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Published: April 3rd 2018
“Blessed are the curious for they will have adventures.” - Anon
Having had the time of my life in Mauritania it was unfortunately time to cross borders. Mauritania for me was one of my must see countries. I knew why I was going and what I was going to see and was pretty much my only must-see country on this trip (apart from Sudan). To be honest after this country everything else was purely going to be a bonus. Like life has already peaked so don’t expect much going forward... Oh how I was wrong but in a slightly unexpected way. With this being said as with most things in life when you are pleasantly surprised with something the effect is magnified. Now before we get to that, time to cross a troublesome border. Senegal
They say that traveling is not about the places you see but about the people you meet, this is very much my take on entering West Africa proper however more about that later. Firstly the border crossing from Mauritania to Senegal, the dreaded “Rosso” crossing. This crossing is renowned as one of the worst in Africa (which would make it the world
me-thinks). It is a place where chaos, corruption and bribery reign supreme. Toss that in with people living on the margins of extreme poverty and you have a wicked little recipe brewing.
From the capital of Mauritania I start out from my hotel at 6am to the bus station. Rides in this part of the world don’t run to a schedule but rather to a beat that when full, it goes. In this case if you are 1st there you will wait a while but can choose your seat. Last there and no waiting but.... yes, that’s right you get the worst seat. For me it was the latter and its so bad I have to go through the rear of the van where they put down a bucket for me between seats. So decision time, do you wait another hour or so, or take the bucket... I took the bucket. So for the next 4 hours I was stuck in the rear of a van on a bucket on terrible unpaved roads. The rear door of the van didn’t close fully so mountains of dust was coming in engulfing the van and covering me completely. All this and
nobody flinches or responds. Finally when I complain I get the now stock standard response, this is Africa my friend; this time with a smile even!
We arrive at the border of Rosso and I am immediately surrounded by people. One wants to hold my bag, the other change money, the other a taxi and one wants to guide me through. I reject all but cover my face with my scarf and walk the 1km to the border post in searing sunlight. So I will just digress slightly at this point... Last night I had a dream that I would do the Rosso border using only a bag of mandarins to get through. With each guard I would hand them one, wow that would be something! Back to the story and the border I begin living out my dream and giving out a mandarin to each of the guards checking my passport. It is chaos around but their demeanor changes when they get a mandarin and I see smiles! Now I get through the first checks in Mauritania side but the big boss is not having any of it, he demands payment and says the computer is broken and
will probably be 3 hours at a minimum till it’s “fixed” again (seems to be working for everyone else). Dammit after standing waiting for half an hour in the heat and getting constantly harassed by countless other people I give in. A whopping $4 euro payout and am through the first side.
After the Mauritanian side I cross the border river by boat. Once in the Senegal side I hand out more mandarins and am into the final check relatively quickly. Now they ponder my passport for an eternity, the boss doesn’t like mandarins, he likes bananas so I hand over what was going to be my lunch. After much debate of which I cannot understand as they speak only French I get let into Senegal. Now this is not the end of the story. It is only afterwards I find out what was wrong, the rules had changed in the last few months and kiwis now need a Visa for Senegal, which I didn’t think I needed nor did I have one. They let me into the country without a Visa, now that was worth giving up my lunch for!
Into the town of St Louis across
a bridge designed by Mr Eiffel himself. There is this crazy haze and the sun is covered by a Saharan sand storm which has swamped parts of Europe and here. It gives it this post-apocalyptic air and I keep getting rained on by sand. St. Louis is a town for artists and those seeking inspiration. I meet my first one immediately at the Airbnb, a Finnish painter whom has a residency here and am invited to see the collection she is working on. Within the space of an hour have made friends with another artist, this time a Sengelese painter whom is showing in London shortly. All their works of art are beautiful as are their stories of life in Senegal. I am quickly learning here in Black Africa it is not really about the sites but the stories of the people within them. Here in St Louis I am given first hand inside into life post French colonialism and it’s impact. Is a startling story around efforts to transform a people culturally to be like a colonial power whilst rejecting strands of their own indigenous bonds and practices. Utterly fascinating and reminds me of other cultures and their struggle
to retain their identity in the modern world we live in and against oppressive forces.
From here I head to Dakar which is a big smoggy city. I stay out near the beach and run at nights amoungst thousands of other Sengelese; so impressive to see the way they value their well-being in this city. I spend the night debating local culture with the sweedish owner of the hostel. She has been in Senegal for 20 years and is an active supporter of efforts to see the Senegalese embracing their pre-colonial roots. As I keep learning here the French were a little more forceful in pushing a cultural revolution on the locals away from their own to theirs. Without getting into too much controversy I feel one must understand all the roots of their history, not just choosing or being forced to discard your original identities; it’s shouldnt necessarily be a zero sum game.
The next day in Dakar I catch a ferry to visit the famous slave colony of island Goree. A world heritage site it was believed to be the final staging post for slaves from the interior before being shipped to the America’s. It is
a brutal look into what was done to this part of the world during that time. This is a real eye opener, the stealing of the nations best and strongest workers sent in shackles against their will to line another’s pockets. Sobering and enlightening when placed next to later cultural reforms and oppression this part of Africa has seen. The Gambia
Now this is an interesting country. The Gambia is like a little worm shaped country surrounded by Senegal where they speak this smoothe Caribbean accented English. I somehow against all odds find a direct bus from Dakar to Gambia and it is the nicest bus in Senegal. It has airconditioning that works and a seat all to yourself that’s not a bucket! The trip is uneventful until I hit the border. Here they tell me that I needed a Visa for Senegal and they can’t let me out. After much debate they do let me go but inform me don’t come back this way without one. Phew, I breathe a sigh of relief thinking that was the only problem I will encounter today, no not really. At The Gambia customs they then tell me that their rules
have also changed too and kiwis need a Visa now to enter. Geez, NZ; bad dog, what did you do?! I am shocked, I can’t go back to Senegal without a VISA and even if I could Dakar is a 7 hour mission away. Luckily the officials are solid and they are able to scrape together a visa at the border for me quickly and with a receipt even. So with this I get my visa, my stamp and my now lighter by $60 euro wallet and head into The Gambia.
Now we are faced with the biggest hurdle yet, crossing the Gambian river which is massive. There are normally 2 car ferries running on this key crossing but for the last year one broke down so there is just one ferry left. It is chaos, it looks like a refugee center with thousands of people and a hundred cars waiting to get on board. There are big gates and military personal with automatic weapons everywhere, this is a serious problem. I had been warned by my German mate Joe who did the crossing last night, it took him 6 hours of waiting and finally got over at midnight
after he paid a guard off! Luckily our bus driver does a deal with one of the guards and we are first onto the next boat but we cannot take the bus anymore, it is stranded and can’t get on for a while. Wow this is a key international, very happy to have been able to sneak onboard.
Gambia feels like they took a Caribbean, a Laos native and a Hippie; threw them altogether, dialed back the speed even more and there you have it. It is a super cool laid back place where they speak and walk slowly. I head into my hotel and a local is sitting at one of the tables smoking weed telling me to chill, they are here to help, ok that’s a weird but unique welcome. Heading to the beach I am accosted by locals which they call bumsters. They are smoothe talking, good looking black locals who are poetic hustlers. They spin rhymes, befriend and ultimately get cash off tourists; particularly foreign women. It is the exact reverse of what happens in the Philippines but here it is attractive local guys walking hand in hand with older white females. This place be
different for sure.
For me the next few days are spent catching up with my mate Joe whom I haven’t seen since Mauritania and getting to know the locals. They are just so passionate about relaxing and making sure you are cool. However my real goal is collecting Visas for upcoming countries and now I have another one unexpected one to add to my list - Senegal. Gambia is renowned for being a visa hotspot and it doesn’t disappoint. 4 Visas in two days, this is very good luck for Visas that normally take time to processs and involve interviews or letters of introduction. Very happy but it does cost a heap of Euros but now I have the Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone Visas. I hope this type of trend continues as I need close to 25 Visas total for this trip.
The rest of my time is spent connecting with these laid back locals. The recent history of Gambia is not too dissimilar to that of Senegal, overtaken by a colonial power (in this case, the English not the French) and used for the purpose of extracting slaves. What is interesting in comparison to
that of Senegal is that the English seemingly took less notice of trying to change the locals to conform to their own ideals. Rightly or wrongly it was more about exploitation of minerals and slave labor rather than pushing conformity. You can really see this in the culture, it is more mature and people identify with what it is to be Gambian as opposed to trying to align to another foreign way of life. “The most beautiful in the world is, of course, the world itself.” -Wallace Stevens
So the last few weeks upon coming into West Africa and black Africa for real has been a real swivel point for me in more than one way. This area is not teaming with top class “sites”, however that is not what makes it special. Through interacting with locals and immersing yourself in their culture, history and way of life is a fascinating experience and one that matches world class “sights” anyday. I think as one matures it is the finer, maybe more subtle things of life that are appreciated more. In days gone by I was more interested in the “biggest” this or that. This huge waterfalls or that
big mountain or that grand temple. I was only interest in sights that were extra-ordinary or semi-dangerous, I totally ignored the rest. Now the interest for me is more in observing the local way of life, hearing the history, sampling the food... there is richness in this type of detail that is lost when one is focused in things such as grandeur. Stopping to smell the roses is not just a pretty little phrase, there is a greater more fulfilling meaning to it that applies beyond the remit of travel and into the course of real life as well. So with this in mind the transition to West Africa for me has been one that enriched the mind and challenges your ideals rather than blowing you away with the worlds biggest “......” and that for me is the essence of travel. Back to Senegal
Now after leaving Gambia we are back into Senegal, this time the southern part. I am hitching a ride with my German mate Joe in his 4x4 and it’s interesting to ride in a private car crossing a border. It is not as easy as I thought. When it’s just me getting here by
public transport it’s only about a Visa and myself, with a car there is customs, insurance and a heap of paperwork. All of which add up to opportunities for increased corruption and bribery. The cars papers are not perfect so we are held up for hours debating till it is sorted. Normally I would have been away by now. Trade off for private vs public transport, your own nice seat or an easy ride; choose one. Both have pros and cons!
So that’s pretty much it from me. We spend our remaining days in Senegal at the local beach and are now preparing for our next country. This time into the former Portuguese slave trade center of Guinea Bissau which has been described to me as blissfully dysfunctional on a grand scale.
Hope you have enjoyed reading
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