Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dealing With Distractions

The other day, Kathy had an appointment with the hairdresser, so we drove into town and pulled up in front of the Independence Hotel where the hair salon was located. Before we even got out of the truck, ambulant vendors with all sorts of products for sale began converging on us. This can be an intimidating experience if you’re not ready for it! Kathy quickly made her way to the hair salon while I turned to deal with the vendors, greeting them with a smile and politely indicating that I wasn’t interested in their wares at this time. I told them that my wife had all the money anyway, something that never fails to provoke laughter since no Burkinab√® man in his right mind would let his wife have all the money!

It wasn’t long before I spotted my friend Ghana coming to join the crowd. Back when we first arrived in Burkina, I was looking for an economical source for books. The big bookstore in town, one of the few places to buy good, new books, was horrendously expensive. The books in the used bookshops were cheaper, but often in terrible condition and, in my humble opinion, not worth the money I’d be required to pay for them (never mind the fact that they would look ugly on my shelves). I found my answer in the person of Ghana, a confident young man who was respectful and friendly, and gave me books and magazines at a good price.

Since I had some time on my hands while waiting for Kathy, I took him to a nearby place where we could buy some cold drinks and talk. As we were walking there, another young man appeared at my side and followed us. I didn’t know him, but wondered if he was a friend of Ghana’s, so I didn’t say anything. When we went into the snack bar, he came in too and sat down at the table next to us. I had just started talking with Ghana when the fellow greeted me. Slightly annoyed at the interruption, I nevertheless turned and greeted him politely, at which point he picked up his chair and moved it to our table. I chuckled inwardly, knowing what was coming next.

As I expected, he turned out to be just another street vendor, trying to sell me trinkets of some kind that I didn’t want. Firmly but politely, I told him that I wasn’t interested. But he kept on. I looked at Ghana and grinned. He grinned back. This kind of thing happened all the time and it had taken me a while to learn how to deal with it.

But during our first years in Burkina, when I was still young and naive, I’d had to suffer through an innumerable bunch of what I considered to be incredibly rude conversation interrupters. How many times I’d had to deal with irritatingly persistent guys trying to sell me something I didn’t want while the friend with whom I wanted to talk stood patiently by, saying nothing! After one such particularly aggravating episode, I had asked my friend with some annoyance why he, as a fellow Burkinab√®, hadn’t stepped in to help get rid of the guy! It was at this point that things were explained to me. “I can’t say anything because he’s a fellow street vendor like me who’s trying desperately to make enough money to survive on. If I tell him or even ask him to leave, he’ll accuse me of trying to rob him of a sale. That’s bad for relationships on the street. And he may even get someone to put a curse on me.”

Okay, I got the point. And I learned to politely put my foot down. “Listen,” I said to the current unwelcome conversation interrupter, “I’m trying to talk with my friend here and you’re disturbing us. Perhaps another time I’ll look at your stuff. But for now, GOODBYE!” The guy took the hint.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Home Improvements - The Kitchen

Yes, I'm still alive :) Just really busy. But I must admit that I hate it when I get too busy to write in my blog or follow what's happening on Facebook! Anyway, one of the things keeping me more occupied than usual is the fact that we're making improvements to our kitchen. The paint job is an old, dirty, hospital yellow (yeah, yuck is right!). Some of the cupboards aren't painted inside, so you never know what's crawling around in the darkness back there! But it all started with the kitchen counter.

The kitchen counter in our little place in Ouaga is made of a whole pile of small, one-inch square tiles. Over the years, some these have been coming off and the counter was beginning to not only be a pain to use, but also an eyesore. So we finally decided the time had come to replace the whole thing, as well as the ugly pink tiles that made up the backsplash.

After buying the necessary tile (much larger ones this time!), we began looking around for a mason. We insisted that it be someone who owned and knew how to use a level. Finally, we engaged someone recommended by a Burkinab√® friend. Well, this mason certainly had a level and used it, but I’m not sure why! Virtually every tile he laid was on a different angle! I had to verify nearly every tile, as well as the overall slope of the stainless steel sink / drainboard unit and the counter surface. Had I left it the way he placed it, half of any water on the counter would have run towards the sink, and the other half in the opposite direction and onto the floor! I even had to check the alignment of the tiles for the backsplash and make him correct things several times. To give the man credit, he was good with a trowel and cement, but I think a straight line was a foreign concept to him.

Our old faucet was history too. So we got a new one, and I decided to put a shut-off valve under the sink while I had things apart. Going to a nearby hardware store, I selected a valve and some washers. When the guy behind the counter told me that the valve was 2,000 francs and the washers were 125 francs in all, I asked if I could pay 2,100 francs instead of 2,125 (a saving of a mere 5 cents Canadian isn’t a big deal, but people like to bargain here, so why not :). The guy shook his head dubiously and said he’d have to ask his boss. So off he went.

A minute later he was back. “My boss says you can have the valve for 1,750 francs and the washers for 150 francs.” Wait a minute! I offered to pay 2,100 francs and the guy is telling me that I only need to pay 1,900? Well, I sure didn’t argue with him, but I was shaking my head all the way home. I don’t recall anything like that ever happening here in Burkina before. I think I’m going to have to go to that hardware store more often!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Flying Air France

Wow, I love the new video system in the Air France planes! We thought it was cool several years back when we got individual video screens in the seatback in front of us to watch movies and play games. That way we could choose our own movies to watch rather than watching the one and only selection on one of the overhead screens. One drawback, however, was that movies started at designated times and you either had to wait for them to start or start watching partway through. Another was that you couldn’t pause, rewind, or fast forward through a movie. So if your attention was required for something else, like the stewardesses serving drinks or meals during a crucial part of the film, you ended up just missing that part.

Not with the new system. It functions more like an individual DVD player. Movies start when you’re ready. If something requires your attention for a moment (like a stewardess asking what you’d like to drink or which meal you’d prefer), you can pause the show. Didn’t quite catch what happened, or want to hear those words again? No problem, just hit rewind. Now that’s cool!

Now if they could only come up with a way to stop interrupting the movie every time the captain or a member of the cabin crew wants to make an announcement!

Speaking of announcements, they nearly drove us nuts in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. This isn’t the world’s most user friendly airport to begin with. The food and drinks are horrendously expensive, as are the shops. And there’s nary a place to lie down for some zzzzzz’s during a long layover, mostly just chairs to sit in. Not that you could sleep very well even if you did manage to claim one of the few lounge seats available because every few minutes there is a chime followed by a taped announcement, first in French and then in English, either about not smoking in the airport, or not taking packages from strangers. Who pays attention to announcements like that anyway? Certainly not the Asian guys I met smoking in the men’s washroom!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fun With Airport Security

I always have problems at the airport security checks. So this time I thought I’d be smart. No carrying stuff in my pockets. They always make you empty them out, which is a real pain for both me and the people waiting in line behind me. So I put all that pocket stuff in a belt pack that I could quickly take off, along with my hat, jacket, and belt, and put in a tray to pass through the security scanner while I walked through the metal detector, hopefully without setting it off.

But I didn’t quite succeed. First of all, when I changed pants to get on the plane, I just emptied all the stuff in my pockets into the belt pack without even thinking about what that stuff was. So when my belt pack went through the scanner, a security guy pulled it aside and asked me to take out the nail clippers I had in there. Opening the clippers, he found the nail file on it, declared it a dangerous weapon that could not be taken on the plane, and tossed it on a nearby pile of other contraband they’d already collected. I managed to get it back by snapping the nail file part off.

Good thing they didn’t spot the other dangerous weapon I’d brought along: a Leatherman pocket knife! I’d have lost that for sure! Thinking that I’d probably not be so lucky again in Paris, I took it out of the belt pack and stuffed it down in an inner pocket of my briefcase, along with some coins and my wristwatch. Believe it or not, I managed to get that knife through every security checkpoint throughout the entire trip to Canada and back!

When we were served meals on the plane, however, I had to laugh about all the fuss they made over my nail file. Have you seen the metal knives and forks they give you to eat with? Sure, they’re not the full-sized ones we use at home or in a restaurant, but compared to my nail file, they were serious hardware capable of doing some real damage in the right person’s hands!

And my other security check complication? My shoes. They have little metal eyelets where the laces run through, and these set off the metal detectors every single time. It got to the point where I figured that I might as well just take my shoes off just prior to the first checkpoint in Burkina, and walk around in my sock feet until I passed the last checkpoint in Canada. On the way back, I fixed that. I bought a pair of running shoes!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Quick Trip Home

Yes, I know, I’ve been slipping on my blog entries :/ Sometimes there just don’t seem to be enough hours in a day to do everything! They say that all changes when you retire. Then you’ve got all day to do nothing, and by noon you’re already done!

So why the long silence? Because we had to make a quick trip home for a family funeral. That meant lots of rushing here and there on both sides of the ocean. In Burkina, we had to get last-minute airline tickets, make arrangements for the guards and our house lady, get others to take our work responsibilities, and pack. In Canada, there was lots of travel for the funeral, visiting with close family and friends, and picking up some needed supplies. We didn’t have our own car, nor a place of our own to stay, but our son, Josh, provided both transportation and lodging. Is this what they call finally getting a return on your investment? :) In any case, it was much appreciated! Thanks, Josh!

We had Internet access at Josh’s place, and I honestly had every intention of posting some blog updates. But I ended up being just too busy answering e-mails, talking to people on the phone, sipping good coffee at Starbucks, pigging out on Korean, Thai, and Greek food (can you tell we’re missing food with different tastes?), watching movies, playing Guitar Hero and Wizard with Josh, Melissa, and the future in-laws, and chowing down a Harvey’s hamburger with fries and onion rings (yes, Harvey’s does indeed make a hamburger a beautiful thing!). And there was hardly enough time to do all that! Honestly, how could you expect me to write blog updates too?

But now we’re back in the saddle in Burkina, and feeling like we’ve just passed through a time warp. One day we’re in hot, dry, developing Burkina, the next in cool, modern, urban Canada, and a few days later, back in Burkina again. These are such completely different worlds that being in one makes time spent in the other seem rather surreal.

And then there’s the time difference that played havoc with our body clocks. In Canada we were constantly falling asleep by 8 or 9 p.m. (which is kind of embarrassing when you’re visiting with folks!). That’s because our bodies were still on Burkina time and saying, “Hey, it’s after midnight! Go to bed!” And just as they were getting used to Canadian time again, we were back in Burkina, laying wide awake in bed at 2 a.m. because our bodies thought it was still only 10 p.m. (Canada time). All in all, a rather disorienting experience. Hope we get ourselves straightened out soon. We’ve got to get back to work here!