This afternoon I met with Oumar, a Senegalese I had interpreted for on my last job in the States. He picked me up from the hotel in a cab and took me to his NGO headquarters. He works for a human rights organization and today was the fourth international day for Darfur, so they were having a special event to create awareness and talk about solutions and possible intervention. We met with various people and chatted about Senegal and traveling, he and I reminisced about our time traveling in the States and the funny characters in our group. He had heard that the Angolan man had since been arrested for his participation in that program in the States...I expressed that I was also concerned for the woman from Zimbabwe who called her program certificate a "passport to harassment" on the final day. Even after talking to him, that reality is so far from my own experience in the world, that I have a hard time processing what that must be like...
When it was time for me to head back to the hotel, he hailed a cab, negotiated a decent price and sent me on my way. You have to understand that vehicles in Dakar are...well, vehicle itself is perhaps too generous of a word, but they do indeed get you where you are going. Everywhere you look you can see people with sudsy buckets and a tattered rag washing down their cars. They scrub the outside till it shines...but the untrained eye would never know this. Cabs are black and yellow. At first glance you think they are so battered and made from spare parts that some panels just happen to be yellow and some black, but then you realize that is actually the color of the cab. The color however is interrupted by dents, dings, scratches, rust holes, smears of other random colors and every manner of evidence of the lack of observation of traffic laws. Where there are hubcaps they are mismatched, tires are so bald and dirt covered they seem permanently flat. Windshields are cracked and pitted, some nonexistent altogether. From the outside, be it a cab or not, the average vehicle on the streets of Dakar seems to be held together with duct tape and many fervent prayers. You've never seen such a fleet of dilapidated motor vehicles in your life.
This particular cab was a doozy. When Omar opened the door, the thought occurred to me to help him lest it drop with a clang on the curb. I ducked my head to step in and had to duck extra low to avoid the looping hanging rubber falling from the window. The door closed with a nerve racking clatter. I leaned back and felt the metallic circle of every spring being imprinted into my thighs and back. Every detail of the construction of that seat, minus the padding that had long since worn away, reminded me of every bone and muscle in my own body for the entire 15 minute ride to the hotel. The seat "cover" was greasy brown black and left me smelling of gasoline. It was full of burn holes and rips to match the tears and slashes in the door panels. As we sped up the gears grinded their protest, when we stopped (which was rarely 'cause I think the driver was worried we couldn't), the breaks squealed. Every bump rattled the loose windows and every swerve to pass a slow car in front of us I feared would result in an essential component detaching and rolling swiftly away. The one thing that did work (thank the Lord in heaven) was the horn, which the driver used in place of the breaks when a car stopped or slowed in front of us. I have never in my life had more of an impression that the vehicle was literally about to collapse in a pile around me like in the old silent movies than I did today. But it would not have been silent. Truth be told, aside from the state of the actual car, we had only one extremely close call at an intersection where my last extremely close call took place because suddenly, despite the fact that it is a major road, regardless of the fact that there are no lines, lights or other apparent rules, all vehicles suddenly forget which side they are on and cross one another pell-mell as they merge and turn. Sometimes we go in front of cars to the right, sometimes behind to the left. Sometimes we honk, sometimes they honk. Sometimes we make it smoothly, sometimes those with less third world traffic experience shriek in horror. It really is a crapshoot.
The best part was when the guy asked me about ten questions as we approached the hotel. This hotel has signs for it from a mile away, huge ones, and it's a well-known hotel throughout this entire region. He asks me, "Here? Here?" I tell him, "Follow those two cars." They turn not a block away from us and when we get right behind them (as they are pulling through the gates), he asks me, "Here?" I say, "Yes, pull in and then you'll flip a U at the end." So he drives slowly up the driveway. At a little loop in the road (still not in front of the hotel), he asks me, "I go straight?" I say, "Yes, go straight and then right here on the right you'll drop me off." I sigh with relief to see the bellman reaching out to release me from this deathtrap but the driver drifts right past him. The poor bellman nearly fell flat forward on his face reaching for the handle as the car went by. So I did what was apparently necessary and added for the driver, "Right here is fine." I spared him the, "You idiot! In front of the door where every other car has stopped and you see people with uniforms opening doors!" Yikes. I was just happy to be home!