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.

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