I originally published this entry a year ago, in January 2013. I decided to remove it and heavily edit it out of respect for the privacy of the family members that I mention. Here is the amended version.
If I could make one guess about how I became interested in the world outside of America’s borders, it would be my uncle Steven. I will never forget how in awe I was when, as a young boy, Steven presented me with a dagger from Africa. I will never forget his story about honey beer being brewed with bees and hives included, and young men standing along the road soliciting gifts in anticipation of their upcoming circumcision.
Steven was the only relative I knew of who had taken the path less travelled. He had earned his PhD in psychology and became involved in West Africa after a trip to Gambia following a failed relationship. This initial trip led to a deep involvement in Gambia and several funded studies, the first of which was on the psychological state of the refugees that had fled to Gambia from the horrors of Sierra Leone’s civil war. He would also go on to marry a woman from neighboring Senegal, Dimasse, and in his late 50s he became a father for the first time with the birth of little Michael (Mikey) Fox.
So this is my uncle, the nonconformist. Steven was not a big part of my family growing up, but if my travel bug could be traced back to a single individual, it would be him.
Before reuniting in Senegal, it had been six years since I had seen Steven, at my father’s funeral. I had never met Dimasse (they had only begun dating the previous year), nor had I yet to meet Mikey, who is now two a half years old. The idea for the trip was conceived over email, after Steven notified me and my siblings that he would not be attending family Thanksgiving festivities (no surprise, as it had been years since he had made an appearance). The reason, he explained, was that he would be spending December in Senegal introducing Mikey to the African side of the family and their heritage. I asked if I could come along for the ride, since his trip coincided with my plans to head back the Middle East and was ‘on the way’, so to speak. Steven quickly gave his blessing to the idea. And thus it was that I found myself sitting in a restaurant in the airport in Dakar, by myself, surrounded by a determined group of professional Senegalese hustlers . . .
Surviving the Airport
Before leaving the US, Steven and I were able to talk on the phone. My flight was scheduled to arrive in Dakar at 6:30 in the morning. Steven, Dimasse, and Mikey were scheduled to arrive at 9:30. This meant that I would have to fend for myself for three hours at the airport waiting. Steven gave me ample warning that the airport represented a danger zone rife with thieves and hustlers, and I should never trust anyone with my bags or let them out of my sight. This task was made infinitely more difficult by the fact that I had no less than four bags with me. It was the absolute maximum number that one person could handle by themselves without help of any kind: a hiking pack on back, a bookbag in front, and bags with wheels in each hand.
The plan contrived by my uncle was for me to make my way to the sole restaurant in the airport and post myself until he arrived. This seemed manageable. I have travelled enough to know never to accept help from anyone at places where tourists are to be found, i.e. airports, bus stations, and border crossings, because they will always demand tips and complain that what you give them is never enough. I therefore made it a point to carry my own bags, despite attempts by various porters to help. So after brushing off the army of porters without having to go through the hassle of giving a tip (and then, regardless of the amount, be told it is insufficient) I got to the restaurant.
What ensued was five hours of fending off the efforts of four Senegalese hustlers to wear me down and extort money from me. The game was simple; the hustlers would give me their sob stories and tell me that they just wanted 20 dollars to split between the four of them to grab some breakfast and support their families. Now keep in mind, Senegal is dirt poor – $5 dollars per man would represent quite a sum of money. $5 dollars is an especially large sum of money . . . when it is not in return for any goods or services. And this is what I spent the better part of five hours trying to explain, as I had mentally committed to not giving in to this form of extortion, which was basically, ‘pay us money and we’ll leave you alone’.
“Five hours?” you say, “but you wrote earlier that your uncle was arriving three hours later?” That’s true, I did. My uncle’s flight was delayed two hours, which was quite frankly terrifying for me. I did not have any contact information for Dimasse’s family, there was no monitors displaying flight information, and I didn’t speak the local languages (French and Wolof). After 9:30 came and went with no sign of my uncle, all kinds of questions started popping up in my mind; ‘What if he had been unable to catch his flight? What if I had somehow ended up at the wrong restaurant to meet? What if . . . they forgot about me?’ *sniffle sniffle*
No seriously, these are the things you think about when you are by yourself in the airport in Dakar and you’re becoming delusional because you didn’t sleep at all on the overnight flight (watching movies) and you desperately have to use the bathroom but making it to the bathroom with all of your luggage is a Herculean undertaking too intimidating to consider. About once an hour a flight would touch down and I’d wait excitedly for the sight of my uncle walking through the doors of the restaurant. Every time I would be disappointed and the feelings of growing panic would become stronger.
Finally a flight arrived and Muhammad, the most affable of the hustlers, walked into the restaurant with a broad smile on his face and told me that he had found my uncle. In my five hours of waiting I had pretty much explained my life story, of course including a description of my uncle and his family. I still kept my guard up as I followed Muhammad out of the restaurant and outside the airport itself. After a two minute walk I finally set my eyes on my uncle and breathed a gigantic sigh of relief. I tipped Muhammad (he had actually provided me a service) and after some shenanigans arranging a taxi and changing money, we were off to Loul Sessene.
My week in Loul
What can I say about Loul? This was definitely the most undeveloped place that I had ever visited. Very agrarian, lots of animal husbandry, and it seemed like electricity was a fairly recent addition to life. Not a computer, washing machine, or gas stove in sight, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a computer with internet access within a 100 mile radius. That being said, I have no problem showering myself with a bucket of water and a cup or using a squat toilet for my morning constitutional, so aside from the heat and humidity I was fairly comfortable.
My daily routine was simple – a good portion of the day I spent reading (finishing up A Savage War of Peace), as I had no real responsibilities. About once a day I would walk to the general store and buy any supplies that I needed, and my uncle and I would try to go on a walk through the village or the plains of the sub-Saharan sahel a minute beyond my uncle’s compound. We definitely got plenty of looks along the way. The kids especially would yell “toubob!” wherever we went. Apparently “bob” is slang for the British pound, and the Brits would pay Senegalese dock workers “two bob” (two pounds). Now Pale Faces throughout Senegal and the Gambia are referred to as toubobs.
Anyway, in my experience “toubob” did not have a negative connotation. My uncle told me that we were definitely not the first white people that the villagers had seen due to the presence of French aid workers in the area (none of whom we ever saw that week). There was, though, one young boy who definitely had not ever seen a Pale Face before, and hid behind his laughing peers as my uncle and I passed on one of our walks, in tears and with a look of abject horror on his face.
When I was with my uncle though, we would often stop to chat with people we passed. Steven speaks a bit of Wolof, and I think he had a goal of normalizing our presence in the village. Everywhere we went people were extremely friendly and curious about us, and my uncle would constantly chat with people we passed, explaining that Dimasse was his wife, that he would be staying there for a month, etc. etc.
When I wasn’t out on a walk with Steven or reading my book in the shade, I was hanging out with Mikey and his crew of cousins and neighborhood kids (also probably cousins). So allow me to introduce my youngest 1st cousin . . .
Getting to know Mikey
What can I say about little Mikey? Obviously he’s adorable. He’s also developed quite a personality for a two a half year old. Although he does not speak any French or Wolof (I chided Dimasse for not trying to teach him) he immediately got along fabulously with all of his cousins in the village. I didn’t want to contribute to his being a bit spoiled, but all I wanted to do was hold him and play with him. I certainly cannot let on that someone has that power over me, so I played it cool with Mikey.
Every day Mikey would wear himself out playing and pass out mid-day in the arms of Steven, Dimasse, or (one time) me. He is a very smart, expressive, affectionate boy who likes holding hands, playing with the sticker books that I brought for him, and ignoring orders from Steven to wear his shoes (bare feet for kids is the norm in Loul, despite the threat of hookworms).
When I left Loul after seven days, I definitely suffered from Mikey withdrawal. I wonder if he will remember me the next time I see him, or when that will ever be.
In any event, I had told myself that I should also get a peak at the capital of Senegal while I was in the country, so after some heartfelt goodbyes in Loul it was off to Dakar for four nights.
Four nights in Dakar
Where do I start with Dakar? I’ll start by saying that I would never recommend the city as a tourist destination. This was my first experience travelling in a country with a professional class of thieves, and I really did not enjoy it. The first thing I did when I got into the city was head over to the ferry station to check out one of Dakar’s few true tourist destinations, Île de Gorée (Gorée Island), a former lynchpin in the West African slave trade. When I got to the dock I learned that I had an hour to kill before the next boat sailed to the island. I decided to talk a little stroll, and it was at this point that I had my first encounter with a pickpocket.
Now my uncle is an old hand in West Africa, so before I left for the big city he had briefed me on all the different techniques that pickpockets use. The key for a pickpocket is to get you to stop moving. In my case I was walking through a market area and I young guy kept shoving white undershirts in my face. I kept refusing and walking at a fast clip. He kept following me trying to get me to stop and talk. Finally he just went for the ‘nice shoes’ technique, where he bent down, ostensibly to look at my mind-blowing footwear (a $1 pair of flip flops, I should add). Steven had warned me about this technique, so I was immediately conscious of my pockets and where this man’s hands were in relation to them. At this point I grabbed one of his hands that had made its way into my front cargo pocket, pulled it out, and created space between us. Now facing a rather large enraged man (yours truly), the pickpocket decided to move on to other quarry.
Flustered, I made my way back to the ferry terminal, chose a seat without anyone sitting next to me, and waited for the next ferry to come. When I finally arrived at Île de Gorée, I found it fairly nice and welcoming. Beautiful yet dilapidated French colonial era buildings remain intact, creating the sensation that you are taking a trip back in time. A sensation, I might add, that is constantly being ruined by people trying to sell you tourist trinkets throughout the island. There are a couple of museums, unfortunately none with explanations of items and exhibits in English (only French). I walked around, took some pictures, and called it a day.
I could go into more details about Dakar, but I don’t think it would be very fascinating. My crippling inability to speak or understand French prevented me from having a single substantive conversation with a local Senegalese person. The only people that I could communicate with were the Arabs in the ‘Moroccan quarter’ of downtown Dakar (many are, in fact, Lebanese). This section of street is just off the main Pompidou Ave. thoroughfare, a market street, and what’s interesting is that within a minute getting on Pompidou there will be pickpockets targeting you and trying to get you to stop moving, either with the ‘nice shoes’ technique or the firm, momentum-halting handshake (travel tip: NEVER shake hands with a potential pickpocket)
When I wanted to escape, I would duck into Muhammad V St. (the Moroccan quarter), which was like walking into a different world. I certainly do not idealize any peoples anywhere, but after travelling in seven Arab countries I am willing to make the observation that Arabs do not take well to pickpockets. Almost every time I entered the Moroccan quarter, any pickpockets on my tail would stop as if they had encountered some kind of invisible barrier they could not cross. It was also on Muhammad V St. that I heard, for the first time in my life, the Islamic call to prayer (ithan, in Arabic) performed without the use of speakers. It was beautiful, making me curse the day that Muslims in Arab countries decided it was acceptable to use cheap, crackly speakers to sound the ithan, thereby spreading a particularly foul type of noise pollution that disgraces the religion.
Regarding the night life, Lonely Planet described it as being fairly vibrant. Despite feeling about as cool as AIDS going to bars by myself, for the sake of learning as much as possible I did risk a late night mugging to see the city on two of the four nights. As Dakar is a port city, I had many pimps mistake me for a sailor, and I had to politely decline offers of prostitutes on numerous occasions. I try not to judge in these matters, but engaging in sexual activity with hookers in sub-Saharan West Africa is dicey business and not for me. In fact, in my old age I had difficulty staying up until midnight, and according to Lonely Planet things don’t really get going until 1 am or later.
What I did see, though, was not positive. The establishments that I visited had women in the employ of the bar (Ukrainian, Moroccan, Senegalese, or Asian) who were there for male patrons to talk to. Were these women prostitutes? Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. What is for certain, though, was that it was a contrived, rather than natural, place of meeting of the sexes. For that reason I would sit at the bar, have a single drink by myself (feeling and looking incredibly awkward, I might add), and then sally forth to the next establishment to continue my survey. Now conducting this kind of survey can be very enjoyable when you have company (as I did in Egypt, as I will describe in my next post). In Dakar though, it felt like a chore and I was happy to get back to my hotel room after each night of bar hopping.
So these are the things that I found interesting enough to write about. I now leave you with some photos from Dakar, which I hope you enjoy.