The Saratoga Sun -

Rail rambling, or the importance of good mates

The Ramble Report


Although it does have a certain ring to it, we were not, in fact, supposed to be on the night train to Niangoloko. I was well into my second year of service in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, and checking one of the items off my Peace Corps Bucket List: traveling by train in West Africa.

Along with Rebecca and Barry, two Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) friends, I was joined on the trip by Rebecca’s boyfriend David, who was visiting from the States. The four of us were headed about 100 miles west of Bobo Dialousso to Niangoloko, in order to visit our fellow PCV Matt, who was stationed there.

The trek began well enough. The four of us assembled at about 2 p.m. in a Lebanese cafe called La Marguerite, directly adjacent to “Bobo’s” bustling central market. La Marguerite was a one of my go-to joints for lunch when I was in Bobo, Burkina’s second largest city, where I visited every six or eight weeks.

I was the last to arrive at our meeting point, but I had already told Barry what I wanted, so my order was arriving at the group’s table just as I walked in the door. It was the last encounter with propitious timing I would have in quite a while.

As always, my hummus came saturated with a thick top layer of aromatic green olive oil. The Lebonese-style coffee was black and granular, with a kick strong enough to evoke band names or phrases from a coronor’s report: “Cascading tachycardia,” “Exploded Ventricle,” “Irregular QT Interval.”

Most of my attention, though was fixed on my traveling companions–particularly the couple, Rebecca and David. Barry, I wasn’t worried about. He’s a good friend, and though he occasionally suffers from a tin ear in social situations, he always has interesting tidbits of information to share and a unique perspective on the things going on around him. Because he combines these traits with a refined sense of when to shut the hell up, he’s a Grade A person to have along on any journey, short or long.

The couple came with no such guarantees, and this provoked in me no small amount of anxiety. I can be picky about travel mates under normal circumstances, and the constant delays, cramped quarters, and petty harassment one is exposed to during Burkinabe trips had only increased the stringency of my requirements. The thought of being stranded for hours with a whiner, a bore, a blatherer or some other subset of the mobiley obnoxious was enough to set me on edge.

Luckily, I soon saw these fears were unwarranted. Rebecca took a little prodding to open up, but once Barry and I started oh-so-cautiously dishing about some poorly-regarded PCVs she joined right in. Before I had seen her as innocently reserved. Now, I pegged her as one of those people who sit quietly in a corner at parties, seemingly distant from the social jockeying, but in actuality recording and observing whole galaxies of minutely detailed interactions taking place between the others. Withdrawn enough to be overlooked but sensitive to interpersonal nuance, these folks would make great spies. They’re also often quite funny, vacuuming up telling trivialities that slip right past the gregarious.

Fresh out of college and just starting her term of service in the Peace Corps, Rebecca made me feel old. A product of the University of Iowa’s prestigious creative writing program, she left me feeling inadequately credentialed. As a social observer, though she made me laugh, and for me, that’s the golden ticket: I quickly decided I could travel with Rebecca to Gary, Ind. or Sri Lanka India.

Her boyfriend David also got high marks, though it must be said that, as a non-PCV, he was being graded on a curve. As a class, I give them high marks whenever they don’t balk at doing some of the grosser, weirder or more uncomfortable things we took for granted. I was relieved to discover, for example, that he wasn’t a prissy when it came to food, water and sanitation. He also got points for making an effort with his French.

David too, struck me as a familiar sort among my circle of American friends, though more as a member of a general entourage than as someone I’d specifically search out for company. Whether it was because he felt intimidated as the only non-PCV, or because he was naturally this way, David seemed cautious, holding back in our discussions and speaking softly when he did offer up his opinion. Despite his reticence to engage, I detected in his carefully parsed and bracketed statements someone who frequently pondered strange questions and odd subjects. His argumentation was delivered as a series of logical progressions and his thoughts were tidily regimented prepositions marching one after another. I was unsurprised to learn David had a degree in philosophy and barkept at a craft brewery.

These are the people, next comes the ride. Join me “riding the rails” in the Sept. 14 edition of the Saratoga Sun.


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