Friday, March 18, 2005

Singin' in the bush

Lots has happened since my return from Senegal last month. First off was In-Service Training, which reunited our entire training group for 4 days in Ouaga. Then was the huge FESPACO film festival, which I'll talk more about next time. I came back to Ouaga this week for more training, and just 2 nights ago the latest group of stagiaires, 15 of them, 9 girls, 6 guys, coming to work as Education volunteers, touched ground in Burkina Faso.

The intrigue we felt at having new volunteers arrive in country bordered on pathetic. Word has it that in previous years, volunteers have chosen their future husbands and wives from the photos of the newbies before they even arrived, then graciously offered to help with that person's luggage at the airport. We didn't go that far, but there was some strong curiousity over the fresh meat that was coming to join us for 2 years. Of course they themselves will also feel the same way next year. We made cookies and posters to go greet them at the airport.

We applauded as they stepped outside, waving our signs and hooting, which had been a special touch for me when I'd arrived in country. What I didn't know was that as I walked out of the airport, all those people cheering were really rating my looks and checking out my ass. We easily outnumbered them, some of us gathering around and engaging in small talk, while the rest stayed back and stared at the new Nassaras, judging them and weighing our chances, while we devoured the cookies that had been baked for them. We appreciate the cookies way more than the newbies at this point anyway.

I expect to get regular reports on the new stagiares from the volunteers working training. We will hear everything.

Now I've had some complaints about the amount of foul language in my newsletters. Namely from my mom, and my friend Lena, who says that because of my dirty mouth she can't share my letters with her 6th grade French class in Albany. Now I'll have you know that aside from the subject line, my last Valentine's email had NO cussing, except I guess hell and damn, which you can hear in PG movies. My parents get annoyed when I swear in English, but for some reason they get a big kick out of when I swear in French. So in this email, I'll limit my profanity to French. I must warn you that the Quebec swearing I learned from my parents and uncles growing up is based on religious blasphemy. Hopefully this will also be educational for Lena's kids.


Lots of people assume that Peace Corps Service is like the army, in that once you sign up, you're stuck there til the 2 years are up. But this isn't the case. No, if you give the word that you're ready to leave, you're on a plane home within a week. Of course there are lots of stigmas attached to leaving early, some self-imposed, and your terminating status is different than if you stay to the end and complete your service. Still, a plane ticket home is always just a phone call away.

On bad days, the option is sitting there, calling you like a siren from the back of your mind: Warm baths, burritos, gay men...! But you know that soon the feeling will pass (hopefully) and the rollercoaster will continue on its way.

Only once have I been so completely flustered that I was ready to throw in the towel right then and there. Never have I been more tempted to make that phone call and call it quits than on one particular ride in a Bush Taxi. This is a bunch of MARDE, HOSTIE CALICE, I can't put up with it, CA ME FAIT CHIER, I'm LE MISERABLE, I'm going home, PUTAIN!

It started out like any other ride in a Bush taxi. I was going back to Zamse from Ouaga. I'd skipped the early morning transport that goes to Meguet, Imane's village, but the transport's to Zorgho leave regularly, so I was gonna get off there and bike the 45 or so km to my village hopefully before the sun set at 6pm. That meant getting to Zorgho by 3 or 3:30 at the very latest. It was quarter to 1 when I got to the gare. No problem.

Right away I was surrounded by bush taxi drivers trying to get my business. Since there's only one car a day going to Meguet, usually there's no choice, but the cars leave regularly for Zorgho and the transporters try to snag you before the others, already taking your bike and packs before you've had a chance to negotiate. I pretty much always let them put me where they will. It's all the same to me.

Since I had a time restraint, I was sure to ask when the car was leaving. The answer is always "Tout de suite!" Right away! Of course I expected this, but I only asked to justify my getting angry and telling them off later should the need arise. Not that it would do any good. To drive the point home, I told them I needed to be in Zorgho by 3. No problem!

I considered myself somewhat acculturated by this point, so I knew that "Tout de suite!" generally means around half an hour. So we should leave by 1:30, which would work out fine. People were already loading up, which was a good sign, so I got in to save a seat in the rear by the window. Beside me were two women, one with a kid on her lap.

The bush taxi is your typical white van. The windshield is invariably smashed, the doors held shut by rubber straps, and often you can see the road through the holes in the floor. Anything and everything can be loaded into a bush taxi. The bikes and motos go on top along with the sacks of grain, the furniture, the larger livestock, and the passengers who don't fit inside. This makes the vehicle what some theoretical physicists have come to call "top-heavy" and "flip-prone". Yes, in addition to being one of the unpleasant experiences in Burkina, bush taxis are also the most dangerous.

It was now 1:45, and I began to get agitated. We needed to leave now, but the transporters were still milling around outside. Meanwhile, I'd been sitting in the car 45 minutes ready to leave at any moment and it was sweltering. I began to fidget and clench my teeth.

2:15, still parked. Two of the large, air-conditioned busses have come and gone on their way down the main road through Zorgho. I'd only gotten on the bush taxi cause I'd assumed it would leave much earlier. I'm getting ticked off EN TABARNAK. We're gonna get there late, the suns gonna set and I'll be FOUTU. I whimpered something to the driver. He was, needless to say, unsympathetic.

The thing about bush taxis is they WON'T LEAVE until there's absolutely no room left in or on the vehicle. It was at this point the man with the briefcase motioned to me to scoot over on the bench. There really wasn't much room to scoot without overlapping the women to my side. I mean, I can only make my hips so small. I protested, but the man told me "It's 4 to a bench!" Does this kid not count? I countered. Apparently not, was his understood response as he climbed through the window and squished me against the woman and child. My knees were pushed together, and I now had negative elbow room. MAUDIT MARDE.

I've been in many impressive contorted positions while riding for hours in a bush taxi. Behind the driver's row of seats is a seat facing backwards, to maximize passengers. Once I got stuck in this row. Of course we sit facing the people in the first row facing forwards, and we have no extra legroom to share. The passengers actually have to negotiate whose knee goes into whose crotch. Remember this next time you're complaining about coach class.

Another time I was lucky and got invited to sit in the front, beside the driver, with another guy sitting to my right. Peace Corps says it's safer to sit safely padded between people in the back, but I don't want to do that to myself every time. I'm happy to have some space. My happiness was short-lived, however, cause soon we stopped to let another guy into the front seat. There was a gap between my spot and the drivers seat where the gear shift was and I was pushed to the edge. Finally the new guy got off, only to let on an even larger man a few minutes later. He seemed apologetic as I was forced even further into the gap. Now my leg was literally on the gear shift
half my CUL off the seat. The big guy leaned forward so I could put my arm behind him. To change gears, the driver had to jam the stick into the bottom of my thigh. This would normally drive me crazy, but for some reason I got a kick out of it. Maybe cause the driver was kinda attractive. Still, I wanted to tell him to speed up into 5th or slow down into 3rd, cause 4th gear isn't workin for me.

Back to the story: Fifteen interminable minutes later, the car lurched into motion. Thank GOD. I counted the people in the car, just to humor myself. 22. We're jammed. Only 2 hours, I tell myself.

We're on the road. Five minutes later, we stop for gas. The driver chats with his buddies. After another 5 minutes on the road we stop again, the driver does some shopping, and load 3 more passengers. The pain is unbearable. I begin to lose sensation in my legs. My COUILLES are killing me. I'm beginning to develop Tourettes.

And so it goes, starting and stopping, going at a snail's pace all the way to Zorgho, as I try to control my seething rage at this backward country with its backward people, wondering how in ENFER I'm going to get back to village tonight. Why am I busting my CUL to help these people? No, this is it, I'm done. I'm going home. Except for the moment I'm stuck on this PUTAIN DE bush taxi.

I remembered that the Zen book mentioned it's during these most challenging of times that it's most important to practice. Take in the sensations without reacting to them. Let the sounds and feelings and smell and sweat wash over you. Just be.

Breath in. Breath out.

....MARDE, that Zen lady must be high on crack.

Desperate for another way to escape, I open my book, always an essential item to carry on transport. The problem is I was reading 1984 at the time, and I'd reached the part in which what's his face gets tortured in the Ministry of Love for 40 pages. NOOOOOO! The Agony!

We arrived in Zorgho at 5pm. I was in an apoplectic coma. My feet had long since fallen asleep, and now back on the ground were shooting sharp pangs up my legs. The kids at the stop swarmed my bike, playing with the bell and the gears, trying to help tie my pack to the bike. I told the little BATARDS to get away. I tied it myself with some difficulty and went off to race the sun. I wasn't gonna make it all the way to my village, but perhaps I could get to Imane's, which was down the same road but only 25 km from Zorgho.

I ignored the calls of NASSARA! and TOUBABOU! I ignored everybody on the road. My only objective was to beat the sun. Well, 6pm came and went, and darkness settled, and I kept biking. I got to Imane's at 6:30. She was surprised to see me, showing up unexpected after dark. She fed me and listened to me bitch, and somehow everything was already much better.


Those of you whom I've ever chauffered know that I have a habit of singing along with whatever song comes out of the radio. I go all out when I'm alone, belting at the top of my lungs. something about the private enclosed space of the car is conducive to it. Wouldn't you know, so is biking alone for 15 or 40km through the middle of the African bush! I stupidly didn't bring along any music (for which I've gotten shocked looks from other PCVs) but fortunately I have a wide repertoire constantly playing on the radio in my head. When the voices go away, that is. Anything from Britney, to Christina, to Avril, to Madonna, to Backstreet boys, boys 2 men, N'sync, South Park the Movie and every high school musical I've been in (something like 12).

I belt freely and carelessly as I ride, trying to get just the right vibratto, and sometimes I go on bike rides just to sing. So what if some goatherd boys happen to overhear? There's something profoundly liberating about knowing that whatever you do, people will still think you're a freak.

One Saturday evening as I was riding back from a visit to Imane, I happened to be singing a classic from The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens:



My voice cut out and I started gagging. I felt it moving in my throat. No longer breathing, I breaked and pulled to the side of the road, and hacked and gagged and choked until finally, into my hand in a puddle of saliva, I spit out a large fly.

Perhaps this was Somebody's way of telling me to shut up. I hummed the rest of the way. I don't know if the fly made it.

Winter's long gone! It's the hot season now. Want to see the forecast of how much I'll be suffering?

Happy St. Patty's!