Monday, May 9, 2011

Souvenir Hunting in Brazzaville

I relished the strong morning coffee at Brazzaville's Hippocampe, which showed up in an individual-sized French press.

Mmmmm, what could be better than a French-Vietnamese hotel-restaurant? Besides one that has less buggy wi-fi, I mean. But that's regional, the same across the Congos and much of central Africa.

"Where do you think I can get good souvenirs," I asked Olivier, who runs the lodge along with his wife for his Vietnamese in-laws. I love Congolese textiles—I have a few at home and also a carving of a Belgian policeman—and my dark secret about why I'd been so desperate to get to Brazzaville and Kinshasa is that I wanted to buy some of those for people who click on the "Souvenir" link above and send in fifty bucks.

"Try the Marche Touristique," he said. "They'll have exactly what you need."

I trusted his judgement—Olivier was an overlander himself, having ridden his bicycle all around the world, which is why he lets overlanders camp for free—so after a quick walking trip down to the ATM that works with my Citibank Mastercard-branded card, I hailed a taxi and went straight to the March Touristique.

The taxi overshot and left me in front of a large vegetable stand.

Hmm, that's not right. 

"Excusez-moi," I asked a Congolese woman behind a stand of tomatoes and onions. "Ou est Marche Touristique?" 

She pointed back down the way the taxi had come. I didn't see anything resembling a souvenir market, but I followed her instructions and suddenly, to my left, there was an covered walkway spilling over with carved trinkets.

I went in, methodically pricing textiles and carvings as I found myself walking deeper into the maze of handmade souvenirs. I've heard that they're all from DRC next door but that it was much easier, and probably cheaper, to buy them here in Brazzaville and to post home from here. The other side of the river had a reputation for chaos and corruption.

I negotiated for masks and textiles like a pro, and it wasn't hard because there were hardly any tourists but lots and lots of souvenir sellers. I bought all I could carry, then planned to come back tomorrow until I learned later that the ATM had run out of cash.

And then, I got to the Tintin carvings.

Um, wow. The hand-carved Tintin souvenirs from Congo are astounding for many reasons. Some of them are elaborate, creative, can I put this? Unabashedly, innocently racist. The carvers mimic what someone saw in a Tintin book at some point, and Tintin was created in a different era. Probably quite progressive for the time, looking at it now is kind of startling.

I bought two of the Tintin canoe carvings, one of just him and Snowy, five textiles, and two carved combs. I ran out of money. I ran out of arms. I headed back to the hotel, dropped the Tintins off, went to the supermarket to hunt for bubble wrap or anything resembling packing materials (struck out), then went to DHL.

"Bring your souvenirs here in the morning," said the manager. "We'll get them home for you."

I had settled on this for the carvings and decided to mail the textiles and combs home, so I stopped by the post office after this, where a postal employee packed up my textiles and comb and shipped them off to Michael Kraiger in New York.

And then a pygmy approached me. A pygmy named Benson. He wanted my phone number, my email address, my support for his NGO. I chatted with Benson, shook his hand, and walked back to Hippocampe to admire my Tintin souvenirs.

DHL would cost a fortune, I knew. I wouldn't really go back there.

But how the hell was I going to get these things home?

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