Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nice To Be Back!

It was only when we went to use the phone in our house the other day that we realized it wasn’t working. There was a dial tone, but we couldn’t make any calls out, nor receive calls from anyone. Why our line was suspended was a bit of a mystery until we went to pick up our mail at the Centre. There, interspersed with all the other correspondence, were four envelopes from ONATEL, the national telephone company. Each represented an unpaid bill and progressively outlined the consequences of failing to pay, culminating in the warning of impending suspension on November 15. I thought we’d made arrangements to pay those bills during our absence, but there must have been a miscommunication somewhere. So we sent our services agent to pay the bill and arrange to get the line reconnected.

Our cell phones are back up and running after laying relatively dormant for the past three months. A colleague used them occasionally to keep our SIM cards and numbers active. I’ve already started reconnecting with my Burkinabè friends, especially my Kusassi colleagues.

The weather is relatively wonderful here in Ouaga this time of year. Warm days and cool nights. It’s actually enjoyable to drink a coffee on the front veranda in the mornings. The only drawback is the harmattan wind off the Sahara Desert that brings a constant, low-grade sandstorm to Burkina during the months from November – February.

For food and meals, we’ve picked up some basic supplies at the mini-market and hit some of our favourite economy restaurants for supper. We’re not yet ready to face the traffic and hordes of aggressive street vendors in the downtown area where the supermarkets are located. But we need to go there soon. Perhaps we’ll try being Sunday shoppers. Quite by accident earlier this year, we discovered that the supermarkets are open on Sundays, when both traffic and vendors are at their lowest point of the entire week.

I’m still on the lookout for someone I can commission to do a lot of our shopping for us. This is an activity that is often rather time-consuming and stressful for Kathy, but is something a Burkinabè with a moto could do for us quite easily, provided I can find someone both trustworthy and reliable. But in a country whose name means “the land of upright men” (men of integrity), this shouldn’t be much of a problem, right?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back in Burkina Again

Our bio-clocks are out of whack again. Yesterday, we slept in until noon. Last night, I lay more or less awake until after 3 a.m. And this morning, we’d intended to arrive on our Centre in Ouaga to greet everyone again at coffee break time at 10 o’clock. But we didn’t make it. That five-hour time zone difference between central Canada and Burkina Faso is making itself felt!

Yup, we’re back in Burkina, having arrived on Sunday evening after over three months away. I must say that of all the times we’ve left home in Canada to go overseas, this was probably the hardest. In times past, the rest of our family either accompanied us or we knew we’d see them again in a few months. This time we’re on our own with no fixed idea of when we’ll be home again. In times past, we knew what we were coming back to in Burkina and were excited about it. This time, things will be somewhat in limbo for the next three months until we take up our new responsibilities in March. The past year in Burkina has been the most turbulent and challenging of our lives here, mostly due to internal, organizational politics, and the next three months don’t promise to be any better. We’ll see...

However, even in the short time that we’ve been back, we’ve seen small blessings to be thankful for. All our luggage arrived with us and we were waved through customs without even having to open a suitcase. A good friend and colleague came to pick us up at the airport and bring us to our house. Our neighbour brought us some rice and sauce for supper, as well as some food for the following day. Our house, which is normally full of dust and dirt that has blown in after even a small absence, was still amazingly clean after three months away. Just a thin layer of fine, red, dust that was easily wiped up. No termites had made it into our cupboards, closets, or storage room. The last time we were away for any length of time, they had completely demolished the shelves of one closet and damaged much of the stuff in it, as well as making significant inroads in our storage room shelves.

Well, I am eager to see my friends and co-workers again, so if I want to have any hope of seeing them before siesta today, I’d better get over to the Centre. Bye for now!

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Wonderful Experience

A wonderful thing happened to me a couple of days ago. I broke a tooth. So what’s so wonderful about that, you ask? Okay, I wasn’t happy about the tooth. But I was REALLY happy that it happened while I was still in Canada! Dental services exist in Burkina, but they aren’t nearly as advanced as in North America. Given a choice, I’ll pick an appointment at a dentist’s office in Canada any day.

Things have come a long way since I was a kid. Back then, going to the dentist ranked up there with such experiences as getting called into the principal’s office, getting the strap, getting a licking at home, and having a bike accident serious enough to land you in the hospital. Except it was worse because you knew it was coming for days and weeks ahead of time. I couldn’t sleep for days before a dentist appointment! I knew there was a lot of pain coming and I was rarely disappointed. The needles hurt like crazy, the dentist often didn’t wait long enough for the freezing to take effect before starting to drill or pull a tooth, and my entire face was sore for days afterwards from all the stuff and activity that took place in my mouth during an appointment. My dentists were always men and they weren’t particularly sympathetic or gentle in their treatment of me.

This week’s dental experience was totally different. First of all, the dentist was a young Asian lady. I couldn’t have asked for a kinder, sweeter, gentler person! I hardly felt the needles (she thought it would only take one, but ended up giving me two more because my tooth seemed extra sensitive), she waited until things were good and frozen, and she did a great job of the tooth repair. I was really impressed. I tried to give her a smile when she was done, but couldn’t quite do it. With half my face frozen, it was hard to control the muscles on that side.

Unfortunately, the experience wasn’t totally painless. You guessed it... the bill :/

But it was worth every cent! :)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Only A Week Left To Go

We should have given ourselves more time before going back to Burkina. Upon our return from our orientation trip in the States, we crashed. We were exhausted! We’ve slept in nearly every morning, and often grab a nap in the afternoons too. We need to get well rested before we arrive back in Burkina or we’ll end up with malaria there. The anti-malarial medication that we take will protect us, but only if our own body defences are up and running in good form too. If we’re too run down and fatigued, no medication in the world will keep the malaria at bay.

We’re staying in a nice 2-bedroom condo that a friend of our daughter-in-law’s family is letting us use. It’s right in downtown Waterloo, and thus within walking distance of many essential stores and services. There’s a Starbucks for our morning fix if we need it (although we often prepare our own in the condo), a Subway sandwich shop for a quick & tasty bite of lunch, a Shoppers Drug Mart with post office for all our medical, postal, and miscellaneous needs, a public library with free Internet access, and a variety of ethnic restaurants (the Rude Native Bistro, Margarita’s Mexican resto, Ali Baba’s Middle Eastern resto, the Masala East Indian resto, the Viet Sun resto, and more) for when we get tired of home cooking (or are just too tired to cook at home).

The condo building has a pool and a work-out room. I’ve been making an effort to use the work-out room. I must have put on 20 lbs since we came home in mid-August! All those meetings and meals are starting to have their effect. For the first time in my life, I actually have a bit of a spare tire! Yikes! And my pants are getting tight! I can’t afford a new wardrobe, so I’d better put in my time in the gym.

A little more than a week left before we’re back in a plane and there seems to still be so much to do. We’ve got to get new International Driving Permits (which also require some passport-size photos to be taken), get our stuff organized and packed, get a few remaining supplies, visit some family & friends, and more. As much as we’d like to avoid it, our last week prior to departure is always guaranteed to be a zoo. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to do it. So I’d better get at it. Talk to you later!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Trip Home

We’re back in Canada again, having arrived in Toronto this past Saturday afternoon. Our trip was an interesting one in that we experienced a few firsts.

First of all, we had the good fortune to meet the friendliest and most helpful taxi driver in all of New York City on Saturday morning. We reserved a taxi on-line a couple of days before (isn’t that cool?) and went downstairs on Saturday morning to find him already waiting for us, playing a game of chess on his laptop. He cheerily greeted us, immediately got out and loaded our luggage for us, and then took us on our way. Quite a difference from the other taxi drivers we’d had to date, all of whom were the grunting, monosyllabic type.

He told us that he was from India and had already been in the States for quite some time. When I asked him if he ever went back to visit family in India, he said no. At $2,000 per ticket per person, the sum for him, his wife and their two teenage daughters is rather prohibitive. In addition, his family and relatives all expect him to bring back lots of expensive gifts for them. He said that his brother recently asked him for a new 3G phone. After all, money grows on trees in America, doesn’t it?

Once at the airport and through security, we looked for and found a Starbucks for our morning coffee. Here we experienced another first: service with an attitude. The girl behind the counter was anything but friendly. She didn’t smile, wouldn’t respond to my hello, told me that they didn’t have what I wanted, and then gave me something else without even waiting for my response! It’s amazing what you’ll put up with when you want a good cup of coffee, though.

For breakfast, we went to an airport diner that had bacon and eggs on the menu, made with fresh eggs. That sounded good! Real bacon & eggs is something we really can’t get in Burkina, so we try to enjoy it here while we can. However, when we asked for fried eggs, the waiter told us that they couldn’t make fried eggs, only scrambled eggs. So what was this about “fresh eggs” on the menu? Turns out that they make their breakfasts with a scrambled egg mix, which is made from fresh eggs. Okay. Sounds like they’re playing loosey-goosey with their definitions if you ask me.

We had some interesting experiences with the airline too. When we went to check in, the staff were not friendly or very helpful at all. Serving customers seemed like some distasteful task they had to do. No smiles, no hellos, nothing. How do these people stay in business? Maybe it’s the same thing as me and my coffee. It’s amazing what people will put up with to get a good deal on airfare, including lousy service.

Kathy remembers something about free luggage on their website. We ended up having to pay $20 for our one bag. Then there were signs all over the airport, touting the superior service offered by Continental Airlines (yeah, right!), like free meals on flights at mealtimes. They must have a different definition of mealtime or of a meal than we do. Our flight was over the lunch hour and all we got was a complimentary drink and a little bag of pretzels. But that’s okay. I’ve got to watch my weight anyway.

But we did get to fly in a plane with propellers instead of turbofans this time (a DeHavilland Dash 8), another first (not counting the small, private airplanes we’ve flown in a couple of times). We sat right under the wing and got to see the propeller on our side start up and go into action. That was kind of interesting. Definitely noisier than a turbofan, though.

And it was an opportunity to appreciate the speed with which a camera can take pictures. With the naked eye, you couldn't see the propeller at all. It was just a faint blur.  Even when I took photos of it at full speed, it hardly looked like it was turning in the picture.

Got a cool shot of Niagara Falls on the way too.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Day 24 - New York City

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a bus anywhere in North America, so I was pretty impressed with the one we travelled on to get from Washington, DC, to New York City. Not only was it comfortable, but it had electrical outlets and wireless Internet connection for people who wanted to use their laptops to work or surf the Net while travelling, which about half the people on the bus (including Kathy & I) did. And it was free! Well, okay, it was probably part of the ticket price, but it felt good to not have to pay extra for it :)

Once in NYC, we headed for the hostel at the Vanderbilt YMCA. It cost significantly more than even a room at Motel 6 in other cities and gave us significantly less value for the money (a pretty basic room painted institutional yellow with communal toilets down the hall), but it was close to where we wanted to be: the United Nations.

We must have looked like yokels fresh from the boondocks as we walked along the streets, craning our necks to look up at all the tall buildings, ogling all kinds of interesting shops, businesses, and street vendors, and navigating our way through the greatest variety of people I’ve ever seen. First we grabbed something to eat, and then we headed off to get temporary passes to the UN and an appointment with the UNESCO person responsible for literacy.

The next time I come anywhere near the UN, I’m going to have to remember not to wear a coat, not to carry anything in my pockets or my hands, and especially not to wear a belt to help keep my pants up. Every time we wanted to go into a building to do something or see someone, we had to go through security, including metal detectors. I got especially tired of having to remove my belt and put it back on again so many times!

For supper, we decided to take advantage of NYC’s incredible ethnic diversity and find a restaurant whose type of food we’d never eaten before. We chose a restaurant that served food from Afghanistan. And we were not disappointed. The food was delicious! Even the atmosphere was great. The restaurant was decorated with articles and artefacts from the Afghan culture, and the music sounded like it was from there too.

Getting a good night’s sleep was not easy. We could easily hear doors to neighbouring rooms opening and closing, closet doors banging, and people loudly talking. Whenever we did manage to get to sleep for a while, the hot water pipes running into the room’s radiator would start pinging and then banging until we were wide awake again. But it seems like we fared better than our colleagues who had a room across the hall. They were on the street side of the building. Not only were they privileged to enjoy the same noises we did, but they were also treated to the sounds of loud groups of people walking by, and the garbage truck making its rounds in the early morning hours.

This morning, we went on tour of the UN. We didn’t get to go into some of the important parts of the building, like the Security Council chamber, because they were under renovation, but we did see the main chamber where delegates from the 192 member countries sit to hear speeches and carry out their deliberations. This is the room featured in the film “The Interpreter” with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn (if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d recommend it). Our guide even pointed out the interpreter booth that Nicole Kidman sat in for the film. We looked for and found the seat for the delegate from Burkina Faso. Fortunately it was close to the back area where we were permitted to go, so we were able to take a picture of it.

Our final appointment was with the culture & education officer of Burkina’s permanent mission to the UN. This lady was very friendly and talked with us for about half an hour. I think she would have liked to talk more, but she needed to get back to the meeting she was skipping out on to see us. She gave us a list of key people we could get in touch with back in Burkina in order to promote the use of minority languages in the public school system there.

This evening, our last in NYC, Kathy & I decided to have supper at a place I’d recently read about in a book by Danny Meyer, the famous restaurant entrepreneur. The place is called “Blue Smoke” and it’s an up-scale BBQ joint. I’m not usually a rib fan, but I had to try them here. We ordered the rib-sampler plate for two, featuring three different kinds of ribs. Even I had to admit they were pretty good! The only downside was that the meal actually cost us and extra $10 more than the price on the menu. Well, not exactly the meal. It was actually for cab fare. We were just too full to walk all the way home again!

Tomorrow, we catch a plane back to Canada. I’m looking forward to catching up on my sleep. Between the heating pipes and the guy that keeps slamming his door down the hall, I don’t think I’m going to get much here tonight! But hey, what do you expect for $125?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day 22 - Washington

Today, we walked our legs off. Wow, we never knew Washington DC had so many hills, and that we’d have to do so much walking here! It seems that if there isn’t a hill somewhere, they’ve built a set of stairs or something else for people to climb! Maybe it’s the government’s way of helping its employees get the exercise they need after sitting at their desks all day :)

Each morning this week, we’ve walked a block and a half to the nearest subway station, where we have to climb a broken escalator to the elevated platform. Then we stand in a crowded train for 20 minutes until we reach our destination. This is followed by a walk of several blocks, mostly uphill, until we get to the SIL office where we begin our day of meetings and activities.

Before getting on the subway, however, we pop into a place called “The Dutch Touch Café”. Ironically, it’s run by Koreans :) But they make a tasty omelette sandwich that we order to take out. When we get off the subway, we head straight for a nearby Starbucks to get our morning fix to drink along with our sandwich before continuing on to the office.

This afternoon, we did two interesting things. First we went on a high-speed tour of the Capitol. The person in charge of our orientation has a friend who is an official historian there, and he took us on a special guided tour of the Hill. We decided that at some point in the future, we really need to come back prepared to take several days to do the tours properly. There is just so much that is interesting to see and do there. You just can’t do it in a few short hours!

The second interesting thing we did was pay a visit to the Burkina Faso embassy. The ambassador was not there, but the two officials that received us were very warm and welcoming, just like people from Burkina tend to be. It turns out that one of the officials was from a language group that did not yet have a written form of its language. When we told her that we planned to begin work in her language within the next few years, she enthusiastically promised to do all she could to help us, including putting us in touch with key people in the community and elsewhere. All in all, it was a very profitable visit!

Tomorrow morning, we need to get up extra early to catch a bus to New York City where we will pay a visit to the UN, to the offices of UNESCO, and to the permanent mission of Burkina Faso to the UN.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Day 20 - Washington

After 45 minutes of waiting and watching, we decided that we’d better try to contact someone. We’d arrived in the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., following an evening flight from Charlotte, NC, had collected our luggage from the baggage carousel, and waited, looking for someone who might be looking for us. Deciding that we must have miscommunicated somewhere, I opened my briefcase, pulled out my laptop, and fired it up, planning to check the e-mails for a phone number.

Meanwhile, Kathy powered up our Canadian cellphone. It was probably going to cost more to use it than a local pay phone, but we didn’t want to move far from the baggage claim area in case the person picking us up came by.

I found a number, but it looked like an office one (it had an extension number after it), so we had our doubts that there would be anyone there on a Sunday night to take my call. I called it anyway. What choice did I have? It was the only number I had!

After several rings, a lady answered. You should have heard her reaction when she heard who was calling! “Oh no! I was supposed to pick you up at the airport!” Apparently she’d gotten busy with something and just totally forgot :) And yes, using our Canadian cellphone did definitely cost us more! Almost $10 for a 3-minute call.

After depositing our luggage at the place we were staying, we went out to get a late night bite. That complimentary drink they’d given us on the plane just wasn’t going to cut it for supper. Fortunately, there was a place called “Whole Foods” just around the corner. This wasn’t just a grocery store. It was a food emporium! It had all kinds of food ready to eat and a place with tables to sit down and eat it. They had a salad bar, an international food buffet, and more. The unique thing is that they charged for meals by weight. You just grabbed a paper plate, filled it up with whatever you wanted from the different bars and buffet tables, and then took it to the checkout counter where the cashier weighed it on the scales to determine how much it was going to cost you. An interesting way to buy a meal!

Today, we spent a fair bit of time riding the subway in Washington. First from where we are staying to where we had our day of meetings. Then to meet friends and former colleagues from Burkina for supper and back again. Fortunately we never got lost, or got on the wrong train (both have happened to us in Paris!). It was nearly midnight before we got home again, so I’m looking forward to getting a few hours of sleep before it’s time to get up and at ‘em again early tomorrow morning.

Here’s a sign we saw on a door of the building we’re staying in. Guess they wanted to make sure pet owners get the point!