Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Why You Should Travel to Dakar, Senegal

Recently, I gave myself the most awesome birthday present: a solo trip to Senegal and The Gambia! Initially, I was to travel with a friend whose birthday falls in the same month as mine, but when that plan fell through, I thought to myself, why not travel solo? Being that I’d never done so before, it was an exciting proposition that also fell in line with the objectives laid out in my 2015 tab list.

Ile de Goree
Photo: Shayera
Monument de la Renaissance Africaine
Photo: Shayera
To clarify, I’ve traveled solo, but never for several days to a country where I didn’t know a soul, and definitely not for pleasure.

I had long wanted to visit lle de Goree in Senegal, especially after Obama visited the Island. In addition, it’s been a goal of mine to learn more about West Africa by visiting more countries in the region. Prior to the trip, I’d lived in Ghana aside from my home country of Nigeria.

Planning the trip wasn’t much of a challenge, as there was a wealth of information online, albeit written by non-African travelers. Plus, I also knew a friend who’d had visited Dakar. I spent several weeks researching places of interest, taxi fares, cultural sensitivities and restaurants where I could eat Senegalese meals without making a trip to the toilet from food poisoning. Since I had only 4 days (eventually spent 2) to spend in Senegal, every second of it count had to count.

After much research, I settled on Lac Rose, Musee IFAN, Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, Pointe des Almadies, Marche Kermel and of course, the piece de resistance – Ile de Goree. Additionally, I chose a classy restaurant where I’d have my birthday dinner.

With my itinerary sorted, I bought my ticket and counted down the days until my trip.

Of Course it is Africa. Ile de Goree, Senegal
Photo: Shayera
Interestingly, on the day of departure, at the International airport in Lagos, several immigration officers asked why I was going to Senegal and what was happening there. In their minds they couldn’t grasp why I would want to visit a place like Senegal, which struck me as odd. It wouldn’t have been strange if I said I was going to the US or UK, because that’s where Nigerians visit en masse. And maybe that’s the problem. Why not invest your hard-earned cash in Africa (and I’m not talking about South-Africa) and learn more about the continent?

During my master’s program, I recall speaking to a European classmate who had seen more of Africa than I had, and it’s this encounter that made me consider touring Africa once I became financially independent – but I digress.

I had just answered for the third time I was going to Senegal for pleasure, when I resolved to give a sarcastic reply to the effect that I was going there to marry Akon, should any officer ask again. Unfortunately, no one bothered me afterwards.

I boarded my flight to Dakar and arrived at 2am – 4 hours after we’d departed Lagos with a 30 minutes layover in Banjul. Once we deplaned, I went through immigration, grabbed my luggage off the carousel and stepped into the cold outdoors. The chill surprised me, as I had thought the weather would be similar to those of coastal cities like Accra and Lagos. Clearly, I was wrong because outside was about 17 degrees. Quickly, I sought refuge from the cold in a taxi, after hurriedly agreeing to a fare of trios-mille francs. 

At that point, all I cared about was a warm place.

We arrived at the hotel 30 minutes later, where I checked in, had a sandwich and hit the hay stack. The day was promising to be an exciting one.

Sunrise in Dakar
Photo: Shayera
I woke up 4 hours later to watch the sun rise over the Ile de Goree from my window. It was a magical sight to behold. After taking a shower and waiting for the sun to emerge in full glory to dispel the cold, I walked to Marche Kermel – an art market – to feast my eyes on West Africa artworks. Luckily, I met an art merchant who took it upon himself to be my unofficial Marche Kermel tour guide. He spoke some English, so whenever I got stuck explaining or negotiating in my rusty French, I’d say what I wanted to say in English, and he’d translate in French to the merchants. All in all, it was two hours well spent.

At 1.30, I returned to my hotel to drop my newly acquired pieces of art, and then set out to indulge another sensory organ of mine – this time with some Senegalese cuisine. I took a cab and alighted at a Senegalese – Cape Verdean restaurant. It was an unassuming place, but seemed to be popular with the locals. I took a seat and a lady presented a menu.

Chow Time
Photo: Shayera
I quickly perused it and settled for a Cape-Verdean dish of rice and baobab juice. Within minutes, my order arrived, and I immediately regretted my choice of drink. On my table sat a thick, milky liquid that resembled kunu – a northern Nigerian drink I don’t like. My adventurous side, however, decided to take a sip – don’t judge a book by its cover right? That chance was worth it because I loved it! It was on the sugary side – but I didn’t mind – and had the consistency of sour sop.

After lunch, I took a taxi to see the largest statue in Africa – an imposing 160ft of bronze – the African renaissance monument. Accessing it required climbing several flights of steps, which I thought would leave me breathless, panting and in pain once I’d reached the top. Surprisingly, none of that happened – perhaps I have my exercise regime to thank, or maybe not. Inside the museum, a guide explained the monument was constructed in North-Korea, and took 3 years to complete. He also said it is larger than the Statue of Liberty, and points towards it.

Pointe des Almadies
Photo: Shayera
After my museum tour, I took a taxi tour to the upscale neighborhood of Les Almadies before going off to Pointe des Almadies (the westernmost part of Africa) to treat myself to some fresh sea food straight from the Atlantic Ocean. There are several little restaurants overlooking the ocean offering a variety of sea foods, I randomly choose one, but not before sitting in quiet contemplation on one of the many black rocks littering the beach.

After stuffing my face, I took a taxi back to my hotel and I retired for the night. The next was my birthday.

Ile de Goree
Photo: Shayera
I woke up feeling grateful for yet another year.

After taking a shower and eating breakfast, I venture off to the port where I would board the ferry for Goree, where I arrived thirty minutes later.

Goree is an idyllic island of 1,500 inhabitants frozen in time and peppered with ruins and century-old buildings – colonial legacies of the Portuguese and the French. On alighting the ferry, I made a beeline to the infamous Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), where several tourists had already gathered to listen to the curator tell its dark history.

House of Slaves
Photo: Shayera

Historians have argued Goree didn’t play a major role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade as places like El Mina in Ghana, because few slaves left from there. Regardless, one person is one too many.

I snuck away from the group to look around, before returning to listen to the curator. He finally ended by saying slavery persists to this day because the African elite, in league with foreigners, pillage and loot their countries, just like they did centuries earlier.

Statue Commemorating the End of Slavery
Photo: Shayera

As the group dispersed, a slim man walked up to me offering his service as a tour guide. I told him I’m wasn’t interested, desperate to shake him off. But he persisted and even offered to take pictures of me. After a few minutes of looking around, I left with my unofficial tour guide in tow.

He related the island’s history in great detail, taking me to a church that was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Then, we walked slowly towards a ruin that was an observatory post used by the French. We passed several bunkers inhabited by artists before making our way to his studio, where he created an image using sands of different colors.

After the demonstration, I took some pictures around the island before boarding the ferry back to Dakar. I had another trip to make.

Once in Dakar, I took a taxi to Lac Rose aka Lac Retba, and prayed the sun would still be shining by the time I got there. Without the sun, the lake is colorless.

Lac Rose's Pink Hue is Caused by Algae
Photo: Shayera
Luckily, the lake was as pink as could be when I arrived an hour later. I was thrilled beyond words. In my mind that was Mother Nature’s birthday gift to me. I quickly boarded a pirogue, sailed for 30 minutes before returning onshore.

Lac Rose has a salinity of 40%, which increases in the dry season, and Senegal exports the salt harvested from it once local is satisfied. Lac Rose, though not yet a UNESCO world heritage site, is an interesting place to visit.

After a few pictures I made the hour long trip back to Dakar, during which I made the decision to travel to The Gambia the next day. Back in the hotel, I rested for a while before going to dinner at a fancy French restaurant.

The taxi driver, who drove me there, lamented about the current tourist season being the worst he’s experienced, as a result of the Ebola outbreak that’s currently plaguing neighboring countries.

My birthday dinner was a 3 course affair. The entrĂ©e was 2 jumbo-sized prawns beautifully decorated. The main meal was couscous and fish – and though lovely, I barely managed to get through half of it thanks to the bread offered earlier. By the time dessert came around, I was stuffed and couldn’t eat any of it and asked to take it away. I spent a few minutes chatting with one of the waiters about Senegal, before taking my leave.

The next morning, I visited the IFAN museum, one of the oldest art museums in West Africa. On the ground floor several interesting works of art, mostly masks, from all over West Africa were displayed, while upstairs was reserved for relics from renowned wrestlers.

Waiting for the Ferry to Cross the Sine-Saloum River
Photo: Shayera
At 11 am, I checked out and left for The Gambia. I was impressed with the roads, which made the trip enjoyable until we crossed the Sine-Saloum river, north of The Gambia. From then on, the road reminded me I was in Africa.

We arrived The Gambia 8 hours after departing Dakar. Normally, it should have taken 4 hours - according to people who have made trip – if only the driver had driven faster than 80km/hr. By then, I was too exhausted to care about the time lost or even about eating.

All I wanted was a bed to lay my fatigued body.