So we made it to Dakar (Senegal), on Day 8 via Madrid. Our friends Philippe and Charlotte picked us up at the airport and brought us back to their spacious apartment for our first yummy dinner.
This morning we finally got our first glimpse of Dakar as we made our way to the port for a day trip to Ile de Gorée. Dakar is Senegal’s capital and has a population of over 1 million. It’s a port city with an interesting history and still retains a strong European influence (the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French all had a hand in Dakar’s development – for better or worse).
My first impression: this place is incredibly alive and drastically different from any other place I’ve ever seen/visited. The streets are pulsating with voluminous traffic, make-shift commerce and incredible disarray. There are zero rules of conformity here which perhaps is “the” main rule (have not seen a traffic light yet nor an identifiable street trash can). There are people everywhere and they all seem to live and make their living in the streets.
It’s the city of a million salesmen! As our cab traversed the city from one end to the other (en route to the port), we encountered hundreds of street vendors (all on foot, weaving and bobbing between cars), selling everything imaginable: socks, mirrors, books, soccer jerseys, tissues, cookies, rugs, calling cards, soccer balls, sunglasses, tapestries, paintings, etc. As traffic would stall, our cab literally got bombarded by these street entrepreneurs offering us their “best price”.
We finally arrived at the port and caught the 12:30 ferry to Ile de Goree, a critically significant island situated a couple of kilometers of the mainland. The island itself was first colonized by Portugal and then jostled between Holland, England and France with each nation having stamped their influence on it. Ile de Goree served as a major center of commerce and navigation to the new world. It also has a dark history for its Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), which was a stop on our tour – more on that in a bit.
The ferry ride was quite interesting.. a few locals befriended us (one of which was also named Brigitte), and urged us to visit their shops on the island. Then came a glib tour-guide who offered his services at 8,000 CFA (about $18). Reluctantly we gave in but negotiated the price down of course. In the end he ended up saying he’d do it for free or the “pleasure of our eyes”, a common expression here (we settled on 4,000 CFA). The island is very colorful, pastels adorn many of the houses, museums and other historic/administrative buildings. About 1500 people inhabit the island and many are incredible artists; we visited one guy’s shop/atelier and we very impressed with his sand paintings (he utilizes 7 or 8 different colored sands from various parts of West Africa). As lunch approached we settled on a place down by the port overlooking the harbor. Chicken Yassa and the Catch of the Day comprised our meal and it was very tasty (I also had the pleasure of finally drinking a Senegalese beer named La Gazelle in 63cl format). On a day that clocked in at 103 degrees F, the Gazelle was savory salvation.
After lunch we visited the Maison des Esclaves which was a saddening experience.. the house was utilized by colonizers to store slaves, sort them based on gender, age, physical ability and then either ship them to the Americas or keep them in Africa (the ones deemed fit were set off for an arduous 6-12 week voyage across the Atlantic in the harshest of conditions). Although only about 300 slaves (out of the 12-15 million) were passed through this island, it is one of the few reminders left of one of the darkest and most shameful periods of human existence.
Our day at Ile de Goree concluded with a quick visit to Brigitte’s shop after day-long exhortations to swing by. We made it clear we wouldn’t buy anything because of limited space but agreed to go for “the pleasure of our eyes”.
On our way back to Philippe and Charlotte’s place (via the Corniche, the road on the coast), we passed by one of the grandest and most bewildering things in Dakar. A 50 meter tall bronze statue of man, woman and child (called the African Renaissance Monument), symbolic of the future of this country.. Apparently the statue was highly controversial due to its $27 million cost while the majority of the people in this town live in devastating poverty. This is one of the most visible and “heart softening” aspects of Dakar. The contrast between the “haves” and “have nots” is utterly immense. Rundown shacks and luxury villas coexist side-by-side. The insurmountable level of poverty here is fragmented by fancy resorts, hotels and other luxury condos (the polarizing contrast is mind-boggling).
Also insurmountable is the good-will of the people here. They are very friendly and welcoming. While most live in conditions that would be incomprehensible to many westerners, they possess an incredible human spirit and we are lucky to experience it.
Our first day in Senegal was topped off with a great Moroccan dinner with Philippe and Charlotte at Le Meridien hotel near their place. What a day!