Monday, November 12, 2012

Yes I have Taken Trips Without My Motorcycle

I got asked the question once, about going on vacation.  Do I ever take a vacation without riding my motorcycle?  Well, yes, I have taken vacations without my motorcycle, and in my opinion it is not an improvement.

In the summer of 1971, I flew to Dakar, Senegal, and left my motorcycle at home.  I could have driven there, as I was living in Sierra Leone.  I just looked it up on Google Maps, and apparently today it would be 1484 km, in a time of 18 hours and 41 minutes.  But 40 years ago,  sure it would have been three times as far - with the country of Guinea blocking the way.  Back then, Guinea was like North Korea today. So going around Guinea would have made the trip 2596 km, and 43 hours.  And allowing for the roads of 1971, that may add up to several weeks, if I made it at all.  All along the way, it would have been a problem finding restaurants, gas stations, or hotels.  Fighting poisonous snakes, malarial mosquitos, getting lost without a map, stopped for days at border crossings.  And the biggest threat of all was crashing my motorcycle so far from medical assistance.

So I didn't even consider taking my Honda CD175, and I booked a trip that went by air from Freetown Sierra Leone to Dakar, Senegal.  Then a train ride from Dakar to Bamako, Mali.  And finally another airplane from Bamako back to Freetown.  I figured this would be an easy way to make the trip, but when the trip was over, I wondered if the motorcycle might have been easier and more fun.

I guess it started OK, a simple flight to Dakar, got off the plane and took a taxi to a downtown hotel.  Stayed about ten days and enjoyed the sophisticated French colonial city with outdoor cafes, markets, and historical sights.  I made two trips to visit the island of Goree, an infamous slave trading stop off.  The trouble started when I took the train to Bamako. I was expecting to spend the weekend in Bamako, then board my flight early Monday morning.  But first, the train broke down in the middle of the desert.  I was travelling third class, which admittedly, in hindsight, was stupid.  In third class you are not guaranteed a seat, and even if you get one, it is only a wooden bench.  All this to save the equivalent of about ten bucks.  But then I had counted on the advice of a fellow CUSO volunteer from Sierra Leone who had made the train trip first class, and according to him it was not worth the extra money.  Being only 22 years old, I guess I was not smart enough to ask "So do you have even the foggiest idea what third class is like?"

So after the train broke down, we had to spend the night in the desert with no power after the locomotive drove off. There were no towns around either, so the passengers on the train were really on their own.  We made the best of it, though.  Next day the new locomotive finally arrived, but by this time we had already lost half our weekend in Bamako. I was also getting a bit hungry, as the food I brought had run out and there were no dining cars (in case you couldn't guess.).  So I was interested in stopping at the next town for some oranges or bananas.  As soon as we stopped, the train was mobbed by food vendors, but I was shocked to hear the prices being called out.  Three million francs for one orange!  In Sierra Leone it was two for one cent, where Sierra Leone cents were similar to Canadian cents.  In Dakar, Senegal it was a thousand francs per orange (which still worked out to about two for one cent).  But I wasn't sure I had enough cash on me for an orange in Mali.  Anyway, I found out that Senegalese francs were worth far more than Mali francs, so I still had enough money for oranges and even some other food, which I can't remember anything about other than it didn't kill me.

Anyway, it was not over yet.  We had crossed a border into Mali, and border guards armed with machine guns got on the train and were making the rounds looking for passports.  They confiscated my passport, and told me I could pick it up at the ministry of tourism on Monday.  Well, that didn't work for me, as there was only one flight a week to Freetown, leaving 8 AM Monday, and at the time I didn't feel like spending another week in Bamako.  In fact I'm not sure I could afford it.  The hotels were (I had to do some math) approximately 15 billion francs per night.  There was another delay before reaching Bamako, because a young child had fallen to his death off the train.  Finally we made it by nightfall on Saturday, then all day Sunday was spent retrieving my passport from the Ministry of Tourism.  I paid no bribes, but I had to make a trip by taxi to the other side of the city to get one stamp, then return, before a sympathetic official returned my passport in time for my plane on Monday.

The funniest part of the plane ride home for me was trying to get off when we landed in Freetown (which was just one of the many stops).  The stewardess rushed over to me as I headed for the door "No, no one is allowed off here!  Please return to your seat."  I was puzzled: "Then why does my ticket say Bamako to Freetown?".  The stewardess was now the shocked one. "You're getting off at Freetown?  Why?".  I said "Because I live there."  "Oh, sorry.  It's just that usually nobody gets off here."   In those days, Sierra Leone was not a big tourist destination.

Picture: I wish I had spent the ten bucks for first class. I don't know if this is first class, but it's a heck of a lot better than what my car looked like. (from this website, which also has other pictures of Kayes, one of the stops on the route)

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