Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Off the map

When I was a child I loved atlases. I loved to look at the names of places, and dream of one day visiting them. I had a special list -- the names that struck me most, that had most magic. They were more or less spread around the world. Some of them I've visited. Some I've still to see.

I suppose it's something extraordinary that they did not let me down. I'll share a name. Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, is a sprawling city, its centre reminiscent of Toulouse (wide boulevards, all the signs in French, well kept by the standards of West Africa), surrounded by an enormous shanty town. You realise you are approaching Ouaga when the scrubby forest that you have been travelling through disappears, replaced by a weird plain of tree stumps that stretches for several miles. I was with Mrs Zen when I visited. We stayed in the back courtyard of a brothel (most places to stay in West Africa double up). All the other rooms were the dayrooms of the prostitutes. They were friendly, open women. I suppose most of them are now dead of AIDS.

I remember eating rice and sauce arachide in a shady courtyard, haggling for hours in a market with a young guy who wanted to pass the time as much as make a sale, young women trying to sell their glass pendants, knives that you could never bring through customs, rugs that would not suit the decor of your lounge room.

I will never see Ouaga again. My life has changed and I do not think I could spare the time or money to do it. I do not regret that. Life does change.

Mind you. I went to West Africa on a 91-day air ticket -- it was very cheap -- but I could not, or would not, spare the five, six days it would have taken to go to Timbuktu (I couldn't afford to fly). It's a small regret. But isn't it extinguishing the small regrets that drives us through this life more than just about anything else?


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