Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Stuck in the Middle...

Now the last time we were ready to take the sept-place there was a big local transport strike so we were forced to go to plan B and negotiate a direct taxi ride out of town for our first vacation. This time no strikes so it's full steam ahead. We are going to The Collines de Niassam Lodge located 150 Km south of Dakar in Palmarin within the Sine Saloum delta.  Our second "vacation" starting Monday, February 20th a week before the election.

We catch a cab from our apartment and the taxi driver is asking us where we  were headed - and when we mentioned the sept-place and Sine-Saloum he was ready to start some hard bargaining to possibly take us direct. It certainly was tempting so we verified with Paker and Addison what they wanted and they insisted we take the sept-place - being a new adventure for the three of us. Manning of course no longer a plebe but a full fledged graduate of this mode of transport with his trips back and forth to Mboro. 

We get out of the taxi and figure out the place which is a "parking lot" (le garage Pompier)  where we are to catch said sept-place from Dakar to Mbour - our first leg of about 2 hours. The place is just teaming with people (chauffers, passengers and sellers of things) and cars and as crazy as it was - it was not the time to take pictures and you just want to stay focused on the mission. We find the location of cars going to Mbour and get in.

While the 4 of us wait for more passengers - the rear hatch of the station wagon is open with our 2 bags of luggage but room from one more bag. So until then, we have all kinds of hands politely reaching in to try and sell us something. It's true with the hatch back open and our bags right there I was a bit nervous that it was possible for someone to just grab them and run. But as a bit of time went on I realized - people are too busy with stuff already in their hands they are trying to sell.  In fact Manning told me he worked through the same thoughts himself the first time. Yet we still kept our backpacks on our laps or on the floor minimizing our leg space to start - one because for every piece of luggage there is a nominal charge (but nothing we can't afford) - as well as just wanting to keep anything really important that was in our backpacks within hands reach.  As far as all the items being presented to us for sale, I know it's a familiar story - one that we have come to find amusing on one level and yet heart-breaking on another. There are just **so many** people trying to sell something.  All things being equal - most things seemed slightly useful if I had needed or wanted them but the funniest to me was the guy holding three eggs in his hand. What did I need eggs for and where would I have put them? After just a short bit the car is full and off we go. So what does it look like in the sept-place from my vantage point....we've got...

jokers to the left of me,

clowns to the right

and here I am stuck in the middle ....

As you can see the guy in front of me had just barely enough clearance room above his head. It's pretty evident the shorter you are the better and the best seat in the house is the passenger seat up front which typically has a seat belt. Just after we started to go I was able to carefully take their backpacks and tussle them in the back -  where there was some open space. Of course once I did I somehow caused the luggage to shift just enough to push our back seat forward in a way that caused us to lean forward a bit. Between the 3 of us we kept trying to push the seat back with little success, until we stopped for gas. I guess that's what I get for not paying for the backpacks - HAR HAR.  When we stopped, Manning got out to try and reconfigure the back which still did not help to lock the back seat in place and what he came to find out as well the trunk itself was never latching. We recovered some extra space for our legs and back and just kept trying not to think about it.  Thank goodness we did not push back hard enough on our end - or I think we would have pushed open the hatch and our luggage would have gone flying out.  The stories here are never ending.

So we make it to Mbour for the shift change to another sept-place. We followed the directions about how to find the spot at the Mbour pompier and how to make it to our lodge from an incredibly well written document by the Peace Corps -  The Volunteer's Guide to Eco-Tourism in Senegal. After getting out of the sept-place I have to bend down and dig through my backpack for the instructions and before I realize it I see dozens of legs surrounding me and once I pop back up for air - you've got every Senegalese male taxi-driver wanting to know where we are going just because each one is hoping for the business.  As we explain where we are going some peel off as it's not their destination and some follow us. This is not the time to take photos either - you really have to move quickly to get out of the madness. So we find the spot for Palmarin/Djifer .  We can see that there is a car waiting and they need 3 people. Someone sees Manning and the 2 boys and is trying to get them into their car while trying to explain that we are really 4 people.  Perhaps back at home we'd agree to split up and say "I'll catch up - you go ahead" - perhaps even in Dakar now between walking, taxi and local bus transport -  but out here - no way!!  So we end up letting the other half-full car wait while we negotiate a private sept-place - basically paying for the other 3 empty seats.  Sometimes I've come to love this culture when it comes to the 'price negotiations' - you get to an impasse and you stand there and each person holds their ground on the price. As you keep your ground more people come around to listen as you rally back and forth. Really we are no more than 1,000 CFA difference (to us $2.00) and it's not a deal breaker by any means but much of the time now I don't like 'breaking down' and I swear using "Boundaw" to tell them my name usually seals the deal.  "Je veux le prix de Boundaw".  Seriously - it throws them off  in a humorous  kind of way when a Toubab (and not from the Peace Corps) has a Senegalese name and knows how to use it.  We finally tell the guy - we can keep talking all day and not go, Or go so you can get paid. Basically we are confident some other sept-place taxi driver will step in soon and take us. So, without further ado - he nods and has us put our bags in the trunk. Off we go.

Here's two photos I got inside the taxi just as we were pulling out. Yes, cracked windshield and no rear view mirror.  But Manning pointed out he did have side view mirrors. Lordy. It just goes with the territory.

For about a half hour our drive continues on a main road and all of a sudden the driver veers off the road on some tertiary sandy roads of which there seems to be many.  No signs or directions - nothing just scenery that clearly he is familiar with.  I think. 

If there is one good thing about turning the driving over to someone who knows (despite the conditions of the car which I really try not to think about) - we get to enjoy just soaking up all the surroundings - palm trees, baobabs,  thatched roof houses. It's quite mind altering. Really - we've just never seen anything like it in our life up until now.  It's not long after that we transition again and are now driving on salt flats. Just for your information - here's what it says in the Peace Corp guide if you are driving yourself -- " After Joal the road changes from asphalt to laterite surface. Follow the signs in Samba Dia directing you South to Palmarin. (154km). You may notice as you’re driving that all the local cars get off the road and drive the salt flats as much as possible. If you’re a little daring, getting off the pothole-littered main road will save a lot of time while traveling between Joal and Palmarin. If you are interested in taking the shortcut but worried you may get lost, or worse - stuck in the mud, - the best thing to do is follow a sept-place from Joal. Most are headed to Palmarin and the drivers know the quickest route based on the current conditions."  Honestly I don't see how these cars make it - but they do. And we did.

No longer stuck in the middle - We've arrived!


  1. Is Manning looking desperately for the Coit Tower? Or merely studying which direction to start if you have to hitch hike back.....