Stuck in a Rut in West Africa

March 13, 2009

My husband and I were three weeks into a two month trip -West Africa 2009 - five countries in all: Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, and The Gambia. We had crossed the Burkina border into Mali the night before and were eager to get to our destination, the Bandiagara Escarpment, home of the cliff-dwelling Dogon people. We had arranged transport before leaving Burkina Faso, along with an authentic Dogon guide who went by the equally authentic name, James Brown...a funny story unto himself to be saved for later.  


'James Brown', sporting the Obama shirt that we gave him, posing with a shy Fulani girl.  



James Brown showed up in our lovely transport, the ubiquitous West African Bush Taxi, a 1980's Peugeot-type vehicle. Five-seater in theory. Nine-seater in reality. Soon to become an eleven-seater with the unhappy and bitchy addition of hubby and I. We crawled in all clumsy with our backpacks - it was tight as packed pickles and hot as hell. Let the journey begin, I thought, swearing silently, knowing that my husband wanted to kill me, as it was 'I' who had made this money-saving arrangement. Hey! Four American Dollars for a four hour trip! How can you beat that? I shriveled and stared at the backpack in my lap, and did what I could to ignore the strong body odor of the sweaty stranger crushed against my right side. The man was already passed out, head flopping and drooling before we even got to the edge of town. "Wish I could do that," my husband said, and I agreed. Sleep away the misery. 


Now what most travellers usually take for granted while enduring such pain is that the people you are travelling with, travel this way all the time. It's their way of life. Didn't we come all the way to Africa to experience their way of life? I almost asked my mate this question, then thought better of it. The sour look on his face told me I'd better keep all existential thought to myself. I am, therefore, I'm fucked. If anything goes wrong, that is.


We tumbled fast and hard down the dusty twisting road, which soon turned into a pitiful sand track. This is my fault, I thought. Yep. If we get stuck out here, I'll be the one to blame. Right about then, my husband looked over with a dark scowl. "No worries. We'll make it. They do this all the time," I reassured. And the driver kept speeding up. Small villages were flashing by at an alarming rate. And the sand track kept getting deeper.


"This is not a four-wheel drive," stated my husband, overstating the obvious. 


"Nope. You're right. It's not. But they obviously have a system..." And we swerved and careened madly, leaving a sand-wake there in the Sahel on the edge of the Sahara. And I was thinking, this could be fun, if you could only get past the fear long enough to let go. I giggled hysterically on a curvy turn and grabbed the seat in front of me. Everyone was asleep now, except for my mate and I, and thankfully, the driver. I looked over at my mate and winked. He looked at me sideways.


"Oh you'll think it's fun when we have to hike out." It was just about then, and right on cue, that we came to a grinding, jerky halt. "Hah! What'd I tell ya?" And I just closed my eyes and groaned.


"Out," the driver said in English, after barking orders in their native French and Dogon. I crawled out, just as clumsily as I'd crawled in, and started walking. Where I was going, I did not know. Just anywhere that wasn't where my angry mate could get to me. I trudged through the deep sand, huffing and puffing and cussing and hissing the whole way, until I was a good 100 meters ahead, then I pulled out my camera and went to it. This just screamed, document me pictorially! because it would be too hard to believe in just words. We were quite literally out in the middle of Nowheresville. Yes, we could see the Bandigara Escarpment before us, still several miles away, but it still counted as Nowheresville, because it was getting dark fast, and there was nothing to light our way...