Friday, July 17, 2009


I know that many regular readers will have gone without sleep these past nights wondering whether French conversation class or shopping and pizza won out for my Wednesday night plans. Well, tossed on the horns of a cruel dilemma, I did what any right thinking chap would do in similar circumstance. I rationalized until I arrived at the answer I wanted. In the end I reasoned that, whereas there was no reason not to consider ordering a pizza in French a type of "conversation", it was unlikely in the extreme that our French class would feature any pizza at all. The preponderance of benefit therefore was going out to eat and shop. Quod erat demonstrandum. Ah, the lifelong benefits of higher education!

Anyway, about 6 pm I joined about 40 other folks from base at the air terminal. We received a briefing during which we were urged to stay together, remember our status as representatives of the US of A, as well various other cautions, admonitions and exhortations aimed at avoiding a clash of cultures. Suitably prepared, off we went.

There is something very relaxing to me about travel as a bus passenger, head resting on the window glass, watching the world slide by. Every traffic stop is a little vignette, a little silent movie starring the passers-by. The eye takes in the costumes, the action, the background, the mise en scene, and almost as soon as our busy hominid brain assigns some meaning to the protagonist's actions, the whole affair slides away to be replaced by another. It is a curiously pleasant type of passivity and especially so in a new country where the actors, costumes and settings are new and fascinating. Of course, this was an air-conditioned chartered bus, and thus I wasn't crowded and sweaty, and I didn't have to sit next to anyone with a live chicken...

We made our way up the peninsula, angling to the northwest off of Blvd. General de Gaul just past the French hospital, heading into what is denoted on the tourist maps as the "European Quarter". As sunset this near to the equator is always pretty close to 1800ish (it varies from about 1750 to 1830), dusk was falling as we touched down at our first stop - the basket market. This actually sounds a bit grander then the actual site - a short parking lot alongside an office building with cars parked on one side and the sellers sitting on the ground on straw mats opposite. All the vendors - there were about 10 - were women. Some of them were engaged in weaving while displaying their wares, and others smiled or called out to the 40 or so Americans now milling about the little space. Most of the actual selling though was done by men - youngish Djiboutians of about 25 years I would guess, whose relationship to the artisans was hard to guess at. They tended to speak a bit more english in any event. Were they brokers? Relatives? Anyway, the weaving was quite extraordinary, and I bought some baskets of various sizes and patterns to send home. I spent about 10,000 Djiboutian francs, which I'm sure was an awful overpayment, but I have nothing of the haggler in me. I left happy anyway. The women, all wearing colorful shash headscarves and brightly printed garabasaar shawls over their traditional dirac dresses, alas all declined to be photographed, a wish I respected. I had to smile at their girlish giggling when the question was put to them, though.

20 minutes or so and back on the bus, and off through the rapidly darkening streets to Pizzaiolo. This is a pizza place (no, really) about half a block off Place Menelik, the heart of the quartier Europeen. It sits in a non-descript block of businesses, shops and offices and is a popular place with the French, American and other ex-pats. Pizza was really quite good - a wood fired thin crust very much in the southern Italian or Provencal fashion. My "Sicilian" featured oil-cured olives, capers and anchovies, and would have been at home in Palermo or Catania. It cried out for a nice Cotes-Rotie or a cold beer, but as we were not off base on that type of a liberty chit, a Perrier had to suffice. Sigh.

Dinner finished we trooped back up from the cozy cellar dining rooms of Pizzaiolo, into the full dark night and back to the bus. Now we headed south to the approximate area of Place Rimbaud - the beginning of the quartier Africain. Here one is on the border of the "blue door" district, at the end of the sealed road and in what the Lonely Planet calls "the real soul of the city". It is a bustling, crowded, cacophonous and chaotic place, so I don't know what this implies for souls in general. What of you gentle reader? Is your soul a hurly burly market place or a quiet sunny piazza? I'm afraid mine may be a strip mall somewhere in Ohio, but that's a different matter...

Anyway, if you've ever been to a 3rd world outdoor market you'll have a good idea of the atmosphere. The one street we were allowed to explore was lined on both sides with shops and booths selling a colorful array of clothes, electronics, African jewelry, art, carvings, masks, spears, knives and doubtless a thousand other things. As you can imagine, a busload of Americans being conspicuously dropped off in the middle of this teeming third-world center of enterprise has an effect somewhat like throwing a fresh side of beef into a tank full of hungry sharks. In seconds we were surrounded by dozens of men who ardently claimed to be our friends and to have nothing but our best interests at heart as they urged us in one direction or another, assuring us that everything at their kiosk was practically being given away. It was fun for a while to saunter along, peeking at this and that and surrounded the whole time by a small crowd of hopeful entrepreneurs. I bought a child's T-shirt for Jack. I would have loved to get him one of the Afar or Issa style tribal knives, as these are among the very few actually Djiboutian artifacts available. The carvings of camels, giraffes and elephants as well as the masks and jewelry are from Kenya mostly, and the clothing from China. Alas tribal knives are not permitted to be bought or to sent through the mails (and it may be that they aren't the best gift for your 8 year old anyway). A T-shirt it will be.

After about 50 minutes of wandering about, we were shepherded back on the bus. The fuss had died down as the shoppers became less and less interested in the wares on display, but it was still with a good deal of relief I plopped back into the relative calm (and cool) of the bus. An old friend of mine once used the term "Mall Head" to describe the sensation of saturation with noise, bright lights and bustle that the mall shopper begins to suffer from after too long an immersion at the local Galleria. I had Djiboutian mall head. Mall a la tete?

Anyway home we went, bellies full of pizza and arms full of purchases. It was nice to have a chaperone for the trip, but I think I feel comfortable enough now with the streets and the city that I'll venture out in a smaller group next time. Does anybody out there need a wooden camel? I can get it for you practically free!

Talk to you next time.

1 comment:

  1. Hey--you got something against strip malls in Ohio?