Monday, March 31, 2008

Beating the Heat

I was thinking today how everywhere I’ve lived if the temperature reached 105 it would be the top story on the news. There would be shuttle buses for old people, runs on air conditioners, extended hours at community pools.

I don’t know what today’s high was but someone mentioned at lunch today that yesterday was 110. It didn’t feel much different than it has each day these last weeks but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel hot.

I’ve adopted the hot-weather lifestyle of early rising and lazy afternoons, building a schedule around beating the heat.

My next stop is Benin but I don’t have a visa and they don’t have an embassy here so I tried to get creative this morning before it got too hot. Just after 8am I walked from the western side of Ouagadougou to the east, eventually stumbling on the Ambassade de Côit d’Ivoire (which recently I would have called the Ivory Coast Embassy). Benin and Côit d’Ivoire are two of five west African nations which issue a visa that is good in all five; I thought I could game the system and get this group visa to use in Benin.

I’m not actually going to Côit d’Ivoire. Best I can tell, no one in their right mind is going to the war-battered country.

The consular section of the embassy was a predictably empty place and while there was no wait to reach the window there was a short wait for the woman behind it to finish her cell phone call. She couldn’t give me the regional visa but she said the Burkina national police could back in town.

The nice thing about walking back into town was the sun was at my back instead of in my eyes. It was a straight shot on the map but the road back to town was blocked. I looked at my map to confirm my assumption: the barricaded street was home to the U.S. Embassy.

It was on this continent, of course, where two American Embassies were bombed and the threats to U.S. Officialdom are real. But it’s still profoundly sad to me that the places where we represent ourselves abroad resemble military bases. It’s less noticeable in the shadow of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, or the other rich, often-fortified cities of the first world. But in Africa the contrast is more imposing and ostentatious. They certainly don’t need to fly a flag to make clear who owns the fancy fortress in the leafy section of town.

Even the leafy section was hot by 10am as I navigated around Avenue de John F Kennedy. Maybe it felt hotter because of those five minutes in the climate-controlled bliss of the Ambassade de Côit d’Ivoire. Working at that embassy must be strange. I wanted to ask the woman behind the desk what it was like and have her answer honestly. I wanted her to tell me she was happy to be out of Côit d’Ivoire and working in a good paying, air-conditioned job. I wanted her to tell me how she didn’t feel guilty that people back home were starving or fleeing because it was hard for her too, or whatever.

Embassy row is a funny place in the third-world. And the Land Cruisers and the swimming pools are all a little obscene. And the white people and the expensive restaurants and the NGO headquarters. It’s a little patronizing and obscene.

But after a couple months slumming it in food stalls and 100-degree guesthouses I can see the appeal. I can see why the aid workers and diplomats would make a nest within that bubble of wealth and air-conditioning. I can see why the Africans who are given the chance would live there too. I don’t imagine it increases the chances of any of them helping the poor people but maybe turning off their air-conditioners wouldn’t help either.

The biggest difference isn’t in the way people live in the third-world vs the first world; it’s in the proportion. If you split the richest 95% of Americans from the poorest 5%, you’d get a decent approximation of the differences between the richest 1% here and the rest. Whatever the breakdown, it seems uncommon for that group of winners to make a priority of helping out the losers.

It was legitimately hot by 11am in the world’s third-poorest country and the police office didn’t have a visa for me but they told me who did. I walked another mile back west and found an office with a sign on the door advertising one visa for five countries. I filled out the form and gave them my $65.

I walked back towards home and told Madi about my five-mile adventure. “You should have taken my bike,” he said. “It’s too hot for all that walking”

His vat of lunch was empty so he cut up a potato, an onion and an avocado. He fried them with an egg and Maggi seasoning and insisted on running out for some frozen bisap. He retuned with the sweet bisap and tried to speak to me in French and truly wouldn’t have cared if I repeated my performance from last night and forgot to pay.

1 comment:

Hannah said...

Sounds like you're having an amazing time...again. We just watched A Map for Saturday last night. As if we weren't already inspired to go...just what we needed was another push! :)

I can hardly wait to drop everything and head out the door! We've saved up half the money we need and hope to head out next June for 14 months. I have some logistical questions and wonder if you've written anywhere about plane tickets, finding places to stay, etc.

I apologize if its on this website! I will explore more now.