Note: Uploading images doesn't seem to be working for me, so I'll add pictures when I am able.December 19, 2006
I woke up this morning at 4:45am and left the house, draped in my small backpack and even smaller sling-pack, at 6am to take a taxi to the Banjul harbour. At 7am, the ferry arrived to take us from Banjul to Barra. I stood on the main floor of the ferry beside a family sitting next to a car. Getting to Barra, the craziness of the taxi garage, the bus to Dakar appeared to be absent, so I haggled a spot in one of the several cars heading to the border, bouncing crazily over a dirt road for half an hour. Security was lax at the border: my passport was stamped by an official eating his lunch as I walked across the border. I then took a taxi to another garage a few kilometers away where, amidst the bedlam of cars and food vendors, I arranged a spot in a 7-seat Peugot 504 car (basically a station wagon with two bucket seat in front, and two three-seater benches in the back) to make the trek to Dakar. The first thing I noticed about Senegal was that the roads were more paved, and the beggars were more numerous and more aggressive. I sat jammed by the window of the back seat, as if in a 3-seat row of an airplane. The drive was a bit like going from Saskatchewan to Alberta: not too different, but the feeling of greater wealth. The drive was also like traveling through the Alberta prairies, but with more deciduous trees. We drove through several towns that were like going through Serrekunda. The trip was calm if a bit cramped and I enjoyed the scenery outside the window, although it was a bit tiring to keep making frequent stops.
We finally hit the outskirts of Dakar at around 4pm, some 6 hours later. It felt like the Gambian markets multiplied by a 1000, with a freeway moving through the middle of the bustle.
Dropped off at the garage, I arranged a taxi to take me to my hotel in the downtown core. Upon arriving at the hotel, I was rather apprehensive of my surroundings but, after an hour of sitting in my room, I forced myself to go for a walk through the neighbourhood, and am glad I did. I relaxed at Le Viking and tried the Senegalese “Flag” beer. The place was a nice British/Irish-type pub. I had shawarmas at Ali Baba’s, which was a Lebanese fast-food restaurant. The city centre of Dakar was very dynamic: I saw buses again, and more people wearing suits. A bit like Vancouver. It certainly had an African feel but with a big city vibe. It was nice, but I figured one might as well stick with western cities. Driving into Dakar, I felt a familiarity with the big city energy, but was also apprehensive about the busyness. When I got to the hotel, it felt like being dropped off in an alley in the midst of urban decay. I had heard horror stories about the city, and was particularly wary of the uncertainty of the main Avenue Pompidou just a block down from my hotel.December 20, 2006
Spent the day seeing much of the city’s downtown. I went to the IFAN museum, which has particularly nice masks and sculptures, but not much explanation of anything. I walked along the area south of Avenue Pompidou, from the Museum to the Presidential Palace and up to Place Independence: very nice, European, shaded, interesting architecture. The French colonial influence was everywhere and, wide-eyed, I over-indulged somewhat in pastries and ice cream from various nice bakeries. My breakfast and lunch were spent sitting on small wooden benches next to Senegalese eating street vendor sandwiches, made of bread, some sort of meat, an onion sauce and butter: cheap, greasy and tasty. I saw a panoramic view of the city from the rooftop pool of the Independence Hotel, and was amazed at how far reaching the city was. I made two attempts to find the Grande Mosque and in the process walked through the north part of town, the market, the Medina. It was all crazy busy, very commercial, very hectic, very crowded.
Supper took me to Chez Loutcha, which looked like a hole-in-the-wall from the outside, but was great value and had a café feel. I had a giant dinner of calamari at this Cape Verde specialty restaurant. While being ignored by waitstaff for a long time, I ended up chatting with an American girl named Maria who was just beginning a 3-month trip through West Africa. Afterwards, I went for a beer at the bar at the Hotel Ganale, which was nice, flashy and cozy. Walking through downtown Dakar after dark felt largely uncomfortable: the streets were poorly lit, most stores were closed, and homeless people were everywhere.
I very much enjoyed the south part of Dakar: it was busy, cosmopolitan, rich, with an African flavour, but I find what that I like most are the things that are western and European. There is a different mentality among the African people and workers here than in the Gambia: they are more advanced, more modern, self-assured, sensible and competent. They seem little different from western folk, which isn’t the case in the Gambia.December 21, 2006
Today was my trip to Goree Island. On the ferry ride over, I met an older, well-travelled American woman who had worked her way down from Morocco by land and was heading for Mali the following day. She didn’t like Dakar, feeling it to just be a city. While this is true, in getting away from the Gambia, that is exactly what I wanted and needed on this trip.
I was one of many tourists on the chaloupe. Goree was wonderful, a quiet, peaceful getaway from the craziness of Dakar. It was filled with European-style houses with window shutters that opened up over quiet cobblestone and dusty lanes. It was very much leftover from colonial influence: French or Portuguese, I’m not sure. It would be a wonderful place to rent a room for a few weeks if one wanted to do some writing.
Goree being a former slave island, I visited the Maison des Esclaves, including the Door of No Return, which opens up over black rocks on the edge of the water. It was crazy to see the cramped cells underneath on the main floor and the pretty colonial architecture where the Europeans lived just above on the second floor. I went up to the castle, which was little more than a nice view across the ocean to Dakar in the distance. I saw the police station, the oldest building in Goree, as well as the lovely Eglise St. Charles, which very much had an outdoorsy, warm climate, colonial church feel. The old town of the island, however, was very much a typical, run down African neighbourhood.
Not feeling well in the afternoon, stomach is killing me. Perhaps I have malaria. I slept and watched CNN and movies on my hotel television.
Dinner was at my hotel restaurant, the Farid, a very nice and classy Lebanese restaurant with fun music, but expensive. I had Fatayer fromage, and something called “Fatte Ijrain Fatte Pieds de Mouton” of “pieds de mouton, lait caille, pignons de pin sautés, pois chiches, pain libanais grille”, with Lebanese bread and Lebanese chocolate ice cream for dessert (which was good, but oddly sticky). Very good meal, but still feeling ill, so smaller appetite than I otherwise would have had.
There are very good restaurants in Dakar, but a bit pricey for my budget (yet still somewhat cheaper by Canadian standards). I think I will save up during the day, and splurge on suppers.December 22, 2006
Dakar is on a south-facing peninsula. I walked the perimeter of the peninsula today along the Route de la Corniche Est, down to the Palais de Justice and Cap Manuel at the tip, then back up the Route de la Corniche Ouest, missed wherever the Village Artisinal was supposed to be and ended up walking all the way up to the University (where I checked my email from a cheap internet café and found out that my sister is engaged), then wound my way back as best I could through Fann Hock, Guele Tapee, the Medina and to the Plateau. In the Corniches and the Peninsula, because there were so many government, embassy and military buildings, there was lots of security everywhere.
Corniche Est: like Saskatchewan Drive overlooking the ocean. A quiet path along the various ambassador residences and the Presidential palace. It had great views and was very serene, but I had to be careful as apparently it’s not a place to come after dark, attacks occasionally happen, and it’s better not to go alone.
Palais de Justice: abandoned and hideous concrete slab of a building.
Cap Manuel: very quiet, I was completely alone, and spent some time simply overlooking the ocean.
Corniche Ouest: busy with traffic and construction.
The walk back through the city: very hectic, typical African neighbourhoods, lots of people and livestock, and I saw a dead rat. The smell of the city really bothered me. However, I was hassled much less than on the Avenue Pompidou. I also didn’t really care for the open markets. Walking through the Marche Sandaga at one end of Avenue Pompidou, crazy doesn’t begin to describe the experience of blocks and blocks of vendors and stalls, thousands of people acting like they’re on the floor of a stock exchange, teeming stalls, with buses and motorcycles trying to make their way through the throngs.
Dinner was at a French restaurant called La Dagorne by the market at the other end of Avenue Pompidou, the Marche Kermel. Although not too far from my hotel, walking there was probably a mistake: the streets were dark, secluded, unlit, with deserted alleys. Unfortunately, restaurants open rather late here. With nice places to go to, it’s unfortunate that the streets as a whole aren’t more engaging in the evenings. The restaurant had a nice bistro feel, with vines and a nice atmosphere. I had rabbit with mushroom sauce, vegetables, bread and peanuts and vanilla ice cream. It was also expensive, but probably much cheaper for such a meal than back home.December 23, 2006
I went to Le Salon de The de la Galette, where I had a panini for lunch. It was a takeout bakery with tasty looking sandwiches and sumptuously enticing desserts.
I did absolutely nothing during the day but stayed in my hotel room away from the hectic world outside, slept in, took another long, hot bath, and watched movies/CNN/soccer all day. I also started reading “A Christmas Carol”. It was a great, relaxing, rejuvenating day, a welcome part of my vacation.
For supper, I went back to Chez Loutcha, liking their great-value meals. I had cous-cous with fruits de mer, which had a decent variety of shellfish, with lots of prawns and calamari, something I didn’t recognize, and half a crab, which I unfortunately couldn’t figure out how to eat.
One of the main things I wanted to do in Dakar was hear high quality, live Senegalese music. It being Saturday night, I took a taxi to the Village Artisinal on the west coast and was dropped off at a dead end fence with no bar visible. I followed on good faith somebody who said he’d show me the way. It was just a short way in amongst the dark paths of the closed shops and stalls. Nothing was going on at my destination of Le Kily, so I went to Le Soumbe next door. This was a large, open-air bar, like a beer gardens in a covered enclosure next to the Bay. They played a mix of western and African music, but the place had an overwhelming smell of fish, so I didn’t stay long. It did seem to ramp up a bit at midnight when I headed back to Le Kily.
I was told by several people back in Gambia that Dakar has a great nightlife, but being on my own I didn’t really care about it beyond wanting to hear some high quality live music. Le Kily: it was strange to have a large, live music venue hidden in the middle of a dark, deserted craft market by the ocean. I sat at a booth and listened to reggae, waiting for the show to start. It was dark and nothing really got going until probably 2am. The show was wonderful: Thione Seck and le Raam Daan. The band had about 10 players, and I finally had some actual, live, west African (Senegalese) music rather than the touristy “island” fare you get in Gambia. I danced, and although the style of singing takes some getting used to, I loved the frenetic drumming.
It was a nice change from the Gambia. This was all locals simply enjoying their night out. I was left alone. The bar and music were not catered for tourists, which I enjoyed. The Senegalese at the club were also largely wearing stylish clothing, demonstrating the wealth disparity between the two countries, where in the Gambia you largely see what looks to be mismatched second hand western clothing. Being in Dakar, I was able to enjoy actual musicians who run clubs here. It’s a bit like going to Dublin and going to a Bono-owned club where U2 plays on weekends. I finally got to bed at 5am. I can’t get used to the late night starts of the nightlife here.December 24, 2006
As expected when I decided to leave Gambia on the 19th rather than the 20th, this ended up being a wrap-up day. I did some laundry, shaved, and walked around the areas of downtown and down on the peninsula and coast that I have enjoyed in order to see them again, get some fresh air and exercise. The Corniches once again felt a bit like being in Vancouver.
It was very quiet today, either because it’s Sunday or because it’s Christmas Eve, but most places were closed and there was little foot or auto traffic, which left largely the dozens and dozens of homeless people, invalids, lepers, beggars, and disfigured people who reside on the streets.
Dinner was at La Palmeraie: delicious hot chocolate, a wonderful crepe pizza and a Grand Marnier flambee dessert crepe. The restaurant had a wonderful atmosphere: wooden chairs and tables, a few checkers boards, a wooden bar-like service area, stained glass decorations. It was a mix between a turn of the century French café and a coffee shop. The Christmas decorations and the easy listening instrumental versions of pop songs that sounded oddly like Christmas carols gave it a lovely, cozy, snowed-in Christmas Eve feel which I both loved and which caused some pangs of longing. I now look ahead to Morocco: uprooting yet again and venturing once more into unknown territory.
Reflections on Dakar: on the whole, it was a very positive and satisfying experience. I did all I wanted to do and saw all I wanted to see. I could have done with one less day but this allowed me time to relax and enjoy doing nothing either in the city or in my hotel, which was a wonderful and needed part of my vacation. Everything worked out exactly as I had hoped and planned.
Pros on Dakar: nice big city amenities: wonderful restaurants (especially the Lebanese and French influence, mixed with West Africanism), a good music scene, the wonderfully enticing ice cream shops and bakeries. The city had a bigger and more diverse population, which allowed me to better blend in and keep to myself. Everything seemed richer and more modern, and people seemed to have more to do and their own lives to focus on. Generally, the lives of locals didn’t revolve around harassing tourists so, although the street merchants were more aggressive than in the Gambia, I was largely left alone for my time here. The city had nice, European-inspired architecture. There were good coastal views and walking paths. Goree Island was marvelously quaint. From a personal perspective, the time here allowed me to reacclimatize somewhat before returning to Edmonton. There was electricity, nicer cars, internet access, water, a more cosmopolitan and accomplished feel, like the New York of West Africa. Outside of Avenue Pompidou, I was hassled very little and felt pretty safe. The Hotel Farid was great: quiet, clean, reasonably priced, centrally located in the downtown core to be convenient, had a bathtub, air conditioning and a television.
Cons on Dakar: most of what I liked was what made it more western and less African: the European-style restaurants and residential neighbourhoods. The open markets were not my thing: they were immensely hectic. After all the warnings I had heard and read about, I also never felt completely comfortable and safe in Dakar, always being a bit wary, always looking over my shoulder a bit, and I could never afford to truly slow down, relax, and be lost in my own thoughts in public. This was more than in a western big city, where you take reasonable steps against random violence rather than always wondering about targeted crime. As a result, I never really felt comfortable talking to people and really trusted nobody. For me, the best was what Dakar offered rather than Dakar itself: the nice architecture is deteriorating, the city is filled with urban decay, there are scores of homeless, sick and disfigured people. Realistically, most people would have looked at my hotel neighbourhood in the downtown as being a slum. I’ve just gotten used to it. The city was largely dirty and hectic, like Serrekundha but multiplied by 1000 and placed in an urban setting, especially around the markets and in the traditional Medina neighbourhood. Dakar was also rather expensive. The air of animals, cars and garbage made me feel ill during the trip. The culture of littering was strange to me. I also missed having a place to go running.
As Christmas Eve is celebrated with random fireworks going off from random downtown streets and balconies, making my hotel sound like it’s being bombed, and a group of small children watches in pleasure from the street below my balcony amidst the roar of motorcycle engines, I’m ready to move on from Dakar. I think once back in Gambia I will try to enjoy the peaceful, low key beach lifestyle when I come back.
Dakar was a great time away of rejuvenation and invigoration. It gave me a much-needed dose of western living and a bit of (over) indulgence as the first few days were like being let out of prison into the sunlight. I managed to get by with my French, although my vocabulary is limited and I have forgotten a few grammatical rules and conjugations. It was pretty good, though, for being 12 years out of practice. On to Morocco.