We all relied on tips to make our jobs as tour guides worthwhile. My then girlfriend called me disgusted to tell me about an American passenger that hadn’t coughed up in the usual way. Instead of the recommended $3/day this septuagenarian had given her some chocolate and a pair of nylon tights.
It seems the oldtimer had been to Italy once before, as a GI in the 1940s. In those days a Hershey bar, stick of gum, and a pair of stockings curried a lot of favour with Italian girls. Now in his 70s he’d had the forethought to pack some American treats with him when he’d left Iowa, presumably with the intention of rekindling those good times.
My ex didn’t know whether to be more annoyed over the $50 tip she’d lost out on, or the thought that this dirty old man had lecherous designs on her which he thought some cheap leggings would pay for.
Getting back into the truck as the ferry pulled into Tangier I noticed the Mercedes 609 with the German number plates parked next to me. A red faced ruddy man at the wheel. A Descendeur for sure.
“Where are you going with your truck?” I asked.
“Gambia.” He announced proudly, anticipating the usual flicker of amazement that people always give when you announce you are driving deep into Africa.
I declared my credentials. “You stay at Camping Sukuta?” It was the place where all the Germans stayed, despite the owner’s money grubbing best friend that pulled all manner of tricks to get you to sell him your car for a knock-down price. “Say hi to Wolfgang from me, just watch your wallet when he’s around.” His cheeks perked even redder.
In the time it took for the car deck doors to open we chatted about characters along the way, the route through Senegal, the contents of his van, and what a 609 is worth in Gambia these days. I didn’t understand much of what he said, my German is terrible, and he made no effort to simplify his replies.
He glowed with a confident expression I recognised from my time as a Descendeur (Literally “The taker-downers”, it’s French slang for someone who takes cars down to sell in West Africa) and as a tour guide, bordering on smugness, proud to be travelling and making money while he did it. Maybe it was just the glow of the cheap Lidl beers his boozy breath betrayed.
Five thousand Euros his truck would be worth he shrugged with false modesty. In the back, one and a half tonnes of batteries for plant equipment, along with the usual assortment of generators, pumps, spare parts and household electronics, which could be traded for fuel and repairs along the journey.
“And the Moroccan customs?” I asked, weary from my experience when three of us tried to bring in two lorries, four cars, a van, a couple of motorbikes, a Mercedes engine, six radiators, 2 tonnes of biodiesel, and 11 truck tires but got stuck here for a week narrowly avoiding having the lot impounded.
“Alle sind mein Freund” Everyone is my friend. He winked as he rubbed his fingers together feeling imaginary cash.
The mêlée of Customs formalities endures. Arm waving, paperwork, and waiting. While I tried to stand my ground in order of arrivals, I spotted a couple of cars with French plates and Senegalese drivers. In all my years (eight) as a Descendeur I only ever saw one African Descendeur. He was Senegalese too and explained that to combat the overt racism of the Moroccan police he wore a blue velvet jacket and polished shoes.
The ditsy South Carolina belle I was reluctantly guiding pointed him out to me as he spoke with a trio of Belgian men and asked disconcertedly, “Are those Belgians sharing their car with their butler?” It was just one of countless idiotic things she said that eventually prompted me to quit.
The last straw came when she insisted I ask the priest of the church we were in who a statue of a woman holding a baby depicted. She wasn’t convinced when I told her it was the Virgin Mary, and the understandably priest just stared back at me trying to figure out if I was an idiot or a heathen.
Sharing the dumb things clients said kept me and my ex sane. There was the time someone reminded her that Napoleon and Michelangelo were brothers. The difference between Bonaparte and Buonaroti, as well as the small matter of a few hundred years presumably not being so critical in the “olden days”. Another insisted that they had removed the lower third of the Eiffel tower since her previous visit to Paris. But my favourite was the regular request to point out kangaroos when we crossed into Austria.
The Senegalese guys in Tangier were both driving Peugeot 405s. In my days it was 504s. Times change. The Moroccans seemed pretty fair to them, and they were the first out of the gates. They had friends at the Senegalese border post of Diama, who would squirrel their cars in avoiding the fees that the German would have to pay.
My turn eventually came and the forms were filled out, rubber stamped, and after a cursory search I was shown the gate too.
Meanwhile the 609 had been pulled off to the side. While in the past you could rely on the laziness of the customs not to search too deeply in overloaded vehicles, they now unveiled a mobile X-ray truck. Those contraband batteries would show up like gleaming beacons. The Moroccans had come a long way since my Descendeur days and all that Gambian-bound hardware was about to be confiscated 3000km short of its destination.
I glimpsed the German as I pulled out offering up something from his truck to avoid being exposed by the X-rays. I couldn’t see for sure but it might have been a Hershey bar, or a pair of nylons.