Friday, June 10, 2011

Saint - Louis, Senegal

Getting out of Dakar was easier than we expected. We could have got in the first sept-place but the last two seats were in the back which has no leg space and is pretty uncomfortable. We waited for the next one and John got a front seat and I sat behind the driver. The driver was very careful and drove at a comfortable pace. We have heard so many people talk about the terrible drivers they have had and so far have only experienced one bad driver who fell asleep at the wheel in Togo.

The vegetation is getting noticeably drier as we head north towards the desert areas. The trees are getting smaller and more sparse as the big trees have been felled for boat-making, building, and firewood. There are lots of horse/donkey carts carrying people and goods from place to place.

We were lucky to have met a young Brit who told us about the jazz festival in St-Louis. There are no tourist offices as we know them. If there is such an office, the staff don't speak English and they only sell guided tours. They do nothing to promote tourism in other parts of the country other than where they are. This means we never saw any posters about the festival so didn't know that it would be on while we were in St-Louis. Once we knew, we decided to look for accommodation online and found a place available five kilometres away by the sea.

The transport depot was on the outskirts so we took a taxi to the island of St-Louis. It was the first French settlement in Africa and the capital of the vast French West Africa until 1958 when the capital moved to Dakar. Today there are still many 19th century colonial buildings in various states of renovation and decay.

When we arrived in town we got some money from a bank and while I looked after the bags, John headed off to see if there was any reasonably priced accommodation in town. Unfortunately there wasn't so we had to taxi out to Hydrobase to the resort place we had booked.

The place had a pool, tennis court, restaurant, souvenir shop, a library with only one English book, free Wifi, and lots of bungalows. We were the only guests and got a room with air con, hot water and a sea view. We didn't need the air con as the wind off the sea was cooling but we did enjoy the hot shower which we rarely get. The restaurant served a three course set menu. I had terrible hayfever so dosed up on antihistimine and paracetamol that we had brought from home. We decided to stay in and eat and were the only diners other than the French owners. What a treat, crab entree, zebu main and creme caramel and chocolate mousse. It is the low season and with over 130 rooms this place must get packed in the high season.

To get into the town the receptionist, who spoke very good English, suggested we take a taxi but we decided to walk towards the fishing village and take a local bus. They are pretty basic inside, with seats for 20 but we had a few standees and lots hanging on the outside, and colourful outside.

The fishing village was chaotic. There were trucks dripping with fish blood and pieces of fish scattered across the sandy road. Young men were dragging nets through the water as boats were unloading. Women were processing fish for smoking and lads loading ice tubs and fish onto the trucks. The bus had to stop several times to wait for the horse and carts carrying people to and from the African Quarter opposite St-Louis Island. The streets were sandy and washing was hung from one side of the street to the other along the side roads. There are all sorts of dwellings thrown together with materials found about the place. Whole families seem to live here full time on the shore amongst the boats and in the middle of the village where the action all happens. The best constructions along the shore are painted concrete shelters where men in their billowing white robes sit, sleep, pray or drink tea while gossiping with their mates.

These lads were keeping afloat with a sack full of plastic bottles and playing to the crowd as they walked over the bridge.

These Talibe boys were competing with the street cats for the food given by the shop owner. So far we have seen Talibe boys in Burkino Faso, Mali and Senegal. They were officially banned by the president of The Gambia, we were told, but it seems they do exist there too. Senegal has an estimated 50,000 Talibe boys. The young boys are pretty good and will leave you alone if you say no to them, but the older boys can be pretty aggressive. We have often seen the older boys bully the younger ones when they have been given money or food. The religious leaders feel that begging teaches the children humility. ( Check this link for an article on the Talibe boys.)

The Bou El Mogdad, built in the 1950s, used to trade between the villages on the Senegal river until a dam was built. A local travel agent bought the ship back to St-Loius and now it is used for cruising, which apparently feels like being on a boat from an Agatha Christie novel.

The main bridge is lit up at night and has a rotating centre section to allow ships to pass. At present it is being rebuilt with aid money from the EU.

We were able to get tickets for the jazz festival from the tourist office and after eating, yet another terrible shwarma, it seems standard to fill them with fried chips and not much else, we hung out near the square where the marquee was set up for the concert.

At what we thought was a reasonable time we went in to find we were the first to arrive. I was still unwell so we needed to find somewhere out of the cold wind. The first act didn't start until 9.30 and then there were still hardly any people. They were the Serrano Collina Technojazz Ensemble and were followed by Chico Correa group. We didn't much like the technojazz. By the end of the concert the marquee was barely a quarter full. A young local drummer with a beehive stack of dreads appeared as a guest percussionist and he was wonderfully talented with his African drums.

The second night we saw Michaela Rabitstch, a trumpeter singer, from Austria. She did a great job and was so impressed with the local percussionsit that she invited him to join her for a few numbers as well. There were still only a few people in the audience. She was followed by a Dutch pianist who accompanied a Mauritanian woman. Her name is Malouma and she is a celebrity in Mauritania and famous for her Sahel Blues style of singing. She is also a politician and a campaigner for womens' rights. She played a traditional harp and it would have been great if we knew what she was singing about. However she did get the crowd clapping with some of her tunes. John described it as screeching. Her website mentions that she is not afraid to sing about some of the taboos. As well as these shows in the marquee there are other acts at some of the locals cafes and bars and they begin when the marquee shows finish after midnight!

We have an annual jazz festival in our area and it is an enormous affair which has grown and evolved over the last 49 years. They will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year.

We haven't seen a lot of graffiti for a long time, and the street buildings and blank walls were covered in it. Some were comments about the president while others looked like comments promoting political groups. Most signs were written with black spray cans while a few were colourful works of art. Sengal is renowned for its 'sous-verre' or reverse-glass painting and I would have liked to have bought a sample or two but they would be too heavy and fragile for the kind of travel we are doing.

On the 17th of June we will have been in Africa for a year and it is also when our travel insurance runs out. We spent some time looking for a way to get ourselves covered until we return to NZ on 25th July. The Southern Cross Travel Insurance we had, only has one year policies that cannot be extended and their month by month options are very expensive. We really need to be covered if we get ill in Morocco or UK and we remembered meeting a young lad a few years ago who had insured with a company through Lonely Planets, so we did that and got a far better deal with comprehensive cover than we could have got with anyone else.

We had an early start to leave St Louis and head for the Mauritanian border at Rosso. We had to taxi to the gare routiere and wait for a sept-place to fill. We got the most comfortable seats and while we waited a lot of Talibe boys came begging for food or money. One little lad spent a long time chatting to me with sign language. He seemed about seven or eight and was so delightful, I could have taken him home. He had about a cup and a half of rice and a couple of small biscuits in his tomato paste tin. A couple of times some of the bigger boys tried to steal his booty but he fended them off. There was a kind lady with a stall who lined a few of the young boys up on a bench seat and gave them something to eat. There are dozens of needy people going round and round the vehicles begging, blind women, mothers with babies, old men, disabled people on crutches, and young girls.

The farms outside of St-Louis, on the way to Rosso were a sea of green with rice, sorghum, millet, peppers, tomatoes and other vegatables. There were sprinklers and channels supplying the crops with water and looked so fertile after the sandy desert areas we have been to.

At the Senegal border crossing the policeman didn't know where NZ was and wouldn't exit stamp me out of Senegal. He kept asking where it was and short of getting out my map and showing him he didn't believe our explanations. I was getting a bit exasperated as we knew the border on the Mauritanian side was closed from 1pm and it was already 12.15. Luckily a pot-bellied officer with a lot of brass buttons and braided epaulettes arrived and rescued me. He knew where it was. The policeman put John's details in his EU departures book and couldn't find a book for me. He had a book for locals, one for African member states, and finally put me in his departing diplomat book.

Our guide describes Rosso as a fly-blown place and I think they were describing the touts. We had a line of them following us to show us the money changers so they could get a tip. We knew we had to take a ferry across the river to the Mauritanian customs but the touts and their cohorts managed to distract us away from the free ferry and then proceed to try to find us a paying pirogue with one of their mates. John changed some Euros and we shooed them away and rested until the 'flies' had gone and then joined a group of locals to cross the river. By now the post was closed on the Mauritanian side and a policeman wanted to take our passports. I played the 'I go with my important passport' role as we knew the office would not open for two hours. Eventually we were taken to a room and a translator found who told us we had to pay to have our passport stamped. We knew it was coming so were not surprised. We refused, adding we had paid too much for our Mauritanian visa anyway, and we sat on our bags and said we would wait it out. Luckily another pot-bellied officer with brass buttons and braids appeared, stamped us in and let us go for no charge. Waiting with us was a Sengalese man who coached football in Mauritania and was heading to our next destination of Nouakchott. We managed to negotiate a ride in a Mercedes taxi for the three of us and headed off away from the flies!

Mauritania marks our 12oth country visited!