Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Travel Adventure

Traveling Back From Nakaba
*quick note: My language group (4 trainees and our LCF, Pierre) traveled to Nakaba, a village in the east of Burkina, to spend the weekend with a current volunteer in order to learn a little about what she does and how she lives as a volunteer (a trip called Demyst, or Demystification). This was what I wrote about our travel day back home.

1 November – Romongo 8:55pm

It's just past 7am. The misty fields that we are passing could have been straight out of a drive though the wilds of Scotland, with the errant tree breaking up untended fields of tall grasses. Then you notice the cows – short haired, a bit skinny, and with that distinctive large lump sticking up between their shoulder blades. Still not sure what that's for. I return my concentration to the red dirt path in front of me (pure Africa), trying to keep my tires in line with the part where it's brightest, indicating where all the bikes tend to travel and have pounded the gray gravel surface into a fine red powder. The bike ride from Nakaba back to the main paved highway is just noticeably uphill and we all keep downshifting to make it easier as we sweat under the weight of our large backpacks. We cross over 7 reinforced washes, places where the dirt path has been paved in concrete because it dips down to allow water during the rainy season to flow from one side of the path to the other (now I'm thinking about driving in Tucson). There are short concrete posts lining the edges, bottom half white, top half red, and I wonder how people use them to determine if the water level is safe to cross seeing as each post is the same height and has the same amount painted each color, regardless if it's at the lowest point or the highest point of the paved area.

We make it to the road and stop to rest and await a bush taxi coming from Fada. After only about 15 minutes we get lucky when one comes jostling along, honking at the people on bicycles as it passes them and then comes to a stop in front of us. Pierre, our amazing LCF, argues the price with the driver (or perhaps his assistant?) and we watch as our bikes are the first items of the day to grace the storage on the top of the van. We hop in next to a few passengers, and I take the fold down jump seat that allows the aisle of the van to be used as seating space, next to the window. Traveling by taxi brousse is unlike anything I've ever experienced before. We've agreed to take this one all the way to Ouaga, a trip that took about 2 hours by bus plus 30 minutes by bush taxi a few days ago. Today it takes over 3 hours, since we stop to allow people to get on and off in what seems like 10 minute intervals. I stare out the window, enjoying the breeze on my face from the open window and trying to ignore the feet I can see just behind my shoulder – they belong to the man sitting on the roof. For some reason we pull over and change vans, Pierre watching like the protective father we've adopted him as to make sure that all of our bags and bicycles make it over to the new one.

In the new van I find myself squished into the very back corner, straddling my feet around the tire well, the spare tire, and the support post for the seat in front of me. It's very hot, and my tailbone and sit-bones seem to dig into the hard seat no matter how I position myself. I try to sleep, blocking out discomfort with welcome oblivion, but it's hard and I wake up when we stop. I finally manage to open my window a few inches to let in a wonderful breeze, but soon realize my mistake because now when we stop the vendors that mob the van now have direct access to me. Every place we stop sells essentially the same things – bags of small fried gateaus, loaves of bread – 6 narrow or 2 large per bag, bags of oranges or tomatoes, sachets of cold water that you drink by biting off the corner, vacuum sealed bags of what I think is dried and spiced fish, or packets of sesame cookies. In the bigger bus stops you also have vendors pushing comic books, donated novels from the US with outdated, tattered covers, personal tissue packets, and giant tubs of plastic toys. We're all pretty hungry, but to say yes to one seems to be inviting the hoard, so we ignore the insistent hands and hope that the van re-starts soon. At highest count we have 23 people (including infants) in our van meant for 12 comfortable passengers or maybe 18 if we're all skinny and overload each row plus have a few people sitting backwards on a bench behind the driver's compartment. Plus a chicken, trussed up but still alive, blessedly quiet for most of the ride. It could have been worse – sometimes people bring a sheep.

We happily unfold ourselves from the cramped car when we arrive at the bus depot in Ouaga, where Pierre has called the taxi to pick us up. We ignore the many people pushing products into our faces and keep a sharp eye on all of our belongings, the safety and security talk fresh in our minds to beware of thieves. Our driver again manages to pack our 5 bikes, 5 bags, and 5 bodies into the tiny green car and off we zip to another bus station. All of the taxis here are an interesting green color, bright, but kind of a mix between lime green and camouflage green. Bright green with olive undertones? They are a variety of brands – Ford, Citron, BMW – but all are old, rusting in places, and many are festooned with stickers, logos, and decals. Ours has the seal of Burkina painted on each door, with Cuba-flag patterned tape striping above each window and an Obama magnet on the gas tank door, plus 6 or 7 flags of various countries taped to the inside of the windshield. One we pass says “Barack Obama” in capital American-flag magnet letters (“he's popular here” doesn't begin to do it justice).

The next bus to Koudougou isn't until 4:30pm, and it's only 11:30am. Audrey told us about a supermarket called Marina that we all agree warrants visiting. We check our bikes into storage at the bus station and get back in our favorite taxi. He drops us off and we give our large bags to the security guard standing next to the entrance, since they are too large to fit in the offered locking cubbies. I start praying that I'll see my stuff again. The A/C hits us and we are lulled into an almost dream-like state by the sudden familiarity of rows of shelves selling things in some sort of organizational structure, compared to the interesting but random offerings available at our open-air marches. We go up to the restaurant on the 3rd floor and order off of the “fast food” menu – pizzas, cheeseburgers, and something called a Steak Philadelphia that promises meat, cheddar cheese, mayo and onions. Pierre returns with a delightful combination of pate and local bread, and I kind of kick myself for not thinking of that. The pate reminds me of my homestay family in France, with my initial aversion to anything called “pate,” but my enthusiastic acceptance of it upon receiving a delicious sandwich with pate and sliced pickles in my lunch bag one day (it still sounds odd, but it was wonderful).

Still, when our food arrives I do indeed enjoy my “Steak Philadelphia” even though it is nothing like a Philly Cheesesteak that I was hoping for. It's a grilled wrap with steak strips marinated in some kind of barbecue-ish sauce, with a few random french fries thrown in there, no sign of the onions, and a wonderful amount of cheese and an interesting slather of mayo. We spend lunch contemplating the long table of Lebanese men nearby, eating heaping plates of off-menu items and controlling the A/C units with a small remote, and watching the news in French on the TV. Something about a car bombing of a church in Iraq and the new president of Brazil? We return downstairs after paying our bill and I spend an absurd amount on a small container of Haagan-Daaz Caramel Brownie ice cream. It's worth it, and I happily devour it as we leave.

Back at the bus station we talk with all the other Volunteers who have congregated in Ouaga, and sweat in the heat. Pierre battled his way though the bureaucracy of the bus company earlier to get them to drop us off at our village (which is on the highway we'll be taking) instead of making us bike in the dark back to the village from Koudougou. We all officially love Pierre and wonder how in the hell we will ever do this by ourselves without getting ripped off all the time. We agree that we will probably just get ripped off or miss our bus regularly for the first few months until we become awesome Volunteers Who Know What We Are Doing. We retrieve our bikes from storage and hand them off to bus attendants before wading into the fray of bodies trying to get on this bus, the 2nd of 3 that leave at 4:30 for Koudougou. Pierre snags us and sneaks us in the back door to some seats he reserved, and at 4:15pm we pull out of the station, stuffed into our seats, with my big backpack lying in the aisle.

The ride is surprisingly short. The driver has turned on the radio very loudly - we listen to a speech by the current president and the people running against him, set to music with whistles denoting changes in who is speaking? When it changes to traditional songs interspersed with shrill yelps (the radio reception isn't fantastic) I grab my headphones and fight the cultural immersion with a good dose of very loud pop/rock. I watch the sun sink towards the horizon through the tinted windows and play peek-a-boo with the little girl two rows ahead of me. The bus actually does stop outside of our CSPS (I can't imagine Grayhound makes door-to-door dropoffs) and we grab our bikes and bags before it roars off again down the road. We say goodbye and peddle home, back to our more familiar routine once again.

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