Toubab Transit

Thursday, January 13

The worst thing about traveling in West Africa, as we’ve experienced it, is the difficulty of getting around.  Although train service once existed between Dakar and St. Louis and Dakar and Bamako (the capital of Mali), it no longer operates. We’ve seen only a few big American-style buses (we just passed them on the road to Dakar, from where I’m writing this), but they stop at every village. I’ve described the drawbacks of the sept-place bush taxis — and we never tried the even cheaper and more impoverished minibuses.

But now I’ve finally figured out how the sensible Toubab travels: you hire a private car.  We asked at our hotel in St. Louis about this and thus secured a ride in a clean, well-maintained vehicle (not a single crack in any of the windows! Perfect seat belts!)  This is costing us $100, versus the $35 it would have cost to ride in a bush taxi with (at least) 5 other passengers, plus the regular taxis to and from the gare routiere.  It looks like we’ll make this trip in just 4 hours, enjoying a MUCH higher level of comfort. 

The problem with the private cars is negotiating a good price. The owner of our B&B in Dakar wanted to charge us $200 for this very same trip.  I know it’s possible to hire a clean, air-conditioned vehicle to drive you all around Senegal for 11 days for about $600. Laura and her dad did that. But Laura arranged it, and she’s a bargaining genius. When S and I asked the very same driver how much he would charge to pick us up at the Gambian border and drive us to St. Louis (a one-day gig) he demanded $300 — and wouldn’t consider any counter offers.

As pleasant as this current transport is, I also don’t regret any of our sept-place trips; constant comfort has never been our top priority in traveling. When we want to be really comfortable and surrounded by familiar things, we go home.

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.