National Geographic


Djibouti city, Djibouti, 11°34'03'' N, 43°09'33'' E

It is midnight.

The sea is black. But the shore glows with orange light: a port on fire.

Yet it is not open flames. It is the cold radiance of the of sodium-vapor dock lamps, the glare of a ceaseless 24-hour exchange: of commerce, of global barter, of the tireless labor needed to move vast heaps of humanity’s goods across the oceans on massive ships made of steel—ships that are many city blocks long, as high as tall buildings, bursting with every product, necessity, luxury, tool, medicine, and weapon employed by humankind at the turn of the millennium. It is the fire our species’ mind and will. I stare at it, trying to imagine this African port—a minor entrepôt on the Red Sea—as it will look 10,000 years from now, after the next Ice Age: a lens of concrete, steel, and glass crushed between geological strata. A future archaeologist exploring Africa’s Rift Valley will stumble across a jackpot here; his core sample will reveal shards of all we once dreamed we owned.

“It’s never dark here,” my friend Saleh Mohamed Ali says. “It’s always bright as midday.”

We are bracing ourselves on the foredeck of a tugboat that bumps across the waves of Djibouti harbor.

Saleh is a ship insurer, a patient negotiator who must solve all the problems of the maritime world. We are chugging out to a Chinese-flagged cargo vessel that has called for help. They’re carrying unwelcome human cargo: African stowaways, three young men from Ghana. Maritime law prohibits captains from forcibly discharging such migrants on land against their wishes. So the ship has been shuttling the Ghanaians across the globe for eight months. No country—on a voyage stretching from the west coast of Africa to Brazil, through the Mediterranean, all way to the Philippines—will have them. But tonight, Djibouti will allow the Ghanaians to disembark. It will permit them to fly home. Saleh’s insurance company will pay for their air tickets.

“I get stowaways about once a month,” Saleh says, smiling the rueful smile of a man who has seen all. “I feel sorry for them, I pity them, but they cost my company a lot of money.”

He tells me the story of a stowaway who changed his mind at the airport. The man did not wish to be flown home to Somalia. He stripped himself naked on the jetway. He began to dance, to bark and wail. The alarmed flight crew refused to allow him on board. A stalemate. The man had no papers, no identity documents. Saleh hired him to be his gardener.  

Scaling a cargo ship's 40-foot jacob's ladder at sea is all in a day's work for ship insurers taking custody of stowaways. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Scaling a cargo ship’s 40-foot Jacob’s ladder at sea is all in a day’s work for ship insurers taking custody of stowaways. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The tugboat throttles back. We board the ship, the MV POS ISLAND, via a swaying, 40-foot-high rope ladder. This is all in a night’s work for middle-aged Saleh. The South Korean captain is eager to rid himself of his guests. He summons the stowaways to his fluorescent-lit quarters: three subdued men dressed in clothes that haven’t been washed in a very long time. They have spent months locked inside a cabin. They squat on their haunches against a bulkhead. One wears a single shoe. Do they want to go home? Saleh asks them gently, in a fatherly way. Yes, they reply glumly. They will abandon their hope of work in Europe. They will return to their steamy fishing village in Ghana. “Take me off this boat!” one cries.

I look into their tired, yellowed eyes. I am seeking out a connection. My journey, too, has been dry-docked. I have been stranded for weeks in Djibouti.

Two countries along my onward route—Eritrea and Sudan—have not replied to visa requests. Yemen is in turmoil. There are bombings in Sanaa, and the country’s beautiful Tehama coast is too dangerous to traverse on foot. Saudi Arabia has generously invited me to walk its western shoreline, north toward that ancient crossroad of human migration, the Middle East. But few vessels now risk taking passengers across the southern Red Sea. It is the fear of Somali pirates. The big steel ships, the moving warehouses of civilization, now steam in sealed convoys through the Bab el Mandeb, the Strait of Grief.

And so I wait: a stowaway marooned in Djibouti.

I pass hours in drowsy embassy foyers. I sit with Saleh in his small, glass-walled office. We sip tea, discussing ships, dhows, freighters, planning schemes, weighing possibilities. His phone rings constantly. All the world’s commerce pours into his ear. Complaints. Crises. Excuses. Pleas. Favors. He absorbs it all nodding, the mild wizard behind the curtain in this hard-bitten Oz. And then: the call to remove stowaways. He sighs. There must be hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, he says.

All the world is on the move.

The UN calculates that a record 215 million people now live outside their country of origin. An additional 700 million are adrift within the borders of their own nations. This represents a seventh of the global population. It is part of the greatest diaspora in human history, a hegira from country to country, from city to city, from empty belly to mouthful of bread. It is our species’ oldest trajectory. Only the colossal scale is new.

Africa swarms with these tattered ramblers, with the hand-to-mouth armies of the displaced, the unemployed. There are millions walking the desert trails, milling in slums, sleeping the sleep of the dead atop stained cardboard at the entrance to Djibouti port. If you believe their dire travels will not reach you, you are wrong. They already swarm around your oil pipelines. They scour the booming farms, toiling, at two dollars a day, picking your flowers and fruit. They scale the anchor chains of your hulking ships at night. They are coming to a street corner near you. In Africa, they help each other live. They share burdens out of all proportion to their means, because nobody else will. I have been the undeserved beneficiary of such grace: the crumb of bread held up in the desert, the bleak joke shared on the waterless path, the calloused hand pulling me to the safety of a border slum shack, to sleep beyond the reach of growling drunks. Beached in Djibouti, I am already missing this bruising solidarity of the road.

Two ship guards—a Welshman and an Australian hired to fend off pirates—march the three Ghanaians off the Chinese boat. 

“They gave me a bit of trouble at the airport,” Saleh tells me the next day. He smiles his melancholy smile.

Three Ghanian stowaways head home after their arrest in Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Three Ghanian stowaways head home after their arrest in Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The stowaways suddenly demanded new shoes, he says, new travel bags, toiletries, and $1,000 in pocket money. They knew they had Saleh cornered. Djibouti didn’t want them. Ghana was not lobbying for their return. In the end, Saleh gave them $150 each and belted them into the plane.

“It is hard.” Saleh waves his hands over his cluttered desk, over the ships’ manifests sprinkled with invisible human beings of no commercial value. “What can you do? Eh? You tell me. What can you do?”


There are 28 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. M. B. Usman
    May 3, 2013

    Very touching. I always look forward to reading from you. Wishing you God’s guidance and protection.

  2. Mark Johnson
    May 3, 2013

    Fine writer

  3. Anne Prichard
    May 3, 2013

    What beautiful and touching writing. I look forward to each new post. Thank you, Paul, and stay safe.

  4. Nick
    May 4, 2013

    I have been in Djibouti City since mid-2012 and have seen much of the goings on here. It is an interesting and dynamic city. I was astounded by how much trade moves through the Port de Djibouti. It gives you a sense of awe at the scale of industry and commerce in the world, but also makes the world seem smaller at the same time.

    I wish you luck on your journey and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.

  5. barbara mahany
    May 4, 2013

    bless you on your way, especially on your dry-docked days when you must be itching to lift those walkin’ feets and amble forward. your posts connect us. i just wanted you to know we are with you. blessings from cambridge…

    • Paul Salopek
      May 8, 2013

      Thank you, Barbara. I expect your own rambles over the lumpy brick sidewalks of Cambridge are proving equally exciting, filled with discoveries.

  6. chefbrucewest
    May 4, 2013

    Meeting diverse people and cultures. Nice. Thank you for the interesting stories.

  7. HikerBob
    May 5, 2013

    I am astounded to realize that humanity’s Walk out of Eden continues to this day for a huge, misfortunate and afflicted percentage of mankind. This Walk out of Eden has barely begun, barely out of Africa and already the view begins to encompass the world wide. Amazing insight by our Pathfinder, Paul Salepek.

  8. Loretta Bowden
    May 5, 2013

    Eagerly awaiting all dispatches. Thank-you

  9. Gerri Crockwell-Sequeros
    May 6, 2013

    I am fascinated by your journey. I will be following you and hope to share a little of your experiences through your journey dispatches. Wishing you good luck, wonderful experiences with the people you meet enroute, and great success.

  10. waterbird
    May 6, 2013

    what a privelage to read and have our minds and emotions touched by your reports. i echo the posts of my fellow readers below and in particular wishing you a continued blessed journey and thankyou for the “fine writing”. something so rare in our time.

  11. Jerzy PL
    May 6, 2013

    Truly fascinating and educating lecture. Thank You for that. I hope You are not getting restless because of the dry-docked days. This is the cost one needs to pay for deciding to travel the world with walking pace. Are You taking advantage of the situation in any way? Like searching for stories from people in Djibouti? I hope a ship will show up soon and no pirates will bother You. Regards from the wired world!

    • Paul Salopek
      May 8, 2013

      The journey pauses, Jerzy, but never really stops. Every conversation, sigh, handshake,sidewalk glass of tea, bus ride, commiserating joke, fishing line unspooled into the waves advances it.

  12. Beatriz Mallory
    May 6, 2013

    Leí de su afinidad por Neruda, me parece que entiende español.

    Soy una de la multitud de oyentes de NPR que apenas hoy se enteraron de su marcha. Usted nos envía medidas de especie, viento y eternidad, y nos capta con sus perspectivas. Dentro de cada ajetreado día, haré un espacio sagrado para usted. Enviaré una dosis de mi energía cuando le falte, y sonrisas cuando los quiera. Y espero que en pequeña medida, especialmente en los peores días, mi apoyo en algo le ayudará.

    Gracias por ser nuestros ojos y oídos, grabando para futuras generaciones los pasos de los ya pasados. Con humildad y asombro, le deseo “buen camino.”

    • Paul Salopek
      May 8, 2013

      Mil gracias, Beatriz.

  13. Linda Hoernke
    May 6, 2013

    Thank you again for your insights and writing and of introducing us to Saleh. May your documents arrive soon and journey continue.

  14. Gary Boivin
    May 7, 2013

    Downtime lets one really see how far behind the people the governments seem to always be. It’s better to be safe, though, even if seven years becomes eight, or nine.

  15. Rowena Gill
    May 8, 2013

    Paul, Thank you! Your insights and fine writing do honour to us all as your ‘fellow-travellers’.

  16. Harold
    May 9, 2013

    Every article are exciting to read, at least we know what happen on the outside world specially on the unknown country. More power and God Speed

  17. omoregie paul
    May 14, 2013

    good write up. keep kit up.

  18. Lucid Gypsy
    May 30, 2013

    Ahh Paul thanks for this insight into the stowaway boat people. I’m intrigued by how the acquire possessions, shoes, spending money. It’s almost as if they have some power, who would have thought it?

  19. Keith Spitzig
    June 9, 2013

    Your stories are fascinating, intriguing,informative….very enjoyable to read. Interesting as you make your trek and manage your “risk taking” you meet up with so many others (I.e. stowaways) who are also traveling and hoping to mange THEIR risk taking. Guess we are all connected in one way or another.
    Keep safe…thank you for sharing your journey.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      I think it was Graham Greene who noted that the most amazing journeys ever undertaken remain untold, invisible, unsung—locked away in yellowing letters boxed in attics, in breathless international cell phone calls, in private memory. I think about this every time I pass immigrant workers doing their pariah jobs: What extraordinary and often harrowing experiences did this person endure merely to be here? We pass Ulysses every day without knowing it—he is picking the roadside oranges, or she is washing the pots at the local greasy spoon.

  20. CalebnHoward
    June 12, 2013

    well…. I think tht the world is coming to and end, and that all the animals should be saved by Buddha

  21. Amy
    June 12, 2013

    We often take for granted our good fortune in the US where we have more stability than many other places.

  22. Corinne
    August 21, 2014

    I just learned of your journey this summer at an education conference. My class will be following you this school year. When I read that you were delayed in Dijibouti, I was somewhat relieved that you had to rest. What you are doing is so amazing and is likely very hard on your body. Be well, and best wishes for a safe continuation of your journey.

  23. ron cicotte
    January 16, 2015

    It’s about 1:30 AM here in Nashua, NH. I’ve been teading your posts from the beginning and tracing your journey using the maps referenced.
    I’m completely captivated and cannot stop imagining myself walking by your side

    Your stories illuminate the journey as the sun lights up the sky. I continue my quest to catch up with you somewhere in Turkey.

  24. ron cicotte
    January 16, 2015

    It’s about 1:30 AM here in Nashua, NH. I’ve been reading your posts from the beginning and tracing your journey using the maps referenced.
    I’m completely captivated and cannot stop imagining myself walking by your side

    Your stories illuminate the journey as the sun lights up the sky. I continue my quest to catch up with you somewhere in Turkey.

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