Navigating Niger: Keeping your wits is essential in this impoverished country
Let’s face it: Niger is not exactly a tourist hot spot.
According to U.N. data, it is the second poorest country in the world. And part of the country is currently in the grip of a drought that threatens millions of its people with starvation.
While Agadez is not in one of Niger’s most-affected areas, a trip there is no day at the beach — even though there’s plenty of sun and sand. It’s more like a mission that requires strategy, tactics and a lot of patience.
But if you’re prepared and armed with the proper frame of mind, a visit to the ancient trading town on the edge of the Sahara can be a revelation.
What kind of revelation is for you to decide.
I spent only a day and a half there in June and am therefore no expert. The trip was a Morale, Welfare and Recreation-type excursion taken by 20 soldiers with the U.S. European Command who had just completed a training mission in Niger and had a few days to kill. So we loaded up the bus for a road trip.
Compared with the cots and the crappers we’d grown used to over the previous three weeks, Agadez was like a spa. We stayed at the Hotel de la Paix, which had air conditioning, beds and showers. The showers didn’t gush, but at least they were wet.
Next to a pool that hardly anyone used was a small bar that served cold drinks, which evoked an “Allelujah!” The hotel charged $50 per night, which seemed rather cheap in a city where tourists are preyed upon.
Recharged by a good night’s sleep, a few of us embarked on a walkabout “downtown.”
The smartest thing I did was pull aside one of the bellhops and asked if he spoke English. Alassan Abbo said he did, so I asked if he would show me around. Alassan’s English skills were minimal, but at least I had a local guy on my side. I’d read in “Lonely Planet” that he’d expect a small payment.
Since the hotel did not have a city map, we didn’t know where we were going, but Alassan did. Armed with a camera, drinking water and money, we strolled into town over narrow dirt streets lined by clay houses.
Agadez is a town that thrives on tourist’s money. So I had a pocketful of coins and small-denomination CFA (pronounced SEE-fa, the local currency).
Upon snapping my first few pictures, I quickly learned the meaning of the French word cadeau. Many of the children ask for a “gift” in exchange for a pose. The trick is to hold off giving money for as long as possible, then discreetly hand the child a coin as you walked away. Or you could just stiff the kid; it’s your choice.
Anyone who handed out money and lingered was likely to be set upon by a horde of cadeau-seekers. So you keep moving; it’s part of the tactics mentioned earlier.
If you wanted to buy souvenirs, there was no shortage. Agadez is steeped in the art of buying and selling. Over the centuries, it was traders on camels who brought their wares through the desert for sale at Agadez’ markets, or who bought the supplies they needed to continue their journeys.
While the desert traders still trade at Agadez, many of the locals have turned their focus to tourists. Rings, necklaces, bracelets, fabrics, sandals, prayer rugs, swords — they are all laid out for the souvenir seeker.
If you stop to look, you attract a crowd of persistent salesmen. They’ll try to give you things to hold, to feel, to try on. To put it another way, they try to suck you in. If successful, they won’t let you go until you buy something. At least, that’s their plan.
And then, let the haggling begin. A typical exchange would go something like this:
Tourist: “How much for this?”
Merchant: “50,000 [CFA, about $100].”
Tourist (shakes head): “No, sorry.”
Merchant: “OK, how much you pay?”
Merchant (with look of disgust): “5,000?!?! Cannot.”
So you start to walk away, and it’s:
Merchant: “Wait, wait, wait. Your best price, please?”
Merchant: “No, no, no. OK, OK, 48,000.”
And on and on. Meanwhile, other merchants from nearby shops try to horn in on the action, beckoning you to look at their wares. And your merchant goes, “OK, 47,000, best price,” as the others begin waving their products in your face.
Best advice: Take your time, find something you really like, decide on a price you’d be willing to pay, bid way low and stick to your guns. The merchants will eventually come down. Don’t be afraid to walk away.
It’s not passive shopping like a day at the mall. Dealing in Agadez, as in many Third World markets, takes a lot of patience and work. You can get most items for about 20 percent to 30 percent of the original “asking” price.
Once you’ve established yourself as a buyer, you can expect to be followed like the Pied Piper by other hawkers or just plain hangers-on looking for cadeaux. You must be strong enough to extricate yourself. The good news is that no one actually touches you, and once you walk away it’s as if you’re parting the sea.
This is where someone like Alassan comes in very handy. He ran interference for us, separated the reputable merchants from the hustlers, and told the hustlers to buzz off in their native tongue.
Alassan also got us into the grand mosque and the 19th-century home of German explorer Heinrich Barth. He explained the cadeau expected at each stop, usually $2 to $10.
Haggling can work up an appetite, and there are a number of decent restaurants in town. Sitting under the stars while dining in an exotic outdoor setting can be a great pleasure. Prices are reasonable, $6 to $15 for a good meal. Sometimes you aren’t sure what you’re eating, but that’s part of the adventure.
Overall, the people were very friendly and we felt safe.
Of course, even a nice guy like Alassan is not above working the tourist for all he’s worth. I gave him about $20 and bought him some cold drinks. He got some money from my traveling partner as well. Seemed reasonable.
A few hours before we left for the bus ride back to Tahoua, Alassan asked if I would, upon returning to Germany, mail him $400 so he could buy materials for a new roof for his home. Can’t blame a guy for trying.
Memo to Alassan: The check’s in the mail.
Know & Go ...
Since we were in Agadez, Niger, for just a day and a half, we didn’t get to visit many of the sights, such as the night market and the Taureg market outside of town. We didn’t have time to take one-week or two-week trips into the Sahara on camel or by four- wheel drive, tours available through several travel agencies in Agadez.
But there’s always next time.
Speaking of next time, as best as I can tell, commercial flights do not fly into the airport at Agadez. RTT Destinations Unlimited at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, could not find any. That was consistent with what I read on the Internet. Commercial flights fly from Frankfurt through Paris to the Nigerien capital of Niamey, where it’s about a 12-hour trip by rental car or bus to Agadez.
However, there are charter packages, for example, scheduled for March 2006 for a total-eclipse- of-the-sun event.
Be sure to check with travel agents and elsewhere for visa and immunization requirements. Inoculation for yellow fever, for example, is required to enter Niger.
— Charlie Coon