Friday, December 31, 2010

African Vendors in Paris

We felt right at home when we went to visit the Eiffel Tower the other day. Even before we got to this well-known tourist attraction, we were confronted with African vendors wanting to sell us key chains in the shape of the Tower, lighters with a picture of the Tower on them, and models of the Tower itself in a variety of sizes and colours. As we were making our way along the sidewalk from the subway, they were urging us to buy something from them and, just like back in Burkina, they were even willing to negotiate the price! I listened closely as they chatted among themselves, hoping to hear someone speaking Mooré (the main language spoken in our area of Burkina), but I was apparently expecting too much in that respect because I never heard it.

Once we reached the plaza under the Tower, there were even more such vendors, though by now they were a global mix of ethnicities. Each had his wares (they seemed to be all males) spread out on a white sheet on the ground, trying to entice passersby to purchase something. But suddenly they all grabbed their sheets by cords attached to the four corners, picked up their merchandise in the resulting bundle and began running our way! No, they didn’t recognize me :) They were running from two policemen on bicycles riding towards us.

It turns out that these vendors are in fact illegal. Signs in the Tower informed us of this fact later on, warning us that the quality of their offerings could be inferior to those found in the official Eiffel Tower gift shops. But as soon as the police had gone by, they began trickling back, glancing around furtively as they set up shop again. Sure enough, just minutes later, the police arrived again, with the same results. Later on, as we were waiting in the long line to buy tickets to go up the Tower, we saw them coming through again. However, this time, they converged on a single vendor and arrested him. Interestingly, the other vendors, rather than running, gathered in several groups some distance away. For a moment, I wondered if there was going to be trouble. Were they planning on coming to their colleague’s rescue? Were they going to attack the policemen? But nothing happened.

It seems that the government here likes to make sure it gets its share of all revenue earned and these vendors are not contributing. For instance, tips in restaurants here are not encouraged because they're not possible to track for tax purposes. But to keep servers happy, a 15% gratuity is included in the price of the meals, which the government is able to track and collect the appropriate tax on.

Of course, I don’t know all the background or history as concerns this issue, but I’d be looking for ways to get these vendors legally licensed, even if it was just a small fee, rather than trying to prosecute them as doing something illegal. The salary of several license inspectors would surely be lower than the combined costs of policing, prosecution, and detainment. And the combined revenue gained from licensing could easily be higher than that gained from fines (which are also not always easy to collect anyway). In the end, everyone wins. The government gets its tax money, the vendors no longer have to always be looking over their shoulders, and the police can focus more of their efforts on real crimes.

The only losers, perhaps, would be the tourists who would be deprived of some entertainment. And stories, like this one, to write in a blog :)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Space Invaders

Our ride on the subway from the airport should have been the first clue. But we missed it. However, we have since that time slowly become aware that the French (at least those in Paris) have a different way of dealing with personal space than we do.

First of all, as North Americans, we like a lot of personal space. This is true not only when it comes to complete strangers, but even with people with whom we are friends. We avoid physical contact, and even close physical proximity, as much as possible. We generally make an effort to respect someone else’s personal space by walking around them, waiting until they move on, or sitting at the opposite end of the bench. If, for some reason, we feel the need to invade their personal space, we apologize for it (“Excuse me, but can I just get by you here?). We prefer to keep some distance, something that is almost always possible to have in our countries of wide open spaces, and relatively large vehicles, houses, and public spaces & buildings.

This is not the case in Paris. Streets are narrow, vehicles are small (even the tractor trailers seem small here), store aisles are narrow, parking is limited, and public & living spaces are crowded, requiring a creative use of space to get the maximum benefit from it (including the use of those narrow circular stairs). Thus people are frequently required to come into relatively close contact with each other. Yet, at the same time, Parisians are not a particularly warm and social people, at least outwardly. They generally don’t look at, smile at, or speak to strangers. They avoid any form of personal connection. What Parisians have managed to do is perfect the art of being personally impersonal. Of necessity, they are required to come close together to the point of physically touching others. But at the same time they are able to completely ignore those with whom they are in contact, behaving as if the others were not even there.

We first became aware of this in the stores. We’d be looking at something on a shelf and someone stocking shelves would come right up beside us to restock an item, reaching in front of our faces and sometimes even nudging or physically pushing us aside to do so! In North America, the stocker would normally work somewhere else until the customer moved on, or at least apologize for having to work in an area where a customer is trying to make a purchase. Another time I was checking product labels on a shelf, gazing intently at the products, when a woman walked right in front of me... without even excusing herself! There was plenty of room to go behind me, but she chose to walk between me and the shelf, even forcing me to step back to make room for her to do so! Walking down the Champs Elyées the other day to peruse the Christmas Market, Kathy was shoved aside numerous times by people walking along. Rather than making an effort to go around her, they just rammed her and pushed her aside, not even bothering to look up or apologize.

The other night at the Pink Flamingo, we were sitting in the dining room eating our pizza when an employee came in and began to make espressos in a machine on the window ledge right next to where Kathy was sitting. His butt was pretty well in her face and she had to move back to avoid yielding to the temptation to bite him for invading her personal space!

Of course, as North Americans, we first thought people were being incredibly rude here. But then we realized that they just have a different sense of space, one that is dictated by their physical and social environment. And they act accordingly, even when the situation makes it possible to give others a wider berth.

But knowing something in your head isn’t always enough. I’m still tempted to WHACK! the next person that walks in front of me when I’m looking at something in a store!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Supper at the Pink Flamingo

It was Friday night and we had an appetite for pizza. Yeah, I know, we can get pizza in Burkina and we’re supposed to eat stuff here that we can’t normally get in Burkina. This is, after all, the reason I’ve already bought five different kinds of cheese I’ve never tasted before. And why we’ve already tried out a Korean resto and an East Indian resto (both were taste sensations!). But for some reason, we’ve always associated Friday nights with pizza. Go figure.

Well, there’s no shortage of places that serve pizza here. But Kathy found an interesting place on the Internet that was just across the Canal St. Martin, not far from our apartment, called the Pink Flamingo. With its clever pizza names (La Danté, La Gandhi, L’Obama, La Che, L’Ho Chi Minh to name a few) and odd combinations of ingredients (gorgonzola cheese, figs, sesame cream, ginger, coriander, curry sauce, etc), it sounded like a must-try. At least we could claim that we’d never get that kind of pizza in Burkina :) So we headed up that way for supper.

It wasn’t what we expected. You entered one door to place your order and another door next to it to access a dining room. Just inside the order door, there was barely enough room for two people to stand in front of the counter. If one of their pizza delivery guys arrived and needed to get in to the back, he had to open the door, squeeze in with the people in front of the counter, and then close the door again before he could get around the counter.

Apparently the big draw of the Pink Flamingo is its unique delivery service. After placing your order, you can take a pink balloon and head to the nearby St. Martin Canal for a picnic. When the pizza is ready, they’ll deliver it to you by searching for your balloon.

It’s a pretty cool idea. But with temperatures hovering around the zero mark, we were not going for that option! Instead, we chose the dining room, with its garish pink and black colour theme reminiscent of a 1940s or 1950s diner. It wasn’t terribly warm in there either, but at least we were out of the wind.

And the pizza (La Macias: chicken with onions, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, lemon, and green & black olives), when it came, was absolutely delicious :)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Credit Card Adventures

Ah, the joys of trying to use a credit card in another country! Our main credit card company is pretty security conscious (a good thing) and will put a block on our card if it’s used at an airport or in another country without advance notification (not always a good thing since we’ve found ourselves left holding the bag, literally, at an airport at least once when we wanted to pay for excess baggage). So I observed due diligence and notified them that we would be traveling to and using the card in France between these dates. So far so good.

Our first day here in Paris, we needed some basic supplies. Fortunately, we’re staying in an area that has lots of little marchés (like convenience stores but also with fresh fruits and vegetables). Believe it or not, most of these have their doors wide open and are not heated! The owner or cashier is wrapped up like we are with coat, hat, and gloves against the cold. This is definitely not a job I’d like to be doing at this time of the year! But I digress...

After picking a selection of goods in one of these shops, the cashier rang them up and I presented him with my credit card. He inserted it into the machine and waited a bit. “You need to put in your PIN,” he told me. “No I don’t,” I said, “It’s a credit card, not a debit card.” “Well, it’s not working,” he finally said and pulled it out. I urged him to try again. Same result. Well that’s just great, I thought. But it had worked when I bought subway tickets at the airport...

So I pulled out another credit card. Same thing. A third card... this time it worked. Whew!

Refusing to believe that the card had been blocked, I tried it again at the next store. Again it looked like it wasn’t going to go through. “You need to put in your PIN,” said the cashier. “There is no PIN. This is a credit card,” I replied. And because the little screen still said “Wait”, we waited. And suddenly the machine began spitting out a receipt and the screen said “Approved”! The trick seemed to be to wait a little longer than for a local French credit card. After all, the signal has to go all the way to Canada and back for approval, right?

Armed with this knowledge, I was ready for the next time. We were in a Monoprix, a small department and grocery store, buying hats, gloves, and thick socks. The lady rang up the bill and I inserted my credit card into the machine. “You have to put in your PIN,” she said. “No I don’t,” I replied. “This is a credit card, not a debit card.” She shook her head. “But it’s not going through,” she insisted. I looked her in the eye and said, “It says ‘Wait’ so let’s wait.” A few seconds later: “You need to put in the PIN,” she repeated. “Is it asking for a PIN or is it asking for us to wait?” I asked. She shook her head again. And suddenly the machine began spitting out a receipt and the screen said “Approved”!

I withdrew the card, signed the receipt, and took the bag with my purchases. As I left, I smiled at the cashier.  “Madame," I said, "I know my card!”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Home Sweet Home... Sort of

The agent for the apartment sat waiting for us at the kitchen table with the final paperwork. She turned out to be a pleasant enough person. We hadn’t been too impressed with her in e-mail correspondence. When she didn’t reply to our messages for information, we contacted the owner directly and discovered that she had gone on vacation! But now she was back and ready to look after the final details of our stay.

One of the things she told us was that when leaving, we had to leave the apartment as we had found it, ready for the next occupant. This meant a thorough cleaning and a washing of all bed sheets. Just what we wanted to do on our holiday, right? Besides, the fact that we needed to leave early in the morning in order to get to the airport on time would not permit us to wash and dry the sheets in time! No problem, said the agent. She could provide a cleaning lady who would do all that for us... for an additional charge... cash up front.

When leasing the apartment, we had to also pay a hefty security deposit. This is understandable when renting a place to complete strangers. You never know what kind of damage they may do. However, we were assured this would be returned to us if we left the apartment in good order. Now the agent informed us that the cost of the electricity we used during our stay would be deducted from the deposit and the rest returned to us. Wait a minute! We thought utilities were included! Well, they are... all except electricity. Guess how the apartment is heated? That’s right... by electric heaters.

So picture this: It’s winter in Paris. And we just came from Africa where it’s 20-30 degrees warmer. Temperatures that people here would consider cool are downright cold to us! In fact, we’ve been shivering since we arrived here! What kind of vacation is it going to be if we’re freezing most of the time in our lovely little apartment? And it would be kind of foolish for us to keep the heat turned down or off while sit huddled together and shivering in the apartment thinking, “This is good, this is fine cuz we’re saving a few bucks!”

But the apartment is cute. First there’s that neat spiral stairway to get up here. Then, once inside the door, we have a living & dining room combo with flat-screen TV, DVD player, and Internet access. A fairly modern and attractive kitchen is located at the far end. A doorway there leads into a small bedroom with a comfortable bed, armoire, and faux fireplace. From there, a couple of steps lead up into a bathroom area with a large modern bathtub, a contemporary style sink, and... an electric toilet. This, I learned, does not mean the seat is heated (though I wish it was!). Because of the space restrictions, there is no tank. The bowl is refilled via an electric pump.

There is another bathroom / utility room near the front door. It contains a toilet, sink, shower cubicle, washer, and the hot water tank. I think it must have originally been a walk-in freezer. It is cold in there! There a heating unit up over the door (yup, it’s electric too), but it makes about as much difference as lighting a match in a cold barn. However, it is possible to have a nice hot shower.

The front door does not have a handle to open and close it. You need a key to open a serious-looking deadbolt. There is also a latch to hold the door closed when the deadbolt is not engaged. The first time we left the apartment, we made sure we had the key with us. Upon returning, however, I could unlock the deadbolt, but couldn’t get the door open! After repeated tries, I realized that the latch was still engaged. I had thought that it too would open with the key, but this did not seem to be the case! Perhaps we had forgotten to engage a catch on the inside to hold it back when we left the apartment...

Now we were in a pickle. We hadn’t even had possession of the apartment for a day and had already locked ourselves out! And we had no way to get hold of the agent. Her number was on a piece of paper in the apartment! Desperate, I tried the lock again. As I was doing so, Kathy began playing with a knob in the middle of the door. I had already tried that. It didn’t do anything. It was just for show. But suddenly there was a click and the door swung open!

What happened? It turns out that the latch is also opened by turning the key past the point where it opens the deadbolt. However, the door is a bit tight, causing the latch to be pressed against the frame with enough force to prevent the key from releasing it. But in playing with the knob, Kathy had inadvertently pulled the door towards her, releasing the pressure on the latch and enabling me to finish turning the key. And presto... the door opened!  Just think, we were that close to being refugees again!  Brrrrrrr!

Excuse me while I go and crank up the heat a few degrees!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Refugees in Paris

Getting from the last subway platform to street level was a workout. We walked up several flights of stairs lugging our luggage and were both huffing and puffing like the wolf in the story of the Three Little Pigs by the time we got to the top. But any warmth we gained from this exercise was swiftly nullified by the chilly temperatures on the street.

We looked around for a place to get out of the wind and were happy to see a resto-café nearby. But as I opened the door, the owner came forward to tell me that he was not yet open for business. What?!!! You must be kidding! But he wasn’t. It was only 10h30 and he didn’t open until noon. So, dragging our suitcases behind us, we wandered up and down various streets like a pair of refugees, looking for a café or restaurant to sit in and get out of the cold. Believe it or not, we found that not one was open for business before noon!
As we were standing on the sidewalk trying to figure out what to do next, Kathy remembered that we were supposed to phone the apartment agent an hour before we arrived in order to give her time to get there and let us in. Since it was now 11h00, it was time to call. I remembered seeing public telephones near the subway station, so taking the phone number, I headed back that way, leaving Kathy standing with our suitcases on a side street.

Unfortunately, the public phones would not take cash, only a phone card. So where do you buy a phone card around here? I asked at a nearby newspaper kiosk and was sent back down the street I had just come up, looking for a little variety store. Finding it, I bought the lowest value phone card they had ($10!) and headed back to the phone to make my call.

Happily for us, the agent was already at the apartment nearby! In fact, we could have come much earlier, but she had no way to get hold of us to let us know. Just our luck to be wandering around in the cold when we could have been warm inside our apartment several hours ago!

I hurried back to get Kathy and we wheeled our suitcases to the proper address. Punching in the code we’d been given, we pushed open the big courtyard door and entered the premises. Now, however, we were faced with another door and a panel of buzzer buttons, none of which listed the name of the apartment owner. So I began pushing them one at a time and asking for the agent. No luck. Nobody had ever heard of her.

Kathy, meanwhile, had walked further into the courtyard and discovered a second set of apartments! Here she found the name of the apartment owner we were looking for. Within seconds, the agent had buzzed us in and we found ourselves in a little vestibule. Our apartment was on the third floor and to get there, we had to climb a narrow, circular staircase which led, at each floor, to a little landing in front of a single apartment door. Another free workout :) I couldn’t help but wonder how they ever got furniture or appliances up there!

The door on the third floor landing stood slightly ajar. We pushed it open and it was with a great sense of relief that we finally found ourselves in the place we would call home for the next several weeks!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Let The Holiday Begin!

We’ve been looking forward to our vacation for months. But when we arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris yesterday morning at 6 a.m., we were feeling pretty fatigued. The weeks prior to our departure from Burkina had been incredibly long and busy. Our plane took off from Ouaga close to midnight and we weren’t served supper until well after that. And we didn’t get much sleep on the plane.

Since we couldn’t have possession of the little apartment we’d rented in Paris until noon, we looked for a place to hang out at the airport after collecting our luggage. We’ve never found the Paris airport particularly user-friendly and things hadn’t changed since the last time we were here :) Making our way to the place in Terminal 2 where we’d be catching the RER (subway) into Paris proper, we found an area with tables and chairs where we could sit down. But it was on the ground floor with doors to the platforms at both ends, which meant the wind came whistling through every time someone went in or out. It didn’t take us long to figure out that this was not the place to have a nap!

So we went up several floors into the terminal again, and found some empty seats in an arrivals area where we could at least park our luggage and sit for a while. At a nearby weigh scale, a variety of Africans were weighing, unpacking, repacking, and re-weighing their bags. They had clothes, shoes, electronic equipment and more. It was far more than any one person would use, so they were likely bringing back presents for the family, or planning to run a little business back home.

Despite the nearby noise and entertainment, we did eventually manage to doze off a bit. But even there, it eventually got too cold. So we made our way back down to the RER area where Kathy remembered seeing a little fast food place there where we could go inside and get warm again. However, when we got there, the only table available was near an open door where the cold wind from the platform area had no trouble reaching us. Even with our cafés crèmes, we soon became colder than ever!

It was still too early to get into our apartment, but we obviously couldn’t stay in the terminal anymore. Hoping we would find a warm place to wait a little longer in one of the subway stations, or in a café or restaurant near the apartment, I bought tickets and we walked out onto the open-air platform to catch the next train into the city. Fortunately, we did not have long to wait and it was with thankfulness that we hoisted our luggage into the nearest car and sat down. Out of the wind at last!

As it turned out, it was also fortunate that we got on what turned out to be the end (or beginning) of the train line. As we travelled along, we picked up an increasing number of people until we were both not only standing up to make more room, but people were sitting on our luggage! Everyone was so packed in that no one could move anymore! I’m talking sardine comfort here! I’ve never been in anything like it! There were so many people packed into our car that the doors would barely close, and more were trying to enter at every stop. Had I been jammed up against complete strangers like this anywhere else, both men and women, it would have been considered obscene! But at least I was finally getting warm :)

I was glad that our stop was a main transfer station. If not, there is no way that we would have gotten ourselves and our luggage out in time. Not without everyone else disembarking first! Thankfully, most people were looking to get off here too, so we were able to exit without any problem. And after another short trip on another line, we were finally at the Metro station close to our apartment.

But we weren’t in yet...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

To Leave or Not to Leave...

With two presidents currently sworn into office in Ivory Coast, things do not bode well for the near future. The threat of armed conflict looms as neither the newly elected leader nor the incumbent president show any sign of backing down from their position. Closing the borders and airspace last weekend did not inspire confidence either. Expatriate members of our organization teaching at an institution in Abidjan have taken their Christmas holidays early and left the country shortly after the borders were reopened last week. However, the future leader of one of our language teams in Burkina is still in Abidjan with his family. He is in his final year of studies, but because he is a Burkinabè, he fears that he and his family will be targeted should violence flare up since this was the case for some Burkinabè living in Ivory Coast during the last conflict there earlier this decade.

So starting last week, after the borders were reopened, we began efforts to get him and his family home. Following some research into available flights on his end, he said that the earliest flight he could get was December 18th! So we did some research on our end and discovered that we could get him and his family a flight on 13th. However, he said he could catch a bus or train on the 11th. Not knowing how much time we have, we opted for the earliest option, bus or train. By either of those means, he should be home in Burkina before the next available flight would even leave Abidjan.

Then I got a phone call. All the buses are grounded for the weekend. Nothing is moving until Monday at the earliest. So I told him to check out the train. The earliest ride he could get there was on Tuesday. By now it was too late to get tickets on the Monday plane that was an option earlier. So I told him to get tickets for the train. It was more expensive than the bus, but probably faster and more secure, being less likely to be stopped at every checkpoint along the long road back to Burkina.

Only one problem. He didn’t have enough money. Forget a bank transfer. It would take too long. So I began researching possibilities with a money transfer agency like Western Union. Trying to find an agent located near the educational institution where he was a student (so he didn’t have to travel all over or across the city), was impossible. Western Union’s agent locator tool was useless to anyone like me who doesn’t know the city. Though the descriptions vary, the maps they provide show all the agents in a single location: downtown.

So I began e-mailing people who I knew had spent some time in Abidjan. By this method, I finally received a message from one of the professors at the institution (whom I did not know, but who had been copied on a message from someone I had written to). After some discussion, she offered to advance the money to the student from her own funds, and we could find a way to pay her back later. Wow, was I impressed! And thankful.

You know, when all is said and done, maybe nothing will happen in Ivory Coast after all. Maybe it will remain peaceful and we’ll be accused of having overreacted and wasted money in evacuating someone with his family when in the end, nothing happened. But that will be easy to say then. Hindsight is always 20/20. What counts is that we can’t say that now. At this moment, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We can only act on the information that we have before us. And the same people that might say I was overreacting if nothing happens will probably be the first to blame me if things go wrong. In the end, I think I’d rather be accused of overreacting than accused of negligence.

I’ll let you know how it all turns out :)

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Advantages of Being Older

An older couple arrived last week from the States to help us out as Centre Host & Hostess for the next 6-8 months here on the SIL Centre in Ouaga. Yesterday afternoon, the husband and I sat on the front porch to talk about the experiences of the past week. They are, of course, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by all the new people they’ve met, the new responsibilities they’re learning, and the process of adjusting to a new living situation in a culture very different from their own. At one point in the conversation, he turned to me and asked, “Why would you let an older couple like us come to a place like this to fill the roles you’ve asked us to fill? We’re not so young anymore and the gas tank isn’t as full as it used to be when it comes to energy and stamina.”

I thought for a few seconds before replying. That’s about all it took! Three reasons came to mind almost immediately.

First of all, an older couple has valuable life experience. It’s true that some people grow old and wise... and some just grow old :) But I believe that most older people have learned some lessons in life that will serve them well in relating to others and working together to accomplish a task. Because of their experiences, some good and some hard, they’ve likely learned valuable skills in setting priorities, showing grace, being diplomatic, knowing when to yield and when to stand firm, and understanding different cultural & generational values and practices. Younger people bring energy, passion, and enthusiasm, but still have the hard road of experience to travel, for which there is no substitute.

Secondly, while most older people have less gas in the tank than they used to, they’ve learned techniques and strategies to compensate for their lack of energy and stamina so that they are able to achieve virtually the same results. Running increasingly low on brawn, many have correspondingly learned to use their brains to find ways to do things more efficiently, in ways that require less energy and effort. Whereas most younger folks would simply trust in brute energy, strength, and enthusiasm to run over a problem, older folks are forced to find ways over, under, or around it. Life experience can come in real handy here too.

And finally, older people can often be more motivated in their work and service. Why? Because they know they’ve only got so much time left and they want to make it count. For some, it’s their last chance to make an impact, to make a difference, to make their lives count for something besides keeping up with the Joneses and enjoying a comfortable retirement.

Yeah, I know there’s a downside. Older people tend to be less flexible and adaptable, more set in their ways. Some have simply grown old rather than old & wise, and can thus sometimes do more damage than good, especially in a cross-cultural situation like we have here. But in that case, our location here in Africa may be to our advantage. Only older people who have learned valuable life skills, have learned to compensate for their limitations and weaknesses, and want to spend some of their remaining time to make a difference in the world will have the necessary skills and motivation to get here. The rest will simply stay home. Something to think about, anyway :)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Death Among the Kasena

The elder brother of a Burkinabè colleague died a few weeks ago. A bunch of us from work went to pay our condolences to the family. Last week, my colleague came in to thank me for that. He said it made a big impression on the family that such high level people from the organization he worked for would personally come to offer condolences. Apparently this does not often happen.

I asked what would happen to the widow and her children. I well remember the time one of our employees died following a motorbike accident. He was from the Mossi ethnic community and his family immediately came and wanted to take possession of the man’s house, belongings, and children, and throw the wife out into the street! Had our administration not intervened, they would have succeeded. In Mossi culture (as far as I understand it), the wife is never truly a part of the husband’s family. She is always regarded as a stranger who has been allowed to come in as a wife and the mother of the children. But even the children ultimately belong to the husband and his family. However, my colleague, who was from the Kasena community, said that this was not their practice. The wife and children could continue to live in the family compound as if it was their own, but on one condition: the woman had to remain a widow.

What happens if she decides to remarry? Then she has to move out of the family compound, leaving everything behind except what she has purchased with her own money. The compound remains the property of the children.

I asked if this ever happens. Sometimes, said my colleague. However, she should never marry one of her dead husband’s brothers. He said that this is severely frowned upon and the unlucky man would not have long to live!

Another interesting feature of the Kasena is that anyone who had anything to do with the care of the person that died is required to wash himself or herself with water in which certain leaves had been boiled. This is done as a group (men & women separately) following the person’s death with the purpose of neutralizing the odour of sickness and death that has contaminated them. If this is not done, the one contaminated is also fated to die sooner or later. I decided that this was perhaps not the best time or place to point out that most people die sooner or later anyway! How could they know whether someone died because they were thus contaminated?

I guess we all have cultural customs and practices that make perfect sense to us but may seem bizarre or nonsensical to people of other cultures. Someday I’ll follow up on this one :)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tabaski 2010

This morning, my cell phone went off before I was even ready to get out of bed. Since today is a holiday in Burkina Faso, I was really looking forward to sleeping in! But someone had other ideas. It turned out to be a message from my cell phone provider, Zain, wishing me a bonne fête d’Aid El-Kébir. I wish they’d have let me sleep in instead!

But since I was now awake, Kathy & I decided to commence celebrating the Muslim holiday of Tabaski (otherwise known as the Fête de Mouton here) by having a special cup of delicious, home-brewed Starbucks coffee while lounging back in our comfy IKEA chairs and reading a good book and magazine respectively. We’re not Muslims, but that’s no reason not to have a fun time on this holiday, is it?!!

Later on in the morning, when the caffeine had kicked in and I felt ready to face the day, I headed out in the truck to find some chicken wire and window screen. I don’t get much time at home these days, so the handyman work piles up and I need to do it when I get the chance... like today. Let me tell you, it was a great day to be driving the streets of Ouaga. Because of the holiday, there was hardly any traffic! Unfortunately, there were hardly any stores open either. Just my luck that 95% of the hardware stores in Ouaga are owned by Muslims! I finally found one that was owned by a Catholic :)

So I was able to get my window screens repaired this afternoon while listening to the bleating of nearby sheep and firecrackers going off in the neighbourhood.

Our night guard is a Muslim, so he has the night off to celebrate with his family, and I hired a replacement guard. A couple of weeks ago, he mentioned that he needed to buy a sheep for the celebration. At the time, they were going for around $50 and he wanted the money now because the price was only going to go up as the date got closer. So I loaned it to him. Last night he told me that additional family members had arrived from the village to say that they were going to celebrate Tabaski with them. So he needed more money to buy additional food supplies. I gave him an advance on his salary.

Well, Kathy & I are going to finish today’s celebrations with calzone for supper. In my opinion, that beats mutton any day!

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Chinese Night Market

Judging by how often I went there, I think that the place I liked most in Singapore (next to Starbucks, that is :) was the Chinese Night Market. I went there three times. It was colourful & lively, and a great place to get good food cheap and people watch.

This entire section of town was incredibly decorated. The streets, the buildings, and the market itself were all decked out in a variety of lanterns and other colourfully lit decorations. Looks like it was for a mid-autumn festival. Anyway, it made the whole area very attractive to tourists and I shot lots of pictures. At first I was hesitant to snap photos with all those people around, but when I realized how many times other people were taking pictures with me in them, I happily aimed my camera in their general direction and snapped away to my heart’s delight!

Strolling through the Night Market was a sensory delight. Lots of lights, lots of little shops selling all manner of different things, and lots of people. A lot of the shops sold clothing, shoes, fashion accessories, knick-knacks, or jewellery. One shop contained a money changer that I made use of a couple of times. All along one little street were restaurants and fast food places. Every time I went to the market, I grabbed a bite to eat at one of them.

The last time I was there, I was looking for an oriental hand fan to buy for Kathy. I went to several different shops and looked at what they had for sale, but was not happy with the quality. Some were cheaply made and I knew they wouldn’t last for very long. Others were easy to open, but hard to get closed again properly. Finally, one shop-lady must have seen me frowning as I tried out yet another unsatisfactory model. She said, “I have better quality ones in the back.” Following her towards the rear of her shop, I saw some beautiful models and was very impressed with how easily they snapped open and closed. I asked her what the difference in quality was. She said that the type of bamboo used was stronger, and the fan was of silk rather than paper or ordinary cloth. Mind you, the price was also significantly higher. But I figured that I’d rather cry once and gain something that lasts rather than cry several times later because I’d settled for a cheaper model. Besides, it wasn’t likely that I’d be coming this way again anytime soon! So I chose a nice one and bought it. On Kathy’s credit card.

(Just kidding! I used my own card :)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Main Drag in Singapore

I spent one evening walking what appeared to be the main commercial street in that part of Singapore. Lots of lights, traffic, people, shopping centres, glitzy stores, and attractions. Once again, I was impressed with how clean everything was.

I was also struck by the number of people that smoked! Of course, since smoking was forbidden indoors, the smokers all went to stand outside or sit on benches by the sidewalks. In that case, I guess it’s no wonder that I saw so many. However, once done, they carefully deposited their butts in garbage receptacles that were specially designed for butts as well as regular trash.

I saw at least one garbage truck making its rounds down the main drag. And there were also a number of trash collectors on three-wheeled motorcycles making sure that garbage cans where emptied regularly and the streets were clean. And this is at night, not just during the day!

Many of the stores sported high-end brand names like Armani, Gucci, Dior, Rolex, Louis Vuitton, and more. I was content to just look in from the outside and window-shop.

However, I did go into a place that I’d never heard of before, but that had some really unique and colourful women’s clothing and accessories, thinking I might find something for Kathy. One look at the prices, however, and I quickly realized that I was way out of my league! A colourful handbag cost $126 Singapore dollars ($100 CAD)! But eye-candy was free, so I at least enjoyed that :)

A number of sculptures adorned the sidewalks. People took each other’s photographs in front of them. I didn’t have anyone with me to take a picture of, so I just took photos of a couple of the sculptures :)

In front of one commercial centre, arcs of water shot out of holes in the marble slabs making up the steps from the sidewalk to the building, with the water landing exactly in corresponding holes at the other ends of the arcs. I’m not sure how they did it, but the streams of water appeared to be lit from within in a variety of colours. I tried for some time to get a picture at the exact moment that the water shot out of the holes and finally managed to do it.

On the way back, I stopped at an outdoor fast-food market to grab something to eat. Everything looked so good that I had a hard time choosing! I finally ordered a chicken curry soup and something cold to drink, sat down at one of the numerous little metal tables, and watched the fascinating world go by while I ate my supper.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lost in Singapore

Although it would have been much more fun with Kathy along to share the experience, I really enjoyed my time in Singapore. After a day of mostly sitting at meetings, I looked forward to a chance to get out, stretch my legs, and explore the city. So after changing from go-to-meeting clothes into more comfortable jeans, a t-shirt, and running shoes, I’d strap on my camera, ride the elevator to ground level, walk through the front doors of the hotel, and hit the streets.

Despite the many interesting sights, I was hesitant to pull out my camera. Years of restraint in Burkina, where people don’t like you randomly taking their picture, had made me cautious. But much to my surprise, I soon saw people taking pictures all over the place, especially with their cell phones! I wonder how many times my face showed up on Singaporean Facebook pages or albums? In any case, it didn’t take me long to throw restraint to the winds and snap merrily away like everyone else.

The main rule to survival in Singapore, I discovered, is remembering which way to look before crossing the street! Traffic moves on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to. If you’re not from the UK, you’ll find yourself looking left for oncoming traffic instead of right and either getting honked at or doing last-minute sprints for your life to get out of the way of a bus bearing down on you from behind! But apart from that, Singapore is known as one of the safest cities in the world. And one of the cleanest! True, this is because the penalties for crime or littering are pretty severe, but I was pretty impressed nonetheless.

Despite the amount of construction going on in the city both day and night (there were cranes almost anywhere you looked, and I saw construction crews pouring cement at night in the glare of powerful lamps), there was a nice mix of urban space, gardens, and green space. In fact, Singapore is known as The Garden City.

The first night I went out, I got lost. However, I continued to wander the streets in hopes of finding my way back to the hotel, knowing that if worst came to worst I could always flag down a taxi to take me home. They were everywhere.

Eventually, I came to a river. Lights, walkways, shops, and inviting restaurants lined the riverside and the occasional boatload of tourists plied the waterway. A variety of bridges carried traffic or pedestrians from one side to the other, most lit up with lights of some kind. In the distance, some things with lights soared and dipped against the dark sky. As I got closer, they turned out to be kites with LED lights on them. Pretty cool idea!

At another place, I saw several white pylons sticking up into the sky. When I went to investigate, I arrived just in time to see a couple getting strapped into a round metal cage. Once the gate was closed, the long, elastic straps running from the sides of the cage up to the pylons began to tighten. More and more they stretched until they seemed about to break! Then the cage, which had been anchored to the ground, was released, sending it soaring high into the air like a stone from a slingshot! Kind of like reverse bungee jumping :) After bouncing up and down for a while, the cage was finally lowered to the ground again and the couple staggered out to the cheers of friends.

I finally did find my way back to the hotel. But not before walking for miles and miles, and getting blisters on my feet. I could hardly wait to go out again the following night!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Welcome Back

My apologies for the long silence. My time in Singapore was pretty busy except in the evenings when I took advantage of the time and place to stretch my legs and get some exercise after a day of sitting in meetings. And to explore the city to the point that I actually got blisters on my feet! So I didn’t have much time to write.

When I got back to Burkina, I learned that a member of my staff who had returned home to Canada suddenly to be at the side of a friend reported to be dying had herself succumbed to a severe case of cerebral malaria and was in intensive care and on life support in the hospital. It was seriously touch and go for a while. During the first 12 hours, the doctors were not convinced that she was even going to make it! I was kept busy not only trying to catch up on two weeks worth of backlog that I knew was going to occupy my first days back, but also keeping in touch with the family to get the latest updates, communicating the information to our personnel and others that needed or wanted to know, and mobilizing people to pray for her.

We’re thankful that our colleague survived those first difficult hours and days and is now out of intensive care and off life support. However, the road to recovery is likely to be a long one and we don’t expect her back here in Burkina anytime soon. This means finding people to take over the numerous responsibilities that she carried. Quickly. And bringing them up to speed without any procedure manuals to speak of. Also quickly. The term “baptism of fire” comes to mind...

I'd better go and find some pails.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Flight to Singapore

After my overnight in London, I boarded one of those huge, new Airbus 380 planes, the ones with the upper deck for First Class and Business Class passengers. The rest of us in Cattle Class were on the normal deck below. The plane holds nearly 500 passengers and was one of the nicest I’ve flown on. I was especially impressed with the fact that they had plenty of leg room, which is important for a long-legged fellow like me :) Nevertheless, I took several opportunities to walk around. Even with a comfortable seat and plenty of leg room, a 13-hour flight is a rather long time to sit in one place!

I had some reading to do for the meetings (a 105-page document!), but also managed to find time to watch several movies on the nice, big, individual screen they have built in to the back of the seat ahead of me.

We left London just after noon on Sunday, and arrived in Singapore just before 9 in the morning on Monday. Joining up with a colleague who was also going to the meetings, we hired a taxi and headed through the city to where we were staying at the YWCA. As in Britain, drivers in Singapore (a former British colony) have their steering wheels on the right hand side of the car and drive on the left side of the road. The taxi we were in had an unbelievable amount of stuff on, in, and around the dashboard!

We were looking forward to catching a quick nap at the Y (our bodies were telling us it was 2 a.m. by now), but unfortunately, our rooms were not yet ready. So we headed out in search of something to eat. On the way, I changed some Euros into Singapore dollars. Then we came across a Starbucks and our search for food was temporarily sidelined while we ingested sufficient caffeine to keep us awake for just a few more hours until our rooms were ready.

It took us a while, but we finally found a food court in one of the nearby, multi-level malls. Then it was back to the Y, get hooked up to the Internet, and check e-mails. I was really starting to have a hard time staying awake when we were finally told we could go to our rooms. It was only 2 p.m. local time, but after a few minutes of chatting with my roommate, I was out like a light.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Off to Singapore

Last Friday evening, I flew out of Ouagadougou on my way to attend a meeting of SIL leaders from all over the world in Singapore that would begin on Monday evening. However, I didn’t go there directly. It’s kind of a long trip and for long trips, I either like to split them up a bit, or arrive a day early at the final destination so I have some time to recuperate and adjust to the time difference (8 hours difference from Burkina). However, we were told that we could not come early to Singapore because the F1 Grand Prix was being held in Singapore on Sunday, jamming hotels and bringing all other traffic to a virtual standstill.

So I spent an overnight in London. It’s not exactly cheap to stay somewhere in London, but Kathy found something relatively economical for me right in Heathrow’s Terminal 4. It’s called Yotel and has the most compact hotel or motel room that I’ve ever stayed in!

Narrow corridors barely wide enough to roll a suitcase down lead to the rooms that are designed for either one or two people. Mine was a single, and it measured only 2 metres by 2 metres square. It consisted of a bed cubicle (complete with phone, radio, and TV) on one side, a narrow space running the length of the room on the other side, containing a toilet, a sink, and a shower on the other side, with a narrow space in between the two that provided just enough room to open the door, pull up a fold-out table surface, and store your suitcase underneath. Not fancy, but adequate. The bed was comfortable and there was next to no noise to disturb my sleep. I couldn’t help but think of the old Motel 6 commercials: “When you close your eyes, we look just like one of them big, fancy hotels!” :)

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Art of the Deal

The rubber floor mats in our truck here are quite a few years old, and the one under the driver’s feet was literally in pieces. So after several months of continually rearranging those pieces so that the mat could at least pretend to continue to fulfill its function, I decided that I really needed to get new ones. So I headed downtown to a place where the street vendors sold auto accessories, everything from steering wheel covers to sunscreens to seat covers to entire vehicle covers.

A half dozen of them came running when I pulled over to the side of the road, asking what I wanted. When I told them that I wanted new floor mats, several of them ran off to ransack their inventory and bring some back. After trying a few different models to see which one fit the best, I finally chose one. Now began the art of price negotiation!

The vendor began at 30,000 francs (about $60). I smiled and offered 10,000. He laughed and said that this was an impossibly low price, that I needed to offer something more serious. I laughed too and said that since he had given me a ridiculously high price, I was sure he was joking and therefore felt free to joke back! This brought grins of appreciation from the other vendors. The use of humour is an important and much appreciated part of the art of price negotiation.

Now I asked him to get serious and give me a reasonable price. He dropped to 25,000 francs. I raised my offer to 15,000. The vendor shook his head, saying it still wasn’t enough. After all, these were quality floor mats! Not like the junk that other vendors were selling! We all laughed and I raised my price to 17,500 francs. He dropped his to 20,000. I stuck to my price of 17,500 francs, but he wouldn’t budge. So I raised my offer to 19,000.

He looked at me woefully and said that I only needed to add another 1,000 francs and I could have the mats. I searched my mind for a humourous response that might induce him to accept my price. Finally it came to me.

“If I give you 20,000 francs for these mats, I will not have any money left. Since I have worked so long and hard at negotiating here with you, I have become extremely thirsty and will need to buy a Coke to recover. And when I go to drink my Coke, I will also need to buy one for my wife who is with me today in the truck. That will cost me 1,000 francs. So that’s why I can only you pay you 19,000 francs for the mats, so I can have enough money left over to buy a Coke for my wife and me.”

All the vendors stared at me... Then they all burst out laughing uproariously. Why? Because this is a line that vendors will often use on buyers like me to get a little extra money for the item they are selling! But I had turned the tables on this vendor and used it on him instead! “Okay,” said the seller, grinning and sticking out his hand to seal the deal, “I’ll take it.”

Those Cokes sure hit the spot!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Visitor

Last Sunday afternoon, I was on the veranda in front of our house, working on building a cage for a stray kitten Kathy pulled out of a puddle a couple of weeks ago. The sky was cloudy but it was so humid that I had been drenched in sweat virtually since I’d started about an hour before.

Suddenly, I heard someone calling at the gate. I couldn’t see the gate from where I was on the veranda since I was behind some bushes growing there. However, since I was not expecting anyone, I assumed it was just a “fisherman”, someone calling out to see if by chance the white man would come to the gate so he can ask him for money. I kept on working.

Then the person at the gate began a Muslim chant in Arabic. This is something that professional Muslim beggars do here in the city. I kept working.

Then the person switched to French. Since he was so persistent, I decided to take a glance through the bushes to see if I could see anyone. Imagine my surprise to see a Touareg perched on his camel, looking over my gate! Every now and then, these nomadic wanderers from the north of Burkina come into Ouaga and even parts further south (I once had one come to our house in Zabré!), begging for money and food along the way.

This was too good an opportunity to pass up! I put down my tools and walked towards the gate. Once there, I looked up and asked the man what he wanted. He said something in a language that I could not understand. When I shook my head and looked puzzled, he indicated he wanted something to eat. I pantomimed that I wanted to take a picture of him. To my surprise, he agreed.

So I went back into the house, grabbed a 1,000 franc bill and my camera, and headed out again. First I took several pictures of him over the top of the gate. Then he indicated that I should open the gate and take a full length photo, which I did.

After that, I handed him the money. He smiled broadly and went away happy. And so did I.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

Near the beginning of August when Kathy & I took a week off work, we visited a few of the guesthouses around Ouaga, just to see what there was, what the facilities were like, and how much they cost. One of the most interesting places we saw was Princess Yennenga Lodge right in the heart of the city, though you wouldn’t know it once you were inside the gates. Not only did it have an interesting decor and a relaxing atmosphere, but two of the guest suites were so unique that we decided this would be a good place to come for our anniversary.

It almost didn’t happen.

First of all, I forgot to call for a reservation until just a few days before the event! When I finally did call, I was informed that both of those unique guest suites were already booked :( I left my number in case there was a cancellation, but in my head began running through all the possible excuses I could give Kathy to explain why we were going to stay somewhere else. To my immense surprise, less than 15 minutes later, I received a call asking for further details of our stay. The man said he’d see what he could do. And less than 10 minutes after that, we had a reservation. Whew!

We made plans to go there on Sunday afternoon. It was only for one night, so we wanted to get our money’s worth and get as much time there as possible. Normally we don’t have a guard at home on Sundays because we like to have at least one day a week at home without someone virtually right outside our window all day (when we’re at work, who cares?). So I arranged for someone to come at noon on Sunday. So far, so good.

However, our regular night guard was on holiday, which means we needed to find a replacement for him for Sunday night. Our regular replacement guard didn’t want to work on Sunday night. So I asked the guy who was coming to guard the place on Sunday afternoon if he’d be willing to stay all night too. Unfortunately, he had other plans for that evening.

I hated to do it, but in desperation decided to call our regular night guard to see if he would come in exchange for an extra day off. No answer on his cell phone.

I called our Centre manager to see if he knew anyone who could come. He had a cousin that he thought could do the job. But when he called him, it turned out that he was already doing guard duty at someone else’s house.

This was not looking good. By now it was nearly 3 p.m. and time was slipping by. Kathy did not look happy and began wondering if we could cancel the reservation. In desperation, I wracked my brains trying to think of someone, anyone, that I could call. I began mentally going through my list of friends. Aristide... no, he had to work the next day. Besides, he wasn’t the kind to do guard duty. Desiré... uh-uh, he had a family that would want him there for the night. He lived kind of far away too. Ghana? Not likely. He had kids at home too and their mother was away...

Wait a minute! Zacharie! He lived close by and he did shift work at a toll booth on the Po road... I wonder if he’s on or off tonight? I called him. Hallelujah, he’d gotten off work that morning and wasn’t on again until Tuesday morning! Would he come and be a night guard for us for Sunday night? He thought he could, but had to check with his wife at home first. He’d call me back.

Fifteen minutes later, he called me back. He’d gotten home only to find that his wife wasn’t back from choir practice after church yet. But he was pretty sure she wouldn’t have a problem with it. However, he didn’t know where I lived. So I agreed to meet him at the SIL Centre and show him the way from there.

When he arrived, he had another man on the moto with him. Turns out it’s his younger brother, a local university student. Zacharie proposed that he be the one to do guard duty since he himself was pretty beat for being on duty at the toll booth all the previous night. To be honest, at this point, I would have taken anyone! I gave him a few instructions, told him I’d settle accounts with him later, packed our stuff and Kathy in the truck and took off before anything else happened to sabotage our plans!

We had a great anniversary :)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Save the Slums!

Yesterday evening, I read an interview with Stewart Brand called “Save the Slums”. Some of you that are my age or a little older (from the hippie era :) may remember him as the person who put out the Whole Earth Catalogue (and its sequel, the Whole Earth Epilogue). Anyway, he had some interesting things to say about slums and squatter areas around many Third World cities. Living in a city like that and knowing people who live in these squatter areas, I was intrigued by his comments.

He says that the United Nations, following extensive research, has come to see slums as the world’s greatest solution to poverty! Brand gives several reasons. One is that slums are hotbeds of creativity. They contain millions of people trying desperately to get out of poverty, a situation that leads to collaboration and innovative ideas for getting ahead. Another reason is that slums are a valuable transition route from a rural lifestyle and economy to the urban economy, something that would be impossible for most people to do directly since they have neither the income or skills necessary to do this. When they first come in from the countryside, they work for almost nothing in the informal economy. But gradually, they move up into the formal economy and make their way out of the slums.

A third reason is that slums empower women! In the villages, women are generally part of a hierarchical society where they have little say, work hard all day, and have lots and lots of kids. But when women move to town, even the squatter areas, the hierarchical village social structure tends to break down, they tend to have fewer kids (thus defusing the population bomb), and work to get those kids some education. Women become important and even powerful in the slums. They’re often the ones running the community organizations and are considered the most reliable recipients for microfinance loans.

Finally, as a bonus, slums are good for the environment. Subsistence farming is generally ecologically devastating, so people moving from the villages to the cities is a good thing.

Does this mean that slums and squatter areas are great places to live? No. They’re full of suffering and crime. But rather than bulldozing them, Brand sees them as an invaluable transition stage for improving people’s lives and recommends that more be done to supply them with electricity, clean running water, and police to control crime.

Hmmm... an interesting perspective alright. I’ll have to run it by our friends and acquaintances in the squatter areas here and see what they think...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Patience Required

Early last week, our day guard asked me for a “Bulletin de Présence”. This is an official slip of paper on which I indicate how much gross income he earned over the past three months and it is used to calculate the amount of family benefit money he will be allotted by the government.

After only one reminder, I presented him with the requested slip of paper and gave him permission to take part of the afternoon off in order to take the paper to an office downtown (Kathy was at home that afternoon to take his place in discouraging would-be thieves). Once he handed in the paper, they told him to come back two days later, after they’d had time to process the paperwork, to get his money. So, two days later, I gave him another afternoon off to do that.

The next morning I asked him how he’d made out. “No good,” he replied. Turns out there was a line-up a mile long and he never got anywhere near the door by the time the office closed for the day. It was obvious that he was going to have to go earlier in the day. But letting him go in the morning was out of the question because neither Kathy nor I would be at home to keep an eye on things. And who knew whether or not a morning would be sufficient time to accomplish the purpose!

So I suggested that he just take the entire next day off as one of his allowed 30 annual days of holiday, and I find a replacement guard for the day. He agreed. That was Friday.

Today, I asked him again how he’d made out. He smiled and said that this time he’d succeeded. He’d gotten up at 3:30 a.m. on Friday morning and was at the downtown office by 4:30! He’d hoped that by getting up at that early hour, he’d be the first one in line when the office opened at 7 o’clock. Believe it or not, however, there were six people already in line ahead of him! I forgot to ask him how long it took before he actually got his money :/

I don’t think I’m ever going to complain about government services in Canada again.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Burkina Has Talent #2

Last week, as our Centre employees were leaving work, I noticed that one of them had several burned-out fluorescent light bulbs tied to the back of his moto. “Herman!” I said, “What in the world are you going to do with those?” Herman’s French isn’t very good, so he had a hard time communicating what he wanted to say. But I finally understood that people take these bulbs, cut them into several chunks, and make lamps out of them using batteries!

Really? This I had to see! So I asked Herman to bring me one, saying that I’d reimburse him for the cost.

On Friday, he did just that. And while I could quickly see ways to improve on it, I thought it was a pretty cool device. What they did was cut the long tube into several shorter lengths of about a foot long each. Then they took two LED bulbs and stuck one in each end of each of the shorter tubes, embedded in a piece of foam rubber that served at the same time to plug the ends of the tube.

To power the LED bulbs, they built a case out of wood scraps, big enough to hold three D-cell batteries. A scrap piece of metal formed one contact, and a nail formed the other. Wires tied around the contact ran to the leads of the LED bulbs, with a switch in between to be able to turn the lights on and off.

According to Herman, these little units (batteries not included :) sold for 750 francs (about $1.50) and were used by people living in the suburban squatter areas of Ouaga when there was not yet any electricity. I tried it out and the unit puts out just enough light to be able to see what you’re doing.

In any case, I thought it was a pretty creative way to recycle fluorescent light bulbs!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Le Gigot à la Ficelle

One place we went to during our recent week off was Le Gigot à la Ficelle (Leg of Lamb on a String). We’d driven past this place on the Route Circulaire numerous times since returning to Burkina a couple of years ago, but didn’t think much about it until I saw a reference to it on the Internet. What I read about it (as well as its ranking of #2 out of 50 restaurants in Ouaga) convinced me that we had to try it out. And we were not disappointed! As a matter of fact, we’ve been there three times in the past two weeks, bringing a variety of friends subsequent to our initial trial visit.

There was hardly anyone there when we arrived several minutes after 7 o’clock in the evening. Probably because the place only opens at 7 p.m. In any case, there was lots of room for parking, something that was certainly not the case later on when we left. By that time, there were so many people and vehicles there that we had a hard time getting out. I made a note to myself to park with a better exit strategy in mind next time!

The entire restaurant is outdoors in a large open courtyard, which is accessed by walking through a decorative entranceway. Numerous eating areas are set up throughout the courtyard, some under the open sky and some under hangars where you can sit in case of rain (or because you’d like some light by which to read the menu :). The eating places under the hangars are also easier for the servers to access because they are on concrete pads instead of crushed stone and the servers move around the entire place on roller blades! No kidding!

At one end of the restaurant is a huge fireplace containing a blazing wood fire (I bet working there is really fun in the hot season!). In front of the fire, legs of lamb hang suspended on cords. A cook moves them around as necessary to achieve the proper degree of roasting and bastes them with their own juices, ladled from a long dripping pan underneath. Kathy & I are not fans of mutton, but since it was the house specialty, we felt we needed to at least try it. We ordered one to share. It arrived on a wooden platter along with a bowl of basting liquid, some mustard and some piment & pepper sauce. It was good, even without any of the condiments! The only thing we forgot to was to get a picture of one of us gnawing away on the thing. Of course, this would be for dramatic purposes only. We actually ate most of it using knives and forks. But we did take a picture of a friend doing this later on :)

Subsequently, we’ve also tried other food items, like lamb chops and fish kabobs. Kathy says the lamb chops are probably the best she’s ever eaten.

In the middle of the courtyard is a large concrete pad with a hangar over it. This is where the entertainment happens. Beginning around 8 p.m., there is live music featuring an electric piano, an electric guitar, and vocals. This is interspersed with a variety of different acts. So far we’ve seen jugglers, acrobats, and drummers. Very entertaining and a nice difference from the normal restaurant experience in Ouaga. So much so that we’re planning on going back again soon! Wanna come along?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Week Off in Ouaga

Kathy & I took some time off this past week. It sure felt good to sleep in, linger over our cups of coffee as long as possible, and leisurely read magazines or books without having to keep an eye on the clock. However, we also did something I’ve been wanting to do for a while: check out some of the different restaurants and guesthouses in the city. Not only does this give me a chance to indulge my desire for urban exploration and for being the first in my circle of friends and acquaintances to find something new & interesting, but it might also give me some ideas for our upcoming anniversary! How’s that for efficiency? :)

First, I looked up places on the Internet and plotted their locations on Google Maps. Then, armed with these visual directions, we headed out on the streets of Ouaga to find them. Some were easier than others. Ouaga has very few street names and even the local people rarely know them, so there’s not much use asking them for directions. The best I could often do was count the number of streets or blocks from a major intersection. Even then, we often ended up driving around and around until we found what we thought was the location and knocked on the courtyard gate. Quite a few had no signage whatsoever, making even the clients who found them on the Internet engage in a game of hide and seek to actually find their physical location! Heaven forbid you arrived in Ouaga at night and had to find the place in the dark!

Some places were just cheap dives. Some had once been nice, but were now past their prime. Most, however, were interesting in one way or another. And a few were outstanding. I’ll feature a couple of them in my next postings.