How to Skip a Country

I shot through the country of Burkina Faso so fast I’m no longer even sure I was there. Here’s how it happened.

My plan was to cross into Burkina Faso from Mali at the border town of Koro, and from there make my way to the northern Burkina city of Ouahigouya. I had been looking forward to spending a week or so exploring Burkina Faso, as it had been described as one of the most welcoming of the West African countries.

My expectations underwent a dramatic change for the worse in Sevarre, Mali.

First, I met a Canadian woman who had just come from Burkina and had horrible experiences there–she was constantly harassed by men and several times felt quite physically threatened. This only happened to her in Burkina Faso and not in other neighboring West African countries. Well, being a single male traveler is quite different than female, so I wasn’t too concerned, but I filed that away under the “good to know” category.

The next day, I met a German traveler who had also come up into Mali from Burkina. An easygoing fellow, he surprised me by stating how much he had hated the northern Burkina town of Ouahigouya. Exactly where I was headed. Hmmm.

Then I met one of those people that has more stamps in their passport than there are stars in the sky. This guy had been touring West Africa for months, and even insanely went through quite dangerous countries like the Ivory Coast (which regional guidebooks don’t even include for fear that travelers might accidentally go there).

Anyway, in between sharing thrilling travel stories, he mentioned how bad Ouahigouya was, and how he’d gotten a little roughed up there. Uh-oh. When a guy who’s traveled through some of West Africa’s most dangerous countries confirms what other people have already stated, I pay attention.

So the day came for me to make my way to the Burkina border. First, I had to roam through half of the dusty Malian town of Bandiagara to find the truck headed south to Koro. Not a bus, not a shuttle, not a taxi. We’re talking a genuine cargo transport. Not quite like this one, since it had a roof and the cargo area was packed (after the bags of goods) with what felt like 200 people, but similar enough:

As we made our way down the face of the cliff and across the bumpy desert, I actually managed to both bruise and torque my spine. With absolutely no wiggle room and people wedged up on either side of me, a woman sitting on my foot and another guy right in front of me (I kept my hands between my legs out of fear of accidental castration), I was locked in place on the truck for the entire dusty ride, and on particularly rough sections my back would slam into the wooden railing behind me.

The winds of the Sahel and the truck itself flung dust and sand through the back, making it difficult to keep my eyes open, and there was so much flying around that I started feeling sand gritting between my teeth. I now fully understood why desert nomads wrap their entire heads with cloth–good against the heat, and great protection against the sand.

Several hours later, we arrived in Koro, a baking hot trading village lost on the edges of Mali’s southern desert. Want to get a sunburn in less than 60 seconds? Walk around in Koro at noon.

From the cargo truck, I climbed aboard one of these:

Except ours was worse for the wear. The sliding side door kept falling down, and the back door only shut if you slammed it with Herculean might, usually only successful on the 16th or 17th attempt. My bag was loaded on the roof, so that by the end of the trip I could also take back as Malian souvenir about two extra pounds of dust and sand.

The Mali border post was actually two long white dome tents that looked like greenhouses. Flapping away in the wind and coated with dust. The Burkina Faso border, past the circling vultures eyeing our movements across the barren landscape (ugly, ominous birds, vultures), was a small cement square room that included both the immigration officer’s desk and cot. This was followed by a customs check, where our dusty luggage was brought down from the roof rack for stern-looking soldiers to rifle through with the muzzles of their machine guns before being reloaded on the rooftop in such a way as to catch dust and sand from other angles.

Hours later, after everyone in the van had sweat enough to ensure mild dehydration, we arrived in the Burkina town of Ouahigouya. One of those overgrown truck-stop kind of places.

Obviously, given what I’d been told, my goal was to leave immediately. I’d already been traveling for 8 hours, but successfully hunted down a bus leaving an hour later for the capital city of Ouagadougou. Woo-hoo!

As soon as the bus left Ouahigouya, I started to relax. Only 3 hours to go, and I’d managed to both successfully cross the border and avoid staying any longer than necessary in the apparently troublesome town, and I imagined myself already relaxing in the comfort of a pleasant hotel in Ouagadougou.

There were a few surprises left in store.

First, when I got to Ouagadougou and gave the taxi driver the name of the hotel to take me to (apparently the best budget hotel in the entire capital), he dropped me off at the wrong location. In the middle of the city. At night.

A man with a roving eye and a Quasimodo-like feel to him asked me where I was going, and volunteered to take me to the hotel, which apparently was only a couple of blocks away. Reluctantly, I agreed. There were few taxis on the streets, so what choice did I have?

Walking downtown at night in a city can sometimes be disconcerting. Doing so in a city you’ve never been to is more so, and with a backpack on your back yet more. This is when you’re at risk.

When the hotel loomed out of the darkness, I thought there must have been some kind of mistake. This is the best budget hotel in all of Ouagadougou?! Imagine arriving here at night, with almost no streetlights:


But no mistake. This was it. The hotel. The rooms, shuffled along old and dark hallways, painted green cement with the most mysterious collection of stains on the walls, did nothing to warm me to the place. The middle window on the second floor was my room, to be shared with a colony of mosquitoes.

After dropping off my bags, I went down to reception. It was 9:00pm, dark outside but not particularly late. I asked where the closest internet cafe was.
“Just around the corner and down a few blocks,” I was told.
“Great, thanks,” I answered.
“Wait, you’re going now?”
“Yes, why?”
“Well, the bandits…”
“Yes, bandits. Maybe it’s better you go in the morning…”

That’s it, I thought. I’m out of here.

But it took me another 36 hours before I could arrange a bus ticket out, a 19-hour journey from Ouagadougou to Accra, the capital of Ghana.

All told, I spent less than 48 hours in the country of Burkina Faso. Did I short-change the country? Definitely. Do I regret it? No. Be it Ouahigouya or Ouagadougou, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Comments (12)

Ms. IndiaMarch 17th, 2009 at 3:05 am

Bandits!?!? So you din stay for the real drama. Quiet an experience though.

Chris BeckleyMarch 17th, 2009 at 7:11 am

It would be nice to have all the photos on your site 1-click for an enlargement like on this segment.

Gabriel OpenshawMarch 17th, 2009 at 7:19 am

I agree. You can do it with 2 clicks on all the others but I don’t know of a way to change the settings so that it does it automatically (barring doing it manually via the URL).

KerryMarch 17th, 2009 at 7:27 am

I would have to concur with Chris. Although I’m sure it’s easier said than done. :)

Gabriel OpenshawMarch 17th, 2009 at 7:32 am

First Chris, now Kerry. This is a conspiracy! 😛

CyrilApril 3rd, 2009 at 4:26 pm

To those who want to see full sized pictures easily, install the CoolPreview plugin, you can just hover on the picture and the fullsize will appear

CyrilApril 3rd, 2009 at 4:28 pm

D’ailleur, truc de fou, je savais pas que le Burkina…c’était…enfin! à ce point??
Eh bien, content qu’il ne te soit rien arrivé!

Aaron PerkinsJune 11th, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Good call on getting out of Burkina, Gabriel. Another American and myself had a similar experience in Bobo Dissau, Burkina last year. We picked up the President of Guinea in Kufra, Libya and flew him to Bobo for an African Summit. They failed to make reservations for the pilots and we were driven to a dilapidated shanty outside of town. An hour later we were back starting the APU on the aircraft and making our beds inside the corp jet. Oh Africa, how I miss you! 😉

Gabriel OpenshawJune 12th, 2011 at 7:01 am

Haha, yeah, I would have picked the jet too! How did you get a visa to fly into Libya on an American passport? Or did you not need one to just fly in and out?

Aaron PerkinsJune 12th, 2011 at 9:13 am

I spent three months in Tripoli last year flying for the Libyan government—- met some interesting people. Even with government pull, getting my visa was painful and slow (especially since I was with Kim in Malaysia trying to secure the visa). I left December 22nd before the rebels began stirring the pot.

To expand on your last question though, if you are a member of a flight crew you “normally” will get a 48 hour visa in your passport when you arrive. There are exceptions however, such as Syria.

Aaron PerkinsJune 12th, 2011 at 9:18 am

Please note I use the term “rebels” very loosely—- I witnessed widespread resentment at all levels towards the Colonel (from the top dogs down to Saheed, my “espresso guy”)

Gabriel OpenshawJune 12th, 2011 at 9:21 am

Aha, thanks. I’d looked into it a couple years ago, hoping I might be able to travel overland across North Africa, but it wasn’t feasible. Perhaps one day. And yes, can’t say I’ve met any fans of the colonel either, lol–good thing you left before the situation devolved to its present state.

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