Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dakar, Senegal

I was growing concerned as I bicycled into Dakar from the airport at the lack of variety of food being offered by people standing along the road to the steady slow-moving stream of traffic.  All I saw were oranges stuffed in thin plastic tubes one on top of the other.  They looked bright and cheerful marketed in such a way, but I wanted more variety and substance to the roadside food that would be fueling me in the coming weeks as I pedaled from Senegal to Mali and beyond.  Where were the hard boiled eggs and bananas and fried tasty morsels that I expected to dominate my diet?  

The occssional actual food stands also featured oranges along with various melons. Not a banana was to be seen.  Was this going to be another tour in the tropics, like Cuba, where I wouldn't find a banana to put on my peanut butter sandwiches?  There were bananas in Cuba, but not for sale, as the food-starved locals had none to spare.  The hearty Sengeleae didn't look as if they were experiencing a food shortage.

At last, after twenty miles, I came upon a stand with bananas neatly arranged in piles of four.  It was  200 francs for a bunch with 536 francs equaling a dollar.  Also at the table were four-packs of coconut dough balls at half the price of the bananas.  I was delgihted to make a pack of each my first expenditure in Senegal.  I wasn't so delighted though to have biked twenty miles and be only half way to the sprawling port city of Dakar and its three million inhabitants.  I had been under the impression that it would only be a twenty mile ride.  Compounding my displeasure was that I would have to turn around and bike these forty dreary, traffic-congested miles again when I headed out of town to Mali after getting a visa and a yellow fever inoculation and a place to stash the box I had brought my bike in for our return.

For the first ten miles the terrain was flat and arid with scruffy withered brown vegetation waist high that I might have been able to camp in had I not arrived well after dark. It wasn't scenic, but at least it wasn't as desolate and forbidding as the desert in Mauritania to the north where my Turkish Air flight had stopped en route to Dakar.  I hadn't realized we were in Mauritania and disembarked from the plane.  It wasn't an uncommon mistake, as there was an official checking tickets in the terminal and I was saved. 

On my way into Dakar I passed through several uninviting small towns.  Litter lined the road, some in large decaying piles with a fetid odor.  It wasn't very appealing, and it didn't improve as I neared the city and it all thickened into a typical brew of African controlled chaos.  By Western standards it was squalor in all its permutations. West Africa is considered the poorest region of Africa, but it didn't appear much different from what I had experienced on my previous four bike forays about Africa. 

Two-wheeled traffic was mostly motorized, but no one seemed to object to my presence.  The truckers gave me soft toots of warning, not harsh blasts of get-out-of-my-way impatience, reflecting my early impression of the Sengelese at the airport.  So far people had a welcoming, rather than a predatory, nature. The cab drivers at the airport even let me be. Another positive sign were the occssional sellers of plants along the road, indicating an appreciation for some greenery in people's private spaces even if there was little to be seen in public.  

The air was thick with dust and fumes, not unlike China, where I didn't have to worry about putting on sun block with the air so congested with particulates.  There couldn't be any emissions check on vehicles here with many spewing black exhaust.

When the road became blocked by a fender-bender, there was no cacophony of horn-tooting as a long line of vehicles backed up in both directions. I and the motorcyclist brigade were able to get around and have the road to ourselves for a while.  The going was slow, but I had no concerns of being in a race with the sun before it made its descent, as I had gotten started right at dawn after sleeping on the floor of the airport.  My flight arrived at nine p.m.  Fortunately there were flights arriving and departing through the night and others sprawled on the floor.  I had slept the night before in the Istanbul airport during a twenty-hour layover on my lenghty roundabout Turksh Air bargain ticket.  There were seats one could lay on there, but I got a better sleep in Dakar laying flat on my folded bike box.  I was fatigued enough that not even the horror of having both my debit cards rejected by the airport ATM machines kept me awake.  I still had scars of a similar experience in Madagascar last year that caused me to have to leave my bike behind, though rescued by my Warm Showers host.

Before going to the airport bank after my sleep to change some dollars I brought, I gave the ATMs another try.  The first one again spat out my card, but with the second I hit the jack pot.  What a relief!  I needed a bunch of the CFA francs, the currency of eight countries, as the Mali visa would cost a huge hunk of them.  I had no difficulties finding the downtown hotel on tree-lined Pompidou Avenue that Lonely Planet referred to as backpacker central. 

I was eager for first-hand reports from the overland set, but I was the only traveler present, as it was now largely a rooming house for locals.  As in Madasgascar there had hardly been a white face to be seen since leaving the airport.  The hotel was overseen by a sunny seventy-year old who had sailed the world working as a merchant seamen.  He said he would gladly store my bike box, relieving me of having to search out the friend of a friend who had spent a year in Dakar eight years ago working for an NGO.  He lived quite a distance away, so I was happy not to have to carry the box further than I already had.  And if the box went missing during my six-week absence, I learned of a first-rate Lebanese-run bike store just a mile from my hotel from an ardent cyclist from Liberia that would no doubt have boxes to spare.

With one big concern taken care of, I headed off to the Mali embassy.  It was after two and I feared it might not have afternoon hours, as is often the case.  It was a pleasant four-mile ride stripped of all my gear on a four-lane highway along the rocky coastline to the embassy.  It was open and there was no wait to be processed.  Rather than having to leave my passport and return for it the next day, I had my visa within ten minutes, 65,000 francs lighter.

My NGO friend recommended the Institute Pastuer for my yellow fever shot.  It was another four miles on the north side of the city.  They didn't give them there, but rather at a hospital affiliated with the Institute at the southern tip of the city where it juts out into the Atlantic.  I didn't object to having gone to the wrong place as it allowed me to explore the city.  After being shuffled from one building to another, I found the vaccination center.  It only gave them from two to four and it was after five.  

That meant an extra day in Dakar allowing me to fulfill some of my sightseeing chores that I had planned to address at the end of the trip.  The first the next morning was to a giant statue on one of two hills in the city along the coast four miles beyond the Mali embassy that had become an emblem of the city.  The twin hills are known as the breasts of Dakar with a lighthouse on the other.

The statue dedicated to the African Renaissance was erected in 2010.  The opening ceremony attracted the heads of nineteen African nations.  The city spread out below was barely discernible through a thick haze of pollution.  A walkway along stretches of the coastal road was bikeable, though no one other than an occasional walker was taking  advantage of it.  There were several clusters of weight lifting equipment along the way that only a handful of guys were using and one playground with nobody enjoying.  Only seagulls were on the lone tiny beach.

All the bustle was in the city on its streets and in the market.  As I walked through the narrow byways of the market I was ignored by all except one older man dressed in a shiny blue traditional wardrobe.  He asked if he could buy my bike.  He had driven a taxi for years in Manhattan and could now live in relative luxury in his home town.  He turned from hustler to affable gent when he learned I couldn't give up my bike as it would transport me to Mali. 

I was the first in line for my shot.  As I waited I was joined by a dozen others, but not a traveler among them.  It was quick and painless, and the price too, just $12.  If I had gotten it in Chicago it would have been $250.  

I spent the rest of the afternoon out on GorĂ©e Island ten minutes away by ferry.  This World Heritage site was a significant center to the slave trade.  I left my bike behind as there are no roads on the tiny island, just narrow walkways.  It's premier attraction is one remaining house where slaves were quartered before being sent across the ocean passing through the "Door of No Return."

But for me the highlight of the island was the unexpected presence of baobab trees.  They weren't as breathtakingly majestic as those of Madagascar, but they still exuded an otherworldly charm.  There were a few scattered around the island along with a mini-avenue of them on the climb up to the former fort.

The climb was lined on both sides with art by local artists, many of whom had been inspired by the baobobs. 

There was a wide variety of sculptures as well.  Janina would have been mightily impressed by all the creativity.  It felt like a safe haven being in an enclave of artists.

It took me ninety minutes at a very slow amble to make a circuit of the island. This small taste of escaping the urban mayhem of Dakar had me eager to commence my ride to Mali the next morning, where a couple of friends, one a local and the other an African American who I've worked with for years at Telluride, await me in the capital of Bamako, 900 miles away.  I'll be shooting for a daybreak start, hoping the traffic won't be as thick leaving the city as it had been entering it.


Andrew said...

Looking forward to vicariously riding with you George!

Bill Burns said...

What Andrew said, George! Bon voyage!

Bill in KC

dworker said...

40 miles to the airport. The most I have heard.

Jesse said...

I hadn't realized the new airport opened just last month--it's farther away than the old one, I take it. I used to go for predawn runs to that southern tip where the playground and weight-lifting equipment is located. If you come across it, buy a "fatiya"--it's meat, onions, spices, and mustard inside a calzone like shell. You should be able to find it where you see streetside vendors. Also, there ought to be plenty of people selling peanuts. Bissap (sweetened hibiscus drink with mint) should be refreshing and has vitamins.