Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Overland from Dakar to Banjul

Every Peugeot station wagon in the world lives in Dakar, at a huge dirt lot called Gare Routiere. Most are 505s, 20-30 years old, and a few are 504s, 30-40 years old. They look terrible—painted over and over like front steps, missing light-covers and wheel-covers and gas tank doors—but they seem to run fine. Peugeot wagons were always oddly high-sprung in the rear, and these look jacked up even further, as if they’re waiting to pounce—or tip over. We owned a 504 and a 505 when I was a kid, and everyone thought my father was strange to buy them, prone as they were to rust and sudden breakdowns. But they were always surprisingly roomy, even more capacious than “full-size” American wagons, the careening, marshmallow-sprung Chevy Cavaliers and Buick Roadmasters. Volvos might have been sturdier, and certainly preppier, but they couldn’t begin to devour people and luggage like the funny French machines. The 505 wagon had a six inch longer wheelbase than the sedan, giving it a back seat that was positively limousine-like, in addition to a “way-back” even a family of four on a week-long camping trip struggled to fill. But I realize now that our friends were right to look askance: Peugeot wagons were not meant for American families; they were meant for African mass transit. The pale metallic blue one we traded in fifteen years ago may well be plying the roads of Senegal even now.

Africans have a way of milking more from a machine than even its original engineers imagined, and the Peugeot wagons serving as sept-place (seven place) taxis are a prime example. Fitted with a third row of seats, these erstwhile five-passenger vehicles are made to carry seven passenger plus the driver plus baggage. Quarters are more than tight, but that this carrying capacity is even possible testifies both to the roominess of the vehicle and the determination of the Senegalese. While buses and minivans commonly lash luggage to their roofs, or stow it underneath, the Peugeots coolly cache it in the back right behind the passengers. During the trip I grew weary of holding my smaller bag in my lap, so I simply reached back and stowed it atop the bigger pieces behind me—with room to spare.

I left Dakar before 6:30 am and didn’t arrive in Banjul until after 2:30 (a 97-mile distance)—most of that time was spent in the Peugeot, bouncing over small potholes and dipping off the paved road onto the dirt shoulder to circumvent bigger ones. It wasn’t too bad until my bladder filled up, after which every bump and lurch become so agonizing I prayed for a temporary stop, until a stop came and the heat intensified so much that I hoped only to start going again. It was well over 90 and humid, with the only shade coming from the roof of the car, which my head was pressed up against. We never stopped long enough to get out, so I became afraid to drink any water. The ladies in front of me refused to open their windows more than a couple inches, exacerbating the oven-like conditions. For much of the journey they engaged in a heated political argument with the man next to me in Wolof (the local language), apparently worrying the question of which was better, Gambia or Senegal. (“They always fight about that,” Mariama, the assistant director of the volunteer organization, told me later.) With my legs buckled up almost to the point of paralysis, it was sensory overload of a most unpleasant sort.

I’d been warned to demand the front seat, even if it meant waiting for the next car, or tipping the driver. But the Gare Routiere was so chaotic, and my French so clumsy, that I was afraid to negotiate, so I took the first seat offered, which turned out to be the seventh place in the seven-place. I’d always rationalized my discomfort with similar public transit contingencies in Latin America with the reminder that I’m a giant by Latin standards, so what’s cramped for me might be fairly comfortable for locals. But the Senegalese are not small people—the man next to me was about my height, and the women weren’t a whole lot shorter. Yet by the end of this journey I was a sweating, stumbling zhombie who all but leapt in the pool when I finally reached the hotel. It was one of the most uncomfortable voyages of my life—and I’ve been on quite a few—so I’m left with no choice but to affirm the cliche that the locals are somehow “just used to it.”

The sept-place dropped us at the Senegal-Gambia border, where I fended off moneychangers and followed my nose to passport control. Even compared to the no-electricity bush crossing from Uganda to Tanzania, this was a surprisingly casual affair. Scarcely any English or French was spoken; I practically had to beg to have my passport stamped, and the officer didn’t really seem to know what to do with it, simply scribbling some numbers and letters in a giant ledger and fiddling with a stamp he apparently never used. On to the Gambian side, things were about the same, except I had to spend nearly half an hour with a guy who looked no more than nineteen and claimed to be a drug enforcement officer (producing an ID card that looked like an elementary school art project) as he made me take out and open every single item in both my bags. It became clear, as he complained that my “nice shoes” couldn’t be bought in Gambia, and admired my Ipod, that he was more interested in playing with my toys than eradicating drugs. I did my best to be friendly, despite his halting English and my bursting bladder.

Next was the taxi-ride to the ferry stop, a half-hour-long relatively smooth procedure involving a subcompact car, the driver, two adults, two children, and me. The ferry itself was a breeze, both literally and figuratively, even though I had to duck under a dozen market stalls and over as many stray cats, dogs, and chickens, following my taxi-companions, to the ticket office. I’d been warned that the ferry was “pickpocket heaven” and a “crush of humanity,” but I found plenty of space on the top deck and enjoyed the grand views across the massive mouth of the Gambia River, rivaling the Rio de la Plata between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, wider by far than the Mississippi Delta or the upper Nile or Amazon.


  1. I love that you're traveling all over Africa in a Peugeot 505 wagon! There used to be a lot of them in Maine long after they'd been jettisoned in Jersey. You can probably measure pretty accurately the relative economies of different regions by how new the cars are. Your border crossing reminds me of going from Nepal to Tibet. The Chinese "soldiers" looked about 12 and were wearing old white Keds tennis sneakers instead of boots with their too-large army uniforms. The customs official kept asking us how to fill out the forms (which were all in Chinese) and where and whether or not to stamp our passports. Needless to say, we had no idea what to tell them, and this came back to haunt us when we tried to leave Tibet to go back to Nepal and got dragged out of the boarding queue at Lhasa airport by security into some secret inner office to be interrogated about why our passports and visas were incorrectly stamped and filled out!