I’ve been trying to come up with a clever phrase to describe the experience we’ve had in the last week – and it’s been a challenge. Rifs on the movie title Extremely Loud Incredibly Close come to mind – extremely hot, incredibly dusty; extremely kind, incredibly strange – but the one that seems to fit the best is one that the writers of Rough Guide: Morocoo coined: impressively bleak. St. Louis, Senegal to Dakhla, Morocco has certainly been one of the more curious experiences I’ve had in my (short) life.
I’ve divided this into 2 posts because it was just getting so long. The first part is Senegal to Mauritania. The Second is Mauritania and into Morocco. Enjoy!
Dakar -> St. Louis
We woke up early after only a couple hours of sleep on Feb. 10 after going dancing in Dakar with our hosts Dieyna and Abdou and the two LC students who are studying in Dakar, the same as I did 10 years ago. Senegalese night clubs don’t get going until 2am so we didn’t get home until about 5am. It was a fun night, but exhausting – nonetheless I was happy to get my fix of live mbalax and people watching.
We headed by taxi to the Gare Routière Pompière to take a bush taxi to St. Louis. The 150km ride was long but not horrible (I am SO tired of sitting on the middle bump!) and we arrived at the St. Louis Gare Routière in the late afternoon. We took another taxi 12km to the Zebrabar – a campement outside of the city that’s beachy and is right on the River Senegal in the Parc Nationale de la Langue de Barbarie. The accommodations were cheap, but the meals were outrageously expensive. Bummer.
2 days later we headed to St. Louis to stay in the heart of Ile Nord – the old colonial center of St. Louis (which was the colonial capital of all of west Africa in the 18th – 19th centuries). I think I’ve decided to rename St. Louis to Stinky Louis because frankly, this town is rank. The combination of fishing village, trash, river and ocean, not to mention very old plumbing is well – really smelly. If it weren’t for the decidedly charming city center, great bars, actual coffee and friendly people – I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in St. Louis.
Another 2 days later we prepared to say goodbye to Senegal. Although we were ready, Senegal left us with its best. Our last night we had a fantastic meal at a tiny restaurant aptly called Restaurant Taranga, where we ate for a total of 4000cfa ($8) with beverages. Nothing fancy about this place, but the owner was over and above kind. A good laugh at a local boutique, and a nice chat with the door guard for the hotel left a smile on my face and a thought of ‘oh geez, I do love this country.’
St. Louis -> Rosso Border Crossing
I will not lie in saying that given the lonely planet thorn tree forum reviews of this place, I was downright nervous. But before I could act on my nerves, we had to wait almost 2 hours before leaving. We were convinced to take a Ndiaye Ndiaye (big white bus – 25 seats) to Rosso instead of a sept places. We realized as soon as we bought our ticket and boarded that there was no way the bus was leaving ‘toute de suite’ (right away). I knew that these buses didn’t leave until filled, but for some reason I let the driver convince me that we’d leave right away, when really, ‘toute de suite’ in African transportation lingo means ‘sometime today.’ Awesome.
Travel Tip: Don’t confuse Rosso with Ross-Berthio. They are different. When we stopped in Ross-Berthio I was concerned we should get out and I asked the gentleman sitting next to me if this was our stop for going to Mauritania. He said no, and that he was going in the same direction. Ahh, we should share a car! I said. Best. Move. Ever. Our new friend Thierno Ba, gave us one last parting gift of Senegalese Taranga and essentially took us under his wing for the rest of our journey. Not only did he make sure no one took advantage of us, made sure we were always headed in the right direction, and he paid for all our fares, which was incredibly generous.
I can see why people have trouble at Rosso. There are certainly grifters waiting for anyone looking the slightest bit confused, and there are no signs or any indications of how to get from the Gare Routière to the pirogue; or how much it should cost. The single best tool (aside from the fiche) was a sincere and hearty “Asalaam Malekum” coupled with a smile to greet anyone looking official. This and any wolof you might know does wonders for softening officials; and people trying to grift you for that matter. Aside from the extreme heat, all in all it wasn’t a bad experience. The river is a scene, with kids diving and playing in the seafoam green water. It’s a nice last display of the Senegal that’s all out in the open and in your face; the Senegal that teases, and vexes, that’s easy and hard all the same; the Senegal that’s continually fascinating. I smiled as we crossed the River and I looked back to say goodbye, not sure of the next return, if ever.
If you’re reading this and preparing to cross the border, see our lonely planet post for details. Border Travel Tips.
I knew we had arrived into an even more arid place, when dust and sand billowed from the taxi seat as we got in to connect with the bush taxis to Nouakchott. Our cab driver was especially proud that the passenger door was held together by a rope – “C’est uniquement comme ca en Afrique!” he exclaimed with a big smile (It’s unique in Africa!). It’s things like this that you just have to laugh at and call it good. I couldn’t even be worried that I would fall out if the door swung open – there’s a rope there of course it will catch me!
The kindness of our new friend, Thierno, was overhelming in that without having someone speak Arabic or Wolof, connecting from the Rosso Gare Routière to Nouakchott would be difficult. The drivers of the various modes of transport descended on him like vultures, all tugging and pulling. This is a culture of in-your-face dealings. Thierno says they all just want money – perhaps it’s true? People at the border seemed really kind. Getting a coke, we were overpriced, even though there’s a fixed price for everything. Boo. We finally decided to take a 4-seat Mercedes car instead of a shared taxi – more expensive but much more comfortable. We paid for all 4 seats (even though were 3), and then the driver decided to take another passenger. Awesome. This should be interesting.
Next stop: Nouakchott.