Andrew’s Trip to Djibouti

Note: Andrew sent family members this long interesting email about his trip to Djibouti along with several photos.

I’m reposting his email as a blog:

I just came back from a quick visit to Djibouti a couple of weeks ago and thought I would send out an email about it since Djibouti is one of the most fun countries in the world to say out loud. Since it is a very small country, 800,000 people in total, you probably don’t know anyone from there and maybe you don’t even know anyone who has ever been there. It is basically a dry, dusty, rocky piece of land that only survives because it is the sea port for land locked Ethiopia (which has 80 million people, and closed borders with all its other neighbors that have ocean access). I think it is the size of Connecticut or something like that. French, Arabic, Amharic, Somali, and Afar are the main languages, but French is the official one. It is a Muslim country, but seems tolerant to other religions and many women did not have their heads covered. The only things produced locally are Coca-Cola and bottled water, everything else is imported and very expensive. The seafood is very nice, but just an average lunch is about $25 USD since most things (vegetables, wheat, etc.) are imported. We went to visit the port as a vessel carrying food aid was arriving. That was pretty interesting.

The vessel was the Iliana, which was a Liberian flagged vessel, made in China, with a crew from Ukraine, owners from Greece, sailing from Houston, with wheat from the USA. So very globalized world we live in. The ship was pretty impressive. It was 189.9 meters long (about two football fields) and 32 meters wide. It was only six months old and still had that new car (er boat) smell (I asked the first officer and he told me the vessel cost $40 million brand new). It has a carrying capacity of 52,000 metric tons, our shipment of wheat almost was at capacity. Our shipment was 50,230 MT (which in pounds is 110,506,000 lbs, yes you read that correctly, more than 110 million pounds). The commodities were for Food for the Hungry and thee other NGOs that operate in Ethiopia. Our portion was 8,330 MT (only 18 million lbs). The wheat comes in bulk, meaning it just sits in huge carrying bins, not bagged or anything. The ships has its own cranes that help unload the food into these portable bagging stations that put it into bags of 50 kgs that are label with USA wheat and then a conveyor belt loads them onto a truck. The vessel was too full to make it into the correct unloading berth with the better machinery for unloading so it had to unload wheat at these temporary sites first so that only 11.7 meters of the boat was under water, instead of 12.2 meters like when it arrived (that distance is called the draught – how deep a boat sits in the water).

They had to remove about 2,000 MT with the temporary machines, then they could move to the larger port berth. From there, they basically vacuum out the wheat into a storage silo so the boat can leave more quickly. From the silo there is a conveyor system that has space for ten trucks to be loaded simultaneously. The grain goes from the silo, to the bagging machines, then down a conveyor belt to the trucks. The trucks slowly inch forward as more and more bags come down the belt and they are stacked by hand by day laborers. It took five days (working day and night) for all of the gain to be discharged into the silo, then the vessel could leave, but then as much as another week before all the wheat is bagged and the trucks are all dispatched to their destinations. At the time we were there, six of the ten loading areas were for us, and the other four were for bulk fertilizer that was being bagged and trucked to Ethiopia at the same time. A second ship was docked and its fertilizer cargo was vacuumed into the fertilizer silo and it follows the same process as our shipment of wheat.

Anyways, it was a lot more work than I expected and we seemed to have very good port agents and representatives making sure our interests were met as we are not there to fend for ourselves normally. We also met various other port actors and the Ethiopian ambassador to Djibouti as he is the one that has the political power to get your boat moved to the front of the line if you ever need that to happen (sometimes for relief aid you do). That was the work portion of the trip, for fun we went to Lake Assal, which is the lowest point in Africa at 155 meters below sea level. It is the third or second lowest point on earth depending on what source you read. It is the saltiest body of water on earth (excluding some frozen lakes in Antarctica). It is a salt lake where you can still find men from the Afar tribe digging the salt to carry it on the backs of their camels to Ethiopia to sell it as their only income source. A pretty bleak living if you ask me. Check out the photo where they are selling things made of salt. One is the skull of a gazelle that they put in the water and then salt grows all around it. Pretty cool. I did not buy one because I was afraid US customs might thing I was a poacher or something. Anyways, a pretty cool place, we visited in winter so it was only about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, in the summer it can reach 135 Fahrenheit. Anyways, it was a pretty neat place for a visit. Enjoy the photos.


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2 Responses to “Andrew’s Trip to Djibouti”

  1. Teresa Says:

    Anyways, that was a very interesting documentary of Andrew’s job!

  2. TANK Says:

    Wow, too cool. Thanks for sharing!

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