Delightful West Africa 3 – My Taxi Trips to and from Podor, Northern Senegal
For my 270 km taxi journey from Saint-Louis to Podor, I finally cut off taximan Amadou (see part 2). He had been fun – but then he called me 20 times a day to fix the trip to Podor, with ever rising prices ("now I know how far it is"). His obnoxious ringing makes me once more wish for a mobile phone that returns "not available" messages to select callers.
Once, to return from the beaches of Langue de Barbarie to Saint-Louis town proper, the El Faro hotel orders a taxi driver for me who seems reasonable. I test him on several shorter outings and finally ask for his price to Podor.
"That's too much. 55 Euros!"
"Hmmm… ok – 55 Euros."
As he had seemed completely reasonable and – after all – had been called by a reasonable European-run hotel first, I don't let him write down our agreement. A mistake.
We drive from Saint-Louis towards Podor and 70 km short of our destination, he suddenly leaves the reasonably tarred route national 2 into downtown Dogana, a non-descreipt sahel settlement. "So where is your hotel", he says.
"My hotel is 70 kms further, in Podor."
"No, you always told me you want to go to Dogana."
That's a very cheap lie. But I have no definite proof that I discussed "Podor" with him several times. I have the hotel voucher for "Podor" in my pocket, but it does not help either.
Now we stand a little outside Dogana, on an empty lot, around us sahel waste land, above us the burning African sun. He could easily whack me to python fodder, sell me to the nearest snake farm and explore my heavy suitcase.
"Of course we had agreed for Podor for 55 Euro", I rant aggressively. "But you don't want that. Here is 20 Euro. Place take my luggage out, then I will leave the car and find another driver. My phone directory is full with drivers from Saint-Louis and even Podor. I will also call the hotel that recommended you in Saint-Louis and inform them that you are not reliable."
"55 Euros to Podor is not good for me."
He doesn't even keep up his legend that I had spoken of Dogana.
"55 Euros is a reasonable price. The hotel receptionist in Saint-Louis had offered me a taxi for exactly that price (not a lie). Get out, put my bag out, then I will leave the car and give you 20 Euros."
I realize something else. On the first 120 kilometers, the roadside had been full with people searching short taxi rides back towards Saint-Louis. But then, some time after Richard Toll, the road had become totally empty. Maybe he realised that he couldn't pick up enough return passengers. And later people tell me that downtown taxi drivers like him know nothing about out of town destinations and are generally unable to quote reasonable prices or travel times.
"Will you go out now and put my luggage out", I snap? I hold 20 Euros in my hand, but out of his reach.
He starts his car and drives me to Podor.
At the town entrance to Podor, he stops near a restaurant. He says "You should go out and ask for the way to your hotel." (He knows that my French is bad. He had been asking the details for me on previous excursions.) He even opens my safety belt. The restaurant is on the other side of the road, and there's nobody visible. My suitcase is in the trunk. He wants to kick me out and disappear with my luggage.
"We can drive 50 meters and ask the water melons vendor on the roadside", I go. With a grim face he pulls up to the watermelon stall and three minutes later we reach the guesthouse. The receptionist steps out. I stay sitting in the taxi until the driver gets out and opens the trunk. I get out and fish for the exact agreed sum. He receives it with a face as if I had kicked him. Like so often in Le Sénégal, I get a reproachful face. I am the guilty.
"Let's go inside", I say to the receptionist. "And could you lock the guesthouse door for a moment?" He does so. Three minutes later we hear a battered Saint-Louis Peugeot leaving the Podor riverside.
— The Taxi Back from Podor to Saint-Louis–
I take another individual taxi for another 55 Euros to get back from Podor to Saint-Louis. I take the man who was with us on the village tour (see next submission); he is pleasant enough, obviously well-known around town and in the guest-house and I believe we won't get into trouble this time. A mistake.
When I ask him for a bathroom stop in the bushes along route nationale 2, he doesn't drive away without me. But 50 km ahead of Saint-Louis, the car produces disturbing sounds. We pull back to a whole string of grubby road side garages. The right wheel is dismantled, one ball bearing has disintegrated. The mechanic asks for 2.5 Euros to buy a new ball bearing and a plastic bag of grease at the second next stall. He works for an hour, and the local acacia merely has enough shadow for all of us and the car.
While the wheel is repaired, my driver walks around elsewhere. But he himself finally fixates the wheel's screw-nuts. Then driver and I jump back into the car. He hasn't yet paid the mechanic for his one hour of work.
The mechanic leans into the open window: "Give me 3 Euros!"
The driver: "I don't have that kind of change. You see, I only have 1.5 Euros."
The mechanic points at me.
The driver slaps 1.5 Euros into the mechanic's hand and rolls off without further problems.
For a kilometer.
Then, the car sounds worse than ever and the new ball bearing seems to have burst into 1,000 pieces. The driver wants to walk back to the garage to fetch the mechanic. I tell him to ask the mechanic to call another taxi for me. I might even step into a shared taxi or mini-bus. I stand next to the car, and this time there is no shading acacia or baobab tree. After a long sweating while the driver returns with the very mechanic who worked for us the first time – and who didn't get the pay he demanded. I don't trust this mechanic and say I'll continue on any other transport available, claiming that friends in Saint-Louis are waiting for me.
Not many public cars pass us. The first few shared taxis are full (so-called sept-places, with their two rows of back seats they can take seven passengers). Finally a mini-bus stops for me. This is the taxi-brousse category ("bush taxi").
"So how much do you get from me", I ask my Podor driver with his broken car on the road side.
"That's easy", he says: "The mini-bus to Saint-Lous is 1 Euro from here. So you give me the remaining 54 Euros."
Another taxi driver who starts to make me angry and lose my cool. "That's not at all reasonable and you know that", I hiss. "The mini-bus will be very slow, my luggage on the roof-top will be dirty, I lost two hours in the hot sun, in Saint-Louis I need another downtown taxi to get to the hotel and you saved 50 kilometers of gasoline – do you yourself charge 1 Euro for 50 km then, too?"
He looks at me motionless. I press 28 Euros into his hand and enter the mini-bus. Was that a scam, another try to avoid going the whole length? We spent two hours in the sun and I saw the broken ball bearing and the wheel dismantled twice.
In the mini-bus, five rows of passengers shout at each other and at the driver. They all disagree about the price. We stop. An angry old lady in orange-black robes and fitting orange-black headtie climbs over me to get out onto the dusty embankment, the driver climbs out and onto the roof to bring her luggage down and climbs back into the car, then the angry old lady changes her mind and climbs back from the roadside over me into the car again, the driver climbs out of his car and takes the angry old lady's luggage back up onto the roof again and climbs back to his driver's seat. We even continue.
The driver stops for another lady on the road side. She asks:
"How much to the second-next village?"
"That's 30 Euro cents."
"No, too much, I will give 15 Euro cents."
"No, give 30 or I'll leave."
"Ok, 22 Euro cents!"
The driver speeds off without the lady.
We stop several times at police check-posts. They all want to see insurance papers and driving licence, as usual the white tourist receives no special attention. During several stops the driver walks out, but doesn't use (or have?) the handbrake. While the driver chats with policemen, the car rolls back and forth softly. Then we continue.
The shouting session in the mini-bus about the price goes on. I have seen many times that Senegaleses, including the ladies, like to converse in a rough prison-ward manner; after a lot of rude barking, suddenly all break into a laugh and slap their hands – or not.
At the edge of Saint-Louis, there is an unexpected road construction and deviation. We see that some private cars take the blocked road anyway. The driver is unsure where to go and 15 passengers all shout at each other which way to follow.
In this bush taxi, it's not too narrow and not too hot, at least not by far. It is not too fast either, but it is highly entertaining. At least for once.
— The Taxi to Thies —
After two days in Saint-Louis, I continue to Thiès. That means another long-distance taxi. I had had so many problems with long-distance taxis (see above) that I finally follow the sign in my Saint-Louis guesthouse lobby: "To avoid certain disagreements with taxi drivers, we advice you to seek drivers solely via the guesthouse management."
Actually, the guesthouse receptionist quotes a reasonable taxi price for the flat, well-paved 190 km from Saint-Louis to Thiès: 55 Euros, like a 900 km Bangkok – Krabi flight, that's acceptable in Senegal. We discuss the day, the time, the 50% advance payment, that he has to write it all down. Finally the receptionist knocks on my door with everything written down.
"Thanks", I say, "and see you later."
He: "Give me 3 Euros for arranging all this."
I: "What? I had asked you for the final price. If you need a service fee, you need to tell me before."
He: "Hmm, hmm, ok, it is not so serious." Off.
Every so often, Africa throws a surprise at you and that's why the wise old travel writers say we must like the place. I didn't like the surprises on the previous taxi rides and now, from Saint-Louis to Thiès, comes the next surprise: the trip is completely eventless, disappointmentless, surpriseless, even positive with a relatively new car with working dampers and without any stop at a gas station.
The car drives up a minor hill. "Look, what an elevation", raves my driver. It is just a minor hill, but with Senegal's highest point at 312 meters above sea level, and that's in a remote corner of the country, every hump in the countryside looks dangerously alpine.
In Thiès, the driver from Saint-Louis of course doesn't know my booked hotel, called Bidew Bi, and he asks around in a way that seems not target driven. I change into a local taxi. He wants to bring me to my hotel for the usual intra-city fee of 0.80 Euros.
I pay the driver from Saint-Louis, heave my luggage into the new local taxi and we start. Only now I find out that the new, local driver doesn't know my hotel either. He asks around, roars down the road and stops at a hotel – the wrong one. I like it's name Le Croissant Magique, but refuse to get out. The driver almost can't believe that I don't want Le Croissant Magique. Their parking attendant can't believe it either. The driver asks around again and finally brings me to my pre-booked hotel Bidew Bi.
It is 30 meters from where I had taken the local taxi.
The more I read about your travels in Africa, the more I see it is as an adventure – but not necessarily fun!