One of the reasons we travel is to gather our own impressions of the people and places of the world. Our brief visit to Dakar only served to reinforce the stereotypes we have of Africa. Our tour, which started in five fine quality air conditioned buses, traveled in a convoy surrounded front and back by a police escort. We were told that the police were there to help us move through traffic, but the drive out of the city was not particularly challenging and we were dubious. Little that we saw could be described as clean, functional, or attractive. In the city the better buildings were made of concrete block. In the country people had gathered corrugated metal panels, sticks, boards, tarps, and anything else flatish to build their little homes. Much life took place outside and we went past furniture "stores," where all the merchandise sat in front in the dust and dirt. We did not see one place in the city where we would seriously consider eating. Until we had driven an hour out of the city, the buildings still appeared to have electricity, but then that disappeared as well. Although some people seemed to be involved in some sort of labor, there were many in repose or recline or chatting in small groups. Although our guide said that school is mandatory, we saw many children playing in the streets.
The goal of our tour was the Pink Lake of Retba. Since the area had recently endured six feet of rain, the water was diluted and grayish. We climbed into open air trucks that the French military had left here when they bailed in the 60's. They carried about ten people each and careened along the banks of the lake. Its salinity is very high and many locals were busy evaporating the water, gathering up and bagging the salt crystals. Women seemed as involved in this labor as the men and carried pails of salt on their heads. The center of gravity in our truck was quite high and our young driver seemed to be playing chicken with the others as he raced up the sides of the lake shore and swooped back down. Then he would stop and wait for an opportune moment and pop the clutch - Ken said he wasn't sure we even had a clutch - and dart out in front of the others. We were packed into the benches on the sides of the truck bed like sardines, and our well fed girths wedged us in and kept us from flying out as we sped through gullies and up sand dunes.
Our destination was a truly primitive town with stick huts in the sand. Many of the villagers waited at its entrance, beating drums, clapping and singing. The village was blessed with a well, donated by the Volkswagen corporation according to the sign on its side. The young chief came out with a big grin and welcomed us warmly. He said his village has gotten lots of help from westerners and he is always glad to see us so he can say thank you. He toured us around the place, such as it was. The cooking area was communal and he said we would be welcome to stay and eat. We politely demurred. Except for goats and chickens there appeared to be no crops and I wondered what was on the menu. It was interesting to observe that while this village had no electricity, running water or sewage facilities, that residents were taking calls on cell phones.
Then we hopped back into our top heavy desert trucks and sped to the beach. We drove right along the edge of the waves, again racing one another and bouncing and lurching. Our driver had a bright smile on his face and I wondered what the hospitals are like in Dakar.
We thought the excitement was over when we got back in our buses. For everyone else it was, but we got a flat tire. Our guide used his cell to call for a replacement bus, but while we waited the driver and some nearby loiterers, got out the jack and wrenches and went to work. In about 45 minutes the tire was replaced and we crept back out into the traffic, lead by the motorcycle policeman who had waited with us. Dakar is located at the bottom of a peninsula, and all the traffic funnels down to the point at the bottom, where our ship was berthed. Soon we were trapped in total gridlock. No one moved. Now we understood why our rescue bus never appeared. Our policeman turned on his siren and forced the folks in the right lane to move onto the shoulders and the folks in the left lane to do the same. Suddenly there was a clearing for us in the middle of the road and we moved forward at a good rate of speed, except when other cars and trucks saw this as an opportunity for themselves to move and darted in front of us. Sometimes there were no shoulders and vehicles began to move to the sidewalk. I felt like I was in a presidential motorcade. The cop had very long arms and he waved them to the right and left, like a prima ballerina often not bothering to keep his hands on his vehicle. I guess the police really were there to help us get through traffic.
We thought it would be nice to get a souvenir or T-shirt from this unique spot, but had seen absolutely nothing to buy. As we neared the ship, we saw that the resourceful residents had gathered nearby our gangway with carved elephants, batiks, masks, jewelry and other irresistible items that we will probably find more cheaply at our local Pier One. At least none of them said "made in China" on the bottom.
I also should mention that Dakar is the location of Isle de Goree. This UNESCO site commemorates the spot where millions of Africans were imprisoned and waited for the slave ships to take them across the Atlantic. We could see the island from our ship and could have taken a tour there, but, seeing it did not seem like it would enhance our understanding of this place of horror. I'm glad I will be able to remember Dakar with a smile on my face and an ache in my spine.