|A Ride On The Train|
Sun 7 Mar
Hawkers parade the platform selling fruit, biscuits, watches, torches, Moroccan slippers and frozen water. In 2nd class the carriages look full, although there are still many passengers sitting on the platform, in the shade of the adjacent train. With half an hour to go there is still no engine. The 1st class carriages have nicer seats and more space. Beyond these a single "wagon lit" carriage with 10 four-berth compartments offers "couchette class".
All windows and doors are fully open. Switches for lights and fans are not connected to anything. At first I am shown to the wrong cabin so there follows a battle of wits over whether "berth 2" will be occupied by me of a rather large African lady. In the right compartment I meet a German chap in his 30s called Stefan. He has had two weeks in Senegal with his girlfriend who has now returned home for work but he's continuing for two weeks more in Mali. Coincidently, he too is interested to go directly to Timbuktu, flying if possible; could be a good travelling companion I think to myself.
The train pulls out about an hour later than promised, or rather a day and an hour later. As we make our way slowly through the sprawl of urban and suburban Dakar, the train sounds its horn repeatedly and slowly fills with dust. Our motion does create a little breeze that eases the stifling heat. The compartment was once cream but has become caked in dirt; the windows are too dusty to see through but the foam mattresses are covered with what appear to be freshly laundered sheets.
We travel for the first day or so through mostly scrubby flat land scattered with trees and carpeted with sandy gravel. The poussière is quite thick at times; it's like a grey mist. Baobab trees hauntingly emerge and disappear. As the end of the afternoon approaches Stefan and I adjourn to the adjoining bar and enjoy chilled beers. On the other side of the counter, sits an enormous lady on a pile of sacks; her back to the engine: from here Aisha takes the money, barks the orders, and disciplines the crowd. She even orders new supplies through the open window whenever we're in a station. It seems as if she will not need to move for the whole of the journey. The bar is getting increasingly popular and darker. It's beginning to feel uncomfortable, so we adjourn again this time to the restaurant car. There is no menu. The choice appears to be "chicken-with-spaghetti or nothing". I decide the chicken-with-spaghetti sounds quite nice and remarkably I'm not disappointed. It's tender and tasty though sadly the spaghetti's stone cold.
Mon 4 Mar
We spend the whole day on the train, making friends with the others in couchette class. In the next compartment are a former racing driver and his desirable partner, both now working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Asia. Curiously they have come to Senegal and Mali for a holiday. There's also a British couple, Cliff and Sue who have been teaching English in Dakar for several months but it seems to be getting in the way of other plans. They're just "getting away for the weekend"; I find them good fun.
|A Ride On The Train|