Taking the High Road

by Lorenzo Gaertner

A traveler climbs into a taxi on Senegal’s infamous Route de la Corniche and experiences a ride through Dakar he won’t soon forget.

“Bonsoir,” said a man’s voice to my left. I was comforted to know that I had company at 3am on Dakar’s frightening Route de la Corniche. There sat two men on plastic chairs, smoking cigarettes. The only light nearby was the glow of a streetlamp filtered through the leaves of a tree, which cast long shadows of the men onto the whitewashed garden wall behind them. The badges on their jackets told me they were night guards—most expat households in Dakar have them—and the cigarettes hanging carelessly out of their mouths told me they had little to guard against. I greeted them back.

“You need a taxi?” asked one of them. I was there, in fact, to catch what would be my last taxi ride in Dakar, where I had been living for the last five months. At this hour I figured my best chance of getting a ride home would be on the Corniche, the long road that connects the city center to Les Almadies, where I was staying. It hugs the Atlantic coast for most of the way, which makes for a pleasant view during the light hours. The Corniche itself was cheerful enough by day, but not a place, I had heard, where people should be hanging around after dark. Especially white people.

I made small talk with the guards while I waited in hope for a taxi. They asked me about myself and complimented me on my French. We were interrupted by the murmur of an engine getting closer, and I turned and saw the glare of headlights reflecting off the tarmac—an approaching taxi. One of the guards got up from his chair and helped me to flag it down. He motioned for me to stay put and went to talk to the driver, which I appreciated since one always has to haggle over a fare, and the starting rate for locals tends to be much lower than for foreigners.

Still, with nobody else on the road offering a lift, I was hardly in a position to negotiate. It was my last night in Dakar anyway, and I didn’t have enough cash on me for it to be worth the bother of exchanging it into pounds when I got home. I decided I would let the driver name his price.

I was alarmed to see the taxi pull away and speed off down the road. The night guard told me that the driver already had a fare who was travelling to another part of town and so was unable to include me in his journey. The guard took up his spot on the plastic chair again, and the taxi disappeared around a bend and out of sight. The road went quiet once again.

I thought of walking. It would take more than an hour, and I didn’t know who lurked along the path, but with every passing minute my standing there all expectant and optimistic and scanning the empty road looked increasingly silly. “Where do you need to go, anyway?” asked one of the guards. “Les Almadies,” I replied. He pulled a face as if to say “shit.”

To my relief another taxi showed up. This one was old and battered and had loud, muffled music pumping through its closed windows. The guards waved it down. The inside of the car looked foggy, but I thought I could make out the driver inside, and he seemed to be waving me over. I thanked the guards for their help and their company, which were most welcome on this lonely road, and ran to the taxi.

The windows were still closed, so I tapped on the passenger side for the driver to open it. Suddenly a thick cloud of cannabis smoke billowed out of the car and into my face. I staggered back slightly as it shot up my nostrils. As it cleared I got a proper look at the driver. His eyes were vacant, and his lips were smeared into a kind of half-smile. If he had had any inclination to save the weed for after his shift, then it was clear that impatience had gotten the better of him. On the plus side, he was so high that he seemed to have no interest in haggling. I offered 1000cfa (about £1 – a normal price for this route), which he accepted without hesitation.

We had barey travelled fifty metres when the driver turned around to offer me a hit of his joint. “No, thank you,” I said, motioning for him to watch the road instead. There was almost nobody else out, so I had faith in my driver despite the erratic way he tugged the steering wheel left and right and the fact he didn’t seem to know how to use the clutch.

My confidence was made to look premature when he swung around a roundabout and changed lanes without checking for traffic, sending us within an arm’s length of a passing truck. A loud honk of the truck’s horn jolted my driver to attention, and he swerved to avoid a crash. I watched, holding my breath, as the truck brushed past my window.

The rest of my short journey that night passed without incident. When the taxi pulled up to my house and I saw the glow of the porch light, I knew that it was over: the taxi ride and my time in Dakar. Getting a ride from a blazed taxi driver was not something I wanted to do again, but my coming away unscathed brought out the humor in the experience and would remind me later of the haphazard nature of life in Dakar, the wonderful unpredictability of the place that I had come to love and would miss dearly when I returned to the stiff, regimented hustle of my British hometown. I wished my driver a pleasant evening and watched as he drifted away from me, between swirls of dust and the open sea, and the sparkling blanket of stars that brought them together, back into the night.

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