Thursday, April 21, 2011

Burundi's Biking Bananas! 2

This little video of mine - about cargo bikers in the tiny African country of Burundi - debuted at the April 2011 Filmed By Bike weekend, a Portland, Oregon festival dedicated to short films about bikes and bike culture.

Check it out, it's zany and banana-licious.

I'm totally excited that I can call myself an independent filmmaker!

And now at least you know where Burundi is.

Many thanks to my friend, Mike Vogel, for cluing me in to the Filmed By Bike tradition and for kicking my butt enough to put something together for it.  Check out his own film, "Right Hook," which was nominated for the best-video award.  It's a hilarious take on what many bikers wish they could do to inconsiderate drivers.

Thanks for watching.  And, if you liked, do share.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Burundi's Biking Bananas!

Though I haven't lived in Burundi for about a year now, I still have good memories - and plenty of photos - of the place.  Which is why, when my independent filmmaker friend Mike Vogel told me I should make a Burundi bike movie to enter in a Portland-based, bike-themed film festival, I decided to go for it.

He had seen some of the grainy, point-and-shoot video clips I had posted on YouTube of Burundian cargo bikers screaming down mountain roads with huge piles of bananas loaded on the back, bringing them from farms in the hills to market in the capital, Bujumbura.  I thought there was no way my amateur-ish clips could make a good video.  But Mike's a good convincer, and before I knew it I had three minutes worth of combined still-and-video footage ready to ship out to the Filmed By Bike jury.

And then, back in February, they told me I was in!  Now I've been running around bragging that I have a short film showing in an international film festival in the US.  Feels nice.

The Filmed By Bike festival kicks off on Friday, April 15 in Portland with what is, by all accounts, a rockin' street party.  Saturday and Sunday follow with multiple programs of short films: all bikes, all screens, all the time.  If you're anywhere near Portland, and you happen to stumble across this tiny corner of the wide world of the web, the coincidence is too great for inaction: I command you - GO!  Preferably on a bike, with as many passengers as possible.

If you're not in Portland, I'll be putting my little bike-themed short up on YouTube, or somewhere similar, sometime after the raucous crowds have departed from my film festival debut.

My friend Mike Vogel has a film in there as well, "Right Hook;" it's ridiculously good, so if you're lucky enough to be in Portland April 15 - 17, make sure you see it too.

Then catch a passing truck for an easy ride back home.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Biking Bujumbura Map

While biking in Bujumbura's hills on my trusty Specialized mountain bike, I've been trying to keep track of where I go and how I got there.  And since I enjoy making an amateur map now and then, and because I also enjoy sharing information that helps others discover a place, I'm posting my most recently updated amateur map of Bujumbura hill biking.

(If you want a closer look, this posted photo being too small to see much, email me or leave a comment and I will send you a bigger jpeg file that you can enlarge for particulars.  The red print gives times to major ride points, starting from the city.)

Since I like to climb, on most of my rides I pick an entry point and ride up into the hills outside Bujumbura.  For doing distance, and seeing lots of countryside, I have biked the paved national routes to both Bugarama and Ijenda.  Both take about three hours (almost all of it a fairly tough slog up), and aren't too bad with traffic, though the road to Bugarama is definitely the busier of the two.  Along the way you can admire the local bicyclists hurtling past you, as they either cling to the back of a truck going up or turn their bicycle into a truck bringing huge mounds of bananas down.

My map shows both of these paved routes, and the hill area in between them.  The most interesting riding from Bujumbura is, I think, in this in-between hill area, which is most easily and centrally accessed by taking the loop road up through Kiriri then continuing past Chez Vaya and on up to the hillside university.  At the university the paved road turns to dirt and leads to hours of exploring on rural roads.

Though there are lots of single-track type trails visible on the hillsides, most of them are un-rideable: these are walking paths and are too steep or too sketchy to bike.  The adventurer can find some sections of doable single-track, however.

For the best single-track ride available from Bujumbura, instead of continuing past Chez Vaya toward the university, turn left just before the restaurant.  When the paved road ends, break free onto a dirt track that increasingly looks more like a hiking trail and less like a dirt road.  There's one big dip of a bridge that's fun to ride and then a couple of 'portages' (have to carry your bike across a ravine) as you wind up the side of a canyon, cross the main streambed, then double back to climb the opposite slope.

Entering a small town you reach a dirt road.  From here you can drift back down to the city.  Or, to continue the ride, go uphill on the dirt road for maybe five minutes.  Just past a right-hand bend, turn left on a fairly obvious trail that cuts across a ridge-slope rising in front of you.  From here you are following an old water channel.  When arriving at a trail intersection, always choose the way that continues gradually uphill with the climbing ridge on your right and the valley opening on your left.  On this section there are numerous 'portages' as well where you will need to carry your bike across a ravine, but there's enough open trail in between to make the ride worth it.  After about an hour the trail ends at a dirt road, as shown on the map.  You can do this trail either uphill or down, taking the dirt road one way if you wish to make a loop.

If you are a downhill fan, a technically proficient rider can have fun checking out numerous trails off the road up above the university, with varying degrees of steepness and technicality available.  Drop off the road into the valley to the left on whatever rideable track you can find, then meet up with the 'Chez Vaya/water channel trail,' that I just described, to get back to town.

When trail-riding outside Bujumbura, always take care for pedestrians: remember the trails are there for the locals to get from place to place.  You are a guest on their foot-highway.

And if you are an ingenious explorer, I'm sure you'll have more rides to add to my map in no time.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Climbing the 'Collines'

On Friday I went for a ride in the collines, or hills, just outside Bujumbura.  While I am often, on these rides, driven to get in as many kilometers as possible, this time I gave priority to my camera lens.  And so, here's some photos.

Up the paved road from my hillside house, this national monument looks out over the city and exhorts Burundians to the communal goods of "unity, work, and progress."

This juxtaposition of Coke and corn at a beer-and-soda container store made me pull over.  Coke (along with a few other sodas) is one of the few locally-manufactured products available in Burundi.  Corn, along with other vegetables, often grows roadside as city residents try to augment their meager livings.

The "Donnez moi l'argent!" or give-me-money culture is firmly entrenched here, and any adult, when asked for a photo, is more than likely to respond with the phrase.  Since I didn't want to give these ladies any money, I snapped their bright umbrellas - a common and colorful protection from near-equatorial sun - instead.

This little guy, walking up the hill barefoot with a sack balanced on his head, kept catching up to me as I frequently stopped pedaling to take photos of the ever-expanding view.  The irony of taking his portrait in front of the university (background) that he will likely never be able to attend was not lost on me.

Here he is again as we both climb the dirt roads (the route goes from paved to dirt at the university) above Bujumbura into vibrant green hills dotted with houses and covered with sloping fields of cassava, bananas, lettuce, tomatoes, peanuts.

This girl gnaws on a bit of cassava root (like a yam, sort of) as she and her friends head up the road to get some water from the closest faucet.  I was a bit nervous to stop for her photo, but with the rock balanced on her head (I have no idea what for) I overcame my clicking inhibitions and snapped away.

This dilapidated house atop a knoll is about a 55 minute climb by mountain bike up from the city.  I call it the "ruined castle," and wouldn't mind renovating it and living out my days there.

Stopping in a hill town (I think it's called Muyera, the only sign says 'Centre de Sante Kavumo') for a refreshing lemon Fanta, I got this guy to take a photo of me.  In return, he let me snap one of him.

Outside the town, a woman prepares a hillside field for planting.

From Muyera, I took a hard right back toward Bujumbura onto an increasingly unimproved mountain road.  It took me through beautiful stream canyons...

...on sections no longer useable by motor vehicles.  When it came time for a very dilapidated bridge crossing, these school kids showed me how to walk the plank with no fear.

This woman was one of the few adults who gave me permission to photograph her, and so I snapped with glee.

Too soon I was back to the paved road (the road to Ijenda, for you locals, at about the 10 kilometer marker), zooming downhill toward the city and the lake.

And to end the photo essay: there's nothing like a locally-made Fanta Citron to keep the legs going on a long ride.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Yearning to Photo Free

Now that I've been in Burundi for awhile, I see it increasingly through the eyes of a resident.  I'm still set apart from your average Burundian by skin and by language, but I know how to get around town, where to find things, how to get my point across with a little French and a lot of hand-waving.  I feel my difference less.

While I still love to see the countryside through the lens of bike-riding, I'm seeing Bujumbura more and more through an actual lens - the one on my camera.  Here's some images from a spontaneous Monday morning out-on-the-town shoot.

My first subject, a statue.

It's a sort of local Statue of Liberty, I guess.  "The woman is the pillar of development," the statue's base declares.

Odd though it looks, this figure really is an iconic emblem of Burundi's women, who can often be seen walking, wearing no shoes, beside the road or on a steep mountain footpath, a hoe on their shoulder and a baby on their back.  Though they usually aren't carrying a torch.

While the women prop up the country and light the way, the men, apparently, slumber at their feet.

Note the resourcefulness, at least, of using one's flip-flops for a pillow.

Then a beer truck caught my eye: Primus is the locally-manufactured light lager.  Here, beer is just as important as petrol.  Maybe more important, since bicycles outnumber cars.

Pillars of development that they are, the women ride sidesaddle on the bicycle taxis with such grace.

Another public artwork was next for my camera lens.  This large Burundi-shaped painting welcomes visitors coming down from the hills on the main highway from northern neighbor Rwanda.

And of course, there were kids to snap along the way...

...and heavily loaded bicycles zooming downhill...

...and more locally manufactured liquids.

Then there was a young construction worker eager to shovel hard for my camera.

Finally, I took a bicycle taxi ride back toward home.

As in any developing country, shooting in public can quickly become overwhelming, as I tend to attract instant attention.  Within two minutes of taking my camera out to shoot the statue I had an audience of twenty men calling out to me in Kirundi and French.

I mostly ignored them.  But it feels just as weird to ignore people as it does to have one's skin (and large camera) make one the center of attention.  I've learned to shoot quickly and move on.

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  And, with this venture, through my lens Burundi starts to become a home, not just a place I live.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Toy Story, Burundi-Style (1)

On bike rides in the hills outside of Bujumbura, I get a fun look at what kids in a developing country come up with for toys.

Ain't no Toys R Us here, no hobby shops.  There's no Radio Shacks selling remote controlled this and Nintendo that.  'Bout the only toy-type stuff available is Chinese-made, plastic, and cheap.  But most kids can't afford even that.

Which is where imagination, and a little ingenuity, comes in handy.

In Burundi, all a kid needs to have fun is a discarded wheel or some rubbish.  The wheel gets simply rolled down the road, the kid pushing it along adeptly with a stick; think those line drawings of girls in frilly dresses rolling hoops around in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century American novels.  The rubbish - some wire, perhaps, along with a few bottle caps and a bit of old styrofoam - gets turned into a small toy car or truck.

Recently, though, a saw a couple kids who went even simpler than that.  They made their fun out of nature.

I was riding a dirt road I hadn't set tires on before.  About an hour up from Bujumbura's university-on-the-hill, I took a left heading down toward a large school complex atop a valley knoll.  After dropping in past the school, I reached a river and decided to turn around.  

(The road continues, I think, to the mountain town of Bugarama, a back-country hill route that avoids the busy paved highway.  Can't wait to ride it...)

By that time there were, as often happens, a few kids running along behind me.  I was in a hurry to make my U-turn and get back home, so I didn't pay them much attention.  That is, until I saw something that made my camera appear lickety-split.

Attracting the attention of my lens was a rather unusual toy: a live beetle on a stick!

Who needs radio controlled cars and personal video consoles?  In Burundi, if you got a beetle, you happy.  Flapping wings included, no batteries necessary.

(Stay tuned for more Toy Story installments.)

I Heart (My View Of) Congo

Now that the rains have been around awhile and cleared the air, I have a view of the Democratic Republic of Congo from my porch.  Where before there was only Bujumbura town, then lake-edge, then an impenetrable screen of haze, now I can watch miles of Lake Tanganyika shimmer blue and green as puffy-white clouds build and dissipate above it.

And, on the far side of the lake, majestic mountains.  The Congo.

When I came to Burundi I knew little about the Congo, the neighboring state to the west.  Inside I held a vague sense of equatorial mystery and dread, perhaps a vestige of emotional memory from reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

These days, I'm learning a few facts.  I'm reading a book, Blood River, by Tim Butcher.  The author is a veteran journalist who, around 2004, decided to follow the explorer Stanley's route across the African continent from east to west, back when the intrepid adventurer 'discovered' the Congo River.

Entering eastern Congo after crossing Lake Tanganyika, Mr. Butcher found a lawless country developing backwards, a result of decades of dictatorship and conflict.  Where the Belgian colonizers had at least maintained thousands of kilometers of roads, an extensive railway, and regular ferry service on the mighty Congo River, now he found little except jungle, narrow footpaths, ruined towns, and fear of marauding rebel groups.

Apparently, life over in those hills that I now delight to see is a mess, or at least it was a few years back when Mr. Butcher wrote his book.

It all looks so peaceful from here, and beautiful.  It's hard to reconcile the chaos and fear from the book with the lovely view that I have out my windows.

But I guess that's life: sometimes beauty hides a terror.

Still, I enjoy my view, and love to watch the play of clouds and sun and rain and lake and hills.  A glance westward from the porch makes my day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The White Man Performs, or 'Mzungu' in the Market

Last week I did my first performance art piece in Burundi.  I didn't intend to.  When you're a white man in Africa, these things just happen.

I went to the central market to pick up a few things, including a large woven basket to use for yard work - you know, carry leaves and grass clippings and such.

How to lug purchases around is always a problem in the market.  Aisles are narrow and cramped, there's shoulders and elbows everywhere, and if you put your stuff in a backpack it's likely to get filched right out of the pockets.

But this time, my brain had a solution for me.  "Perfect," it whispered in my ear, "we'll buy the basket first, then carry our other stuff around inside it."

Good work there, brain!

Except, the basket ended up being a little too large to maneuver comfortably through congested aisles.  And, as I kept putting stuff in it - a pineapple here, a pumpkin there - it was getting a bit heavy.

As I banged into more and more people with my increasingly unwieldy basket, I kept getting more and more attention from the young guys who hang around trying to make a few francs carrying stuff for market customers.

It's not a bad idea to trust this job to a professional, really.  Even the locals who can afford it do so.  But I was stubborn; I kept turning them down.

Finally, though, I had to do something, before I inadvertently knocked someone, or their pile of produce, to the ground.  

Then, my brain had the day's second great idea.  The only real space available, it realized, was up in the air above us.

"Psst," it whispered in my ear, "hoist the basket atop my skull.  Haven't you noticed that's where everyone else carries their stuff?"  It sounded pleased with itself.

"Well, duh," I hissed back, embarrassed I hadn't thought of this myself.  "That's a no-brainer."

In Bujumbura, you see, people don't really use backpacks or other fancy carrying bags.  I haven't seen any two-wheeled dollies around here, and very few wheeled carts of any sort.  No, folks simply put their stuff on their head.

Got a pineapple you don't want to carry?  Put it on your head.  Rain's a'comin' this afternoon, but you don't feel like holding your umbrella until then?  Put it on your head.  Someone gave you fifty cents to get ten bags of grain from a taxi to their market stall?  Pile them, one by one, atop your noggin (photo left), then hiss at the crowds to get them out of your way and hope your cargo doesn't flour the sidewalk white.

So, when I and my brain both realized my basket-carrying situation had become untenable, I did what any Burundian would do, and hoisted the basket into the overhead airspace.

And, just like that, I had everyone's attention.  Instant audience.

Heads snapped around at the strange sight of a white man carrying things like a Burundian.  Vendors smiled.  Their customers laughed.  Each tugged at their neighbor - "Look, look, the funny mzungu!"

I walked into an open area where dried fish is laid out on tables for sale, and, suddenly, I was attracting a standing ovation.  Hooray for the mzungu with the basket on his head!  Huzzah!  Ole!  Encore!  Encore!  Everyone stopped what they were doing and clapped.

Well, ok, mostly everyone was already standing.  But hey, it's been a long time since I've done a performance of any kind.  The applause, any applause, felt nice.

So I continued my little show, balancing the basket out into the center city streets to finish my shopping.  I went to the posh downtown boucherie (butchery) for my Dutch gouda and to the expensive we-import-it-and-we-know-you'll-pay-for-it Dmitri Supermarket for my South African powdered sugar.  I felt a little giddy - whether from the attention or the pressure on my cerebrum, I couldn't tell.

With my shopping done, my brain advised catching a taxi home.  "Loading your noodle through the market is one thing" - it seemed a little stressed - "but hoofing that basket for two kilometers uphill..."

"No, that's what machines are for," I agreed.  I was tired.  My brain sounded relieved.

Walking up to a taxi, I took the basket off my head.  The driver laughed at me.  "You're trying to be like an African," he told me as he drove me home.

"Well, not really," I said.  "I just like to perform."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Runnin' With the Bikes

It's taking me a long time to get the news in Burundi.  There's interesting things going on, but all the notices are in French, and besides, I don't know where to look for them.  Mostly, I've been hearing about cool stuff after the fact.

The last couple weeks have been better, however.  Now, I'm hearing about events as they are happening, at least.

But only because I have a well-situated house, and a house guard who is much more clued in than I.

Last week, for instance, I caught a soccer match at the central stadium.  How could I miss it?  I could see it happening from my porch, the red and white-shirted players tiny running blips on the green soccer pitch down below.

This week, it was the Burundian president being honored upon return from a trip to Italy.  This time, I could hear it happening.

For fifteen minutes the rise and fall of sirens, the sound of music and a crowd, had been wafting up the hill on the lake breeze.  I was engrossed in writing, and couldn't be bothered.

The guard, however, knew something was happening I might want to see.  When I walked onto the porch, he caught my eye.

"The president is coming.  It's a big time.  Many people are there," he said.

I went out to the road in my house-shorts to look.  I could see a crowd of people at the major intersection just down the hill.  Lots of action, just like the guard promised, the people welcoming their president back home.

"I need some pants," I said to myself.  I ran back, changed, and hopped on my bike to go join the throng.

I didn't get far.

The presidential motorcade was already promenading past.  From a pickup, men in dark blue gestured emphatically that I should get off the road.  The men had guns.  I obeyed.

I stood with my neighbors and watched the president slide by behind tinted windows.  Then I continued down the hill.

There was still a press of bodies and vehicles blocking the intersection, backing up traffic on two of Bujumbura's largest central avenues.  There was a festive air, and a brass band in forest green uniforms trimmed with gold braid.

But what really caught my eye were all the two-wheeled taxis.  Several hundred motorcycle and bicycle taxi-men had congregated.  They clogged the road en masse, their bikes decorated with sprigs of celebratory greenery.

I admire these taxi-velo (bicycle taxi) guys a lot.  They fashion a rear rack out of gaily-painted rebar, slap a cushion on it to make a seat, and call their single-speed rig a cab.  They get paid peanuts, maybe 25 American cents, to pedal a passengers a few blocks.  One would think they have little reason to give the state any loyalty.

But, the president is an avid bicyclist.  When visiting rural towns, he often, folks say, stops his motorcade to pedal the last kilometer.  So, when there is a presidential occasion, the taxi-velo guys break off some greenery and show up in force.

By the time I got to the scene, police had begun their struggle to unblock the road and get traffic moving again.  I hung out, though, wanting some action photos of the bike taxi guys.

Thankfully, they started heading off in clumps on an impromptu parade past the university.  I joined a clump, and got some shots of my first occasion runnin' with the bikes through Bujumbura.

Gliding down the hill with my impromptu posse...

...we stop for no man, woman, or car, clogging intersections as we roll.

There's mugging for the camera...

...stunts for the crowd...

...and a final line-up of bikes before they all go back to pumping pedals for pennies.

Friday, October 9, 2009

'Quartier' My Blues Away

A few weeks back I had a case of the blues.  A whole sack-full of funk.  A real mother-lode of melancholy.

It was gonna take more than a stream, more than a river even, to keep me afloat.  It took a whole neighborhood to wash my blues away.  

Bujumbura's Quartier Asiatique, or Asian Quarter, is sort of like a local Chinatown.  Only, there's no corner carryouts selling egg drop soup, no gray-haired ladies sunning in front of apartment buildings.  Instead, there's mosques, import-export shops, and hardware and building supply stores.

I've never in my life been so glad to see a hardware store.

The week had been tough.  Moving into a permanent house - after six months of living in the houses of others - had been a big happiness bump.  But I had since cleaned my way, literally, into a fever, and the frustrations of outfitting an empty house in a post-conflict, developing African country with no port had started to stack up.

Shopping in a developing country means severely taxing one's tolerance for jumble.  The roads are a clot of cars and diesel fumes and dodging motorcycles, and there are no street signs.  There's dirt and dust, a press of people, and you must keep control of your wallet at all times. 

What's more, you can't find anything.  There's no phone book, no yellow pages.  Everything, at least in Burundi, is in French.  No one has a website.  Directions rely on such landmark jewels as "where the pavement ends" or "at the red gate" or "near the new school."  Thanks, but I don't know where the new school is, either, and what do I do when there's three red gates?

If you can actually find the right shop, the jumble takes over again.  Bolts of cloth trip over each other, tight rows of bright plastic toys scream from overflowing cabinets, aisles are so crammed with appliances it's like one long freak dance just moving around.  But, you know that what you want must be in here somewhere, so you keep looking and looking...  Until you give up.

The week of my shopping blues, what I really needed was tools and building materials.  I needed a hammer and screwdrivers to make household repairs; I needed a proper paint swatch to pick pleasing wall colors; I needed a shower curtain rod.  But I didn't know where to go, and I didn't have the French to ask.

Then, just as I was giving up, I found the Asian Quarter.

Taking a motorcycle taxi down the hill from the city center, I drifted past a mosque, past a knot of women with black shawls covering their heads - already, it reminded me of home.

But when I hit the local shops, that's when I really lit up.

It's like paradise! I texted to a friend.  The Indian merchants speak English!  The headscarfed proprietress of the local grocery store sells dried chickpeas and homemade samosas!  The DuraCoat paint shop has 4,000 colors!  There's so many hardware stores I can't visit them all!

Finally, I could buy a hammer, some nails, a heavy-duty knife.  I could get caulk, a drop cloth, vibrant paint in shades of orange, blue, and red.  I could paint that wall, hang that shower curtain, make that lamp, fix that hole in the wall that the ants had made into a tunnel for their highway.

But first, I shopped my blues away in the quartier.