Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Sept-Place Experience

*Be forewarned that this entry contains the use of gratuitous language. But fuck it, don’t they all.

In a continent largely devoid of, let’s say, reliable public transport, something has to fill the void. Enter the sept-place - they could only exist here in Africa and whilst they do fill the void they‘re far from reliable. If you want to join the dots at all in in West Africa you cannot do so without putting yourself at the mercy of the sept-place experience. Technically speaking it’s a vehicle for seven people (this doesn‘t include the driver), hence the name, but in reality with young children on laps this can often, and usually does, reach double figures. And though they may not be your children, such is the inherent claustrophobia of being in the sept-place that you will be expected to do your share of the mothering too, offering a lap for a child who’s fascinated by the whiteness of your skin and wants nothing more than to sit on your lap and poke your eyes out.
It’s far more organised than I’d initially thought - ‘tickets’ are issued (essentially a piece of paper with the price and your all important seat number written on it), and the car does not move until full. You have the option of paying for a second seat if you wish to speed up departure but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a lot more room to manoeuvre when the journey is underway. Luggage fees are arbitrarily decided upon - if you look like someone who’d pay 2,000 CFA for two bags then that’s what you’ll be asked for. But it’s that seat number which should be your biggest concern - if it’s number 1 to 4 then your luck’s in as you’ll have some room to stretch your legs but if you’ve been handed 5 to 7, too bad, varicose veins will probably suit you. Tickets 5 to 7 thrust you right into the pit of the sept-place, a forgotten place where a seat has been inserted almost as an afterthought.
The first hour. During that first hour or so of the journey you’re thinking “You know this isn’t too bad. Besides I’m in West Africa and, hey, this is all part of the experience. I‘ve endured worse than this. This will make me stronger.” You’re too busy enjoying the countryside, the mud-brick huts, the straw roofs, the people strolling by the road - this is why you came to this part of the world. There’s a beautiful child on a mother’s lap in front of you who you wink at and who returns your winks with a smile which makes it all worthwhile. The roads may be bad but the driver is doing a great job of avoiding the worst of the holes, an encounter with one would surely result in a broken axle. There’s a gorgeous early morning breeze wafting in your direction from the open windows. There’s an unspoken camaraderie between the passengers who clearly understand that they’re all in this together. All is well. Life is beautiful.
The second hour. With nowhere whatsoever to stretch your legs, things start to get mildly frustrating as you experience the first jabbing pains which extend from your back right down to your heel. If you could just move your legs for five minutes then all would be well again. The little child who’d been staring at you is still staring and it‘s becoming annoying now. The person’s elbow beside you finds your rib cage once too often, in fact the person beside you has morphed into Bony Man all of a sudden and all of those bones are jutting into you. At this stage you still think that it may be unintentional. After one hour of staring at flatness and an unchanging, barren landscape, you’d like to change the channel but there isn’t anything else to look at - it’s all the same for miles around. This part of Senegal is the West African equivalent of Longford. It starts to stink too - seven people squeezed into a tin box in the middle of Senegal and moving away from the Atlantic coast approaching midday - it’s gonna get messy and it does. And you need to piss. Not badly but it’d be nice to pull over for just a couple of minutes. But still, you stoically think; “Phew, this isn’t pleasant but what a story I’ll have to tell at the end of this trip. I‘ll be glad when we get there though.”
The third hour. It gets ugly. The driver has clearly never consumed any liquids in his entire life. Neither have the other passengers. What’s wrong with these people - don’t Africans piss? And it’s approaching midday and that cold breeze which wafted all the way back to you at dawn has now become a furnace, wafting hot air, dust and sand in your direction. The children are crying now but they’re probably upset at the fact that your face has turned crimson - a combination of the oppressive heat, the ‘Jesus Christ let me out for a piss’ contortion and the fact that, as the blood has stopped flowing to your legs two hours ago, it has to go somewhere. Meanwhile thoughts have become a tad more negative; ”F**king bullshit. Squeezing all of these f**king people into a car this size. Who looks after these f**king roads anyway - Cavan County Council? Next year I’ll travel in f**king Germany instead. What in God’s name is that child staring at - did I grow an extra eye since I climbed into this f**king contraption? F**king hell man, my thigh is not a f**king arm rest.” Of course all of these thoughts are internalised, and though the inner fires are a-blazing, the exterior betrays little of this beyond the aforementioned crimson face and the neat little puddles of perspiration accumulating below you formed by rivers of sweat coursing down your arms. The farts which you’d politely stifled in the first couple of hours are now unleashed with as much vitriol as you can muster. It’s all you can do not to scream “Take that!” with the release of each successive fart. You’d say it too but you don’t know the French for it and shouting ‘Allez!‘ as you break wind just doesn’t seem right.
And then, oh sweet Jesus it‘s about f**king time…...the driver indicates, pulls over and everybody gets out for five minutes. And, of course, within two minutes of standing erect again, bladder emptied and stretches done, the dark spirits lift, the storm clouds clear and all is well with the world again. At least for an hour.

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