First, a little background.
Once upon a time, I was in the Peace Corps in the Cape Verde Islands. I was with a group of 25 other volunteers– most of us right out of college. We all worked as teachers on different islands and had the summer off. Some people went back to the States, but most of us grouped off in 2s and 3s to travel “The Continent”– Africa.
I went with my dear friend Jenny, who was sweet, tiny, and blonde. I should have known the pairing was not the wisest when a mutual friend said to Jenny, “Are you sure you want to go with Jessica? When the two of you are together, you don’t always make the best choices.”
But, we went. We spent a few weeks in Senegal and then decided to brave Mali– which was not as dangerous then as it is now, but was decidedly NOT Bali (this mistake has been made). We took a train from Tambacounda, Senegal to Mali’s capital, Bamako– an adventure in and of itself. The train was supposed to get in around 2PM, but because it was Africa, we ended up arriving around 2 in the morning.
Before getting off the train, we strategized with our copy of the Rough Guide (it was 1999 and the Internet was NOT a thing in West Africa) and decided on a cheap hotel that was near the Peace Corps office. (Because being a Peace Corps volunteer means you have people all over the world who have to help you out.)
We got out of the train station and were immediately harassed by a tout trying to get us to come to his hotel. A little flustered but determined to stick with Plan A, we got in a cab.
Let me just pause here to say that in Cape Verde, cabs aren’t always marked. In fact, a “cab” is usually just some guy who lets you pay for the privilege of riding in the back of his truck. So, the fact that Jenny and I got in a car that was not actually labeled “taxi” doesn’t mean we are dumb or bad travelers or that we “make bad choices.” It just means that we had been in Cape Verde for too long.
I justified our decision by pointing out that, in addition to the driver, there was a woman in the front seat. Surely he wouldn’t murder us with her there. But about three minutes into the ride, she got out, so, so much for that idea. Two other guys got in– one in the front and one in the back with us. Things were not looking good.
They looked worse when our “cab” BROKE DOWN across the street from an outdoor bar. And even worse when the two front seat guys got in a fight with the backseat guy, who stormed away. (Side note: he had been holding a mysterious tiny box, which he dropped. It fell into the gutter next to the car. Only Jenny saw. We still believe this was the root of the whole problem, but we’re not quite sure how.) And possibly even worse when we drove around what I still remember as the darkest streets I’ve every seen for what felt like hours. We had no language in common with these bros and were utterly convinced we were going to die– all because of our own bad choice. I had never, ever, ever been so scared. My whole body felt prickly and clammy– a sensation I have, thankfully, not experienced since that night.
Jenny and I went back and forth forever. “What are we gonna do?” “I don’t know. Maybe we’re almost there.” Finally, I had to do something. I looked at Jenny and said, “All right. We’re gonna jump. I’ll count to three. Just leave your pack and roll out.” Was I making a bad choice? Too late to think about that…
“Two…” The cab slowed down to turn. Jenny had her hand on the door. We were actually about to jump out of a moving cab in Bamako at four in the morning.
And just then, our cabbie turned the corner, and gleaming like a beacon we saw LE GRAN HOTEL. This was not the hotel we were looking for. (In fact, we found out later, this was the nicest hotel in all of Mali. It was basically on par with a Holiday Inn.) We didn’t care. We started yelling in every language we had “Stop, stop, here, we’ll get out here.” The driver, baffled, stopped. We threw him some money and got out and booked it into the hotel.
Le Gran Hotel, I love you always.
Possibly the scariest part: When we found some Bamako volunteers the next day, they told us the hotel we were looking for had been closed for over a year.