The following are five different accounts of the same events that took place today.
I shall go first.
The Day According to Brad:
Today, the kids went to school again, as they did yesterday. Tommy joined a grade 2/3 class at Sahel Academy. Annie has joined Miss Blomquist’s (they call her Miss. B. “because it’s easier”) grade 3/4 class. Including Annie, there are 11 students, so they seem glad to have her, and it is nice to see her racing around with the other girls in the 39 degree heat at recess. Jack is helping in Tommy’s class, since he is a trained tutor at home, and we think he’s enjoying it. They seem to be enjoying it enough that they sit with their classmates at lunch – parents don’t seem as important as they did a few days ago.
Lynette helped get more books ready for the new library (when we were here last year, it was just outer walls – now it’s a functioning building with a computer lab, a real library, lots of ceiling fans, and most importantly, quasi-high speed Internet). Yesterday, Lynette was a substitute teacher.
The library has also been my office this last week. I set up in the corner with a live Internet connection, and I’m good to go. The power has only gone out about once a day (to a cacaphony of UPSs squealing), so that’s pretty good.
Lunch is at about noon, and today they finally had some pop we could buy at the same time. I was glad to replace my cup of water with a Coke.
School starts at 7:30 am, before things get too hot, (all Phys Ed classes are early in the morning) and school ends about 2:30 pm. We left at 4 pm, and when we got back to the guesthouse, I must have been staring at a computer too long today, because I fell asleep on my bed and slept for 2 hours. I probably would have kept going, but somebody woke me up so we could go shopping.
We grabbed our case of Coke empties and hopped in the van. Across the bridge, avoid the camel, around the traffic circle, past the fountains, through the two green lights, up the hill past the hospital, avoid the Toyota Landcruiser, around the traffic circle, dodge the Mercedes and fleet of motorcycles, down the street past the Prime Minister’s office, through the broken traffic light, veer right around the curve, through the green light, watch for the water tower on the left, turn in front of the taxi, dodge between the pedestrians, and pull up on the sand on the left where all the crates of Coke are stacked up outside. I hopped out while the kids and Lynette waited in the van.
Open the back of the van so the guy can get the empties, tell him we want a new full case of 24 – 300 mL Cokes and a second case of 24 – 300mL assorted other flavours (Youki, Youki Pineapple, Fanta Fiesta, Fanta Orange, Sprite). Pay the guy sitting on the small box – 7,850 cfa ($19 CDN) for the new case, and 4,250 ($10.27 CDN – $0.43 per bottle) for full bottles in the old case. The difference is the deposit on the plastic crates and the glass bottles, and we should theoretically be able to get that back (on both crates) at the end of our stay. Given the fact that nobody ever has any money (or change), it’s hard to say if that will really happen – we may have to donate the boxes and empties to the guest house. He puts the new ones in the back of the van, and I tip him 100 cfa for his efforts.
During the entire stop, we were swarmed by kids and adults trying to sell us stuff or beg some money from us. A selling small bags of green peas and something else we didn’t want, a guy with phone cards, a Tuareg or Fulani guy with jewelery, a guy in a self-propelled wheelchair (he pedals with his arms), kids begging. We hopped in and drove away carefully so as to not drive over any feet, down the street, past a small restaurant and realized there was a fruit stand next to where we had been stopped and that we wanted some.
So we turned around and went back, parking across the street. This time we all got out and we ran into Nancy from the office (she lives close-by). The guy wanted 1,500 for a pineapple (that’s almost $4!), which was a lot more than the 750 Lynette paid 2 days ago. She got him down to 1,000. She also bought a kilo (they had a scale) of mandarin oranges and some bruised-looking, but pretty good bananas. Besides fruit and vegetables, they also sold small bags of macaroni, but we passed.
We walked back across the street through our crowd of “new friends”, some of whom now called me “mon patron”. Clearly my status has risen – I can’t get my kids to call me their patron.
With a full dump truck on our tail (I wonder how his brakes are?), we headed back toward the river when we realized that we still wanted to buy some “street chickens”. So after the curve, the PM’s office, and the next traffic circle, we veered left, and then took the third exit from the next circle. This took us into the area where the “White Shack” is supposed to be (you know, the one at the end of the street the office is on), but we couldn’t find it. We did notice a white shipping container converted to a store, but it didn’t look like enough of a shack to qualify. We still don’t know if White Shack is the name of the place, or it is just a white shack.
Back up at Tillabery Road, we turned right, because I refuse to drive on the street that goes straight. It’s not paved, and that’s where I got stuck. By now, the evening light was dimming, and we didn’t need that. We drove past the stadium and sports palace (there were people everywhere – there is a rumour that the West African games are on – maybe it’s true) and ended up on a very busy and narrowing street full of people on motorcycles, camels, Landcruisers, dump trucks and ancient Toyota Starlet taxis. We saw one street chicken stand with the flames going strongly, but there was nowhere to stop.
We kept driving, gradually turning right on bigger streets when we could, knowing that somewhere off to the right was downtown and the taller buildings. The trouble is that they are taller, but halfway down to the river, so you really can’t see them from other parts of town that are up higher. Eventually, we found a street we recognized from our drive in from the airport, and we turned right once more back toward downtown. Past the Ministry of Social Services, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, past the lion on the side of the street, past the Mercedes/Mitsubishi dealership, down the hill, around the traffic circle and back over the bridge to familiar territory, all the while dodging the usual suspects and their various forms of transport.
Crossing the river, there were hundreds of birds everywhere, swooping all over the place in the dim sunset. Once one got close enough (to sink its teeth into our necks and suck our blood), we saw they were bats, coming out for the night and feeding on the bugs that like the river. We drove past our turn, looking for some open flames on the side of the road – this is a sign of someone cooking. Nothing, nothing, a rickety table with old whiskey bottles of fuel in them (a gas station), a shipping container converted to a bakery stand (they get deliveries twice a day – this is where I bought the Burkina Faso Coke the other day), the university entrance, nothing, nothing, a pile of bricks laid out to dry (building supply store), stacks of wood and branches cut to equal lengths and sort of straight (a lumber yard), a TOTAL gas station (French company now investing in the Alberta oilsands) with a service bay and a car wash (the street was pulsing with traffic, but nobody was there – diesel is cheaper by the whiskey bottle), an interesting looking fruit stand, to the traffic circle with different rules than the others.
At this traffic circle, the person in the circle has the right of way. At all the others, the person entering the traffic circle has the right of way. I wonder how they decide, and how we’re supposed to know.
We veered right. It was very dark, and some vehicles even had headlights on. Many were mis-aligned, so they tended to shine right in my eyes, making it even harder to see. Eventually we saw what we thought was a chicken stand under a small single fluorescent bulb on the other side of the road. We drove a ways further and found a place to turn around, during which time we passed a brochette stand (meat on a stick), a roasted goat stand, and probably a few that we missed. We pulled to the side of the road when we got back and asked a guy if he had chickens. “Over there,” he said, pointing to the next stand.
So we pulled up and I hopped out into traffic to find out more. The owner came up and I asked him if he had chicken, so he showed me the menu, which was quite visual. The small, scrawny, emaciated chicken that had been butterflied open and roasted was 2,000 cfa, and the bigger skinny chicken roasted to the same perfection was 2,500 cfa. I told him we’d take the big skinny one.
This being a fast food stand, I now had to stand in line behind a well-dressed local lady who I had seen pay her 2,500 cfa and a couple of other guys who might have been there before her. The owner grabbed my chicken by the leg and tossed it over to Knife Guy who hacked it into 2 legs, 2 small breasts, 2 wings, and 2 thighs. Knife Guy tossed the pieces onto the grill, where Grill Guy poked at the pieces as they were finished off. Owner Man got out a small cup of mysterious liquid and painted it on the chicken bits (it turned out to be a BBQ sauce), and then sprinkled grains of some kind of substance all over the meat. This turned out to be a rough salt mix – sort of like a steak spice might be at home.
After a few minutes of cooking and painting and sprinkling and poking, Owner Man grabbed an old cement bag (multiple layers of paper – you know the ones), peeled off a layer, shook it to get the cement off, tore it in half, and proceeded to wrap our chicken in it. The chicken soaked through the paper pretty quickly, and soaked up any extra cement bits. To add structural integrity to the paper-wrapped package, he then placed it in a flimsy black plastic bag like we see everywhere here, and tied it shut. I paid him (exact change only – I didn’t want any small candies or extra chickens to make up the difference) and he handed me the bag.
It was hot, so I handed it off to Lynette through the van window and walked around into traffic to get in. I startled several cyclists as I came around the van to the point that a Tour de France-like domino bicycle collision almost took place. They recovered from shock and their balance and kept going. I got in quickly and started the van. I got the kids to look out the back for any lights or unlit shadows coming up from behind us, and jumped into the traffic as soon as I could. Back to the traffic circle, assume the right of way, take the third exit, back past the TOTAL station, the big box “Home Depot” of sticks and bricks, the university, the bakery stand, the whiskey bottles, and into the compound.
We washed off some pop bottles (they come covered in thick dust from sitting outside) and threw them in the freezer to cool rapidly, hacked up the pineapple (mmmmm – good), found part of an old baguette, put it all on the table and ate it all. The chicken was a bit salty with a spicy-ish finish. There wasn’t a whole lot of meat on the thing, but as usual Jack struggled to remove all the scary (read shiny, tough, fatty, bony, gristly, skin, funny looking) bits, and Tommy just devoured the whole thing without looking at it, sucking on the bones at the end. The pineapple was perfect to cleanse the palate, the choice of the 2009 vintage Coke was a perfect selection, and the baguette was only a little bit rubbery from being in a plastic bag all day. We finished off with a selection of Lifesavers and massive gumballs.
I give it a 4 out of 5. There didn’t seem to be any sand in the entire meal, so I can’t give it a 5 as a perfect west African meal.
The Day According to Lynette:
Worked in the library all day – stamped almost 300 books. These were “new” donated books, which I stamped “Property of Sahel Academy Library” on the inside cover & on page 13. THen I stuck a barcode sticker on the inside cover and covered the sticker with plastic. 300 times woo hoo. It was mindless work, but I got the entire stack done. Now they need to be scanned and catalogued and shelved. They may teach me how to do that on Monday.
For supper I wanted street chicken. I hope to get a bunch for the team to eat next week and I thought we’d better try it out first. The problem is that they only start cooking them at sunset [Ed: this is about 7 pm).
So first we went to the Coke store to return our case of 24 and get two more. We say they're for the team, but I bet we'll have to get more before they come! At the Coke place, there are also some produce stalls and other stuff, but I decided to stay in the car with the kids while Brad did the Coke transaction - bad move. We became sitting ducks for all of the street vendors - phone cards, dates, peas, necklaces, fancy boxes, grapefruits & greeting cards. Plus of course the little beggar boys (I've been told to not give them money because they don't get to keep it).
So once the Coke transaction was done we all got out to look at the fruit. We bought pineapple, 1 kg bananas, and 1 kg oranges for 2,000 cfa (about $5). The guy wanted 1,500 just for the pineapple, but I said "no, c'est trop" so he came down to 1,000. It's more than I paid the other day, but it's still less than his original price, so I'm content.
Then we went off in search of street chickens because it was starting to get dark and we were hungry. We set off in the direction of downtown, hoping for the best and thinking that we might also run across a real store where we could buy some pasta. I thought I knew where it was, but I was wrong. We eneded up a bit lost and in the chaotic traffic around the Grand Marche. We say a few chicken stands, but there was no easy way to get them and Brad didn't feel like causing an accident - so we went on.
Eventually, we found our way back to our side of the bridge and went down the main road to look for chicken. After a few u-turns, we saw some fires. At the first one a man came to the window and I stuck my head out and asked, "Poulet?" He pointed ahead and said, "la bas". So we thanked him and drove ahead a bit. I think he might have had goat meat on his grill. It was something bigger than a chicken.
Brad got out to talk to the chicken man. Basically, they use a barrel or something to contain the fire with a grill on top. They cook the chickens flat (butterflied?) until they're mostly done and then when you say how much you want (the scrawny or the skinny) [Ed: hey - those are my words!] they throw on some sauce and some spices, cut it into pieces and put it back on the grill. When it’s hot, they pull out a piece of paper from an old bag of cement mix (give it a shake), wrap up your chicken and tie it in the ever-present black plastic bag. Funny how most of our plastic bags are white, and a lot of their’s are black – I just realized that.
Then we headed straight home to enjoy our spicy chicken, baguettes from an earlier run to the baker down the street, and our pineapple and bananas. It was all delicious.
Oh, I forgot – when we came back across the bridge, the sun was just setting and we noticed a ton of birds flying over the river – but they weren’t birds, they were bats! So cool! I tried to take pictures, but they’re all small & blurry.
The Day According to Jack [Ed: transcribed from the original Jack-ese - now you too can question the idea of spelling words however you think they should be spelled]:
This evening we went for a drive and we went to the Coke store and traded one box of empty Coke bottles for two more. The Coke is all in glass bottles. Then we went to the store and bought some pineapple, some oranges, and some bananas. They are sooooo good! Then we drove around a bit looking for a guy with a fire! We got lost in Niamey somewhere and evenchually [sic] my dad found out where we were and we went back across the bridge. When we got to the bridge there were “birds” everywhere! Then one flew right near the bridge and I saw that it wasn’t a bird at all it’s wings weren’t that off a bird. The wings were all leathery and more in the shape of that off a bat. Hey a bat that was it was a bat! When we finally found a guy with a fire (witch took about 45 minutes) we pulled over and asked “Poulet?” and the guy said “Le poulet est la bas!” as he pointed next door, apparently he was selling goat meat. Blaaahght! That’s dissgusting. We finally got some chicken and brought it home for supper, it was great! Supper was pineaple, chiken, french bread and pop. For dessert we had bananas, and some candy.
The Day According to Annie:
Today my mom said . . . “let’s go get some streat chicken” so, we went to get some streat chicken. On the way we dropped of the Coke and Sprit glass bottles at the Coka Cola store. and we got some Coke too. then we went to look for some pineapple we went all around the city looking for a pineapple. Finally we find the (pineapple) fruit market. we buy one pineapple, some organs, and bananas. Then we went to buy some streat chicken it took us a long time to find some chicken. When we got on the brige we saw a lot of birds flying over the water! but then one of them came closer to the Brige and I nodist that they were Bats. Hundreend and thowzins of Bats going out for the night! Dad said look for a fire we found one and hade to turn around to park, and we did. my mom stuk her head out of the window and said “poulet?” “le poulet est la bas” answered the man. Then we drove over to the next place. My dad went over to buy some, a little kid was beging for money (for the mosque) [Ed: more on this another time, but it's true] then we went back to the geast house to eat supper.
The Day According to Tommy:
Today we went for a long drive. And we got lost and we coud not find our way home. First we went to get some coke and some other pops – 2 cases of 24 little glass bottles. We were waiting in the van and there were men trying to sell us stuff through the window. And my mom bought some fruit. When we got to the bribge we thought there wore birds but the wore bats there wore like 3,000 bats it was so hard to count.
[Ed: we weren't lost - we just didn't know where we were]
We hope to add some more photos soon, but we’ve been busy working and it’s hard to drive and take pictures at the same time.