My goodness, this job is so demanding. Every time I think I have got some tasks out of the way and might be able to relax and have a weekend to myself, more tasks appear. So much for seeing Senegal, all I usually see when I am here is the insides of my house and office and the streets between (which aren't many as I have a five minute walk between the two).
But I thought I would take five minutes out from work and just write a quick post about the transport here, as I spent much of last week using it as I travelled to and from our regional conference. Like so many of the day-to-day things here, it differs so much from that in the more developed parts of the world.
For those like me without a car, there are two choices: taxi or public transport. The latter contains too complicated a mix to try to describe here (numerous different sized vehicles, all with different names), but one of the commonest is the Ndiaga Ndiaye. This is a big old white Mercedes van, with seats squashed into the back to hold some 30 people. Typically they are bashed and dented, rusty, have holes in the floor, cracked windscreens... But they work, and they are cheap.
They can be slightly confusing for the foreigner like me though. Firstly you have to work out whether one is going in your direction. There is always a young boy - the driver's assistant - hanging off the back shouting out the destination, but rather in the style of a London newspaper-seller, that is whatever he is saying is completely incomprehensible to someone who hasn't lived there for years.
Sometimes the journey is uneventful, but it is quite common for the vehicle to make several unscheduled stops as the driver goes to buy a newspaper or something. Last week on the way home from our conference one evening we pulled into the side of the road and stopped, and the driver got out. After a while the passengers started tutting, and gradually getting out. I asked someone if we were at the end of the line, and he said that the driver had gone home to get his driving license. So I got out, and waited with the others beside the road. Soon another Ndiaga Ndiaye came along and stopped, and all the passengers got out and squeezed into our, driverless, vehicle. We got into theirs and set off. You soon learn to just shrug and accept such mysteries.
Taxis are of course more expensive, especially for people like me who are no good at bargaining (in any case whites usually have to pay more as we are assumed to have more money). You first stop your taxi (easy, if you are white, as taxis constantly slow down beside you), describe to the driver where you want to go and confirm that he knows how to get you there (you usually have to direct them if you are not going to a major landmark), and then name your price. Of course it helps if you have taken the route before as you start to get to know the expected price. Even so, sometimes they can still confuse you; last week I told one driver my destination, followed by "2,500" (CFA francs) - he countered with "2,000".
The taxis - painted yellow and black to identify them - are in varying condition. Occasionally you get lucky, but mostly they are old and battered, dirty inside, with cracked windscreens and nearly always with their window-winders missing. Sometimes the windows themselves are missing at the sides. The drivers don't go AWOL but they certainly don't always go where you expect. Roads are merely a guide. Pavements are also there to be driven on, as is anything else that takes you around a traffic jam rather than onto the end of it. Last week a taxi driver drove me straight across the middle of a roundabout, presumably just because it was quicker than following all the other cars around the outside.
Thankfully there is so much traffic in Dakar that speeds are kept low, so the inevitable accidents usually just add a few more dents to the vehicles.
I may go quiet for a few weeks now, as I am off to deepest Guinea for a three week assignment - not sure how good the connectivity is there. A locally-produced guide to the region says it is known for the cultivation of coffee, cocoa and teapots, so I shall keep look-out for teapot trees, try to post a photo of one on the blog...