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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Benegal - part one.

As I mentioned previously, my grad school bud Ben Downer was visiting Senegal for the entire month of December.  I asked Ben to write a blog post about his month.  Here's what I got, Ben's thoughts about travel in Senegal.  Enjoy!

The way travel makes people feel.
Following two days of flights and layovers just to get to Senegal, Barb informed me about the "joys" of travel throughout the country.  There are a few main types of transportation, but the two I had the pleasure of experiencing were the mini-car and sept-places.  A mini car is basically a large sprinter van, with the interior a combination of plywood and rust, with bus seats allowing 20 to 25 people to cram inside.  This does not account for people hanging off the back or extra passengers acting as cargo and sitting on the roof rack.  Think clown car in bus form.  The sept-place is more a station wagon with two rear rows of seats allowing seven passengers to sardine into the vehicle along with baggage.  On some occasions, the sept-place transforms into a neuf-place.  However, no additional seating or room is added.  Instead, nine people squeeze into seats where seven fit.  The main focus of any form of travel is that you will have your space bubble shrink within your body until it is occupied by someone's elbow, rupturing your spleen.  

Garages are the main transportation hub of any major area in Senegal.  They function in a similar capacity to bus terminals without all of the frills associated with such a place.  My introduction to the garage was in Dakar.  Barb waded fearlessly into the proverbial tide of noise, filth, and frustration the garage manages to encircle and compress into a maze of cars and concrete.  Everywhere I turned, someone was trying to sell me knock-off Gucci sunglasses, flashlights, cocoa butter, in addition to anything else you could pull out of a claw game at Chuck E Cheeze.  I was overwhelmed.  Barb, however, sliced through the din and I walked briskly behind in the open wake of people before it congealed back together.  You have to walk through such places with purpose and an unwavering eye.  Barb certainly had the eye of the tiger, in addition to shooting lasers out of her eyes at anyone who was trying to swindle us.

Finding your car is only step one.  Everything is bartered for.  Ticket price and baggage, nothing has a standard.  If you don't know what the fare typically costs, good luck getting a fair price.  Things were made more difficult for Barb's negotiation practices as she had a tall, white Toubab (wikipedia has an excellent explanation for this) with her to go along with her perceived Toubab-ness.  I stood by staring blankly as Pulaar began to fly and insults came shortly after.  It is culturally appropriate, depending on someone's last name, to say they are your slave, or they eat so many beans an ocean full is not enough, or someone is fat or ugly.  The joking last name phenomenon was a strange concept to me, but in haggling with garage drivers it is an essential concept to grasp.  Being able to give, and receive, the appropriate amount of shit is imperative.  Barb has a firm grasp on the appropriate amount of shit to give.

Congratulations, you now paid for the ticket and only lost your arm on the price of baggage.  The privilege of riding with seven other humans in a sept-place for the next few hours is your reward.  Your body will start in a semi-comfortable state.  Then, with every bump and twist of  the road, minute adjustment of body position, or breath, you will slowly be wedged into increasingly uncomfortable positions until you are stuck, contorted like a pretzel around other bodies and luggage undergoing the same phenomenon.  I never knew I could be so uncomfortable and have it happen in a way that would seem preventable; a slow motion seepage of unease and muscle cramping.  


Another picture Barb took of me unawares


Bumps in the road is being generous.  Road infrastructure in Senegal doesn't exist.  In some instances, more driving gets done off the road than on it as the condition has deteriorated so severely.  Potholes a foot deep, far less than comfortable space for semis and cars to coexist, people traversing whichever way they please, and motos sneaking through every gap.  One hilarious side note about potholes.  It is common, as I witnessed, for people to stand next to potholes with a shovel, pretending to work when a car drives by , expecting money to be thrown out the window in thanks.  As soon as the watchers pass, the person stops working and waits until the next set of eyes can witness the effort.

I make travel sound like a horrendous undertaking, and in many ways it is.  A few examples:
1)  Wedging myself into a back seat, where the only option for my long torso fitting required my head to be at a sharp 90 degree angle for the duration of the ride.  I didn't know my body could do such origami.  
2)  Traveling from the town of Pout, every mile or so a smashed car or truck shell was littered along the roadside.  An elephant graveyard for drivers who didn't make it back into their lane following a daring pass.  I  believe passing is a sport in Senegal, with points being tallied for length and boldness of pass.
3)  Spotting an open seat at the mini-car's rear, I plopped myself down.  A few insisted that goat pee would leak through the roof onto the seat.  Upon closer inspection, I couldn't find any holes and waved off the advice.  Obviously, I ended up with a wet shirt and pants.  The pee found a way to leak from a far off hole, down a roof strut, funneled directly above my seat, and poured as through a straw.  Fortunately, the goat was well hydrated so I didn't smell of goat urine for the rest of the day while wearing my clothing.
4)  Many roads in Senegal turn abruptly from paved to dirt or sand with no warning.  The skillful driver either didn't notice this impending change or decided to ignore the upcoming turbulence. We left pavement and careened into a sand pothole at high speed, throwing sand over the windshield and making visibility zero.  A lesser driver, or one with more common sense, would have hit the breaks, perhaps slowed down, or driven more appropriately for road conditions.  Not this deity of the road.  There was no lifting of his foot off the accelerator.  We simply plowed ahead, the car jostling and bouncing our heads off the ceiling as we propelled forward.  Finally, after much passenger yelling, the speed slowed and visibility slightly improved.  All passengers were happy when pavement returned.

I could continue, but bright spots did emerge:
1)  My first mini-car experience was not inside of one, rather outside of it.  Catching the car as it left the garage, they forced Barb to go inside. Not me.  Foot on the back bumper, arm locked onto the ladder,  what a way to travel!  Not in the stuffy tin can but outside with a cool breeze.  The two who collected money and hauled bags had a strange ritual of clamoring over the back of the car and smacking each other on the butt repeatedly.  I found this funny which only goaded them on.  I have never seen so much spanking between two men.  
2)  Fellow passengers can be a delight.  One memorable man, who most certainly paid our bribe to the cops for "suspicious baggage," had Barb laughing a good chunk of the ride.  This is an accomplishment as, to quote the woman herself, "The two things I hate most in Senegal are men and travel."  His little baby was adorable, though it did vomit when Barb gave the lil tyke some fruit.  Not it's favorite unfortunately.  
3) Picking up THE BEST RIDE EVER! waiting on the side of the road.  An airconditioned truck, who drove approximately 110 km/h (which is the speed of light in Senegal travel), and blasted Lionel Richies's greatest hits.  He even dropped us directly off at our desired location.  I cannot overstate how much all the previous perks to the ride were enjoyed.  

Barb and I also relied on human power to get from point A to B.  Borrowing Tidiane's bike and making the 15 km trek to a nearby village for Christmas was one of my personal favorite travel days.  The road was mostly through a gentle forest, opening onto a farming plain where cotton was stacked in fluffy blocks 8 feet high.

Note the men in the middle standing next to the piles.


 It appeared that clouds had descended from the sky to take a siesta.  Though littered with potholes and motos that had a personal vendetta against bikers, the trip was a calm travel day as it was on our schedule.  No waiting for a car that might not show up then gouge you for money. 

Not to be left out, travel by foot was abundant.  Attending a dennibo in a nearby village, trekking through woods with Alpha and Meadow (awesome village kids) in tow, or to health huts to paint murals, the feet were active.  When traveling by foot however, a 30% time increase for greeting must be factored in.I actually enjoyed the idea of saying hello to everyone and stopping by their compound, but getting anywhere on time is impossible.  This friendliness did have benefits when  meeting Barb at villages a few km away.    Situation one had me walking awkwardly into compounds attempting to find the village health hut.  You could equate this action to walking into a stranger's backyard and proceeding to say hello, then gesture incoherently.  One man showed me his field, another walked me in the complete opposite direction to his compound, but all attempted to patiently help me.  Barb only found me by following my Chaco sandal prints.  So, there's that plug for Chacos.  The second instance I was walking to a soap informational session.  I arrived early and proceeded to awkwardly share their family space for two hours.  They did set up a nice shaded location for me to nap.  After arriving back in Tayel from the soap session, a few in Barb's compound were relieved to see me back.  It seems that my ability to jam-tan (agree) and greet had reached it's limit.  People had been asking me if I was going into the woods, and with my baby Pulaar, I jam tan'ed them thinking it was a greeting.  When I didn't return, a few kids had been sent to look for me.  A clear sign that I don't have any idea what people say to me.  Also, people placed far too much confidence in my ability to learn Pulaar in three weeks.  

Obviously, my Pulaar would not have allowed me to endure the uncomfortable, infuriating, expensive, and often terrible experience of traveling around Senegal.  If you can brave the discomfort however, an incredible and diverse country opens up to you.  Thank you so much to Barb for being my travel guide and putting up with a traveling man.