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|Monday, October 25, 1999 06:20:00|
West Africa 1999: 2
This is being sent from the Hotel Atlantic business center in The Gambia. We are getting a few things done, as English is the language here and things are a little easier. The language was French in Mauritania and Senegal, and Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau.
After being very worried when the airport in Miami closed because of the hurricane the day before I left, my AA flight did leave on time and arrived to sunny skies in Miami. I got an excellent seat with lots of leg room on the Air France 747 overnight flight to Paris, where I met up with Tim Carlson, my travelling companion. We boarded the Air France flight for Nouakchott, Mauritania, and they had me in a regular seat into which I could not fit. My seat mate, who turned out to be the vice-dean of the University of Mauritania on his way home from a security council meeting in Rome, promptly talked two Chinese in the bulkhead row into giving up their seats on the full flight, and so we traded with them. By the time we reached Mauritania Mohammed Haless, my new friend, was insisting that we stay at his home, which we did. He then toured us around the area, rented a Mercedes from a friend, and insisted on driving us to Dakar. This was a leg of the trip we had no idea how to handle, as there were no flights or buses other than cramped bush taxies - a type of modified van into which about 50 people are crammed.
Mohammed turned out to be an excellent driver, but very fast. The road often went through the center of villages, and for these stretches he would slow to about 100 KPH from the normal 120 to 130. The roads are full of cattle, goats, camels and donkeys, so it was a quite exciting ride. We crossed by ferry into Senegal, and I got some great video of the return ferry trip being dedicated to a herd of camels. Mohammed is the most talented negotiator I have run into, and can do so in five languages fluently. At police checkpoints there was never a problem he couldn't talk his way out of, and when I was ordered to hand over my video tape for videoing a fishing village near Nouakchott, he called upon his uncle who is the head of the police for the area, and promptly made the problem go away. Fortunately there are no traffic police or speed limits.
Before arriving in Dakar we stopped at a restaurant owned by a friend of Mohammed's in St. Louis, a beautiful and once very prosperous city on an island in a river. Upon arrival in Dakar we were promptly stopped by the police for going against traffic in a taxi only lane. Mohammed talked the police into letting us go, and promptly got stopped by another very officious policeman about two blocks further along. This one took a lot of arm waving and argument on the part of Mohammed, as he and the policeman walked back and forth over a distance of about three car lengths, and the outcome was that the policeman got into the car with us and took us to our hotel. We paid his cab fare back to his patrol point!
Dakar is a hustle type big city, with lots of very persistent street vendors and beggars. There didn't seem to be a big crime problem. We took a ferry out to an island about 20 minutes off the coast, and it was very nice - no vehicles, very old, and all buildings must be restored in the form of the original. Two nights here was enough, and we said goodbye to Mohammed and he drove back to Nouakchott as we flew Air Senegal to Ziguinchor in the South of the country.
Prices in the area were very inexpensive, and there were very few visitors, as the province of Casamance, which is like Senegal's Quebec had just finished up a civil war in which some 600 or 700 people were killed. There was a very big military presence here, with very frequent roadblocks - one involving a tank - and many vehicle searches and identity checks. We were very worried about how to get into Guinea-Bissau, which is only 15 miles from Ziguinchor, as all foreign embassies had been evacuated in the country and no airlines would fly in. Also, almost all Guinea-Bissau embassies in the world had been closed, however the one in Dakar was open, and they greeted us with open arms, so happy someone was going to visit their country that they gave us our visa in about 15 minutes - and this half an hour before the embassy officially opened. A person from Guinea-Bissau actually drove us back to our hotel afterwards.
We hired a taxi to take us to Sao Domingo, the closest town in Guinea-Bissau, where we walked about and had a few beers. I left my jacket with identity papers, credit cards, money and everything else on the back of my chair in an open area in front of the bar in the town market when we walked off to see the town and river. When I returned it was still there, with everything intact, so I guess that proved the honesty of the people! I bought a round of drinks for everyone in the bar I was so relieved, and so our departure took a great deal of hand shaking all around.
We hired a Mercedes with a driver for about $50 per day, and did a thorough exploration of the area including the beautiful beaches and resorts at Cap Skirring. On the way back we were going through small villages and were lucky enough to come upon a local fiesta, and they gave me permission to video it. The next day our car and driver, plus another fellow who had taken a liking to us and had accompanied us on all our travels in the area, headed of for Banjul, in The Gambia. The fellow, Bas, spoke some English and proved invaluable in assisting us. The road was incredibly bad, taking 5 hours to go 100 miles, and even at that we blew out a tire. We are at the Atlantic Hotel here, which is very nice. Once again, the people are very friendly and helpful, and when asked directions will usually just take you to where you asked about. Identification documents were a must in Senegal, but are not necessary at all here - it is very relaxed. The Gambia is a small country of 1.1 million people.
We hopefully fly Air Ghana tomorrow to Conakry, Guinea, and the next day will be the most challenging of the trip as we try to helicopter into Sierra Leone. On the news yesterday we hear the UN is going to send in 6,000 peace keeping troops, but we will be there well in advance of them. Tim suggested we tell everyone we are here looking for a suitable UN headquarters!