Delightful West Africa – Dakar, Senegal
"So you're from the US or from France", asks the taxi driver?
"I'm from Germany."
"Oh, Germany… hmm… is that in Europe?"
"Yes, it is next to France". I hold up my left hand, then put the right hand next to it: "That's Germany."
"Ah, d'accord", he beams. Now he can relate.
All Dakarois seem in love with France, the old colonial power, and often say so. They practice French kissing among each other, the pubs show French sport. I hear French – rich, grammatically refined French – between the locals, even though most of them speak Wolof as well. All across the country, menus, street signs, advertisements, hotel web sites and phone cards are in French – and in French only; no local language, no English. Significant streets are named after French politicians and places. Even in grade 1 most school kids speak French only. Once I saw a sports class of ten-year-olds practicing on a village square. The whole lesson was in French.
— Good —
I sit in front of a half-finished non-alcoholic cocktail on busy N'Gor beach. In Senegal, any pub has interesting non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu. I don't know if that's a part of the dominating Muslim culture; alcohol is very much on the menu too.
I will finish the other half of my non-alcoholic cocktail while the sun goes down.
The waiter comes along and asks "C'est bon?" (Is it good?)
"C'est bon", I say. (It is good.)
He removes my half-full glass and trots to the kitchen. Lesson learnt: "Bon" means "good", but also "finished".
My French is not up to snuff and that makes me inferior in the eyes of the locals. Sometimes taxi drivers repeat my French stammering to themselves in *correct* French, just to understand me, adding all those plural endings, tenses and conjugations and correcting the nose breaking nasals as in "cinq cent Francs". If you aren't a master of French and member of the Académie francaise – as Senegal's first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor – they can't take you seriously. In Dakar, there are a few English place names like Sea Place or Magic Land; most people pronounce them as French words.
— The Fight for Change —
In the midrange beach restaurant Brazzerade I order a fresh lemon juice and nothing else. It's 3 p.m. and too hot; the place is empty. I don't ask for a menu or for the price.
When I want to pay, the waiter says it's 1500 CFA (2,3 Euro, 3,2 USD). That's slightly more than in other midrange cafés or restaurants.
The first bank note I get into my fingers is 2000. He says "That's ok" and leaves with the 2000. After five minutes he notes me standing there and waiting for the change. That surprises him. He disappears and returns with a handwritten receipt for 3000 CFA and says "Sorry sir, I made a mistake, the lemon juice is actually 3000 CFA (4,6 Euro, 6,4 USD). But I'll just keep the 2000, it is not a serious problem, thank you."
I say, politely: "What, 3000 for a simple lemon juice. I never had that price anywhere." He smiles and shrugs.
I say: "I can't believe it." He smiles and shrugs.
And it remains like that, especially in Dakar. Waiters in tourist venues try to overcharge, and change doesn't come my way. Waiters or taxi drivers hesitate to return any change. To make sure you'll only pay the taxi fare you just haggled for, you'll have to ask the driver directly if he has the required change on hand. If he simply says yes, you'll have to demand to *see* the change. That made a few of my drivers very angry – but they flashed the change. Otherwise, at your destination they'll just say "I don't have the change" and freeze.
If you yourself can produce the exact fare, Dakar taxi drivers come up with other ideas: "Sir, now that drive was much longer than anticipated, the price should be higher."
I say: "Why, you're a taxi driver here and you should know distance and price from the start. I only want to pay the agreed price." He smiles and shrugs.
(The long-distance taxi driver from Saint-Louis to Podor wanted to dump me 70 kilometres prior to destination, then tried to escape with my luggage.)
— Wednesday Night Out —
I have selected two live music clubs in the N'Gor area for tonight. I ask a taxi driver if he knows the Papayer live music club.
"Sure", he says.
We start out and he has no idea where to find the Papayer live music club. He asks around, gets shown into the wrong direction, wants to dump me at the Pam-Pam restaurant ("that's Pam-Pam, not Papayer", I moan), until we're almost in Mali. Finally I skip Papayer and decide to try the Blue Note club. That's right on the main Route de N'Gor, easy to find. He doesn't know that club either, but now *I* can direct him. I get out at the club, wade through the usual dust dunes and rubble pyramids and learn that the Blue Note won't have any concerts for two more nights. I had tried to check their website, but it had been down.
I ask another taxi driver if *he* knows the Papayer.
"Sure", he says and points into a direction that seems to be congruent with the map from the guide book.
"What is it", I ask, "a restaurant?"
"No, a live music club!"
Hear, hear. I decide to trust him. He stops at a pitch black stretch of road and says, "Look, it's closed." I can't see an entry. I can't see a name sign. Is that another scam? I'd had that in Calcutta, taxi drivers trying to dump me just somewhere. I will not step out of the taxi into the black Dakar to enquire.
He suggests I try Le Patio, a big music club we've seen on the way.
"Is it live music too", I ask?
It is not. (And he must have known.)
I walk into Le Patio and find a small, upmarket disco where unattached young ladies wobble to canned US Top 40 hits. I'd much rather have the local, feverish Mbalax style. But again the old cliché that young Senegalese females look like Naomi Campbell is proved wrong: they are much hotter. This makes me sink onto a couch and gawk at the Afro-disiacs on heels. There had been no cover charge, but any drink now – from Coke to Cocktail – is around 5 Euros.
A tall, stunningly well-built lady with long curly hair and high cheek bones joins me on the cushions. She speaks perfect French. I hear her name is "Maria".
"Maria? I never heard the name Maria in Muslim Senegal", I say.
"Why, no problem", she replies against Britney Spears' squeaks, "I am a cretin."
"What, a cretin? That's too harsh." Later I realize she meant Christian. It sounds similar in French.
Maria confirms that the Papayer music club is no more: "They moved, and they changed name."
Somehow, her head leans trustfully on my shoulder. Somehow, her hair feels not as nice on my skin as it should.
Hans: "Sorry, Maria, about your beautiful long hair – is it real or fake?" She admits: "These curls are fake."
But then Maria adds indignantly: "But *some* hair is real too, of course!"
Maria's long, slim, pitch-black, gold-bedecked and well-manicured fingers wander over my rosy-white tourist arms. Her bare and endless, muscular, black-metallic legs press against mine.
I point at her cellphone: "Careful what you do here! Your boyfriend will call you and he will not be amused."
She withdraws immediately and gives me an affronted look. She thinks for a moment and snaps: "I told you already, I'm a good catholic girl. So, if I actually had a boyfriend, I would not come to this disco. Bien sûr! But as I am solo, there is no problem. You understand me!"
I have obviously embarrassed her. Only reluctantly, with utmost reservation, under protest, her long black fingers return wandering over my lower arm, lighting bushfires here and there. And those bare, athletic, enterprising legs: 99 % cocoa content, choc and awwwe. God knows I love a sweet bite.
"So, where do you stay?", asks my black Maria.
— Dakar Beach Holiday —
I stay in N'Gor. I had decided to stay in that Dakar suburb – and not in downtown, 10 kms south – for the music clubs of N'Gor. Now the music clubs of N'Gor disappointed (see above). But even without the live venues, N'Gor is best for me. I have a hotel room with a balcony right over N'Gor's busy fishing village beach. There's always some football, bodybuilding and drum session going on, apart from all the fishermen and horse carts. You can hop onto a cheap pirogue to visit tiny Île de N'Gor one kilometre out in the sea.
My hotel room has three perfectly mosquito-screened windows, so I sleep with a breeze to the tune of the Atlantic Ocean. The breakfast is in the open air beach café (two meters over the beach, thus shielded from possible troublemakers, and until 10 a.m. the climate is delightful). Hotel pelican Béatrice guards the pool.
— Breakfast —
For a change, I try the breakfast buffet in the Lagon II minimalistic hotel where rooms start at 150 Euros (210 USD). The buffet is minimalistic too, the air in this air-conditioned room un-fresh. The view is over glittering water towards the historical Île de Gorée. Three delightful, young, African ladies dressed in smart casual walk in and take the table behind me.
I wonder if service and food here would justify a room price of 30 or 35 Euros in Thailand, maybe 45 Euros in Bangkok. Meanwhile, the air has gotten even worse, to the degree that I develop a headache.
I get up to draw another milk coffee (waiters wouldn't go round to pour), which also is good company for my Malarone anti-malarials. As I return from the coffee terminal, I see the three delightful, young, African ladies at their table: all smoking happily.
This continent still has a way to go.
Not that the Westerners are any better. Most of the restaurants I eat at are French or at least European run. Wherever the owners are present, they happily puff away in the eating area. Probably enjoying a freedom they no longer have north of Gibraltar.
— Meet the People —
Dakar poses the same stress as other hot capitals: You want to see the live music which only really starts after one a.m. – and you want to get out early for your day tours, to avoid the greatest heat and rush. One night I return around 4 a.m. from a Suleyman Faye concert in the delightful, semi open-air Just 4 U club and get up two hours later, to reach the ferry to Île de Gorée at 7.30.
The 20 minute boat ride starts on the minute and takes me to a carefully restaurated traders' village in the Atlantic ocean. There's a slavery museum here, even though Gorée's actual role in the slave trade was tiny. The car-free, cobbled roads and the historic mansions, all with the glittering Atlantic and then Dakar as a backdrop, make for a fine day outing – and a perfect refuge from the madness of downtown Dakar. I get a vague feeling of being in the Cap Verde islands or in Salvador da Bahia, other historically important trade posts.
Of course I snap away, but not for long. If any person is dimly visible 50 meters away, they will scream "No photos! Not possible!" When they pass me they give me ugly looks, complaints and continue to grumble around two more corners. I never photographed them anyway, but they don't want to hear this. Like your Asian wife, they know so much better than you what *you* did, what's wrong and what's right, so there is no need to further inquire, and all justification to rant ad infinitum.
In one case I snap a door knocker on a house, when three middle-aged ladies 20 meters away start shouting, "Don't take pictures! We don't allow that! You're being rude to us!" They stare at me wildly. (I use a tiny compact camera.)
I walk over to the angry ladies and say friendly, "I didn't take you. I will not take people I don't know. You've seen that I only snapped the house door, didn't you?" All that in my limited French.
They still fume: "But at one point, you held the camera down and towards us!" Yes, that was when I changed camera settings, I happened to hold the camera in their way. There is no slightest hint of financial compensation or physical threats.
"Do you want to see my pictures", I ask them? "There are no people anywhere."
They want. No: Now, that I offered the possibility, they demand a picture review to demonstrate who's in control. They see 20 empty roads, the overall view, hibiscus and bougainvillea blossoms and architectural details. They are still angry: "What do you need all those for! What are you doing with that!" I say it's just my holiday memory, hoping they agree. They shake their heads. (Gorée's photogenic restoration had been paid with my tax money.)
They are still pumping with anger, highly disapproving, but allow me to stumble my way.
When a charming lady in attractive robes attaches herself to me. She inquires my name first, then introduces herself as Fatima. She mentions that she has a food stall down at the ferry point and if I wanted to accompany her that way? I answer politely that I just had food. She makes me promise to see her later. "Don't forget to see your new friend Fatima, will you!"
Not before long, I've also met Catharine, Oulimata and Isabelle, who have jewellery stalls or hawk wooden masks. They follow me around three corners and make it clear that the refusal of a sales transaction is a racist, culturally insensitive act from my side. I am ignorant of teranga, the traditional Senegalese hospitality. Each single lady leaves me in a huff.
Île de Gorée is a wonderful, eerie place. I could walk for days here, and the ferry leaves about every hour until late. Just only the locals disturb it. I take the boat back to Dakar at 3 p.m.: I am completely exhausted from the permanent attacks from people who accuse me that I photographed them or who accuse me that I did not buy from them.
I sit in the big, modern ferry boat and enjoy my new found solitude; nobody will accost me any more. At which point I am joined on the next seat by – Fatima, the well dressed restaurant lady. She makes it known to me that I had had the audacity to not visit her food stall. I have deeply disappointed her, she informs me, but then, according to Mme. Fatima, some people actually are like that. She says something else I don't understand, so I just smile helplessly. She hisses back in a very rude tone and stamps off – another toubab shown to his station.
— Meet the Mutton —
Later, on N'Gor beach, I want to snap a mutton that's tied to a post in the middle of the public beach. A local shouts at me to stop.
— Meet More Muttons —
I want to make clear that the touts and hawkers hassle is only in Dakar's central Le Plateau area and on Île de Gorée. There is none of that as I explore Dakar neighbourhoods like Pointe E, Pointe des Almadies, N'Gor or Yoff.
No hassle also in the poor man's quarter of Medina, east of the Great Mosque, Youssou N'Dours birth place. Nobody gives me a look. Man and women simply go about their chores in public:
– On the sun-drenched road junctions, next to the communal water tap, sit the ladies and do the washing.
– On the shady side of the pavement, right on the ground, next to herds of defecating, urinating, tied-up muttons, sit the men and do the mutton-watching.
They don't even care for my money. When I step into a Medina phone shop they say they can't sell me a SIM card: I'd have to do that in the post office, but later they could sell me credit. I consult my hotel receptionist; she walks across the road, buys a regular, sealed Orange SN SIM card from the auntie store (2,5 Euros) and activates it for me right away.
— Hole in the Wall —
In the downtown post office on Avenue Pompidou, I buy a stamp for my post card to Europe. Silently, the stamp comes across the counter. I walk around the post office and find no letterbox. I point my post card to the post man and he says as much as "outside".
I walk outside, but in the glaring sun, with five touts clinging to my shirt, I don't see a letterbox either. Until I notice a businessman in a black silken dress. He stuffs ruffled papers into rough holes that have been broken into the post office wall. There is no sign, just the damaged wall.
"Excusez-moi." I flash my post card, point to the holes broken into the wall and smile a question-mark to the businessman.
"Oui, oui." The businessman points affirmatively to the rough holes. From his grin I understand that he has seen nicer letterboxes in his life too.
— Sound Advice —
The regional forums on Lonelyplanet.com are often the best source for up-to-date travel information. There is a very busy forum dedicated to Thailand alone. The whole of Africa gets one other LP forum, and that includes tourist destinations like Egypt, Morocco and South Africa. The Africa forum isn't busy at all and now I know why. I had asked for the best guide book for Burkina Faso, with a special respect to hotel recommendations. I receive a total of three answers:
– You don't need guide books. Ask travellers and tourists when you arrive. They know better.
– Always take hotels near the bus station, where the locals sleep too. It's cheaper.
– Send me a private message. I know the best hotel in every town.
One time I have a slightly pressing question about Senegalese visa requirements that is – embarrassingly – not answered in the Lonely Planet guide. My question in the Lonely Planet forum gets no answer for twelve hours. So I type the key words of my question into Google. The results page lists my question on the top position.
— Drink Time —
The Hostellerie du Chevalier du Boufflers is the most expensive restaurant on Île de Gorée. After a light lunch, I order an espresso. What I get in the tiny Lavazza espresso cup doesn't look like an espresso. The waiter sees my disapproving face and says: "Sir, the espresso machine is broken. I brought you a filtered coffee in that espresso cup."
On the other hand, the "Harar" espresso coffee in the Ethiopian restaurant Lalibela is truly amazing. A dream in black. It comes served from a fancy clay pot, the preparation takes 12 minutes. I am a little pressed for time, still I order one last "Harare" espresso. When it finally arrives after 12 minutes, the waitress pours from that fancy clay pot and this time she looks disapprovingly into my cup: "Oh, that's not truly black. Maybe not strong enough. Wait, you get another one." She's off. Another 12 minutes.
If you order café au lait, you always get coffee and milk in separate pots or cups. Even in upper midrange places, the milk may be ice cold. In some places, the milk is made from milk powder.
In other places, café au lait is just a thermos of hot water, a tin box of Nescafé and some sachets of milk powder. Even though the Nescafé tin box looks the same everywhere, the coffee made from the powder tastes different in some places. Sometimes I just drink the hot water.
In the Janeer live music club (formerly Pen'Art), for a concert of showman Jean Ngor Maack, I order a Mai Thai from the menu (6 Euros). The barkeeperess looks up the recipe and frowns. She fills most of the glass with Bacardi, reads the recipe again, adds other ingredients and pours more Bacardi on top. She hands me the glass and says, "If anything's missing in there, just tell me what and I'll pour it."
In Saint-Louis' Just-In music club I order a Mojito from the cocktail menu. They prepare a short drink without ice or menthol leaves. The manager in tie and black leather shoes shoves the result my way: "Please try, sir, and let me know if anything is missing."
— Le Mamelles —
One outer part of Dakar has two very distinctively shaped hills and is officially called Les Mamelles, The Breasts. The eastern peak hosts the Monument for African Renaissance – a heroic, supersize statue of a small family; faces and dresses don't look African at all. I see them every day when shuttling between hotel and downtown.
The ugly, shadowless, environmentless Monument for African Renaissance was meant as a tourist attraction. From the revenue at the entrance gate, 35% goes straight to Senegal's long running president Abdoulaye Wade's bank account. He says he conceived the monument, so he should get rewarded for his intellectual property. You wonder if he claims royalties for every traffic law and press conference as well.
– Saturday night out —
In the Airport Hotel's Piano Bar, I hear a rather generic jazz concert. I step over to the night club in the same complex. It's a steep 12 Euro cover charge, but the local ladies wobbling are even more sensational than in Le Patio (see above). Numerous local hunks roam the space wearing shades. The western guys have the shades up in the hair.
I sit on a barstool, cling to the drink that you get in exchange for the entry ticket and turn around to the stage with another amateur fantastic dance show. A black bursting bombshell fixes my knee with her upper thighs and rubs frantically against my knee.
"Mademoiselle, excusez-moi, could you find another rubber tree", I ask politely? I just hope she won't accuse me of racism and disgracing traditional Senegalese hospitality. She drowns me in her distinctive mamelles.
It's a short taxi hop back to my place. It's a lovely, fresh night and in other countries I might have walked. But here the walk means one kilometre of rubble, dust, sand dunes, gaping holes and what not. Not to mention other dangers: My hotel receptionist had advised to always lead the taxi directly in front of the hotel door: "There are some bad boys outside." (Though a local from next door told me there was no danger at all in the N'Gor vicinity.)
In front of the Airport Hotel, I stop a taxi and he demands 2000 West African Francs, 3,3 Euros. I say I would go for 1000 (which is still too much). He says, "no sir, 2000 is the night tariff". It is the toubab tariff, I think, but don't dare to say and leave him standing there. The next taxi already waits for me. The asking price: "1000 Francs, sir." I believe he saw me declining the first offer.
Very, very nice indeed.
I find Africa fascinating and really would like to visit places like Senegal, but the truth is that reports like this excellent report of yours, as well as a first-hand report from one of my closest mates who spent a good amount of time in Africa recently really make me think twice about it. I don't mind paying a little more than locals, but paying way over the odds for shoddy service and inferior product, as well as battling just to get to a place you're keen to see due to the deviousness of taxi drivers and the like detracts from the experience – and puts me off.
* Travel reports from off the beaten path places like this ARE very welcome, particularly from those who have been to Thailand and who may make the odd comparison with Thailand! This wonderful travelogue may not be about Thailand, or even South-East Asia, but I think it makes for wonderful reading nonetheless.