Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Dinner

A very nice Christmas dinner was served at the DFAC.  The staff did a great job decorating the place and the food was great too.  The staff were dressed up like elves, wise men, and a Santa.  There was an ice sculpture, many large & elaborate ginerbread houses, animals made from bread, and a huge cake. There was even a fountain serving the sparkling grape juice.  There was just about every type of food one might imagine at a Christmas dinner including appetizers, seafood, beef, turkey, southern soul food, and tons of sides and deserts.  I slept in late missing breakfast, then skipped lunch - to save up for one big meal.  Pretty good - only possible improvement would be to have been with my family.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas from Camp Lemonier

Merry Christmas! Not a white Christmas, the temperature is in the 80s here. It doesn't feel like a typical Christmas but I'm glad some people are trying. I took a few photos of some of the decorations around camp. One of the best was the homemade decorations made by the janitorial service contractors. They took empty water bottles, painted them, and put them together into some star shapes - including the use of mops and brooms. They made a great 3D Christmas tree out of painted green water bottles too. Some of the guys saw me taking pictures, they were quick to come over and pose. They are proud of their shop and work and I'm happy to include them in the blog. Next is one of the doors to the Dining Facility. Each door has a foam panel with a painting, I like the Santa Soldier one best. The Sea Bees put up an inflatable snowman in front of their workspace - one of several of the inflatable decorations around camp. I like their everyday signs and decorations, the snowman was just an excuse to include a picture of their tents. On the sign behind the snowman is a counter for 'mishap free days'. Poor Sea Bees are having a tough time, the counter has been reset to zero a few times since I've been here already. Nothing major.

I miss my family. I'm glad I can watch the girls upon presents on Skype but of course its not the same as being there. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Restaurants in Djibouti

Tonight I drove a vehicle off camp for the first time. It was a very short trip - which was why I wanted to drive, a warm up to the sometimes chaotic driving here. We went to a new Indian restaurant close to both the French and American bases. The food wasn't too good, proably because there weren't any Indians operating the place. I spent 2650 Djiboutian franks for a Coke, Chicken Masala, and a portion of an appetizer - thats about $15. That is the least I've spent at a restaurant here. A more typical meal seems to run about 4000-5000 DF (with a beer). I was anticipating that food and drink would be cheap out in town, $20 is a lot of money to a local Djiboutian. However, the restaurants and nightclubs (at least the ones downtown and near the base) are not frequented by the locals - its mainly French and Americans. The standard price for a beer is 1000 DF, $6.

The downtown area has several restaurants, nightclubs, and small hotels. I went to a pizza place and a Lebanese restaurant recently. The food at both was very good. Great European style pizza and nice atmosphere at the pizza place. The Lebanese place was fun, our group got the 'special' - they bring out several bowls of different kinds of hummus, appetizers, salad, sauces, and baskets of bread, and pita. The next course a tray of chicken and lamb kababs are passed around. Pretty good! My wife asked me when I was going to an African restaurant while I am in Africa. There aren't any traditional Djiboutian restaurants that I'm aware of (or that someone who has been here a year is aware of) in the parts of town where one would go. There are a few Ethiopian restaurants that I want to try as well as a Yemenese restaurant (not African but just across the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti).

Djibouti is a fairly safe area, but we are close to parts of the world where bad guys come form that might want to target Americans. In the interest of OPSEC I've deleted the names of the places. Not that its hard to pick out Americans here, we stand out, but I don't want to provide any open source intel or make it easier.

Baby Orphanage

On Saturday I participated in a volunteer event organized by the camp Chapel. Four times a week a bus departs camp for the baby orphanage in Djibouti city run by some Catholic nuns. Volunteers feed babies bottles, feed toddlers, play with them, and then put them to bed - over a 2 hour period. It was my first trip but most of the 17 attending were regulars. In fact, there were more people wanting to go than seats on the small bus. I wanted to go because I miss my children and I wanted to do some good in this poor area of the world. In some ways it was sad to see all those infants and toddlers that did not have mommies or daddies; however it was worth it to interact with them and see them smile. I was expecting the worst before I arrived but was relieved to find the place clean and in decent repair with children that looked well cared for. It was a very simple and modest operation but it appears to be working. I will probably attend regularly on Saturdays (which is a half work day for us). Click here, here, and here for photos and news stories.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Camel *ss

Every evening, maybe an hour after sunset, the sky is choked with smoke and it smells, really bad. Camel Ass! That's what everyone calls it. All the garbage is burned each night, not brought to a landfill. This is coming from Djibouti city, not the camp. Its called Camel *ss due to its smell and because animal carcasses (including camels) are also supposedly burnt with the daily trash. It is thick every night, like a heavy but smelly fog. I won't run at night, don't even like the short walk from my CLU to the DFAC. I'm sure its just great for one's health.

Swimming with the Whales Sharks

I did not take the first photo (thanks Google Images) but that about sums up the experience - although the whale sharks I saw were not quite that large, "only" about 20 feet long.

On 7 December I went on a whale shark trip. It required getting up at 0430 in the morning to make the early roll call but was very much worth it. About 35 of us took a short bus ride to the pier and boarded the "yacht". The yacht was towing a small boat, and another two small boats met up with us later. It was nearly a 3 hour transit at a slow 6 knots. We went west from Djibouti, staying in the Gulf of Tadjourah. During the transit we had a dive brief and then a whale shark brief: don't touch them - it will spook them; don't go in front of them - they won't turn; remain clear of the tail fin - one good kick can cause serious injury. They eat plankton, not fish or people, so becoming lunch was not an issue. Upon arriving at a little cove I went scuba diving (not with whale sharks). It was a beautiful reef with many fish of amazing colors. I bought a waterproof camera, its a cheapy 35mm film camera with a clear pressure shell around it. Not bad for $13, good down to 30m and it stayed dry. I just sent the film back to the states today to get developed so it will be a few weeks.

After the dive we loaded into the last remaining small boat (the non-divers were already out looking for whale sharks in the first two boats) and started the hunt. The scuba gear was gone (too bulky for chasing down the fast swimming whale sharks and the frequent climbing in and out of the boat) but we still had mask, fins, and snorkel. We soon saw some whale sharks, fairly easy to spot: they swim near the coast and close enough to the surface that a fin sticks out - just like in JAWS. The boat gets close and then its a scramble of rolling into the water and trying to chase them down. They aren't fleeing, just moving at thier steady pace which is just about the max speed one can swim with help from fins - eventually they pull away as you get tired. Next bob around in the water looking for a signal from the boat. A few times a whale shark would be coming towards me, allowing a great look up close. I hope my pictures came out well. Climb back into the boat and repeat for a few hours. After the first few times we figured out how to stop kicking each other during the mad dash after rolling off the small boat. An amazing experience to swim up close to the largest fish in the world! We returned to the 'yacht' for lunch, then some people went for another dive, most others went snorkeling near the reef. I had already seen the reef so I just relaxed and read a book.

During the ride back I got this great shot of the sunset. After it was completely dark the boat broke down, dead in the water. One passenger had been puking the entire trip back so they put him in one of the small boats to get back to land. After drifting for a half hour one of the other passengers, I think he was a Navy Seabee, went to try and help the crew. He fixed it and we made it back just before the dining facility closed. A great day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Its Been a While / JPME / Khat

Ok, its been 9 days since I last posted, ruining a good streak of a post every couple of days. A variety of boring reasons why: lazy, more busy at work with new position, and playing XBox. Yeah, the XBox 360 I ordered arrived last week - the temptation of playing Gears of War 2 all evening is hard to resist. At least I've been able to make myself get to the gym everyday. I have been less successful in studying for the JPME course I signed up for. JPME is joint professional military education, its an academic certification for field grade officers - about leadership, strategic planning, joint military operations, etc. It's required for command at the O5 level and makes one more competitive overall. I'm taking the Air Force distance learning version of JPME. There are 7 courses, 18 months max to complete. This deployment is probably the best opportunity to do it, I hope to get at least 5 courses done. I don't want to study that stuff at home. Part of the reason I haven't gotten much done on that yet is that I don't have the books, still waiting on delivery, 3 weeks so far. I don't like reading a textbook on the computer screen.

On Saturday I went out into town during the day. I got a good tour of the city from an officemate. A big part of the culture here is men chewing khat in the afternoon. The leaves of this plant are chewed for a narcotic effect, nearly all Djiboutian men do it. The whole city is much less active each afternoon after the daily Khat plane arrives. Selling khat employs a lot of women, they have little wooden stands setup on the street, with a burlap sack full of the stuff. In fact the closest intersection to the camp is called Khat Corner. There is a wide range of living conditions in Djibouit city from crowded shacks & shantytowns up to apartment buildings and homes that wouldn't look out of place in a western country. Djibouti even has a five star hotel, the Kempinski. I saw the downtown square area, there is a variety of shops, restaurants, and nightsclubs - what one would expect in a downtown area, just with its own African twist. Of course, its the foreigners that support those businesses.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Moucha Island

Today I went on a trip to Moucha Island. Every Sunday (and sometimes other days of the week) there is a trip somewhere. Usually it involves going on a boat somewhere - and scuba diving or snorkeling is often an available activity. I went scuba diving in the morning. I hadn't dove in 10 years. At first I was panicking but I calmed down and enjoyed a good dive. We were off a colorful reef with lots of tropical fish, a large barracuda, and sting rays. Everybody saw dolphins except me and my dive buddy. After the dive I hung at the gazebo bar until lunchtime. For lunch they served some excellent shish kabobs (cooked over wood bbq) with rice, salads, and a desert - better food than at the DFAC. After lunch it was more time at the gazebo bar then I went and sat on a lounge chair and read before going back to the gazebo. It was about a 25 minute boat ride from the port of Djibouti. Its a small island, 3 km long. There is a dive shop, gazebo, eating gazebo / kitchen, beach, bathrooms, some cottages, and some building where the generator and water stuff is.

On the way back I saw the Djiboutian Navy in port, all of it I think.