In 1990, Steve lost his wallet one night when we were hanging out under the Eiffel Tower. I was sure pickpockets had gotten it. Perhaps because of this experience, he noticed and throttled the young gypsy who grabbed his wallet in Rome in 1997, forcing the kid to give it up. In West Africa, we expected pickpockets to be operating in the busy, crowded, urban settings; we listened avidly to Laura’s accounts of notorious ploys practiced in Dakar. Nothing happened there, but two wily rascals robbed 70 euros from Steve in Madrid (where we spent a day and a night on our way home). Here’s how they did it.
Our guards were down. Although fog had been predicted, when we landed around 7 a.m., the sky was clear, and by mid-day, the temperature had climbed into the high 50s. We took a short nap but then went out, to stroll around the center of the city. The streets looked so clean, the buildings so grand, I felt like I was on a movie set, one crammed with thousands of people reveling in the unexpected warmth and sunshine. Most of them seemed to be eating gorgeous food and drinking large quantities of wine or beer — even though it was early afternoon.
So we were ebullient when the two young women approached us under one of the arcades adjoining the Plaza Mayor. One handed me a red carnation, and when I tried to refuse it, she laughed and insisted. In Spanish, she asked if I had any foreign coins — they didn’t want Spanish money, she said. Both girls (maybe in their early 20s) were playful, high-spirited. I got the impression they were working for some civic event, and indeed they told us to return at 3 p.m., when there would be dancing. Since I was certain I had no coins of any sort, I asked Steve if he had any. One of the girls helped him poke through the change pocket in his wallet. Again she rejected any of the euro coins he had, urging us to return with a few foreign coins “for our collection.”
Steve later told me he’d suspected they might be pickpockets. He’d been prepared for them to try to run away with the wallet. But when they bade us goodbye, and he still retained it, he put it away, relieved.
It wasn’t until hours later, when he went to pay for something that he realized both the 50- and 20-euro notes he’d had were gone. (They’d left the two 10s.) This means the girl was so adept she managed to extract the two bigger bills under our gaze — not unlike a card sharp confounding the shills with his sleight of hand!
We feel chagrined, of course. But we console ourselves that if that’s the worst thing that happened on this trip (as it appears), we got off cheaply.
West Africa isn’t an easy place to travel. I’ve written a lot about the transportation challenges. The poverty and garbage and squalor are ugly; too depressing for most Americans to stomach, I imagine. Steve and I also got tired of constantly feeling grubby. When we reached our hotel in Madrid Saturday, anyone walking by our room right after we checked in probably mistook the moans and groans issuing from within, but in fact it was the sound of our pleasure at getting thoroughly clean and being able to expect that condition to last for more than an hour or two.
Still, I have to rank this trip among my best travel experiences. Hiking through the mangroves in the Saloum Delta, watching the misty form of the Bijagos islands take shape as we sped away from the coast of Guinea Bissau, bird-watching from that dugout in the croc-infested river in the Gambia, eating grilled oysters and later gazing at the incredible night sky from the beach on New Year’s Eve. These are intense, unforgettable memories, and we had others — more than I had time to write about.
We never got sick (unlike I did in Paris, where, incredibly, I lost weight.) The only time I ever felt unsafe was when we were on the road. The vast majority of people where we traveled are god-fearing Muslims, and with one or two exceptions (e.g. certain areas in Dakar at night), we heard no reports or warnings about personal crime. We gave up wearing the money belts we had packed, and I grew so lax I even walked off one night in Kolda leaving my purse at the table where I’d been working on my computer. I was halfway to our cottage when one of the waitresses came running after me with it.
The daily civility of the average West African also charmed us. In Senegal, common courtesy dictates that one greet people not only with a “Bonjour!” or “Salaam aleikhum,” but also to follow that with a “ca va?” (how’s it going?). “Fine,” you’re supposed to reply (in French). How’s it going for you? Often we were asked if we had slept well. If these are mere pleasantries, they do make daily life more pleasant.
Despite their difficult lives, despite their lack of many things that Americans couldn’t conceive of doing without, so many people we met exuded warmth and joie de vivre. Many expressed pride in their countries. When they asked us what WE thought, and we told them the truth, the invariable reaction was delight. It was mutual.
Sunday, January 16
After we left the Gambia, I started to write a short post about some of the roadside signs that caught my eye there. Among those that made me laugh were:
Bourimbye Gym: Build muscles and loose fat!
Santa Yallah Spear Parts Shop
Vita Lait — The Muscle Milk for Kids
HIV & AIDS — I Know My Status. Do you?
But when Steve read what I’d written, he pointed out that it sounded like I was making fun of the Gambians; that my implication was they were uneducated or, worse, stupid. In fact, the truth about language and the way people use it in West Africa is way more complicated.
The official languages of West African countries are those of their former colonial masters: French in Senegal, English in The Gambia, Portuguese in Guinea Bissau, and so on. But most children are first exposed to a tribal tongue such as Wolof, Pulaar, Jola, Sereer, Mandinka, or some other. These are not just dialects of each other but separate languages as different from each other as Danish is from Mandarin. It’s common for ordinary West African who never got much formal education to speak two or three or more. (I think Laura ticked off seven or eight in which her host mother can communicate effectively.)
This astounded me, and when I asked Laura how it was possible, she offered an interesting explanation. The native cultures of West Africa are primarily aural ones. This tradition predates colonial times; the griots were (and I think to some extent still are) bards who not only entertained but also communicated history and other important information by means of their stories. “For us [Westerners], if we need to remember something important, we write it down. But that’s not the way it is here. If something is important, it’s told over and over.” I speculated that this aural orientation probably resulted in the average person’s having a far more advanced ability (than ours) to learn other languages simply by hearing them.
Laura said the linguistic stew also means that people are more tolerant about mistakes in grammar and vocabulary, and time and again we could see that. The important thing is to get your message across, somehow. If your sign says “Spear Parts,” everyone will know you mean spare ones, and no one would think of snickering.
Although we’ve left Senegal (I’m writing this on the plane home), I feel remiss in not writing before about the Senegalese ladies’ attire. It consists of long flowing robes (which I believe can be assembled from various components) and a often matching head piece that can sometimes be a simple scarf but more commonly is a cloth tied up so that it looks more like a stylish hat — a nod to fashion rather than modesty. Most striking are the wonderfully colored and patterned fabrics. Often the women themselves are lovely, with high cheekbones and the elegant bearing of models (or people who’ve learned to carry all manner of items on their heads.) But even ordinary-looking women impressed us with their costumes. Men too have traditional outfits — long robes and the little hats whose shape I’m tempted to describe as pillbox. But only a small percentage of the men wear these, whereas it often seemed to us that 90 percent or more of the women dressed traditionally.
Our young friend Laura’s take on this difference between the sexes was nuanced. She felt the Senegalese women, like most human females, enjoyed looking good. But Laura had grown somewhat critical of the slavish devotion to using identical fabrics for one’s gown and headgear. The ladies virtually never tried anything more creative, she complained.
She also pointed out that wearing Western garb — even drab, prosaic clothes such as those worn by most men — was seen as a sign of sophistication. But in a male-dominant society such as Senegal, the men were most apt to have access to that. Laura suggested that many women dressed as they did because it was their only option.
How ironic, we thought. In their outfits, the ladies looked to us like tropical birds. In the dreary, desperate looking country villages or the post-apocalyptic urban settings, they added splashes of color and theater that we, at least, applauded. It’s a challenge to take good photos of people in West Africa, but Steve became obsessed with trying to capture good photos of the ladies, such as the following:
Okay, I’ll admit it. I booked a room at Sineta George’s SenegalStyle B&B (months ago) because I was nervous about arriving for the first time in Dakar with Steve to travel in West Africa on our own. Dakar has a reputation for being a rough, hyped-up city — a mecca for music but also a place where one might be mugged, or at least targeted by pickpockets. In the course of doing online research for this trip, I became aware that there was an American, a native Floridian, who had immigrated to Senegal 11 years ago and was operating a B&B and tour company. Her posts and comments on various forums charmed and intrigued me. By turns she sounded enthusiastic, jaunty, breezy, opinionated, funny. She charged about $60 a night for a room plus breakfast and dinner, and her descriptions of her cooking made me confident I’d enjoying dining there. I figured she could clue us in about life here.
So I reserved a room for our first two nights, along with airport pickup. I’ve earlier described how the power in her neighborhood was out when we arrived, and how she pressured us into signing up for an overpriced “safari” on the morning after our arrival. But our room that first night was clean, the bed was comfortable, and even though there was no power, hot water, or towels, and things seemed a bit chaotic, I still probably wouldn’t have felt that staying at Sineta’s was the biggest mistake of our trip — if it hadn’t been for what happened on our return.
I have to explain here that the reason I’d ALSO paid in advance for two and a half final nights at Sineta’s was she’d told me months ago we could leave our suitcases filled with winter (Paris) clothes at her place, while we traveled around tropical Senegal. So even though we’d begun to develop doubts about her, we had to go back to get our stuff. I e-mailed her from St. Louis, telling her we’d arranged our own transit back from there to Dakar, and she wrote back urging me to send her an SMS when we departed St. Louis and again when we were approaching Dakar “so I’m sure to be home!”
I did all that, but as we approached her neighborhood, we got a text from her, informing us that she was out giving a tour and wouldn’t be home until at least 5 or 6. I called her. What exactly did she suggest we do (with our SIX assorted bags, big and small)? Stand out out under the hot sun in the dirt street in front of her building? She offered no suggestions, but only complained that I wasn’t getting it — she was busy giving a tour! When I asked if she didn’t have a neighbor who could let us in, she lectured me, “Jeannette, you KNOW it’s a B&B!”
What we finally did, when we arrived, was to ask Sineta’s kindly Senegalese (French-speaking) next-door neighbor if we could put our bags in her apartment. (Why Sineta has failed to establish a relationship with this woman was mystifying, unless it’s because Sineta speaks little French or Wolof.) Steve and I headed to the nearby minimart to get a Coke and juice. We waited.
Perhaps prodded by my irritation, Sineta arrived back around 4:30. But once we’d collected our bags from the neighbor, she ushered us into a different bedroom from the one we’d occupied on our first night. The new one was tiny, and almost entirely filled by a double bed, a single bed, a bookshelf overflowing with the sort of junk that occupies some of my bathroom drawers, and an ironing board and iron. No private bathroom. No clean sheets. “But that’s no big deal,” she declared. “I’ll get to that.”
She said dinner would be at 8 or 8:30. Steve asked if we could pick up a bottle of wine at the nearby package store and drink it with our dinner. “That’s fine,” she said. “As long as you don’t drink it in front of Jon,” (her 17-year-old son). “But he’ll be at dinner with us, right?” Steve persisted. “Yeah,” she said. “But I don’t want him exposed to drinking or smoking. We’re Muslims.”
“So I guess that means you don’t want us to have wine at dinner,” Steve said.
“Well, yeah,” she agreed.
Feeling that now we REALLY needed that wine, we set off on a dining adventure that involved a taxi driver who claimed to know the whereabouts of Chez Loutcha (a Cape Verdean joint recommended both by our friends and guidebook.) He drove for 20 minutes, deposited us in front of place called Pizza Katrina, and insisted this was the place. Suspicion from us! Dumb protests from him! Jumping out of the taxi with angry declarations he would get not one CFA from us for this outrageous deception!!! We quickly found a second guy who eventually got us to what turned out to be a good meal. When we returned to Sineta’s, she and Jon and her three other guests were only then (10:30 p.m.) forlornly tucking into their chicken in her living room. (She also sleeps there.)
This morning, we awoke early, which was fortunate as Jon knocked on our door at 7:30 to retrieve the iron, which he needed to press his shirt for school. His mother wouldn’t wake till 9, he informed us, so we dug out a pan on our own in her tiny, cluttered, grimy kitchen and made two cups of our instant Starbucks.
When Sineta finally emerged as we headed out the door to search for breakfast, she looked a bit miffed. “Oh. You’re going out for breakfast? I could have slept in.”
Things got even worse. We fought with her over what she owed us and we her. She lectured us about how great Senegal is: no drugs or gangs to corrupt her kids (she moved her with three, but the elder two have since left). Every school in Senegal has an International Baccalaureate program, she insisted. I believe this about as much as I believe her claim that the city’s electric power almost never goes out. Or that no one is starving here. (I didn’t ask her why so many beggars had approached us over the three weeks of our visit, pleading for money to eat.)
All this somewhat tainted my mood Friday morning when Steve and I and a Senegalese guide named Bada set off for Goree Island, the World Heritage Site located a brief ferry ride off the coast from Dakar. Like St. Louis, Goree is filled with colonial structures. Some date back to the 1500s. A good percentage are in fair to good shape, and the cloudless skies and cool breeze made it a perfect day for us to stroll among them. Time and again the light-saturated colors of the buildings and the bougainvillea and sea and sky made me take out my camera and try to capture their beauty. What Goree is most famous for, however, is that this was one of the more important holding places for the people who over the course of centuries were captured and chained and dragged, terrified, from their homes and families in the bush. They were forced into tiny cells in a building that today is painted vermillion. Admission to this Museum of Slavery costs about a dollar per person.
To our chagrin, just as we arrived, it closed for lunch, and there was no sign of it reopening two and a half hours later, when we were preparing to catch the return ferry. We never got to see the “Door of No Return” that the captured Africans walked through just before boarding the slave ships. However, we were able to peer through the long slitted windows at the tiny spaces into which suffering hordes were packed. Bada pointed out that the slave traders lived on the floor above the cells, so they must have lived with the daily sounds of men, women, children weeping, screaming, groaning, dying. The three of us stood there, reflecting on cruelty of this magnitude, and with the ghosts of the slaves hovering around us, I have to admit our travails with Sineta seemed trivial indeed.
The worst thing about traveling in West Africa, as we’ve experienced it, is the difficulty of getting around. Although train service once existed between Dakar and St. Louis and Dakar and Bamako (the capital of Mali), it no longer operates. We’ve seen only a few big American-style buses (we just passed them on the road to Dakar, from where I’m writing this), but they stop at every village. I’ve described the drawbacks of the sept-place bush taxis — and we never tried the even cheaper and more impoverished minibuses.
But now I’ve finally figured out how the sensible Toubab travels: you hire a private car. We asked at our hotel in St. Louis about this and thus secured a ride in a clean, well-maintained vehicle (not a single crack in any of the windows! Perfect seat belts!) This is costing us $100, versus the $35 it would have cost to ride in a bush taxi with (at least) 5 other passengers, plus the regular taxis to and from the gare routiere. It looks like we’ll make this trip in just 4 hours, enjoying a MUCH higher level of comfort.
The problem with the private cars is negotiating a good price. The owner of our B&B in Dakar wanted to charge us $200 for this very same trip. I know it’s possible to hire a clean, air-conditioned vehicle to drive you all around Senegal for 11 days for about $600. Laura and her dad did that. But Laura arranged it, and she’s a bargaining genius. When S and I asked the very same driver how much he would charge to pick us up at the Gambian border and drive us to St. Louis (a one-day gig) he demanded $300 — and wouldn’t consider any counter offers.
As pleasant as this current transport is, I also don’t regret any of our sept-place trips; constant comfort has never been our top priority in traveling. When we want to be really comfortable and surrounded by familiar things, we go home.
The city of St. Louis (pronounced San Loo-wee, of course) is a World Heritage Site that fills a narrow island in the mouth of the Senegal River. This was the first place Europeans established a settlement in West Africa, and for many years it served as the capital of both the Senegal and Mauritania colomies. Many of the old French colonial buildings survive, and a handful of them have been well-maintained — enough to make it easy to imagine how splendid this place could be (if most of the buildings weren’t peeling or crumbling or shattered.)
The architectural heritage includes a rotating bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel that spans the broader, eastern part of the river between the island and the mainland. (We’ve learned that it first served on the Danube but was relocated here at some point.) Today half the original structure is buckled and rusting, but amazingly, it’s being replaced, section by section, with new steel segments.
Steve and I enjoyed walking over it and through the town, which reminded us of a miniature and Africanized Manhattan: the cool buildings, a couple of art galleries. There are even some tourists — almost all French. I think the only Americans who come here are Peace Corps workers or their parents. We were amused when one tall shop owner approached us in the street and asked if we were French, then Belgian? English? German? Swedish? Swiss? He finally gave up, and when we confessed our true nationality, he smiled hugely and showed us the image of Barack Obama on his backpack.
We’ve also loved our hotel here, the Mermoz (named after the French Charles Lindbergh, who in 1930 flew from a spot just down the street to Brazil.) The hotel isn’t located on the island, but rather on the long, narrow peninsula that separates the river from the Atlantic Ocean. After an initial night in one of the dark, noisy $50 “standard” rooms near the restaurant and reception area, we upgraded to a huge lovely room that cost around $100 but had a private patio facing a beach at least twice as wide as the one in front of the Hotel Del.
The hotel is a longish taxi ride or a 50-minute walk from the island/city. We walked it twice, and I think what we saw along the way will stick with us even more than the conventional sights here. We’ll remember the beachside cemeteries that stretch on and on, for maybe a quarter of a mile. Before them we passed the large, modern-looking Ndor ice plant where we watched young men carrying out large trays of ice on their heads, and transferring the trays into trucks.
Yesterday morning, we saw the trucks in action. About 10:30, we came to the first of the wooden fishing boats pulled up close to the river’s edge. Every boat, new or old, is painted with bright colors and complex designs (a cheery counterpoint to the tough dangerous life these men who fish with nets must lead.) Strong young men were wading out to the boats and filling large bins with fish, then carrying the bins (again on their heads) to trucks parked nearby. They would dump one bin of fish into two empty bins, which were then filled with ice, later to be trucked to inland places like Kolda (so people like Laura’s host mother could serve us delicious fresh fish with our rice.)
It was a crazy, bustling, fantastic scene: at least 100 boats and what looked like thousands of people — most of them purposeful, dealing with the catch of the day or selling items ranging from beignets to SIM cards to those who did. Some folks waited to spring into action, like the ladies in their amazing Senegalese gowns and headgear. Some of them would later carry buckets of the fish to markets or restaurants around town; others would dry or smoke fish on the riverfront. We threaded our way among them, and while a child here or there commented on our status (“Toubabs!”), for the most no one seemed to even notice our presence. I felt a bit like a time traveler wearing an invisibility cloak.
Finally, we made our way onto the island, where we rented bicycles for a couple of hours. We spent some time exploring the streets (not many) that we hadn’t already seen on foot. But I was most intrigued by the notion of biking to the old Mauritanian border.
The desert country of Mauritania lies just on the other side of the river, and I’d read that an old frontier post, no longer functional, could be found a few kilometers to the north on the peninsula where our hotel was located. So we headed there. For a while we rode on pavement, but then the road gave way to dirt and then sand.
Eventually, the buildings stopped and the sand was so deep we could no longer ride. We pushed our bikes through it for a while, but then decided if we want to get to Mauritania, we’ll have to find some other path.