, China because all my life I have seen scroll paintings of various centuries with craggy, camel hump mountains in the background. I had no visual stimulus for Djibouti but its location on a map is intriguing. And then there was the name, which is such fun to roll around one’s mouth.

I had at first planned to take the train from Addis to Djibouti but then I went south to Harar because I wanted to see the remains of its walls and gates, its 10th century mosques, its old houses including the one Rimbaud purportedly lived in–not that I am much of a fan of this slave and drug dealing poet– and decided I would go to Djibouti from there. Having seen the tourist sights and one night attempted to feed a hyena, at first a length of somebody’s intestine on a stick, then a bloody bone and finally a bucket of butcher remnants.  This time I was successful with several terrified hyenas—it is up for grabs as to which was more terrified the hyenas or me—I went down to the railway station to buy a ticket to Djibouti.

I smiled at the man at the ticket window, a handsome, polite man—two qualities common in Ethiopia– and said, “One second class ticket to Djibouti, please.” I knew there was no first class.

“There is no longer second class to Djibouti,” he said.

“All right, then I will take third class,” I declared slightly reluctantly.

“I will not sell it to you,” he stated firmly.

Completely taken aback I asked, “Why is that?”

“Because you will have to sleep on top of the cargo, there are no seats in third class, and your fellow passengers will rob you while you sleep.”

In hindsight I think he was right about the sleeping conditions but not about the robbing, necessarily. My experience with my fellow passengers on Ethiopian trains, which I didn’t yet have, now suggests to me that I might have come out of the experience monetarily intact with a number of new friends.

But since he was adamant I gave in.

“Then I would like a second class ticket to Addis Ababa, please, if there is no first class.”

“There is not,” he stated and handed me a ticket for Addis, which I duly paid for.

The train was leaving in the early evening; therefore, I went back to my hotel that I suspected of being more brothel than hotel. I rarely seemed to be able to successfully discern the difference in Ethiopia between a brothel and a hotel.  I packed up and around 4:30 wandered down to the station with my bag.

There was an annoyed scrum of men and women all with an assortment of bags, suitcases, tied up bundles, gathered on a platform next to another platform where a tired, shabby train stood with all its windows and doors open. They were irritated because that was our train and we weren’t being allowed yet to board it.

Looking over my fellow passengers I noticed that a large number of the women seemed to be stout, except one young woman with lustrous café au lait skin and sharp black eyes who was joking with and teasing everyone from guards to fellow passengers. She wore a long black skirt and a Fila jacket that was about three sizes too large for her.

We were, after perhaps fifteen minutes during which my fellow passengers became more and more vocal, allowed to cross the intervening tracks to the next platform and our train.

I found a seat near a window, forced my bag under my seat, arranged my purse between me and the car’s wall with another small bag with food and water next to my feet. This done, I looked around me. Opposite I was delighted to see the young woman in the Fila jacket, next to me one of the stout ladies and across from her a man with odd, staring eyes whose lap was filled by a bag full of khat. He spent the entire trip breaking off leaves and chewing them. He never spoke to any of us.

My two female companions were extremely busy settling themselves, their bags. Everyone in the car was engrossed in opening and closing bags, taking out piles of fabric, cheap, very brightly figured, possibly Indian, material in sarong lengths. Some were in plastic bags, which were discarded on the floor or in the aisle. My Fila companion, without asking, tucked a bottle of perfume into my food bag. I returned it to her but as I realized what was going on I motioned her to put it back in.  I was in the midst of smugglers.

In hopes of encouraging the purchase of local fabric the Ethiopian government had put a high tariff on cheap imported fabric. The result was a boom in fabric traffic between Djibouti and Addis Ababa. The Fila girl and the other woman stacked fabric under them, tucked it in behind them, rammed it down between the seats. I offered to sit on some of Fila’s, tucked in some behind me and yet more between my side and my purse against the wall. They might, I thought, confiscate the material, but I doubted they would arrest a pale, more than middle-aged American female for smuggling fabric.

Slowly we quieted down. Fila went off to the bathroom, which announced its presence loudly to our olfactory nerves when a breeze came down the car. She returned in black slacks. We ate but to my surprise there was no food sharing and arranged ourselves in a faint odor of new fabric to sleep. The lights in the car were turned off. Scrunched against the side of the train I found, to my surprise, that I did sleep.

At about two am the train stopped, the lights went on, and a group of inspectors, none as I remember in complete official uniforms, came on board. They tramped about loudly shoved bundles and suitcases around, were cheerfully bossy and found nothing. The passengers did not seem much alarmed by their presence. They descended from the train and we started off again jerkily as though the train had been traveling in its sleep and was now trying to run while half awake. We went back to sleep.

At five am we stopped again. More inspectors came on board with a man with a gun. These men were different, harsh voiced, rude, preemptory. They ordered people about, tore open bundles. One man pulled down a suitcase from the overhead rack with on-purpose-carelessness so that it fell on its owner below in a painful manner. They confiscated fabric.

When they came to us one noticed the perfume bottle in my bag. I said, although I knew he didn’t understand English, “That’s mine.” He gave me a nasty look but moved on to the next row of passengers.

They left. The train started again and we tried to return to sleep not very successfully. By six we were all awake. We must have passed some landmark that I would not have recognized about 6:30 or so because suddenly everyone cheered. People rose, chattering; there was much activity. Fabric came out of its hiding places and was carefully smoothed to lie in suitcases or other bags. The women rose, lifted up their long outer blouses. They all had twine tied under their bras and around their waists over which were draped sarong lengths of fabric. They pulled these pieces of material up from the lines under bust and around waist folding them into big plastic bags. There were no longer many stout women but many with big grins on their faces.

Fila and I talked. She wanted me to know that her jacket was a real Fila, not a knock off. This was important to her. She let me take a picture of her, which I can’t show you because it’s not on my computer. Unfortunate. She was headed to the market as soon as we pulled into the station, as was everyone else.

I got off the train with them and watched them bustle away to the bazar. Wandering toward my hotel, near the station, dragging the tail of my suitcase behind me, I thought what a clever young woman Fila Jacket was. There are not a large number of ways to make a living in Ethiopia with a grade school education for either men or women but, of course, it’s worse for women whose main employment is prostitution. I think it was clever of her to become a smuggler. It’s an adaptable trade. I am sure there is always something to be smuggled into or out of Ethiopia. It is not dangerous, as I witnessed. It is not much effected by age, certainly not as prostitution is. A wise and canny young woman Miss Fila Jacket. I think of her fondly.


  1. At first, I laughed. Then as the story progressed my eyes started bugging out of my head. Karen the smuggler or at least an apprentice of sort? Then at the climax, I was able to deflate. Goodness, what an adventure. Something to tell your grandchildren…


  2. so lovely to read you again Karen., I have missed you. I should like to come to Barcelona to visit. Is that where you are now?love, Pascale (in Belgium)


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