Great Fish, Bribes, Souvenirs And Men With Guns, Part 1: Our Crazy 3 Hours In Djibouti

I really can’t believe how crazy our 3 hours in Djibouti were.  But, every word I’m about to write is true.  Many of my readers will know one of the folks who went through this with me.  Before we get too far, here’s what I’ve covered so far on my trip to Djibouti for a UNICEF relief delivery:

This is part of my 18,000 Miles For Good series.  I hope you’ll stay tuned for the rest of the posts:


Due to the delay in our arrival to Djibouti, I would only have a few hours on the ground before returning to the US.  I was originally the only one departing on my own that evening.

But, because of the change in schedule I was joined by 3 others on my 1am flight out of Djibouti.

My good friend Angelina who writes her own blog and also for The Points Guy needed to get home to her family.  Charlie, who joined me on the inaugural 787 flight from Boston to Narita 5 years ago needed to get back to work.  And, our new friend Kelly had onward travel scheduled.  All 3 were on my same flight, the last one out of Djibouti that evening.  Since everyone else had already gone to the hotel, the four of us decided to try to see just a bit of Djibouti before departing.

Things got a bit weird right after we landed.  Two men wearing vests labeled “immigration officials” walked around collecting everyone’s passports.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally let my passport out of my sight.  But, they had a stack of 50 passports for everyone from our group.  It seemed implausible that they would all disappear.  And, Norwegian was handing our entry visas into Djibouti.

It got a bit weirder when our hosts assured us our passports would be safe, and that they would drive them to our hotel after the immigration officials finished processing them.  Given the short timeline, we weren’t going to the hotel.  We waited around the airport for about an hour while they finished the process.  During the wait, one of our hosts was nice enough to negotiate a taxi cab for the evening with her “brother” Yoenis.  No idea if that was a placeholder term, but he turned out to be a heck of a nice guy.  More on that later.

Once the customs folks finished processing our passports I got one of the most amusing videos I’ll ever record in a customs facility.  Bonus for not being detained by the authorities for recording in a very casual customs clearance area.

Hitting The Road For Fish And Souvenirs

Yoenis had agreed to be our cab rider for 3 hours at a pretty reasonable rate of 70 USD.  Our goals were pretty simple.  We wanted to have dinner at a good local restaurant, pick up a few souvenirs (mostly me looking for something for my kids) and then head back to the airport.

Yoenis assured us that one of the best restaurants, specializing in fish, was nearby.  We pulled up to Janateyn less than 10 minutes after leaving the airport.  We planned to leave our bags in the cab, which felt a bit odd since Yoenis wasn’t joining us inside.  I don’t let my backpack out of my sight, so I hauled that inside.

The woman manning the front counter spoke much more English than I spoke French and was able to find us a table pretty quickly.  Almost every table in the restaurant was full, easily 100 people dining.  There really wasn’t much in the way of a menu.  She came back a few minutes later and lead us into the kitchen.







We got to see the freezer where the fish was being held and the guy who was preparing the fish for cooking.  While not a guarantee that the food was safe, watching the preparation made us all feel a bit better.  The fish was firm to the touch, usually a good sign that it’s relatively fresh.  The kitchen might not look that clean.  After 30 years in the restaurant industry, I can assure you I’ve seen worse.  They let us hang out while they lowered our fish into a tandoori oven of sorts.

Our order consisted of 2 fish, a few orders of bread and some bottled water/soda.  It didn’t take long for them to bring us our food.  The meal was excellent!  The spice that the cook had brushed on gave the fish a wonderful flavor.  3 different types of bread quickly disappeared at our table as well.





When the dust settled, we had a pretty kickass dinner for 4, with tip, for less than 50 USD.  Our 3-hour journey was starting out to be very memorable.  It would continue to be memorable, though not always for good reason.

Hunting For Souvenirs

Yoenis spoke more English than we spoke French, but less English than the folks at the airport and the restaurant.  In the beginning, we thought we understood him (and vice versa).  As we headed to the downtown area, it became clear we could use the assistance of Google Translate to help here and there.  We drove around downtown for a while, past a number of stores that sold souvenirs.  We pointed and indicated we wanted to stop, but Yoenis kept driving.  After a while, we were able to get on the same page that we were looking for a souvenir shop.


He took us to one market that was already closed.  At that point, with a bit of help from my 9th grade French teacher and Google Translate, I guided him back to a store we had seen near the center of town.  Charles and I hopped out, negotiated for a few souvenirs  and headed back to the airport.  It’s so hard to tell if that sort of stuff is authentic in a foreign country.  I tend to think that since we weren’t in any obvious tourist areas they were, but you never know.


The Guys With Guns

So, yeah.  We had a bit of a thing on the way back to the airport.  I’d welcome any of the folks who were in the car with me to clarify in case I embellish.  I don’t intend to.  As we drove back to the airport, we noticed a few large courtyards here and there in between buildings throughout the city.  They were crowded with people laying down in sleeping bags or other makeshift beds.  My best guess is that they were refugees from Yemen.

As we approach the airport there are a few street lights, but not many.  Keep in mind it’s pretty late at night (9pm) and pretty dark.

I’m sitting in the front seat and had been snapping pictures from time to time.  As we approached the airport I snapped a picture of the arch at the entrance of the airport property.  There was no flash and we were easily a couple hundred feet away.  There was a guard with a rifle sitting on a chair near the entrance.  He jumped up and started flagging down our car.  This guy has the best eyesight in Djibouti.  It became obvious pretty quickly he had seen me taking the picture.

He wasn’t really in uniform, per se.  He had a collared golf shirt on with a logo.  There was another man with a rifle further behind him who was in uniform.  I rolled down the window and he started screaming at me in French. I didn’t understand most of it, he was talking pretty fast.  But, I knew what the word “mobile” meant.

I made a point of pulling out my phone and showing him that I was deleting the pictures.  I didn’t try to hide or deny anything.  He became more agitated, gesturing for my phone.  I had no intention of handing over my phone unless things escalated.  He opened up my car door and started gesturing for me to get out of the ca, still screaming about my phone.  It was around this time that the man in uniform (also carrying a rifle) wandered over and joined in the somewhat urgent plea for me to get out of the car.  I still had my seatbelt fastened and intended to keep it that way unless someone leveled their rifle at me.

The shouting is starting to escalate a bit now.  I’ve noticed the one man not in uniform rest his hand on the rifle a few times (amazing what you notice in a stressful situation) but neither of them has moved to point a rifle at me.  A third man now slowly starts walking from an office near the airport gate.  He chooses to start approaching the driver’s side door.  Yoenis is pleading with the men on my side of the car.

At this point, Angelina comes up with the winning solution.  She says, “Tell them we’re with UNICEF”.  We’re all wearing the UNICEF shirts we were given, and there’s a really, very out-of-place plane sitting at the airport with the UNICEF logo on it.  Surely, they must have some idea about it?  Angelina grabs her folder of UNICEF material and thrusts it into Yoenis’ hand.  Yoenis hands it to the third man, in uniform, approaching his side of the car.  They have a short discussion, he hands back the file and waves us through.

I don’t think any of us stained our shorts, but I willingly admit it was a really stressful situation.  Some folks might say that I shouldn’t be taking pictures there.  I’m still not 100% sure.  Hindsight is 20/20.  At the time, we weren’t on airport property, nor was I photographing anything particularly special.  Didn’t see the man with the gun, either.

And, as you can imagine, I deleted the pictures I took.  So, not much to show here.  But, one heck of a story.  At any rate, it’s a good reminder to be aware of your surroundings when traveling abroad.

The Final Two Pennies (For Now)

There’s still more to tell of this story.  Our airport experience was equally memorable, for an entirely different set of reasons.  There were some guns (thankfully not pointed at us again) and some bribes.

For now, we’ll end the story pulling up to the terminal.  Up to that point, I wasn’t quite sure how freaked out Yoenis was about the experience.  I mean, was a bit freaked out.  But, maybe he saw this in Djibouti regularly?

When we grabbed our bags we all chipped in some cash to pay Yoenis.  I ended up being the one to hand him the money.  He hugged me, which I wasn’t expecting.  Because of the money?  Or the situation with guns?  Who knows?  We had a new friend.  He got a big tip and we made the short walk to the terminal, only to find it was closed.

Stay tuned…..

The post Great Fish, Bribes, Souvenirs And Men With Guns, Part 1: Our Crazy 3 Hours In Djibouti was published first on Pizza in Motion



  1. that happened to me when I was taking photos of a make-shift market at the border-crossing between Zim & Zam, when a menacing-looking guard came running up to me with a gun pointing in my direction. Not making that mistake again

    1. ZO, scary when that stuff happens in real life, right? I’d heard stories but figured I’d be fine. I’ll definitely think twice about pulling out my camera in certain places in the future.

  2. If you have an iPhone then You will still have the deleted pictures for at least 30 days in your deleted photos file…probably something similar on androids. If you still have the deleted photo(s) it would be nice to see it…

    1. Martin, I didn’t know about that feature until after we were done with our little episode. Kelly pointed it out to me. Alas, when we went to look, none of the images were in my deleted folder. 🙁

Leave a Reply