The Slow Train Home

A new up-scale neighborhood in Djibouti on the way to the train station

Thoughts on Djibouti–if being anywhere for two days gives one any authority to have an opinion. Still, I’ll give it a shot. We visited during Ramadan, so during the day it was a ghost town. Djibouti is too hot this time of year, and too expensive all year round. European prices and developing country charm. Fuel is $2 a liter. Singh, who owns the Indian restaurant we ate at says he pays a minimum of $2000 every month for electricity. Djibouti is a good example of the weird economies in this part of the world that just leave you scratching your head: artificially inflated by military contracts (seven countries have a military presence in Djibouti), predatory governments, and Western interventions, in which NGOs and mission organizations inevitably play a part.

All right. Enough about that. How was the TRAIN?

Selfies are Bruce’s least favorite thing in the world, a close second to photographs in general. He did some indulging on this trip. We got the train at Nagad Station, about 5 km from Djibouti town. Arrive early! They hand check luggage, and go through it carefully at a table outside the station. So even at 7 am, it’s hot. They took my safety razor. Then there’s a passport check, and two lines to get to the train, one for men, one for women and kids. I stood in the men’s line, pretending to be a dumb tourist.

The train pulled out at 7:58! And the 13 hour, 40 minute ride began.

International travelers are in the cars towards the front of the train, local passengers in the second half. In the middle are sleeping berths (not yet in use, and more importantly, not yet air-conditioned), private compartments (which were being used only by the Chinese engineers) and a snack cart. I think in future more options for travel will be available, for for now everyone pays a flat rate of about $37 dollars for one-way international travelers and half that for residents. Only snacks are available (hard mandazis and strangely sweet samosas, soda, water, and coffee), although you can bring your own food. Toilet facilities, both in the stations and on the trains are currently clean, but of the squatting variety. Our car was full of very cute little kids, happily without much parental supervision, and a favorite game of theirs was to go flush the toilet, which sprays water to the center and then sucks it down with a loud vacuum. This entertained two little girls, dressed in black and gold full length dresses, for about the first hour.


It took about an hour and a half to get through the border. We didn’t leave the train, since the immigration officials came on board to process us.

I’d say it’s worth the experience if you have a day to kill and lots of battery. There are charge ports in the sleeper cars but not where we were. I asked an attendant if I could charge my computer, and she unlocked a tiny conductor’s booth and let me work in there. Before we left she made a point of asking in a combination of Amharic and English and charades if the Chinese engineers knew I had access to the room, so I don’t think it’s standard to allow passengers in there. Few of the attendants spoke English. Ours had a line of traditional blue-green tattoos on her jawline, a strange contrast to the very short red skirts she wore as part of her uniform. Most women from the Horn of Africa (and especially those with traditional tattoos) are usually fully covered. (I realize that I am a failure as a photographer on many levels, one being my reluctance to photograph people unless it’s part of my job for MCC, with permission of our partners and from the people being interviewed. You’ll have to imagine the toilet-flushing girls in their long dresses and the traditionally tattooed attendant in her mini-skirt!)

Bruce did periodic time checks on the train’s speed, timing a kilometer as indicated by the white 1/10th markers along the track. The fastest we traveled was 80 kph. The train came to a dead stop at least 10 times for animals to get off the tracks. If you really don’t want to take the train yourself but want a taste of the experience, this is one minute out of the 820 we spent on the tracks. Enjoy!




One thought on “The Slow Train Home

  1. Good descriptions, Rose, but not a super scenic ride if the 1 min video is an accurate portrayal. The old French train from Addis to Dire Dawa was quite memorable mostly because of the smugglers/police, mice/cats excitement.


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