27 March 2009

An interlude in Ouaga

This week is what we volunteers refer to as "spring break." It's the 11-day break between the second and third trimesters. Most folks have used it as vacation time. Too bad I didn't go with them - there are some good stories from the volunteers who went on safari. But you'll have to look elsewhere for those stories. I've been working in Ouaga.

I've been working on collecting information on agroforestry in Burkina Faso. The Peace Corps does agroforestry in other countries, but not here, so I've been talking mostly to different people in the Burkinabe government and a bit with people working with ONGs (sorry, that's NGO in English). Not much on the latter because of the difficulty of the former...

I'm staying about 10 km outside of Ouaga. I suppose I could take a cab in, but that adds up, and overall it's easier to have my bike with me than not, so I bike in everyday. So unlike every other stay I've had in Ouaga, I'm not gaining any weight! Tuesday in particular I biked a lot - I'd guess at least 40 km in all, and much of it in 110 degree heat. That day I started off by heading to the main office of the Ministry of the Environment. It turns out there's no general secretary, so there wasn't anyone there to help me figure out who I needed to talk to. Fortunately, I'd anticipated that I had a good idea of which divisions within the ministry I needed to visit. UNfortunately, neither of the two divisions I wanted to talk to have offices in the main building. The secretary of one of the other departments gave me directions to the other two. I'm willing to accept the theory that the reason these directions were so useless was in large part due to my French, but whatever the cause I wandered downtown for an hour looking for the first place she'd tried to direct me to. I eventually gave up and went looking for the second, in hopes that when I found that one, over and above helping me with my project they could direct me to the office I couldn't find. This second office took an hour and a half to find. My directions were "Go straight down the Avenue d'Independence, and it's behind the BCAO building." Sounds straightforward, right? Problem: it turns out that by "go straight" what she meant was "turn twice." Solution: Fortunately, I know this area of town slightly, and was able to figure that out reasonably quickly. Problem: The BCAO building is entirely unmarked. Solution: Ask around about the giant building with no signs and a big wall around it. Consensus is that it's the BCAO building. Problem: Which side is "behind"? Solution: ...Probably the side opposite the side on the main road? No one seems really clear about this. Problem: There's no Ministry of the Environment building on ANY side of BCAO. Solution: There's an office for a different ministry on one side. Maybe they'll know. Problem: Nope, they have no idea. Solution: Ask at a coffee stand outside. Problem: The directions they give me send me...nowhere in particular. Solution: Ask yet more people as I wander around. Finally, some folks know about a Ministry of the Environment office nearby. It's not the one I'm looking for, but maybe they'll know. I find them, and go in...and despite the fact that their sign lists a different division, this IS the office I was looking for. Problem: They can't, in fact, give me the information I need!

So that was a frustrating morning. On the plus side, they were able to direct me to two OTHER offices, both of which proved more fruitful (and one of which was the one I couldn't find earlier). At least as good for my state of mind at that point, they were also both on the way back to the Transit House (where I'm not staying, but I'm not above napping on a couch). Then that afternoon, I biked basically all the way across town (laterally to the direction of the place I'm staying at, so it didn't save me a whole lot with regard to my trip back) to another office. Fortunately, that office was also helpful - so much so that I went back the next morning. So I was glad to go...it was just an awful lot of biking.

Anyway, I still don't love Ouaga, but I do feel more comfortable here now, and I definitely have learned my way around better. I alternate between eating expensive and eating cheap. Today I plan on trying a place that claims to have Big Macs on its sign (it's not a McDonald's, there aren't any here).

And now I'm going to try to start collating the massive amounts of information I've collected. Whew!

13 March 2009


Which is not going to be riduculously informative, certainly not a definitive packing list; just some stuff I use and stuff I don't.

As for that bike ride, I survived...but I could barely stand up by the time I got back to my site. Whew! I haven't tried anything that long again, just my relatively tame 45km to get transport.

Ok, here we go. First, the stuff I brought and use a lot:
  • Nonstick cookware. It's gettable here, but I hear it's not worth anything. I use mine a lot.
  • Serrated kitchen knives. For some reason, it's really hard to find serrated knives. You won't have a problem finding smooth blades of all sizes. And in fact, I HAVE found one serrated knife here. One.
  • Pocket knives/multi-tools. Love these. I have a multi-tool for travel and one for home. I've also been through a few pocket knives, but that's because I lose them, not because I wear them out.
  • Camp shovel. This one's also a multi-tool. I've used the saw side, the hammer, and the actual spade. All of these are gettable here, but I love having this little guy handy.
  • A GOOD safety razor. There are blades aplenty here, that's what people use, but you won't find a very good razor for the blades. Also, I recommend learning how to use a safety razor in advance. You will cut yourself at first.
  • Security belt. Got this at Wal-mart, and now I feel relatively secure when I travel with larger amounts of money. I'm not talking about an under-the shirt pouch (though I use that too for my passport), but a hold-your-pants-up belt that has a zipper on the underside.
  • Nail clippers. Small and handy.
  • English-English dictionary. You'd be surprised how often this comes in handy. I was fortunate enough to inherit one from the volunteer I replaced - I didn't think to bring one.
  • Shortwave radio. LOVE my Grundig mini300. $30 at RTI, and I hear you get a discount if you're a PC volunteer.
  • Mosquito-net tent. Another inheritance, and another thing I use all the time when traveling. Tropic Screens and Bug Huts are the popular models here.
  • Mosquito-net hammock. Love this invention, too, and I would bring a hammock again - but I'd switch. Having the mosquito net is nice, but I'd rather have one that's cloth. Unfortunately, my hammock is too hot - nylon doesn't breath. And you could in theory buy a mosquito net (they're easy to find here) and sew it on...
  • Spices and drink mixes. Self-explanatory.
  • Camera with exchangeable memory. Since I didn't know if I'd be somewhere that I could regularly upload pics (and I'm not) I brought several SD cards. Re: cameras, though, I have a battery problem. See next section.
  • mp3 player. Duh.
  • Backpack. Gettable here, but if you go that route it'll fall apart. Get a good one, you'll use it a lot.
  • Glasses. Go to zennioptical.com and you'll find that you can afford to bring several pairs.

Things I WISH I had but have proven I can live without:

  • Thermarest. Great for traveling if you don't like sleeping on the hard-packed ground, and who does? Still, the one time I really needed one I was able to borrow someone's.
  • Thermometer. Some days I get home and wonder what temperature I can brag about having survived. But I just don't know.
  • Pillow. Gettable here, but your options are either crappy or crazy expensive. I'm getting by on a tiny travel pillow.

Stuff I brought but could get here or go without:

  • Toiletries. Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, kleenex, floss. All gettable in the market (or from the PC Medical Officers in the case of floss). Though I'm told the toothbrushes here are terrible.
  • Bandannas. You don't buy clothes here; you buy material and have it tailored. You could easily have bandannas made too. But all the same I'd bring them again, they're small and lightweight and softer than something you'd have made here.
  • Rechargeable batteries and solar chargers. Batteries are available; this is really a question of how environmentally conscious you want to be. Me, I like NOT dumping cadmium into the ground water. Not that there's much of that.
  • Sandals. I got some nice Clark's, but they're about worn out after 9 months. I'll be buying something local next. If you DO want to bring sandals, GET CHACO'S. If they wear out, you can get them replaced for free. If I had it to do over again...
  • Headlamp. I use it, but it's not critical. A locally-bought flashlight serves for most purposes.
  • NON-non-stick cookware. Save the space and weight. Buy it here.
  • Hats. Love my hats. I'm a hat guy. But you can buy them here easily.
  • Briefcase. I'm going to replace the one I brought, there are really nice leather ones here.
  • French-English dictionary. PC will lend you one. Though I do have a technical one that WILL come in handy if I teach anything other than math next year.

Things I NEVER use:

  • Twine. I just use the local plastic line.
  • Pop-up hamper. Ok, it's not true. I DO use this. But it simply wouldn't change my life in the slightest if it disappeared.
  • Flint. Although I like having it if I ever get stranded and just have to have a fire.
  • Emergency blanket. With the flint, something I've never had call for but am still glad to have.
  • Undershirts. Men here do wear button-ups, and in the states, with a button-up you wear an undershirt. Here, you don't. Leave 'em.

Things I get here:

  • OTC medicine. The PC will take care of you there. I brought a ton of ibuprofen just in case, but I really needn't have worried. Of course, you're young and beautiful and in your prime and don't have to worry about joint aches after exercising. Lucky you.
  • Books. Our house in Ouaga is full of them. Though no Terry Pratchett, tough luck for me.
  • Wallet. I brought a couple, but the one I use I bought here. It's goat leather.
  • Coffee pot. I considered bringing one, but it's good that I didn't. You can get a stovetop coffeepot here for pretty cheap. My morning coffee and chicory is kind of my touchstone to my old life.

Specialized to me:

  • Fishing gear. I LOVE having my stuff...but you can go the cane-pole route here if you want to save space. That's assuming fishing is a big deal to you to begin with.
  • Musical instruments. I brought harmonicas and a cornet. I'm not good at either, though. These I would not be able to get here if I'd later decided to take something up.
  • Binocs and a star guide. Again things I wouldn't be able to get here, and the star-gazing here is really great some nights, as you can imagine. For instance, from here you can see the second-brightest star after Sirius, Canopus, which is too far south to be visible from anywhere in the US.

That's it. I never made an inventory of my stuff, so there are probably omissions. Feel free to comment with questions if you know I've forgotten something, or you are the at least one future volunteer who is reading this and are wondering if something you have is worth bringing.