I decided to get to Tambacounda with plenty of time to spare before the Wednesday train to Bamako, so I could make sure I got a seat. It's a huge journey from Tambacounda to Bamako, the capital of Mali – it says 20 hours and 30 minutes on the timetable, but it normally takes well over a day – and I wanted to try to get a good seat, preferably in first class, so there might at least be a vague chance of some sleep.
On the off chance, I visited the train station late on Sunday afternoon and found an official-looking railway employee sitting in the chef de gare's office. He told me I could come back tomorrow and buy tickets then, and that both first and second class tickets were available. 'Excellent,' I thought, and celebrated by visiting Chez Francis, the friendly pub up the road from my hotel, where cold Bière la Gazelle cost CFA600 (60p) for a huge 630ml bottle and the smiles were free. The barman, Joe, was a delightful bloke, and I figured there were far worse places to be stranded while waiting for a train.
Tambacounda is a pleasant place, and it's far enough off the tourist trap to be free of hassle. I was able to sit by the road, scribbling away, and nobody hassled me apart from the local beggar boys, who were more interested in my empty water bottles than giving me grief, and who were happy enough with the odd donation. My beggar policy, which I adopted from Chris the Australian, is to give something to the first beggar I see every day, and that's it until the following day, when the first beggar gets a few pennies again. Of course, if someone comes along with an awful physical disability, or some other good reason for charity, then I break the rule, but it seems that there are only three ways to give to beggars: you either give to nobody, which is between you and your conscience; you give to everybody, which is between you and your bank manager; or you give to somebody, which is a darn sight easier if you make up a rule and stick to it. As they say, a handout a day keeps the conscience at bay...
So assuming I can get my train ticket sorted out, Tambacounda will have been a perfect place to relax while waiting for tomorrow night's departure. But nothing is quite that simple; despite the advice I received on Sunday, I turned up at the station on Monday morning to find that it was all going to be left to chance, of course. The train is, after all, just another form of Senegalese transport.
'Hello,' I smiled at the man now occupying the chef de gare's desk, a different man from the Sunday shift. 'If it's possible, I'd like to buy a first class ticket for the Wednesday train to Bamako.'
'Ah,' he said. 'Come this way.' And he led me outside and handed me over to a thick-spectacled man who didn't look as if he worked for anyone, let alone the railway. I repeated my request, wondering who on earth this guy was.
'You cannot buy tickets today,' he said. 'You should come back on Wednesday morning, but I will take your name for a reservation.'
'Thanks,' I said. 'Can I reserve a first class ticket?'
'No,' he laughed. 'All the first class tickets are gone, I'm afraid.'
'They're all gone?' I said, caught completely by surprise; if there's one thing I know about developing countries, it's that first class tickets never, ever sell out before the second class ones. Something didn't add up, but there was precious little I could do, so I gave the man my name and said, 'OK, so I'll come back here at 9.30 on Wednesday morning, and I'll be able to buy a ticket here?'
'Inshallah,' he grinned, and wobbled his head. That was the sign to give up trying; inshallah means 'God willing', and is the Islamic way of saying 'don't ask me'. It looks like Allah is firmly in control of the Senegalese railways, unlike the railway staff, so I sent up a silent prayer, hoping that he'll smile on me on Wednesday.
Luckily Chez Francis and the local internet café proved pleasant homes for the next few days, and I kicked back, ate well, drank well, wrote reams and studied the Mali chapter in my guidebook. Joe and the lunchtime barmaid Néné kept me company and helped improve my French small talk and drinking vocabulary, I watched Senegalese TV despite understanding precious little, and I forced myself to relax.
I might have missed the subtleties of most of the news reports on the French-language channel RTS 1, but I took my entertainment from the adverts and the weather reports. One advert in particular really surprised me; Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, starts in a few days, and during this time Muslims aren't allowed to eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset (this is quite a sacrifice wherever you are, but even water is forbidden during sunlight, which makes Ramadan a major challenge in the African heat). It's a period of serious austerity, so I was more than a little surprised to see that the electrical firm LG was having a big Ramadan sale: 20 per cent off all fridges, no less, with glitzy adverts proclaiming the news. The weather report was similarly weird, as it not only contained details of the weather, it also listed the tide times, the time of sunrise and sunset, and the same times for the moon, which I presume is important if you're a devout Muslim, a devout fisherman, or both. Just to complete the picture, the temperature in Tamba today was 38°C; I found this a perfect excuse to order another beer, especially as it appeared to help with the translation.
Unfortunately relaxing isn't something I do terribly well, even with beer and TV on tap, and by now, my last night in Tambacounda, I'm rested, settled, and thoroughly bored. I need to get moving into Mali before I start climbing the walls; I have high hopes for tomorrow's train journey being the start of something special.