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!"

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