Christmas Visitor

I was very happy to learn that a friend had decided to come out to visit me for a week, even though it involved a little rearrangement of my existing calendar. He was due to arrive late on the evening of Saturday 19 December, leaving late on Saturday 26, and his initial suggestion that we hire a car seemed a good indicator that he was keen to get out and about and see something of the country.

I spent a fair amount of time poring over my guide books, trying to work out what would be a suitable programme for a one week visit – a programme that would satisfy my demand to see new bits of the country as well as ensuring that my visitor Robbo would have a good time. I was conscious that even in London he preferred the comfort of his car to the unpredictability of public transport (not just the delays but also the fellow travellers with whom you might not have chosen to share your ride), but with car hire working out far too expensive here there remained the choice of only public transport or privately chartered taxis, the latter costing around ten times as much as the former. I decided we would use a mixture of the two – private taxis for short trips (eg around Dakar) and shared taxis (public transport) for long-distance trips, but even here we could buy three places for the two of us, to give us more space and comfort. Travelling this way would still allow us enough time to get to St. Louis (the 350-year-old former capital, now a wonderfully crumbling and atmospheric World Heritage Site), and from there onto a few old towns and villages along the River Senegal which would be new territory for me.

Things didn’t start well when I received a text on the Saturday morning to say that his flight was going to be delayed by as much as four hours. He seemed satisfied that his connecting flight was to be held, but it would still mean arriving at 02:00. It got worse, however, as his flight was delayed further, ultimately by seven hours (due to snow at Gatwick), and he missed his connection in Tripoli. He didn’t have a visa for Libya so was forced to spend the night in the airport, and his luggage was nowhere to be seen. He phoned me Sunday morning to tell me the next flight from Tripoli to Dakar was not until Monday evening.

On Monday I received another message: there was in fact no flight that day so he would be forced to spend yet another night in Tripoli.

Well, to cut the story a little shorter, he finally got out of Dakar airport at 01:30 on Wednesday morning, and without his luggage. I had a few spare large Tshirts that might see him through the week , but then he listed for me the goodies he had packed in his case for me – mince pies, Christmas cake, cheese, champagne, porridge oats, magazines…

Of course the itinerary I had planned had gone out of the window. I suggested a couple of shorter alternatives, and he opted for a quick trip to St. Louis – travel there Wednesday, enjoy Thursday and Friday morning there, then back to Dakar on the Friday afternoon for a day in Dakar (including Goree Island) before he flew back home. (Right is a picture of a colonial mansion in St. Louis, by the way, not my house, as one reader thought)

Things didn’t go quite so well. The environment I take for granted here in Africa was of course very new to my friend, and not all that welcome at times. On the way up to St. Louis we got stuck in traffic leaving Dakar, so the whole journey took, apparently, some five hours (generally I don’t look at my watch on such days as there doesn’t seem much point when I can’t influence things, but he is used to London efficiency so was monitoring the time). He didn’t like the flies which surrounded us most of the time, particularly when we were trying to eat. He didn’t like the slow, haphazard service we received in most restaurants and bars. Most of all he didn’t like the reaction of our taxi driver on the journey back to Dakar, when a valve broke in the radiator and we were left under a roadside tree whilst the driver stood in the road waiting for “something or someone” to come along to solve the problem.

He expected planning, organisation, initiative – and West Africa, generally, is not like that. I think I’ve mentioned before the “Insh’Allah” attitude; everything is decided by Allah so there is no point trying to make things happen yourself, you are better just waiting for Allah to send down a solution. It is frustrating, but to some extent you get used to it (you have to, as you cannot change it), and in many cases it seems to sort-of work. In this case another car came along with two spaces, and we were put in it – in fact it was a more comfortable car, and the driver took us right to my suburb, a five-minute walk from my house, rather than to the chaotic and dirty main transport hub in town.

I was pretty happy, and sharing with my friend my delight that we had been taken right home like that, when he pointed out that the journey had taken us six hours, and we had effectively ‘lost’ Christmas Day. I hadn’t seen it as lost, as we had been chatting away during the journey (hadn’t he said that his main reason for coming was to see me?), but I am used to the discomforts of travelling in Africa and can fairly easily shut them out. Of course I have to remember that someone who arrived here less than three days earlier (and who rarely uses public transport even in London) would not find it so easy.

Still, there were plenty of good bits, and we were both very happy to have seen eachother. Probably the best of all was the few hours spent at my favourite eating place in Dakar – a casual place with plastic chairs on a floor of seashells, where you can watch the Atlantic waves meet at Africa’s most westerly point whilst you linger over plates full of freshly caught cockles and mussels. We watched the sun set there on Christmas Day and I think it might even have made up for the journey back from St. Louis!

Also that day we got a message to say that some delayed bags had arrived in Dakar – we went to check and there was his case. Only 24 hours left for him to use the clothes, etc, packed there, but 24 hours was enough for him to unload all the goodies he had brought me, and I sit here typing this now with a mince pie and a half-read Independent by my side. Bliss. Thank you Robbo, and next time I promise no journey of more than three hours unless it is in a private, air-conditioned vehicle!

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