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Camels, causeways, colour: first impressions of Dire Dawa

January 27, 2011

Half because I’m in the field right now so have NO TIME*, and half because perfectionism does not a productive life make, I decided to try something new: first impressions! In note form! First up under the pen: Dire Dawa. (I’m not sure it survives).


Camels stalk down the road beside bajajs. replicas of 7000-year-old cave paintings line the walls, and murals signed ‘handicap’. under one: a crumpled cloth, legs protruding. roundabout with a rail carriage mounted in the middle. dusty yellow façade – chemin de fer. colourful buildings, so many shades, but shade –  street sellers, under stretched sheets in the sun – not so much. pink shawls against pink walls . wide tree-lined avenues. ‘china mettow’ – you came from china? do you have a doll? mid-afternoon desolate streets – everyone busy chewing chat. green turrets in the distance. houses climbing up to the scrubby hills that ring the town. syria. sudden alleyways, stripes of mountain view.  everything scenic, all movement framed in front of fading pastel walls. red earth river bed, parched. people walking it, birds circling it, in front of the mountains. afternoon – a row of camels marching out of the city on what was once a river. like invisible cities: there are seas of water, and seas of sand.


dire dawa market

dire dawa market


* the astute/facebook-frequenters among you may have noted i’m actually back from the field. yeah, this post almost never saw the light of day. maybe it shouldn’t have? thoughts on a postcard…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Leslie Letterbug permalink
    January 28, 2011 1:05 AM

    It’s too visual; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Without including what you feel when you’re viewing, or some other way of personalizing the environment, the beauty of the form is lost.

    • February 1, 2011 7:57 PM

      Dear Leslie,

      re: perfectionism: i agree, it is subjective, in fact it’s just a ridiculous concept that ties the user to an impossible but also non-existent ideal. i suppose what i meant was, perhaps i could make the descriptions more evocative, the piece longer, the syntax better – ie i could make it a more evocative, fluent piece of writing – better (yeah, i know that’s contentious too!)

      re: that travel writing should focus on your reactions to what you encounter, i disagree. here, i feel a) it’s implicit b) it would be banal for me to say – ‘i really like dire dawa. it makes me think of exotic things’. what would knowing how i feel add to the piece?

      obviously this varies depending on the piece, and how much drama or interest is meant to derive from the narrator themselves. but also, more generally, travel is so often about broadening horizons, but focusing on the individual response is as ever tying experience down to the narrow perspective of one individual – me me me. you might find this article interesting – it’s about the self-indulgence of a lot of travel writing (maybe you’ll diasgree with it)

      there’s also this article about writing at ‘ground level’, where you try not to project your assumptions onto a scene but just show what you see – to give what you see the respect it deserves, rather than ventriloquising.

      and i dunno, in a country which has been the prop for so much assumption, i’m not sure i want to frame the scene with my perspective…

      hmmm. interesting. confusing. i’d really like to hear what you think!



      • Leslie Letterbug permalink
        February 5, 2011 6:14 PM

        I wasn’t talking so much about travel writing in general, but sorta writing on the fly. In retrospect you can take a step back and write objectively, but I think trying to extract yourself from the situation and write too objectively in the ‘heat of the moment’ kinda detracts from the writing, you get stuck trying to describe everything you observe. I’m introspective by nature so I usually use emotion to colour a scene (’tis why I used that as an example), but other things that are subjective and personal to you such as sounds, smells, heat, the feeling of the ground beneath your feet etc. can be lost when try to go purely objective. They help provide context for the images you’re describing.

        There’s also the old adage, a picture says a thousand words. I personally don’t think you can describe the entire imagery of a scene in terms of words alone. Green turrets in the distance could be guns or towers, and although it’s a nice poetic image and it piques my curiosity, it doesn’t relay enough information to build an accurate picture of the place; that’s where I feel that putting a human context on it would help build the image. It would be wrong to use an introspective technique like mine and emotionally project upon the situation, but I still feel a subjective technique like human interaction always strengthens the context and provides more information to the reader than the use of purely objective techniques.

  2. Leslie Letterbug permalink
    January 28, 2011 1:27 AM

    Also perfection is subjective. It could be giving a piece the sparsest of edits, so as not to lose it’s authenticity.

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