Monday, July 4, 2011

It's a Minefield Out Here


One overland leg and one more African immigration post to go. I’m up at dawn to catch a four-seat taxi to Dakhla, the first town over in Morocco—some 250 miles away. This time my prissy I-want-the-front-seat scene I plead with the driver is that I’ll get violently sick in the back, and yes, I will pay extra for this seat. My driver and I take off and pick up a few passengers around Nouadhibou. First stop is at a solid metal door down a dirt lane, and a serious looking Muslim dude steps out (I think we woke him up). It seems we’re picking his women up around town. These two women are believers of the forced feeding cult, and I'm immediately grateful I'm the front-seat queen of the day. I can’t figure out the relationships or why they’re going to Dakhla, but I assume they are his wives. Next, a Senegalese guy gets in; he's on his way to Marrakesh.

Off we go, and an hour later, we clear Mauritanian immigration. Now the fun begins. There’s an interesting three-kilometer stretch of no-man’s land between Mauritanian immigration and Moroccan immigration, with landmines on either side of the dirt track—1000s of them. This is not the place for a toilet break in nature. I ask my driver what his nationality is, and he answered Sahrawi—Polisario.” He swerves left and right, following a well-worn path. With one hand, he’s trying to find some Sahrawi music to play for me. One of the songs is in Spanish, with lyrics that go something like “hand to hand, in the streets of Laayoune, we repeat the story, the history, the victory…” I read somewhere that some Bangladeshis were stuck between these two customs posts for months and had to live on food and water handed out by passersby because neither country would let them enter. I look for them, but there’s nobody out here.

Moroccan customs: this takes 2 1/2 hours because of the Senegalese guy. The women in the car need help filling out the form because they can’t read. The taxi also has to go into a special hanger-like building to be scanned for bombs and whatnot. Passports are checked at least six times. We stop for lunch, for prayers, for peeing, for more passport checks, and for some random conversational exchanges with other drivers--obviously buds of my driver .

And if anybody wonders what can equal the decibels of a Who concert, the tinny speakers of any Mauritanian taxi can blow them away.

Anyway, here I am in Dakhla, southern Morocco, and as Huck Finn would say: back in “siviliaztion.” Well, kinda. This is all there is for Africa this time around—until the next trip…

I don't think this Mauritanian tourist office container on the border does a lot of business.

Lot's of camels out in this desert

I have a mosque on the way to my room at this hotel in Dakhla.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Nouakchott to Nouadhibou

Today's leg is a five-hour run across the desert from Nouakchott to Nouadhibou, the latter being pronounced something like Noddy-boo or Naughty-boo. Take your pick. In Mauritania, I've learned that on these long-distance, how-many-people-can-you-stuff-in-a-taxi runs, the seat in the front next to the driver is prime real estate and something worth haggling over. Normally, they fit two people in this seat, with one person sitting on the emergency brake. The procedure is they quote the price for two seats. Several people start yelling all at once. I do a little yelling too. Numbers are drawn out in the dirt. Eventually we all agree on a price after much dramatics and several bouts of walking off with my hands thrown in the air. The seat is mine. Hat pulled down, bandanna over my mouth and nose, and iPod in my ears, I'm ready for hours of mind-numbing boredom.

Crossing Mauritania means endless police checkpoints--out in the middle of nowhere, but I'm glad they're there--very glad, since this isn't the most secure place in the world. The procedure is the taxi stops some distance down the road and waits for the guard to signal to approach. No funny business. Everybody is very polite. Yesterday, I had to produce my passport four times. Today, I show it seven times. In one place I have to get out of the car and go to the shed for registration. I hear things like Obama, Hotel California, I have a cousin in Kentooky. Welcome to Mauritania, they tell me.

There is nothing out here, and only three colors: beige, bluish beige, and the dark gray of the tarmac. This is the smoothest road I've ever been on in Africa. It's brand new and makes what used to be a two-day trip doable in about 4 1/2 hours. Some sand dunes, some camels, some squalid huts. During one break, a very pretty young woman brings something to the driver, and she looks like she's never had a hard-scrabble day in her life. Her teeth are perfect. How on earth do they survive out here? This is an intense country. What can you say about a place where slavery still exists, female genital mutilation goes on (although there's a new fatwa out banning it), and young girls are sent to fat farms where they are force-fed 16,000 calories a day to make them attractive to potential suitors? Don't eat? You'll be hit with a stick. Girls often marry between 12-14 years of age. Charming.

In Nouadhibou, I hire a taxi for an hour to take me out to the abandoned ships. At one time, this graveyard of ships (some 300 of them) was the biggest collection in the world, but the Chinese have come in and carried off the pieces. A guard says one of the bigger ones was just hauled off by some Dutch last Sunday. What's left is rather disappointing, and there isn't the dramatic impact like the abandoned ships at the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. Maybe they figure there wasn't the money to made in tourism here.

People actually live in this bleakness.

The blue robes billowing out from the wind gives the scenery an exotic look.

The famous iron ore train--said to be the longest in the world.

One of the shipwrecks of Nouadhibou

Another shipwreck

And another

Friday, July 1, 2011

Border Crossing Fun

Today's adventure has been playing on my mind for some weeks. This border crossing from Senegal to Mauritania has a bad reputation, and the town of Rosso has been called everything on the Internet from quite messy with corrupt police, touts, and hustlers, to an absolute shit hole. Like passing through airport security with the TSA, it's "let's just get this over with."

To add to my paranoia, the Mauritanian immigration is only open for a few hours a day in the morning and in late afternoon, and it's a good three-hour drive from there to Nouakchott, the capital, so it's no place you want to pass the day or night in. I'm up at dawn.

It's only a two-hour cramped ride from Saint Louis to Rosso, on the Senegalese side. I hire a fixer at the Gare Routiere to negotiate me through the morning's procedure. He's OK--only tries to scam mildly--and has a name that sounds something like Schwur. No cars maneuver through the back streets of Rosso, but carriages do (see picture below).

Next Schwur takes me through a doorway into a backroom to meet the money changer. I know my rates, and the haggling begins. The longer this takes the more of an audience piles in. I take every one of the bills and throw back any that are too worn, too torn or too old. Done, my fixer and I go back out in the dirt street and plow through all sorts of nationalities, such as Senegalese, Mauritanian, Malian, bedlam in general, and humping donkeys.

Now we have to get across the river to the Mauritanian side. We climb down the river bank and step into a pirogue, which looks like some old boards nailed together in the vague shape of a long canoe. The guy can't get the motor started and starts paddling with an oar, but the current isn't helping matters. He's working up a sweat, which is not hard to do in this climate, and when we nearly reach the other side and down the river a bit, he finally gets it going.

Mauritanian immigration is in a little building with some cutout squares in front where people throw their passport through. My fixer scrums at the window. I wait and wait and wait, and nothing happens. I work my way to the window, which one person can look through at a time and see four guys in there. They kind of look like they're doing something, but they're really not; they're just swirling around. Schwur pleads over and over with Ahmed, one of the immigration men, to stamp my bloody passport, but still nothing happens. About 45 minutes into this, finally a hand thrusts it out the window.

Next up, negotiating the transportation to Nouakchott. The language on this side of the river has now changed from Wolof to some dialect of Arabic, which cannot be spoken in a normal tone of voice--only shouted. I find myself shouting right with them. Schwur takes leave; he was well worth his tip. The car takes an hour to fill, but finally it's done, and after some bleak desert driving, I reach Nouakchott.

From the Gare Routiere in Rosso, you must ride this to the river.

My fixer. We try to cross the river by pirogue, but the guy can't start the motor.

He still can't get it going. "Hey friend, it looks like you're gonna have to start paddling!"

Thursday, June 30, 2011


I start the morning out with a pink torso behind me in the bush taxi. The problem with these seven-seater cars is that you have to wait for a passenger in every seat before they'll leave. We're down to one person left, and we wait and we wait. I volunteer to pay for the extra seat so we can leave, but I want the two dollars back I paid for my backpack to ride with the torso in the rear. This logic confounds the driver and about a dozen other people. "The pack will ride in the empty seat next to me--consider it a person." This is in bad French, mind you. Negotiations are quite frenzied, but they won't budge over returning the luggage fee, and I tell them to forget it. Finally, a huge Senegalese woman arrives, and she will fill the last seat. Lordy is it cramped in here!

Today is only five hours, and after a while I fall asleep because roadside Senegal is full of dead cars, occasional dead animals, and some stretches of spectacular trash on the side of the road. Please, people, any Senegalese reading this, don't trash your country; have a little respect for it.

We arrive in Saint Louis--just a short distance from the Mauritanian border. This, by far, is one of the more interesting places in Senegal. Founded in 1673, it was the capital of the French colony of Senegal for nearly 300 years. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's got a weather-beaten, dilapidated look, like something you'd see in Cuba or Haiti, but there's a hip vibe to it with an arts scene and even a yearly jazz festival. Best of all, you can walk around without crafts touts dogging you.

I'm riding with a torso behind me.

A street in Saint Louis

More Saint Louis

I have a very cool room at the Louisiane Hotel. Its owner, Marcel, is one of the nicest men in Senegal.

The Long Slog North

The Long Slog North

Part I

Guinea-Bissau marks the southernmost point on this particular trip, so now I turn around and head north. The car I’m riding in today is so dilapidated—no door handles, mirrors, padding—it gives me encouragement that I can get another twenty years out of my Miata. It’s amazing that these cars over here run. Well, maybe they don’t because you see constant breakdowns, especially with the buses, on the side of the road.

Today’s leg is only the 3-hour bush taxi repeat back to Ziguinchor, but this time I have much more colorful characters in the car. Noteworthy is an Arabic speaking man dressed in what looks like pale blue hospital scrubs with long, white filmy yards of fabric hanging off him. Well nothing stays white for long around here. And he’s got a black scarf on and a black beard. For the first few hours, he recites surahs from the Koran. Then he starts singing them at full voiced throttle up, and this clearly annoys the driver and a few of the passengers. They turn and give him hard stares, but this only motivates him to really go at it. He carries prayer beads and a mobile phone, which plays the Nutcracker Suite as its ring tone. About every half hour, the police, immigration, and assorted officials rummage through his suitcase. And behind me, someone’s mobile phone is a source of constant entertainment. This couple started laughing so hard, I have to turn around and see what it is. They show me a video of the belly of a pig or an iguana that’s getting poked, or tickled, or tormented in some way. This causes just crazy laughing, donkey laughing, and it goes on for hours.

Part II

I set out for the Gare Routiere at 6:30am to find a bush taxi for Dakar. These places are usually bedlam, and it’s worth an extra dollar to hire a fixer to push and bully me into a car. My guy takes his job seriously and deputizes two other passengers to look after me all the way to Dakar. He even rides his bike part of the way as follow up, or perhaps to ask for a little extra money for a drink. Nobody knows how long the day will be; all inquiries are answered with “├ža depend” it depends—on the Gambian border. It’s hard to imagine, but there’s another country smack in the way.

What’s called the “Trans-Gambian Highway” is a little deceptive—unless you call a one-lane, rutted, dusty track a highway. I’ve read terrible things on the Internet about the corruption of the Gambian border, but I experience no such thing. Immigration could not have been nicer, and they did not even charge me the couple of dollars for the passport stamp—as they did to some Senegalese who were traveling on French passports. Maybe it’s Obama goodwill. Who knows?

Crossing the Gambia is a mess, because you have to cross the Gambia River. Two ferries go back and forth, and trucks and cars and people are lined up for some distance. And it’s hot and dusty. My fellow car passengers and I walk on down to the ferry, intending to wait for our car and driver on the other side. An enormous truck heaping with mangoes tries to drive onto the ferry but begins to tip over before sinking into the mud. This is a problem. No more cars or trucks can get on the ferry, nor can a second ferry unload. An hour goes by. Then into the second hour, a chain is produced and the mango truck is pulled onto the ferry by a truck that was already on board. We’re back in business.

Twelve hours later, we arrive in Dakar. True to their word, the deputized passengers since the morning make sure I’m in a taxi at a fair price to my hotel. It seems, too, I've missed some more rioting in the streets of Dakar. Yesterday, people took to the streets and burned cars and buildings because they're fed up with all the electricity cuts. Can't say I blame them. The military was called out, and helicopters flew around that god-awful African Renaissance statue to protect it.

The staff at my hotel take one look at me and suggest I sit and have a drink, but I tell them I am far too filthy to be in their lobby, and I head straight into a shower with my clothes on and scrub down.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Down to Guinea-Bissau

First thing in the morning at the Guinea-Bissau consulate, I’m experiencing one of the nicer visa applications ever. “No, you needn’t stand at the window. Sit down and relax over there, and I’ll bring the paperwork to you!” Not only that, but I hear an old-fashioned typewriter in the background. Ten minutes—I’m done.

I go out to the Gare Routiere, which is where all the taxis and mini-buses leave for everywhere. I’m in a bush taxi called a sept-place, or a Pegeot that holds a maximum of seven passengers, well more if you don’t count children. The road to Bissau is pretty good, and the ride is actually pleasant, once the wind tamps down the humidity. About every half hour or so, I have to get out for passport stamps, passport scrutiny, and seemingly for no reason at all.

Guinea-Bissau is quite a country! A failed state some people call it. Like other African colonies Portugal made a mess of (try Angola and Mozambique), years of a violent and bloody independence movement, civil war, assassinations, failed Marxism, more civil war, military coups, more assassinations, and just when everyone is exhausted, another civil war, coups, and another assassination or two. You get the idea. And one thing I didn’t know, South American drug lords have overrun Guinea-Bissau, since this is the main entry point of hard drugs coming from the Americas to Europe. The legitimate export is cashews. On the up side, the Bijagos Archipelago just off the coast is supposed to be stunning, but it’s very expensive to get out there.

You would think that having lived for decades in such turmoil, the people would be surly and unfriendly. Not at all. They’re extremely nice and helpful, and the touts are not nearly as aggressive as the Senegalese ones on the other side of the river. Most of Bissau is pretty run down and weathered and with garbage all over the place, and you can see totally trashed buildings—such as the presidential palace, but there’s some new construction going up and nice houses here and there, so perhaps there’s hope.

I settle into my overpriced hotel room (everything is overpriced here), and it doesn’t take long for the electricity to cut. Perhaps plugging in my laptop overloaded the grid. The humidity here is insane. I stand in the shower and sweat at the same time.

The shell of the former presidential palace

The hotel starts its generator and my Mac fires up.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

In Ziguinchor

To travel from the north end of Senegal to its south end is no easy task; the country of Gambia gets in the way. The civilized way of doing it is by the twice-weekly ferry--a 14-hour overnight cruise that costs $33. For an extra $7, you get a bed--a worthwhile investment since big flat-screen TVs throughout the ship blast god-awful TV shows at full volume. The ship is actually pretty nice with a lot of security, and it replaces the one that sank on this route back in 2002 with nearly 2000 deaths, making it one of the top maritime disasters in history.

By morning, we're heading up the Casamance River to a town called Ziguinchor and the end of the line. This place has a Graham Greene vibe to it; you expect lots of French expat intrigue going on. For me, I sit it out until Monday, waiting for the Guinea-Bissau consulate to open so I can get a visa. There's not much to do here (well, yes there is: my clothes stink something awful) except walk around and see how much liquid I can sweat off. I go down by the river to take some pictures and notice later on when I upload the photos to my laptop that one of the boat guys is giving me the finger.

The streets of Ziguinchor

Along the Casamance River

Waiting for the Guinea-Bissau consulate to open on Monday