Haggling over carrier charges

The Ramble Report


Photo courtesy of La Serviette

A typical day outside Bobo Dioulasso's train station. Three passenger trains on the Ouagadougou-Abidjan line pass through the station in a typical week. With a little under one million inhabitants, "Bobo" is the second-largest city in Burkina Faso.

By 1:30, we'd paid the check at La Marguerite and started making our way toward the train station two kilometers away. Imagining we were under some sort of time constraint (ha), we split into two groups with Rebecca and David biking ahead and me walking my bike beside Barry, who had opted not to bring his. His was a prescient decision.

I'd seen Bobo-Dioulasso's train station many times from afar, but this was my first time inside. In a city with little to offer in terms of competition, it's an architectural standout.

The whitewashed edifice dates to French colonial days, when Bobo was the capitol and railroads were enjoying their golden years. Its conic, three-story tall towers are studded with outjutting logs in an evocation of the city's Grand Mosque, and the grounds sprawl luxuriously over some prime real estate. In front, a big paved area (where cars would park, if people owned cars here) serves as an exhibition space and concert venue and to the right is an open air restaurant and beer garden.

When Barry and I walked inside, we discovered Rebecca was already in trouble. She and David were standing by their bicycles and her face bore that "Help me, I'm timid and in an uncertain situation," expression.

"Damn it," I thought to myself. Rebecca had gotten to the country only about four months prior–speaking zero French–and with David even worse off linguistically, they probably looked like fresh tourist meat. Luckily for them the cavalry had arrived.

Upon walking over, she explained that the baggage handler, a smiling, obsequious man to her left, was asking 2,500 CFA ($5) per bicycle. Donkey manure. It was a ridiculously inflated sum, and I was pissed to have to waltz through the familiar negotiating song and dance in a place that's about as fancy-looking and official as it gets in Burkina.

Taking the handler's elbow and gently guiding him out the door to the platform (there's a lot of touching in Burkina) I smiled and returned his fake-friendly routine, referring to him as "my brother," and "my friend." I patiently explained that we'd been in the country a long time, were residents, in fact, and that we knew perfectly well that we could toss our bikes on top of any bush taxi for 300 or 500 CFA. Six thousand for the three he suggested, and we were off to the races.

The handler turned out to be a stubborn case, and the exercise, though routine, left me more than a little piqued. Eighteen months in the country and I was still being treated like some ignorant rube who mangles guidebook French and takes pictures of wells. What the hell?

After much back and forth, I got him down to what I took to be the real price, or as close as we were going to get: 900 CFA ($1.80) per bike. We also ended up paying a highly suspect 300 CFA per bike "handling fee," and decided against receipts when it was announced that this would incur yet another 300 CFA charge.

The rigamorale sounds petty in American terms, of course: $5 per bike versus $2.40. Who cares? If you're making $8 a day, the answer is you.

Outside of the monetary consideration, though, it was a matter of pride. There we were, pooping in holes, living in a blast furnace with no fans or refrigeration and risking all manner of exotic tropical diseases to try to do some good in the world. Were we supposed to get ripped off, too? Moreover, one of our biggest goals in the Peace Corps was to promote friendship and understanding, learning about Burkinabe culture and answering our neighbors' questions about American values. Is it possible to be friends with someone who thinks of you as a mark? From their perspective, is it possible to be friends with someone who's not just wealthier than you, but who has access to levels of food security, medical care and education that barely exist in your country? I hope so, and I believe so, but any such relationship will be fraught.

All of this was aswirl in me, as it frequently was when I was out in public in Burkina. Things being aswirl tire me out though, and since the ticket window (like most other things in Burkina) was closed between noon and 3 p.m., I stepped outside, cracked open a tall boy and started reading Paul Theroux' Great Railroad Bazaar. A fitting title to pass a long, hot afternoon waiting for the #12 from Ouagadougou to Abidjan.

Stay on the train! We'll be arriving at our next stop in the October 5 edition of the Saratoga Sun. There will be elephants.


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