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Senegal

I have to begin this with a disclaimer – I am a sucker for pretty textiles. If there was ever a hotel that fed on that weakness it is the Siki Hotel in Saint Louis. Charming, spotlessly clean, and chocked full of gorgeous Western African batik fabrics (on the beds, the chairs, the lamps, and the walls), this place is a textile lover’s dream. Add to that a romantic setting, bright courtyard, super friendly service, and great restaurant and you just know it has to be favorite find. Next time, I am staying for a week!

Check out those pillows and that chair back – see what I mean about awesome textiles.

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For you Anglophones out there, I have to clarify that “7 places” is not a metaphor for seven places I have been or seven places you should visit before you die, but is in fact a type of transport. A Peugot 505 to be precise — better know to the Senegalese as the best way to get around if you want to go long distances in the country.

The view from my back window. And yes, that goat is going on top of the car.

As an American, I don’t have much experience with Peugots so when I first read about this intriguing form of transport, I pictured in my mind a jeep-like vehicle that could comfortable fit 7 people and all their luggage. Needless to say, I was a little off.

Imagine instead a small station wagon, the trunk having been cut in half to allow for another row of seats. The driver is, of course in the front along with one lucky (this term is debatable considering that most of the 7-places have windshields so broken they look as if the smallest breeze might cause them to collapse completely into your lap) person sitting shotgun. Three people then go shoulder to shoulder in the middle, and the unfortunate remaining 3 (again debatable because you have to wait for all 7 places to fill before departing so these people have the shortest wait) people get to nuzzle into a tiny bench placed just high enough that anyone over 5’5” needs to slouch to keep their head out of the ceiling. (Luckily I am only 5’2”)

Add a goat, some creepy looking fruit (that is my official name for them), no A/C, and an immensely potholed road, and you have a cultural experience that everyone visiting Senegal must partake in at least once. Although, once might be enough.

Finally there, and it looks like the goat made it too.

A must do in Dakar is the Ile de Goree – a small, romantically crumbling island off the coast that is eerily charming considering its dark history. For hundreds of years this was a shipping point for the African slave trade in Western Africa. Africans would be brought from the interior to this island to be packed up and shipped off to the West as if they were salted fish or peanuts. An amazing percentage, as much as 50% (according to the island museum) of the people captured as slaves never made it to the auction blocks in West.

A part of my own family owned and used slaves before the American Civil War. Knowing this fact made me strangely apprehensive as I stepped off the boat and onto the island. It was as if I thought the people here would be able to sense my family’s history in the air around me.  As if I thought they might hold me responsible for something in a past that I am connected to but took no part in. What I didn’t realize is that the day had something else in store for me, something even more interesting than a discussion about family pasts.

A fire burning off the end of a pier as we wait for the ferry to arrive.

The day was wrapping up and we decided to walk back to pier to see about the 4.30pm ferryboat. Several friends in Dakar had commented on the precision and efficiency of the ferry system, so when we arrived at the pier and there was no boat, our assumption was that the boat had been early. As we sat along the beach, 6pm turned to 7pm and three supposed ferry times had passed. Masses of people were in the water swimming and a similar masses were piling onto the two piers to start bonfires of palm leaves and plastic chairs – “an offering for rain,” as it was described to me by a young lady selling jewelry. “Hmm,” I thought, “civil discontent turning into acid rain perhaps.”

Finally a little before 8pm, a boat appeared on the horizon. Hysteria ensued as the hundreds of people saw this as their only opportunity to get back to Dakar. The gates to the small pier were pushed open and people ran out to boat as if the history of this island made it an impossible place to pass the night.

So many people were pouring onto the pier that those on the boat had no way to get off. The small wobbly railings lining the pier shook and bent under the pressure of so many people. The pushing, shoving, and screaming were so intense that they could only be broken by the sudden burning sensation of pepper spray in the air. Everyone ran towards the beach and stones began flying through the air. We backed up behind the stone throwers, covered our faces with whatever we had, and watched the chaos unfold.

Now night and the overcrowded ferry gone, we sat again by beach wondering if we would be staying until tomorrow. I called my friend in Dakar to let her know we might not be back. As I described the scene, she was shocked. “I have never heard of that happening on Goree,” she said. “It is usually so quiet and calm.” I guess I have a way of bringing out the best in places.