A visit to Sénégal
I spent the years 1978-1984 in Nigeria but had never been back to Africa, yet had spoken about wanting to do so, etc. At the February 2003 Denver meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science the first session I attended was about "GIS for sustainable development" (or something like that) and several presentations referred to the November 2003 AfricaGIS to be held in Dakar, Senegal. I decided then and there that I would attend, and that I'd probably not go through the red tape of getting USGS support for the trip. After all, I'm paid well, and although my research relates to public health, the focus is not on Africa. And the Bush terror war, tax cuts, and general management timidity make all federal travel difficult, foreign travel tortuous. Having made my up mind, it was only a matter of making arrangements: round-trip travel, a talk at the conference, and 2 weeks in Senegal. For the first time, I also kept a journal, which I added to at least once a day; this is an elaboration of what I experienced then and wrote, remembered and pondered in the weeks after my return.
At Charles de Gaulle airport enroute to Dakar. I took this Air France flight rather than the single-leg South Africa Airways route because it was cheaper (about the same for a regular ticket as for a consolidated fare) and more convenient (I think SAA only flies on Mondays and Thursdays). So the trip means a lot of time in the air, and on the ground - a stressful journey of about 7000 km becomes two grueling flights of 6000 km and 4000 km, and a long wait on the ground. Given that I face not the warm teak decks of a windjammer but who knows how many clamoring taxi touts at the end of the journey, my anxiety level is definitely raised by the flying.
The map shows something of the colonial legacy; it's cheaper to get to Senegal via the old capital than directly. Of course to many modern flyers who have only the vaguest idea of geography this is merely a mysterious inconvenience rather than a spatial oddity. (Yet if you spend any time looking at the onboard maps it's clear what you are doing.)
Yet there are (as will turn out to be of much of this journey) curious positives. When I was a kid I wanted to be tall; but not when I fly! Once ensconced in my seat I'm OK, looking out the window: at the air operations, the sky, the sea. When I can see down! Why is it so damned hard to get a decent seat, even when one reserves a flight months in advance. "Yes, your seat is away from (in front of, behind) the wing..." but it often turns out my trip is a constant view of NO STEP. Yet even this is preferable to being on the aisle, for all its convenience, and anything is better than being between two other seats.
So getting there is certainly not half the fun. I feel brittle: fearsome of losing things, in the seat pocket, or that roll down the plane as we come to a stop. Already I'm worrying about language (a voice from the future: this is really not a problem!), missing the flight, illness, etc. I think of Fran and her high anxiety. Perhaps she (like me) got some kind of thrill from tempting the fates, acting in the face of fear. Do our anxieties give us nervous people a greater taste for life? As the Berlitz teacher observed, I'm a sensitive person: aware not only of the world but also of the feelings (sensibilities) of others, and doubly aware of the analytical complexities of situations: navigating a landscape of reactions from the singularity of my own. It's a big job (and yet casual observers find me, if not relaxed, seemingly on top of things); if they only knew. If I only knew.
Loss is a possibility: on this outbound trip I do lose my neck pillow and my water bottle. Yet, curiously, these are the only items I do lose in over 20,000 km of travel (equal to a trip halfway round the world). Again - it could have been worse; again - the little fears are there, always. But there is only now, and fear is about the next moment. Hey; being here is quite enough, and who the hell is keeping score? Plan for the future (that is now), don't worry (which itself does nothing to prepare and spoils the present). No one will deny, however, that this being in transit is a struggle. Yet (finally) one is surrounded by a magnificent machine piloted by the most experienced professionals, subject to the immutable laws of physics. The numbers are with one, and the sights are occasionally spectacular - such as the pattern of lights made by Paris when landing (this I see 10 days from now).
At 2300 I arrive by bus at the Club de Calao (what is this Portuguese name doing on the Francophone coast, and I'm in a little bungalow (pix) with the sound of the ocean pounding somewhere outside. On arrive. What the hell time is it? I'm not sleepy, but definitely tired, thinking of what might happen next: theft, sickness, depression (didn't they warn me of Lariam's side effects?), injury. And who is here with me, witnessing this inner struggle? I watch myself. Others are thinking of me. I think of others who may be hearing my thoughts. Who are these people? I will tell them what I see and do. My mother, Freya, Melanie. (Yet of course their interest will be virtually zero compared to my own self-absorption. Still, they - and a part of me - are part of some audience that is definitely not I. We all want to see what happens next. But there's also the challenge: is the old adventurer still up to his game: taking off by train for Kano, by bush pickup for Lomé, by foot across a snowy ridge in Wyoming? (And I'm in the middle of Life of Pi, whose harrowing tale of transPacific journey with a tiger in a lifeboat doesn't calm my spirits.
||A couple of conference attendees are staying at
Calao, including Ndaendelao Noongo, a young Namibian woman working on
her Ph.D. in Finland and presenting a talk at AfricaGIS. Our paths cross
several times during that first week, and we always have interesting ideas
to share about the meeting, the state of the world, and the paths of our
lives, which intersect for this brief time. I'm of course reminded of the
feeling of the film Lost in Translation ; strangers in strange
A bus takes us the AfricaGIS conference, which is all too familiar in some ways (the chattering groups, PowerPoints, coffee breaks, posters) but on the edges is the exoticism of new smells, so many dark people, French in the air. I am surprised by the olfactory dimension. Any new destination brings new smells (think New Orleans, or the New York subway, or Hawai'i) but especially are there new smells here: the humidity, the ocean, my nasal dormancy, and perhaps echoes of Nigeria. I was unprepared for the presence of the vegetable, the fecal, the marine. But this is after all your usual conference, run according to strict and time-honored rules. The presentations are the equal of others I've seen (e.g. unremarkable) and I'm not very interested in the topics: GIS, international development, improving the world. There is little new, and I'm not paying enough attention to the substance to notice if there were anything interesting in the first place. The conference is at Le Meridien hotel, which I've taken to calling the moonbase not only because of its curious blue dome (it was built - or at least paid for - by the Saudis) but because it seems alien midst the chaotic landscape of periurban Dakar. Still, Molly Brown (must call her) wisely recommended that I do the conference first, get acclimated before heading off to the country... the hotel is part of a global network (graph) laid upon the ground, connected by air, and spanning a quite limited cultural space: angularity, large private spaces policed by rentacops, men in suits, women in power colors. But the participants are not your usual AAG crowd, and many are no doubt having a hell of a time just being away from the stresses of Ife, Lusaka, even Washington.
But I'm still preoccupied with various moods: fear of my state, reactions. Dakar is messy, dusty, West African. And this isn't even Dakar. The place seems a venue of struggle; trying to be modern, urban, prosperous in the face of the pressing chaos without. I'm not happy here; continuing to feel lonely, fear of not being able to cope. My usual mood demons are along for the ride, but this is a new place, on the edge of my civilized world, where if you fall it could be a long way down (not a bike ride home, or to Kaiser). Fuckit - other times I'm up, coping just fine, chatting, watching, smelling: feeling the adventure, recursively watching myself experiencing new sights, animals (butterflies and grasshoppers), plants. Yet without a guide I miss so much, and this really isn't a very attractive place when you think what interesting things such resources could do. And what will it look like when the thin stone squares begin to drop off the faces of the 5-story blocks? What could have been done with this money to make something that would last, accommodate the climate, age gracefully like a mud mosque? So I think about getting out of town, in search of a world beyond myself and the (dis)comfort of the familiar. Think Saint-Louis; think of getting away from people, from this business, and especially this pretense.
I used my GPS receiver to navigate "directly" to the Meridien Hotel through the unplanned alleyways of N'Gor, and this worked well. I know this scene: dusty paths among cinderblock buildings, goats bleating, dogs trotting or lying idly in the sun. And the sound of the muezzin ever-present, often over-amplified, yet sometimes heard live through a doorway. It's Ramadan in North/West Africa. I know nothing about Islam, but imagine that it helps inure people to their poverty, lack of opportunity, loneliness in the new location far from the village. Religion is the mental landscape you carry with you all over the world.
The really fine thing about being here is the sea: its sounds and smells of course, but above all you can always seek it, and when found, look out upon 90, or 180, or even 270 degrees of openness; to see the waves, the blue, and the sky, perhaps a boat or a ship, or even a dolphin. Free of people.
A nude 10 PM swim under the full moon takes my mind of this unpleasant brooding, but my notes go on: the trip both distracts me from and aggravates my depression; plenty of solitude to contemplate moods. Events are felt, observed as being felt, observed as being observed, and recursively so on, as some of the gloom is relieved by adding recursive layers of regard. At the core of this is some kind of really simple chemical problem, that can itself be relieved chemically, or with biofeedback, meditation, self-therapy, a well thought out philosophy. Why live with it? What does it offer? Is it a price to be paid for something else, or are the rewards there for the taking?
Be here now: afloat upon the world sea under a moon, soon, at its
very fullest, to be shadowed by the earth. At 20031109 01:18:31, to
My last formal day at the conference. What I remember especially is a spectacular booth lined with 1m x 2.5 m satellite images of major African cities, all at the same scale, as well as a multi-panel image of the Cap Vert peninsula. The density and complexity of these images is overwhelming, and who the hell are we to be discussing bringing any kind of order to this biological growth? I discuss the growth of the slums of Lusaka (I think it is) with a young Zambian technician; he tells me how a million people took a few years to settle a riverbed.
I seem to have lost track of the days this week, no doubt due to the relative sameness of the conference, my sleeplessness, the general otherworldliness of things.
One comment I do recall is a thought that occurred to me in one session.
Why not fund a team of African scientists to research obesity in the
rich suburbs of Chicago?
Visited Île de Gorée with Ndaendelao. We had intended to join a group organized by a U. of MD student but in spite of having taken a 7 AM taxi we missed the 8 AM ferry and had to wait until 1030. She needed a pair of sunglasses, so we shopped and she tried on many, being sold by street vendors while I soaked in the city: noisy, busy, narrow streets full of rushing people, quite a lot of whom wanted to talk to me, to beg, to sell. Eventually I would learn (or try) to ignore them, but at first it was sensory overload. She eventually found what she wanted, I guess, although I observed that I seem lose interest in all items (books, videos, menu items) and eventually leave with nothing in hand. A high point of this shopping trip was a visit to Librarie Clairafrique at Place de l'independence where I discussed choosing an appropriate French book to read during the rest of my trip. The salesperson suggested Une si longue lettre, which I read for the next few days. Unfortunately I never got straight the relationships among the writer and the dead man and his mother (whoever) so I read the book at the scale of paragraphs rather than a whole narrative. But the simple, earnest prose helped further insinuate the language into my brain. In fact, although I probably never did much thinking in French, I did talk to myself in the language...
We went back to the embarcade to wait for the ferry and got nice seats on a box facing aft from which we could view the city but not the island. The day was hot and overcast (evidently not ideal for picture taking), but the wind was constant, and I don't remember ever being more than slightly uncomfortable. Again, it's the humans that get to me. When you get to Île de Gorée you are accosted by guides eager to serve, and I got into a tense exchange with one; I wanted to be alone with Ndaendelao to explore the place and didn't want a third. Plus I had been warned by Lonely Planet about how much of what one is told is hype, so I didn't want to be further mislead. My powers of observation for what I seek always seem sufficient to me, though I'm sure I miss a lot of what's officially to be gleaned from a place. Guide #1 left us muttering something about stingy tourists (I suppose) but another tagged along and I later found this fellow (Abdoul Mega) - who later called my office) talking to Ndaendelao, so we engaged him for the usual fee.
And the fellow was a vast fund of information, some of it no doubt true. He was interested in more than giving us the spiel, and enjoyed political discussions, observations about slavery in the U.S., and the recent visit of George Bush (jorj-booche) to Gorée. For example, he told us that upon the president's recent visit all the islanders were herded into the town square for the day and none saw anything of the visit save for helicopters. When asked by a reporter (probably not CNN) after the visit what he thought, Meiga said "Fuckjorj-booche." Perhaps. But he did have a lot to tell us, for example that African American tourists are not mixed with whites because they tend to get rather emotional at certain points. I had filled my head with too much revisionism to get much personal effect, but I'm sure being on the island can be quite moving if you can suspend more disbelief than I did, or be less existentially in the moment than I was. In any case he was apparently pleasant company for Ndaendelao, and he had several impressive characteristics, for example that he was reading an Italian novel, claimed to speak several European languages, and said he was a Buddhist - this in a land of almost universal Islam.
The island is quite romantic and the buildings are well preserved; of course I delighted in the absence of cars. It would be fun to spend a few days there, as it even has a beach and concrete jetties were one can dive into the clear green Atlantic.
After the island hop Ndaendelao wanted to shop for cloth so I navigated us to Marché Sendaga where we were accosted on all sides from sellers on the streets, in booths, with carts; while we navigated among the cars of the narrow streets. I brokered the purchase of several meters of cloth, and by then we were both ready for a retreat back to N'Gor, so I grabbed a taxi whose driver had to stop to call home (his mobile was out of money) to tell his family he'd miss the break-fast. I tried to help him navigate with the GPS but putting it on the dashboard was obviously confusing so I just gave directions, which worked fine. We arrived at le Meridien for the closing dinner, complete with dancers and awards. The food, as always, was adequate and, for me at least, plentiful. Although I probably should have passed on the cream puff.
That night I was feverish with sunburn received on the island, and had an attack of diarrhea. As I planned to take off for St-Louis the next day, I took 2 loperamide, which at least put a stop to the runs, but probably didn't solve the problem. If I do this again, I must learn more about the etiology of and prescriptions for the problem. Is it a bacterium, a reaction to poisons, just a change in diet, perhaps an emotional reaction? It really was the most unpleasant aspect of the trip, and I suspect can be avoided or at least alleviated using a well known remedy (hence I've bought Lonely Planet's Healthy Travel)
By the way, because the roof of my bungalow was thatch, the GPS worked
fine. I'm sleepless in Senegal at
WEST 17º 30' 23"
NORTH 14º 45' 11"
|I had intended to take off for parts north but really felt lousy: sunburned, dyspeptic, tired, perhaps weary of trying to keep up with a woman half my age, and, I suppose, wanting to enjoy a few quiet hours by the sea at a really lovely spot. So I spent the day swimming and talking to Ndaendelao as she had her hair done by a rather pretty Senegalese girl who must have been an expert in plaiting, which took hours - unbraiding, removing artificial tresses, combing, washing, and rebraiding - and resulted in dozens of complex waves and spirals. The effect is fascinating, if somewhat artificial. The THALASSOTHERAPIE (a huge sign on a wall next to le Meridien) seemed to work, as I was fit to travel the next day.|
But I never did get into the new time while in Dakar, no doubt in part due to spending each of the first 3 days indoors. (Do I repeat?) Oh well, insomnia aids in writing. And I spend the time thinking: why am I doing this? To reconnect with Africa; to test myself; to show others (that vague audience of whom I am a part, from whom I am apart) what I can do. I do know that for me the most delicious experiences ar those tinged with some danger that heightens one's senses, gives one an added sense of accomplishment: I did that, was there, and returned. Everyone must have a bit of this risk-attraction, else we'd stay in bed all day; but most of us seem content to shuffle through life seeking comfort and security. At the end of the journey (this is written 5 days after my return) I do take pride in having carried out a self-given assignment, completely on my own. Yet on that Saturday I did contemplate abandoning the project, calling Air France and asking for a flight home. No doubt the grueling 14 hours would have made me really sick! And then what would my audience have thought. So I looked forward to St-Louis.
My state is not enhanced by the personalities of most of the Dakarois I
meet; they deal all the time with tourists preoccupied in their own comfort,
adventure, release from routine; the locals must be weary of the neediness
and resent the wealth of which a few crumbs come their way - and
of course this is la grande ville, beyond which is le désert
sénégalais so the locals have that hostile
appearance to keep up as well (which I definitely noticed at the desk
of the hotel next week). Tourism is a strange state; you drift among
abnormal people whose work lives are dedicated to dealing with you and
people like you. So one never knows what these people are "really" like.
Some of them seem actually to enjoy dealing with us, others are weary
We had dinner with a group from Botswana and Uganda (I think) and Ndaendelao was moody. I enjoyed studying her sarcasm; it seemed out of place in a young African woman, yet in a way refreshing and familiar to me, reminding me of my own daughter, and of course of myself. I guess it's not unpleasant to observe in others one's own less positive personality traits, and to suppose one is seeing them for what they are: objective aspects of mood with no necessary value dimension. I've come to accept that aspect of mood: a state, with little meaning, unless one wishes to engage in some kind of evolution, toward change (happier, sadder, angrier,...). Otherwise, I can let it pass, perhaps with regret, but without much judgment.
|That night I arose to see the lunar eclipse and say good-bye.|
Got up early to take a taxi to gare routière to catch an "express-bus" to St-Louis. This mode is recommended by Lonely Planet as "good, safe, fast, reliable" - and comfortably provided you get a seat rather than a padded bench with no back that the enterprising owners place in the isles. So I spent 4 hours trying to sit up and see the countryside. As soon as we were underway almost all the window occupiers pulled the curtains closed, so much of the trip was like a journey in a hot, noisy submarine. Whaddaya want for CFA3000 (about $6) - the same price as the 15 km taxi ride from Calao to Dakar? If I visit Senegal again perhaps I'll rent a car, or taxi+driver. Intercity transport is cheap though unpleasant: passengers sleep or stare ahead (little reading) and almost never talk to strangers; you can't make your own pit stops, let alone inspect an interesting sight. Having a driver would be convenient, especially if the fellow were pleasant and knowledgeable (and didn't speak English or want to move to the US!).
|What little of the countryside I could see is dry and sparsely vegetated with occasional villages and what has become universal strip developments (shops, mechanics shacks, bus/taxi lots, etcetc.). We did stop a few times to allow passengers to buy oranges and stuff, but most of the time the expressbus barreled on, with a minimum of swerving, honking. Certainly it seemed safe enough.|
My arrival at the St-Louis gare routière was unpleasant. First, the back door of the bus was jammed with people trying to get on (this apparently wasn't the last stop), when I made my way down the steps I found a crowd around the baggage compartment and worried if my bag might be carried away by a tout. Someone did grab it, but I yanked it back with and angry shout. Finally, a young man explored one of my pockets and either found it empty or difficult to open (I had nothing in my pants pockets). So much for my journey to the wilderness! I slung my backpack across my chest and doggedly set out across the Faidherbe bridge to the island, feeling a bit like a fish swimming upstream against what seemed a mass of pedestrian commuters, wearing all kinds of clothes, from traditional robes to T-shirts ( Express-Sport | Number One | Rally Internet-Ready | Michigan U). At the west end of the bridge I headed for the Syndicat d'Initiative for hotel information and a map. They have a book listing hotels and rates, but not much more information than Lonely Planet.
I headed to the north end of the island, stopping at the Auberge de Jeunesse which I found too jejune (this word comes from fasting [not eating], not young) though they did have halfway decent bikes. The walk was my first real introduction to urban Senegal: the almost constant attention of young boys calling m'sieu and even girls seeking un cadeau, young men wanting to talk, beggars with their hands out. Dogs and goats in the street, hustling taxis and mopeds (nary a bike to be found). One gets into a strange state of mind, again slightly schizophrenic, being there, watching the environment and oneself watching. At first it made me angry (and never left me neutral) as I'm an introverted Westerner who wants to be left alone or at least free to engage in conversation on my own terms. Eventually I learned to ignore the chatter, first to look straight ahead, then at what interested me, eventually even to regard the speaker with an empty stare as though a deaf mute. At bottom I afford some amusement to the natives, so it does no harm and is not necessarily rude just to be there, bearing witness, as Freya says.
I'm a different person from the one who left Nigeria in 1984, and Senegal is a different (gentler but maybe more insinuating) place - and there are probably 3 people for every 2 who were there when I left. And half the population is under 18 (or so). Too many (fucking) people, and I'm more environmentally conscious than I was 20 years ago, meaning that I see the crud and the burden of humanity's mass more than I did. The trash, the stink, the people who seem to wander aimlessly, or sit vacantly or scuffle in the street; it's so ugly as almost to be marvelous (and this is a small city in Senegal, not Mumbai!). Later I thought more about why I'm visiting here. Do I want to help Africa? I don't really care; I mean unless I can bring about paradise, I'm uninterested in relieving humanity's suffering (my own is paramount). Perhaps there's an individual, somewhere I can help (a la "Schmidt") but I don't feel that I have anything to make up for. In any case I bring a bit of fun and some cash into the lives of the various people I interact with; I spend locally, tip if not liberally then at least without regret, treat the locals with respect and genuine interest. An ongoing, small scale mission of small kindness and witness-bearing.
I found paradise at the end of my dusty walk at La Louisiane, the far north end of the island, situated like the bridge of a ship heading upriver into the cool, fresh breeze from the Sahara. They showed me a room on the ground floor next to the patio, but I held out for a place au premier étage: cooler, quieter, better view (fewer mosquitoes). Settling into the place I began to realize what I had come for: comfort, aspect, exoticism - the best of both worlds. The dinner was excellent; fish (what else) in a rich stew. I wondered if my disinterest in food is due to the relative blandness of what I'm offered. In any case, my pleasure was short-lived in that the meal resided in my for about 2 hours. Perhaps this could be the key to a new diet: eat anything you want, shit it out a few hours later!
But the location of La Louisanne is superb: a view of the Senegal River (the northern boundary of the country) with its pirogues (any wooden boat of any length used for fishing or ferrying), splashing children and horses, the occasional sailboat.
The plan of St-Louis reminds me of a mini-Manhattan; both are long narrow islands that bisect a river, both are connected by bridges on both shores - but SL is 1/10 the length of Manhattan, so it can be walked end-to-end in an hour instead of a day. You can see that the city was once a charming colonial capital, now fallen on the hard times of undevelopment and what I've come to call active neglect. The place inspires ambivalence (my dominant emotion when walking city streets); I regret having arrived too late, after the French have gone, taking with them their love of architecture, their skills and resources, leaving a crumbling sandcastle city overwhelmed by an exploding mass of humanity who may actually be hostile to the colonial symbology and not just unable to maintain it. But...at night, or from far enough away, you can see the old charm and imagine the pleasure of living in Paris without the formality, the cold, the scale.
On the bus the first day from the airport to the hotel I noticed a bicycle box and asked Jordan Chamberlain, the owner, what he was doing with it. He planned to cycle trough Mali with a group, the week after the conference; I was very impressed. I ran into Jordan again yesterday and we made plans to bicycle to the Réserve de Faune de Guembeul (pronounced GUMBALL as best as I can determine) about 10 km south of St-Louis. It was a hot day and I was still feeling ill and weak, but a ride was too much fun to pass up. It began with a too-exciting dash across the Faidherbe Bridge, keeping up with the taxis and trying not to tumble between the girders of the highway (I later returned by walking the bike).
It was great (and thrilling) fun to be back on a bike in the hustle of an African city; naturally one of a very few cyclists, and almost always given a certain respect and entertained by the surprised looks of pedestrians and little boys. It really is a great way to travel (though a helmet and sounder bike would have been preferable). Of course it was hot and dry, but the wind of passage cools one. (Never found out what the Zebrabar was...). So after a pleasant chat with the guards (the rangers appear to be part of the military), we trekked a bit and got to see oryx, impala, and wild boar. The ranger said that the animals were doing well (though we didn't pursue this matter) I suppose in that a few dozen are surviving in a little patch where there numbers are not declining. It's pretty country, and I would have liked to linger instead of having to be conscious of Jordan's schedule. My notes record that "this trip is hard work; my digestive system is in constant turmoil, movement requires too much thought, language is a challenge, people are intrusive, and [as this was written that evening] a troop of loud Frenchmen are yelling at one another in an excess of alcoholic camaraderie. I'm not unhappy I came, but wonder if I'll do it again..." So a journal allows me to enjoy the memories in the comfort of my room with mainly notes to recall the real discomfort of the moment.
|There are always moments that make it worthwhile. After Jordan left me to turn in his bike, to get to Dakar, to buy his ticket to Mali... I rode to a hotel and had a beer; wanted to swim in the pool but there was a charge, so I walked out the back to the shallow shore of the river and pulled out a chair (probably used by a guard) and watched birds and pirogues. I also saw a large iridescent bird (glossy starling) and a large lizard who seemed to live just outside the back of the hotel. If one just settles down almost anywhere something comes along to see: for example, some kind of hopping mudfish who unsuccessfully tried to catch a libellule (dragonfly) which itself seem to be futilely attacking a bit of driftwood. Each of us is at the center of a universe, human, insect, fish alike, and when I transcend the consciousness of this enough to feel existential resonance without losing my awareness of awareness, I realize why I've come on this journey. There was a steady breeze, and no one paid me any attention, and I walked several hundred meters into the river until it became deep enough to submerge my horizontal body in. It's best not to think about what must be in that water as I'm down river of St.-Louis...|
I was pretty tired when I returned for a nap at La Lousianne. I ate a fine meal of fried fish at la Fleuve Plus (didn't stay with me long!) and slowly walked back through the streets of St-Louis. It was breezy and the air was soft; you can't see the dirt and trash, and people leave you alone, so it's a lovely time to wander; the city looks almost beautiful, and certainly romantic as I catch a glimpse of family life through curtains into dimly lit rooms, pass little stalls selling sundries, watch the lights reflected in the river. The traffic diminishes and on the second night one feels ever so slightly a resident. I wonder what it would be like to live here, or at least to have a purpose to remaining. For the moment it's lovely, but I remember that there are many places more beautiful and less arduous to visit. Yet I try not to be late for now...
That night a swarm of noisy motorcyclists descended upon the hotel. The only other hotel guest, Juan (a Spanish fellow who runs an inn somewhere in the Moroccan Sahara) asked them to quiet down, but unsuccessfully, and eventually retreated to the hotel's annex. I just put in my earplugs (thank God) and slept as well as usual. Alcohol is a perfect example of mood alteration. We experience the artificiality of mood state; many of us feeling happy and friendly under its influence, and perhaps feeling that THIS IS HOW I AM at least now. But then you are another person at other times, bathed in the neurotransmitters of the moment, the chemicals of a recent meal, fright, movie, nap. There is a continuity, but it's a wavy thread though existence, and sometimes you can I suppose completely lose track of it.
|This is the remains of an engine block slowly decaying into the ground. Parts of the rest of the car lie about as well, making beautiful complex patterns. The iron is slowly burning away, melting into the ground, far from its birthplace (in Minnesota?) but finding a home.|
The only other hotel resident, Juan and I speak a similar level of French, and he seems uninterested in speaking English. His Saharan Inn sounds quite exotic and is mentioned in the LonelyPlanet guide for the region, but I forgot his name (NOTE: carry your journal everywhere on a trip and jot down names.) I like to talk to strangers on my own terms but he began with an inquiry as to whether I'd seen the eclipse and said he'd missed it. We chatted a bit and he validated my judgment about the food at our hotel. We discussed plans for the next day and I said I wanted to go to the Parc nationale Oiseaux du Djoudj. He was also interested but didn't want to pay the usual price for 3 people, so we got them to charge us that for two; I'd go for the ride up and the boat trip on the lake, then stay at the hostellerie.
I also met a Guadeloupienne novelist (didn't get her name) who was traveling with her mother and with whom I shared a breakfast. I take it she's quite successful, and made pleasant conversation. Said she was researching the next novel; perhaps I'll show up in it! That night I do a bit of wash, and it's true, you can get by on very little clothing; I always had something and there was plenty of room in my suitcase.
I began with breakfast with the Guadeloupienne, who says she's working on her 10th novel. (Damn - sorry I didn't get her name!). Her mom fell down in the bathroom - the floors are very slick - and will spend the day at the hotel; there are worse places to recover, to be sure. I am able to have slightly crippled conversations totally in French; as little essential information is exchanged, it becomes pleasant to exercise the mind in another language, although no doubt if I were to read faithful translations of my utterances the structure would be appalling and the meaning often obscure. Yet I doubt that day-to-day conversations between native language speakers - while usually grammatically correct - conveys much more information. I expect to someone who knows little French it sounds like two people speaking French.
I must have become somewhat linguistically immersed, because I encountered a Gambian fellow at the pool who spoke only English, and it was actually at first slightly jarring to talk to him (neither was his English very smooth - like all Africans he was fluent in a local language and spoke several others to with varying degrees of skill). This fellow was driving a German couple on a spontaneous project. Marc Gensel (www.marcgensel.com) is a photographer and he and his female companion intend to assemble a picture book of UN sites that are endangered. While visiting friends in Gambia he got it into his head that this would be a worthwhile project and decided to head north to Djoudj. I found him increasingly frustrated in his efforts to obtain permissions to photograph the park and interview people. We spent an hour with one of the officials in which I translated and enabled a compromise; if he wrote a letter offering to share his pictures with the park, they'd give him a letter allowing him to photograph and interview. I thought this would fly, but Marc seem to lose patience with the project, and was disappointed in the light and the diversity of birds as well, so they decided to return to Gambia. Somehow I wasn't surprised; the project wasn't well thought out, nor, on the other hand, did they seem spiritually engaged in the spontaneity of a visit to the far north of Senegal. Perhaps he'll begin with endangered animals in Gambia, or the Schwarzwald... They also had to move to a more modest room, but I thought they should be staying at the biological research station; his mission was ecological, and the place was built by the Germans as part of a Rhein/Senegal rivers project.
|The taxi ride to Djoudj was fun; plenty of room, and pleasant company: the Spanish fellow and our guide (Mina) a tall, droll fellow who clearly enjoys his work (or makes it appear so). When I told him my name and its origin in the Confederate general, he proceeded to call me mon Générale with a curt salute. He's quite a character, making a great show of correcting my grammar and pronunciation. For example, if my pronunciation of "birds" is sloppy he reminds me that the word is "WAH-ZOH," broadly shaped with a wide mouth and accentuated by cigarette stained teeth.|
The taxi took us to a pirogue, which took us along an arm of the river to a large pelican rookery. As I'm no birder, none of the species seemed particularly unusual to me, but it was nice to be in a natural setting. After our boat ride he took us to Poste Gainth where we had a picnic. Although the driver said little and didn't eat because of Ramadan, Mina claimed to be un mussleman de gauche who didn't fast (but did decline a beer).
I chatted briefly with the head guard at Gainthe, who had been with the Service over 30 years - at this same post. So here is evidence of some small success; a gentleman who seems to have made the transition from the French established park service to post-colonial dedication. I asked him whether the park was healthy and he said yes. Obviously this question has little meaning, but I wondered if he might give me a summary answer, and he seemed to get my drift; if Djoudj were not some kind of preserve, there would almost certainly be fewer large animals and birds than there now are. At a naive level it is reasonable to speak of the health of a region; like any complex organism, all places are "sick" to some extent, but may be more or less viable. The parc is what we'd call a wildlife refuge and it seems to work because the birds, who shouldn't be hunted or poisoned, need the water, and the tourists want to see the birds. And the local Senegalese service and government workers earn a living in a nice place; seems like a win-win-win.
|Personally I'm a bit more interested in insects, though I don't know much more about them. For example, I noticed that whenever I walked anywhere there were always a few libellules following me, and they settled down whenever I stopped. The guard at Gainthe said my feet stirred up even smaller insects that the dragonflies hunted. It was amusing always to have a squad of low-flying companions wherever I went.|
The Park is a welcome contrast from the intensity of the city. I'm one of only a trio of guests (the other being a French couple), as the region has just reopened after the rainy season and before the serious bird watching begins. The Hostellerie de Djoudj is a pleasant place with a crystal clean pool and lovely garden, and an acceptable restaurant (I guess, as I'm wary of any real food beyond bread and water these days). The hotel is an island of services in a relative sea of nature, although it appears that the region is heavily dyked, and maps show that a number of villages were moved from the area to make way for the park. No doubt what appears to the naive visitor to be pristine paradise is the result of aggressive land management. There is also some controversy about a recent Mauritanian dam, but I didn't get these facts straight. No doubt, as soon as we think about these things it turns out that the water (or salt or fish) is in the wrong places or not in the right places. I've never been here before, and may never return; and certainly wouldn't be here were it not for the hotel, so I share in whatever crime is being committed in this tiny patch of world.
|I rose before sunrise to walk along an arm of the river and did see birds, especially flights of pelicans and various pairs of birds, especially a smallish pair whose heads are encircled by a dark band that continues the pattern of their beaks; as well as two large birds with black and white bodies who emitted peeps of increasing frequency as I approached, eventually flying away.|
I also heard the gurgling/laughing sound of one type of bird that seemed to be chuckling at something. It was an amusing sound and hard to be serious around. It would be interesting to have some kind of sound recorder... I was disappointed to find that the advertised-bicycles were all in Dakar for repair, but did discover a plastic canoe that looked inviting. Yet when I asked the park supervisor for permission to take it on the river he pointed out that if anything happened to me, it would be his ass, so much for that idea. So for most of the day I rest by the pool waiting to see what develops. At about 2 PM I decide to walk back to Poste Gainthe, which is about 6 km, figuring I could return before dark. About halfway there I realize this is impossible, but what the hell; the route is two straight lines, I have my GPS, and the moon will be up an hour after dark. It's a long trek but not unpleasant to be alone with my thoughts, in sight of distant horizons, occasionally seeing faucochere (warthogs?) prancing around in the dust or mud. They are clearly top dogs in this neighborhood; going where they wish and not particularly spooked by people. I did meet up with the old ranger and we chatted some more - he even gave me a map, in return for the GPS coordinates of his station.
It was a long walk back (a perfect bike ride it would have been!), but pleasant (unfortunately none of the pictures turned out from this part of the walk, but it was a very African mood: orange sun setting among the reeds, warthogs prancing around, hot and breezy, and intestinal disquiet. Toward the end of the trek I was picked up by a rather taciturn French ornithologist who was obviously an old Africa hand. We chatted about Senegal (he urged me to check out Pekin to the west of Dakar, which I taxied through the next day and seemed just part of the endless slurbian sprawl). When I complained of my stomach problems he recommended Pastis, the anisette drink that Andrew Stancioff was also consuming at the conference.
I was resigned to dinner alone but ran into the only other resident, a retired Swiss pharmacist who must have looked like a close relative of mine: about 60, short, balding, with a beard. I didn't get his name (or ethnicity) but we had a very pleasant meal together. It seems that he had run a neighborhood pharmacy for several decades and was bought out by a (US?) chain in collaboration with a bank. He apparently didn't want to sell, but once resigned to his fate decided to enjoy life by traveling to exotic places (Senegal, Sulawesi, California highway 1). He agreed that alcohol did settle the stomach, but also gave me a few dozen drops of Carmol on a sugar cube, which seemed to help (but I can't find the stuff on the web; perhaps it's some Swiss concoction). By this time my condition was bound to be improving, so these ministrations obviously didn't hurt. Certainly the Pastis can become a pleasant cure!
|This odd moderne structure may once have been part of a radio station for an airfield, which is still marked by tires in the ground, but there's no equipment in the building now.|
Thoughts about whether/how I might return to Africa. I could certainly plan on AfricaGIS'05 in South Africa, perhaps even get sponsorship. I could definitely relate to the Gates/NIH global health "grand challenge": Develop technologies that permit quantitative assessment of population health status, which would be aided by work in compiling health data. That's not too great a stretch.
As observed by a Peace Corps volunteer on holiday from Cameroon to Djoudj, life in African consists of a lot of waiting, especially where transport is involved. This can become a welcome contrast from the semi-hysterical scheduling we usually subject ourselves to. I found myself slowing down (or was it speeding up?) in that I would lose track of time as I observed the world around me, or within me. I wonder if anyone has written a story of what might have happened had colonization moved from south to north. Would the Parisians (or whatever the Africans would call them) be serving African food to visitors from Dakar (or whatever the city at the western tip of Africa would be called)? This is a fantasy, because African culture (technology, ideas) probably couldn't overcome that of Europe. But at least I see that the triumph of baseballcap-tshirt-jeans-sneakers is "succession" and not progress; like forest becoming savanna under climate change. Not better, but more suitable to global conditions. And for the moment one does see quite a bit of costume diversity crossing the Faidherbe bridge!
I plan to return for a last, full day in Dakar, whose surface I'd only scratched the week before. So I spend the day wandering around the Hotel de Djoudj, swimming, writing, reading, chatting with various officials and service people. I find a taxi that's ferrying a young Quebecois couple making a whirlwind visit to the birds. The taxi ride from Djoudj was pleasant; got a glimpse of a monkey and took a sandy shortcut through the savannah. Although the guidebooks are cautious about Dakar, I'm prepared for the challenge - after all, I'm a city guy, and if I can handle Lagos then Dakar can't be very difficult. So the day is preoccupied with transportation: getting to the gare routière Saint-Louis, waiting for a place in a sept-place (found one, went to get bananas, lost it, found another, settled in to wait, we left the park but waited for a few minutes for the 7th passenger...). , but then a long cramped ride to Dakar, ending with a long slog through the Western outskirts of the city, depressingly dusty and busy and car-choked. Then another taxi ride to Hotel Ganalé which LonelyPlanet calls "classy" and is indeed clean and modern and quite comfortable, although the staff is less friendly than at Djoudj; life in the big city. The view from the corridor outside my room.
Had an excellent dinner at Chez Loutcha in Dakar, noted in LonelyPlanet by a visitor as one of the best restaurants in the world. I wouldn't know, but the peanut fish stew was great, and a huge 3 person portion - this in a poor country! (I ran into the manager at the post office the next day and he said at first people find it's a lot of food, but they soon eat it all. I'd have loved to have a sac du chien...) I ate next to a European couple (Swiss, Dutch...?) who visit places like Gambia, New Caledonia, San Francisco; like the pharmacist, they are citizens of the world. Nothing will stop them: not global poverty (they pass it by), not terrorism (they go elsewhere), not climate change (the snorkeling improves) - the world is theirs, and mine as well.
The day in the big city was indeed exciting. As usual, I rose early (for me); this time with the intention of taking an ocean swim, not difficult because the city is on a peninsula. I found a little beach between two hotels, guarded by an extremely earnest stuttering young man who needed to talk, to tell me of his hopes to get me to sponsor his immigration to the U.S. It was a perfect little beach: smooth clean sand, sets of meter-high waves, and of course warm water. By "sets" I noticed that waves come in groups, probably because of the oceanic swells that have over 3000 kilometers to roll across the sea. I could have spent hours there, and maybe (if there's a) next time should stay at Hôtel Lagon II at $150/night... And what did I do for the guard - a bit of conversation, tiny bit of hope, diversion from the tedium of watching the beach. And maybe he wasn't a guard after all.
A day of wandering the city. But first, check in at Air France where the clerk first told me my flight was for yesterday, then it was canceled, then there was some problem with the reservation (never figured out what the problem was). After a shower and checkout I wondered to the embarcade (from whence the Gorée ferry leaves) to check out craft stores. Found a few items, but I don't enjoy shopping for anyone but myself, so I wandered off toward the train station, a delightful structure that is obviously under-worked since the trains no longer run very often. The map said I was near the Gorée Bar, and (surprise!) a young man attached himself to me and brought me there for a beer (or two) and lunch, which I wasn't ready for. So we spent at least an hour chatting, and a boy joined us, then his mother (who worked there), and a couple of cats... Among other things we had a geography lesson (perhaps about the U.S.) in a dusty open-air plaza with a bar on one side, a stage on the other and tiled tables around the edges; no doubt a wild scene on Saturday night, but rather dreary on a Friday afternoon. The fellow was obviously not à jeun (observing the Ramadan fast), because he said he was sick, and indeed he did cough and spit occasionally. Naturally I contemplated adding some virus to my alimentary dis-ease, so I called for another plate for my own portion of the lunch, but this resulted in a full serving.
We left and as I'd promised a visit to his shop, I figured some buying would acquit me of my touristic obligations. He was a principal in a 2 story market that I understood as having been established out of some kind of award made after Dakar-Ziguinchor ferry capsized in September 2002 with over 1000 deaths. The details escaped me, but it was an extremely well stocked operation, and I bought some (mud?) cloth from Côte d'Ivoire, pants, and a cap, no doubt at wildly inflated prices. Yet I console myself: I was paying for the companionship (which I ambivalently enjoyed) and information, and the money was not important. Yet one thinks: do they (the other shop owners) think me a fool, or crudely rich Westerner for paying these prices. What the hell - from each according to his ability, and I'm able! So I took my purchases to the hotel and left them with the porter for later packing.
Especially in the city, but everywhere I went I was struck by how attractive are the Senegalese people, especially of course the women, and how rarely people are fat. In fact, one becomes used to the local appearance and I at least find white people pale and even crudely angular. One gets used to what is around. I wonder how I looked to Senegalese? For example, after my shopping I visited the Bar Colisée and was served - another Pastis - by a beautiful and rather aloof woman. Although she bartender didn't know where cigars might be had, the only other patron did and directed me to a shop 2 streets down and to the left. I found a little lobby shop and tried to buy cigars from the proprietor, who turned out to be a customer waiting for the man (fuzzy language causes adventure). When the fellow arrived I noticed an unusually healthy striped cat luxuriating on the floor and asked its name, to which he replied les chats ne s'applents pas (no more than do squirrels call themselves anything). So I gave it my name - Felix - but changed this to Felicity when told it was a female (I'm curious if the cat now calls itself Felicity).
Using my sense of direction and the excellent LonelyPlanet map I headed due west in search of an ocean view where I might smoke my Canary Island cigar. I scrambled down a path and out onto the crumbling apron of what appeared to be an apartment building under construction (or entropic collapse). I sat and watched the sun in a hazy sky, surrounded by migrating butterflies, reminded that waves of natural flows pass over our affairs on their own schedules, shaped but not controlled by our anthropogenic changes. Nothing will be the same, nor can we know how different we make it. The place was across from a striking building that would not have been out of place in New York, complete with what appeared to be a helipad on the roof
After my cigar I wandered south in hopes of reaching Cap Manuel but it was too far so I settled for another view of the setting sun over Îles de la Madelaine, whereupon I was accosted by yet another young man who walked me back to the hotel neighborhood. The country (the world?) is full of young people who appear healthy and well dressed but are actually unemployed or underemployed. They may be somewhat educated and fluent in two or more languages, but the economy simply doesn't provide them with occupation; so they are eager to talk to a sympathetic white person, in hopes of some offering, an idea, a contact. Now I get bouts of depression in the midst of daily life, yet to the limited extent I was able to communicate with these young men, they expressed anxiety but didn't seem depressed. As though I could tell: through the screen of xenoculture and my own self-involvement.
It was getting late, time for a few final purchases (leather boxes) before heading to the airport. After some confusion about which line to be in at any point, I settled down for a 2 hour wait in the smoky lounge surrounded by Europeans flush with the sun or their adventures. Senegal is relatively close to Europe, and cheap, so I imagine these people hung out on the beaches while I was adventuring (!) in the bush.
Cunard used to say that "Getting there is half the fun!" but this was before the days of the aptly named AirBus. In general getting from A to B has been unpleasant, whether the points are separated by 100s or 1000s of kilometers. So I'm glad that at least while incountry I didn't try to do too much traveling. Modern air transport certainly has made it possible for middle class people like me to go anywhere in the world for relatively little money, but getting there now tends to destroy about a quarter of the fun, so that wherever you go, it's pleasant to arrive.
Written using MS WordPad 5, Netscape 6.2.1 Composer, and CuteHTML (I can't make up my mind!).
Photographed with an Olympus D-510, 1600x1200 jpg.
All images were reduced and many color-adjusted using PaintShop Pro 7.2.
Maps from Microsoft Encarta 2003 Atlas.