African public transportation

Wednesday, December 29

According to my nose, the smell surrounding the Relais de Kaolack  (where we’re staying tonight) is the first unpleasant one of this trip.  Mostly, I detect l’air de burning garbage (a smell I know well from Latin America), but there’s a putrid subnote mixed in with it. That may come from the giant marsh that surrounds this area.  It’s not that bad; doesn’t bother me that much. Rather, it surprises me that we didn’t encounter any other revolting smells on our trip from Popenguine to here.

On that trip, we traveled for the first time like ordinary Africans. (In South Africa it was all white-guy transport: planes, rental cars, backpacker buses, the Bulungula shuttle.) Today was one of the only times on this trip when, despite having planned most details pretty extensively, I had no clear idea how we’d get from Point A (Popenguine) to Point B (Kaolack).

We started asking around the day before yesterday about the best way to do that. Got some conflicting advice but finally concluded we had to call a taxi to get out of Popenguine (which, though a tourist magnet, is quite small). Sineta, the B&B operator in Dakar, had given me the number for a good driver in Popenguine, and when I called it this morning, he said he could pick us up in 15 minutes.  

My rusty French has proven more serviceable than I expected; we agreed to pay about $15 for the 45-minute ride to the gare routiere in Mbour, where we would be able to catch a bush taxi. The driver, Elhadji, was a friendly fellow who pointed out sights (in French) all the way and promised to help us find a good “sept-place” to Kaolack.

We appreciated that, as the Mbour gare routiere was the first of its type we’d experienced in West Africa. Some people call these places “taxi parks” but that name might give you the wrong idea: a mental image of something orderly. Mbour isn’t a large town, but its gare routiere felt enormous to me: a sort of outdoor grand central station of chaos. Dozens upon dozens of taxis, station wagons, huge vans — each more crazily decrepit than the next — filled the concourse, and teaming streams of people flowed among them. Most cheerful and eye-catching were the women, dressed in their gorgeous Senegalese dresses and head-gear and bearing (in many cases) baskets or trays filled with oranges, eggs, candies, French rolls, and other wares on their heads. But there was a head-spinning assortment of other sights: touts beseeching us to ride in their vehicles, boys bearing frosty quart bottles of Kirene-brand water, a pack of very young kids who surrounded us, called us toubabs (a somewhat pejorative term for white folks), and asked us to give them money. When we ignored them, they disappeared, and Elhadji had returned with advice.

He pointed to a cluster of station wagons and said the two-hour ride to Kaolack in one of them would cost us and our bags 4500 CFA (roughly $9.75).  Another cheaper ($4.30) option seemed to be in a larger vehicle, but Elhadji looked nervous even mentioning this, so we chose the “sept-place” (seven-place, in French). 

The one we wound up riding in probably wasn’t any filthier or more macerated than its peers, but the sensory overload prevented us from doing much comparing. An old Peugeot station wagon, it was in the worst shape of any vehicle in Steve’s experience (which is vaster than mine when it comes to beaters.) Neither the speedometer, nor the tachometer, nor the starter worked, so when we finally started moving, it was a human touch (or rather, push) that got us going.  The front window was spiderwebbed with cracks (though intact.) From the time we threw our bags into the back to the time we started, 30 minutes passed. During that time, as the driver scouted five other passengers (to utilize every cubic centimeter of flesh-hauling capacity), a steady parade of vendors came by, thrusting into the windows rings, oranges, candy bars, cell phone cards, little plastic bags of allegedly sterilized water, and other offerings. “You know,” I whispered to Steve, “This is the sort of place which if it doesn’t scare the shit out of you is really quite fascinating.” He agreed.

View from the 3rd row

Certainly we would have found it too daunting even a few years ago, but for whatever reason, we both felt at ease and consequently hugely enjoyed most of the ride — even though we had chosen to sit in the rear-most seat. This we shared with a silent young man so tall he could only accommodate his knees by opening them at a 45-degree angle. This meant his right thigh, side, and arm were fused to mine in the manner of a Siamese twin. The row in front of us held a middle-aged guy who incredibly was wearing a leather jacket, a somnolent younger man whose lolling head kept falling back over the seat top onto my knees, and a broad-shouldered man holding the best-behaved 18-month-old (a tiny girl, dressed with care and attention) I’ve ever observed.  Another lucky passenger got the shotgun seat. 

Despite the dry heat and close quarters, the only thing I smelled was the diesel fumes. The road was excellent for the first hour, and we made good time. Our driver passed larger vehicles with care and good judgment. 

But after the town of Fatick, as we entered a lowland area that frequently floods, all the drivers on the road began zooming from side to side like slalom skiers to avoid the enormous potholes. Since this requires using every part of the roadway, the ride at that point began to feel like a huge, high-speed chicken game. Although we only saw mechanical breakdowns and flat tires, I’m sure worse things happen.

Passenger holding his well-behaved and fashionably dressed daughter.

For that reason,  and because future rides mostly will be longer than 2 hours, and because the novelty is gone, our future rides will probably be more expensive.  And the one tomorrow is certain to be more sociable. After Albie and Laura arrive from Kolda, the four of us will share a taxi to Toubacouta, where a boat will take us to an island in the delta. From there a horse-drawn cart will take us to the place on the delta (Keur Bamboung) that will be our lodging for the next three nights. I think it’s probable we won’t have an Internet connection there, so there may be a communication blackout during that period.

A warning about the Senegalese safari experience…

If you’re thinking of trying it, keep your expectations modest! Steve and I paid $178 for a “package” organized by our B&B that included sharing the 70-minute taxi ride to Bandia National Park, the park entrance fee, rental of the safari truck (which we shared with the above-mentioned Ardyce and her mom, an Italian guy, three African-American ladies who’d come to Dakar for the black African arts festival, the B&B owner’s 16-year-old son, and a guide), plus the guide’s services.

A converted pickup hauls tourists around Bandia National Park.

In French, the guide dutifully recited the gestational period and age of every species we saw — but not much more.  The experience reminded me a lot of going to Orange County’s Lion Country Safari, back in the days when it was operating.  Only briefer and more expensive. 

Who doesn't like giraffes?

On the other hand, it’s churlish to complain about a two-hour outing with the breeze blowing through the safari truck and sightings of impala and sable antelope, savannah buffalo, eland, zebra, ostrich, giraffe, monkeys. (No predators; they’re long gone.) The animals posed and munched among dense acacia and thorn trees, and — thrilling to me — forests of baobabs.  The best thing our guide did was to spot a fallen baobab fruit (not so easy to find!  Monkeys love them so much that the Senegalese call them the “monkey’s bread.”  He let us photograph the long oblong fruit, then smashed it against the side of the truck to reveal a fractured white interior. He passed it around to let us extract fragments, which looked like pieces of white packing material. Inside each piece was a huge seed (the malevolent invaders that Le Petit Prince had to ceaselessly prevent rooting in his beloved planet!)  The big surprise was the taste of the white stuff around the seed — refreshingly citrusy.

Now we’re happily settled into the Relais in Kaolack — by all reports a dreary town despite being the crossroads of Senegal. But our trip here was a personal triumph, and Laura and Alberto will meet us here tomorrow afternoon so we can continue on into the delta paradise where we’ll ring in the New Year.

Moving to Senegal

Tuesday, December 28
One of the first characters we met here yesterday morning was a young woman named Ardyce (I may be misspelling her name). She was a member of the group of 8 who made the trip yesterday morning from Dakar to Bandia National Park (a 70-minute ride from the capital, and billed as a cheap and easy way to sample an African safari in Senegal.) Steve and I sat with her in the back of our taxi: Ardyce’s mom, visiting from Florida, got the front seat. I think Ardyce was about 24, graduated with a masters in journalism last summer and now on a Rotary scholarship to work and study in Senegal. She wants to be a foreign correspondent and told me Dakar wasn’t a bad place to try to launch such a career. She acknowledged that the city had many awful, trying aspects; in her first weeks, she had called home every day weeping and ready to return to the US.  But now, after just 4 months of living in it, she had grown so attached to the place that it was painful to think of leaving.  The only complication was that she had a boyfriend back in the US, and she wasn’t sure how he’d feel about settling down in Africa. 

Horse cart on the beach at Popenguine, Senegal

Ironically, Steve got into a conversation today with a young African that touched upon the same theme.  After visiting the park yesterday, we moved on to Popenguine, the nearby beach town on Senegal’s “Little Coast.” We’re happily installed at the Balafon lodge ($32 a night), and after a long breakfast this morning at the wifi cafe on the beach below our hotel, Steve took off alone to stroll around the tiny village.  His young conversational partner (who spoke French and bits of English) asked Steve why he didn’t move here. Steve later recounted that he had answered that Popenguine was just like his home back in the US.  I snorted that that was ludicrous.  I knew Steve was thinking that this place is hot and sunny and lush with many of the same plants that have been transplanted to San Diego (rampant bougainvillea!).  But the streets are also dirt, and boys deliver bottles of water driving horse drawn carts, and the girls and women walk around with baskets on their heads. The power went out about 9 last night, so when we got back to our room after dinner (fish caught with nets from the beach, earlier that afternoon), we had to shower by kerosene lantern.  The water was unheated.

It struck me that just those sorts of differences, added together, constitute culture shock. On your first trip to Paris, the fact that everyone speaks French and the elevators are tiny might make you experience it. But the more you travel and the greater the part of the world you see, the areas of culture shock shrink. I’ve spent so much time in Europe over the years, I imagine I’d feel only a shadow of it were I to visit Hungary (even though I’ve never been there.)

Still, even though Steve and I were hiking on the Wild Coast of South Africa only 10 months ago, I’m once again experiencing the shock of being in Africa. It’s not unpleasant. On the contrary, for me, one of the greatest pleasures of travel is being jolted by sights and sounds and smells that are shockingly new to me — they sharpen my senses and bring me most fully into the present moment.

They burn experiences into my memory such as our arrival at Dakar Airport. After touching down about 9:30, we moved hassle-free through customs and immediately found our luggage wheeling around on the carousel.  Then we had to go through a bizarre drill of hoisting it onto a conveyor belt. Our suitcases traveled through a large black box and emerged past a fat guy in a security uniform who was paying no attention at all to any of it or us.  But apparently someone in Senegal felt this charade was necessary before tourist could be allowed into the arrivals hall. 

I couldn’t figure out how to get my I-phone to either text OR phone our B&B, so I finally mustered the courage to approach an enormous policeman who looked like he could have been Idi Amin’s bodyguard and ask if I could borrow his cell phone. Looking disgusted, he dialed for me but at almost the same moment, our pre-arranged driver materialized.  

Bada turned out to be warm, welcoming fellow, and after helping us change money and buy a SIM card, he led us to a scarily dark and run-down parking lot and ushered us into a cab.  Then he climbed on his motorscooter and drove off. Our taxi driver followed his single taillight through the crumbling streets of major thoroughfares, then turned into narrower creepier streets. It was pitch-black when we arrived at the B&B, unloaded our suitcases from the trunk, and hefted them through the fine dust of the street and into the pitch-black building. 

It turned out that Dakar was also experiencing yet another power outage. In the morning the world was sunny and warm and everything looked much more welcoming. Now, sitting in the cool breeze of Popenguine and typing these words to the sound of the surf below, I’m already so comfortable I’ve started to take for granted things like the adjoining unfinished rooftop, bristling with rebar and unconnected power lines. That’s a bit of a shame, but I think we’ll get to experience more novelties in the coming days. Enough, I trust, to keep us awake.Popenguine work in progress

Paris at Christmas

Now that Steve and I have experienced Paris at Christmas — a Bucket List item if ever there was one — I can confirm that the city puts on a great show at this time of year. The window displays in the huge department stores near the Opera were as grandiose as reputed.  The theme along one side of the main Galleries Lafayette this year was Chaud Show Noel (“hot show Christmas”) — a bizarrely charming mix of scenes from various movies and shows: mice and dolls singing to the music of Mamma Mia, other woodland creatures and Barbies and pigs dressed as frogmen cavorting to Singing in the Rain, the Soldat Rose, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, other tunes.

Gallerie Lafayette

Pigs as frog men -- Gallerie Lafayette

Immense Christmas Tree--Galarie Lafayette

I loved the small shop decorations at least as well.  Several cafes that I noticed had taken Christmas trees and painted them black, then adorned them with red bows. 

Paris Christmas window

One place had erected two clear plexiglas structures, about the size of old-fashioned phone booths, except much higher.  These were filled with flocked boughs of fir trees and pine cones and silver ornaments.  They stood on the street, bearing no commercial message on them.

Street decorations in Paris

The Champs Elysee is always an impressive sight, but at night, in winter, with the trees illuminated and twinkling, the giant merry-go-around erected at the Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower psychedelically sparkling, it surpassed itself.

On this trip we did things that were the stuff of legend to me: bought hot chestnuts from sidewalk vendors and munched on them. strolled under the snowflakes and dashed into cozy shops to buy tea and chocolate and little presents for each other.

Chestnut seller in Paris

DeWyze-Wolfe Christmas 2010

On Christmas day, after Steve and the boys and I had opened those, we bundled up and took the metro to Trocadero.  For the first and only time on this trip, the sky was cloudless, the sun strong even though the air was frigid.  We got the glorious view of the Eiffel Tower that one gets from the Palais, then we walked to the tower and climbed to its first level. There in addition to the legendary views, an ice skating rink offered additional entertainment. 

Both Mike and Elliot wanted to skate on the Eiffel Tower on Christmas Day.  (Steve and I had visions of injuring ourselves dancing in our heads, so we refrained.) But although the rink was full when we arrived, within a few minutes it had been cleared of everyone except a figure lying prone on the ice, covered in a thermal blanket and surrounded by paramedics. After a while, we could see that it was a man whose ankle had ballooned grotesquely. When the pompiers tried to move him at one point, he emitted horrible screams. His rescue seemed to stall, but finally a stretcher arrived and he was wheeled off, and the skating recommenced.  It took Elliot only a few minutes to gain enough confidence to be zooming around (and smashing into the side boards; a few minutes weren’t enough for him to remember how to stop.)  Mike skated more confidently, if less flamboyantly, and it gave me unadulterated pleasure to watch my sons flashing by.

A few things were missing from the Parisian Christmas — the ubiquitous canned carols in the stores, for example, or Christmas trees like we have in the States. We saw plenty of trees: for sale in nurseries, or erected in the Gilon/Ville’s apartment and at Olivia’s and in stores. But most were tiny, if beautifully shaped. (The ones I priced on the street were about 45 euros apiece.)  Also missing was the materialistic restraint that I somehow expected to find, once out of the US at Christmastime. The crowds on the streets around the big department stores were enormous, as dense as anything I’ve experienced since Shanghai, and the shopping as intense. When I told Olivia I was surprised to see so much frenzy over present-buying, she rolled her eyes and said she couldn’t imagine how I’d been so misinformed. 

Buches de Noel, Paris

On Christmas Eve, we exchanged small presents with Olivia and her family, but she also gave us an enormous and priceless present: she created several evenings for us in her home that will forever glow in my heart and memory (and I imagine in those of all my family.)  On Christmas Eve, her Neuilly apartment was decked out like a scene from a storybook: beautiful tables welcoming 8 young people in one room, and six elders in the living room. We feasted on mushroom and chestnut soup, and stuffed partridges, and sensuous cheeses, and Buches de Noel that were as pretty as they were delicious. Sadly, because I was recovering from food poisoning that had struck only the night before, I could eat only a small fraction of what I would otherwise have gobbled up.

But as my crew and I made our way home on the metro, the memory of that small shadow on the evening was already fading. At this moment, barely two days later, I’ve almost entirely forgotten it.  

What I remember is the lovely young woman playing classical airs on a violin in one of the underground corridors of the #1 metro line.  She’d been there when we had journeyed out to Olivia’s early in the evening, when a crowd bustled past her and the African guys selling light-up Santa Claus hats. On our return trip, well after midnight, the vendors were all gone, and the crowds had thinned to a trickle, but the violinist was still there, still playing. I dropped a handful of change in her violin case, she looked almost as merry. It seemed like a true Christmas miracle, but I believed it.

French Elevator Hell

My sons have had previous experience with French elevators. When we were here for a few days in 1997, they found the elevator up to our friend Olivia’s apartment hilarious. It was just a normal French elevator — so unbelievably tiny and slow it seemed like a cartoon. It amused them no end to take it up and down, and so when Michael arrived yesterday afternoon, one of the things I was eager to share with him was the elevator in the Gilon-Villes’ building.

I think it shocked him with its smallness (despite his previous experience) and then tickled as it transported him and his two suitcases up to our flat on the fifth floor. Hours later, when we returned from the Christmas soiree at Olivia’s (in Neuilly), I smiled wickedly and urged both boys into the telephone-booth-sized space (Steve and I took the stairs.)

I had expected they would joke with each other on the ascent, but what I didn’t expect was that the door would not open once they reached their destination. Numerous button pushes later, we all concluded: they were stuck. It was 10:30 on a Sunday night. What to do?

What did NOT work was phoning the two separate “emergency” numbers on the elevator door. My French isn’t great, but I think the recording I got when I called each basically communicated the idea that I should leave a message and someone would get back to me… eventually.

Next I tried going down to each lower floor and pushing the call button. No dice. The boys tried pushing all the buttons within, including one that sounded a piercing alarm. (But that was so nerve-wracking they only did it for brief periods of time.)

Eventually, our neighbor on the fourth floor poked her head out and inquired about the ruckus. SHE knew what to do, descending to the foyer on the ground floor where, it turned out, the critical button was stuck. But she lectured us that the problem was that our sons weighed too much for both of them to be riding in the elevator together. I felt insulted. Together they amount to no more than 160 kilos (350 pounds), and the sign inside the elevator clearly proclaimed that the fateful limit was two persons weighing 180 kilos.

No matter. Our neighbor was convinced it was all our fault. Once she’d rescued us, though, she sweetly bade me bonne nuit.

And y’know… once Michael and Elliot were released, all was again well with the world. After a shower and change of clothing, Michael earlier in the afternoon had insisted he was up for attending Olivia’s party, his grueling journey notwithstanding. The party was magical, staged in O’s huge, airy, peaceful apartment in Neuilly and attended by not one but two serving assistants, who deftly offered delicious sandwich slivers and multiple desserts and endless glasses of champagne. An intriguing assortment of thoughtful and charming individuals filled the salon with conversation. Everyone in my family loved it, so the vertical entrapment afterward came as we were awash in happiness.

Today has been filled with equal pleasures: an outing to Notre Dame, a quick lunch back at the apartment, a dash down to the Gran Palais, where a friend of Olivia’s helped us secure tickets into the incredible Monet retrospective (even though they’ve been sold out for weeks? months?) At times the exhibition moved me to tears, and all the other men in my family appreciated it to one degree or another.

At 6 we rendezvoused with Olivia at the venerable LaDurree on the Champs Elysees for coffee and wondrous pastries (shocking by San Diego standards to be consumed at 6:30 but normal here.) We returned home and enjoyed an excellent dinner just down the block from our building. Mike, Steve, and I walked up the stairs afterward. Elliot ascended in the lift.

Party Time!

Michael has arrived, albeit SIX hours late. I had to wait at the Arrivals door for almost three hours for him. But all’s well to be reunited. In a few minutes, we’ll depart for the little soiree Olivia is hosting in our honor at her home.

Photos coming soon!

Christmas on rue Dupuis

If anyone ever pays me to fly to Paris and stay in a hotel, I’ll do it. But otherwise, I cannot imagine voluntarily choosing any accommodation here other than an apartment. The one we’re staying in now, traded with the Famille Gilon/Ville, is at least the fifth one I’ve experienced over the years. Not all were house trades, though the longest one was, in 1990.

Today, more than ever before, I love the coziness of our situation. Outside the windows of the large dining room, I can see snow driving down, but it’s warm and well-lighted here, and I’ve got excellent wifi access to the Internet on my IPad.

Of all the house trades I’ve done since that first in 1990, I have to say I think this place has the most eccentric layout. It’s on the fifth floor, and it’s possible it used to be what we Americans would call a garret — or more likely a number of garrets or maid’s quarters that at some point were combined into a single quite large residence. The kitchen is modern and user-friendly, and I count comfortable sleeping accommodations for at least two sets of couples and a single. I call the layout eccentric because of things like the fact that:
— you walk directly from the front door into the dining room, and
— to get to two of the three bedrooms, you have to pass through the largest bathroom (but then again there are three rooms with toilets, which seems itself a luxury)
— to bathe or use the toilet in that largest central bathroom, you must secure three doors (and close the blinds on a window)

None of this is a problem, really, and adds to the charm of the accommodations. My only complaint is the almost total lack of places for Steve and me to put any of our clothes. The king-sized bed in the room where we’re sleeping is comfortable, but there’s barely room to walk around two sides of it, let alone stash a suitcase anywhere. We’ve found few drawers for clothing anywhere in the house, and all of them are stuffed to bursting.

Our solution has been to adapt one of the couches in the living room as a suitcase stand. We dug up and commandeered a few (3-4?) hangers, and the rest of our things we’re handing on the giant green plastic saguaro cactus in the dining room (which makes a more than adequate coat rack!).

Beyond that, all is trivial, and the neighborhood (the upper Marais) couldn’t be livelier, better-stocked, more beautiful or historic — everything one could want in a Paris neighborhood in this season of good cheer. Even here in the flat, the G/V’s have provided lovely touches of Christmas: a little (5-foot?) decorated tree in the living room, ornaments hung here and there throughout the rooms.

If Michael’s plane (due in about 75 minutes) can just land successfully at Charles de Gaulle and I can manage to get him safely back here, the final detail will be perfect.