Skiving in Senegal

Trip Start Sep 08, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Monday, October 30, 2006

This week on the Louise Hart Globe-Trotting Guide - SENEGAL

2 weeks into my new job and I decided to take a holiday. The reason for my less-than-inspiring work ethic was the looming arrival of Koriteh, the end of Ramadan festival. For the last month, everyone has been starving themselves between dawn and dusk. Koriteh marks the chance to make up for lost time, to dance, to sing and to eat, eat, eat. Fun as this would have been, there will be other celebrations, but this is the only one where the public holiday is actually known in advance. National public holidays are apparently frequent (economy be damned) but last-minute, normally announced on the radio around midnight the night before (in Wolof). Many a VSO volunteer has had the experience of arriving at their office one morning to find it unexpectedly closed. So the knowledge of an impending 5 day weekend that would definitely without question be a holiday appeared the perfect opportunity to visit the Dakar, the capital of neighbouring country Senegal.

The main section of the journey involved a 6 hour car journey from the Senegalese border post to Dakar. The roads were pretty bad, resembling what I picture would be left after a meteor shower. Our driver avoided most of the problem by avoiding most of the road, opting instead to plough through the surrounding savannah rather than the remnants of concrete, at speeds that Michael Schumacher himself might class as 'daredevil'. Cattle nimbly darted out of the way, trees proved less accommodating. Perhaps aiming to calm his passengers' fears, the driver had eliminated the trouble of us seeing the carnage we were leaving in our wake, by piling up the back windscreen with watermelons and artistically painting over his rearview mirror with nailpolish. "Looking behind is overrated anyway" whispered my colleague reassuringly. Somehow we arrived in one piece, although we had managed to rid the world of 2 goats and a donkey by journey's end.

Dakar is not blessed with a multitude of tourist accommodation, so we went with the only hotel in our budget that Lonely Planet had not classed as a brothel. Unfortunately things had clearly gone downhill at the Hotel du Marche since Lonely Planet last paid a visit. I won't afflict you with the details, needless to say, one hour after we checked in, we checked out again. The guy manning reception seemed less surprised at our decision than he had been when we asked for a room in the first place. He didn't even charge us for our interim stay even though I suspect it wouldn't have been the first time he'd been paid by an hourly rate. The beds didn't even have pillows - unnecessary equipment if the beds are never used for sleeping...

Dakar is bizarre. In the middle of West Africa, lies a corner of Paris. Well, if Paris had open sewers, tropical sunshine, and infinite mosques and mosquitoes dotted in amongst the boulangeries and patisseries. Dakar is a swirl of African, Arab and European influences, big, loud and dirty but with fabulous markets, extensive shopping centres and legendary jazzclubs. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any of this as they were all closed for the holiday.

We had taken the precaution of enquiring if this might be the case before we set off from Gambia but had been assured by all and sundry that everything would remain open. Thus lies one of the most exasperating Gambian tendancies.  Everyone likes being positive. Therefore when answering a question, it is often not truth nor falsehood that govern the answer, it is what response will make you happy. Telling us that the whole city basically shuts down over Koriteh would have made us sad. Much better to put an optimistic spin on it and hope for the best. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Our trip to Dakar, if not a resounding success, was at least memorable, and served as an excellent scouting mission in preparation for future trips there (particularly if those of you who have made speculative noises about paying me a visit next year follow through with flight details). And it's served to remind me that I really need to get to grips with learning Wolof because I certainly can't rely on my French - my pathetic attempts to converse whilst in Senegal had people rolling around in laughter. Mainly because the only two phrases that I remember from school are "I am 12 years old" and "next to the toilet".
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