“It’s not a good sign that we are pushing this early on,” said one man grimly.
Our trip had started shortly after 5 am as we made our way from Dakar’s Gare Routiere toward Tambacounda (Tamba for short), the largest city in eastern Senegal, which serves as a hub for the train line going from Dakar all the way to Bamako, Mali. At the station, even at that hour, itinerant merchants were selling their leather sandals and sunglasses, the Nescafé crew were selling foamy café au lait from their pushcarts and colorfully dressed women approached each and every vehicle, carrying platters of succulent bananas for sale on top of their heads.
There are three methods of public long distance travel in Senegal of which I am aware. (I emphasize ‘public’ as I am not talking about renting a nice four wheel drive with air con, working locks and windows and brakes. We are roughing it). There is the overnight Greyhound-style bus or car mouride which accepts reservations for up to 50 passengers. If you make your reservation early enough, say by 6 am or so, you might be able to score an actual seat. If you are not so fortunate, there are little tin shelves that fold down from the sides of the real seats to form a little perch in the aisle on which you may feel free to spend an utterly miserable night.
When a friend recently came from Germany to visit, she was rendered speechless by the decrepitude of the vehicle in which we found ourselves. Then, as we were both unable to abide the claustrophobia-inducing seating arrangements, we agreed to abandon this particular adventure before it began, beating a hasty retreat and finding ourselves forced to climb over all the middle-perch seat passengers in our haste to find an alternative way to get to our destination.
There is also a minivan sort of vehicle called a Ndiaga Ndiaye which holds about 15 passengers or however many passengers the driver decides can fit. You must purchase your ticket and wait. And wait. And wait. No worries, the van will go nowhere until it is more than excessively packed and you get that cattle car feeling, so use the time spent cooling your heels in practicing patience, an extremely valuable virtue generally, all the more so when traveling the third world using local transport.
We then considered the sept place, a vehicle which resembles a spacious old American station wagon with one row for three passengers and one folding seat permitting access to yet another row for another three passengers. It is snug and cozy, though not terrible, but the usual rules still apply: the speedometers do not work, there is no such thing as an intact windshield, and it is best to hold your knapsack tightly to prevent it from falling through a rust hole. Nicole very sensibly decided that this would just not do, and so we agreed to forego the longer trip this time around. But by then my curiosity was aroused: hundreds of people travel like this every day throughout Africa, so just how bad could it be? Once Nicole was safely on her way back to Germany, I decided to use the rest of my vacation time to find out.
In the sept place I found myself in on the fateful journey to Tamba, we were missing some small but essential part needed to regulate the temperature. Our driver had to stop twice in the space of half an hour to open the hood and pour water in to cool the engine. An hour and a half into the journey, he was forced to pull over to the side of the road altogether while he went to the nearest town by public transport to fetch a mechanic to come to our rescue. We passengers found as shady a spot as we could on the side of a major throughfare in sub-Saharan Africa and entertained ourselves with thoughts of how nice it would be to continue in an intact vehicle, though only one of us, I think, harbored secret desires involving an air conditioning unit.
Our savior turned out to be one of the most unexpected kind: the skinny, big-eyed kid who arrived with tools in hand was the youngest, most adorable, as well as the most efficient mechanic I have ever come across. His picture should therefore appear for posterity, for it is thanks to him that five men or so were finally able to push the vehicle and have it spring to life so that we could continue our journey. One of the men, in addition to having to deal with the heat plus the hour and a half delay also had to try and comfort his daughter, who cried hysterically and with gusto at the sight of her first toubab, or white person, namely yours truly.
The atmosphere in the car remained surprisingly friendly and familial despite all this. People take things in stride and resign themselves to fate a lot more than we do in the west, I think. Initially, for example, I kept having to fight down furious thoughts, as for example, why didn’t the driver check his vehicle BEFORE pocketing our money? Would that not have been the responsible thing to do? Who is going to reimburse me for the vacation time I have now spent getting sunstroke by the side of the road?
Further to the matter of time: we broke for a late lunch at some point. I waited expectantly to be told when we would need to meet at the car to depart. Nothing was said, so I timidly posed the question. I was met with looks of incredulity on all sides: “Why, when we’re all done, of course!”
Simple, eh? This does mean you avoid the problem of people tapping their feet impatiently because the others have not yet arrived by the agreed-upon time. (Apparently in French there is a saying that whereas the white man has his watch, the African has time.) Astonishingly, as so often here, it did all work out easily and we did arrive at our destination, despite all signs to the contrary…