Our ten day winter vacation in this West African country was an unforgettable and often surreal adventure. It was a only a five hour flight but it seemed at least a few light years from Belgium. We were looking for winter hot and we got it, because the dry Harmattan trade-winds help to soar Senegal’s January temperatures to over forty celcius or roughly one hundred and four Fahrenheit. Senegal is a former French colony and while many of its people speak French or Arabic, the native language is Wolof. There are thirty-five other languages spoken as well. The country is home twelve million inhabitants and almost all of them live in dire poverty. Amazingly many of its poor, who live in simple huts and block houses, have cell phones and music systems.
The one hundred and fifty kilometer five hour taxi-van ride from the airport in Dakar to the Royal Lodge Hotel in Palmarin was an adventure laced with the omnipresent uncertainty that we would ever arrive there. The road was paved for just the first seventy kilometers. The remaining eighty kilometers was an adventure that reduced auto speed by two thirds. Crowded on either side of most of the paved section were an endless display of buyers and sellers amid all manner of colorful and chaotic entrepreneurial dilapidation. Many often crowded against our vehicle, selling fruits and various Senegalese trinkets. I had never witnessed such a spectacle, such a panorama of bright smiling darkness. As night fell, the last thirty kilometers turned into a lunar-like mud and stone laced nearly undriveable surface. Humanity vanished and the only lights were those from our vehicle. A white-robed native-man suddenly appeared wielding a rifle. I’ll never forget that image. The hearts of all six passengers skipped a collective beat, but fortunately he was friendly and known to our driver.
The Royal Lodge Hotel, an African thatched building with a congenial contemporary look, was a great place to stay and had a beautiful swimming pool that appeared to blend right into the Atlantic Ocean. The patio restaurant offered an ocean view that included the remains of a wrecked cargo ship resting on a sand reef some two hundred meters out to sea. Our bungalow was one of twenty-six, and had a uniquely authentic yet contemporary African hut styling. It also had a fabulous high ceilinged interior complete with a jacuzzi. Lieve and I met some very interesting people from England, France and Belgium, and the entire staff of the hotel, all Senegalese except for one Nigerian, were extremely courteous and friendly. We also made friends with a great group that sold carved wood artifacts out of their straw huts on the beach located near the hotel. Jean Noel, who spoke fluent French, was friendly and very helpful. He became our unofficial guide throughout our stay. Others of this group were Gambian English-speaking Alex, and several other Senegalese. All were accomplished djembe players. Lieve and I celebrated the New Year by dancing with un-western abandon in the sand to their ageless rhythms in the African star-lit night. Spikey, who was a major hit with everyone, joined in this gala display of inter-continental joy.
Later, we brought the locals some food from the hotel, as well as cigarettes and packets of sugar. That staple is a rare commodity in Senegal. In fact, there exist numerous smuggling operations between salt-rich Senegal and nearby sugar-rich Gambia. On New Year’s night, while I was taking food to them, I saw a distant flashlight glowing in the darkness. We learned the following morning that it was from a pistol-carrying ex-commando who was patrolling the beach for hyenas. These night predators often wander many kilometers in search of dogs or wild pigs. The commando later expressed a liking for the white shirt that I was wearing. Later, I gave it to him. Always nice to have protection. And wise to accommodate anyone carrying a gun. And from a guy who could also pull a tree out of the ground, I’m exceedingly fortunate that he wasn’t desirous of my pants or underwear.
Lieve came close to catastrophe one afternoon while we were walking along the roadway. Two boys aged around thirteen, were racing their donkey-driven carts. One lost control, knocking Lieve to the ground. The donkey’s hoofs inexplicably avoided crushing her. That she also sustained only a minor injury from the wagon wheel that just missed crushing her abdomen is a miracle of sizable proportion. All this in a few seconds. What dark thoughts can race through one’s mind in this sliver of time. We were too far from a hospital, with not a doctor anywhere close. Nor was there sufficient medical aid at the hotel.
We had just returned from a visit to a village that was actually a cultural/learning center complete with a small museum. The leader was Oozman, a kind and sagacious Uncle Remus type, who left a good position and comfortable life in Dakar to help give hope and substance to young minds. We had a great time there, as everyone was gracious and friendly. All of the children and most of the adults went crazy over Senegalese Spikey. Lieve had an unbelievable rapport with everyone we met, as almost all of the natives spoke French. Of course, Lieve had to later translate into English for me. Most of the locals also spoke the native Wolof. We soon were greeting Senegalese with “nagadef” (hello, how are you?), and said thank you with “jerrijef”.
One afternoon we were driven by car to a marketplace some thirty kilometers from the hotel. The driver then assigned us a guide who was friendly at first, but not so friendly later. He walked with us through a hellish and foul-smelling catacomb which was inundated as far as the eye could see, with natives of varying ages selling fruits, vegetables and meats in varying stages of decay. They also offered clothing of the type worn by locals along with off-brand western styles. An endless variety of other items, including pots, pans, blankets and the like, rounded out the menu. All this in the midst of the potential insidious serpents of malaria, cholera and yellow fever. The air permeated with the smell of burnt fish, dust swirled and an unfriendly mid-day sun melted our will. After about thirty minutes, Lieve and I wanted to get the freak out of there. Our opportunistic guide tried to get some extra money out of us, but Lieve held fast. I could’ve told him that you just don’t “spit into the wind, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, and you don’t mess around with Lieve! Doo, doo-dee-doo-doo-dee-doo-doo”….!
Another trip of six to eight kilometers was taken by donkey with cart. Not the most accommodating way to travel, I assure you. It heightened the experience of Senegal to traverse the dirt roads in this manner. Riding along the beach, on the way to a nearby village, Lieve spotted a group of about twenty-five “LaLutte” wrestlers engaged in their daily Spartan-like training. Lieve couldn’t resist, and asked the driver to stop. She then brazenly exhorted a few of the group to “let’s get it on”. Our photographic evidence of this epic encounter is priceless.
Other adventures included a foray into the “bush” where we spotted a group of hyenas from a safe distance. Later, we crossed the salt flats for a few kilometers with our guide Pierre. We then boarded a colorfully painted boat of about ten meters long. This craft was powered by a Yamaha motor appropriate for a boat that could fit in a bathtub. Pierre then took us about twelve kilometers across a magnificent saltwater lake to an island where very friendly and colorfully clad artisans and sellers of jewelry, carvings and sand paintings engaged us.
I developed flu symptoms late New Year’s day. By the time we headed back towards the airport, I was feeling pretty bad. Fortunately, we took the precaution of taking malaria tablets every day and were vaccinated before the trip for yellow fever. We passed again the tsunami of humanity on either side of the road to Dakar. A tapestry of disorder strewn with litter of all sizes and makes as far as the eye could see. If this social menace were a cash crop, Senegal would be basking in prosperity. Our African-robed driver, a Michael Jordan look-a-like, was affable and a great driver. He even called when we were back in Belgium to ask if I was feeling better. That’s typical of the Senegalese that we met.
My richest and most enduring memory of Senegal are of its people. Lieve and I and we’re sure Spikey as well, look forward to coming back one day. We returned to Belgium, where most everyone wears a long winter face, with a renewed appreciation for the great conditions in which we live. Inspite of the abject poverty and desolation in Senegal, most of its residents, it seemed to us, shine in contentment. Their bright smiles tell that their hearts sing. But a growing number of discontented and dispirited others are willing to risk their lives to cross the often angry Atlantic to the safe haven of the Canary Islands. From there on to Spain, France and elsewhere in Europe. The whole experience left me asking a few questions such as: Is contentment the brother of ignorance? Is courage a product of desperate desire? Can a heart be taught to sing?