Six years after my partner’s passing, a chance encounter led me to Dakar to say my last good-byes – on a trip that became the holiday of a lifetime.
My close friend Helio doesn’t prioritise property or material things, but invests almost all his spare time and money in travel. He says, “life experiences are more valuable than possessions”, and he isn’t wrong.
“If you travel together you will have shared memories forever”, but that new expensive TV you bought… will you reminisce about it at dinner parties in 20 years time? Probably not.
I never planned to travel to Senegal and haven’t spoken French since school 35 years ago.
Why the destination, my inquisitive travel nurse asked as she jabbed me with needles? Hardly anyone in my part of West London holidays in Senegal, she continued. It was certainly unusual.
But then what she couldn’t have known, is in the early 2000’s I fell in love.
My French Senegalese partner, Eric, was kind, gentle, with a broad smile and soft French accent that could melt your heart. We spent a wonderful 5 years together, framing some of the very happiest times and memories I could have wished for.
Eventually, as we had always known, family expectations and obligations overruled a life in London, and we parted amicably to allow for a move to Dakar, marriage and children. A very different path to my own.
Ill health in his mid 30’s saw a life cut short and a future that never came to pass. My friend was laid to rest in Dakar. Only years later did I hear of his all-too-early death.
To me Dakar was a distant, unfamiliar place – but one I had to see for myself, to pay my respects and say my good-byes at Eric’s graveside.
From what may appear to be the saddest of journeys blossomed an adventure of shared experiences I could have hardly imagined. A gift of like minded friends, and laughter and a country of beautiful people and culture that will remain with me for life.
So how did this come about? I need to step back to October 2016.
On a cold Friday evening I was enthusing about the prospect of my first visit to Senegal to a Cameroonian friend, Lionel.
“It would be better that you don’t travel alone” he counselled. His concern was less about my safety, as Senegal is a stable democratic nation, but more that as a non-French speaker, I could run into situations I would struggle to deal with.
“Take along a companion” he suggested, but I was single and had none. I wrestled with the determination to go regardless, and advice of a someone who knew better.
It seemed like a setback, but not for long, as fate had another trick up it’s sleeve in the form of Dwayne, and his birthday party.
Dwayne and I go back more than 15 years, he used to hang out with Eric and I, and today was his birthday. I had Lionel to entertain, so we headed to Dalston for a few drinks, and a chance to catch up.
Stood with Dwayne was his friend Khris. Tall, dark, handsome and with muscles to match, I was inevitably drawn into a conversation about Dakar.
Not only a personal trainer, Khris was a physique photographer whose work I had admired and followed for some years. What a small world…… but one that was about to get smaller. His good friend Yass was Senegalise, lived in West London and as a tour guide, ran occasional trips home.
Enthusing about his experience travelling through Senegal with Yass, Khris unwittingly handed me a perfect present, and it wasn’t even my birthday.
Thus came to pass one of the best travel experiences, or any experience, I have lived in my 52 years.
It was made all the more special by the careful attention of Yass, and travelling with friends, including Khris, Ben and Al, a fellow guest at that fateful birthday party. Al’s passion for Senegal is irresistible.
So on 18th September 2017 I slipped away from the exuberance of my new travelling companions on their way to the beach at Ngor island in Dakar. I headed to the Cimetière Saint-Lazare de Béthanie, stopped to buy flowers from the old lady perched on the kerbside and used my Google Translate to explain my quest to the group of gravediggers and groundsmen who sat in the cool shade of the entrance lodge.
As I was guided through the parched and dusty pathways, grass burrs of the most aggressive nature embedded themselves into my trainers and though my trousers, but I hardly noticed.
We arrived at Eric’s resting place, six years on from his passing and I was alone once more. It was hard to summon up emotion on queue but I had a list of our favourite music. As it played, I took in the surroundings and the happiest memories danced through my mind.
Grasshoppers and butterflies joined me and then went on their way. I’m not religious but in some ways I see why people believe in reincarnation, or an afterlife. It felt like he was there with me.
A low wall separated the cemetery from end of the airport runway. Passenger jets taxied and turned, tails jutting up between the treetops as I watched on. Eric could see the comings and goings of the world from his vantage point. He would have liked that.
At some point it felt right to leave and rejoin my travelling companions. Soon I was back swimming in the warm waters of Ngor island, my companions little the wiser. I was on course for the most amazing road trip, still so many wonderful experienced waiting to unfold.
Two short weeks later my plane was sat on the runway back at Dakar airport. The adventure was almost over. As we sped along the runway and pulled up into the inky darkness of the West African night, I looked through the window and waved goodbye. I knew Eric was looking on.
While it was love – and a wish to say goodbye – that drove my determination to see Senegal, it was a fifteen year process of chance meetings and friendships that brought together a life experience I can now share forever. For sure my first visit to Dakar will not be my last.
So here’s to chance meetings, love, adventure and the wonderful things they can bring. Put off that unnecessary purchase and get out there instead…….. you won’t regret it.