Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Escape from Dakar

May 23, 2010

I sat on a hard bench at the port police station, wondering what was going on. I didn’t even know why I was there. Why was it so complicated to fly out of Dakar, Senegal?

The previous week, with my ship’s contract about to end, I had requested that I disembark the M/V Ocean Princess in Funchal, Madeira, a Portuguese territory, instead of Dakar. I was anticipating complications inherent in trying to get out of a corrupt, 3rd world country. The ship's doctor wouldn’t have any of it because she said my BP readings were too high. She did not want me to keel over of a heart attack on her watch. I had to go on schedule, in Dakar. My flight was for New York City. After six months on a ship, I was glad to go.

My disembarkation started on an uneventful note. A van fetched me from the ship. Joining me was Richard, a magician, who was returning to Paris that afternoon, having already done his act on the ship. Our vehicle sped its way through a dusty-looking landscape of tin huts and nondescript concrete buildings. The Senegalese were everywhere, snacking at roadside stands, waiting for rides, walking. We passed by an impressive soccer stadium. Then the van entered a section of the city that looked like a rundown version of a French provincial town, with the same lay-out you’d see in any old town of France or in the former colonies: palm tree promenade, a park here and there, and French colonial buildings. I’m sure that there were charming spots in Dakar, but they eluded me, and anyway the speed of our progress through the city precluded any leisurely, exploratory ramble.

The van deposited Richard and his luggage in front of the Dakar airport. My turn would come later because my flight to New York wasn’t happening till 1 AM. It was only 1 PM. Thankfully Princess had booked me for the evening at a hotel in town. One thing that Princess could be relied on was provide its crewmembers comfortable temporary quarters either before or after joining a ship anywhere in the world. This was no small convenience. How often have I landed on an airport with nobody to meet me, no idea where to go or how to get there because the company I worked for was disorganized? Princess was always reliable with regards to accommodating crewmembers.

The hotel I was booked in had the somewhat Thai-sounding name of Sokhamon Hotel. You had to go down from the parking lot via steps carved into the hillside and into the lobby. Then you had to go up again to your room. The elevator wasn’t working, so after checking in, I had to carry my luggage up to my third floor room.

The room was a minimalist concrete-meets-Africa-meets-the-tropics affair. It wasn’t luxe by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t wretched either. The simple, unadorned cement terrace presented a view of the Dakar sunset that made up for the inconvenience of disembarking in this somewhat dubious port. There was an island off Dakar, the Ile de Goreé, that I wished I had the time to visit. This was the island where slaves were held before they were shipped off to the Americas. The faint silhouette of an island rose across the bay. I wondered if it was the slave island.

Feeling hungry, I went down to the lobby. The hallway outside my room was dark. You had to press little glowing buttons to turn the corridor lights on, which turned off automatically after a few minutes. I understood it was an energy-saving mode of lighting, but it certainly gave the hotel a creepy feeling. The non-functioning elevator certainly didn’t help.

The lobby was deserted. I noted the décor. It was moderately funky, like a poor man’s Philippe Starck, with touches of African ecologic art. Tables and chairs were made of burnished driftwood and distressed bronze, some of which I would have loved to place in my living room. If there were people here, it would have been a fun place, but as it was, save for a couple sitting on a distant sofa, the whole place, though well-appointed, was just empty and forlorn. I went outside to the pool area. I had espied a barbeque pit. Nothing going there. Ditto a restaurant that jutted out into the sea. Nada. What’s going on here?

There was, however, a space that was well-lighted near the poolside that looked promising. It was a kind of courtyard where various artwork and sculptures were exhibited. An art gallery? In this ghost building? I was intrigued.

I examined the artwork. Not bad. But where was the artist? And where were the patrons? I peeked into a side building that had an open sliding glass door. Paintings were hung on the walls inside. Colorful modernist abstracts. No one there either.

I went back to the courtyard. The couple I’d seen in the lobby was examining the sculptures. They were giggling.

I went back to my room, unable to find a dining place in the hotel. Fortunately I had a sandwich and two cans of soda in my knack sap. I made a supper out of them and turned the TV on.

It was incomprehensible Senegalese stuff in French. I turned the TV off. I would have to be at the airport in four hours time. I took a nap.

At 10 PM, I was in the empty lobby once more. The driver arrived punctually and helped me lug my two bags up the flight of stone stairs. What an inconvenient hotel, I thought! A non-functioning elevator, dark corridor, no open restaurant, and you had to carry your baggage up from the lobby. All things considered, it was a pretty hotel, but with sketchy service and an eerie atmosphere, one I wouldn't recommend to any traveller.

Off to the airport then, but not just yet. We made our way through the darkened streets of Dakar and stopped across from a dingy building. It seems I had to go report to the port police, have my passport stamped.

Dutifully I tagged behind the driver and went up a flight of stairs to the second floor of the aforementioned building.

A group of uniformed men, some wearing flip-flops were staring at a TV. A soccer game was going on. Senegal is a soccer-mad country. The driver brought my papers to an officer who was seated at a desk. I sat on a bench, waiting. The men were yelling at the TV. This was the port station? It looked and felt like the waiting room of a jail.

Minutes passed by. What was taking so long? The driver was watching the TV.

I called the driver over.

“Problem?” I asked.

Pas probléme,” he said and went back to the officer who was still sitting at the desk ostensibly examining my papers. He called me over.

“Mr. Manuel Panta?”he said.

“Ah, Filipino? Mahal kita," he said, grinning.

I grinned back at his black, sweaty face. It was a warm night, even at 11 PM.

He made a big show of flipping and unflipping the pages of my passport.

I started to feel like I was in a Kafka story.

After a while, he nodded his head and said, "OK". He didn’t give my passport back to me.

I looked at the driver. He beckoned to me to follow him back to the van. I was confused, but complied. In the van we waited for a while and soon the officer came down wearing his official cap, took the front seat and ordered,”Allons!”

It was evident that he was going to accompany us to the airport. This was getting interesting.

The driver didn’t go straight to the airport. The officer had him stop at a street corner. He bought a packet of roasted peanuts which he generously offered to share with me. I declined. Soon we were off, to the airport this time. The officer was trying to make small talk with me, which didn’t make sense to me. I thought he was just hitching a ride to the airport. It became increasingly clear to me that he was acting as my escort and facilitator. His presence was no happenstance.

We arrived at the airport, greeted by a throng of baggage handlers.

The officer appointed a porter for me. Before parting, I gave a tip to the driver, as much as I thought reasonable for doing what Princess had already paid him to do. He had no problem with it. Au revoir, Princess Cruises driver!

We went inside the airport lobby, the officer leading the way, still bearing my passport and papers. Usually, at this time, my passport would be handed over to me and goodbyes said. Nothing of the sort. The officer directed me to the immigration and customs line. The baggage handler deposited my luggage on the floor. Another tip for him. The officer gave my passport and papers to the immigration officer. He stamped it. Finally the officer gave me back my papers. He followed me into the airplane waiting area. The moment of truth.

I handed him $ 20.

He looked indignant.

M’sieur, I think you should give me $50.”

Was it worth it for me to scream and yell at him right there, in Dakar, surrounded by formidable looking security people, in their own country?

Not if I wanted to find myself in a detention cell in a West African country.

I gave him his $50. Even if I had ranted and raved and scared my self-appointed facilitator off without me paying him his extortionate tip, who can say if the opposite had not happened, and I'd be clapped into prison for whatever trumped-up reason the airport police could come up with? I'm sure this man had friends in the airport. Who would they believe, him or me?

When the Continental plane finally rolled down the tarmac and took off with me in it, I breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Shaken and stirred but glad to have escaped the rotten, shakedown city of Dakar.

The Ile de Goreé can wait, forever.

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