Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Back in Senegal

If I were of a different mindset I would have been thrilled to learn there were several deluxe air-conditioned direct buses from Bamako to Dakar every day.  Sounkalo's aunt takes it a couple of times a year from Dakar on a buying trip to Bamako for soap and fabric and others items she sells in Dakar.

I could have taken the bus back to Dakar and gathered visas for Gambia, Guinea-Bisseau, Guinea and Liberia and then ridden down the coast.  But I am too much a purist to have even considered the bus.  I came to Africa to ride my bike.  Taking a bus would go against my nature. That bus ride might have only taken a day, but it would have been agony to be passing though such fascinating scenery and not being a part of it.  I would have become a tourist hopping from site to site rather than the traveler fully experiencing Africa. Plus I couldn't subject my bike to the indignity of being crammed in the cargo hold. So for the past week when one of those buses passed me every couple of hours, not once did I wish I were aboard, even when fhe afternoon temperatures had soared into the high nineties. They only reminded me how happy I was to be spending all this extra time among the baobabs.

If I had been flying past them unable to honor each with a full gaze, I would have felt as if I were committing an act of sacrilege.  

For some of the way the train tracks of the Dakar-Bamako line ran alongside the road.  If the route hadn't been closed down just a couple years ago I would have been tempted to have taken that, as it would have rolled along at a more relaxed pace than the bus and been a genuine African experience.  As it was, I camped a couple nights up and over the embankment of the tracks.  I even camped at the same spot I did coming, putting me precisely 80 miles from Tambacounda, the crossroads town where I would duck down to The Gambia and where there were a couple of nice hotels with swimming pools and wifi strong enough to give Janina a Valentine's Day call.

I recognized my campsite off in the brush by the two liter-and-a-half bottles I had left by a tree, thinking they'd make a great discovery for someone wandering through.  Obviously no one had in the two weeks since I'd been there. I was still procuring water back then in those large bottles early in my travels before I discovered the great bargain of water in bags when I crossed into Mali. They reduced my daily water expense from three dollars a day to ninety cents when I bought a gallon's worth.  Sometimes I'd have to go digging in a refrigerator to find them, but there were occasions when they dominated or were all a refrigerator stocked.

With a tailwind on my return, I accomplished those 80 miles to Tambacounda in 45 minutes less riding time than going the opposite direction.  I've dropped a thousand feet from the plateau I was on in Mali and for the first time my thermometer registered over 100 degrees.  I was mightily looking forward to a dip in a swimming pool.  I was crestfallen when the first hotel I came to was full and so was the other.  At the second I asked if I could camp.  I could though they had no grassy area or official camping area, just space off in the corner of the dirt parking lot.  When I asked the price the semi-English speaking young man at the desk looked questioningly at his female superior.  She knew I was desperate and quoted a price of $20.  "How about ten?" I responded, but she held firm.  

Before setting up my tent or doing anything I plunged into the soupy warm pool and then retreated to the reception area to charge my iPad and catch up on email.  I hadn't been able to check in as the SIM card I acquired in Mali didn't work in Senegal.  An hour later the man behind the desk asked me if I had spoken to the Big Boss.  I was concerned that he was going to tell me I couldn't camp.  A while later the Big Boss, a Frenchmen who had been living in Senegal for 25 years, summoned me to his air-conditioned office.  He apologized for me being charged $20 to camp.  He said it should have been $10.  I could have dinner on the house or a refund.  Since I'd filled up my Tupperware bowl with rice for a dollar, I was happy for the refund.  And then when I left the next morning I was presented with a bag lunch of an apple and sandwich.

I asked if Valentine's Day was why the hotels were full or some holiday.  It was just a coincidence.  Most of those around the pool were Sengelese.  Later after dark we were entertained by a group of drummers beside the pool and outdoor dining area.  They leant an authentic African background when I Facetimed Janina.  She could share scenes of her snow-filled yard to contrast with the drumming.  

I had stayed in a hotel two nights before in Kayes, but couldn't call as its wifi was so weak it took me five hours to download a single podcast.  In Tambacounda I was stocking up with one every three or four minutes. In Kayes, the lone significant town for 400 miles from the Senegal border to just before Bamako, I had a choice of a $35 air-conditioned room or one with a fan for $20.  I always prefer the fan even though the temperature didn't drop below 80 degrees in my room.  I was able to wander the throbbing town of Kayes stocking up on food before dark, highlighted by a woman selling slices of papaya wrapped in cellophane on a tray on her head. I also grabbed a couple bags of dough balls. I can never have enough of those.  I added another cluster on my way out of town the next morning, fresh out of the pan from a woman near the school yard.

Unlike elsewhere in Africa, I haven't spotted a student in a uniform. At least none are barefoot, as was so common in Madagascar, not only among children, but also adults.  That has been a rarity here, just an occssional feral youth.  One such kid hanging around a store with a refrigerator was thrilled when someone passing through in a car who had stopped for a cold crank handed him his half-drunk bottle of soda.  He didn't immediately gulp it down, but made it last with small sips. It must not be so uncommon of an occurrence, as he didn't seem particularly surprised.

It was a relatively painless re-entry to Senegal.  

The same office that stamped me in to Mali, stamped me out, but I had to go a ways into Kidara on the other side of the border to be stamped back into Senegal by a different office than had processed me when I left.  I asked at three or four offices before I found the right one.  There was a bus load of passengers including one older Polish guy being processed.  He told me which door to go through.  A young man behind a desk had a pile of passports, but he kept me waiting less than a minute and quickly stamped my passport and sent me on my way. No bullshit on either side of the border unlike the Ivory Coast embassy in Bamako. 

Among the trucks backed up at the border was a mournful donkey tethered to a cart missing a wheel.

Donkeys are the primary beast of burden. They pull huge loads.  It's a wonder I don't see more broken down, as I do see plenty of trucks disabled along the road with its drivers  laying underneath in the shade or under a tree, if one is nearby,  waiting for help.  If it's early morning or late afternoon they will have a fire going brewing tea.  Occasionally they'll wave a cup at me enticing me to join them.  If we could communicate better, I could set up my tent for the night beside them.

No flat tires for me in over 500 miles since a shard of glass in Bamako.  It's getting to be time for me to swap my rear tire for the front unless I come upon a bike store that stocks my size.  That might not be possible until I return to Dakar, though that is a couple weeks away unless I have visa issues going south.  If I return to Dakar prematurely I can ride up the coast the the World Heritage city of St. Louis and possibly cross into Mauitania for a true taste of the Sahara.  Whatever it may be, I won't be regretting in the least being denied the Ivory Coast, only that I couldn't connect with DL in Liberia.  That only means I may have to return next year if he's still teaching there.

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