Sunday, 30 April 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Ouagadougou'

We’re in the heart of Africa. At the southern edge of the Sahara. Burkina Faso. Ouagadougou… as the locals fondly call it; Ouaga (as in Waga).


0545 hrs. A Sunday morning, October 2016.  Shall we get straight to the run? My guide & chauffeur this morning… 'C’est Paul'. Quick intros, in French, with Paul, confirms language will be a barrier. Merde, “Allons y...”
A storyline is far more romantic with a motorbike, or perhaps a submarine in the plot. Burkina is landlocked and OK this isn't a Harley, but it'll do the job. Remember, you're all on this bike with me...
We splutter eastwards into the rising sun. My 'plan', such as it is; a quick tour of Ouaga, then drop me (us) 4 or 5 miles away and we'll jog back and take brekkie together in the 'Laisse Faire' Hotel (official name - Laico Hotel). This is my third morning in former Upper Volta.
‘C’est Paul’ senses my foreboding, we potter along at a sedentary and constant 18 mph. To paraphrase Robert Shaw, 'we need a bigger bike'. I take a few photos of nothing, mostly Paul’s right ear. We ride for about 40 mins. Gradually, more motorbikes and bicycles join us, together with a sprinkling of mostly battered old automobiles. The temperature’s already a solid 24c. Proper desert heat. Paul glances intermittently over his right shoulder for guidance, a plan perhaps. Paul, we only need a start point, “Tout droit Monsieur…”
We're now near the airport and downtown and the Splendid Hotel. In January Islamist lunatics attacked this particular hotel, it was a Friday night. They also hit the popular Cappuccino bar/restaurant over the road. 28 innocent souls were murdered, including 6 Canadians. I dwell briefly on the madness… completely senseless… “Tout droit Monsieur…”
I ask Paul to head to the Monument des Martyrs. Some might think, monstrosity. Some might say, futuristic. I say a feature picked randomly off the map about 4 miles from the hotel. I tap Paul on the shoulder… 
“Monsieur…. la, la-bas… c’est bon.” Paul wants me to stay with him. He wants to take me safely back to the 'Lassiez Faire'.
I assure him, “Paul, c’est tout bon.” He reluctantly pulls our blue steed over; he looks on fascinated as I stretch half-heartedly. The scene, a dusty roadside in Ouaga, at 0625 hrs on a Sunday morning is probably surreal to most passersby. I want to say to Paul, as a sign-off, "Quand le seagulls follow le bateau..." Instead... "Paul, pour le diesel, merci beacoup, mon ami. Vous sont un grand chauffeur." He smiles broadly, we shake hands… and, as quick as I can say ‘au revoir’, he’s spluttered off.
I wave rather lamely, looking ahead up the long straight and unwinding road. I begin jogging, I’m hoping, 30 to 40 mins back to the hotel. The roads are wide, flat, well maintained and mostly traffic free and safe. Some detail on Burkina Faso (which means 'land of upright/honest people') to pass the time?
Well, Burkina is a similar size to the UK with only a quarter of the population. The main export is gold, followed by cotton. 2 million folks live in Ouaga. Most in Burkina scratch a living from subsistence farming.
A former French colony, independence came in 1960. Renamed Burkina Faso in 1984. A poor country even by West African standards; military coups and droughts quickly became a recurring theme. Longstanding President Compaore was finally ousted, after 29 years, in a popular uprising in 2014. Since then things have been ‘fluid’. An attempted coup d’etat in 2015; followed, reportedly, by another in October 2016, as I’m putting this together.
Back on the road. 20 mins done, about 20 to go. Get the flags out. In the words of Bon Jovi… ‘Whoa, we’re halfway there…’
Speaking of security... I checked into the hotel 2 days ago. I dumped my bag on the bed and began to wander. I wanted to be familiar in the event something went bang in the night, or we caught fire. As my old Drill Sergeant used to say; ‘never rely on the cavalry, they're always late’. I think you could probably include the Burkina Faso Fire Brigade.
We're arriving back into the Ouaga 2000 district. I suspect the Knightsbridge of Ouaga. I can see the Laico Hotel through the heat haze, also known as ‘The Libya Hotel’, apparently built by Gaddafi. Next door is a modern shopping centre which is largely empty. Seems out of place with the rest of Ouaga. As I close in on the hotel; whoa… there’s Paul, perched serenely astride his bike under a huge Acacia tree, like a giraffe watching the rest of the zoo flood; he gives me a hearty thumbs-up and a massive smile. I feel instantly warm inside and run over and high five him enthusiastically and kiss him on both cheeks…
The heat’s got to me. Paul’s not there (so much for loyalty); anyway, probably would’ve been an Anglo-Saxon type wave at best… went all Hollywood there for a moment…
Several days earlier…
I ask Ravik, my regular travel agent in Freetown, “Are these fellows reliable?”
Ravik laughs, not feeling my concern. Glancing at his laptop, “Over the past 15 days they've been on schedule, no delays.”
“Ravik, I’m thinking more maintenance of altitude, that sort of thing.”
I have a relaxed approach to airline safety, especially when you roll the dice. But, this upcoming sortie was quickening the pulse. I mean... and I've flown; Air Maroc, Air Niugini, Air Algerie, even Air France... now it’s time for... er... Air Burkina...
How’d it turn out?
Well, the navigator distributed goggles, Red Cross parcels, even brown leather skull caps, ahead of the props being turned. My goggles did mist up at one point. But, come on, we’re flying at 500 feet, s*gar happens. Any minor grumbles were quickly offset by the in-flight entertainment. The wing walker, Mahmoud from Khartoum, was simply outstanding. Fortunately, his straps held firm even as we diverted to spray crops on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, close to our final approach…
Air Burkina, only joking. You were absolutely first rate. I’d fly you again tomorrow. Just as well, as I am heading to Mali, for the next leg of this road trip… tomorrow…
Reading back and editing and editing and editing the above, perhaps Ouaga’s not coming out too well? Yes, basic. Yes, dirt poor. However, the people? People make any country. The Burkinabe are among the friendliest I’ve met on my travels. One of the most interesting places I've visited in Africa.
Completely different to the rest of West Africa. The West Africa I’ve lived in for 5 years. No-one bothers you here. There're no ‘entrepreneurs’ outside the hotel. The people seem to have a certain pride and a humility.
People obey rules. There's order. In wider West Africa rules and laws are for everyone else. For instance, at traffic junctions, everyone obeys the signals.  Where there're no lights there's a fellow with a fluorescent bib and a red flag and a green flag and a whistle. 75% of the traffic appears to be motorbikes and pedal cycles; there’s a whiff of Vietnam, perhaps of communism, almost. At a junction there may be 200 bikes; when the green flag is lowered, the whistle, off they go. Back in Freetown, there isn't a single set of working traffic lights. OK, there is a comedy set on Pedemba Rd, but they’re not plugged into anything. Divas, what can I say…
As I warm down and think about brekkie and noting it’s not yet 0730 hrs, I’m liking Ouaga. Maybe they're road warriors reading this, and I guess I’m a road warrior myself, albeit West African style. From that perspective it’s different; the worst Internet I've experienced in 15 years. If you covet things like a good budget hotel, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, browsing the Internet, email, WhatsApp, Skype, a decent cup of coffee, tasty chow, as part of your travel requirements… forget it. The pleasures are simple; a book, a kindle, a podcast...
But, when in life can you sleep in a city called Ouaga; a second city called Bobo… an episode of the Flintstones perhaps? Tomorrow, it’s onwards to Bamako. Air Burkina awaits...
After Mali, it’s Khartoum. Casablanca without the heroes. My first job after leaving the military. 
Feels these days I’m heading everywhere but Timbuktu. See you in Mali...