End of the line


The sun descended in tandem with my hopes of seeing a new part of Burkina, and it was 7:10 when the train finally chugged its way into the station. Workers herded us into a roped-off section of platform, and, like clockwork, pandemonium erupted.

For whatever reason (and I spent long hours during my Peace Corps years trying to figure it out) “queuing,” or the social convention of forming lines, is not common in Burkina. Grown men and women, wearing clothes far nicer than mine, threw themselves into a sudden, convulsing brawl, pushing, shoving and throwing ‘bows in order to get to the ticket-taker at the nearest door. I saw poor little Rachel (she couldn’t weigh much more than 50 kilograms) nearly get bowled over by an enormous, self-important looking lady bullrushing the entrance.

I wish I could say I was better behaved, but after two years without queues, I let the beast rage too. If we’re not going to calmly take turns, then you can’t complain when you get burned, right?

As I went into battle mode, though, preparing to deliver kidney shots to the elderly and trample the young, Barry’s voice stopped me. When I turned, I saw a goofy grin on his face. He was pointing to a line of five other cars with open doors.

Conditioned by bus travel to scratch and claw their way to the only available entrance (as I had been about to do myself), none of the other passengers paid attention to the alternate doors. Our foursome regrouped, calmly walked away from the scrum and boarded unmolested.

Inside, it was obvious that the fight for boarding position going on behind us was ridiculous. Our car was barely populated, and glory of glories, spacious!

It’s hard to exaggerate what a precious commodity that was. Traveling by bush taxi, of course, one doesn’t expect a lot of leg room. In those 1970s vintage minivans, if the livestock is on top of (as opposed to inside) the car and nobody makes you hold their baby, you consider yourself lucky.

Even in the most luxurious, air-conditioned, TV-befitted corporate bus lines, though, there are simply too many seats. Where in America there would be four seats, there are five to a row in Burkina, and even with the relatively skinny proportions of the population, that’s just too many people. Somebody as barrel-chested as myself infringes substantially on his neighbors’ space.

Not on the train. The seats were made of a hard blue plastic, but Lord, were they wide, and serendipitously for us, arranged in clusters of four with pairs facing each other. I could straight-up sprawl, a marvel none of my prior Burkina travel had prepared me for.

Were my standards a little lower than your typical Americans? Undoubtedly. The fact remains: I felt like a king.

More accurately, like a half-drunk, hypomanic child-emperor up past his bedtime and cranked to the gills on Mountain Dew. The whole world felt new again, and I was only sprawled a moment before bounding back up to explore.

As the train creaked slowly out from underneath the sodium-orange glare of the station lighting, I set out to answer some of my questions about Burkinabe rail travel.

The answer to question #1 was a big disappointment. The passageways between cars were pretty much just like those in America: The wind howled, the cars clacked, but there was no open-air derring-do involved in the crossing. Bah.

It took three of these displeasingly-routine carriage transfers to answer question #2. Success! There was indeed a dining car–and if this wasn’t exciting enough–it was stocked with an Ivoirian beer I’d never heard of.

Well, it once was. All of them were drank en route north from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, the barkeep told me, waving at an impressive tower of plastic-crated empties. For the return voyage south, there was only a horrid domestic brew I’d already had far too much of.

Somewhat crestfallen by unattainable delights, I ordered two sandwiches and walked back. With the others, I supped on my sandwiches and passed out a round of backpack beers.

Outside, the train had left the lights of Bobo behind. This, I knew, was beautiful country, and I was sorry all over again to be traveling at night. A little west of Bobo, the land starts rolling, with the tracks climbing up and bending long curves around the area’s rocky hills. I caught glimpses here and there of the moonlit countryside, but mostly my view was of the brightly lit cabin interior. Quiet descended for a spell among us.

Then I went off to explore again. This time I headed toward the rear hoping (question #3) to perhaps find an old-fashioned caboose. Comically, two cars back, the carriage was packed. Apparently, everyone who had engaged in the platform melee to board had stayed put in the first seats they saw.

I pressed on. The cars further back were empty as our own. In one, I saw a woman curled-up on the floor, shielded from the bright overhead lights and fast asleep underneath a foursome of seats. Three young kids (also slumbering), and heavy loads of baggage suggested a long haul. I think it’s 40-some hours from Ouagadougou to Abidjan, and I wondered if they let the lights blaze all night long.

After a long progression of cars, an end arrived, alas, with no caboose in sight. Instead, half of the car was devoted to normal passenger seating, and the other half featured a hallway with several shut metal doors. Perhaps crew quarters?

The hallway ended with a door, and this door was open–to a fresh, nocturnal breeze.

Unfortunately, between myself and the enticing prospect of leaning out the back of a moving train, were two railroad workers and a Kalishnikov-wielding Burkinabe soldier.

There was nothing to do but move with the air of someone who knew perfectly well what he was doing.

Mesmerized by my confident stride (or indifferent to the white weirdo, but I’ll go with interpretation one) nobody said anything until I was practically at the door. By then it was too late.

“I’ll just be a moment,” I announced, then I was leaning out the door and to the right as far as I could go, feet planted in the doorway, left hand white-knuckling a grab bar and the rest of me swallowed up by rural evening blackness.

It was one of those moments that make you try, and fail, to record all available sensory information. The wind pushed my glasses back against the bridge of my nose and made me feel oh-so-alive. The wheels clacked the tracks hummed, and a series of cozily lit yellow squares curved convexly in front of me on a line dictated by the rails ahead. I sensed the vibrations being transferred from the handle I was clutching into my fingers, through my hand and into the arm.

It was with great reluctance that I submitted to the (increasingly angry) voices of authority behind me. After reeling myself in, I paid just enough attention to their lectures to nod in the right places, put on an appropriately contrite expression and claim ignorance before going back to join my friends.

Oh, and the answer to question #4? It’s a hole in the floor, no seat. Don’t walk the center of Burkinabe railroad tracks.


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