Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Survival of the Coolest

Staying cool in Burkina has nothing to do with what you wear or the people you hang out with. It has everything to do with trying to beat the extreme heat everyday!
When we arrived in Ouagadougou (the capital of Burkina Faso, West Africa) at 3:00am it was 33 C. We just about melted in the few minutes it took us to take off the jackets we'd been wearing on the plane. I don't know what the daytime temperature is - in fact, I don't really want to know - but it has to be in the 40's by the middle of the day (everyday!).
One way to beat the heat is to go for a swim. There is a small hotel with a swimming pool just down the road from our apartment. It's only a fifteen minute walk, but by the time we get to the pool we often are tempted to do a Nestea plunge. I don't think the pool staff would be very happy if we did. We bought a membership for the pool, and are here three or four times a week.
The electricity is often out for a few hours each day. Sometimes it happens when we are in French class in the morning, or in the afternoon when we are trying to do school work. If there is no electricity, we opt for school by the pool.
Another way to beat the heat is to have short hair. Really, really short hair. Since the photo at the pool was taken, John has completely shaved his head. No hair! I'm not sure it really helps keep him cool because he has to wear a hat or risk getting his head sunburned. He looks "cool" though!
Danielle sat patiently for 3 1/2 hours while having her hair braided. Each braid had "mesh" (fake hair) braided into it, to keep it strong. At the end of each braid there is a bead - 98 beads in total. She managed to keep them in for two weeks.
We do have an air conditioner in our apartment, but the cost of electricity makes it too expensive to have it on all the time. Fortunately there has always been power during the night, so we always have it on and are grateful for a comfortable sleep.
Electricity is like "pay as you go". Only once did we run out during the night, then we figured out where the counter is and made sure it's always loaded for the entire day.
We are in French class five mornings a week. Danielle and Simon are in a class together, learning to sing in French, conjugate verbs, and all kinds of vocabulary. They seem to really enjoy the different teachers they have each day, and are slowly starting to put what they are learning into use with the people they meet. John and I are in a different class, and we too have great teachers. We're reviewing all the things we learned 15 years ago and, of course, learning lots of new things too.
The director of the French school, Jacqui, has been an extraordinary host. She found us a place to stay that is only a two minute walk from the school. She also made arrangements for someone to come and help us look after the house and cook the main meal of the day. She's taken us on various "field trips" in and around Ouaga, and she even acted as "tour guide" when we traveled to the city of Bobo-Dioulasso for a weekend.

Bobo is in the western region of Burkina Faso. It is a little bit cooler than Ouaga. Two highlights (we never just have one!) of our weekend: playing in the waterfalls near Banfora. We would have liked to have stayed the entire day but Jacqui had other sites for us to visit. The second highlight was seeing wild hippos in Lake Tengrela. There are about 20 who share the lake with the fishermen and villagers who live in the area. We were able to see a group of 5. We were only able to see the tops of their heads and their ears when they popped their heads' up out of the water. During the day they stay submerged in the water. At night they stay in the bush eating grass and other plants. As we were leaving the area, one hippo gave us a great big open-mouthed smile (or maybe it was a yawn). Simon said, "wow, that's a once in a lifetime thing to see!"

Thanks for all the e-cards, emails and birthday wishes that were sent to John and I recently!
John's birthday fell on a national holiday in Burkina. Instead of giving us a day off, or taking a day off herself, Jacqui organized another field trip. One of the sites we visited was a small farm where a French couple have been raising goats and making goat cheese for ten years. John and I love goat cheese (mainly because we are lactose intolerant and can't eat other cheeses). So, buying fresh goat cheese was a treat.
I've had my birthday this month too. The day before, we went out for dinner at a restaurant with fantastic thin-crust pizza. We tried to go to a dance performance at the French cultural centre, but got the location wrong. On my birthday we were invited out for dinner with "the candy store people." I'm going to save that story, and who they are, for another posting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Making our way in Madrid

by John

Madrid was not on our original list of places to visit, but when we had to pass through on our way from Egypt to West Africa, it seemed like a good way to practice the Spanish we had learned earlier in Nicarauga.

Madrid is a beautiful city teeming with cafes, restaurants and art galleries. Stuff any 9 or 11 year old would love (or not). Our 7 days there were full, as always, and we had an interesting and pleasant time there. Here are a few of our impressions – things that surprised us and highlights.

- Eating dinner at 9:00 pm is hard to get used to.
- Cafes not opening until well after 8:00 am or 9:00 am is hard for John to get used to (Starbucks opened early though).
- Stuff is expensive. Spain is not the poor cousin in Europe.
- When you order a hot chocolate you are not supposed to drink the melted chocolate syrup they give you. It is for dipping churros in – great once you figure out the system.
- Getting just a "regular coffee" is next to impossible unless you go to Starbucks.
- Cien Montaditos – one hundred sandwiches each for 1 to 1.5 Euros. A real find when you are on a budget (photo)

- Iberian Ham and the Museum of Ham – Mardrillenos love their ham and so do I.
- Toledo was once the centre of weapon making in Europe and Simon just had to have a small sword. We had a wonderful day on our day trip to this historic town (photo)

- Strawberries grow on trees. Not really but Madrillenos believe this is the case. Their symbol is a bear trying to reach up a strawberry tree.
- Bull fighting is hard to pin down but is very big in Madrid. We didn’t go but met some students who did and they were disgusted. We saw a bit of it on TV and it seemed like a dance – we didn’t see the gory parts though.
- Our Spanish language skills are barely past functional and the kids did learn a tonne. They often had to add a word for us.

Now it's time to pack our bags and prepare for West Africa. Allons-y!