Once the capital of French West Africa in colonial times, St. Louis now lies to the very north of Sénégal on the border with Mauritania. Although the place must have been quite presentable a long time ago, these days it is very much a faded beauty, a strange mix of decrepitude, unfinished concrete buildings, and improvised shops and dwellings which have become permanent. Rubbish disposal seems to be almost non-existent, the fact that so few pavements are actually paved must make it even harder to keep them clean. So much of the city, the beaches and even the countryside is strewn with refuse. Transport is provided by cars so old, battered and rusty they would have been scrapped a long time ago in Europe, the fact that they’re driveable at all testament to the improvisational skills of the local mechanics. Who knows, in another 30 years, the Renault 12s, Peugeot 404s and 1970s Mercedes-Benz minibuses, which are the main form of public transport here, will become tourist attractions in their own right, like the patched up American street cruisers that have become icons of Cuba. What these cars lack in showroom glitz, they make up in character, often decorated, gaily painted, festooned with ribbons and charms. From the back of overcrowded Merc minibuses hang smiling youths, hanging on to the stepladder affixed to the back door. Horses and donkeys are also very commonplace – I now regret turning down the offer of a ride in a “calèche”.
At the atmospheric Hôtel de la Poste by the iron bridge that spans the muddy waters of the river Dama, a French pilot once stayed, whiling the time away writing a book. His name was Antione de Saint-Exupéry, his tale “The Little Prince” now occupying pride of place in the canon of world literature. Perhaps this is the place to come and write – with not that much to do, there is space for the imagination, and time to commit it to paper.
You cannot help but love the people of Sénégal. Despite all the privations and hardships, they are wonderfully friendly and welcoming to visitors. “Sénégal is the country of terranga, of hospitality”, said Buri, a primary school teacher splashing at the beach in his long, coffee-brown trousers, taking time off while the schools are still closed for summer holidays. And you do get the sense that people are happy to see foreigners – curious, yes, as tourists are relatively rare in these parts, but never aggressive or intimidating. In fact, the only aggravation are the occasionally pushy trinket vendors and beggars, but perhaps it is not unreasonable to expect a tourist to buy a little something off the street to help pay the bills, or hand a begging child a few pennies.
I’m glad that our trip is not about being shielded from the reality ordinary people here face. We’re not shut off, staying in resorts (or worse still, a Carnival cruise liner), with our money lining the pockets of international corporations. Instead, we share rooms in inexpensive lodgings, such as St. Louis’s charming Auberge de Jeunesse. Every once in a while, our Transit van (Transits are quite rare in these parts, even if they’re relatively old) is stopped by the by the police – I can’t be certain, but chances are that palms are being greased while hawkers lie in wait, taking advantage to do their hard-sell routine in front of a captive audience. Even so, the whole experience is subtle, routine, minimally disruptive. At no point have we been asked by the strutting officials to produce identification; as with any aggro, Yass’s protective bubble also shields us from the covetous instincts a uniform and service gun so often inspire in their bearers.
Having lived in Brazil, I cannot help marvel at how safe and stable this country feels, even though it must be quite a bit poorer. When I asked the well-coiffed receptionist at Dakar’s upscale gym why this was so, piety was her reason. “Whether Christian or Muslim” (the faiths live peacefully side by side here), “all Senegalese think of their religion first before acting.” There might be something in this. Certainly here, people are self-contained, calm and dignified – this is a supremely orderly and well-behaved country, a far cry from the everyday violence (or threat of violence) so prevalent in Brazil. Neither are tourists taken advantage off financially – not even the poorest street trader has tried to overcharge us for their wares.
Yesterday, after a boot camp by the beach followed by a swim, we had a hearty lunch at the Restaurant La Linguère (it’s near at the junction of Rue Blaise Diagne and Potin, if you’re in the area – do go).
Having the air of a place in which time has stood still for the last 60 years, La Linguère has a reputation for excellent food among the local people, and the Thié Bou Dien (a delicious fish dish served on a bed of couscous) fully lived up to it.
Our waiter, a weather-beaten man in his sixties, served us with an unfussy efficiency only decades of experience can cultivate, holding up our tray of drinks with his left hand while opening bottles single-handedly with his right, clenching them between his knees. Only the coffee is to be quibbled with: order a café au lait and expect to be served a pot of sweetened condensed hot milk to be poured over a sachet of instant. The trick, as Tanya, one of our three girls, found out, is to order “expresso”, which is made from real beans on a stovetop cafetière, and then to ask for the milk on the side if you must.
More than Thié Bou Dien, it’s another dish that has become a firm favourite, so much so that Vijay, one of our number, will order nothing else (“why risk disappointment when you’ve found what you like?”, is his motto). This is Yassa Poulet: roast chicken served on wonderfully fragrant and fluffy rice boiled in sweet coconut milk, accompanied by a sauce made of onion that’s at once sweet and rich in flavour, different tastes blending harmoniously on the palate. However, since life affords no pleasure without a sting in the tail, flies have been a vexatious pest and botheration every time we, in our innocence, decided on an al fresco meal. For this reason, it is better by far to eat inside. My duty of truthfulness to you, my reader, also compels me to report that all too often service is slow, a problem when the wifi signal is weak or non-existent: on more than once occasion, we have had no choice but to make conversation at the dinner table.
It’s understandable that in our precious online time windows in the mornings and evenings, we assiduously text, whatsapp, FaceTime, blog, upload pics on Insta and catch up on Facebook, hunched silently over the blue glow of our devices, each in their own virtual space. For some of us, this is also essential Grindr time: I neither aspire to sainthood, nor do I want to take monastic vows, and fraternisation within the group was never on the cards. More than this, it’s always fascinating to hear how gay life carries on despite oppression; in countries such as Sénégal apps like Grindr are a tool of liberation, even if they facilitate other activities some may frown on. There is naturally justified hesitation, a fear of being victimised by violent strangers when in a vulnerable situation. At the same time, the frisson of danger adds to the erotic suspense, and if nothing else, a trawling expedition may come up with a decent catch of nude images. But what is a feast for the eyes whets the appetite more than satisfies it, and there’s no point living life paralysed by fear, depriving oneself of experiences that may be truly extraordinary. Of course, they will not even epic, they may not even be sexual. Sometimes, it’s just a case of meeting for a drink, establishing a connection, possibly even making friends. In any case, sitting in a poolside bar by night, chatting to a like-minded spirit a foreign culture, gives – if nothing else – the satisfaction of having reached across an invisible divide.