Africa

This was the bar at our favorite Lebanese restaurant in Dakar. Elegant, understated, and associated with great food.

This was the bar at our favorite Lebanese restaurant in Dakar. Elegant, understated, and associated with great food.

I’m kind of a Scrooge about Christmas. Even before we started this adventure, when we were working, the end of December was one time we could get away (far away) and our business wouldn’t suffer. So except for stopping by San Diego last December, we don’t really do Christmas.

Our place setting for Christmas Eve Dinner. That's the kind of Christmas decorations I can go for.

Our place setting for Christmas Eve Dinner. That’s the kind of Christmas decorations I can go for.

Part of the issue is that we just got really tired of weeks and weeks of Christmas advertisements Christmas sales and Christmas decorations and Christmas songs. So for us, Christmas in a Moslem country like Senegal has been just about perfect. We end up hearing Christmas songs for maybe three days in our hotel and restaurants, and the Christmas decorations are decidedly understated. And since we don’t buy things, no presents, either. Instead it’s quiet beach time, some good food, and getting ready for New Year’s.

One of the things we don’t usually like about Christmas while we’re traveling is that the hotels often have a mandatory, expensive, and low-quality Christmas Eve dinner obligation aimed more at families with small kids than, well, us. This year was an exception, though: our hotel in Mbour still required to buy dinner at the hotel, but it was a civilized affair, six courses, good food, and starting at 8:30 PM. Live music from a local band. Then Christmas day we drove up to a Radisson Blu hotel in Dakar and had an amazing Christmas dinner at a great Lebanese restaurant. Soft Christmas music playing, nice drinks, and then it’s over. A brief, pleasant Christmas, like they were celebrated decades ago before it became a multi-month extravaganza.

Except for the tropical beach thing; I suppose that wasn’t so typical for most people… So now it’s an overnight flight to DC (getting on a plane at 2:30 AM is bizarre, but that’s the service Africa gets) and then up to Boston for a wedding.

This is the kind of dish we love. A little octopus, some citrus, and all beautifully displayed. Not a bad first course for a Holiday meal.

This is the kind of dish we love. A little octopus, some citrus, and all beautifully displayed. Not a bad first course for a Holiday meal.

Christmas decorations for sale on the streets of Mbour

Christmas decorations for sale on the streets of Mbour

Not exactly the most Christmas-y sight ever. We drove up to the Radisson Blu and the security was pretty intense, much more so than anything we've seen in Africa. When you recall the attack at the Radisson Blu in neighboring Mali just five weeks ago, it makes sense that they'd step up security pretty seriously. And while he looks intimidating, you'll notice the ear buds, so he's got some music to listen to.

Not exactly the most Christmas-y sight ever. We drove up to the Radisson Blu and the security was pretty intense, much more so than anything we’ve seen in Africa. When you recall the attack at the Radisson Blu in neighboring Mali just five weeks ago, it makes sense that they’d step up security pretty seriously. And while he looks intimidating, you’ll notice the ear buds, so he’s got some music to listen to.

That's a very fresh fish, an equally fresh salad, and a glass of rosé at Cristal's, on the beach in Mbour a day or two before Christmas. You don't need much more than that to stay happy.

That’s a very fresh fish, an equally fresh salad, and a glass of rosé at Cristal’s, on the beach in Mbour a day or two before Christmas. You don’t need much more than that to stay happy.

For essentially our last stop in Senegal we headed back north to Mbour, about 50 miles south of Dakar and the main city on Senegal’s “Petite Coast.” We thought we were going to a beach resort but discovered on arriving that we were about a mile from the beach. Nice grounds and a couple of nice swimming pools, but a mile from the beach. So our lazy days were mostly getting up, walking down to the beach, having a great lunch at a beachside restaurant we loved, and going back to the resort in the evening. Then out to dinner where we continue to be impressed by the food of Senegal.

That's what our days were like. Sometimes it was sunnier, but it was pretty much just sand and sea.

That’s what our days were like. Sometimes it was sunnier, but it was pretty much just sand and sea.

The elegant tables on the beach at Cristal

The elegant tables on the beach at Cristal

The beach is really the reason to come here; broad, wide, sandy, and often pretty much empty. Because one of us is relatively pale and needs protection from the sun, if we’re not staying at a place on the beach we need to find a place that will let us rent chairs and an umbrella or – as is typically the case in poorer countries – will let us have the chairs and umbrella if we have lunch there. So we have to find a place not just with those beach amenities but that also has good food.

We found that in spades in Mbour. (To be specific, the beach area is called Saly, but the city is Mbour, so we’re sticking with that.) Cristal is a restaurant owned by a sweet French couple that appears to be associated with a residential development on the beach for mostly French ex-pats. The tables are all out in the sand with nice table cloths and linen napkins and wine glasses and all that, a surprisingly elegant spot on the beach. The food is great – I’m becoming a huge fan of French colonialism – the service is surprisingly good, it’s not expensive, and during the whole time you’re sitting on a beautiful beach. At one point the proprietress came over and explained to us (in French, since no one here except us speaks English) that if we order our food from the beach chairs we wouldn’t have to wait for it at the table. We explain we were delighted to sit there under the awnings sipping Perrier and then wine. It was a pretty good deal.

And then there were other great restaurants for dinner. One night we were walking in an unexplored part of the town, looking for a specific restaurant that TripAdvisor said was right there. It wasn’t. There wasn’t anything remotely like a restaurant around there. As we were leaving the area, unsure what to do for dinner now, we noticed a gate with a sign in French that seemed to indicate a restaurant, and a doorbell. We rang the doorbell and were ushered into this little French compound with a half-dozen people crowded around a small bar and tables spread around under the trees. It wasn’t the restaurant we were looking for but it was great, and great fun chatting with the owners.

Things like that just happen to you in Senegal sometimes.

Mark next to an 800-year-old baobab tree on our tour of the countryside

Mark next to an 800-year-old baobab tree on our tour of the countryside

Knowing that it would be impolite to just go to the beach everyday – you’re supposed to do something cultural when traveling to new places – one morning we rented 4×4 dirt buggies and a guide to take us on a tour of rural Mbour. Neither of us particularly like motorized things and we were skeptical, but there was just really nothing else that was even remotely appealing, so we figured we’d give it a try. Get out into the countryside, see some village life, that sort of thing.

Mark and our guide rambling through the emptiness of rural Senegal

Mark and our guide rambling through the emptiness of rural Senegal

Lots and lots of baobabs in Senegal

Lots and lots of baobabs in Senegal

Turned out it was kind of fun. You can get out of the city in a place like that pretty quickly and there we were, out surrounded by baobab trees and miles and miles of dry, dusty plains. It actually was interesting and fun, though it might be another 60 years before I need to rent one of those things again.

Except for consistently good food and deep poverty, the thing that will stick with me about Senegal in general and Mbour in particular is just the sand. And goats. Everywhere, constantly. Unpaved roads aren’t dirt roads, they’re sand roads, and there are goats wandering around on them. You go for a walk and you’re just caked in sand and watching the goats rummage around for something to eat. Goats and sand. I’ve been intrigued watching the locals get their exercise on the beach: running in the sand (not on the hard-packed beach, but in the sand), doing pushups and sit-ups in the sand, doing squats and all sorts of exercise in the sand. And then it’s just always in your teeth and on your arms and in your eyes. Sand. Goats. That’s Senegal.

And one more cool memory from Mbour. While there, we received a comment on one of our Cambodia blogs from over two years ago. Someone wrote to ask if they could use the picture at the top of this post for the cover of a book. How cool is that? We answered sure, as long as they tell us when the book is published so we can see it. Mark will soon be a published photographer!

From here we make a very quick day-and-a-half stop in Dakar before catching a red-eye flight to DC and then into Boston for a friend’s wedding, so we’re pretty much through with Africa for a while. We wanted this six-week stretch in Morocco, Senegal, and The Gambia to see if we liked Africa. The answer is yes. It’s certainly not always easy and it has its challenges, but after weeks in Europe this is the kind of challenge we get eager for. Now, when we get to the parts of Africa that the British colonized and the food isn’t so good, then we may not be so excited. This, though, has been a great introduction to Africa.

Mark emerging from inside a huge, partly hollow baobab

Mark emerging from inside a huge, partly hollow baobab

And here we are posing in front of the remains of a tree. Apparently this is what's left after the termites have eaten everything else. Our guide explained that locals break these up and use them for building material.

And here we are posing in front of the remains of a tree. Apparently this is what’s left after the termites have eaten everything else. Our guide explained that locals break these up and use them for building material.

Sand. Sand everywhere. A typical street in Mbour.

Sand. Sand everywhere. A typical street in Mbour.

One more street scene. The building you see at the very end, off in the distance, is our resort; this was our walk to the beach.

One more street scene. The building you see at the very end, off in the distance, is our resort; this was our walk to the beach.

The buildings aren't always in such great shape, either

The buildings aren’t always in such great shape, either

Sitting on a tropical beach in a Muslim country, reading, swimming, and eating, it's easy to forget that it's Christmas. Until you see someone like this trying to sell stuff.

Sitting on a tropical beach in a Muslim country, reading, swimming, and eating, it’s easy to forget that it’s Christmas. Until you see someone like this trying to sell stuff.

Mark with the Jufureh village chief. She spoke no English, but beamed when Mark greeted her in Arabic.

Mark with the Jufureh village chief. She spoke no English, but beamed when Mark greeted her in Arabic.

Oh, we had such great pictures from The Gambia, especially of an early morning ferry boat trip across the wide mouth of the river. It was this classic “adventure” moment: we’d gotten up at 5:00 AM to be driven into Banjul; we would cross the river and then ride back into Senegal for a final week on the coast. We were on a boat with hundreds and hundreds of Gambians just crammed onto the boat with cars and trucks and … stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. You just can’t conjure up moments like that, feeling a tiny part of this massive African experience teeming with life and movement and color and sound and, yes, smells. Mark & I were grinning about the opportunity to experience Banjul at daybreak and Mark was snapping away great pictures of the people, the masses, sunrise over the Gambia River. Unfortunately, those pictures are still on his phone, wherever that may be.

I took one picture of the "streets" of Banjul - The Gambia's capital - as we wound our way to the ferry that would take us across the Gambia River

I took one picture of the “streets” of Banjul – The Gambia’s capital – as we wound our way to the ferry that would take us across the Gambia River

As we were waiting to disembark, you see, we noticed a British tourist we’d met earlier in the week and chatted briefly. She, too, loved the African-ness of the ride, notwithstanding that in the tumult of boarding her husband had been pick-pocketed. Despite that, she insisted, they were loving the trip. I should have listened to her story just a little more closely.

We got off the boat, got to the car that was going to take us out of The Gambia and back to Senegal when Mark noticed his iPhone was gone. Searched his pockets, nothing. Searched his knapsack, nothing. Searched the car where he’d just sat, but nothing. At some point he noticed that his AppleWatch was not connected to his phone, meaning the phone was nowhere in the vicinity.

So there you have it. Over two-and-a-half years into this adventure and for the first time we’ve been robbed. Now, to be fair, there’s a tiny chance he just lost it. Maybe it fell out of his pocket at some point. Really not likely though; phones aren’t exactly like fish, flipping and flopping to get away. Major bummer. On the other hand, the timing isn’t all bad: we’re going to be back in the states in a week, so he can always get a new phone.

Up until then, we’d come to like The Gambia, maybe even love it. Admittedly, it’s an acquired taste; it’s not an easy place to fall in love with.

West Africa, showing The Gambia surrounded by Senegal. Notice the vertical line on the right, the Prime Meridian, showing just how far west these countries are.

West Africa, showing The Gambia surrounded by Senegal. Notice the vertical line on the right, the Prime Meridian, showing just how far west these countries are.

First, a little background on The Gambia. It’s a tiny country, the smallest in Africa in fact. It straddles either side of the Gambia River and, except for the western edge of the country which borders the Atlantic, is completely surrounded by Senegal; the country’s borders were determined in the late 19th century by a treaty between the British, who had colonized The Gambia, and the French, who had colonized Senegal. And it’s poor, really poor. Prior to this, Senegal had been the poorest country Mark & I have visited, but The Gambia is even poorer. According to IMF data, Sengal ranks number 160 among the 187 countries for which they have data, while The Gambia comes in at number 174.

You can see and feel that poverty everywhere. The dust on the roads, the taxi rides for $1.25, the dirty kids in ragged clothes. The sex tourism. One of the first things we noticed when we crossed from Senegal into The Gambia was that all of a sudden at police stops – there are a lot of them along the road in both countries – our driver had to slip the officers a little something each time, something that hadn’t happened in Senegal. Just one sign of a place that really doesn’t work right.

That sense that things just don’t work right is probably not unconnected to the government they have. The Gambia received independence from Britain in 1965 and for the first few decades had a reasonably successful democracy. In 1994, though, a 29-year-old army Lieutenant named Yahya Jammeh led a successful coup and he remains president to this day. He is, by my standards at least, a bit of a freak. After an early marriage and divorce, he married a second time in 1999. Then in 2010, to the surprise of wife #2, he married wife #3 while still married to #2. Strange, by most modern standards. Oh, and he’s viciously and freakishly anti-gay. And claims to be able to cure HIV/AIDS (and asthma) with herbal remedies. A weird guy who runs a country that isn’t doing so well, though they do have one more iPhone today than they used to.

For all the problems The Gambia faces, it has beautiful beaches. It's a shame that first Ebola and then a fear of terrorism has hit the tourist industry so badly.

For all the problems The Gambia faces, it has beautiful beaches. It’s a shame that first Ebola and then a fear of terrorism has hit the tourist industry so badly.

On top of all that, tourism has taken a real hit here. Last year, tourism in West Africa was all but destroyed by the Ebola virus. Now apparently there were no cases of it in The Gambia, but no one wanted to come to this part of the country at all. This year tourism has picked up a little, but apparently the fear of terrorism is still keeping people away. Locals said they’d never seen the hotel as quiet as it has been lately, which is just such a tragedy for people who need those jobs.

Still, despite all that, we kind of liked the place. It was all an initial let down after we’d loved Cap Skirring so much, but we got into it after a little bit. Our hotel was on the beach, so that’s always nice. The place was no Les Alizes, though, so we weren’t going to be happy just hanging out there as we had at our last Senegal stop. Just a couple miles up a dusty road from our hotel, though, was the Senegambia Road, the hub of downscale tourist and ex-pat haunts with some OK restaurants so we knew we would survive. The whites who frequented those places – some tourist, some part-time residents – were kind of a scary lot who looked like they’d seen better days, but they seemed harmless enough. And as we’ve occasionally observed before, Americans are rare; more than one person told us they’d worked in the area for years and never seen an American. It’s a shame, because despite the challenges it’s a place worth experiencing.

Mark with Kazeem & Miranda, owners of a great Lebanese restaurant in town. By our third visit they seemed like old friends. Mark had pictures of the food, but ...

Mark with Kazeem & Miranda, owners of a great Lebanese restaurant in town. By our third visit they seemed like old friends. Mark had pictures of the food, but …

Besides beach time and exploring restaurants and watering holes, the big adventure for the area is to go up the Gambia River a ways to Jufureh, the onetime home of Kunte Kinte, to whom Alex Haley famously traced his roots. I read the book a month or so back in anticipation of our trip to Gambia, while Mark is reading it now, while we’re here. It’s every bit as powerful and even depressing as it was 40-plus years ago when it was first published, and going to the village is just something you have to do. To be honest, it wasn’t a very interesting experience; there was nothing that felt very Roots’ish. Still, steaming up the river was fun and touring the old island where they held kidnapped slaves before putting them on those unspeakably horrible boats to cross the Atlantic – long called James Island but recently renamed Kunte Kinte Island – is worth doing.

Based on the oral history, Alex Haley was a seventh generation descendent of Kunte Kinte. The family is still there in the same village and this woman is an eighth generation descendent. If the oral history is accurate; there is some controversy about that.

Based on the oral history, Alex Haley was a seventh generation descendent of Kunte Kinte. The family is still there in the same village and this woman is an eighth generation descendent. If the oral history is accurate; there is some controversy about that.

This is the modest but interesting slave museum in Jufureh. The last room is dedicated to photos of famous African Americans, though it is somewhat dated. It doesn't include one Barack Obama, for instance, and describes Condoleezza Rice as an advisor to Gov. George Bush. Amusingly, though, it includes a picture of a brain surgeon named Ben Carson as one of those prominent Americans; if I'd gone there a year ago I'd have had no idea who he was!

This is the modest but interesting slave museum in Jufureh. The last room is dedicated to photos of famous African Americans, though it is somewhat dated. It doesn’t include one Barack Obama, for instance, and describes Condoleezza Rice as an advisor to Gov. George Bush. Amusingly, though, it includes a picture of a brain surgeon named Ben Carson as one of those prominent Americans; if I’d gone there a year ago I’d have had no idea who he was!

So ultimately we liked The Gambia. Not sure I need to ever go back, but it was an interesting place with some fun local people. One of the weird things about it is that ATMs dispense only about $75 at a time, and then only in bills that are worth about $2.50. Because credit cards aren’t accepted in many places, and in places that do take credit cards they tack on a three percent charge, we used cash for pretty much everything. Which means a lot of trips to the ATM and carrying around huge wads of cash that just wasn’t worth that much. And naturally, near the end of our stays, stopping yet again at an ATM for our $75 allotment, the ATM just ate my card. Swallowed it and then turned off. Gone. Normally, that would be something of a crisis, because we need those ATM cards but in this case, we’ll be back in the States in a week. We’ll get a new ATM card, a new iPhone, and be ready to hit the road again. Great timing!

Our boat up the Gambia River to Jufureh, Kunte Kinte's home. The river is huge, making it feel more as though you were at sea than on a river.

Our boat up the Gambia River to Jufureh, Kunte Kinte’s home. The river is huge, making it feel more as though you were at sea than on a river.

James Island - now Kunte Kinte Island - where slaves were held up to two weeks before being shipped to the New World

James Island – now Kunte Kinte Island – where slaves were held up to two weeks before being shipped to the New World

Mark standing beside the ruins of the James Island castle

Mark standing beside the ruins of the James Island castle

Sunset in The Gambia. If you look way off in the distance you can see Boston!

Sunset in The Gambia. If you look way off in the distance you can see Boston!

And then it was back into Senegal. This is border control, somewhat more low-tech than what you experience at airports.

And then it was back into Senegal. This is border control, somewhat more low-tech than what you experience at airports.

We passed through one dusty town as the Saturday Market was hitting its stride. Our car there needed some repairs as the bumpy roads had dislodged the exhaust pipe. You'll notice that that most people get their goods to the market on horse- or donkey-pulled carts, as people have been doing here for many, many years.

We passed through one dusty town as the Saturday Market was hitting its stride. Our car there needed some repairs as the bumpy roads had dislodged the exhaust pipe. You’ll notice that that most people get their goods to the market on horse- or donkey-pulled carts, as people have been doing here for many, many years.

En route across Senegal we stopped here for either a late breakfast or an early lunch. This place defines hole in the wall, but the sandwich she made - hungry beggars can't be choosers when it comes to bread and carbs and all that - was really, really good. The French, you see, left their bread-making skills behind, even in tiny towns like this, so the baguette was world class.

En route across Senegal we stopped here for either a late breakfast or an early lunch. This place defines hole in the wall, but the sandwich she made – hungry beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to bread and carbs and all that – was really, really good. The French, you see, left their bread-making skills behind, even in tiny towns like this, so the baguette was world class.