Tag Archives: bush taxi

Africa Overland

Waiting for the bus at the Mali-Senegal border

Crossing into Mali from Senegal, you immediately know you’ve transitioned into a poorer country. The amenities change. Everywhere in Mali are half-finished concrete buildings – the remnants of some great idea on the part of the government or an NGO or whomever, for which the money ran out. Senegal’s by no means a developed country, but you get the sense that there’s an entrepreneurial, if misguided, spirit present in the towns and cities: Senegal is moving forward – maybe at the expense of some of its charm and West African-ness – but it’s moving forward nonetheless.

The apprentice collecting fares from the front seat in a bush taxi in Mali

Both border controls were a breeze. On the Senegalese side, the officer thanked us for visiting his country, stamped our passports without hassle, and wished us safe travels with a kindness utterly absent in the way I’ve seen American immigration officials berate and belittle foreigners.

The Malian side too was little trouble. An intimidating gendarme cracked into a teddy bear when we told him we’d been Peace Corps volunteers and especially when we started asking him how to say a few words in Bambara.

The hassle came on the road, especially in the first few hundred kilometers, where frequent checkpoints turned the 800-900 km – a long distance by any measure – into a marathon day. Our visa receipts got us a simple nod of acceptance from the police, but they used the opportunity to extract a little bit of pocket money from the Malians and other Africans on board the bus.

Anne-Claire in the back of a pickup in Mali

Maybe the Senegalese officials are just better paid and don’t need the extra income from bribes. Even traveling through the heavily militarized Casamance region in southern Senegal, where rebel separatist sentiments necessitate (apparently) the tanks that roll through the towns with soldiers manning the gun turrets and the frequent stops on the roadway – though they’re so cursory, I can’t imagine they’re ever effective in rooting out insurgents – even there, little money seemed to change hands.

The land too changed almost immediately after crossing the Senegal River, which separates Kidira in Senegal from Diboli in Mali. Anne-Claire and I often joke that when they drew the border between California and Oregon, the California folks just drove north until the sun stopped shining, then took a few steps back and planted their stakes. Of course, there’s quite a bit of rain in northern California, but the four times I’ve driven across the border, our little joke has held water – sun on the California side, rain or snow in Oregon.

The same idea seems to have been put in place by the folks who drew the Senegal-Mali border. Right over the border, the verdant fields swarming with birds give way to the dusty hardpan of the true Sahel. Mango trees heavy with fruit are replaced by scrappier neem, acacia and shea trees, and the baobabs, in comparison to their grotesquely huge and heavily branched cousins in Senegal, look spindly and stunted.

Nigerien bush taxis (van in the background) always seem to get more for their money

The bleakness is oddly comforting in a way, as I can feel we’re getting closer to Niger. You can hear it in the cadence of speech and see it in the well-worn dress and thatched roofs and mud huts melting in the rainy season.

Even the trundling bus has the comfort of familiarity, swerving from shoulder to shoulder to avoid the slightest pockmark in the tarmac – West African bus drivers will gladly run down donkey carts and cyclists, and they seem to see dogs and livestock as little more than videogame obstacles: best not to hit them, but not at the cost of speed. But present a driver with an inch-deep pothole, perhaps a foot in diameter, and he’ll tiptoe his overloaded rig across it as gently as if he were balancing stacks of dishes on the roof.

As green as it gets – driving through Niger on the way to Kollo

Travel is a perennial challenge here. The air conditioners in the buses stopped working long ago, but of course the windows don’t open. The only air comes from the vented escape hatches in the roof, and then only when the bus is moving. And, in a region that’s produced the likes of Yousou N’Dour, Ali Farke Touré and Salif Keita, bus drivers seem to love with a cult-like obsession the same way that some people love campy B movies in the States the clangy, scream-laden, over-instrumented, over-amplified music of less adept artists that’s always too loud.

Still, I wouldn’t trade this way of seeing West Africa, even with all its challenges. It’s almost as if jigsawing our way through the region’s roads, we’re unlocking the secrets this part of the world holds. It’s only like this you can see how the harshness of the land forges tough-as-nails people, tempered by relentless hospitality and an eagerness to laugh that’s unlike anywhere else.

It’s an area of the world I was proud to call home for two years, and I’m excited to be back.

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Virtual Bush Taxi Ride

Here’s a short video Anne-Claire took on our ride through Senegal and the Gambia. The roads in parts of Senegal are notoriously bad, even for West Africa. Drivers, to save their cars from gaping holes in the road that would devastate a vehicle that hasn’t had shocks for decades, swing wildly from one side of the road to the other. There’s an elaborate system of using turning signals to indicate to oncoming traffic which way you’re going to pass, though I still haven’t figured it out. I’m not sure they have either, which might be why road accident fatalities are 8-10 times higher in the developing world than elsewhere. Often, the smoothest track is with one set of wheels on the roadway and the other on the less-worn dirt path running alongside.

I’m sharing this now, after we’ve left West Africa, so there’s no need to worry. We traveled some 3500 kilometers on roads in Senegal, Mali and Niger (roughly the equivalent of driving from California to Ohio), all thankfully without incident.

Crossing the Gambia

We left the soft cradle of the diplomatic family’s house early in the morning and took to the already-muggy streets at 5:30 a.m. After Anne-Claire argued the price of our luggage down from the exorbitant price the driver first demanded, we got in a bush taxi headed for Ziguinchor in southern Senegal near the border with Guinea-Bissau.

Five and a half hours straight in the ‘sept-place’ (seven-seater station wagon, excluding the driver) were about all my seat bones could take; the airflow to our seats in the third row had stopped, creating a suffocating, sauna-like atmosphere that pushed my claustrophobia to the limit and nearly sent me in a panicked launch toward the cracked windows. A commonality over much of West Africa we’ve found is that people often prefer to be sweaty rather than dusty, so they’re often loath to roll down the windows in all but the worst heat. It was a good reminder of what real heat is. I looked vaguely like I’d been through a rainstorm, and I was intimately aware of every sweat gland on my body. I’d forgotten how much my eye sockets can sweat.

When we arrived at the Gambia border, I thought it would be a welcome reprieve. First, it was just an opportunity to get out of the car. We had to get an exit stamp in our passports from Senegal (easy and free), then pay a small ‘entrance fee’ (read: bribe?) to get into the Gambia without a proper visa.

Second, the country’s namesake river holds a powerful place in my memory, as this was where the story of ‘Roots‘ by Alex Haley began. The film drove my curiosity about Africa when I first saw it at 11 years old, and reading the book years later in my first months at post in Peace Corps deepened my understanding of the rhythm of village life.

The real fun started as we got close to the Gambia River. Defying all logic, our driver sped past the miles-long stretches of cars, buses and trucks waiting for the ferry to cross the river. Word has it that the Gambian government refuses to build a bridge for fear of losing the bustling commerce that passengers forced to wait days generate in the thin sliver of land that forms this odd country.

While Anne-Claire and I had egg sandwiches, the driver took our contributions to bribe the ferry operators into letting us move up in the line (our fellow passengers contributed as well). Hot, cranky and tired, we decried the entropic disarray as people fought for the few places on one of the two slow, decrepit boats that left each bank of the river at most once an hour.

On reflection, though, this is Africa – things operate differently that the way we know, and in the end there’s a method hidden amongst the madness. It may not look like what we’re used to or can even comprehend, like the way news in a village always seems to spread like wildfire: I’d get home to my Peace Corps house in Niger, say hello to my host family, and not 10 minutes later, folks from the far side of the village a 15-minute walk away would arrive just to greet me because they’d heard I was home.

I suppose that’s part of what makes traveling interesting. If everything looked the same, the impetus to light out wouldn’t be so strong.

A Few Pictures from the Road

We just arrived in Niger safely after a bit of a detour. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to fly from Bamako to Niamey for about the same cost as what it would have been to buy a visa for Burkina Faso and spend time there. Our Air Mali flight was ahead of schedule when the red hardpan I remember so well from my first flight to Africa seven years ago came into view. We flew over the stadium and saw the old Peace Corps office nearby.

Unfortunately, we also were watching a wall of dust descend on the area at the same time. After circling around for 15 minutes – you could feel the pilot’s hesitation – they finally decided to go on to Ouagadougou, the closest airport and where most of the plane’s passengers were headed anyway. Fortunately, when we landed, they found us a flight on a new African airline called Asky, and we eventually did make it to Niger, just a few hours late.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of the storm, but I did get the river after what was a massive storm. The temperature dropped to around 75 degrees F, which for Niger is right around freezing.

I’m also posting a few other amusing pictures. The first is the bush taxi apprentice, who, like the guard at the gates of Oz, popped his head back to collect our money.

The second – well, I’m not one to criticize anyone trying to speak or write in a foreign language. But I also know that the best way to learn is with a good sense of humor. This placard was on our Air Mali flight. Number 4 is particularly good.

Peace Corps Days

Perhaps the best days we had in Morocco came thanks to a Peace Corps Volunteer who was also a classmate of Anne-Claire’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Christine lives in a town called Khenifra in a valley in the Middle Atlas. The ‘bowl of heat’ where Khenifra sits keeps it well off the tourist trail, especially in mid July.

For that reason, we enjoyed strolling the streets as Moroccans went about their days rather than trying to get us to buy something. Anne-Claire even went behind the counter at a schpeckia (forgive my spelling for these delicious pieces of thin, fried dough covered in honey and sesame seeds, often a treat during Ramadan to break the daily fast) shop and helped the workers there to their delight. We left loaded down with far too many of the sweets to eat ourselves.

Our second day in town, Christine needed to have some paperwork completed for a boy she’d gotten into a USAID-sponsored summer camp. He lives in a village a few hours up into the mountains, so we set out early of the first of two taxis we needed to take to get there.

In Morocco, these ‘grand taxis’ are a bit better than the bush taxis you’ll find further south in West Africa, but only just. They’re usually wide, boxy Mercedes a few decades old, and drivers use the extra space added before fuel consumption was much of a concern to pack 4 people in the back seat, and three across the front, including the driver.

Wedged in against the door I gradually got a little more room, the car’s other passengers settling like the contents of a bag of potato chips as the car trundled around the mountain roads. We arrived in Kerrouchen just after two in the afternoon. The town is stunningly situated on a dusty, sloping plateau with the jagged peaks of the Middle Atlas rising around in every direction. The family that Christine had lived with met us at the taxi stop and took us back to their house.

Like every family who has hosted us on our journey, they pulled out all the stops for us (no doubt due to the excitement of seeing Christine again), beginning with this deliciously sweet sesame paste (the name of which I can’t remember). We had a Moroccan salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, followed by pasta, two whole chickens (one fried and the other cooked with saffron), and dessert of water melon, in addition to some mint tea, of course.

Afterward, we relaxed with the family, especially enjoying Rachid’s two-year-old daughter, Souhaila. Their neighbor joined us for part of the meal. He’s a mountain guide, and it’s his 14-year-old son that Christine is getting into the summer camp. Tanned and sinewy with clear blue eyes that reflect the region’s Berber roots, he comes off as no-nonsense, so much so that it was difficult to get him to accept our polite refusal to stay the night at his house.

Alas, we knew we had to keep going. Before leaving the village, we visited a couple of women’s cooperatives on the edge of town. Both groups produce beautiful textiles, and they greeted us warmly. The second group of women was particularly excited to see us. They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall in what felt like a large school room, with giant weaving looms sitting in front of three to four women each. Their chatter was punctuated by the thump, thump, thump as they smacked the threads into place.

As soon as we entered, a few of them hopped up and offered us tea, this time the more potent green tea similar to what the Tuaregs drink in Niger. Their hands were gnarled from decades of hard work, and their faces – creased by birthdays and children and husbands – testified to the diversity of the Moroccan people and its age-old importance as the gateway to Africa. You might expect to see their light skin and rounded noses in Eastern Europe, but here they were, blue eyes and all, on the edge of the dark continent; only the tattoos that the older women have on their foreheads signal the vast difference in cultures.

Most younger Berber women these days don’t have the tattoos, but the legend behind them demonstrates the cohesiveness we felt standing among the women at the cooperative as we laughed, drank tea and admired their handiwork. Long ago, some Berber women were taken to Europe as slaves, and they were given these tattoos to denote their lowly status. When a few of the women escaped and returned to their homes, everyone knew they’d been slaves because of the tattoos. So that these women wouldn’t be ostracized as damaged goods, the other women decided to tattoo themselves as well, making it impossible to know who had been a slave and who hadn’t.

After a lengthy goodbye, we headed back toward the taxi stand and eventually started the drive home, accompanied by a beautiful sunset. Peace Corps service is full of ups and downs, but it’s days like this you remember – time spent sharing food, laughter and simply time with others. I left my service in 2006 believing that the best part of Peace Corps is the exchange between two vastly different cultures, and I remain convinced of that. More often than not – as was the case this day in that little town in Morocco – I was on the receiving end of the generosity toward visitors that pervades cultures all over the world.