Barbecues and Beer Pong. Happy Fourth.
It was an eventful July Fourth in Bujumbura. In the morning, I left my house to buy a pineapple and some vegetables, my contribution to my boss’s patriotic barbecue. The grill was a traditional one, which is to say that it uses charcoal, and the grill grates are basically flush against the coals. That makes for a delicious brochette, but when it came to grilling vegetables, they were entirely blackened, and there was nothing I could do about it. I ate them anyway. The grilled pineapple turned out especially well, the sweet juices caramelizing beautifully!
The entire barbecue was as American as could be managed in central Africa. We had burgers with local cheese, there was a salad, macaroni and cheese, a potato salad, chocolate chip cookies, and one woman brought tofu in homemade barbecue sauce (which was delicious, and a justifiably American creation). One Senegalese guy complained to me, “But I thought American barbecues had lots of meat, and you only have burgers!” It was true—everything was vegetarian apart from the burgers. At first reviled by the thought of barbecue tofu, he tried it and agreed that it was delicious. (“Heh, if you didn’t know it, you would think this was meat!” he exclaimed.)
The fun lasted until well into the evening, when the group eventually migrated down the street to the U.S. Marine House (since the Embassy is old, the Marines live off the compound). Their house is palatial, with an enormous pool, wrap around outdoor balcony, and a generous living space. When we arrived, a couple of people were playing some kind of karaoke video game and others were playing (or watching) a game of beer pong (known to some as Beirut), the great American college tradition.
After a while of watching the Americans toss the ball back and forth into opposing teams’ cups (and watching them become increasingly inebriated), the non-Americans present wanted to learn how to play. On one side was a Frenchman and a Belgian; on the other, a Kenyan and an English-speaking Burundian. Few who knew the game were able to speak both French and English, and thus I was thrust into the role of teacher. (This probably comes as no surprise to my friends in grad school, who…er…know my affinity for this game. But I swear it wasn’t my idea.) The Kenyan and Burundian won the game handily.
By 11:30, I was exhausted and already had a hangover from the day’s drinking, but I was at the whim of others who had cars, as my own taxi driver had long since gone to bed. Somehow, someone received word that a club was reopening downtown that night, and there was a mass exodus in that direction. I was swept up in that wave, and ended up at Havana, a club that seemed promising until you actually entered it.
We parked the car on the median, and the car was promptly surrounded by six men. They asked for money to “protect” the car, which we basically ignored. I chose to leave my bag in the car (because petty theft would likely be a big problem at the club), and when we tried to lock the car, we found it wouldn’t because a door was ajar. As it turned out, one of the men on the other side of the car quietly opened a door so that he could easily break in after we left. I was very upset and couldn’t help but think about the safety of my handbag. My friend assured me, however, that crime here is generally limited to pickpocketing and petty theft, and not vehicular break-ins. I was still nervous.
The club, at whose entry lingered a number of prostitutes, charged a 5,000 Franc cover (a little less than $5). While it was called Havana, there was nothing Cuban about it; in the middle of the club was a pavilion with different-sized disco balls and colored lights. The walls are high, and the roof is elevated even higher, giving it a little fresh air, but not the sense of openness. It felt more like a converted warehouse. There was some seating around the edges, and a single bar in the back that was, predictably, overcrowded. That night, I saw Chinese men that were completely out of their element, a couple of older white women, a crowd of young aid-worker expats, and, overwhelmingly, countless 60 to 70 year old men (some of whom looked like preachers, bifocals perched on the edge of their pointed noses) groping young, lithe, scantily-clad Burundian women. I know it’s a reality, but I just can’t bear to see it. It absolutely disgusts me.
Finally, at about 2:30 am, I made my way home, even though the club was still jumping. We gave the six men “guarding the car” 1,000 Francs (which apparently was more than enough) and found while driving away that they had tried the “open door” technique again, but hadn’t been successful at grabbing anything. Given the bad experience, I don’t plan to return to Havana anytime soon!