Tuesday, July 1
Saint-Louis, Senegal

My dad has a rule about car windshields. One little crack makes it weak, he says, so even that has to be fixed before driving.

So I’m glad he didn’t see the car I rode in from Dakar to Saint-Louis last night. The windshield had not one crack, not a dozen, but was so full of cracks I don’t know how it was even staying together.

The vehicle was a sept-place, or seven-seater, a major form of transportation here in Senegal. It’s basically a beat-up station wagon that fits seven passengers – three in the middle, three in the back, one up front – plus the driver. I ended up sitting in the back seat, near the left window, my luggage directly behind me in the trunk.

As soon as I crammed into the spot, I wondered how I would possibly get out if we were in a wreck. The window next to me didn’t open, and the window next to the man sitting in front of me opened just a bit – manually. And by manually, I don’t mean he had to turn a handle to open the window. I mean he had to force it up with his hands and do the same to push it back down. All the windows in the car worked that way. (No, Dad, there weren’t any seatbelts.)

I was heading up Senegal’s coast to Saint-Louis, a city that’s cooler, calmer and smaller than Dakar. I was with a friend of a friend of a friend (got that?) named Fallou, who would be serving as somewhat of a guide for me for a few days. We planned to stay at his friend’s house in Saint-Louis while he showed me around town.

But first we had to get there.As soon as we got to the car transport area in Dakar, I was glad to have Fallou with me for my first auto trip. The place was packed full of cars going to various destinations and both men and women selling agressively everything from bananas to watches to shoulder bags. They led us to the sept-place for Saint-Louis, and after Fallou bargained for our ticket price, we took our seats in the back and waited for one last passenger – the cars don’t leave until they’re full – before beginning the three to four hour drive.

I had no leg room, but Fallou, a tall guy who was sitting in the middle next to me, had even less. My legs started cramping after a couple of hours. So this is what veal feel like, I thought.

Several of the men in the car were dressed in Muslim garb and reading a book that Fallou told me was written in Wolof. Every time the car slowed because of traffic, hoards of people would crowd around the vehicle, urging us to buy from them. Fallou purchased a large bag of mangoes for us to eat upon our arrival.

I was impressed with the road; newly paven, it provided a smooth ride. Trying not to inhale the exhaust from the cars and trucks around us, I rested my had back on the bag behind me and shut my eyes.

I opened them to a shuffle: the wind had picked up, blowing sand and dust into the car, and apparently this meant it was going to rain. The drive and three passengers by the windows rushed to push up the panes, manually, of course. And then the rain came pouring down, the first rain I’ve seen since my arrival in West Africa. Senegal is only now transitioning into the rainy season.

It poured hard. And with the windows shut, the windshield fogged over. So the driver turned on the defroster. Well, technically speaking, he asked the woman in the passenger seat to rub her hand on the window in front of him to clear a space so he could see. She continued this duty every few minutes, eventually using a hand towel someone passed up to her. How’s that for responsibility? The human defroster.

Police pulled us over twice because the front left headlight didn’t work. But five hours after we left Dakar, we made it to Saint-Louis.

Bon voyage.