National Geographic

Borders Matter

Galafi, Djibouti, 11°42'51'' N, 41°50'37'' E


It is the Djiboutian gendarmes.  They smile from their roadside guard post. They hold up their hands in a sympathetic gesture.

One of their patrols has detained us, confiscated my passport and impounded the camels A’urta and Suma’atuli. They have marched us here, to the official frontier checkpoint, for an explanation. Because we have staggered down a mountain trail, lost. Because we have blundered into the blurry no-man’s-land between Ethiopia and Djibouti. Because no battery-powered gimcrack, no alien gewgaw, no child’s toy called a GPS, was going to tell my proud Ethiopian cameleers where they stood on the face of the Earth: that we had crossed, unwittingly, into Djibouti.

But all is now smoothed over. Cleared up. Illuminated. Justified. The Djiboutians instruct us—apologetically—to return to a distant Ethiopian guard post. I must have my exit visa stamped. How far away is it? It’s at least four miles back. I will ping pong, in this way, between nations whose edges are drawn on the sand, on the wind. I slog for miles along a melting, truck-clogged road, across a phantom divide that parses nothing from nothing.

The new caravans: a mile of trucks at the Galafi border crossing to Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The new caravans: a mile of trucks at the Galafi border crossing to Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Or so it seems. For borders do rule the most powerful topography on the planet: the corrugations of the human mind.

Ethiopia: ancient, sprawling, crowded, buzzing with purpose, with nationalist slogans, the top dog in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti: only 36 years old as a country, a miniscule former French colony, fewer than a million people, a sleepy afterthought on the Red Sea.

Ethiopia: The ear prickles with a babel of Amharic, Oromo, English—and 87 other minority languages. Djibouti: only French, Afar and Somali.

Ethiopia: Police stand at attention in camouflage battle fatigues, signaling a martial government forever on war footing with its nemesis, Eritrea. Djibouti: Here the uniforms, often disheveled, are gaudy blue and green with white patent-leather belts, like bandstand musicians, as befits a statelet with no enemies.

Ethiopia: The Afar nomads bestow traditional names on their camels—“Branded on the Ear,” “Traded for a Cow.” Djibouti: When I ask my new Afar camel guides, Houssain and Musa, the names of our two cargo beasts, Houssain says, “Houssain.” And Musa replies, “Musa.” Then they laugh.

My chapeau gets a long overdue washing by Hossain Mohamed Houssain--in boiling sulfur water. Delousing was included. Photograph by Paul Salopek

My chapeau gets a long overdue washing by Houssain Mohamed Houssain–in boiling sulfur water. Delousing was included. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The Djiboutian cameleers wear knockoff Ray-Ban sunglasses and cargo pants. They are better equipped than I. They pack a stainless steel pasta strainer. The chief of the caravan, a debonair man named Houssain Mohamed Houssain, offended by my grubby hat, snatches it off my head and scrubs it in a hot spring. He carries a large black wireless telephone, like some prop from an ancient James Bond film, through the searing desert. As we walk, he shouts into it constantly. What is he talking about? “I am running for parliament,” he tells me. “I am managing my campaign.”

Guides Hossain Mohamed Houssain (Bond) and Musa Lubak (Moneypenny) share a multimedia moment. Gagade desert, Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Guides Houssain Mohamed Houssain (Bond) and Musa Lubak (Moneypenny) share a multimedia moment in the Gagade desert. Photograph by Paul Salopek

That afternoon, nine glary miles into Djibouti, huddled under the watery blue shade of a doum palm, we break for lunch: haricots verts in mustard sauce, rice pilaf, curry sauce, boiled eggs and baguettes, coffee, and tea. For the past week I have been walking on biscuits. On noodles and water. I set aside a fork. (A fork!) Reverently, I photograph my plate. Vive la francophonie.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Photograph by Paul Salopek


There are 21 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bear
    March 31, 2013

    Your dinner looks better than the fare I received in Cuba as a vegetarian.

  2. MB Usman
    March 31, 2013

    I knew it. When I didn’t read from you in ten days, I suspected something went amiss at the border crossing, and my heart missed a few beats. Now that you have cleared the air, my breathing has returned to normal. Enough to enable me continue my prayers for your continued safe conduct through your arduous trek.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Thanks, MB. There will be equally long pauses between dispatches in the future. Not all will be related to logistical difficulties. The storytelling here is intentionally slower than usual online, to match the pacing of the physical journey.

  3. Robin
    March 31, 2013

    Wonder if ancient hominids crossed borders, too, Neanderthal-Homo Sapiens-Homo Sapiens. Are boundaries a requisite for human coexistence?

  4. Kevin
    March 31, 2013

    Keep up the fantastic work Paul! Your posts are sensational and inspiring! Thanks!

  5. Bill Brooks
    April 1, 2013

    I served with the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti. I was stationed at Holl-Holl with the 4e Cie, 13e Demi-Brigade. Jan. 1973- July 1975. Made many patrols over that baren land. I remember the Issas women, bare breasted with filed teeth, like Daracula. One young female had the looks of a Centerfold Playmate, but her young buck husband carried a long knife and a old M-1 US Carbine, sans magazine. His carbine had no sights and he aimed it with his thumb. Our “camel herder” told us not to look to longingly at his wife, or their would be hell to pay. His teeth were filed also.
    Easter Blessing.
    Bill Brooks. Leg. Mle. 150,095

  6. Antonio
    April 2, 2013

    My guess that those four miles summarize and detail all that militates against the endurance of all “political borders” that we, and all the we’s who’ve come before us, can put up. Nothing can contain the push and pull of humanity – which must move, go there…or there.

  7. nicojah
    April 3, 2013

    I had the same skirt on my trip through the Danakil in Afar. YOu have to spend about 5 dollars more and get the cotton blend because the synthetic blend doesnt do shit for you in the heat… and the wind moves it like a sail… useless really. Cotton all the way… You never see an Afari wearing synthetic skirt. No way, no how.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Nicojah—I am chronically underdressed. Even in Afar mufti.

  8. Gary Boivin
    April 3, 2013

    A taste of France seems well in order, after two months of nibbling at dry biscuits.

  9. Sue lewis
    April 4, 2013

    Having just left Cuba I wholeheartedly agree with the first comment. Great reporting/storytelling-very envious of this whole trip-ive been on the road for 5 months now through South America and have ended up in Panama after the Cuba visit

  10. Hiker Bob
    April 6, 2013

    Looks good, like picnic food, hope it sustains your walk, Paul.

  11. Hiker Bob
    April 6, 2013

    Paul, I wanted to add my compliments on your photography which is expressive and helpful to the storyline.

  12. Issa bouraleh
    April 7, 2013

    Your plate shows that you reached acivilization.Bone petit.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Ah, but a good plate of tibs is also not to be despised, Issa. Good to hear from you. And thanks for all your help in making this leg of the walk possible.

  13. Donna Tait
    April 9, 2013

    This business of border’s remind’s me of my trip from Tan Tan in the Southern most tip of the Sahara up through the dessert to Goulimine. I stood with 27 other young traveller’s in the back of a truck for 2 1/2 day’s/night’s and we wandered the dessert, I with no comprehension of how they possibly knew where they were going and occasionally seeing the tribes of blue men and the flock’s of flamingo’s around an oasis, till we finally reached our destination. I wonder how many border’s we crossed on that trip. Your writing is great and I am so grateful to my young friend for introducing me to your trip. As was said to you earlier, Godspeed, and may you be safe at the border’s, too bad about the extra back tracking of 4 mi.

  14. jane
    April 15, 2013

    I’m sure you will have far more informed messages, I just want to thank you for your interesting/funny posts……..I’m laid up in bed ,on a boat in France where I live with cracked ribs,and reading your story so far has kept me happy all afternoon….I wish you a safe journey, and send more stories,I think I will be stuck here for at least a week !

  15. Bala Pillai
    April 30, 2013

    I wish you ‘YOL BOLSUN’-May there be a road-the yarkandi pilgrims greeting to fellow travellers

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      Many thanks for this fine greeting from the Silk Road, Yol.

  16. Monica Webb
    May 3, 2013

    “the corrugations of the human mind”. Perfectly framed words for this part of your journey.

  17. Getachew Kassa N
    May 10, 2013

    Paul you are carrying out a marvelous job. and I wish you sucess and pary for your safety in your long journey. I am following and reading your interesting dispatch notes. sincerely Getachew From Ethiopia.

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