Toubabs, pigs and broomsticks

A guest blog by Louise Wilson

After a deserved lie-in and wholesome porridge breakfast with Caroline and family, we set off for The Gambia around mid-day. Not surprisingly though, one of the bikes wouldn’t start. This time it was David’s bike with the same sounding problem that Louise had had in Nouakchott; the starter would run without starting the engine followed by a very loud backfire! Caroline has a French neighbour who it turns out is a keen biker and he soon came to the rescue. He appeared with alcohol to clean the spark plugs and a helpful, problem solving attitude. There must have been an airlock and after some poking around and moving of pipes, we were on our way. Caroline and co in the mean time had a chance to experience what our last month had consisted of! Even the local sheep came over for a nosey.

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We rode fast, passing through small villages and past huge baobab ‘upside down’ trees, to Kaolack, a junction town for people travelling north/south and east/west through Senegal. It’s a classic busy, bustling, dirty town where food is traded, trucks refuel and horns are honked. We rode through quickly hoping to find some snacks on the other side of town to pick up for our lunch. Instead before we knew it the shops were well gone, we were the only ones on the road and our right turn south west towards The Gambia left us feeling like we were in the middle of no where.

We had wanted to take the TransGambia Highway to a town called Farafenni in The Gambia so that we could then ride along the river Gambia and experience some of The Gambia before reaching Banjul. After some google searching it turned out that the ‘TransGambia’ highway which looks like a major road on the map is an awful dirt track and would take us hours on motorbikes. There was no talk of the road (N2) to Karang, the border town nearest Banjul being bad so we felt confident we could complete the 60km before sunset. That was until the tarmac ran out… First of all we experienced a few miles of tarmac with HUGE pot holes which made the traffic (including large trucks) weave all over the road, then the road became a few miles of bad, wash board piste, then in the distance tarmac would appear again. It was hot, we were sweating a large amount and it was hard to know a) how long we would have to tackle this type of road surface and b) whether each piece of tarmac in the distance was real or a mirage.

We hadn’t managed to have any lunch and it was becoming more and more obvious that we wouldn’t make the border before sunset. Neither bike had a break light working (the vibrations from previous washboard riding had jiggled the connections on both bikes!), we were hungry, feeling dehydrated and frustrated we wouldn’t be in The Gambia that evening. Washboard is tiring to ride on. Not only do your bones and teeth rattle like crazy but the poor bike is put through hell.

We stopped at the first petrol station we came to in a small town and decided to use the last of our CFA to fill up and buy a large bottle of Sprite. We found some shade from a local bus and sat down to regain our strength. Lunch was half a bottle of Sprite each and some cashews we’d bought at the start of the day. The sugar/energy was exactly what we needed!

While sitting in the shade we could hear some amazing drumming and singing coming from the building opposite and a guy sitting with the bus said it was because of a baby. We assumed this meant it was a christening and enjoyed the sense of community celebration. I wish we had gone over and had a better look but all I could do was muster the energy to drink and eat.

The guy greeted us as ‘toubab’ which means ‘white people’, then in basic English asked us about our bikes and where we had come from and then proudly had his photo taken in front of his bus.

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Where we were felt very remote but after reading in the guide book it turned out there were a couple of villages approaching before the border where we could find somewhere to stay.

As we rode a little further we saw a pig crossing the road. This felt like seeing a lion cross the street in London. We’d been in Muslim countries for a month and forgot that pigs existed. This clearly meant the cultures and religions must be changing.

As we approached Toubacouta a couple of local guys asked us what we were looking for. We were very dubious of anyone asking us questions because sadly, up to now, it always led to wanting some kind of money. There appeared to be a different feeling about this place though and people were genuinely being helpful.

A guy on a scooter led us down a dirt track to a guest house to stay in, dropped our kit then walked into the village to buy water and change some money. We hadn’t planned to still be in Senegal and therefore had used up all our local currency.

As soon as we entered the village we were pounced upon by a group of giggling girls carrying broomsticks, asking for money to help for the village youth association. We asked them if there was somewhere we could change money and within seconds they had led us to the ‘Mauritanian guys’ where CFA could be bought!

We gave the girls some money and off they went to do some more fund raising.

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Round the corner we could see groups of men raking the sand to collect twigs and scattered branches, girls using home made stick brushes to sweep up the streets and people walking along picking up rubbish. We stopped and watched for a moment until a guy came up and explained that every Sunday the village’s Community Association, made up of the local children and teenagers come together to clean the village. Once the chosen areas were cleaned, everyone would come together to pray then discuss which area they would clean the next Sunday, after which those that had done the cleaning were handed sweets as a thank you. This happened on a Sunday because the children go to school Monday to Saturday.

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The guy explaining all this to David (in French) introduced us to the President of the Association who spoke surprisingly good English. We hadn’t come across many people on Senegal who spoke English but he explained he was studying at Dakar University and learnt his English there.

Villagers would give the youth money for cleaning and this money would go towards activities organise by the Association. It was such a fantastic sight to see everyone busy cleaning, the little ones helping push the carts and the older kids taking responsibility for the tasks. For most of our time in Senegal we’d only seen dirty streets, been pestered by people and hadn’t felt the same sense of community and pride that we’d seen in Toubacouta.
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The president explained how their village was made up of a mix of Christians and Muslims and both lived very happily together. Each religion would include the other in their festivities and Christmas played a bit part in the village.

He also explained that the village was very poor and any advice for how they could improve and develop their Association would be appreciated. We swapped contacts, gave them our ‘two wheel exploring’ badges and we went back to our guest house feeling very privileged to have met this group of people and experience their Sunday clean up. This was exactly the type of experience I’d been hoping for on our adventure!

Our faith in Senegal had once again been restored!

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Mr Lion Man

We arrived in La Somone and instantly felt like we were in a completely different part of Senegal. It was much more relaxed than Dakar, had more of a beach holiday vibe about it and we were greeted by Caroline, a Brussels school friend of David’s.

Caroline has settled in La Somone and was wonderful at giving us an insight into local life. Her husband is a reggae artist and knew exactly where to go that evening to listen to some live music. We went to a restaurant/bar to hear a Senegalese band and were entertained by the traditional dancers performing alongside. One of the best features of the night though was watching the local kids loving the band and creeping closer and closer to get a good view. Their excitement was infectious and rhythm perfect.

The next day we headed to the beach armed with sun lotion, water and a guitar. It was the first time we had been to an actual Senegalese beach south of Saint Louis. We walked along the sandy beach and soon came across a group of fishermen who were struggling to bring their boat away from the water. The fishing boats in Senegal are long wooden boats decorated with wonderful bright colours. It’s a fantastic sight seeing them all lined up at the start or end of a day.

The boat was clearly heavier than it looked and Moussa and David went over to help them drag the boat up onto the beach using a round piece of wood to act as a wheel to maneuver it.
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We carried on walking to a beach hut where a friend of Moussa’s sells jewelry and instruments to passers by. The hut was a wood and reed construction with an idyllic view of the ocean creating perfect shade for an afternoon of hanging out on the beach.

After a number of cups of Senegalese tea (a delicious mix of green tea and mint which is oured back and forth between cups until a thick foam is created) which was being made over a charcoal fire in the sand, we rushed straight off into the sea and cooled off from the mid day sun by jumping the waves as they came in.
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Under the hut, Moussa started to play the guitar and had us all singing and tapping to the reggae beats he was playing. Trust me, the rhythm and melodies of ‘I’m Mr Lion Man’ and ‘Salam Alaikum’ are contagious…! Caroline and Moussa (known as Lion Man) perform together and this was a great insight and private show of their work. While this was going on, Moussa’s friends were busy starting a charcoal fire on their metal cooking stove. A grill was washed in the sea, fish was brought back from the market, onions were being chopped and bags of condiments were added to the mix.
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This all happened very seamlessly and before we knew it, a complete fish meal was put in front of us. The 7 of us sat around the dish, cross legged on the sand and eat the meal with our fingers. It was delicious!

After we had eaten and all evidence of any form of meal hidden away, Moussa brought back out his guitar and this time played accompanied by a djembe (a style of African drum). We couldn’t have asked for more. This was local La Somone life surrounded by amazingly hospitable people, beautiful scenery, the sea to cool off in and all while listening to talented musicians!

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It was going to be difficult to leave La Somone…

We left the beach hut and walked back past the fishermen to pick up food for our evening meal. We came away with 1.5kg of thiof, a common fish in the area and David cooked up a second feast for the day, this time at home with just the five of us.

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Mirages…

I’m not sure I believed mirages actually existed until today.

We had planned to ride from La Sonome (where we’d been staying with Caroline, a school friend of David’s, and her lovely family) across the Senegal/Gambia border and to Banjul. That was until we got half way and the tarmac decided to disappear!

We hadn’t managed to find anyone who could tell us what the road was going to be like and anyway, a road suitable for motorbikes and cars can be different.

The strange thing about the road from Kaolack heading south west is that you have about 200m of potholed tarmac then 1km of piste etc. not great in 30+degree heat.

The tarmac ahead was always a welcomed sight after seeing a mirage in the distance.

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We’re staying 20km north of the border instead of tackling Banjul in the dark!

The quiet side of Dakar

A guest blog by Louise Wilson

We woke up to find the ‘dead’ cochroach under the sink was still on its back but somehow had moved from its originally place. It’s legs were now moving all over the place; a sign of how even the insects here are determined to never give up.

After discovering that the Internet wasn’t working in our hotel (not uncommon in Senegal) we decided to wander to the cafe next door for a coffee and WiFi. And that’s when the annoyances started. Within a second of leaving the guest house a taxi driver had pounced asking if we wanted a taxi. A simple ‘no Thank you’ wasn’t good enough as his reply was ‘why not?’ seriously, ‘why not?’ are you not allowed to do anything here without being questioned? Then we had a couple of ‘orange top-up phone card’ sellers waving their cards at us and this was all before we’d achieved anything for the day.

We had tossed the idea of going for breakfast at a particular patisserie in the Medina which was recommended but after reminding ourselves of how annoyed we’d be with being bothered we decided on a leisurely breakfast at the hotel (this was the first place we had been given fruit for breakfast!) before taking a taxi direct to the port for a boat to the island ‘Goree’, south east of Dakar.

The island of Goree is less than a kilometre in length and only a 20minute ferry ride from the mainland. It’s famous for its slave house and as there are no cars on the island, makes for an nice day out. Apart from being befriended in the ferry terminal by people with shops on the island, the ferry ride was pleasant and an interesting way to catch a glimpse of Dakar’s busy shipping port.

The island was beautiful. Colourful buildings with bougainvilleas lining the streets and wonderful views back to the mainland from the castel.

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We had a wander around to get our bearings and check out the views then headed for the beach to read our books over lunch time while the museums were closed. The beach on the bottom corner was quiet and lined with old, rusty looking sun parasols. After looking around for a moment a guy jumped up from his sun lounger , opened up a parasol and laid out a mat for us to sit on. The ‘old, rusty’ looking parasol was actually well looked after and we saw a team of guys restoring them. We had intended to have a snooze on the beach but there was too much going on for me to sleep.

The guys restoring the parasols were fascinating. The spider web like frames were opened up and each piece was being under coated. It helps when the sun is hot and the paint dries in a few minutes. Numerous coats were being painted and clearly, like the Severn bridge, when one set are completed, the next set need renovating. The salt air must rust the frames in a matter of months. The other guy was checking over the ones being used for any damage that needed seeing to. Of course, mid work was the obligatory prayer to Allah. One of the painters knelt to prayer and I must say, of all places I’ve seen people pray, this was a beautiful setting looking out to sea on the edge of the island peninsula. A beautiful sight.

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There were also fishermen catching their meal/earnings for the day and it was clear when they had caught something good. A loud cheer was heard and the parasol guys would raise their arms in recognition.

A few guys came down to the beach to cool off in the water and carry out a few push ups. It’s fair to say the Senegelese are very fitness conscious and working out on the beach is a regular occurrence.

Possibly the most intriguing moment was the kids who came with their goats to, I guess, clean them in the sea. The goats (although I later discovered they were sheep with no coat) knew what was coming and did not want to go into the water. It’s clearly a cultural thing but I find it difficult to watch how they treat their animals. You could argue that forcing them into the water is good because it cleans them but dragging them backwards by one leg seems cruel. Anyway, the cleaning took quite some time. First they got them wet and rubbed them all over, then the sheep would come out of the water and be rubbed all over with sand, then taken into the water to rinse off, then the process was repeated. The sheep came out looking very clean but still they bleated and hissed the entire time.

After our relax on the beach we headed for the slave house. It was restored about 20 years ago and although small (it held about 100 slaves) is very good, if not a bit too good at showing what conditions the slaves would have lived in. Small, dingy, damp cells for men, women and children and even smaller rooms for those that protested.

20121118-075408.jpgThis house is famous for its “door of no return” which looks out to the sea. It’s a strong symbol for the condition of slaves and their harsh life to come across the ocean but it turns out that slaves never went through it…On a positive note, the slave house has a wonderful staircase up to the first floor of the building!

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Before our ferry back we had time for one last drink by the beach in one of seafront the restaurants. A kid who we’d seen carrying a fish around had found a knife and a good spot by the water to gut it. All we could see was bits of fish being thrown into the water, a local cat looking for some food and about 10 birds of prey (buzzards?) circling above ready to swoop into the water for a meal. While this was going on we could hear the sound of the maracas style hand held instrument the guys were selling. We were glad to leave the sound behind but to be fair, Goree was a dream come true after such a difficult day in Dakar the day before. You can stay on the island and wish we’d arranged to do that. Having said that, I have no idea what we would done with our motorbikes and the reality of ‘we’re not normal tourists’ rang home!

Have you been to Dakar?

A guest blog by Louise Wilson

We had to visit Le Lac Rose seeing as it was the finishing point for the famous Paris-Dakar race and because we wanted a stop off point before tackling the Dakar traffic. Maybe the off peak season isn’t the time to visit or maybe it just simply isn’t that magnificent. We had been told that there is too much water in the lake at this time of year for it to look pink so weren’t too disappointed and instead tried really hard to find a rose shimmer. The lake is a salt lake where many workers go and dig for the salt to sell. Apparently you can swim/float in it but the edges aren’t very inviting and anyway we found a hotel with a swimming pool…!

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As we approached the lake, from Saint Louis, there was nothing to be seen and the piste was covered in sand (for non motorbike riders reading, riding in the sand is no fun as the bike either sinks or slides). We were hot, tired and not massively inspired by what we saw. Then the touts appeared! Senegalese are very friendly but they can also be annoyingly over the top when they want to sell something. I keep telling David to say he doesn’t speak French to try and deter them but they are persistent. After a tout insisting on showing us to the hotel we wanted and after many negotiations on the price and choice of room, we came away happy with a good deal. A round hut with en suite, air con and breakfast (not forgetting the pool) all within budget. They even opened the restaurant and produced a wonderful grilled fish meal for us.

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We had an interesting set of visitors. Along with the usual stray cats, a group of frogs were jumping around beneath our table.

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The only other guests were an Italian man with his Senegalese girlfriend. He turned out to be a motorbike lover and insisted on showing us his photos of his motorbike trips to Morocco. He owns 20 bikes, one of which is an ex-Paris Dakar bike that was ridden by Meoni!

The next day we were up early, had a wander over to watch the salt being collected (only to be bothered by touts) had breakfast and headed to Dakar.

It’s a good thing we decided to stay by the lake so they we only had 60km to do to reach the city. It’s notorious for its traffic jams because of the peninsula geography and therefore one road in and one road out. The hardest thing we found was the lack of street signs. Senegal isn’t very good for road names and or direction signs.

After a number of stops to ask for directions, a few checks of the iPhone GPS, some close shaves with traffic and the odd swearing, we made it to Cap Ouest, a guest house recommended in the Lonely Planet which is on the north side of the peninsula. It had been suggested by a number of people that we stay slightly out of the centre to avoid the traffic and have somewhere to escape in the evenings.

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We dropped our kit, showered and jumped into a local taxi for the 15min ride into the centre.

At first it was quite pleasant. We were dropped by the Place de l’independance and decided to wander around to absorb the atmosphere. The covered food market was well worth a visit to see the women with fruit and veg piled high and then men hacking away at meat. We wandered down to the French Institute to enjoy a drink by which point we were feeling confident to venture into one of the markets. That confidence lasted about 10minutes when the first guy insisted on walking with us to his shop, then on the left a guy came wanting to sell us wooden carvings, behind was a guy wanting to sell jewellery (nasty plastic necklaces!) and then a mini argument broke out with me telling them to back off and them annoyed at each other for annoying me. We very quickly spotted N’Ice, an ice cream parlour which was meant to sell local fruits ice-cream and ran inside.
!

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The ‘Obama’ chocolate flavoured ice cream made us chuckle and the touts were left well behind.

Post ice cream we walked away from the centre towards the Grand Mosque through streets with kids playing table football, men welding in the street, women roasting peanuts, taxis honking, numerous Orange phone card topup sellers, Nescafe instant coffee kiosks (Senegal needs to learn a thing or two about coffee from Morocco) beggars, a man trying to sell me socks, men selling shoes on the bonnet of someone else’s car and a man proudly displaying his selection of digital calculators.

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We jumped back in a taxi and headed to the guest house for some peace and quiet. On the way we saw a man standing on a busy street corner holding three analogue clocks for sale. David said he was just being Flavor Flav’. The highlight of the day was the guys selling oranges (although they were green) that they peel in a thin, continuous spiral. It looks amazing and it wasn’t for knowing I’d be pounced on by a tout if I stopped, I’d have bought one purely for the skill!

The lows were how, as a westerner walking around, you spend 40% of your time trying to shake off touts…Unfortunately this makes it difficult to be open and get to know locals. The heat, smells and dirtiness of the city also make it hard to relax but it’s fascinating to experience a big African city

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