Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dakar, Senegal

We landed in Dakar, Senegal on March 11, the day after our 34th wedding anniversary. Neither of us had been to Africa before. In fact, Senegal wasn't on my top 50 list of countries that I wanted to visit before I died. The magnet of our sudden attraction to the Dark Continent was standing outside the terminal  behind a  metal barricade that separated the crowd of expectant hosts and eager taxi drivers from the stream of weary, arriving travelers. Our Peace Corps Volunteer son Jamie had been in Senegal for 19 months.

The Dakar airport, hub for Western Africa and gateway to Europe and North America, reminded me of a dozen drab, dim and decayed terminals that I have passed through in Latin America. Our daughters and a niece had preceded us in the last year but I knew that their stories and pictures could not rival the real experience: the musty smell of the terminal or the herds of goats that inhabited the medians of the roadways in the city.

While we were over the Atlantic, the United States (with the exception of Arizona and Hawaii) transitioned to Daylight Savings Time, so I think that when we arrived our bodies said that it was 3 in the morning but the sun was up and it was 8 A.M. in Dakar. Our son Jamie met us with an elaborately conceived and well coordinated plan. The essence of the plan was for us to spend the next 10 hours in a succession of hot and wind blown hired vehicles.

Thus came about our introduction to and education in the Senegalese inter-city public transportation system.  When I worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture I escorted a bus load of Danish fruit & vegetable buyers around Florida. I took them to breakfast at a Waffle House because, having lived in Europe, I knew that the bustle of the restaurant, the shouted orders from the waitresses and the frenzied dance of the cook would be something beyond their cultural experience. One of the Danes ran out and came back with his movie camera to record the experience.

Gale and I were similarly entertained when, several hours after our arrival in Dakar, a taxi dropped us at the central Dakar "garage." On the way over Jamie turned around from the front seat of the taxi and, with a stern look, warned his parents of the ordeal to come. 

"This garage is my least favorite place in Senegal," he said. "In order to survive, you need to put on your F### you face."

Kindergarden teacher Gale was genetically incapable of such a feat, but they both agreed that I could handle the task with ease.

The Dakar garage looked like a junkyard packed with vehicles, swarming with drivers engaged in cleaning, repair or indolence, and with an impressive horde of Senegalese street vendors. The arrival of three white people with luggage created a sensation. The sales mob descended on us before we could even exit the vehicle, thrusting their wares through the window and into our faces. 

The garage was ordered according to the destination city. At each departure point was a vehicle called a "sept place," which is French for 7 places. The vehicles had 7 places available, 3 in the back, 3 in the middle and one in the front. We were heading to Kaolack, the next big city on our journey. 

Jamie forged ahead toward the Kaolack departure point while Gale and I followed, dodging vendors. When Jamie arrived and announced that he wanted to go to Kaolack he was surrounded by drivers, all talking to him at once in Wolof, the local African language. The proposition was simple: we would pay for all 7 places for the 3 of us and our luggage. Although a lot of words were flying about, communication was in short supply. Jamie hated the whole Senegalese contract negotiation process and the fact that he had to do it simultaneously with 5 or 7 or 10 different people. The negotiation came to an abrupt end when Jamie walked with the driver to a nearby car and waved us forward.

We were able to exit the Dakar metropolis in record time and soon were gazing at the Senegalese countryside for the first time. The land was parched and hungry for the arrival of the rainy season in June. When we arrived in Kaolack, the headquarters for Jamie's Peace Corps Senegal Region, we took a brief break from the road for lunch.

After lunch we shouldered our luggage for a road march through the streets of Kaolack to the garage to get transport to Sokone, Jamie's home city, and Toubacouta, our destination for the day.

As we approached the garage Jamie turned to us and said, "This is my second least favorite place in Senegal."

The arrival of three white people, two looking elderly and infirm, elicited the same reaction as it did in Dakar, only on a smaller scale. Jamie immediately entered the "shouting match in a crowd" system of negotiating a price. The discussions were more heated and confrontational because we wanted the same 3 places for the price of 7 but we also wanted the vehicle to take us beyond the usual destination point and drop us in the center of Toubacouta, instead of on the main road from Sokone. Like the Dane in the Waffle House, I pulled out my camera and recorded the scene for posterity.

On previous trips Jamie forced our daughters and accompanying friends to endure the Toubacouta Death March. They returned with some horror stories of the ordeal. Both daughters advised Jamie that "the parents" should not be subjected to the strenuous hike, with luggage, from the Sokone road to the center of town. Gale and I agreed.

Thus the intensity of the negotiations in the Kaolack garage. For Jamie, it wasn't the money, but the principle of the thing. Just because we were white tourists we shouldn't be taken advantage of. Gale and I agreed.

After arriving at a price that both sides considered unfavorable but tolerable, we climbed aboard. Jet lag, the heat and the fact that we had been traveling for 30 hours in the same clothes began to impinge on our dispositions. We passed through Sokone with the intent to stop there on the way back and pushed on to Toubacouta, seeing our first monkeys scampering through the grasslands and the baobab trees.

In Toubacouta we transferred ourselves and our luggage to a small boat for a 20 minute ride through the mangrove forests of the vast Saloume river delta to a small island. On the island a donkey cart waited to transport our luggage as we walked for 30 minutes from the south side of the island to the north.

At about 6 PM we arrived at the Ecotourist resort in the Aire Marine Protégée du Bamboung. I was ready to stop traveling and rest for a while. Gale agreed.

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