Please check your tag: many motor scooters look alike
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
``Parking: two wheels.'' This sign is not for half a car. It identifies one of hundreds of parking lots for motor scooters here. This city has a two-wheeled culture.
Stand by any road in the morning rush hour and you will quickly realize that the dominant feature in this country's traffic is the motor scooter.
Cars look like big sharks swimming solitarily in the midst of endless schools of scooters.
Two women pass by on a single scooter, each with a baby on her back. A man on a scooter turns a corner with a dozen live chickens tied to the handlebars.
One Western diplomat who lives here calls Ouagadougou the ``motor scooter capital of Africa.''
In a sprawling city with few buses, scooters are the vehicle of choice for most residents. Those who can't afford them buy bicycles. Only the wealthy have cars.
Bernadette Zongo commutes to her job in the Ministry of Tourism on a scooter. Everywhere she goes, she goes on her scooter. For shopping, or to visit friends. And like many women here, she rides wearing a full-length dress and low heels.
How does a working couple with two school-age children manage on one scooter? Simple, says Gama Mah, who also works at the Ministry of Tourism. The woman drives the two children to school, comes back to take the husband to work, then drives to work herself.
The best way to get the feel of this city's bi-wheel culture is to drive a scooter in traffic. Or, you can do as this reporter did, get a lift on the back of one.
Mr. Mah took me roaring into the midst of things the other day. I was surprised. Instead of being chaotic, the ride was smooth and calm, though not very comfortable. Most scooters have no padding on the back where passenger sits.
Scooters are expensive, given the low salaries most people here earn. New ones generally range from about $700 to $2,000. Mah said he had to cut out most of his social life for a long time to save for one. Many people put one-third down and pay the rest in installments.
Open-air scooter repair shops have become a big little business. Mechanics hang a couple of deflated inner tubes over a tree branch, the equivalent of an ``open for business'' sign. They do everything from fixing flats to overhauling engines.
Other people operate special parking lots for scooters. Sometimes the lots are so jammed that people ride home on the wrong scooter by mistake. Maybe they need parking tags and one of those signs like you see in Western airports - ``Please check your tag: many scooters look alike.''