So I’ve been studying abroad in Senegal since January, living with a host family in the coastal capital of Dakar. Around midnight one Thursday, as my friends and I hunkered over the final projects due that very morning, my pal Jon went, “By the way, I think I am gonna do the waterfall trip. You should come.”
Said waterfall trip consisted of two overnight buses over one 3-day weekend. Group unclear. Lodging unclear. Itinerary nonexistent. And less than 14 hours until departure.
Me: “HA no.”
Me ~6 hours later: “What a dumb idea.
Me ~7 hours later: “It’s bound to be a train wreck.”
Me ~8 hours later:
Me ~9 hours later:
Me ~10 hours later: “Hey Jon I’m coming on your trip.”
Me ~14 hours later: [is on trip]
On Thursday, February 15, we finished our final presentations and gathered outside the classroom to figure out transportation. Destination Kédougou: a region in southeast Senegal, supposedly home to the world’s most magical waterfall. People: 10. Plans: 0. General confusion: 100. Minutes left on my phone: 3.
Note for posterity: three minutes is not long enough to negotiate cross-country bus tickets, in Senegal, using French, for ten Americans at confusion level 100.
Eventually, we hauled ass back to our respective homestays to grab cash, buy food, and pack bags. Most of us had joined the trip only hours before…the clock said 1:00pm, and the bus was leaving at 4:00pm. Indeed, amidst the chaos, two of us dropped out.
People: 8. Plans: 0. General confusion: ∞.
Yeah, we missed that bus.
As it happened, that 4:00pm bus was the only option for nonstop transportation. Our Facebook groupchat descended into anarchy. Messages collided and criss-crossed. Questions were asked with no answers given. Answers were given to questions unasked. But from this anarchy emerged a new plan: take a 6:00pm bus to Tambacounda, a city halfway between Dakar and Destination Kédougou. Spend the night there. Finish the trip in the morning.
“Where will we sleep in Tambacounda?” someone asked.
“Should we maybe try to find out?” someone else ventured.
Basic group consensus: “I’m hungry and that guy’s selling oranges. Let’s go buy some oranges. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee haha this is so much fun woohoo”
And we laughed. Yes, we laughed. We laughed like the wild, free, thrilling, invincible, stupid-unprepared-juvenile-impulsive young people we are. Then we bought tickets and hopped aboard the 6:00pm bus…
Which ended up leaving at 8:00pm!
With a bunch of men hanging off the back door!
Yelling and banging their fists on the window!
As our towering vehicle careened, rattling, down an actual highway!
Yeah, I popped a Xanax about 60 seconds into that ride.
As massive as it was, the bus was packed hip-to-hip and knee-to-butt, making personal space a sweet and extinct commodity. Senegalese hype music blared from hidden speakers. Tiny lights and ornaments dangled like tinkly gnats. Open windows welcomed sticks and debris overhead, and dusty wind whipped dust out from dusty curtains. It was impossible to sleep, much less scrawl out “Dear Paramount Recruiting” on a limp sheet of scratch paper. Because, yes, I had taken along some scratch paper and a pen to hand-write four cover letters due Monday. Hire me.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend was coming to the ugly realization that his sandwich was not only a sandwich, but a liver sandwich. I immediately took the chance to shelve his facial expression in my brain closet for retrieval during future arguments and/or times of need. If you’re ever down on your luck, give someone a liver sandwich and watch their face go all squinchy. It is like watching YouTube videos of babies eating lemons, except in real life, and with adults.
Soon, for no reason whatsoever, our bus slowed to a crawl. We began to stop at every other gas station, where passengers squirmed out through the packed bodies to smoke or pee. And whenever they squirmed out, street vendors streamed on, hoisting baskets of wares in the air and yelling out prices. Sometimes our bus would up and leave with the vendors still aboard. No problem! They’d ride a few blocks, shrug, and amble off into the night without even waiting for the vehicle to stop.
On the flip side, I think we also lost a passenger or two at gas station bathrooms. Our bus started and stopped totally on a whim. Like, sure, you can get out and pee. But we can and will abandon you mid-pee. Because no one gives a shit and the world is a cold, unforgiving place. And also, speaking of shit: we will abandon you mid-shit, too.
Finally, we sped up and got back on the highway, where we stayed for the next eight hours.
Now, an overnight bus is wonderful in theory. You snag a seat in Dakar, plop your head on your boyfriend’s shoulder, and sleep until the bus arrives in Tambacounda. You glide off, yawning gracefully, to stroll into a convenient motel across the street. There, you brush your teeth, finish sleeping, hand-write four cover letters (hey Paramount, I hand-wrote your cover letter), and hail a cheap cab for the second half of your journey. You arrive in Destination Kédougou clean, well-rested, and triumphant.
Us, arriving in Kédougou 22 hours later:
What actually happened:
- 8:00pm-4:30am: We spend eight hours in the bus, trying to sleep whilst getting rattled, squished, and jittered bodily into our seatmates.
- 4:30am: We finally arrive at a gas station in Tambacounda.
- 4:30am-6:30am: We negotiate prices with two set palaas (‘seven-seater’) cars,
- One of which gets feisty and raises the price,
- Drives off when we don’t accept said higher price,
- Leaves us standing around and arguing with other drivers for two hours,
- And finally returns around 6:00am,
- At which point we agree to pay the higher price and collapse into the backseat, eyes open and unseeing as the stars began to disappear—not into the glow of the rising sun, but into our own crippled and deluded minds.
- 6:30am-8:30am: We drive for a while on a road. We come upon a big “STOP—DIVERSION” sign.
- 8:30am: We drive off the road.
- We stay off the road.
- For the next hundred-or-so miles.
- We stay off the road.
- 8:30am-9:30am: We cruise along brown dirt paths, passing mud huts and neat village enclosures at a leisurely pace. I fall asleep in the manner of a drunkard. Further description left to the reader’s imagination.
- 9:30am-1:00pm: When I wake up, we have LEFT THE ENTIRE ATMOSPHERE OF EARTH AND ENTERED THE ACTUAL PLANET OF MARS. Our vehicle bumps (!!), leaps (!!), and crashes (!!) as we zip (!!!!) over uncharted terrains of red Mars dirt (!!!!!!). The ground is ridged with crisscrossing tire tracks, scattered thoroughly with bumps that catapult us into each other and, in my boyfriend’s case, into the ceiling. Windshield visibility gets less than 0% when we zoom up behind enormous rumbling 18-wheelers, whose tracks turn the world into one massive red cloud. In these situations, our driver rolls his eyes and passes the truck using the left lane.
- Except the left lane isn’t a left lane.
- It’s a lane for oncoming traffic.
- Oncoming traffic which is invisible until ANOTHER WILD EIGHTEEN-WHEELER SEMI SUDDENLY EMERGES OMINOUSLY FROM THE RED FOG, which causes our driver to swerve violently moments before we are demolished wholeheartedly into scraps of flesh and metal (!!!!!!!!!!!!).
- 1:00pm-1:30pm: We arrive in Destination Kédougou and wander to the Google Maps coordinates of our lodging. These coordinates are occupied by a parking lot and hefty amounts of cracked dirt and car parts. It appears our lodging does not exist. We eat lunch at a little restaurant with a single dish on the menu. We know neither where we are nor where we’re going.
- 2:00pm-3:30pm: We meet a random man on the side of the road, and he informs us our lodging is actually located in Dindefelo, a neighboring village. He convinces us to take his open-air buggy.
- He is a random man on the side of the road.
- We should not trust him.
- We trust him, give him our money, and get inside his vehicle.
And everything turned out okay. It was yet another crazy ride through Mars, with bumps so severe our driver braked us down to 3mph to save our buggy from jolting to pieces. At one point, Justin Bieber came on the radio. Yup. In the middle of rural Senegal, where lions run free and showers come in buckets. Congrats, dear Justin. You’ve made it.
Also, on one channel, there was this insane rap battle going down in Wolof/Pulaar. Then suddenly the commentators would shriek OHHHH SHITTTTT. Then they’d go back to Wolof/Pulaar.
But yeah, TL;DR: Our 10-hour bus ride morphed into a 22-hour odyssey during which, in a fit of desperation, we sold our hygiene, safety, tailbones, and souls to the Devil in exchange for some sleep.
And the Devil gave us sleep. Shitty, secondhand sleep with lots of holes and patches.
Upon drop-off, we were greeted by Gabriel, the owner of Campement Touristique, the lodging we’d booked online. Campement Touristique was a collection of mud huts surrounded by a falling-apart fence. Outside, kids (of the goat species) and kids (of the human species) trotted purposefully to unknown destinations. Oxen meandered and flicked flies with their tails. Boutiques sold food, powdered milk, spices, and more in the dry heat. Village residents sat chatting and mixing food on crooked wooden benches.
Inside my mud hut, the air was cool and damp. Though the roof was thatched, with a small round point of sky up top, it felt solid and secure. My boyfriend and I shared a large, flat bed draped with a holey mosquito net, as well as a single bucket of water for bathing. The shower was part of the room, separated by a cracked wall; the floor sloped sideways into a simple hole in the wall for drainage.
The only light came from a flickering, close-to-death bulb by the door, and a small open square in the wall slatted with boards. At least, this was the only light until I walked out from my bath and into an ominous crimson glow. My immediate reaction was to throw my arms open and fall backwards so that the alien spaceship could abduct me in peace. Cooperation and diplomacy, ya know.
Then I narrowed my eyes and saw, at the center of the crimson beam, the dusty face of my boyfriend. I raised my gaze a half inch. He was wearing a headlamp. And for some reason I thought this was the funniest thing in the world. A HEADLAMP. HEADLAMPS, GUYS.
Actually, it really isn’t funny at all.
I need sleep.
Besides the dying lightbulb, our hut had no electricity. There was a weak cell signal, though, so naturally I sent my little brother a Facebook message (something around the lines of “I AM IN A MUD HUT”). Which, naturally, he didn’t respond to. Sometimes I wonder if my brother even likes me anymore. 😦
After a fifteen-minute break, we threw on our backpacks and traipsed through the village, probably looking like a herd of ducks freshly barfed out of a raging tornado. We were all coated in red dirt, spitting out red dirt, and blowing our noses despondently into toilet paper scraps only to find our snot had been replaced by—you’ll never guess—more red dirt! Wahoo!
When we reached the shed pictured above, we forked over XOF 1000 each (about two bucks) and took the trail to the left. After all, this trip had originally been the waterfall trip. Not the overnight bus trip or the red dirt trip or the alien abduction trip. It was getting late, and the sun was precariously low—suggesting the possibility that we might soon be lost on a mountain in the dark. With lions, pythons, baboons, and worst of all, insects.
Indeed, about a quarter way into the hike, we heard barking. “Oh!” I thought to myself. “Puppies!”
They were not puppies.
Baboons. Big, powerful, muscle-flexing baboons watching us with obvious contempt. Even though they were at least a hundred feet away, I managed to make eye contact with one. I could’ve sworn I saw his lip curl.
You should’ve seen me American-Ninja-Warrior the rest of that shit. I was up the mountain in twenty minutes.
From Jon’s descriptions, I prepared myself for some Niagara Falls kinda business. The thing was supposedly “very tall,” “the tallest,” “big,” “tall,” and “tall like the Empire State Building.” (Actually, in hindsight, Jon really didn’t describe it at all.)
Here’s the truth: Niagara’s got nothing on Dindefelo Falls.
Along our hike, we often passed sections of a winding creek. It gurgled happily at places; at others, it was nearly completely dry. Towards the end of the hike, we found ourselves hopping rocks through a wider section. Our ears were met by the melody of trickling water at a distance. Frankly, it sounded like a senile, rusty faucet having pressure control issues. “We’re almost there!” said my boyfriend. In my mind, I thought, THAT’S the waterfall? And I prepared myself for disappointment.
The trickling got only marginally louder when we reached the waterfall. But I couldn’t tell, really. As soon as I jerked my head back to look, it was drowned out by a roaring in my ears that signified yes, this was surely the most majestic waterfall to exist in the entirety of the universe.
We stood dwarfed by a rock face, extending cliff-like into the sky, patchworked with geologic corners and edges. A hundred thousand slivers of icy water whispered down, zigzagging and diverging and reconvening, sounding like tiny toes tapping. The air tasted crisp and sweet; within seconds, it had rinsed the dirt from my lungs in rivulets. Where the waterfall—more of a concentrated spray, where all those trickles converged at last—met the pool at our feet, there was a sparkling miniature horizon. Green leaves and vines swayed, wet and lush, across the slant rock.
I watched as each of my friends entered the clearing. Similar expressions of drop-dead shell-shock.
After enjoying divine, non-vehicular sleeps in our mud huts, we made the hike again. This time, the route was patterned with multicolored fabrics billowing from every other tree branch. We came across several groups of women and children washing clothes; the mountain echoed with the curt slaps of wet fabric against rock.
We picnicked and swam (read: ate falling-apart bean sandwiches with sardines and chocolate spread, and occasionally suffered violently by diving into freezing water as we repeated, like a mantra, “when else will I have the chance to swim in a waterfall in Dindefelo when else will I have the chance to swim in a waterfall in Dindefelo when else AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE FUCK MYSELF AND MY DECISIONS”). Then . . . Miguel happened.
This random Italian guy shows up, takes some selfies with the falls, seems friendly, then suggests that you join him on a trip to a nearby safari—not only to see lions, but also to split transportation fees back to Dakar!!! (You can’t just pay for your own seat; you must pay for the entire vehicle. Thus: the more, the cheaper, the merrier.)
What do you do?
Trust him, give him your money, and get inside his vehicle!
This made the trip back cheaper. But also about a billion times more disastrous. Some highlights:
- We jammed ten people into a car meant for five.
- We stopped by a ramshackle shed for dinner. I opened the door to the bathroom and almost pissed myself right there, on account of the fact that there were at least eight palm-sized roaches skittering like madmen across every available surface. Fortunately, I regained control of my bladder. I walked ten steps to the right and peed in a hole instead.
- The sky was so clear, we could see the Milky Way.
- We got pulled over around 11pm in the Middle of Legitimately Nowhere by a guard asking for ID. My friend had forgotten her passport. We concealed her behind Jon. The guard seemed suspicious of us as a collective herd of Americans, but did not find my passport-less friend. We piled back into the car and drove on.
- We cruised through the safari, but without a guide, and in the middle of the night. It was cool because sometimes brush fires raged on either side of us, controlled but still terrifying in heat and intensity. It was not cool because we only drove through it. The safari turned out way more expensive than Miguel promised.
- No safari?
- No safari.
- On the bus between Tambacounda and Dakar, a Senegalese man climbed aboard, cupping a basket to his chest. He began preaching—in perfect English—about crocheted socks. It went on for half an hour.
- It turned out he was actually a vendor speaking in Wolof about his wares.
- I was so sleep-deprived I had actually begun to hallucinate.
- Another day, crocheted socks. Another day.
- I was so sleep-deprived I had actually begun to hallucinate.
- It turned out he was actually a vendor speaking in Wolof about his wares.
It was another 20+ hour odyssey. Quite possibly the most harrowing part of this transportation ordeal was my unfortunate butt. I spent several hours twisted sideways with one butt cheek on a seat and the other pressed against a door. I spent the remaining time getting jittered, squashed, and bounced. By the time we arrived in Dakar, I fancied my ass was flat as a plank. No promises, though, because I had lost nearly all feeling.
It took four distinct showers to get the dirt and dust off my body.
The most frequently asked question upon my return was, obviously—
Q: Do you regret it?
A: It wasn’t just the waterfall. It was the oranges, the roachy bathrooms, the mud huts, the butt pain, the great moments, the tense moments, the yassa poulet, the stars, the Purell, the passport panic, the confusion, the spontaneity, and the plain, simple fact that the eight of us said YES to a crazy, stupid trip across an entire country in three days.
Nah. I don’t regret it.