Travel Stories

Arriving in Dakar

          Travelling from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of Africa is a longer journey than travelling from the east coast of the United States to the West.  And well more than half way there our plane has to make an unscheduled stop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, (which used to be called Upper Volta in case you’re looking for it on an old map), because, since the French military incursion into Mali, now about two weeks old, there was no longer any fuel to be had in Bamako, the Malian capital, our originally scheduled refueling destination where we must still stop to discharge and pick up passengers.  And I’m bizarrely okay with it all, in the zone, more upset with the Pats’ loss than concerned for my safety, saw some French air force planes on the tarmac in Mali and a couple of huge USAF machine transports - steel gray/green and low to the ground airplanes delivering all sorts of mechanical land transport - jeeps and trucks mostly - felt a sense -projection? - of nearby war, journalists deplaning with big cameras, etc, but also a tremendous sense of complete normalcy, no crowding refugees, no obvious military presence guarding the planes, mostly just aware this is my last Africa leg of this memorable journey.
          And Dakar, it turns out, is actually not just across the African continent it's on another planet, or at least another continent than the rest of Africa I've seen, or maybe this is "The Real Africa," or maybe there are many “Africas,” or, maybe this is just West Africa - with its French colonial inheritance and so very different tribal traditions -even empires - than British East Africa - or as is most likely true, it’s all one BIG Africa with dozens of diverse and not so homogeneous component parts.  I’m such a novice ... and the continent is genuinely so complex.  And I see immediately why those who preach(ed) Pan-African unity (a United States of Africa - extending for many into the African diaspora), the independence leaders like Nyrere, Kenyatta, and Senghor, the more “modern” leaders, like Nkrumah and Gaddafi, and the American Black leadership of Garvey, DuBois, Robeson, and Malcolm X, were, and are, such clearly massive threats to the economic and political dominance over Africa held by the US, the French, the Brits, the European Union, China, Asia, SEATO, NATO, Russia, the Arab League, whoever, all wanting (and mostly getting) their piece of African riches, land, oil, uranium.  (China is very aggressively buying agricultural land in Africa, but then China is also aggressively buying skyscrapers in NYC, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver.)  Who said imperialism was dead?   It’s just wearing different clothing.  And without some sort of Pan-African unity, each country in Africa is a relatively easy target for corporate and imperialist nasties to pick off, especialllyb given the long history of kingship, chieftainship, fealty, taxation, tithing, and corruption.  Thus the possibility of real political and economic unity in so immensely diverse a continent - philosophically, linguistically, culturally, economically, developmentally, religiously, and tribally - is simply currently impossible.  Period.
          Still I am initially quite happy to have arrived here, safely landed and a full continent closer to home, notwithstanding my initial feeling of being far more vulnerable and exposed than I have felt anywhere else in Africa, no matter how foreign or remote that may have been.  Perhaps it was the bribe I had to pay to get into the country.  Another first for me.

          I’m standing in front of the young handsome uniformed customs policeman inside his booth along with two other officers - one on each side of him - and the three camera and fingerprint machines - at the Leopold Senghor airport - with a long line of folks behind me.  The policeman is carefully scanning my entry form.  (There are no formal visa fees or visa requirements for US or EU entrants into Senegal.)  The policeman points out that I have not filled in the name or address of the hotel I’ll be staying at - because, frankly - that’s not my MO, my tactic almost everywhere I go being to tell an English speaking cab driver at the airport what I’m looking for - center city, walking distance to shops and restaurants, other tourists, wifi, inexpensive - and let him deliver me to a neighborhood where I find a place to stay the first night and then explore and move on the second night.  Simple.  The patented Taub Travel Lodging Technique; worked every other time so far.  But this policeman says he won’t let me in to the country unless I can tell him where I’ll be staying.  WTF.
          So first I say that where I’ll be staying is in an email on my laptop.  And he says I have to let him see it.  And I open my laptop - which I know cannot get reception where we are playing out this little drama - and show him that I can’t tell him the name of the hotel because I can’t open my email.  And he says in an almost incomprehensible French accent, “Yes, I see that, but I cannot let you into Senegal without the name of at least one place you are staying.”
          So then I tell him that the people from “the guesthouse” i'll be staying at have already arranged for a driver to pick me up who will be waiting outside for me.  And he says, call the driver.  And I say, I have no phone.  And he says again that without the name of a place I am staying he will not let me into the country.  And I'm aware my baggage is somewhere inside the airport in baggage claim and I’m stuck here, outside, delayed, detained it almost seems, the line behind me growing longer, as the policeman, still holding on to my passport, says, “Stand over there and wait.”
          So I wait, a rather long time, even if it’s only ten minutes or so, and it’s sobering.  Then he calls me over again.  And I say words to the effect, "Look, officer, I have money, I have a ticket to America leaving next week - which is true, although I couldn’t show it to him if I had to - I'm a responsible adult - which is also mostly true, although I couldn’t show that to him either - my son is meeting me here in Dakar, I mean, come on, man, what is the problem?"  And he says - oh you know already – that without the name of a place I am staying to write down in the space on the form that calls for that information he will not let me in the country.  Period. 
          But I’m cool, I don’t get pissed off, or say let me see your supervisor, or I’m a lawyer, or I’m calling the American embassy, or anything like that.  What I say, as I’ve been trained to do in these situations, rolling over onto my back like the less dominant dog I am, my feet up in the air is, “I know you are just trying to do your job, sir, but surely you are not really going to keep me out of the country.”  And he says, “Give me the name of a hotel.” 
          Oh, I get it, I think.  So I say, “the Dakar Hyatt Hotel,” and he says, "Write the name down on this piece of paper."  So I write “Dakar Hyatt Hotel” down on the piece of paper he gives me and hand it to him ... and he says, “There is no such hotel in Dakar,” (which I later check and find out he is right, damn Hyatt), and hands me back the paper with the number “100” written on it.  Aha.   So I say “Francs?” - which I know would be about twenty cents - “or dollars?"  And he says, says!, outloud!, loud enough for me to hear on the other side of the glass, “Dollars, put the money right here in your passport when you give it back to me, now step aside.”  And before I do I write 10$s on the paper and give it back to him.  And he shoves the paper right back at me.  And I write 20$ on the piece of paper.  And he writes 50$ on the piece of paper.  And I step aside in order to fold a nice 50$ bill inside my passport, indignant but resigned, returning to stand in front of him - there are literally two other agents inside the booth this guy is in - one on either side of him processing forms without delay while all this is going on - and the guy takes my passport, not so dexterously puts the passport below the counter top, takes out the fifty, puts the passport back on the counter, stamps it, and I’m on my way.  Easy, huh? 
          I can’t wait to tell you about my next adventures, one with the guy who offers to sell me an antique amber necklace for one hundred dollars, okay, last offer fifty, okay, because I love you and need money in my pocket this morning thirty, and who I ultimately buy it from for ten dollars ... and the other, even better one - with the guy who either miraculously “recognizes” me because it truly is such a small world, or who recognizes me for the truly easy mark I really am.  I know you can guess which one that turns out to be.  So why is it so much harder to discern for me?