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Senegal is colorful, lively, artistic, musical, and poetic. The people are warm and friendly and the food is a marvelous fusion of French cooking techniques and West African ingredients. Not many people have Senegal on their travel itinerary but it is a common layover stop for flights coming to and from the US and Europe to other African cities. If you find yourself laid over in Dakar for at least a day, you can find a wonderful slice of Senegalese life on Gorée Island. Gorée lies a short 20 minute ferry ride from the Liaison Maritime Dakar-Gorée ferry terminal in Dakar. The ferry docks in front of a small beach that is ringed with outdoor restaurants that are perfect for catching a taste of the seafood that Senegal is so well known for. The island itself is small and because no vehicular traffic is allowed on it, it is very walkable. The colorful stone buildings with terracotta roofs make up the town area. As you walk towards the center of the island, it gets hillier and when you reach the top, you have wonderful views of the ocean and Dakar in the far horizon. The island is an artists’ colony – there is art on display on any surface that it can be placed on or hung on – pops of color and creative West African designs everywhere! Gorée Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its most famous cultural landmark is the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) where slaves were held captive before being loaded on ships bound for the New World.
Several hours’ drive south of Dakar, Senegal, the Sine-Saloum Delta encompasses 700 square miles of braided streams, mangrove swamps, glimmering flatlands, and salt wells in green, yellow, and orange hues. Travelers interested in fishing and bird-watching will find both in this surreal landscape. Anglers can hire pirogue owners through their hotels to navigate the bolongs (waterways) that allow fishing. About 80 species of freshwater and marine fish thrive here, including grouper, snapper, and barracuda. Hundreds of types of birds, including flamingos and herons, populate the delta, drawn by the abundant fish and diverse habitats. Adventurous birders should sail offshore to the Île aux Oiseaux (Bird Island) in the Parc National du Delta du Saloum, a water and forest reserve in the southernmost part of the delta. From April to August, pink-backed pelicans dive into the ocean for fish, and colonies of royal terns and other seabirds lay their eggs on the low-lying island. The boat ride to get there can be choppy, but lucky visitors might spot dolphins and manatees along the way. After a day outdoors, retire to the Lodge des Collines de Niassam in the northern coastal community of Palmarin, where baobab treehouses and huts balanced on stilts in the lagoon keep you close to nature, even while you sleep. —Jori Lewis Photo by Candace Feit. This appeared in the December/January 2010 issue.
The choice of beers on offer in Dakar is slim; it's usually Flag or La Gazelle. I recommend the latter of the two which comes in one size: a large 63cl bottle. This is the beer I most enjoy in Senegal because of the label with a gazelle on it and the green bottle. The ABV% is 4.2%, pretty low, which is best for hot days when you need to stay hydrated. Best of all, the cost is budget-friendly at 1500 CFA or $3 (the same price of a 33cl of Flag, the other Senegalese beer). You can find recycled art wares made with the caps of the Flag and La Gazelle beer brands at the various markets around the city. Buyer beware: make sure to bring your bargaining skills, or just save your bottle caps to construct your own art souvenir.
A short ferry ride from Dakar, Sengal sits the small but powerfully impressive UNESCO World Heritage site of Gorée Island, known as the last stop for slaves departing their homeland en route to the Americas. Standing on the threshold of the slave house's seaside exit door, you get a strong sense of 'this is the end of life as it was.'
We’ll head north out of the city towards the high veld and the Cradle of Humankind, home to the origin of our species and site of the discovery of 2+ million year old human fossils. As public access to certain dig sites is very rare, we’ve secured special permission through Lee Berger, South Africa’s leading paleoanthropologist, who will lead us to Malapa, a private excavation site, for a mind bending talk about our civilization.
Looking at the bright colors of this portico and hearing the sound of laughter of a family that was standing nearby, it was somehow hard for me to believe that I was one floor above rooms where African men, women, and children were purportedly enslaved before being boarded onto ships and sent off to lands unknown. This is the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves), located on Gorée Island, just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. Whether or not the house actually played a role in the Atlantic slave trade is a matter of controversy - a dispute between historians whose fact finding efforts have led them to conclude that the house was the home of a wealthy trader and nothing more and those who assert that millions of slaves spent time here. Whatever the truth is, the House of Slaves remains a popular destination for tourists. I was there with an African American colleague of mine; I'm of Asian heritage. As you might expect, our visit affected us in very different ways. I could see the tears welling up in her eyes as she listened to our guide speak about the place. It was a deeply profound experience for her, less so for me. I left her in our guide’s tender care and headed up to the portico to wait for her. Even if it is all just a myth - that the House of Slaves never really held any slaves - it does serve as a powerful symbol of a very painful time in human history, one that should never be re-lived. For that reason alone, I encourage others to go and visit it.
Both locals and tourists go shopping at Marché Kermel. The beautiful Victorian style open air building shelters its busy fresh food stalls inside. Outside, art souvenir stalls boarder around in a maze-like setup, with some vendors working on pieces throughout the day. There are other markets nearby, namely Marché Sandaga within walking distance, but I find Kermel's vendors let you roam about without intensely pushing their wares. Instead of haggling over a mask I don't particularly wan to buy, I am able to watch a basket be woven, a glass tile be painted, and a wood statue be polished. Usually, this laissez-faire attitude equals more purchases. Go figure!
The island of Gorée is known as one of the most vibrant heritage sites of the world for the African diaspora and Black History. The island was indeed the point of departure of many slave ships to the Caribbean and the Americas, and as a Caribbean girl, the journey through time felt particularly powerful. Standing at the Porte du Non Retour (the door of No Return, where slaves left the African continent for good to take on board the ships towards an unknown destination), one could only imagine what it felt like, and judging by the reactions of my fellow travelers, the emotions you feel there have nothing to do with the color of your skin. But Gorée is also an island that perfectly illustrates the diversity of this amazing country that is Senegal, as shown by this beautiful view Rafet! (beautiful, in wolof)
Dakar has miles of stretched out coastline just begging to be walked and wandered. Along the way you'll hit artisans selling their wares, markets, supermarkets and endless beaches. The scenery is evolving, modernizing, and ready for the adventurous traveler. Soon, this fountain in Place du Souvenir will have water flowing, but it is now ready to welcome.
The history of Ile de Goree is dark, it being a former port for slaves out of western Africa. Thankfully, the island is colorful and full of life. Restaurants, art galleries, shops, and beaches entertain wandering visitors. Here on the island, it's easy to make a day trip or take a break from the fast pace of mainland Dakar, totally worth a short ferry ride across the bay to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Digging our feet into the white sand, we dodged pick-up soccer games and sheep being dragged down to the beach for a good scrubbing. I was sweating in my wet suit, but knew I would need it as soon as we entered the cold January water. Tucking my board more snuggly under my arm, I shaded my eyes and glanced into the distance. As far as the eye could see, the beach snaked along the turquoise ocean cresting with the perfect waves to start surfing. The beach was speckled with surfers, beach bathers, and soccer players. Farther up the shore, tiki huts and surf shacks offered shade, beer, and fresh sea food to weary beach goers. It was our first day of surfing and we were able to bargain with one of the local surf instructors for a price of 12,000 cfa ($24) which included a lesson, a board, and a wetsuit, about a third of the price you might find in the U.S. Surf instructors are all over Yoff beach, all you have to do is go to the beach and make their acquaintance. Hopefully after a couple of weeks of this, I'll be hanging ten in no time!
Friday is market day in Mpal, a bustling affair about 30K from Saint-Louis, that snakes and stretches throughout the small village. A mesmerizing sea of colors and a veritable feast for the eyes, Mpal sees very few tourists, which makes for a most interesting journey of back-and-forth staring and gazing. And on this day I am definitely the only toubab (white person) in town. We begin our adventure with the women who are selling all kinds of vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplant, carrots, and red hibiscus leaves, that when crushed are steeped to make the popular bissap juice that is ubiquitous in Senegal. The colors and patterns of their dresses are even more dizzying than those of the vegetables. The looks in their eyes are calculating and curious, yet kind. “Toubab, viens,” they yell. (White lady, come here). It’s a true photographer’s haven.
“Nanga def?” I am asked. “Mangi fi” I learn to respond. Pape, my driver, teaches me this everyday Wolof greeting enroute from Dakar to Saint-Louis in the fog of jet lag. I’m in Senegal, West Africa, and everything around me is completely different – the colors, the sounds, the smells. After a four hour slog, feeling very tired and dehydrated, we arrive in Saint-Louis, a 2km long island situated in the mouth of the Senegal River, close to the Atlantic Ocean. When I set out to explore, instinct leads me directly to Guet Ndar, the real pulse of this city where the bustle of everyday life takes place. Cars, minivans, horse carts, bicycles, children, adults, dogs and goats compete for space in the single-laned street. Down the side alleys, kids play all kinds of games – soccer with balls made of cloth scraps, jump rope, foosball, and tire rolling. Women cook various dishes, wash laundry, and herd goats that meander aimlessly, while men chat and pray. I turn right towards the ocean where children are gathered in a circle attending the Ecole Koranique (Koran school). Men are also busy repairing nets and building new pirogues. (wooden boats). On the river side, it's all about fishing. The scene is intense and I know I could spend hours watching the frenetic activity, but I decide to save it for another day - the jet lag is starting to really kick in.
If you happen to travel to West Africa, specifically Senegal, you will no doubt find yourself in the capital, Dakar. Here you will witness a real African city, a true mixture of luxury and dilapidation, wealth and poverty. On the outskirts, along the Atlantic Ocean, are lavish homes, posh hotels, and many seaside restaurants, all of which cater to tourists and the upper crust of Senegalese society. In the center, the palatial grounds of the prime minister and president are equally luxe. But venture in any direction inland or on the many roads leading away from the central plaza and you will find a dusty, dirty, dilapidated mess of rundown buildings, piles of garbage and people in need. It's a really tough pill to swallow for the traveler, but once you meander through distinct neighborhoods, such as the Medina, you will encounter a certain livelihood, a city with a real soul. People work, live, eat and play together, building a real sense of community. Dakar is a city that seems so disheveled and run down at first glance, but one where if you dig down deeper, offers a cultural immersion into a way of life that seldom exists anymore in our big westernized cities. While it is not exactly a breath of fresh air, it certainly is an eye-opening experience.
The Sine-Saloum Delta in Senegal offers a nice respite from the dusty streets of Dakar and the extreme heat of Saint-Louis. Consisting mostly of mangrove swamps, the delta encompasses 24,000 sq. kms. and has been dedicated as a UNESCO Heritage site for its wealth of wildlife and pristine waters. It's a great way to get out into nature and meet the indigenous Serer people who inhabit the area. One of my favorite spots is Toubakouta, a steamy, 6-hour slog from Dakar on mainly pothole-ridden streets. You can also get there by pirogue in 3 hours, which I did on my return trip. Once in town, you soon realize you are far away from any sense of city life. Time inches along and there's not much to do except walk and bike through town, watch boys play foosball and chat with the locals - probably my favorite thing to do. One afternoon, I was fortunate enough to witness a wrestling match, a favorite Senegalese pastime. I also ventured to nearby Sokone for market day, traveling by local bus, which is an experience in itself. Jam-packed in a rickety old van, the only white person aboard, the ride is the true way to experience local life. A true highlight was a 3-day trip to Keur Bamboung, an ecotourism spot that has been designed with local materials and functions on solar panels. I arrived via mule-driven cart and I slept under a mosquito net. My days were spent kayaking through the calm waters, learning about mangroves, eating oysters, and visiting the local Serer village.
Along the Petite Cote, about 80k south of Dakar, lies Mbour, a town of about 200,000 inhabitants in which a significant part of every day life revolves around fishing. In fact, Mbour is the second largest fishing port in all of West Africa. One of the most interesting activities is to wander along the beach during the late afternoon. You will soon venture upon a frenzy of activity. On the ocean, hundreds of brightly painted pirogues, the distinct form of Senegalese fishing boat, filter into port as fishermen arrive home after spending the entire day at sea. Boys unload the catch into plastic bins, place them on their heads, and ferry them to the processing plant, where fish are gutted, packed into boxes laden with ice and hauled onto multitudes of trucks bound for the interior of Senegal. Meanwhile, hordes of women assemble in packs, some waiting for their fisherman husbands to return, others procuring a portion of the catch from the pirogue owners, which they then sell right on the beach. Elsewhere, men repair nets and build new pirogues, while women engage in fish drying and cooking. The scene is a constant swirl of color, smell and activity, one which a tourist could spend hours watching. And although overfishing and waste production are two prominent problems in Mbour, the fish is fresh as can be and the tastiest I have eaten in a very long time.
Beautiful restaurant in the Almadies area of Dakar. Detailed mosaic artwork on the walls and tables which overlook the ocean with absolutely beautiful views. The upper level serves tapas while the lower level serves a full dinner and lunch menu. Great place to enjoy drinks and food in Almadies.
The African Reniassance Monument is something you can't miss, even from the first moment your plane flies over the city. It is a gaudy, yet still impressive sight to behold, with the ludicrously well built man holding up his infant son in one arm, and dragging his wife around the waist behind him with the other. The little boy is pointing to the future and the proud parents seem to be following his gaze. One can’t help but notice the scantily clad wife so differently dressed from the conservative Muslim women she represents. The statue was contracted by the last and allegedly corrupt President Abdoulaye Wade who paid 20 million to a North Korean sculptor. In a city that still doesn’t have a reliable drinking water system nor the ability to keep all of the streets from flooding, not to mention that 54% of the Senegalese population live below the poverty line, you think the president of the country could have thought about other ways to use the 20 million. Rumor has it that the profit from the tourism there goes straight into the ex-president's own pocket… so don't pay to go to the top of the statue. Why visit then, you ask, if I hold such strong aversion to the statue? I believe the monument is a tangible and insightful glimpse into the corruption that plagues countries in Africa such as Senegal. By visiting,foreigners are encouraged to reflect and stand in solidarity with the citizens of Senegal who feel the consequence of such a grave misuse of national funds.
When recommending a country to visit in Africa, I usually suggest Morocco for its irresistible mediterranean lifestyle, Namibia for its beautiful parks and safaris, and I save for last the vibrantly unique and colorful city of Dakar, as storytelling for such a dear city might go on and on. Dakar is a city that defines melting pot at its best, with a multi-cultural and multi-lingual population, always willing to offer its most cherish treasures: unforgettable hospitality, good food and loving music!
Perched on top of one of the two large hills that mark the Mamelles district of Dakar, the lighthouse has the abandoned look so characteristic of many Senegalese buildings. When we finally made it up the hill, we weaved our way through a lively game of soccer being played by local kids and stepped onto the patio at the base of the lighthouse. A family who seemed to live at the light house had draped brightly colored fabric out to dry over a railing. The fabric flapped like festival flags in the strong wind and stood out cheerfully against the drab white chipped paint surface of the rest of the lighthouse. The flagstones were cracked and weeds sprouted up between them. Most of the windows were opaque with dust, and the lock was broken off on one of the doors. But even in its state of disrepair, I was charmed and also surprised to see the groups of other people who had come to admire the view. We passed the cement benches placed there for visitors, and in true Peace Corps fashion climbed up over the wall and onto a higher flat area unguarded by railings. It opened straight onto the sea in the west and the city to our east. From this vantage point we were able to see my building downtown on one end of the city and the American embassy building all the way on the other side of the peninsula. While all we did was enjoy the view, next time I would definitely bring up a bottle of wine and a picnic. It's the perfect place to view the city and have an inexpensive lunch!
First arriving by boat in Ziguinchor with "Aline Sitoe Diatta", we decide to reach this campsite with his traditional "impluvium" building. More than accommodation it has been a meeting of a whole village with their tradition, their own "women garden" and a fabulous cook! You can not imagine better service and welcoming team! Congratulations to Idrissa the young manager!
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