Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Bar Hits Me On the Head

At six in the morning, someone knocked on my door at the crappy, overpriced Hotel Niji in the dust-ridden Senegalese town of Tambacounda.

I ignored the knock, then eventually changed out of my pajamas, walked down to the front desk, and inquired as to why exactly someone had been knocking on my front door.

"There is a leak from your bathroom into the backyard."

Oh. Okay. I thought they'd want to fix it, so I suggested they come take a look.

The clerk motioned for me to follow him to the backyard. He showed me my window and said "That is your room." He said a man from Gambia had called him about the leak. We looked, I shrugged, and he left. What was I supposed to do? Fix it with my utility knife I'd forgotten back in Jersey City?

The hotel staff had woken me up, but it didn't help me get started any earlier. There was work to do, breakfast to eat (more bread and Nescafe, of course), and more work to do. I was going to be finishing up my job in New York for weeks. Also, I was exhausted from yesterday's epic of hurrying and waiting.

Finally, I asked at the front desk.

"I'm leaving. Where is the best place to get a bus or sept-place to the border with Mali?"

"The gare routiere."

Well, duh.

"I need a taxi."

This threw them off. There are two types of hotels in this part of the world, and actually, in all parts of the world. One type is switched on to the needs of travelers has the answers at their fingertips—you can ask for the location of an ATM, or how much to pay to get from one part of town to another, and they give you answers you didn't even know you needed, but did. The other appears stunned by standard hotel requests like towels or taxis, or god forbid, the bill. This hotel was clearly the latter. I had stumped them the night before as well when I didn't want the super-expensive prix-fixe dinner.

The bellman walked me outside the hotel. No taxi. He motioned me to the end of the block. We walked. Nothing.

He motioned to me to wait here. One would be by eventually. He scurried off.

I walked a bit, my baggage making me sweat in the heat. Eventually, I found a parked taxi, and waited until the driver showed up. He'd been eating his breakfast.



We went to the bank, where I attempted to change that hundred dollars of Gambian money I had left.

"I am sorry, madam. No one will be changing this. You should try at the gare."

Shit. Why did I go through that lame nowhere border? Now I was stuck with this damn currency. And yesterday had totally sucked. 

I walked a few blocks to the gare, where I learned that I was at the wrong gare for onward transport to Mali. Damn. Stupid mistake on my part. There are frequently several gares in each town.

"Long way. You take taxi."


I hailed a taxi—easier near the bus station—and asked for the gare to Kidira, the border town right before Mali. This resulted in the taxi going down a back alley and depositing me at a private bus terminal.

"No. No one is here. Gare. I want the gare. Many buses."

The taxi driver smiled and motioned for me to wait here and drove away.


A sleepy man spotted me and opened up the bus office to sell me a ticket.

"What time is the bus?"



"No, too late. I want to go now."

I marched out. Crap. It was freaking hot out here. Where was I? I asked a man, "Ou est la gare?" Somehow, this resulted in him directing me up the block to a main street, where I got a taxi, this time to the gare for the border town of Kidira.

"Kidira?" The ticket sellers had approached my taxi before I even got out of the car.

They all motioned me to a Peugeot sept-place. One seat had been sold. I'd be here a while. On the plus side, I got a decent seat, not a crammed up one in the back of the station wagon.

The middle-aged bald man with glasses in the front seat addressed me in English. Ah, a Gambian.

"Where are you from?"

"New York. Where are you from?"



The Scottish-Gambian had told me he had an aunt in Atlanta. Is there some kind of Gambian subculture there, the same way Ethiopians congregate in Washington DC, Dallas, and Seattle?

"I am a real estate agent. But it's not a good time in real estate. I am here on business. I was in Dakar, and now I will go to Bamako. This is much cheaper than flying."

I grinned. I reckoned he was about to find out why.

I went into semi-hibernation mode, just alert enough to keep an eye on my daypack, which had my passport, money, laptop, iPhone, and Kindle in it. The big bag was already stashed on the Peugeot's roof. The transportation park was busy but not that busy. Girls and women carrying cheap Chinese crap tried to sell me trinkets.

In West Africa (and East Africa too), the dollar store comes to you. I declined any purchases today, except for a small bag of peanuts and a bottle of water. I'd had plenty but I'd already finished it in the hundred-degree heat.

I had plenty of time to examine all the wares. After a three-hour wait, my taxi finally filled up and we were off to Kidira. During this time, the Atlantan-Gambian was going slowly crazy. He wasn't the only one. I'd had the same three-word conversation with the kid in the Obama T-shirt about sixty times, and kept telling another guy I wasn't giving him a cadeau.

At noon, just when the sun was highest, we finally left Tambacounda. I'd just been thinking that maybe the 5 p.m. bus wasn't the worst idea, but my policy is generally that when transport is on offer, you take it.

We arrived in Kidira sometime between 3 and 4, and our sept-place group was split into two smaller taxis for the immigration service.

The first stop was the local immigration. Everyone but me was left here to 1) get a passport stamp and 2) pray.

Then the driver drove me to an office where my passport details were recorded and I was stamped out of Senegal. I persuaded him to stop for more water, and then we picked up the other guys and headed across the border.

The heat was insane. The Atlantan-Gambian looked at me with disappointment when he saw I had water. I should have bought him some, I guess, but I had back in Tambacounda. He'd borrowed 1000 CFA off me to buy water and promised to pay me back when he got change. That change hadn't yet materialized.

I wondered what awaited us in Mali. I hoped to make Kayes by nightfall, which was reputedly one of the hottest cities in Africa. I don't know. Hot is hot. Matters of degrees are irrelevant when you're already ridiculously uncomfortable.

Then, our taxi driver was honking the horn incessantly. This is normal, to a point. Honk means I see you, I am here, do you see me, do you need a ride, or hello, I am honking. But this kept on longer.

Ah, he was honking at a Gana Transport-branded bus that was pulling out on the Mali side of the border.

We waved the bus down--it stopped. Four of us piled out of the small taxi and rushed to the bus.

Then, "Wait!"

Our taxi driver was calling us.

"My fare!"

Oh, yeah. We all rushed back to give him 500, or in my case (the extra immigration stop and the water), 1000.

Then, back to the bus, which was almost moving by now. I reeled as soon as I entered.

Damn. This was hot. You think it's hot in the sun? Try going onto a sealed bus that's been sitting in the sun since daybreak.

"We are very lucky," whispered the Atlantan-Gambian. "The people in the front told me they spent the night on the bus, waiting for it to leave."

Yeah, it smelled like it. And felt like it. The last time I felt humidity like this, I was in a steam bath. At least with everyone's moisture evaporating, we wouldn't need toilet breaks.

I took a seat in the back and slugged down some more water. I couldn't see out the window. It was completely fogged, like a seal in the double-glazing had gone a long time ago and the moisture had turned into a permanent frosting inside the glass. I sat under the roof vent, hoping for some air once the bus was moving. The the roof vent's hinges were broken and just the smallest crack was open.


Maybe the A/C would come on once we were moving. Ha ha, right. Okay, so maybe we'd get some air when we were moving faster.

From where? There were no windows that opened.

The conductor came by to sell me a ticket.

"Er, where are we going?"

He looked at me like I was completely unhinged.

"Bamako. Of course."

Really? It was 4 p.m. and we were going to drive 8-10 hours to Bamako?

I don't like to be in a bus at night in Africa. It's hard for me to forget watching the car accidents and fires I saw from the front row in a nice bus from Lusaka to Dar Es Saaam in 2005. But worse than driving at night is not driving at all.

Fine, I'll go to Bamako. We'd be there a little after midnight or so.

The Atlantan-Gambian was delighted with our fortune. He'd bus-adopted a young teenage boy who was traveling alone, chaperoning him and telling him when to eat and drink.

The bus stopped soon at the Mali immigration post. We all got stamped into Mali, panted under a tree for a bit, and then bought water. The Africans all bought water that comes in little plastic bags. You break open a hole with your teeth, suck the water out, then throw the plastic on the ground.

Like so.

Cool, huh?

Maybe not.

The bus started up, and we all settled in for the long haul. Sweat, pant, sip, complain. Repeat.

As darkness fell, the bus filled up. A man in his twenties decided to serenade us with his phone MP3 player. I have learned to hate this tinny, atrocious things. They're the modern version of the boombox, in which you demonstrate attitude and inconvenience others to demonstrate your coolness and power.

Screw that. 

"Turn that shit off."

What happened next was a flurry of French coming from the mouths of a number of people around me, all taking the opportunity to agree with me and yell at the guy playing the music. He yelled back. It got heated. The man in the seat next to me gave me a stern glance when I opened my mouth to say something else. The glance said "Keep out of it."

The 48 other passengers won this round. The rude jackass shut off his phone.

Hours went by in a haze of headlights and sweat. I fell in and out of sleep. Around four in the morning, I woke up and stirred. The bus was still, and I slowly realized it had been still for some time.

"We have to get off the bus," said the Atlantan-Gambian, always the helpful translator.


"Anyway, it is an experience," he added.

We all got off the bus.

What awaited us was an extraordinary line of trucks, all motionless with engines off. Men slept on the ground by their trucks.

This didn't seem good. Were we supposed to sleep here?

The conductor came by and rattled off some instructions. Everyone started walking east down the road. I turned on my mini-flashlight and joined them.

"We must walk," said the Atlantan-Gambian, in a mystified tone now.

We walked. The bus started up and roared off over the shoulder and down into the dirt. The bus was off-roading. Where was it going?

We walked some more. A large shadow started to take shape in the halo of my light.

A huge semi lay on its side across the the road, bags of rice spilled across the highway.

We watched the bus lights as it picked its way through the dirt and powered back up the shoulder and onto the road in front of us.

"The walk is nice. I am glad for the fresh air," I said. It was true. Being crammed up in a blistering sweatbox for the last 12 hours hadn't been pleasant.

We all caught up with the bus and boarded.

The stench was reeling. That was the smell of 50 of us sweating with no ventilation. Yuck.

Somehow, I went back to sleep, or didn't. It all felt the same. Sometimes we stopped. Sometimes we drove. We were moving slowly.

And when the sun rose, we were close to Bamako. At 8:30, we pulled into the Gana station on the outskirts.

I saw the Atlantan-Gambian and the boy he was chaperoning negotiating with a taxi. He'd been too tired to even bother with goodbyes. I got my own taxi, which proceeded to get lost. We called the Sleeping Camel, where I was planning to stay. The taxi driver handed me the phone.


A chipper, well-rested British man's voice addressed me. It sounded so familiar and friendly, and it gave us directions.

"We're behind the German Embassy."

A moment later, I walked through the metal gate at the Sleeping Camel. And there was Bill, the owner of the chipper voice and part owner of the lodge.

He offered me an A/C room. No regrets here. I took it.

No comments:

Post a Comment