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One Wild Ride: Breaking Traffic Laws in Burkina Faso

Nearly one year ago in San Francisco I had a motorcycle accident that, believe it or not, indirectly led to the traveling and writing that I'm currently doing today. As I was riding my bike to work, the traffic ahead of me suddenly stopped and I ended up running into the back of a Toyota pickup truck. I turned off the bike's engine, carefully laid it down on its side, but then noticed that my right foot seemed to swing freely and very independently from the rest of my leg. The ambulance, paramedics, and a fire truck all came to my rescue and I was rushed off to the emergency room at S.F. General Hospital.

Although I didn't realize it while lying in the middle of the street, I had actually suffered a compound fracture in which the bones in my lower leg, the tibia and fibula, both broke cleanly and came out of the side of my leg. I immediately underwent a surgical procedure in which my right knee was opened and a titanium rod was inserted down the center of the broken tibia, thus holding the bones together while they and the rest of my leg were left to heal for a very long time.

For the next three months, I was out on medical leave from my previous job, and I took the opportunity to look into several volunteer job listings and a change in career direction. What I found was the Odyssey World Trek, which I became a part of just a couple of months later.

As I cross the border from Ghana to Burkina Faso, some very distinct changes are noticeable. Perhaps the most significant is that everybody speaks French, which is one of the languages I've studied in school and found very useful (See Abeja's Cote d'Ivoire-8.21.99-dispatch about her experiences learning French). Another noticeable thing about Burkina Faso is that there is a real abundance of motorcycles and other smaller mopeds, which are used by so many people as their primary form of transportation. I couldn't resist the thought of getting back on a motorcycle after all this time and, once I did, some crazy events followed during the course of my ride.

It all began in Bobo-Dioulasso, a medium-sized city not far from the border with Mali, where Monica and I decided to spend the day catching up on some things. The deal was that Monica would stay at our hotel writing dispatches and doing some laundry while I was to run some errands in town: going to the bank, sending some e-mails, and looking into the bus fare and departure time for the trip to Bamako, Mali. Sankara, an employee of the hotel, offered to take me around town to run these errands on the back of his motorcycle which, at the time, seemed to be an efficient way to go and also a lot of fun. We left late in the afternoon, with just enough time to take care of business before things began to close.

Riding motorcycles in West Africa does not involve the basic safety precautions that are mandatory for riding in a place like San Francisco. It is not necessary to wear a helmet when riding. A second passenger does not need to sit on part of the seat either-- they only need to find room on the metal rack which rests just above the back wheel, which is certainly less comfortable.

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Me in a sea of African motos!
As we pulled away from the hotel, all of the joys of riding in San Francisco came back to me. Passing people whom I could clearly see up close without a window between us, while feeling the light breeze hit my face, are just two of the things that make riding a bike feel so free. I had to hold on tight to Sankara and watch for potholes in the road, but the thrill of riding was every bit as fun as I remembered it. (For the record, I was not the driver, but only the passenger at all times.)

Despite the initial fun, we definitely started going downhill from there. At the bank I tried to withdraw money from the ATM with my credit card, but nothing seemed to be available for me. Monica and I only had about 10 dollars between the two of us and we badly needed more to get to Bamako. Then I tried to send an email back to our friends in San Francisco but that didn't work either. Burkina Faso only has one Internet server, and when it's down the whole country's connectivity goes down with it. We Trekkers feel rather helpless without the ability to send and receive e-mails. So we decided to proceed onto the bus terminal to inquire about the trip to Bamako.

After getting back on the bike, we drove down a busy street, then turned left, and right, and continued straight on. Just then a whistle started to blow and two police officers waved us over to the side of the road. They pointed out that Sankara had been driving the wrong way down a one-way street and instructed us to park the bike alongside of about 10 other motorcycles which had apparently done the very same thing.

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for larger view
Check out that wild biker dude! (That's Sankara posing in the back.)
The only way to get the bike out of police custody was to pay a fine of 4,800 CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine, the currency used throughout French-speaking West Africa), the equivalent of just under $9 US. When I explained my position to the police they seemed very sympathetic, and were even more interested that I was an American. They asked me what the US is like and if I liked Burkina Faso. I told them that it was simply my bad luck that I had been on the back of this particular motorcycle and that I really needed to get to Mali to meet with my other friends. Sankara had no money on him, so I gave the police all of the small bills I had, which came out to about 2,600 CFA, and they graciously let us go on our way.

Sankara drove the correct way down the street, turned left, then left again and passed through the next major intersection. Once again whistles began to blow, and after driving 50 feet another group of cops were waving us over to the side of the road! Minutes after the first time, Sankara's bike was impounded again, this time for running through the intersection against a red light, and for not stopping right away when the traffic cop at the corner first blew his whistle. I couldn't believe we were going through this again! The fee to get the bike out was the same as before, and this time I really didn't have enough money to bail us out of this mess. These cops were less merciful and, as it began to rain very hard, we just got in a taxi and drove a couple of blocks to the bus terminal to finish what we had set out to do.

That evening, Sankara returned to the hotel with his motorcycle, for which he paid 6,000 CFA because the police had moved his bike to a garage, which added on a "towing fee." He did pay me back the money I gave him to get the bike out the first time. However, the funniest part of this whole fiasco was when Sankara asked me for the outrageous sum of 4,000 CFA for his "taxi service" that day. For the next two hours we sat around arguing in French, asking the opinions of other locals and tourists, trying to weigh the distance driven against the incredible inconvenience of the experience for me, and eventually realizing that we would never see eye-to-eye on the matter.


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