Food and Fun in Senegal

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I was getting used to eating bread and boiled eggs sold in old Deutch newspaper, and water and soda sold in plastic bags, but then Dakar happened and I’ve even drinking French wine and coffee that isn’t instant Nescafé for the first time since I left Paris. The restaurants and bakeries here are amazing, with fresh caught fish cooked in other ways than just oil-fried. I ate the best mutton stew I’ve ever tried, at my newly adopted female-only family, who also taught me how to cook traditional fish and couscous in the Senegalese way. They used their hands and a dull knife as their cutting board, their fingers to juice the vegetables, and a mortar & pestle to squash the spices. They had an intricate system of water buckets, some filled with clean or dirty water, for cooking with drinking, or washing their hands or the couscous. They had one iron pot and one propane tank, and the entire feat took 3 hours to finish. After it was all ready, we feasted with our hands out of the same steel bowl, as many families are used to eating all their meals from the same big bowl.

Tea-time is another two reoccurring tradition in West Africa. Thé a la menthe is mint tea they brew very strong with a lot of sugar, and serve it in little glasses that have to get passed around and shared by everyone. The kitchens are usually located outside, nothing more than a few coals burning on a small metal stand, or one pot sitting on a gas tank. They squat over the heat and need only the light of the heat to see everything their doing, and the dusty pavement serves as their counter tops to store the bits and pieces of food needed to go into the pot in a very particular order.

I went to a local nightclub called D Yengoulene where the crowd was majority men, but that didn’t stop them from dancing together. They grouped together for some synchronized dancing, and the better shakers faced eachother in intense dance offs. It looked like a big music video audition for Jay-Z or something, since each and every guy on the dance floor was as captivating to watch as the next, all of their movements totally fluid and in rhythm. When a girl got into the mix, the show quickly turned into a porno-film rehearsal, since the men took the girl into as many different sexual positions as he could think of and dry humped her as fast as he could. I wouldn’t know if I call it dancing, but I knew it was dangerous to dance anywhere near them, since dancing with them would have put me face first on the floor.

We went to an open-air DJ concert in some random industrial area, and the vibe was like any summery music festival in Europe. There were two guys doing tricks on roller blades, dancing to the music while navigating a course of small pylons. The place was full of white hippies and hipsters, and I ran into the designer of an African handmade tshirt I was wearing.

There have been a lot of other memorable, funny moments. I saw a paralyzed hedgehog falling asleep on his tiresome journey across the hotel grounds in Lac Rose. And Lac Rose wasn’t even a pink or purply lake, it was more like a greenish flooded salty pond. You didn’t really float without swimming either, but swimming in the pools and beaches has always been fun for a few different reasons. One is the waves, who crash ontop of you as warm, clean water with a sandy bottom to always get back up on. The other is the locals who can’t swim, and many are just plain old scared of the waves. I tried to teach my fiend Dawda to swim in Senegambia, but he just ended up sinking under water every time he lifted his feet of the ground and snorting a lot of salt water up his nose.

“Wow” means yes in Wolof, and I keep mistaking people to be in awe every time they shake their heads and slowly say “wow” when I ask a question. I learned a few other phrases in Wolof, but those who don’t speak French are usually quite difficult to communicate with. Even place names have a local name, so trying to get a bus to St. Louis meant we had to listen for a guy driving by screaming “Luganda”. Many taxi drivers are illiterate, so writing something down or even showing them a map just ends up in them staring blankly at the screen and saying “wow”, even though they have no idea where they’re going. A taxi driver will always shake his head yes when you ask him if he knows where a place his, and in the same movement say a price. Once you’ve agreed on a price and he’s gotten you in the car, then it’s always fun to slowly realize that he has no idea where he’s going or how far it is. Then he starts to complain about how little your paying as he starts to ask every block where the place you’re going is… Until he eventually finds it (which is almost always).

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Fashion and transport in Dakar

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I had high expectations for Dakar, after hearing so many wonderful things about this cosmopolitan city people call the capital of West Africa. Sure enough, the rain-washed dirt roads turned into divided highways and tunnels and overpasses, traffic jams became even more polluted, and the welcoming sight of electricity lasted 24 hours. Reaching Dakar was somehow like breaching a border, a transition from humid wet lands to desert dry lands, and traveling from the post-card picture of West Africa to a more North Africa meets the Middle East. The dust roads and light-skinned faces made me feel like I’d reached a new land, and the invasion of metropolitan Frenchies made me much less exotic than I had been elsewhere.

Dakar is a harbour city, jutting out on a crowded peninsula with the international airport basically in the middle of everything. The abandoned railway station no longer works, but instead a few squatters have called the colonial refuge building their home. The central bus and taxi station is a big waste basin, splattered with urine and empty plastic bags outnumbering the decapitated sept-place cars drivers keep hassling to fill. A “seven seater” is the means of long haul travel in Senegal, which is usually a rusted old hatchback car, usually with most of its windows intact but not much else, and incredibly uncomfortable for hours of travel. The gear shift usually reaches all 5 gears, but you’d be lucky to have a car where the gas or speed gage works. It’s probably for the better, since you don’t want know how fast you’re going, since you’re almost always going too slow (and still the car shakes in the wind and bottoms out over every pothole).

The problem with the plastic bags is enormous… you can basically buy everything and anything in a plastic bag, and here they have little or no system of garbage disposal or recycling, so the streets and fields end up covered in plastic. You buy salt, sugar, water, oil and even soda in a bag, a convenient, single-use way for street sellers to sell them individually and through broken car-door windows.

The other main street selling merchandise is second-hand clothing. Containers full of Salvation Army donations that can’t get resold in the first world arrive here a few years later, and the outdated fashion and random t-shirt branding gets very confusing – yesterday I saw someone with a UC Berkeley sweater and I almost approached him saying “hey, I went there too!”.

People wearing sweaters and scarves is weird, since it’s always so bloody hot, but what I really can’t figure out is all the hats. The men cover their shiny black heads with toques and woolen hats, which I can’t believe is cooler for them than letting the sun shine on them, but they must believe that the hats somehow insulate the heat out, or they’re just like regular old white men who are having a hard time dealing with balding… either way, my favorite look is still the men and women in flowing dresses covered in colorful patterns, with their heads covered in large baskets and buckets carrying tons of who-knows-what.

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Punched in Senegal

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We crossed the border from The Gambia to Senegal yesterday on a carved out tree, the sides of the boat barely keeping water out. Some guy paddled us across for €4, the most expensive price per distance (100m) we’ve paid so far. We then took a 4×4 Land Rover as our taxi to the nearest town, which involved a very narrow, overgrown, water ridden dirt track, so felt very relieved we hadn’t taken the motorcycle taxis also on option.

We arrived at a beachside hotel that I had reserved on booking.com, which existed but still hadn’t opened for the season. From their locked doors, we went to La Baobob instead, where a reggae night party was in full swing. We drank Guinean alcohol and Senegalese beer, and after a fight broke out between a local guy and a 200kg French man, I got caught mid-fire and punched in the face. I already had a headache before getting knocked out, and as blood ran out of my nose and joints got passed around me, I wondered how I could convince my mother that everything was still ok in West Africa.

It was ok, and still kind of is, except today we learned that we passed through a locals only border, so getting our Senegalese entry stamp was a small issue. We need it to go further into Senegal, in a series of shared taxis, and it’s always a gamble which seat you get for how hot or comfortable the ride will be. Both the Gambians and Senegalese have this weirdly strict rule that the front seat person has to wear a seat belt, but they couldn’t care less about those in the back. I’ll try or stick with the front seats, and hope my mother doesn’t read this, and I think everything will continue to be okay, but only okay by West African standards… Which is fine by me 🙂