Saturday, November 26, 2016

In Bruges and Back to Brussels

My trip to Burkina Faso is ending the way it began: in Belgium. I returned yesterday quite late after my day layover in Istanbul. I was knackered, but i couldn't resist taking a stroll around the square and surrounding streets, which had been decorated for Christmas since i was here two weeks ago. 
It goes without saying, but i'll say it anyway: Belgium is a world away from Ouagadougou. Sidewalks, trash bins, tap water, frigid and clean air, cafes that look like cafes, people that don't pay a bit of attention to me. I love the noise and excitement of Burkina Faso, but right now i am really appreciating the more familiar environment of western Europe, partly because i got to have a very long, very hot shower.

This morning i woke up very early and caught a train to Bruges. An hour and a half past quaint rural areas and small towns. From the station in Bruges it is a short walk to the Market Square. The square is beautiful, like so many European squares, ringed with narrow, pointy buildings in bright colours, housing inviting eateries and tea houses, imposing and intricate state buildings and throngs of picture snapping visitors.  

But this was a but different because the square was filled with a Christmas market. An ice rink, decorations, and wooden booths hung with icicle lights selling food and knick knacks. 

I wandered around the area, and over to the equally beautiful Berg square where i visited a beautiful and thankfully warm church.

I then followed the canals, stopping for breakfast at the most charming tiny cafe, all aglow in candles and Christmas. 

I walked around aimlessly down the picturesque cobbled streets, stopping to take a million pictures. Locals walked dogs and rode bicycles. Tourists consulted maps and gazed upward.

I visited the estate housing the small but very pretty Jerusalem church, where the ticket seller thought i was under 26 and tried to sell me a discounted ticket. (I think it was the hat.) 

In the church was a tiny little room with candles and relics where people had placed pictures of people for whom they prayed, i assume. I don't pray of course, but i happened to have a tiny picture of me in my wallet (i take one when i travel because sometimes you need them for getting visas at the border). I placed it there amongst the others, singeing the corners to make it look old and worn. So if you visit that church you might see my face looking pious and prayed for. 
I stopped in at an inviting looking tavern for a bowl of turnip soup and discovered that it is apparently the oldest tavern in the world, being over 500 years old. It was charming and the soup exactly what i needed.

Back to the square and through the market to a cigar lounge for a Ramon Allones robusto. Then back to the train station to return to Brussels. 

Brussels was and is crazy this evening. It is the start of the Christmas market and the crowds are thick and slow moving but good natured. The whole centre of the city is lit up and decorated. Miles of booths selling snacks, booze, hot drinks, and every gifty item imaginable. There are buskers and music played from speakers. The main square has music playing and a coordinated light show on the buildings.

Another square had more booths and decorations and the  most amazing carousel i have ever seen - sort of a steam punk miracle of creatures/machine hybrids flying and crawling as it whirled. Unfairly, it was limited to kids 12 and under.

I walked and sipped hot chocolate until i could no longer tolerate the crowds. 

I leave for Vancouver, via London, tomorrow afternoon; sad because i wish i could stay in Europe or take off somewhere exotic. Instead i will head home to email, work, and plans for the next trip.

Friday, November 25, 2016

13 hours in Istanbul

I said good bye to Burkina Faso and flew to Istanbul, arriving at about 7 am and having a 13 hour layover. This was perfect. I love Istanbul, but had not been there since my 2009 Turkey trip. I paid for a visa and passed swiftly through immigration. Then i was on the Metro. I switched to the tram and about an hour and a half after landing i was in Sultanahmet, gazing on the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia.

The city looked in many ways as i remembered, and the basic layout was easy to navigate. I wandered around and found myself on a street that looked like a cleaned up version of the street on which i spent every evening seven years ago, smoking shisha. There were lots of restaurants and i seated myself at the one which most appealed. During my breakfast, chatting with the waiter, i learned that this was the street i remembered, and that it had just gotten fancier. I remembered that there is a picture of me on the blog from my last trip to Istanbul, standing with a hookah in front of my regular joint. I pulled it up and the waiter called the owner over and it was the same place. It had changed a bit, but was basically the same and i had gravitated to it without knowing. This earned me free coffee in exchange for the promise to return again someday.

Istanbul is definitely cleaner and more organized that i remember. Better street signs and more tourist infrastructure. More international shops. These things detract a bit from the atmosphere, but it is still a great city. I love walking the streets past all of the super appealing shops selling scarves, lanterns, hookahs, and pottery. I love the cafes and the ubiquitous cats. And the exquisite calls to prayer that echo out over the city.

It was chilly, especially compared to Burkina Faso, but the cool air felt so refreshing.

I got lured into a lengthy Turkish coffee session with a carpet seller, which was pleasant and i managed to walk carpet-less, which is a small victory. 

I then headed for the Grand Bazaar, where i became wonderfully lost amongst the stalls of crafts, handiwork, spices, and sweets. I then had mint tea with a seller of meerschaum pipes. I did not leave empty handed this time.
I finished the day off down my the Blue Mosque again, with a hookah of double apple shisha and just relaxed until i felt it was time to return to the airport.

A delightful day. I hope it is not another seven years before i return.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Bazoule Crocodiles

After i returned to Ouagadougou from Pô i had two full days left and little on my agenda of things to see and do, having already wandered around downtown on my previous visit, so i committed to doing some serious relaxing at the guesthouse, which has been lovely. But i did take in a couple of worthwhile things.

On my first day back i hired a taxi to take me to Bazoule, which is about 30 km outside of Ouagadougou and is notable for its small lake teeming with sacred crocodiles. I can't really comment on their sacred nature, but only on their abundance and fondness for poultry.
We arrived after a pleasant drive through the city and then the countryside. I paid a small admission fee and a bit extra for an ill-fated, live chicken. A man walked me to the lake and sure enough, crocodiles could be seen in the water. We walked to the shore and my guide waved the chicken in the air, causing it to cluck in what i can only assume was fear and some crocodiles came out of the water. (Yes, i felt like kind of a dick for putting the chicken through this turmoil, but i don't think too many chickens here live long and happy lives anyway, their destinies being sacrifice or supper.)

The guide was not satisfied with these crocs, however, saying they were too small, so we went in search of larger ones. We continued walking and i discovered that there are people living in huts around the lake, notwithstanding that visitors attend there for crocodile viewing.

We wandered off to some greener area where there were bits of water here and there and again the guide called for the crocodiles. This was more unsettling as the crocodiles could have appeared from anywhere around us, but none did.

We walked to the other side of the lake where some men were farming and we summoned a large crocodile from the water. It came on shore and sat there. My guide asked if i would like to touch the crocodile. I nervously asked if it was safe and he said casually, "it is no problem." Well, good enough then. If the man in flip flops carrying a small wooden stick says it is fine, then it must be. And so i stood astride the  crocodile and then nearly sat on it, slightly afraid that it would turn on me. But it did not. As i posed though, another crocodile came out of the water behind me, causing me to leap up and seek safety a few meters away.

I then took the chicken by its feet and tossed it to the large crocodile, who deftly caught it in its jaws and gulped it down whole with a few chews and a swallow. Brutal stuff but quite interesting. 

Having conquered the crocodiles, i headed back to the city, stopping for celebratory ice cream ("Americain flavour" aka cookies and cream) en route.

Last night was spent at the guesthouse with a cigar and dinner while enjoying a whole conversation in English with a new guest who had arrived from Ireland.

Today has been similarly leisurely, sans les crocodiles. After breakfast i decided to walk to the Village Artisanal for a bit of shopping. It was a long walk in traffic in the oppressive heat (made longer by my having set off confidently, but in the wrong direction), but the space was lovely. A series of open air shops selling art, textiles, and various crafts, with the people making them often right there. I picked up a few gifts, had a coffee in the shady courtyard, and returned to the guesthouse.
And here i now sit. Hours until my flight to Istanbul and no plans except staying cool and relaxing. My time in Burkina Faso has been perfect. I have enjoyed it and am ready to head off for a couple more stops on the way home.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Tiébélé: the painted village

I awoke in Pô rested and ready for my reason for being there: to visit Tiébélé. I went out for breakfast: Nescafe, yogurt, and bread, which cost about a dollar. I then met my driver at the hotel, a young guy named Patrice, who spoke no English and wore a knitted scarf in the 40 degree heat. He had a motorbike (and as usual helmets are not available) and we set off. We bounced down the dry and dusty orange streets headed south to Tiébélé past donkey carts, kids headed to school, and women washing clothes with washboards and buckets.

After about 15 minutes we spotted one of the common police checkpoints. Patrice said  (in French) "Policeman. It is a problem for me." And we turned around to take a detour. This is one of those times when my rudimentary French was not enough to clarify the situation. Why were the police a problem? Did he not have ID? Was the moto not registered? Was he wanted for murder? I would never know and simply said "ok".  

Our detour was pleasant, past little villages and large baobab trees, many of which were hung with ropes of sorgum to dry. 

We stopped at a little lake and looked at the fields of potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers growing in tidy green rows.

After an hour maybe we arrived in the town of Tiébélé, which is small but had a few shops and cafes. There was a small hut with art and the painter showed me his work, which included pictures of Tiébélé, Che Guevara, and Thomas Sankara.

Patrice and i stopped and had a drink with his brother, who spoke a bit of English, and the the three of us headed to the old village.

Patrice's brother gave me a tour of the village, which is known for its painted huts, which are covered in symbolic designs representing animist tradition. Geometric patterns, lizards, tortoises, and seeds were common.

The village was designed for protection from enemies and is laid out in a windy maze, with tiny doorways into the houses to thwart invaders. I learned that round huts were for single people, square huts for married couples, and huts shaped like figure eights were for seniors. I was shown (but not allowed to photograph) the place where sacrifices are made for the village.
I got to go into one hut, which had three rooms, including a kitchen, each separated with tiny portals which one had to crawl through. People live there today and were all quite friendly, particularly the children who handed me peanuts while saying bonjour.

It was all very interesting and worth the journey to get there from Ouagadougou.

After the village, we had coffee and took a stroll through the market, where i bought some oranges. 

We returned to Pô and i killed time until my bus back to Ouagadougou. I watched some tv with the proprietor of my hotel and had a cigar while making some small talk in Franglais. 

The bus ride back was mostly in the dark and was a bit nerve-wracking, as the highway was completely dark and the landscape disappeared. The security checkpoints seemed more ominous and for a while machine gun armed soldiers in full combat gear rode with us through an area known for attacks from bandits.

After about three hours we arrived in Ouagadougou and i made my way back to my hotel, where i fell asleep, too tired for dinner.  A long but good day.

On the Road in Pô

I did something i seldom do anymore, which is i arrived in my destination without a hotel/hostel reservation. I stopped doing this after i arrived in Prague during the jazz festival and found every conceivable accommodation booked aside from the worst hotel in Europe, which did not have a shower but did have a host of bedbugs.

Anyway, i arrived in Pô from Ouagadougou after a very pleasant three hour bus journey. Unlike previous bus trips, this one was not oversold, had highly functioning AC, and i had two seats to myself from which to enjoy the view of dry landscapes, villages, and cotton fields.

Pô is a dusty little town in south Burkina Faso, near the border with Ghana. There is no reason to visit it except that it is the jumping off place to view elephants etc in the Nazinga nature reserve and to see a little village called Tiébélé. I was there for the latter. 

I left the bus depot, map in hand with three hotels noted. The first no longer existed, the second was full, but i got a room at the third. The Hotel Tiandora Esperance. It looked like it might have been ok once but now looked like a low rent motel that had barely survived a war. Dusty and broken with piles of garbage and junk. No place to eat or sit really. On the plus side, my room was clean and the AC worked well, also the guy working there, a young guy from Cote d'Ivoire with a slight mohawk, was very nice.

Getting to the hotel was a struggle. My map was a bit wrong and left me in circles on the super dusty roads, walking in a perpetual cloud of dust, like Pig Pen. The streets were mostly empty aside from donkeys, loads of pigs and goats, and lizards on every wall. It was blazingly hot and no shade to be found.
After getting my room though i felt a bit better and set off to wander after i arranged for a moto for the next morning. The town has one paved road through and the rest is just bumpy, dusty side streets. This made it easy to find things and there were a few decent places to eat, including one which had four vegetarian dishes on the menu. A miracle in a place where vegetarian usually means meat with vegetables.

As i didn't have anything else to do, i walked a lot, checking out the businesses (mostly auto repair shops and hair salons) and people watching. In Pô i seemed to attract more attention that elsewhere i have been in the country. People called out "Nasara" constantly, which means "white woman" in one of the tribal languages. I don't think it is meant in a derogatory way, as it is often accompanied with a friendly "bon arrivé", but i don't care for it. A lot of little kids ran out to say "bonjour" and shake my hand, which was always welcome.

I ate and smoked and napped and walked and smoked some more while finishing my book. There is no internet in Pô. I have been rereading "On the Road" on this trip for the first time since high school. I still like it though i found it sadder than i remember. Teenage me was captivated by the freedom and adventure. This still resonates with adult me, but so does Sal's on going unhappiness in wondering if that is all there is: uncertainty and the pursuit of "kicks". Anyway, i finished the book sitting in a chair i dragged outside, and slept well. The next day i was headed for Tiébélé.

Bus from Banfora, Burkina Faso

I left Banfora for Ouagadougou on the bus. I had hoped to bus to Bobo-Dioulasso and fly the rest of the way but there were no flights on Sunday, so i committed to a bus journey of indeterminate length. The buses here seem to leave punctually but the arrival times are vague. This is due mostly to the great number of security checkpoints, which i understand have increased. About every thirty minutes a couple of machine gun bearing soldiers will either board the bus or haul everyone off the bus to check IDs. No questions are asked. I can't figure out what they are looking for.  So this slowed down the journey a lot.

The bus was crammed with people and about half of the women had babies or toddlers on their laps, including the woman next to me. On the whole ride music and videos were played at a volume that was not extreme, but on the loud side. Decent African music in the more traditional or jazzy vein, as well as contemporary African pop music, accompanied by videos that showed women of all sizes shaking their asses, and men dressed as though they were in early 1990s rap music videos. At one point they showed the movie "Taken" in French, which i quite enjoyed; otherwise i listened to podcasts.

Every time the bus stopped women would appear and flock to the windows, selling fruits, bread, hard boiled eggs, chicken, fish, farina beignets, bags of onions, baguettes, and little sesame snacks. People leaned out of the windows, buying the food and before long the smell of body odour on the bus was replaced by a variety of food smells.

At the only stop long enough take a brief break, i dashed off the bus for the toilet, which was a squat thing which became immersed in total darkness once the door was closed. I'm fairly certain i peed on my own foot.

The seats had no legroom and i spent my time with my knees jammed into the back of the seat in front of me. There was AC, but it barely functioned, so i sat sweating the whole way.

If this all sounds like 9 hours of horror, well, while it was not pleasant, it wasn't that bad. I was able to relax. The child and woman next to me where quiet. I slept a bit. And like i said, they showed Taken.

I arrived in Ouagadougou just before sunset and hailed a taxi to my hotel (the lovely Chez Giuliana). Once there i showered vigorously and had a vegetarian pizza delivered (as there are no restaurants in the immediate vicinity). I ate my pizza and enjoyed two cigars under the stars in  courtyard before falling asleep. The next day i would be back on the bus.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Burkina Faso Village Hospitality

My final full day in Banfora started as did the day before: roosters and coffee. I made a little coffee at the house once i got over my fear of the gas stove, and then returned to the local corner cafe for an espresso. Today all of the men were filling out their racing forms. There are gambling kiosks here everywhere painted with pots of gold and horses head. People (men) bet on horse races in France hoping to win big. They din't get to see the races, not even on tv. It seems to be a popular pastime. I was asked to  assist with picking horses. The only one that jumped out at me was La Baguette Magique.

My guide picked me up on the moto and we headed on a dirt road through fields of sugar cane for Domes de Fabridougou. Similar to the Sindou Peaks i saw yesterday, but more round and less pointy. Still, it was nice to go on the hike. It was so serene and beautiful and hot, but dry. We hiked and sat on the top of a dome and took in the view and i had a smoke, trying to be in the moment as much as possible. On a dome, in Western Burkina Faso. 

We left and, much to my surprise, made a stop in my guide's village, near the domes. This is where he grew up until he was 15 and where most of his family lives, including his mother and daughters. About 25 people live in the small collection of tiny huts in the middle of the fields under a huge tree. Some smoke French, but all spoke in a local, tribal language (not Moore, something else). 

This was some serious, rural poverty. Not all the kids has clothes and those they had were in very poor repair. No water or electricity. No phone, no lights, no motorcar. But they were very friendly and hospitable. They swept off a place in the dirt, clearing it from debris, and laid out a straw mat for me to sit on. Several of the women and children started making lunch for my guide and i. While they cooked i sat and watched women tend to the children and the women and children doing each other's hair in braids. I tried to make some small talk, but mostly it was a lot of smiling.

After that my guide took me to two more unexpected stops. First was a visit to a ritual sacrifice area for the animists, of which he is one. Around a beautiful pool ringed with ricks and trees the ground was thickly carpeted in white chicken feathers.  It looked like snow. The trunk of one tall palm tree was thickly hung with ropes, which were tied on to skulls, jaw bones, goat legs, and what looked like the skin of a cow's face and head. From other trees and from the rock wall around the pool were more ropes dangling bones, skulls, and rocks.  All for sacrifice and offerings or protection. 

It was really interesting but it really looked like something out of a horror movie. Like if Leatherface and the Blairwitch collaborated on a little outdoor decorating.

Near the sacrifice area was the waterfall, which is a ridiculously picturesque series of small waterfalls and green, tropical pools. Had i been prepared i could have gone swimming. It was so beautiful it looked like something created for a film or Disneyland.

From there we went back along a particularly unnerving off road path on the moto, back to the village, where everyone had gathered for the sacrifice of a cow. When we got there the men were cutting up the carcass into pieces and the boys were washing the stomach and intestines. The women were preparing fires and vegetables. 

The meat was both cooked on sticks and boiled in water. The men ate first snd the women second, with the exception of me, who was served a mixture of rice and noodles. My guide had told them i was a vegetarian, which they found amusing but accommodated. The kids enjoyed looking at my tattoos and the photos on my camera, particularly the ones i took of them. It was an amazing experience.

I usually don't want a guide because i prefer to do things myself, but this was a time when i really could not have seen everything i did had i just been alone. 

The ride back to Banfora from the village was terrifying. It was dusk to dark. The road was so bumpy that at times i bounced off my seat. We dodged small goats, a large lizard, and regular size pigs. We brushed shoulders with herds of cows. Not only was it dark and treacherous, but it was windy and the dirt road coughed up a haze of orange. I was certain that i would die, but was delivered to my lodging safely, and quite filthy. 

I spent the rest of the evening chatting with Marion, the owner of the house at which i stayed and playing with the many kittens and puppies.

Banfora was delightful. Full of outdoorsy retreats and adventures. The next day i would return to Ouagadougou.