Delightful West Africa 4 – Podor, Northern Senegal
After four hot and aggressive taxi hours (see last submission) I arrive very thirsty in Podor. I walk to town and find a corner store with a fridge. I take out a can of orange juice and immediately have very gluey fingers.
"That's 60 Euro cents", says the vendor. I only have a 5000 CFA bill, the equivalent of seven Euros. Unfortunately I had given all my small change to the mad taxi driver, to avoid any discussion about change. The merchant has no change whatsoever. He takes the gluey, yet very inviting orange juice can out of my hands and puts it back into the fridge.
I am lucky: almost next door another corner store announces "well cooled drinks". I ask for a cold drink – and learn that they have no fridge; but I should visit the neighboring store (where they have no change).
I am dieing with thirst and gluey hands. I walk and reach another corner store with a fridge full of tempting drinks. "I need a cold drink, do you have change for a 7 Euros bill", I ask the vendor?
"Haha, no", she laughs, "nobody has any change here."
"I can't believe it", I say, "I am dieing with thirst. I have seen two fridges full of cold drinks and I have a wallet full of West African Francs and Euro – but I cannot buy a simple drink?"
"Yes, that's your situation", she shrugs, "change money is very expensive now." These are her words indeed: "Change money is very expensive."
Like a figure in a dieing-soul-in-the-desert cartoon, I shlep pantingly through the sandy streets of the sahel small town of Podor. Is that a fata morgana or is it another corner store with a busily buzzing fridge? I ask if they have change.
"Yes, of course we have change." (Must be a fata morgana then.)
The problem here is that they only have Coke and nothing else. I don't like Coke. I never paid for and downed a Coke so fast in my life!
— Prayers and Juice —
After some more walking through town I feel thirsty again. I arrive at a gas station with the word "Boutique" painted to its tiny office building. The "boutique" consists of a buzzing fridge with tempting canned orange juice inside. And I guess at a gas station they have change on hand.
Unfortunately, peeping into the office hut, I see the filling station attendant kneeing on the floor on his mat and praying towards Mecca intensely. I am shy to step inside now with my mundane demands. I turn around to the petrol pumps. And there another attendant knees on his mat on the greasy floor, praying, next to the diesel pump.
Nowhere in Asia have I seen Muslim men praying as openly as in Senegal, West Africa – on the streets, in hotel lobbies, in wide open mosques and now in gas stations. Actually today's mad taxi driver had a grubby prayer mat and a fez lieing on the dashboard.
So there I stand, thirsty as a lost soul in the desert again, at a gas station with a buzzing fridge – and two staff prefer talking to Allah instead of Hans. But see: A third filling station attendant materializes, beams and welcomes me to his gas station with a big hand shake. Would I like some gasoline or other?
"Uhm, a canned orange juice would do for tonight."
"Ça va bien, monsieur!"
We step into the office hut and literally climb over the filling station attendant who is praying on the floor. That seems the way to handle the situation. With a delightfully cool orange juice and another hand shake I leave the shack. I start to drink right next to the gas station, where the other attendant still prays on the ground next to the diesel tap.
One of those little boys approaches me, picks at my arm and begs for money. You see them everywhere in Senegal, often ten in a bunch, dressed in rags, collecting change in plastic boxes and tin cans. They are called "talibe", literally Islamic disciples. They live at the Muslim teacher's house and the money they collect is said to support the highest marabouts' (Muslim leaders) expensive lifestyles. Not all Senegalese think friendly about all those gangs of dirty Talibe kids on the streets.
Now, while I want to drink my orange juice at the gas station, I have this obnoxious street kid clinging to my arm and demanding money. I find it difficult to turn a hostile child back with measurement. But the talibe kid has obviously not only disturbed me, but also the praying filling station attendant at the Diesel supply: The attendant interrupts his devout supplication, jumps up from his prayer mat and shouts at the talibe boy in full volume. The child disappears immediately and attendant and I wish each other "bon soir, monsieur".
— Evening Passagietta —
Promenading on from the gas station, another little boy walks towards me. No, not another talibe beggar! I take a deep breath and get in gear to shout him to shatters, in the manner of the filling station attendant. I give him an angry look, open my mouth and – bite my tongue: I note that the boy wears shoes, a clean shirt and no tin box: He's not a "talibe" beggar. The kid whispers "bon jour, monsieur" and is off.
After the sea-side town of Saint-Louis (see second West African submission), the evening in Podor feels very hot. But again, it is not at all humid and so seems relatively easy to bear.
I hear nice music streaming out of a haidresser's store, risk a peek and am immediately invited in. Two guys play e-guitar in the sad, repetitive "Sahel Blues" or "Pulaar" style that is best known from Malians Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar "Kar Kar" Traoré. They also have a band and sometimes play for Senegal river cruises. According to them, their blues songs praise local muslim teachers. You can see and hear the musicians here in the entry "The Isle of Morfil". They feel proud when I take their picture. Some put sunglasses on for the camera.
For me, they prepare again the strong and sweet Senegalese tea that seems obligatory outside the big towns (I had had another one from the guesthouse receptionist hours earlier and will get it throughout Senegal and Gambia; more on the details in the later Toubacouta submission). The water is boiled on a portable charcoal stove and the tea poured many times high through the air between several pots and glasses. The tiny cups are refreshing on a hot day.
— Dinner —
The terrace of the only inviting local eatery La Terrasse is full with people: A total of 4 punters occupy the three existing tables. My Senegal river carp with rice comes 1.5 five hours after ordering. The fish is completely cold, the rice hot. Maybe they prepared the fish first and began to work on the rice then.
I am more clever next day: I visit La Terrasse two hours in advance and order dinner in advance for 7.30. We discuss it all: the fish, the frittes, the salad, the beer.
I settle at my table at 7.15. At 7.30 I beam: the waiter approaches and brings my – beer. At 8.30 the beer is empty, the food not there. At 8.40 the waiter approaches and asks what kind of fish I had ordered. Dinner starts at 8.50.
— Village Trip —
Next morning at eight, my guide Malik sits in the hotel court yard as planned and gives me another reproachful look. What have I done this time? But it's not even me: The driver with his car is not yet there. "Some Senegalese people don't respect agreements", quips guide Malik. The driver is called on his mobile phone and informs that he just has breakfast at the bus station.
It gets a very special day outing after that. We drive to remote villages with mud huts and full mud castles. Enormous cattle of cows, goats and sheep roam the savannah, guided by Peul men totally covered in long robes. There are many powerful, archetypical visuals, but I almost don't dare to photograph.
We visit a village school, talk to the director and visit classes in stone buildings and in reed buildings. The teachers easily interrupt their lessons to talk to us. We cross Senegal river and other rivers several times on bridges and two times on small vehicle ferries, one is hand-drawn with a rope. Apart from our car, there are only horse carts ("caleches") and donkey carts on the dirt streets and ferries of the Podor region. The adults don't react to a white face, only the kids show mild interest.
The people grow maize, rice, cucumbers, aubergines and tomatoes, the river is full of fish and connected to the fields by powerful pumps. They have schools, health stations, bridges, good gravel roads and mobile phone reception.
Next to the ferry stations and bridges is often the local washing place. Ladies wash dishes, clothes and themselves. Many ladies there wear just a short piece of cloth around the waist, and nothing else, even while cleaning dishes and laundry.
We end up at a village right on Senegal river, with a shady mango trees grove next to the river. Guide Malik drops a few coins into a local hand; a floor mat and teas appear. There we lie in the soothing shade and stare to the other side – which is Mauritania. The situation reminds me of the northern Mekong coast between Thailand's Nong Khai and Chiang Khan: You sit in a Thai garden and look across the not so wide, brown gurgling water into another land.
Local boats cross smoothly between Senegal and Mauritania all the time (I also see that from my guesthouse window, which goes onto the river). Malik says if I wanted I could take a boat to the other side – "but it's just like here, and to go further you'd need a proper visa".
The next day a man paddles us along the Mauritanian side of the river. I suggest to stop and get off for a minute so that I can say I was in Mauritania. There is only bush and mud, no settlement on this Mauritanian stretch of the river.
Guide Malik: "Why, you are in Mauritanian waters already, you've crossed the border."
Hans: "Yes, but I want to set foot on the land."
Malik: "No, we can't do it, the river bank is to muddy, you see?"
I don't see, but I should be happy to not be let off without a visa.
— The French Expat —
We stop at a field on the Senegalese side of the river and meet an old Frenchman who bought land and has locals working on his extensive farm. Only here I also see bananas growing, and soon he wants to cultivate pineapple as well.
The Frenchman says that the Podor region was up-and-coming with westerners. "Buy now", he advises, "land is still cheap". In the fashion of all French speakers, including the Senegalese, he doesn't slow down for non-native me; but I understand as much that a huge piece of land would cost 2,000 Euro and a very nice western style house would cost 15,000 Euro.
The Frenchman tells me about the Champions League he just saw on sat TV ("Barca beat Real 5-0, do you believe it?"), but that doesn't interest me. He tells me of his alleged fondness for German TV and music, but that doesn't interest me either. I'd like to ask a few questions about expat life in the Senegalese hinterlands, but not in the presence of guide Malik.
When we leave him on his huge salad and onions field, between his handful of seasonal black workers in rags, the Frenchman calls behind us: "And you should find yourself a wife here. They have beautiful young girls in Podor!" He very much needs a buddy.
— Photography Again —
My guesthouse has a nice rooftop terrace overlooking a small, shaded town square and Senegal river behind. After four p.m., locals gather on that square to watch the river and to play boule (petanque, boccia). With my compact camera, I take a few shots from the terrace across into Mauritania, with the trees on the other side reflecting nicely in the water and the paddle boat shuttling between the countries. I don't ever consider snapping the square itself – I know the locals' paranoia about photography and anyway the whole square drowns in shadow. Nobody even looks at me.
Ten minutes later I meet the receptionist. "Monsieur, you should avoid photographing the people on the square", he says. The French word "eviter" means "to avoid". It is the first new French word I learnt in Le Sénégal, because you get a lot of advice to avoid a lot of things.
"The people on the square are angry now", informs the receptionist.
"I never photographed the people on the square", I rant. "I took the Mauritania coast with the nicely reflecting trees over there. The whole square is drowning in shadow, you can't photograph that now. And the people saw me on the rooftop terrace, so they could have lynched me directly, if they felt a human rights violation from my side."
"Oh, I understand. Well, you better go out and talk to the people. Also show the pictures you took. They believe you want to sell their pictures as postcards."
Ten minutes later, I step out onto the square. The camera is in my small shoulder bag. Before stepping out, I have moved most pictures from the memory card to the laptop (which remains in the room). Only a few harmless shots with reflected Mauritanian riverside trees are still on the camera.
I walk through the crowd on the square to the low riverside wall. Nobody is interested in me (which is normal behaviour; westerners are not so rare and in any case don't deserve any attention from a proud Senegalese, except for touts and children). I sit on the riverside wall all alone and watch Fleuve du Senegal gurgle west for ten minutes. Nobody talks to me. I walk back through the crowd and still nobody talks to me.
I see their point, though.
"Ethnic" postcards *are* on sale in the hotels. The towns and villages are strikingly photogenic. In Podor, most houses are plastered in a warm, fading ochre, each single crumbling wall a unique piece of art. The wooden window shutters may be in a warm earthen red, or solid blue. The low market buildings are painted in striking red-and-yellow – the MAGGI colours ("Avec MAGGI, chacque Femme est une Etoile"). Some colonial buildings remind you of southern France, complete with bougainvilleas bursting over wrought-iron relings. In five minutes of Senegal you may have seen more atmospheric towns – or villagescapes than in five weeks of Thailand. Let an old lady, with a laundry basket full of fish on her head, draped in luscious pink-golden robes, walk along these colorful walls, and you *have* a postcard. Not to mention the horse-carts full of people, the charming old-fashioned store fronts, the rounded mud castles of the hinterland and the little girls with all their hair-beads and vibrant smiles.
It all screams to be snapped; but polite, scared Hans may not. My photos from Podor, from Saint-Louis and from other highly atmospheric Senegalese towns show mostly empty side roads – or no roads at all. No busy market road, no revolting butcher's display. Occasionally kids ask me to take their picture. If I am alone, I will not do it. Only if I am with a local who confirms that I could take a pic without trouble, I might take a pic. Actually I'll invite my local contacts to play with my camera.
It is like losing your camera in a beautiful area. You want to snap and you can't. Would you even continue your holiday under those conditions? Even if you only snap a traffic sign in front of an ochre house-wall, you're eyed suspiciously.
A western friend recently told me that she had stopped photographing completely. She said: "For me, it's either *photographing* or *being there*. It can't be both." She'd be very happy in Senegal.
I personally would rather photograph more of Senegal, but be less there. I'm still working on the formula.
Boy am I glad that the sort of paranoia you experienced with the localss being photographed doesn't exist in Thailand!