Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

The Other Senegal

Paco came to pick us up at 8:30 but Chris was doing some work and we didn’t get on the road until after 9. Today’s driver picked us up with a bush taxi, a beat up station wagon with three rows of seats and room for 8. I’m in the back seat by myself. It’s not comfortable. The inside of the car is rusting to the point where I can see the smooth pavement flying by in a hole between my feet. I wonder if the back end of the car will break off and what would happen to me. I don’t like the thought and focus on the dried up rice paddies we’re passing. It’s the end of the dry season and everything is dead. It’s dusty and smells like diesel fuel. I cover my mouth and nose with my bandana. 

Me with my bandana.

Me with my bandana.

We drive an hour and a half back toward the Atlantic from Zigunichor and stop at a village with a two-story house made of packed dirt and sand. The house was completed around 1950. The builder was inspired by his time in WWII fighting for the French. He saw two story houses with staircases instead of a ladder and two balconies for air. He wanted to bring that grandeur and comfort back to Casamance. The house was built between October and June, in the dry season. Every two weeks the builder added on to the pillars and walls with a sandy cement mixture 2-3 feet at a time with ample days to dry in between. 

The current woman of the house wasn’t home so a man from the neighboring museum shows us around. The grandmother died two years ago and the grandfather died 20 years ago. The house has 2 granaries for storing rice, one for the men and one for the women. The men’s side has been empty a long time. The women’s granary is musty and dark. I cover my face with my bandana again as the museum man tells us about rotating the rice crop and eating the older grains first.

Eight children aged 6 months to about 12 or so are home alone as were poke around the house and hear about the construction. We’ve seen plenty of 6-10 year olds in charge of their younger siblings. I asked Paco who was taking care of his 11 year old daughter while he was with us as he said he’s not married. He looked very confused and told me she was grown. I said I thought she was 11. He said she was. We have such different ideas about the roles of children. 

The inside of the bush taxi.

The inside of the bush taxi.

Paco has worked for the past year for a French-backed NGO called CAP. There are two other guides, none of whom really speak English. Paco has some words and phrases but we all rely on Megan as the intermediary. Paco refers to “the two Senegals.” He is Muslim and lives in Zigunichor. He tells us that Casamance used to be it’s own region and that at one point it was a Portuguese colony before Portual traded it to the French in some deal involving territory in the Caribbean in the late 1800s. In 1982 there was a big rebellion where the people of Casamance tried to break free from Dakar, which they thought didn’t properly represent them. They did not succeed and instead got soldiers from the north running check points throughout the region that exist to this day.

The bush taxi had seen better days but we survived unscathed.

The bush taxi had seen better days but we survived unscathed.

Casamance is more Christian than the north. We see sows and piglets roaming around. It’s a poor region, much poorer than the area near the capital and for a long time it was cut off from the north by The Gambia. Today there’s a bridge and driving, flying or taking the ferry are all travel options, though we only met one person from Casamance who had traveled out of the region. 

Paco and Megan stand outside the two-story earth house in Casamance.

Paco and Megan stand outside the two-story earth house in Casamance.

Cachiouane, Cassamance, Senegal

My non-airconditioned room in the impleuvium with a circular courtyard and slanted roof for the rain to fall into during the rainy season wasn’t actually too bad. The animals started waking up around 6. I could hear goats and sheep calling out in the pre-dawn light. The stars last night were incredible since the island didn’t have electricity and the solar lights that most households rely on were few and far between. The Milky Way shown brightly and I spotted the Big Dipper on its side and Orion. 

The round building called and impleuvium was constructed by hand and has 8 rooms around the courtyard.

The round building called and impleuvium was constructed by hand and has 8 rooms around the courtyard.

Breakfast was fresh baguettes from the baker in the house next door. He has an outdoor wood-fire oven and makes mini-loaves of French bread. Instant coffee and sugar cubes and powdered milk is the norm and Titina cut open a soursop for us before we took a group photo and got onto the boat back to town. Michel drove us and two other villagers to the Elinkine. If they want to take the public boat off the island it has to be full, meaning 30-40 villagers also have to want to go, so a lot of the 700 people who live on the island hitch a ride with the hotel boat, which leaves whenever guests are coming or going. 

Michel drives the Campenment Sounka Chez Papis motorized canoe.

Michel drives the Campenment Sounka Chez Papis motorized canoe.

Titina showed us the women’s garden last night. It’s surrounded by a chicken wire fence to keep the animals out and each family has a plot. It’s the end of the dry season and not much was still growing but we saw turnips, tomatoes, mango trees, soursop, and white and red bissap, which looks like a weeds and is used to make juice and cook with. 

We stopped by some of Titina’s relatives’ house. Two young women had a baby girl named Marie. Titina took the baby who eventually peed on her. The baby wasn’t wearing a diaper or any pants, likely to make clean up easier since it didn’t seem like there would be money for diapers or anywhere to buy them. We were offered (but declined) tea made on a metal stove over coals by a woman also named Marie who was undoing her corn rows. 

The man of the house looked to be in his 50s or 60s. His French was not as good as the hotel staff, but our guide Paco said that unless Senegalese people have interaction with foreigners or international business, they don’t practice their French since they speak Wolof or Jola or another local language with their family and friends. 

Paco took us on a tour of the village, which included stops at two sacred wells that never dry up, even in the dry season. The wells are safe-guarded from the pigs, cows, sheep and goats that roam free by a stick fence. Legend has it that a man from the very north of Senegal had a vision of a light in the south that he was compelled to find. He dug wells by hand along the 2,000 KM journey including the two in Kachouwne. People come to drink out of the calabass fruit bowl and wash themselves. The calabass is a green fruit the size of a watermelon that grows on bushes and looks like it has no business hanging from the branches rather than sitting on the ground. The fruit is cut in two and dried to make bowls that are sometimes used as drums. As a symbol of respect for the sacred well, people leave their shoes outside the gate when they go in to pour water on themselves and drink. 

Awa, Youssou, Modou and Titina welcomed us with drumming and dancing on the beach.

Awa, Youssou, Modou and Titina welcomed us with drumming and dancing on the beach.

We finished our day back on the hotel bar patio where we play a dice game and mancala with the hotel staff. Their uncle owns the hotel and the 6 of them take care of it. Their French is good since they interact with foreigners all the time at their 11-room hotel. Youssou had a bum right leg that’s smaller than his left and ends in a stunted, curved foot. Michel drives the boat. Awa and Titina, run the kitchen and bar. Modou and Samba play cards and hang out while they’re waiting for the rains to come back. They’ll work in the rice fields until they go back to school in the fall.  

The Ferry to Casamance, Senegal

The tickets for the Dakar to Ziguinchor ferry.

The tickets for the Dakar to Ziguinchor ferry.

The ferry pulled into the dock at Zigunichor at 11 a.m., an hour after it was scheduled to arrive. We had been on the Casamance river since 8 and up since 5:30 to watch a sunrise that never materialized from the haze. The 15 hour boat ride was actually quite pleasant all things considered. Our 4th bunkmate, much like the sun never came around so we were 3 people in a 4-person cabin with a private bath and 4 cupboards big enough to store our backpacks and then some. The shower on the boat we the nicest and hottest we’ve encountered in Senegal yet with a hose that stayed attached to the wall and good pressure.

Some of the passengers who opted for lower class tickets in airplane style seats on story 2 and 3 took to sleeping al fresco on the benches on the decks or simply on the decks themselves. They brought blankets and bamboo mats. Clearly this isn’t their first rodeo. This boat replaced one that sank in 2002 killing 1,863 of the 2000 passengers on board and spurring maritime reforms in Senegal including mandating life vests for everyone aboard a boat.

Chris and Megan went back below deck after the lack luster sunrise. I read my book and chatted with Helen and her 6- year-old-son who likes the stickers on my water bottle. They’re Swedish but Helen’s husband is originally from Senegal and they’re here on summer holiday. She’s an art teacher but her husband doesn’t finish work until July. They don’t speak French so they’re accompanied by Helen’s brother-in-law who looks just like her husband did when she met him. 

Our floor had a small restaurant and we had chicken for dinner the night before. All of the menus are variation of the same. Yassa chicken or fish or sometimes beef (with an onion sauce,) Maffa Chicken or fish or sometimes beef (with peanut sauce), grilled fish or chicken, a variety of salads, beer, fruit juice and soda and some type of dessert. Mains come with rice, fries or plantains and the meat is usually dry. The majority of Senegalese are Muslim and many don’t drink alcohol. The cocktails on the menu can range in strength and quality greatly. 

We got cocktail at the ferry restaurant. On the receipt they just said, “Jack Daniels.”

We got cocktail at the ferry restaurant. On the receipt they just said, “Jack Daniels.”

By 10 p.m. we were just getting dessert and the wait staff had cleared every other table and brought our check. Our waiter said they were closed and he had to go. I don’t know exactly where he had to go considering we were on a boat in the Atlantic, but we obliged, paid and left. 

Since we carried on our packs, we didn’t have to wait in the holding area for the luggage to come off the boat when it docked in Zigunichor. The luggage was stored in a giant wire bin on wheels and rolled out of the car storage area of the ferry. Watching the dock workers tie up the huge boat with nothing more than 4 long ropes attached to giant metal Ts cemented into the dock was a sight to behold. Our Guide Paco (somehow short for Mohammad, the number one male name in the world and certainly the most popular male name in Senegal) was waiting for us at the dock when we arrived. 

We dropped off our stuff at Casa Motel, a three-story accommodation built by a French national named Jaques who makes his own bissah (flower), mango, grapefruit and banana jams from fruits in his garden. We have two rooms which means for the first time on this trip I get a big bed. It’s hot, the ceiling fan offers some relief but there’s no AC so I don’t even crawl under the covers. We had to ask several times for mosquito nets to be installed over the beds. The employee at check in said it was the dry season and there were no mosquitos but I killed 7 before, during and after my shower. I think they lived in the drain. 

Casa Motel is run by a French man named Jaques in Ziguinchor.

Casa Motel is run by a French man named Jaques in Ziguinchor.

Paco and a representative of the NGO travel agency he works for,  Casamance au Présent, came to the hotel at 7 p.m. to discuss the contract and payment. They had arranged our boat, our flight back and 4 days of cultural activities in the region. The don’t take credit cards or checks and we were leery of the Western Union fees when they suggested we use the service. Instead, between the three of us and two ATMs we withdrew cash to cover this portion of the trip and counted our 10,000 CFA notes (about $17) on Chris and Megan’s bed to make our payment once we arrived. They were accommodating of us, but it certainly made me grateful for online payments, credit cards and bank transfers. 

Île de Gorée

Getting to Île de Gorée, a small island off the south coast of Dakar, was the first major backpackers hump we’ve experienced on this trip. I lobbied heavily not to leave our packs at the hostel all day, which would require a 90 minute round trip to get them at the end of the day it didn’t make logistical sense to me so we packed up our stuff and hailed a cab. I didn’t cover my backpack on the dusty cab ride from the hostel to the embankment and it got blackened in the trunk which was unpleasant. I know better than to not cover my bag in transit. I usually use my rain cover but for some reason didn’t. You are presented lessons again and again until you learn them properly. 

The cab was an old Camry with dents up and down the bumper and sides. My window didn’t roll down and the rubber window seal was falling off in my face. The ceiling, too was falling down and when I tried to roll it up a bunch of debris fell into my eyes. It was 9 a.m. and my day was starting out sweaty and dusty. We drove passed the African Renaissance Monument that was designed by a North Korean. It initially featured a bare chested woman, but the conservative Senegalese thought it improper and she now wears a cloth over her breasts. It’s twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty and looks very Stalinistic on the hill over looking the city.

We drove past the beach and the lighthouse-turned night club, which we didn’t have the opportunity to visit. We drove past the embassies and rows of merchants selling paintings and souvenirs. We arrived at the ferry terminal and were immediately inundated with a swarm of men wanting to sell us their services. Megan spoke to them in French while Chris and I stood around. Our driver was confused because we had originally asked him to stay because we were originally going to go to the train station to drop our bags but he had taken us straight to the ferry terminal. 

One of the guides helped us find the counter to redeem our code for our tickets but then hung around. The man sitting next to me who was from Casamance and was meeting his son and daughter-in-law who were coming for one month from France, told us we didn’t need a guide on Gorée. I asked Megan to tell him we didn’t need his services. There was a man with a dolly who wanted to charge us 10,000 francs to watch our bags which seemed crazy to me and I said we would find a better the solution. 

The better solution was the luggage drop off for the Casamance ferry where we could keep our bags in the corner for free all day and pick them up or check them into the ferry hold any time before 7 p.m. Now that we had our ferry tickets and deposited our big back packs it was time to catch the 11 a.m. boat to Île de Gorée. Tickets cost 5,200 francs, or about $10 for a round trip ride to the former slavers island. On the boat Megan spoke in French to a group of Islamic high school girls who were on a field trip. I spoke to Mohammad, a sand painter with a British accent who lived in the Golf neighborhood on the North side of Dakar but commuted to the island to make and sell his art to tourists. 

The island is home to a variety of sheep, pheasants, stray cats and cows. The residents live in a variety of dwellings including former WWII fortresses half underground. There are rusty cannons and artillery and a military fort from the 1800s turned history museum.  Most of the residents are either farmers or sell handicrafts and art or work in hospitality at the various restaurants and guesthouses on the island.

The Ford Foundation has donated money to restore the Maison des Esclaves and the mansion across the street that were former residences and store houses for human cargo heading to the New World during the triangle exchange of the tras-Atlantic slave trade. Over 300,000 West Africans (the majority being women and children) bound for slavery in the Americas boarded ships on Île de Gorée to start the difficult and horribly uncomfortable journey.

Both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama have visited the island and spoken out about the horrible legacy of slavery in America, but the truth of it is, there are more slaves today than there have been at any other time in history. Between sex trafficking and forced labor, it might look different and more invisible, but the reality is there are still millions of people on the plant who are not in control of their own destiny.

Da Cars in Dakar

The single highway into Dakar is at a stand still. We are waiting in line for a toll booth and trying to make way for an ambulance with flashing lights flashing when I feel a slight thud from behind. Our driver, Dodo puts his truck in park, opens the door and bursts out without bothering to close it again. We have been rear-ended by the sedan behind us. Road traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in Senegal behind stroke, heart disease, flu, diarrhea, malaria and TB. Luckily, the truck was fine, Dodo got back in and we continued on our way.  

Dodo’s car with Chris riding shotgun.

Dodo’s car with Chris riding shotgun.

Big white block letters on a blue field signify a license plate for Senegal. Black is for The Gambia, White is Mauritania and Red is Mali. Since war broke out in the Ivory Coast in 2011, a lot of the shipping in east Africa has been re-routed to Dakar where trucks unload their goods onto boats at the port and reliably transport their merchandise. The huge trucks don’t help an already crowded motorway filled with Fords, Renaults, Mercedes and Kias.

I don’t see too many motorbikes in Dakar. Maybe it’s too dusty or they’re too expensive or too dangerous even for the locals’ tastes. What I do see everywhere is a mess of cars, driving on the right side of the road, or in the middle of the road or swerving from side to side to pass one another with mere inches to spare before the next car comes from the other directions. Some roads are paved but many are not. There’s a big unfinished bridge on the way north out of Dakar and it causes a traffic diversion through a village of bumpy dirt roads. 

The open-top jeep we rode around Lake Retba.

The open-top jeep we rode around Lake Retba.

People who don’t have cars often drive a two-wheeled cart pulled by small, skinny horses with short-cropped manes and blinders. The drivers are often unforgiving and wield a whip ad nauseam to increase their speed. The carts carry people, bales of hay, bricks, a refrigerator, or whatever else needs moved from one place to another. The horses, like many of the animals I’ve seen, aren’t always castrated and spend their non-working hours on the beach or in empty lots.   

Chris video tapes the ride into Dakar until our driver tells him to stop. Not a minute later we’re at a roundabout manned by policemen, who do not take kindly to being recorded. The next day, our driver quickly urges Megan to put on her seat belt. She obliges just as we pass a police officer stopped at a street corner. The police are not well-paid in Senegal and corruption runs rampant. We are stopped by two police officers in yellow checkered vests and military-esque hats on our way back from Lake Retba. The driver again checks Megan’s seatbelt (she’s sitting shotgun) and manually rolls down his window to show his papers. I’ve yet to be in a car with automatic windows or air conditioning. Driving in Senegal has up to this point been a dusty, blustery affair. 

Mor’s car with Megan riding shotgun.

Mor’s car with Megan riding shotgun.

Taxi drivers are required to pay for a special permit to allow them to drive tourists around in addition to having a valid driver’s license. Today’s driver is named Mor. He is quiet and his French is quite poor compared to many of the service industry workers we’ve encountered. He’s from Saint-Louis in the north and tells us it’s much more beautiful than Dakar with a wonderful bird sanctuary. He has bad body odor and says “oui” which sounds more like “oo-way” than “wee” to Megan, even when he doesn’t understand her questions.   

He managed to tell us that there was a big accident nearby when we were touring the lake. Two mini-cars (large white vans used for public transportation) crashed into each other. Seven people are dead and everyone else is at the hospital. It is quite the tragedy. We tell him we agree it’s very sad. What we don’t tell him is how grateful we weren’t involved and how we would never want to drive ourselves around Senegal. 

Lake Retba, Senegal

Our guide, Lamine, says it’ll rain any day now. It’s raining time, and the sky is overcast but the drops don’t fall. Last year there were only three big rains, so Lake Reba “it not satisfied,” he says from the passenger side of our topless jeep. I’m bouncing around in the back on long black benches trying to hold on just enough to keep from flying out but not so tightly that the potholes cause pain. He tells us after the first big rain farmers ready their fields. After the 2nd rain he plans tomatoes and after the third rain he plants peanuts. But for now, he’s serving as our tour guide on a dusty, rickety drive around the lake. 

Women and men work to scoop the salt from the bottom of Lake Retba and pile it onshore for bagging and distribution.

Women and men work to scoop the salt from the bottom of Lake Retba and pile it onshore for bagging and distribution.

There’s a small crafts village on the west side of the lake with merchants selling ebony, lacquered cow horn trinkets and jewelry. A few restaurants and guest houses cater to tourists and several canoe, ATV and jeep operators take visitors on tours. The villagers grow cabbages and parsley in plots of land watered by hand with watering cans filled at the well.  

Our jeep and driver who spoke French but not English.

Our jeep and driver who spoke French but not English.

Lake Retba, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about 40km east of Dakar close to the coast. It’s incredibly salty. Saltier than the Great Salt Lake. Saltier than the Dead Sea. At 40% salinity, it’s the second saltiest body of water in the world. After the rainy season, when the algae blooms are at their peak around January-February the lake is a vibrant pink color for which it is named. The bottom of the 1meter deep lake is a bed of salt crystals in three sizes. Men in canoes use big buckets to scoop it off the floor of the lake into their boats. 

The men (or boys as Lamine calls them) mostly come from Mali, though there are Senegalese salt collectors too. Rich business men who own the wooded canoes hire them. It’s hard work but a big bag of salt fetches 1000 CFA or roughly $1.75. A miner can earn more here than in most other professions in Senegal if they’re willing to do the work. The largest crystals are exported for rock salt to Europe and the medium-sized crystals are sold domestically. The smallest and most valuable grains are made into table salt. All of the miners sell collectively to distributors with big trucks who haul the white bags away. 

It’s the women who do the bagging. They carry buckets on their heads which rest on discs of wound cloth called tengs, to protect their skulls and help them balance. Girls as young as seven practice balancing heavy loads on their heads when they fetch well water for their families. The technique isn’t solely for females either, I saw a man carrying 300 eggs stacked 10 trays high on his head with no hands and no teng.

The women wade out waste deep in leggings and long tunics to fill their buckets. The water is warm but the salt and algae combine to make a thick, viscous texture that’s more akin to baby oil than salt water. It’s sticks to the skin and leaves a film. The algae smells like decomposing earth and the water itself is murky and dark, though totally safe to swim in. 

Megan and Lamine hold the salt Lamine scooped off the bottom of the late. The water feels oily and slick.

Megan and Lamine hold the salt Lamine scooped off the bottom of the late. The water feels oily and slick.

Salt crystals from the bottom of Lake Retba.

Salt crystals from the bottom of Lake Retba.

Lamine tells us about the legend of the origin of the lake, which I could not find evidence of, but I found it interesting. In past generations the lake was fresh and had lots of fish in it (today there are few dwarf fish who can survive in the salty water). The estuary that connects the sea to the lake was open and people made their livelihood catching the fish. The heavy winds were blowing the desert of Mauritania farther and farther south and eventually created big dunes on the beaches just north of the lake. People planted trees on the dunes to stop the creation of more dunes, but the sane filled in the estuary allowing only a small amount of water to enter the lake. The lake became saltier and saltier and the fish died. But the people were happy because they became salt miners and earned a lot more money than they did fishing. 

Sobo Bade in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal

The courtyard of Sobo Bade

The courtyard of Sobo Bade

Sobo Bade was founded in the 1970s by Hatian renaissance man Gérard Chenet who moved in Senegal in 1964. He’s 95 years old and still lives with his wife in a house at the center of the “Mar” side of what is now a sprawling seaside resort.  “Sobo” is the voodoo god of storms and “Badé” is the goddess of lightning. The architecture, designed by Chenet himself is constructed of volcanic rock, marble, thatch, bamboo and mosaic ceramic and shells. A restaurant and terrace overlook the ocean and two steep staircases allow for easy (if precarious) beach access.

We are staying on the “Jardin” side of the resort. The two halves are separated by a dirt road lined with women selling mangoes, bananas, batik dresses, leather shoes and jewelry. They are persistent but not forceful as they lift their heads from the bamboo mats they lie on, “Madame, how are you? Just take a look? Ok, come back later,” in French. 

One woman speaks some English and tries to teach me some Wolof. When two Senegalese here are speaking together they, without fail they speak in Wolof, the other national language of Senegal and the language of the predominant ethnicity in the northern part of the country. There is some English, but it’s limited and broken and Megan’s French is allowing us to have a cultural exchange I could never manage on my own.  

The cliffs and beach in Toubab Dialaw

The cliffs and beach in Toubab Dialaw

A horse-drawn cart picks up the trash in the morning and takes it away down the dirt road. The village is made up of half-finished concrete and cinderblock buildings that contain hair salons, restaurants, shops, tailors and clothing boutiques. The signs for the shops are painted right onto the stucco with pictures of scissors, food, shoes, and sewing machines. 

Sobo Bade has running water but many of the surrounding homes do not and the children are sent out to fetch water from the well. We’ve been filtering the water from the sink with my camp filter and we’ve had no problems. It takes a few minutes to fill my 16oz water bottle and while it’s a bit annoying to do several times per day, I’m grateful I didn’t grow up having to haul water.

Children gather water from the two blessed wells.

Children gather water from the two blessed wells.

There are two wells on the beach behind Sobo Bade that an Imam blessed. Now they are said to be pure and good to drink, even for westerners, though we didn’t test our luck. A man named Momo, who we met on the beach, told us about the wells. Momo is 37 and has taught and performed dance in New York, California and all over Europe. Sometimes he teaches at Sobo Bade and he showed us videos of a big group of Americans who came to learn for a month. They stayed and studied at the Théâtre l’Engouement, the second, larger location of Sobo Bade that houses up to 40 students. They have a 750 seat theater and an ecological pool on the premises. 

An unfinished house in Toubab Dialaw.

An unfinished house in Toubab Dialaw.

Momo speaks Wolof, French and a bit of English. He took us to his restaurant which translates to The Place of the Fishermen, as it’s just outside a fishing village. He showed us dance videos and answered questions about Senegalese life. He told us the average age of marriage is 20 and that he lives with his two sisters and two brothers and their spouses in a house next to their parents’ house. He lives nearby and spends his days playing soccer on the beach and training with his friends, bringing his “customers” AKA us, to his restaurant, and teaching dance. 

It’s well known that Chanet’s artists commune has turned Toubab Dialaw from a sleepy fishing village into the bustling artists community it is today. Locals all know the resident artists and employees as well as Chenet and his wife. They’ve brought a lot of tourism dollars and employment opportunities to Toubab Dialaw in a country with low employment and few high paying job prospects. 

Getting to Toubab Dialaw, Senegal

The paved road to Toubab Dialaw quickly turned to dirt as our driver veered off the two-lane highway toward the coast. We had already passed a dozen completed but seemingly unused cookie-cutter multistory red and yellow building. Now the buildings we passed were still unused but also in various states of completion, the cinderblock walls  had rebar peaking out of the cement corners and none of the floors were done. 

Passing towns as we drive from the airport.

Passing towns as we drive from the airport.

Our driver told Megan in French that the people build in piecemeal as they come into a bit of money and then let the buildings sit until they have enough to continue. Most homes aren’t subject to building inspections or codes if they cost less than $60,000 to build. That fact combined with rapid urbanization and household sizes averaging 9 people lead to sprawling uncheck development and the proliferation of shanty towns. 

The cab of a crashed truck lay on the side of the high way. It seemed to have been there a while. Women carrying buckets of mangos on the their heads diverterd left or right when they arrived at the crash. No one seems perturbed. 

Like many rural and developing locations, the prevalence of livestock in places populated by people was the norm. Our driver swerved to avoid hitting a heard of goats crossing the road. Donkeys and cows were tied up in empty lots crowded into the scarce shade made by the acacia trees. 

The bar entrance to Sobo Bade.

The bar entrance to Sobo Bade.

Our driver told us he would show us a baobab tree and pointed out the huge plant in the distance off the highway. Megan and I reminisced about The Little Prince who uprooted the small baobabs on his planet before tending to his own needs each morning. 

Neither the speedometer nor the gas gauge worked in our driver’s car, the floor of which was carpeted with astroturf. I noticed a gas tank in the trunk when we loaded our bags and figured he must have had to use it on more than one occasion. 

The road was bumpy though grated and I now understand why the guide books say certain areas are impassable in the wet season. After about 30 minutes we arrived at Sobo Bade, an artists commune and hotel in the fishing village of Toubab Dialaw. 

Our room at Sobo Bade.

Our room at Sobo Bade.

Chris, Megan and I are sharing a three-person room. They have a double bed and I have a slightly-smaller-than-single. Our beds are separated by a 12” walk way. My mosquito net in orange and theirs is blue. A floor fan is the only source of temperature control. On the other side of the room a 2ft x 4ft tiled shower area has a short curtain, bucket and scoop and a hose connected to the wall. The water is cold and my 5’3” frame can easily see over the curtain. It doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy but I have a feeling the three of us will get used to being in close quarters over the next six weeks. 

The toilet is outside and down the veranda in it’s own room. Toilet paper goes in the bin. I moved our batiked butterfly chair to the balcony to make a bit more room for our bags. It’s rugged but the hotel grounds are impeccably landscaped and the architecture is covered in mosaics and shells. It’s the perfect place to spend two days relaxing by the beach and overcoming our jet lag. 

Flying to Dakar, Senegal

Flying into Dakar is like watching a pirate’s treasure map form above. The plane followed the coast of Africa south from Lisbon passed long stretches of desert in Morocco and Mauritania into Senegal. It’s the end of dry season. The rains could start any day. (I’m nothing if not an off-season tourist.) But for now it’s hot and dry. The dust builds up on the shriveled shrubs and everything looks brown and dead. 

The flight wasn’t even half full so I let Megan and Chris have their own row and moved back next to a Senegalese woman who hid her phone under her tray table to video chat with someone for nearly the whole flight. There was no WiFi offered on the flight so I know she just took her phone off airplane mode to do what she wanted. 

The new Dakar airport opened last year.

The new Dakar airport opened last year.

Other people were laying across three seats doing our 40 or so minute delay on the runway before takeoff. Finally we were cleared from Lisbon and the flight attendants went from row to row urging people to sit up and put on their seat belts, “Just for take off.” A mob of children ran up and down the aisle chasing each other and playing. I could feel we were entering a place of  lawlessness, where the rules are mere suggestions but really it’s each for their own. 

The flight crew gave up and served us fish with potatoes and “oatmeal salad with chicken,” a new one for me, for lunch. It was incredible to touch down. After 6 months of planning, 3 flights and nearly 24 hours in transit, we had arrived. 

Customs was painless. We went up as a trio and Megan, the French teacher, did the talking. The agent asked where we were from and switched to English when she said America. We showed him our itinerary, digitally recorded our fingerprints for the government and got free entry stamps in our passports. All 3 of our bags arrived on the carousel safe and intact. The ATM worked and we got a SIM card for remote internet on our phones for the next 12 days. The SIM wouldn’t take in Chris’ phone but did in mine so I’ll hotspot Chris and Megan on my WIFI when they need to check in or look something up. 

Senegalese drivers drive on the right side of the road.

Senegalese drivers drive on the right side of the road.

Chris has messaged with Sobo Bade, the artist colony resort we had booked and asked that we be picked up at noon. It was two and no one had shown up holding a sign with out names. Megan called on the new SIM and it turns out they thought we were coming at night even though they asked Chris, “AM or PM?” And he had (correctly) responded PM. They sent another driver. We putted around in the airport while we waited. Megan and Chris taught me some survival French. And two Senegalese men asked to take a photo with me. I’m going to be so famous all over Instagram in West Africa. 

Finally, our driver arrived in a beat up old station wagon with astroturf floors and no seatbelts, but we were in fact off to Toubab Dialaw is a small coastal town 30km south of Dakar and only a 12km drive from the new Blaise Diagne International Airport. 

Itinerary: Egypt

14 days in Egypt

While Egypt is on a different coast and 2,300 miles away from Morroco, we couldn’t resist a
jaunt over to take in the Pyramids and history of the Nile. Egypt is not a Francophone country and the grant period will be over, meaning we’ll be free to relax and play. 

Day 1-2

Cairo is the capital of Egypt and with xx inhabitants it’s a big city with lots of restaurants, museums, parks and the Nile rive flowing through it. We’ll walk through Tahrir Square, check out the mummies at the Egyptian museum and check out the famous Mosques. 

Day 3

Giza is what most people think of when Egypt is mentioned as it’s home to the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids. Since it’s only on the other side of the Nile from Cairo, we’ll take a day trip there and return to Cairo at night for more food and fun. 

Day 4

Cairo is also full of Coptic history chronicling the early Egyptian Christians with old churches and a museum. The souq or bazaar in Cairo is said to be one of the most epic market experiences on the planet with vendors selling precious metals, spices, clothing, and coffee. 

Day 5-6

Saqqara lies 19 miles south of Cairo and was the site of the necropolis or cemetery of the ancient capital city of Memphis. We’ll see Djoser’s step pyramid, one of the earliest examples of Egyptian pyramid.

Day 7

Luxor has ancient ruins right in the city. The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens are just across the Nile on the West bank. It’s one of the sunniest, driest cities in the world with temperatures averaging above 100º F in the summer. It’s gonna be hot.  

Day 8-12

Nile, nile crocodile. Hopefully we’ll see some giant lizards and some hippos (from a distance) on our 5-day river cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. I’ve never been on a cruise but literally everyone I’ve talked to who has traveled to Egypt tells me I have to do it because it’s amazing. So I’m going. 

Day 13

Aswan is on the Nile and is home to archeological sites including the Philae Temple complex, the Temple of Isis and Ephantine Island which has the Temple of Khnum from the Third Dynasty. Aswan is home to Nubian people, who are indigenous to southern Egypt and Sudan.

Day 14

We end out time in Egypt where we start in Cairo before flying back through Portugal to the States.

Itinerary: Portugal and Morocco

3 days in Portugal

As a respite from the heat, restock point for western goods and respite from the delays and frustrations of the developing world, we’ll spend 3 days in an apartment in Sintra taking in the parks, temples, and palaces before heading back to Africa. 

14 days in Morocco

Day 1-2

Rabat is Morocco’s capital city and has a mixture of Islamic and French heritage. It has a beach, a preserved 11th century fortress kasbah or citadel and medina or maze-like city center. The archeology museum has artifacts dating from pre-Roman times and the modern museum houses works from the best contemporary artists in Morocco. 

Day 3

Meknes was founded in the 11th century in the Spanish-Moorish style. The old town is home to the 12th century Grand Mosque. It’s the agriculture center of Morocco growing stone fruits, apples and potatoes in the higher elevation. 

Day 4-5

Fez is Morocco’s cultural capital and the oldest of its imperial cities. Fez is home to silk weavers, gorgeous tiled murals, tanneries and camel meat. We’ll stay in a Riad, or mansion built around a square courtyard that’s been converted into a guesthouse.  

Day 6-8

A visit to a country containing parts of the Sahara desert wouldn’t be complete without an overnight camel trekking experience. We’ll start in Fez and on camel back and by jeep make our way to Marrakech sleeping in the desert and taking in the stars and sand. 

Day 9-10

Marrakech has a lot on offer but also has come with a fair share of warnings about crowds, pick pockets and street harassment. I’m grateful to be traveling in a group of three and I’m grateful that one of us is male. It’s a place where we’ll encounter the Berber minority and head off into the Atlas Mountains. 

Day 11-13

I brought a hat, scarf, gloves and heavy socks for our three-day Atlas mountain trekking excursion. We’ll stay in the chilly mountains and stay with the Berber tribes, who speak Amazigh and sometimes French, learning about their culture and traditions.

Day 14

Here’s lookin’ at you kid. Casablanca is a port city and the largest in Morocco. While we won’t likely experience the city the way Humphrey Bogart did, we will get a feel for modern life in Morocco as it’s a financial and business center full of restaurants and night life.  

Itinerary: Senegal

I enjoy traveling by the seat of my pants, making decisions on the fly and having the flexibility to change at a moment’s notice, much to the chagrin at times of my travel companions. Part of the adventure is the unknown and when traveling by bicycle or on foot, it’s hard to know exactly how many miles I’ll travel by the end of the day. But this trip is different. 

I’m the most seasoned traveler in a group of three and we’re going to places that have reputations of being rugged, wild, un-developed, dangerous, rife with pick pockets and tropical diseases. We’ll be fine, but it seemed prudent to book ahead. We planned an itinerary, knowing somewhere down the line it’ll change, but having the backbone gave us all piece of mind and a road map to follow. 

12 days in Senegal 

We fly from Cleveland to Boston to Lisbon to Dakar spending nearly 24 hours in transit before arriving at our first destination.

Day 1-2

Arrive in Dakar Airport and stay in Toubab Dialaw (literally slang for “white person“ but also a town 55km south of the capital) known for it’s sandy beaches, arty vibe and drumming, dancing and theater classes and performances.

Day 3-5 

After a few days to get over our jet lag on the beach we’ll be ready to brace ourselves for the hustle and bustle of the Senegalese capital of Dakar. We’ll go to the island of Il Goree to learn about the Atlantic slave trade, the pink-colored Lake Retba to learn about the salt industry and visit the markets and mosques before taking the 14+ hour night ferry south.

Day 6-9

Casamance is a remote part of Senegal south of The Gambia, a country that nearly divides Senegal in half. The region is know for it’s Creole culture and stunning wilderness. We’ll be staying in the villages in homestays and learning about the local culture and traditions. 

Day 10-12

St. Louis is in the northwest of Senegal and was the former French colonial capital. The historic town is an UNESCO world heritage site and it’s surrounded by protected areas for sea turtles, birds and endangered species. 

If you want to check out an awesome map of the whole trip that Megan made, click here. I’ll post the itineraries for Morocco and Egypt soon!

Packing

Some people pack in an organized fashion prepping shopping lists and to-do lists for weeks before take off. I am not one of those people. I leave in 2 days for a six-week trip covering 5,000 miles through four countries on two continents. I fly Cleveland to Boston to Lisbon to Dakar on multiple airlines and I want to carry-on my bags whenever possible to avoid the dreaded lost luggage where I stress for days in a foreign country while wearing only the clothes on my back. I know (as always) I’m bringing too much and won’t need everything. A fellow pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago in Spain told me that anything extra one packs is just the weight of the fear of the unknown and unpredictable. 

IMG_0972.JPG

Looking at any social media platform you’re bound to encounter Knolling or flat lays, the trend of photographing items from overhead lined up neatly in a grid. Photos range from musical instrument parts, tools, art materials, and lately, nearly arranged items to pack for a trip. Knolling was started by the janitor at Architect Frank Gehry’s furniture store, Andrew Kromelow. Kromelow lined up his tools in an easy-to-access grid reminiscent of the angles in designer Florence Knoll’s furniture styles. But how did we get from a tool organizational system to a photography trend? You can thank artist Tom Sachs who worked with Gehry, encountered Kromelow and started taking photos.

Not that anything having to do with Knolling is relevant to me and my system of “throw it on a floor then squish and roll it into the bag as compactly as possible” method I employ. There’s always next trip, right? Anyway, here’s what I’m bringing for 6 weeks in Senegal, Morocco and Egypt with a 3 day layover in Lisbon from late June to early August.    

Packing List

Clothes

  • 6 undies

  • 3 long sleeve shirts

  • 2 tanks

  • 2 pants

  • 3 skirts

  • 1 dress

  • 4 socks

  • 1 pair of shorts

  • 1 tee-shit

  • leggings

  • flip flops

  • loafers

  • sneakers

  • sunglasses

  • bathing suit and bikini

  • bandana

  • head scarfs

  • rain jacket and pants

  • sarong

Toiletries

  • ziplock bags

  • sunscreen

  • malaria meds

  • liquid detergent

  • soap

  • deodorant

  • first aid kit- pain killer, antiseptic cream, antihistamine, diahreeah

  • bug spray

  • sewing kit

  • dental floss

  • baby wipes

  • tooth brush and toothpaste

  • towel

  • ear plugs and face mask

  • electrolyte tablets

  • comb

  • lip balm

  • safety pins

  • nail clippers and tweezers

  • bandaids and tape

  • tissues/TP

  • moisture lotion

Electronics and other items

  • water bottle

  • fanny pack/wallet

  • plug adapters

  • headlamp

  • daypack

  • sleeping bag liner

  • travel pillow

  • microphone

  • battery bank

  • water filters

  • notebook

  • iPad

  • deck of cards

  • pens

  • copies of passport and itinerary and plane tickets

  • passport photos

  • yellow fever documentation

  • cutlery, Tupperware

  • cash

  • CamelBak bladder

  • luggage lock for train

  • headphones

  • travel yoga mat

  • phone and charger

  • extra duffel bag and reusable grocery bag

It seems like a short list and it is. I’m taking the least amount of stuff on this trip than I have in a long time. I’m not packing boots, cycling gear or cold weather clothes. I’m not packing camping equipment or any specialty items. I know if I really need something I can buy the local equivalent.

I'm Heading Back to Africa

Lack of motivation doesn’t plagues students in rural African villages and urban American schools alike. My friend is a French teacher in a high school that serves low-income minority students who don’t always see the point in learning French. She found a grant, enlisted in my help to write it and it was funded. The grant will allow both of us (and her husband) to travel to Senegal and Morocco to learn about Francophone culture outside of Europe. Africa has more French speakers than any other continent with 120 million people in 24 countries communicating in French. 

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The People of Vipassana

Doing my 10-day Vipassana meditation course I am surrounded by 60 some other women. We all live in two long bunk houses and eat in the same dining hall. We shower in the same toilet block. We walk the same mulch covered loop. But I don’t know them. I can’t say “thank you” when they hold the door. And I can’t make eye contact when we pass. It’s a strange existence being in such close proximity and not knowing anyone’s story. 

My non-luxurious bed was actually quite comfortable.

My non-luxurious bed was actually quite comfortable.

I not allowed to speak or read or write so I observe. I observe the signs around the property. In the bathrooms: “please wash your hands.” In the dining hall: “Please return your cups.” On every sink a label of “drinking water,” or “not drinking water,” lets us know where to fill our water bottles. In the meditation hall: “please leave your shoes here,” and “please refrain from exercising or lying down on the carpet,” and “please do not eat or drink in the meditation hall.”

Another woman with striped Mary Janes brushes her teeth at the same time as me. We run into each other like clockwork in the small bathroom outside the G block of rooms. She is my teeth brushing friend. I try not to make eye contact, but on the last day of silence I can’t help but smile at her in the mirror. She gives me a nod.

I’ve made up stories about the other students. There’s a woman with a motorized scooter and my neighbor has crutches. They get the primo seats near the window in the dining hall. I was feeling anxiety about waiting in line and finding a place to sit. I can’t ask if a seat is taken or if someone at a table wants company. Too bad if they don’t. The coveted seats at at a bar under the windows. There’s no awkward lack of eye contact, just the birds and the flowers. 

My bunk house. My room is the middle door.

My bunk house. My room is the middle door.

There’s a group who sit outside the bathrooms in the evening to watch the sunset. They are the sunset watchers. There is a group that lay on the grass in the walking area when the sun is out after lunch. They are the sunbathers. There is a very young looking women who sneaks in yoga stretches and squats. There’s a woman who wears a hat with ears. She’s made herself a seat in the woods out of branches. She watches the sheep. 

We are assigned cushions in the meditation hall. There is a sick woman behind me and to the right. I spoke with her on the first day before we were silent. She’s also American, and she has a wicked cold. I try not to judge. She must be miserable. On the fifth night, at the meditation sit of the day one of the men lets out a huge, long fart. It is the loudest, longest bit of flatulence I have ever heard. I smile. Someone laughs. This sets off a chain reaction of a dozen laughs. Someone can’t control themselves and laughs longer and harder. This sets others to laugh at the laughter. It quiets down. Then starts up again. We have ignored each other for five days and finally this fart has broken the tension and allowed us to bask in the ridiculousness of this life and our decision to be here. The uncontrollable giggler excuses himself to the hall. Our teacher, in her ever even lilt in the exact verbiage of every other polite command on the premise, keeps her eyes closed simply says, “Please, continue meditating.”   

We are silent. But we can’t help ourselves making eye contact on our way to bed. We can’t help smiling and gigging like little boys. On the last day when we are permitted to talk, the great fart of day five is a prime topic of conversation. “Oh, how about that fart?” “Did you loose it when that guy farted?” “Do you know who it was?” “He didn’t even try to muffle it, huh?” We are all gross, deeply flawed human beings. Perfection is not only impossible, but undesirable and it’s ridiculous to think otherwise.  

The Sound of 10 Days of Silence

I feel like a animal in a cage. This is why the tigers pace back and forth all day at the edge of their enclosure. They are well fed. They are safe. But they are not free. Our teacher made a joke in the lecture last night that we are in a sort of prison. We laughed. But I’m not laughing now. The only exercise permitted is walking. My watch has a pedometer. I’ve never been so keen on reaching 10,000 steps per day as I am now, in the English countryside at Dhama Dipa, on a 10-day vipassana meditation course. 

The code is strict: wake up is at 4 a.m. every day, no talking, no stealing, no sleeping on luxurious beds, no reading or writing, no electronics, no killing, no sexual misconduct, men and women are separated, and no intoxicants. Bedtime is 9:30 p.m. with lights out at 10, but I rarely stay away past 9:35, I’m so tired from spending more than ten hours a day meditating. 

For a practice that’s supposed to bring peace and happiness, it sure is paranoia inducing. The last thing Craig said to me when he dropped me off in Hereford was, “I’ll be back in 10 days to pick up your body.” He was joking, but since all my electronics are locked up and no one is expecting to hear from me for more than a week it would be the perfect set up for an organ harvesting or cult rituals. There is another retreat center just next door. I see other women, (who I later learn are old students on more advanced courses in meditation,) walking while I’m walking. I imagine we are in an alternate reality being held captive for breeding, for cloning, for some evil geniuses’ science experiment. 

We are Pavlov’s dogs following the sound of a gong. DONG. Wake up. DONG. Eat breakfast. DONG. Gather in the meditation hall. DONG. Eat lunch. DONG. Meditate. We are like herds of silent sheep. The actual sheep are in the pasture just beyond the property line. It’s lambing season and the babies are so cute and so small. They bleat all day following their mothers around as they graze. 

Spring has come early to England and for that I am grateful. I have my wellies and my raincoat, but it only really pours one day out of ten. I walk the path every day and see the buds coming out of the trees in real time. First nothing then tiny sprouts then crumpled leaves that unfurl and grow. The most beautiful crocuses I’ve ever seen are candy striped deep purple, lavender and white. The daffodils cluster under the trees and by the end of the week, the magnolias are in bloom. I feel like Gregor Mendeleev going to check on the phenotype of each new sprout. 

I’ve never see these stats before.

I’ve never see these stats before.

I eat oatmeal with stewed prunes and raisins for breakfast every day garnished with cinnamon, a generous spoonful of peanut butter, honey and a banana. Lunch is at 11, always vegetarian and usually quite good: curries, pasta, rice dishes, and a big salad. Tea is served at 5. Old students take lemon water or tea without milk. New students, like myself, can have tea with milk and two pieces of fruit. I eat another banana and a pear. The first few days I was hungry, now I just start to feel a twinge of hunger around 8 p.m. I tell myself I’ll be asleep soon. That this is just another sensation. That it is impermanent. This too shall pass. Don’t wish it away. 

The goal of this type of meditation is to observe things as they really are, to observe the self as it really is, not as we wish it to be. Easier said than done. Conversations play and replay in my head. I am worried, I think about things, events, people. Let them pass. I tell myself I’ll think about these things at the next meal. Usually I forget and don’t have to think about them at all. I’ve never been with only my thoughts for this length of time. I’ve never be silent for this many days. I don’t remember the last time I went 24 hours without looking at a screen let alone 240. I worry something horrible has happened “out there” and I’ll have no way of knowing. Let it pass. The mind will do anything to distract itself from the work at hand. 

There are about 120 students in the course. Some don’t make it until the end and go home early. Everyone working at the center is a volunteer, all the kitchen staff and the two course managers and the two assistant teachers. All the groundskeeping and repair work is done by old students. The center runs on donations. It’s an incredible operation. I tell myself if this many people give their time and money for me to learn, it must be worth it. 

The women’s walking area behind the meditation hall.

The women’s walking area behind the meditation hall.

The meditation hall is beautiful, with an entrance on each side, one for the men and one for the women. The lobby has shoe and coat racks. I pace it during breaks. There Is a large ficus, a fern, a small ficus, a blooming Christmas cactus, a spindly tree that looks like it’s seen better days, four pots of geraniums and another spindly tree. There are also 15 birch trees just outside the hall, and 6 sinks in the bathroom and 6 steps leading to the dining hall. Being silent has made me very observant. 

By day 7 my mind has finally quieted. I am able to sit for longer on my cushion, wrapped in tan blankets. The men’s blankets are blue. I have found a rhythm. I walk and shower at lunch. I sleep after breakfast. I brush my teeth before the final lecture of the day. I become attached to my routine and feel anxious as the final day approaches. I like being quiet. The difficulty of sitting has lead me toward some profound realizations. This too, I think to myself, shall pass.

MANIFESTING ADVENTURE ON THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO

My goal is to walk between 15-20 miles per day. I have 31 days and need to maintain a 16-mile per day average to complete the walk on time. This seems like an audacious goal for someone who hasn’t backpacked more than a few days at a time. I’ve kayaked and biked for weeks on end, but this time I won’t be paddling or rolling. My feet will be my wheels and I’ll carry everything I need on my back. I don’t doubt I can do it. If I’ve proven anything to myself, it’s that I can and like to do hard things. 

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Portrait of Herself

My temperament is as unpredictable as the weather. Although I attempt to be optimistic, far too often I blow insignificant annoyances out of proportion. I enjoy laughing and making others laugh more than anything in the world, thought on the whole I believe I am far too serious. I rarely feel comfortable talking about myself, and usually defer conversation to those who don’t mind hearing their own voice. I am considered a good conversationalist, not for my riveting pontifications, but for my ability to be genuinely interested in conversation that does not revolve around me. My disposition greatly depends on my comfort level. When I appear aloof or disinterested, it is often because I am feeling self-conscious and painfully shy. 

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Savor the Cosmos

My science teacher told me the Geminoid Meteor Shower was scheduled to make an appearance in our corner of the world. It’s rare for the cosmos to be aligned to allow stargazers in northeast Ohio to experience galactic phenomena in the own back yards. Usually, comets, meteor showers, and the like are best seen from obscure islands in the South Pacific, where the only inhabitants are high-powered telescopes. The newspapers show breathtaking views of sights most people never see. 

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