Saint Louis, Senegal * October 28, 2008
For nearly a month, I’d been tearing across tarmac roads through the Sahara. Suddenly, I was running across 60 miles of dirt piste along the Atlantic coast and the Senegal River delta, heading into Senegal. The landscape was lush and green. Tall reeds grew thick in the low water, and fishermen plied pirogues to catch catfish and other fare.
I percolated along, delighted to be on a piste for a change. I rode through small fishing settlements, full of thatch huts and wooden boats bobbing in the cappuccino-colored river. Women in colorful dresses and headscarves sizzled up lunch in wok-like vessels. Men and boys waved and smiled at me.
Fish-catching birds pirouetted above, soaring and swooping and the floating like gliders on the gentle breeze. For the first time in my Africa travels, I saw large, glorious, leafy trees. The peace was luxurious, the world bathed in golden sunlight.
I stopped to chat with a few fishermen. The day was hot and lightly humid, and one fisherman seemed puzzled why I would be wearing a thick black jacket in this heat. He was in his late 40s with a thick salt and pepper beard and a large growth on his forehead. He was kneeling on the earth and cutting the heads off the bunch of big whiskered catfish he had caught.
He chattered away in the native Wolof language, and I could tell he found my motorcycle attire amusing. He pointed at my jacket and his own shirtless torso and smiled and laughed, showing rotten stumps for teeth.
“Pour moto, pour tombe,” I told him in French. In case I fall on the bike. This seemed to amuse him even more, and then a kid stopped by and pulled my jacket back to reveal part of the Rock Gardn motocross armor I wear, and the guy laughed even harder.
The dirt road was modestly rutted with some patches of sand, but easily enough negotiated. On this piste, one thing I would not have to concern myself with was maniacal African traffic. A car or truck might pass in the opposite direction every 15 minutes, and that was it.
That’s four-wheeled traffic, of course. What I didn’t count on was four-hooved traffic.
I slowed at the spectacle in front of me. I could see Peter Cullen stopped ahead. The road was jam-packed with several hundred cattle, as thick as Casablanca traffic, being herded along by a pair of men. We stopped and watched, snapped some photos and drank some water, and deliberated what to do.
The barefoot herdsmen motioned us on. We could pass straight through the cattle, they indicated. Peter took off, gingerly maneuvering his big BMW 650 Dakar through the bovine phalanx. I pulled up at the rear of the pack. These cattle were large. The mature male steers sported long horns.
I edged up to the rear, waiting for the pack to part. It did not. The cattle loped ahead, oblivious to the Suzuki DR650 idling behind them. They mooed and swished flies with their tails and one gave me a backwards glance with a rheumy eye.
Were they agitated? The aftermarket FMF exhaust on my Suzuki is loud – louder than the pipe on Peter’s BMW. Up close, I could feel the size and strength of these beasts. Though famously docile, they are powerful creatures. If one got spooked, he could head-butt me over and stick a horn in my gut in a flash. Or maybe one spooked cattle would start a stampede, and I would be one thoroughly trampled adventure motorcyclist.
Finally, enough of an opening emerged that I could enter the pack. Young cattle moved skittishly, not sure whether they should trot along to my left, my right, or smack in front of me. Patiently, I picked my way through, careful not to brush a beast with a tire or bark buster, until at last the piste was clear again.
Video: Southern Mauritania Traffic Jam
I pick my way through a cattle traffic jam on the piste from Rosso to Diama and the Mauritania-Senegal border.
Though the cattle were not hostile, some punk little kids were. Ironically, throughout the morning en route from Nouakchott to Rosso, I had been contemplating the many greetings we receive from people alongside the road, outside of shops or their hut-homes. Youngsters in particular come running from their homes at the sight and sound of the large adventure motorbikes, hollering and waving and grinning from ear to ear.
If we stopped, they would be sure to tug our jackets for a cadeaux, or a gift. Sometimes, I can hear them yelling the word: Cadeaux! Cadeaux! Though we can’t stop for these packs of kids, they seem content enough if we beep or wave or return their thumbs up. It’s some excitement in their day, perhaps. It seemed that the poorer the town or settlement, the more exuberant the greetings.
The landscape had changed, from the beige, sere earth north of Nouakchott. Here the sand was a lively orange, and canopied thorn trees adorned the undulating terrain. It was considerably more populated. Every few miles, I would ride through a primitive collection of huts and shacks of wood and maybe a sheet-metal roof. The goat vs. human populations appeared roughly equal.
Down the road on the left was a group of a dozen or so boys, maybe 10 or 12 years old. Another bunch of kids to greet … except I saw one bend over and pick up a rock from alongside the road, and hurl it at me. And another. And a third, the last one of the pack, had in his hand a rock as big as a baseball. I could see the thing coming at me, right towards my helmet. I ducked.
I slammed on the brakes. The rear tire squealed and went briefly into a spin. The little kids ran up a small hill. I could see a few of them hiding behind trees, and when I began to teach them some colorful new English words, they ran from view. I stood there and fumed. Gendarmie! Je suis gendarmie! I yelled, unsure of whether or not they heard me. I’m the police!
Should I follow them up the hill? Leave my bike sitting in the middle of the road? Run the bike up a dirt road to whatever little burg lay up the hill? Finally, I rode off, cursing inside my helmet and somehow chastened. It’s a mistake, I reasoned, to take kindness for granted. Trust nothing and no one, not even yourself.
The authorities, in fact, were just 8 km down the road. Peter and Migo were waiting for me at a police checkpoint. I dismounted and complained to the officers some kids had just thrown rocks at me, and one threw a big rock. The officers took a surprisingly keen interest and suggested we go back and find them. I considered it, and finally nodded no.
The episode was unnerving, and suddenly my mood was black. I’m not sure what would have happened if I was struck by a large rock while riding at 40 or 45 mph, but it wouldn’t have been pleasant. A bird had struck me in the chest once in Oklahoma at speed, and it was like slammed by a sledgehammer.
“It’s the exception to the rule,” Migo said. “Don’t let it bother you.” He was right, but still I slowed and looked for objects in the hands of children for the rest of the day. They just waved and hooted and thrust their thumbs in the air.
The Rosso border between Mauritania and Senegal is said to be among Africa’s worst for pickpockets, hustlers, con men, and outright thieves. “The town,” reported my Rough Guide to West Africa, “has something of an ominous feel to it, with unscrupulous characters poised to swindle.” All along we had planned to avoid Rosso in favor of 60 miles of dirt to Diama on the Atlantic coast, but if there was any doubt, an email from Geoff sealed the deal:
“I tried to find the road for Diama but failed so thought to take the hit and go into Rosso. BIG MISTAKE. I got robbed BY A COP at gunpoint. He took me for 140 Euros after initially wanting the bike, so AVOID Rosso at all costs.” We would have to wait until Dakar to hear the details from the victim.
Even on its outskirts, I could sense a danger in Rosso. Peter and Migo stopped to fuel up, and instantly we were surrounded by men. Their questions were benign – where are you from? You cross at Rosso? Welcome to my country – but their demeanors were malignant. Chilling, even. One man took a particular interest in me. Behind his sheeplike questions, I sensed a wolf. His slitted, dagger eyes were implacable, hostile, predatory, contemptuous; his cheekbones high and polished like 8-balls.
For the first time ever, I didn’t feel comfortable removing my helmet. Ordinarily I enjoy chatting with the locals during a fuel break, but not these vermin. Sweating profusely in the hot sun, I remained seated on my motorbike and protested that I could speak no French, and that I could not understand what the man said. He regarded me with a look of even graver contempt.
Migo and Peter sensed the same, and they too had not removed their helmets. We motored from that fuel stop as quickly as possible.
Sixty miles of piste later, we encountered officially sanctioned thievery at what turned out to be an expensive crossing from Mauritania into Senegal. First, we paid 20 Euros (about $26 USD) a man to have both our passports and our motorcycle documentation stamped out of Mauritania. Then it was on to the Senegal border, where an ordinary-looking, un-uniformed man stood at a gate at the other end of a bridge. We were obliged to stop, and the guy approached Peter, who was in the lead.
He wanted 10 Euros each to raise the gate for our passage. Peter negotiated him down to 20 Euros for the three, which in itself told us this dude wasn’t working on behalf of the good people of Senegal. Border officials never negotiate down on official fees – up, yes, but never down. Too, he made no record of any vehicles he allowed to cross – just put the money in his pocket.
Probably he was in the employ of a Senegalese Tony Soprano and had would share the gravy from this extortionist gig with friends in high places, and maybe the border crossing officials, just 100 yards from the gate, who laboriously recorded our information in ink in their tattered and oversized ledger books.
The paper slaves, I call these guys. In Latin America and now in Africa, I’d been struck by the incongruity of these virile, macho, gun-toting dudes reduced to the secretarial tedium of recording travelers’ information with pen and paper. Rarely does one see a computer in use – only in the better-developed Argentina and Chile do I recall my information being recorded on a PC.
Even then, those PCs evidently were not networked together, because when leaving those countries all my information had to be rekeyed in, rather than summoned up over an internal or external network.
As we hung around Mauritania border waiting, I noticed a collection of stickers that travelers had fastened up on the office windows and doors. I got out an Obama ’08 sticker from my tankbag and asked a pair of border guys if I could affix it to the window.
One uniformed official took the sticker from me and gave it a scrutinizing look, and it suddenly dawned on him what he was looking at. “OBAMA!” he declared, and shook my hand enthusiastically. “Barack Obama!”
“Boosh non bon, homme mauvais,” I said, kicking into the air as one would kick an ass. The laughed and agreed and one guy asked me for a second sticker, for his car windshield.
Then it was on to the Senegal crossing, and another 20 Euro a man. All told, including a nominal 500 ougiya “community tax” to leave Mauritania, the border crossing lightened our wallets by about $60 USD. (We had earlier avoided another expense, when Peter successfully derailed demands by two Mauritanian officers that we pay a few dollars to pass through the Parc Nacional du Diawling en route to Diama).
And then there was vehicle insurance. It’s obligatory in Senegal. Peter told of meeting a pair of European riders in Senegal several years ago who had passed on insurance, and then were fined 50 Euro at a police checkpoint and obliged to secure insurance before they could proceed.
A woman in a wooden shack offered a month of insurance for about 32 Euro. Peter and Migo and signed up. I had emptied my wallet of Euro, and rather than stripping the bike to extricate it from my super-secret hiding place or prevailing on my European friends for a loan, I asked the lady the cost in American dollars, which I had in my wallet.
She conferred with her boss, punched some numbers into a calculator, and told me $65. Sixty-five dollars! I protested. On the global markets, the 32 Euros Peter had paid amounts to about 41 USD. I’m sorry, she said, but the U.S. dollar is a poor value in Senegal.
I decided to take my chances without insurance, partly because we suddenly had a problem to tend to. (Down the road, I would be stopped by the police and asked for insurance. I showed my U.S. Progressive insurance card and was allowed to proceed by the unwitting officer, though it is useless outside of North America).
Peter’s rear tire was flat. The sun was just above the horizon and sinking fast. We got to work. A four-inch nail was the culprit. Peter extracted it with a pair of pliers. A crowd of a half-dozen men gathered around, trying to help and hoping for a reward when the work was done, which it was an hour later.
Peter gave the leader of the pack a 5 Euro bill. Then they guy came over to me. He was tall and angular and the spitting image of the NBA’s Kevin Garnett. The whites of his eyes had somehow turned orange by disease, and the visual effect was unsettling. You didn’t want to stare, but you had to, because they were his eyes.
I protested I had no money, which was effectively true. I had a little Mauritanian ougiya, which no one in Senegal wants, and some $50 USD bills, but no Senegalese CFA. He was nonplussed and bore in. What had been a jovial smile changed to a hostile and demanding leer. It was me, he noted, who had asked him for a carpet on which we could work on Peter’s tire. Several of his friends gathered around me while Peter buttoned up and Migo waited on his KTM, idling up on the road.
I began to feel slightly uncomfortable. Darkness had fallen completely. The men now surrounded me tightly, chattering in Wolof and French that I could not understand, tugging at my shoulder and watching with disdain as I went through my routine of inserting earplugs and donning my helmet and gloves.
This rich white man, and not a cent for us poor. I mounted the bike, hit the starter, and rode away into the night.
I wandered about the streets of French-Colonial Saint Louis, enchanted by its faded charm. The city is a long, narrow island, its streets dusty and broken. Buildings and homes are quite delightfully painted in all manner of pastel hues – orange and pink and blue and green. Nearly all of the buildings are old, and many had fallen into grave disrepair, which to my tourist’s eye enhanced the city’s aesthetic appeal. The atmosphere was languid and laid back, like the French Quarter of New Orleans on a sunny Sunday morning.
We lodged at a pricey place ($70 USD split among three) called La Louisane at the northern tip of the island. Peter had stayed here in the past, and it’s his favorite auberge in West Africa. The courtyard had been built around several old trees, a touch that I, as a tree-lover, found particularly attractive.
At night, we took a 10-minute wander into downtown for supper. I had the yassa crevette, a sort of indigenous shrimp stew with a generous serving of rice. Migo adventurously tried something called mafe, which to his disappointment turned out to a bone in a brackish sauce. After that, a beer was in order.
Migo and I found ourselves seated at a colorful bar while Peter excused himself for a phone call and a return to the hotel. In short order, we were joined by two young men. They called themselves Malik and Paco. Malik spoke good English. Paco had a simmering gaze and outrageously long dreadlocks.
I had sensed a change in the cultural personality from our days in northern and central Mauritania. People here were more demanding of tourists. The hustle was both faster and more insidious, the requests for money or cadeaux forceful and overt. My antennae were on alert, and I lied to Malik and Paco that we would be in town for several days.
But Malik and Paco seemed fairly laid back. Malik owned an art shop, which naturally we were invited to visit, but his was not a hard sell. I began to enjoy our conversation with them and took the opportunity to ask Malik if people in Saint Louis were happy.
“People here are very happy,” he told me. “Maybe they do not have a lot of money and they struggle, but look around – people laugh, there is community. It’s not like the United States, is it? You have so much but you are not happy and you do not have the same sort of community.” His observation was spot-on, I thought.
I liked the kid. He was 26 years old and well-traveled across northwestern Africa. Towards the end of the evening, Malik suggested that us four get together tomorrow. We could go to the beach and have a fish cookout, and he noted the availability of marijuana and loose women. Ultimately, of course, we would be expected to finance the expedition and purchase some art, but still, the offer seemed at least partially sincere. We were noncommittal, but indicated that indeed we would talk again tomorrow.
The next day, Migo and I motored through downtown Saint Louis, looking for the road to Dakar. (Peter would remain in Saint Louis, and our group of four would be restored a few days down the road). A man yelled Hey! Hey! and waved. I waved back and kept moving. I thought, That’s not Malik … is it? I told myself it wasn’t.
In fact, Migo told me later that night, it was. “It was him,” Migo said. “I was wondering what you were going to do … pull over and talk to him again?”
“Ahhhhh, shit,” I said. “I thought maybe it was him, but I couldn’t tell. Dammit.” I would be troubled by a mild guilt for the rest of the night, wishing I had stopped if only to say we had to get on to Dakar and bid him farewell. Now who was the hustler – him or me?