When I sent my friends my itinerary they scrutinized it and pointed out that I only had an hour to connect in Benin. Then came rhetorical questions about my sanity, what if I missed one of the connection flights? They also reminded me of my non-existent French language skills. So, I left Cape Town with an arm’s length list of things I shouldn’t do!
I have always wanted to travel the world, ever since I read Around the World in 80 Days by the candle light when I was 9 years old. I couldn’t make sense of half of what was going on in the book, but my imagination was ignited. I could imagine busy streets and wall-clocks 20 times bigger than the one we had outside our village church. Years later, I was introduced to my loyal friend Google who answers all the questions that I have and takes me around the world while in the comfort of my home. Having had enough of just relying on Google, I took a hard look at my pay slip and decided that to travel as much as I wanted to I needed to figure out a way of stretching my budget to its limit. I had an ‘aha’ moment, Oprah Winfrey style. Two is better than one. I have no idea why I thought two was better than one but I have a strong suspicion that the pile of magazines next to my bed and their unsolicited advice on relationships had a lot to do with it.
So, with that plan in mind I hunted down great deals for two from Cape Town to Cairo. I sent dozens of links to friends and motivated why we should go but there was always a reason why it wouldn’t happen. I stopped trying and finally had to face to hard truth. If I wanted to travel I was going to have to be bold and do it alone. So the solo project started and along the way I discovered that it was not all that bad anyway. For example, if I booked a place that looked nothing like the pictures on their website I would only have myself to blame. I wouldn’t have to apologise to anyone. I would be in total control of my pennies. Basically, I would get to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and with whomever I met along the way. Having already travelled to most Southern African countries I decided that West Africa would be my next destination. When I sent my itinerary to friends they all asked the same question as if they had rehearsed it. ‘Why would you want to go there?’ Well, this is why.
I must admit that having only one hour to transit in Benin after Congo gave me sleepless nights. I played a few scenarios in my head and the most taunting one was seeing Air Burkina take to the air just as I landed. While sitting inside an empty plane in Congo, apart from a few cleaners with no sense of urgency in their actions, I felt like offering to help them hoover the floor or anything to help them move a little faster. As the passing minutes turned into hours, 'the I told you so’ voices in my head were getting louder and louder. They had all said that I was crazy to do it and now, I was starting to believe that I was too. We had left Johannesburg 20 minutes late and so now I only had 40 minutes to connect. I told the crew members about my predicament but I was told that the airport in Benin was small and it wouldn’t take long to transit. I wasn’t convinced. Flights are scheduled for specific times and close at specific times unless something extraordinary happens, people get left behind. I decided to stop staring at the Benin local time clock and concentrate on reading my book and tried hard not to think about a cold airport bench being my bed for the night. I was sick with worry when we approached Benin but when I saw the beautifully constructed fishing nets by the lake I remembered why I had decided to book my holiday. I snapped a few pictures and I was still caught up in my own little world admiring my pictures when we landed. I only had 40 minutes to pass through immigration and check in with Air Burkina and still walk all the way to the other side of the airport. It was mission impossible. The airport was small alright but the few planes on the ground for some reason were a miles apart. Husain Bolt had nothing on my heart rate as we moved further away from the Air Burkina plane. There were no busses in sight and while I was in Ponte Noire in Congo I did observe passengers walking to catch their plane. I am all for voluntary physical fitness but I knew there was no way I could make it through immigration and still walk to the other side of the airport in less than 40 minutes. I grabbed my bag and in record time I was almost at the door when an older lady in a very colourful dress caught my eye. She was saying something in French and pointing at her bags. She clearly needed help and I could have zoomed past her and pretended that I didn’t understand what she was saying but I couldn’t. I helped her with her bags but made sure she was behind me as I raced to the exit again.
I was not heading for the door just yet, but towards one of the crew members to get them to make a call or something to make sure that I would not left behind. I was not sure if I was going to play the innocent victim, or blame them for delays and ineptitude, and wait to see if they have answers, when the lady told me that someone was waiting for me outside. I was so relieved but still not sure what news waited for me down the stairs. When I got outside I was asked for my passport and given a boarding pass and welcomed me in English. (Mind you I wanted to check in online in Johannesburg already but I was told that they did not have Air Burkina desk there). There was also a nice air-conditioned car waiting for me. I couldn’t believe my luck. I decided right there and then that I could not let anything spoil my trip. When we got to the plane there was a long queue of people boarding; a queue that for once I was happy to see and join. I would have time to breathe and wipe my forehead but I was escorted straight to front and boarded immediately. I had a few disgruntled voices but I was glad that I didn’t speak French just for that moment. My seat no was 25 D right at the back next to the bathroom. I did not care about that. I would take the seat anyway over a cold airport bench. I sat down and I knew for sure that everything from now on would be alright.
But boy was I wrong. I was still caught up with the whole VIP treatment and feeling like a celebrity when I heard loud voices coming from the front seats. This didn’t alarm me at all. By now I was used to the more lively passengers that, each time we landed, cheered and ululated, which I enjoyed very much. But there was something different about the noise coming from the front and people were starting to look outside the windows. I looked to see a few soldiers and airport security guys next to a helicopter. There was also a man on the phone having what appeared to be an angry chat and surrounded by airport security. Half an hour later I still had no idea what was going on until I asked a crew member to explain to me what was going on. He told me that someone lost 10 million CFA and the suspected thief was supposed to be on board. I imagined a strip search especially when they opened the door at the back of the plane but nothing happened. It was hot inside the plane and the little air that came through was welcomed. We were offered water and the pilot said that he did not know what would happen next. I took the water and drank it even though I felt the situation called for something a little stronger. The trip had taken a different turn but from the highest high to the lowest low but I still had hope that all would be well. Police came and almost 3 hours later we were finally allowed to leave. The pilot made an announcement and then engine started and that’s when I knew we were finally going to Burkina Faso. Then people turned to look at the back and were screaming “La Porte! La Porte!” I had no clue what they were saying, so I looked back only to see that the back door was still wide open and the plane was moving. I couldn’t help but laugh. The door was finally closed and then we were on our way. What a nice introduction to a new word in French. How can I ever forget what door is in French again?
The City Ouagadougou
I went to Ouaga, as the locals call it, with a deadly ambition. I wanted to ride on the crocodile of Bazoule’s back and leave with my limbs still attached to their rightful places. I was going to explore the city, eat its food, drink its beers, walk the streets and hunt down the markets. When I got there three hours later than scheduled, I decided to go straight to bed with air-conditioning on high speed. Before I went to bed I was told about a parade done by the Moosa King and his people every Friday from his palace. I was told that they dress in their war attire and pretend to be going to war. I had to see this but there was a catch. I had to wake up early. I set the alarm and went to sleep. Unfortunately, I overslept and I only found the King entertaining students from local schools. I joined in and listed. They recited poems and asked the King questions but it was all in French. Two hours later the King was ready to step out and there was a photo opportunity with the king and he also gave students gift bags. Inside there was a book written by the King himself and calendars. I was offered the book but I respectfully declined because I knew one of the students would have better use for the book but took some calendars. I used this to shade myself in the sun. A few minutes later a man approached me and said something and he didn’t look very happy. I couldn’t understand a word he said. I was rescued by the King’s secretary who explained that I was a tourist and didn’t speak French. The secretary explained to me that no one wears a hat in the presence of the King. I wasn’t wearing a hat but I understood and accepted my fate in the sun while I waited for my turn to take a picture. Sensing my ignorance the secretary also warned that the king doesn’t address women directly. I was taken aback when the King spoke to me. All I did was to say thank you and smile and shake his hand. With that royal handshake done I decided it was time to explore the city.
The bars and night life
Ouaga, as locals affectionately call it, is a thirsty city. I have never seen so many bars and so close to each anywhere else. I wish I could give you a nice guide into which bars to visit with GPS coordinates. But if I gave you an address and you made the mistake of visiting during the day, which is a no-no for locals, you would be greeted with a deserted space. Not one bar is buzzing with people in Ouaga during the day when the sun is at its hottest, but come night-time every corner, even ally ways, become busy bars. Welcome to the city’s night life and its pop up bars. The pop up bars fascinate me. As soon as you park your car a waiter appears out of nowhere as do tables and chairs. The bars are not very well lit as they rely on street lights and the moon, but what a great experience it is to sit under the stars and have an ice cold beer after a hot day. I did not realised how far the tables stretched until I sat down. Think of a two soccer fields merged together to form a bar. I was drinking in public, and not to be a kill joy, but I had to ask if they ever have problems with the police and they laughed at the idea of public drinking being an offense. The police there had far better things to do than chase people who are drinking beer in peace and it made sense to me too. There was no loud music just people chatting to their friends over a drink in an open space. Come day-light the place is deserted but after dark every day it turns into a pub.
The crocodiles of Bazoule
Like any sensible traveler, before you pack your bags you try and learn as much as you can about your destinations through the internet. When I was looking for things to do in Ouaga I discovered that there is a place one can visit and pose with the crocodiles. If you are brave enough you can even sit on their backs and take pictures. Apparently this is very popular with the tourists the website claimed. I was intrigued. I didn’t want to be anyone’s lunch and pictures of crocodiles devouring poor impalas along the Mara River on the National Geographic Channel kept flashing in my mind, but I jotted the activity down on my to-do-list. I was going to be more of an observer than a participant in this act that I dubbed ‘lunch special’. A day after my arrival in Ouaga I gathered all my courage and made my way to Bazoule to see these friendly crocodiles. When I got there I was quite relieved to find out that buying a chicken for the crocodiles was non negotiable. I liked the idea of a satiated crocodile but I had no idea it was live chicken until I got there! With my chosen chicken in hand, we made our way to the lake. On our way we had a quick stop to learn a little bit more about crocodiles and thank God they pictures as the lesson was in French. After a brief lecture we walked a few meters to the lake and from a distance you could see the crocodile’s heads popping up from the muddy water. They didn’t move until the guide made a sound that they seemed to know very well and responded to. He only had a stick with him to protect us if things got out of hand. They seemed to be getting bigger and bigger as they got closer. One guide was holding the chicken and I was thinking any time now would be a good time to feed them, so they can play nicely. He knew what he was doing, and saw off the excitable ones with one soft shot on the head with the stick. Then one which they said was the oldest, over 100 years old, was chosen to be my photo buddy. I got as comfortable as I could close to a crocodile and after seeing the crocodile whisperer touch the crocodiles I decided to touch it too and finally I sat on it. It was only a few seconds of snapping but what an experience it was. As soon as I posted the picture there was a flurry of questions about their dietary preference and suggestions of vegetarianism otherwise no sane person would sit on a crocodile. Some accused me of photo shopping the pictures but in all fairness, unless you are there, is no way of convincing anyone how safe I felt around a 100 year old skilled predator that survived when dinosaurs couldn’t!
As I write this I am drinking one of the last Brakina (local beer) and I know already that I will miss Ouagadougou. The city has a way of coming to life at night in a way that I have never seen before. During the day its hot, noisy and still busy but at night it’s fuller yet calmer. Everywhere you go during the day they are people rushing somewhere; kids on bicycles to or from school, mothers with children on their backs zooming around on their scooters, and people working hard despite the heat. My West African in South Africa teased me that there was nothing to see in Burkina but people sitting and drinking beer and I say they deserve it. I have to come back to this city and not only for my selfish reasons and undying love for the local beer, but also for the crocodiles of Bazoule. I still owe a few other photo buddies lunch after all!