It was time to get out of Dakar. I’ve been here for 5 weeks now, and the more time I spend here, the more things I find that I like—buses that obey only the laws of physics and sometimes not even those, my cobbler who speaks only Wolof and fixes my flip flops with an eight inch long needle and a blowtorch for 100 francs, my big rooftop terrace that looks down to the ocean, and the clients who call me, ask how my day is going, and then hang up. But let’s be honest. It’s wicked hot, the streets are full of trash, and I’ve only a seen a small part of this big big country. It was time to go camping.
I arranged with Cheikh, a lanky guide with dreadlocks and gris-gris, to show me and four American girls around the Sine Saloum delta for four days. The Sine-Saloum is a whole other world from the Cap Vert peninsula where I live now: it’s a patchwork of sandy islands and mangroves knit together by long fingers of briny estuaries, and the region is inhabited by the Serere people, who speak a language incomprehensible to Wolof speakers and who make a living by fishing. We got there by taking a 4 hour bus ride down to Ndangane, the mainland jumping-off point for islandventures.
Here’s a little traveling tip: money goes a long way in Senegal during the tourist offseason. In Ndangane we met the crew we would be traveling with; there was Cheikh of course, Kolli, a Baay Fall who played djembe professionally and used to live on the islands, Assane, a Chemistry and Physics student at the university in Dakar, Saana, the boat pilot, and Maimouna, my favorite, a 12 year old kid who hauled anchors, rigged fishing poles, broke down tents, and did anything that needed doing. “I’ve babysat for kids older than him,” one of the girls told me, but if anything this 12 year old was babysitting us. We had a 1:1 guide to guest ratio.
And they showed us the best of the Sine Saloum. A lot of the pictures show much more than I can describe, but every night we ate fish caught that day grilled over charcoal, sat around a driftwood bonfire, played djembe, and drank juice made by mixing local plants and water and shaking them up. In an uncanny way being out in the Delta reminded me strongly of the things I typically do over my summers back home: two years ago my friends and I built a raft that we poled down the Charles river and anchored to an island, and since then this little platform and green piece of land has been our go-to spot. We canoe around, fish, chop down trees and light big fires, swim, and engage in various shenanigans. In Uganda too I found myself spending a lot of time down by another river, the Nile, hanging out with the same kind of people who like to fish and build big fires and sleep outside. It’s a comforting kind of constancy to know that in most places that I travel, there will always be river people who have an understanding of the good life outdoors.
We slept on a different island every night, and as we moved through the Delta we saw some wicked cool stuff. There was the village of Mar Lodj, built around three huge intertwined trees and boasting a tam-tam drum that could communicate coded messages over 5 kilometers, the town of Djifer, which has been fishing and harvesting abalones for so long that there is now a spine of 30 foot tall hills of tumbling crumbling pink shells along the shore, and salt pits where women with shovels dig 3 meters into the sand to strike groundwater, wait for it to evaporate, and then scrape the crystals of white salt out of the ground. The landscape of the salt mines was bizarre: craters sunk into the earth with jackal burrows in their sheer walls and narrow catwalks between them, and what I thought were little shacks but turned out to be storehouses packed to the palmwood rafters with salt. It tasted great. The estuary water around the salt fields was so shallow and still that you could clearly see tracks from where hyenas had walked in the water. We walked through a swamp on the Ile de Diables that started off as a stroll through plains blackened by colonies of scuttling crabs and devolved into something from The Orchid Thief, where we waded up to our chests in gooey water between narrow mangrove corridors and slid slowly through the slippery slimy silt of the Sine Saloum. I caught a stingray on surf casting tackle, saw boats propelled by sails made of patched bedsheets, and spent a frigid night on a soaked mat when my tent collapsed around me during the thunder and lightning of an unseasonably early monsoon. I have never regretted leaving the city to spend time outside, and this was no exception.
We spent the last day in Saly, a beach town that caters to French tourists on vacation. After lunch we trolled the beach for a good spot to swim, and ended up going into a fantastically luxurious hotel with fountains, stripy reclining chairs, nice speakers playing beach music, and cute French girls in pink shirts whose job it is to circulate among the guests to ask how your day is going and would you care to join the water polo game that will be starting in 15 minutes? I bought 2 drinks, installed myself on a chaise longue, and after catching up on Stieg Larsson’s latest, I jumped into their gorgeous pool and played water polo for an hour. I felt a sense of sneakiness about the whole thing: here I was a filthy backpacker straight off the pirogue, but because my friends and I look European and speak French we were able to infiltrate their swanky club. It was awesome. Afterwards we went to a bar, watched The Spanish Armada rout the Italians in an annihilation of a match, and trucked back up to Dakar. The whole four day weekend of food and travel and touring cost about $100. Life is good. It’s even better outside.