Ouagadougou: The First Solo Venture

Saturday morning. I’ve only been here three days, but it feels like I just arrived yesterday. The organization has kept me busy. Running errands on day one, spending day two at the office, and all of day three looking for apartments. All of this why trying to re-acquire my French skills (while I struggle with the unfamiliarity of the Burkinabé accents) and recover from my jet-lag.

I’ve preached in the past the benefits of diving head first, but these past few days have felt more like being pushed in.

So, when Saturday morning came, and there was no driver scheduled to pick us up to go do this or that, I was finally able to take a breath.

The hotel terrace
The hotel terrace

I ate a mango for breakfast on the terrace, alone with my book. When the flies started to close in on the sweet fruit, I retreated to my room. Sitting on the bed, I wondered what to do with myself next. Not really knowing what else to do or how else to get anywhere, I set out on foot, for the first time, alone, in an attempt to acquire myself with this strange but intriguing place.

I stay on the main road at first, where motorcycles, cars, trucks and bicycles all whiz by. To me, it looks like absolute chaos, but

Young boys and their mule pulling a cart full of goods on the main road
Young boys and their mule pulling a cart full of goods on the main road

to the locals, it’s likely a hectic harmony. Motorcycles, bikes even mule-drawn carts know their place, and cars navigate around them effortlessly, tapping their horns when needed. There are no sidewalks, so I follow the lead of a pair of young girls in front of me, who navigate the busy road with ease.

Smells are only intensified by the thick heat, and as I wander along, the scent of the garbage filled stagnant water in the sewers beside me mixes with fumes of gasoline burning in motorbikes and the sweet smell of pineapple as it’s peeled and chopped by vendors on the side of the road.

The air is thick with humidity and hangs in a haze over the whole city. It mixes with the red dust kicked up by the vehicles on the roads, giving the illusion that you can literally see the air. The “air” gets in my eyes and mixes with the sweat that is constantly on my brow here. It’s so hot it’s almost funny; I’m constantly sticky, and drinking around 4 litres of water a day just to keep up with my perspiration.

Usually when I travel, I aim to blend in. I watch the locals, follow their lead, and learn what it means to exist in whichever new place I’m in. But here? Impossible. I stick out like a sore thumb, attracting the attention of everyone I pass. It’s a strange feeling, being such a minority, something I have been blessed enough to not have to experience each and every day of my life.

I’m greeted by everyone with a stare, by some with a smile, by others with either a friendly “Bonjour” as we pass, or occasionally a more aggressive pursuit to get me to buy their goods. As I pass, I hear in behind me calls of “la blanche” and “la blonde.” In my white skin, my straw hat and Birkenstocks, I realize I must learn to become comfortable with this unavoidable new feeling of standing out.

Upon seeing my camera, this man asked me to take his photo
Upon seeing my camera, this man asked me to take his photo

Surprisingly, taking out my camera actually makes me feel more at ease. A few people ask me to take their photo, and I delightedly agree, wanting nothing more than to capture every moment of what’s going on around me in the hustle and bustle, but feeling quite timid about doing so.

As I start to return to the hotel, I take a detour into a market off the main road. From mechanics, to grocers, to shoes and colourful fabrics, almost everything imaginable is for sale here. I’m eventually coerced into a man’s shop, after he repeatedly asks me to just take a look and tells me I’m under no obligation to buy something today. He shows me his bright and patterned fabrics, and I tell him I will return later. (When I do, later this afternoon with others, he recognizes me. “Amigo!” he says, with the confidence of a great salesman).

Sweltering hot and already parched after only an hour, I return to my room, and find I have a newfound appreciation for ceiling fans and luke warm water.

I smile to myself, realizing that while I might still rely on my Quebecois companions to take the lead in conversations, I’m at last beginning to feel more at home here.

A writer with depression, what else is new. Passionate about feminism, and making the world a better place.

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