Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tough Adjustments :)

It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been back in Canada for just over a week. It’s been a bit of a blur! I guess it just takes a while for your soul to catch up with your body when you make a transition like we did. The time zone difference alone plays havoc with your body clock for a while. The first few days here, we were falling asleep in early evening already because our bodies were saying it was midnight, and waking up in the middle of the night because our bodies were saying it’s time to get up!

The change in cultures wasn’t very hard this time, probably because we haven’t been away that long. We don’t feel lost walking into a Wal-Mart or a grocery store like we did last time.

One of the things that moving back and forth between Burkina and Canada does for us is that it gives us a fresh appreciation for some things we used to take for granted. Like good roads, flavourful hamburgers, and privacy. Where others see consumerism, we see quality, variety, and convenience! In our first week back, we’ve already sampled good Starbucks coffee, chewed on a great Crock & Block steak, munched on a Subway sandwich, chowed down a Harveys hamburger with onion rings, and had some great home-cooked meals too. One visit to Home Depot, Wal-Mart, or Canadian Tire can achieve what would take hours or even days of searching in Burkina.

We’ve hit the movie theatres too. Well, actually it’s been Josh and I that have gone to see a couple of movies together. Guy stuff. No doubt Kathy & I will eventually go a few times too before our time here is up.

This week, Kathy & I are going away for a few days for our anniversary. Talk to you when we get back!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Signs of Senility

I’m beginning to see disturbing signs of creeping senility in myself. Lately this has taken the form of oblivion to the obvious. For instance, on the plane flight from Burkina to Canada, I had to make use of a little, on-board closet they have the nerve to call a toilet. Those of you that have flown on planes know what I’m talking about: those little stalls in which there’s hardly room to turn around. And if you drop anything on the floor in there, you might as well forget it because you don’t have enough room to bend over to pick it back up!

But this time, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I walked into a restroom that was the most spacious one I had ever seen! There was room for three or even four people in there! I was really impressed. So when I went back to my seat, I said to Kathy, “Wow, this plane has a really nice and roomy bathroom! You should go and try it!”

“Where?” she asked, turning around to look. I pointed to the restroom door. “Oh,” she replied. “You mean the one with the handicap sign on it?”

Yesterday we were walking back to our son’s apartment building. He wasn’t there, but he’d given us keys to get into the building and his apartment. Normally, when we arrive by car, we go in the back door. But this time, since we were walking, I wondered about using the front door. “Does this key work on the front door too?” I asked Kathy. “I think so,” she replied.

Walking up to the front door, I tried the key. To my great disappointment, it didn’t work. Not quite believing what was happening, I tried it again. No way. In fact, the key wouldn’t even fit in the lock! “Sorry, dear,” I said. “You must be mistaken.”

“Really?” she queried. Without another word, she reached past me, grabbed the door handle, and pulled the door open! I’d tried to put the key into the door that opened into the entranceway, a door that is always open in apartment buildings since it gives access to the intercom that you then use to let building residents know you are there and want to see them. If they are expecting you or want to see you, they then push a button that unlocks another door further in.

My key worked in this second door just fine :)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Long Flight Home

Boy, it feels good to be off that plane! For some reason, the flight from Burkina to Canada always feels longer and more tedious than vice versa. One reason is the fact that on the Ouaga-Paris leg, we had to make a stop in Niamey. That’s got to be the longest one and a half hours ever! Next time I need to remember to bring a good book or something. Better yet, next time we’ll just avoid the flights that make this stop and pick another day to go. Live and learn.

We did, however, have a bit of excitement on that part of the trip. We flew through a thunderstorm. Lots of buffeting and bouncing around in the sky, complete with a few stomach-flipping drops that I quite enjoyed. Kathy wasn’t nearly as appreciative of these in-flight extras as I was :)

The flight from Niamey to Paris was uneventful. It was a nice plane, an Airbus with video screens in the seatbacks in front of us so we could watch the movies of our choice. A wonderful option except that it’s the time of day when you want to sleep, not watch movies!

The Paris-Toronto flight was a daytime one. Of course, that’s when Air France decides to put us on a huge, old 747. It can take a lot more passengers, but for us ordinary folks this translates into longer line-ups, longer loading times, and longer unloading times. In other words, more waiting time all around. Plus cramped seating and no individual video screens. You either watch what comes up on the common screens in the aisles or forget it. It was a LONG flight!

At least if I manage to get an aisle seat, I can take numerous opportunities to get up and walk around a bit. I had a window seat. My butt is still recovering.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Going Home

The day has finally come. We fly out of Ouagadougou tonight for Canada via Paris, arriving in Toronto mid-afternoon on Friday. The last few days have been spent packing our bags, preparing our house in Ouaga for a three-month absence, saying goodbye to friends and colleagues, and wrapping up our work responsibilities here for the time being. It’s not as bad as packing up house and moving in Canada, but it does have some different challenges.

For instance, we have to plan ahead concerning our guards, something which is not normally an issue for us in Canada :) Every week they get food money to pay for lunch or supper, depending on their shift. We’ve discovered that paying ahead further than that doesn’t work. If we give them food money for the whole month, they’ll end up spending it on something else somewhere along the way and then just not eat for the rest of the time. Then there are the occasional pay advances. Payday is too long to wait. And then there are the salaries to be prepared for, calculating how much they actually get paid at the end of the month, taking into account base salary, extra wages for official holidays worked (since thieves don’t recognize these holidays, the government allows guards to work these days), social security and unemployment deductions, salary advances, and loan repayments. Fortunately we have a Services department at our Centre that can help with all this. I still have to prepare the pay slips, but they can do all the payments and charge our account. Then there are the utility bills that will need to be paid. Yeah, you guessed it: Services to the rescue again.

We may have shot ourselves in the foot with baggage, though. Since this is just a three-month trip back home, we didn’t think we’d even need all our baggage limit. So we readily agreed to take some stuff back for a colleague. What we hadn’t counted on was the number of gifts our Burkinab√® friends here would bring for us to take back to Josh & Melissa! We actually might end up having to pay excess baggage fees!

This morning I handed off my administrative responsibilities to a colleague. It was kind of fun being Acting Director for a while :) I’m not going to miss having to carry that extra cell phone around all the time, but going from the almost full-bore responsibility of being head of an administrative team to virtually nothing is going to be a bit of an adjustment! I’ve heard that this kind of experience can be hard to handle for people who have carried tremendous responsibilities in their overseas assignments and then come home to function as just ordinary folks. I guess that in such a case, it helps to know and remember who you really are as a person rather than calculating your self-worth on the basis of what you do. I’ll never forget something a NASA astronaut once said: “Remember where you’re standing when the spotlight goes off because you’ll have to find your own way off the stage.” Good advice.

I’d better call our credit card company to let them know we’re traveling. I don’t want them cutting off our card in the middle of our trip again!

Anyway, I guess we’d better go and finish all that last minute stuff. And get a siesta. It’s a long flight home and we won’t get much sleep on the plane. Thank God there’s a Starbucks at the other end!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Adventures on the Airport Run

I’ve been doing a number of airport runs lately. That’s to say I’ve either gone to the airport to pick up people who are coming into the country, or bringing folks there who are on their way out. When you work with an organization that has a lot of expatriate members, there are always comings and goings. Someone’s going to be doing an airport run with us later on this week, but that’s another story.

Interestingly, the last several runs have been anything but the normal, uneventful kind. Kathy & I were on our way to the airport with one lady when suddenly all the streetlights and stoplights went out! Apparently a very selective power cut because most buildings lining the streets still seemed to have electricity. Anyway, you can just imagine what traversing intersections was like here in a city where even under regular conditions the rules of the road are merely suggestions!

Yup, we had a number of close calls alright. The trick was to be prudently aggressive. Otherwise you’d never get anywhere. My strategy was to stay right on the tail of the person ahead of me. One gap and the line of traffic waiting to cross the other way would rush in to fill it and you were stuck. Thank God we made that run safe and sound!

Another incident happened on my way back from a night-time airport run. I was sitting at a light waiting for it to turn green when suddenly the truck jumped forward about a foot! At first I thought that I’d left the truck in gear and accidentally slipped my foot off the clutch (no automatic transmissions here in Burkina, so it’s a good thing I grew up driving standard!). Then I realized that someone had run into my back end. Fortunately it wasn’t hard. Just someone in a Mercedes that had let HIS foot slip off the clutch, or was over-eager to make his left turn. Since my steel bumper was higher than his, he received a slightly smashed front grill and I got nothing, except an apology. We parted on amicable terms :)

And finally, there was the wooden bench incident at the airport itself. It was sticking out into the parking space I pulled into near the drop-off point. I misjudged the amount of space I had to spare and ended up clipping it. Unfortunately, the other end was already up against an immovable object, so the six-foot long bench twisted, buckled, and splintered in part. A baggage handler jumped on me about it almost as soon as I got out of the vehicle, telling me that I was going to have to pay for that. Well, of course I was! What did he take me for?

For my part, I thought they were going to want to replace the whole thing, which would cost anywhere from 5,000 – 10,000 FCFA ($10 -$20). But to my surprise, they just wanted to repair it. Hailing a nearby man who claimed to be a carpenter, we began negotiations. A few minutes later, we settled on a cost of 2,000 FCFA. And parted on amicable terms.

To be honest, I actually don’t mind such incidents (provided they don’t cost me an arm and a leg!). Each is a great opportunity to meet new people here in Burkina. Gotta look on the bright side, right?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Night Guards Sleep Best

Last week, we had two night-time robbery attempts at our centre in Ouaga. One was successful. The other was foiled.

In the early hours before dawn, at least two people appear to have climbed over the back wall of our centre, despite the iron spikes around the top. A close-growing tree and overhanging branch helped them get in. The fact that there’s no light around the outside of the wall at that point probably was a factor too. Anyway, the thieves managed to get two nearly full gas bottles from the shared guesthouse kitchen facilities, simply cutting the rubber hoses that connected them to the stoves. The value of their haul? About a month’s wages here in Burkina.

Of course, this was not welcome news to the several women staying in that part of our facility! Shared kitchen and bathroom facilities mean leaving your room to use them, and the thought of men with less than honourable intentions possibly lurking nearby meant that most of the ladies would prefer enduring a night with tightly crossed legs to a quick sortie to the restroom. Needless to say, they quickly requested a transfer to other facilities with interior-accessible washrooms.

I should mention that we have night guards on our centre who perform more or less regular patrols around the inside perimeter to discourage such night-time entrepreneurs. So where were they? Well, the theft probably happened on one of their less regular patrols. That is to say, the night guards were probably sleeping instead of doing guard duty. True, it’s hard to stay awake at night. I know. I did a night guard shift once when one of the guards failed to show up for work. But that was after a full, normal day of daytime work too. These guys should be getting rest during the day, but most end up moonlighting (or should I say “sunlighting”?) at other jobs to help make ends meet. And then there’s the fact that it’s hard to sleep at home during the day with all the other family members there making noise. But hey, that’s the way the job is.

So both these guards got written warnings

I’m going to have to give our night guard here at home another written warning too. He just got one last month for sleeping on the job. Last night I went out and found him sound asleep on our neighbour’s veranda before it was even 10 p.m.! I walked right up to him and took the cell phone charger he had laying beside him as proof that I was there. I’ll give it back to him when he comes on duty tonight, along with the warning.

Unfortunately, this does not inspire us with confidence for the next few weeks when we’re going to be away and only the guards will be on duty here. Kathy is already waking up several times a night and getting up to check on our night guard. I suggested that she take his place. After all, it was she who said, “It looks like our guard is getting a better night’s sleep than we are!”