Thursday, April 29, 2010

Organized Chaos

Last Saturday afternoon, I was invited to a wedding in Ouaga. No, I didn’t know either of the couples getting married. But I did know the person taking the pictures and video footage. My friend, Aristide, was a cousin of one of the brides, and being the official photographer was his gift to the couple.

Kathy was invited along with me, but she wouldn’t have survived the heat, so she stayed home and I went alone. Well, not quite. I picked up Aristide’s family before going to the church, his wife, Mariam, their twin girls (about 4 or 5 years old), and their infant son. A family babysitter came along too. It’s a good thing she did because the ceremony was rather long and the kids got restless. Half way through, they began asking me for some water to drink, but I didn’t have any. The babysitter took them out to find some. When they came back, they were still restless. They played with my watch, my camera, and my hair. Cute kids, though :)

The wedding was held in a relatively new Catholic church. I was actually pretty impressed by the building itself. It was one of the more beautiful churches I’ve seen in Burkina. Lots of light and colour. A small choir sang a variety of songs, some of them pretty contemporary judging by their beat. Some of the singers had awesome voices. And the sound system was just perfect, not set too high and deafening like in many churches!

One interesting feature of weddings here is that there are freelance photographers all over the place. As you arrive, they take your picture or a picture of you & your family. Then, when you exit the church after the ceremony, they have the pictures already developed in a 5x8 format and laid out on the ground for you to buy. And if you don’t come to them looking for your photo, they’ll come looking for you!

After the ceremony, we drove some distance to where the reception was being held in Ouaga 2000, the ritzy part of Ouagadougou. Chez Valentin was the name of the restaurant. They had set up tons of tables and chairs outside for everyone, but it was organized chaos at its best! Apparently, no one except the bridal parties (who had strictly reserved places) sat where they were supposed to. Some people got upset and left. Others, like us, made do and found places to sit somewhere. Aristide and a friend scrounged us a table and chairs from somewhere, though we each had to sit with a child in our laps.

First we managed to get something cold to drink, for which I was thankful, not having had anything at all to drink all afternoon. Then we managed to snag a passing plate of salad (with some nice olives in it!) and eventually even some roast chicken! Like I said, it was organized chaos. Aristide’s wife said that big weddings are always like this. Well, it was quite the cultural adventure!

Finally, we took our leave and went back to Aristide’s place, where his wife put the kids to bed. After that, despite the late hour, we drove to a nearby outdoor resto where we ordered cold drinks and more roast chicken. It took a while to prepare the chicken, so we had lots of time to talk.

It was nearly midnight before I arrived back home. Wow, what a day!

Monday, April 26, 2010

An Evening at the Paradisio

This past Friday was a long, full day for both Kathy & I, and she didn’t feel much like cooking something when it was already well past supper time, so we decided to eat out. We went to a place only a few kilometres from our house called the Paradisio. It’s basically an outdoor eatery beside one of the main roads in the Zone de Bois, not far from the International School of Ouagadougou where Kathy teaches a health course to Grade 9 students. Normally, we wouldn’t eat at an outdoor eatery at this time of year because it’s the hot season and even night-time temperatures are too hot for a pleasant evening outside. But it must have rained somewhere the night before because compared to the rest of the week, Friday was pleasantly cooler.

For parking, you have to find a spot somewhere along the side of the road, paying attention to pedestrians, bicycles and motos when you go to pull off, and again before you open your door to get out of the vehicle. There is a parking attendant who comes to welcome you, assure you that he’ll keep an eye on the vehicle, and help you across the busy street, but you know he can’t effectively watch everything, so we make sure the truck is well-locked up before we leave it.

The Paradisio consists basically of a kitchen area and an outdoor eating area. The eating area is filled with metal tables and chairs with thin padding. Some are under hangar with fans, while others are out in the open air. The ground consists of crushed stone, which makes for an interesting process of settling in your chair. It takes a bit of shifting and wiggling around before you find the perfect position :)

Apart from the ambient light from the street and from the little shop selling local “objets d’art” that forms part of the restaurant’s assembly of buildings, there isn’t much light to see by. So when the waiter brings the menus, I end up pulling out my cell phone and turning on the little LED flashlight it comes equipped with. He goes to get us some cold drinks while we decide what to order in the way of food.

When it comes to food, Kathy & I like to order several different dishes and share them rather than each having our own plate. We often like to start off with a salad. This is not something we’d advise the average newcomer to do because it can be a quick way to get sick if the ingredients haven’t been cleaned properly or done so with filtered water. But our systems seem to have gotten used to it to some degree. At least we’ve not gotten sick in a long while from salads. Our favourite at the Paradisio is a salad made of sliced tomatoes with slices of mozzarella cheese on them, all bathed in olive oil.

For the main course, we get a pizza (very thin crust, Lebanese style) and a couple of beef shish kabobs, along with a plate of green beans and onions, to share.

While we’re waiting for our food, we talk and watch the world go by. Just outside the restaurant’s perimeter are ambulant vendors selling a variety of things, each trying to catch the attention of the clients inside. Several are selling phone cards (all cell phones work with prepaid cards here). One is selling pirated DVDs. Another is selling spears with wooden shafts and long, flat metal heads. Across the street, some young girls are playing a skipping game with a rope made of clear plastic bags all tied together. More people arrive to eat, while from time to time a few get up and leave, having finished their meals, their drinks, or their conversations.

At one point, a man walks by from the kitchen area with a small stack of pizza boxes. He makes his way to the street where a moto is parked with a metal box attached to the rear carrier. He opens the box, puts the pizzas inside, and then closes it again. Climbing on the bike, he kicks it to life, pulls a U-turn in the street and motors off down the road. The Paradisio is one of the few restos in Ouaga that has a delivery service, though I always wonder how they can find addresses here. Many streets have no signs and homes don’t have house numbers like we do back in North America. I can’t imagine being able to give someone directions on how to get to our place without them getting lost, especially at night, and during a power cut when all is pitch dark! By the time he found us, the pizzas would be cold! (Figuratively speaking that is :)

There have been a few times when we’ve wanted to just eat a pizza at home, and I’ve gone out and gotten it, having to wait while they made it, of course (I often make use of that time to write text messages to my friends). But generally speaking, it’s more fun to go out to a place like the Paradisio or the Verdoyant to eat, provided it isn’t too hot outside. Otherwise we’d have to look for a place with air conditioning, and they tend to be more expensive. One place we know even charges different prices for the meals, depending on whether you sit outside to eat, or inside with the A/C!

Finally, our plates empty and our glasses dry, we signal the waiter for the bill (if we didn’t, they’d just let us sit there and talk until closing time). After paying, we leave a tip for the waiter and cross the street to our truck. The parking attendant is nowhere in sight, so we pull away without paying him his small fee. Like I said, I didn’t think he could watch everything effectively.  I was able to steal my own truck!  :)

Another pleasant evening at the Paradisio.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How to Negotiate a Traffic Settlement

Yesterday, Kathy and some friends were on their way to a meeting in a friend's pickup truck when they were hit by someone on a moto. The lady driving had just started to turn her wheels for a left-hand turn on a back street when a young man came ripping up beside her. She had her turn signal on, but maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe he did see it but thought he could make it by if he just accelerated. Whatever the reason, he didn’t make it. Instead, he ploughed into the front left tire, snapping off the moto’s right leg guard and the brake pedal, and mashing his foot against the truck wheel.

I got the phone call just as I was on my way back to the office after siesta. Stopping by the SIL Centre, I grabbed Adama, a Burkinabè colleague, and headed off to the scene.

We arrived to find the vehicles parked, the ladies standing, and the young man from the moto sitting down with a visibly swollen foot. Fortunately the skin had not been broken, so there was no bleeding. A couple of other men on a moto had stopped to help in the situation, but were doing more to aggravate the situation than calm things down.

After assuring ourselves that the young man was in no immediate danger (something that Kathy had already assessed), we began to talk about damages. The truck was fine, but the moto wasn’t, and according to the rules of the road here, the moto had the right of way, no matter what speed he was going. So we discussed the cost of repairing the moto and of getting the young man’s foot looked after.

Unless the accident is a serious one, most people prefer to settle things amiably on the spot. Involving the police can take a huge amount of time both now and in the days to come, involving numerous trips to the police station to determine and assign blame, as well as negotiating a settlement. Meanwhile, the damaged vehicles would remain in custody (which in this case would be the young man’s moto, which turned out not to be his after all, but someone else’s). The owner(s) would meanwhile be deprived of their means of transport.

In addition, getting the insurance company involved will mean even longer delays. It could be six months or more before the owner of a damaged vehicle succeeded in getting reimbursed for repairs (after paying for them first), again necessitating innumerable trips to the company offices. The young man was understandably not eager to embark upon this route, which certainly facilitated our efforts to negotiate a settlement.

In the end, we made a rough estimate of the repair costs, the costs of an X-ray of the young man’s foot and subsequent medication, and added a bit more, just in case. It crossed our minds that perhaps he’d found a creative way to make some money, that he’d find a cheaper way to repair the bike and wouldn’t bother with the X-ray or medication. But that was his choice. Hopefully he’d think twice before trying that particular trick again! One way or another, he’d probably end up paying for his misjudgement in wrath from the bike’s owner and one heck of a sore foot for some time to come.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

When Bigger Is Better

This past week, we bit the financial bullet and got a bigger air conditioner for our living room. We first got one for our living room about a year ago, a 1.5 horsepower model, after several years of attempting to survive the hot season without it. But spending all your time at home in the bedroom (where we first installed an air conditioner so that we could at least get a good night’s sleep!) loses its appeal real fast. We felt like prisoners in our own home! So last year, we had a split A/C unit installed in the living room.

It was great... at first. We could now sit comfortably in our living room whenever we were home, eating our meals, entertaining guests, watching TV, or reading books. But when we came back from Josh & Melissa’s wedding, we noticed that it no longer cooled things down like it used to. So we got the installer over to check it out. He said it was low on Freon and charged it up. However, since it obviously had a leak somewhere, he had the entire system checked... and couldn’t find a thing.

But it never worked properly since. And with the advent of the hot season here, we were beginning to run into days that required a retreat to the bedroom again. So rather than throwing good money after bad in retrying to find the leak in the old machine, we had it taken out and a more powerful 2 horsepower model put in. Wow, what a difference!

Yes, it uses more electricity per se, but because it’s more powerful, we don’t need to have it running at top capacity all the time. Which means the compressor (the major power consumer of the unit) only kicks in as needed. So in the long run, we’ll probably pay about the same in electricity costs. But at least we’ll be able to do so in relative comfort :)  Excuse me while I go and find a blanket.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Transport in Burkina

One of the things that never ceases to amaze us when driving on Burkina roads is the nature and quantity of stuff they can pile on anything from bicycles to motos to the minibuses and the larger regular buses that are used for public transportation in this country. Here are some sample photos:


Of course, people (usually women) are a means of transport too:

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Trip to Banfora

Last week, Kathy & I travelled down to the Banfora region of Burkina Faso. Banfora is a large town in the south-western part of the country, about 400 kms from Ouaga. We were going there to take part in an official installation ceremony for Virpi, one of our SIL linguists, who is beginning work with the Wara people in a village about another 80 kms from Banfora towards the border of Mali.

First, however, we had to load up the truck. Virpi had some furniture, a gas fridge, and other personal belongings to take with her. We couldn’t fit it all on our vehicle, but that was okay because some other friends were coming down a few days later and would bring the rest. Loading a vehicle is always a challenge. Sometimes it takes several tries to find the optimal arrangement for piling on the maximum amount of stuff in such a way that it’s packed solidly and won’t move or shift when bouncing along bumpy roads. Pieces of cardboard, blankets, or sheets are inserted at strategic places between items to prevent excessive rubbing and scratching. And of course, the whole thing has to be tied down securely. Kathy loves to tease me by pointing out that it takes me as long to tie down a load as it does to pack it in the truck in the first place! However, I like to remind her that we’ve never lost anything on any of our trips here, no matter how bad the road :)

Having loaded up the afternoon before the day of our trip, we were able to leave relatively early in the morning. The idea was to avoid the morning rush hour as much as possible because we had to travel from the east end of Ouaga all the way over to the west end to get on the highway leading to Bobo and Banfora. Unfortunately, it still took us over an hour to get out of the city because there is major road construction going on at the west end, necessitating a number of detours, some of them extremely rough.

But finally we were past the construction, past the toll stop, and out on the open road where we could move along at a pretty good clip. The main thing we now had to watch out for was potholes. Potholes in asphalt are much worse than potholes on a dirt road. The holes tend to be deeper, the edges sharper, and the drop more abrupt. Hitting them at high speed or at the wrong angle can easily blow a tire or even break an axle! Ideally, it’s best if you can drive behind someone else as kind of an early warning system :) When they suddenly slam on the brakes and/or start weaving all over the road, you know there are potholes ahead!

Encountering other vehicles on the road can be interesting. Your reaction depends on whether they’re coming towards you or you’re coming up behind them. For oncoming vehicles I’ll usually turn on my left turn signal, and they’ll do likewise if they haven’t done so first. This seems to be a way that drivers greet each other on what are often lonely stretches of road here in Burkina. It might also be a way of checking to make sure the other driver is awake and not likely to swerve into your lane at the last minute!

If you’re passing a vehicle, however, the reaction of an oncoming driver is quite different. He’ll either flash his lights at you repeatedly, or simply turn on his high beams! They seem to be operating under the assumption that either you can’t see them or that if you can and they blind you, you’ll get out of the way more quickly! To be honest, I don’t appreciate the high beam thing. It’s not helpful at all!

Coming up behind packed and stacked minibuses, large regular buses, dump trucks, or tractor trailers can be a challenge, especially on an uphill grade. If they’re crawling along in first gear, you have a quick choice to make. Either accelerate to get around them quickly before another vehicle comes over the hill, or come to a virtual stop and crawl along behind them until they clear the hill. It sounds like the second option is the safest one, doesn’t it? But this can be risky too. We had one tractor trailer come to a complete stop and begin to roll backwards towards us!

Vehicles in front of you will often signal to let you know whether it’s safe to pass or not. Where I grew up in Canada, a slower-moving vehicle would turn on its left turn signal to indicate it was safe to pass. In Burkina, turning on the left turn signal means exactly the opposite! A right turn signal means it’s safe to pass. A few times, I’ve had to be reminded of this the hard way :)

It was almost 3 p.m. by the time we pulled into Banfora, following a few stretch stops and some cold Cokes at a watering hole in Boromo. We made arrangements to spend the night in Banfora, but Virpi hopped on a minibus to continue on to her village. She’s much younger than we are, so that might explain her extra energy level. Or it could be the fact that she still had some things to do to get ready for the next day.

We saw lots of interesting things along the road, stayed at a cool place in Banfora, and had a great time with Virpi and other friends in her village the following day. But those are stories for next time.