Sunday, July 20
The rumor is, indeed, true: the road from Senegal to Mali is long.
Day #1: Kaolack to Tamba (short for Tambacounda). Travel time: 7 hours.
The parts of the road that were paved were so full of holes that the sept-place driver drove mainly on the shoulder, sometimes half on the road.
His driving technique was similar to those used in race car video games. He confronted the road like an obstacle course, constantly turning the wheel left, then quickly right, then left again, alternating between hitting the brakes hard and accelerating, to avoid massive gaps in the pavement.
On some bumps, my head hit the ceiling. I resisted falling asleep against the half-open window for fear of getting my teeth knocked out.
Though his skills were impressive, the chauffeur drove like a bat out of hell, much to the dismay of myself and my fellow passengers. He drove at a crazy-fast speed, passing uncomfortably close to large trucks even when they kicked up so much dirt he couldn’t see where he was going. I pulled my shirt over my nose and mouth to avoid inhaling the dust that came through the car windows and gawked at the trailers that had overturned on the shoulder, stuck indefinitely on their side.
When I arrived in Tamba that night, I learned I had made the right choice by traveling via sept-place. Two French women I met there took the same route on a minibus, which holds dozens of people, and the trip took 10 hours.
* * * * *
The sept-place system is a crap shoot. The station wagon fills up from front to back, the driver won’t leave until it’s full, and your seat depends entirely on when you arrive.
Arrive early, and you get one of the best seats, either in the front or the middle. But then you have to wait around, sometimes for hours, for other passengers to buy the remaining seats.
Late arrivals don’t have to wait but get stuck sitting in the back, where room to move is minimal.
And yet, there’s no opportunity to be strategic. It’s impossible to know when a car will begin to fill up or when it will leave.
So each passenger simply arrives at the bus station at any given time and hopes for a good seat and a short wait.
The other option is a bush taxi, a minibus, which costs slightly less than a sept-place but I imagine is at least twice as uncomfortable. The buses are packed tightly with people, move slower than cars and don’t deal as well with holes in the road.
* * * * *
Day #2: Tamba to Kayes, Mali. Travel time: 7 hours.
The road was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Paved, perhaps recently, with few holes. We traveled quickly to Kidira, Senegal’s border town.
From there, I did a little transport dance with two other toubabs — that’s Senegal-speak for white people. The French women I met in Tamba also were headed toward Mali.
First we hopped a taxi to get across the border. The driver stopped at the Senegalese side and waited while an official stamped our passports.
When we returned to the taxi, it wouldn’t start. So we transferred our bags to another taxi, which transported us across a bridge and into Mali. The driver dropped us there at the bus station.
A friendly man guided us to the Mali border police station, down a side street we never would have found ourselves, where we presented our entry visas. Passports stamped again!
Back at the bus station, we grabbed lunch while waiting for the next sept-place to fill with passengers. Now that we were in Mali, however, the sept-place had turned into a neuf-place, a nine-seater. The car wasn’t any bigger, it just held nine people instead of seven. Four people now sat in the middle seat and three in the front, one straddling the stick shift.
The sept-place destined for Kayes departed African-style: several men pushed the car while the driver tried the ignition.
It worked, and we drove several kilometers before the driver pulled over to fix a tire.
We eventually made it to Kayes, where I’m staying in a dingy hostel (my sister wouldn’t set foot in this bathroom) while waiting for a train to Bamako, the capital. It’s scheduled to depart from here Tuesday, and should take about 10-14 hours. That will make up Day #3, hopefully the final day, of this cross-border journey.
I’ll let you know if the train shows up.