Friday, September 5, 2008

Point A to Point B

The Wonderful World of Transportation
People at home often ask me how I get from place to place, whether I've had a chance to travel around Burkina and other nearby countries, and how far I am from things like telephones and real toilets. Transportation is one of the more varied aspects of life here in Burkina Faso, one that I deal with frequently, so I thought I'd use a blog entry to give those of you at home a glimpse of how we get around here…First and foremost is the most obvious method: your own two feet. No one in villages owns a car, very few have motorcycles, and there is often only one bike per family. So, that means if Dad rode the bike to the fields for the day, and Mom has to get to the market 10 miles away to sell the veggies she grew, she’s going to be walking. And because most women have a small child almost all the time (family planning is a little slow in catching on), Mom will usually have a kid strapped to her back, with her load of stuff balanced on her head for the duration of the walk.

After walking, the most common way to get around is by bike, but don’t let this conjure up images of spandex shorts and Lance Armstrong. I’m lucky to have a decent American bike, but for the Burkinabe, there are no helmets, one gear only, and almost never any brakes. Bikes are repaired over and over again by village mechanics, and often look like they’re about to collapse underneath the rider. This isn’t helped by the condition of the roads, which are pretty horrendous, during the rainy season in particular. Pushing one’s bike through deep mud and water, then riding it over what feels like a cobblestone street in the aftermath of an earthquake doesn’t do much for bike upkeep. Below is a picture of me on the road to my village, notice the multiple vehicles stuck in about 2 feet of mud behind me. After that is the makeshift mechanic’s “shop,” where you can stop and (attempt to) get your bike fixed when necessary.

Donkey carts are also an option, and often used to carry loads too large for a bike. Way too large….poor donkeys

Some families have a moto, which is either a motorcycle, or more often, a moped kind of thing. In the cities, this is how a lot of people get around. Unfortunately, the combination of bad roads, no helmets, and bad drivers means that more people are killed in accidents each year than malaria and AIDS combined. Scary. But don’t fret, Mom, I ride motos infrequently, and always wearing a huge white helmet that makes me look like a stormtrooper.

For longer trips, People take buses, which range from nicer greyhound-type buses to tiny vans packed with 4 people to each 2-person seat, screaming babies, and sometimes various animals. Here’s the inside of the vehicle I sometimes take to get to my site.
If there isn’t an official bus or van route to get some place, the final option is to catch a ride on top of a camion. Easier said than done. Camions are huge cargo trucks that transport animals, produce, and various other things. After the truck has been fully loaded, people clamber up the sides and perch on the very top, clinging to the sides for balance, about 12 feet from the ground. I did this once, and was fairly convinced I was going to die throughout the ride, where each bump threatened to send me flying off of my perch and onto the ground below. To give you an idea of what a camion looks like, see the picture below and then imagine it fully loaded up to the top, with about 20 people sitting on top of all the cargo, and along the sides of the truck. Here, the cargo happens to be mangoes, which are being loaded up in my village.

I tend to rely mostly on my trusty bike to get around, and avoid crowded buses whenever possible. The concept of forming a line to board the bus doesn’t exist here, and it turns into an awful free-for-all, with people shoving and elbowing to get a spot. For all the above reasons, I’m thinking that getting on the plane for my trip home is going to feel like luxuy accommodations. Speaking of which, I will be in NYC October 14-16/17, and then Vermont until November 3rd. I’d love to see as many people as possible, so anyone should feel free to give me a call if you want to witness the non-pasty version of Moco in person.
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