Burkina Faso: The Rail Less Traveled

— By Ian Sandler

From the moment I step foot in the Ouagadougou train station, my senses are overwhelmed. Mustard yellow headscarves and bright floral fabrics soak the scene in vibrant color, a stark contrast to the metallic behemoth rolling gently towards me.

Sure, a bush taxi would take a comfortable seven hours less time, but who picks wheels over the desert express?

The train leaves Burkina Faso’s colorfully named capital city every day on a epic journey that takes passengers through the country’s arid savannah to the lush, palm-filled beaches of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. I, on the other hand, am only attempting to reach the cultural mecca of Bobo-Dioulasso, and could not be in less of a rush.

I take in the sights and smells of a truly foreign landscape for 12 contemplative hours as the train barrels through fields of mint and groves of cashew trees. When we glide past the mud houses of the Mossi, children run toward the train to greet us. Every so often the speck of a boy, far younger than myself, appears on the horizon herding emaciated cattle towards what seems like nowhere.

But the serenity of the journey quickly gives way to chaos at each stopover. As we roll to a halt, hawkers storm the tracks, peddling local delicacies and fighting for the sale. Mangoes the size of bowling balls and bundles of deep maroon grapes are up for offer, but I opt for a whole guinea fowl sprinkled with seasoning and greasy to the touch.

This is a far cry from the T in my hometown of Boston. Maybe it’s the sweltering tin can I inhabit, or the French-speaking Burkinabé mothers I am sandwiched between who sit nursing their sons without any self-consciousness.

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But as we travel through the heart of Burkina Faso, I keep coming to the same conclusion — one I feel my African companions may have reached long ago: there is a lot to discover in these desert plains, so sit back, drink an ice-cold bissap, and enjoy the ride.

Ian Sandler is an editorial research intern at National Geographic Traveler and recently completed a semester abroad at the University of Ghana in Accra. Follow Ian’s story on Twitter @Ian_Sandler.

All photographs by Matt Hebert

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