08.01.2009 - 27.01.2009
Something about Africa draws me to it like a magnet. I don’t know what it is. Maybe its natural beauty, breathtaking sunsets, passionate dance and music, maybe French language in the west part of it, and the resilience of its people. It had been a dream of mine to go to Africa before I die, and that dream finally came true when I flew to Dakar on January 8th, 2009.
I was warned by almost everybody about going to Africa alone. War, crimes, kidnappings, malaria the least. But I had heard stories from people who’d been there, lived there and had fascinating stories to tell. My guts told me that I’ll be fine. I got vaccinated for yellow fever which is a requirement for entering Senegal, and bought enough medication for malaria. I talked to people on Senegal group on Facebook, and secured a host on CS. I was ready to go.
No one checked the proof of my Yellow Fever shot at Dakar’s airport. They were more concerned about where I was staying. I didn’t have my hosts’ address, so they kept my passport while I ran outside, found Aarpul and got his ID to write his address on the form.
Outside Dakar’s airport was just like any other country. Flooded with Taxi drivers who compete with each other to pick up passengers, people who are waiting for their loved ones, and money exchange people. I met my host, Aarpul the CS ambassador in Dakar, and he took care of the taxi negotiations.
Staying with Aarpul was the best decision I made on my trip. On my first day in Dakar, he took me to see his family in Pikine where I got to see the traditional Senegalese lifestyle. Senegalese people are never alone. They are always together, cook together, eat together, sleep together, they are always a part of a community. In a multiple-bedroom house with a courtyard, as many as 30 people live, three or four generations with their children. It’s amazing how the chores are divided and everyone knows his/her job and status.
In the morning, the men go to work and women go to the market. At mealtime, they all gather around a big tray, men on one side, women on the other, and share food. Later, I learned that it’s important to let the ‘woman of the house’ do what she considers her territory: to cook and serve. I was warned not to help too much with the cooking or not to do the dishes since this was her territory and she’s proud of serving her guests. Men do not help in the kitchen and around the house as this makes the woman look bad. In return, the man is the provider and takes care of the family financially.
My second day in Dakar, very hospitable Aarpul took me on an overcrowded minibus from Pikine to Dakar to go sightseeing. I saw the Independence monument, the beach which was well taken care of, and downtown where there were many foreigners and everything was way overpriced.
Dakar is an expensive city compared to Asian countries. Despite what you might expect from Africa, the prices in Dakar are comparable to those is North America and Europe, way more expensive than South East Asia. A night out, with dinner, a couple of beers and entrance fees will cost you at least 30 euros. Taxies are not cheap like in Asia, and a burger, coke and happy meal similar to McDonnald’s cost me 17 euros. The quality of life however is much lower. Many unpaved roads outside Dakar, sidewalks covered with sand and earth, which makes it almost impossible to walk in heels. The suburb's infrastructure hasn’t developed much since the French occupation, and many children working on the streets, selling anything from prepaid cellphone cards to snacks.
That night after the city tour, we met Djamal and Sheriff. Djamal had replied to many of my questions about Senegal on Facebook and had become a friend. Sheriff is a journalist from the UK in Dakar for work, also a CS member. We met at Pen D’Art jazz bar/club near the city’s national university, talked about life, listened to the live band and danced.
The next day, on Sunday, I took the ferry to the beautiful and historic Gorée Island, a UNESCO world heritage site. The ferry was packed with people, some tourists but mostly locals. A very persistent tour guide tried to sell me his services and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He finally offered me to become his wife in order to live happily ever after, to which I responded that I am already married which made him stop wasting his time and pursue another solo female tourist.
Gorée Island was used as the shipping hub of the slaves to the west, and it was known as the point of no return. The cells where men, women and children were kept, known as the house of slaves, is now a museum. Inside the house of the slaves, it was hard for me and some other tourists to hold back our tears, thinking how many families were torn apart and how much cruelty has gone on in that place. Being in the small musty cells was overwhelmingly emotional and heartbreaking.
The Island also has become a venue for art and culture. Dancers and drummers perform in the evenings, artists work and sell paintings, carvings, other artworks. I got to see a demonstration on how to make sand painting, in which the sand is the ink, and the artist skillfully pours layers of colorful sand on a glued-covered canvas. The ‘sand’ painting on the wall were so beautiful that I, again, helplessly started to cry. Was it the slave house and the dark memories that the island had carried for more than a century, or the beauty of the sand paintings? Maybe both.
The shop keepers in Gorée Island competed with each other for the visitors' business and had beautiful artworks to sell. I bought some handmade table clothes and painted jars made of stone.
On the way back to Dakar on the ferry, I saw the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. The whole sky was painted with orange and red with splashes of purple and blue. It took my breath away. I was taking pictures when I met Diofel. He offered to take my picture in the sunset. We became friends and shared many memories until I left Dakar for Korea.
That night on January 11th, Aarpul’s neighbor, a beautiful Senegalese girl studying at the university, invited us to her house where I met her family and had Senegalese food her mother had prepared.
The next day, I went to St-Louis, the old capital of Senegal and stayed for 5 days. Aarpul helped me take the bus which turned out to be pretty amusing. There are no bus schedules and you have to wait on the street for the next bus to come. When you see the bus, you wave and then start running, because the bus may or may not stop where you are. It will probably stop far from where you are after seeing you and wait for you to catch up. On the bus, the amusement continued as I found out that there is an extra row of seats in the aisle enveloped between the seats on the left, right, back and front. I had to take one of those seats. The bus stopped once for rest and took about 4 hours to get to Saint-Louis. Later I found out that there are other ways to get to Saint-Louis from Dakar and that’s called sept-place taxis, a Peugeot 504 station wagon with 8 passengers including the driver, which leaves when full. They are of course more expensive than the bus but faster and more roomy. I took one to get back to Dakar.
I stayed at Auberge de Jeunesse, a spotless and friendly hostel near the city center. I rented a bike and rode around the town, joined a tour to Parc de Djoudj, the third largest bird sanctuary in the world and checked out the beautiful harbor. Saint-Louis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is so French. Old colonial architecture makes the town very charming. The art shops and the laid-back attitude of the town reminded me of Indonesia’s Ubud. It’s very different from chaotic Dakar.
In Saint-Louis, if you want to take a photo of people, make sure you'll have some change handy to give to people you're taking a photo of, or be prepared to be yelled at. I was caught taking pictures of the streets and buildings on more than one occasion, and people who happened to be in the shot asked me for compensation, to which I answered that my camera is not working, or the battery's dead, and I just walked away.
At Auberge de Jeunesse I met two Spanish guys: Oscar: a renowned artist in Spain with many installments under his belt and Peter whose bag was snatched in Dakar by a motorcycle and had lost all his money, passport and ID but despite all this, he had kept a very positive attitude and was enjoying his stay in Senegal. They told me about the guesthouse they stayed at in Dakar, Auberge Asseme. I decided to stay there after my return to Dakar because I didn’t want to become an over-stayed guest at Aarpul’s.
On January 14th, while I was enjoying the peace and quiet of beautiful Saint-Louis, I got an email from my new employer telling me that my contract is now up in the air because I didn’t go to the meeting to sign the contract. I was supposed to start my new job in Seoul in March. They had changed the date of the meeting from the end of February to sometime in January after I had already left Korea for Europe. I tried calling them from Saint-Louis, but they weren’t available, so I started thinking about my other options and possibly staying in Senegal! When I finally got a hold of the person at school, he refused to send me the contract by email and insisted that it’s absolutely necessary for me to be in Korea at least a month before the start of the new contract to do the paperwork. They were freaked out about the new visa regulations and the medical tests and criminal background checks all the teachers in Korea have to go through. I wasn’t going to ruin Africa trip, so I told them I won’t be in country until February and they should let me know if they are willing to wait. They gave me until February 1st to come back to Korea, which meant cutting my vacation three weeks short, a compromise I had to decide if I wanted to make in order to save my job.
I got back to Dakar from Saint-Louis on January 16th and checked into Auberge Asseme. That night, Aarpul brought me the luggage I had left at his place while I was in Saint-Louis, we ate at a local restaurant, met up with Diofel, Sheriff and Sheriff’s two CS guests and went to a Wolof dance show.
My next 10 days in Dakar consisted of another trip to Gorée Island, dancing the night away to Bob Marley and Reggae songs with Diofel's friends and roommates on my birthday, meeting Diofel’s adorable daughter, cooking loobia-polo for my newly found friends, visiting the beach, renting a tent on the beach to escape the sun, meeting with Alioune Guissé, the talented drummer of the band Frères Guissé, visiting Blaise Senghor Cultural Center, meeting Joe Bouschanzi, the dance instructor of the group Foret Sacrée, and visiting the ministry of transport and chamber of commerce to inquire about organizing a dance and drumming class in which Diofel was a true godsent and helped me with every step.
I gave my CV to the British Council (which offered me an interview for cover work after I left Dakar!), the Senegalese British Institute and an international school in Dakar. Later, I found out that had I stayed in Senegal longer, I would have found enough privates, through referrals, to make a comfortable living. But I found that out too late, I left Senegal for Korea on January 26th, planning to work in Korea for a semester and go back to Dakar in the summer.
Leaving Dakar was a tearful one. My heart was telling me to stay, but my head was telling me to go back to Korea for my job. I didn’t want to leave. I secretly prayed to God that my employer in Korea would let me go so that that difficult decision would be made for me instead of me having to make it. But I had run out of my budget for the Europe-Africa trip, and being unemployed in Africa didn’t seem like a responsible thing to do. Another year in Korea sounded more logical, after all I could return to Africa anytime I wanted. I considered Korea a ‘business trip’ for couple of months, an obligation I had already committed myself to. But Africa remains the place where my heart it, where I would like to return to, and someday call home.