Monthly Archives: June 2016

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.

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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.