Hello from Kidira Senegal,
Getting into Senegal from Mali and over to Dakar has been educational and harrowing. The border crossing adventure starting in Kayes Mali almost proved too much for my wits. We arrived at Dibol, the Mali side of the border around noon and immigration formalities took only minutes. Across the border in Kidira things were different. Several well-dressed young men in western clothes clustered around the entrance to the small post. As I entered, one who spoke some English displayed that overly friendly manner of someone bent on selling me something and proffered his hand for a shake. I pushed passed him to deal with the border crossing formalities. He made some mild protest about being snubbed.
The surly Senegal immigration officials wanted to carefully inspect my passport and would have questioned me in greater detail had either of the officers spoke better English. As my passport already contained a visa their demand that I pay an additional " fee" of a few dollars surprised me. Outside, I looked for transport to Tambacounda some three hours further south. The only transport in sight seemed to be a waiting cab. The driver offered to take me to the bush-taxi station for 2500 CFA and not knowing how far that might be, I agreed. Well, I could have walked the distance in 10 minutes had I known where it was, a ride worth about 400 CFA. My education with the opportunists of Senegal had begun.
In the "station" lot the adventure continued. Unbeknownst to me, many bush-taxis were heading south for Tamba all the time, but not out of our lot. So, I waited, periodically trying to negotiate a ride in one of the several cars and mini-vans trying to attract enough passengers to make a trip. As there were almost no passengers waiting for transport, it looked like it might be a long wait. The fare to Tamba would be 2500 for a bush-taxi or 3500 for a seat in a car the main dispatcher told me. The fare for a 10-hour ride to Dakar would be 5000 CFA, but no way would I last 10 uninterrupted hours on these bumpy roads, nor would I feel safe traveling on them after dark. So, it would have to be Tamba or nothing at all.
Even with nothing to eat since breakfast bread, only Coca-Cola looked safe to "eat" from the refreshment stand in the station area. Two bottles later and still hungry I walked the three blocks into town and bought a loaf of French bread, a package of cookies plus another 1.5 liter bottle of mineral water.
An hour later one of the immigration officers I'd met at the post showed up in the lot, spoke briefly to the dispatcher and then swaggered over in my direction thrusting a hand ready for shaking in my face. I made no move to shake it and he eyed me with practiced suspicion asking: "Why don't you want to shake hands?" So I told him of my health concerns; how my body, prepared as it might be for diseases in my own country, had little resistance to strange bugs which lived in his, and that I was even now getting over some sort of serious digestive illness.
His incredulous expression let me know I might as well shut up and he then lectured me: "You come to my country and tell me something like that?" I nodded my head and pursed my lips to show I understood his distress. "You are a very strange man." I thought to myself that at least one of my good friends back home surely would agree with him. Menacingly he glowered at me for a moment adding "I might just have to send you back!" then turned and stomped off. I wondered where exactly "back" might be. I'm sure that particular threat has had devastating effects on some of the many desperate refugees he sees crossing into Senegal these days.
Not ten minutes later the unhelpful dispatcher wandered over to where I sat in the shade and extended his arm to shake hands! It looked to me like everyone in this little dust hole near the border wanted to personally confirm for himself that they had truly found an actual white skinned non-hand shaker. This time I moved my right hand to my chest in a common African gesture of heart felt concern and he withdrew his arm and indicated there still was no transport in sight.
As I restlessly wandered around the lot munching my bread, a driver motioned me over to his shady space and with mostly French and a little English slyly indicated his car would leave for Dakar as soon as they could get only one more passenger at 5000 CFA OR someone who would pay 10000 CFA for the front seat. But, he had already promised the front seat to a very tall guy who looked like he really needed it, which I pointed out. "No problem" he insisted. It seemed he would not hesitate to kick the big guy into the back if I were willing to pay double! I doubted the big guy would be happy with the new arrangement and declined the offer.
After a while it dawned on me that the 3 hours needed to get me down to Tambacounda (Tamba) was a mere fraction of the 10 needed to go all the way to Dakar down the same road. So, I approached the tall guy with the proposition that I would pay 10000 CFA for the front seat, making it possible for all of us to leave right away and that I would get out in Tamba leaving the front seat for him and extra room for everyone else after that. He seemed to be seriously thinking about the idea when the dispatcher came over to hear our conversation. As soon as he learned what I'd been suggesting to the tall guy who had been promised the front seat, he announced "But now we need two more people" putting an end to the conversation.
I don't know what they had cooking, but I'm sure extracting the maximum possible amount of money from the rich white guy figured in it. Perhaps 20 minutes later an independent bush-taxi paused in our lot and the dispatcher rushed over for an excited conversation with the driver and conductor. In a moment he approached me with the announcement "Give me 10000 CFA and you can have the front seats in this van going to Tamba right away."
By now I had accepted the likelihood that I'd be fleeced again and accepted his offer. Smirking, he took my 10000 and I got into the van. Out of the corner of my vision I saw the sly dispatcher give the conductor 5000 and pocket the rest. After we were off, the driver turned to me and mumbled "five thousand me..." shrugging his shoulders. But we were off and 5000 seemed small extortion to pay to get out of this desolate place where so many irritated people were determined that I should personally sample the local bacteria with a gratuitous handshake.
Not a half hour down the road we were stopped by a policeman who gave us a quick once over until he spotted me. My passport got a careful inspection by this cop who looked disturbed the minute he saw me. Made me wonder if the guard had called ahead to alert him. I half expected him to try for a quick handshake to verify he had actually found the "very strange man" who had been reported to be refusing to shake hands with the natives. At several points in his investigation of my travel worthiness it looked like he was about to order me out of the van. Eventually satisfied, he passed us through and the rest of our trip to Tamba went without incident. No photographs during this little pause in the adventure.
Greetings from Tambacounda Senegal
We arrived in the dark and our driver let me off at a lighted police station on the outskirts of Tamba about 19:00 where I could not have been treated with more courtesy and concern. The desk Sergeant interrupted his efforts to calm some minor family dispute and called a couple hotels to check on available rooms. A local newspaper reporter who spoke good English offered to walk me the couple kilometers across town to the selected lodge, the best in town. Hotel Asta Kebe at 16000 CFA per night ($24) employed no one who spoke my language. I did get an air-conditioned room with some of the essentials; however, it had no toilet seat, TV or carpeting and only a tiny threadbare hand towel for use after a cold shower.
My lower digestive track thankfully had behaved itself all day, having finished the 6-tablet course of Cipro the night before. I'd also taken two precautionary Pepto Bismo tablets during breakfast just to be safe before starting what promised to be a full day of hard traveling. Now, after 12 hours of bread and water I felt hungry and hurried down to the hotel restaurant for a surprisingly wonderful fish dinner. Too dark for wandering around outside, I retired to watch the bugs and lizards crawling around the walls and ceiling of my room, finally calling it a day about 21:00.
The next morning the hotel offered basically the same breakfast I've seen everywhere in French West Africa; bread, butter, jam and coffee. The dining area faced a garden lovely and exceptional. What looked like an Orange tree had a dozen green fruit hanging heavy on its branches. Each "orange" about the size of a basketball bent the limb from which it hung. I couldn't believe my eyes so I approached the tree to make sure someone hadn't hung giant green Christmas tree ornaments from the branches. Nope. These monstrosities actually were a part of the tree. I learned later people throughout Africa use the dried shells of the "fruit" to make the containers commonly seen being used as water jugs and flower pots, some of which have been as large as a meter in diameter!
Feeling great after breakfast, off I went to explore the surroundings. The hotel sits on the outskirts of town down a two block long paved driveway. The center of town is about a kilometer from the hotel. My mission included finding onward transportation to Dakar and as I walked along the main hi-way passing the Shell gas station, several aggressive beggars and touts accosted me. It turns out that if you want to be near a concentration of "rich" white people in this part of the world, you hang around this gas station. Makes sense. The hotel is remotely located and protected by full time guards. Most of the passenger road traffic includes white tourists on their way to the various near-by national parks.
After following up many bad suggestions for buses and bush-taxi locations I finally found the Gare Routier where most of the transportation for Dakar is arranged. There were hassles of course, but mild in comparison to so many of my other encounters.
Back at the hotel a French motorcycle "gang" on an "Expedition to Dogan Country" had arrived. About thirty professional people and their ladies plus a large supplies truck accompanied the expensive bikes. The bar that evening could have been one in an expensive Paris hotel. The well-mannered banter of the participants contrasted starkly with the squalor only meters outside the hotel. I wondered what the hotel staff thought of the high society antics of this crowd. Following the outdoors patio banquet set up for the group, an African drum band plus dancers performed for the assembled throng. Inside the restaurant finishing a light snack I sat alone taking in the whole affair. The next morning early I got my two front seats in a station wagon and we left Tamba at 09:00 arriving in Dakar at 17:00.
Greetings from Dakar
In Dakar I again faced a gauntlet. Away from the taxi stop I dashed with anxious drivers chasing me for a half block before giving up. As is usually the case, I had no idea which way or how far to walk in order to reach the center of town. So, I started the process of asking for directions, always an invigorating challenge when few people speak my language. I found the city center before it had turned dark and checked several hotels finally selecting the Hotel Independence located in the very heart of the city. People assisting me with directions and advice in my search could not have been more accommodating. One guy in a business suit walked a half block with me to be sure I actually could see the building at which he pointed.
Now settled in the hotel, fed and watered, I went out for my usual exploration around the vicinity of the hotel. Now dark, things looked different. All of the people with whom I'd interacted up to this point in Dakar had been friendly, un-threatening. In the dark and near the 4 star hotels things had changed. Gangs of begging boys buzzed around me, a half dozen other adult beggars relentlessly made their harassing pleas, with aggressive hawkers pouncing on me every second I seemed to be alone. As I discouraged one very fat hawker he snapped at me: "What's the matter? Don't you like black people?" That made me mad and I stopped in my tracks and gave him my most intimidating "father look" which seemed to have the intended effect. I've seen an awfully lot of overweight people here and throughout western Africa in my travels.
One guy selling perfume simply would not take "no" for an answer and jumped in every time I managed to shake off the others. So aggressive and persistent, this guy kept getting closer and closer to my body, staring into my shirt pocket and touching me now and then. Finally I told him I'd call a cop and actually asked the hotel security officer where I could find one. With that, several other concerned commercial security people and some guys hanging around on the corner engaged in an animated argument with the perfume seller. Later, our hotel security guard told me that pickpockets often worked that way and that it had become a problem near the hotel.
Dakar is a first world city in most respects. Modern buildings and attractive public parks and plazas give the place an air of spaciousness. Throngs of sellers' stands crowd the sidewalks along the main boulevards and walking hawkers make strolling a game of Bumper Cars. Even during the daylight hours beggars and hustlers harass white skin in the principle areas attracting foreign visitors. A mere two blocks from the tourist turmoil is like a completely different world: friendly urban dwellers more or less ignore my "shiny skin" and my Interactions with other pedestrians. Shop keepers make an effort to help me feel comfortable, like I am an ordinary person in familiar surroundings.
I have seen no better place in my travels to watch the stark contrast between normal folks and the small percentage of opportunists, predators that can be found in any major city. At one point I stopped to rest with a cup of coffee watching the antics of the hustlers. One guy with an armful of "Rolex" watches stood back in a recess of our building studying the passers-by. Each time I saw him move into action, white skin soon reached his pouncing place. I've often wondered who actually buys a $10 Rolex! Someone occasionally must fall prey to these guys or there wouldn't be so many of them all over Africa.
I managed to work in a couple of cyber cafes for a few hours, but didn't really get much done; rates ran 800 to 1000 CFA/hr (about $1.10-$1.30). Connections were poor and some guy in one of them liked to play obnoxious music while he surfed.
Looking for ground transportation north to Morocco I began to feel overwhelmed and discouraged. I think I'm getting homesick. In any case I bought a ticket on Royal Air Moroc for Casablanca. The $305 fare seems high for such a short hop, but I'm tired of bargain shopping.
At the airport security had been tightened since the September 11 terrorist attacks even here. In addition to the usual X-ray inspection of my bag and walking through the metal detector frame, everything in my pockets had to be deposited on a tray for separate inspection and a guard ran a wand over every inch of my body, pausing every-time anything metal set off the alarm. My tiny mostly plastic camera made the wand beep slightly and the sight of the "spy" camera brought a couple more security people over to give it some special attention. Into the X-ray machine it went on a separate tray. I retrieved the stuff from my pockets putting everything back in their assigned places and grabbed my camera when it emerged from the machine.
As I shouldered my backpack it occurred to me that no one had taken any notice of my small red Swiss Army Officer's pocketknife. Jokingly, I mentioned that according to CNN reports even something as innocuous as my little pocketknife, which I produced from my pocket, was being prohibited on flights in America these days. "Let me see that!" says one of the security guards no longer fascinated by my camera.
Pulling out the plastic toothpick, then the tiny tweezers, nail file and ... "What's this?" Yep. It's got a sharp two-inch blade, perfect for use by a hijacker. "We will have to take this. You can get it back from the pilot when the plane lands." says the guard with authority. I started to point out they had missed this frightening weapon in their routine surveillance, but thought better of the idea.
When we landed I started the search for my precious cargo and eventually discovered Dakar Security had forgotten to put the package of confiscated items on the plane! I'd spent the last hour of precious daylight trying to get information about my pocketknife, finally checking at the Lost Luggage desk for the bad news. That's the second time I've lost my treasured pocketknife. Already, ragged fingernails are starting to drive me mad. (cont.)