Thursday, April 22, 2010

Djiboutian Khat Flight

One of my responsibilities as Purchasing Manager at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski hotel was to ensure that all air and sea freight deliveries pass customs upon entry. Although this sounds bureaucratic, I can assure you it was just as physical. Being at the airport with the proper ID, paperwork, and trucks were a weekly event, and the timing of the flights were essential. It would mean, sometimes, a hit or miss when trying to recover a pallet of frozen food product from Amsterdam from the belly of a Emirates 727 cargo plane (usually arriving at 2:30 pm ETA).

What became perhaps the biggest nuisance was the daily flight from Ethiopia (1 pm ETA)which brought the khat. You might be asking, what is khat anyway? Khat is the narcotic leaf of a tree that, when chewed, gets you high. I would say a clear majority of the population either chews daily or at least every other day. In muslim countries, it is very popular as the majority of chewers can personally and politically reconcile it as not haram (forbidden) in the Q'ran. Ismael Guelleh, the President, loves the stuff. The delicacy of the situation is that after 24 hours of being picked, the khat begins to lose its potency. This is why a delay in the flight from Ethiopia screwed us. If the khat was being unloaded, all of the custom guards and police would abandon their posts and stand by the khat trucks waiting for a hand out.

Waiting behind the wheel of one of the trucks, I would anxiously watch the Emirates flight land, unload and take off within the time that locals were unloading the khat from, yes, a smaller plane. I would sit and watch my pallets not 200 yards away baking in the mid afternoon sun which, during the summer, could easily reach 130-140 F. But one thing I learned working in Africa was patience. There was nothing I could do, so I waited. Once in, I would load up into my refrigerated truck as quickly as possible, and take the product back to the hotel. If it was damaged beyond use, I would take digital photos, send them to purveyors and try to squeeze some credit. The problem was Emirates' efficiency: as they did not want to be blamed, they took their own photos, and occasionally the reponse from the purveyors was a big "no way"!!

Eventually it took a little bribe to the Belgian airport director to get special passes. Its Africa!


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