Friday, January 14, 2011

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.

Sineta George's Senegal Style B&B occupies the first floor of this apartment building in the Dakkar suburb of Yoff.

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.”

The small 3rd bedroom in Sineta's apartment has no closet space because cabinets and shelves are crammed with Sineta's personal effects.

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.”

Sineta, her son, and guests in two of her three double rooms share this cold-water bathroom.

“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.

Kitchen in Sineta George's B&B

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.

Were it not for its dark history, the villiage in Goree Island would seem a pleasant place to live.

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.

Building where slaves were warehoused prior to sale and shipmen to European colonies and the US.
Jeannette & Bada, our guide, before the Goree Island monument

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