6 June Continued
After spending most of the afternoon working on photos and the blog, I decided to do a little walk-around solid with the M5.
The cadets had gone out earlier to do a little shopping and later said that they’d been robbed by hawkers. Austin had finally bought a Senegal Lions football Jersey for the World Cup, but they’d bought little else and had returned to the hotel to play cards and relax.
I stayed close the hotel and worked on the M5 whose controls are quite different really from the 5D. I found it tougher to set Auto ISO and really just need practice with the touch screen.
I had my first less-than-friendly encounter with a local when I took a photo of a fruit stand and the back of the man selling fruit. I don’t photograph his face, so I thought nothing of it. However, a man of about 30 walked up to me and said (in French) “Why do you think you have the right to take a photo?”
I think he was trying to shake me down for money, so I quickly shot back at him, while walking, “C’est un pays libre, n’est-ce pas?” (Isn’t this a free country?). He was clearly taken aback by my response, stopped walking towards me and said no more as I turned and walked away. I do need to be more careful.
I walked around shooting more doorways and asked a few kids if I could take their photos. Some agreed, some did not. I returned to the hotel at 1915 and shortly thereafter we left for the restaurant in the Hotel de la Residence just a block away.
Dinner was again good--a Prix fixe menu already arranged with salad to start. We we a little hesitant to eat the lettuce and tomatoes, but ultimately convinced each other to go for it, in part because of the balsamic vinegar. Not foolproof, of course, but it worked for us.
The main course was either chicken brochets or grilled snapper with a choice of vegetables, rice, or frites.
The snapper was good, but bony and the veggies we're better than at La Flamingo the night before. For drinks, we a few of us ordered Flag and then we had two large Kirene water bottles (1.5L) that we shared. Service was outstanding again--very friendly but not overbearing. The sliced baguettes, which, I think may be the cadets’ favorite thing to eat on the trip, we're great.
For dessert, our waiter brought out little wooden pirogs with a scoop each of mango and strawberry sorbet, plus some small shortbread cookies. The total bill came to about 7600CFA so we asked for 10,000 each and threw a 1000 CFA bill to each of the non-Flag drinkers. Both Idri and Augusto ate for free again and were clearly well-acquainted with the wait staff.
On the way back to the hotel, we bought two more 10L bottles of water for only 1000CFA apiece to recharge our bottles.
Becky and I returned to a rather chilly room as osur a/c had been running all evening, but it felt good while we pre-packed for the morning and climbed into bed.
The next morning, after sleeping fairly well, I woke up at 0530 ( the alarm was set for 0550), showered and tried to load more photos.
We met for breakfast at 0630, everyone dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts as instructed the night before by Augusto. He’d told us that we would be leaving the next morning at 0700 for a three hour drive to Touba, the second largest city in Senegal and the home of a very large mosque.
According to our trip notes, Touba is the home of a particular Sufi Muslim sect and city with its Grand Mosque operates almost autonomously in the country. Nearly 4,000,000 pilgrims visit the mosque each year from across West Africa.
Georgia wore a long black skirt and Becky put on her long grey convertible pants. All of the men wore long-sleeved T or collared shirts.
Breakfast was again good with the same name as the day before. Matt and Evan shared another messy mango, while Becky and I had plain yogurt, pastries, coffee, and some cheese.
We left on time just after I hit the ATM for
100,000 CFA to get us through to Banjul over the next couple of days.
The route southeast from Saint-Louis was typical in that the quality of the road surface was outstanding and we went through a string of small towns that seemed identical. Kids walking to school, women waiting for transportation to markets by communal taxi buses, goats along the road, and overloaded trucks.
It was cloudy and humid, with a few light sprinkles muddying the windshield. The countryside for progressively drier as we went inland, with mostly bare ground and acacia trees by the time we’d traveled 30 km.
Senegal continues to amaze me because, despite the dirt, dust, and poverty, the hundreds of little kids, the trash, and the shacks, horse carts and abandoned cars, half-built and collapsing homes--very little that would suggest development past what you’d expect in the US during the Depression of the 1930s, men and women are often well-dressed if not overdressed in terms of style and colors, they make amazing French-style pastries, service and food is excellent, and kids are all walking long distances to school with backpacks full of books, often in uniforms. While the boys are often barefoot, in shorts, with T-shirts, the girls and women are wearing very clean, very vibrant, colorful, full-length dresses with matching scarfs on their heads. Those without scarves have intricately coiffed, often tightly braided, hair.
All seem very honest and hard-working. At La Hotel de la Posted, when we left our 'payment box’ at the table and forgot about the 2000CFA change from two Flag beers, the waitress presented the boss to me two hours later when I returned to order a second beer. I paid her all 2000, tipping her 500 after the 1500 CFA beer.
So far the cadets have been outstanding--we couldn’t ask for better travel buddies. Despite very different backgrounds at USAFA, they get along very well and we’ve had zero conflict. There’s plenty of good-natured ribbing for little mistakes--as you:d expect on a France-led tip--and everyone seems willing to give and take in good humor.
They’ve all been on-time or early to every call and haven’t backed down from strolling through the worst back alley. They’re asking good questions, are observant, trying to use a few French words, and are friendly and respectful of everyone they meet.
We’ve seen VERY few European/American/White tourists so far. We stick out even more than I thought we would. The hawkers are very aggressive and pounce on us almost immediately upon leaving the hotel or mini-bus. It reminds me a bit of Tanzania in that respect. Kids automatically ask us for money, candy, or ink pens. I wish we’d brought hundreds of ink pens!
I’ll say it again and again… you just can’t escape all of the plastic trash here. Everywhere. Bags stuck on virtually every Bush and tree along the roads. Piles of trash in every village. Some of it is burning, but Augusto tells me that it’s now illegal to burn the trash--apparently preferring one type of pollution over another. I think we all need to get rid of plastic bags if we’re not going to assiduously commit to recycling them--and certainly containing discarded bags to real landfills in which they can degrade. Or we need to find new formulations that will degrade in days or weeks instead of years and decades.
In small villages that we passed, often the town was on one side of the road and the other side of the road was the town trash dump.
Along the road we saw increasing numbers of Falani grass/thatch huts mixed in with the usual block buildings. We also saw Falani tribespeople wearing the typical woven conical hats.
We arrived in Touba from the North just before 1000, passing through a large concrete arch. Idri told me later that all of the major roads leading to Touba had these large gates.
We saw many signed referring to “Bon Magal” and learned that Magal referred to the pilgrimage that almost four million per year make to Touba.
We arrived at outside the mosque and we're greeted by a tall gentleman dresses in a white boubou with caftan. He was very friendly and pleasant, explaining to us that we needed to leave our shoes in the car and then gave Becky and Georgia wrap-around skirts plus carefully arranged and positioned head scarves.
The grand Mosque was huge. Our guide told us that it was the 'largest in Black Africa,’ with the only larger one in Africa found in Morocco.
Our guide was very clear that in Senegal they practiced a very tolerant, moderate sorry of Islam and that Islam meant peace and tolerance.
The grand Mosque was started in 1927 with the caliph of a particular Sufi sect. The mosque is like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in that it may never be completed and was still be renovated AND built at the same time.
The mosque has seven minarets and will not get any more because it’s improper to have more minarets than the Grand Mosque in Mecca (8).
There hundreds of women in deep blue-purple robes cleaning, artisans were recarving patterns in cupped ceilings, and two of the larger minarets had scaffolding around them for work being done.
The floor tiling was all in white Italian marble not unlike Terrazzo strips at USAFA while the exterior walls were all in Portuguese pink marble. It was amazingly opulent and contrasted starkly with the abject poverty and filth that was only meters away on the exterior.
Our guide told us that there had been eight caliphs since the founding of the mosque and sect and that the eighth had taken his place just a few months ago. All were sons or grandsons, or great-grandsons of the original caliph. The names of the caliphs were all over the city, on taxis and buses, shops and homes, all invoking their specific favorite caliph’s name in hopes of blessings and good fortune.
Our guide told us of the annual pilgrimage or “Magal” that occurred in Touba, brining almost four million there every year from(mostly) across West Africa. Pilgrims were housed by locals and fed as well as part of the hosts’ Muslim obligations, though many chose to stay in hotels. He was quick to point out that this was a huge boon for the local economy, but that it wasn’t a true pilgrimage in the sense that it replaced the requirement of all Muslims to go to Mecca for the Hadj--rather this was more of an annual commemoration or celebration of the Weather African sect or caliphate centered in Touba.
At one point, our guide got into an argument with a younger man who took offense at him wearing a cap in and around the mosque. It got somewhat heated as we watched and walked. I think it was all conducted in Wolof or another local language because I could only pick up the occasional transliterated French words. Apparently, our guide told the younger man that he did not understand his own religion and needed to study more. That was not well-received. Eventually others joined in and the younger man exited through a gate to the other side of the iron fencing around the mosque proper. We thought, at first that it might have something to do with us, as infidels with women, being there, but that was not the primary issue according to our guide.
The tour ended after about an hour and we made our way back to the bus. I gave our guide a donation of 2000 CFA.
On leaving Touba, we did a quick water and toilet stop at a gas station and Becky and I again marveled at the nearly spotless shoppette with it’s Kum-N-Go type selection, minus the clean bathrooms--those were still outdoor squatters with a big bucket of water and large Dipper to 'flush.’
We drove for another two hours to Kaolack, which, Idi explained was the crossroads of Senegal. In the city several national roads met, going to Dakar, Saint-Louis, The Gambia, and parts East. It was a town of peanuts and salt, too, with the salty Saloum River passing through it on Nearly flat plain and mountains of salt and peanuts at processing facilities nearby. He explained that you could always tell someone who was from Kaolack because of their teeth stained brown from the salts and sodas in the water--something we saw soon enough.
We arrived at the hotel along the river and we're again somewhat impressed by it. The Relais de Kaolack was part of a chain (Relais Bleu) in the area and had huge outdoor verandas, a nice pool, and an excellent bar serving Flag for only 1000 CFA (about $1.80)!
We were roomed in small bungalows that had two rooms each. Augusto said that we were free until 1700 when we would go on a market tour downtown. The cadets used the time to play pickup water polo in the pool and have a few drinks (beer and soda). The hotel was hosting a government conference on information management for the sanitation profession with about 100 attendees that moved in and out if the pool and outdoor seating areas as their sessions progressed. Easily 90% of the participants were male. There were two other groups of European-American tourists, both either French or Quebecois, one being a family of four with grown children and another a group of female college-aged friends. There was also a group of Chinese business people.
Becky read and did puzzles while I worked on photos and tried with limited success to get internet access. Eventually, I went for a short swim, too.
At 1700 we went to the market and met a local guide took the lead through what turned out to be a typical covered, crowded, find-it-all, African market, complete with narrow passageways, sewing machines, freshly butchered meat and poultry, produce, and just about everything else. It was maze-like and we were quickly disoriented. Since it was a market for locals, there weren’t a lot of pushy people trying to sell us things here. The cadets handled it well despite the mess and heat that was approaching 100F.
From the market, we walked to an artisanal village of small sales shops. I saw some interesting paintings and batiks, Charlie bought a small carving, but that’s about all. As we walked back to out minibus, Eddie asked me what sort of souvenirs we liked and I said that we didn’t buy many souvenirs these days because we had so much already at the house. We preferred photos and memories and maybe something useful like a bolt if unique cloth or fabric that could be turned into a tablecloth and napkins and ultimately a story to tell friends when they visited us for dinner.
We returned to the hotel at about 1830 and, as we did the day before, ordered dinner in advance planning to eat at 2000. Becky and I had a drink at the bar and watched the Bislett Games track meet from Oslo on the television above the bar.
Dinner was not particularly good, but the veggies we're acceptable and the baguettes nearly fresh. Eddie wasn’t looking too fresh and he admitted that he was suffering from some digestive issues. After dinner, we brought him back to our room, gave him dose of Imodium (Loperamide) with a few more pills to last the night, checked that he didn’t have a fever, and refilled everyone’s water bottles.
Our room was chilly from the full-scale refrigeration and, after trying to connect to WiFi and processing the afternoon’s photos, I went to sleep. We both slept well, waking a few times, but not completely until the alarm at 0620.
As we started to move luggage outside the door, Georgia appeared looking pekid and said she’d had a rough night with more digestive issues. She didn’t have a fever, so we gave her Loperamide, too, and plenty of water.
Breakfast was pretty poor with only second-rate French pastries, no fruit, no yogurt, and last night’s baguettes.
On the bright side, Eddie was looking and feeling better. One the downside, Evan and Matt both needed doses of Immodium, too.
We loaded the van, leaving on-time, as usual, and hit a gas station after a few kilometers to get more water. The shoppette inside wasn’t open, but the guys Manning the pumps were glad to accept 2000 CFA for two 10L bottles if Kirene water.
We're drove about an hour on the highway and then turned off on a dirt road, passing through three Wolof farming villages to arrive at the Sine Ngayene complex stone grave site. Along the way, Idi explained that they farmed mostly corn and peanuts in the area and each spring burned the fields prior to planting after the third or fourth rain of the just-commencing rainy season.
It was clearly a wetter climate here as the nber are large green trees (not baobab) increased and the acacia disappeared. The thatch and stubble from last season’s corn was raked into pikea and ling strips and then burned--we could see the black rings and stripes of past fires with several other still burning. Some were attended by kids or adults, others left to burn out on their own.
The drive to the site was about 10 kilometers over sandy roads. IDi stopped once to check the front left tire that he had had refilled two days prior. Happily, it was holding.
When we arrived at the site, the gates were locked. Idi made a phone call and we climbed over the low, rusty, steel tube railed fence and into the UNESCO World Heritage Site--one the only that we will ever visit completely alone, with no other tourists.
The site is quite interesting in that it dates to between 925 to 1305 CE. It contains 1102 large volcanic, rectangular headstone each weighing a ton or more. These monoliths are arranged in single and double circles of twelve stones each--52 circles in all. The volcanic rock has no writing or symbology. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1226
A guide arrived a few minutes later and began explaining the site to us. He spoke almost no French, but rather conversed in Wolof to Idi who then translated to French. Augusto and I then translated Idi’s comments to English for the group. Sometimes the guide used obviously French words and we could understand his intent.
He told us that the age of the site has been verified by Carbon-14 dating of the bodies found in the graves. The largest double circles held 65 bodies with the body of the supposed queen buried 1.5 meters deep and in the outer ring, with the king buried three meters below the stones in the center. The higher ranking bodies had jewelry, knives, and Spears buried with them and their bodies we're positioned oddly with their lower legs pulled up behind and their hands together, arms straight, down at the waist.
The site was discovered in 1956, uncovered by local farmers like the Terracotta warriors of Xi’an, China, then slowly unearthed by French and Senegalese archaeologists in the Sixties and Seventies before being named a UNESCO site in 2006.
Our guide told us that the stones came from a site over a kilometer away and they were probably transported there during the rainy season in pirogs or rolled on logs in drier times.
I took plenty of photos and then we walked towards the now-open gate. Our guide unlocked a small stone shack that held a one-room museum explaining the site, showing some recovered artifacts from graves, and displaying maps showing similar sites in that region of Senegal and The Gambia.
Goats we're playing on the stones under a huge Green tree, plastic trash fluttered in the dry brown sticks of the last rainy season, and we left out the gate to find at least 20 kids and mom's begging for money and candy at the car. Georgia had gone back to the car not feeling well and was being pestered by the kids and mom's.
We drove back and headed south to The Gambia.
We cleared Senegalese immigration relatively quickly (though we were unaware that we needed to pay a 2000 CFA exit toll. I paid it as a group to move things along and then we walked across the border.
Gambian immigration was another story entirely. We couldn’t get Gambian visas in advance as they do not have a functional embassy in the US or any means to do so. The douane said that we needed to pay 3000 Dalasi to enter.
He gave us back our passports and told us that we should follow “the boy” (actually an immigration office NCO with two stripes) to immigration down the road.
We pulled over after about a kilometer and all entered the immigration office, except for Georgia who again stayed in the van with Idi.
I went to back room with Augusto and we explained to the immigration officer that we didn’t yet have any Dalasi and needed to app in a combination of CFA and USD. It took quite a while to work this out as he called his superiors (or a local money exchange friend) on his cell phone to confirm the rates I quoted.
We ended up paying 40,000 CFA each for two of us (Evan and Becky) and then $66 each for the rest of us ($400 total) coming from our stashes of USD.
He asked how I would like the receipt written and if one receipt for all of us would do, and I agreed. He really was quite friendly and helpful given our situation. I thanked him for his help and shook his hand. He asked how long we were visiting The Gambia and seemed disappointed when I said “Only two days.” He responded that he had given us all two weeks on our visas and hoped that we would extend our stay.
We loaded back on to the minibus after the one hour detour and started into The Gambia proper.
Immediately I noticed a few things--besides the signs all being in English--there seemed to be better corrugated steel roofs on the houses and much less plastic trash--apparently least in some areas. That might be because of the wetter climate in both cases, but villages seemed a little cleaner, too.
We passed some cashew farms, plenty of cattle grazing in marshy areas, and noticed many huge mango trees and tall red termite mounds. The roads, though, are not nearly as good as in Senegal.