Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Bar Moves

The Dutch family and I had Bird Safari Camp breakfast at seven this morning. Sigh. More baguette and Nescafe. I admire that Bird Safari Camp has a bread-baking oven in the backyard, but I'm so sick of bread that I don't even have any words left that could satisfactorily disparage it. Nescafe doesn't rate as having ever been good, so there's no point in disparaging that at all. I used to carry around my own coffee and travel press, but in time decided it would be easier to just give up coffee. That, of course, hasn't happened, and I now consume any rancid product that involves caffeine in the mornings.

After breakfast, we all went through the chaotic and laborious process of settling our drink bills, then loaded up the two Peugeots. The burgundy station wagon still had a dented back, and the rear passenger doors didn't open and shut quite right, but the mechanics of the car were sound.

The Peugeot with the smashed radiator had been returned to us yesterday afternoon, with some of that epoxy you'd get at Wal-Mart sealing up the leaks. I wished the Dutch family M well with their journey back to the coast. They'd go north this time, maybe stop at Wassu on my recommendation, and they could probably drop the cars off in Barra and take the ferry without the cars. A bonus of taking the north road was that they could avoid the policemen who'd watched the accident, and also another cheeky one who'd wanted to marry one of their daughters.

We left Bird Safari Camp at eight and drove along the dusty dirt road the three-and-a-half kilometers to town. Yesterday, we'd been hunting for the ferry. Today, we were looking for the bus to take me to Bansang, the next large-ish town along the Gambia River's south bank road. From there, I'd connect through to Basse, where shared taxis headed to the first town across the border in Senegal.

"Look, there's a bus," said Mom when we neared the ferry landing. "Let's ask them where the bus station is."

Dad pulled up alongside the van (bus can mean many things here) while Mom rolled down her window.

"Excuse me, where is the bus?" Mom addressed the conductor. Mini-buses, vans, and buses generally have a driver and a conductor. The conductor is responsible for taking fares, determining when passengers need to get off (banging on the ceiling to tell the driver when to stop), and drumming up business. They are always the last ones to board, usually after the vehicle is already in motion. It's an acrobatic and unsafe job, and the guys who do it usually have a bit of a showmanship swagger.

The conductor misheard Mom.

"Basse? You want to go to Basse? We are headed to Basse."

I was still processing that he'd misunderstood us and was about to correct him when Mom turned to me and said "It's your lucky day! Get on board."

Oh. Right. This is the bus I want.

I scrambled to hug my new Dutch family goodbye and handed my bag to the conductor. It disappeared onto the roof of the white Mercedes van. I didn't even get to say goodbye to Uncle G. Fireman A, or LM, who were all in the second car somewhere back on the dirt road. And LM had been so sweet yesterday when she'd asked me something she'd been dying to know the whole time we'd been traveling together.

"Don't you ever get lonely traveling by yourself?"

"Yes." I answered without hesitation.

But there was no time for sentimentality. The bus was leaving. Now. The conductor motioned me onto a hard bench in the way back, next to double doors at the end of the van, next to a Madonna-circa-Like-A-Virgin sticker. In front of me were a half-dozen rows of ancient, padded seats full of men and women passengers. Mostly women, some draped in colorful fabric robes, their hair tied up in matching fabric.

What luck, I thought. I'll make it to Senegal in no time. From there, my ultimate destination for the day was just past the Mali border, but it was more likely that I'd make it just to the border and have to overnight there. I'd also looked up hotels in Tambacounda, some 75 miles away. But stopping there was unlikely. I'd be past that in a few hours, and the guidebook's description of Tambacounda as hot and dusty with nothing to see gave me no reason to want to stop there.

My luck started getting creaky by 8:40 a.m. An oncoming mini-bus honked at us and waved us down.

We spent the next hour with our staff and several friendly passenger-helpers engineering a complicated rooftop-baggage transfer. Our bus pulled off the side of the road, and the new bus sidled up right alongside, its nose headed east while ours pointed west. Men shimmied nimbly up the sides of the buses, making their ascent look easy. Once on the roof, they all anchored themselves on barely visible ledges and in corners, and proceeded to lift enormously bulky (and heavy, if one goes by their heaving) plastic sacks from our bus to the new one.

I was astonished that one passenger had this much baggage…several sacks went from one bus to another. But this is normal in locations where car ownership is uncommon. Plenty of women heading to market had also jumped on carrying bowls and sacks. The conductors and other passengers always helped by passing the goods out the door to the women after they'd jumped off. Or children. Sometimes they passed children. I am always afraid someone is going to pass a child to me, and I'll drop it or make it cry with my scary pale face.

While the baggage was moved from one van to the other, all the passengers not helping became bored. Eventually, they all went off into the bush, returning with branches and sticks. The sticks were for teeth-cleaning, and they got right down to business. The branches, complete with leaves? I never figured it out.

Finally, pushing ten o'clock, we continued on to Bansang. Where we stopped on a red-dirt road in the center of town, which seemed to be a series of concrete buildings. Everyone else got out to buy a snack. I sat in the van, cowering from the sun and waiting.

When we reached Basse at 10 a.m., my conductor asked where I was going.


"You have to take another taxi."

Ah. I had to get a local taxi to take me from our arrival "garage" (or depot) to the Senegal-bound garage. I did, but when my taxi dropped me off at the garage, my heart sank. The "garage" was essentially a lean-to in a dirt lot, the ticket seller administering his job from an overturned tree trunk.

Almost no one was there.

This is a leaves-when-full garage.

I bought two bananas from a woman sitting on a bench and asked the ticket seller "Which taxi is going to take us?

He motioned across the street at a dilapidated pick-up truck. What a mess. That thing must have been new once. In 1948, maybe.

"How many people to make it full?"


Oh no. We had about five people.

An hour later, a few more people had shown up. We were all getting antsy. Fifteen people seemed impossible. By noon, most of the Africans were asleep, hibernating away their anxiety about waiting all day. By 12:30, a Gambian who lives in Scotland was about to come to blows with the ticket seller.

"Fifteen people is impossible! We should leave NOW."

The ticket seller wouldn't budge. Share taxis never leave until full. Never.

I desperately thought of ways out, but nothing came to mind. No taxis came by for me to charter. I walked to a nearby gas station and bought some water, then walked back. Finally, at one, three hours after I'd first bought my ticket, I realized that one passenger had appeared in the last hour, and we needed five more to leave.

Fifteen people really was impossible. The Scottish-Gambian was fidgeting and mumbling. Anyone who wasn't asleep was looking deeply pissed off.

"How many more?" I asked the ticket seller.

He held up five fingers.

I did some quick math. At one person and house, let's see…that's, oh…let's not do the quick math.

I stood up.

"What are you doing?" The Scottish-Gambian instantly sensed something was up.

"Something stupid," I said. I walked up to the ticket seller, trying not to speak too loudly. I was a little embarrassed to be widening the gulf between me and the other passengers. I was just toying with this bus thing, could leave anytime. Mortifying to admit it in front of people.

"I'll buy them all."

The ticket seller looked flabbergasted, then recovered and started writing out the five tickets. The other passengers stirred, came to life, and started collecting their luggage. They surged into the back of the truck.

Two more passengers suddenly showed up. I only had to buy three more seats in the end. At $2.50 a seat, the purchase was not something I regretted.

My truck. I bought it. Or part of it.

"You get the front seat," said the Scottish-Gambian, helping himself to the middle front seat. I wished he'd take off that black long-sleeved winter coat that squashed into my arm. The sun was scorching.

I went to slam shut the passenger door, but couldn't. The driver came around and helped me. It didn't slam. He shut it by sliding a hex wrench through a few bolts welded to the inside of the door.

"Is that what I think it is?" I was pointing at a yellow plastic container by my left foot. A hole was carved in the top, and a hose came out of the containing and disappeared through a bit of rust into the engine compartment under the hood.

The Scottish-Gambian nodded.

"It is the petrol tank."

The driver hopped in, lit a cigarette, and we were off.

Or rather, we weren't off. The key turned but the engine didn't start. The driver and the ticket seller pushed, then the driver leapt in and popped the clutch.

Now we were off, rattling over massive potholes and over giant rocks. And then some more. And more. And more.

I wiped my face with my scarf. The sweat was back in a few minutes. The Scottish-Gambian told me his Facebook name. I looked him up. He had something about "those beetches" and "pussy" on his favorite quotation. I decided not to friend him.

Finally, we arrived at a concrete hut and some rundown shacks. The border.

Where were the money-changers? The drink-sellers? Not only was I thirsty, I had a hundred bucks in Gambian money to get rid of. Shit.

The Gambian passport officer stamped me out.

"Where can I change money?"

"Try the shop."

I tried the shop. It was closed. Crap. Maybe I could find something on the Senegal side.

After our 11 passengers all got through passport control, the driver bolted me back in with the hex wrench and push-started the truck again. We headed to the Senegalese side. The other passengers seemed jittery now.

We all filed into the Senegal immigration office. The Senegalese got through quickly, then I was sent outside, where there were again no money-changers. The Gambians all were held for a short time, and when we got back in the truck (which as usual needed push-starting), the Scottish-Gambian told me they'd all had to pay small border bribes.

"This is always the case," he said.

"Why did you fly into Gambia instead of into Senegal?" I asked him.

"I'm not going to Senegal. I'm going to Guinea. My mother lives there. She said I have to come home for a while."

Of course.

We also talked about our own cars.

"What do you have," he asked me.

"A Ford. It's 20-years-old."

He laughed.

"What's your car?"

He hesitated just long enough for me to sense he was full of shit. In fact, he was full of shit about more than this. I couldn't sort out what he was doing, this Gambian guy from Glasgow with a tiny carry-on bag heading home to see his mother by way of Gambia.

"It's…a Volvo."

I felt a little sorry then, that he felt he should say this. I really doubted he had a Volvo. Though I used to have Volvos and never paid much for them. But they were all at least 20 years old. Maybe that's what he had.

How long did it take us to reach the Senegalese town of Vilangera? I am keeping poor track of time since I accidentally sent my watch home to Michael Kraiger from Spain. It was long. And hot. And scary every time the driver lit another cigarette. That's what I know.

At Vilangera, we all learned we had to split into smaller taxis to travel to the onward garages. Jesus. Too much.

Six of us piled into a sedan, overpaid after the other five passengers got into a shouting match with the driver (they lost), and we transferred first to the Tambacounda garage (for me), and then the rest went on to the Guinea-bound garage.

"Thank you." Two exhausted women weren't letting me go without telling me that they were glad to have gotten here.

I smiled and they were off. I turned to the Peugeots, ready to hunt down the next one to Tambacounda.

Of course, I needn't have worried. A helper had materialized, hoping to earn a tip. He installed me into the second seat in a sept-place Peugeot. Second of seven seats=comfortable, but long wait for the rest to fill.

My backpack and water marked my spot. I found the concrete block of squat toilets, bought some water, nibbled on peanuts, flirted with small children, but didn't see anywhere to change money. I was too tired to try very hard, which I'd regret later.

"I'll just change it at the bank in Tambacounda," I thought.

Two hours later, my sept-place headed to Tambacounda over lousy roads. We arrived at 7 p.m. I'd gone 75 miles in the last 11 hours.

Exhausted, I checked into the crappy, overpriced Hotel Niji, and scrubbed myself down with grape-juice-smelling soap. And then scrubbed the dust off me again.

There'd been a fundamental change in how I was traveling in the last day. The easy part was behind me.

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