Mud Season

I grew up accustomed to a certain cycle of seasons: winter is followed by spring which is followed by summer which is followed by fall which is followed by winter etc.  Then I went to Africa and everything changed.  Here in Burkina Faso there are only three seasons: hot and dry season, very very hot and dry season, and rainy season.   Right now we’re on the cusp of the hot and dry season.  It only rains once a week as opposed to daily, the wind picks up, and the sun beams out of a cloudless sky every day.

Two weeks ago I was out at the mining camp, and I decided to take advantage of my half-day off to drive to the nearest town to have a look around.  There is a long spine of bizarre rock formations there that look like they were poured onto the earth from great height.   Big boulders are perched on narrow towers of sandstone and the wind whistles as it rips through the narrow canyons.  If you climb up into the cliffs you can find shards of pottery from civilizations that took refuge in this natural fortress hundreds of years ago.  The sedimentary rocks are a reminder of a time when Burkina Faso was beachfront property, and it’s a strange and interesting day trip.

The town is about 15 miles from the camp, which means it’s an hour away if all goes well.  The Burkina countryside resists road construction the way a wild horse resists being saddled for the first time.  The place is geographically challenging.  Surveyors come out to from the capital to try and plan roads along a route that may have knotty granite outcroppings at one point and then marshy rice fields a few miles later.  In Western Burkina Faso there are riverbeds everywhere which swell and recede depending on the season and even the time of day, so a stream that washes away a car in the morning may find women washing laundry in that same spot in the afternoon.  Roads are built to connect towns, obviously, and a lot of these communities were established back when footpaths and donkey bridges were the only transportation network out there.  Typically the government will build roads that run right through streams and rivers.  They pour a concrete base in the riiverbed, and then you just shift to four-wheel-drive and hope that your truck lumbers out on the other side.  I’ve been driving out there and traversed streams that flow across the road from left to right, and then in a few miles you’ll pass a stream that flows right to left.  It’s tricky countryside.

I set out to look at the rocks with a colleague from the camp.  It had rained the night before and the road was a bit sporty, but I was driving a 4X4 pickup and I thought we could make it.  The first miles were slow.  The ground was saturated and the dirt roads were slick, and in some areas water had just flowed along the hard-packed laterite.  The shocks thumped over riffles where the water had run and the truck lurched over gouges in the road where the boreen had washed away.  After 45 minutes of careful progress we were within a few miles of the town when we hit the mudfields.

The road ran between rice fields on either side, which made the ground marshy.  This was a low area with no drainage, so even when the rest of the countryside dried between storms this area was still soaked.  Massive trucks had churned through the mud leaving furrows, and as I sat in the truck thinking about crossing a motorcycle arrived at the other side and decided to try his luck.  The engine whined as his rear wheel fishtailed under him, and the tire spun up a roostertail of black clods.  He managed to battle the machine across.  I decided to try as well.

I shifted into low four-wheel drive and began to steam across the mud patch.  The truck swayed a bit from side to side but was firmly aligned in the ruts of the trucks that had gone before.  I glanced in the rearview mirror and the pickup was actually leaving a wake behind it; the mud rippled and flowed to fill the tracks of our passage.  Two-thirds of the way through the mud patch I felt the wheels lose traction, and our mission ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

I got out and sank up to my shins.  We hadn’t bottomed out, we hadn’t snagged anything, we were just stuck.  I tried everything.   Put the floor mats under the tires and then tried logs when that didn’t work, lowered the air pressure in the tires, rocked the truck back and forth, nothing.  There was no winch.  Like many outdoor enthusiasts have before me, I reflected on the fact that four-wheel drive doesn’t prevent you from getting stuck, it just allows you to get stuck deeper in more remote places.   I got back in the cab to see if time had solidified the muck or perhaps a friendly sorcerer had taken an interest in my predicament, but the vehicle was becalmed on a sea of black mud.  It was like trying to ice skate across a swimming pool filled with marshmallows.

Then Salvation chundered over the horizon.  A little Nissan minibus spluttered down the hill, daring to take on a mud patch that had snared a 4X4.  The driver stopped at the edge of the patch and gazed at it as if wondering what fresh hell this could be.  Then he clapped his hands three times and ordered everyone out of the bus.  It was a fourteen seater machine that had been retired from Europe or Asia when it began to fail emissions tests or be deemed a safety hazard, and now at least 30 people unfolded themselves from the inside of the bus.  The men stretched, lit cigarettes, looked at us with no particular surprise, and began rolling up their pant legs.  It was a practiced gesture.  20 men waded into the mud, lifted the pickup from the ground, and shifted it to a solid position I could drive it from.  I had had enough shenanigans, and I reversed until I was on the side of the mud patch that led to the camp.   Then the driver got back in his bus and arranged the cohort of men around him.  He popped it into first gear and then charged into the muck.  The bus tires were totally bald and the clearance was half as high as the pickup truck, and because it was high and motos and baggage were strapped to the roof, it swayed alarmingly.  The engine groaned and spewed black smoke and all of the men pulled and pushed, at times digging under the sides to lift the bus bodily and lighten the load a bit.  It cleft the mud like a boat, and the mud oozed easily over the tracks it left behind.


On the other side the pushers suddenly relaxed and broke into grins and laughter.  People lit their other cigarette, washed their legs, and rolled their pants down.  One man had lost a shoe in the mud, never to be seen again.  A woman took advantage to sell him a pair of flip flops from a bag she carried on her head.  People compressed themselves into the bus again and it roared on to the next mud patch.   The truck was fine, and I got back to camp with no problems.


How Mining Works, Volume II

We last left the Reverse Circulation drill out in a waterlogged field in Burkina Faso.  It’s 3 AM.  Night and day the drill chews through the soil and rock, manned by a crew of six drillers who station the rig at pre-identified GPS coordinates, drill to the depths and angles desired by project geologists, and then retract the drill rods to move on to the next hole.   At each borehole they leave behind orderly rows of sample bags containing samples from 30, 60, 120 meters deep.  The crew wears earplugs to protect themselves against the relentless hammering of the air compressor, and they work under the blazing beam of projection lights whose halogen beams banish shadows from the work zone.  These are probably the brightest lights in a 100-kilometer radius.  You cannot see or hear anything that is not within a 50-meter radius when you are next to a drill rig at night.  The crew moves across the dark fields leaving behind narrow boreholes, tracks from the massive tires of the drill rig, and orderly rows of sample bags that will be sorted by field crews in the morning and then transported back to the mining camp.

And then suddenly another light comes to life in the fields.  A motorcycle cruises along the laterite road, lights low, orienting itself towards the distant glow of the halogen lights, and pulls over into a field of knee-high sesame plants bending to earth under the dew.  Two men get off and one of them strides over to the neatly arrayed sample bags of a fresh borehole, pulls a pair of bulky Starsky and Hutch era headphones over his ears, and flicks a switch that brings the metal detector to life.  The red light blinks.  He runs the pad of the machine over the sample bags until it starts to whine in his ears, and the two men pull out the sacks of samples from meters 28-31 and wrestle them on to the back of the bike.   They spin around, carry the bags back to their camp, and then head out to chase the drilling crews again.  At dawn they’ll sleep, then later sift the stolen samples to see if the geologists were correct in identifying something interesting.  If their night goes well they can get a few grams of gold.

These men are orpailleurs.  It’s a French word that’s tricky to define, but it means prospectors, sample thieves, hopeful opportunists, career gold diggers, journeymen, and former cotton farmers.  They are men and women and children that look for gold flakes wherever they can be found.  They sieve for gold in riverbeds, dig narrow shafts by pick and shovel 15 meters into the ground, use metal detectors to search for surface gold and lift sample bags by dead of night.  Wherever the mine is, the orpailleurs can be found.  I see them on every trip that I take out to the field, typically riding in a peloton of three or four motorcycles with two men on each, one guy steering and the other guy holding the metal detector and shovel and picks.  Some of them search hopefully in low areas or exposed fields looking for a lucky find, and others are clustered in camps that have found a deposit and work tirelessly to pull it from the ground.  Conservative estimates suggest that there are hundreds of them on the concession, which is not atypical.  Similar to people brown-bagging liquor on a hot day, out of courtesy they wrap their picks and detectors in sacks as we drive by in our Land Cruisers, but they know who we are and we know who they are.  You can’t hide a 15-meter mine shaft.  They wave to us.

Even 800 years ago spotty plague victims in Europe might have heard about the riches of Timbuktu, where women’s ears drooped under the weight of massive gold earrings.  Salt and gold used to be key West African exports, although the salt market ain’t what it used to be.  Gold, meanwhile, has kept climbing steadily, and modern estimates suggest that 12% of the new gold brought to market annually has been produced by informal miners.  Most of the orpailleurs are people who don’t have a lot of alternatives to gold hunting.  Many of them are from the Mossi ethnicity of central Burkina Faso, which is the majority group but suffers from living on extremely flat and arid land.  Some of the orpailleurs are local people who were forced to find new revenue when the bottom dropped out of the lucrative export market for cotton a few years ago.  Others are Malians or Ivoirians who come to Burkina to seek treasure while escaping political unrest in their own countries.  A lot of factors influence whether people become orpailleurs: rainfall in central Burkina, the market price of cotton, the results of the presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire.  Interestingly, the number of orpailleurs doesn’t seem to fluctuate much according to the global price per ounce of gold itself.  All other commodities rise and fall, but gold is always worth its weight in gold.

Objectively, it’s not an attractive line of work.  Orpailleurs either strike rich or go destitute, and there is no in-between.  It’s an absurdly dangerous occupation.  They dig unreinforced shafts into the mud, which can flood or collapse instantly.  The ore that they extract may contain gold flakes amidst the dirt and rock, but to separate and refine it they run the ore through a bath of mercury or cyanide to separate out the heavy metals.  Their picks and metal detectors are fronted by suppliers who demand a heavy percentage of the orpailleurs take, so steel shovels are repaid in gold.  Those who don’t repay or hide discoveries are killed sometimes, and there’s no lack of pits for the bodies to disappear in.  A walk through an orpailleur camp is a study in hazards.  Children under ten smash rocks with sledgehammers, women sieve muddy rivers with the same bowls they’ll use to make dinner, men descend crooked shafts into the muck, and blue tarps line depressions in the ground where ore dissolves in brilliant blue pools of cyanide to be raked through later.

Like any good story, there’s a plot twist.  Although neither side likes to talk about it, there is a peculiar symbiosis between the formal mines, like where I work, and the orpailleurs.  People have been hunting for gold around here for centuries, but modern orpailleurs watch exploration crews closely and learn from them.  They observe what areas of the terrain are the most promising to scan with their metal detectors, and it didn’t take them long to learn how to snag sample bags and get access to deposits that may be 100 meters beneath their feet.  The other night I had a beer with a geologist and I asked questions about the timeline for how a gold exploration project develops.  Advanced exploration stages make sense to me: when you’ve identified the zones where gold is present, you must drill a lot of samples to determine where those deposits are concentrated and what are the most viable methods of extracting them.  But how do you know where to start exploring in the first place, in a region that has never been commercially mined before?  He explained to me about the belts of subterranean rock that have characteristics suggestive of gold deposits; but these belts are massive and can run from northern Mali down to the Atlantic coast.  How do you know where exactly to start drilling to explore in earnest?  Basically, he told me, they look to the orpailleurs.  Areas that have a high concentration of informal miners are likely to have promising deposits that can be mined at a large scale.  For all of the geological studies and diamond core drills and ground penetrating radar at our disposal, the initial decision to buy a concession and launch an exploration project depends in part on the guys riding through the sesame fields with metal detectors.




Burkina Faso 2009


(I got these photos from here and here and here.  All are public domain pictures of orpaillage sites in BF.  For various reasons I won’t upload pictures from my work site.)

Fever Dreams

I wouldn’t describe myself as a risk-averse person, but I am terrified of getting malaria.   I hate spending time in hospitals and even the thought of intravenous treatment makes me uneasy, so I take many precautions to avoid the possibility of getting infected.   I have a lot of friends who have gotten an inopportune mosquito bite, and they tell me stories of fevers that soar well above 100 degrees, spasms that cause muscle cramps, delirium and jaw chattering cold that causes people to roll under five layers of blankets in tropical heat.   It hurts to feel breezes on exposed skin.   I wear bug spray and long sleeves at night, I lay waste to my room with insecticide an hour before I sleep, and since I first started coming to Africa five years ago I have always and consistently taken prophylaxis.

Over the years I’ve taken a huge variety of anti-malarial drugs.  The pharmaceutical options for preventing malaria sound like planets from a sci fi cosmos…there’s Lariam, Atovaquone, Malarone or even Doxycycline for those who are bold of heart and thin of wallet.  These pills all need to be taken with strict frequency, and have the same side effects in varying degrees.  They all cause sun sensitivity, loss of appetite, night sweats, and crazy dreams.  To take anti-malarial drugs entails signing up to live in one world by day and another strange and unpredictable world by night.

Lately I’ve settled on Malarone as my drug of choice, because it’s cheap through my insurance plan and it’s effective at very short notice.  I get prescriptions from my primary care physician, Dr. Kremlin, a Russian doctor who I see for roughly fifteen minutes every year and a half but who knows my travel habits well enough to give me prescriptions over the phone.  The pills are flat, round and orange and must be taken daily.   I take them every morning after breakfast and they taste like nothing, but after a week or so I begin to feel the effects.

At first I begin to sleep fitfully.  It takes me a long time to fall asleep at night, and then I drift between unconsciousness and awareness, occasionally rolling over to check the time and seeing my watch advance from 12:41 to 2:19 to 5:06 and finally my alarm trumpets me awake at 6:30.  After a week of anti-malarial treatment I begin to have absolutely bizarre dreams.  The dreams are so vivid that it’s hard to disentangle them from reality; they’re hallucinatory and shamanistic but also feel completely plausible at the moment that I have them.  It’s not unusual for me to experience some indescribable scenario and then find myself on my back in bed somewhere in West Africa trying to parse out what’s true and what’s illusion.  The dreams are bonkers.

The other night I was riding a horse down a very wide boulevard that was bordered by low and handsome buildings and flanked with trees on both sides.  I had a lance and I was jousting with massive piñatas that came galloping at me over the horizon, but my aim was true and they crumpled and exploded before my lance.  Fleet shadowy people wove and whispered through the alleyways between the buildings either side of me, but I only saw them in my peripherals because I was focused on the next parti-colored target loping up to meet me.  Another night (or maybe the same night?) I had a terrifying dream that I was kidnapped by some separatist group who hid me out in the desert.  I must record a video that will be sent to my family and the rest of the USA to ask for ransom, and they made me speak French so they knew what I was saying.   I remember saying my date of birth and passport number in a calm, clear voice so that I could be identified, and when I slid into wakefulness a bit later I pulled out my passport and checked.  The number I had said in the dream was correct, although when I’m awake I don’t know my passport number.

Another night I was Lionel Messi and I was astonished by how easy soccer was.  I slapped passes and assists out to my teammates as easily as a pinball paddle slaps away ball bearings, and notched fine goals myself.  In one dream I was going to be flying out to Burkina Faso in the afternoon, and even though it was that morning I had procrastinated and not packed anything.  I don’t know why I delayed so much but eventually the stress was just intolerable and I knew I had to get my things in order NOW before my flight.  I came to consciousness in a shipping container in a village in western Burkina Faso, both feet out of bed and on the ground, ready to start throwing my clothes into a duffel bag.  Another time I was furious because my friend PM and I were herding goats in the mountains and whenever we got most of the group together one would shoot off, and then when I got him the rest of the flock had scattered.  I was in a bad mood for most of the morning, frustrated that the goats wouldn’t behave until I shook it off around lunchtime.

Look, I’m not losing my mind or anything like that.  These medications have little effect on me by day, and I know from experience that after I’ve been off them for 72 hours my sleep schedule goes back to normal.  I’ve taken anti-malarial drugs over 5 years in 8 different African countries, and by now I can anticipate the effects and keep it together when I wake up at 3 AM and need to determine if I’ve been kidnapped or if I’m in bed.  The distinction is harder to make than you might think.

I had the weirdest dream of all.  Much of it adhered to reality.  I was in Guatemala, a trip I’ve made twice before in real life, and I was going to visit my friend JW.  JW worked in a tiny village in the Mayan highlands, and the only way to get there was to take a boat across a huge lake that was rimmed with the crenellated peaks of volcanoes that showed smudges of lava at the peaks when the night fell.  This is true: in full control of my faculties I have made this trip across the lake and in the dream it was much like how I remembered it.  In this particular dream I wasn’t able to distinguish between food and language.  I had eaten a lot before I left the US and by the time I got to Guatemala I was full of Spanish, which was tasty and easily digested and reminded me of other dishes I’ve eaten in the past.  I shared some of the Spanish I’d brought with me with the people at the airport, and at the counter where I changed money, and with the bus driver who carried me up a winding road into the highlands.  By the time I got to the shore of the lake I felt lean but not malnourished.   I negotiated passage across the lake with the boatmen, and because I was unaccustomed to digesting Spanish and because I hadn’t brought as much with me as I had hoped, by the time we had settled on a price of 20 quetzals for the passage my stomach was rumbling and my vocabulary was exhausted.

I got onto the boat and took a seat at the stern, where I was sheltered by the tarps that protected passengers from the spray off the prow and from the everpresent mist over the lake.  I had snacked in the offing and was replenished with Spanish, but it was not on the menu on that boat.  I found myself the only gringo facing 5 rows of people wearing colorful cloth and eating a meal of Tz’utujil, the Mayan dialect, which they shared with each other in low voices.  Their food looked good but I couldn’t understand it at all, although it sounded flavorful and communicative to my tired ears.  Everyone else helped themselves to that common meal, and I didn’t mind that I wasn’t invited.  I understood, and I wasn’t too hungry because I could burn fat that I had accumulated during years of speaking English in a colder land that seemed very far away.  The boat took half an hour to chug across the lake, and I got off and walked up the cobblestones to the coffeeshop where JW was waiting for me and we shared familiar food in joyous tones.

And then I woke up.

The Sam Cam


Samples showing the progression of the RC drill meter by meter


Damage to the bridge after a wicked rainstrom


Laundry day


The village




The Sindou Peaks

How Mining Works, Volume I

OK, so.   Let’s say that geologists have carefully examined subterranean imaging of a particular area, considering how plate tectonics squish and shear mineral deposits underground, and are confident that certain coordinates on a map are likely to contain gold deposits deep underground.  The next step is to begin sampling that area methodically to determine exactly where the gold can be found and the quality of the potential ore.

On my particular site drilling crews use a rig called a Reverse Circulation(RC) drill to stab into the earth’s mantle to find out what’s underneath.  An RC rig consists of a tungsten-steel bit driven by a pneumatic reciprocating piston to bore into the earth.  An RC exploration setup looks a bit like a semi-truck with a suspension bridge perched on the back, and it’s coupled by high pressure hose to another truck that carries an air compressor and booster to power the machine.   The drill bit is attached to six-meter long hollow rods that are added as the bit penetrates deeper into the earth, and pressurized air is fired down the exterior walls of the rods before shooting the rock chips and soil clods of drill cuttings back up the center of the tube to the surface.  The pressurized air can be mixed with water or foam to ensure that even fine particles are captured and lifted.  On the surface these subterranean cuttings are gathered in a hopper.  Technicians fill a transparent plastic sample bag with all of the cuttings from the hopper that the drill recirculates to the surface, and a new bag is filled for every meter that the rig descends.   As the bit penetrates deeper into the earth the sample bags are arranged next to the borehole in orderly rows; it’s possible to walk 10 paces at ground level and see progressive layers of soil and bedrock churned out from hundreds of meters below the surface of the ground you’re walking on.  As the rig penetrates deeper into the earth the walls of the borehole are reinforced by a plastic sheath to prevent collapse.  These boreholes are no more than ten inches wide, but they are the first definite indicator that millions of dollars’ worth of gold may be lying placidly beneath the surface.

Once the rig has reached its desired depth the rods are retrieved piece by piece and the drill bit is retracted.  The drilling rig and its auxiliary trucks move on to the next coordinates to begin boring the next hole: these trucks are extraordinarily valuable, and they work 24 hours per day, under blazing sun by day and under arc lights dimmed by clouds of moths at night.  The sample bags are left orderly arrayed next to each hole and marked with indelible ink to show the progress of the drill meter-by-meter.  The next day a crew of local hires will come to sift the samples into smaller bags, pack them into a Land Rover, and the samples will be transported to Ouagadougou for analysis in a mineral lab to determine the most prosperous spots for additional exploration.

It’s a strange and incomparable feeling to stand with your steel-toed boots sinking two inches into the loamy soil of a cotton field nestled between the rolling green mountains of Burkina Faso and watch a drill that is gnawing through the planetary crust hundreds of feet beneath your feet and spitting Mesozoic samples of bedrock up to the surface.   I can watch a machine roar and sputter as it pulls up chunks of the earth that have not seen daylight in 300 million years.   Layers of the planet that took eons to rise, disintegrate and compress are aligned in rows waiting for technical analysis to see if any elements of the periodic table that we like more than others are worth pursuing in this exact spot.   If something valuable is found this area will become a gold mine that will supply wedding rings to enamored couples for millennia into the future.  If nothing is found then next year the farmer will plow the fields, plant corn, and someday tell his grandchildren about a truck that came by once and made a lot of noise.

I’m new to this industry.  My technical understanding of mining technology is roughly equivalent to how well a man soaked in a rainstorm understands the water cycle.   Please take all mechanical descriptions with the caveat that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.  I’m happy to be where I am and to be learning something new.  I’ll be paying attention to what’s around me; stay tuned for How Mining Works, Volume II.




I’m currently in the Paris airport waiting for a flight to Burkina Faso.  Air France cabin crews are partially on strike, which delays all boarding and limits amenities on the flights.  For a while I thought it was a rare coincidence that whenever I passed through France transportation personnel were protesting, but now realize that it’s unusual for everything to be functioning normally.  The Paris airport is run by dozens of union laborers working on crucial transportation jobs, so the work stoppages will continue until efficiency improves.

I’m going back to Africa to start a new job.  I’ve been hired as the Corporate Social Responsibility Program Associate on an exploration site that will be built into an active gold mine in the coming year.   I’ll help to maintain good relations with the community around the site and ensure that the project advances on schedule.  My future accommodation is a repurposed shipping container, and when I asked if there was anything in particular I should bring to the site I was told to invest in a pair of steel toed boots.  The site is 30 kilometers off of the nearest paved road, and an eight-hour drive from the capital city.  A year ago I was working on research projects for NGOs, and I had no inkling that I would transition into this work.  A year ago I had no idea that jobs like this even existed.

My motivation here is to try something new and learn something useful.  I’ve been working with non-profits since I first traveled to Uganda in 2011, and since then I’ve worked with major funders, program implementers and researchers to contribute to many different aspects of development work.  For some time now I’ve been interested in the overlap between development initiatives and the for-profit sector: how can businesses align their operations with social development objectives to make a profit AND make a difference?  The fact is that the mining sector is hugely influential on Burkina Faso’s economy.  From 2007 to 2011 gold accounted for 64.7% of Burkina’s total exports, and the figures have climbed since then.  There are internationally-managed mines in every region of the country, and small crews of informal miners scavenge the same sites for easily accessible gold veins.  In 2013 Burkina Faso had a per capita GDP of $684, meaning that at current prices an ounce of gold is equivalent to two years of earnings for the average Burkinabé.  This shiny metal is an immensely valuable resource in an intensely poor country, and there is potential for mining profits to drive economic improvement for a lot of people.

I’ll be here for the next few months learning and contributing as much as I can.  It’s nerve-wracking and exciting to be diving into a new industry, but so far all of my interactions with the people I’ll be working with have been positive.  I’m heading back to Africa and back to work.

The Scavenger Hunt

Dear reader, apologies for the long absence.  I typically have a clear system for this blog: I write blog posts when I travel, and I don’t write posts when I’m in the US.  The work that I did in Ghana and the aftermath were stressful, and despite having started three or four draft posts I wasn’t able to write the right thing.  In one paragraph, here’s what I’ve been doing for the last 5 weeks.

I went to Ghana to facilitate and record a series of meetings with community members who live adjacent to a massive gold mine in central-western Ghana.  During the week I stayed in an inn called the Octagon, which boasts a varied menu of three different dishes and a menagerie of foot-long lizards who control the mosquito population, and I worked 16 hour days attending forums with community leaders, cataloguing their reactions to the proposed expansion of the mining project, and writing a report on their reactions that will be submitted to the Ghanaian EPA.  I’ve never worked in the mining sector before, and I basically had to learn my job while on the job and working under a tight deadline.  When I accepted this position I was told that I would spend two weeks doing field work in Ghana and then three weeks in Burkina Faso writing the report, but (surprise!) the timeline was accelerated and I ultimately had to do all of my fieldwork and report writing while in the field in Ghana.  I had planned in advance to spend three weeks in Burkina, so I flew there on a shockingly turbulent Air Burkina flight (my meal of yams and couscous hopping off my tray) to reunite with the friends I had left behind.  Within 48 hours I had reconnected with my motorcycle and rented my own apartment, and I spent three weeks winding through the back alleys of Ouaga while meeting friends for beers and prospective employers for interviews.

The additions to my resume are as follows: in the last month-and-a-half I have cultivated a good beard, put another 1000 kilometers on my motorcycle, worked in the Ghanaian gold mining sector, purchased plane tickets 10 hours before flying internationally, lived out of a duffel bag for 6 weeks, and secured a coveted dinner reservation at the Bon Choi Korean Restaurant of Ouagadogou.  I’m currently in the south of France.  Since I was a babe in swaddling clothes my grandfather has owned a house and winery here with business partners, and I’ve been returning to this same house every two or three years since then.  I first learned to ride a bike on the front lawn of this chateau in 1997, and when I come here I sip wines from the early 90s and think “these are the tart and seedy grapes that escaped mauling by my sticky fingers when I was six years old.”  I’m glad some/most of them made it.

It’s been a very strange and exciting year so far.  In the winter I worked as a cross country ski instructor, teaching families and aspiring racers how to glide through the woods west of Boston during the short days and long cold nights of January and February.  In April I went to Europe with my great friend PKM, and for a month we moved by train, bike and car through five European countries.  After returning briefly to my Alma Mater to see my sister graduate (with much more significant honors than I ever achieved there) I was slingshot across the Atlantic once again.  A year ago, or two months ago, I would not have predicted that I’d be rolling out of bed at six in the morning on a mining site in West Africa, but these things have an inertia of their own.

For the last few months I’ve been leaning forward and dashing from country to country as if I’m on a scavenger hunt.   I collect a few crucial clues in each place.  I’ve learned how to blend in in the Christiania Free State, narrowly dodged violent robbery by a Hungarian Mafia taxi driver, tagged the summit of a Swiss alp, milked a sheep by hand and fermented curds to make cheese, surveyed a dam full of cyanide in the Ghanaian goldfields, joined a motorcycle club in Burkina Faso, and drank wine from vines that I stumbled through as a toddler.  Boy scouts get merit badges for accumulating skills and experiences, but I just have this sense that eventually all of these weird and diverse experiences will coalesce into something coherent and poetic.  It’s a very interesting balance to strike: I feel like every trip I take prepares me to be more adaptable and savvy during my next experience abroad, but I also still feel this unadulterated sense of excitement when I step off of a plane or train and find myself somewhere completely foreign and new.

Show me your documents

Burkina Faso is a former French colony, which mean bureaucracy is approached religiously and proper documentation is fetishized.  As the US becomes more digital and interconnected and tap-iPhone-here-to-pay-student-loans, Burkina Faso remains firmly anchored in the analog world of paperwork, stamps and signatures.  Getting a receipt at the corner store involves a carbon copy book which is filled out in ink in duplicate and ostentatiously stamped and signed, to get a phone number registered in your name you must present a passport and another form of photo ID, and if you want to extend your working visa you should just give up now.

This obsession with proper paperwork permeates every level of society, but never struck me as truly absurd until I tried to park my motorcycle two weeks ago.  Outside of large bars or restaurants or offices in Ouagadougou it’s common to have a parking service, which is to say guys that help drivers back their cars into tight spaces and make sure that people leave their motorcycles and mopeds properly spaced in orderly rows.  Typically you pay the parking guy 100 francs when you reclaim your vehicle, or roughly 17 cents.  I actually think that this is a worthwhile service: I’m glad to have someone watching over the bike when I’m away, and traffic in Ouaga would be even more nightmarish if people just pitched their motos anywhere next to the road as they went about their errands.

When you arrive at a parking site you pull up in front, cut the engine and step off of your bike.  The parking guy has a ticket book with perforated slips, and he gives you half of a ticket and attaches the other half to your moto.  Then he wheels the motorcycle or moped away and parks it in a line with all of the other bikes.  The tickets are thin paper but they are always embossed with a rubber stamp, signed by hand, and inscribed with the amount that you have to pay for the parking service.  When you come out again you give the guy your ticket stub, pay, and then he wheels your bike out and you’re off.

So two weeks ago I pulled up in front of a supermarket in downtown Ouaga, collected my receipt, and went in to get groceries.  I came out afterwards, gave the parking guy 100 francs, and then realized that at some point my ticket had fallen out of my pocket and I didn’t have it anymore.  I didn’t think this was a big deal at all because the guy who collected the money was the same person who had taken the moto when I had parked, but when I explained that I didn’t have the ticket with me he sucked in his cheeks and said “Ah.  We have a difficulty.”

“Not really.”  I said.  “You took that bike from me less than half an hour ago.  Remember, you commented on my Senegal soccer jersey?  I can see the bike right there, at the end of the row.”  He told me that without the ticket he had no way of verifying my identity, and that without a ticket anybody could come and just steal a client’s motorcycle off the lot.  “But I AM the client.” I said.  “How many other Americans have showed up here in the last half hour wearing Senegal jerseys and riding on big red motorcycles?”  He shrugged and told me “without the ticket, we have a difficulty.  There is a ticket attached to the bike with a number on it, and you must have a matching ticket.  Otherwise, we have no record that the moto is yours.”   I pointed out that I had in my pocket the key that could start the motorcycle, I could recite the license plate number by heart, and I had a registration document that proved that I owned that exact model of motorcycle, but because none of these things were the stamped, signed and duplicated ticket I had received earlier, it was a no go.

We had reached an impasse.  My yogurt was curdling in my backpack and my parsley was beginning to wilt, but he wouldn’t roll the moto forward and suggested that I go back in the supermarket and look for my ticket.  This drove me up the wall, because I KNEW that he remembered taking the bike from me, and I had paid, but he wanted the stamped and signed document before he could check the bike out.  I cajoled and explained but he was unmoved.  I ended up paying 500 francs to get the bike back, which I guess is an added fee for being foolish enough to not keep track of every single slip of paper I’ve ever received in my lifetime.

This experience was important, because it dissuaded me from a life of moto-robbing crime.  This happened soon after my arrival in Burkina Faso, and since then whenever I parked I clutched the ticket with both hands and looked at the parking guys with new respect, comforted by the knowledge that my motorcycle was safe from any sort of undocumented nonsense.

Back in Action

This is the story of how I took six flights in three days, slept in a five-star hotel and the Abidjan airport, talked my way onto an EgyptAir flight to Accra, almost got deported from Ghana, and finally made it safely to my current position under a thatched roof restaurant as rain thrashes into the reeds above my head and lightning zaps the hills around me.   I have ridden the highs and the lows, but at last I am employed, well rested, and back in Africa.

I began my journey in Philadelphia, because I was there to celebrate my sister SWG’s graduation from Haverford College.  It is clear that Haverford’s standards have improved considerably since I was a student there, because they are turning out a far superior class of graduates these days.  Not only did SWG receive high honors and several distinctions in Latin that I personally cannot read, she also did so while maintaining an active social life in her sorority.  Congratulations on rushing Phi Beta Kappa, kid!  They are lucky to have you.

My first inkling that I was in for a rough trip came on Friday at 22h10 in the Philadelphia airport, when         the man checking me in for my British Airways flight to Accra via London asked to see my Ghanaian visa.  This surprised me.  My employer, several friends based in Africa, and a woman in a British Airways call center (the connection sounded like she was speaking to me from a mailbox underwater) assured me that BA would not check my visa to board, and I could purchase a visa upon arrival in Accra.  The guy did the airline-employee-shrug and told me he could put me on a flight to London but that there was no guarantee that I could travel on from there.  I called my employer and he assured me that I should go to London and from there they would find an alternate way to get me into Ghana; he would arrange a visa on arrival.  I was at a decision point: would I board a flight knowing that I had no next connection, no visa for my final destination, and no experience entering or working in Ghana?  I thought about it.  I eventually decided that I’m an American, not an American’t, and this was worth a try.

So.  I checked my bag to London, boarded the plane, and divided my time between reading technical specs for Tailing Storage Facilities on gold mines and watching the latest James Bond movie.  The Bond movie was good, but maybe it just shines by comparison.  I arrived in London and checked my email to see that I had a new itinerary.  After a six-hour layover I flew to Casablanca, and from there I traveled to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.  That night I stayed in the only five-star hotel in Burkina, which has absurdly good security and very strong water pressure.  The next day I boarded a flight to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, with the intention to transfer to a South African Airways flight to Accra, Ghana.  Disaster struck.  The South Africans asked for my visa as well, and refused to let me board without one.  I was trapped: no way to travel to my destination, and no Ivoirian visa to allow me to leave the airport.  I spent the night on an airport bench, and on Monday convinced an EgyptAir gate attendant that I would definitely be able to acquire a visa in Ghana and if I didn’t then I would not be their problem.  I evidently demonstrated more confidence than I felt, because they let me on the plane.

When I got to Ghana I was met by a man named Paul who was to be my fixer in the visa process.  When I explained that I had a letter of invitation from my employer, the price of the visa in US currency, a complete disembarkation card and a valid visa for another ECOWAS member country he grimaced and told me this would be difficult.  Apparently to buy a visa on arrival you need to have obtained in advance a letter from Ghana immigration services which says “We know that Sam wants to buy a visa upon arrival.”  I approached the immigration counter, presented all my documents, and was told to wait.  I waited an hour and a half before being told that it was impossible.  I would have to leave Ghana.  Calls were made.  My employer spoke to the immigration officer, then connected to a colleague in another department of the airport.  Nothing.  A high level member of the Ghana immigration services was contacted.  The immigration officer spoke on the phone with him.  I was given a form to fill out.  Then I was given a visa.  I really don’t know how it happened, but I was in.  I hustled away to catch a flight on a propeller plane to central Ghana, then was met by a driver and carried on.

I do not recommend this means of travel to anyone.  Please don’t walk away thinking that you can negotiate your way into any African country: ultimately my entry was fully legal and documented, although some paperwork was filed at the last minute.  In every other African country I’ve visited there is an option to purchase a visa on arrival; you just fill out all necessary forms, pay in cash, and get the stamp in your passport.  I honestly admire the fairness of the Ghanaian system.  If a Ghanaian can’t pay cash for an American visa on arrival in the US, then why should a US citizen be able to do that in Ghana?  It was an immensely stressful three days of traveling, and I’m so glad that ultimately I was able to legally enter Ghana with all of my baggage and some of my sanity intact.  I slept for 11 hours on my first night here.

“But Sam, what are you doing there?!?  Why did you even do this?” you may ask.  Basically, I work for a gold mine now.  I’ll give more details when I understand them myself.  I look forward to sharing more updates from West Africa—don’t change the channel.


“The snow was good only in the early morning and again in the evening. The rest of the time it was spoiled by the sun. We were both tired of the sun. You could not get away from the sun. The only shadows were made by rocks or by the hut that was built under the protection of a rock beside a glacier, and in the shade the sweat froze in your underclothing. You could not sit outside the hut without dark glasses.”

-Ernest Hemingway, An Alpine Idyll

I’ve recently returned to France after spending two days and two nights outside.  On Wednesday I drove with my friends PM and GS from Alsace, France to Ossasco, a tiny town in a deep valley in the Italian part of Switzerland.  I had last visited Switzerland five years ago and I had a mixed experience, which is a polite way of saying that I didn’t like it very much.  On that trip I visited Geneva, a city where diplomats go to live and fun goes to die.  I recall being chastised by a Genevan for traversing next to a crosswalk instead of walking within the painted lines, and I remember a fruitless search for a bar that had fewer than five men wearing suits drinking there, and I came away with the impression that Switzerland is a dull, law-abiding, preposterously expensive kind of place.

My eyes have been opened.  It turns out the trick to enjoying Switzerland is driving right through the cities and heading for the hills with all due haste.  Our road trip through Switzerland was amazing.  The Swiss are masterful designers and engineers, and I was  impressed to see how well they’ve integrated their infrastructure into the countryside.  We drove on roads that perch on trestles running along the flanks of huge mountains, and drove through a wide, well-lit seventeen-kilometer-long tunnel that bored right through the heart of a mountain between two valleys.  The weather changes dramatically from one canyon to another.  When we entered the long tunnel the trees were budding around us, the river in the valley was swollen by snowmelt from the peaks, and wildflowers were blooming in the hills.  When we emerged on the other side the mountains were still shrouded in snow, all of the grass was dead, and it felt as if we had driven two months into the past.  A few hairpin switchbacks brought us into the tiny village of Ossasco, where we pitched a tent and lit a fire by the river.  On our way to the campsite we passed a truckload of Swiss militia soldiers doing training exercises, and just as dusk fell they illuminated the valley with a fusillade of magnesium flares which threw eerie balls of light above the crooked pine trees.

The next day we woke early to begin our push for the top.  We crossed the river that runs through the lowest point of the valley and headed up a rooty path through the pine trees on the lower slopes of the mountain.  By the time we had gone half a mile I had already shed all of my outer layers, and with few pauses we scrambled up through the woods, along a narrow switchback road, and reached an isolated dairy farm where we changed into our climbing snowshoes.  The snowpack was three feet deep and once we got above the treeline we could see the soaring peaks above us mirrored by the crenellated ridge on the opposite side of the valley.  The mountains have a very clean and striated feel.  At the bottom is the lush river valley, then the deciduous trees beginning to bud, then the pine trees that get smaller as you rise, then the snow line, and finally at the very top the stretches of glacier and permanent snowcap crowned by black jagged rock.

It was extremely hard once we got out of the cool woods.  I felt like Daedalus flying too close to the sun, except instead of waxen wings I had a massive backpack that chafed against my sweating back and drove my spiked snowshoes deeper into the snow.  I cannot overstate how steep and bright the Alps are.  I climbed with toe spikes and two ski poles, leaning forward into the hill that rose mercilessly in front of me, and churned across snow that had rolled down from the peaks in avalanches.  Even with sunscreen I could feel my face and arms burning, and it required a lot of willpower to keep my legs moving up.  At the base the snow had melted and flowers were beginning to sprout, but at the top of the mountain the snow was 3-5 feet deep.  The views around us were indescribable.  We rose through a tremendous bowl of imposing rock, passed over an avalanche field through a col, and continued planting one spiked snowshoe in front of the other.

There’s a reason that the sport is called “climbing” instead of “summiting.”  It’s hard, and you have to carry heavy gear with you and deal with rapid swings between heat and cold, and your legs burn and your breath heaves and it’s beautiful.  There are helicopters and funiculars that can take you to the top of these peaks, but you would miss the struggle and the majesty of seeing the mountain slowly unfold itself before you.  I’m very happy to have visited some great cities on this trip, but nothing can compare to being outside and feeling like you can coexist and thrive in the snow and the rocks.