I wasn't too annoyed that the fleas woke me up at the crack of dawn, because today I had to cross the border. Most travellers in Africa have a horror story or two about borders, bribes and bureaucracy, so I tend to assume that any journey that includes a border crossing will require more effort than normal. How right I turned out to be, though this time it wasn't down to the politics.
From eastern Gambia, the geographically logical way to get into Senegal is to head south from Basse Santa Su, crossing the border south of Sabi and rattling on to the Senegalese town of Vélingara. From there a good road connects you to Tambacounda in eastern Senegal, which is where I hope to join the Dakar-Bamako train, bound for Mali. On the map it looks deceptively simple... but it would, wouldn't it?
From Basse to Vélingara is around 25km, so at a brisk walking pace of say 5km/h, a not unreasonable speed without a heavy pack, one could theoretically cover the distance in just over five hours. If I ever have the misfortune to end up among the fleas of Basse again, I may well bear this in mind; it'd be a darn sight quicker than taking public transport.
But I didn't know this when I got up this morning; as far as I was concerned the fleas had given me a wonderfully early start to the day, and it was barely 8am by the time I hoisted my pack onto my back and struck out for Basse's bus station. I felt pretty confident that I'd reach Tamba in good time; the sun was shining, the people were smiling their bonjours all along the road, and I was about to change country, which always gives me a strange kind of thrill. What could possibly go wrong?
I'm glad you asked that, because one of the great things about being a writer is the therapeutic effect one gets from getting it all down on paper, and after the journey from Basse to Vélingara, a bit of therapy wouldn't go amiss.
The first sign that things weren't going to be that easy was when I asked the station master where the bush taxis for Vélingara could be found. He looked at me with a surprisingly un-Gambian grumpiness and said, 'No taxis today.'
'No taxis?' I said.
'No taxis', he said, and waved me away with an almost Senegalese dismissal. But after an entire night spent partying with a pillow full of fleas, I wasn't going to take any shit from anyone, so I asked him if there were any buses I could take.
'Yes,' he said, practically drowning me in information.
'Can I buy a ticket from you, then?' I asked, and he grudgingly wrote a ticket out for me, took D35 from my balled fist, and turned back to something far more important, namely staring into the middle distance and smoking a stubby high tar cigarette.
'Um,' I ventured. 'Which bus is it, please?'
'Uh,' he grunted, pointing at the bus in front of him with an irritated wag of his finger.
'What, this one?' I said.
'Uh,' he said, and terminated the conversation with a withering look that barely concealed his smirk.
'Oh shit,' I thought as I turned to the bus. 'This is going to hurt.'
Cars gently rusting into nothing are a common enough sight in developing countries; cars come to places like Africa to die, but first they're flogged to within inches of their lives, and then a few inches beyond that. Most cars get stripped and their parts recycled – everything is worth something to somebody out here – but a fair number of vehicles simply grind to a halt and gasp their last gasps by the side of the road, and get left there for the sand to blast them into modern African sculptures for passing bus passengers to admire. I'd genuinely thought the bus opposite the grumpy chief was one of these vehicles, a sad little van with a history but no future, but it turned out that this rust bucket was supposed to get me across the border. I couldn't believe it.
Not only that, it appeared as if I was the only person idiotic enough to be heading to Vélingara that day. The bus was little more than an open-sided van with plank benches down the sides, and I felt a bit silly placing my hat at the end of one of the benches to reserve my spot. My backpack looked distinctly lonely perched on top of the rust-riddled roof, and I wondered if this little beauty was ever going to fill up, let alone start.
My ticket proclaimed that I'd bought a seat on the 7.30 bus to Vélingara, but it was already 8.15 and I was the only one waiting. This didn't bode well, so I idled away the time by changing my remaining dalasis into CFAs with a tout, buying a bottle of water, and putting a brave face on things. People slowly trickled in, each of them buying a ticket and doing a double-take at the rusting hulk they'd bought a seat in. After an hour the driver cranked open the bonnet and filled the radiator up with water, and I marvelled at the optimism being shown in the various lumps of grimy rust, held together by all sort of makeshift mechanics. One guy in the queue caught my eye as I admired the mess under the bonnet. 'I am thinking you do not have vehicles like this in your country,' he said with a touch of pride, and I nodded. I guess being proud of your rust buckets is a good idea; it's that or get depressed about them, I suppose, and the first option is far more Gambian.
One by one the sarongs, bags and hats appeared on the seats, and by 9.30 the 7.30 bus was ready to depart. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all; I'd been expecting a much longer wait.
Room for More
Without waiting to be told twice I leapt into our trusty rust bucket, and sucked in my ribs as we crammed six people along each bench, with another passenger sitting at the front of the rear cabin, his back to the driver. Two women hopped into the front passenger seat, one of them holding a child, and I did a quick body count: we had four in the front plus 13 in the back, making 17 in total.
But it didn't stop there. Someone else climbed in and sat on the spare tyre in the back, followed by another hopeful who sat on my feet, and three more likely lads grabbed the roof at the back and leapt on the bumper. By now we were up to 22 people inside a tiny little van, and that didn't count the ticket boy whom I'd last seen on the roof; but at least we were ready for the off. A quick push start shocked the engine into life and sent a cloud of acrid exhaust into the back of the cabin, and like a lifetime smoker hacking the morning out of his lungs, we hit the road (though with the suspension as it was, most of the time it felt more like the road was hitting us).
I missed most of the countryside on the approach to the Gambian border post as all I could see was a bunch of crushed locals bouncing along with the potholes, but half an hour into our bumpy ride I got a chance to see what the fuss was all about, as the back wheel nuts fell off and rolled away into the desert along with the wheel. We piled out into the scorching heat and instantly ran for the shelter of the surrounding scrub, while the ticket boy went looking for the wheel and nuts. The tyre turned out to be completely flat, which had no doubt helped to loosen the nuts, so the driver rolled out the spare tyre and jacked the bus up on a log, while the other men squatted round the tyre, scratching their Islamic beards and arguing over how to fix it, as men do the world over.
Luckily the ticket boy found the nuts in the middle of the dusty road, so after a pit-stop of only 15 minutes we were ready to pack back into the bus once more. A push start later we were on our way to the Gambian border post, where we had to stop, pile out again, and get our ID cards and passports out; then it was into no-man's land to the Senegalese border, where all the luggage had to be unstrapped, approved by customs, and the ID cards and passports handed to the Senegalese border official for stamping; and then all the luggage had to be packed onto the roof once again, ready for the final stretch to Vélingara. As border crossings go, it was really quite slick, but that's not saying much.
All the bumping and grinding did serve a purpose, though. When I got to Vélingara and had to wait a further hour-and-a-half for the bush taxi to Tambacounda to fill up (this time there were no buses), it seemed like luxury; the bush taxi was comfortable, the road was in excellent condition, and the journey much quicker. By the time I arrived in Tamba the feeling was starting to creep back into my buttocks, and I'd made it into eastern Senegal in one piece. Which is more than can be said for the battered old bucket that got me there...