Monday, March 14, 2011

Intro to Senegal

One disadvantage to being in the passenger seat, I learned as we pulled into the Mauritania side of the Rosso border, is that you're a sitting duck. Bait for the wanna-be guides.

I was spotted instantly and by the time our Peugeot parked near the line of vehicles and the closed gates across the border (looks like the closed for lunch rumors are true), a gaggle of young men in their twenties surrounded the car.

The taxi driver chose one and chased away the others.

"You go with this boy. I know him. He will take care of you."

Okay. The best choice in a situation like this is to choose one guide so that he will keep the other aspiring guides at bay. I followed the guy, whose name I've forgotten. Was it Mohammed? He shouldered my backpack. Hell, I'd tip him for that alone.

"You change money?"


And with that, I was whisked into a shack that appeared to be a store. My Mauritanian money became CFA, a common currency among several countries in West Africa.

Mohammed motioned me to follow him. I was still confused about the border being closed. I trotted along behind him as he raced through the filthy dirt alleys of the border town. He led me to a concrete building near the river. He sent a friend into a crack in the wall.

"Give him your passport."

"What? No way."

His friend crawled out of the crack and motioned me into it. Er, okay.

I wiggled into the crack, and sure enough, there was a tiny square window cut into the wall. I shoved my passport at a uniformed official on the other side, who stamped it and shoved it back. All the while, Mohammed was telling me when to give money and when to sit tight. The money was small, just a little here and there, though I'd read that the grand total when I was done would be ten euros. I lost track. I have no idea what I went through at Rosso. I paid small amounts over and over.

So that was it. I was stamped out of Mauritania with a whimper. I'd waited a month for the visa, had it FedExed in the end from Washington DC to my New York office. And poof, it was done.

If I thought I was done with Mohammed, I was wrong. He motioned for me to follow him down to the river. An older tout was cursing at us the whole time.

"He's a bad man! Don't follow him."

Mohammed rolled his eyes. I had no idea who was bad or good, so I rolled with it.

Mohammed clambered into a pirogue, a large wooden passenger boat.

"Pay him."

I paid for two, and the boat, full of African travelers, motored across the river to Senegal.

Surely now Mohammed would desert me, I thought. But no, he led me up a bank and into a Senegalese border post building.

"What country," asked the guard.

I flashed my passport. He nodded. That was the end, I figured rightly, of any border bribes. US citizens get into Senegal for free.

"Welcome to Senegal." Thwack went the stamp. I was in.

But still Mohammed wasn't done with me. He hurried me along to another closed-looking gate. He had a few words with the guard, something along the lines of "I'm just seeing her to the bus station and I'll be right back. Remember me so I don't have to show any I.D."

Now Mohammed, still carrying my bag, led me past rows of parked vehicles. Trucks, buses, cars. I suspect that the border was closed to vehicles for lunch, but I have no way of knowing what was really going on.

He presented me to some motorcycle taxis. I thought for sure we were done now, but no, he hopped on one and I climbed aboard another. Mohammed put my bag between my driver's legs, and we roared off past the trucks, then past trees and into Senegal.

This felt absolutely great. Finally, a bit of breeze. We got to the gare routiere all too soon, whereupon Mohammed instructed me to pay the drivers. I did, and then he walked me down into the mayhem of the taxi park.

"Saint-Louis?" He found me a Peugeot. Of course, we were well past the point where I needed his services. I'd thought for sure he'd ditch me at the motorcycle taxis. I wasn't quite sure how to get rid of him, but finally, he took his leave, after extracting an extra-healthy tip off me. I was annoyed, but it's not like I had a choice at any point, unless I wanted to fight off would-be guides during the entire process.

I put my bag into the Peugeot and located my seat, which was unfortunately in the back. This is the worst. You are crammed in with no knee room and two strangers with body heat up against you.

A little girl sold me some water, but the damage had been done. I hadn't had any water since I'd given the cyclist all of mine and I had a raging headache. I'd left the lodge before breakfast and hadn't seen anything to eat all day.

The road to Saint-Louis was another potholed nightmare, and I was dehydrated, crammed into the back, and pissed off that the taxi had extracted a high fee for the privilege of carrying my bag. (This happened over and over in Senegal.)

When we arrived at the Saint-Louis gare, a taxi driver told me the fee to my hotel was 3000 CFA. Of course it isn't. It's more like 500 or 1000. I glowered at him and protested weakly.

"Long way," he said brightly.

"That's too much," I said, before nearly collapsing. I sank into the back of his taxi, my head aching, my body too tired to fight.

"Fine. Whatever."

In short order, he dropped me off at the Hotel du Palais, where I'd booked the "backpacker's special" for a cut rate.

The rather-decrepit room was inside, with its only window opening onto Reception. I sank onto the bed, then promptly raced into the bathroom, where I threw up into the sink, unable to make it the extra 14 inches to the toilet.

I waited. This was just like the time in Dakhla. Dehydration vomits come in threes for me.



Back to the bed.

It took me about two minutes to say "To hell with the budget rooms," and change into a much nicer room with a view of the colonial UNESCO World Heritage site street of Saint-Louis. With its brightly painted walls, double doors, and wrought iron, it reminded me of Cartegena or Antigua or even Havana. I mean, if Havana weren't disintegrating and decrepit. 

Lovely. I opened the double doors onto the balcony and trained my camera onto the street.

A man in modern clothing and sunglasses started yelling at me in French.

"No photos! No photos."

I'd had it. Long, hot day of being ripped off and being sick. I let lose a string of obscenities at him in a fierce American accent, the gist being "You moron, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I'm taking a photo of the street and you're messing up my photo just by being in it and what the hell makes me think I'd want a photo of your dumb-ass self?" But with a lot more swearing.

He yelled back a bit, but I kept going and he seemed to deflate. I kept taking photos and then went back in my room. Welcome to Senegal.

I rested a bit, and when I went downstairs to the café in my hotel, I realized that it had multiple open windows onto the street, and that the other hotel guests, the waiters, and the owner had no doubt heard every word.

Yes, I am American. Nice to meet you. Have a nice day.  

I smiled sweetly and ordered an espresso.

1 comment:

  1. I completely empathize with the ugly American moment. Traveling in the developing world - crossing borders, getting scammed and hassled at every turn - was so draining and frazzling for me that, before I knew it, I'd be screaming at a fruit seller over a couple of dimes.

    Course, there are the magical moments too, yadda yadda. Travel brought out the best and the worst in me.

    Loving your 100% authentic entries here. Godspeed and safe travels.