Friday, April 29, 2005

The Little Piggy That Could

It's hot. Yaa tulgo. Yaa tulg wusgo! En tout cas, il fait chaud. Yup, it's a hot one. Damn, it's really hot.

Thus has been the sum total of my verbal communication for the past month and a half, because really, actually, it's hot. And for some reason, we all feel the need, even the villagers, to point it out, multiple times to every person we see: It's hot. Amen to that! You be speakin the truth sistah! Tell it like it is!

I spend the hours between 10am and 4pm sitting in the shade on my porch, my eyes glazed, my mouth hanging open, moaning softly to myself as the sweat beads trickle down my forhead, down my prominent dignified french-canadian nose, over my pouty kissable lips, down my strong jaw, down every part of my sinewy rippled torso, down through the crevaces of each abdominal of my 6-pack... twitching and slapping myself every few seconds to shoo the flies, which usually turn out to be yet more beads of sweat or stray strands of hair. Really, can insanity be far off?

Occasionally a light breeze will help me cool off, which feels especially nice when I'm entirely drenched, except when it's a hot desert breeze that stings my eyes.

In the evening, I brush the dried salt off of my forehead into my soup, and I journal about how hot it was that day. I drag my cot outside, cause sleepin in is out of the question, and stick my one-man mosquito net on top (most volunteers have roomier 2-man mosquito tents, but I'm just not that optimistic). And I lay down inside, sweating, though not quite as much as during the day, and I pray for a breeze so I can fall asleep. Or I point a twig at the sky and shout VENTILIARUM! which usually works. (Yes, I started Harry Potter last week, and I'm now on book four). If I do fall asleep, I wake at 6 am to a burst of heat as the sun climbs in the sky.

The animals are also suffering. My dog lies on the floor, her tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth onto the floor into a puddle of drool, panting at 80 mph for the better part of the day. Sometimes her doggy friends will come over and lay down and drool on the floor beside her. I went to visit Imane, to chat about the weather. She has a scrawny little overly-affectionate roach-eating black cat with a big hernia in her side that she inherited from the previous volunteer. She had her mouth hanging open, breathing heavily--the cat, that is, not Imane--and I do believe that's the first time I've seen a cat panting. Only in Africa!

And the villagers are quick to point out that the heat, life in Africa, it's not easy! Because, well, it's not, and therefore it should be pointed out in every conversation at least once. And when I think about how not easy it is, about the heat, and the lack of burritos and gay men, and that somewhere out there there's a cool paradise with an abundance of both burritos and easy gay men called Castro Street, then a year and 6 months to go starts feeling like an awfully long time. But I've got this huge stack of 50 books waiting to be read, a bunch of care package food and spices waiting to be devoured (and for which I'm terribly grateful!)... and it would be a shame to leave when I've still got a motherload of complaints to air and you, my loyal, devoted, faithful readers clamoring to hear them. So until I do run out of all of the above, I'll stick around. And the latter in particular could take a while. So lets get to it, eh?


Coming back from our recent trip to the prettier, greener, cooler south, my friend Katy and I had to pick a bus line to bring us back to Ouaga. No, bush taxis aren't the only option for transport. We've also got big tall busses, of the Greyhound variety, with luggage stowed underneath and stairs going up to the seats on top. The bus lines aren't up to Greyhound's exceptional standards of comfort, so they squeeze 5 seats to a row instead of 4, but it still beats taking a crammed bush taxi any day... one would think!

[cue ominous music]

Since Bobo-Dioulasso is the 2nd biggest city in Burkina (no, I don't know how they come up with these names) there are lots of buslines that make the 5 hour trip on the paved road to Ouaga. For an extra $2, TSR had an airconditioned bus leaving at 2 oclock. Also, if you stay on the bus after the 1st stop in Ouaga, the bus continues on to the 2nd station, which happens to be right next to the Peace Corps hostel. No dealing with taxis or biking through Ouaga's chaos, a nice air-conditioned trip through this hot-season inferno... Sold!

We got to the TSR station around noon, and I stood in line to buy tickets while Katy watched the bikes and bags. The sun was beating down as I waited, but the woman behind the ticket window took her sweet-ass time. Even without a computer, how it could take so long to sell a bus ticket I could not understand, but 20 minutes later the line in front of me had dwindled down from 6 and it was my turn.

Two tickets for the 2 oclock bus!
*It's sold out.
What? But surely there's room...

We heard that the more expensive air-conditioned bus was hardly ever full, but oh well, there was another bus leaving at 3 minus the AC. I spent the last of my cash buying the tickets.

What about the bikes? I asked.
*That's somebody else.
Of course, but who?

Of course it couldn't be simple, where we could buy the bike tickets along with ours, I knew that. You order a drink at a street restaurant and the waitress says, Whoa, whoa there buddy, that's not my job! Ask the drink lady when she idles around. The ticket window lady told me to ask one of the bagage handlers in the blue jackets. And so I went off, looking for blue jackets, around and around I went, until finally I realize that there aren't any. We needed to get the bike business cleared away to make sure they saved room for them on the bus... Unlike the bushtaxis, they can't just throw em up on top along with the goats and your mother.

I handed Katy our tickets and she asked if there was anything she could do, as she stood sweating and applying sunscreen. No, no, I'll take care of it.

I got back in the ticket line and waited my turn again. The ticket lady didn't sympathize that there was no one to ask about the bikes, so I stormed off, muttering to myself profusely. This is @$&@#$@bullsh#$... haven't you ever heard of @#$!@ customer service you #$@%&@#%@$? Now I'd learned in dealing with these situations that I just gotta muster up all my patience and keep my cool, but the sun sure weren't helpin none. I ambled back over to Katy, who'd stripped down to a bikini and was working on her tan to the bemusement of the ogling muslim men feigning shock. Actually she was fully dressed and having about as much sweaty fun as I was. She asked, Is there anything I can do to-- No! I'll handle it!

Behind her was something that looked like it could be an office, so I walked in to inquire about the baggage people. The blue jackets, a girl said. There are none! The girl came out of the office to take a look. Do you believe me now? She pointed me to another room next door, which was supposedly the baggage office. I climbed over the bags and waiting passengers in the packed hangar and looked inside the door. Inside were indeed 3 guys in blue jackets. Sound asleep. EEERRRGGH!! Must I really wake them up? Umm... excuse me? No, I can't. I climbed back over the bags and people to Katie, exasperated and flabbergasted and friggin hot, what with my wet shirt clinging to my impressive pectorals, the sweat dripping down my tight round butt, down my thick hairy thighs, etc etc. WHAT... IS... WRONG... WITH... THESE PEOPLE??? THIS CONTINENT??? DO THEY NOT CARE? HAVE THEY NEVER HEARD OF CUSTOMER SERVICE?? RAAAAHHRRR!! GAAAAAAHHH!!! I kicked my bike just because. Katy wasn't able to respond to my queries to my satisfaction, but thank god she was there to take charge, cause she's got more balls for these kinds of situations than I do.

Somehow, after a couple minutes, she got a guy with a roll of tape to come over and tag our bikes. He started to walk away, so I ran after him.

Hold it! Where do we pay to load the bikes?
*That's not me.
Right, of course not, but who? And where should we put them?

Rather than respond, he chose to walk away, just like that. But fine, we tried. The bikes were marked. Let's go find us some cool beverages and shade, shall we?


We came back around 2:30 to get ready for the 3 oclock bus. There were actually 2 busses waiting with hoardes of people and bags surrounding them. Were we late? Turns out that because it was the end of a holiday, they'd called up an old reserve bus to fill the extra demand. The first was already loaded and ready to go, so Katy and I hurried to get our bikes and bags through the chaos and loaded onto the second one.

We found our friend from earlier, Mr. Unhelpful. After asking him twice what to do with the bikes, I grabbed and asked, which worked better. He told us to wait with them there and they'd take care of it. We waited, and I could see the seats on the bus filling up, so I told Katy that one of us had better go save our seats. She took charge, and said You go get seats, I'll take care of the bikes and bags. Are you sure? I asked, meaning Yes, please do that, thank you! I got on the bus and scrambled to save us two seats, difficult when they were almost all being saved for other people. I could see our stuff out the window, and Katy ran off to find someone to help. After a couple minutes, she reappeared under my window, slightly frazzled.

There's no room for the bikes!
*Of course there's room, this is Africa, there's always room!
They keep telling me there's no room!
*Just keep trying! I shouted.

Katy ran off again as I slumped in my seat. Oh my god... this trip just wasn't worth it. I can't take the stress!

A gray-haired guy in a blue jacket holding a wrench showed up and wheeled Katie's bike to the other side. FINALLY, they're loading the bikes. Sigh of relief. When the gray-haired guy came back around and walked past the rest of the stuff, I shouted out to him

The other bike! You have to load the other bike!
*What? You mean this is yours too?
Yes, the bike and the big black bag!
*There's no room!
Yes there's room! You must try!

Next thing I knew, my large black hiking pack was coming through my window. There's no room for the bike! he shouted. Your friend will have to take the next bus at 6!
There's gotta be room! Try! I felt bad for yelling at the guy, cause he WAS trying, and he was the only person from this station who'd wanted to help us at all. He shook his head and said sorry. Oh no... The next bus was in 3 hours, and wouldn't get to Ouaga til 11. Katy came back around, her long blond hair standing on end.

Where's my bike??
*They loaded it...
I'll have to see if they can change my ticket for the next bus... I guess I'll just take your bike with me.
*Can't you try--
I tried, they can't. I'm gonna go see if they can change my ticket!

I felt terrible. I should be a gentleman and offer to let her take this bus. It was her bike on board, after all... But the thought of waiting another three hours in that purgatory... I need my ticket! I shouted. She handed it to me and went back out of sight. Oh... Karma will make me pay, I thought. I supposed it wasn't a good time to also ask her if she could loan me $10, as I was broke.

The driver placed a guy in the seat next to me, the last unoccupied one on the bus. But--but--that's for my friend! I whimpered to myself, dejected. Before I could see if Katy had gotten everything straightened out, the bus was lurching out of the station. Shit shit shit shit shit. Could this get any worse?

[ominous music refrain with hint of danger]

I fidgeted in my seat, shooting a dirty look at the guy who was sitting in Katy's spot next to me, though he was kinda cute. Skinny, but cute. I could go for him, I supposed. Oh, Katy! Damn it all. I tried to read, but I couldn't concentrate. I needed to chill out. I was on my way, there was nothing I could do. I opened the window and sat with the breeze in my face, watching the scenery pass as we left Bobo behind. I needed to sleep, I decided.

The thing that makes sleeping on the bus between Bobo and Ouaga difficult, besides the normal difficulties of sleeping on a bus, craning your neck every which way, and the potholes, is that the bus blares its horn every 20 seconds or so to signal the donkey carts and bicycles and motos and people and cows to get outa the way, cause the breaks don't work. I was desperately tired, but the sleep didn't come. Not with the HOOOOOOOOOOOOONK coming through the window. Two hours later, as the sun was getting low, I was on the cusp, ready to finally pass out, having been hypnotized by the endless HOOOOOOOONK HOOOOOOOONK HOOOOOOOONK HOOOOOOO--CLUNK! Whoa! Apparently something... someone? didn't get out of the way in time.

The bus chugged and slowed, pulling over to the side of the road, I assumed to go check on whatever had been hit. Word got around that it had been a pig. And when everybody started getting off the bus, I learned that they hadn't stopped out of concern for the poor animal, but because by giving its life, that little piggy had brought our goliath 50 ton bus to its figurative knees.

Oh well. It'd give me a chance to stretch my legs and piss on a bush. Since I had no idea what was going on, I figured it would be a good chance to bury the hatchet with my seat mate and make friends, so that he could tell me. After about half an hour of waiting around, watching a group of men hover around the engine, my informant told me that word had it TSR was sending a replacement bus from Bobo. You're kidding! It's really that bad? A replacement bus would take at least 2 hours to drive from Bobo, then we'd have to transfer all our stuff over... Ugh, what a mess! Well Katy, looks like we may be getting into Ouaga around the same time after all!

Since this was gonna take a while, I took a seat by the road next to my skinny, semi-cute friend, a Molecular Bio student at Burkina's one and only university who spoke french a mile a minute. He offered me some palm wine, the alcoholic beverage of choice in the south, what with all its palm trees. They tap the tree at night and collect it in the morning, and it ferments naturally as the day progresses. I accepted to take a sip. Instead, he filled my entire nalgene with the stuff. It was easily one of the nastiest beverages I've encountered in my life, but I couldn't exactly tell him that since he'd just given me a liter of it. He asked if I liked it, and I told him it was... interesting... tastes a bit like sulfur, like rotten eggs, wouldn't you say? I forced myself to drink, and anyway, I needed a drink.

We sat, and so did everyone, watching as the sun set, and as the busses from the lines we should have taken passed us by.


Now pitch black outside, word had gotten around (because no one was actually telling the crowd what was going on) that the people working on the bus were going into the town a mile or so up the road to find a welder, and a replacement part had been sent on the next bus from Bobo. What the hell was going on? Wasn't the replacement bus due sometime soon? Skinny-boy told me it was gonna be a while longer and suggested that we take a walk to the town ourselves to get food and water. The walk took a good 20 minutes, and we came upon a fairly bustling town that had built itself up with boutiques and restos along the road, like all the towns on this route. I wanted to buy myself a plastic bag of water, since I couldn't afford anything else, but my friend insisted on buying me an expensive bottle instead, worrying that I might get sick from something else, and he was a molecular bio major after all. Listen, buddy, if anything's gonna make me sick it's this shit you gave me, I wanted to say, still sipping my nalgene of palm wine, my stomach indeed protesting, masochist that I am. But I graciously accepted his gift, as I had no other choice.

We walked the long walk back. It was getting close to 8, and Katy's bus would be passing by sometime soon. I wanted to be there when it did, so I could find her and shout that, Hey, I'm stranded here, don't expect me to be back in Ouaga when you arrive! The TSR bus containing Katy and her bike finally did arrive, pulling over further along the road. I ran up to the bus, but it took off as soon as I reached the spot, so that the other stranded passengers couldn't storm it.

The latest press release circulated through the crowd. Apparently our replacement bus had just left Bobo. WHAT? It was supposed to have left 3 hours ago! Now it won't be here til after 10, and we won't get into Ouaga til 1. Oy. Well, it was a good thing my black bag wan't locked underneath the bus. I climbed aboard and pulled out a pillow. I took it back to my spot by the side of the road, and I lay down and stared up at the stars. Ah, the stars. Huh. This whole mess was almost funny.

[bathroom break]

I managed to doze a bit inspite of lying on gravel with traffic zooming behind me. I woke up from the tentative sleep and checked my watch. 10pm. The men were no longer working on the bus. The natives were getting restless. They were demanding an answer. And the answer was, the bus just left Bobo! Obviously you're lying, they all pointed out, since the bus had previously just left Bobo at 5 and 7 and 9. Were they gonna let us stay stranded out here all night? How about a refund? The bus guy laughed. Ha ha ha. What? What's the problem? he seemed to say.
RWO April 28 2005

I tossed some bothersome rocks out from under my back and lay back down and fall back asleep. Round midnight the kinda cute guy stirred me. The bus lights were on, and people were getting back on board. We're leaving? We're really leaving? It was true. Wow. We're leaving. I gathered my pillow and got on the bus. The bus started up, and we got back on the road. We were moving. Moving at 20 mph, but moving. Since it was midnight, the road was empty and it was thankfully no longer necessary to honk everyone off the road. The bus stopped in the town we had visited earlier for 20 minutes to fetch some water to pour in the busted radiator. And then we moved again.

Unfortunately now that I was back on the bus, I couldn't fall back to sleep. I pulled out my headlamp and my current book, A Million Little Pieces, a true autobiographical story of a 23 y/o guy who'd been an alcoholic and drug addict since 14. He wakes up from a blackout with a punctured cheek, his teeth all busted, his body gone to waste, and decides to go into rehab. I was at the part near the beginning where he goes to a dentist, and has to undergo a double-root canal without any anaesthetics, which he describes in excruciating detail over 10 pages. I really need to get better reading material for transport.

Unable to read, I lapsed in and out of restless sleep. The bus was moving at a donkey's pace, stopping every half hour to find more water and pour it in and fix it up for the next half hour. On and on. 3:30, 4:30, 5:30... The sun was rising up over the horizon when we finally pulled into the first bus station on the outskirts of Ouagadougou at 6:00 am. My friend was also going to stay on until the second station, but he got out to make sure his stuff stayed on. I stayed put and asked him to make sure Katy's green bike stayed on as well. I stayed put for a little while by myself on the bus before he came and told me that the bus wasn't going on to the second station after all. We were on the complete opposite side of the city from the hostel. I deplore biking in Ouaga. The only reason I took this damned bus was so I could get dropped off near my house. I cursed incoherently under my breath. A plague on TSR! Incompetent #@$@%! I #@$@#@$ want a #$@#$@ refund #$@$@@#^&#!

I bid farewell to my skinny somewhat handsome friend that I could be interested in in the right circumstances, and only if he did the work of making the moves, put the front wheel on Katie's bike, strapped my heavy pack to my back, swallowed my nerves and pulled out into the swelling traffic. I biked the entire way across the city of Ouaga in rush hour on a bike built for a person a foot shorter than me (sorry Katy), strung out and stressed and groggy. I asked for directions from the other bikers while stopped at lights. I arrived at the hostel around 7. I had time to shower before we had to leave to catch an 8 oclock bush taxi back to our villages (Katy lives along the same road towards Zorgho but closer to Ouaga). I wondered where you were! said Katy casually. It's a long story, I said. I was ready to tell her, but she didn't ask. She did lend me $10 to get home, however.

[the pause before the epilogue with the moral of the story]

The bush taxi home, as always, offered yet another new transport experience. I'd never seen them fit 5 grown men onto a single bench, since it's already a snug fit with 4, but alas, they did, and I was there in the middle of it. I was sitting on the end of the bench in the front row of passenger seats, the one that faces the extra row facing backwards, with the knee-crotch-knee-crotch configuration. Before taking off, they put a young firm-bunned man next to me. Since there wasn't room next to me, they put him there anyway and then slammed the sliding door on him so he would fit somehow. Half his hard ass was on my thigh, the other over the gap by the door. Of course the only place for me to put my arm was around his shoulder. What would happen if this door slid open while we're moving? I wondered to myself. Surely enough, as we rounded a bend, the sliding door, which was only being held shut by a strap of rubber, slid open. I immediately grabbed tight hold of the firm-bunned man. I saved his life that day. Actually, he was holding on fine himself, and I just groped him gratuitously. Hey, I take it any way I can get it. All this goes to show that getting from one place to another in Burkina never ceases to be an adventure.

[cue Indiana Jones action adventure theme]


I had planned as always to include more, but since that turned into an epic and a half, instead I'll promise that my next email will be short in coming, and will be even more jam-packed with nail-biting hair-pulling teeth-clenching FrustrAction (tm). Incidentally, my undying admiration will go out to the first person who points out the Burkina reference in Harry Potter #2.*

And with that I return to the hazards that await me in the urban jungles of Burkina. I'm Philippe Gosselin. You stay classy, Ouagadougou.


*Undying admiration not redeemable for goods or services; expires after 3 months unless renewed by another act worthy of my undying admiration.