Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Peaks, domes, waterfalls and hippos. Banfora is surely the place to go!

And continuing…

So when Pam pulled up in a sweet almost new looking Rav4 SUV, and I knew it would be at the least, a comfortable trip. We left following the embassy driver through the maze of streets that is Ouagadougou. We passed the peage and the open road stretched out before us. We drove for over 2 hours before getting to Koudougou. It is normally an hour and a half drive, but Pam hasn’t driven much in Burkina outside of Ouaga and so we progress at a slightly slower speed than what the Embassy driver normally goes at. When we get to Koudougou we first have to stop at the chamber of commerce. Pam has to go in and meet with some people so Chelsea, her daughter who is in 6th grade, and I wait outside for her.

Note I sat up front for the whole trip. I asked Chelsea where she wanted to sit and she said she preferred the back. That was fine with me. I had some very nice conversations with Pam and the hours seemed to go by rather quickly. However, I was pretty tired from my lack of sleep the night before and would have liked at least a short nap. But, hey, who really needs to sleep anyway… We finally arrive at the meeting center and crowd is assembling inside. We wait about another half hour and then a procession of people, including Pam, enter and sit at the very nice half moon shaped table. Very official looking. Everyone has to acknowledge the special guests and give some sort of opening speech. When this finishes they all file out. I sit there thinking, was that it? It kinda seemed like a meeting, but it was surprisingly short. But oh no no. That was just the opening and the important people had just stepped outside to get their photo taken. Myself being an aspiring photographer I stepped outside as well and snapped some photos. Then the real meeting started. Several people gave PowerPoint presentations which were all pretty succinct and well put together. They should have been darn it, it was US State Department sponsoring it… After the powerpoints they have a question and answer session. The funny thing about Q and A in Africa is sometimes people stand up and talk for literally 15 minutes as the “question” but by the end you are left thinking and what was the question again? The content of the meeting was interesting, informing people how to export goods to the US. The thing that kept me awake though was that I decided I would be the official unofficial photographer. So I walked around and took pictures while people were talking, ect. I got some nice shots and it will be nice to give them to Pam.

The meeting ended about 12:45ish. We didn’t leave the center until 1:15 and from there we weren’t headed to Bobo yet, instead we were going to get lunch with the group. I can’t complain though. I was pretty hungry and I knew the food will be free… So we go and have lunch. I get to talk in French which is fun and rewarding, and the food is, well, African food, well prepared but lacking variety. Lunch wrapped up quicker than I thought possible and we were on the road to Bobo by 2:30. This sounds good except that Koudougou isn’t exactly on the road to Bobo. There is a shortcut, but we decided to stick to the paved roads which meant back tracking 30 minutes to get to the fork in the road. Up until this point we were still following the Embassy driver, but at the fork we split off. Then we were really on our own. We have just under 300km to go, but it is still a bit worrisome. We reached the halfway point at 4:15ish, with 178km to go I wonder if we will make it before nightfall which is obviously the goal. Thankfully, the road for the second half of the journey is really nice and Pam can go a bit faster. We got to Bobo at 6:15 just as it was getting to be dusk. Talk about just making it! I would like to mention that as we were driving to Bobo it rained. Really rained! It was amazing ;)

Once in Bobo, we went straight to our hotel, L’Auberge and checked in. We left for dinner pretty soon after, not wanting to be out too late. At first we thought we would just walk around and find a place, but that clearly wasn’t going to work, so I racked my brain remembering what was on the map in the guide book. I got us to a place L’eau Vive, that I went to the last time I was there, but being Easter weekend and given the place is run by Nun’s, needless to say it was closed. I did, however, think to ask the guard to direct us to a place called Le Mande I read about and knew was close by. He introduces us to a young punk kid who says he will take us there. A bit iffy, but still nothing to worry about. We start walking and I know we have to go over one more block and he leads us across a smaller side street. Obviously the most direct route, but I must admit I was a bit nervous. There were a bunch of people around in any case. We are almost to the end and Pam starts saying if it isn’t like right here she wants to turn around. I agree with her, and ask our guide how much farther it is. He points just to the right and I see the sign for the restaurant. Saved! Once there I insist on him taking 200CFA for payment. He doesn’t want to take it and I know it is because he wants to get us to go to a dance club after wards and wants to be a friend rather than a guide. Well, we didn’t want a friend so I paid him.

All I can say is the food was excellent and worth the intrepid journey there. I also knew in my head how to go back and noted a well light street one block up. On our way back that is how we went. For dinner I ordered a salad which turned out to be very good indeed. For dessert Pam ordered a yogurt and I was like yeah whatever, but when they brought it out we learned it wasn’t just any yogurt but awesome yogurt. We vowed to return the next day for dessert again! On the way back to the hotel I notice we are just blocks away from the bakery that the guide book raves about, making a mental resolve to go there for breakfast in the morning. Back at the hotel I read for a while and then fell asleep pretty effortlessly, even though my room was a bit hot in spite of my leaving the A/C on. I guess the unit just doesn’t work that well.

We said we would try to leave the hotel at 7:00, go get breakfast and head out. Well I knock on Pam and Chelsea’s door at 7:00 and they are both in their PJs still. Pam had a crazy night and couldn’t get up. I guess the sister of someone who was at the meeting we went to wanted to meet with Pam. They had called during dinner, but never showed up. Well, long story short Pam gets confused into thinking another woman is the one she is looking for and then only discovers it is not her when the lady who she is really supposed to meet calls her on her cell phone. Talk about freaky! Anyway, Pam ends up having to sit and talk with family until like midnight… After hearing about the craziness of her night I say I will just go down by the pool and read while I wait for them. Which is what I did. For breakfast we went to the great bakery which has a restaurant attached to it too. I ordered an omelet and had them serve it on a baguette like Susan had it in Ouaga. My oh my was it wonderful. It really hit the spot. Sidenote, all over Burkina you signs for this new brand of fruit juice made in Burkina. It is nicely packaged and apparently tastes great. However, I read the label and see it is only 25% real fruit juice to which I think to myself, how can you still call it fruit juice! As a result of my disgust for this low percentage of real fruit juice, I have decided to boycott the new brand. No pulling the wool over my eyes. After breakfast I swing by the local Marina Market and get some cheese and ham pate to have on two baguettes for lunch. We pulled out of Bobo at 8:30. The 85 km trip took us about an hour and a half. It really makes we wish we weren’t staying in Bobo on Saturday night. The back and forth two days in a row seemed a bit taxing for me as a passenger; I can’t imagine driving it. But Pam wanted to stay in Bobo at the same hotel all three nights and she was the driver. I must admit it was a very nice hotel though. The biggest plus was they had wifi. But at 20,000CFA + a night they had better have wireless.

Once in Banfora we stopped at the hotel called La Canne a Sucre where we picked up a guide. The road to the Sindou Peaks is a dirt road and we aren’t sure we will be able to find it. However, it turns out it is really simple to get to, but it was still nice to have a guide. For not having arranged for anything beforehand I was pretty impressed with our ability to show up and within 10 minutes have a guide in our car ready to direct us to our destination.

We stopped along the way and saw these basket weaving ladies who sit and weave in deep holes hollowed out of the ground. The dampness and humidity keep the reeds from snapping. I was able to climb down which was cool. I bought two baskets; one, because they were dirt cheap and two because I saw how they were made and met the women who made the baskets which makes them more significant somehow. The Peaks were another 50km from Banfora. We made good time getting there, but as we were driving I am definitely questioning in my head if these rock formations were worth the drive.

The landscape is pretty basic African plains, but with much more green than in Ouagadougou. Being to the south of the country, Bobo and Banfora get much more rain a have lusher scenery. So we were driving along and then out of now where this rock formation cropped up. The peaks were amazing. They seem kind of other worldly really. They were these spindly sand formations that rise up a good 40 to 50 ft into the air. You first ascend a rather defined step pathway and from there, once you are at the top, there are endless paths to explore. Chelsea really liked looking around. More than the peaks themselves though I think I was more enchanted by the view. Overlooking the plains from high above, seeing the barren fields dotted with palm trees, the green rice paddies lining the river banks, and livestock rooming free just tiny specks of color; the green canopy meeting the sky creating a breathtaking horizon. As I stand looking out I think “This is Africa”. This is the Africa I picture in my mind and it is beautiful. We hiked around a bit taking it all in. I could sense I guide wanted to leave, but whatever. He had been there over 50 times this was our one and probably only chance to soak it all in. So we stayed until we had our fill ;)

On the way back to Banfora we stopped at The Lake of Sacred Hippos. I was skeptical but agreed to go. As long as were coming back to see the waterfalls the next day I didn’t care. However, I have to say I ended up really enjoying the Hippo Lake. First off when we got there we decided to have lunch before striking out on the water in the little pirogue. As we were sitting getting things together, there was all of the sudden a big commotion. I quickly gathered from what they were saying that a cow had fallen into a hole. At first I tried to act uninterested. But really, have you ever seem a cow in a hole. I thought they meant like a large foundation size type hole. Oh no. It was a hole about 3 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. It was actually the pit dug out for a pit latrine the owner was planning to build. So my curiosity gets the better of me and I head over to look at the spectacle. Sure enough there is this huge ox, really, crumpled up at the bottom of this well. Pam decides she needs to try and help and offers to let them tie a rope to her car and she will try and pull it out. Mind you this cow weighs probably close to a half ton. I am doubtful, but supportive. Pam tries it, but no luck. I can’t say I’m surprised at this. She tries again and after getting her engine smoking but good, she stops and offers her apologies for not being more helpful. The village people are really nice about it and are actually very touched she offered to help. Later the villagers all got together and pulled the cow out. They did what the car couldn’t do…

After the cow in the well incident we finally finished up lunch and went for our boat ride. The paddle guide was really a nice kid and we saw two hippos. We got close enough to see them quite clearly, but not too close that I felt in any danger. According to the guide there are not aggressive unless they have a baby they want to protect. Thankfully these hippos were sans children. As we are out on the lake I hear thunder which is an unfamiliar sound for me here, but a wonderful reminder of the promise of rain in Ouaga when the rainy season comes.

When we finally have enough of the Hippo Lake and turn down a chance to see a Sacred Baobob, we head for Banfora to drop off our guide and then it was off for Bobo. We had to leave between 4:00 and 4:30 at the latest to get back to Bobo before dark. We made it back in much less time than it took to get there. I even had time to jump in the pool and swim a bit before we went to dinner. Dinner on Saturday was at the Watinoma; a restaurant that François, the Embassy assistant, recommended. I track down directions and lead us there as the declared trip navigator. I like navigating actually and love maps. I have a good sense of direction and can draw out paths in my head. This is a very useful skill to have, especially in places where there are no street names. For dinner we order two pizzas, one of which is a special order ham and pineapple one. It wasn’t on the menu and we only described to them what we wanted, so weren’t sure what we would end up with. However, I am happy to report they did a great job with the pizzas. Not anything to write home about, errr…well I guess it was as I am writing about it now, but still good. Afterwards, true to our word we went back to Le Mande for a yogurt dessert. Luckily it was right around the corner from the Watinoma.

The yogurt was so good! Like frozen yogurt almost, just softer and not quite as cold. I can only imagine how much sugar it contained… I read for a while on Saturday night before going to sleep. The book I was reading called Water for Elephants is really very good and I wasn’t too tired to read so I stayed up.

Sunday morning did not feel like Easter at all. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the day we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death. We got up and left the hotel at 7:00 as planned. This time we went to a different place for breakfast; a place the guide book suggests has really good yogurt (different place than Le Mande, our first yogurt score). The yogurt here is much cheaper and even better in than the other place. Unlike most of the yogurt you get here in Ouaga this stuff was really thick and creamy. Yum! I also ordered a slice of the “Diplomate” pie looking thing. They couldn’t explain to me what is was but it looked good. So feeling adventurous, I bought it. It turns out is was bread pudding and went great with the yogurt. Score two for Sara and good breakfasts. After breakfast we went and picked up another girl who is the daughter of an Embassy worker. While she and Chelsea aren’t really friends per say we thought it would be nice to invite her, otherwise she would be stuck at her hotel all day. So after picking her up we made tracks to Bobo again. This time the drive goes faster. It also helps that the Domes and Waterfalls we want to see are close to the town unlike the peaks which were another hour away.

After the ease and success of Saturday’s expedition we decided we didn’t need to get a guide on Sunday. Besides these places are much closer, how hard can they be to find? Wrong. Unlike the road to the peaks which was a treelined colonial route, the domes and the falls are hidden pretty well. We kept driving and driving, occassionally stopping and asking people to point us in the right direction. We drove in the general direction of the mountain which seemed like a good idea. As we were driving though we realized we were smack in the middle of a sugar cane plantation. Nice. We were all still pretty calm, but I could tell we were all wishing we knew where to go. Then finally we happened across a tree lined road… so we took that road and thankfully found a sign pointing us to the domes and the falls.

We came across the domes first. So we stopped paid our entrance fee and hiked up the short path to the plateau. At first I wasn’t all that impressed, but the longer we stayed and more adventurous we got climbing up the domes the cooler they became. They weren’t quite as other worldy as the peaks, but they still seemed quite out of place. From the domes we ask the guy to point us in the direction of the falls. He gives us instructions and this time we are able to locate them. I still don’t know how we found these places, and I don’t know if I could find them again any easier if I went back a second time.

The falls were beautiful. We parked the car and hiked up a trail again. We got to the main area and had a nice little picnic of bread and cheese, a lovely pastry and some mangos we picked up from the lady selling them there. The only thing about the place was that it was terribly littered! You couldn’t take a step without encountering a discarded plastic bag or sardine can. Pam and I are pretty appalled by this and decide we will start cleaning it up. The other tourists there and guides are at first dumbstruck by what we were doing. Then they started to thank us and then others joined in. Pretty soon there were 5 people picking up garbage and when we were done the place looked great. What a difference it makes to do something and not just complain. The guides who helped us said they would talk to the people who run the place about getting a garbage can up there and cleaning up the rest of the stuff we missed. It just seems unbelievable that people have such disregard for nature. I think part of the problem was also that there was so much garbage already it didn’t seem like a big deal to add to it… it’s the mentality of “Well everybody else has done it, why shouldn’t I?”

After lunch and the trash pick up we went and played under the water falls. I didn’t think it was a great idea what with the risk of possible parasites and such, but my logic was forced to take a backseat to fantasy of playing under the waterfalls in Africa. It was great fun and the water was so refreshing. I wasn’t in for a long time and I hope nothing comes of it, but there is always a risk. We ended up staying at the falls for like 3 hours. We met a nice European couple who work Niger with the European Union. It turned out the guy is in charge of their water projects. I gave him my email and I hope to stay in touch with him. He seemed like he really knew what was going on. We actually ended up following them out back to Banfora. They had a guide and we decided it was better to follow them than try and find our own way back. The prospect of getting lost and not making it back to Bobo in time was not all that appealing. The road they took was crazy! It was truly offroading and it put the shocks and Pam’s driving to the test. It went well though. She did a great job and it was great to have someone to follow.

Once we got back to the main road in Banfora we started the final return trip to Bobo. We got back before dark, always a good thing. I went and found directions to the restaurant I had been really wanting to go to called Le Zion. It is on the outskirts of town and hard to find, but I saw a poster advertising some concerts they were hosting and there were directions at the bottom. So after I showered and before I was supposed to meet Pam and Chelsea I walked down to the bakery to have a good look at the sign and write down the directions and phone number. We set off in search of Zion, but couldn’t find it. We found the water tower in the directions mention, but that was it. So I called the number to the place and in French, thank you very much, arranged to meet the owner by the water tower to follow her back to the place. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but her vehicle was impossible to miss; it was a big van painted all over with pictures and words promoting the Le Zion.

I should mention the owner is a French woman who married a Burkinabe man. She is a French gourmet chef and he is a musician. So they have this great place called Le Zion where the food is superb and there is almost always live music at night. While it was hard to find, it was well worth the hassle. The food was great. I ordered the capitane lasagna. They also had strawberry juice, so I had to try that and a mango milkshake for dessert. So good.

A funny little sidenote is that there were two little kids hanging out there. You could tell they were, Camille, the owner’s sons. The little boy who was probably about 4 was so adorable. He came over and put his sunglasses on my face and then used our straws to make himself into an elephant using the straws as tusks :) The really amazing part was just as the music started going the kid falls asleep on some floor cushions spread out under the cabana. It was like the music lulled him to sleep. It was traditional African music, so I didn’t really get the lulling feel right away, but after a while I could see how it might put someone to sleep.

After dinner we went back to the hotel for the last night. We decided to start our day on Monday at 7:30, going to the same place for breakfast as Sunday; the one with the good yogurt. On the way I stop and get a pain au raisin from the good bakery. It looks amazing, but is actually a bit of a disappointment in flavor. Oh well. From here we walked around and looked at the Old Mosque. Frankly I wasn’t impressed. It was built in 1890, which isn’t even all that old. By 1890 there were skyscrapers in Chicago and here they were still building with mud brick, which they are still building with today. But whatever.

We paid our hotel bill and went off looking to enjoy some of the national cultural festival. We saw some traditional fighting, which seemed a lot like wrestling. We went in and found we were like the only women in the crowd and the only white people for that matter. But hey, what can you do? So we stayed for a bit, but then decided to try and find some other exhibits. We went to the French Cultural center and found a few book vendors, but this still wasn’t the main center of the festival. After asking like 5 people we finally figured out were we had to go. So, we drive across town…again. This time we found the main market area of the festival. I was expecting dancing and traditional music, but instead all we found were very pushy vendors and loud music played by cell phone promoters and banks. It was ridiculous. I did find some wooden salad tongs and ended up buying them. I probably paid more than I should have for them, but it was hot and I was flustered. Needless to say we didn’t stay long at the festival. After shaking off the last vendor we beelined it to the car and hit the road back to Ouaga. We left Bobo at 11:30ish. The drive back was without incident. I was able to read some of my book as well which was nice. We stopped in Boromo, the halfway point, for lunch. The stop took about an hour, but we needed the break. I was back at my house by 5:30 which is pretty good time considering the long stop as well.

I only had like 60 pages left in my book so when I got home I went into my living room sat down and finished it. Reading the book I got lost in the story, not even aware anymore that I was reading. Those are the best kinds of books. I was considering seeing Leanna that night, but didn’t feel like going out and she didn’t really want to come over so instead I went to my office and talked to my Mom. The trip was all in all fantastic. I was not so ready or happy about going back to work, but there isn’t much I can do about that. The only thing I am worried about is my face is kind of itchy. Around my chin was itchy starting on Saturday and I even noticed on Friday that the edge of my upper lip felt funny. Anyway, by Monday night my face was definitely reacting to something. I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything hoping it would clear up in the morning. At first I was afraid it was something from the waterfall waters, but then I remember the symptoms started showing up before then.

Monday morning I look in the mirror and my face is still reacting. But now it is even itchier. I go to work anyway and do my business as usual. I can’t help but notice though that my face feels really hot and going out in the sun make it worse. In the morning I wash out filter one, again, hoping it will help get the high coliform counts under control. I also measure the large sand filter flow rate and see that it dropped considerably. The prefilter level was up and somehow leaves got in the basin again. I planned to have Pierre clean it out in the afternoon, but I forgot about it as I was trying to get my MES test done and prepare the chemicals for the test I want to run today, Wednesday.

For lunch I went to the cafeteria to say goodbye to Pascal. He was leaving for Bobo for two and a half months to do his memoir. I am actually quite happy about that. I thought he was already gone, but when I ran into him the night before I learned out I was mistaken. Anyway, the sauce on the rice at lunch was really good! It was some onion sauce that I don’t remember having before. Things were pretty uneventful and since Pascal was leaving on a two o’clock bus he couldn’t stay long which was fine. However, he brought with him some papers he had printed out. At first I didn’t think anything of it, but then he showed them to me and they were about me! He had googled my name… And apparently there is a lot of information about me online. Darn all those impressive awards I received. This was a bit concerning and somewhat stalker-ish so I tried to act somewhat unfriendly about it and shrugged the whole thing off. Ugh. Since I had seen him around very infrequently for the last few months I thought all this had passed, but I guess not. I think it is time to be frank and tell him to bugger off.

Anyway, continuing on with my day…in the afternoon I just finished with the chemical preparations and washing my bottles to have them sterilized when 5:00 o’clock rolled around and it was time for my French lesson. I like my lessons, but man I hate how I have to stop what I am doing for them… But as I said I just finished with things when my teacher showed up so that was good. It was actually during the lesson I realized I forgot about seeing Pierre about the prefilter. Doah! At that point there was nothing I could do and it would have to wait until tomorrow. I worked so hard and so long all day that I was wiped by the end.

Leanna came over to hang out around 6:45ish because we hadn’t had a chance to catch up for a whole week! We sat and chatted for a while and then decided to go grab dinner somewhere since I didn’t feel like cooking anything and I didn’t have much to work with at that. We originally planned to go to the Petites Delices but changed our minds and instead tried out the Austrian restaurant next door. It was good. Reasonable prices and air conditioning, what more could you want. And the food was great. I ordered a spinach strudel which I would highly recommend. It came with a spicy cucumber slaw that went great on the strudel.

I came home wrote the first half of this post then cashed in for the night. Praying my face would be fine the morning. Oh, two other points to note from Monday 1. I chatted online with Bonnie which was awesome. Great to hear from her… and 2. Katha put some pictures from Easter with family online which I got to see! Yeah!

I want to end the post here and get back to work, but I can’t leave you hanging. So I will just go ahead and keep typing. This morning when I woke up I knew there was something wrong with my face. My eyes felt puffy and my face stiff. Sure enough I look in the mirror and the face I see was not happy. My eyes were super puffy above and below. The eyelids created concentric half circles. I remained calm, but quickly went to my office and looked some stuff up online. Again, somewhat concerned it is something serious. However, instinctively I think it is an allergic reaction and not something like a parasite. It is a rash and a reaction of sorts. Anyway, I go to see the nurse. Ever been to a medical place in a foreign country and have to speak a foreign language with the nurse? Yeah. That’s what I thought. The great thing was the nurse was really nice. She wrote me a prescription for an antihistamine medication and crème to apply. She also did all the stuff with my insurance papers. I have coverage with my job which is great. I didn’t think I would ever need it but I guess you never know which is why it is good to have. Once I got the prescription I wasted no time in going over to the pharmacy. I paid roughly a dollar fifty for my medicine and headed home. At home I read everything carefully. Thankfully there was information in French and English! So I take the pill and apply the cream. It seems like it is working. I will keep you up to date. I cancelled my tennis lesson for today and stayed home this morning finishing this post and staying out of the sun.

Thinking back over the weekend there are so many possibilities of what could have caused it. Could have been the soap at the hotel, the pillow which seemed a bit odd, the sheets, I went swimming in the pool there as well. I used some of Pam’s sunscreen on my face, ate fish, many mangos and other foods… It is pretty much impossible to determine what has caused it and honestly I don’t care. I just want it to go away! Final note: my housemates are officially moving out this week. The exchange about that information went really well and I can tell our talk the week before was definitely beneficial.

Pictures of the trip coming tomorrow!

Over and Out.