Friday, November 21, 2008


We haven't had the time or energy to post at length about the second part of our trip in Burkina, but we're working on it (perhaps we should take a position in city management with the type of response we give you folks). So, to sate your imagination's appetite, here's a teaser

(Pictures to come.....internet sucks today!)

A vignette

This happened to me. . .

Being surmesi, Katie and I tend to garner a lot of attraction in Bongo. No matter what time of day, or how many other times we may have seen the same people, they always want to stop us and ask us how we've been. The more time we spend here, the less and less interested certain people seem to be in us, but for the most part, we are always new and fascinating and exotic. And then market day happens.

For the uninitiated, there aren't supermarkets here like there are in the States, and the things people call "supermarkets" are nothing more than wooden shacks that can be locked up at night so that you can leave your wares behind instead of lugging them to and from your house on a daily basis. Being that they are more secure, they also tend to have a larger variety and bigger quantities of various consumables, which also bring a larger margin (a can of coca cola is nearly one dollar). These supermarkets aren't frequented as much as the open-air market, where people get their produce and other everyday items, and neither are as popular as the open-air market is on Market Day.

In Bongo, Bolgatanga, and the surrounding area vendors come to hawk their wares every three days. I've been told that they travel as bands to different regions across the northern parts of Ghana and into Burkina to exploit the fact that not every region observes Market Day on the same day, but I don't know enough Fra-fra to ask for verification, nor do they know enough english to answer me (though you'll come to find that they feel their english is better than mine). Along with the assorted produce, Chinese-made goods and animals, these caravans of traveling vendors also seem to bring in a fair amount of crazy. If it isn't sold, then it is given away for free, because it always seems to be more concentrated every three days.

My first encounter with "Market-Day Crazy" was probably two months or so ago. As I entered the area, I happened across a group of men between the ages of 20 and 25. I was sighted, signified by a wave of chatter among the 10 of them. The one in the lead greeted me in the typical way: "Good evening! How are you?" but before I could respond he asked if I would like to join in him a game of chinese. Before I could answer, which was delayed since I was waiting for the word "checkers" to come out of his mouth, he began to mimic, in his stance and vocalization, the most generalized martial arts film imaginable. I declined, and heard only their laughter as I walked away.

Last Sunday was the most recent Market Day (as of writing this), and on my way to buy eggs and bread I was stopped by two men whom I had never seen. One was about five feet tall, bearded, and built like he would have made a fine tree trunk. The other man spoke like he had a permanent case of laryngitis coupled with the apparent need to force the air through his voice box before any sound would be formed. He would have been as tall as me if he had both his legs and didn't have to rely on his crutches. They both had the worn faces of men who worked long and hard in the field, and when they made me shake their hands it was easy to verify my assumption.

"Hello! Welcome to Bongo! How are you liking our village?" the man with the crutches says as he extends his hand toward me. I take it. We shake. He moves closer to me, entering the zone in which I start feeling uncomfortable. I'm not sure whether to attribute this to the fact that he seems uncomfortable on his crutches, or that he wants me to smell what he has had for breakfast (beer). Unfortunately, there is nowhere to back into.

While the road that leads to the market from Faustina's house is wide enough to accommodate motorcycles and pedestrians at the same time, the entrance to the marketplace bottlenecks sharply, the two offending houses create a narrow alley. It's evident enough from looking at it, but this doesn't stop the motorcycles from zooming into and out of it, the elderly from walking in the middle of it with arms outstretched, or the unbelievably drunk from approaching the innocent and hapless surmesi.

Before I could answer, the shorter man, whom I will affectionately call "Tree Trunk," decided to also give his welcome. "Hello! Welcome to Bongo! How are you liking our village?" to which a third man responds "Hello! Welcome to Bongo! How are you liking our village?". It would be understandable if they had said it in unison, or if they were filming for Candid Camera: Bongo, but they were only drunk.

The conversation went on and on like this, the only departure from their cyclical and mirrored questions being when Tree Trunk told me, after trying to get a response in, said
I am sorry. I do not understand what you are saying. There is nothing wrong with Korean. It is a fine language, but if you could please speak Enlglish, or maybe speak your Korean a little slower, it would be fine. Very fine. You look like a strong man, so please, try to understand our language, or our English, but Korean is also fine, but not for us.
I'm sure he would have continued along this path had it not been for the man on crutches and his interjection to explain that I was indeed speaking english. At this they began to argue, and the focus, for the time being, was off of me and onto themselves. I slipped away unscathed.

Ze Germans

As of Halloween (I know we're late, but we're pretty busy despite the impression we try to give) we have new flat mates at Hotel Faustina. Have a look!

(Picture to come soon....internet sucks today!)

From left to right they are Robert and Andreas. I'm not sure how common a name "Andreas" is in Germany, but he is the third one Katie and I have heard about from Faustina alone. The both are here as volunteers from one of the local primary schools, the former for Social Studies and the latter for English Literature (though I'm not sure how much literature is taught in primary school). They have related to us that teaching in Ghana isn't quite as straightforward as one would think. The lack of books, teaching materials, and teachers make schooling quite a chore, even more so than they expected. But they seem to be weathering the storm just fine, however beat up they feel during the day.

A little history on them: they are Germans, but seem to identify themselve more as Bavarians than Germans. They tell us the differences between them and the Northern Germans are quite clear. The techno-loving nihilists from The Big Lebowski (their reference, not mine) are more the stereotype of northern Germans. Also they are more serious and fun to fuck with when they decide to vacation in Bavaria. It is, perhaps, a regional pastime since they have been doing it since they were young boys. If there were an oversimplified idea of a Bavarian, it would be this (note: the following information represents what has been culled from many conversations from the two of them):
The modern Bavarian is never serious, except when it is required, but it is mostly never required among friends. They all have nicknames, ranging from "Baby" to "Steamy" (drunk) to things that should not be repeated. Ever. They like their Traditional music (the likes of which can be heard at the nearest Oktoberfest), and loathe the bullshit music they play on the radio. Also, they loathe techno. Also, they loathe any music from Germans since most modern music sucks. They are technology-loving people, and they are intrinsically tied to their tradition. If they smell a northern German in Bavaria, that person will be fucked with. They are stubborn. They are happy.

I think that should sum it up. They pretty friggin' awesome.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Burkina, Part the First

It’s been a long time, and it’s a good thing that we didn’t promise to write from Burkina because we would have had to break it given a few things: 1) Burkinab√© food is awesome and we only wanted to eat when we got into the country (though we really only sampled a few of the local specialties, namely baguettes, brick-oven pizza, homemade ice cream, couscous, yogurt, and second-hand smoke), 2) internet connections in Burkina are spotty at best, even in the high-class 5-star hotels we frequented, 3) we usually try to get to the internet in part ecause we had no clue how the election was going, but since there was no escaping the fervor over the president elect we actually welcomed a break from the news.

But let us start the story with a basic tutorial of how not to travel to Ouaga from Bolga. First, don’t ask the local Ghanaians how to get there. I think everyone told us “It’s easy, just take a shared taxi from Bolga.” Let me rephrase: never trust a Ghanaian when they start a set of instructions with “it’s easy”. I still have no idea if this “shared taxi” they spoke of exists. We had a Ghanaian from town in Bongo who was going to be in Bolga the morning we left arrange the taxi. Well, he chose one that did not want to go to Burkina, who haggled the price with us, and then when we got to the border and he could not continue did not look all that surprised...I think he even said he expected as much (maybe this is the reason why he filled up his gas tank before we got there, a tank we ended up paying for). What were all the price negotiations about then, I have no f-ing idea!

Second: it would be advisable to have some local currency on you or, if you are going to negotiate with the black market traders, to have some knowledge of what the going rates are. I kinda knew, but was unaware that no one else did, and I was not involved in the negotiations at that point. So, in all honesty, I have no idea how much the trotro from the boarder to Ouga actually cost because Matt took responsibility for the whole transaction (way to take one for the team).

Third: If you are changing money at the boarder anyway, it is usually advisable to change a little extra so that one would have some money in their pocket...we of course did not do this. So, we arrive in Ouga, hire a taxi and then have him take us to the banks to withdraw money or in Mo and mine’s case, exchange cedis. So, of course it is a Friday, 30 minutes before the bank is supposed to close, so naturally it is closed already, right? Now all four of us are relying on Andrea to get some money using her bank card, which is repeatedly denied. Crap! Then, at a small Western Union I was able to exchange the only American dollars I had, all 30 of them, so that we could have some money in our pocket and at least pay for the cab. By the way, we totally got a shit deal on that exchange.

Fourth: Generally, upon arriving to a big city, one should know where they are staying, but we did not. Andrea had arranged for us all to stay with a Ghanaian (T.K.) she knew who would be selling at SIAO, but, she did not know where said residence was. So, now with no money, we had to bribe the ticket lady to give us two tickets so that Andrea and Matt could go find T.K. while Mo and I sat outside as collateral. Only after an hour had passed did they return. Of course, we had not paid for the taxi yet because we wanted to hold onto him (since he was nice) just in case we needed to find a hotel.

The first day ended a lot better than it started since we were able to borrow money and found the lady who would be hosting us, so all in all we couldn’t really get too upset since the best time to be had in all of West Africa was about to begin. . . but more on that in another post! (Don’t you like how we’re serializing the Burkina Chronicles? It’s like, we need to have these R. Kelly-esque “cliffhangers” to keep you enticed, so stay tuned for the midget! And if you have no clue at all what the hell we’re talking about, you’d better rent Trapped in the Closet before I pull out my 9).

Meanwhile, back in Ghana . . . Katie and I had our first successful test using some of the homemade devices we plan to using for water sampling . . . we’ll post a detailed list as soon as we know everything works as well as we want it to, so don’t feel like we’re leaving you in the dark . . . we’re just not ready for the world premiere. We’ll be conducting field tests for the rest of this week and into next so expect that to come soon.

And in other news, it looks like we’ll be moving back to Austin since Mr. Obama won the presidency . . . 
Texas – 1, Iceland – 0.