5 things foreigners should know before going anywhere in Dakar

1. Even if by some small miracle you have an exact address for your destination, it will be useless.

Technically, most streets in Dakar have official names and most houses have official numbers. But if there are no street signs on the actual roads and no numbers on the actual houses, they’re not going to do you much good. When Google Maps can’t even tell you where a specific address is (which I’ve found to be the case 9 times out of 10), don’t expect a man on the street to be able to. Except for the very biggest thoroughfares, people don’t know or use the proper names of roads. The “ancienne piste,” for example, has a real name but I have no idea what it is.

Which brings me to…

2. You must know the landmarks near where you’re going, or you will get lost. (You’ll get lost anyway, but it will be less painful if you know what else exists near your destination.)

That’s why instead of giving taxi drivers my cross-streets, I ask them to take me to Bourguiba (my neighborhood’s main road) between Saveur d’Asie, a restaurant, and Casino, a supermarket.

A few months ago, I went to someone’s house for the first time. Instead of providing me with any sort of address, he instructed me:

From the VDN [highway], go past the Citydia in Liberté 6 ext, take a right at the pharmacy across from the mosque, and call me from the empty lot on the left.

Spy movie or just another day in Dakar? You decide. (Incidentally, there are many Citydias, many pharmacies, many mosques, and many empty lots in Dakar. Once in the general vicinity of his apartment, I became woefully turned around and had to call back several times to play guessing games: “Pass by the Citydia while on the VDN or on the access road?” “Is it a green mosque or a white mosque?” “Are you talking about the pharmacy in the middle of the street or at the end of the street?”…)

3. You can’t trust addresses you find on the Internet.

I once painstakingly made my way to a faraway side street on which Google Maps had promised me there was a bakery. It turned out to be a random residence. When I needed to visit the Liberian Embassy for a visa, Google searches turned up three different locations for it. None of them were correct. I would suggest that you always call a place before visiting, to confirm that it is in the location you think it is, but good luck with that! If you can manage to find a phone number online, it’s often incorrect, or no one picks up.

4. You’re going to take taxis a lot; know the rules.

– You must negotiate the price before getting in the car, or you’ll get ripped off. Whatever they quote you at the outset is usually 25%-50% more than you should pay. It’s a buyer’s market, and I’ve found that if I step away from a taxi after offering them a fair price that they initially turn down, they’ll call me back and wave me into the car, which basically means, “Alright, you win.”

– You must know exactly where you’re going and how to get there, because your taxi driver often won’t (and may pretend he does and then drive around in circles while calling his friends to ask them where to go). In my experience, showing a taxi driver a map and pointing to your destination doesn’t work, because most of them don’t know how to read maps. By this point I know much of Dakar well enough to direct drivers street by street, and they are neither surprised nor insulted when I tell them, “Tournez à gauche là... tout droit… C’est par ici…” Think of Dakar as the exact opposite of London, where taxi drivers have to pass “the knowledge,” and do your homework before you get in the cab.

– Many taxi drivers don’t speak French, but they’ll fake it ’til you make it into their car, and then you’ll spend the entire ride trying to communicate in French while they answer in Wolof. Not worth it. Politely turn down the ride and wait for another one. (If you speak Wolof, good for you! I speak six words of it, most of them borrowed from French.)

– Though Dakar’s taxis may look universally run-down, there is a difference between run-down but running, and run-down to the point of breaking down en route. I’ve learned this the hard way. If a taxi approaches that looks unfit to ride in, wave it on. There will be plenty of others behind it.

And finally, the most important thing to know before attempting to get any place in Dakar:

5. The Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

When I feel like bashing my head against a wall because of how unnecessarily maddening it is to get to where I’m going, I take a deep breathe and remind myself that Dakar is a journey, not a destination.