September 8th, 2002
Steve wanted to beat the early morning Paris rush hour, so we cleared out of the flat at the unholy hour of 6am. I had known the night before that we'd be leaving that early, but it hadn't deterred me from staying out past one in the morning: I had been going on adrenaline since the moment I had risen, and I wasn't surprised to find that adrenaline still there when I rose today. Four hours of sleep -- and uncomfortable sleep at that, given that I was on the floor rather than on a bed -- and I was ready to go, too excited to even think about trying to nap on the truck.
The plan was to get as close to the Spanish border by nightfall, which meant about a ten hour drive. No one complained: the trip was about Africa, not Europe, and beside that we were still in the honeymoon phase, happy to chat with whoever we happened to be sitting next to at the moment. Camille, who had arranged the flat in Paris, was the target of many accolades. Steve was ecstatic when he discovered that Camille speaks both French and Arabic, two of the most prominent languages in West Africa. In fact, most of the others (excluding the Americans, not surprisingly) were well-versed in several tongues, Camille being the most diverse with his mastery of French, Arabic, English, Japanese, and Italian. He claimed to know "only a little" Spanish, but had no problem keeping up with mine.
During our long drive I chatted for a while with our unofficial translator. Camille, forty-years old, with a bull-like physique and a wide, almost shaved head, was born in Senegal, but moved soon thereafter to Lebanon, from where his family originally came. He had been working as a high-rolling banker for the last few years, but was tired of "the bullshit". His honesty and sensitivity, coupled with his obvious erudition, made him an extremely interesting and comfortable person to talk to. His current career crisis struck a chord with more than just me. There were several onboard who were at various stages of rethinking their lives. Such a phenomenon seems a cliche, but the history behind each person's search for direction was complicated, and belied an atypical thoughtfulness. The more I got to know my fellow travellers, the more I felt that I was with a group of exceptional individuals.
After a few hours on the road, Sam took the wheel and Steve hopped in the back to give us the lowdown on how the trip would work. Although this was technically a "vacation", it wasn't a luxury tour by any means. Each of us would have responsibilities, from cleaning the truck to keeping track of the group kitty, which would pay for our meals (among other things). I volunteered to organize and manage the "bar", which was more extensive than I had expected. In the rear of the truck were stacks and stacks of beer, soft drinks, juices, and potato chips. I realized fairly quickly that austerity had no place aboard "Louie".
I chatted with Steve during one of the bathroom breaks on our way south. He had been working for Dragoman for seven years, and had done the West Africa tour for the first time last year. Most tour operatives work a region for two years, then move to somewhere else. He told me a story about Mike, another tour leader who had done the West Africa leg before him. While crossing through the minefields between Morocco and Mauritania, their truck had hit an anti-personnel mine, devastating one of the front tires. The shocked but unhurt passengers looked to Mike for a plan of action, a solution to their dangerous situation. But Mike's first order of business was to get the kettle so that he could have a pot of tea. Unfortunately the kettle was in a storage locker only accessible from the outside of the truck, and no one was willing to step outside onto the possibly mine-infested earth. To solve this problem, Mike arranged for one of the passengers to be lowered out a window, where he could open the locker and bring back the tea kettle.
As we neared the Spanish border, the cloudy skies turned to rain. Steve decided that a hotel would be a better option than camping. We drove through Bayonne for two hours, looking for a reasonably priced place that could take seventeen people, eventually finding a cheap hotel which was willing to pack five to a room. Dinner was at one of the few open restaurants in town, a hotel restaurant that served atrocious sausages.
Louie at dawn
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