The Saratoga Sun -

The long way 'round, part 4


After my clothes had dried from the river and I'd eaten lunch, I remounted my bike and set off alone once again, the sound of strange birds riding a light breeze alongside me.

Things started off well enough. This side of the river featured lots of prairie alongside the marsh and woods, and when I pedaled fast through the tall grass I felt like I was skimming the top of a green ocean. The little trails I followed were obviously seldom used, and though the monsoon-season flood waters kept me out of sight of the barrage proper, I could tell by the sun that I was generally going in the right direction.

The paths kept getting smaller and smaller as I went on, though, and after about 30 minutes of pushing forward it dawned on me that I hadn't seen a single cultivated field or human structure. I doubted I could make my way back to exactly where I had crossed the river–and even if I could, I didn't quite trust myself to make the zig-zagging crossing alone.

Without quite realizing it, I had passed the point of no return some time ago, and the way forward was getting increasingly unmanageable.

As the afternoon bore on, I could see colossal monsoon clouds stacking up in black towers to the east and this raised the pitch of my burgeoning anxiety. I climbed a tree to try and find some habitation to set out towards, but there was nothing but untamed bush and barrage in every direction.

By now, the "paths" I was following were nothing more than animal thoroughfares and my bike was taking fairly heavy abuse. At one point, my progress was brought to an abrupt halt when my pedal hit a vegetation-concealed rock. My stomach jammed into my handlebars and I was thrown to the ground.

Physically, I was only shaken-up for a second, but for one horrified moment I thought my bike had been trashed and I started considering where best to stay the night. It wasn't a thought I'd had the misfortune of entertaining since racing a sunset back to my trail crew's campsite in Northern Maine.

Luckily, after a little panicked fiddling, I got my derailleur back in place and kept pushing forward. I could see the monsoon moving like a juggernaut across the barrage, and I knew I had to be fast as well as careful.

At long last, with one last emergency gulp of water in my bottle, I climbed another tree and spotted a farmer's field in the distance. It was 4 p.m., and the relief I felt at not having to spend a long night in some rain-swept gulley was considerable.

It took me a moment to rouse the farmer's wife, who had been napping in the courtyard (basically a yard enclosed by a 4 or 5 foot wall of mud bricks). She did the classic white-stranger double-take when she saw me, then went to go get her husband.

Like all villagers his age (late 40's) and profession, his body was gnarled and calloused by the elements, his hands gritty as sandpaper and his feet encased in a near exoskeleton of calloused tissue.

The couple spoke effectively zero French, but they were reflexively charitable and demurring to a stranger who had shown up unannounced on their land, butchering their language and disturbing their afternoon repose.

The woman brought me plastic cup filled with well water, and the man brought me the house's most comfortable chair to sit in, as I tried to communicate my situation. For himself, he brought a short, hand-carved three legged stool.

It was a touching gesture, and I reflected that in my own country, I may have been greeted with a gun and a curse. In Burkina, though, strangers (and not just white strangers) are treated with honor and respect, given the best food and most comfortable accommodations.

After slaking my thirst and figuring out how to convey my situation in Dagarra, the man heaved a justifiably put-upon sigh and told me to follow him on his ancient bike (an "iron horse," in Dagarra).

Five minutes later we were at another river crossing and he began to disrobe, gesturing for me to do the same. Soon enough, my overclothes were once again in my bag, and another kind stranger was ferrying my bike across a waterway for me as I trailed behind.

This river was considerably narrower than the sprawling delta I'd crossed earlier, but I still would have had some trouble navigating the flooded zones on either bank without guidance.

About halfway across, he admonished me, in some of the only French he spoke that day, to "go slowly here." I obliged, but when I asked why, all he said was "les crocodiles." I assume I don't have to translate that one.

Suddenly, the boy's mom's anxiety from earlier made sense to me. Later, I learned it had been a few years since the last attack, but they were known to happen in the barrage, especially during monsoon season.


On the other side, my adventure was all but over. The kindly farmer returned to his side of the river, and after a few hundred meters, I started picking out landmarks and familiar sights. At long last, I had made it to Muotori, and I knew the roughly six kilometer track leading back to the paved road well.

Thoroughly worn out, I took it slow, lingering over glanced views of the lake to my right and resting my cut and aching body.

"I'm going to make it home just before the monsoon hits," I remember thinking.

Of course that wasn't how it turned out. Just as I got back on the highway at the North Eastern corner of the Barrage, my pedals refused to turn. My derailleur had hung on just long enough to get me out of the bush then failed on the asphalt. I ended up walking the last five kilometers to my house. Two of those kilometers featured pounding, marble-sized rain.

I couldn't have cared less. I was already filthy and wet, and even a biblically-proportioned tempest couldn't wash the grin off my face now.

Windmill-charging, however silly, has its pay-off, and that afternoon I certainly got mine.


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