23 January 2009

No news is good news

Nothing much to report. No problems at site. Decided to make a day trip to Boulsa to check mail and the like. A day trip...as in 70 km round trip by bike in one day. Am I crazy? Nope, I'm PRACTICING.

I've decided that this spring I'm going to do a Tour du Sahel. Dori to Ouahigouya - or possibly the other direction, it's too soon to tell. In total, a distance of 300 km, give or take (more if we do a side tour to visit one volunteer out of the way). But for the most part, there are volunteer sites about every 50km, so the individual days won't be awful, though the heat will be brutal. But there is one stretch of 100km with no one's house to stay at between. Camping is a possibility, but so is making the whole stretch in one day. So it would be nice to know that I can do it without dying. Of course, conditions are MUCH easier right now - it's so cold I was biking until 10 o'clock and I barely broke a sweat.

I may actually tack on another 150km by biking from my site to Dori as well, if we end up going that direction. The reason for that is that in late my we have a mask festival chez moi, and the two volunteers who have expressed an interest in biking the Sahel with me have also expressed an interest in attending said festival. And I'll have to be in Ouahigouya in early June anyway for training, if I get a spot working the next stage. Unfortunately, while I should know whether I've been accepted for that sometime in March or April, the way holidays work here I won't know the date of the mask festival until just a couple weeks before it happens. We'll see.

Oh, I DO have news, it's just not site-related. I have been accepted on the Food Security Committee, and my job is to coordinate tree-planting projects, both to fight desertification and to improve crop yields. I'm very excited by this job! I will probably also work pretty heavily on preparing educational materials in Mooré, once my language is up to snuff. There's a nice synergy going on between my interests and my responsibilities right now.

And now lunch. I need to eat a lot. I do still have 35km to bike today!

Coming soon: Have you applied to the Peace Corps? Are you coming to West Africa? I actually don't know whether or not anyone fitting that description reads this blog, but my next planned post may be interesting to friends and family as well. I'm going to make a list of what I've brought or had sent that has been really useful, and what was a complete waste of luggage space. Stay tuned!

07 January 2009

Vacation continued

First, I would just like to point out that while I have mentioned more than once how cool C and Y are, it needs saying that C's friends, J, S, and M are also awesome. M had spent a few months in Ghana studying turtles (how freakin' cool is that); S and J had never before been to Africa. And none of them speak French. Yet they were fearless during this trip.

Dec 31, Day 5: New Year's in Bobo

We got up early and took the bush taxi back into Banfora. Fortunately, we didn't go by the same bus stop as before, so I didn't see my new faux type fan. We hung out at the gare waiting for the bus, and as it was a long wait some of us decided to go for a walk. J, S, and M went off by themselves (see how cool they are? No French, but they just went wandering without any of us with them to interpret. And they got by just fine), C went to find a phone to call a friend, and I wandered about too. Y (and another volunteer, K, and her RPCV boyfriend, B, who had joined us; sorry that I forgot to mention them sooner.) stayed with the bags. On my perambulation, I found McDonald's, which I'd heard about before. It's not a part of the fast food chain, but still it's a funny name here, and to add to the strangeness their decor is mostly Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I also stopped in a "Chinese Health Store" because I was curious what such a place might sell. Mostly erection-enhancement pills with incredibly graphic pictures on the boxes, if you were wondering.

After we were safely on our way to Bobo, I texted my new boyfriend to tell him that I'd left Banfora and wouldn't be back for a long time, as I live very far away. He still calls. Thank goodness and Nokia for number screening.

After arriving in Bobo, we tried to stay at a place called La Pacha (I don't know what that means), but they were jerks so we instead chose to stay at Casa Africa, which was definitely the better way to go. We found that several other volunteers were staying there too (so of the 9 rooms, PCVs had at least 4 of them). Dinner was great, though I found my steak to be incredibly tough compared to everyone else's - until I realized that they had gotten actual steak knives and I had a butter knife.

I tried to take a nap, as all the others were doing, so that we could stay up for the New Year, but just couldn't get to sleep. So I ambled into the lobby and started looking at the carvings and musical instruments on sale there. I met the man who makes them, and when I told him I was a Peace Corps volunteer, he became downright effusive. He loves the PC, it turns out. Since Casa Africa is a common place for volunteers visiting the region (or those who live nearby taking a weekend trip to Bobo), he has many friends who are current and returned volunteers. Apparently, one even ordered jewelry from him and sold it in the states for him, and the profits were enough for him to buy a motorcycle. He said that now, whenever a volunteer finishes service, if they want to use a moto to travel Africa, they can always borrow his, because it's an American moto. Then, he said that since I was a volunteer and it was a holiday, he would give me a gift - a small wooden elephant, which is now a permanent fixture in my pocket. He promised to teach me how to play a game that looked similar to Mancala the next day.

Everyone else got up, and we went to Bois d'Ebene (Ebony Wood) to celebrate the New Year in style. It was expensive, but we got a four-course meal and a hell of a show. First a band that did traditional music and dance, who played almost entirely for our group as no one else had showed up yet, then a band that played a mix of latin, French, and Burkinabe music, plus one Credence Clearwater Revival song. They were lots of fun.

And here in the story I must pause and direct your attention to my posts from 19 June and 5 July 2008, where I mentioned that I don't enjoy dancing. What I failed to mention was that I enjoy it so little that at the 4th of July party I ranted at someone about not wanting to dance - and it wasn't even one of the people who had been harassing me.

Well, it's a new year. I danced. By choice, without a drop to drink, and in fact without even being asked. *I* asked. I told Y that her new mission is to teach me to dance, and that I wanted to start right then. And we did. And it wasn't awful. I still feel like an uncoordinated fool on the dance floor, I can't change that overnight, but I can decide not to care. So we danced and had a good time. I didn't exactly make dancing a New Year's resolution (my actual resolution is that every day I will use at least one French or Moore word or grammar point that I don't have a good grasp on), but I do plan on going dancing pretty much whenever I get the opportunity so that I can learn. Whether I'll ever love like I've never been hurt or work like I don't need the money remains to be seen. One thing at a time.

Jan 1, Day 6: Sya

We walked around Bobo the next day. Being a holiday, very little was open, but we did discover to our chagrin that faux types don't take a break. It was really ridiculous, it seemed like we couldn't take three steps without ONE of us getting harassed. Mostly the girls, of course. C really went off on one guy, and he still then tried to get me to talk to her to calm her down so he could talk to her some more. I need to learn the French equivalent of "Go piss up a rope."

We hired a guide and walked around Sya, which is the name of the original settlement that became Bobo-Dioulasso, and where people still follow many of the original 14th century traditions of the settlement (with the 19th century addition of Islam into the mix). Often our tour guide answered our questions with "C'est le secret, on n'explique pas," ("That's a secret, we don't discuss it," a response C said she would use the next time a faux type asked her name). Basically, it was a tour of gift shops, but they were some of the coolest gift shops you'd ever hope to see. There was a mask shop with some really fascinating work (out of my price range), a mud-dyed cloth shop (I got a hat), and a bronze worker who makes things that are surprisingly modern-art style and absolutely beautiful and I hate that I didn't take any pictures there. While at the mask booth, C observed that successful shopping in West Africa is much like Zen Buddhism - you must free yourself from wanting.

Walking back to the hotel with the group, I almost got arrested. Apparently, the Burkina flag is lowered twice a day, and when this happens, everyone stops to watch. Well, we don't have a flag in my village. They're usually at the police or gendarme station, and we're so small that we have neither. I'd never, ever heard of this. So we heard a police whistle, glanced over and saw that the policemen were not looking at us, assumed that the whistle was for the traffic they'd been directing and kept walking. About 30 seconds later, a HUGE police officer comes running after us, yelling. We stop and turn, and he points at me with a furious look on his face and tells me that I just disrespected the whole country. Why me and not the other 5? Maybe my silly goatee, maybe my new hat...but most likely the simple fact that I am a man (as is S, but he doesn't speak French, so just as well I was chosen to bear the brunt of this tirade) and therefore the leader of the group (completely untrue, I could never coordinate a trip like this with the suaveness and assuredness of C, our fearless leader). This guy just couldn't wrap his head around the idea that I might not have known what the whistle was about. I apologized profusely and obliquely offered to pay a "fine", because the guy was so upset that I really thought it was going to be that or go to jail. But he was, in fact, truly offended by our not "stopping for the colors," as this practice is called, without being corrupt - after several minutes of haranguing me, he sent us on our way. I've been cagey about hearing whistles ever since.

After a dinner of Africanized curried chicken, I went to bed tired, ready to leave Bobo, and hoping that my new wooden elephant (and J's, she'd gotten one too) would bring us luck at our next stop, Boromo.

Jan 2, Day 7: Koro

But before leaving for Boromo, we decided to bike out to a cliffside dwelling called Koro, a governmentally sponsored tourist locale. In what had by now become the theme of our trip, the bike ride was longer than expected. As to the site itself, if I had it to do over again I'd have lobbied to join K and B visiting the sacred catfish ponds instead. Oh well. There's really not much to say about Koro otherwise. There were some good views, but the tour was very short, and our guide was not very interested. And so neither were we.

From there we caught a Rakieta bus to Boromo, and while we'd seen the scenery before on the way down (dead flower-tree!), the bus itself is worth mentioning. It was like being in America. Large, cushy seats, air conditioning with adjustable vents, drinks sold ON THE BUS, TV screens that folded down from the ceiling, even a BATHROOM! I'd better not ever hear those Southwesterners complain about transport. It was downright bizarre after months of buses crammed with people and animals, stifling hot with all the windows closed (Burkinabe hate opening windows on buses, I don't know why) unless you're lucky enough that one of them is missing. We got into Boromo without incident, and found a hotel. And after lugging around a tent, ThermaRest and blanket the whole trip, I finally had a chance to use them, as it was much easier than taking a room. The staff at this hotel was incredibly helpful, and while they didn't serve food there the proprietor took our orders and went into town and delivered our dinner to us. J, S, and M finally had the chance to experience a bucket bath and a latrine, as this was the first place we'd stayed that did not have toilets and showers.

Jan 3, Day 8: Boromo

I haven't mentioned why we stopped in Boromo, though I've dropped a hint. Why did I hope our wooden elephants would be lucky? Well, for one thing, because that's what they're supposed to do, bring luck. But for another, the reason we'd stopped in Boromo was because there is an animal reserve there with several herds of elephants.

We'd negotiated a price the night before to have a 4x4 pick us up at the hotel at 6 and drive us to, and through, the park. What we GOT was a four-door midsize sedan at 8:30 that drove us to the park and then stopped, as the noise would scare off the elephants. On the plus side, this meant that we payed much less; on the minus side, it meant we - no, not "we," C and Y, have I mentioned how awesome I think they are? - were arguing about the new price right up until we left town. Anyway, we got our tracker and went into the park on foot. We passed by elephant dung, which I considered taking a picture of in case we never saw elephants, so at least prove that we'd been somewhat near them. I decided that I'd take a picture on our way out if it came to that.

There are no pictures of elephant dung on my camera. About a half hour into our walk, the guide stopped and asked if we'd heard that sound. I'd heard nothing, but he said it was an elephant sound and we needed to be quiet. We were, and we followed, deep into grass which had been obviously trampled in parts, until he stopped us and pointed - and just on the edge of visibility due to the high grass, we saw them. A group of a couple dozen, including young elephants (which by the way, makes it a dangerous group to approach, you don't piss any animal moms off if you can help it, and elephants are no exception). We raised our cameras to try to get some pictures, thinking how cool it was to be just a couple hundred yards away, even if we couldn't see them well. After a few minutes, they ran on, and we took a different route to where the guide thought they might go.

He was right, and this time we were both closer and had a better view - maybe 100 yds away. Really, really, really awesome. But it got even better. He'd put us in a place where their path brought them even closer...maybe 50 yds away at the closest. We were just half a football field from real, wild African elephants! Like I said, the best part of the trip. Good job, wooden elephants. A side note - after telling us to be quiet and making us crouch down to avoid scaring the elephants, our guide got A PHONE CALL. And he answered it and talked on the phone, loudly. These elephants aren't all THAT scared of people apparently.

Apparently he'd been talking to another guide; we met up with another group and continued our hunt. Unfortunately for the others, we did not see any other elephants, nor any other animals. They were really upset, and I did feel bad for them, but it was hard to feel too bad after our elation at seeing them ourselves.

That evening we made it back safely to Ouaga, and stayed out ridiculously late dancing. I didn't dance very much this time, but I did some. And a final note on how cool my companions were: when we sat down, everyone got up to dance, except me. J and M noticed and asked why, and I told them someone had to watch the bags. And so they picked all the bags back up and carried them for a song so I could join them. And then I sat back down because by then I was quite drunk (and I didn't enjoy this club as much, too loud and full of, um, ladies of negotiable affections). But a good time was had by all.

End of vacation

Well, for me. As I said, C, J, S and M kept traveling (Y went back to her site), but I have had to stay in Ouaga for IST. Which has been ok, but nothing worth writing home about. I've gotten some great ideas about what I want to do at site over the next couple months, and equally importantly I've gotten some lesson plans from other people, so I'll actually have the time to DO some of those things.

Since I've spent so much time away from site, I probably won't leave again until February, when I will come back to Ouaga for the meeting of a committee I'm applying to be on. Until then, take care, my friends, and if you've texted me and your name is not Joey, be assured that I have not received it. Sorry.

06 January 2009

Burkina vacation!

I mentioned in my Thanksgiving post that I made travel plans for the New Year. I'm now in Ouaga, vacation over (I'm not back at site because we have a training session). It was an excellent vacation. Excellent. Definitely makes my top three list. I'm antsy to get back to site now, I've been gone since the 27th. Even so, I'm extending my stay in Ouaga by a day so that I can see my traveling companions - or most of them - one more time as they pass back through (they've naturally continued on while I'm stuck here). Which gives you an idea of how cool they are. But first things first...

Christmas in village

Exhausting. Christmas was celebrated the way all holidays are celebrated here - lots of eating and drinking. And my village is nearly all Christian. So there was even MORE eating and drinking than for other holidays. I'd spend three hours at one house, eating and drinking, then be directed to another, where I was also expected to eat and drink. Then another. After the first two, I was going to houses of people I didn't know. I was finally allowed to stagger home around 11 at night (I'm usually in bed with a book by 7:30). And because I was expected to visit all of these people, I was only able to spend about 5 minutes at my best village friend's house.

Which meant that the next night, the 26th, I spent a lot of time with him. He was justifiably upset that I hadn't spent more of Christmas with him, so I needed to let him know he's important to me - I wouldn't have survived my first months at site without the support of this guy. Unfortunately, this meant yet another late night, this time right before having to get up at 4 so I could bike 3 hours to catch transport to Ouaga. Oh well. I made it. And thus began the trip.

Dec 27, Day 1: Ouaga

Met with Y and C, my two PCV travel companions. While waiting for C's friends to arrive (they came from the states to visit her here in Africa, I wish *I* had friends that awesome, hint hint), we had dinner at a Lebanese place (you'd really be surprised how common they are here). I kicked off our adventure by eating adventurously...well, not REALLY, but I tried an avocado milkshake. And now all I can say is move over chocolate, and give it up banana. This milkshake was just shockingly good. Off to a good start.

Dec 28, Day 2: Transport to Banfora

C's friends, S, J, and M, arrived safe and sound, and late, so not too bright and early the next morning we departed from Ouaga and began our trip in earnest.

Mostly spent that day on buses. As we went south, the landscape changed dramatically. I never left the country on this trip, but I felt for most of it like I had. It's really pretty in the south. And wet. And hilly.

There was this one species of tree, that unfortunately I only saw from the bus and never anywhere we stopped (I wanted a cutting). It was totally bare, dead-looking, except for random splashes of color that at first I thought were something people had placed there. Until we passed one closer to the road, and I realized they were flowers. Brilliant, beautiful red and orange flowers on trees otherwise totally devoid of signs of life. Y commented that it was much like Burkina (at least our parts of it) - a splash of life made all the more beautiful for the desolation on which it grew. She's kind of poetic, I guess. I tried to get pictures, but I don't think any turned out (I don't have my camera to upload them, so they won't show up in this post anyway).

On the way to Bobo, the bus stopped for 15 minutes in a place called Boromo. This place will come up later in the trip. But it was this first time passing through that we discovered that for some reason people there REALLY want you to buy sesame cakes. All of the vendors are aggressive, but it really was ridiculous how long they could expound on the vitamins found in their sesame, and this AFTER you've told them "No thanks, good market" - a phrase that works 98 times out of 100 in Ouaga and points north. It turns out that its not working in Boromo was a bit of foreshadowing...

Finally we arrived in Banfora, our first destination. We spent the night in a place called the Canne a Sucre (Sugar Cane) which was really, really nice, and not very expensive. I highly recommend it. Beautiful flora, decorations from several different Burkinabe ethnicities, and a very accomodating staff. As we were six, we got a three bedroom bungalow all to ourselves.

Dec 29, Day 3: The Cascades (Waterfalls)

It's really a beautiful bike ride out, about 10 km. We did a lot of biking this trip, and I loved every second of it. In fact, I'm now planning a biking vacation for my next one. One person I can be certain will NOT join me on that one is Y, who probably biked more in this one vacation than she had in all her previous 19 months in country. But she's tough.

We stopped on the way at a place called Campement Baobab to order pizza at a place about halfway there, so that it would be ready when we got back. It wasn't, natch, but still, we wouldn't have gotten any if we hadn't ordered on the way.

Then C ran over a snake. That was fun. It darted in front of her bike such that she ran right over its middle; fortunately, she had the wherewithal to lift her legs and NOT brake, so that it couldn't bite her (though it tried). C is tough too. I was next behind her, and my options were to stop and just miss it or run over it myself. I chose to stop, and fortunately the snake in its turn chose not to turn and bite me.

Speaking of my companions' formidability, when we got to the entrance of the falls, we found there were two different prices, those for foreigners and those for Burkinabe nationals. We did not pay the foreigner price. Which I really do think is fair, given that we live here, I just probably wouldn't have bothered trying to argue the point myself - our white skin makes it a hard sell. But they did it. There and everywhere else on the trip. They really are awesome.

The falls were beautiful. What else can I say? It's not schisto season, and you have to stay in the water 15 minutes to catch it, but all the same, we were careful. We did not have time to check out a nearby rock formation called the "Domes", but I can't complain really, the view we got was stunning enough. I got what I hope were really good pictures. Speaking of, I was very happy with my camera batteries this trip. All the same, I'm in the market for a film camera, since on my next vacations I won't be staying in posh places with current.

On our way back, we ate those pizzas I mentioned, and they were better than Ouaga pizzas. True to the name of the place, there was baobab fruit on the pizza. Very yummy. First time I'd tasted the fruit itself, though I'd had a drink made with the juice once, and sauce made from the leaves is common enough.

I mentioned we missed the Domes due to time constraints. We were actually running two hours late, but I'd made contact with a total faux type at the gare who found us transport after our taxi brousse had left. They do have their uses. Although now the guy STILL calls me every day. Ugh. I took one for the team there, but it was worth it as we were able to travel on to Sindou that evening.

Dec 30, Day 4: The Sindou Peaks

After a night at a basic but nice enough hotel, we biked out to hike the peaks of Sindou, where we learned that the peaks are part of the same rock formation as the cascades and domes in Banfora, and in fact the same rock formation as the cliff dwellings in Dogon Country in Mali. The ethnicity in Sindou are the Senoufou, who migrated from Dogon in the 1400s. They were told by their god that if they lived on a plateau in the peaks, and never descended, he would provide their food and protect them from their enemies. After colonization and the end of tribal warfare in the 1800s, they asked their god and he allowed them to descend, promising still to protect them from their enemies but to no longer provide food, as on the plains below they could cultivate for themselves. I plan on going back to explore more of Senoufou country, as they have a warrior sect known as "the Samurai of Burkina". There are ruins of houses on the plateau, but it turns out they're from a film shot there in the 80s. Still, once again, beautiful views.

After that, we biked out to a barrage we'd heard about, which we were told was beautiful - somewhat surprising for a barrage here. Its merits were not overstated. Though on the way we stopped at a small pond and decided that if it had been what we were told about someone would be getting hurt. It wasn't - it's just that the estimate of distance to the actual barrage was off...by about 70%. 6km, 10km, what's the difference? Quite a bit depending on how much water you brought with you. Still, totally worth it. Blue-green water in Burkina! Nice enough to swim in probably, though we didn't.

Ok, that's it for this update. I'll pick up later with New Year's in Bobo, nearly getting arrested, and riding a bus that is totally out of place in this country. I'll also cover what turned out to be the best part of the trip (outside of the company I kept), but I'm not giving you any hints.