Texas – Part Two: San Antonio

Apart from gorging myself almost constantly, I was also able to walk around San Antonio and enjoy its tranquil ambience, rich history and warm weather. The city features colonial cathedrals, quaint cobbled streets, and Romanesque towers, all hidden like gems in amongst its tall concrete office buildings. After turning every other corner I would be pleasantly surprised to stumble across some charming side-walk café or an old fashioned tram rattling along a stone-tiled street.

I later found out that this is actually the oldest active cathedral in the Unites States!

We also visited The Alamo, a former Roman Catholic mission and fortress compound, and site of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 (thanks Wikipedia). It is apparently a very important landmark in the history and culture of Texas, but don’t ask me about it – I was too hot and tired to be bothered to read the information provided inside the building. I did like the architecture though, and could appreciate its history though I didn’t necessarily know anything much about it.

My favourite part of downtown San Antonio was, inevitably, The Riverwalk – a network of pathways alongside the banks of the San Antonio River, creating an oasis of tranquillity one story below the bustling city. Elegant restaurants with little white-clothed, flickering-candled tables line both sides of the river, while flowering trees twist upwards and droop over the green water. Picturesque boats of photo-taking tourists glide slowly past underneath stone arch bridges, and the atmosphere is definitely one to be savoured.

Usually, I am not the kind of person who would be taken aback by such a commercial place, but honestly, I loved it. The fact that this peaceful place could be found just by descending a flight of steps from the busy city streets above made it all the more alluring.

One balmy night we decided to eat at a particularly classy restaurant on the Riverwalk. Feeling extremely sophisticated after being seated at one of the pristine white-clothed tables, and getting deep into conversation before our appetizers were brought out, I froze mid-sentence after feeling something warm and lumpy drip suddenly onto my head, down the back of my neck and inside my new white shirt. Already knowing my doom, I rushed (rigidly, with fingers spread out on stiff, extended arms) to the bathroom, and gagged when I turned around in the mirror to find the confirmation that, yes, a pigeon had decided to expel its bowel contents into my hair. In my opinion (and sadly I am talking from ill-fated experience), the Riverwalk is one of the worst locations in the world to be defecated upon. However, if I look on the bright side, I will now certainly never forget that place. Thank you, kind pigeon.

The Riverwalk allows you to see the city from below, so the next day we decided to get another perspective – we visited the Tower of The Americas. This tower with its viewing deck offers an aerial perspective of the city, and like the Riverwalk’s view from beneath San Antonio, the view from above also provides some tranquillity. From 750 feet above ground, the viewer can watch the hustle and bustle of city as though from another world, with the wind whipping through the air being the only sound he can hear.

This was my last day. The 5 days had gone quicker than I had expected and already it was time to say goodbye. That evening we went out for farewell drinks, and, naturally, being with Mexican friends in Texas, we drank tequila. (In an Irish pub, obviously.)

Cheers!

I got home and packed, and eventually slept at 3.30. At 4am my alarm went off, ready for me to wake up and leave for the airport, in order to head back to St. Louis for the next 5 days. As I said before, 30 minutes sleep the night before a flight is never a good idea, but spending the evening with new friends was definitely worth it. I was sad to leave so soon, but I am sure I will be visiting again in the future.

Advertisements

Toasted Ravioli and SUV’s: First Impressions of St. Louis

Finally, after 19 hours of travel, three airports, and less than two hours sleep over the course of two days, I have arrived in the land of the free and the home of the brave: the USA!

My flight out of Bogotá was to be at 7am. So naturally, being a good and punctual Englishman, I woke at 3 (I didn’t even get to sleep until 1) in order to get ready and arrive at the airport for 4, leaving three hours until my flight. As you can imagine (being in Colombia) the flight was delayed until 8.30. My stopover in Miami was to be 8 hours long, so the postponement caused by ‘technical problems’ affected a welcome delay – on my part at least.

Thankfully Miami airport has vastly improved since the first time I used it as a stopover in 2008. That year my flight had arrived late, leaving me with just an hour to go through immigration (coming from Colombia into the USA, this takes somewhat longer than usual and involves a lot of heated interrogation) collect my luggage, check it in again, go through security for the second time, and catch a flight. Of course this was impossible and the flight was missed – owing greatly to MIA’s impractical layout and streams of never-ending, motionless queues. However, none of that applied this time. Yesterday, upon arrival at MIA, I went through immigration as though through a walk in the park. Travelling alone after spending four months in Colombia (and looking even more sickly-pale than usual after just a two hour sleep) I was prepared for an intense grilling. This was not the case. The officer simply flipped over my passport, indifferently took my fingerprints, and sent me on my way.

“Is that it?” I asked, shocked.

He answered positively though somewhat annoyed by the question, so I quickly made my way to baggage reclaim before he changed his mind.

As soon as I sat down on the next plane I was fast asleep. I have a blurred memory of being woken half way through the flight by a stewardess asking if I wanted a drink. Unfortunately for her I was not fully awake and so after perplexedly looking about, eyes squinted, trying to work out whether or not we were in the air, I grunted incoherently before dropping my head again and falling immediately back to sleep; not waking up again until the stewards were preparing for landing.

As you may have gathered, I am not good at being tired. So when I met Mike and his assistant David at baggage reclaim 19 hours after leaving the apartment in Bogotá, and with only two hours of sleep in 48 hours (sleeping on the plane doesn’t count), I must have appeared as a zombie – traipsing through the airport with vacant eyes, dragging hand luggage behind me expressionlessly – a dead man walking. Or at least a sleeping man walking.

I was driven from the airport in the north of the city to Webster Groves, a southern St. Louis suburb which is to be my home for the next two months. Upon arrival I instantly fell asleep, not waking up until morning.

Today, as light poured through the window (and as the alarm blared in my ear) I awoke refreshed and energized, able to see my new surroundings clearly for the first time. I looked out of the window onto the quintessential leafy street that everyone would imagine when asked to picture a suburban American neighbourhood. Handsome white wooden-panelled and redbrick houses sit far apart from each other, surrounded by wide lawns featuring long driveways adorned with huge SUV’S, at the end of which are mail boxes perched on wooden posts. American flags flutter by each front door and huge trees line the street – the only thing missing from the neighbourhood are white picket fences.

I was picked up and taken around the city by David, who explained to me some of its history (I’ll save that for another post). He also told me that St. Louis is the biggest small town in the world, which I soon found to be true. It looks like a city: there are tall buildings, large roads, big parks, impressive monuments, etc. but there were barely any people, and the atmosphere was that of a small town where everyone knows everyone else – even though over three million people live here.

Looking cautious before trying the ravioli!

For lunch I was taken to a sports bar, where I sampled a delicacy unique to St. Louis – deep fried ravioli. I know, it sounds awful, I thought so too – but surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot. I would even go as far as to say that it’s better than regular, un-fried ravioli! Here I met a few young people from the church who were very friendly and outgoing, and we were also joined by Mike, who too has been very hospitable and kind.

From what I have seen so far during my first day here, I can tell I am going to enjoy my stay. Before I arrived I had no expectations. I decided not to expect to like it here, and not to expect to dislike it either – just to wait and see what there is to see, as I had no idea what St. Louis would be like. But already I have seen that it is a handsome city, filled with friendly, welcoming people, and I know I am going to appreciate every minute spent here.

My Last Day in Colombia

I have yet to pack my suitcase: a task I am not at all looking forward to. At home in January, I calmly began packing with well-ordered, meticulous care just hours before having to leave for the airport. Upon completion of the task and finding that despite my greatest efforts of tidiness the case still stubbornly refused to close, I enlisted the help of my mother, who (like all mothers) has unexplained though definitely appreciated skills in making everything fit – even allowing for some extra room. This time, however, I am alone – without someone to expertly rearrange my belongings like a puzzle until the case can properly shut – and I am dreading this unavoidable, toilsome labour.

Today is my last day in Colombia. Tomorrow morning at seven o’clock I will fly from Bogota’s El Dorado airport and say goodbye to the land that has been my home for the past four months. It is hard for me to believe that it has been four months; to me it feels as though my time here has been much briefer, and though I am excited to be moving and seeing more of the world, there are certainly things about life in Colombia that I am going to miss.

First off, I am going to miss the people I have met during my stay. Though I have only been here for four months, I have made friendships which I know will last a lifetime. I will also miss eating fried chicken with honey (something that in England would raise more than a few eyebrows, whereas here the honey is given to you in sachets along with your meal). I will miss drinking vanicanelas (vanilla and cinnamon lattes) in Juan Valdez, mixed with a good spoonful (or three) of panela. I will miss hearing the sounds of Salsa, Merengue, Cumbia and Vallenato in rickety old buses and hurtling taxis, and smiling at the reminder that I am far from home. I will miss the outgoing affability of Colombia’s people, and I will miss their carefree, laidback culture. I will also miss these things.

I didn’t even like coffee before I came here

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to what the next two months have in store for me. There have been some unforeseen changes to my itinerary, and after staying in Bogotá for a week longer than originally planned, I will be skipping my stops in Bolivia and Los Angeles, and heading straight to St Louis, Missouri, where I will spend two months as the intern of Doctor Mike Peters – a close friend of my pastor. If I am honest, I haven’t a clue what to expect from these coming months, but I am going with an open mind and without expectations, and I am excited to discover what St Louis has to offer, as well as what I might learn there.

Last night I took Lala, the daughter of the family I have been staying with, and her boyfriend Diego out for dinner to say thank you and goodbye (the parents were also invited, but unfortunately couldn’t make it). I am going to miss them all, and I have really appreciated the way they have taken me into their home and treated me like family from day one. Last night was a great opportunity to say thank you and a good way to spend our last times together. The food was pretty good too.

Lala and Diego

Caught off guard struggling with the chopsticks

Today, as well as attempting to cram all of my possessions into the case, I will be rushing around doing last minute errands before I leave; such as taking advantage of Colombia’s low priced haircuts (I go to the best hairdresser in the city and spend less than £10 – less than half of what I pay for a cut in England – whereas a similar place in London would charge £80 or more for a men’s cut) and stocking up on foods I know I am going to miss.

But anyway, I better make a start with this suitcase. Wish me luck, and I will update you upon my arrival in the USA.

Three Days in Girardot

So I wasn’t able to visit Cartagena as I had hoped, but this week I did the next best thing! On Monday me and Lala (the youngest daughter of the family I‘m living with, who has come to be like yet another sister of mine) decided we should go on a short holiday to Girardot*. Situated in a tropical climate while being just a 2 hour drive from the relatively cold weather and almost daily rainfall of Bogotá, Girardot is extremely popular with the Rolos (people from Bogotá) as a weekend retreat – an easy escape from the demands of the big city.

Gloomy Bogotá

And so, the next morning we woke up sickeningly early in order to arrive at the station for 6am, and from there to take a bus to our destination. The bus left at 7.30, and just getting out of Bogotá seemed to be the longest part of the journey. As I have mentioned before – traffic in this city is a big problem, especially at rush hour.

Bogotá is the world’s fourth highest capital, and to leave the city our bus had to ascend even higher up one of the surrounding mountains in order to then begin its descent toward the tropical valleys. The temperature decreased as we rose, and the bus was sprayed with rain as we drove through clouds so thick that you could barely see 10 meters ahead. This didn’t do anything to knock the driver’s confidence, as he continued to drive with irrational speed along the snaking mountain roads. The knowledge that the road was edged by a sheer drop was something that I tried to ignore, especially when the driver decided to overtake immense oil tankers on blind bends. At this point I closed my eyes, deciding it would be better to die in my sleep rather than with the realisation that I was plummeting to my death down a rocky precipice, but somehow I couldn’t manage to doze off. Soon enough we had reached our highest point, and from now on the journey would be downhill.

I watched through the window at the shifting landscapes and was amazed at how the scenery transformed so rapidly – just a 40 minute decent from the city and already it looked as though we were in another country altogether. The regal Pines and Oaks of Bogotá were quickly replaced with stooping eucalyptuses and flowering acacias reminiscent of the Australian countryside. Eventually these were also replaced with tall leaning palms, banana plants and ferns. Along one side of the twisting road was a sheer wall of rugged rock dripping with vines; on the other side, the ground, rich with tropical vegetation, sloped sharply downward to a muddy river which, churning, followed the path of the road. Beyond the river the earth lurched abruptly upward again, forming a narrow gorge which the water cut through, and enormous boulders lay scattered across the landscape. The scenery looked positively prehistoric – I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur had come into view as we turned the bend, and for the first time I felt as though I was catching a glimpse of the magical lands described in the novels of Garcia Marquez.

After a few hours we arrived at a rather uninspiring town, and though it was tiny, we still managed to become stuck in gridlocked, motionless traffic. We were welcomed by the sounds of Colombian folk music drifting from open doorways; the calls of young girls leaning out of upstairs windows to talk to their friends on the hot streets below; the blare of car, moped and truck horns all sounded by impatient drivers; and the persistent cries of the street venders who stuck their heads and baskets of goods into the bus’s windows, trying to sell us ice creams, soft drinks, fruits and pastries. Soon enough we were on our way again, and within twenty minutes we called the bus to a halt as we had reached our hotel.

A collection of whitewashed, terracotta-roofed buildings formed the complex, which was surrounded by mango trees and coconut palms. Wrought-iron, colonial style street lamps lined walkways which formed paths between the hotel’s seven different swimming pools, and tropical birds of electric yellow or emerald green darted between the huge trees entangled with drooping vines in the centre of the complex.

Mango Tree

We entered the lobby – a sweeping white room with wicker furniture and high ceilings exposed to the warm breeze without doors, just wide open archways. Here we checked in and then unpacked in our room before proceeding to spend the next three days lounging by the pool, swimming, eating good food in the hotel’s many restaurants, and just enjoying the sun.

The hotel had a bowling alley, a massage service, numerous bars, restaurants, an ice cream parlour, tennis courts and swimming pools. The rooms were spacious and comfortable. But what I enjoyed the most was just relaxing in the hot weather, 30 degrees c, and reminding myself of how cold it was back in England made me appreciate it even more. I was told it was only 6 degrees in London while I was in Girardot!

We arrived on Tuesday morning, and on Thursday afternoon it was already time to check out of the hotel. At this point it began to rain lightly, so we waited in the lobby until it cleared before making our way to the street to hail a bus back to Bogotá. While we waited, I watched as a hummingbird drank nectar from a bush of pink hibiscus under the mango trees. I remembered my childhood summers spent in Menorca, and how I used to love wildlife – I would spend the summer holidays catching lizards and frogs around the house on the island! I even had books about the animals of the Amazon, and was always fascinated by hummingbirds. So one summer, when I was around seven years old, I was amazed when I saw what I thought to be a hummingbird drinking from the bougainvillea outside the kitchen window. I ran excitedly to tell my mum, and rushed to bring her back so she could see, but I was disappointed to find out that it was only moth known as the Hummingbird Hawk-moth. This didn’t stop me from taking delight in waiting for sunset when they would come out and drink from the flowers around the house, and I would catch them in my hands before watching them fly off again after setting them free.

Sitting in that lobby, watching as the bird darted between each flower took me straight back to my childhood, and the excitement I felt that summer in Menorca from seeing a real life “hummingbird” for the first time! I couldn’t help but feel a tiny part of that childhood excitement return as I watched, this time knowing that it was the real thing! Of course I played it cool, and just watched silently from my wicker sofa, smiling at the memory.

* [For those of you reading at home (I’m mainly thinking of my dad – remembering the embarrassing times when he tries to order a beer in Menorca), let me try to give you a quick lesson in Spanish pronunciation, as I know how it feels to read something with a recurring word without knowing how to say it: in this case, the ‘G’ is pronounced like an English ‘H’. an ‘I’ in Spanish is similar to an English ‘Ee’. The Spanish ‘R’ is nothing like in English. There are two ways to say it, but for the R’s in ‘Girardot’, it is similar to a mix between the ‘Dd’ in ‘ladder’ and an ‘L’. The ‘A’ is short, such as the ‘A’ in ‘cat’, as opposed to the long ‘A’ in ‘can’t’. The Spanish ‘D’ is much softer, and similar to an English ‘Th’. I’m trying to help, but I think I’ve just made it even more confusing for every one – including myself. Anyway, perhaps the simplest way to pronounce it with an English spelling would be: Heerarrdot]

My First Few Days in Colombia

The moment I stepped off the plane in Bogota I could see that things had changed since my last visit just two years previously.

This is my third time visiting Colombia – the first being in 2008, and the second being in 2010. The reason I have visited this country so frequently – which most other Englishmen (or any ‘Westerner’ for that matter) would do anything to avoid – is that my church back in England is linked with a church here in Bogota. This church has over 150,000 members and counting and has played a major part in the change of a nation which was once renowned for notorious drug cartels, countless kidnappings, political corruption and murder.

My first visit, back in 2008, was a brief one. I came for just one week to attend an international conference which the church here in Bogota – MCI (Misión Carismática Internacional) – hosts every January for the attendance of all members of the churches who are in fellowship with it.

By 2008 the country had already begun to change dramatically.  In 2002 Alvaro Uribe began his presidency in which he fought hard against the terrorist FARC who have stained this beautiful nation with the blood of thousands, and also against the corruption within Colombia’s political sphere.

However, during my first visit at just 17, I could sense there was still a definite ambience of danger in the city.  The nervousness of the young men, soldiers, who stood clutching machine guns on every street corner; the bulletproof windows in the car of the church’s senior pastor; the acute awareness in the eyes of our guides for the week – these were all hints which pointed at a deep fear entrenched into this nation from decades of guerrilla warfare; a fear which still stirred below the surface of calm which was brought about by the new president.

Upon arrival at the airport on that first visit, we were met at baggage reclaim by guides from the church who swept us through the swelling hordes of people who flocked around the airport’s entrance, straight into a waiting minibus which drove us at high speed directly to our hotel which was guarded by more machine gun holding soldiers and sniffer dogs. Throughout that week we were transported to and from the hotel and the city’s 15,000 seat coliseum in which the conference was held. All I saw of Colombia during that week was a gridlocked motorway through the glass of minibus’s window, the inside of the Radisson hotel, and the coliseum. This said a lot about the apparent state of security in the nation at the time, although it was a vast improvement to the first visit by members of our church in 2003, in which each delegate had their own armed bodyguard during transportation, and snipers on the roof of the hotel.

Between 2008 and 2010 I met Diego, my best friend who I mentioned a few posts ago and who happens to be from Bogota, Colombia. So, in 2010 I returned to Colombia to attend the conference again, only this time with Diego. Instead of staying in a hotel I stayed in his family apartment, instead of staying for just one week a stayed for a month, and instead of seeing only the inside of a coliseum and my accommodation, I was taken around the whole city, and also to other towns. This time there was a change in the atmosphere of the nation. The security, though still extremely present, was visibly more relaxed, and the general mood of the city was a lot more laid back and safe. During this trip I was able to see the real Colombia, and I fell in love with it. I learned that the people of this country are some of the warmest and most respectful in the world. I also learned the hard way to check the flash on your camera before you start taking photos. This was when I thought it would be a good idea to take a photo of a very interesting lady who spent every day of every year outside the airport’s entrance, wearing huge snorkelling goggles, an apron, and pushing around a trolley containing an eclectic collection of goods for sale. When I tried to inconspicuously photograph her, my best efforts of discreetness were foiled when the camera flashed in her face and she chased me through the crowd shouting swearwords in Spanish and trying to ram her trolley of goods into my legs. Okay, so not all Colombians are warm, but it was a valuable lesson learned.

Crazy Trolley Lady - Seconds before the attack!

So, last Tuesday, after travelling for eighteen hours and being interrogated in both London and Miami by airport authorities wanting to know why I was travelling to Colombia alone for four months (they became especially suspicious when they found out I hadn’t found a college or university to attend after I had told them that I was going to study Spanish) I arrived exhausted and for the third time in Bogotá.

The instant I stepped out of the plane I saw that the airport had been transformed since two years earlier, from a dark, dreary and decaying building into a bright, modern port. Light flooded in from the high ceilings of the walkway from the plane to baggage reclaim, and flags from every nation adopting Colombia’s red, yellow and blue welcomed visitors in their own languages to a country which just a few years previously they would have avoided like the plague.

Gone were the intimidating men who once flooded baggage reclaim, demanding to help you with your luggage for a few thousand pesos. Gone was the multitude of street vendors outside the airport doors (including the crazy trolley lady) who you once had to struggle to push through whilst dragging your luggage and trying to protect your pockets simultaneously.

I was impressed at these few changes, as although they may seem insignificant, they make a substantial difference to the first impressions people have of this nation.

I was met at the airport doors by Mateo and Miguel, the two sons of the family I would be staying with for the first few days. They insisted that I allow them to carry my luggage for me to the waiting car, and we drove to their apartment. On the short drive there I noticed many new buildings were being erected everywhere as well as some which were already finished. The apartment I was to stay in was itself part of a brand new building complete with a swimming pool and gym, with parts of it still in construction.

Orlando and Jimena, and their three children Mateo, Miguel and Sharon all treated me like a part of the family from the second I arrived in their home. They took me out for meals, to the cinema, to shopping malls, up a mountain, and showed me around the city. And they gave me food. So much food… I tried to explain to them that I wasn’t used to eating so much but I suppose they just wanted to make me feel welcome. One lunch time I thought they had understood that I preferred a smaller meal when I sat at the table and was presented with just a bowl of chicken soup. I felt glad that I wasn’t about to have to remain at the table for hours after the rest of the family had finished eating, struggling to force down all the food so as not to appear wasteful or ungrateful. However, after the first spoonful of soup they brought out the rest of my meal: a heaped plateful of pasta, another plate with a whole fish covered in a cheese sauce, a whole plantain covered with more cheese, and a plate of arepas (Colombian corn bread). After this was dessert. An hour after I had finally finished this meal I was given a ‘snack’ just in case I was still hungry, of eight different unidentifiable fruits in a bowl. EIGHT. Some of you know that I haven’t eaten a single fruit since perhaps 2003, so this was a real challenge for me.

Anyway, I really enjoyed my first few days with the Castañeda family. They were all so friendly and did everything they could to make me feel welcome.

Three days later I moved to different accommodation as I was joined by some friends from England who came for the conference, including Diego – so, for the last week I have been living in Diego’s aunt’s apartment in the north of the city. It has been fun to spend time with friends from the UK here in Bogotá, and having familiar faces around has helped to ease me into the country gently, rather than arriving here alone and having to make friends from scratch. However, I think I have done quite well so far – Diego was surprised that I was introducing him to people in his own city and church after having arrived here only three days before him.

With some new friends

I have made many new friends from many different countries since arriving here, and I’m having a great time with them all, but I can’t help but feel that half of the time I have been here so far has been spent waiting around in large groups for some unknown occurrence or person. Every day after the conference a group of around 20 of us would meet at the entrance to go to some restaurant or shopping mall that had been agreed on beforehand. However, instead of going to the chosen destination, we end up waiting for at least an hour each time, but no one ever knows what for. I would ask every person “do you know who we’re waiting for?” and every reply would be negative. So I would take initiative and announce to the group “alright, let’s go!” and begin to walk towards the taxis, turning my head after a few paces to find no one following me. After an hour or more of waiting for nothing, some mysterious force compels everyone to finally make their way to the taxis in unison. I can never understand what happens or what gets said that causes everyone to stop waiting, but I have learned to give up wondering. This is Colombia, and it is part of a culture which I need to get used to!

Apart from that, I am enjoying everything about Bogotá. The warmness of both the people and the weather are refreshing to say the least. The mountains that surround the city seem to look down consolingly on the bustling metropolis – looking up from a street streaming with swerving taxis at the silent green mountains offers a somehow comforting contrast. The laid back culture here is something we could learn from back in England, but there needs to be a balance. Waiting hours for nothing is taking it too far!

With some of the group from england, and other new friends

The conference finished yesterday, and everyone from back home will be leaving soon. That is when this trip will begin to feel real to me – when I am here alone in a Spanish speaking nation without Diego to translate for me, and without the comfort of familiar faces around me. But before that happens, I am taking a short trip to Cucuta, the city in which Diego was born, on the border with Venezuela. Bogota is 2640 meters above sea level, so the weather is generally around 18 degrees every day, whereas Cucuta is only 300 meters above sea level, so I can expect temperatures of up to 35 degrees every day. The foreign office advises against all travel to this city, but I am ignoring its advice after seeing how wrong it was about Burkina Faso.

All lonely planet has to say about Cucuta is this:

“Hot, muggy and close to the Venezuelan border, Cúcuta is either the first or last Colombian city that many overland travelers visit. The city has a modern, if rather uninspiring, center and vast poor suburbs. There’s little reason to linger, but you may need to stick around for a night if you’re crossing the border.”

I have also heard from other Colombians that there is not much to do there, but I am looking forward to this trip nonetheless, if only for the warm weather. It will also be nice to meet the rest of Diego’s family. I will let you know how it goes in my next post!

What About the Basil??!

I can’t sleep.

Its almost 3am and thoughts keep spinning around my head. In just 4 hours time I leave for the airport, and I’ve noticed that as the time draws nearer to my departure for this trip, more and more absurd concerns keep playing on my mind.

Over the last week I have taken to carrying a notepad and pen around with me wherever I go, even keeping it by my bedside when I sleep, so that every time I think of something I need to do before I leave, or of something I need to take with me, I can make a note of it to be sure it’s not forgotten like so many of my thoughts are.

The other night I woke up with a start as the sudden, apparently urgent thought of “who is going to keep the basil plant alive while I’m away?” invaded my sleep. No one else in my family seems to care about the wellbeing of this culinary herb which sits on the kitchen windowsill, and I am always the one to rescue it from the talons of almost certain death.

Other unaccountable worries that keep intruding my awareness include “where will I get my hair cut while I’m away” (there is only one person in the world whom I trust to cut my hair) and “what if I get lost on the Transmilenio?” (Bogotá’s vast network of buses – their equivalent to London’s tube)

The list in my notepad is now 3 pages long.

I just want to sleep…!

Burkina Faso: Mud Huts and Millet

Towards the end of our week in Burkina, after an eventful few days, and ignoring the Foreign Office’s advice to travel no further north of the country than Ouagadougou, we packed for an overnights stay and made our way to Gourcy. Gourcy is the capital of the province of Zondoma which is one of the northern most provinces in Burkina Faso, just some 30 miles from the border with Mali.

Looking out of the car window at the changing scenery during the 4 hour drive through the African countryside, I noticed how the land became drier; vegetation became sparser; and the earth became redder the further north we drove. Not to mention the increase in temperature – In Ouagadougou it was between 38-39°C. By the time we reached Gourcy it was 43°C. We were getting closer to the Sahara desert.

Philippe wanted to take us to Gourcy to show us some more of the schools and adult education programmes which are run by his charity and which our church back in England has supported for almost 20 years. But first we were to be shown a nearby village in which he was born and raised.

We reached Gourcy in the early evening – the first sign of civilization we had seen since we left Ouagadougou four hours earlier. Once there, our pickup truck turned onto a dirt track which carried on back into countryside and over the horizon, as far as we could see. We drove along for half an hour and then turned off of the track and onto rough terrain. I don’t know how the driver knew where to turn off, for as far as I could see, the whole landscape looked the same – dry, cracked red earth with the occasional thirsty looking bush. Philippe pointed out to us that these were sesame plants.

After a further, bumpy 20 minutes, we arrived in Philippe’s home village. The moment it came into view through the windscreen, I was in awe.

It was that time of day when the world seems to be unwinding for the evening, and everything glows in rich shades of copper and gold as the sun begins its decent. As our truck neared the cluster of tiny round huts made from the reddish-brown earth and topped with pointed straw roofs, we passed a small boy drawing water from the village well who dropped his bucket and excitedly ran after us calling “Nasara” – ‘white man’ in Mòoré. We turned into a narrow passage between two huts and got out of the truck – the only vehicle within 15 miles, apart from a motorcycle which had been donated to the village pastor – and were immediately surrounded by captivated children who whispered to themselves ‘Nasara, nasara!’ and all extended their hands, each eagerly awaiting a handshake from the foreigners.

Boy at the well

Philippe took us on a walking tour around the village. It was made up of different ‘houses’. Each house represented a family of the village – that is an entire family: Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. – and consisted of a few of the round, straw roofed huts which were used for storing grain; more huts which were shorter, rectangular and flat roofed, all with open holes for doorways and were used for sleeping; and open air pens for chickens and goats; all made from the cracked red mud and enclosed by walls composed of the same material. Cooking was done outside in the open air of each family ‘house’, and families would sit on the floor amongst the huts that comprised their homes to eat and socialise. As a family grew, so the family compound would be extended. The whole village was made up of about twenty of these family houses and all in all, there were about 300 inhabitants.

It is hard to explain these houses without a visual aid, so here are some photos which will hopefully make it clearer.

A family compound, or household, from the outside

From the inside of a family household

The fields that surrounded the village, which must have only recently been filled with long, swaying crops, were covered in a thick spread of the grassy stubs of the recently severed millet stalks. The harvest was divided between the people and the animals, and the animals’ share of the crop was stored in trees which dotted the fields.

The animals' feed stored in the trees

As we were led around the village, we were accompanied by an ever expanding entourage of curious children who ran barefoot about us, giggling and whispering to each other as the orange sun began to set over the horizon.

My fan club

Making friends

We were taken to Philippe’s family compound where we were introduced to his father, the village elder and chief. No one knew how old this man was, as there were no birth certificates at the time when he was born, but he is estimated to be well into his nineties.

The pastor of our church back in England had visited this village some years previously, and Philippe’s father took great pride in showing us a framed photo of himself with our pastor, Pastor Wes, which he kept inside his hut.

Pastor Philippe and his father

Plastic chairs were then brought out from somewhere – the only modern things I had seen in the village apart from the motorcycle – and we all sat around in a circle inside Philippe’s family compound, talking long into the night and sipping a sharp, sweet drink made of crushed millet, vinegar and sugar. Philippe’s father however, was happier sitting on the floor, being unused to new-fangled contraptions such as chairs. A cooking fire flickered and crackled somewhere behind us offering a faint glow which was the only source of light – there was no electricity here – and the crowd of children still surrounded us. Amazed, they stood behind our circle of chairs, touching my hair and laughing amongst themselves. They would quickly disperse every time one of the elders shooed them away, only to slowly re-emerge one by one, the bravest first.

Me and the kids

For me, this was the highlight of the trip. Just sitting in the middle of Africa, the real Africa, with these people who lived the simplest kind of life one could live. The sense of family was almost tangible as I sat there, not understanding a word that was being said – just enjoying the community; the gentle night air which carried with it the warm scent of Africa; the laughing, playful children who surrounded me; and the multitude of stars that glimmered above us. Simplicity of life and a profound sense of peace – this was the highlight of my time in Burkina Faso, and one of the highlights of my life so far.