I approach Chad with a note of caution… Admittedly it is not at the top of everyone’s bucket list for a variety of reasons, however, over the last few months a selection of people have mentioned that I must visit.
So, off the back of swimming with sperm whales in Dominica, I have an 8hr layover in London before continuing on via Addis Ababa to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Arriving in the early afternoon, we (I met up with some fellow travel companions on the flight) make our way to our hotel which is a short 10min drive away. Opened only a month or so before, we are staying at the rather lavish Hilton. Set amongst a backdrop of the wild west of northern Africa, the Hilton is a welcome but rather strange addition. On entering, you are treated to a huge welcome hall which opens into one of the longest bars I have seen in Africa. From here, it opens out onto a terrace which overlooks a tiered swimming pool and the river. The rooms are clean and comfortable as you would expect of a Hilton and the service is good. The only small reminder that you have that you are still in Chad is that they can’t accept credit cards…and yes, they do have an ATM in the hotel itself, but it doesn’t work! Cash it is then!
Settling in, our small party of five sets off accompanied by Madje and Yusuf our local guides, to explore the town. Our first stop is to the ‘forex bureau’. Well at least this is what Madje has called it. As it turns out it is in fact a small empty room behind a glass door where we are welcomed to sit down with our ‘trader’. Shoes off and cross legged on the floor, the five of us already feel at home as bundles of cash are fingered through in exchange for crumpled dollar bills. Our trader friend is more than happy for us to take pictures (something that we have been warned not to do in the city for fear of offending people) and chats away as we secure the required funds. From here we continue on a short drive until we reach the local market.
Whilst the streets of the city are wide boulevards (very French) with high security walls surrounding the bordering properties and empty of people, the market is buzzing as people go about their everyday business and stalls are crowded into every space available. Each avenue has its own niche, with sunglasses stalls, meat vendors, fresh vegetables, clothing, luggage and more.
From the market we move on to another local past time, that of horse racing! As we step out of our vehicle at the local ‘track’ (a dust bowl with a football pitch in the centre and a 200 seater stadium at best), we mix amongst the local crowd as the excitement builds for the last race of the day. The local attire involves long flowing robes, head scarves and a smattering of dark shaded glasses, so our beacon of five white faces soon attracts a few inquisitive locals! We couldn’t be more warmly welcomed and accepted into this community occasion though, as they explain what is about to take place, the favourite to win and how many laps of the course they are about to undertake… And suddenly they are off! About 15 horses with their local riders come pounding down the dust track towards us as the leaders leave the weaker horses in their cloud of dust… riders dressed in a variety of brightly coloured riding attire drive their horses onwards keen to secure the prize money. Whilst not quite the Grand National, this is probably one of the most involved community gatherings I have had the pleasure of being part of. Following the race, we drop in on the stables next to the track where we meet with one of the owners of the horses (who is also a local parliamentarian). He explains the comings and goings of such an event and that whilst there is always some money involved, this is purely about a passion. These races are run every Sunday, with a Grand Prix at least once a month and even travelling afar to Cameroon for foreign events.