The Crossing

In my mind I weighed my options feebly, clutching at the outline of a swiftly fading plan and feeling a loss of control seep slowly through me. Ibrahim was gone and the pushy, so-called customs officer in front of me was at best a tout and at worst a gangster.

Not yet having the clarity of mind to make a decision I let fate wrap her tentacles around me and pull me towards the inevitable unknown that lay ahead. I grabbed my plastic folder of important documents and cash, slung my Camelback over my shoulder and followed Mohammed to the money changer's shop.

I tried to convince myself that as long as there were people around and I was visible to them nothing truly sinister could take place. As we walked off to the left between a couple of ramshackle buildings I felt the presence of another two men as they fell in behind me and followed us down the lane way.

We emerged in an unpaved back street and, crossing it, entered an unassuming corner store run by a wizened Arab shopkeeper who cycled slowly between his customers and the high shelves behind him, picking products out of nooks and crannies with the swiftness and accuracy of a chameleon catching flies.

Through a doorway at the rear of the shop we went, the other two men now clearly an official part of the envoy, to the darkened money-changing office where the same shopkeeper emerged silently and unexpectedly through a small door, exaggerating the dream-like quality of the scene. He placed an old digital calculator on the counter, sliding it gently towards Mohammed, and with a practised nod he slipped silently back into the recesses of his shop.

I scanned the room for entries and exits, unsettled now by the sudden isolation from public view and the physical barrier of bodies ever-so-slowly closing in on me.

Banging hurriedly on the calculator as he went, Mohammed issued a barrage of confusing “warnings” about exchange rates, visas, insurance, vehicle permits and “corruption”—laying out my options for me in the way that a hippopotamus lays out its dung.

The spiel was designed to intimidate and overwhelm, and presumably to position him as my potential saviour but lacking the charm and sophistication of a true con artist Mohammed relied more on an “easy way or the hard way” insinuation that hung in the air as a result of his gruffness and the menacing presence of his silent henchmen behind me.

Having taken into account the potential costs of all the perils that awaited me behind the large, solid, double border gates should I dare enter unaided, a price was given for completing all the “formalities” for the border on my behalf and assisting me with the crossing, including Mohammed's fee, quoted in Ouguiya. I grabbed the calculator from his hand and divided by 41: €500.

“What?”

“Yes. €500.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No! This is the cost! What do you think? It's free? How much does it cost to go to Australia? You pay the same! You pay!”

“Where is Ibrahim? Where is the Canadian?”

“Don't worry! They are eating! They are coming! You must hurry! The ferry is coming!”

“This is crazy.”

“If you don't want you go back Nouakchott! Don't come back!”

I felt desperate, just as designed.

I tried to negotiate my way out, not knowing where things were headed and also not realising that the likelihood of them laying a hand on me was in reality small, given the stink it would kick up in a town where everybody knows your name. They knew I didn't know this at the time.

I thought about things for a minute and based on my earlier experience with the fixer at the northern border I made Mohammed an offer. That I would pay him €20 directly for the “service” of translation and guidance but I would pay everything else by my own hand. That I was to hold my own money and documents and hand the relevant items personally to each recipient during the process.

He agreed and I thought I had bought myself some time, space and an opportunity to regain control but I was naïve.

Over the next few hours as we rushed between the money changers, the ferry ticket office, the community tax collector, the police check, the insurance salesman and the customs office, I fell prey to countless sleights of hand. It was done at such pace and under such pressure that despite my best efforts at keeping track in my notebook I was in a total spin and after numerous unplanned visits to the town's lone ATM I had no idea what I had spent or what on. Mohammed and his men had a live one, and every single official was in on it.

The spot I had earlier earlier been encouraged to park my bike placed it at the front of the queue of vehicles waiting to board the ferry, and cleverly caused me to feel additional pressure to get things over and done with so that I wouldn't miss the next sailing. In reality, the ferry punted back and forth all day and likely night, and the urgency I felt was artificially constructed. All it would've taken was for me to wheel my bike a couple of meters to the right to relieve that particular source of stress.

With hindsight I realised how many of these small losses I had conceded that day and in the days preceding, leading to a victory for the seasoned tricksters that now had me exactly where they wanted me. The early start without breakfast, the fact that I still hadn't eaten a thing with the day now marching on well into the afternoon, the separation of me with bike (a source of additional extortion opportunity) from the pedestrian backpackers who were less lucrative targets, the group of men acting as a barrier of communication to prevent any member of the general public offering me assistance.

As I was pressured back and forth across the dusty compound the ferry ticket price was inflated, taxes multiplied, change withheld, receipts doctored. I realised once the dust settled that I had paid 10 times the market price for insurance, having been falsely convinced that I needed it prior to arrival in Senegal. I realised later still that the insurance certificate I was given in exchange was counterfeit.

At one point, in another feeble attempt to regain control, I had a argument with a customs official about a €10 fee to stamp my bike out of the country but sadly this single attempt was futile. It turned out to be a genuine charge. I apologised and reinstated my tail in its rightful place between my legs.

At one point I did spot the backpackers in the line to have their passports stamped. I called out to them and walked over, leaving who knows what documents with who knows which criminal. We briefly reconnected, hastily comparing what we had paid for things. The shame of being tricked prevented me from explicitly saying that I was in trouble, that I needed help, that I wasn't in control, that I was starving and had a headache. I felt that I, being older than them and supposedly wiser, on my way to conquer the continent, a brave man on a mission, couldn't be asking a couple of hippie kids to rescue me from my own gullibility.

Leaving me little opportunity to overcome my fear of being made a fool of, Mohammed sensed the threat to his well orchestrated scam and threw a big, public tantrum causing a minor scene. Sidekicks closed in and ushered the backpackers away while I fell into the trap of trying to calm Mohammed down. That was the last time I saw the two travellers.

I still hadn't eaten and things continued to spiral. It was hot. I was in all my gear. I'd downed all three litres of water from my Camelback. I was thirsty and feeling faint. It was chaotic. I couldn't see my bike or my stuff. Someone had my passport—a cardinal rule broken.

Eventually I was handed over to one of the aforementioned henchmen (and insurance salesman) Mamadou, a tall, younger man in traditional garb of white turban and football jersey who was to accompany me on the ferry and handle the "formalities" on the Senegalese side of the river. Despite his line of work (extortion, not insurance) he was a refreshing relief from Mohammed—though just as suspect he was not nearly as pushy. A job's a job, I suppose.

Having given myself over to the process completely by that point and achieved a dissociation from material possessions that would make the Dalai Lama blush I wheeled the meaningless, inanimate KTM I once treasured so much up onto the ferry and joined the menagerie of vehicles, people, and animals floating slowly across the calm, brown river.

I looked back at buzzing Mauritanian port as it receded behind me, wondering what the hell had just happened to me and whether I would ever trust myself or anyone else again. We docked on the other side with a jarring clunk. Passports were collected by police and I was directed to a place to park, trying desperately to keep track of my passport and my bike at the same time.

Mamadou took me to the passport control window and we waited for the official to work his way through the stack of documents handed to him by the police officer who had collected them earlier. The process was slow but seemed to be at least somewhat methodical. I was relieved that my nightmare appeared to be coming to an end, and that once I had that entry stamp I could get as far as humanly possible from that godforsaken town and get something to eat.

The customs officer gestured to Mamadou and they had a brief, heated discussion of which I understood less than zero. After conferring with Mamadou it transpired that despite reading everything to the contrary when planning my trip I was not eligible for a visa on arrival to Senegal. I needed a pre-approved Senegalese visa in my passport and I didn't have one.

I'd been very thorough with my planning, having been warned many times that visas were one of the greatest pitfalls of West African travel, and I was convinced that there was a mistake—that the customs officer was wrong. The stress that had begun to dissipate on the ferry ride over now started building back up to a crescendo. If I couldn't enter Senegal and had already had my single-entry Mauritanian visa voided, what would I do?

Hanging out behind a few small shops with Mamadou and a group of other fixers with varying standards of ethics I got out my phone and with the thread of Mauritanian cell phone reception I could pick up across the river tried everything I could to find some definitive information and help. With the nearest Australian embassy in Pretoria, South Africa and the rest of Australia fast asleep I was at a loss.

In desperation I contacted dear family friends in Johannesburg in the hope that they could get some confirmation from the Australian embassy there, or possibly make some phone calls to customs in Dakar. Senegal has no embassy in Australia—diplomatic matters being handled by the one in Tokyo—which didn't give me much hope that anything could be done for me. I still felt like a lamb in the wolf's den and there was little my family friends could do to rescue me (despite one of them being a fluent French speaker) but it gave me some reassurance to be in contact with someone familiar and to know that someone, somewhere was aware of where I was and what I was going through.

I tried making contact with (good, not evil) Mohammed the banker back in Nouakchott who had been so generous to me, in the hope that he could look up some information locally or at least translate the official documentation. It just seemed impossible to me that I could've made such a mistake and turned up without a visa. Someone, somewhere had the information to prove me right and that would be my ticket out of this hellish situation.

After hours of reading, texting, calling and hoping, and with my phone battery beginning to fade, Mamadou started to realise that he had a liability on his hands and slowly transformed from captor to carer—unexpectedly taking a genuine interest in helping me. He called various "contacts" and even attempted a subtle €100 bribe at the passport control window but they wouldn't budge.

Despite best efforts there was no avoiding it. I was going back to Mauritania. My imagination ran wild with imaginings of a night stranded on the streets of Rosso. I eventually faced reality and made my way back across the river on that same ferry, back through all the “formalities” and all the expense, forming a strange pseudo-friendship with Mamadou and his mates in the process.

Mamadou tried to negotiate around me having to purchase another visa to re-enter Mauritania—and succeeded. In the customs office the officer I argued with earlier over the supposed bribe took an interest in my GoPro, mounted on the front of my helmet, which he now seemed to believe was used for clandestine recordings of officials—a most serious offence.

I was taken to the chief's office and there was much negotiating. Suddenly Ibrahim re-appeared (dealing with this tricky customer issue had perhaps by this stage required an escalation to senior management). I didn't have the time or head space to confront, fight, question or even to figure it all out and I was simply waiting, defeated, for the customs officer to go through his show of interrogating the Australian spy. Ibrahim, feigning concern, acted as translator and made a show of helping but it was unclear what was being omitted or introduced with each transmission back and forth.

The officers asked that I hand over all my SD cards and with furrowed brows flicked though my photos and videos pedantically, making a fuss about this or that image. I wouldn't have been especially perturbed by this, however while fiddling with the helmet cam not ten minutes prior they had accidentally recorded a clip of themselves, and were now accusing me of having recorded them deliberately.

Half a hour passed and by that time I must've looked so forlorn that the officer I had previously argued with gingerly hands me a cold bottle of water, looking genuinely concerned and giving me a gap-toothed smile. I thanked him and returned the smile feebly.

Eventually, the officers became bored with their GoPro game and things started to relax a little. A young man wearing a clean, bright orange Dutch football jumper quietly entered the room. There was something different about him. He seemed professional, neat and calm and out of place in the chaotic and opportunistic environment of the customs office.

It turned out that he was there to rescue me. He was the manager of the Rosso branch of Mohammed's bank and shared my name, or the Arabic version at least: Daouda. Mohammed had received my cries for help and had sent one of his finest in to extract me from the mess.

Daouda quietly took me under his wing and gently removed me from the situation. He spoke no English but I grasped that he was going to take me to a hotel and make sure I got a shower, a feed and a good night's sleep. I gathered up my own remains and we headed off, but it wasn't quite over. As I got back to my bike I found police waiting there, wanting to search my baggage. Each of these disparate government agencies have little to do with each other and effectively compete for opportunities for attention, money and assertion of authority. Just because customs has already had their way with you doesn't mean you get a free ride from police.

I wasn't sure whether the request was made to pressure me into offering a bribe, out of curiosity to see what strange treasures I was carrying or out of a genuine interest in ensuring that no contraband entered the country. Suspecting it was a little of each, I painstakingly unpacked my panniers, laying everything out on the ground for them methodically. There was nothing to see other than for the novelty, and no incentive was offered to speed up the search, so eventually their interest waned and I was given the order to move on via an officious grunt.

As I made my way for those big ominous gates that I had never imagined I'd pass back through, Ibrahim took a final opportunity to inform me that he “knows very well this man Daouda” and that if I needed anything I was to tell Daouda to contact him. Daouda apparently had his number. Right.

Part of me still wanted to believe Ibrahim was somehow distanced from all of the mess and that although he may have been sneaky he wasn't really trying to harm me, or wasn't fully aware of what his "brother" and company were up to. This feeling gradually dissipated but was surprised how long it took—how much I wanted to trust and believe him despite all evidence to the contrary. I suppose this is the psychological hook—a cruel bug in human nature—that scammers the world over depend on for their livings.

I followed Daouda's scruffy, red Toyota hatch-back through the streets of Rosso (delayed momentarily when he became bogged in sand in the middle of a busy intersection) and he guided me to the bank where he worked. I stashed my bike there behind the compound walls and joined him in the car. We drove to a large hotel, partially disfigured by a haphazard and unfinished renovation. I was ushered into a comfortable and clean room with an en-suite, and Daouda instructed me to relax and get something to eat at the restaurant downstairs. He would be back to check on me later.

As soon as the door closed behind him I was overcome with relief but also intensely nauseous. I'd never felt anything like that before. I had a shower and sat on the floor for a while, numb and brain-dead. Eventually, I crept down to the restaurant and picked at some chicken brochettes for about half an hour. I was broken.

After dinner I went to the front desk where I interrupted the hotelier's enjoyment of an extremely graphic multi-racial porn video on his laptop so that I could get the Wifi password—surprised to find that it was available at all. I got in touch via WhatsApp with my support crew of family and friends who had been anxiously awaiting an update on my situation. It transpired with confirmation from the embassy in Japan that Australians (and Kiwis) did now need a visa prior to arrival in Senegal thanks to a recent change in regulations, published absolutely nowhere.

As promised, Daouda returned later that evening with a friend and we hung out on the floor of my room watching TV, unable to really communicate but feeling a warm and genuine camaraderie. After half an hour or so, they left me to get a good night's sleep. Daouda would be back to collect me in the morning on his way to the office, where my bike was securely parked, the bank's elderly “guardian” having placed his sleeping mat beside it in the courtyard.

On the ferry
On the ferry
The gang
The gang
Return to sender
Return to sender

© David Baskind · 2022