When my mother and cousin were here visiting, they remarked on how calm I appeared while driving in the chaos of Dakar. I didn’t tell them that it had really helped me to pretend that I was in a driving video game for the first couple of months here. In those games, the objective is to not let anyone run into you and to not run into anything that would prevent you from finishing the race. Kind of a combination of reverse Frogger and Mario Kart.
Reverse Frogger because instead of being the frog crossing the road, you are the car (or log) trying not to hit the Senegalese version of the frog (dog, person, goat, cow, mother with three young children, man on a motorcycle, etc.) so you can get to your destination.
Mario Kart because you never know when something is going to come in at you to try to knock you off course-Car Rapide, Tata, taxi, motorcycle, wheelchairs, etc.). Changing lanes and merging/creating lanes do not follow the same logic that you have in the states. You must be constantly ready for the unexpected. A car might be stopped in your lane with no hazard lights or other warning. A bus might be broken down, blocking parts of both lanes. Horse and cart. Man pushing all hand cart. All kinds of things might be in the road. If there is a road or gas station within a block or two of a roundabout, it’s not unusual for bad drivers to decide to go the wrong way on the divided highway instead of going all the way down to the next roundabout. Watch out!
I really relied on my children to help me navigate the first several months we were here. My job was to not be hit or hit anything and their job was to look for landmarks that would let us know we were going the right way. There are still places I’ve never actually ‘seen’ because I was so busy with my not-getting-hit job. Without road signs of any kind, you have to navigate by landmarks, yet there is so much construction going on, sometimes landmarks change overnight. Thank goodness both my kids are good at their navigating job!
Crazy things that have happened while driving:
I’ve been rear-ended at an intersection of 5 ‘roads’-no one stops when that happens unless cars won’t keep running
I’ve hit a taxi driver in the head with my side mirror-I didn’t even realize I’d done it until Guy told me. There were too many lanes of cars/motorcycles trying to fit on a two lane road with pedestrians and he stuck his head out too far. I felt bad, but it was inevitable.
We’ve seen roller bladers hitching a ride on the bumper of a taxi
We’ve seen a man in a wheelchair hitching a ride on the bumper of a taxi
Motorcycles might have an entire family on them. Or a man carrying a mattress. Or a giant box of something.
Carrying cargo is not always logical. We’ve seen boats in makeshift trucks where the boat was almost twice as big as the truck.
Boxes of bananas and bags of bread might be carried by bike.
You see a fair amount of police and gendarmes along side roads and intersections. You often see soldiers with guns out along the roads as well. Most times they are just ‘watching’ and not too actively involved in things. Perhaps they might help direct some traffic at a busy intersection.
Last week I was stopped, for a legitimate reason–I had just decided the ‘right’ way of driving a certain intersection was more likely to cause me to be hit, than my ‘wrong’ way u-turn I’d been doing for months. The lounging police officer got off his motorcycle and got in the middle of the road to wave me over. I had to show him my license and get out of the car. My bad very French was enough for me to understand that he did not approve of my u-turn and that if I didn’t offer him some money, he was going to write me a ticket. 2000 cfa ($4USD) was all I had in my wallet, having just gone to the grocery store. He was very disappointed, but took the 2000 cfa in disgust and waved me on my way.
Now I had decided upon arriving that I was not going to fight the occasional bribe I might have to pay. I was very worried about getting stopped when I first started driving. The first time I got waved over, I was scared stiff. The officer looked at my license and insurance paperwork and when I tried to explain I spoke only a little French, started talking to me in English and couldn’t have been nicer. Same experience the next two times I was stopped.
A colleague who decided they were not going to play the bribe game, refused, and ended up having to spend more than half the day downtown in the police station and ended up with a fine 10 times bigger than the bribe.
Another colleague just waves enthusiastically at any officer who tries to wave her over and zooms off, pretending she thinks they are just being friendly.