Crossing the Border: Senegal to Guinea

The day we decided to cross into Guinea, we were ready to leave Senegal. To be honest, we had been ready to leave for a little over a week by this point and today we were crossing the border a day early, hoping the border patrol wouldn’t notice. We left our campsite early to get a good start as it was still a few kilometers to the border. Today is the day, we thought. We had done very little research on Guinea but from what we had heard the roads were shit, nothing works, and there was an election coming up so we needed to be cautious. We were ready.

We started our walk to the border and were pleasantly surprised when an entourage of trucks full of white people came up behind us and stopped when we flagged them down. All three of the vehicles were decked out in car stickers and all sported the same “Budapest to Bamako: The Last Great Adventure” sticker on the side.

The first car said they were full but that if we asked the car behind them we might be able to stand on the sides and hang on to the side of the car. We asked the guys in the car, who spoke varying degrees of broken English in thick eastern-European accents if it was okay and they readily agreed. One guy immediately offered us a cold beer. It was shaping up to be a good day.

We got to the border in no time, chatting to the guys along the way about our travel plans and they were shocked and mildly horrified at the fact that we were hitchhiking the whole way. “I thought our trip was crazy but you guys are really crazy,” one guy told us.

They were part of an organized annual rally consisting of a caravan of 200+ cars driving from all over Europe to Sierra Leone in 2 weeks. The itinerary sounded abhorrent to us. It had taken us four months to get as far as they had gotten in a week. We clearly had different methods of traveling, which became obvious when we got to the border and they immediately bestowed a case of beer and a wad of cash onto the border patrolmen.

Even the indiscriminate bribery wasn’t enough to smooth their entry process, however, as nobody seemed to know where their visas were. The border police kept asking them for visas and they kept responding that someone was supposed to have organized that for them and they didn’t know what the officers were talking about. Their attitude with the officers (and the fact that guys were taking heaps of pictures, which we know is usually super off-limits) was making me uncomfortable because of how highly disrespectful it was. We were so anxious to get into the country and I didn’t want these guys fucking it up for us if the officers got fed up with their antics and assumed we were with them.

We presented our visas, distinguishing ourselves from the group, and were met with pleasant and appreciative smiles. They asked for copies of our passports and my heart sank a little bit at the thought that we had used all of ours as fiches in Mauritania. Fortunately, we had one page left, tucked in the bag, crinkled and ripped but still acceptable!

Even though we were technically a day early, we were stamped in with no hassle. About that time the rally guys located their paperwork proving they had visas and everyone got successfully approved to continue on. They drove their cars over the makeshift border and told us they were happy to bring us along to Labé, both of our intended destination.

However, it was all too good to be true because once we stopped to get directions, a policeman on a motorcycle whipped in front of us and told us we needed to turn around. Gabe was the only one out of the entire lot of us who spoke French and he translated back that the guy said there was no problem but that we needed to return while they verified some information about the rally guys.

Gabe and I debated on continuing as the officer had specifically said that we were free to continue but we decided to stay with the rally and wait this out to get an easy ride to Labé. We had anticipated that this leg of the journey might take days as we had been told cars passed through the route only a few times a week so we decided it was probably best for us to stick with these guys. Plus, they kept offering us free, ice-cold Heineken.

I waited with the guys by their trucks, which at this point had been moved back over to the Senegal side of the “border”: a chain that was lowered to let cars through or raised to indicate you had to stop. Gabe was trying to communicate with the officers as to what the problem was but apparently every single officer had a different idea as to what was going on and were becoming increasingly more hostile towards each other about their disagreements.

One of the guys, Willy, who had first offered us beer leaned over and commented, “This is why you don’t live with monkeys.”

Da fuck, Willy?! This whole morning we’ve been having a laugh and drinking beers and all of a sudden you turn out to be just another eastern-European stereotype? And these are the guys we are riding across a border into a new African country with? For fucks sake.

The situation with the border officers continued to deteriorate and eventually it was decided that the border was closed and nobody was allowed in, not even Gabe and me on foot. We would have to go around to another border and this meant another backtrack through Senegal.

I was crushed.

We had just been stamped into the country and everything was all good and now, out of the blue, we were being told to leave? It didn’t make sense, but when in Africa, you can’t dwell too much on that. The rally guys agreed to take us along with them and since that was our only option at this point, we readily accepted.

It was not your basic backtrack, however, as these were super rural roads, if you could even call them that. At some points it was just a series of cascading rocks and boulders with a little strip of earth to drive on that was probably once a stream. One of the rally cars was a VW wagon that had already gotten a flat tire before we even started the most treacherous part of the drive. They’re going to struggle to make it, I thought.

We made it back to the main town signaling we only had another 10 km or so to go before getting back on paved road. At one point the rally guys stopped for a group of kids asking for a cadeau (French for “present”). Gabe and I make it a point to never give money or gifts to groups of kids. The rally guys had no such objections and they reached in the back of their truck and pulled out a cap and a soccer ball.

Never before have I seen such a Lord of the Flies situation escalate in real life. The kids went absolutely mental, grabbing at each other, throwing each other to the ground, fighting over these gifts. The looks on their faces were savage and desperate and it made me really uncomfortable. “This is why we don’t give shit to kids,” I whispered to Gabe.

As the day went on we saw more of the differences between our trip and the rally guys. They had brought all of their own food and only drank imported beer. They made it to the rally meetup spots everyday but never ventured far from the assigned path. In all, they would be in Africa for two weeks on a trip (advertised on its website as costing at least 1000 euro/person) through 5 countries and hardly spend a dime contributing to the local economy, never learn a word of the language, or understand anything about the culture. I had to keep reminding myself that they were a ride and we needed to get to the border.

We made it back to Kedougou (again) and I was expecting us to turn towards the other southern border. Instead the caravan of trucks veered north…back to Tambacounda. This meant that our backtrack would be almost 500 km, back through essentially the middle of Senegal to a place we had already backtracked to once before. The ride would be all day and the guys were already talking about camping on the Senegalese side of the border that night.

Fuck. It was going to be a long day.

Around this time we were a few beers deep and the guys decided it was time to show us the national drink of Lithuania. “National”, as they called it, is basically jet fuel. It’s grain alcohol served from an unmarked bottle that you can only buy from your local backwoods National producer. It’s eastern-European moonshine. Everybody gave us that timid look of excitement you get when someone has pulled a prank on you and everybody else knows you’re about to fall for it. We took a swig back and from then on the day took on a very different vibe.

Throughout the day we attempted to navigate short cuts, talk to checkpoint police, and try to get as close to the border as possible. But soon, The National kicked in and Gabe and I were basically useless, yet because Gabe was the only French speaker, he had to keep it together. I won’t go into the nitty gritty but let’s just say that eastern-European grain alcohol and me are not the most compatible.

Finally after the sun had long set, we arrive at the border town. The guys decided to set up camp and Gabe set up our hammock and whipped us up some much needed dinner (I was on stand-by at this point). We had a 6 a.m. departure time and I was already regretting what my current level of intoxication would mean for the next day.

6 a.m. came even earlier than it usually does. In the words of my mother, we had slept quick and it hadn’t been long enough to fully diminish my buzz. I felt like that YouTube video of the child who goes in for dental work, gets all doped up and comes out like, “Is this forever?!”

We awkwardly piled into the truck again, the camaraderie from the day before very much so yesterday’s game, and headed for the border. Unfortunately for everyone, the border didn’t open until 7 a.m. We still had another 15 minutes to wait. Could be worse.

Everyone staggered into the visa office and silently handed over their passports. Gone were the jovial men from yesterday who were taking selfies with the guards and slamming beers in the parking lot. The men of today meant business.

We all got stamped in without delay and made it down the road to the first checkpoint where we all had to get out of the car, individually hand over our passports and go through the classic formalities of “where are you going? Where are you coming from? What do you do for work?” Yaddayaddayadda.

The guys had decided to skip Labé and go on to their next scheduled meeting place, which was in the south, but they agreed to take us to the crossroads where our paths split. However, at the first gas station we came to, the other guys crammed in the back with us probably decided that this hangover day required more space and so they asked us about our plans, which we knew in a roundabout way was them telling us to hit the road.

I was honestly happy to part ways so we got out and exchanged a few muted thank you’s and left. It was a strange end to a strange journey with a group of guys who were in a very different head space than us (even before the booze kicked in!)

I was grateful for the ride but also felt a little slimy knowing that people like this still travel around Africa with a kind of neo-colonial mentality. They weren’t there to experience anything positive about Africa or get any new perspectives on the region they were traveling through. They wanted to come on this “dangerous” road trip through “corrupt and crazy” Africa to have a story to tell their friends back home at the pub about that one time they went and “slummed it for a week with the savages”. I found myself thinking though, that all travelers really just want that story. Most of the travelers we meet inadvertently start talking about the craziest, most fucked up situation they’ve been in and how they narrowly made it out in one piece.

I guess the difference is how you choose to interact with the local population while you travel. With these guys I was often uncomfortable with their sheer disrespect for authority figures, which is a huge faux-pas in Senegalese culture. Throughout the day, I felt the need to distance ourselves from the group whenever we were around Senegalese people and felt sleezy for having compromised our stance on not chilling with racists just for the sake of getting a good ride.

I was too hungover to dwell on it too much. We were both just happy to be in Guinea. We had finally made it. It had already been such a whirlwind getting into the country and we still had a few hundred kilometers to cover that day before arriving in Labé, which, as it turned out, we wouldn’t actually do.

Concise Advice:

  • Call your embassy before crossing borders to unstable countries to find out about any recent border closings.
  • Have copies of your passport with you to hand over to border patrol in Guinea.
  • Don’t drink more than one shot of Lithuanian National moonshine.

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