OK, we’re definitely getting off the primary tourist trail here. Saint-Louis is a crumbling old French colonial town, actually the first French town in West Africa and thus a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s mostly on an island with a little bit of tourist infrastructure, close to a couple of national parks. It’s sufficiently off the tourist grid that there’s almost no English spoken here. As a former French colony, French is widespread – a grade school we stopped by is taught entirely in French – so Mark got plenty of practice.Basically we wanted to see more of Senegal than just Dakar and the beaches to the south, so here we are. In no small part it’s an experiment to see if we can enjoy – not just survive, but enjoy – travel that’s not so easy or comfortable. Three days later and yeah, we can enjoy it. Don’t need to do a lot of it or necessarily all that often, and it helps knowing we have a couple weeks of nice beaches after this. But we enjoyed Saint-Louis.
First, though, on the way north to Saint-Louis we took a detour to see Lac Rose, a shallow lagoon with a salt content that’s supposedly 10 times that of the ocean and that somehow gives the water a pinkish hue. It’s listed in Lonely Planet as one of the top seven highlights of Senegal, so it must be good, right? Well … let’s just say I was glad we didn’t go too far out of our way to see it. To be fair, Lonely Planet says it “can only be enjoyed when the light is right.” Presumably it wasn’t right during our stop. And that makes the top seven sights for Senegal!
Then it was on up to Saint-Louis. Impressions? Dusty. Really, really dusty. The town is right on the Atlantic coast, but except for the relatively cool temperatures, it felt more desert-like. The sand was just everywhere, in the air, on the streets, on your clothes, in your lungs. And it is most definitely a poor, crumbling town. Goats walking around everywhere, tiny little desolate stores, kids with old ragged clothes. Buildings all but falling down, except for the ones that had fallen down. At one point we walked from our comparatively upscale neighborhood into the more traditional fishing village area and that was really, really poor and dirty and smelly, with trash everywhere.
We stayed in the nicest hotel in town, running at about $73 a night. When I say wood floors, don’t think polished or shiny or anything; they were planks. It had an AC unit, but after a couple hours it would start dripping heavily – water just running, really – so we couldn’t use it all night. The breakfast that was included consisted of bread, butter, jam, and coffee or tea. No complaints, though: for $2.50 you could get a couple fried eggs to go with it, so we survived.
Still, there was a lot to like. It felt like a genuinely safe place, and we didn’t have any issues at all walking around. People wanted to sell us stuff, but they weren’t too pushy and sometimes they were downright friendly. It’s fun just walking around the town, watching life play out. You could walk from end to end on the island in maybe an hour, so it was a manageable place.As in Dakar, we were honestly surprised and impressed by the food. The first day we got into town mid-afternoon and went right to a restaurant suggested by the guy working at our hotel. They pointed to a table and asked “Chicken or fish?” OK, that makes perusing the menu easy. I took chicken, Mark took fish, and they were both great; not just really good, but great. Mine was something like a Jamaican jerk chicken with a great onion sauce, the traditional Senegalese sauce. Along with a couple glasses of perfectly acceptable rosé wine and you have yourself a fine lunch.
Other meals were notable, too. There’s a Chez Peggy restaurant run, not surprisingly, by Peggy, a French native who somehow landed here. (She was visiting with friends the night we stopped so never got to ask her.) The food was great there, too, including the steak tartare, which seemed a little – OK, a lot – risky in the depths of Africa. But I figured hell, she’s French, she knows what she’s doing. And right in our hotel was a tapas restaurant whose proprietor was an honest-to-God Spaniard. Again, some great food including a bowl of gazpacho that was just about perfect.
The main outing was a trip out to the Oiseaux du Djoudj National Park, a huge bird sanctuary. It was a long ride out there, but to be honest we didn’t see many interesting birds. Thousands of pelicans and a lot of cormorants. A few warthogs and even some crocodiles, but the fun was mostly just riding in the boat with a few other tourists enjoying remote Senegal.
From Saint-Louis we had arranged for the same driver who took us up here to take us back to Dakar, where we’re catching a flight to the beaches in the southern part of the country. (Because The Gambia separates northern Senegal from southern Senegal, you can’t just drive down there.) He was to pick us up at 10 so we’d have plenty of time in the sometimes horrible traffic near Dakar to catch our 6:00 PM flight, but when we got up I asked Mark “Do we have his phone number in case he just doesn’t show up?”Sure enough, 10:00 comes and there’s no driver. Mark has someone at the hotel call and he explains that there was some problem and he wasn’t going to make it up there. Yikes! Fortunately, in a poor country like this there’s always someone willing to drive you wherever you want to go, so we ended up in a nicer car with a driver who charged us less. That’s rolling with the punches.
And as promised, the traffic getting into Dakar was absolutely horrible. We’d been flying down the coast for a few hours and were wondering what we were going to do with all the time we’d have waiting in the airport when traffic just suddenly came to a halt. Dead stop. Over 90 minutes or even longer we might have traveled a mile. Maybe. At one point the driver tried a side road, but that wasn’t moving either. And then, suddenly, after maybe two hours the traffic opened up so we could get to the airport in time for a two-hour delay in our flight. Ugh.
We’re still enjoying Senegal but I’m just glad that for several days after we get to the beach we don’t have any travel scheduled.