“I know it costs more, but this taxi’s more expensive is because it’s BIGGER and NICER than others, trust me!” reasons Mouktar, the Senegalese taxi driver as he climbs into the driver’s seat and slams his door shut, which is subsequently followed by the passenger seat’s window shattering all over the poor gentleman sitting there. I chuckle to myself and say a silent prayer as the taxi lurches forward and begins clunking its way down the Senegalese highway.
Spring break can mean a lot of things. For some it conjures up images of uninhibited recklessness somewhere south of the border, for others it’s road trips, and for others still it could simply be a week of post-final exam repose at their parents’ home. However seeing as my living situation doesn’t permit me to experience any of that, I spent my 2013 spring vacation discovering new horizons in the exotically pleasing West African nation of Senegal!
Senegal has long been a country I’ve wanted to visit, probably ever since I first became infatuated with Africa. I can’t say why exactly, it could be when I saw the national team playing in the World Cup, or perhaps it was after discovering it was a French-speaking country. Whatever the case may be, Senegal had been stuck in my mind for years, so one can understand why I was giddy with excitement when I learned I would be spending two weeks there for some work and sightseeing.
Senegal is not often included in many Americans’ travel lists, and it is really a shame. A long-running history of peace and democracy, mouth watering culinary delights, and a thriving music and arts scene are more than enough reasons to give it a try. Though still in West Africa, Senegal feels culturally worlds apart from my home in Togo. There is an eclectic blend of both Sub-Saharan African culture and North African/Arab culture that makes it very pleasing to the eyes, ears and taste buds. Trendy young Senegalese roam the streets past colorfully robed men in Aladdin-esque slippers, sipping delicious sweet green tea in cafés. Various smells of pastries, incense and mouth-watering dishes of thiéboudieune (a local fish dish) drift out of shops; all to the backdrop of the enchanting Muslim call to prayer. It really is a special place.
DAKAR AND BEYOND
Dakar is a fabulous city. As far as African capitals go, it’s relatively modern, but with a sprinkling of old colonial buildings thrown about that are enough to remind you of the historical significance of the country. The city center, known as ‘Plateaux’, feels almost urbanely European, both in the look and smell. My days there were spent exploring lively markets, as well as the grooving live music scene.
I also took a short 20 minute boat ride outside of Dakar to the small Island of Gorée. While peaceful and full of old colorful homes, the Zen experience vanished once I realized that most of these lovely abodes were actually “slaves houses” that held slaves in rather cruel conditions. Apparently the island was a major transit point for shipping slaves out to the Americas. I have to admit, as an American who was taught about slavery since childhood, this was a “footsteps of history” moment that definitely gave me the chills.
After a music and fish-infused week in Dakar, I departed with another friend to the north of the country where, nestled among baobab trees is the lovely town of St. Louis. St. Louis is a true monument to the colonial history of Africa. It was the original capital of French West Africa, when most of this region belonged to France, and it is still easy to imagine as a large part of the city is completely filled with colorful colonial buildings. Besides exploring the dilapidated streets, we also took a boat trip near the Mauritanian border to the Djoudj Bird Park. Now I’m not a “birder” (much to the disappointment of many tourists during my stint as a naturalist), but I was still incredibly impressed at seeing so many species in one place. It was not even high season, but the river shores were filled with thousands of pelicans, herons, geese, ducks, and other species. Crocodiles, salamanders, snakes and the occasional warthog even made appearances!
DESERTS AND DRIVERS
On the way back to Dakar I decided on a whim to stay the night in the small but majestic Lampoul Desert, where I spent the night in a Mauritanian tent nestled among the stars and rolling sand dunes. Getting there proved to be more of a chore than expected, as traveling by local bush taxis is generally an exercise in flexibility, both figuratively and literally. As my earlier narrative alluded, most vehicles are in terrible condition, and one is often crowded along with eight to nine others in cars fit to seat five. Even when full, the driver would still stop to pick up passengers, who would nonchalantly hop onto the car rooftop and sit, feet dangling down the side, as if that was a perfectly normal way to travel.
After eventually getting hauled out to the desert on the back of a truck, I was greeted by the camp manager, “Pape Fall”, who informed me that it would just be he and I out in the desert that night. As you really can’t avoid someone when you’re stuck in a desert together, Pape and I spent the rest of the time embarking on quite the desert “bromance” — we walked the sand dunes together, drank afternoon tea together, cooked together and even watched the sunset together. He was actually a pretty interesting guy, and apparently uses his savings from the camp to support a local NGO that helps educate Senegalese women who are not in school.
Although ten days was not nearly enough time to discover all of Senegal’s treasures, they did allow me to peer under its surface enough that I felt I earned the fresh new stamp in my passport book. I would definitely recommend anyone give this wonderful little country a try — just remember not to sit too close to passenger seat windows.
• Philip Dierking is a former Juneau resident. He is currently living in the West African country of Togo on a US State Department English Language Fellowship. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article represents his personal point of view and not that of the Dept. of State.