The Legend of Cheap John
It was early 1972 and I had just spent three grueling weeks crossing the western Sahara Desert on the back of local trucks on the way to Senegal’s Capital, Dakar. I enjoyed three wonderful weeks there with delicious food, lovely beaches and friendly locals. There were only a handful of fellow hitchhikers in Dakar, all of whom were very short of money, but none were quite like Cheap John as I quickly learned.
One pleasant day John and I walked to the Upper Volta consulate to get visas from that country, now called Burkina Faso. We also got visas to Mali. Things were going well. I handed my passport to the official in charge and when he saw that I was an American citizen he beamed with delight. He told me that the US government had spent a great deal of money on aid and added that visas were free for Americans. That was great. Then John handed over his Canadian passport and learned that he had to pay ten U.S. dollars to get a visa. I thought he was going to faint. He pleaded with the official and got boisterous, but they refused to budge. John cursed under his breath, paid the money, and stormed out of the office.
I didn’t see John for a few days and decided to try and hitchhike on my own from Dakar to Bamako, the capital of Mali. After two long days I arrived in Tambacounda, still only half way there. With very few cars and wretched roads the only alternative was to shell out and take the train the rest of the way to Bamako.
That train had a nasty reputation and I soon discovered why many travelers called it the Hell Train. I bought my ticket and discovered that it was far worse than I could have imagined. The word ‘crowded’ was totally inadequate. Every seat was taken and hundreds of passengers lay on the dirty floor. Worst of all every space in the filthy washrooms was taken. The train stopped and many of us jumped off to have a quick pee. When I climbed back on the train I bumped into Cheap John. It was nice to see someone I knew and we found a few spaces on the dirty floor.
The train arrived in Bamako hours later but there were no obvious places to stay. Unfortunately I no longer had my excellent tent because I let a fellow traveller share it on the beach in Dakar and the fool was reading a book by candlelight, knocked it over, destroying the tent and more than half of my clothes. He reluctantly gave me some money after I demanded some but it was only a fraction of what he really owed.
That night John and I found some huge pipes, climbed in and slept through the night. The next day a very nice local man invited us to stay at his house for a few days, which was very kind of him. We walked around Bamako for a while.
A few days later John and I thumbed our way west towards Upper Volta and got a short ride from two friendly locals. Everything was going well until John pleaded with the driver to give him some money. I was aghast. Here were these very nice guys giving us a ride and John shamefully cadged money from them. Talk about embarrassing. I didn’t have a lot of money but I would never beg for it. Now I fully realized that Cheapskate John had no shame and I was embarrassed to be his friend. As I hitchhiked and mixed with other travelers I realized few had a good word for John.
The next day we got an early ride that took us to the border of Burkina Faso. We walked up the dirt road and waited for another ride. John loaned me a book of short stories from John Updike and we both read and waited for six hours. Finally we saw a cloud of dust in the distance and realized this was our first and only chance to get a ride. Unfortunately the car shot right past us. We decided to walk and eventually arrived at a village where we were welcomed.
The locals woke us up at 6 a.m. and told us there was a small bus going our way immediately. It was the most crowded ride I have ever experienced. Yes, even worse than the Hell Train. Everybody was sitting on top of everyone else. It was crazy. Everybody was laughing and many of the women were breast feeding their children. I still laugh when I think of that crazy ride.
A little later John and I finally got a ride from two men who turned out to be employees of the United Nations. We all had a good conversation about the UN in Africa. After about an hour I suddenly realized that the vehicle had no windshield. I pointed that out to John and we asked the UN employees what happened to the windshield. They explained that while they were driving through Mali on a dirt road a small boy ran in front of the vehicle, was hit by it, went through the windshield and died. They told us that they left as fast as they could because the villagers would have killed them if they waited. I have heard similar tragic stories.
They dropped us off an hour later in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second biggest city. John and I found a music store and got the staff to play the latest Beatles albums. The next day we got a ride to Ouagadougou, the capital city. The day after, John and I decided to split up. Somehow he managed to have more money than he did at the start. He wanted to go straight to Ghana and I wanted to spend more days in Ouagadougou. The following day I bought some spicy pastry and nearly turned purple as the locals laughed as I gagged. Someone brought me a glass of water.
I headed on to Accra, the capital of Ghana but never saw Cheap John again. I heard many stories about him along the trail, mostly negative. I assume he went back to Toronto and I have always wondered what became of him. As for me, I passed through Togo and Dahomey on the way east to Nigeria where I fell sick with a mild case of infectious hepatitis and had to fly home.
I made five more trips to Africa and thanks to my job as a reporter I had enough money to travel well. In 1998 my wife and our three children backpacked through east and central Africa and we all roughed it and loved it.