"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29: 11

Monday, January 20, 2014

Le grande Marche de Pointe - Noire

One of the things I love most about being here is going into town and trying out my French. Even though I can't say that much, I get a kick out of practising on the unsuspecting public. And the Congolese are generous in offering correction so I like to think I am getting better.
Yesterday I went with two friends - Sharon and Diane, to the Grande Marche. We had three missions: to find the live crocodiles in the market, to get some replacement fabric, and to get spinach and feta for spinach pie.
Having been a few times now, we are getting more familiar with the buses and how they work. So for 150CFA - about 30 cents US - we got on number 1 bus and headed off. The buses here are Toyota Hiaces - and they take 18 passengers and the driver and conductor! There is always great local music playing and everyone is very friendly and tries out their English on you. We met a guy on the bus from Brazzaville and he decided to adopt our crocodile mission as his own and take us there. So we hopped off the bus and went via all the back alleys from one side of the Grande Marche to the other. This is no mean feat: the alleyways are narrow, some had open drains in them and most pathways were only wide enough for one person with people moving in both directions. Then there are occasional wheelbarrows and vendors carrying their goods in round plastic containers in their heads - I am always amazed at how relaxed they look, loping along with 40 eggs on their head. I can't imagine looking so relaxed and walking so easily with that potential for mess above me!
We eventually made it to the "wet market". I use that term because that is what they called it in Singapore when we used to live there. This is where all the fruit, veggies, fish, meat and flour are. It's kind of like the central part of the grand Marche and it is covered. Because it has been so wet this last week, it was muddy and mucky but still as busy as ever. Our guide took us through the wet market maze, going to areas that I had never passed before - new shoes, even a delicatessen style stall. Eventually, we arrived at the bush meat section. Surprisingly, there was hardly any smell. Maybe my nose is adjusting to the smell of drying fish? The first animals I noticed were the chickens.  They were sitting there calmly in rows. They all looked quite fat and content. Funny - if I was in a "boucherie", I imagine sitting calmly as one of the last things I would want to do. We saw so many interesting things, I felt quite overwhelmed: giant bush pig heads, enormous rat looking animals - about 60cm long without their tail, porcupines - all in various states from alive to offal and skin only. We then saw a live fire BBQ set up ready for when you had chosen your animal. Can't get fresher than that.
Finally, we went along a bit farther, and found the crocs! They were alive and trussed up on the ground - about six of them - all around 3-4 feet long. I have to admit that they didn't look particularly happy - their skin was very dark and dry looking and it also looked quite baggy. I'm not sure that there would be that much meat on them either. We wondered if they were farmed? We asked for the price and were told 45000 CFA (90.00USD). I think they were advertising the non-local price. Anyway, we may think a bit more about having a croc on the barbie for Australia Day next week.  I will have to ask Raoul - our day crew in the office - what price he thinks he can get it for. (Unfortunately no croc photos as we didn't want to give offence or reveal our cameras to potential pickpockets when so deep into the market.)
On the table above the crocs were turtles - one was really enormous and also still alive. I didn't see any snakes but I have to admit, there was so much to see, it was hard to take it all in. Plus after the boys kept scaring me with a toy snake this week, I wasn't looking too hard.
After having one last look around, we thanked our generous guide and said goodbye. We then tried to find our way out of the wet market maze to undertake mission two: the fabric.
Fabric here comes in 6-yard lengths. It is called the "pagne" and it is made into the gorgeous dresses the local women wear. Our mission was to get 12 yards of blue and white fabric with "les fleurs". I can't remember how many shops and stalls we looked in - it wasn't a huge number - but I think blue and white designs are not the most popular here - the more colourful, the better. We eventually found a place that had a slightly larger range and some blue and white material. We negotiated in our minimal French and after finally getting the deal we were hoping for, the shopkeeper started talking English! Fortunately minimal English but it was very funny all the same. And when Sharon decided to buy a second lot of material, she got a really good buy. Then the shopkeepers wanted pics of the crazy white women in their shop - so there was a bit of snapping from a variety of cameras before we left.

 Last mission now: spinach and feta. I had seen excellent local "epinard" when we were finding our way out of the wet market - but now I couldn't find my way back. We eventually bought 5 bunches for 500 CFA ($1) and then walked out of the market to La Cite - Super Marche and patisserie. The supermarket is run by Lebanese owners and has a fantastic bakery at one end. It also smells delicious! It is not quite as expensive as the Casino supermarket but you cannot get everything you are after either. Even so, I love to get the bread and hummus (in a can) there when in get the chance.
Finally, we went to the patisserie - a little oasis in the Saturday morning chaos. Now that we have visited several times, and once on a Mums trip with 12 people, one of the waitresses came across to greet us - almost like long lost friends. We were given kisses on both cheeks when we arrived and hugs when we left. She loves to practice her English with us and correct our French - and we get to order goodies to do so!

After a pleasant lunch, we said goodbye and headed down the street to the western supermarket.  
Unfortunately, it started to rain, not heavily but fairly consistently. We tried to get a taxi but they didn't want to take us such a short way. So the crazy westerners walked down the street, soaked, as all the Congolese watched us as they sheltered under shop awnings! Fortunately, they had feta at the supermarket and we made it back to "La gare" where the social shuttle runs.  By that stage, we were pretty wet and tired. It was good to get home and get showered and dry. 
Nevertheless, it was a fantastic day, experiencing more of life in the Congo.