No one has ever been as happy to be paddling a canoe as I was to be paddling this canoe
No one has ever been as happy to be paddling a canoe as I was to be paddling this canoe
Drying at Djifer
The three intertwined trees represent the coexisting religions of Mar Lodj: Islam, Christianity, and Animism
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.
Losing my old phone is wicked vexing, both because I have to re-enter all of my clients contact information by hand, and also because I really liked that chunky little Nokia. Nevertheless, my new phone has some pretty sweet features. In addition to a color screen (!), it also has a Mecca compass which, when given the parameters of your current city and time zone, can orient you in the direction of the Holy City. Even though the sun is down, I kn0w for a fact right now that Mecca is somewhere off to my left.
It also has a built-in FM radio, and as I rode the bus today I found some interesting stations. On one of them, DJ Joostin Beeber was playing mash ups of Alicia Keys and Keri Hilson with Indian Bhangra music, with police sirens thrown in occasionally. On the BBC, a series of callers with Irish accents discussed the recent Egyptian presidential elections. And on my personal favorite station, a voice patiently read sentences in French like “I want to buy some bread” or “is it very heavy?” and then repeated them in Japanese. Educational programming, I guess.
Well, I got mugged last Thursday. It’s not really the type of story to write on a blog, but maybe you’ll ask me about it next time I see you. I lost about $25 in cash, my cell phone with all of my contacts (mostly Zidisha clients), my belt, and a trucker hat that I got at a frisbee tournament my team hosted at Haverford. This really wasn’t what I had in mind when I set out to share the sport of Ultimate with Africa.
Wherever you are this summer, take care of yourself. I should have been paying more attention, and the best way to get out of bad situations is not to get into them in the first place. I’m totally fine and I’m lucky that I am.
I’ve finally figured out Paco the Barber’s method. Today I went in, sat down in the chair, and as he whipped the towel around my neck he asked me cheerfully “same as last time?” ‘NO!!” I said, and explained that this time he should use the number 6 clippers instead of the #1/10 or whatever it was he used previously. Turns out, it’s all the same thing. You get to request whatever gauge of clipper he’ll use first, but in the end, he’s just gonna shave your head down with the number 2. Who can blame him? It’s not often someone with hair like mine walks into his shop, and stripping hair off with electric clippers is a lot of fun. Paco goes at it with great gusto.
After he had finished very carefully trimming me with the #6, then equally zealously shaving off his handiwork with the #2, he cleaned up the edges a little bit with an ordinary straight razor– the kind you put in an exacto knife. After whacking me around the head with a wet sponge to dislodge any loose hairs, he got out a big spray bottle and told me to close my eyes tightly. I didn’t, cuz I don’t trust Paco one little bit, and having seen what he does to my head when I’m looking, I was terrified to think what experiments he would try when I wasn’t. He shrugged and starting spritzing my whole head with a mix of water and rubbing alcohol. “For the germs,” he explained, although usually I thought that barbershops sterilized their tools BEFORE cutting hair, rather than just sterilizing their customers heads when they finished.
At least I’m more evenly covered than last time. 1000 CFA