This is part 3 of an irregular series in which I present for your reading pleasure events that happened here on Planet Nomad before we got internet at our house and discovered the joys of blogging. It’s so long that I will just briefly say THANKS for all your comments (I made my goal of 20 comments on a post—best ever!) and now I’m tempted to fish for compliments more often 😉
In November 2002, Debbie and I decided to attend a conference being held in Dakar, Senegal. Neither of us wanted to drive, because when driving cross-country in Africa it’s handy to have some men around; to deal with police checks (police relate better to men), to change flat tires or deal with engine trouble, to scrape locusts off the grill in the event of an invasion, to deal with the myriad problems that can arise. Flying is expensive. So we decided to take bush taxis.
Our husbands drove us to the southern edge of the city to the taxi stand. The stand is a dusty lot filled with taxis; old Mercedes sedans, made to sit 5 comfortably, were parked in vague rows, between which strolled merchants selling tiny packets of cardboard-like biscuits, bottles of juice, long-life milk packets, and other things useful on car trips. We emerged cautiously and were instantly mobbed. Taxis wait until they are full to depart, but Debbie and I had already decided to splurge and buy an extra seat. We traveled the first stage of our journey with a Liberian couple that we knew; between the 4 of us, we bought 6 seats and so could set off at once. Sure it was a pinch to spend the extra $8 or so, but we thought it was worth it to sit with a mere 3 adults in the back, instead of risking being squished in with a traditionally-built African woman, or a man in a voluminous robe who might be subtly friendly.
Soon we were whizzing our way south. The weather wasn’t unbearably hot, and the open windows provided a pleasant enough breeze. The first stage of our journey, Nouakchott to Rosso, passed uneventfully. The taxi dropped us off near the ferry.
The Senegal River serves as the border between Mauritania to the north and Senegal to the south. The town of Rosso is split by the sluggish brown water; there is Rosso, Mauritania, and Rosso, Senegal. In between, a simple ferry runs several times a day, although it doesn’t keep to a strict schedule. For example, the 10:30 ferry may leave at noon.
Since we had only ourselves and our bags, we didn’t need to wait for the ferry, a process usually rendered obnoxious by heat and curious children. Instead, we opted to take one of the many wooden pirogues bobbing about near the shore. A pirogue is sort of like a dug-out canoe in shape. We boarded quite quickly and wobbled our way to an empty spot along the edge.
The crossing was brief—it’s not a very big river. We hit the other shore with a bump, and everyone arose and began pushing their way off the boat. Debbie and I were cautiously balancing our way forward, when a wave from the ferry smacked our little pirogue. I sat back down again with a bump, but Debbie overbalanced and ended up on her back, skirt fallen round her hips, feet up in air over the bench. And this in a place where ankles are considered a little racy! I helped her up quickly and then we had to sit back down again because we were laughing so hard. (Aside: Debbie is a great person to travel with)
We made it out of the pirogue and began the steep climb up the slippery rocks to the road. I lost my footing and came within two inches of taking out a large Pulaar woman, dressed for travel in a royal blue satin robe with gold trim. She shot me a look that would have scared me to death if I believed in the Evil Eye.
The border crossing was no worse than normal. We eventually sorted everything out, and walked several blocks to the Senegalese version of the taxi stand to find a taxi to Dakar. Again we bought extra seats, and again I sat by an open window as my hair and nose filled with dust.
The conference went well. It was held in the same hotel that Mike and Robert stay at in “Endless Summer,” for all you surf-freaks out there. When it was time to return home, we went again to the taxi stand in Dakar. This taxi stand is bigger than the one in Nouakchott, choked with dust and trash and people selling items and people buying items and people haggling over prices—sort of a combination mini-market/taxi stand.
We found places in a sort of station wagon. We bought an extra seat and wedged ourselves into the very back, knees near our chins, contemplating how it would have been possible to fit 3 adults in that little space, thankful we were rich enough not to have to find out.
The ride from Dakar to Rosso takes about 8 hours. We left about 6 a.m. The taxi whizzed along, stopping occasionally in tiny roadside villages for cold drinks and snacks. By about 11 a.m. we were in dire straits. The taxi had stopped in a really remote village, and Debbie and I crawled out to stretch our cramped limbs. We were desperate for a spot of privacy, so in great determination we crossed the road, heading for a field with some lovely big tall weeds. We soon discovered, however, an obstacle; a deep ditch full of fetid water, too large to leap, extending as far as we could see alongside the highway. What to do? We glanced back at the taxi and saw that it was ready to depart, waiting just for us, a taxi full of men glancing our way. Some of the villagers were also out for a glimpse of the white women squished in the back of a taxi. We looked at each other in despair. There was no way we could get back in that taxi and wait any longer to relieve ourselves.
I can’t speak for the whole continent, but in my experience Africans have no trouble relieving themselves in public. Round here, it’s a common sight. The world is their toilet. Their wide robes sweep to the ground, providing them some modestly, provided they are wearing robes. But for Debbie and I, it was a whole new experience. We were wearing long skirts, but they weren’t as wide as a muluffa. Hopelessly Westernized as we are, we were also wearing underwear, which complicated things. Also, again as complete newcomers to this sort of thing, we were more concerned about drips and drops on ourselves than we should have been. We were as behind a tree as we could be, but we were definitely not private. No, we basically were in full view of the men in the waiting taxi, the fascinated villagers, and any passing cars.
In spite of that, we felt better as we regained our cramped quarters in the back of the taxi.
You just never know what skills you’re going to need in life, do you?
Our second pirogue crossing wasn’t as exciting as the first—perhaps Debbie felt she had already shown enough of herself to the world, and the Mauritanian side isn’t as steep so I had no opportunity to nearly knock anyone into the river. We were directed to a fringed cart drawn by a horse (our lives are so picturesque!), which we rode for about 3 blocks to another taxi stand. By now we were getting tired. It was early evening and we’d been traveling all day. We paid for an extra seat and shared the back seat with only one other man, who was very polite and squished as close as he could to the window; a pointless gesture since the seat had no springs left. We all 3 kept sliding, inch by inch, closer and closer to each other with each little bump on the road, until we’d all end up squished together in the middle and have to pull ourselves apart again.
Debbie and I split up once we made it to the outskirts of Nouakchott; she took a city taxi to her house and I to mine. After a joyful reunion with my family, I shook the dust from my hair and went off to shower and contemplate the joys of locked bathroom doors.