Delightful West Africa 2 – Saint-Louis, Senegal
The elaborate Senegalese spiel of polite greetings is extended even to guesthouse guests. For instance in Saint-Louis, the atmospheric colonial town in Senegal's north-western corner.
I settle at the breakfast table and the maid arrives. While she arranges coffee cups and milk pots and baskets of baguette, we'd casually go in French:
– Good morning, monsieur.
– Good morning, Madame.
– How are you doing?
– I'm fine, thanks.
– Did you sleep well?
– Like always in this nice house, thanks.
– And how is your holiday going?
– Very fine, thanks. I like Le Sénégal.
– Enjoy your breakfast, sir.
– If you let me now, I might.
— Veg Illiterate —
In Saint Louis' local eatery Chez Agnes, I order "salad de tomates" as an entry, partly because this item is easy to understand from the usual all-French menu.
The waitress tells me – in French of course – that they don't have tomatoes, but I could have "salad de concombres".
"'Concombre', what's that", I ask back, with my limited French?
"Hahaha", now the waitress is greatly amused, "what, you don't know concombre?"
It is beyond her understanding that a toubab (a white man) may not speak French as perfectly as all the Senegaloises. She doesn't realize I might know a "concombre", but not by the name "'concombre'". (I might have understood "concombre" in written form, or spoken slowly.)
The waitress returns from the kitchen and with an amused look holds under my face a – cucumber.
— Non-Veg Celebration —
In a cosy corner of its dining patio, that very restaurant Chez Agnes has two muttons fixed. Quietly they munch on straw, an almost biblical scene. The next day is Tabaski, the most important Muslim holiday in Senegal. And traditionally, a mutton is killed (throat-cut) on that auspicious occasion. So I point to the peacefully munching muttons and ask my funny concombre-swinging waitress: "Tomorrow… Tabaski… ehm… ?"
"Yes!" She smiles, giggles and makes a horizontal hand-move along her neck.
Taxi driver Amadou confirms: "My family has already bought two muttons, they are 50 to 70 Euros apiece. I myself can't kill them, but my brother-in-law can."
Next morning, most shops in Saint-Louis are closed. In the side roads – not tarred, but made of dirt and sand – blood flows. It is difficult not to see knives go through muttons' throats. The locals leave tiny blood filled holes in the streets.
My nature guide Issidra: "Some dealers even demand 100 or 200 Euros for a Tabaski mutton. What is that? Are they crazy? I'll have to raise my own muttons next year too. There are more holidays where a mutton can be sacrificed."
My local music dealer Oumar reports: "I raised our family mutton myself. Fed it everyday. Took a photo on its last morning. Told my brother to grab a knife and go ahead. I myself couldn't do it. But, well, it's our religion, it has to happen."
Around Tabaski, the locals promenade the street of Saint-Louis in their finest silken pajamas. In Senegal, men and ladies put on a proud and very exotic fashion show on any given day, and Saint-Louis with its relaxed streets and fine climate invites for a passagietta. But it looks like for Tabaski night, the numerous tailleurs in town had had the business of their lives. Many strollers carry a mutton's leg by the hoof, the end hidden in a plastic bag. This is a greeting brought to relatives around town. The children bombard themselves with firecrackers.
In the hotel, I talk to an elderly Spaniard.
"I want to look somewhere and not see a chopped mutton's head", he complains.
"Why, I've only seen three or five", I relativize.
But the Spaniard is also disappointed about the general local filth: "Saint-Louis is full of colonial, UNESCO-protected buildings, it's the first French settlement in West-Africa, it was an important stop-over for postal airplanes between Europe and South America and now it is – full of dirt."
"In this hotel", he complains, "I booked a room with river view and didn't consider that I also get the nasty river *smell*". There is an overcrowded fishing village on the other side.
I suggest to visit historical Île de Gorée near Dakar (see first West Africa article), which is UNESCO-approved too and much cleaner than Saint-Louis.
"It's not as lively as Saint-Louis, not as distinctly African. It's like an open-air museum, plus touts", I say.
"I don't want a museum either", he moans.
"Maybe go to Andalusia for a lively *and* tidy historical village", I ask?
— Tailor —
New trousers have to be cut to my size and an old shirt needs two replacement buttons. I check into one of the many tailor shops around town. In a crammed, run-down room four tired men sit over old-fashioned Singer machines.
The head coutourier says he could do it.
"How much time and money do you need", I ask.
Immediately he looks as if he could lose the important job. "It would be 1,5 Euros altogether and you can come back in three hours," he hurries to say. That would be 7 p.m..
I know I should haggle, usually they quote a doubled price, but I can't. I ask if I could also come back around 9 p.m.?
"So when do you close today?"
A tired smile: "We don't close. We're always here."
At 10 p.m., between dinner and live music, I pick up and inspect my garments and hand over 1,5 Euros to a very tired-looking head coutourier.
— Frenchised —
Saint-Louis, the old colonial town, has whole strings of atmospheric delightful Old World pubs and bistros, neither grubby nor pseudo-chic, just like your extended living room, usually half open-air, something you get best in ex-French hot countries, not in Thailand and not in Commonwealth places. All these pubs in Saint-Louis have little music stages (and sometimes African djembe drums as bar stools). And like almost all Senegalese mid-range guesthouses, even the pubs have free, rapid wi-fi.
Behind the bar counter, local stunners swing glasses and bill blocks, with more locals in the kitchen preparing good food at almost European prices. The French owners and their clique of customer-friends stand around the bar counter with their drinks, sunglasses up in their hair, chatting, French-kissing and puffing happily. The owners of the breakfast bars drink their evening rouge at the dinner bars, and the owners of the dinner places take croissant and the first blanc or pastis at the breakfast bars.
Every dish whatsoever comes with a basket of cut baguette. The nicotine exhausts go out through the arcade doors and windows. It has an enjoyable, casually elegant air and I often muse that a Frenchised Sénégal is definitely better than the footprints of any other western country. (Not one hooligan tourist or bare beer gut here. The atmosphere in Anglophone Gambia is very much different; see later article.)
Swinging glasses of rouges, Africans and French people mix almost enthusiastically in the pubs. They all share a passion for La France and her great wines and I sense a harmony between the races that I haven't seen anywhere in Asia (and not in Anglophone Gambia, next to Senegal). According to Peter Biddlecombe's entertaining "French Lessons in West Africa", the French mixed from earliest colonial times with the locals. There were many mixed marriages and all children attended the same schools.
In November 2010, Saint-Louis, famous for its jazz festival in May, suddenly comes up with a "Festival Metissons" (lit. "mixed race sounds") with lots of live music. These events cannot be foreseen online and nobody knows at all at what time the final concert with all musicians combined will start. Really, nobody knows. Then again, any announced time could not be taken seriously anyway. When the posters for "Festival Metissons" suddenly mushroom, I quickly extend my stay in Saint-Louis by another four days.
The "Festival Metissons" brings lots of live music to town, like Spanish flamenco and rock guitarist El Pajaro jamming with local percussionists, bassists, kora and tama players in the chic Siki Hotel, a fantastic event that has the black-and-white crowd bouncing against the colourful ceiling lamps, including the Spanish Siki owner. Later I hear Suleyman Faye (the second time after Dakar, and no problem with that, especially when he sings Jacque Brel's "Ne me quitte pas" with all the bluesey tristesse in the world) and Pape et Cheikh, a big combo with a swinging, breezy mix of Buena Vista Social Club, Gypsy Kings, soft Santana and those refined, subdued, almost subcutaneous Senegalese rhythms that give a jazz rock edge to so much of the local music (for a full report on Dakar's feverish Mbalax music scene read Mark Hudson's equally manic, entertainingly exaggerating book The Music in My Head). The only disappointment are the French troubadours.
I believe that the Festival Metissons was organised by the local French Centre Culturel (there's one in every town). The Centre Culturel doesn't tire and one week after the festival hosts a concert by Misaal. That is fine, easy to follow jazz rock – think Spyro Gyra spiced up and with an Afro-Arabian wail singer. They are known to every taxi driver and receptionist nationwide. The entry fee: 1,5 Euros.
The concert is on the Centre Culturel's delightful open-air stage. Huge white birds fly across, lighted up by the stage equipment. One French lady gets angry because the Africans dance in front of the stage, so that she can't snap the very handsome lead singer. After the last note, the locals storm the stage and photograph their kids together with musicians in front of the percussions battery. After that, 'round midnight, the Centre Culturel's delightful garden bar opens, with a floor seating area. You can chat to the musicians and enjoy a sensibly priced drink. The enthusiastic young manageress announces: "And don't forget, tomorrow at 9 our Fête du Livre starts on Quai Masseck Ndiaye". You just wish you had a Centre Culturel in your home town.
I see the Saint-Louis live concerts in two cultural centres and a dozen delightful pubs and hotel restaurants. One thing I notice: You are never pressured for consumption. You can block a whole table for two hours with one single Fanta, while others have to stand and can't order a big seafood dinner. If you don't call them, the waiters let you be. In some pubs I follow the live music for hours without ordering anything at all. That is no problem, as you are in your extended living room.
This very unpushy, comfortable atmosphere exists not only during live concerts and not only in Saint-Louis, but also in Dakar's relaxed music pubs like Just 4 U. In Thailand's Udon Thani I once got kicked out of a fashionable music bar because I didn't want to order another drink ten minutes before curfew.
— No Free Digestif —
On most nights I dine in the slightly upmarket, very new La Kora. I always finish the dinner with an espresso (made with tabs here) to remain awake for the live music that often only starts at 11 p.m.
From the second night on, the French owner offers me a free digestif after I've paid the bill. That's tempting, and a Calvados is 5 Euros here. Anyway on several evenings I refuse to take the free digestif, to remain more fresh for the live music and to avoid confusion before ordering "a gazelle" (the local beer) in the music pub.
Every time I turn down the free digestif, the French owner and his two waitresses look totally baffled. Because of my limited French and the complicated reason, I don't explain my behavior (and they have seen me drinking cocktails and wine on other occasions).
On my very last night in La Kora, I am ready to drink a free digestif. I am looking forward to a Calvados. I finish off with an espresso and order "l'addition". Normally now the boss or a waitress should come with the bill and offer me the free digestif. But not this time. I get the bill and no offers. I inspect the bill and read as the last item: "1 espresso: free".
— My Friends —
All this post-colonial charme lets you almost forget that Saint-Louis is just another dusty rathole in Africa. The reminder comes as I walk around black Saint-Louis streets around 9 p.m. (there are almost no streetlights anywhere). Suddenly a huge, well-dressed local blocks my way, stretches out his hand and gives me a big smile: "Hi, my friend, I remember you from over there."
Another huge local now stands behind me. It's black and lonely.
There's always the reflex to grab a hand for a handshake. But I manage to avoid the handshake and shove my hands into the pockets, to protect wallet and mobile phone.
"Bonsoir", I murmur, slalom around the hunks and try to steal away into the night.
They don't follow, but shower me in cascades of swearwords because I refuse to remember them from over there.
— Pothole Research —
Taxi driver Amadou had taken me to his living quarter to rent a tiny motorcycle from his brother-in-law. It is around ten Euros/day, much more than in Thailand or Cambodia, but still less than at Saint-Louis' official, and very slimey motorcycle lender. After some talk, the price had been agreed and then, in the very last moment, the price went up again for no apparent reason. It happens several times like that in Senegal. It reminds me of booking hotels through Agoda.com years ago: They wowed me with their low prices and in the very last possible moment, after typing in credit card details, date of arrival and such, they came up with an unannounced five Euros additional fee per day.
Finally I leave Amadou and assorted friends and family on my rented micro motorcycle. I fill the tank at a regular gas station, drop the motorcycle at my hotel and learn from the receptionist – very indirectly – that guarding the "moto" at night will cost additional three Euros (for all three nights); and, oh, and guarding it by day causes more effort. The motorcycle has no key what so ever, by the way, and I didn't get any padlock, so I try to lock it just a little bit with the padlock from my bag.
Next morning – on Tabaski holiday – I set out on the motorcycle at 7 a.m. for pothole research in the cool. After two kilometers, the engine dies. After a minute it starts again, goes for a kilometer and dies. This happens several times. I even pass the gas station from the previous day and ask them what it could be, but they are not interested. Because of Tabaski, no garage is open, they are all busy killing muttons. I don't want to call the motorcycle owner, to avoid trouble. So in jumps of – one kilometer – one minute pause – one more kilometer – I finally return to my hotel to drop off the useless motorcycle.
I return to the street to reach my planned destination – the Senegal river meeting the sea at Mouit and Gandiol – by taxi. This will cost me another 15 Euros return, and I have a useless 10 Euros per day motorcycle at the hotel door.
It is 9.30 by now and it starts getting hot. I had envisaged sunrise in the marshlands, but didn't get beyond suburban slums so far. The streets have dying muttons and almost no taxis. The few taxis to be seen are full. Finally an empty taxi stops for me. I mention my destination and he declines. It is 10.30 now, that was my first motorcycle excursion in Senegal. I remain in town.
— Clever Taxi Driver —
I stop a taxi and ask the price for the 16 kilometers to Gandiol and Mouit. He says 16 Euros and after some stressful haggling gets down to the usual eight Euros. Later that day I call him to bring me back. Again, he wants 16 Euros and again, I have to haggle to get to 8 Euros.
Some hours later I plan to dine at Hydrobase, that is four kilometres from town. I ask his price for a one-way-trip to Hydrobase, four kilometres away. "Eleven Euros", he says.
— More of Amadou —
Taxi driver Amadou picks me up after a beach day at Langue de Barbarie. From a local fisherman, he buys a plastic bag of sizable carps for four Euros. "Not expensive", finds Amadou and describes how the fish will be grilled and enjoyed with various sauces tonight. Immediately I am invited to this occasion, but I decline with an excuse.
Many men in mainly Muslim Senegal have four wives. I ask Amadou about this habit. He says you never marry two wives at a time. First only one. Later number two may enter the house: "One, two years later, a younger one of course". I ask if *five* wives was ok too – but no, Amadou shakes his head disapprovingly. So how's one wife with several husbands? Amadou is highly disapproving again.
I dare to ask about his own marriage, but Amadou happily reports: "I have only one wife. I signed to monogamy on marriage day. If you have more wives, you first have trouble here" – he points to his left ear – "and then trouble here" – now at the right ear.
Amadou, convincedly: "Just one wife works very fine for me."
"And you!" Amadou now changes focus. "I can find you a good wife. You know, as an homme de taxi, I know many people. And she would cook European too!" Excitedly he fondles my bare knee.
For a marriage I'd have to hand 1000 to 5000 Euros to the girl's parents. From this money, they will hold the wedding party and finance the necessities at the mosque, including special jewellery for their daughter.
Some parents would request that I convert to Islam, to ensure that the kids would be raised following Muslim beliefs. Other parents might accept a Christian son-in-law. (A Christian daughter-in-law is no problem: with a Muslim man, the kids would be Muslims too, of course.)
Raves Amadou, "I could easily find you a 20 year old wife".
That'd be fun, I muse. A veiled teenage choco chick, praying to Mecca in the kitchen and in the garden, between our muttons in the front yard. For Tabaski, mutton heads would roll and we'd delight the neighbors by bringing mutton's legs along.
Amadou hears my silence, draws his conclusions and quickly assures me: "You know, 18 years old would be possible too."
— Music Lessons with Amadou —
Generally I prefer taxi drivers like Amadou – devout Muslims, always in "mussulman pajama" and family-oriented: they are more easy to handle and to negotiate than the other taxi driver types, in flavors of "Rasta freak", "crack dealer" and the occasional "Idi Amin".
One trip with Amadou, an Arabian scream roars through the car. Amadou fumbles for his dusty Nokia and answers the call, like usual starting with lots of greetings and enquiring about the opposite's well being: Salem Aleykum… Ça va bien… Nanga def… .
"A great ring tone you have", I say to Amadou later. "Was that Rai music from Algeria?"
"That was a prayer call from the Koran".
— Economy with Amadou —
When we discuss long-distance taxi prices, Amadou asks me, "do you know Ouru". That's a town somewhere in Senegal, but not on my watch list.
"No, I don't know Ouru."
"Hahahaha", now Amadou is greatly amused. "You don't know the French money?"
Oh, he meant "Euro". I am annoyed, again, how the French have brainwashed the West Africans. I burst into a big rant: "It's 'Euro', not 'Ouro'. And it is not only *France's* currency, but usable in 22 Euroland countries, of which France is neither the most populous nor economically the strongest. Got me?"
World economist Amadou is subdued for once. Anyway, like other businesses he prefers to discuss prices beyond roughly 50 Euros in the European currency, not in the West African CFA currency. 655,89 CFA are solidly pegged to one Euro, everyone knows that, changing both ways is no problem, so the Euro is a convenient second currency. Some businesses have even ten or five Euro notes on hand for change. (And usable ATMs and banks are everywhere.)
I doubt that Senegalese ever heard of any other currency except CFA, Euro and the old French Franc. Other currencies play no role whatsoever in Senegal.
— Langue de Barbarie —
The boat trip near the national park Langue de Barbarie is modest. The obligatory guide doesn't smile or introduce herself. She rattles off her program. Our first boat has to return after five minutes, because the engine is broken. We see a bird breeding island in the middle of the river, but don't stop there. A tour group after me has to unexpectedly wait 20 minutes, because there's no more gasoline.
Nearby, next to lazy Senegal river, is the large bungalow and camping operation Zebrabar. There I take a late breakfast with river wind and view. I meet a Belgian retiree who spends the winters in Senegal. He has a house at a riverside village nearby and two constant employees. He pays each 125 Euros per month year-round, a lot for a villager, who usually never gets a permanent job. They live for free in a separate house on his ground, but without family. One is a combined gardener and baker, the other is security and handyman. He also has "une bonne", a housemaid who's also a good cook. Foreigners may buy land without problems. He says he feels completely safe and his employees were definitely loyal. He knows where to buy reasonable Moroccan red and rosé around 5 or 6 Euros a bottle. You can't buy a drinkable French wine in Senegal, he says.
Actually, a boat man later tells me that all the nice houses on that river side belong to toubabs. And why not, there's always a breeze, seafood aplenty and the splendid Atlantic beach of Langue de Barbarie just a short boat hop away. Saint-Louis with its fashionable restaurants and music clubs is 15 kilometers far, but a few bungalow resorts cum restaurant, like Zebrabar, are almost next door.
I return to the Langue de Barbarie peninsula after several days. After a canal has been dug, the southern part is actually a real island, a few kilometers long and only perhaps hundred meters wide. On one side flows Senegal river, the other side is one endless Atlantic sand beach. There are no cars, but two bungalow operations, of course European-owned, like most places I eat and sleep at. It's a lovely, quiet, car-free piece of Senegal. Fish jump out of the water in the river side as on the ocean side. The river side has also warans swimming along.
It is so charming there that I spend two nights in the El Faro bungalow resort on the island of the Langue de Barbarie. The Spanish manager communicates in French and Spanish only and the signs are in French and Spanish too. Signs like: "Be careful with the tap water. Remember you're in Africa."
Like his Italian colleagues, El Faro's Senegalese cook Diouf has a very entertaining, animated way to praise his ingredients and recipes – and he cooks even better. By local standards, the other staff seem friendly and hospitable too. My bungalow seems relatively reasonable at 25 Euros per night. Only when settling, I realize that there is no way to remove all that fine powdery sand from your feet before entering; the bungalow has some mosquitoes, a very lame shower, just few hours of electricity – and no key.
No key? I walk back to the reception area where I find five local staff sitting around lunch: "Pardon, I still need the key for my bungalow", I say.
They smile and shake their heads. "There is no key. And don't worry. All is very safe here."
I smile and shake my head: "Remember you're in Africa."
— Onward with Amadou —
Affable and entertaining taxista Amadou offers reasonable prices for my onward trips to the Djoudj birds sanctuary (more in the next article), so I book him to this destination. We agree that we might stop-over at interesting tea-houses or river sites along the road.
Only later Amadou reveals that he himself will not drive to Djoudj, but will send me his brother with his second car. I say that I had believed I would enjoy Amadou's personal entertaining company, because I liked him. He smiles charmingly, but calms me: "He is my brother. We are one family. He is just nice as me. You are our friend now. We are all friends! We are family!"
When the driver turns up, he is totally different from Amadou. He's silent and un-welcoming and of a very different build – he's the "Idi Amin" category. Into his stone face I dare to ask if he is Amadou's brother. He shakes his head.
Absolutely wonderful trip report! I can't say Senegal enthrals me, but your trip report is great reading!