Last Wednesday I made the trip from Dakar to Tamba by myself for the first time. About 450 kilometers, it takes seven to eight hours by sept-place, the decrepit Peugeot 505 station wagons that are the primary form of long-distance transportation in Senegal.
Here’s how to get from Dakar to Tamba:
Go to the gare in Dakar at 6am: early enough to hopefully get to Tamba before the heat of the afternoon, but late enough to not be starting before sunrise (headlights? what headlights?). Make your way through all the guys who want to find you a car, carry your luggage, and/or sell you socks to the sept-places parked near the “Tambacounda” sign. Cars leave as soon as they are full, which requires seven passengers: one in the front seat, three in the middle row, and three in the back row, which is positioned over the rear axle.
If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive just after a full car has left, thereby getting first pick of seats in the next car. The first passenger generally chooses the front seat, the next three get the middle seat, and the seventh person is usually stuck in the middle of the back row, which is not only narrower than the middle row—forcing you into the kind of full body contact that would get you kicked out of a middle school dance—but also higher, putting your knees against your chin and your head against the roof.
The fare from Dakar to Tamba is set at 7300 CFA (a recent increase from 6800 CFA, due to rising fuel prices), but you’ll have to argue over your baggage fee—a small bag is maybe 200 CFA, a large backpack could be up to 1000 CFA.
The car fills, the driver gets various slips of paper from various official people (which he will later toss out the window at checkpoints), maybe fills the tank with gas (while the engine’s running, naturally), and you’re on your way. If the speedometer on any of these cars ever worked, you might be tempted to watch it in white-knuckled terror, but you’ll probably be too preoccupied with the driver’s tendency to pass on blind curves or stay in the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler until the last possible moment.
Or perhaps you decide to put on headphones and find a happy place, telling yourself that hundreds of people must do this every day and since you’ve only seen maybe half a dozen rusty, twisted car frames along the roadside, you’re probably going to be just fine.
The road from Dakar to Kaolack is decent; the road from Kaolack to Tamba is not. Sometimes you’ll pass actual road crews doing actual road repairs, sometimes you’ll pass groups of kids who fill potholes with dirt and then yell at passing cars to throw them money. Either way, you can always count on a few hours of being tossed from side to side as the driver brakes and swerves across what used to be a paved road but now is more suitable for moon rovers than cars.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have an uneventful trip—at most a flat tire or maybe a stop at a mechanic’s so someone can crawl under the car with a blowtorch (after which you spend the rest of the ride convinced you smell exhaust fumes, wishing that your happy place came equipped with a canary). If you’re less than lucky, the car breaks down or the driver stops for lunch a second time, and an eight hour trip takes eleven hours.
Of course, if you were actually lucky you’d be traveling in a Peace Corps vehicle. On Thursday I got a ride to Kolda in the Country Director’s brand new Toyota Land Cruiser—spotless upholstery, seat belts, AC, and the ability to go 80 km/h over ruts that a sept-place would have had to ease through in first gear. It also has the ability to go quite, quite fast, which is how we made it back from Kolda to Tamba yesterday in three hours. Say what you like about aid agencies’ budgetary choices, efficacy, sustainability, etc…. they have sweet rides.