April 2 - 8, 2009
4/2/09 - 4/8/09 92 °F
Senegal - our first time in an African country. We didn't know what to expect, other than that French is spoken (it used to be a French colony), it's on the northwestern coast of the continent and it has good music. We arrived into Yoff, a fishing village between the airport and Dakar, late at night so we couldn't see much. All we experienced was a very strong salty smell as we got out in front of the hostel. The next morning we found the source of the smell – the hostel is literally right on the beach where the fish market is located.
It seemed that all activities happen on the beach – fish is unloaded and displayed right next to the pirogue (wooden fishing boats). They are also scaled and cleaned right there on the sand while other vendors walk around to sell coffee or tea. Horse-drawn carts act as taxis on the beach to take people who have finished their shopping or fish mongers that are done for the day. Without any trash cans, everything is left for the sand to absorb.
Next to the pirogues, boys run around the sand playing soccer barefooted. I'm surprised no one's hurt by the bottle caps and other sharp objects in the sand. Everyone is passionate about football (soccer) here. A nearby beach is crowded with men running or doing push-ups in the sand - all training for soccer. A local man started talking to us, and tried to invite us to eat with him and to watch him play soccer (which I was able to decline and hold a short conversation in my broken French). He told us his name was Diouf, which we later learned was the most popular football player in Senegal. Of course this guy that we met in the narrow alleyway of the village right off the beach could not possibly have been Diouf. We met a few other people, each with a different story (one guy tried to get us to watch a "Pelican Ceremony", and another just came right out and asked for money). I guess there are some similarities between the people of Senegal and Egypt. In fact, one tourist we met said the touts are like "flies - harmless but will not leave you alone", a very apt description.
Seeing the living conditions one can understand why people behave that way. Like Asia, there's a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. Unlike Asia where things were cheap as a result, everything was expensive in Senegal. As an example, for $45 a night, our room only had 2 twin beds and didn't even have hot water. I'm not sure how the locals manage since I'm sure their wages are not on par with the prices. Of course, Senegal also has a side with high end hotels & fancy restaurants for those with money. Makes me wonder if we weren't traveling on a budget whether or not we would see this side of Senegal. I'm glad we did.
As I mentioned before, Senegalese are known for their music and moves. So when one of the local guys at the hostel told us about his friend's concert that night we went along with him. His friend turned out to be one of the newest sensations of Senegal, Yoro - for real this time - and we even got to meet him. The concert was great and it was one of the highlights of our time in Senegal.
The next day, April 4th, was Senegal's Independence Day (Josh, it's the same birthday as you!) so we got up early and waited with the crowds for the parade. It was more of a military inspection by the President, who was almost 2 hours late (tells you something about how much they care about the people). We did get a glimpse of the famous dancing troupe although we didn't get to see the actual routine - that's reserved for the guests of honor sitting in the grand stand.
We finally got to see local dancing on Ile de Goree, a pretty, small island about 30 min from Dakar by ferry. It's such a small island that there are no cars and it takes less than an hour to walk around the whole island. It's a popular tourist destination and one can see why with the colorful, charming old colonial buildings, surrounded by the beautiful blue Atlantic Ocean.
The first afternoon as we explored the island we heard music being played and followed it to a local festival. It was great! Everyone was dressed in pure white, rich gold or sky blue outfits, and groups would take turns getting up and dancing spontaneously. And they sure can dance. One woman told me that dancing is in their blood, and even the little kids know the moves. Judging by what I saw, that is definitely true.
There's some controversy about the island's role as a major trading center for slavery during the 18th & 19th centuries. However, what is true is that huge numbers of slaves were shipped from the western coast of Africa to North and South America, and the Caribbeans. The history and the plight of the slaves are documented at the La Maison des Esclaves (Slave House). The exhibit is in French so I didn't understand most of it, but I did learn that more slaves were sent to the Caribbean Islands and Brazil (for the plantation work) than to North America, but most perished under the horrible working conditions since the plantation owners believed that it was cheaper to get new workers every 3-5 years than to keep the existing ones healthy.
This wouldn't be my blog if I didn't mention the food. Apparently Senegalese food is one of the best in Africa. There are a couple of popular dishes, but our two favorites are Tiebou dienne (herb stuffed fish steak with seasoned rice & vegetables) and Yassa (fish or chicken in lemon and onion sauce). We pretty much had one or both dishes every day during our week there, but never got sick of it.
Finally, just a picture of the local minivan bus - the Car Rapide - because I love how colorful it is:
The check-in process when we left Dakar was THE longest one I've ever experienced. It took a good two hours even though we were flying Delta. I think it's because they've never seen a RTW ticket, so the security guy asked us questions ranging from what we did and how we paid for the RTW ticket, to where we lived in Cairo and how we paid for the hotel (please tell me why that's relevant?!)! Not to mention the many forms of IDs he asked for! Even though we got to the airport way early, we were the last 2 people to board the plane.
We only had 6 days in Senegal due to scheduling limitations of our Delta RTW ticket, but we definitely want to see more of Africa in the future.