Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Getting Hustled on My First Day in Sub-Saharan Africa

This trip had a lot of twists and turns before we ever set foot on a plane. Evan and Derek are both fellow members of Phi Alpha Literary Society. Derek was stationed in rural Gambia with the Peace Corps. Well at some point events that have yet to be explained resulted in Derek returning to St. Louis before we even left. So we kind of had to scramble around in order to plan this trip. A majority of the lodgings on this trip were booked while in European hotel rooms the past couple weeks.

Then the weird news reports started. Evan sent me one that stated that the border between Senegal and Gambia was closed due to some political disagreement. That sent my brain flying into questions like whether it was only the land border that was closed and could we still take a plane or boat from Senegal into Gambia? I emailed the Gambian embassy in DC to ask them about it and a representative replied “We are not aware of any border closure. People are traveling to The Gambia everyday without problem to and fro.” That was a very strange response indeed.

The next fun news article I read was that Gambia had declared itself an Islamic state. The religion itself doesn’t bother me but I was interested in what other ramifications there could be.

Oh and the trip's timing was changed so that Evan could join. He's a student so we needed to line it up with his Christmas break. I do not encourage anyone to leave for Africa within like 3 days of returning from a 2 week Europe trip. It will make you sad.

Our first stop is Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. Let's see.. Senegal gained independence from France in 1960 so French is the official language. In practice though I feel like they often speak Wolof amongst each other, possibly because if they spoke French there'd be a possibility I knew what the heck they were saying.

Ok then, it begins. We stepped off the plane in Dakar and did all the fun immigration lines and luggage finding that is the norm. We stepped out of the airport and expectedly there were about 100 people there yelling taxi at me. So I pointed at one and said ok. Mistake number one. And so early out of the gate too.

As we were following taximan to his car, another guy somehow joined our group. He could speak decent English, while “taxi” seemed to be about the only word our driver knew. When we reached the cab it was just a normal bashed up car, but who cares.

As we drove we learned that our driver’s name is Adama and our hanger on translator man is named Ibrahim. Adama doesn’t speak much English as I said but is all sunshine. “Senegal is happy!” is the catchphrase he liked to proclaim. Ibrahim was very chatty asked our names and our jobs and where we’re from and so on.

Evan and I are quite different but we are getting along pretty well. Evan is studying to get a PhD in anthropology something something and so is understandably a big fan of people. I’d like to say I am too, but when their hand is in my pocket I’m less enthused.

So when the guy asked my last name I didn’t think anything of it. I think optimistic Evan would probably say he’s just being friendly and say something positive about the local culture. Your friend pessimistic John though. That guy, right? That guy thinks that the conversation points ol boy Ibrahim were hitting are suspiciously familiar to the ones a car salesman or a realtor hits. They’ll ask you your job and you think it’s some friendly chitchat but they are doing math in their head. How much does this guy make and, how much is this guy’s kidney worth on the open market, and so on.

Anyhoo, so we drive a bit and happy Adama pulls into a gas station and motions that he wants some money.  Oh, Africa is going to be fun. No we tell him, we don’t have any of the local currency yet. I thought that was a pretty good excuse. Well wouldn’t you know it, our next stop is the currency exchange. Evan and Adama go in to do some exchanging, and I sit and wait with Adama. Then Adama goes in. I’m sitting alone in this Mad Max looking car thinking about the 35 different ways this could go wrong. It felt like they were in there forever. They returned without incident though and we continued on our journey. Well Ibrahim is pushing this “I want to be your tour guide” idea, which sounds fine to me but when I ask him his price he goes on this spiel about how he has many American friends and what’s money between friends and blah blah. So I give him the defensive “give me your card and I’ll call you” maneuver. Wouldn’t you know it, Ibrahim’s phone isn’t working, but he’ll wait for us outside our hotel and we can come out after we check it. Uh, no thanks.

Well as we are forced to repeat our “nos” time after time the driver’s “happy happy” routine flips and the two of them are now talking in a bit meaner tone with each other in a local language. The driver stops like around the corner from the hotel and now wants to be paid. He’s yelling for more money, Ibrahim is trying to keep the driver quiet so he can run his own scam. When we finally stop in front of the hotel I’m dragging our 4 bags out of the car while Evan placates them by writing both of their phone numbers down. Like if either of you knuckle heads think we are calling either of you then you’re very silly indeed.

Well every time I make it from the airport to my hotel unstabbed I call it a victory. I take responsibility for this incident because I’m the one that picked the driver, though Ibrahim could just as easily have been waiting to jump into that cab too so I’m not sure how much difference it would have made.

The hotel is really nice, especially considering where we are. There’s a nice infinity pool overlooking the ocean and plenty of international looking people out sunning themselves. Security is pretty intense. There are multiple guards at the front gate, some of them police with assault rifles. There are another probably 10 dark suited guards walking around the hotel’s 3 floors of rooms. I never felt ill at ease in the hotel, that’s for sure.

The beds are tiny but sleeping in the same room is a cost cutting measure. That little red can on the nightstand is RAID style bug spray.

I googled around and there was a grocery store within walking distance of the hotel. Why not? Walking there surely couldn’t be scarier than taking a cab. I think seeing everyday life in a place like Senegal is a big reward for coming. There’s a ton of hustle and bustle.

We drew a lot of attention with our antics at the grocery store. One lady spoke English so she was trying to help us out. She kind of snottily told us that Senegal is a French speaking country and that we should learn French. Thanks for the tip. Mostly we were just there to buy big bottles of water.

Evan was making fun of me for buying breakfast cereal but I bought the most trip appropriate box I could find.

We brought the groceries back to the hotel with no problems. There’s a shopping mall right next door to the Radisson so went popped over there to check it out.

Evan’s a pretty classy guy and decided that our first meal in Sub-Saharan Africa should be Chinese food at a mall food court. It wasn’t bad.

I was a bit disappointed when "Casino" turned out to be the name of a supermarket. 

The mall had escalators but they weren't operating.

Back at the hotel room, the phone rang. Who could it be? Well it was our creepy, cab hijacking friend Ibrahim. My guess is that he used the names we gave him to get the hotel to call our room for him. He said he was waiting outside and we should come on out. No thank you crazy man. We called the front desk back to tell them he was harassing us and they told us they’d have security show him out. Boom, threat eliminated. I sure hope we don’t see him again… foreshadowing, foreshadowing.

Since we were hiding from bad guys anyway we went to the hotel bar. We met a pretty interesting character while hanging out. He is a pilot working for the "contractor" organization formerly known as Blackwater somewhere in Niger. He was told us about blowing people up in our recent desert wars, and his current life as a mercenary. Apparently on US bases there will be an amnesty box. It’s a big container with a hole in it where a soldier can throw contraband inside and there will be no questions asked. Someone getting second thoughts about a golden AK stolen from a Saddam Hussein mansion he’s trying to smuggle home will just drop it in the box. Well he said one time someone had tried to put something in the box but it was too big for the hole so they just set it on top. It turned out to be a bag with a human head inside. He said in Niger he bribes everyone within a certain radius of his house so that they’ll warn him if someone is coming to kill him.

Another of his crazy stories involved a fellow tough military guy who swam in this nasty river despite being warned. He got some weird parasite and lost the use of his legs. Kids playing in sewage ditches, people just going to the bathroom on the side of the road, meat markets where you think the meat is sitting on a black table but it's really just completely covered in flies. He was quite the ray of sunshine, that guy. I told him I think he's the most interesting person I've ever met at a bar.

Later on a random European dude chimed in that if we were looking for someplace else to go, we should check out a place called Le Patio. We took a taxi over there and popped in. Well after sitting and ordering a drink and taking a look around it became apparent that everyone in this place was either an older European dude or a prostitute. Sigh.

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