Sometimes traveling opens up a different sort of experience than you’d expect to have. And sometimes it happens to be one of things you’ll remember most. Our stop in Derry, Northern Ireland, fits this description – what we’d originally intended to be just a stopover became a memorable visit with new friends that opened up a window to the history of the area.
Our first day in Dakar ended with one of those evenings. We arrived early Tuesday morning from Casablanca. I’m not sure if it was because it was 1:30 in the morning, but the immigration line was more efficient than most we’ve had to wait in. Anne-Claire had left the poles for our tent strapped to the outside of her bag, and they were missing when it came down the carousel. When she asked a guard if this was ‘just something we should expect traveling here,’ he looked offended and said it absolutely was not. Though we didn’t mean to offend him, it was impressive to see someone taking pride in the fact that this isn’t just another middling developing country where that sort of stuff is par for the course.
Sure enough, the poles eventually came down the beltway. After winding our way out to the taxi stand, we hailed one and worked out a price, and he took us to our hotel in the center of the city. We hadn’t realize just how centrally located it was, so it was nice to step out the next morning (OK, not really the morning – around 12:30 pm) and be right in the center of bustling Dakar.
Anne-Claire and I both noticed how little attention we got, especially compared to what we’d been used to in Morocco. Even though we stick out here quite a bit more, most folks leave us alone, and the few that are interested in our business – for cell phone cards mostly – are just as likely to proffer their goods to a Senegalese.
The helpful clerk at our hotel recommended a restaurant for lunch called Chez Loutcha a couple blocks away that serves Cape Verdean and Senegalese dishes. The food was terrific – I had Dibi, sort of steak frites with spiced lamb instead of beef. The prices are a bit higher then we’re used to from Niamey, but the bustling café full of Senegalese and ex-pats alike enjoying their lunch hour was evidence that Senegal does not sit at the bottom of most economic and development indicators (as Niger does).
We ran errands around Dakar in the afternoon, sent a few souvenirs from Morocco home to the State, and had a Peace Corps-esque indulgent ice cream at a fancy café on the big square called Place de l’Independence. Our real treat in Dakar came in meeting a friend of a friend who is a Foreign Service officer. She and her husband were kind enough to let us stay with their family for a couple of nights. They live in a gorgeous ex-pat house and have three charming children who were eager to have visitors.
After nearly a month and a half on the road, a couple of nights that felt like we were in America were a welcome break, similar to the times in Peace Corps that we spent with the missionary family in Maradi who took in us strays on holidays, or with our country director and his wife when they’d host us for dinners at their house.
We shared a delicious dinner with the family and a current Senegalese Peace Corps volunteer who they’d also taken in for the night. The kids are whip-smart, speak French and English, and have devised all sorts of games to keep themselves entertained. We enjoyed their company so much that we came back early from a visit to Ile de Goré to swim with them the next afternoon.
Ile de Goré is a small island off the coast of Dakar that played a small role in the slave trade and now houses a slave museum and memorial. On it are some excellent examples of colorful French colonial architecture, as well as a small beach. We might have been a little road weary for such a touristy spot, as we didn’t have a lot of patience for the people offering their guide services or pedaling paintings.
Overall, we enjoyed our time in Dakar. The city has character to be sure. You’re just as likely to see a stunning woman dressed like she just stepped off the plane from Paris as you are to see a family that’s come in from the bush to make a better life for themselves. You’ll find French coffee shop chains and United Colors of Benetton, but like so many other African cities, Dakar has become a victim of its own success. The area it now occupies is huge, and the strain of so many people has stretched its electrical power far beyond its capacity. We were told there’s a 200-Megawatt shortfall (not sure what this would mean in the States, but it sounds big). For comparison, the entire country of Niger requires about 200 Megawatts of electricity.