Pretty ladies

Sunday, January 16

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:


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

Toubab Transit

Thursday, January 13

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.

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.

Ragged roads

Tuesday, January 14
I’ve been sleeping soundly everywhere on this trip, but Sunday night I barely got 4 hours. During dinner, Heather, the English owner of our lodge, got to talking about the ferry across the Gambia (the only way to cross this huge river that divides the country in two). She recalled how one of the last times she’d taken it, someone had loaded a truckful of cattle on board, and they’d broken loose.  “It’s was awful. They panicked, and they were scratching the sides of all the cars with their horns. And one poor creature fell overboard. Don’t know what happened to it.”

I could only imagine how the passengers, many of whom share the same space with the cars and trucks, had reacted. But worse things have been known to occur, Heather continued, mentioning that at least one ferry had sunk since she moved to the Gambia in 2006. Most of the passengers had died (few Africans know how to swim). “The bodies were never recovered, but the awful thing was that later, hundreds of flip-flops washed up, not far from here.” At first she had found that weird, but then she’d realized they must have come from the drowning victims.

Afternoon crossings on the Gambia river ferry are more crowded and more colorful than early morning trips.

So I tossed and turned, thinking not only of our morning ferry ride but also of what we faced after it. As it turned out, the river crossing was great. Moses delivered us to the dock by 8 a.m., we bought tickets (30 cents apiece) from a delighted-looking man who asked me how we were enjoying our stay in the Gambia, we got a lovely spot at the rail of the upper deck (where the only farm animal I spotted on the main deck below was one woeful rooster), and the ferry turned out to be the fast one, making the passage in just 30 minutes. (The one we’d taken while traveling south was missing an engine and kept turning in circles. That trip took an hour.) Steve even had the fortune to stand next to a self-described Gambian “shoe doctor” who for $6 glued and stitched the soles of Steve’s failing Tevas before we reached the northern shore. (Only liberal applications of duck tape had been holding them together.)

Cobbler on the Gambia river ferry offered a 10-year warranty on repairs.

With little ado, we found a taxi to take us to the border and there got our passports stamped by inspectors from both governments. From the border we found a bush taxi heading for Thies, more than halfway to our ultimate destination (St. Louis). As during our first dewy-eyed ride in a sept-place (almost two weeks ago), we had to cram into the stuffy, filthy, shredded back seat along with a young woman passenger. But this ride took more than four hours (instead of two), and by the time we climbed out, we felt thoroughly sick of sept-place travel.

Still, I didn’t feel frightened during that ride, even though at times the road became so badly potholed, the drivers abandoned it altogether for the dirt shoulders or dirt tracks that paralleled the ruined road. In contrast, we felt like we were facing imminent death on the final segment of our journey (from Thies to St. Louis.)

The fixer who’d helped us buy our seats (all three middle ones, a much more comfortable ride) had assured me that our driver was exceptionally good.  Middle-aged, he wore flowing Senegalese robes and a traditional cap. I noted with approval that he seemed to inspect our vehicle before we took off. 

The road was excellent, if not terribly wide. Maybe that’s why he preferred driving down the center of it. The problem was it was one of the busiest routes we’ve traveled on yet. When we would approach the oncoming traffic, he would edge into our own lane clearing the vehicle ahead of us by a few feet. Time after time, I stifled screams. The most terrifying instant came with a huge bird (probably a vulture) swooped down and hit our windshield (fracturing it even more than it was to begin with). With traffic coming the other way, our driver swerved away from it and somehow retained control of the vehicle. I’ve had other scary rides in my travels (certain taxi drivers in Cairo and Shanghai come to mind). But they were relatively brief. This one lasted more than three hours. 

The broad, tree-lined main Boulevard of Thies as seen from the middle seat of a sept-place.

By the time we pulled into the St. Louis taxi park, more than 12 hours after leaving Heather and Moses’ elegant haven, both Steve and I were rigid with tension. But we reached our hotel just before dark, and our spacious room here opens onto a patio facing a huge, empty, glorious white beach. Last night we slept like the dead, today we’re taking it easy (writing and posting photos!). We’ll leave it till tomorrow to fully explore St. Louis.

In praise of insider tours

Saturday, January 8

The Hotel Hobbe wound up costing about $51 a night, but the delicious three-course dinners we enjoyed there (including substantial amounts of alcohol) came in at about $20 per person. So no grumbling from me. According to Laura, the Hobbe is the best hotel in Kolda, and although Kolda doesn’t even rate a mention in the Rough Guide, Steve and I wouldn’t have missed it.

Hobbe hotel pool

Having Laura as our insider guide made all the difference.  The Hobbe’s just a few blocks off the main drag, and yesterday morning, she met us there and led us on foot to the commercial action. Unlike the Kaolack market (much of which is covered and dark), Kolda’s vendors line both sides of block after block of the paved central street. Hawkers of flip-flops, sunglasses, oranges and bananas and lettuce, hair straightening concoctions, bike parts, colanders, cola nuts, peanuts, baobab and palm oil seeds, SIM cards, and more make up a jolly jumble, Laura helped me buy several pieces of the gorgeous Senegalese fabric and then led me to a tailor who promised to transform them into aprons by the end of the afternoon.

Fabric shop in Kolda
At the tailors in Kolda

Then we visited the used-clothing market. It IS covered, and dark, and filled with stuff that’s been donated by Americans to organizations like the Salvation Army, packed into huge shrink-wrapped bundles, loaded onto container ships, sailed to Africa, trucked here and carefully hung up or folded and laid out on tables. One t-shirt caught my eye. In good condition, it bore an image that I thought a friend back home might appreciate. Try though she did to procure it for me for 500 CFA (about $1), Laura couldn’t get the seller to budge from his final price (700). So I paid that and will transport the shirt once again across the ocean to San Diego (where my friend may send it jetting back again!)

Kolda street market

We bought liters of water for $1 at the Mauritanian grocery store and popped into the local liquor wholesaler (who will sell you a single Gazelle or cases of it, the Muslim majority here notwithstanding.) We stopped at Kolda’s little post office where Laura picked up her most recent issues of the New Yorker (only a few weeks late) and joked in her fluent Pulaar with the kindly postmaster. We strolled past the town brothel, and then wandered past the town woodworkers and their creations (mostly bed stands and dressers made of a gleaming golden wood).

Kolda craftsmen carve wooden bed frames from African hardwoods.

Not far beyond them, blacksmiths hammered metal creations using skills that average Americans haven’t used for 150 years. I was mesmerized by the enclave where sweating men were pounding discarded 50-gallon drums into flat pieces of steel, then shaping those into storage chests. Initially ugly, these were painted bright colors. We watched one stolid fellow dip a wood block covered with raised bumps into a can of white paint, then press that in patterns over a chest that had been painted bright blue. Later, he added yellow sections to the pattern. When he was finished, the chest looked as pretty as something you’d find at IKEA.

Kolda metal worker paints a storage chest.

In the afternoon, we visited the well-swept compound where Laura boards with a local Senegalese family. She showed us the family’s large vegetable garden, the well that’s the sole source of their water, and her private sleeping and bathing quarters. Around 2:30, while other family members and neighbors ate in other small clusters, Laura, her host mother, Steve, and I shared a huge dish of broken rice cooked with grilled fish, fish balls, eggplant, peppers, and other vegetables. The three of us white folk ate with spoons, but our hostess manipulated her food in the traditional manner — squeezing the rice into bite-sized pieces with her right hand. It seemed to me, though, that she spent most of her time not eating but rather breaking off pieces of fish and other tasty morsels and distributing them to our various quadrants of the platter. Laura says Senegalese mothers typically do this to ensure that their children get equal shares.

Kolda Ladies Group prepares vegetables for dinner in the shade of a tree in the family compound.

In the late afternoon, we visited some gardens overseen by local Peace Corps volunteers, then we walked back to dinner at the Hobbe through the soft twilight. It felt like rush hour, with us swept along with the streams of ladies bearing bundles on their heads, boys zooming by on crazily laden bikes, ancient battered taxis threatening the meandering livestock (and occasionally pedestrians) and transforming the dirt street into minor dust storms.

Peace Corpts volunteers organized this demonstration garden Kolda.

As always, as everywhere in the towns and villages, piles of garbage lined our paths. But it struck me as we walked that my relationship with the ubiquitous Afro-garbage is subtly changing. It seemed so ugly and squalid when I was first exposed to it. On some of our bush-taxi rides I’ve almost laughed out loud at the sight of one of our fellow travelers polishing off a can of soda or a cookie package and blithely tossing it out the window — so taboo back home (and yet ringing distant bells from my own childhood.)

It’s tempting to harrumph that the Africans have no system for dealing with all the garbage. But Steve and I have noted that in fact there is a system: you throw your trash willy-nilly on the ground, goats and other animals eat everything that’s remotely edible, and every so often someone burns the inorganic piles when they get too large. It’s not a very good system, but it’s cheap and in its own way, it works. Bottom line: it’s the way things work here — the way the subways are jam-packed in Tokyo or graffiti covers many building facades in Detroit. After just one long day of glimpsing quotidian life in Kolda, the complex nuances of the town had claimed the forefront of my brain, while the garbage had sunk so far into the background that I barely noticed it.

Livestock perform the first sorting of municipal trash in West Africa. The proliferation of plastic bags and bottle contributes to the waste problem.

Bedbugs and bribes

Friday, January 7
Two lifetime firsts for me yesterday — first bribe and first bedbug!  Both somewhat disgusting, if only mildly so. 

The bribe came as we were returning from Guinea Bissau.  We’d had two choices of travel routes back to Senegal: 1) returning to Ziguinchor and then heading east to Kolda, or 2) traveling east to a town called Bafata and from thence north to Kolda.  We’d had such a dreadful time with all the checkpoints on the way from Zig that we decided to try the second, even though we’d been warned that the roads were dreadful. Happily, they actually weren’t all that bad, although once again, the travel was pricy.  Despite hard bargaining, we’d had to pay about $100 for a bush taxi to get us from Bissau to the border (for that, we got the whole vehicle.) Bizarrely, all the taxis in GB were in hugely better condition than those in Senegal and the Gambia. In Bissau, they were all Mercedes Benzes, not that ancient, and our sept-place to the border was a remarkably clean and comfortable Renault.  (Steve suspects there’s some convoluted explanation involving foreign aid and government contracts to explain this.) 

The bribe came after we’d gone through customs and gotten our GB exit stamp.  We’d had to stop in front of a stand where a sullen looking guy told Laura he was in need of tea, so we would have to pay him 2000 CFA (about $4).  She protested and argued, but he was malevolently implacable.  Item by item, she started taking everything out of her backpack, even though we were all snickering at how ridiculous this was.  The African who would be traveling with us in the bush taxi to Kolda jumped in, pointing out that even HE had had to pay the tea bribe. So we threw up out hands and dug out the money.  It was all so brazen. I’m a little sorry we didn’t carry through and take out every item in all our bags. But we sensed that might have backed the guy into a corner that could have resulted in our spending many hours at that roadside. 

I spotted the bedbug this morning, as he was about to crawl into the crack between the sheet and the headboard.  I probably wouldn’t have recognized him, were it not for the 3 little smears of blood on my pillow.  Ugh!!!!  (I know they’re not harmful.  Just gross.) 

The Hotel Hobbe, where we’re staying, does have its charms.  The pool is large and sparkling clean.  Most of the rooms are located in African-style rondavals (and everything has thatched roofs).  The wifi’s superb, and our dinner here last night was topnotch.  Even the beds are comfy (if infested).

I’m not exactly sure how much the rooms are (as Laura made the reservation for us).  I’ve decided that if we have to pay $40 or less, I’ll be satisfied.  At $60 or more, you’ll hear me grumbling. 

Life’s little essentials

Tuesday, January 4 (posted 1/6/2011)

The only sign of any rebel threat on our two-day journey from Keur Bamboung to Bissau were the burly guys wearing camo suits and toting AK 47s that we saw occasionally along the roadside. They appeared to be Senegalese Army regulars on routine patrols.

In the absence of any violent incidents, I had plenty of time to chew on this one: Assuming you have a clean water source and enough food to keep hunger at bay and clothes to keep warm, and assuming people aren’t trying to rob or kill you, does reliable electricity or good transportation come next on the hierarchy of my own personal needs?

We’d experienced a lack of both during the last week, so the question was fresh for me, and I thought my answer was unequivocal: I’d choose light. Bad roads slow you down and coat you with layers of sweat and fine grit and induce otherwise responsible drivers to zoom into the path of oncoming traffic to avoid hitting deadly potholes. They cripple commerce and condemn sick folk to dying because they can’t get to medical care. But the lack of reliable electricity crushes my spirit nightly.  The impenetrable darkness might hold hungry hyenas or harmful bugs, and even when you’re in the sphere of dim warm kerosene lanternglow or the funereal pallor of a solar-powered fluorescent, you can’t do much more than talk or drink (or both). Or you can turn everything off and gaze at the magnificent starscape, as we did for a while on the beach on New Year’s Eve.

That’s peachy for a camping trip or vacation jaunt, but no way to live long-term. Still, I now think there may be something even worse. For decades, I’d read in travel literature and fiction about the dreaded African police and militiamen and drug inspectors and customs agents who transform overland travel on this continent into an extended nightmare. Now that I’ve experienced it, I have to at least add them to my short list of human plagues.

Unless you DO personally experience this, it’s hard to imagine how it could take almost 14 hours to cover roughly 200 miles, over the course of two days. This trip for us was broken into 11 different travel segments (donkey cart, pirogue, river ferry, sept-place, and multiple taxis). It also included stops to get visas to travel through The Gambia (about $13 each) and into Guinea Bissau ($21.50 apiece).  For Steve and me, the visa-getting was tedious but routine, requiring filling out forms and getting stamps and auxiliary stamps and having the blank lines on those stamps filled in by official hands. (All this activity has already consumed about 3 pages of each of our passports.) But Laura also had to endure a private interrogation with a glowering Gambian official who discovered her failure to get yet another Gambian visa when she passed through a month or two ago on her return from Sierra Leone.  “You KNEW what you were doing was wrong, and you did it anyway!” he browbeat her, his expression that of an angry parent. I was sure he would try to extort at least a bribe from her, but she says all she had to do was act humble and contrite, feeding his officious ego and patiently enduring the waste of time.

We all got hassled, but she again the worst of all of us, at the sleepy Senegal/Guinea Bissau border. When an official waved our sept-place over to the side of the road, we had to pry ourselves out of the vehicle and extract every piece of our baggage, then haul it over to the back of an unmarked pickup truck parked under a huge tree.  There, a guy wearing a Police baseball cap made us put each piece, one by one, on the tailgate.  He opened every single bag, and every single receptacle within; all our medicine/first aid bags, my makeup case, all the inner pockets of my purse, even the box of matches within one of those. Heavy-lidded, he studied each item, neither polite nor surly, an automaton going through the motions. Finally we repacked and loaded all the luggage and he returned each of our passports, except for Laura’s; he said he was going to detain her. She acted exasperated, then disgusted. She called our driver over to intercede.  Eventually, the official relinquished her passport with a leer.  “They just want to flirt,” she said to us with a roll of her eyes.  “They have nothing else to do all day.”

Our sept-place driver who endured so many checkpoints

Having to stop and go through one of these bureaucratic exercises at each of the three borders (Senegal/Gambia, Gambia/Senegal, Senegal Guinea Bissau) didn’t surprise me. What I wasn’t prepared for was how many times beyond that we were forced to halt — three or four separate detentions at each of the latter two frontiers, then more stops at checkpoints along the way. Sometimes only our driver had to get out (and once I think a “fee” was extorted); sometimes we all had to hand over our passports for furrowed-brow thumb-throughs. Each stop stole time.

For Steve and me, slumming as we are, most of this activity was actively entertaining for its cartoon quality and obvious absurdities. Tiny human dramas abounded.

But around 3:30 p.m. — when we were a full 90 minutes late for meeting the speedboat in Bissau that we’d hired to take us out to Bubaque Island — it began to grate on our nerves as it had been irritating Laura and our three African fellow passengers all along. Two of the latter were natives of Bissau (and speakers of English as well as Wolof, Portuguese, and some French). Friendly folks, they helped us find a taxi and direct the driver to the container port where Gilles had said we’d find the speedboat.

Helpful passengers who helped us find a taxi.

Miraculously, it was still waiting for us (and supposedly for an English threesome).  Laura and I found some beers at a shanty bar across the street from the port, and from then on the afternoon got more and more golden.  With sunset approaching, we left Bissau (sans Englishmen) around 4:30.  We zoomed through glassy seas toward a misty paradise without borders or the rascals who harass those who would cross them.

A Kasa Afrikana speedboat awaited us in Bisau harbor
Cristal Time

Camping in Senegal

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hyenas ate one of the camp dogs last night. (We only learned this at breakfast this morning.) It was the only shadow on our 3-night stay at Keur Bamboung (Chez Bamboung).  

This has been a high-level camping experience.  The camp has 9 rooms scattered around the sandy grounds; they can accommodate up to around 30 people. We’re in a double: two ample rooms made entirely of reeds and grasses and bark and logs.  A comfortable lounging area separates the two sleeping quarters. Each room has its private open-air bathroom, complete with porcelain toilet, sink, mirror, and shower.  Solar panels provide all the electricity (not much) and power the pumps that bring water up from underground. We gather for meals in a large communal pavilion, open on two sides to the marsh and mangrove forests all around us.

Two bedroom reed hut at Keur Bamboung
Bedroom at Keur Bamboung

The camp’s a French project, the heart of a large marine reserve started in 2004. Proceeds from it fund the guardians who prevent anyone from fishing within the protected area.  We’re told that close to 30 new fish species have been found here since the reserve was created. Good news for the fish world, but hardly the most remarkable aspect of the place, in my opinion. 

Other animals that live here include warthogs, bats, red and green monkeys, antelope, and those pesky hyenas. But I think the greatest stars are the mangroves — those magnificent plants that have adapted to live in salt water, creating new land as the silt builds up around their roots. Yesterday morning, a guide led a small group of us on an hour-long trek through some of their inner recesses. Barefoot, we followed serpentine streams through the shady green vegetational tunnels. The plants have evolved to filter out the salt; they excrete it on their leaves, which are crusty with the stuff. In places, we sunk up to our ankles in the ooze, taking care not to scratch our arms and legs on the knobby thickets of roots. Because our guide, Famara, had declared that the groves harbored no poisonous snakes (and because I tried not to look too closely for spides and insects), it was a magical world — one I never dreamed I would penetrate. 

Entering the mangrove forest.

High tide came around sunset, and we set out again then to kayak through some of the same places we had sloshed through on foot just hours earlier. The opalescent light and the glassy waters made this a serene and glorious excursion (although we all agreed that the foot-trek was even more thrilling.) The true highlight of the night turned out to be the New Year’s Eve feast prepared by the staff. It started with baskets full of fresh oysters — harvested earlier that day from the mangrove roots on which they grow. These were tossed on a roaring bonfire and roasted. (We squeezed lemon on them, and washed them down with fresh palm wine.)

We moved into the pavilion to eat the fish terrine with mayo/ketchup sauce. Visiting friends and relatives of Charles, the French resident manager, had spent part of the afternoon peeling potatoes for the pommes frites that accompanied braised chicken and green beans wrapped in bacon. There was even a cheese course — a most uncommon luxury in this part of Africa (and doubtless imported by the French contingent.) 

I’m happy to report that Laura and Albie’s foresight provided the piece de resistance. They had stocked up on fireworks in St. Louis, and as midnight approached, I helped Laura distribute them to everyone in the dining room (lit, by then, by  just a few kerosene lanterns). As we counted down, people lighted their Roman candles and waved them, while Laura and I set up the bottle rockets and she used a lighter to ignite their fuses.  The grand finale was a monstrous and scary looking creation that had cost them $20, and of which I would normally have been terrified, had I not drunk as much I had.  It proved to be worth every penny, rocketing hundreds of feet into the air and exploding in a huge shower of lights and colors. 

The gooey chocolate dessert and bad sparkling wine that was served a  bit later was a clear anticlimax. Now halfway through our final day here, we’ll depart early tomorrow. Alberto will be driven back to Dakar, while Laura, Steve, and I will head south through a part of Senegal where just days ago a dozen or so separatist rebels (or drug thugs) and the military reportedly killed each other. This is part of an old on-going conflict, and by other reports tourist transit should be safe. Still, mindful of the fate of that camp dog, our aim is to arrive in Ziguinchor long before the time when the predators come out.

Travel Quiz

Friday, December 31, 2010

One of the marks of travel competence, in my opinion, is being able to figure out how to have fun, even when circumstances change and the setting is unlikely.  We had a small test of that ability yesterday, and we passed.

To simplify our journey into the Saloum Delta, we had decided to leave Popenguine Wednesday morning, travel to Kaolack, and spend the night there. We knew Laura and Albie expected to pass through Kaolack around 3 p.m. Thursday, and arriving the night before would relieve us of any stress about missing that connection. 

The only problem was this meant we would have to spend most of the day in Kaolack, a great crossroads of Senegal but by all accounts a singularly lackluster town. (The French proprietress of the Balafon, our hotel in Popenguine, had wrinkled her nose when asked how long it would take to travel there. She never went, she said, because why would anyone want to?)

You might not travel to Kaolack to stay at Le Relais.  But apart from the unpleasant smell that permeated the town upon our arrival, the hotel seemed to us an excellent way station.  Well-tended gardens filled much of the grounds, and the pool was large and welcoming, if a bit murky. Our room, which cost about $65 a night boasted air conditioning, a TV, and hot water, and a shower that worked well.  Although the power went out almost immediately after our arrival, the sound of a generator kicked in around dusk, and we ate excellent fish and surfed the internet on our laptops in the huge, well-lighted dining room. 

We’d read in the Rough Guide that Kaolack’s two principal “sights” were its covered central market (“one of the largest in all of West Africa,”) and its mosque.  So the next morning we asked the friendly receptionist if he could help us secure a taxi to drive us to them and wait while we visited both.  He called a young man named Moussa who arrived in a clean, well-maintained Toyota Echo and said he’d serve as our chauffeur for 10,000 CFA (roughly $21). We bargained this price down to half, then set off. 

Although we’d told Moussa he didn’t have to act as a guide, when we arrived at the central market, he seemed eager to accompany us, and as it turned out, we were happy to let him lead us the dark, crowded, fetid labyrinth. On Moussa’s heels, we both felt relaxed scanning the tiny stalls filled with fabulous fabrics, flip-flips, recycled glass bottles, live poultry, spices, grains, fruit, jewelry, and a thousand other goods. Some of the vendors assailed us, but far less aggressively than the touts in Egypt.

We did make two purchases — several oranges, tangerines, and bananas (for just under $3), and 3 small but charming necklaces.  Asked a ridiculous 10,000 for the latter we refused, but when I got the price down to 3500, I accepted. High drama erupted, however, when I started to pay: violent shouting between Moussa and the seller, culminating in Moussa snatching the money and signaling us to stomp off behind him. A bit further on, he found identical necklaces being sold by some ladies — for which I paid 1500. (Apparently the injustice of the first price was too intolerable for him to bear.) 

Our visit to the mosque played out differently. Moussa quickly found two guides to lead us through it — one tall and haughty and French-speaking and the other with an ebullient command of English. I was stunned by the beauty of the interior — as vast, I think, as the great mosques in central Cairo, and ornamented with glowing stained glass, huge ornate chandeliers, intricate Moroccan woodwork, and acres of pristine Persian-style carpeting. We left our shoes at the door and I wore Steve’s safari hat, but that’s where the formality ended. They seemed proud to be showing off the place, and they insisted we photograph one detail after another. Here are two: