|Niamey to Agadez
Our 'chariot' needs a bit of description at this point. We were told to expect a van. It was a van. As it seems that these vans are the only practical way for travelers to commute between Niamey and Agadez, other than by camel caravan. So the van was refitted to seat as many passengers as possible. The van had 4 back bench seats installed. Custom manufactured out of the finest iron rebar, 1" thick foam and Naugahyde that Nigeria had to offer, the seats could fit 4 local passengers abreast. Naturally our big, stout American males (and myself) were a tad wider than most north african peoples, so we could fit 2 to a bench maximum. That was fine since Sean, herein further referred to as Captain Sand had a cold, and was primarily comatose for this segment. We'll refer to him later in act III. He took the front bench... perhaps not the brightest choice since we always had to push his feet aside to enter or exit the van. Then Vic and / or Patrick took seat number two. Vic liked to jump around a lot and shoot through any open window. Fred and I had seat 3 and with the luggage occupying most of the back, and could sometimes try the jump-seat of 4.
It was quickly apparent that the van was 6 inches too small in each direction for Fred to fit comfortably anywhere. The seats so close together, my own 5' 6" person sized legs couldn't face fully forward from seat back to seat front. So I turned a little or opened them a tad. With Fred's wingspan, he would have to 'spread-eagle' so far as to occupy the entire width of a seat. Sideways wasn't a lot better. If he leaned back against the side of the van, his head bumped the rolled ceiling of the van. He tried laying down. Not long enough to put a foot up on the seat or straiten a knee out the other way. Patrick looked back at Fred struggling to fit and flatly uttered his expert opinion, "You're boned."
So we pulled out for our 14 hour ride to Agadez. Immediately thereafter, we learned that we were to take a small stop first. The road between the airport and Niamey was apparently closed until, oh.. dawn sometime. It was 3 hours until dawn. So our gypsy wagon pulled to the side of the road for a nice, very dark miniature star party by the side of the road. Utter and complete oblivion. There wasn't a building for miles, nor hint of human existence... so it took a good 25 minutes before a vendor made it down to our van to try to sell us bags of water. They were twist-tied up as-if they held department store fish inside. We enjoyed a nice little show of Leonids and played with green lasers in the cold and Sean I think rolled over once. Then the ride resumed as planned.
We screamed along at nearly 45 miles an hour through landscape which started out lush with date palms and grass, with even some lakes here and there. We each tried to doze off, but in those seats, it really wasn't happening. I might have stood a chance, but for Fred's 17lb head bobbing back and forth in and out of consciousness. Vic barely sat down though. Flitting from window to window, he was in photojournalist hog-heaven. I remember holding him by the back of the belt more than once as he hung out windows for the next exciting shot. The ball cap was sometimes backwards, often off; as he grinned teeth-first into the wind. Then he returned utterly windblown to the van... hair upside down in what can only be described as a combination between Edward Scissorhands and Reverend Jim. Patrick pointed and snickered. I woke Fred giggling so hard as the van erupted in laughter. Vic just looked around and behind his back and asked. "Whaaaat?"
So we stopped for our first real stop at lunchtime. We pulled off the main road into what had to be the only restaurant in the time zone. The van was still rolling with vendors already at the windows offering jewelry, food, asking for a bic pen... so the restaurant owner shooed them away and hurried us into the lunch circle we would later refer to as 'base'. Sean wasn't eating. Fred was feeling strangely not so hungry. Vic and Patrick passed the menu back and forth shaking their heads and once again it was my turn to become babblefish. Fries. We know that. Ok. What else. I think spaghetti was a choice. So we had spaghetti and fries. We didn't care because it came with Coke and orange Fanta. Looking back at that meal, I chuckle at how we each used our own silverware. There were drinking vessels unique to each traveler. How quaint. The town mayor or market-lord or biggest spender came to visit and see what we were up to. He pulled in on his upscale moped and when dismounting it, we heard the chirp-chirp of the alarm click. We were duly interviewed and advised who in town sold the good silver (that would be him) and who sold the fake antiques (that would be everyone else)... but he would be nice and show all of them to us now. But we were safe in the 'don't touch circle' and the vendors were shoo'd away quickly. Left with nothing but the groggy feet of poor Captain Sand, poking out the side of the van.
Leaving the last hint of civilization behind, we ventured on. Fred squirmed to get comfortable. Patrick reminded us to 'eat the sandwich!' Sand slept and Vic continued to click from every orifice of the van as trees and towns disappeared and were replaced by longhorn cattle, then goats then camels. Every half hour or so, we would stop for a stretch of rope held out across the road. A man in a uniform would come and ask our business, look into the van and wave us on. Sometimes our driver would show his paperwork. Each town was smaller and smaller. Dustier and sandier. Street vendors were always peddling something at the side of the road. Fruit, jewelry, goats, gasoline. Apparently it was all sold through a car window. Soon the uniformed officer turned to some guy in flip-flops. Eventually, it was a 4 year old little barefoot girl. That's right. This was how jump-rope was born. You can imagine our state when after some 2-3 dozen stops, we rouse and realize we're stopped without a checkpoint. Out the driver's side door is a man on camelback. All we can see is the knees to mid tummy of the camel, the bare feet of the Tuareg rider precariously balanced on the oddly shaped red and turquoise leather covered saddle. The driver is asking him something that sounds like directions... or "Have you seen cousin Mohamed, he owes me twenty bucks." Then just as suddenly as he appeared, the rider is gone around another bush.
At one juncture, we encountered 3-4 excitedly waving young men flagging and stopping all the cars. Best we could figure, the bridge ahead was suddenly washed out and the road closed. So just as ordinarily as waiting for a stoplight, the stranger hopped in the passenger side of the van and proceeded to direct the driver on some kind of off-road path around. So now we're off-roading between bushes and hills, acacia trees and sand dunes in a 15 passenger bus with seats made of cardboard, directed by a 13 year old stranger... Did I mention the driver didn't speak English? We saw Fred's hand snake up from his seat of oblivion to read the GPS he had lashed to the window frame. He shrugged and dropped it, realizing that knowing our position wasn't going to help much. So we wandered around a bit, found another local boy on foot, asked him more directions. He pointed off to the left, we turned and headed that-a-way and passed another similar looking van with a flat tire on our way over a low, dry riverbed wash. Then up we popped to the other side, where we graciously let the young man back out so he could catch the next car coming the other way.
But that was back when the roads were good. Shortly thereafter, they really took a turn for the worse. Towns stopped with the rope bit entirely and we started only seeing 4x4 Land-cruisers, camels, camel caravans and the beastly 14 ton overloaded lorry trucks the drivers loved pointing to and calling "Air Libya". We lost road pavement about 4pm. Now we were in some kind of endurance rally. The bumps were big enough to send Captain Sand vertical and muted Vic to only photograph through closed windows. The dust had come up. With windows closed, so did the heat. We only had perhaps another 2-3 hours left of this to go before we reached Agadez. You know I don't actually remember seeing Agadez from a distance. I do, however, remember that we didn't get to our hotel before a car going the other way recognized ours and honked, squealing the other way. Now, we had longhorn cattle in the road. Wheelchair-bound pushcart drivers... teams of beautifully clad local women on donkey-back - obviously Woodabe what with the folded stack of cloth on their heads and tatooed faces. And the Tuareg were everywhere. A Tuareg man is called a 'blue man' for his skin so black it has a blue cast. The uniform of the Tuareg is always the same. A matching pant-suit where the tunic is a very long shirt, so long to pass his knees almost to his ankles. Leather or plastic flip flops and a fashionably matching turban. The Tuareg really know how to wrap a turban, too. With a big pair of sunglasses, all you can see of a Tuareg face is the tip of his nose. You'd be surprised how well one can learn to recognize a man by the shape of his nose and how he wraps his turban! The car which went honking and whizzing by held a driver from our trip a year earlier... and I recognized him in the driver's seat. Naturally, we were more than glad to reach our hotel, unpack our scads of luggage and rest. When asked if anyone wanted dinner, Fred just answered, "I just want to lay somewhere that I don't have to bend something."