November 03, 2004

Saint Louis

I wish I had an incredibly interesting, witty and dry sense of humor (much like the blogs of my fellow Canadian trapped in Belgium or even of the emails of my Australia travel companion or my CRS buddy in Congo). Alas! I have a headache and I must recount my trip to Saint Louis lest I get too lazy later in the week. On a side note, I have been sicker in my three months here than in my last three years in the states. An unrelated fact, but fascinating nonetheless, I have drunk more soda in these last three months than in my entire 25 years prior to coming to Senegal. I must stop these free associations; surely they can't be good for my work performance?

We left Saint Louis at the ungodly hour that is 8:00 AM on a Saturday. 6 white folks in shorts and baseball caps were greeted at the door by a friendly driver who was to bring us to Saint Louis. At the round-trip price of US $20 for an 8-hour trip (4 hours up and another 4 down), this was ridiculously affordable. Bad sign 1: the car was in fact a funeral hearse, elongated and sober with little black curtains and all. Bad sign 2: on our way out of the driveway, a man asks us "are you going to the bush"? we enthusiastically answered "yes!" and he muttered that the car better be air-conditioned or we would really suffer.

Well we didn't suffer much thankfully and enjoyed a view of Africa that we had longed to see: dry parched soil, dusty streets leading to straw hut villages, warthogs, buffalos that swayed provocatively in front of the car (with a look full of attitude to imply that they had the right of way in the middle of the freeway), crafts kiosk with women braiding each other's hair, women washing their family clothes bare-chested, errant dogs, stands gorged with watermelons (that held thousands of mangoes just three weeks ago)...

We get to our rather unimpressive hotel after a long drive and go on a promenade through the streets. Saint Louis used to be the ancient capital of Senegal and, until 1960 (when it gained its independence from the French) people could get a French passport. It's not uncommon to meet a Senegalese family in which the children born prior to independence are French while those born after are Senegalese. The architecture is old colonial French, but as you can see from the pictures that I plan to post, must of it hasn't been renovated over the years. It is falling apart, giving pictures that much prized authentic/exotic feeling. But that's about all a decrepit old building is good for.

6 white folks looking lost and confused is not a good idea in Saint Louis. We were constantly harassed by "well-meaning" people who insisted that we shake their hands and introduced ourselves. This was a catch-22 because, if we indulged, we would eventually be asked to check out their shop and (very aggressively) pressured into buying something. Also, it's hard to visit a town when one has to shake everyone's hands every 2 meters or so. On the other hand, if you chose to ignore the catcalls, the person will act hurt and get rather angry. A couple of time, a man would grab my arm forcefully to get my attention, to which I reply in an indignant manner "in my culture, men are not allowed to grab or touch women". Blatant lie of course but it saved me from more intimate encounters. That evening was spent trying to find jazz clubs (Saint Louis is famous for its jazz, much like its namesake in Saint Louis in the States). Unfortunately, it is Ramadan; and as I have discovered, nothing much in the way of fun happens during Ramadan.

The second day was just heavenly as we embarked on a little river barge trip on the Djoudj Park. It is said to be too early to catch birds at this time of year but we were able to see thousands of pelicans hanging out of a rock, water lizards and water lilies. The ride was pleasant until we realized that it was 11:00 in the morning and the trip back was nowhere in sight. The sun was intense and people started putting their baseball caps back on their bald heads, wraps around their shoulders... Being sickly white, I covered head to toe in my shawl. I consented to share my cover with an English girl of Irish descent: we white girls have to watch out for one another after all.

Our last day was spent on the Langue de Barbarie, a thin stretch of land of white sands. Utterly unbothered by anyone we stripped to our underwear and spent about 20 minutes in the sea. It was lovely and the first time that we felt truly alone in our three-day trip.

The ride back was eventful as one of us wanted to buy two large straw baskets, requiring much bargaining and a rearrangement of our already packed luggage. Much to my surprise, I was actually glad to be back in Dakar (you know you're back when you get the lovely whiff of decomposing fish). Next to Saint Louis, Dakar did in fact look to be the Paris of Africa.

Home sweet home. Or as a bad French translator would say: Maison sucrée maison.

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