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If you give a mouse a cookie (or, The Pilgrimage)

February 17, 2011

Reader: an FYI: this post will be long (and maybe a little nostalgic in a good way)

Blogo-Soundtrack: on shuffle, which has pulled up loads of forgottens: Cursive (and that summer before college), Damien Jurado (and that time I missed his concert), Jose Gonzalez (and the intensity of the bass as we stood listening to him under the tent in the rain), The National (and my best friends and I standing right in front of him on the little stage as he screamed his life out), Modest Mouse (and the drive from Houston to Austin with The Lonesome Crowded West blasting; or being front row in Barcelona as we shook our bodies silly), Of Montreal (and the torrential downpour we were stuck in, the wine in the metro, and the bus citations we got on our visit to Paris that spring), Ryan Adams (and the missed bus to the Barca airport at 3 a.m., the resulting 110 euro taxi ride, and the morning we slept in the park on the only patch of grass we could find until the hostel would take us in).

Today was fantastic. To begin with, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone: ne y taabo, wend na kõnd veere. Nothing spectacular happened, it’s just been one of those days where everything falls into place, where everything feels right. And, given that those types of days have been sparse, I couldn’t be more grateful to have my batteries recharged. Truthfully, I think that it was an off-handed, simple remark by one of the ladies at work that set me up for today: after I cooked and brought in food for them this morning, Awa said to me, “Tu te débrouilles bien avec nous.” Loosely translated, it means, “You’re getting along just fine with us.” I almost burst into tears of joy – I really can’t even explain how perfect it was to hear those words come out of her mouth.

I half expected today to be a bit challenging, because of yesterday’s intensity; instead it was awesome. Which just cements what my mother once told me, that sometimes you really don’t want to go somewhere, or do something, because you have an idea in your brain that it’s going to be horrible, and you’d just rather stay in and not deal with people; then you force yourself out, and you are pleasantly surprised, even happy with whatever you just experienced, but almost missed. It’s a good lesson, and one that I feel particularly applies in my life right now. Tonight is another perfect example – this evening, after getting all squeaky clean and not really wanting to walk all the way (less than a minute) to Alima’s to return some dishes, I told myself that I had better get out there while I’m strolling on Cloud 9 and have CONTENT smacked across my face. As a sort of gift for this, I got to witness Alima’s husband come home and, in front of their children, some of the old ladies, Joséphine, and Moussa (a teenager of about 16 whose voice cracks every time he responds to my hellos), hand her a plastic bag and say, “Here… is something, you know for Valentine’s Day.” The gift was salad, with a thousand-island-y dressing, and brochette meat! It was endearing to see a husband, in an environment that doesn’t promote affection or marriage based on the sense of love or attraction in the sense that we know and define it, awkwardly yet kindly observe this holiday. You could tell that Alima seemed just as surprised as I was. She then proceeded to share the salad, which was enough of a Valentine’s gift for me, and I sat and listened to them gossip and chatter in Mooré, crazy noises and facial expressions and all.

But for now, it’s time for bed. You’ll all be just as upset as I was to learn that I’ve got a new pet: a mouse (but a Burkinabè mouse, which means an American rat) that I’ve taken to talking to in the middle of the night, begging her to get out of my house and to stop chewing on whatever the hell it is she’s chewing on (a cookie, perhaps). You add this nuisance to the fact that I have literally been waking myself up in the middle of the night because I am laughing so hard (the mefloquine gives me what are apparently hilarious dreams), and the result is a very interrupted sleep.

The Pilgrimage That’s what they call it, though I’m unsure whether or not the most tiresome day (and perhaps one of the truer tests of my patience) thus far, really falls into the category of a pilgrimage. It was quite a journey, so maybe that’s enough to qualify it as such.

The story begins the day before, on Saturday. Alima, the president of my organization, as it turns out is the daughter of the chief of the next village over. This past weekend he celebrated his 25th anniversary as ruler of the village. I mistakenly thought that the celebration I was heading to with the women was the 25th anniversary of his death (here, they celebrate the anniversaries of the deaths of notable villagers). It wasn’t until I actually read the t-shirt they had screen printed for the occasion (they do that in my village) more closely that I realized it was his reign, rather than his life, that we were celebrating. Initially, I had thought the t-shirts had a typo, saying the chief was born in 1986 and deceased in 2011, which just goes to show you how little I pay attention sometimes.

Anyway, we get to her grande famille’s house, and what a party. They commissioned a percussion band, with a wildly charismatic old lady singer (whose face, I kid you not, was somehow hued purple – I don’t know how or why), and a dance troupe of three scandalously dressed young women. As if this weren’t enough entertainment to last the night through, they also hired a group of three or so men, armed with horses (two white and one brown) that cleared the crowd in order to race up and down the path, performing the dumbest tricks I’ve ever seen. The ring leader, a creepy sort of rasta guy who kept trying to strike up conversation and asked about my husband too many times to feel comfortable, would lay himself out over two horses as they ran from point A to point B. It looked to me as though his “performance” would lead to him or one of his troupe members falling off and snapping several bones; but thankfully this wasn’t the case and everyone made it out alive. Oh, and I can’t forget the canons: shot off every so often, causing Pélagie to jump and scream each and every time they went off.

For me, this event was exhausting. Any day that involves several hundred Burkinabè, lots of food, lots of noise, and lots of not knowing what is happening always makes me tired. But it was fun, and I made it home early enough to ask Ma Basraa what time I needed to be ready Sunday, the next morning, to go to Y—- for the pilgrimage.

“3 a.m.” Ouch. But all right. After all, we don’t want to miss our privately commissioned car that will chauffeur us to the holy site (this is not a joke, I was told that was how we were getting there). To be ready by 3 a.m., fed and sunscreened up and with a lunch packed and coffee in my body, I woke up at 2:20 a.m. and began my preparations. At 2:30 a.m., while I’m still only wearing a pagne, Ma Basraa knocks on my door and tells me it’s time to go. She gets one look at me, and says in Moore something to the effect of, Oh Dear you’re not ready. Last time I checked, the Burkinabè, like other West Africans from what I’m told, were genetically programmed to be incapable of getting anywhere on time; too bad no one told me that it doesn’t prevent them from being ahead of schedule.

Hold on, give me just 5 minutes, I’ll be there. Teeth brushed, sandwich made, clothes on, and sunscreened up in less than ten minutes (some sort of record, I am sure, though the accomplishment was diminished by the fact that I looked like a tractor had just run over me). Out the door I run, only to find that Ma Basraa, fearing the bus would leave without her, has already set out to catch it. Sambo, my favorite boutiquier, is for some reason riding around on his bicycle at this hour, and runs ahead to yell at the bus that the nassara is coming. So in I go, in a mini-stampede of people rushing to get in – apparently everyone can get on the private bus? Obviously, there are no seats left, so I’m kindly plopped onto the edge of a plastic seat – and there I sit for the next hour, as the corner of the seat digs into my butt the entire ride there, while some guy literally stares at me for the entire ride (and don’t even think of moving, for if you do, you’ll lose the inch that they’ve generously let you occupy). Better that, of course, than being stuck on the floor, like the rest of those who weren’t ready to go at 2:30 sharp. When we debark at our final destination, I realize that we weren’t on a private bus but rather on the public transportation that runs through Ouaga.

Once there, we somehow locate the rest of the women from my organization who have come as well (apparently, they made it in time to catch the private bus). They’ve settled in the sun, their only option as there appears to be no shade. Luckily, we make our way up to the only area, up above and behind the podium, with an awning. Had I been in the sun for the day, there’s a good chance I would have just disappeared into thin air. All this at around 4:30 a.m. Now, we sit and we wait. For what? For a 6 hour mass to begin: in French, and then in English, and finally Mooré; songs about God and Jesus; talk of sin and of Mother Africa; crying babies; no coffee.

Those who know me know that I’m not in the least bit religious (a concept that is completely absurd here in Burkina). Yet I’ve taken to going to church most Sundays – I like the sense of community that it represents for me, here, and to be completely honest, I like the singing and the percussion; it’s as close to live music as I can get. So at Y—- I was floored when the entire crowd did this thing that I’ve always heard Arabic women do at marriages and other types of celebrations: it’s a scream or a yell, with their tongues rattling back and forth really quickly. Imagine 1.5 million (or so they’ve estimated) people doing this: it’s unbelievable. Practicing or not, it can’t help but be a powerful sight to see: so many people gathered to celebrate one common interest or belief; like a music festival, but without the drugs and the idiots moshing in the crowd.

Mass finally comes to an end. We dawdle through the massive amounts of people, some buy posters of Jesus with “Pilgrimage to Y—-, February 13th, 2011 written on them. There seems to be the faint idea of a final destination (this privately hired bus, I am hoping). Finally, the bus! Jam-packed with what feels like 100 children. Of course, I choose a seat on the sunny side. I sit in my own sweat, dozing in and out of sleep, just thankful I have a seat to myself (sort of) for the next three and a half hours as the bus inches out of the venue.

On about a hundred different occasions, I could imagine myself losing patience, losing resilience, getting cranky and snippy – but, nope. Exhaustion does that, and as I sat staring out the window, at the same vendor for 20 minutes because our bus hadn’t budged an inch, sweaty and caked in dust, I felt like I was backpacking again. There’s a very distinct type of exhaustion that comes from traveling, especially traveling à la cheap. I thought back to the time that Clarissa and I, on our trip through Eastern Europe, spent 18 hours on a train from Budapest to Split, in the Southern part of Croatia, with only two mealy apples to eat, and a questionable middle-aged man in our cabin (one who, though perhaps harmless, prevented me from getting any sleep because I felt I had to stay vigilant). And of how when we finally arrived, my stubbornness and frugality forced us (against Clarissa’s will and best judgment) to walk the streets of Split at 6 a.m. instead of taking a cab, in search of our hostel, until finally a kind man led us to the small side street that we would never have located on our own. Or that horrendous bush taxi, then ferry ride, then bus ride that we took from Ko-Pagnang back to Bangkok after having stayed up all night for the Full Moon festivities, where we watched people jump rope through fire, and came to the end of one of the most trying and challenging trips I’ve ever taken. (Of course, the sort of miserable feeling of exhaustion only made me eager to start traveling once again).

Eventually we made it home. And that’s the important part to remember, when living through whatever trying travels and excursions you find yourself in: eventually, you get where you need to go. It’s only a matter of time, and part of getting there usually involves some disaster or another. It’s part of what makes it memorable, and funny if you have the sense to look at it that way. Sure, physical discomfort is a complete pain in the ass and typically makes you question, in the moment at least, why the hell it was that you thought it wise to embark on this journey or that. But they all tend to be worth it in the end.

Here are some pictures: two of my favorite rascals, and the third is of the pilgrimage.

this is reine (which means, fittingly, queen)

the pilgrimage

the bandit (leonard)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. colleen anthony permalink
    February 17, 2011 3:41 pm

    What an adventurous life you have lived, kudos !! Of course all I can think of is “where do you go to the bathroom?” when you are in these crowds or on long bus rides. You must have an amazing bladder. Is there something you could use that your housepets won’t eat? Keep the stories coming.

  2. dad permalink
    February 17, 2011 5:32 pm

    Good times. Fun reading. I guess you could use some American rat traps in your next care package.

  3. Cyndy Wight permalink
    February 18, 2011 9:21 pm

    Zaugarit, that’s what we call that tung rolling yell in bellydancing. Even though I’ve been bellydancing for 11 years, I still sound like a very sick turkey. Wonderful to read your posts, what an adventure!!!! Love ya, Auntie Bug

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