I am getting ahead of myself. The trip: I was hired by a non-profit that funds development work in Senegal (and other countries) to make videos about some of their projects. Since I traveled as part of a donor visit whose itinerary contained not only site visits but also lots of tourist stops, I got to enjoy plenty of off-the-clock sightseeing during the week we spent on the road. I also got to enjoy the company of the donors, who were a really fun and interesting group.
On the first morning I joined the group at their hotel in Plateau (downtown) and rode with them in our ten-seater van uptown to Almadies. En route, the tour guide pointed out a bunch of attractions and I realized that I had seen most of them already and had actually covered lots of ground during my modest little outings around the city. As we passed through Ouakam, we stopped to visit the highly bizarre African Renaissance Monument up close and personal. The little boy is supposed to be pointing to the future, but in my book, nothing says being stuck in the past like sculpting erect nipples onto a mostly-nude damsel-in-distress/mother-figure bringing up the rear (no pun intended). And nothing says oxymoron like hiring North Koreans to build your monument to African rebirth – and using up all your renaissance-funding money to pay for it.That said, it’s a fairly impressive statue, with an awesome view.Later that afternoon we sat down by the seashore in Almadies for the Senegalese national dish of thieboudienne (pronounced sort of like cheh-boo-djehn). It’s fish cooked with broken rice and spices and served with carrots, cabbage, turnips, eggplant, and manioc along with a pimento that will burn your mouth off if you eat it. Unless you’re very, very brave, you’re just supposed to swirl it around in the dish to add some heat.The next day we had a meeting at the American Embassy, which is literally 80 times the size of any of the other embassies in Dakar and which took a half hour to get into due to all the security measures. Apparently you can drink the water straight from the faucet in the Embassy but I didn’t try it. I did, however, use the American-style bathroom as often as humanly possible.
We then headed out of town to Saint Louis, where we stayed in the old French colonial quarter. It looked just like New Orleans and Havana Vieja, and I fell in love. The hotel where we stayed was historic and beautiful and had a peaceful waterfront restaurant that served only one (delicious) plat du jour each night. Highly recommended: Hotel Sindone.But before we got to Saint Louis we stopped at Lac Rose aka Lac Retba, which gets its hue from (harmless) bacteria. I was mildly disappointed that what I expected to be Pepto Bismol-colored water turned out to be a little on the orange side the day we visited. Whatever, it was still cool-looking. We then took a 4X4 ride around the lake and over crazy tall and steep sand dunes, stopping to visit a Fulani village where these adorable kids followed us around when they weren’t obsessively watching the driver add air to the tires. Then we drove along miles of unspoiled coastline.And then we got back in the van to return to Saint Louis.
Leaving Saint Louis the next morning, our guide pointed out the unofficial Mauritanian border in the distance. It’s the line of trees way off in the background between the boats. So close!We spent a couple of days touring project sites in the Saint Louis region before heading to Kaolack. On the way, we stopped in Touba to visit one of the biggest mosques in Africa.Even unfinished, it was gorgeous. The mosque and the founder of the Muslim brotherhood that built it both have interesting histories that you should Google. This Wikipedia article doesn’t cut it.I insisted on drinking cafe touba in Touba. (Though I was incredulous when the guide told me that cafe touba has absolutely no caffeine in it. No wonder it did absolutely nothing for me.)Here are some cuties at one of the project sites, which were mostly in very out-of-the-way rural areas. I’m really grateful that in visiting them, I got to see village life up close and personal, not to mention meet the people living there. I could never have done that as a tourist.On the last night of the trip we stayed at the beautiful Hotel Lamantin Beach in the resort town of Saly Nord.The next morning, I walked along the private beach, which was partially lovely and partially impossible to enjoy because of all the harassment from people trying to sell you stuff. (More on that some other time.) I was also a little uneasy at the thought that this place fit the mold for an African terror target to a T. Not one day later, a strikingly similar resort was attacked in Cote d’Ivoire. Suffice it to say, that had a chilling effect on my desire to return to a fancy hotel any time soon. Which of course is the goal of terrorism – to make you generally fearful. But now’s not the time to digress into the rash of (despicable, abhorrent, shameless, tragic) attacks across West Africa over the past few months…
Back to the hotel. I went bonkers when I noticed that the bar had an espresso machine that appeared to be the real deal, as in, hand-packed and hand-pulled espresso rather than little vacuum-sealed capsules. This was a first – and sadly, likely also a last. We returned to Dakar and took the ferry to Île de Gorée, where there is such a huge disconnect between the beauty of the island and the hideousness of its history.We walked from room to room in an old slave house……and stood in front of the “door of no return.” It was both sickening and heart-numbing. Trying to process or reflect upon inhumanity on that scale while navigating through a sea of tourists felt a bit surreal.
After getting back to mainland Dakar we ate a quick last meal before dropping the group off for their flight back to New York. I was caught off-guard by my growing sense of desperation as the hour of their departure neared. When we got to the airport, I had to stop myself from flinging myself at them and begging, “Take me with you!”
It was surprising, since not one day before I had literally pinched myself and smiled maniacally while thinking, “I’m in West Africa!” as we drove through a savannah speckled with humongous baobabs (and monkeys, and donkeys, and camels, and goats). I think it must have been the sense that after a week of living among the familiar and the fluent-in-my-language, I had to return to the ever-challenging and ever-frustrating grind of adapting to Senegal and speaking in French.
But in the end it’s a good thing they left and a good thing I stayed. While I literally couldn’t string two words of French together during the trip, I’m now back to having conversations in which it’s apparent that I did actually study this god-forsaken language for six years.
Onward! And onward with the unhappy knowledge that if I want to beat French I’m going to have to stop speaking English. 😦