As of two days ago my Africa adventure in Senegal was going smoothly. Despite flight connections on several different airlines, a number of multi-hour taxi rides, and a myriad of hotel reservations, my boyfriend and I had not encountered a single snag.
Then came Friday. Maybe it was just bad luck, or maybe it was fate punishing me for my travel complacency, but whatever it was, it struck hard. It started when we left Les Collines de Niassam after breakfast, giving ourselves a generous six hours between our departure from the lodge and our scheduled flight from Dakar to Nairobi.
Our taxi, a 1985 Peugeot 505 station wagon that had more miles on it than I have in my frequent flier account, made me a little nervous when it pulled up to the lodge. The staff assured us that they knew the driver and that there was nothing to worry about, so we piled in for a bumpy ride through the bush to get back to the main road to Dakar.
We reached the road and were making good time when suddenly traffic slowed to a snail’s pace. Actually, it slowed to a cyclist’s pace, as we were stuck behind some kind of bike race. The police escort that was riding next to the peloton wouldn’t let any cars, trucks, or motorcycles pass the cyclists, so we were forced to move at a glacial roll through the hot, dry dust.
Our driver, who was a bit impatient, decided for some reason that that moment would be an opportune one to take the beat up old car off-roading. He pulled off the asphalt and onto an old set of tire tracks that ran through the bushes alongside the highway. Off we went, careening through the bush and bottoming out at every dip in the dirt.
Needless to say, the ancient Peugeot did not take to the experience as well as our driver did. Before we even came close to catching up with the cyclists, the car slowed to a halt and then unceremoniously died.
At first I didn’t worry. My boyfriend knows a thing or two about cars (I’m sure I’ve made fun of him more than once in this blog for his restoration of a giant, gas-guzzling 1972 Chevy Blazer), so I figured he would have the problem solved in minutes.
As I sat in the taxi posting on Facebook about the breakdown, my non-Francophone boyfriend spoke in his best FIGS (his made-up language of French, Italian, German and Spanish) to try to convey to the driver that he thought the problem was with the fuel pump. Needless to say, “El problema mit le petroli pump” didn’t make sense to the driver.
When I realized that things weren’t going well, I got out of the car and attempted to translate. It was a futile effort; the driver was convinced that the problem was electrical, and the wires were all duct taped together so it was impossible to tell what, if anything, was loose.
After it became apparent that the Peugeot was not coming back to life, we asked the driver to call another taxi for us. He wouldn’t do it. We pulled our bags out of the trunk and decided to try hitchhiking. Not the safest idea, I know, but as we were in the middle of nowhere and Les Collines de Niassam wasn’t picking up the phone, we didn’t have many other options.
The first car that pulled over was a small hatchback with two men in the front. As I explained to them our situation, our driver ran up and demanded that we pay him the full fare before we left with anyone else. We laughed. No way.
The driver leaned into the car and talked to the two men in what was presumably Wolof. After a few minutes he turned to me and told me that I should give him all of the money and then the men would drive us to the Dakar airport for free. Sketchy.
We declined the offer, at which point one of the men pulled out a piece of paper with a peeling laminated cover. “Police!” he yelled. We took the paper out of his hand as our taxi driver joined him in trying to convince us that he was a law enforcement officer. We laughed. Sure, buddy, and I’m the first female Pope.
The men drove off and we tried again to hail anything that passed by. A mini-bus pulled over next. The driver got out and I explained to him in French what was going on. Again, our original taxi driver insisted that I pay him all of the money for the fare before we left.
After several minutes of watching me argue with the driver, my boyfriend was finally able to reach the hotel on his phone. He handed the phone to me and I told the director of the hotel what was going on. He sided with the taxi driver. Trust me, he assured me, the driver is a good guy. Just give him the money and he’ll find you a taxi to take you the rest of the way to the airport. Right. He’ll find us a couple of sketchy dudes that will drive us for ‘free’ into the bush and murder us.
By this time a group of women from the mini-bus had alighted and were talking and waving animatedly. We figured they were tired of waiting and were urging the driver to leave us and resume the journey.
Instead, they walked up to us and stared to mediate. They told us that it would be okay to give the original driver half of the money and the bus driver the other half. But the taxi driver persisted in demanding that we give him all of the money. The women finally agreed, and told us that if we gave him the money he would then give a cut to the bus driver to take us to Dakar airport.
Reluctantly, we parted with the CFA and watched as our unscrupulous taxi driver took the bus driver aside and cut what I would guess was a very bad deal with him.
Not wanting to waste any more time, we left the taxi driver to tend to his broken-down car and got into the bus for the journey to Dakar. We weren’t sure what to expect from the experience. The bus had several rows of bench seats and about seven people in it. The women that had helped us were quick to tell us how lucky we were that we were picked up by them and how we would have ended up getting killed by anyone else that stopped for us.
One by one the other passengers got off the bus at their final destinations. By the time we got to Rufisque on the outskirts of Dakar, we were the only ones left besides the driver, who introduced himself as Baba, and his helper, who was named Shah.
We chugged slowly through the Dakar traffic, stopping completely at one point as the call to prayer sounded over the city. Thousands of men formed neat rows along the dirt roadsides to pray in unison. It was a pretty amazing sight to see, and a nice break to take our minds off our harrowing journey.
We reached the Dakar airport with time to spare before our flight, and thanked Baba and Shah profusely for picking us up. Our flight check-in went smoothly, and soon we found ourselves in the air en route to Nairobi. Then came the next break down, this one involving our plane from Senegal. To be continued…