6. DAKAR - BAMAKO EXPRESS
I am trapped in Dakar waiting to buy a ticket for a train with no departure date, no schedule and no reservations. I was supposed to reach Bamako weeks ago. It seems eight continuous months on the road has rendered my research calendar virtually meaningless. Time passes differently when you are in perpetual transit.
The journey from Dakar to Bamako follows a fairly straight route 1,500 east over, traverses more than 1500 miles of land and takes anywhere from 40 to a 100 hours depending on how many times the train derails. Aside from the train, the only other option that my budget affords is three days in the backseat of a rusting Puegot with eight people, a half-dozen chickens, two busted windows and a vomiting baby. It’s far from my ideal vision of crossing into the Sahara. Now that the road east is somewhat paved through Tambacounda and Thayes, most people have abandoned the train all together. Cars are faster, cheaper and leave Bamako everyday. There is always room for another body in the autobruce. Every day that I linger in Dakar I have to turn down a ride.
Reasons to take the train:
Reason One: Intrigue? Adventure?
Reason Two: I like trains. Especially long trains.
Reason Three: Illness – a small village of parasites has been living in my intestines for the last two months, refusing to leave without medical intervention and departure from Western Sahara. I am tired of people asking me if I am “with baby” every time my belly swells and I am dizzy with fever. It is time to see a better doctor, perhaps even one who speaks English.
Of course, I came to Dakar in the first place in order to see a doctor, or so I continue to tell myself. Really, I couldn’t bring myself to stay in Noudibou and I couldn’t find anyone stupid enough to drive through the desert straight to Mali at this time of year. So, I kept moving south. Now that I am comfortably in Senegal, I find myself unable to stop moving. My fellowship thinks I am living with a family in Mauritania and I don’t know where I belong. Getting to Bamako was supposed to matter.
Two days later, I arrived in Dakar with my little backpack, a fever and a bag of mangos. I have been offered a place to stay by an boy from Montana named Danny who rents a tiny room on the fifth floor of a building in the Medina, a dense neighborhood of markets and clubs, worker housing, small businesses and a large number of Senegalese college students from around the country. I am happy to be far from the Plateau, the original French colonial administrative district of the city, which remains the homes of most NGO workers, foreign organizations, and very wealthy Senegalese.
Danny helps me navigate the winding streets, tiny café’s and truck stops where we find every cheap street food delicacy imaginable. I am happily surprised by the smiling, curious faces that follow me around the neighborhood. This is not the part of town where the expats and foreign students usually make their homes. But no one hassles me here. What a break from the quiet, tightness of the desert. Everyone is smiling and dancing in Dakar.
Danny tells everyone that he is in Senegal learning French, which is not entirely true. Danny is waiting in Dakar trying to pull off an elaborate scheme to get Senegalese residency papers so that he return to Europe on a student visa. When I arrive, he tells me I am free to stay as long as I find myself in Dakar. He understands well the art of waiting.
I tell Danny, that I should only be in town for two or three days. He shrugs and begins to teach me a few phrases in Wolof. The next morning, I head downtown to the train station ready to buy my ticket.
The train station is a large, French colonial structure that houses nothing. It appears that there is only one train still running to this station, right in the middle of the city. But, of course, nothing is really clear. There is no schedule posted, no signage on the closed ticket window. I wander around for ten minutes of so before I find a tall man in blue overalls who appears to have just woken up from napping on one of the baggage carts.
Excuse me, do you know when the train leaves for Bamako?
It just left a few days ago.
I don’t know, a few days ago. You missed it.
Won’t it leave again?”
Yes, but it has to come back first.
Of course, but on what day will it leave next week?
Yes, next week, won’t it leave again next week?
Perhaps. Depends on when it returns. It can’t leave before it gets back.
I suppose not. Well, do you know when it is supposed to come back from Bamako?
How can I know when it will leave Bamako if it hasn’t arrived yet?
Well, when did it leave here?
I don’t know, a few days ago, just after it arrived.
Everyday I go to the station and have some variation of this conversation. I am told that the train will leave in two days, that it is still in Bamako, that it has already arrived, that it just left last night… all by men in uniforms with big smiles and sticks in their mouths. It’s perfect West African logic, of course, and I should be used to it by now. My imperfect French exhausts me. At least no one seems to use the subjunctive in West Africa. I never leave the train station any more sure of the world than when I arrived.
I can’t buy a ticket until the ticket window opens. The window opens when the train returns and is prepared to leave again. I find out when the train gets back from the guy who works behind the little window. He is only behind the little window when the window is open. Until then, a ratty brown curtain stands between me and any hope of getting to Mali before the rains break. The ticket seller will sell me a ticket if he is there, and I’m there and it’s the right day and he feels like it.
I begin to wonder if the only way to get on this train is to set up a blue tarp in the station, camp out, and sell bags of peanuts like the other women here. I relinquish all control over my movement and take to wandering the streets for hours after my daily visit to the train station. I write often but am still not sure what I have come here to see, what I can possibly hope to make sense of.
In the meantime, I meet some other Tubabs (Senegalese for white person, stupid white person, or fucking white person depending on inflection) living in Dakar who want to make sure that I see the city and enjoy life before leaving for scorching Mali, where apparently no one should ever go in April. I meet the first pair, Ben and Tony at Chez Dany; a shady shack of a bar in the Media owned and run by a man named Sam. We are drinking a healthy dose of whiskey and cheap beer on the night of the bar fight that gets loveable dreadlocked Tony punched in the face. Things are a little less serene than usual that night.
Ben, the second American I’ve met in two months, is drunk and dancing. He is speaking in Wolof and declaring his love for the city and all its inhabitants. It is refreshing to meet people who love where they are living. For the next few days he shows me around town and takes me to Ecole de la Rue, the school where he teaches English. We walk past a long wooden bench on the street where the school held its first class. A rusted metal sheet leans against a stonewall, still dusty with chalk. Ben arrived in Dakar seven months ago not knowing anyone, not speaking a word of French or Wolof and never having taught a single class. Now I watch him sing and dance, switching between English, French and Wolof to explain grammar, to keep his students awake and laughing.
When he is not working, Ben and I walk all over town and sit in tents drinking café touba, an acrid mixture of coffee, cloves and black pepper triple brewed and ladled out of a bucket into tumblers half filled with condensed milk. The concoction was brought to Dakar and continues to be sold by the by Baye Fall, a sect of Sufi practitioners grounded in the ethics of hard work. The drink shares the name of a town in Eastern Senegal, the holiest tree in Mali and the word for bliss. On any given day, it powers hundreds of manual labourers, truck drivers and gangs of unemployed boys who populate these tents. Ben tells me stories the marabout and the children I see everywhere with tin cans begging for sugar, tales of Muslim mystics and dancing beggars, of being taken on pilgrimage to the African Mecca and of making a life in Dakar. Ben is another traveller stopping in Dakar before moving on, usure of how long he will stay or where he will go next.
My days are filled with commuting to and from the train station, getting lost in the city, visits to the beach, little chores, bottles of beer, bags of bissap juice, and a steady diet of haricot, hard-boiled eggs, chocolate sandwiches and bananas. I swim in the ocean, listen to music, stay up late talking with Danny and almost forget that I’m waiting to leave.
When I grow overwhelmed by the train station and my German-speaking doctor’s ongoing confusion over my lab tests and unclear symptoms, Danny and I leave the city and spend the weekend in a rented beach house with ten young French NGO workers. They ask me why my French is so bad and then spend the first evening talking about American imperialism in Parisian slang. I refrain from asking why they don’t speak a word of Wolof, despite having lived here for years. They cook exquisite meals from cans of imported food. At least the ocean is quiet and serene.
Back in Dakar on Monday morning; everything feels different. I am hopeful. I think I am going places. Danny takes off class and we go see that troublesome Chef de Gare, the only man who can actually get me on this train. Perhaps, Danny is growing weary of my company. I have been sleeping on the tiled floor of his apartment for ten days.
We wake early and walk to the tent at the corner truck stop and drink our café touba with pleasure. We leave the tent shaking and grinning and stop the first stick seller we spot. I’m convinced our sticks will be the key to our success. We examine the twigs as if they are fine cigars, smelling and fingering each delicately to the confusion of the nine-year-old vendor who answers our questions in a whisper and looks as if he expects us to arrest or hir him at any moment. He seems relieved when we don’t ask for change and scampers quick out of sight, his tray of twigs weaving through the perpetual mob of traffic flowing downtown. We are grinning like school children with new shoes. How can the Chef de Gare say no to us when we are chewing sticks?
We arrive. The boss is in his office. We talk. He gives us a story:
Come tomorrow in the afternoon to buy a ticket, the train will leave Wednesday.
Is the train here?
Yes, yes, the train is here. Look outside. It’s a train.
It won’t leave before Wednesday?
No, no. Come tomorrow at 3:00 to buy tickets.
I laugh and begin to dance in front of a fading poster of a baobab tree. I chew my stick with gusto. Danny and I take a little walk to look at the train, my dirty and battered ticket to the desert. We peer through broken windows at ripped upholstery and missing doors. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
Before leaving the station, we complete a victory lap and return to the office to offer more thanks and farewells. The Chef de Gare smiles and waves. Then, almost as an afterthought, he asks us to sit down and wait some more. He like us now, because for the next five minutes he ignores us completely and makes a phone call. It’s a long conversation. He sighs into the receiver and scratches his thigh. He makes a second phone call.
Okay, buy your tickets now. The train leaves tomorrow at one o’clock.
Is the window open?
Okay, come, we’ll open the window.
We find the ticket seller and make him open the window. It seems he was there all along, sitting under a blue tarp eating peanuts with a woman wrapped in fabric printed with drawings of bicycles. A handwritten sign is posted with a day and a time. It is all very official. The ratty brown curtain is drawn. An hour later, I walk out of the station with a ticket in my hand, a stick in my mouth, the happiest Toubab in Dakar.
Do I leave Dakar a different person that when I arrived? Perhaps. It was a rest that I needed. A pause, a chance to reconnect to people, to dance and swim and smile without pause. To get a little healthier, even if I am not really healed. I don’t know it yet, but the medicine I have been given will stop working as soon as it runs out. It doesn’t kill my parasites, only sedates them until I am again in the desert just north of Timbuctou.
Two weeks later, I have a chance to call Danny from a payphone in Bamako. I thank him for all his help. I don’t think I ever would have gotten that ticket if he hadn’t come down to battle the Chef de Gare with me. Danny tells me that for a week, dozens of people he had never met before were coming up to him on the streets of the Medina asking where his woman had gone. When he would tell people that I had been waiting to take the train to Mali, he always received the same response. A slow, sad shake of the head, and a soft muttering, “You let her go to Mali, on the train?”