Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Appaloosa

Last Sunday evening, we finally found a restaurant for which we’ve been looking for some time now. Nobody we’ve talked to here has ever heard of it before, so we didn’t get much in the way of help. Unfortunately, it turns out that we were looking in slightly the wrong area :/

Ever since we first saw the advertisement for the Appaloosa restaurant in a little book featuring restaurants, hotels, and attractions in Burkina that I bought from a downtown street vendor, we’ve wanted to go there. In the pictures it looked classy and it offered Tex-Mex dishes. The latter was a pretty strong drawing point for us because we’re always looking for food with different flavours here.

We were not disappointed. We went early on a Sunday evening and were the only customers in the place. The large dining area was extensively decorated to look like a western-style restaurant in the States. In fact, except for the fact that the waiter spoke French, we could have sworn we WERE in a restaurant somewhere in the south- or mid-western United States! Drawings of Indian chiefs decorated several walls. Western rifles and Mexican sombreros hung beside our table. Lights hung on wagon wheels suspended from the ceiling. License plates from a number of US states were plastered haphazardly on the walls. And virtually all the lights in the place were western-style kerosene lamps with light bulbs in them.

Of course, all that ambiance comes at a price. At 1,500 FCFA, the soft drinks (from a very extensive drink list) are by far the most expensive ones we’ve ever had here in Burkina. And the average plate costs 5,000 – 6,000 FCFA. The menu features American, Tex-Mex, and Lebanese dishes, as well as the usual Ouaga ones. There are also 20 different kinds of pizza. And as far as we know, it’s the only restaurant in Ouaga that serves a Greek salad.

To be honest, it was hard to choose our order! We finally decided to split a Greek salad and a plate of enchiladas. The Greek salad, with big chunks of real feta cheese, was to die for! The enchiladas weren’t as good as the ones Kathy makes herself at home, but they were good enough. It’s a good thing we didn’t order too much in the way of main dishes because the dishes of peanuts and popcorn, and the basket of fresh rolls with real butter were replenished as fast as we could eat them :)

In the end, we were reluctant to leave the place. For an hour or so, we’d stepped into a completely different world that in many ways reminded us of home. Then it was back out the door to reality. But that’s okay. It’s the contrast that makes us appreciate things like this, things that we would normally take pretty much for granted back home. In fact, if they ever got one here in Ouaga, going to McDonalds would be a special event!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Missed It

I missed an opportunity the other day. But by the time I recognized it, the moment had passed and I’ve been regretting it ever since.

We were on a trip to visit several languages projects in the south-western part of Burkina and had stopped for a quick breakfast at a well-known rest stop in Boromo on our way back to Ouaga. We sat on metal chairs at a metal table under an open-sided hangar with a thatched roof to keep off the sun. As we were waiting for our cafe au lait and baguette with jam, I spotted a ten or eleven year old girl at the entrance gate. She was watching us, either because we were so strange-looking or more likely because she was wondering if we’d be interested in buying some of the sesame snacks she carried in a basket on top of head.

Then the coffee came and I forgot all about her until I heard a voice at my elbow. “Monsieur?” I turned to look. It was the little girl. In her hand, she held a bunch of coins to show me. They turned out to be euro coins of 5, 10, and 20 cents. She wanted to know if I would exchange them for her.

I often get young men trying to do the same thing whenever I go to the airport here in Ouaga to pick up or deliver passengers coming to our Centre. Since I have no immediate use for these coins, and don’t know the correct exchange rate anyway, I always brush them off with a repeated “No thanks.” By now it was such a habit with me that I did the same thing with the little girl.

She went around to the other people sitting at the table and got the same reaction. So she left.

Afterwards, as we were getting ready to get back into our vehicle, she appeared again in an attempt to sell me the coins. Once again I reacted out of habit and refused. But I did buy a little package of sesame snacks to at least encourage her in a small way.

It was as we were driving away that I realized what an opportunity I had blown. What I should have done was been a little kinder to a little kid trying to make a few pennies instead of brushing her off as a nuisance I didn’t want to be bothered with. Unlike many such vendors, especially older ones, she wasn’t irritating or annoying or trying to rip me off by having me pay some exorbitant amount for a trinket. I should have at least asked her name, and paid the few hundred francs it would have cost me to exchange her small handful of euro coins. They were certainly of more use to me than they ever would be to her! I could always use them the next time we’re passing through the Paris airport and need to buy a bag of potato chips or a drink for $5 :)

Someone has said that we learn best from our mistakes. I sure hope that I’ll recognize the next opportunity when it comes along!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trouble In The Hood

Our night guard showed up at the Centre one day last week to see me at work. This was unusual. So was his request: he wanted the rest of the week off! Wow, that’s pretty short notice! But when I heard the reason, I understood why.

It seems that some people suspected of kidnapping children had been spotted in his neighbourhood. His family was scared and did not want to be alone at night when such kidnappings could more easily occur.

A bit of research revealed that trafficking in children is big business in this part of the world. In one town near the Ghanaian border, I remember seeing billboards warning the citizens of Burkina of this evil. Just a few days ago, a vehicle carrying a number of young, teenage boys was stopped near the Burkina – Ivory Coast border. The policeman who stopped the vehicle was suspicious and it’s a good thing he was! The boys were destined as cheap labour on coco plantations in Ivory Coast. They had apparently been lured away from their homes and villages by promises of high-paying work in this neighbouring country. But once they arrived there, they would be kept in slavery conditions and forced to work long days for little more than a daily meal.

Sometimes babies and younger children are kidnapped and sold to people and agencies in neighbouring countries and even Europe who are looking to supply the demand for adoption. Scary, eh? I gave our guard the rest of the week off and scrambled to look for a replacement for the next few nights.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Trying to Make Ends Meet

An employee (let’s call him Elie) came into my office the other day to outline a problem he was facing. As in most cases, it concerned money. It seems that some time back, Elie’s older brother from the village called him to say that he was sending Elie his son. He wanted Elie (as the boy’s uncle) to look after him and put him in school in Ouaga. This is a fairly common request from people in the villages to their relatives in the big city, not only because educational opportunities in the villages are limited, but because relatives living in the city are assumed to be better off than their village brethren.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The cost of living in the city is considerably higher than in the village, and most people, like our employee, are barely scraping by. However, a request like this from a parent or older brother cannot be refused. So the boy came to Ouaga to live with Elie and his family, and Elie managed to scrape up enough money to get the boy started in school here. But now another payment was due, 40,000 francs to be exact (about $80), which is easily more than half a month’s net wage for him.

Elie was now between a rock and a hard place. He did not have the money. But if he did not manage to keep the boy in school, his older brother and family back in the village would accuse him of discrimination, of not having made an effort to keep his nephew in school because he wasn’t Elie’s own son. What in the world was he going to do?

So he asked his supervisor if he could have the upcoming month of February off for his annual paid vacation time. That way, he could collect his salary at the beginning of the month (rather than having to wait for it at the end of the month) and use that money to pay his nephew’s next instalment of school fees. But his supervisor said no. February was scheduled to be an extremely busy month for meetings, workshops, and conferences on our Centre, and Elie was needed to help keep things functioning properly. He would have to take another, less busy month as his holiday time.

So Elie came to my office to explain his situation, and to ask me to overrule his supervisor’s decision. However, his supervisor was right. February was and extremely busy month and we could not arrange the operation of our entire Centre just to help resolve one employee’s financial problem. Instead, with the help of my Burkinabè colleague in the Services department, I began to explore other possibilities for resolving the issue.

In the end, we suggested that he try talking with the school administration to see if they would accept payment for this next instalment in the form of three smaller instalments. We gave him a small advance on his February salary for the first of these. In the middle of February, he could take another small advance. And at the end of February, he could make the final payment from what was left of his salary.

So what would he have left to live on for the month of March? His salary for that month. It’ll be his month off.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Evening at a Neighbourhood Diner

Darkness had just fallen when the call came from the guard at the SIL Centre gate that my friend, Aristide, was at the gate. He’d called me earlier in the day to say that he had a friend that was planning on going to Canada. Could he bring him by to talk to me? No problem.

Shutting down my computer and locking the office, I headed out to meet them. We decided that it would be best to go somewhere for something to drink and a bite to eat while we talked. Since there was a place just a short distance from our centre (which I’d been wanting to try for some time now anyway), we walked there and grabbed one of the many tables that had been set up along the side of the road. A waitress came by and took our drink orders. Vehicles and motos driving past kicked up clouds of dust and exhaust, but fortunately the breeze was blowing it mostly away from us.

Hundreds of such places spring up like mushrooms every evening all over Ouagadougou. During the day, most of them are empty space. But as darkness falls, cheap plastic or metal tables and chairs are set up to welcome clients getting off work or going out for the evening and looking for a place to socialize with friends and acquaintances. Most just serve drinks. But some have fast food vendors associated with them.

In our case, a young man was grilling small 100 franc (about 20 cents) shish kebabs nearby. These turned out to be beef and onion ones, for which I was very thankful. Many such grillers often include what I would consider less savoury animal parts in their kebabs. My Burkinabè friends seem to like them well enough, but I’ve just never gotten used to chewing on bits of intestine, stomach, and who knows what else!

We ordered 2,000 francs worth, and after a short while a pile of kebabs arrived on a platter, along with a couple of dabs of mayonnaise and a couple of piles of a spicy & salty powder in which to dip the meat to give it a bit of a bite. The light from the multicoloured bulbs used to decorate the area did not illuminate much where we sat, so I had to pull out my cell phone and use the flashlight on it to see what I was eating and where to dip it. I have to admit that the kebabs were good, good enough for a return visit sometime.

In the meantime, I was quizzed about how to go about applying for a visa to go to Canada. I had to admit that apart from advising my friend’s friend to go and make some inquiries at the Canadian embassy, I had no idea of what the correct procedure was. After all, this was not something I was ever required to do! I also emphasized that I didn’t know anyone at the embassy personally. I’ve sometimes had people ask me to help them get a visa by intervening with someone at the embassy. This is not something I want to get involved in!

In the end, I don’t think I was much help. But it was a great opportunity to spend time with a friend and unwind after a long week at the office. And much to my surprise, I didn’t even have to pay for the drinks and kebabs!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Another Traffic Ticket

Kathy was not a happy camper when she called me on the phone: “Where are the papers for the truck?!!!”

“They should be in the glove compartment like they always are,” I replied. “Why?”

“Because I’m stopped here on the Route Circulaire near the Pô Road interchange at a police checkpoint and I can’t find the vehicle ownership, the technical safety certificate, and the proof of insurance papers! They’re going to give me a ticket for failing to produce those documents!”

My mind racing, I tried to think of what could have become of those papers. Then I remembered that I had recently put in new proof of insurance papers and taken the old ones out to put in the garbage. Maybe I’d taken all those documents out by mistake (I usually keep them all together inside the insurance papers) and burned them! I grabbed a group vehicle and drove back to our home as quickly as I could. But a quick check there revealed nothing.

Frantically, I went over the events of the past couple of days in my mind, searching for some occasion when I or someone else may have taken out those papers. Then I remembered that a bunch of us had gone on a trip to Pô on Monday. And one of our party had taken the truck to taken another person to the Ghanaian border. I quickly got on my cell phone and called the other driver.

“Did you run into a police stop on the road on Monday?” I asked her. “Did you at any time take the vehicle papers out of the glove compartment?”

“Why I believe I did!” she answered. I had to take the papers out to show to the border guards and must have forgotten to put them back. I bet they’re in my bag. Let me check...”

Sure enough, that’s where they were! I raced back to the Centre, grabbed the documents from her, and sped down the Route Circulaire to find Kathy.

Once there, a policeman waved me over and I showed him the papers, explaining what had happened. “I’m sorry,” he said, but you’ll have to pay a fine for failing to produce the documents when we stopped the truck.”

“How much is that?” I asked. “25,000 francs (about $50)” he answered. “You can pay it here and I’ll give you a receipt for it.” He showed me the receipt book. I guess he’d learned that expatriates always want receipts for such things to ensure that the money did not just get slipped into someone’s pocket without any record of payment. This, however, was the highest price for a traffic fine that I’ve ever run across here, so I was somewhat suspicious. But how could I put off paying it on the spot? Then I remembered how little money I had in my belt pack. It was worth a try... So I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have that much money on me. You’ll have to give me the ticket and I’ll pay it later.” I knew our Services Department agent could negotiate a much more reasonable fine at the police station itself.

“How much do you have?” asked the policeman. Not thinking about where he was going with this, I said, “About 15,000 francs.” “Okay,” he said, “give me that, then.” Now I was beginning to get really suspicious...

Stalling for time, I walked over to where Kathy was sitting in the truck and recounted what had happened. She suggested that I point out to the policeman that this was not our personal vehicle. It was registered in the name of SIL, the organization we work for in Burkina. So I walked back across the road to the policeman.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t pay anything here,” I began. “This vehicle belongs to the organization I work for and they have to pay the bill. If I pay it now, they will not reimburse me. That’s company policy.”

The policeman was not happy. “Well,” he said, “it’ll cost you 25,000 francs if you go to pay this downtown. We can cut that fine in half right here.” Oh, really, I thought? You just told me to give you 15,000 francs, and now you’re telling me it’s only 12,500 francs? There’s something funny going on here for sure!

“Well, that’s their problem,” I replied. “Please give me the ticket.” It was with some reluctance that he wrote out the ticket and gave it to me.

Back at the Centre, I gave it to our Services Department agent. The following day, he went downtown and after a lengthy process of negotiation was able to bring the price of the fine down to a more reasonable level. It turned out that the default price was indeed 25,000 francs as the policeman had said. But with persistence and the help of a relative who was also a policeman, our agent negotiated a final payment of only 6,000 francs, something I could never have achieved. Thank God for our national colleagues who know how things work here and are able to help us out like this!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Group Vehicle

When Kathy & I were driving around in town last weekend, I saw a cool vehicle parked in front of one of the stores. So I took a picture of it.

When I got back into the office again, a bright idea for a practical joke crossed my mind! Our organization was shopping around for a new group vehicle to replace our current, aging Mistubishi Pajero. We were looking for another one, preferably a pickup truck, that was suitable for rental by our members for personal use, and for use by our Centre Services department for hauling equipment and supplies. We had looked at Toyotas, Nissans, Mistubishis, and Fords, but no selection or decision had yet been made. So I sent the following message to all our personnel:

“Hello everyone!  As you know, we have been looking to replace our Pajero group vehicle with another vehicle. In addition to being able to transport passengers, our new vehicle also needs to be capable of carrying cargo so that we can transport furniture, fridges, and other materials as needed for the Centre, as well as get fuel for our generator. Adama and I have made the rounds of the various car dealerships here in Ouaga to look at pickup trucks, but have found them to be incredibly expensive. Therefore we have chosen another option that we believe will not only fulfill our vehicle requirements, but cost significantly less in terms of both the initial purchase price and ongoing maintenance.

I have attached a photo of the model of vehicle we have ordered and that is scheduled to arrive shortly. We hope you will find it both practical and enjoyable for use as our new group vehicle!”

Here’s the photo I sent with the message :)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Creative Financing

The day before Christmas Eve, I received a call from a Burkinabè acquaintance. His sister was deathly sick in a hospital in Tenkodogo and he desperately needed money to help her. When I asked how much he needed, he said at least 275,000 FCFA (about $550). This is quite a hefty chunk of money in a country where medical services are relatively cheap, so I asked what he planned to do with it. He replied that it was for medical supplies, hospital services, and the hospital stay. I said that I’d call him back.

Calling a Burkinabè colleague with connections in Tenkodogo, I asked him for help in verifying the details of my acquaintance’s story. He inquired at the hospital and a couple of clinics in Tenkodogo that would handle these kinds of cases, but could not find anyone registered under the name my acquaintance had given me. Questioning a doctor friend revealed that the kind of care required for this case would not exceed 50,000 FCFA.

Shortly after this, an expatriate colleague came into my office to talk about some issue. As he was leaving he said, “By the way, I just got a phone call from Mr. X asking for money for a medical emergency.” It turned out to be the same Burkinabè acquaintance who had called me! Now I was beginning to wonder what was going on here.

Further inquiries with various colleagues and friends revealed a disturbing pattern of events. Over the past several years, this man had been contacting a number of them with emotional appeals concerning a variety of medical emergencies or other urgent needs, like schooling for his children, or living accommodations for his family. From some, he was able to borrow substantial amounts of money, promising to pay them back in the near future. None of these people have yet received a cent. From others, he’s received substantial cash gifts.

I honestly don’t think he’s telling outright lies when presenting a need for money. But I’m convinced he’s grossly exaggerating the need and using the excess for some other purpose. Maybe this time he needed extra money for the holidays and a sister’s illness was his ticket to get it.

So how has this man been able to carry on such a pattern of bilking people for so long? Because none of those he approaches for money have been talking with each other about his requests and what they’ve given him. But that’s changing now. I’m talking with people, asking questions, and creating a network of folks who are aware of what’s going on and will keep each other informed. Unfortunately, chances are that none of those who have lent him money will ever get it back. You can’t take money back from someone who apparently never has enough. But hopefully he’ll no longer be able to play that game with this group.

However, it’s a big world out there, and my acquaintance is a pretty friendly guy who knows how to tell an emotional story. Maybe he’ll just learn to cast his net a little wider. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! :)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Most Comfortable Chairs in Burkina

We’ve been hard pressed to find comfortable chairs here in Burkina. We found some nice ones at IKEA, but despite the fact that it is a global company, IKEA does not yet have a store in Burkina. The nice thing about IKEA products is that they come in pieces in nice compact packages that are much handier for shipping and transporting than furniture products that are already assembled. So when we were back in Canada last fall, we bought a couple of those comfortable IKEA chairs (the Poäng ones), along with a footstool for Kathy.

Kathy thought we could fit all the pieces into one of our large suitcases to take back to Burkina. But we couldn’t. Even our largest suitcase was a little too small. A call to Air France revealed that we could ship an oversize piece of baggage for an extra $300. So I packed both chairs and the footstool into a large, cardboard box, taped it up well, and swathed it in plastic wrap. There, that was easy!

Unfortunately, when we got to the airport and tried to check that box in, we were informed that there was also a weight limit of 32 kgs for oversize baggage, and we unfortunately were 6 kgs over that limit. So we had to get on the plane for Burkina without it and leave Josh to take it back to his place. There, he could cut open the box, take out the footstool and a few other items to lower the weight to 32 kgs, tape and wrap it back up, and wait for another opportunity to get it to us.

In December, we learned of a friend from Canada coming over to Burkina to work at an orphanage. He said that he’d be willing to take our box as extra baggage. Josh met him at the airport. For some reason, the box was still nearly 2 kgs over the weight limit and Air France kicked up a fuss until our friend revealed that he was going to help out at an orphanage in Burkina Faso. Well, that was different! For that, they were willing to bend the rules a bit. And we finally got our chairs :)

Are they ever nice!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bicycle Chicken

A Burkinabè friend who works as a server in a restaurant in downtown Ouaga came to see me a few days ago. After a very busy holiday season, he is now taking two weeks off. Christmas and New Year’s is one of the most profitable times of the year for restaurants here, so my friend not only had to work his regular hours, but also put in a lot of overtime.

However, he told me that he’s thinking of quitting this job and looking for another one. He doesn’t know what kind of job yet, but is researching his options, mostly by talking to his customers. I suspect that’s why he came to see me too :)

I asked him why he was thinking of quitting. “Because being a server is a dead-end job,” he replied. “If I were a cook, it would be different. I could learn more and improve myself and move up in the restaurant world. But not as a server. I’m still young right now and can learn new skills, but someday I’ll be too old to do that, so I have to do it now while I still have some time left.” I thought that was pretty astute thinking! I promised I’d keep an eye out for any job possibilities for him.

I mentioned that Kathy & I had tried a new restaurant lately, Le Papillon, where I’d had a curried chicken dish, but was disappointed that they’d used a tough, local, free-range chicken instead of a higher quality grain-fed one like the better restaurants do. “Oh,” said my friend, “you mean they served poulet bicyclette (bicycle chicken)!”

“Poulet bicyclette?” I queried. “What’s that?”

“That’s what we call the local chickens,” he answered. “The meat is tough and wiry, as if they’ve been out riding a bicycle all day. We actually like them better than the grain-fed ones. The meat of the latter is much too soft for our liking. We grew up with chickens that you can really chew on and that’s what we still like best.”

“That’s great,” I said. “You can have them! I can think of better things to do with a couple of hours of my time than to spend them chewing on some old chicken leg!”

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Glad To Know I'm Not The Only Sucker Here!

A Burkinabè colleague came into my office a couple of mornings ago to talk about a difficult situation in which he currently found himself. Prior to going on a trip, an expatriate colleague had given him money to purchase a number of bamboo-type mats at the local market. To what purpose, I don’t know. But the amount of money given was equal to about a week’s salary for the Burkinabè.

Going to a local vendor, he found only a few mats in stock. The vendor told him to come back the next day since he was expecting a new shipment shortly. The next day, there were still only a few mats in stock. The vendor said that the shipment had come in, but had sold out quickly. He asked my Burkinabè colleague to give him the money for the mats to help purchase another shipment, and to come back the following day to collect both the mats and a receipt.

Can you guess what happened? That’s right. My colleague has never seen the vendor since. Oh, his store is still there, with someone looking after sales, but the vendor himself is never present.

I just stared across the desk at my Burkinabè colleague in utter disbelief. He is, after all, not an inexperienced child or a foreign tourist, but a grown man born and raised in this country. Yet he gave a large sum of money that doesn’t even belong to him to a man he doesn’t even know and walked away without even getting a receipt for it! I find it utterly amazing the number of times I hear of local people getting taken to the cleaner’s like this! It utterly defies explanation.

“So what do you plan to do about it?” I asked him. “Well, I’ve got a summons from the police to give to him,” he replied. “But whenever I go to his store, he’s never there for me to give it to him! If I don’t get this settled before the man who gave me the money gets back, he’ll never trust me again!”

“Is anyone from the vendor’s family ever there?” asked another Burkinabè co-worker. “Yes, his wife,” said the first man. “Well, give the summons to her, then,” advised the second man.

“Are there ever any mats when you go there?” I asked. “Yes, a few,” he said. “Well, take whatever there is whenever you go there,” I continued. “Eventually, you’ll get all the mats you paid for. There’s probably a better chance of that happening than of getting him to answer a police summons.”

“But what will I do,” wailed my Burkinabè colleague, “if the guy who gave me the money comes back before I either get the money back or get all the mats he asked me to buy?”

“Just tell him the truth about what happened,” I advised. “He won’t be happy, but he’ll probably understand.” (I hope!)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Le Papillon

Not long ago when I was in downtown Ouaga, I bought a booklet from a street vendor that I thought might be useful. Kathy & I are always looking for new restaurants to try in the city, and this booklet listed several pages of them, many of which we’d never heard of before. So one night earlier this week, we decided to try one near the airport.

After some time spent in looking for this restaurant in vain (we suspect it has moved to the Ouaga 2000 area), we decided to try another place that we discovered during our search: Le Papillon (The Butterfly). Interestingly, it wasn’t listed in the book, and we soon found out why. It had just newly opened on Dec 18th.

The restaurant was a converted villa. The veranda had been enclosed with aluminum and glass to form an attractive bar with space for several tables. The living room had been turned into the main dining room with large comfortable chairs and tables, and decorated with numerous pieces of local artwork. Two former bedrooms had been converted into private dining areas with even more comfortable leather chairs.

All these rooms were air-conditioned, something to keep in mind for the upcoming hot season. But because it was nice and cool that evening, we elected to sit outside in the courtyard. Various species of trees and bamboo lined the high courtyard wall. Tables and chairs were set up on a surface of paving stones that surrounded a tranquil swimming pool in the middle. A row of decorative lights around the entire perimeter of the pool provided ambient lighting for the whole area.

When we first regarded the menu, we feared we were perhaps a bit out of our league! Ordinary bottles of soft drinks cost 1,000 FCFA (about $2.00), significantly higher than what we’d pay at most other restaurants. But a second glance showed that the meals were not as exorbitant. I tend to look for something on the menu that is not the usual, something that is perhaps unique to a particular restaurant. Here I found several curry dishes (the restaurant turned out to be owned and operated by East Indians), and ended up ordering a curried chicken dish. It turned out to be pretty good, but the chicken was definitely of the Burkinabè free range type: lean and tough. Kathy noted that her beef dish was also somewhat tough, and the portion was smaller than when she would normally expect for that item.

The verdict? The meal was okay, but not outstanding. For the prices we paid, we really expected a little more than we got. But the ambience was nice, the service was top-notch, and the owners were friendly. After the meal, they invited us to come inside, told us a bit about themselves, and gave us a tour of their establishment. Now, if they could just increase the size of their servings a bit, and use better portions of meat, they’d have a truly winning combination!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Back Off, Buster!

The other day I ran into something unusual: a couple of obnoxious street vendors. Those of you who have lived in Burkina might be tempted to laugh at this statement. After all, aren’t most if not all street vendors in Burkina obnoxious? Well, I guess it depends on your perspective and your tolerance level :)  From my standpoint, I'd say that many of them can be persistent. But it isn't until they turn nasty that I’d call them obnoxious!

A friend and I were downtown looking for a place to exchange American dollars, something we found to be challenge on a holiday weekend. As we were walking from my truck to yet another exchange place, two vendors latched on to us and began to pester us to have a look at their products. Normally, if I smile politely, wave them off, and say, “No, thanks,” they take the hint and leave us alone. Not these two. In fact, they were so close to us that we were nearly tripping over them.

Finally I'd had enough.  I stopped, turned around, put my hands up in front of their faces and told them bluntly to back off and leave us alone. We were NOT interested in their wares!

When we came out of the exchange place again, the two guys were still there and they began once more to follow us and harangue us. What was it with these guys?!!! Which part of NO did they not understand? Once more, I stopped, turned around, and told them to back off and leave us alone. But they wouldn’t stop.

“You can’t speak for your friend,” they said. “Just because you aren’t interested doesn’t mean your friend isn’t. Let him look at our stuff. Maybe he wants to buy something.” Up to this point, my friend had never so much as even cast a glance in their direction. I said, “No he doesn’t. He doesn’t understand French, and he isn’t interested in your stuff either.”

Then they started to get nasty. “What, are you just going to brush us off and treat us like garbage? Who do you think you are?!!!”

There’s no use arguing with people like that. I knew from experience that things would just go from bad to worse, so I just shut up and we kept walking, breathing sighs of relief when we finally reached my truck and were able to shut the doors on those two loudmouths!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Late Night At The Airport

I was recently scheduled to pick up a friend at the Ouaga airport. Initially, he was supposed to arrive at a decent time of the day (5:30 p.m.) on an Air France flight from Canada via Paris. However, the plane from Toronto to Paris was delayed due to technical difficulties, so he missed his connecting flight to Ouaga. The airline offered to put him up in a hotel for two days until the next flight, but he wanted to make the most of his time and asked for an alternate flight. So Air France flew him to Casablanca and then put him on a Royal Air Maroc flight to Ouaga. Now he was scheduled to arrive at 3 o’clock in the morning.

I dutifully set my alarm and managed to grab a few hours of sleep before getting up again, climbing into the truck, and driving the virtually deserted streets over to the airport. The airport was virtually deserted too. As I walked across the parking area towards the arrivals area, a white man on a 4-wheeler asked me if I was waiting for the Royal Air Maroc plane. When I said yes, he said that it was delayed. It wouldn’t be in for another hour and a half!

We initially both considered heading back to our respective homes until the appointed hour, but instead ended up talking for a while. He turned out to be a Frenchman who was operating a guesthouse not far from the airport. Not long after, we were joined by another Frenchman and some African ladies associated with these two guys. At this point, we all decided to go to a nearby place to sit down, talk some more, and get something to drink. I was looking forward to a nice, hot coffee because I felt it was rather chilly outside at this time of the night and I was actually starting to shiver! Not thinking the plane would be so long delayed, I was just wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

The two Frenchmen ordered coffee along with me. The ladies, however, ordered beer! Several rounds, in fact! One lady didn’t even bother to wait for the bottle opener. She opened her bottle with her teeth! After a while the ladies began to get rather loud and obnoxious to the point that we guys had trouble hearing and understanding each other. I was glad when the Royal Air Maroc plane finally arrived... at nearly 5:30 a.m. I always enjoy opportunities to meet different people and have different kinds of experiences, but I’d had enough of this one :)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Christmas With Burkinabe Friends

Last week, we celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with expatriate friends and colleagues, both by going to their place for activities and a meal, and by having them to our place for the same. On the weekend, however, we got together with several Burkinabè friends. It was a very different experience.

Aristide and Desiré are two friends I made when we first arrived in Burkina in 1997. Since then, both of them have gotten married and started families. Earlier during Christmas week, Aristide, Desiré, and I met for a drink together downtown, something we do about once a month, but hadn’t done since Kathy & I had returned from Canada in November. As we were talking, Aristide suggested that our families get together for a meal one afternoon.

So last Sunday after siesta, I drove downtown to pick up Desiré, his wife and son, and then Aristide, his wife, twin daughters, and baby son at the west end of the city. There wasn’t enough room in the cab for everyone, so the women and children squished in there, while Aristide and Desiré sat in the pickup bed on a board I’d placed across the wheel wells for a seat. From there, we drove all the way back to the east end of the city near to where Kathy & I lived, where Aristide knew of an outdoor restaurant that he recommended.

This meant a lot of time was spent driving (I had to bring everyone home again afterwards), but fortunately the traffic isn’t nearly as heavy on Sundays as it is during the rest of the week. However, there was still plenty of dust and exhaust from vehicles on the road, and I felt badly for Aristide and Desiré having to breathe that stuff while riding in the back.

The restaurant was a typical Burkinabè one: tables and chairs arranged in the open air or under straw-roofed hangars. It was a few kilometres beyond the Ouaga city limits, so at least, unlike the situation with similar restaurants within the city limits, the dust and exhaust at this point were negligible and we could breathe freely.

We began by choosing a place to sit (they had to bring more chairs to accommodate all of us, and ordered drinks. Food items, if they’re available at all at these kinds of places, are usually limited to some kind of meat and a starchy vegetable like rice or fries. Here it was grilled chickens and French fries, so that’s what we ordered. Unfortunately, we assumed that chickens would mean regular sized birds. They turned out to be little bigger than pigeons, so we were a little short on the meat. And we didn’t feel like ordering more because it takes nearly an hour to prepare them. But there were plenty of fries :)

While we waited for our food, we had a pile of fun taking pictures of each other. All three of us men brought along a camera, so each group picture had to be taken at least three times. Candid shots, of course, were a free-for-all. It was riot taking pictures of different people in different arrangements, with different poses, and with funny expressions on their faces! I don’t think I ever realized that taking pictures could be so much fun!

The kids were especially entertaining. Although shy at first, they soon lost all inhibitions and ran around like crazy, burning off energy we wish we still had. At one point, one of the twins came to tell me that she had to go to the bathroom. I decided it would be best if I handed her off to her mother!

All too soon, darkness fell, the bottles, glasses, and dishes were empty, and it was time to go. We drove the families home again, me driving, the women and children squished in the cab, and Aristide and Desiré in the back. One of the girls asked why they were back there. I was preparing to give a humourous reply about them not behaving themselves, but Kathy beat me by saying there wasn’t enough room in the front. Then the girl asked why I was allowed in the front. I guess at four years old, she hadn’t figured out what I was doing there yet :)