IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is part of a 12-chapter series on my trip to Africa: Senegal was the second country of twelve African nations I visited in December of 2016. It’s best to read the chapters in order, as they build on one another. To see country number one, Cabo Verde, please go HERE. It’s best to read the stories/countries in order.
It takes a lot to get me frazzled and afraid—I’ve traveled to some pretty sketchy places, but night number one in Dakar I was downright petrified. I’d just stayed two nights in Cabo Verde—my introduction to Africa—but that might as well have been the Bahamas. It was “Africa Light;” a relaxing, Português-speaking island with beaches and palm trees, where I roamed freely among a fair share of European tourists, dined in sidewalk cafés and did touristy island things; scenes out of a Jimmy Buffet music video. But now I was on the mainland. And things were different. Very different.
I arrived at dusk, flying in over mosques and the sprawling city of Dakar aboard the ATR-78 TACV Airlines propeller plane. On the way into immigration I saw a Delta sign, and for a second, contemplated going straight home to Atlanta with my tail between my legs, aborting this entire mission. But of course, I never really considered this an option; just an exit plan if things went wrong.
Immigration freaked me a out a little bit. It always does. Something about these serious looking officers and too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad. Here were dark men with badges and berets–like I’ve seen in the movies, usually thrillers about blood diamonds and rogue nations. Alas, I passed their inspection, fingerprints and all, and waded out into the abyss that is the taxi line outside the airport. That can be scary too: leaving the comforts of a secured airport gate area to the anything-goes outside world where all bets are off and you’re basically on your own. Sensory overload overtook me quickly, as I walked among men in log nightgown-looking shirts and matching fezzes. I was offered a taxi and I took it. I tried asking “how much” to get to my hotel, but my efforts were fruitless.
We sped down dark but crowded highways for about 30 minutes before reaching the Hotel Farid on a small and sketchy-looking side street. The hotel looked nothing like the pictures online.
I paid $45,000 Francs for the cab ride, later finding out that the price was over four times as much as I should have been charged. Definite rookie mistake, but thankfully it only equaled out to about 40 US dollars, and I could live with that. I was just happy I hadn’t been kidnapped. When the driver asked where I was from, I told him I was born in Canada but lived in Brasil. That would be my story during my time in Africa.
I’d had recurring paranoia of an impending plot to kidnap me since I was a highly-valued American target. Maybe that sounds silly, but between seeing terrorist events in Africa on the news, stern warnings from the State Department online, and countless friends and family members who expressed their “worry” for me…I had convinced myself that I was entering a hot zone—some sort of scene from one of those awful movies where Liam Neeson would have to come to Africa to save me. In the words of The Geto Boyz: My Mind’s Playin’ Tricks On Me.
The hotel did not help; also something out of a movie about a secret agent who’s on some secret mission to infiltrate a crime network in a third-world country. Except I wasn’t a secret agent. I had no training. I hadn’t even earned my yellow belt. The hotel was tall and thin and smooshed between buildings on each side—it was the kind of building with no outside walls on the left or right—every building on the block was connected, like you’d see in an old New York neighborhood. The receptionist seemed less than thrilled to see me as he checked my passport and handed over my room key: literally a “key;” and old school key. The metal kind. This place was far from The Four Seasons.
The halls were pitch black. I had to use the flashlight on my iPhone to light the way. I spent the first ten minutes in my room with the door locked, figuring out my escape plan should Boko Haram bust down the door at any moment. I opened the window to assess my escape route; surely there’d be a gutter or trellis I could scale down should the need arise. I smashed my thumb trying to close the window. Terrorists 1, Randy zero.
I was starving and luckily there was a restaurant across the street that belonged to the hotel. But just having to step out onto the street after dark made me nervous. I scurried across the street like a frightened mouse, and over to the front door of the restaurant. The outside of the restaurant looked almost as shady as the hotel; no windows, just a solid brown door. I was afraid to see what was on the the other side.
Everything changed when I pushed the door open.
Suddenly it was like I wasn’t in Africa anymore. The Farid Restaurant had tall ceilings with giant lighted balls hanging down. There must have been 80 patrons, including a table of 30 tourists from France. There was a trio performing an Ed Sheeran song. This was the kind for restaurant you’d see on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Very chique. I had an amazing shawarma plate and a fruity cocktail, as I breathed multiple sighs of relief and laughed at myself for being so silly. Things were gonna be just fine.
In the morning I had breakfast at the same restaurant. They served me coffee, bread (croissants, etc.) and a small bowl of diced fruit. I never got a menu; I guessed that waffles and eggs weren’t an option. I’d later learn that croissants and bread were standard breakfast in all of these African nations formerly controlled by the French.
My tour guide for the day arrived at 9:30 as promised. His name was Fallou. The tour company owner, Cheikh, accompanied him. If last night’s awesome dinner didn’t reassure me that I was in for a good time in Dakar, Fallou and Cheikh sure did. From the get-go, these guys were just amazing. We all had coffee together as they welcomed me to Senegal and asked what all I wanted to see and do during my short stay. Soon we were off for a six-hour tour of Dakar.
We spent the day taking in all the sites. The markets were intense! I did my best to keep up with Fallou as he guided me through the labyrinth of fish, vegetables and spice stalls. The smells were intense. We stopped in a tiny corridor where two guys were serving mint tea and grabbed two cups. I was the only gringo in site. Can’t say I’d be bold enough to do this alone. Let me tell you, Fallou was the man! Not only did he watch out for me, but everyone knew this guy! He was a local celebrity. It was nice to be escorted by a guy everyone respected.
We cruised the streets of Dakar, passing some other markets and what seemed like thousands of vendors on each side of us. We stopped at the Obilisque, a craft store and then to a bar to have a drink.
After a beer with the fellas (they didn’t drink), we headed to the African Renaissance Monument. This thing was enormous and rivaled Rio’s Cristo Retendor and North Korea’s massive bronze statues of their “dear leaders.” Actually, it was actually constructed by North Korea!
After a visit at monument we grabbed lunch at a cool place overlooking the water. Then it was off to see some more sights. Fallou was super informative and gave me all kinds of info. I tried my best to absorb it all.
In addition to the history of Senegal, Fallou made it a point to explain to me just how peaceful his country was. He explained that Senegal didn’t put up with terrorism and its police force was massive and strong. He also noted that Senegal’s Muslims were very moderate and liberal. Though the country is 95% Muslim, he explained that the country still acknowledged Christmas, as he pointed out the various Christmas trees and decorations all around town. Dakar even featured an African version of Victoria Secret. Ooh la la! Everything about the tour was fantastic, including the price. These guys really took great care of me and I learned so much.
After the guys dropped me off and we said our goodbyes, I even took a 30-minute stroll around the neighborhood, solo, before dark. This time I was a little more relaxed, as I enjoyed window shopping and soaking in the everyday life of Dakar. I was this close to buying a gown (boubou) and matching fez, but I wasn’t sure if they were meant for non-Muslim foreigners, and I wasn’t comfortable trying to ask in French…but I really wanted one.
Oh yeah, that’s another thing that was a trip—the language. I found it fascinating discovering that so many countries in Africa speak French. If only I would have paid more attention in Mrs. Micetich’s 8th grade French class. Man, I hated that class, and I didn’t think much of Mrs. Micetich either. She was certainly a grump, but to her defense, I made zero effort to learn the language. I wish I would’ve. But at the time, I thought I’d have about as much use for French as I would for algebra—and that was none—I was convinced it’d be worthless. I don’t even remember finishing the class, I think I switched it out for wood shop or something, a few weeks in. Well, the joke was on me, as I struggled to communicate with almost everyone I needed to interact with. I settled on speaking Português with a wannabe Pepé Le Pew accent. I must have sounded ridiculous. Shoulda been a better student in Mrs. Micetich’s class.
I slept peacefully that night, my last night in Senegal. I had learned so much in just one day: so much history, so much culture, so many sights and smells and sounds. I laid on my hotel bed and just tried to finish processing it all.
One of the biggest lessons I’d learned that day, is that Africa wasn’t as scary as I had imagined. Decades of stereotypes, American movies, hearing only the “bad” stories on the news, and all the warnings from people who’d never even traveled to Africa–this all played into my fears of coming to Africa. But just one day in Senegal changed my mind about so many things. I was so fortunate to have amazing guides, who I now considered friends. So much had changed in just 24-hours. I had a new outlook on Africa, and my fear turned into gratitude, excitement, even enlightenment.
Oh, and I found the switch to the light in the hallway at the Hotel Farid. Turns out the place wasn’t all that scary after all. Sometimes life is just about finding the light switch.
If you go:
Voyages et Tourisme DMC
Saly Portudal Senegal BP: 222
Tel : 00221 33 957 73 73
Port : 00221 77 633 86 21
RE: SN THS 2006 A 2410