Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Mercedes is Not for Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou...An Auto-Misadventure Across the Sahara by Jeroen van Bergeijk

It is amazing to realize that there exists a huge market in West Africa for European cars, especially Mercedes, that have outlived their useful life up North by a long shot. And there is a lively trade in such cars from adventure seekers who drive them across the Sahara though Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso. The landscape and "attractions" they pass through in these countries seem singularly unappetizing. With the exception of Senegal's Saint-Louis (the former headquarters of colonial French West Africa) and portions of Dakar, places like Boujdour (Spanish Sahara, but really ruled by Morocco), Nouakchott (Mauritania's capital), Bamako (Mali capital), and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) offer little to savor, unless one reminisces the feelings of being unbearably hot and uncomfortable, hungry with disease strewn food offerings, and endless scenery comprised of roadside garbage and wrecks, with little in the way of passable hostelry. AS the author says, "Things in Africa come in two forms: broken or almost broken."

The author gets a bit philosophical in the early going with pondering the true meaning of an authentic experience, namely, being one that is not shared with fellow Europeans seeking the same authentic experience right along side. His musings on time derive from Ryszard Kapuściński's The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of essays about Africa. While Europeans are slaves to time, Africans feel time appears as a result of our actions and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. Nowhere do you see these different conceptions of time better than in places where people have to wait.

There are many curious anecdotes including the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupery (famed author of The Little Prince), who in fact was a pilot that got stranded in southern Morocco in Cape Juby (now called Tarfaya) as an airfield manager in 1928, recounted in his nonfiction book Wind, Sand, and Stars. Many such airfields enabled mail service between Paris and Dakar.

And how many know that when taking a boat from Spain south across the Mediterranean, one lands in Melilla, but is still in Spain ! Evidently, Melilla is Spain's Guantánamo Bay. Melilla and Ceuta are the only two European-Union territories located in mainland Africa.

The main excitement occurs at the border crossings, like Rosso in Mauritania, bordering Senegal, the most notorious border crossing in all of Africa. What that means in practice is having plenty of small bills to grease a large number of palms.

And who knew that Ouagadougou has a film festival, the biannual FESPACO (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou) ?

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