Road Trip

I’m wrapping up my stay in Burkina Faso and finding ways to say goodbye to the country that has welcomed me for the last year and a half.  I’ve eaten in my favorite restaurants in Ouaga, met friends to bid them farewell, and picked up souvenirs to share with friends back home.   It’s also time for me to say goodbye to The Scarlet Menace, the temperamental Chinese motorcycle that has carried me nearly 10,000 kilometers through the dust of Ouaga, the pavement of the hottest clubs, and goat tracks in the forest and the village.  I arrived in Burkina Faso for the first time on the night of June 4th, 2015, and I purchased the motorcycle in cash on the morning of June 6th.  I’ve carried up to three people on the back of this bike, crashed it twice, rebuilt it once, and learnt to repair its most common breakdowns with a Leatherman and a stick.  I rode this bike through the burning tires of the roadblocks to leave my neighborhood during the coup, ridden it through rivers on trips out to the village, and replaced a significant number of the original parts.  It has made my movements here possible, and it’s a big part of my life.

Entropy is the natural inclination of the universe, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of my motorcycle.  When I first bought it it had all kind of reflective trim on it, which I thought would be really useful for making me more visible at night.  I soon realized that none of this trim was screwed on: it was all fastened with an epoxy that seemed to dissolve at speeds greater than 20 miles per hour.  For the first two weeks that I owned it my motorcycle left a trail of parts across Ouaga: reflectors would spin off into the breeze behind me, turn signals fell off, wires unplugged themselves, and I learned a lot about fixing problems on the fly.  After a year and a half the bike is now thoroughly broken in, and although it will never re attain its straight-out-of-Guangzhou chrome glory days, it now functions smoothly.  It’s not a particularly powerful bike but I can cruise at 55 MPH with two people on it.   That’s pretty quick when you’re traveling on a highway built by engineers who control speed by hiding speedbumps in random places.

On Monday morning I rolled out of bed and decided that I wanted to go on a road trip.  This would a be a proper ride: I would bring only a backpack, I would plan nothing, I would aim my motorcycle toward the setting sun and see what I found.  I mentioned my plan to my friend Momo and he announced that he would join me.  He hopped on the back and we set out for Koudougou.  Koudougou is the third largest city in Burkina Faso, but its population is one-twentieth the size of Ouaga’s.  When you leave Ouaga in the space of ten minutes you leave behind the highway interchange, the neon lights of the roadside bars, and the swell of hundreds of motos sliding through traffic like fish through a coral reef.  You then come to a semi industrial zone, where steel warehouses and concrete factories share the landscape with undeveloped plots of land and stray goats and donkeys.  Finally you enter the surrounding villages.  These are significantly more developed than most rural areas, but very few houses have electricity, none have running water, and most of the construction is mud brick and thatch.  All this within 15 kilometers of the hustle and buzz of downtown Ouaga!   Driving out doesn’t feel like travel, it feels like a time warp.

Momo and I made good time to Koudougou, and it felt GOOD to whip past the stubbly cornfields and swoop over the low hills and see afternoon village life from the ground level.  We stopped at one point to drink locally brewed millet beer, and we stopped at another point to reinflate the rear tire after it inexplicably decoupled from the rim.  All vehicles need routine maintenance, but my motorcycle needs surprise routine maintenance.

We descended on Koudougou on the lookout for the nearest biker bar where we could park the steed and put some Allman Brothers on the jukebox, but we had to settle for a tour of the downtown.  We drove past a brand new covered brick market, and a central mosque with a massive spire made of mud plaster and unvarnished timber.  We stopped in the palace of Maurice Yameogo, the first president of Burkina Faso who was deposed in an uprising three years after independence.  His mansion stands unused and abandoned, but you can walk through it and see the salons and terraces where he hosted visiting heads of state.  We kept looking, and we found a bar overlooking the reservoir as the sun set.  Pigs rolled in the mud in unabashed bliss and huge bottles of beer cost a dollar and came out encased in ice as if they had been harvested from a glacier.  The kitchen had an actual menu of food you can choose from, as opposed to most bars where the proprietor comes out and informs you what you will be eating tonight.  We were tinted with dust and perfumed by motor oil, and we hit the nightlife.

Turns out there isn’t a ton to do in the third-largest city in Burkina Faso on a Monday night.  We found a cool reggae bar but the only patrons were older civil servants and Nigerian prostitutes.   We heard loud music elsewhere and rolled over to investigate, but it turned out to be funerary rites.  We finally stopped at a wine bar and came across a French expat, L, who had spent five years here working for an organization that promoted the use of traditional plants for medicinal purposes.  We chatted about the uses of aloe (surprisingly numerous), nightlife in Koudougou (great if you like gardening), and PSGs chances of advancing in the Champions League against Barcelona (good).  At the end of the night we cadged an invitation to sleep on her floor, which is good because Plan B was the open air.  If you want to get the real moto roadtrip experience, it seems like cheating to sleep in a hotel at the end of the day.

I awoke the next morning fully dressed down to my boots.  We got back on The Scarlet Menace and headed for Sabou, a nearby village with a swamp filled with sacred crocodiles.  We got there by dropping off the highway and winding our way through the villages.  As I drove I looked carefully for modernity, or things that were constructed recently.  If you took away the cellphones, motos, and water pumps, life in the village is very much the way that it’s been for the last 200 years.  From Sabou we hooked back east to Ouaga, wrestling the bike through clouds of orange dust and occasionally dropping onto the shoulder of the road when a trailer truck loomed up behind us.

We made it back to Ouaga before nightfall.  I was exhausted: a motorcycle takes physical effort to ride, especially if you’re traveling in the slipstream of trucks or wrenching the bike along sandy paths in the village.  The motor whined and ticked under us, and I could feel the heat radiating around the bike.   I dropped Momo off and resisted the urge to sleep another night with my clothes on.  I showered and then sat on the porch, listening to the tick-tick-tick as the The Scarlet Menace recovered from her brave efforts.

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Mechanic working on the rear tire

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The central mosque of Koudougou

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The covered market

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Maurice Yameogo’s entrance hall

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The first floor of the presidential palace

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Sunset over the reservoir

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Momo and The Scarlet Menace

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Riding in the village

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Materials for sacred amulets and traditional medicine.  In this photo we see elephant skin and vertebra, caiman skin, and the pelt of a leopard.

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