An island unlike others

Trip Start Aug 17, 2007
Trip End Sep 22, 2007

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Flag of Senegal  ,
Saturday, September 15, 2007

Another week gone by and another weekend begun. I knew from the day I got here that what I wanted most to see was the island of Gorée because it is an important historical site. From there, thousands of slaves left Africa for the Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Weekend after weekend went by and excuses were invented by our supposed escorts, last weekend was rained out and Céline and I found ourselves resolute to go today with or without our ever-ready personal body guards (the necessity of which may be debated, but our gratitude remains for their tireless willingness to stand in the hot sun while we haggle with shopkeepers or to intervene when we've had enough and can't get ourselves disentangled, and especially the safety they offer going out to restaurants on foot in the lively night streets of Dakar). We hassle them and they hassle us, but I have been grateful not just for their protection but for their company. Fortunately, those who proffered nothing but excuses before...let me rephrase that. Some people abandoned us, but fortunately, others were game and ready and waiting this morning at 10 in the lobby to meet the faithful driver of the other team. So, four of us set out for this weekend's first adventure.
Dominique, our Senegalese driver, understands a bit of English, but when three Americans and a nearly-American French girl get talking in our speedy English, he misses most everything. No bother because he can speak in French with us two interpreters, in Spanish with the two instructors and, extremely conveniently, Wolof with vendors hounding us to buy things we don't need at outrageous prices. The line here in Senegal is, "But you're my first customer of the day...I'll give you a good price because it will bring me good luck since you are the first." Funny thing that from the time we arrived (on a ferry full of tourists) at 11:30 to the time we left at 3, we were the first customers at every hut on the entire island. I wonder what all those other people were doing? In any case, Dominique was handy to have along for random guide-like information and his diverse language skills. He was also fun because he thinks Steve (you have to hear a Boston accent when you see pictures of him) is the funniest man ever to walk the earth. No matter what the guy said or did, whether Dominique really understood or not, he would just laugh. When I told him Steve was trying to throw me to the sharks (there are no longer sharks here, don't worry), smiling, of course he said, "That sounds like Steve."
After a smooth ferry ride over, we arrived at the island. Anxious little boys ran from the rocky beach into the clear blue green water and swam up to the ferry, bobbing in the wake as if waiting for something that apparently did not come. The island is what you imagine when you hear the word "island". The sand is fine and soft, waves come crashing up onto black rocks, people of all colors laze under umbrellas on woven mats and the simple mud houses are painted in bright reds that contrast the palms and perfect blue sky. We trekked dutifully to the hotel that had been recommended to us...
We were happy to sit under a tent and enjoy the cool breeze, excited to start our day with a  good meal. Skinny cats with wide eyes sat poised for any scraps, scraggly dogs scratched their flea-ridden backs on the bushes, flies zipped and floated and landed on the table, our glasses, our forks, the bread and eventually our food. The menu left something to be desired but we all found something we were willing to try and ordered. Something dropped from the ceiling into my fresh squeezed orange juice (orange Ex-lax says Pat next to me, referring to the unknown origins of the beverage and the uncertainty of the effect it may have on my system). Before I could even bat an eye, the server materialized out of nowhere, scooped the UFO out of my drink with a spoon and placed a coaster over it. I turned, blinked and asked Céline what had just happened. To this moment I still don't know what was in my drink, but I drank it...and I'm fine. Céline ended up with a giant swimming fly, but this time said server was not so stealthy and Céline refused his spoon life saver and told him to take the glass away. Ah, to be French...or have a spine...When the food came, mine looked like what I expected. I'd ordered poulet yassa, in English yassa chicken, which is a Senegalese specialty: chicken with white rice and a very oniony sauce. Céline and Pat had an assortment of itty bitty seafoods prepared in a variety of ways with toast on the side...covered in green mold. Yes, Céline refused to eat this, too, and while Pat had already eaten half before seeing the green, we sent it all away, not accepting the offer to replace it with more offensive bread. Steve's "filet" was not a filet and medium-well today meant pink...We asked for guava juice and the guy said no but we have guava sorbet, so three of us ordered it. He came back to tell us they didn't actually have any. So, thanking the friend who recommended this place for nothing, we decided to trek on to the actual focus of our journey.
Gorée is a beautiful island. It reminds me half of Monterey, because of the giant palm-like plants and succulents and spiky plants growing out of the sand, and half of the south of France, because of the narrow alleys between bright buildings that open into courtyards with colorful laundry flapping in the wind. In one courtyard, kids yell excitedly as they play football around a giant tree in the middle of their field. In another, women sit in the shade, letting us walk by without peddling their wares. Practically every street you walk down is lined with vibrant, energetic acrylic paintings depicting stick figures dancing, straw huts, baobabs and African life to sunset backdrops. Tapestries blow in the wind, huts packed with large bead necklaces, lively patterned fabrics and wooden carvings fill every nook and cranny of the small island. People approach us here and there. Men with two wooden balls filled with beans on the end of a rope that they knock rhythmically back and forth in their hands promise us, "Good price. Good price. First customer. Good price." as they shake and rattle away. Women with hands overflowing with clusters of gaudy necklaces push them toward us. Hearing our English they peck, "Hey lady! Lady! I have nice necklace. Give good price." In French we say no thank you, no thank you, we don't need any, and keep walking.
We step inside a Catholic church, remnants of the Portuguese colonization which gave way to the Spanish in the long history of exploitation of this peaceful island. We walk through alleys, up winding stone paths, past shops and huts and legless beggars scooting along, stopping to raise pleading hands. Compared to the bustle of Dakar, the island feels like a relaxing stroll in a calm garden. We only need to say "no" once or twice and people leave us alone to continue on our way.
Braving the gantlet of shops, we forge a stone path, passing between bleating sheep that look more like goats and piles of people wiling away the day in the shade. On our way, we find the shopkeeper we'd met on the boat and since she had promised that she owned a big shop with lots of things, we keep up our end of the bargain and follow a small shack the size of all the others...a size that does not permit Pat to actually even step inside. But Céline and I do just to appease her. Céline ends up buying a pagne (material to be used as a skirt) and a scarf which the woman carefully shows me how to tie so I can later show Céline. I tell the women I already own several African skirts and escape her clutches. Pat is not so lucky and is disappointed to learn that even though he was the first customer and she was giving him a "good price" after bargaining for a while, he paid nearly twice for his items as I had paid elsewhere for similar items. Sigh. We carry on, brushing off the advances of pushy women who argue with us that you can't turn down an invitation (as if she were going to serve us tea and scones) before walking off in a huff.
Reaching the top of the hill, we see a sign reading "The edge of the world" and recall that we were to meet "Bob Marley" at the top of the tower and have cold drinks with him. Bob was there all right, dreads past his shoulder and rounded rotting teeth, but once we sat down he disappeared and after a few minutes we decided to move on and find ice cream or cold drinks elsewhere. Really no story in that, even though meeting "Bob" sounded like a good idea at the time...
Finally we made it to the slave house. The house itself is nicer than the homes of many people in Dakar and even there in Gorée with walls that must have been restored and few little evidence of the time that has passed. We walked in and out of the tiny rooms where 25 plus people would be kept, standing for days, maybe weeks, only allowed to leave to relieve themselves just outside and fed only enough to keep them alive. A three foot cubic room served as punishment for those who stepped out of line, men, women and children were separated and if men did not meet the minimum weight of 60 kilos they were kept in a separate room to be fattened up until they were acceptable to be sold. Women were judged on their breasts and virginity. Those who became pregnant by the European slave traders were left behind on Gorée and these mixed blood people became the aristocracy of the area...their misfortune taking a surprising turn for the better as they watched boatloads leave the tiny island never to return and maybe never to arrive at their destination. Families were systematically separated and the sick or infirm in any way were fed to the sharks, like those who misbehaved or tried to escape. The slaves wore heavy, iron shackles on their hands and feet, so narrow that even my thin ankles and wrists would be worn raw in short time. The quarters on the ground level were dark, damp and cramped. The flashing of cameras and talking of various guides prevented me from hearing the ghosts of the past, from imaging the misery that was contained in those stone walls for all those years. My imagination stunted, and gratefully, I talked with Dominique, regretting that human beings have always and will always be cruel to one another, that even today the very thing we were trying to learn from and not forget by preserving this site still happens around the world.
Stepping again into the sunlight, a beautiful dual staircase leads to the brighter, more open quarters were the European traders would sleep peacefully, their consciences apparently unaffected by the shameful lack of humanity and utter degradation below. All the houses on the island facing the water were once used as slave houses, sending people mostly to the cotton fields of the southern United States. It's strange to see people taking smiling pictures in such a somber place. Even stranger to step just outside and return to the world where our skin color and language represent money, where our concerns are rushing past vendors and carefully selecting our food so as not to get sick. It's a strange world where some of us sleep in a hotel qualified as the best in all of West Africa, mosquito-free and air conditioned to our comfort yet complain about the cost, the bugs, the poor service...and others walk on the outside of their ankles because their feet are twisted in from birth but using their arms to lift their legs still manage to dance...others draw drinking water from a black brown pit where goats and sheep relieve themselves, garbage heaps and people bathe...elsewhere innocents are enrolled into armies, force fed drugs and given weapons made especially light so their pre-teen arms can carry them easily...What a world.

If it makes me grateful when I travel to realize the privileged life I live, it makes me ashamed and bewildered to be among the very few elite who do. We forget so easily when we stroll into a mall filled with sparkling jewelry counters, designer clothing and entertainment at our fingers for the amount of money most people earn in a month or several...I forget when I wander the plentiful grocery isles, selecting exactly what I have a taste for at the moment, reassured by the FDA that no matter what box I select off the shelves, no matter which fruit or meat, I can eat it and it won't make me sick. I forget the fish laying in the 100 degree sun, covered in flies, eyes rotting by the second. I forget the filthy water that vegetables are washed in to give them the appearance of being fresh. I forget that stomach parasites, bacteria, worms, malaria, typhoid and things we don't even know how to identify or treat at home are a part of daily life here.
In waxing philosophical I just hope to remind whoever is reading this that as glamorous as traveling can seem, especially from funny, harrowing stories and carefully chosen photos, what traveling should do is not reward hard work with a vacation, but open our eyes to the reality of the majority of the world. If you've traveled, you know how happy you always are to be home. Would that in being happy we recognized why and stretched beyond ourselves...for two days of Starbucks a mother in Africa could be given a 50% chance not to pass HIV/AIDS on to her unborn baby through the purchase of a simple pill. For $30 a month through any number of organizations, a child can be fed nutritious food, protected from diseases and given a chance for an education they otherwise would not have. How easy it is to slip back into the oblivious comfort that surrounds most of us in the States...We shouldn't feel guilty for our wealth, nor should we take it for granted. We should enjoy it; I'm not saying we shouldn't. But, "Of those to whom much is given, much is expected..."  Each time we leave the safety of the hotel, I expect an adventure of one kind or another. Each time I recount the various adventures through this blog, I sift and select what seems most interesting to me (sometimes more successfully and succinctly than others), but heaven forbid that I not share the overarching impression that slaps you the second the vehicle passes the compound gates...poverty, lack of development, corruption, division, disease...yet life goes on. I just have to ask myself, "What is expected of me?"
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