Bicycling to Mauritania

Thursday, January 13

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 Hotel de la Poste is a rare example of well preserved 19th century French architecture in St. Louis.

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.

The elegant lines of Gustav Eiffel's bridge evoke his more famous tower in Paris.
The bridge is being replaced in sections, each faithful to Eiffel's design but employing moden materials.
Corroded and buckling, Eiffel's original iron bridge could not be expected to stand much longer.

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.

Beach at the Hotel Mermoz

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.

Loading ice in St. Louis

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.)

Unloading the morning catch in St Louis

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.

The Mauritanian border lies a kilometer or so across the sand dunes.

2 thoughts on “Bicycling to Mauritania

  1. Patricia Urie January 13, 2011 / 10:55 pm

    I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m afraid that I’ve forgotten most of the many questions I’ve wanted to ask along this trip. Do you know if any of the men, or women, who work by carrying heavy items on their heads – if they suffer from neck or back injuries after doing that for many years? It would seem so after doing such hard work for any length of time. I was just wondering. You don’t have to answer now – maybe if you remember when I see you.

  2. Natalie Fiocre January 16, 2011 / 1:02 am

    It sounds as a wonderful day, not feeling as a tourist however been part of the scenery.
    Bon voyage

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