30 juillet 2012
New lands, new scams
Before I begin, I need to get one thing out of my system: holy crap is Dakar nice when compared to Burkina Faso! They have a beach! Palm trees! Good restaurants! Taxi cabs without partially shattered windshields! Pretty buildings! Views! Sidewalks that aren’t just concrete slats balanced precariously over open sewers! It’s amazing here, and a BIG photo post will surely follow tomorrow or the next day. Dakar is amazing, and we’ll get to that, but today is more about comparative Peace Corps experiences.
If you’ve been following this blog lately, you’ll already know that I flew to Dakar yesterday for a series of medical evaluations (that will commence at 4 pm today). It was a more or less uneventful flight, save for the fact that I was seated right beside the damn engine and couldn’t hear a frigging thing for the entire trip. I got in right at sunset, rode over to the PC Senegal bureau with the travel agency facilitateur that they sent over (the PC Senegal bureau is soooo much nicer than the PC Burkina bureau), dropped my stuff off, and more or less immediately went out with a group of Senegal PCVs to get dinner.
Initially, we were just going to walk down the street to this restaurant on the beach (a beach! With sand! And boats!), where these ladies sell freshly grilled fish (fish! That isn’t tilapia!) for 1 mille each. Unfortunately, when we got there the beach was deserted (Ramadan = no fish grilling ladies), so we sort of wandered in circles for awhile, discussing where to go and what to do. Eventually, we decided to catch a cab to another beach, wherein we were assured there would in fact be fish grilling ladies.
…and that’s when the fun began.
After we got in the cab, everything went swimmingly at first. Then, we pulled over to get gas (a common thing in West Africa), and I learned all about one of the more obnoxious local scams. It goes like this:
- You negotiate the price with the cab driver in advance (also common in West Africa). You agree on a sane, reasonable, and entirely normal price of, say, 1500 CFA (this would be 300CFA in Ouaga. Dakar is pricey!).
- You get in the cab, and head towards your destination.
- The cabbie says ‘I need to stop for gas’.
- You pull into the gas station, and he turns around and says ‘I’m going to need that 5000 CFA now, so I can get gas’.
- You reply something to the effect of ‘you mean the 1500 CFA we agreed on?’
- He says, ‘no, the 5000 CFA you said you would pay me. Are you trying to cheat me?’
- You reply ‘what are you talking about?’
- He gets out, starts yelling really loudly about how you’re cheating him. He makes a big scene, and waves and yells a lot of imprecations at you in Wolof (the local language).
- You get out and start yelling back.
- He accuses you of being a thief, and gets blustery and says he’s going to kick your ass.
- You’re unimpressed, figuring you have him 5 to 1.
- Then the gas station employees start drifting up, and you realize…he has intentionally brought you to a station that’s owned by his brother or cousin or whatever.
- He makes a strategic mistake, and says ‘you give me 5000 CFA now, or I call the police’
- You call his bluff and say, ‘fine…while you’re at it, we’ll call the Peace Corps (yeah, that’s right…we’re not tourists! Surprise, asshole!), and they’ll send a lawyer over. We have all night. Let’s see who wins this little showdown.’
- His gas station buddies back off a bit.
- You talk, slap 1500 CFA on his dash, tell him to fuck off in English, and flag another cab.
- Situation resolved.
That was quite the situation, let me tell you. While I was never really scared (I am yet to meet the African that I would be afraid to take on head to head), getting in a fight with someone who has a grudge and nothing to lose is never fun. If we hadn’t been PCVs, with solid French and a good bit of Wolof, it could have been a really tough bind. I get the sense that this is a thing that works frequently and well on tourists, and I wouldn’t even want to think about how scared you might be if it was your first time in Africa, you had no language skills, and you were more or less at this guy’s mercy for getting where you wanted to go.
Even more terrifying is a variation on this scheme that the local PCVs explained to me in the 2nd cab: instead of taking you to a gas station, they take you to a police station (again, where a brother/cousin/etc works) and accuse you of theft. Then, instead of paying 3 times too much for a cab ride, you get shaken down for a ‘fine’ that just coincidentally happens to be exactly the amount of all the cash you’re carrying on you and stupid enough to mention that you have.
I’m not sure I’d actually have the cojones to pull it off, but I think if that happened, I would just let them arrest me. I’m pretty sure the clout that PC pulls would be more than enough to get me out the next day. It would just be a question of getting through the night without getting thumped by the police and/or getting worked over by the other inmates (who I probably would be afraid to take in a fight). It’s an interesting theory…to hash out over a victory beer.
Dakar is a hard place. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.
But maybe not by cab.