Friday, January 21, 2005

West Africa Appears

There are a lot of cars in Noakchott for it being the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world. Traffic was an endless game of slow motion chicken. Downtown wasn't much; at one point we passed a particularly moribund building and I noticed that it was the National Assembly. The cab driver was stopped once by the police, who shook him down for a couple of dollars. He finally deposited me at another dusty 'garage' lot.

This time I took a group cab, a beat up old Mercedes. In the trunk, along with my backpack, were two more goats. There were four of us in the back seat, with the Moslem lady sitting as far from the infidel as possible. In the front sat a hook-nosed bearded 'shiek', who could have been out of the Saudi royal family. Between his seat and the driver's sat a sixth passenger.

There were about five police stops along the way, at each of which the driver had to pay a small bribe. Sort of like toll booths.

As we left Noakchott there was empty yellowish-brown sand littered with garbage. Then it turned into low sandy hills dotted with bushes and low trees. And Mauritania started looking like one of the world's poorest countries. The few small 'towns' consisted of small stucco squares stuck in the sand, plus innumerable little tin shacks, which must get a little toasty in the summer. Outside of town living quarters consisted of varying qualities of tents. And always goats, and occasionally camels, probably the only two creatures in the world able to eat such bad vegetation.

We stopped to change a tire, and I went over to check out a tree. Sure enough it was one of those famous African thorn trees, and sure enough each branch had lots and lots of three inch thorns. When we started out again, I wondered what would happen if we got another flat. I soon found out.

First, everybody got out and stood around. Then the driver started flagging down passing cars. The first one that stopped gave us their spare tire. Great, except that now it was determined that our lug nut wrench didn't fit the lug nuts. Another car was stopped and a lug nut wrench produced. Okay, now we found out that the lug nuts were unbudgeable. After a whole bunch more of stopped cars, bigger and better wrenches, a second spare tire, and grunting and stressing and straining, lo and behold the nuts loosened and the tire was changed.

This all took only 45 minutes, a record so far for shortest snafu. We started off again, this time with two tires in the back seat, but with two fewer passengers, since somehow in all the cars stopping they had snagged other rides. In short order we were at Rosso, the border town, drove past a large live goat market, and I was let off about 400 meters from the border.

This particular crossing has the reputation of being the worst in Africa, but it really wasn't that bad. The touts and money changers were easily ignored, and there was minimal hassle from the Mauritanian police. I collected my passport and was now on the banks of the half mile wide Senegal River.

Boy, had the scene changed. Now there was a huge milling throng of Africans in the brightly colored African clothing. I searched the horizon in vain for the free passenger ferry, but none was to be seen. All sorts of people were getting on pirogues, twenty foot long motorized 'canoes', so I joined in. The engine barely sputtered to life and we barely coughed our way over to the other side.

There at a tiny little police post I was stamped into Senegal with absolutely no hassle. And the money changers, etc., were even more easily blown off. On the other hand, this did have the vibe of a crazy, crawling with people border town, and I had to focus to find my way to the share taxi stand.

The African vitality was immediately palpable, and although the Senegalese are Moslem, they practice a much more hang loose version of the religion. I got a seat on a 'sept place', a standard West African Peugeut with two back seats, and here in Senegal they can only sell seven seats.

That means that they try and overcharge you for your backpack, for like the New Age world, those carrying baggage pay a lot more. And, of course, there were two live goats strapped to the roof, although now their bodies (but not heads) were wrapped in bright yellow goat tarps.

It was so great to see fresh water, and we passed a few sugarcane fields, but soon Senegal became a flat dry version of, well, Central Texas. But at least there was life going on, and the first towns I saw reminded me of small towns in East Africa, with the buildings and the fences all made with yellowish brown cinder blocks, and with little wooden shacks of commerce along the roadside.

We got to St-Louis around dark, and I got a cab over to the island, where I found a room that was nice and quiet and that had beaucoup de hot water. I took a shower and shaved for the first time in about five days, and had a good night's sleep.


At 12:48 PM, Blogger Charles Darwin said...

West Africa town
all dusty and dry
all loaded down
not a cloud in the sky....

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