You’re On Vacation In this Place? — Up and down Senegal and in and out of The Gambia — Part 2

This article is part of a series. Read Part 1, where I describe the delights of Dakar and the memorable characters I meet as I explore it.

I’m having a bad day. I’m crouched, perspiring, cranking the jack against a flat tire on the roadside of a highway in the desert. I wipe the sweat off my brow and glance murderously at a Peul man named Bashir, who I have only just realized played me for a fool. How did I get here?

It began when I arrived in the city of St. Louis, the former colonial capital of French West Africa, 8 hours north of Dakar and on the border with Mauritania. To enter the city, you drive on the Faidherbe bridge, a sturdy suspension bridge whose arches were designed by Gustave Eiffel, a decade after he built his tower in Paris. The bridge is named after Louis Faidherbe, the French general and former governor of Senegal who subdued the Toucouleur empire and the other pre-colonial states, and established French dominion over the country. I imagine the city once looked like Havana or Cartagena, but that was before the French left. Since then, it has fallen into a state of decay and disrepair. It looks poorer than Dakar and its streets are dirtier yet it maintains a certain faded beauty. I’m staying at the L’Auberge Pelican, where I meet a 20-year old named Ousseynou, who is small and compact and looks younger than his years. He checks me into my room and makes conversation. He asks me if I speak Spanish. Yes, I reply, somewhat surprised. He proceeds to speak Spanish to me for the rest of the time I know him. He’s learned it from the Spanish guests that stay in the auberge. This surprises me because he speaks it quite well, albeit in a clipped staccato of an accent that reminds me of how the Hausas of Northern Nigeria speak English. Just how many Spanish tourists have come to visit this forgotten town on the edge of the Sahara desert? I learn that he belongs to the Peul ethnic group, which is how the French refer to the Fulani, one of the largest ethnic groups of the Sahel, nomadic pastoralists that span all of West Africa, including the North of Nigeria where they are significantly culturally mixed with the Hausas. That’s why his accent in Spanish is so familiar.

“Los taxis. Quinientos. No mas.” he tells me. Don’t pay more than 500 CFA for a taxi.

I thank him and head it into town. Apparently the taxis here operate differently than in Dakar because my taxi driver stops to pick up other passengers, an old woman, a couple of young fishermen. We drive on the road along the Senegal river, filled with large pirogues and so much garbage. The smell of fish guts is omnipresent. And yet, intermingled in these scenes of a hardscrabble Sahelian city with young men making repairs on the boats, ankle-deep in garbage, women selling any and everything, old men on mats standing and bowing and kneeling again in prayer, are white men and women, walking around leisurely. They stand out not only because of their clothes and skin color, but the lightness of their walk. As I walk around the city center, dipping into cafes and restaurants, there they are, enjoying a beer, conversing and laughing in French. What brings them here? The sun? Nostalgia for the French Empire? Senegal is turning out to be much different than I expected. That’s when I meet Bashir. He’s loitering around the Hotel de la Residence. He offers to give me a tour and I walk with him. He seems knowledgeable and sincere and I get his number just in case. And that’s when my troubles begin.

But before that, I have a interesting if surreal couple of days in St. Louis. In the midst of the decay and dilapidation, I explore cafes, hotels and bookstores, spaces presided over by French people, oases of first world comfort in the midst of the dilapidation of the city. I browse art at L’Agneau Carnivore, and lose myself in books written by Senegalese authors. I read about the Senegalese tirailleurs, the infantrymen recruited by the French in all of their colonies to help fight their wars against their fellow Europeans. 200,000 of them fought in World War I and 30,000 of them died in Europe. After the war, they formed part of the occupation force of the German Rhineland, fathering children who would be known as the “Rhineland bastards” and later be persecuted under the Nazis. They would then fight the Nazis during World War II, outraging German troops who had been schooled in Nazi racial doctrine. They even helped the French subdue other parts of the continent, in Chad, Congo, Algeria and Madagascar. How were they repaid for their century of service? On the night of 30 November 1944, the tirailleur units at the Thiaroye camp on the outskirts of Dakar mutinied against poor conditions and unpaid wages, in response to which they were fired upon and massacred by their white French brothers-in-arms. I’m deep in this history when the white-bearded face of a modern-day colonist wakes me up from my reverie. He tells me the books are for buying and not for reading. I beg his pardon and excuse myself.

That night, I head to some bars recommended by Ousseynou. There’s music but no party-goers. I feel strangely alone and hop around until I get to Flag Embuscade. There are two toubabs and one Senegalese playing pool. All look to be in their early 20s. I order a beer and watch for a while. They are speaking English. The whites are American! Suddenly very curious as to what two college-aged white Americans are doing in this far-flung town, I strike up a conversation with the girl.

“Where are you from?”

“Manhattan. Lower East Side.”

“How did you get here?”

“We drove from Paris,” she says. “We took the ferry from Spain to Tangier (Morocco).”

“Cool,” I reply, genuinely impressed. “How was Mauritania?”

“Dry,” her male companion replies. I think he means it both figuratively and literally. The desert country adheres to a strict Islamic code and consumption of alcohol is not permitted in the country.

The girl is 18 years old and is traveling with her father and the family friend. Her father is a fashion designer who was sponsored by some French car company to drive to Dakar and make a documentary or something. She seems older than 18. She has to be mature if she’s over-landing in Africa. Her male companion however, is drunk and gives me weird vibes. I also notice the father she’s mentioned, and he looks out of Zoolander. In his late forties, he’s dressed in skinny black jeans and a black t-shirt, and white boots that look like they’re made from the skin of an exotic animal. He’s got long hair tied in a bun and a bushy beard. Where do they find these people? He eyes me suspiciously. I suppose I have been talking to his 18-year old daughter for some time now. I switch to talk to their Senegalese companion, a big guy named Cheikhouna. He speaks great English, maybe he learnt it from the movies, as he tries his best to affect an American accent. He’s a chick-breeder, bodybuilder, model and actor and he shows me his Instagram account. A few minutes spent talking to him and I can tell he’s a pure soul, all earnest and full of good energy.

The next night, I go out with Cheikhouna and Ousseynou to Iguane Bar, a bar themed for the heroes of the Cuban Revolution. I offer to buy them beers. No alcohol for the good Muslim boys. Sodas instead. Ousseynou doesn’t speak English, and Cheikhouna doesn’t speak Spanish. We could all speak French, but for some reason we don’t. I speak Spanish to Ousseynou and English to Cheikhouna and they speak Wolof to each other, the lingua franca for Senegal’s many ethnic groups. And this is how we get to know each other. I ask them what jobs there are for young people in St. Louis. Cheikhouna says the government is terrible and does nothing for the young people. He says things are tough but he seems optimistic. Ousseynou doesn’t talk as much and sips his soda, watching the people. I can’t help but think about how young he looks.

My troubles begin the next day when I shake Ousseynou’s hand goodbye and go with Bashir to the car I just gave him 15,000 CFA (around $30) to get to take me to desert of Lompoul. But there’s no car and he takes me to a shared taxi. I then realize that apparently what I negotiated with him was to pay him 15,000 CFA as a guide fee to take me to Lompoul. I’m dismayed when he tells me this, but I wonder if my French was lacking enough that I somehow misunderstood him. As we make our way through taxi and then get on a giant commuter bus, I decide that in fact, no, my French is good enough, I did in fact make an agreement with Bashir to take me to Lompoul in a car for 15,000 CFA, and this bastard is scamming me. The anger and humiliation sit in my stomach and begin rising up to my chest, hot. I get over my urge to be agreeable, and begin to argue with him. “No, you misunderstood,” he tells me, looking pained. And then, the bus breaks down. The passengers get out and stand while the driver looks below the bus at the engine. I walk into the desert to relieve myself and try to calm myself. How could I have been so stupid? I had looked at his face and seen an honest man. My judgement had failed me, clearly. I send WhatsApp messages to the boys back in St. Louis. I think Bashir lied to me.

Bashir no es una buena persona.” comes back the text from Ousseynou on WhatsApp. You could have warned me last night, man.

“Ok I see, but it’s already done, don’t worry, it will be an experience.” Cheikhouna says. Always looking on the bright side.

I look over and the jerk is walking towards me. “Venez.” he beckons to me. We leave the bus, and trudge on the highway. Where the fuck am I going now? A hundred meters behind, there’s a white pick-up truck with two men bent over the tire. Bashir begins to help change the tire. He tires out and ask me for help. I want to take the jack and bash him in the head with it. In the end, I take it from him and begin to work. No use being stranded in the desert.

A few hours later, I’m still tired and pissed off, but I’m sitting in the shade at an eco-lodge in the desert of Lompoul. I tell Bashir to fuck off and I accept a sweet fruit drink gratefully from the tall guy at the front desk. I’m starving and there is no food to be had at this eco-lodge until dinner at 6pm. I didn’t eat before leaving St. Louis. The guy tells me I can go to the village and try to find something to eat. I get on the 4x4 which brought me to the eco-lodge and spend 10 minutes driving through the sand dunes back to the village. I’m hot and hungry and angry. The “village” is just a few squat concrete shacks around the road. Now this is the extreme poverty most people associate with the continent. Children dressed in rags playing with whatever they can find. I ask around for food and am pointed to a shack where two men are laying down. One gets up, and asks in his language what I want. He doesn’t seem to understand any French, so I mime that I want some food. He goes back further into this shack and comes out with a chop of meat, dripping in grease and looking most unappetizing. Ok, I say. He tosses it on the fire and I wait, wondering what I’m getting myself into. 5 minutes later, I’m short 500 CFA and holding the roasted chop in my hand. I take a bite. It tastes like nothing. I can’t stomach it. I guess I will fast until dinner. I hitch a ride on another truck heading back to the eco-lodge. Walking back from the truck, I see a group of 4 villagers bent around a large basin. This communal style of eating is common in Senegal. They must recognize the hunger in my eyes, because I hear the words “Venez manger”. Come eat. I look to see smiling inviting faces. I don’t hesitate. They hand me a spoon while they eat with their hands. Rice and fish and sauce all mixed together in this large basin. When we’re done, I thank them profusely.

“Je vous en prie.” the woman who invited me replies. You’re welcome.

I book a room for the night and join another group of young guys who offer me tea. I convince one to come with me into the desert and take photos. I ride a camel further out into the desert. I then take a much-needed nap until dinnertime.

As the sun sets, the temperature drops so much that I need my down jacket which I haven’t worn since New York. I sit in the open sand under the stars, taking in the beauty. And it’s beautiful in a way photos can’t capture. The sun waning over the desert, its light reflecting off the yellow dunes. I don’t know a soul in this place, and I feel I may as well be on another planet. The other eco-lodge guests begin to come out and I observe them. A lot of middle-aged folks with their young families in tow. I estimate there are 100 or so people in the lodge. With the exception of a Senegalese family and a French family that looks to be of South Asian origin, nearly everyone is white. As the sun finally goes below the horizon, and the staff light lanterns, I listen to the hubbub of conversation and laughter. All around me, I hear the low murmur of metropolitan French, the animated melody of Italian, even the odd cheery American-accented English.

At dinner, I strike up a conversation with a man next to me. He speaks French but doesn’t sound French. I ask him where he’s from.

“New York City.”

I switch to English. “No way. Where in New York?”

“Crown Heights.”

I start to laugh. Here in the desert in West Africa, among all these people, I’ve managed to sit next to the one guy who lives 10 minutes away from me in New York City. His name is John and he’s traveling in Senegal after being in Burkina Faso for his work as a dance instructor. I tell him my story of getting swindled to which he says he can do me one better. In Dakar, he got on Grindr and invited a man over to his AirBnB. After sex, the man tells him he’s a prostitute and needs to be paid. The man calls someone on his phone and tells them a client is not willing to pay and they should come over. Scared out of his wits, and not daring to think about what would happen if he goes to the police in a country where homosexuality is criminal, John goes to an ATM and is blackmailed into withdrawing $1000 in CFA and pays his hooker. “Fuck”, I think. And I thought I was having a bad day.

We hear the sounds of the djembe and walk out into the darkness. There is a fire roaring a short distance away and young men are leading the European tourists in dancing around the fire. Children and adults alike seem to be having the time of their lives, hooting and hollering and jumping. John and I exchange a look of bewilderment.

“Yeah…I think I’m gonna go to bed.”

“Yeah…me too.”

I look up at the sky. I have never seen so many stars in my life.

I wake up the next morning to a text from John. He’s low on cash and needs my help as we both happen to be heading back to Dakar. I can certainly help a fellow Brooklynite I met in the Senegalese desert. The journey to Dakar will be long and hard, as getting around by public transport here always is. We have to get on the 4x4 with the other guests that will take us to the village. From the village, we will find a shared taxi to Kebemmer, where there is a large station. There, we can find a sept-place (station wagons that seat 7 people) for the journey to Dakar. I’m not looking forward to this and I’m still in a bad mood due to yesterday’s events.

The unique factor that makes travelling in this country so hard is the information asymmetry. You’re never sure you have the right information. We know the route because that’s what someone at the Eco-Lodge said. However, they could be wrong or have outdated information. At the village, there are no obvious signs of sept-places or buses going to Kebemmer. We split up to look around and when I go back to reunite with John, he’s with two European women in their late 20s or early 30s.

“You’re traveling around Africa by yourself?”they ask him incredulously.

The women are Marta and Celia from Barcelona and were also staying at the eco-lodge. They have arranged a private taxi to take them to Dakar for 50,000 CFA. If we join them, the cost is cheaper for the Spanish women, and saves us the hassle of getting there the really cheap way. I can’t shake my foul mood and I’m wary of these women, yet I grudgingly admire John’s resourcefulness and resilience. He’s had a far worse time than I have and he is surprisingly in good spirits. We agree and load our bags into the car. The women are quite friendly and I feel a little guilty for being uninterested in making conversation. But I can’t shake a shitty mood so I let John do all the talking for us. And then I see the tattoo of the outline of the African continent, sans Madagascar, on Celia’s back. Interesting.

“Is this your first time in Africa?” she asks.

“Well I’m from here, I was born in Nigeria but I live in the U.S now.”

“What’s it like?” she asks, clearly fascinated.

“A lot bigger than this, a lot crazier. What about you?”

“Oh, we were in Kenya in the summer,” she says beaming with pride. “We just fell completely in love with Africa.”

Well, now I’m interested in these women.

“What did you fall in love with in Africa,” I ask, steeling myself for whatever nonsense I’m about to hear.

“The cows, the people. It’s just the complete opposite of Spain. It’s soo different. So we decided to come back.”

“Well,” John says tentatively. “This is a different country.”

“Oh yes,” chimes in Marta from the front. “I think it’s much poorer here.”

The women are constantly on their phones. WhatsApp. Instagram. I notice both looking separately at the same close-up picture of a black toddler, face solemnly looking into the camera. They’re sending to each other, sharing on Instagram stories. Marta is constantly refreshing the screen to see who has seen the picture. Why do these people love this so much? Is this what they come all the way here for? You go to Paris to see the Eiffel tower, Milan to see the Duomo and “Africa” to take the pictures of hungry children?

The car slows down to pass through a busy market. The women take out their phones. They snap pictures of it all hungrily. Every crying unattended child. The everyday life of a poor and busy Senegalese town, they gawk with their smartphones.

At some point, the driver stops, rolls down the window and begins to converse with a man outside in Wolof.

Celia leans past John and looks at me, eyes bright and teeth bared. “Do you understand what they are saying?”

“I — What — No — we speak different languages.” The response tumbles out faster than my brain can process what I just heard.

A couple of minutes pass without a word being said. John catches my eyes and he smiles knowingly and raises his eyebrow.

“Hah!” I let out a bitter laugh, involuntarily.

“What’s funny?” says Celia.

I shake my head and look out the window. “Nothing. It’s just funny, that’s all.”

The mood in the car changes abruptly. The silence is awkward. The women switch to speaking Catalan to each other. Celia makes a big show of putting on earphones and even sings along faintly as if she were alone in the car. The rest of the ride passes like this. My foul mood has resurfaced and I begin conversing with John in English about shitty Europeans and their strange obsession with images of African poverty. We have a long conversation about this that the women may or may not be hearing because I’m not taking great pains to lower my voice.

As we arrive in the leafy suburb of Dakar where the women will get dropped off, Celia points and says, “So different from where we were before, huh?”

“Yeah,” I say. “You should take some pictures.” She doesn’t take me up on the offer.

The women are dropped off and they say enthusiastic goodbyes.

“Disfruten bien de su tiempo en Africa,” I say with sarcasm they probably don’t register.

We drive through the late afternoon traffic to John’s hotel. I pay the man 25,000 CFA for myself and John and I make to leave.

“Non Non Non!”

Wide-eyed, I look back and forth between him and John. He begins to insist that we owe him 25,000 CFA more because the women only paid him 25,000.

“Yes,” we tell him. Because the price was 50,000 CFA. And now, we’re all yelling and arguing in the car. It’s hard to make cogent arguments in a language you don’t speak very well, even if you’re right. You spend precious time looking for a word, or trying to conjugate your tenses, it takes away from the efficacy of your argument and makes you look like liar. Luckily, John was a French major in college and is holding it down. The driver won’t relent and says we will go the police.

And that is how, I find myself, heavy backpack on my shoulders, climbing the stairs up into a Senegalese gendarmerie. There are so many people around. A tall officer asks the driver to explain. We begin argue and yelling. On and on it goes. We’re asked to go into another room and we repeat the charade for a more senior officer, and the taxi driver and him begin to speak in Wolof.

Parlez Francais!” I bark in frustration.

Finally, the senior officer asks us to drive back to where we dropped off the women and confirm the arrangement. We thank the officer and follow the driver back to his car. He sits and browses his phone, muttering something about how he’ll contact the person who arranged for him to pick up the women. I realize we dropped them all the way across the city and 30 minutes away in traffic and the driver is now reluctant to go back.

I tell him vehemently to do what the police officer said and drive and that I will not sit in this car with him. He continues to stare at his phone. “Let’s go,” I tell John. We grab our bags and walk as fast as we can without sprinting. We go up to John’s room where we collect ourselves. John pays me his share of the ride and I go downstairs to find a taxi back to Scat Urbam, avoiding the parked car. I collapse into the back seat and shake my head. Fuck, it has been a rough couple of days.

I was going to meet up with Dawson who’s still in Dakar and get a taste of the nightlife. Instead, I decide I’ve had enough and will just get dinner and go to bed early. I’ve got a bus at 7am tomorrow to Casamance, in the far south of Senegal, which I have to cross Gambia to get to. Dinner is fish and it’s definitely overcooked but I don’t complain. I just want to be in bed. I lay down and wait for sleep to take me far away from the memory of these terrible past couple of days. It doesn’t come. I toss and turn. And then my stomach begins to pang.

Continue on to read Part 3, as I struggle with food poisoning and diarrhea on my way to the south of Senegal, where I grapple with past and present French colonialism, with an assorted cast of characters.

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