It’s impossible to plan your way our of everything – or to have all your plans go accordingly. This is especially true in West Africa - sometimes you just have to improvise and luck out.
26.05.2016 - 29.05.2016 30 °C
It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I have just arrived in Praia’s (Cape Verde’s capital) small international airport. The airport’s only cash machine is out of money, the one exchange bureau is closed, the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, the only café doesn’t take international credit cards, and I can’t check in to my hostel before 10 o’clock. Like at home, things doesn’t always go my way when travelling. To be honest, since travellers, by definition, are new to most places we show up in, have no idea about local arrangements and often don’t speak the languish, our plans probably goes wrong more often than others’. So to give you a little idea about how that turns out here’s a small buffet from the last few days were things haven’t gone as smooth as I’d liked them to go.
Crossing from Mauritania to Senegal – as with any border crossing – hustlers tend to be around en masse to offer you a dreadful rate for any money you would like to change. I figured I’d avoid them and change my money somewhere else. On the Mauritanian side of the Senegal River, that constitutes the border, was nothing but a small village. On the Senegal side, the provincial capital of Podor seemed like the more promising place to find a proper place to change. This assessment quickly turned out to be wrong. Nobody in Podor wanted Mauritanian money, and if anyone offered to change it would be at rate 1.5 – not the official 1.8 rate. The difference would cost me around 15 Euro, which given that there was no bank in town would mean that I wouldn’t have enough money to get all the way to Dakar. As it was late, I seriously began to consider whether I would have to walk out of town to pitch my tent for the night, as I couldn’t pay my hotel room.
The only thing I had going for me, was that a local student had befriended me. He knew the manager of the hotel I wanted to stay in, and he somehow convinced (the drunk) the manager to let me postpone the payment of the first night, so I had a chance to return to Mauritania the next day and try changing my money in the village. I just needed to give him my passport as a guarantee. Fine. Or at least that was all right until I went down to the river the next day, where the pirogues did the crossing. Since I needed to leave Senegal, the border police wanted my passport. Somehow, I managed to explain the situation to them in some broken French, pointing out that without my passport I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in Mauritania anyway. I simply had to come back. Leaving my “national ID” (read: my driver’s license) with the border police as a guarantee for my return, I was allowed to cross. On the Mauritanian shore, the border official on duty insisted that he handled the change of my money. Always a bit worried about African officials and money, I had no choice. My lack of trust, however, was put thoroughly to shame. The official made the change with some local Senegalese boys who had crossed with me and insisted on what was essential a fair rate for both parties. When I didn’t have the last few cents to complete the transfer at the correct rate, he even paid for it himself to make everything work out! So while it was some extra hassle to correct my initial blunder of not changing the Mauritania money before I left the country, everything worked out eventually.
And things often end up working out for me. Stupid, but lucky, remember? Leaving Podor, I had 18 hours to make the 400 km to Dakar to catch a flight to Cape Verde. Something that might or might not be possible in West Africa depending on where you are. Here in Senegal, it should be possible as half of the distance was between Dakar and Senegal’s second city, Saint Louis. In other words, there is plenty of traffic and good roads. Getting out of Podor quickly became an issue, through. I’d checked at the bus station the day before if there was a vehicle to Saint Louis this morning. “Yes, yes, it leaves at 7.” Okay. So I was at the bus station a little past six, just in case – only to get the message that there was no car to Saint Louis. Sigh… Instead, I could take another car 20 km to a crossroad, from where there would be onward transport to Saint Louis. Of course, there wasn’t. There was, however, a car to the city at the halfway point. T.I.A. (This Is Africa). I was running out of money too, so all I got for breakfast/lunch was a few biscuits; I only did not dare to spend any money on food as long as there was unpaid transport ahead of me – and taking it in small steps are more expensive than making it in one long stretch. But I lucked out again. At the halfway town a car going directly to Dakar just needed two more passengers. Conveniently, I was one such passenger, and suddenly I had made it to the airport in Dakar in just under 10 hours. A complete success; so much so that I now had an eight-hour wait at the airport – at least here were food!
Which then brings us back to this post’s introduction: arriving on Cape Verde in the middle of the night without any usable currency (again) and a hostel I couldn’t check in to. As any sensible idiot would have done, I decide to postpone all these problems a few hours. The airport benches were luckily not those with armrests between each seat, so I was able to get some sleep without the humiliation of lying on the floor in a corner of the entrance hall.
The situation hadn’t improved when I woke a few hours later. Still no money in the machine, still no clerk in the changing booth, and thus still no food. However, Cape Verde is a small place, so the airport is just 5 km outside the town. Figured I could walk that – maybe someone would even pick me up… and voilà, a minibus stopped for me almost instantly. Once inside I explained I needed to get to a bank to get out money before I was able to pay for the ride. This was not a problem, so we happily drove into town. To my surprise, we stopped just a kilometre short of the city centre where everybody was transferred to another minibus. Here the driver didn’t really get my rather poor effort to explain in Portuguese, that I didn’t have any money. Instead, he just figured that my destination was a bank; he then proceeds to drop me off at such a building in the centre. Here he, to my bewilderment, just drove off without any further explanation. Somehow I’d managed to get into town, with two bus rides without having to pay anything. I took out some money, found the location of my hostel in a nearby café that had both breakfast and Wi-Fi, and went to check myself in.
What I’m trying to get at with these examples is first that travelling in Africa rarely works out as planned. Secondly, that if you have a little flair (and are willing to overnight in airports), everything usually works out just fine in the end. Somehow. And while every day isn’t as chaotic as those three described above, the examples are plenty and could probably fill out a whole blog if I was to record them all.
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