After over 10 months in Guinea, I needed a vacation. I needed to pamper myself for a few days. I needed to eat well, feel clean, and explore a new place. Finally, last week Reid and I went on our much-needed trip to Senegal. Dakar seemed like the developed world to us, and although we had not left the continent, I felt far away from the Africa I have grown to know. We flew from Conakry to Dakar for an 8 day trip to heaven. It was an amazing trip, and I could have stayed there forever, but now that I am back in Guinea, I feel refreshed and ready to face another few months.
When we arrived in Dakar on Tuesday night, chaos was there to greet us. We exited the airport with the plan to find the #8 bus into town (yes, there's public transport!), but that was obviously easier said than done. We saw a #8 bus and its engine was on, but it was empty and everyone swore to Allah that it wasn’t going to leave. Ever. And no more were coming. This left us only one option they told us – their expensive taxi. We have learned to never believe an African when they are trying to sell you something, so we decided to stick it out and wait to see if another #8 bus came.
While waiting, a man came up to us and tried to sell me euros, shiny euros at that. I just arriving in Dakar – I don’t need EUROS! He offered me CFAs, the currency of Senegal (and some other West African countries, but not Guinea), and I jokingly said “ok, I would like to buy CFAs. With which currency? I have Guinean Francs – want those?” He looked horrified and turned around and left, obviously not getting the joke. You see, the Guinean franc is worthless outside of Guinea. It’s a “soft” currency, only to be used in Guinea. The rest of the world won’t touch it, as it literally devalues every day. So me offering someone Guinean francs outside Guinea is ridiculous, even if they are a money changer. That’s how we Peace Corps volunteers joke around in West Africa.
Anyway, the bus arrived and we got on board to head downtown. Having no small change and being clueless as to where we were going, we were a bus driver’s nightmare. But he was a friendly man who took pity on us and found us change and let us know when to get off with a smile and a nod. Dakar was a great place – everyone was friendly and helpful throughout the trip. It makes traveling by the seat of your pants a lot easier and more enjoyable.
Picture Below: View from our Bungalow, Toubab Dialaw
The next morning, after a wonderful pastry breakfast unlike anything in Guinea, we took an hour long cab ride down the beach to a town called Toubab Dialaw, an old fishing village with rocky beaches and a burgeoning European population. We spent three nights there, in a bungalow overlooking the ocean. The hotel was breathtaking, offering a beautiful tranquil environment - perfect for a romantic vacation with your honey! We spent our days there taking walks on the beach, watching sunsets, swimming in the ocean (without getting staph infections), listening to Wolof drumming, and eating well. What the locals say about Toubab Dialaw is true – it is Paradise.
Heading back to Dakar on Saturday, I was sad to leave the beach but excited to see the city life. In Dakar, we ate even better (see Reid’s description below), listened to more music, and enjoyed shopping and seeing the sites. We spent our days wandering the city and becoming familiar with the culture and people.
Why I Love Dakar by Reid MacHarg
The best marker of Senegal's lead on Guinea is that people have disposable income, which provides a market for finer things. As a result, Amy and I ate so well! In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I feel it's not totally inappropriate to spell out the decadence. Honestly, I'm still recovering and readjusting to the Guinean diet. We totally indulged in much missed calamari cooked in curry or with green peppercorns; duck a l'orange; cheap but decent white, red, and rose half liter carafes of wine; Cape Verdean cuisine; Vietnamese; impeccable Thai; Senegalese beer called Gazelle, which comes in 63cL bottles; exotic cocktails with lychee, ginger, sake, grapefruit, etc.; a West African tea called Ataya prepared in its time consuming traditional manner with mashed mint; espresso; croque monsieurs; panini; grilled prawns; fresh salads sitting at a cafe on the island ile de Goree containing tuna, grapefruit, lettuce, avocado, shrimp and corn; orangina; three cheese pizza with mozzarella, roquefort, and gruyere; Parisian pastry chops and chocalatiers; prosciutto with either goat or blue chees sandwiches on fresh baguette; ice cream; chawarmas and kaftas; a fish and shrimp melange in saffron sauce; yassa; and grilled fish on the beach. When we weren't relaxing on the beach, we were eating the smiling in front of mouth-watering meals. There were few moments when I wasn't full.
Before I move on from this subject, I have to give adequate acclaim to the Thai restaurant Amy and I went to on my birthday. It's the most beautiful restaurant I've ever been to. There was a thai garden outside complete with ponds, fish, waterfalls, and beautiful lighting. Most impressive was the giant jade face affixed to the wall with water flowing over it making it a fountain. I was already blown away by the ambience, but the food knocked me over. Seriously, have you ever had that first bite from your plate that is so good it makes you feel light-headed? I had to put down my fork and steady myself with a hand on each arm of the chair- that good. I ordered slow-roasted duck in a light thai curry with white asparagus and vermicelli. Amy got red curry and coconut prawns kicked with keffir lime leaf. I had a bite and it made my eyes roll back in my head. We figured we were on a roll, so we threw economy out the window and embraced hedonism: We asked for the dessert menu. It was easily the best nine dollars I've spent in life. I got lychee sorbet with lychee fruit, caramalized ginger, and a sprig of mint. I almost cried when it was gone. For those of you who don't know what lychee is, I highly recommend it. It's often in cocktails and desserts. It's light and slightly sweet with a texture a little more structured than watermelon. Amy ordered fried bananas with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. Hers was good, but I was really happy to have mine. It was so good that when she was done with hers, racing the rapidly melting ice-cream, we demolished what was left of mine together. Romantic? I think so.
As we sat there with a melody of flavors massaging our senses, we began to notice that we had closed down the restaurant. Every one else had left, and the waiters had started their clean-up duty. I guess the adage held true that time flies when you're having fun. We had spent three hours there in revelry. We got the check, paid the bill, and meandered out.
photo below: buying silver jewelry in Goree
We spent our last day out on Isle de Gorée, drinking beers, relaxing, and taking in the atmosphere. It's only a 20 minute ferry ride from the port of Dakar, but it felt like another world. There are artists selling the work all over the island, and it is impossible to leave the island without buying jewelry (you all know me - it's impossible for me to leave anywhere without a new story-worthy piece!).
While wandering the island, we happened upon a gorgeous tree with a huge sheep standing nearby. The sheep seemed friendly, friendly enough to pet. But when I went to sit down on a branch and take a picture, the giant evil sheep stormed towards me and head-butted me in the leg and stepped on my toe. Now, it hurt, but not enough to not laugh about it. I think it was by far the funniest thing on the trip. Luckily, as Reid was preparing to take a picture of me, he caught the Evil Sheep Attack on camera! It was hilarious, and it made our day at Isle de Goree even better. Returning to Dakar by ferry at sunset, our last day in Senegal was spent perfectly.
Overall, it was an amazing trip, a much needed one, that couldn’t have worked out better. I can’t wait to go back to Senegal (at COS time, when we are talking about over landing up to Spain), and experience more of the country. Anyone interested in meeting me there in April 2008 - let me know - it's AMAZING!