6 mins

Crossing Senegal's most notorious border

An arduous day crossing from Mauritania into Senegal pushes Marie close to the edge. But at least the coffee's good ...

Border Town (Marie Javins)

I swatted a cockroach off my rucksack as I finished packing for the day's journey from Mauritania to Senegal. Amadou – my Nouakchott hotel's best English-speaker and the staff member who had adopted me (and my pathetic French-speaking) as a project – walked me out to the main road and tried to flag down a taxi.

Tick tick.

"It's time for everyone to go to work," explained Amadou after we stood in the sun on the sandy corner for five minutes without seeing an empty cab in the madness of morning traffic.

"Rush hour," I added. Eventually, a driver was willing to brave the traffic jams to slowly get me to the gare routiere, where I was shuffled into a sept-place – or seven-passenger Peugeot station wagon that leaves when full – for the drive to the border.

Tick tick.

Six more passengers took an hour to materialize. Then, finally! Ten in the morning and we were on our way to Rosso, an infamous border post known for its chaos and corruption.

That is, after we stopped for some maintenance and petrol. And then started again. Then stopped. Then gingerly eased our way around seeming craters in the tarmac.

"Where are you from?" The driver broke the ice first.

"The USA," I said.

"Ah, my brother lives in USA. In... Ken-took-ee. His wife is from there."

"Really? Kentucky?" He mistook my surprise for not knowing the location of Kentucky.

"Yes, Ken-took-ee. It is near Canada."

I smiled and on we went, bouncing down the terrible road towards Senegal.

When we reached Rosso, I was spotted instantly by aspiring border guides, and by the time our Peugeot parked near the queue of vehicles and the closed gates across the border, a gaggle of young men in their twenties surrounded the car.

The taxi driver chose one on my behalf and chased away the others.

"You go with this boy, Mohammed. I know him. He will take care of you."

Mohammed shouldered my rucksack. Heck, I thought. I'd tip him for that alone.

"You change money?"

"Yes."

"Follow me," said Mohammed. I trotted along behind him as he raced – wearing my rucksack – through the filthy dirt alleys of the border town. He led me to a concrete building near the river. He sent a friend into a crack in the wall.

"Give him your passport."

"What? No way." I have my paranoid moments.

His friend crawled out of the crack and motioned me into it instead. Er, okay.

I wiggled into the crack, and sure enough, there was a tiny square window cut into the wall. I shoved my passport at a uniformed official on the other side, who stamped it and shoved it back.

Mohammed was telling me when to give money and when to sit tight. The amounts were small, just a little here and there, though I'd read that the grand total when I was done would be ten euros. I lost track. I have no idea what I went through at Rosso and I don't know what charges were official and which might amount to bribes. I paid small amounts over and over.

I was out of Mauritania with no drama. I'd waited a month for the visa, had it FedExed in the end from Washington DC to my New York office. And poof, over, done.

But I wasn't done with Mohammed yet. He motioned for me to follow him down to the Senegal River. An older tout was cursing at us the whole time.

"He's a bad man! Don't follow him."

Mohammed rolled his eyes. I worried. Was I with the bad man or the good man? How is a traveller to know the difference? I'd been doing pretty well so far, trusting and interacting with everyone I'd met. I prematurely congratulated myself on my new-found patience. During the last MariesWorldTour.com in 2001, I would have lost my temper ten times on a border day. As a traveller, it's a constant battle against yourself not to give in to paranoia while still maintaining some level of common sense and the ability to negotiate without being gullible.

Mohammed clambered into a pirogue, a large wooden passenger boat.

"Pay him." He motioned to the ticket-taker.

I paid for two. The boat, full of African travelers, motored across the river to Senegal.

Surely now Mohammed would desert me, I thought. But no, he led me up a bank and into a Senegalese border post building.

"What country," droned the guard.

I flashed my passport. He nodded. US citizens get into Senegal for free.

"Welcome to Senegal." Thwack went the stamp. I was in.

But still Mohammed wasn't done with me. He hurried me along to another gate, where he had a few words with the guard, something along the lines of "I'm just seeing her to the bus station and I'll be right back. Remember me so I don't have to show any ID"

Now Mohammed, still carrying my bag, led me past rows of parked vehicles. Trucks, buses, cars – all waiting for their chance to cross into Mauritania.

He stopped at some motorcycle taxis. I thought for sure we were done now and I briefly fought back a bout of cynicism – surely there was no point in me paying for two motorbikes and the services of Mohammed past this point – but no, he was seeing me through to the end. Mohammed put my bag between my driver's legs, jumped onto a second motorbike taxi, and together, the four of us roared off past the trucks, then past trees and into Senegal.

Finally, a bit of breeze! I relished the moment, and we arrived at the gare routiere all too soon. I paid the drivers and Mohammed escorted me down into the taxi park.

"Saint-Louis?" He asked around until he found me a sept-place.

Mohammed extracted an extra-healthy tip from me, far more than we'd agreed upon, but I was still fancying myself as some kind of super-patient traveller, so I didn't argue.

But when the sept-place driver demanded a high fee for carrying my rucksack in the Peugeot, I could feel my patience fraying. Plus, I got the last seat in the Peugeot, was crammed into the back, and hadn't had any water all day, since giving my bottle away hours earlier.

The road to Saint-Louis was another potholed nightmare, and when we arrived at the Saint-Louis gare, a taxi driver told me the fee to my hotel was 3,000 CFA. Of course it isn't. It's more like 500 or 1,000.

I glowered at him and protested weakly. Could I tap into my supposed patience, my global tolerance, my empathy for those with fewer resources? I could feel snarky, penny-pinching, long-dormant Marie jostling for attention, bristling for a fight with a taxi driver.

"Long way," he said brightly.

"That's too much," I said, before nearly collapsing. I sank into the back of his taxi, my head aching, my body too tired to fight.

"Fine. Whatever."

In short order, he dropped me off at the Hotel du Palais, where I'd booked the "backpacker's special" for a cut rate.

The rather-decrepit room's only window opened onto the reception area. I sank onto the bed, then promptly raced into the bathroom, where I threw up into the sink, unable to make it the extra 14 inches to the toilet.

I waited. This was just like the time in Dakhla. Dehydration vomits come in threes for me.

Two.

Three.

Back to the bed.

After about two minutes I said, "to hell with budget rooms" and changed into a much-nicer room with a view of the colonial UNESCO World Heritage site street of Saint-Louis. With its brightly painted walls, double doors, and wrought iron, it reminded me of Cartegena or Antigua or even Havana.

Lovely.

I opened the double doors onto the balcony and trained my camera onto the street.

From half-a-block away, a man in stylish black clothing and sunglasses started yelling at me in French.

"No photos! No photos!"

I'd had it. The long, hot, challenging day and the sickness had pushed me past the point where I could lie to myself about having some kind of superpowers of tolerance. I let loose a string of obscenities at him in a fierce American accent, the gist being "It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I'm taking a photo of the street and you're a tiny dot in the photo and what makes you think I want a photo of you anyway?" But with a lot of swearing.

He yelled back a bit, but I kept going until he retreated. I took a few more photos, then went downstairs to the café in my hotel.

Which had, er, multiple open windows and doors onto the street. The other hotel guests, the waiters, and the owner had heard every word of my rant. Horrifying.

Yes, I am the American who was just swearing like a sailor. Nice to meet you. Have a nice day.  

What else could I do? I smiled sweetly at my fellow customers and ordered an espresso.

Marie JavinsMarie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.

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