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And you thought New York taxis were bad

Published Oct. 9, 2005

All in all, it was a ride from hell.

It began in Sikasso, Mali, near the Burkina Faso border in West Africa. We were headed to Bobo-Dioulasso, a town in the west of Burkina. Arriving at 7:30 a.m., we were the first of seven passengers needed before the taxi would depart. We left at noon.

Because of political problems in both Mali and Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, the number of police and national guard stops had been tripled. Burkina Faso has been accused of training troops fighting in the Liberian civil war, and of accepting much-needed money from Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi for shipping weapons into Liberia.

The first military stop began well. My friend Amy and I, the only foreigners in the taxi, had to give our passports to a sergeant. "For our records. So we can track people. A lot of foreigners have been getting lost," he said.

As we wandered back to the taxi, we noticed our car mats spread out on the lawn and the driver slowly pulling a mat from the small station wagon. He unrolled it as he walked to a patch of shade under a tree where he settled in for a nap. He had the right idea.

It took an hour for the young man sitting next to us in the bush taxi to convince the guards he should be let past. He hadn't bothered updating his immunization shots, needed for travel between countries. Months later, Amy and I still wonder how much he paid the guards to clear his passage.

Back on the road, I sat at a window, enjoying the breeze that slightly cooled the warm car. The area was lushly green, trees everywhere, and the dirt was a rich orange color. As we marveled at the scenery, we noticed a small roadblock ahead of us: guard post No. 2.

One man rose from where he and three buddies were playing cards. He officiously adjusted his pants, donned a turban and came to the taxi.

"Where are you going? Let me see your passports." He glanced surreptitiously at ours, flipping through them to see where we had been. We were pointing out the entrance stamps he was searching for when he asked, "Where's your stamp from the police in Sikasso?"

"We don't need one. We just went through the last police stop and they didn't say anything."

"Your hotel should have told you you need one. You were staying with Peace Corps volunteers? Well, they should have known. How do I know you came from Sikasso?"

Exasperated, Amy spread her arms and looked toward the car as she said, "We came with all these people!"

"Well, you'll just have to go back to Sikasso for the stamp," he responded.

After 15 minutes of this runaround, Amy said to the guard in her best French, "No, we are not going back to Sikasso. We didn't need that stamp at the last stop and we don't need it now."

She turned to me. "What do you think? Shall we call the embassy?"

"The embassy!" I said. "You're out in the bush. There aren't any phones here."

"Where do you work?" the guard asked. "What are you doing going to Burkina Faso?"

"We're tourists, just like we told you," she answered.

Finally, he let us go, telling us next time we're in Sikasso to be sure to get the police stamp.

At this point, the man riding in the front seat _ he seemed to know every guard along the route _ finished his tea and climbed back in with his book of French-language Bible stories. We set off in a cloud of orange dust, our money still firmly in our pockets, not in the guard's palm.

At the border customs stop, we unfolded ourselves from the car and sat twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the officials to do something. The something was nothing more than unpacking the entire car, asking everyone to open their bags only to glance at them perfunctorily.

When we pulled away from this stop, I noticed that our seatmate, the one without his vaccinations, wasn't in the car. The driver brushed it off sarcastically, saying he sent him to deal with the police at the next stop.

Night was falling and we were still more than 50 miles outside of Bobo. Our tired driver decided it was time to get moving, ignoring the fact that earlier in the day the roads were better and lent themselves more to speed than the potholed paths we now rode.

On the dashboard was a sign stating conversation with the driver was forbidden. This was ignored as a tape went into the cassette player and the driver pushed the volume so loud that people in front had to shout at each other.

Pedestrians and bikes veered onto the shoulder of the road in the car's headlights; occasionally the driver furiously pumped the brakes to slow down. The dust flew into my face through the window as I tried to identify the crop we would destroy when we ran off the road.

Amy leaned over to me, confiding, "I would really like to go to sleep but I want to be alert when we have an accident."

Two hours later, our hands tired from gripping the seat in front of us, we arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. It was 14 hours after we had left the Peace Corps house in Sikasso, only 103 miles down the road.

After registering at the hotel, the kindly manager looked at me _ covered in orange dust, tired and cranky _ and reached below the desk to hand me a bar of perfumed soap.

"I think you'll want to go upstairs and take a hot shower," he said.

Misty Schymtzik lives in Boise, Idaho.


Burkina Faso holds a regrettable position as one of the world's poorest nations. It suffers from the droughts that plague this region of West Africa, and its government has recently been criticized for aiding insurgents in the Liberian civil war. Yet, for travelers who come to experience another culture, rather than just to sightsee, Bobo has proven to be a comfortable base for making daytrips into the country. Connections to the city from Abidjian, Ivory Coast, Lome, Togo and Bamako, Mali, can be made on Air Afrique and UTA airlines. There are flights leaving from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, four times weekly. There is also daily train and bus service between Bobo and Ouagadougou; these trips take four to five hours and afford a nice view of the countryside.

Set in the heart of town with a great terrace for people-watching, the best hotel in Bobo is L'Auberge. It offers clean, air-conditioned rooms, a pool, a good restaurant and bar, laundry service and a small parking garage. The rate should be less than $50 a night, double occupancy. Reservations are recommended at least 45 days in advance; they can be made by mail (L'Auberge, BP 329, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso) or telephone (98-01-84).

A few blocks away is the Hotel Renaissance, a clean, relatively new hotel with a few air-conditioned rooms for about half the rate of L'Auberge. Reservations recommended, but not needed (Hotel Le Renaissance, BP 1092, phone 98-23-31).

For traveling in this area, a basic medical kit is recommended as is a French phrase book. Also, the water is not drinkable without being treated (iodine or a filter is recommended). Government regulations do not allow photographing of bridges, airports or military installations.