|I try to have very few expectations or plans when travelling. I do a little research on my destination, maybe make a hotel reservation, exchange some currency, but pretty much figure things out as I go. Africa required a little more preparation: shots, mosquito net, a general knowledge of sensible precautions. Arriving in Dakar on Saturday night at 10 p.m., I retrieved my baggage, took a deep breath, and headed out into the night. I admit I was a little scared. I knew the name of my hotel, that I needed to get a taxi to town, and how much it should cost. I was anticipating being approached by people ready to offer their assistance, but I was no where near prepared for the magnitude of that experience.
Being a lone fair skinned blonde traveller with backpack, I definitely stood out and screamed easy target. In seconds I was surrounded. Taxi, taxi, you need taxi? There must have been fifteen willing drivers, pulling at my bag, wanting to guide me to their vehicles. They were speaking French, English and the local languages. I could barely move, but that was ok, because I didn't know where to go. There was no place to queue, no official looking taxi zone, certainly no familiar black cabs. All these people were demanding my attention, wanting me to look at them, to choose them; I'd never been so popular. For a second I had a flash that this must be what it feels like to be famous and was really glad that I'm not.
Mild panic set in. Maybe I should go back into the terminal. Maybe I should ask someone for help. But who? And how? Maybe I should just turn around and go home. I wondered what time the next flight to Paris departed. What am I doing here? OK, Lisa, get a grip. I needed a little space to think. I crossed the street to the rental car stand, only because there was no one there. And surprisingly, I was able to break free from the crowd. As I stood there plotting my next move, a friendly face emerged. I recognised him for the onslaught minutes ago. He spoke English. "There is no problem, no problem. I will help you. I am a guide. What hotel are you going to?" He showed me a national identification card. His name was Ebrima Drammeh, occupation: tourist guide. Immediately suspicious I thought it could be fake. Then I realised I was paranoid. I was less impressed by his ID card than I was by his general disposition. He was calm, unobtrusive, patient. No high pressure techniques. He kept his distance. I saw very few options. Going home was not one of them. Bottom line: I had to trust someone.
"Hotel Provencal," I said. He knew where it was and offered to accompany me. Alright. Let's go. We walked over to what looked like a junk yard, at best. There were a couple yellow cars amid the fray of beat up broken down vehicles. This was the taxi stand. All the drivers who greeted me earlier had migrated to where we were now. Speaking in Wolof, he later translated, Ebrima was trying to determine who out of the group was first. After a few minutes of negotiation we settled on a car, put my pack in the trunk. As I got in the back seat, the other three doors opened and all these people started piling in. It seemed quite unnecessary to have so many extra people going with me, and a little dubious, so I immediately jumped out. I didn't have a plan B, but I no longer liked plan A.
"I have to go to the toilet." Yes, it was a weak excuse, but a difficult one, I thought, to argue. "Can I please have my bag?" Ebrima looked a little confused, but decided to go with it. He explained the situation to the driver who was quite upset at the prospect of losing his CFA5000 fare (about 5 pounds). Over the next ten minutes we negotiated, Ebrima translating. "Leave the bag here, I'll go with you." No. "Leave the bag here, I'll wait with it." No. "We'll stop somewhere on the road on the way to the hotel." No. The only option was to get my bag and get out of there. Eventually I won. Ebrima accompanied me back to the terminal and led me to the bathroom. "I don't understand why six people had to get in the car with me." "They were just excited." At what? A white person? Great. This is going to be a long trip. We went into a restaurant in the terminal and Ebrima sat down at a table. He pointed out the bathroom, said he'd wait. After all I'd just been through to retrieve my backpack I wasn't about to leave it with this stranger, despite what he'd just done for me. He read that in my expression, took my hand, guided me to the toilet, shoved my bag in the stall and stood guard at the door. This was a little more assistance than I needed, but, whatever. It wasn't until I was leaving the bathroom that I realised he'd taken me into the mens'.
We sat in the restaurant for a few minutes. Ebrima was really doing his best to put me at ease. He showed me his ID card again, pulled out business cards from previous clients, asked me if it was my first time to Africa, said he understood how I could be so confused, we could take our time, there was no problem. After a while I started to believe him and said I was ready to go. He led me down the stairs and out a different way than where we'd entered. He said he didn't want to go back to the taxi zone, it was too crazy there. He had a friend, we'd slip out without anyone noticing (there's that celebrity feeling again). A car pulled around, we got in, and escaped.