99, 98, 97…reaching each kilometer post is hard work, cycling into north winds up to 25 km/h. 75, 74, 73…I stop to take photos while waiting for Julie to catch up; her normal bike has more drag than my recumbent. 45, 44, 43…even with a smooth road, few hills and light traffic we’ll arrive late to the capital city; after a late breakfast delayed our departure. 19,18,17…at four checkpoints the police stopped us to copy our passport information, on a day we needed to minimize our break time. At last we reach Nouakchott at dark with only 5 km to go. Streetlights come on and taxi driver Mohammed insists on guiding us around the outskirts of the city to our hotel. He does this for no charge, and also stops to buy us two Cokes.
Archive for January, 2011
Suddenly, we’re cycling through sand dunes in the Sahara desert; after a ferry trip across the Senegal River and getting passports stamped to enter Mauritania. We had already paid $63 each for Mauritania visas at their embassy in Bamako, Mali. I felt great entering our 27th country, the 13th in Africa; having run the gauntlet of hustlers and bureaucratic hassles with good humor and minimal difficulties. This border crossing is so troublesome that Lonely Planet recommends driving 100k on a bad road to cross at a different border post.
Later in the day I started to feel buyers remorse for the rate I got on a currency exchange. Most nations in French West Africa use a common currency, the CFA, so we haven’t needed to change money at the frontier recently. It can be difficult to get a good rate for a minor currency at a remote border; and with the absence of ATMs or change bureaus with posted rates you need to research the exchange rate in advance. Last night hustlers offered rates that included a 50% commission (they assume tourists may have no idea what the currency is worth) so I accepted the first offer this morning of a rate with a 20% commission. I know I could have bargained better if I didn’t let myself get rushed. But I did only change enough money to last for two days until Nouakchott, the capital (where change bureaus charged only 5%).
We entered Senegal from Mali like we exited from Liberia into Cote d’ Ivoire, in a pirogue (canoe), traveling across the Faheme River. A bridge, not yet finished, being built by a Japanese company, will someday complete the newly constructed route we cycled from Bamako to Senegal’s coast, linking land-locked Mali to the sea on its eastern side. We had no hassle at the border because no border post had yet been established. David did his good deed for the day by hauling a heavy bag of potatoes up the steep embankment on his bike for a traveling Senegalese woman, another sign of a peaceful crossing as there weren’t enterprising teen-aged boys scrounging for a few coins by transporting loads up and down the bank. As in Mali cycling the new road was blissful with smooth and shiny pavement, very little traffic, quiet villages of homes with flat mud roofs and conical thatched roofs, gently rolling hills, and an energizing tailwind. Near this part of Senegal was the peaceful and meandering Gambia River which sculpted the gently rolling hills. We spent one night on its banks in a simple, but lovely tourist camp being refurbished by its French proprietor. Near here also was the Parc National de Niokolo-Koba where we were barked at by curious baboons who kept an eye on us as David patched a particularly complicated flat tire. Very fun. Senegal was more well-to-do, relatively speaking, than Mali and we met more educated people who spoke French in addition to their local language and some even a little English. More people stopped to talk to us about our trip.
It seemed a country of superlatives. We stayed in my most favorite hotel in West Africa along the coast, south of Dakar, a place where we ate our evening meals on a sweet patio being serenaded by local musicians. The very next day we stayed in the worst hotel in West Africa where we slept in our tent set up on the bed to shut out the mosquitoes and the filth of an unswept brothel. (I am sure we stayed in a few other such places in South America and Africa in our 450 some nights on the road, but nothing had “screamed” brothel like this one.) While we had the most hassle free border crossing entering Senegal than anywhere else on our trip, we had the most hassle filled border crossing exiting into Mauritania. Here, in the town of Rosso, I heard the line that goes something like “good price for you” more than anywhere else. I thought we did a pretty good job of holding on to our money, though David felt he could have bargained a bit more on the money exchange. I was glad we had crossed this border as experienced travelers rather than as beginners at the start of our trip.
Senegal was also our last country in sub-Saharan Africa as we moved closer to the desert and into the traditionally nomadic cultures of North Africa. We experienced a mix of Sub-Saharan African, North African, Arab, and European cultural influences. This mix was very apparent in one of my favorite cities in West Africa, Senegal’s northern coastal city of San Louis. Once the capital of French West African colonialism it was now a sleepy town with the old center on a slip of an island entered by crossing an arched stone bridge. The view of this center as we biked down to the bridge reminded me a little of Zanzibar with its white-washed flat-roofed architecture, narrow streets, and minarets standing tall here and there. The French influence was strong in a wide boulevard down the length of the island with old colonial buildings on either side, some renovated, some faded, some dilapidated. We saw as many men wearing French berets with checkered scarves around their necks as we saw wearing the traditional Muslim robe typical in West and East Africa with skull caps and pointed shoes. We also began seeing the blue flowing robe worn in Mauritania, slit on the sides and embroidered across the front. Over the years, I have developed a love of fabric, with all its possibilities in the materials, colors, weaves, and textures, its goal being to adorn the wearer. I think this is what I love about cultures, looking at them as the fabric of a country, in the nuances, beliefs and habits, and how they shape and adorn the life and stories of a people. I loved experiencing the mix of cultures in Senegal.
Leaving Saint-Louis, we found tires for both Julie and me. Procuring tires in the last city before crossing the Sahara desert was on my to-do list as we might not find spares until Morocco. There is one hostel in this dusty border town on the Senegal River, that seems over-priced at $16 for a room with a shower that won’t drain in a urine-scented bathroom. Yet it’s the second cheapest place we stayed in Senegal where $28 was our average cost for a room. We also set up out tent on the mattress just to use the mosquito netting.
My rear tire blew-out with only 1,300 km on it, a Delux brand that was made in China. We saw the carcass of a small wildcat, a serval, on the road near the Senegal River. A day of rest was spent touring Saint-Louis, the former colonial capital of French West Africa. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on a small island in the Senegal river near the Atlantic Ocean. We are now in the Sahel, a semi-desert band that separates the dunes of the Sahara from the baobabs of the Savanna.
The Grand Magal finished yesterday and the highway is jammed with returning pilgrims. It is especially dangerous when private autos pass the slower-moving trucks and buses. So besides paying attention to traffic approaching from our rear, we have to beware of cars suddenly pulling out into our lane coming at us. I wondered why traffic is so heavy on this road that does not go to Touba. At midday we saw that traffic had been routed through Kebemer, to relieve congestion on the main route from Touba to Dakar. Traffic coming towards us decreased dramatically, but more came from behind. After last night’s lodging, we had low expectations for tonight, but Laina warmly welcomed us to her charming Casa Italia Hotel, and charged little more than Babakar expected us to pay last night. Hotel Aldjanou is owned by the municipality, while Laina maintains her hotel with loving care, even though she also has problems with the water supply and the whole town was dark for an hour last night.
“This is the kind of place I thought we’d be staying in all through Africa and South America” Julie said as she swept up condoms and cigarette butts from the floor of our filthy room at the Hotel Aldjanou. This was once a fancy place (with a curvy, three-story atrium above the lobby) that has fallen into disrepair. It has the look of a government-owned building that no one is responsible for keeping maintained. We are the only guests staying here at the only hotel in town, and Babakar is the only staff person. He said that everyone else went to Touba, “The whole department is there”. At night I worried that we might be a target for thieves in this abandoned hotel, and took some added safety precautions. The mosquitoes got so thick in the room that we set our tent up on the bed just for it’s mosquito netting.
Young men hang off of the back of bush taxis, and people often sit on the roof, sometimes very high up on top of luggage. Today there are many more trucks, not usually used as buses, hauling pilgrims to the Grand Magal in Touba, celebrating the Marabout (saint) Bamba’s return from exile in 1907. We’re cycling into headwinds for the first time since departing Ouagadougou a month ago, which slows Julie down more than me on my recumbent Cruzbike. I think cycling into headwinds affects our moods more than our speed. Negative thoughts creep into our musings, while we feel on top of the world when tailwinds are aiding us. We’ve made good time since Bamako, cycling 1,200 km in eleven days, and have reached the Atlantic coast near the westernmost point of Africa, seven weeks from Cape Coast. We’d have to go through the sprawling city of Dakar (80 km NW of here), to reach La Pointe des Almadies, so I think we’ll skip it.
“Someone must have witched your front tire”, Julie said as I had to change it twice before leaving this morning, though no air bubbles appeared when put to the bucket test. I actually felt relieved when it went flat 90k down the road, and the replacement tube only lasted 5k more. I found the cause of the leaks! Both had leaky patches over holes so large (larger than a pinprick) that the patches could not withstand the pressure. Apparently, leaky patches subjected to the bucket test can give a false negative. My theory is that when the tube is overinflated, (when not held in by the tire), the patch does not stretch like the tube does. It looks like a dimple with the tube bulging around it. That must somehow stop the air bubbles. I think that there could also be quality issues with both the tubes and the patch glue. I bought two new tubes at the next town 17k away, stopping only twice to pump up the slow leak. I changed five flat tires again today, but finally succeeded in chasing away the evil inner tube spirit.
Leaving town, we passed two men starting to brawl on a side street. People ran past us from surrounding blocks going to watch the fight. We are on a busy highway now with lots of broken-down trucks, flat tires flapping apart as they pass us buy; and Julie heard a blowout right next to her. In poor countries they can’t afford new equipment. Labor is cheap, so they take time stranded along the road to put on another worn-out tire that won’t last much longer. More roadkill is also stinking up the ditches with the rotting carcasses of cattle, donkeys, and sheep. We are making good time cycling on the smooth highway through flat plains, and get off on the rougher paved shoulder when trucks meet near us.