Travel notesIssue 06 | August 2009

North to Burkina

by Rachel Hoffman

The ancient Volkswagen van departed not at an appointed hour, but when the vehicle was full. I sat upright, leaning forward, squirming in place, in the second row of seats. I had boarded after a Tuareg man who was swathed in yards and yards of dark blue fabric as insulation against the heat. His white turban wound around his head and across his face so only his dark eyes appeared from behind the fabric. He spit on a whet stone, then pulled from his sleeve a curved dagger the length of his forearm.

Was this the Tuareg way of acknowledging a woman? Unclean as we are. Maybe it was a warning. The coastal region I’d just left hadn’t been Muslim, but traveling north I’d surely encounter women with bodies fully covered, mosques, and Tuareg warriors like this daggerman. 

The driver’s assistant threw bags of belongings to the roof and more passengers climbed aboard. The last to arrive was a healthy and large woman, in orange and purple cloth, carrying a baby. She stood outside the van and blew her nose on the ground by bending over, pressing the right nostril shut and propelling out what was in the left. Then repeating, pressing on the left. The driver directed the woman to sit next to me. On my right, a child nursed. On my left, a warrior sharpened his dagger. The four of us sat on a seat that had seemed a good fit for two.

Parfait! Perfect! Said the driver. Allons! Let’s go!

I hadn’t noticed that the van was missing its sliding side door. Our driver laced a rope back and forth a couple of times through rust holes where hinges and a latch should have been, then his assistant pulled the rope taut and tied it in a slipknot. The driver added oil to the engine and slammed the rear hatch, then jumped into his seat. Twelve of us inside. And, like that, we took off from central Togo for parts north.

The VW rumbled along the rutted road, past clusters of mud- and cement-brick homes, their small, square windows shuttered in corrugated aluminum. Close to the road were tiny gardens, goats tied to palm trees, boys with sticks and bicycle tire rims, girls with mothers drawing water, hand over hand, from deep wells.

The tropical greens and oranges – the rainbow that was Lomé – had faded, like the driver’s transistor radio, into more muted tones. I’d tied back my hair and covered my head with a red bandanna, hoping to avoid a rat’s nest from the wind. I wore sunglasses against bugs and bits of vegetation flying into my eyes. I watched as we bounced past villages and children who ran from their games toward us, waving wildly. Surely they had run after dozens of cars and knew they were not going to catch up, but they ran with arms like wings.

One severe lurch. We bounced and screamed. A deep pothole had yanked off a wheel. The front end of the bus sparked and scraped over the asphalt.

Merde! The driver yelled.

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About the author

Rachel Hoffman is a semi-recluse who, during an earlier incarnation, published a dozen articles in academic journals and one short story in Left Bank. A few trips to Africa, China, Japan, Central America, Europe, an Oregon Literary Arts fellowship for a novel-in-progress, and a couple of residencies later, she still itches for literary notoriety. She dreams of more travel.

Read our current issue:


Two poems by Anne Babson
Vignette, Townhouse, 9 a.m. by Troy Cunio
Night Becomes Day Over the West by Megan Foley
Yukon River Aurora by D. B. Goman
Two Poems by David Havird
Cretan Love Letter by Emily Linstrom
Holland by Rick Mullin
Fear in Kenya by Kristina Pfleegor
The Lounge Lizard by Ed Shacklee
Two Poems by Sarah J. Sloat
Night Flight by Vicki Stannard
Koinonia Farms by Alina Stefanescu
Thessaloniki, Four a.m. by Anastasia Vassos
Imaginary Oceans by Jason Warren
Two Poems by F. J. Williams

Postcard prose

It’s Salty by Kelly Hill

Travel notes

Anchorage in the Great Land by Karen Benning
The Value of Small Money by Megan Hallinan
Screensaver by Sandra Larson
Thirty Cents by Tommy McAree
Gokarna by Kate McCahill
Going Places by Rachel Miller-Howard
Susanville CA: Notes From The Road by Susan Volchok