Dakar is a city with little color, and vivid arts
Visiting Dakar came at the right moment for me, after a lot of stress that the first half of the year had put me through, so much that gray shades brightened in my beard. At first I wanted to do a bit of backpacking in Senegal, maybe follow the river from Dakar to Ousman Sembene’s birthplace. But work called, and I could only afford a few extra days after the Afropixel symposium in which I had gone to premier my short sci-fi film, Akoota, so I had to make the best of those few days. You can find here a video vlog of my trip to Senegal, and it has a bit more punch than this text account. Be sure to subscribe to my channel to get more travel vlogs.
I went to Dakar without much knowing what to expect. I knew it was Sembene’s home, and that it is one of the most famous cities in Africa. You know, cities you keep hearing about like Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg, Nairobi, but you never really know why you keep hearing about them. At first glance, it appeared to be a dull city, in terms of look. I expected bright paint on buildings, like in much of tropical Africa, especially Uganda where corporations have splashed their colors on every building; MTN yellow, Airtel red, Omo blue; colors so bright they sometimes hurt the eyes. In Dakar, the pre-dominant color was a dull brown, the pale color of dust, and where there was paint, it was de-saturated. Most buildings had no plaster, just bare grayish bricks. Senegal is a bit dry, and is susceptible to dust from the desert, and probably this gives Dakar this look.
In the old suburbs, in the islands of Goree and Ngor, the colors were vivid and the buildings were frozen in time, looking the way they had when the colonialists built them a hundred or more years ago. Goree had mostly yellow and red, while Ngor had fancy doors and windows, and graffiti art on the wall fences.
In spite of the little colors, the architecture in Dakar is beautiful. They go at great length to make beautiful buildings, which I thought had a mix of French and Arabic aesthetics. This beautiful architecture could be because Dakar is a very arty city. Almost every street I went to, I saw a piece of art, a graffiti, a sculpture, an installation of some kind, there was art everywhere. There seemed to be an art gallery around every corner, and it looked like every third person I met was an artist of some kind. I loved this about the city, and I wished I could live here. I’ve not seen any other place in Africa where they produce and consume art like they do in Dakar.
I enjoyed just walking in the streets and stumbling upon artworks, and sometimes I found some great pieces. A trip to the Museum of Black Civilizations was totally worth it. I’ve already written about my encounter with the arts in Dakar, and you can read it in this article.
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friendly people, cheating taxi drivers
The people were mostly nice. Nigeria had given me this idea of an aggressive West Africa, but
Senegalese turned out to be courteous and rarely got angry when I took their pictures. I can’t speak French, other than basics like ‘je fame’ and ‘je becoup soif’, nor can I speak Wolof or other local languages, but I somehow managed to shop and find taxis and places without much trouble. The people I talked to patiently used symbols and images to make sure we understood each other. I bought vegetables from roadside stalls, and ate in pretty cheap restaurants, often not knowing what to order or how to tell them what I wanted to buy. I would sometimes show them pictures, and they would show me physical food if I did not have pictures. For the price, they would show me the exact money I’m supposed to pay.
Still, I mostly ate fish. It was the easiest thing I could order, easy to say ‘poisson’, and it felt like the staple food of Dakar. Every restaurant had it. I would have wanted to explore more of the local cuisine, to eat dibi, but not the kind they prepare in high-end restaurants. I wanted the one Mama Gundi would prepare in a small restaurant somewhere in a street without a name. It’s a dish of a variety of meats all thrown into one pan, and they say its best enjoyed in a group rather than as a solo traveler, but I wanted a taste of it. Too bad, there is only so much you can say to each other using symbols and by pointing at things.
I bargained with taxi drivers in this way too. We showed each other money. He shows 4,000 francs, I show 2,000 francs, he takes away a thousand, I add a 500 franc note. It was fun. Only one taxi tried to change the price after we had reached an agreement. I had hired him to take me to Lac Rose. It would have been a lot cheaper by public means, but also a whole lot slower. A bus would have taken
about four hours, yet the taxi took only an hour. I wanted to save time since my stay was short. I negotiated with the taxi driver, using a very helpful tip I had gotten from a friend, who advised that I should half whatever price is quoted. Of course, seeing a foreigner, they’d always double the price. Someone said they triple it for white people, and that a black French person will pay less than a white one, but I could not confirm this. Anyway, I halfed whatever amount they told me and they always agreed. The taxi driver agreed to take 25,000 CFA for a return trip from Ngor to the Pink Lake. I’d been told a one-way trip would cost about 12,000 CFA, so I figured 25K for a return trip was a good deal. The man however kept trying to increase the price. When we stopped for lunch, he said this was not in the plan and it would cost him his time. Then he wanted me to spend only an hour in the lake, yet he’d agreed I’d take much time as I wanted. On the way back, he wanted to pile passengers into the car. I refused, and he said I was making him lose extra income! It was not a nice experience, a horrible driver, we argued all the way and back. Too bad he knew one or two words of English.
Other taxi drivers would deliberately get lost, just to make me pay more. The taxi drivers do not know street names, and like those in many parts of Africa would prefer landmarks. I would then find out a famous landmark near where I am going, and it would be an easy starting point. Still, seeing I’m a stranger, the driver would deliberately get lost, take me to a different place, and then ask me to add money to the trip. I resorted to using Google Maps a lot.
The best place to stay when you travel to Dakar for a holiday
I stayed in Ngor, and it was the highlight of my visit. I used airbnb to get this place run by an artist, and it was right by the ocean. Then ocean was right outside my window, and all night I could hear waves crashing against the rocks. I love water, though I can’t swim, and the moment I stepped into that apartment, I knew it was going to be a great holiday, one I had not had in a long time.
Getting to the island was a little bit tricky as there are no docks. I did not expect to take off my shoes and wade into the water and then scramble onto a motorized canoe. There were two kinds, a public boat that cost about 1000 CFA and a private boat that went for between 2500 and 5000 CFA. The private boat was messy, always full of people, and I had to fight to get on board and to fight to get off board. Those with a severe disability would find it really tricky to use these boats. The lifejacket was always wet, and I did not think it would hold my weight in case of an accident. I thought it was more for them to easily find our bodies once the boat capsizes, and man, sometimes the rides were scary. As the boat turns around from the shore to head into the island, it lists so badly that I always feared I would slip off and fall into the ocean. Sometimes they over sped. It was only a five minute ride, but I held my breath for those five minutes.
I never wore shoes on the island, there was no need too, the streets, very narrow, barely footpaths, were covered with sand and it made it difficult to walk with shoes on. Everyone was barefoot. I had to wear shoes on the rocky beaches, though, since the rocks could have cut my feet. People hardly came to the rocky beaches. Everyone preferred the sandy beaches, which was only a small part of the island. There were a lot of crabs in the rocks, and sea creatures I could not name. I wanted photograph crabs, but they turned out to be very shy, almost as if they could sense my camera and hide, even though I used a long lens.
I found this little pond by the sea. I’ll call it a pond for lack of a better word. Basically, a collection of rocks created a pool, and protected it from the sea and the waves, and this little place was full of life, full of little fishes and of things in shells and things I could not name. They seemed very merry in there. That, was the best moment for me, for I could see creatures I had never seen in my life without snorkeling or deep sea diving.
In the next post, I’ll tell you more about The Pink Lake, a very fascinating place, someone I once planned to have a honeymoon! In the meantime, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube Channel to get travel vlogs and great films.
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