Chapter Thirteen: Realizing
[Chapter Twelve can be found here.]
Shortly after dawn, Paul and Sam, who now was somewhat recovered from his fears of the night before and a little more confident—though the rock-like feel that had settled in his stomach remained—strolled to the center of Ouahigouya. Sam had finished both of the liter bottles of water they had carried from Bandiagara and Paul wanted to get him more before he put him on a taxi alone. It would also be worth getting him something he could carry with him to eat. Some Vache Qui Rit cheese and perhaps a packet of crackers.
Paul seemed strangely elated as they walked, at least Sam thought so, laughing and pointing things out along the way. Perhaps it was the millet beer made by Yusef’s mother that he’d consumed at breakfast. Maybe he really did love this place as much as he claimed, though that, to Sam, seemed absurd, more like an excuse not to face life back home. Still, Paul certainly appeared to have forgotten any troubles. Sam wondered if he really didn’t see any problems ahead. Perhaps they had, by crossing the border, gotten over the hump. Maybe the rest would be easy. He didn’t know. He wished he had a little better idea of where they were and what was going on around them. Instead of bliss, he decided, ignorance is anxiety.
“We’ll get you out of here, don’t worry. Cheer up. Enjoy yourself.” Paul, having noticed that Sam’s mood wasn’t quite the equal of his own, spread his arms, embracing the street. “We’ll be leaving, but you’ll probably never, ever see another place like this.”
Sam nodded, and hoped, vaguely, that indeed he never would. He almost said something to that effect, but thought better of it. Though he didn’t look forward to another bush taxi ride on unpaved roads and alone, this time, that, at least, would be progress of a sort, for he would be moving, would be going somewhere. Someplace that wasn’t Mopti. Looking back, now, he really hated Mopti. But he also wanted to be someplace that wasn’t, well, here.
So, as long as he was heading south, he told himself, he would be okay. That was the direction he had to go. Each step, each kilometer, and he would be closer to safety and away from this crazy border. Also, he recognized, the nearer the coast, the more avenues that would open up, allowing him options, reducing his reliance on Paul, who he still did not really trust. Even this delay for water and the food Paul insisted he have was making him nervous. He wished they could just get going—quite the opposite of his feelings during the night, when he had wanted nothing more than to be able to not go anyplace at all. Now, the quicker they got on their way, the better.
Though it was barely seven in the morning, the marché was bustling. While Paul stepped into a Lebanese shop for the water, cheese and crackers, Sam stood nervously outside and once more stared wonderingly at an alien marché. Here, he impatiently looked over low tables laid out with strange cuts of meat abuzz with flies, tables with peanuts, vegetables or spices covering them, and others packed with items he could not identify at all. He again felt an almost overwhelming desire to flee, and asked himself for the millionth time if he ever would escape back to a land he knew. He hadn’t eaten well that morning, or the day before, and was feeling weak; the early heat made him light-headed. He rubbed his hands over his face and turned back to watch for Paul, wishing he could better control the anxieties he was feeling, emotions that, just weeks before, he hadn’t even realized were in him.
Paul reappeared with the water and a couple of packets, laughing about something someone had said in the shop. “Come on,” he handed the goods to Sam, “we have to get one more thing for you, some sort of scarf you can use to keep dust off your face, then we’ll get you going.” He stopped for a moment, looked at Sam, a glimpsed his distrss. When he spoke again, his voice was lower, and he tried to sound more comforting. “Look, I know you want to get out of here. It appears to be a good day for travel, a good day for seeing something of the countryside, if you can stand that. But we have to prepare you, to make sure you go carefully, or you will never get anywhere at all—and that means making sure you set out with everything we need.”
Sam just grunted, turned, and followed. He did know he would be losing something by not paying attention to this place, so different from anyplace he had ever seen, by focusing so much on getting south but, the sooner they were on the road, he had decided, the better. Getting out was most important. He knew that deep inside, and nothing around him would change that. Yes, this was country he had always wanted to see, but his jaw hurt from clenching his teeth. He would gladly sacrifice the tourism for a little comfort and security.
They walked to an area of the market dominated by stalls filled with used clothing. Paul quickly found a vendor selling bandanas. After looking at several, Sam shrugged and just grabbed one. Paul let him pay for it out of the remains of the ten-thousand francs he had lent him.
“Now you won’t end up looking quite as dusty as you did the other day.” They had turned around and were walking out of the marketplace. “You can even use it to make a mask covering your mouth, if you find it gets difficult breathing in the dust.”
Sam nodded. He understood why Paul wanted him to have these things, but he continued to be worried about getting out of town. And it still seemed to him like they could have chanced the trip without the scarf. Without the water, even. The important thing was to get going, not to get going comfortably. What it the early taxi left without him? “Couldn’t I have picked stuff up on the way?”
“No, I don’t think you could get anything at all before Tougan, and dehydration could be a real problem for you. You aren’t acclimated. Believe me, you can get very sick through dehydration. We can’t risk that.”
“What about for you? Don’t you need to get anything for your trip?”
Paul shrugged. “I’ll drink whatever is around, given certain constraints. Most of it, if I’m careful, won’t make me sick anymore. And, if it does, I’m used to it.”
As they turned down the broad avenue leading back the way they had come, with Paul again pointing things out to an inattentive Sam, they heard a sharp clap from above them—something like a jet breaking the sound barrier. Looking up, sure enough, they saw a jet disappearing almost straight up into the sky.
“Hey, Burkina Faso doesn’t have any jets like that.” Paul had stopped on looking up. He spoke jovially, remarking an oddity. After a few seconds, he started walking again.
“Probably got it from Libya,” Sam said, dredging up something he had read about relations between Sankara and Gaddafi, though he didn’t really care. “I hear the two countries are allied.” He too started walking once more.
They moved on quickly, Sam setting the pace now, for Paul had already pointed out the taxi gare to him and he was heading there in a beeline.
As they walked, men in uniform passed by, hurrying, first in ones and twos, then in groups, then in helmeted groups.
Paul mentioned to an inattentive Sam that he had never before seen Burkinabe soldiers with helmets on.
“I didn’t even know they had them,” he continued, “the military here is not exactly well equipped.”
Strangely, there was suddenly no other traffic on the road, but Paul decided not to mention that. Just the military and the two of them.
They were about to pass the gendarme station close to the gare. In front sat three or four gendarmes, one staring at them in a way Sam found disturbing, though Paul paid no attention at all. A couple of the others were intent on tying ammunition clips together so that, once spent, the clips could be flipped and the opposite one inserted into their AK-47s. A fast, simple way to reload. Sam had read about that somewhere, too.
“Halt!” The staring gendarme rose, brandishing his gun. They obeyed. Both of them looking at him, perplexed. Paul was used to being told to stop, but this man was shouting and obviously frightened. “Halt!” he repeated, “Don’t move, don’t come any closer.”
Neither of them had moved. Sam only understood one word of what he had said, but the intent was clear.
“Go back to your hotel,” the man yelled. “Get out of here. You are in the way and it is dangerous here.”
“Why? What’s wrong with going on? We’re only heading to the taxi gare to get to Tougan, then Dédougou and Bobo.” Paul pointed to the south, moving slowly, keeping his hands clearly in front of him. “We don’t want anything but to get on a taxi and get where we are going.”
“Are you crazy? Don’t you know what’s happening?” The gendarme was shouting now. He shot into the air for emphasis, a startling burst of sound. “Go back to town, go to the hotel. Stay there.”
Paul froze. This had never happened before. Nothing even remotely like this had ever happened before. He stared at the gun, then at the gendarme. Slowly, he turned around.
Sam watched as Paul turned toward him, seeing the stunned look on his face, his frozen expression. Without another word, Paul started walking back the way they had come, Sam following, completely confused as well as frightened and deafened by the gunfire, so close.
The day, which had started out bad enough for Sam, now seemed about to turn incalculably worse.
[Chapter Fourteen can be found here.]