- May 30, 2006
I should preface this entry by noting that, a little behind schedule, I’m sitting on the beach in Toubab Dialao, writing this entry as I watch several kids fishing from make shift rafts that they’ve fashioned out of plastic storage sacks. It underscores the remarkable resourcefulness that we see demonstrated daily in Africa.
Eager to get the Senegal border crossing behind us we quickly began breaking down our camp. Last night we got very little sleep, partly because we were ravaged by thousands of man eating mosquitoes which managed to penetrate the mesh doors on our tent and partly because we were woken up at 4am by marauding warthogs as they stormed through our camp. After a quick detour to say goodbye to our new friends, the charcoal farmers, we hit the piste for Diama. Aside from stopping for a few police checks (all wanted cadeaux – non got any) and to allow a nile monitor lizard and several families of warthogs cross the road, we made good time and arrived at the border around 11am.
Crossing the border proved to be every bit as challenging as we’d been warned. First there was the matter of getting out of Mauritania, which proved considerably more difficult than getting in. After having overpaid on the insurance scandal the previous day, we were determined to make it across for as little as possible. First stop, the customs office, where we needed to get our carnet stamped. Eric and I were taken into a small office and the door was closed behind us. In exchange for stamping our carnets, the official requested 10 euros. We protested saying we’d already paid the 10 euros when we entered and he countered that, that was for the entry stamp and this is for the exit stamp. To make it seem more official he pulled out a giant book and began flipping through pages of hand written receipts which apparently have been given to other unlucky travelers. And so “discussions” began, finally agreeing on a two trucks for one deal. That brought the border crossing tally to 5 euros.
Next there was the gate-keeper. Yes, that’s right, there’s some guy in a booth with a book or receipts demanding money in exchange for opening a barrier gate which blocks the road. We had no intention of paying him and after some debate with him over the legitimacy of his office, decided to ignore him all together, proceeding directly to the police checkpoint.
Inside the police post, we were lead into another office where the officer closed the door and told us to sit down. As we were seated at the table he began filling out paperwork and studying our passports. Interested in test driving a new tactic, I took the opportunity to soften him up a bit. Noticing ashes on the table, I asked if he minded if I smoked (I don’t smoke). He said it was fine and as I pulled out a cigarette I asked if he would like one as well. He replied that he would. I then proceeded to light my cigarette, nearly singeing my eyebrows in the process. I then lit his, taking care not to do the same. As he filled out his paperwork and I watched my cigarette slowly burn down, we chatted away as if we were old friends. Along the way, another officer entered and joined in the conversation. We were all chatting and laughing away until finally, the conversation turned to business. With a serious look the officer pushed our passorts across the table and demanded 2500 Ugs each (approx. $10 each). And so began another lengthy back and forth debate. The gist of our argument was this….. we only had 1000 ugs between us which we’d kept in case of a last minute emergency. We had no euros or dollars as we’d been planning to hit the ATM when we reached St. Louis, Senegal. All was going to plan and we were almost home free. All that remained was for me to reach into my pocket, rummaging around for effect, and pull out the 1000 ugs. So I reached into my pocket, rummaged around for effect, pulled out the note, and placed it on the table. Only the note sitting on the table was a crisp, new 20 euro bill, not 1000 ugs. Oh no! My heart sank. Damn. I’d checked my pockets before hand just to make sure the only note was the 1000 ugs. I have no idea what happened. Perhaps it’s that I have too many pockets in my fancy North Face trekking pants. Perhaps it’s that we seem to have no less than 5 currencies floating around at any given time. Regardless. we were screwed. The officers went unto an uproar reciting what we’d told them about not having any money. They were pissed. But then again. This is Africa and we were dealing with corrupt officials. Discussions began all over again. This time a bit less friendly than before. I won’t go into the details. Let’s just say they weren’t willing to make change. In the end, we paid them 10 euros (5 euros each) and made them agree that they’d deal with the gate keeper. That brought the tally to 10 euros to get out of Mauritania, the same price we paid to get in.
Happy to be out of Mauritania, we headed across “no man’s land” towards the Senegalese border with new resolve. We’d heard others had paid as little as 20 euros and as much as 50 euros to get across and we were hell bent on getting across for as little as possible.
And so began a struggle that lasted some 6 hours. First there was the bridge attendant who demanded 10 euros per vehicle to cross the bridge leading to the border. We dug and refused to pay, citing the same no funds argument we’d used on the Mauritania side. As we debated back and forth the bridge attendant enlisted the help of the head customs official and a police officer. Both said we must pay to cross and the police officer went ballistic, ranting that we had these big expensive trucks and weren’t willing to pay the fee to cross. Getting nowhere the bridge attendant upped the stakes by calling us a taxi to take us to an ATM in St. Louis to get money. We refused arguing we couldn’t afford the taxi. He upped the stakes again by kicking us off the bridge and back into “no man’s land.” So we parked the trucks in a picturesque spot by the water and Sheri and Sharikay stayed with the trucks while Eric and I went back to the border and parked ourselves on the steps of the customs office where we spent the next several hours.
The longer we sat the more attention we drew and finally people started to come by and ask what was going on. One of the officials was a police officer from a nearby checkpoint who pulled up on his motorcycle and asked us what was the problem. From the beginning I think the officer was only talking to us because he was interested in Eric’s sunglasses which he demanded to see. Eric showed him and like a scene out of a B rated action movie depicting third world African warlords, the officer put the mirrored glasses on and said, with an overly dramatic smooth tone in poor English, “Yes, I like the ice. Very nice. I look good, yes? Yes, very good! Sell them to me! I need new ice for riding (his motorcycle).” Eric offered the “ice” (for the record a cheap pair of imitation Ray Bans he’d purchased on the street earlier in the trip) up in exchange for getting us across the border. Initially we didn’t get anywhere however some time later the officer drove off on his motorcycle and from down the road called to me “Come here. You come speak English with the lady.” He was pointing inside a small cafe on the other side of the border. Inside was a Senegalese woman who does double duty as the restaurant’s owner and the only person selling the mandatory vehicle insurance which you must purchase to enter Senegal. I entered, sat down, and listened as she talked with two French expats from Morocco that had just crossed the border ahead of us. She asked in good English what was the problem and I explained our situation to her. As it turned out, the French expats cross this border all the time and between the insurance woman and the expats I got the scoop on what we should be paying in bribes to get through.
Armed with our new found knowledge, Eric and I headed back to the bridge attendant and reopened negotiations. He was resistant at first but then we pointed out the French expat who’d just paid him the same and we reached a deal. Now making progress, we headed across the bridge to get the trucks. At this point we’d been there so long that, no joke, Sheri had baked bread! (Sheri writes: I don’t know what got into me. I’ve never baked bread before and for some reason I got the strange urge to bake bread at the Mauritania border. I only hope it’s the last time I have that much time on my hands at a border – although if Senegal is any indication, I’ll probably emerge as Betty Bisquick). Once across the bridge, we headed for the police checkpoint to get our passports stamped. On the way in we were met by the same officer that had yelled at on the bridge earlier in the day. He was still mad and began yelling at us and refused to process our passports or for that matter even let us into the building. And so more discussions began. This time I pulled out my ace in the hole, apologizing and telling him that, while I try my best, I really don’t speak French and the problems at the bridge were all a big misunderstanding. A language problem if you will. It took a little selling but in the end, it worked and he took us into his office to process our passports. By the time we left we were fast friends and he was giving us all kinds of useful info about Dakar. He didn’t even ask for a bribe. The funniest thing was that the whole conversation was in French and somehow he didn’t make the connection.
With stamped passports in hand, we headed to customs to get the carnets processed. Interestingly, the first question from the customs official was “What did you pay the police officer to stamp your passport?” We quickly replied nothing. Seemingly surprised, he nodded his head, and more discussions began. We netted out paying 5 euros for the carnet (which brought our grand total to get across the Senegalese side to about $12).
Had the customs official not pointed out a major mistake in how the Mauritanian customs officer processed our Carnet, we’d have been more or less finished and, aside from a quick stop to pickup insurance, we’d have been on our way to St. Louis. Instead, it was back to the Mauritania to get the mistake corrected. In an attempt the correct the problem the official ended up making a bigger mess of our Carnet and so we gave up, deciding to sort it out with the CAA instead.
Back in Senegal, we made one last stop at the cafe to purchase our mandatory insurance. This went smoothly and we opted for the cheapest option available (a good decision as we got it renewed later in Dakar for much less than they charge at the border).
We finally crossed the border into Senegal shortly before 7pm. The drive to St. Louis marked a stark contrast to Mauritania. Women walked along the sides of the road dressed in brightly colored dresses with baskets on top of their heads, fruit stalls selling mangos were everywhere, and there was one police checkpoint after another. On the short drive into town we were stopped three times. These checks were less benign than Mauritania as they were clearly trolling for bribes. On the first stop Sharikay and Eric were cited for not slowing down fast enough. Bribes were paid. We were stopped and asked to get out and show our warning triangles, our fire extinguisher, our brake lights, our headlights, our turn signals, our documents, even our vaccination certificates. Fortunately we made it through unscathed albeit a royal pain in the ass, especially after the ordeal at the border. Welcome to Senegal!
Just after dark we arrived at Zebrabar, a camp located on the Senegal River just outside of St. Louis, which came highly recommended by other overlanders. Everyone was just sitting down for a large group dinner. We joined them. Good food. Cold beer. Good company. Perfect weather. It was the perfect antidote to a long, trying day spent at the border.