Sunday, February 06, 2005

Tales from the Beach

Greetings from balmy... Dakar!

Yes, for the past several days I've been rediscovering the wonder of civilization during a surprise trip to Senegal.

I'd just gotten back to Zamsé on a Tuesday evening after a week of Bike-a-Thon. Thursday morning I got up, did some yoga, made some oatmeal, and sat procrastinating as usual before heading to the clinic when the white Peace Corps jeep showed up outside my door. Odd for them to show up unnanounced, and the driver was alone... I went out to greet him, and he told me he'd been sent to bring me back to Ouaga. My God, grandma's dead! He handed me an ominous Peace Corps envelope with my name on it, and I tore it open, anxious and shaky. It was from the PC nurse in Ouaga, telling me that I was being med-evac'ed to Dakar that weekend to consult with a specialist. Pack enough clothes for a week, and don't forget your passport! I looked at the driver, confused. But, but, but... Ok!

26 hours later, on January 28, my 6th month anniversary of stepping foot on Burkinabe soil, I found myself back where it all began: the Ouagadougou International Airport. The airport has two departure gates. Really they're just two doors next to each other labled Gate 1 and Gate 2, and they both go to the bus outside waiting to take you to the plane on the tarmac, so it doesn't matter which one you go out of. Looking around, I noticed I was hideously underdressed. The locals who are rich enough to fly break out their formal wear for air-travel. But whatever, Peace Corps Volunteers have a slovenly hippie image to uphold.

Soon I was aboard a Fokker jet on an Air Burkina flight to Dakar via Bamako. I'd been curious what an Air Burkina flight would be like after suffering through many other Burkinabe forms of transportation (to be detailed in the next issue), but never thought I'd get to experience one first-hand. Aside from the African murals on the divider walls, it looked like any other plane I'd been on. I was surprised: no live goats or chickens, enough space for both my elbows and knees, no one squatting in the aisles... Add to this complimentary newspapers, wine and an actual meal. Scary that USAir could take a few pointers from Air Burkina, official carrier of the third poorest country in the world.

So, for the past week, aside from some doctors appointments (I'm doing fine, no need to worry), I've been busy exploring Dakar, walking all along the beautiful coast (of which there is a lot to walk along, as Dakar is on a peninsula), boating to islands, swimming in a pink salt lake that's impossible to drown in and a luxurious pool at the American Club, licking ice-cream cones... Today, for example, I sat under a little palm tree on a gorgeous secluded white-sand beach, watching French military men swim and toss around a rugby ball. (by the way, y'all aren't still buried in snow now, are you?)

If I had visited Dakar before Ouagadougou, I might have noticed the garbage, the chaos, but now I see the cleanliness, the order! Dakar is everything Ouaga wishes it could be, and everything you need in a city: it's got pavement, occasional sidewalks, ice cream, mexican-themed restaurants blaring Celine Dion, and big buff black men doing calisthenics in speedos on the beach. Yes, it's truly a city--walking around, you can imagine yourself in a run-down yet bustling Eastern European capital, or the streets of New York. Of course some areas are as nice as anything you'd find in Europe. Visiting Dakar has given me some new perspectives and insights into why exactly


The Lonely Planet guide for West Africa states:

Ouagadougou is one of the cultural centers of West Africa... It has a relaxed atmosphere... It's a relatively compact city that is easy to get around on foot, and the streets are well signed.

Whoever wrote this has obviously never been to Ouagadougou.

The city is a sprawling, disorganized mess, a real-life game of Frogger. You can't cross a street without your life flashing before your eyes. There are multiple lanes of insane traffic to cross, of all different speeds: You've got your donkey carts, your bicycles, your motos, your cars and trucks, and once you get past all of them you've got to face the traffic coming the other way. There is never a lapse, so you just have to step out in the street and hope for the best, all the while sucking in heaps of disgusting smog and dust. Of course sidewalks are non-existent. In their place are open sewer ditches to hop across.

Navigating on bike is only slightly less harrowing. The cars and motos like to pass within inches of your legs, and god forbid you ever have to make a left turn. You stick out your left arm and pray that you don't get mowed over. So far that's worked for me. You still breathe dirty exhaust, and the stress of a 15 minute ride to the center of town takes a day off of your life.

The only decent way to get around town is by the green taxis. They're communal, so you scooch in next to the other clientelle, but only if you find one that's heading towards your destination. This is easy if you're in large groups, cause the driver will kick out the current client in favor of a bigger profit. We've been known to cram upto 8 passengers into the 5-seat taxis. If you're alone, good luck. Of course, the prices are never fixed, so you have to negotiate with the drivers who often try to rip off the nassaras.

Having said all this, there's nothing to see or do in Ouaga anyway. There's the Marina Market grocery store for stocking up for village, the post office/bank for taking out African francs, and there's the American Embassy lab for dropping off stool samples. That's about it. Oh sure, there are some pretty areas in the city, but they're all private, and safely cordonned off from the dirt and disorder by large fences.

The biggest shame of all is that Ouaga, indeed all of Burkina, has no place for the men to show off their amazing bodies. If nothing else, Dakar has always got the beach.

Of course, the FESPACO film festival is coming up at the end of February. It's the Cannes of African film, taking place every two years. Supposedly this is when Ouaga pulls out all the stops and shows what it's made of. I'll give Ouaga another chance to win me over, but I'm keeping my expectations low.


I know that many of you look to my example for fashion guidance and are dying to find out about my latest look. What colors are you wearing? How do you do your hair? Beard, piercings, jewelery? Tell us, Philippe, so that we may strive to be more like you, if only in appearance!

Well, who am I to refuse?

I've decided to take a "hands-off" approach to my appearance, in order to allow my natural rugged beauty to shine through. I did without a mirror all throughout training, and the few ponds here are too muddy for me to stare at my reflection. I can't express what a relief it was to not be reminded every single day how good looking I am. I only succumbed and got myself a mirror before going to Zamsé because I found it difficult to shave and floss without one. So now I do look at myself once, sometimes twice a month.

During training, I went through an experimental phase, trying out a number of unique facial hair configurations. I arrived with the gay mustache and goatee. After our first 10-day stint in village, I tried out some chops connecting to my mustache. Then I tried the mustache with the ends drooping down past my jawline, then chin-scruff only. By far the hottest, though, was the one I wore for our swear-in ceremony, the one that was broadcast nationally on Burkinabé TV, when the mustache came off, leaving me with a sexy Amish beard. For now, though, I've gone back to my trademark look, Scruffy Philippe.

Those of you who never ceased to torment me for the pallor of my skin, going so far as to call it "clear" and shilding your eyes from the whitness when the shirt came off, will be happy to know that I'm now sporting a wicked African tan. Unfortunately it tends to come off when I shower.

My typical outfit comprises of cargo pants, rolled up to capri length to facilitate bike-riding, along with a tasteful yet vibrant button-down t-shirt, untucked always, slightly stained from bleach accidents, but I prefer to call it "art." What with all the poop-matter that gets on my hands, I thought it wise to forgo the contacts and instead exclusively wear a sophisticated pair of steel square-rimmed glasses. On my feet are always my birks. I wore shoes my first day in Burkina and never again. Probably the least useful thing I packed.

But Philippe! What's underneath??
--well, wouldn't you like to know!

As for my hair--yes, it's grown in, and let me tell you, it's... a fucking mess. Ok, you want the truth? Can you handle the truth? I've never looked this much like a dirty unkempt slop of a film major in my life. Not even while I was one. I have to cover my ratty hair with a cap at all times. Without hair gel to tame it, it's a lost cause, rioting on my head in every direction but down. Hair gel in village--and for that matter, deodorant--what's the point? I wanted to see if it could work long, but it'll get shaved come the hot season. You hear that, fuckers? Shaved! Maybe I'll dred them first, just to see them taste of the suffering they've caused me. Then of course they'll retaliate by abandoning ship when I turn 30. Or worse, migrating to my back.

Oh, it's hard, not being as hot as I once was, seeing my beauty waste away. Hard, I tell you! What makes it harder is being surrounded by all these hot black men. I never thought I'd have body issues coming to Africa, but damn! One look at the smooth glistening muscled bodies around me, and it's just no comparison with my pale hairy ass. I put in many an hour at the gym back home, and was rather happy with my six-pack. Ok, my four-pack, but who's counting? It's a much sought-after rarity in the States, bestowed only upon a privileged few. Then I came and discovered that here, they come standard.

And it's not just the men that are jacked. Move over Venus and Serena! I've seen topless grannies plowing the fields with bigger arms than me. It was quite humbling, and somewhat disheartening. Surely working in the fields does a body good.

I've conspired with some fellow volunteer entrepreneurs to market a new Burkinabé weightloss program in the US. We'd fly the participants to Burkina. The parasites and diarrhea would make them shed the pounds, while they'd buff up by working in the fields all day. I'm sure people would pay thousands.

All this helpless staring at hot men makes me feel like an old lech. But hell, I get stared at enough in village, so I guess I should also get my fill.


I get a lot of attention in village. It's quite a bit like being a celebrity, minus all the obvious perks--sure, technically, I have a big, gated house, but people barge through the gate and stare over the wall. I don't have limitless $$$, though everybody assumes otherwise. No celebrity incest, or any carnal action for that matter, no irresponsible boozing and drugging, no fancy car, and no jacuzzi. All I get are eyes on me wherever I go, and when I go (to the latrine). And they're not starstruck, adoring eyes, admiring my handsome face. No, Quasimodal would get the same looks of odd curiousity if he walked through the market.

They look at me because:
A: I'm white
B: I'm queer, in the 50's sense
C: I'm loaded, supposedly

It's hard to know whether attention is genuine interest or sheerly because of my skin, or because they want to get something out of me. Walking around Dakar, you can usually assume the latter, but I still feel like an asshole for ignoring people who try to get my attention... What if they really do want to get to know the real me??

In village, it's often a combination. The other day a new kid came to greet me, then asked for a magazine, then a ball, then some batteries, then some money... Listen kid, come say hello but don't just come to my house asking for everything you see! It's not something he would do with any other neighbor, it would be rude and inappropriate, but I'm exempt from these social norms cause I'm white.

Often I wonder how much different it must be for the black volunteers. They still get attention for B and C, and they still get called Nassara, but at least they don't stick out like a flamingo in a lion's den, or carry the aire of a mysterious white ape. Of course I've heard that they also get a lot less help because of it. Truth be told, the attention isn't all bad. Being an American and being white does put me in a position of respect here, and if that gets people to pay attention and helps me do my work, so be it.


Perhaps the only thing in village that gets more attention than me is my bike. No, I don't get a fancy car, but my bike is pretty damn nice. I still remember the day we got our bikes like it was yesterday, like it was christmas, but it was 6 months ago and it was July. We'd been in Burkina for nearly a week, weary from walking the long dirt path between the training sites and the hotel, when one day we arrived for training and 28 sparkling new mountain bikes sat awaiting their new owners, whose names were indicated on little wooden tags dangling from the handle bars. We knew we'd be issued bikes, but it being Peace corps, I'd expected them to be well worn pieces of crap. No, they were beautiful, and riding down the dirt streets, the flies smacking against our faces rather than buzzing around them, that was a feeling of freedom.

In the months to follow, I grew to resent this bike more than anything on earth. Every time I load the bike on transport, I must preempt their inquiries, saying Yes, it's nice, no, you can't have it! I can't count the number of times I've arrived in someone's courtyard or parked at the market, and the boys, even the men, just crowd around it. This has ignited in me pangs of jealousy. Look, people! Nassara came to visit, not the bike! Come on! It's a bike! Get over it! Hey, Wooo, look at me, white ape here!

And then I swear that next time I'll come on foot. It's not like they haven't seen a multispeed before, though they are uncommon. They admire it because:
A: It's sleek silver and black
B: The nice gear changers
C: A bell
D: Front shocks. These are what really gets them.

I swear, by now this bike must have a goddamn ego the size of a cow. Nobody wants ME that badly. It's become so self-absorbed that often it even forgets to switch gears when I ask it to. So I stop on the side of the road, kick it around, show it who's boss. But the heart of a bike isn't faithful like a dog's. It wouldn't hesitate to sidle up in between someone else's legs. (if it did, though, everyone in a 25k radius would know it belongs to Nassara). And so, like myself, I prefer to keep it nicely coated in dust and mud to stave off the attention and give it a healthy dose of humility.


A couple weeks ago I joined 15 volunteers and a handful of Burkinabés on a 300k weeklong bike trip down south near the Ghanaian border for Bike-a-Thon, during which we rode 30-55km per day, stopping in one or two villages along the way and leading AIDS awareness discussions and doing condom demonstrations. I now feel perfectly comfortable waving around a large wooden dildo in front of large crowds of people (I guess I should put this on my resume). We segregated by gender and age, mostly because women won't speak up and ask questions if they're amongst men. So I mostly led discussions with young men and kids. The kids especially asked some interesting questions:

If my brother comes back from Cote d'Ivoire, and he caught AIDS, and he has a bleeding wound, and he sleeps on a bed and bleeds on the sheets, and then I sleep in the bed with the bloody sheets, and I have a wound, will I get AIDS?
--um... maybe you should wash the sheets?

What if I'm fighting with somebody and I bite him and it bleeds, will I get AIDS?
--um... maybe you shouldn't bite people?
(this response was deemed unrealistic by the kids)

Then there were those guys who insisted upon conspiracy theories, that AIDS is spread by corporations in order to get people to buy condoms, or better, they put the virus in the condoms. How do you respond? Your skepticism of capitalism is in the right place, but I'm not here to spread AIDS. Really. But some people just couldn't be reasoned with.

It was difficult, because everything needed to be translated, and outside of the Mossi plateau where I live, people speak many different languages, and people in some villages can't even communicate with each other. In those villages we needed to find people to translate between French and Mooré and Bisa, or another language, and the lag killed any sense of real discussion. And it's hard to know if we're making a difference, having any kind of impact on the people by coming into the villages and telling them, trust us! This is the truth! Buy condoms! But still I felt good about it. This was one of the first times I've felt I was actually accomplishing something here and doing my job. At the very least we got people talking with each other about the taboo subject, which is always good.

We had a nice gift to help keep us motivated throughout the week. The mom of a volunteer who teaches at an elementary school had her students write us inspirational messages taped to PowerBars. Since it's a parochial school, some of the messages were religious in nature:

You are a follower of Jesus!

God is proud of you!

Keep going!

Don't ever give up!

Even one person can make a difference!

Almost there!

Jesus loves you!

One particularly lewd volunteer, Chris, suggested that we pervert the messages by adding "in bed" to the end of each one like Chinese fortune cookies. This kept us amused throughout the week.

As part of my ongoing efforts to make The Real World Ouagadougou Bigger and Better than Ever!, I'll be announcing a new surprise sometime this week.

For now I'm off to a Superbowl party at a house with a bunch of US Marines, aptly named the "Marine House." My eyes probably won't be on the TV.

Peace out,