Senegal will always have a place in my heart. It was the first (mainland) country in Africa that I set foot in, just four years ago, although it seems like a lifetime. I use Senegal as a point of reference to measure how I have grown, not just as a traveler, but as a human and citizen of the world. As I look back, I see a very frightened boy in December of 2016, filled with generalizations and irrational fears about Africa and Islam – preconceptions built up over a lifetime by the news, movies, other media and my own ignorance. You can GO HERE and see the story of my first visit to Senegal.
On that first venture in, I remember landing at the airport in Dakar and immediately second guessing my decision to “see the world.” Seeing mobs of men in their Islamic robes and skull caps made me very uneasy. I remember, during the taxi ride to the hotel, being worried the driver had hatched a plot to kidnap me. The first thing I did when I checked into my hotel was plan an exit strategy – I needed to know how to get out quickly when the bad guys bust the door down take me. The only injuries I ended up sustaining on that trip was a sore thumb from smashing it while trying to close the window while doing a dry-run of my escape plan. Daylight that next morning calmed my nerves, and before noon I had relaxed and was actually enjoying myself. By the end of that first trip, not only did I love Africa, but I’d fly home in my own Islamic robe and cap – those outfits sure are comfy! You should have seen the confused look on the Homeland Security officers’ faces.
I’ve seen 40+ African nations since my first entry in 2016 – including many places that made Senegal look like Bel-Air. There was Somalia, South Sudan, Libya, and a handful of others on the Do Not Travel list. My point is, four years later, after all these visits to Africa, I chuckle to myself at those early fears of a such a tame place like Senegal. When you compare Senegal to a nation like Central African Republic or Burundi, it really is as calm and laid back as Mayberry.
So here we go, trip number two into Senegal – this would be a completely different region than my first trip to Dakar. I’d be taking a road trip from Banjul, Gambia to Bissau, Guinea-Bissau – this would require me to drive right through Senegal. Geographically, Gambia and Senegal is one of the worlds most unique relationships. Gambia is literally like a snake or a “cut,” starting at the coast and going straight into the country of Senegal. It would split the country in half if it didn’t stop halfway. Therefore, The Gambia is completely surrounded by Senegal, minus its small coast. So, that means if you plan on leaving (or arriving to) The Gambia by car, bike, truck, bus or foot – you’ll travel through Senegal.
I wanted to leave earlier, but I had to deal with a Corona Virus test (picking up the results) and grabbing my Bissau visa in Banjul before we could leave. I was really hoping to be able to make it to Bissau before dark, but soon realized that was no longer an option, as we finally hit the road around 11:30AM. “We” means me and my driver: a man named Kemo who came very well recommended. We’d get along swimmingly during our time together in The Gambia, Senegal and Bissau.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the border, exiting our car at Gambian immigration. The exit was almost seamless. One of the officers searched my bags and gave me some grief about some over-counter sleep meds: He told me they should be accompanied by a doctor’s note because they might be illegal in The Gambia and Senegal. I wondered if he was hunting for a bribe, but luckily it never came down to that and he ended up zipping up my bag and wishing me farewell soon enough.
Getting through Senegalese immigration was a breeze. The whole process took just over 30 minutes. I was enamored at the border facilities, which consisted of a yellow shack with a tin roof with chickens and goats loitering about. No computers, but rather pen and paper to record entries and exits. I was crossing among locals only – there wasn’t a Gringo in sight: my kind of party! I was happy Kemo was with me at this point: Both to make sure I got out of Gambia with no hassles, and into the French-speaking nation of Senegal. I don’t speak a lick of French. I’d often find Kemo communicating with the local law enforcement in tribal tongue. The guy spoke about half a dozen languages. He was amazing in so many ways and I was so glad to have him by my side.
Zig-a-Zig-Ahh! (Spice Girls reference, if you didn’t get it)
I enjoyed the scenery as we rolled through the wilds of Senegal, including random cows in the middle of the highway. The roads were okay for the most part – only a few interruptions where the asphalt seemed to have been neglected for some time. A little over 90 minutes later we were rolling into the biggest Senegalese city on this side of The Gambia, Ziguinchor, which I could not even begin to pronounce until Kemo gave me a lesson, syllable-by-syllable: “See-gone-sur!”
Now began the task of finding a restaurant for lunch during a pandemic. After a few failed attempts, we hit the jackpot at Hotel Kadiandoumagne, which featured a nice restaurant set on the banks of the Casamance River. I ordered a fantastic bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese while Kemo ate a giant fish, complete with eyes and everything. It was a good meal and a nice rest. We enjoyed taking each other’s portraits in front of the water before finally getting back on the road. This was certainly a nice pit-stop…we needed the rest – we’d soon cross the Bissau border and the next seven hours of driving would be brutal.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: I certainly recommend eating at the Hotel Kadiandoumagne, but also a stay there, if you have time. It’s prime location right on the river and its beautiful property and good food make it a winner. You can check prices HERE.
Third Time’s a Charm
After five nights in Bissau, it was time to move on. The next stop on my itinerary was Guinea (not to be confused with Guinea “Bissau.”) But there was a problem. For months, I’d been desperately trying to obtain a visa with no luck. Out of all eleven countries on this trip, Guinea was the lone (and very large) thorn in my side. So far I’d been denied the visa four separate places: online, in Washington D.C., in The Gambia, and most recently, in Bissau. The officer in Bissau sternly told me he was not authorized to issue any visas to anyone, by order of the president. It appeared the country was simply locked shut – no one was getting in. In a slight panic, I quickly pivoted and bought new flight tickets since I wouldn’t be making it to Guinea. Sadly, missing Guinea would mean I’d also miss the stop after Guinea – Sierra Leone. I’ll spare you the mundane flight and routing details, but if you can imagine: flight schedules are horrible enough in West Africa without a pandemic. Add in Corona Virus and you’re looking at the most difficult itinerary I’ve ever attempted in my travel career.
My original route was Bissau > Dakar (Senegal) > Conakry (Guinea). The new plan would be a complicated, multi-day trip going Bissau > Dakar > Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) > Accra, all in order to pick up the flight to my next destination of São Tomé. It was the only way to get back on track and meant skipping both Guinea and Sierra Leone, which was a shame – because I already had visa in-hand for Sierra Leone. There was just no way to get there, I’d tried to make it work for hours – not happening. This would also mean I would not finish West Africa, and that I’d have to make a whole new trip just to complete those two tiny slices that are Guinea and Sierra Leone. Frustrating. I was so close.
My layover in Dakar was exactly ten hours. That new flight from Dakar to Abidjan was scheduled around the same time my original flight from Dakar to Conakry was. I kept that first flight open for no other reason than it was non-refundable. Once in Dakar, I had one last chance at a Guinea visa. I seriously contemplated spending those ten hours catching up on some sleep at the luxurious airport Radisson that I’d booked – it really was nice! But I’m not a quitter. I knew I’d regret if and wonder “what if” if I didn’t give this Guinea visa one more shot.
The traffic was horrible on the way into town from the airport hotel and for a second I figured it was just my luck – that maybe the visa wouldn’t matter because I’d end up both missing the Guinea and the Ivory Coast backup flight (they were both departing at 5:30PM.) Just my luck for being too ambitious. I had to leave Dakar tonight or the entire rest of the trip would implode, worse that it already had. Luckily, we broke through traffic minutes later and soon we were driving down a dirt road, pulling up to the Guinea embassy in Dakar. One last shot.
There were a group of five guys outside a closed door. I wondered if they embassy hadn’t opened yet, and they were all in line – ahead of me, of course. This could take hours! I was elated when I discovered that wasn’t the case, as a security guard welcomed me in and walked me right into an office marked “Bureau de Visas.” This was my last chance. And I had a plan.
Forget being the guy on vacation trying to see every country in the world. I would not ask for a tourist visa this time. I’d instead plead for a “transit” visa, as I truly was transiting. An airline flight change gave me just one night in Conakry – I’d make the drive into Sierra Leone the very next morning, early. I truly was “transiting,” and I planned to state that reason for needing the visa. I’d inform the man that I’d be transiting Guinea very matter-of-factly – no “tourist” intentions here, I just need to get “through” (not “to”) Conakry to make it to my final destination of Sierra Leone. Surely that was a smarter plan – I just knew I had to do something different this time.
I entered the room with a smile behind my mask to see a young man behind the desk. My plan was to mix charm with just enough urgency to persuade him to issue me that visa. I tried to ask how his Christmas was, but the language barrier was too thick. To my surprise, he knew what I wanted, quickly looked at my documents and passport, and replied, “$70,000 Cfa.” No discussion at all. Holy crap, did that mean I got it?
Need Cash Fast?
Of course, I’m the dummy that didn’t have enough cash on hand. Luckily there were two banks right next door. I had him keep the passport—hoping he’d start the process while I was at the bank—and told him I’d be right back. I sped walked outta there like a Mom on her morning walk as I high-tailed it a couple hundred feet down the street and slipped into the ATM booth like a criminal in the night.
“MACHINE NO FUNCTION.” Crap! Machine out of order. This is just my luck. Panic set in and I could feel my heart race. I dashed three doors down to the next bank. Wanna know my favorite sound in the whole world, at least this year? The sound of the whirring machine sorting the cash right before it spit out my 200,000 Cfa. Hot dog!
By the time I knocked on the Visa de Bureau’s door and entered like a child late for class, the gentlemen behind the door was already reaching his hand out with my passport – complete with an official Guinea visa plastered on page 42. I was so excited and grateful, and candidly, a little in disbelief. This was too easy! I thanked him profusely and got the heck out of there before he changed his mind. I asked his name. I’m not sure how it’s spelled, but it sounded like Cebide…Mr. Cebide. Well Mr. Cebide, I’m here to tell you, I love you!
Back to the Hotel
It was a glorious ride back to the Radisson to pick up my bags. I couldn’t believe this final-hour Hail Mary paid off. This would put my entire trip right back on the tracks. Unbelievable! I left with a great taste in my mouth about Senegal. Special shout out to Rama at the front desk of The Radisson Diamniadio who arranged my ride to the clinic and embassy – she’s fantastic. And of course, “the man“, Mr. Cebide from the embassy. He was the real MVP, who single-handedly put my injured itinerary right back to factory specs. He was one of a handful of heroes that would come to my rescue on this trickiest of trips. Wait ’til you read what happened when I tried to leave Guinea!