Kindly contributed by travel writer Frank Bures, whose new book The Geography of Madness explores the phenomenon of culture-bound syndromes across the globe, from a community of men in Nigeria to believe their penises have been stolen to China, Singapore, Borneo and beyond. His quest: to understand "how our ideas can kill us, how our beliefs can save us and how these things quietly determine the course of our lives."
One of the places I remember most clearly (and fondly) is Obock, Djibouti, a town on the edge of the Red Sea where I traveled several years ago for a story for Nowhere Magazine. Obock is hot and miserable and there is nothing to do. At night thousands of migrants stream through the area on their way from Ethiopia and Somalia to the Middle East where they hope to find work. When I got there I found that the hotel the tourism office in the capital recommended had closed long ago. On my first day I was harassed by the local police for being there.
What I remember best, though, was how refreshing it was to be so uncatered to, so far from everything. It didn’t matter to anyone (except a few curious folks) whether I was there or not. This must have been something like was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud felt when he first arrived there in the mid-1880s to escape his former life and become an arms dealer: It was like the whole world could slip away.
Rimbaud’s small house, I was told, was still standing in Obock. It had a lock on the door and was filled with construction supplies. Next to it stood a goat picking through garbage on the rocks. Now there was nothing left of him but a few distant memories, which I also found comforting. I crossed the street, stepped through a pile of trash and over a cat carcass, and took the photo you can see here. I’m told Obock is now closed to the very few tourists who went there. Someday, perhaps, it will be open again.