My trip to Zanzibar in January of this year was my first trip to Africa since 2012 but it wasn't the last one I made this year. A few weeks after getting back from the eastern coast of the continent I headed back for another adventure, this time on the far western tip of Africa - Senegal! While West Africa has always been an area I've wanted to explore, I had put it off for so many years because (to be 100% real) my French is fucking terrible. TERRIBLE. I can barely manage a "bonjour" without my tongue falling out of my mouth, so tackling a West African Francophone country was something new and slightly daunting for me.
Turns out I had little to be worried about as Senegal is a tem of a country that overall wasn't too difficult to navigate. Having a grasp of French would have been very helpful but overall I was able to manage pretty easily with English since most people I encountered spoke at least some. Senegal isn't a particularly large country but it is one where logistics and geography mean it can take awhile to get from one point to another, so unfortunately I wasn't able to really get out and see all that this nation has to offer. I concentrated my time in Senegal exploring the capital city of Dakar, the outskirts of Dakar around Lac Rose, and finally the island of Goree which was just off the coast and easily accessible by ferry boat from the city.
To be frank - Senegal enthralled and enchanted me. I went in expecting to enjoy my time and left with an immediately need to plan a return trip. The people, culture, sights, and foods were compelling on a level that I haven't found in very many corners of the globe. I've never regretted a trip I've made to any spot in the world but there are definitely places that standout in the crowd. Places like India, South Africa, and Jordan call my name and ask for multiple return visits .... and now Senegal has joined that list. Clearly my time was focused in and around Dakar but I'd love to get back some day to get further afield, particularly north to the city of Saint Louis, the religious city of Touba, and the sandy southern Casamance region.
New York has the Statue of Liberty, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and Dakar has the African Renaissance Monument. And like any big landmark it has its detractors. Many criticize the statue for being too expensive, not stylistically African enough, too naked for a Muslim majority nation, built by North Koreans, and just down right ugly. Regardless of what in that list I agree with the statue still stands, towering above the city at the top of a hill in what is technically the suburb of Ouakam.
As I hinted at above, Senegal is home to the western most point on the African mainland. Located past the villages of N'gor and Yoff, Pointe des Almadies is a rocky little outcropping of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. The driver that took me to this location had a bit of difficulty communicating with me, so at the time I didn't understand why he had brought me to this little slab of rocks in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. I simply enjoyed the view and the smell of the saltwater wafting in the air and realized later that day where I had been.
I'm not sure how I ended up visiting churches more often than mosques in two back to back visits to Muslim countries, but it is what it is! On my way to the ferry station to take a boat out to Goree we stopped at Our Lady of Victories Catholic Cathedral. The intention was to take a quick look around at one of the bigger landmarks within the city, but there was a large service going on inside. We stood outside for a few minutes listening to the sermon. A lot of women were standing around listening to the service while wearing the same green dress. These two snuck out right before we headed back to the car to snag a quick picture of the event. I figured I should do the same!
I suppose when you think of an "African market" this is the type of image that comes to mind. Lots of masks and assorted carved wooden objects that you can take home to hang on the wall or place on the mantle. Of course Senegal has all of these things though overall I was surprised by how most of the city seemed devoid of visitors and things to sell to them. This stall was located at Marche Kermel, one of Dakar's largest markets. Sure there were plenty of vendors selling things targeted toward tourists but it was mixed in with vegetable vendors and fish mongers. An interesting market for sure.
I mentioned before that the African Renaissance Monument towered above the city of Dakar, and I wasn't lying. One of the places I visited during my trip was the Les Mamelles Lighthouse along the coastline. While the visit was interesting I didn't end up with any photos that I enjoyed .... except this one. It was pretty early in the morning still at this point so some of the hazy and fog over the city hadn't quite finished burning off under the sunlight.
Walking through the Marche Kermel, vendors would often greet me and ask if I would like to take a look at their wares. Much like Tanzania though, if I politely declined it would be the end of the sales pitch. They'd smile and go on with life. Except for this man. After asking if I'd like to buy something today and politely declining, he smiled but continued talking. "Then you will take my picture. No charge. I want to be a model." I laughed and said sure, I'll take your picture. Right before I snapped he stopped me and said, "Wait, let me pose. I want to be cool" and lifted the cigarette to his mouth. True to his word, no charge for the photo. All he wanted was to see the result and give his stamp of approval. "Very cool."
"Fleur, monsieur?" No, sorry ma'am. I don't know what I'd do with flowers in the middle of a vacation. They look lovely though!
The Mosque of the Divinity sits along the seashore at the base of a sharp bend in the road on the way into Dakar. I was told the mosque wasn't open to visitors that day (or perhaps ever?) so instead we drove up to the edge of a cliff nearby and looked down on the scene below. The mosque itself was quite beautiful, but I was immediately drawn to the seemingly endless line of fishing boats that were lined up outside of the mosque by the shore. The geometry of it was stunningly beautiful.
Being Japanese, of course I'm a seafood fan. These prawns looked so big and juicy I was just dying to get my hands on a few. I was kind of hoping I could take them to a restaurant nearby and have them cooked and eat them as a little snack. Sadly I never got the chance to try. Mr. Cellphone wasn't very interested in selling me any prawns that day. From what I could gather, he'd already sold them all and was just holding on to them while the buyer arranged to have it all picked up. Even if I couldn't have the prawns he seemed fine with providing a photo instead.
Fish looked good, too. But not as good as the prawns.
The sun tried so hard to poke through over the African Renaissance Monument on this cloudy day. It eventually made it through, though not for another couple of hours. I kind of like the mural art work of the woman looking toward the monument with the doves flitting about. Almost like she's encouraging the sun to try harder.
Entrepreneurship is a universal trait and the Senegalese are no exception. As you wander Dakar you'll find people hawking all sorts of products and offering all types of services. Want a pedicure? You can get one right there on the street. Perhaps it's not as luxurious as the one you're used to back home, but I bet you the price is quite competitive!
The Marche Kermel sits in a circular building with wide entrances on multiple sides with dusty green wrought iron gates. Much of the interior market is occupied by vegetable, meat, and seafood stalls while there's several rows of wooden stalls radiating outward from the building selling mostly tourist kitsch like knickknacks and tshirts.
I have no idea what this mural is trying to say, and even looking online I had a hard time getting a translation. But it seems to be encouraging children to read more and I'm a big fan of that in any language or country.
Sitting right smack on the edge of the African continent, of course I was on the look out for some spectacular sunsets. Sadly, every day ticked by me with nothing but overcast haze and clouds obscuring the sun as it ducked beyond the waves in the distance. On my last day in Senegal I had checked out of my hotel and was enjoying dinner before heading to the airport when it happened - the sunset I had been waiting for!
Lac Rose is a draw to visitors because, as its translated French name implies, the water has a rosy hue. Well, to be clearer, the lake has a rosy hue in certain conditions and situations. The color is caused by an algae that is prominent in the lake. The algae release a red pigment to help with the absorption of sunlight. The lake is most likely to be pink during the dry season (November - June) and it helps if there's a strong breeze causing movement on the top of the water. I was there during February on a day with a bit of wind so was lucky enough to get some nice pink sheen during the visit.
Another aspect of Lac Rose of note is that its extremely salty. Much like the Dead Sea, people can float on the surface effortlessly in some areas of the lake. From an economic standpoint many of the locals work to harvest salt from the lake for use locally and manufacture/export overseas.
We stopped on our drive back to Dakar in a small town who's name I never received. My driver wandered off to find some snacks for the trip and I was left to wander around on my own for a bit. I was drawn to this young boy driving a horse cart because of the odd platform shoes he was wearing. They almost looked like high heels from the distance and as someone with a lot of drag queen friends I was curious about a boy in heels in the middle of Senegal. He spoke no English and my terrible French just caused confusion. I held up my phone to indicate I was going to take a picture and he nodded in agreement and struck this pose. Before snapping I put my fingers to my face and drew my fingers upward in what I assume is the international sign indicating "smile". He shook his head firmly back and forth. He was happy with the bad ass pose when I showed him the result.
Lac Rose definitely felt a bit more "touristy" than most of Dakar, though that isn't saying much. When we arrived at the lake I could see the vendors set up along the water waiting for customers, though there were really just a handful of them. They outnumbered the visitors two or three to one in most hours of the day. Much of their time seemed to be spent relaxing in the shade or sitting on small chairs near one another chitchatting the day away. Competing businesses for a portion of the day, but friends for most of it.
Here a vendor scans the horizon for potential customers while standing in front of mounds of salt dredged up from the bottom of the lake and set to dry in the Senegalese sun. As you can tell from the look on her face, the prospects were slim.
Even though the salt harvesting seemed to be more lucrative and productive than the tourist sales, most of the boats sat on the shore the entire day untouched.
Two women walk a small boy along the side of the road. The variety and vibrancy of the clothing worn by women in Senegal was quite impressive. Some were flowing and unstructured like the one worn by the woman in the background. Others were more structured and fitted like the piece worn by the woman holding the boy's hand. No matter the style though, the fabric was always eyepoppingly stunning.
While many of the boats are used for salt harvesting, a few are available to be rented so you can go out into the lake to get a different view of life. I skipped on the offer to go four-wheeling through the sand dunes nearby and opted to do the boat trip onto the lake instead. Me and the boat driver slowly made our way out into the lake, leaving the shore behind. With nothing but a wooden pole he piloted us out into the middle of the lake as I began to doubt the seaworthiness of the boat as little pools of water began to form under my feet.
What I didn't know before getting into the boat is that in addition to seeing the lake from the water, the driver would take me to visit with one of the men working in the lake gathering salt. At first I was uncomfortable that as a visitor I was essentially driven up to this man working in the lake to watch him work. I calmed down a bit once we arrived and I was able to speak with him directly. His name was Ahmad and he actually had come from Mali several years before because he struggled to make ends meet for his family in his home country and heard he could earn a good living in Senegal. He explained that most of the people working around Lac Rose weren't Senegalese but rather migrant workers from nearby francophone nations. As you can see the lake isn't particularly deep even far from shore as Ahmad was able to stand in water up to his neck while digging for salt.
Another young man drives a horse and cart through the village on a typical work day in rural Senegal. No high heels on this guy though.
Two women waiting for the bus toward Dakar with baggage. The woman on the left's large "belt" across her midsection is actually holding her baby on her back. You can see his cute little leg peaking out from behind her left arm.
Another view of the rosy-hued water in the background behind the boats. As you can see the advice to go on a windy day to increase your chances of seeing the phenomenon is true. The color really does come out when the wind moves the water.
Overall the Senegalese struck me as a people with great pride in their country, though I didn't see that transformed into the rah-rah flag waving you can often find in other countries with a strong sense of self. The boats on Lac Rose were probably the only place during my visit where I was consistently seeing large displays of the Senegalese flag.
While Goree itself is a lovely little sliver of land sitting just off the shore from Dakar, it has a dark past. The final stop for many Africans prior to being shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade, the island is steeped in the history of colonialism that has left scars all across Africa and the Americas. Pictured above is the Door of No Return at the House of Slaves, reportedly the last door slaves would exit as they were boarded onto ships to cross the ocean.
Despite the island's terrible past it has grown and even thrives in the modern area. The Senegalese have reclaimed the island and turned it into a lovely little slice of peace and quiet in the Atlantic. Children play in the streets, laundry hangs from the line, and musicians quietly strum guitars and hum in the mid-afternoon sunshine.
I put my camera up to try to capture a quick photo of this statue while wandering around the island when this young boy jumped in front of the camera and struck a pose. It's an odd juxtaposition - the statue of slaves in chains while the young boy strikes his best model pose. More than anywhere I've ever been the Senegalese seemed to love to have their picture taken, often going out of their way to ask me to take their photo or simply jumping into the frame on their own.
The ferry to Goree from Dakar leaves several times per day and takes less than 30 minutes in total. The boat itself is a modern affair with indoor and outdoor seating. I picked an outside seat to enjoy the sea breeze and sunshine as we pulled into port and were greeted by the candy colored buildings and this young boy near some empty carts.
A little bit into exploring the island I came across this woman sitting on the side of the road with her purse. My guide was mostly following me around at this point as I am a terrible tour recipient - I like to wander on my own to snap photos and explore vs. be lead from place to place in an orderly fashion. While I looked around he started speaking with this woman for a few minutes and I snapped a photo. Once we moved along further I asked what they spoke about and he simply said "She's waiting for someone to come on the ferry."
Watching you watching me.
Goree was filled with little shops and stalls selling this and that for visitors. One thing I really liked about these stalls was that so many of them were handcrafted with the vendors casually going about making the products while you walked by.
As much as Goree is on the "tourist trail" in Senegal, there were still plenty of times when I found myself making my way through town with hardly a soul in sight.
A little bit of local artwork flair on the side of the wall. The village on Goree is actually quite picturesque. Lots of well maintained buildings (and some not so well kept...!) with interesting colors, features, and architecture.
I never got to see behind this door so I am unsure whether it was a church or just a Christian home, but the cross above the door stood out to me as (other than the cathedral I stopped at in Dakar) I saw very little Christian iconography in the country.
Getting a ticket to Goree is a fairly easy affair. Plenty of hotels or tour booking services will offer to assist you with it, though you can simply head down to the dock and head up to the ticket window yourself. The schedule is posted and so are the ticket prices. Get there early as the space is limited. And it's a bit of a gamble as to whether your ship will leave on time. My departure from Dakar was delayed 45 minutes but my return from Goree was perfectly on time.
The streets on Goree were totally open to visitors, nothing seemed off limits. Except this one little corner of the town where a huge party was going on. Lots of locals sitting in chairs with music playing and food being handed out. Someone said it was a wedding, though I didn't get to see a bride or groom anywhere nearby for the short time I stopped.
Senegal isn't exactly the most LGBT friendly travel destination. In fact, by most measuring tools, Senegal is actively persecuting and oppressing its LGBT population and that never translates well for an environment of travel. I've made a decision to still travel the world despite the poor LGBT rights records of many countries, but that's a personal choice indeed. All of this considered, I really enjoyed seeing this tender moment of two men relaxing after a day of fishing. I am sure it was friendly but the intimacy was poignant.
Not the last photo I took in Senegal but it was the last photo I took on Goree. The same woman who was waiting earlier in the day for someone to arrive on the ferry was still waiting as I made my way to board the boat back to Dakar. Whether she was ever met whomever she awaited that day or not I'll never know.
Well that's a wrap on the photos from Senegal. I hope you enjoyed them! If you've been to Senegal before or have any questions about my time there, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me through the link at the top right corner of the page (or drop down menu if using a mobile device).
And as the final bit of traditional, I've spliced all of these photos into a montage video as well. Feel free to enjoy the music and photos again by playing the video below.