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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.