Experiencing the highs and lows of African travel - all in the shade of the colourful colonial buildings that cluster certain islands here in Senegal.
14.06.2016 - 21.06.2016 32 °C
Wandering lazy down through the sand-covered streets, in the shade of colourful 19th-century balconies, to the sound of nothing but young children playing football. This scene has repeated itself multiple times a day for the past week. Only to be broken by the smell of Senegalese food that have lured me to hole-in-the-wall cafés; by the sounds and curious creations of workshops and galleries offering aesthetic change; or when my sore legs – as having a life of their own – have taken me to a watering hole for a drink and a chat with the locals.
Interestingly, this description works for both the places I’ve spent the past week in Gorée and, 300 km to the north, Saint-Louis. Both are islands. Maybe that’s what make these places feels alike. Gorée is a short, twenty-minute ferry ride from downtown Dakar.
The island of Saint-Louis is the centre of the much larger city of Saint-Louis, connected to the rest by no less than three bridges. They are both also some of the first locations for European settlements on the West African coast. As such, both islands are dominated by colonial buildings, creating two relatively unique spots in Senegal that still share both look and atmosphere. What they have in common is something best described as a laid-back and artsy atmosphere. Life moves slowly here, and that have attracted plenty of craftsmen and artists to both places. Regardless, my arrivals to the two locations couldn’t have been more apart.
Even before arriving on Gorée two sensations quickly hit. The chaos of Dakar vanished soon after the small, car-free ferry has left the terminal. A fresh and salty air trump the smell of car fumes and pollution. The sounds of the waves and the seagulls replace those of honking taxis and the yelling hustlers, who are constantly trying to relieve me from my West African Francs.
The island itself is visible from Dakar. It looks small. As we sail closer, it doesn’t seem to grow significantly. As was it magic, its small size seems to be fixed. Not too surprising for an island that is 900m long and less than 400m wide. As the ferry rounds the southern tip of the islands, a small natural harbour is revealed. An old fort’s cannons are pointing at us. The palms on the quay are swaying gently in the front of restored red and yellow colonial buildings to both our right and left. Straight ahead is a small beach, next to the pier where the ferry docks. Above it is more cannons point at us. And the bathing children’s screams and splashes now drown the sound of the waves. Stepping off the ferry feels like stepping out of a time machine. Gone are the common hassle of Dakar. Replaced by a scene from when pirates and slave ships cruised these waters. The change is welcoming. As much as the smell and smoke from the grilled fish that hits me just a few steps from the pier – so thick I can taste it. Here is nothing else to do, than to take it all in.
Arriving in Saint-Louis was less idyllic. Covered in sweat and dust, I arrived after the daylight had vanished. Is was so tired that I barely realised the taxi drove across the Pont Faidherbe Bridge to the island. Had it not been for its lights, lighting up my face’s tired features, I would have missed the 500m long bridge in its entirety. The journey up here had been one of a traveller’s worst nightmare. Delay upon delay. Until, with the lights of Saint-Louis in sight, the final shared taxi of the day broke down. Obviously. During the daylight hours, sept-places (literally, seven-seater) resemble sitting in a crowded sauna fully clothed. Having spent no less than eight hours like this, I was soaked. The sweat had made its way into both my eyes and my mouth. Unable to drink anything for the duration of the day, as it is Ramadan, the taste of the salty sweat had almost become pleasant. Solely unpleasant, however, was my clothes, sticking to my body like greasy tape.
My nails had gone from freshly washed to pitch-black and, on my head, the inside of my hat was as wet as a teenage girl’s inner thigh during a Justin Bieber concert. I was tired, dirty and done for the day, and the last thing I needed was the old, moist, rusty, fish-smelling, piece-of-shit taxi to break down. As it did a sandstorm blew up, and as we had to flag down passing cars down from the side of the road, it covered my fellow passengers and me in another layer of dust. As the foul-smelling dust on the bus stations hadn’t been enough. That night, I fell asleep as soon as a saw my hotel bed.
Having taken a shower and asked for a fresh set of sheets – yes, I had soiled them so badly by my share presents during the night – the next morning I made my way out into the streets. As miserable as my arrival had been, as splendid did the Island of Saint-Louis treat me. I had not walked a hundred metres before the smell of freshly baked French pastries hit my nostrils. They had real coffee too. With that, the quarrels of yesterday vanished with the steam of the freshly brewed coffee, and I had no desire to leave the peaceful island. Certainly, because that would mean another day in the sept-places’ sauna-like prison cells.
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