Dakar, Senegal, October 26 - 27, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

My expectations for Dakar were not necessarily unrealistic, but I nevertheless had visions of the place as the Paris of Africa, a sleek modern metropolis with French sophistication at Africa's westernmost point.  Well, Miami-Across-the-Sea Dakar is not.  My dream was quickly dashed by the reality of squalid suburbs with open sewers, decrepit slums, and choking exhaust fumes on the way into town.  When the truck was stopped by bribe-seeking gendarmes as we approached the city center, I was pelted by pebbles thrown by children outside a school who also whipped me with a branch through my open window on the truck until they themselves were whipped into line by white-robbed elders in the area.  This was not the welcome to Dakar I was expecting in the so-called "Land of Hospitality". 
Sometimes am initial impression is worse than the reality, and after settling in as I walked around central Dakar I experienced very little hassle from locals and certainly no sense of feeling threatened in the first big city in Black Africa on this trip.
I quickly found the center of the Dakar is somewhat unique in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the sense that it has a finished look about it, a kind of general shabbiness more characteristic of provincial Latin American or Asian cities than the unrelieved ramshackle squalor of most African ones.  Dakar has a definite French element and apparently a significant expat community.  Most of the goodies available in France are available in Dakar too it would seem but usually at a very steep price.  There are places in the world (China comes to mind) where virtually everything one could desire is available at a low price, but in West Africa it seems the finer things all come with a very steep price tag and most of the population just does without, many virtually without anything. 
Dakar was the first place I noticed it but it turned out to be the case for most of West African cities that most restaurants, bakeries, stores, and other businesses were owned not by Black Africans or even Europeans but Arabic-speaking Lebanese.  "How did they all get here?" I couldn't help but wonder.  The most notable exception to this was Ghana, a former British colony, where Indians seemed to play the entrepreneurial role the Lebanese had elsewhere. 
On a trip that mostly involves camping there aren't too many opportunities to sample local cuisines.  That might not necessarily be a bad thing, since with the exception of Ethiopia Sub-Saharan Africa is not renowned for its well-developed cuisine.  Then traveling with some seriously culinarily-challenged comrades, though, I can't help but crave an interesting restaurant meal once in a while.  I chose my restaurants carefully, and on that front Dakar did not disappoint. 
Keur N'Daye restaurant was highly recommended by Lonely Planet for reasonably priced traditional Senegalese dishes and pleasant surroundings, so I thought I'd give it a try.  Dinner involved some difficult decisions since most dishes on the fairly extensive menu sounded unique and quite different from anything I've ever eaten before.  I settled on the Friday night special of Beef and Chicken Yassa over Millet Couscous.  When my food arrived and I placed my steew on my couscous the brown-on-brown mud-colored food wasn't much to look at.  But looks can be deceiving and I discovered that visually unappealing brown food can be very pleasing to the taste buds.  I also had to get over my prejudice against millet since my previous experience with it in East Africa was of a disgusting gruel like porridge.  Couscous is normally semolina wheat but the millet actually had a much richer flavor and fluffier texture.  The Yassa with lemons, onions, and peanuts was pleasantly spicy and sour and the idea of mixing meat and poultry in a dish was unusual but flavorful. 
One of my finest meals of the whole trip was the next night in Dakar at a restaurant named Chez Loutcha which specializes in Senegalese and Portuguese-influenced cuisine of the Cape Verde Islands and serves it up in enormous portions accompanied by big pitchers of Sangria.  I had the Rabbit Yassa, a delicious sour and spicy stew with onions, peppers, and okra.  Yes, okra - as foul as I usually find okra to be its presence in the dish didn't have any catastrophic consequences for flavor or texture. 
I also had a similar experience with my Fish Yassa with rice lunch on Goree Island, a grilled fish smothered in sour and spicy lime and onion sauce.  So overall I have to give a big thumbs up to Senegalese cuisine. 
Dakar is said to be a city with a whore for every pocketbook, and although I don't personally seek them out I often can't help but be around them as they try to drum up their business.  Our first night in Dakar was one such occasion.  I joined Dave, Ben, and Gordy at a joint called The Viking Bar for what was advertised as a Reggae evening but turned out to be mostly music with a Latin beat.  The crowd was nevertheless a sorry one of middle-aged chain-smoking French and Spanish guys surrounded by young African prostitutes in exaggerated shapes I didn't think humans were found in - massive breasts or enormous buttocks shoehorned into the tight tops and jeans and often with the straightened hair that gave them away as hookers, a flavor for every taste.  And throughout the night a square-shaped matriarchal figure in a flowing pink robe and matching head rag danced the night away like a voodoo queen in a trance. 
Dakar was the scene of the only notable crime victimization incident on the three-month trip.  This is, of course, if you choose not to count acts of corruption by officials in positions of authority in that category.  On the way back to the hotel from dinner at Chez Loutcha, Blair's pocket was relieved of his wallet.
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