Chad - March 25th-April 2nd 2000
A land of beauty, poverty, and little black plastic bags...
It started all a bit strangely really. We were sitting on an Air France Airbus about 35 thousand feet above Libya, wondering how on earth we were going to explain to the Chadian immigration officers that we didn't actually have a visa to visit their country yet (and also what we'd do if the plane had to make an emergency landing in Libya.) We'd been assured that a "note verbale" was being sent to the airport and that everything would be sorted out once we'd arrived - "happens all the time" e-mailed Rory's dad, Alan, before we'd left. That didn't stop us from getting a bit panicky when we found out that the Chadians have the slightly unusual habit of taking your boarding stub as you step off the 'plane. No-one is quite sure why. That coupled with the realisation that we didn't actually have Alan and Mary's (Rory's step-mum) 'phone number or address with us, I was beginning to have alarming visions of being thrown into 120O F detention rooms for eight hours and being given the Spanish (or in this case Chadian) Inquisition. However, when we arrived at N'djamena airport, we were relieved to see Alan waiting for us, and we were whisked into an air conditioned room while his colleague retrieved our suitcase and had most of the paperwork done in about 10 minutes. (Hot tip for for visiting a strange country when you have no visa - know some locals.) The only slight worry was giving our passports and tickets up for various administrative things, not quite knowing when we'd see them again...
We spent a lot of the week being woken up every day by the French military revving up the engines of their Mirage jets (with afterburners) at 7.30am. We think that most of N'djamena wakes up too. Otherwise we were just lazing about, reading the entire set of Harry Potter books to date, sleeping a lot and avoiding the sun during the "mad-dog" hours of the day as the average temperature was about 105O F. And we were still waiting to get out passports and tickets back. We also enjoyed watching all the events on the river Chari. The river runs along the back of Alan and Mary's house, and also acts as a natural border between Chad and Cameroon. We watched people taking all sorts of things across the river, and the customs officials appearing to be looking the other way as they took the goods up the beach. Sometimes this entante cordiale fails to materialise if the customs guys haven't been paid off. Alan nearly got more than he bargained for when he accidentally got in the way of a fleeing smuggler being pursued by some enthusiastic officials. One near miss and one life having flashed past his eyes, he said that the smuggler had been rammed from behind (in his small car) by the large truck of the customs officials and it was in a pretty poor state when they finally stopped him. Apparently they merely confiscate the goods and then let the smugglers go. All the thrill of the chase left in tact for the next time.
Shopping is a minimal experience in N'djamena. The city centre main shopping area (their Oxford Street or Rodeo Drive) consists of the following (my apologies if I've missed a few things out):
All the shopping Alan bought when we were out and about with him came in (you've guessed it) little black plastic bags.
The list is not meant as a patronising exercise, but just to put into perspective the comparative levels of spending power here - the average GDP in Chad is US$130 per year, compared to around US$16,500 in the UK. Just to add more to this, there are also several large reminders of the civil war that raged for may years here. N'djamena is a city that looks like it did have a more auspicious past - the remainants of a large supermarket, a cinema, and many brick buildings that have been replaced by lesser structures are apparent, as are the bullet-marks.
The food at the restaurants we visited as very good. We were really spoilt at home by Rene the chef, so the restaurants had a lot to compete with ! Le Centrale gave us an excellent meal with a nice ambience. The local fish here is Capitaine, a fish with a taste a bit like chicken. It's absolutely delicious. We had an interesting time at a restaurant called Le Carnivore. Alan and Mary hadn't tried it out yet, so we took them out for dinner to give it a go. The dinner itself was not so much the interesting experience as more trying to work out whether the waitresses were actually just waitresses or also provided *other* services. We think we found the answer as we entered to find a very uncomfortable looking foreign ambassador seeing Mary (a fellow diplomat) arriving as he was about to begin chatting away with one such young lady. This entertainment for us was coupled by a band who, despite actually playing their instruments well, had roped in two singers with the vocal abilities of say, Margarita Pracatan. To be fair to Ms Pracatan - she has some style. This was more akin to listening to a dripping tap. We finally got our passports and tickets back on the Friday, only to have them taken away again on Sunday afternoon (the day of our flight home.)
On the final day we took a an early morning trip to Elephant Rock (so named as it appears to bear some semblance to the noted mammal, although from the photographs I don't think we reflected this adequately !) This also involved *climbing* up about 100 feet. For Rory "Mountain Goat", and Alan (like Son, like Father) in particular this was not a major problem. They managed it with an entire 2 foot long cool box containing various forms of breakfast. Even the kids managed it without too much difficulty, but alas for me, being more of a "mountain hippo", the entire event was one long struggle. At the time of writing I am still feeling muscles I was not aware existed. I'm glad I did it though, as the photos below show.
All in all, a fabulous holiday - totally different from anywhere I've been before. Highly recommended, although don't go there when Colonel Gadaffi is visiting - he turfed the rest of the visitors out of the only Western hotel in N'djamena !