"Excuse me, where is the bus?"
My Dutch friend addressed the conductor of a white Mercedes van in the centre of the small Gambian town of Janjanbureh (formerly Georgetown), reasoning that a bus conductor should know where I needed to be dropped off to leave Gambia for Senegal.
The conductor misheard her.
"Basse? You want to go to Basse? We are headed to Basse."
I was about to correct him when my friend turned to me to say "It's your lucky day! Get on board."
Oh. Right. Basse is where I transfer to the taxi-brousse to the Senegal border, so I can continue on to Mali and my trip around the world. This is my bus!
I scrambled onto a hard wooden bench in the back of the van while handing my rucksack to the conductor, who tossed it up to a man on the van's roof. I took a quick glance at my surroundings. I was next to a Madonna sticker (circa Like A Virgin). In front of me were a half-dozen rows of ancient, padded seats full of men and women passengers. Mostly women, some draped in colorful fabrics, their hair tied up in matching turbans. The bus conductor threw himself into the open rear door of the van just as we started moving.
What luck, I thought. I'll make it to Senegal in no time.
From there, my ultimate destination was Bamako, Mali over the next few days. Today, I'd probably make it to the Senegal-Mali border and have to overnight there, but just in case, I'd also looked up hotels in Tambacounda, some 75 miles away, though stopping there was unlikely. I'd be past that in a few hours, I thought.
A half an hour later, my luck went to hell. An oncoming minibus honked at us and waved us down. A passenger wanted to transfer to our bus.
For the next hour, staff and passengers of both buses engineered a complicated rooftop-baggage transfer. Our bus pulled off the side of the road, and the new bus sidled up right alongside, its nose headed east while ours pointed west. Men shimmied nimbly up the sides of the buses, making their ascent look easy. Once on the roof, they all anchored themselves on barely visible ledges and in corners, and proceeded to lift enormously bulky (and heavy, if one goes by their heaving) plastic sacks from our bus to the new one.
I was astonished that one passenger had so much baggage, but this is normal in locations where car ownership is uncommon, and no one complains. Plenty of women heading to market had also jumped on carrying bowls and sacks. The conductor and other passengers always helped by passing the goods out the door to the women after they'd jumped off. Or children. Sometimes they passed children. I am always afraid someone is going to pass a child to me, and I'll drop it or make it cry with my scary pale face.
While the baggage was moved from one van to the other, all the passengers not helping became bored. Eventually, they all went off into the bush, returning with branches and sticks. The sticks were for teeth-cleaning, and they got right down to business. The branches, complete with leaves... I never figured it out, but we carried dozens by the time we left.
When we reached Basse at 10am, my conductor asked where I was going.
"You have to take another taxi."
I caught a local taxi from our arrival "garage" (or depot, essentially a dirt lot) to the Senegal-bound garage.
"I'll drive you to the border for $20," offered the driver.
"$20? No way."
But when my taxi dropped me off at the depot, I wondered if maybe the $20 fare might have been a bargain. The "garage" was essentially a lean-to in a dirt lot, the ticket seller administering his job from an overturned tree trunk.
Almost no one was there.
This was a leaves-when-full garage.
I bought two bananas from a woman sitting on a bench and asked the ticket seller "Which taxi is going to take us?
He motioned across the street at a dilapidated pick-up truck. What a mess. That thing must have been new once. In 1948, maybe.
"How many people to make it full?"
Oh no. We were five people.
An hour later, a few more people had shown up. We were all getting antsy. Fifteen people seemed impossible. By noon, most of the Africans were asleep, hibernating away their anxiety about waiting all day. By 12.30, a Gambian who lives in Scotland was about to come to blows with the ticket seller.
"Fifteen people is impossible! We should leave NOW."
The ticket seller wouldn't budge. Share taxis never leave until full. Never.
I desperately thought of ways out, but nothing came to mind. No private taxis happened by and I hadn't taken a card from the earlier driver. I walked to a nearby petrol station and bought some water, then walked back to sit down again on the tree trunk. Finally, at 13.00, three hours after I'd first bought my ticket, I realised that one passenger had appeared in the last hour, and we needed five more to leave.
Fifteen people really seemed impossible. The Scottish-Gambian was fidgeting and mumbling. Anyone who wasn't asleep was looking deeply annoyed.
"How many more?" I asked the ticket seller.
He held up five fingers.
I did some quick math. At one person an hour, let's see... That's, oh... Let's not do the quick math.
I stood up.
"What are you doing?" The Scottish-Gambian instantly sensed something was up.
"Something stupid," I said. I walked up to the ticket seller, trying not to speak too loudly. I was a little embarrassed to be widening the gap between me and the other passengers.
"I'll buy them all."
The ticket seller looked flabbergasted, then recovered and started writing out the five tickets. The other passengers stirred, sleepily opened their eyes, and started collecting their luggage. They surged into the back of the rickety truck.
Two more passengers suddenly showed up. I only had to buy three more seats in the end. At $2.50 a seat, the purchase was not something I regretted.
"You get the front seat," said the Scottish-Gambian, helping himself to the middle front seat in his role as my unofficial translator. I wished he'd take off that black long-sleeved winter coat that squashed into my arm. The sun was scorching.
I went to slam shut the passenger door, but couldn't. The driver came around and helped me. It didn't slam. He shut it by sliding a hex wrench through a few bolts welded to the inside of the door.
"Is that what I think it is?" I was pointing at a yellow plastic container by my left foot. A hole was carved in the top, and a hose came out of the container and disappeared through a bit of rust into the engine compartment under the hood.
The Scottish-Gambian nodded.
"It's the petrol tank."
The driver hopped in, lit a cigarette, and we were off.
Or rather, we weren't off. The key turned but the engine didn't start. The driver and the ticket seller pushed, then the driver leapt in and popped the clutch.
Now we were off, rattling over massive potholes and over giant rocks. And then some more. And more. And more. No one wanted to take responsibility for maintaining the border road, it seems.
I wiped my face with my scarf. My sweaty sheen was back in a few minutes. The Scottish-Gambian told me his Facebook name. I later looked him up. He had something about "those beetches" on his favorite quotation. I decided not to friend him.
Eventually, we arrived at a concrete hut and some rundown shacks. This was the border.
Where were the money-changers? The drink-sellers? Not only was I thirsty, I had a hundred bucks in Gambian money to get rid of. This was the sleepiest border post I'd ever seen.
The Gambian passport officer stamped me out.
After our 12 passengers all got through passport control, the driver bolted me back in with the hex wrench and push-started the truck again. We headed to the Senegalese side. The other passengers seemed nervous now.
We stopped and all filed into the Senegal immigration office. The Senegalese got through quickly, then I was done and sent outside. The Gambians all were held for a short time, and when we got back in the truck (which as usual needed push-starting), the Scottish-Gambian told me they'd all had to pay small border bribes.
"This is always the case," he said.
"Why did you fly into Gambia instead of into Senegal?" I asked him.
"I'm not going to Senegal. I'm going to Guinea. My mother lives there. She said I have to come home for a while."
We also talked about our own cars.
"What do you have?" he asked me.
"A Ford. It's 20-years-old."
"What's your car?"
He hesitated just long enough for me to sense he was full of it. In fact, he was full of more than this. I couldn't work out what he was doing; this Gambian guy from Glasgow with a tiny carry-on bag heading-home to see his mother in Guinea by way of Gambia.
"It's... A Volvo."
I felt a little sorry then, that he felt he should say this. Africa isn't the only place where car ownership is uncommon. Lots of people don't own cars in cities. Not having a car in Glasgow was completely acceptable.
How long did it take us to reach the Senegalese town of Vilangera? I'd been keeping poor track of time since I accidentally sent my watch home from Spain. The journey was long. And hot. And scary every time the driver lit another cigarette.
At Vilangera, we split into smaller taxis to travel to the onward garages.
Six of us piled into a Sedan, while the other five passengers got into a shouting match with the driver over the fare. People's tempers were short after the long day. My Sedan stopped first at the Tambacounda garage (for me), and then the rest went on to the Guinea-bound garage.
"Thank you." Two exhausted Gambian women weren't letting me go without telling me that they were glad to have gotten here.
I smiled, pleased that they were grateful rather than annoyed that I'd flashed the tiniest bit of wealth, then they were off. I turned to the Peugeots, ready to hunt down the next one to Tambacounda.
Of course, I needn't have worried. A helper materialised, hoping to earn a tip. He installed me into the second seat in a sept-place Peugeot. Second of seven seats = comfortable, but also equals a long wait for the rest to fill.
Two hours later, my sept-place headed to Tambacounda over lousy roads. We arrived at 7pm – I'd gone 75 miles in the last 11 hours.
Exhausted, I checked into an overpriced, rundown hotel, and scrubbed myself down with grape-juice-smelling soap. And then scrubbed the dust off me again.
Which was pointless, as the next day, I got dusty once again while waiting three hours for the Mali-border bound sept-place to leave. And there, I again fancied myself lucky to board a 4pm bus for Bamako right as I crossed over.
That lasted as long as it took for me to actually climb onto the bus – which was sealed, ancient, and had no A/C. People had slept on this bus last night, waiting for it to fill up. What must have been a hot oven had evolved into a damp, smelly swamp. I reeled from the odour and the humidity, and when we later had to stop to disembark in the middle of the night to walk around a huge accident, while the bus off-roaded I was glad to have a break.
We pulled into Bamako at 8.30 the next morning, all 50 of us emerging wet, smelly, and dazed into the brilliant morning sun.
There had been a fundamental change in how I travelled during the last day. Up until Janjanbureh, transportation had been pretty easy. No more. I'd graduated – placed out of the comfy buses and roads.
The easy part was behind me.
Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. She is the author of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik: One Woman's Solo Misadventures Across Africa (Seal Press, 2006.) You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.
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