"Our tour guide told us that tourism here was huge until ebola and then the whole industry just collapsed. Hotels closed, cruise ships stopped coming…it just died." - SAS student
Ebola. During the entire ebola crisis Senegal had one case. It was an airline passenger who had contracted the disease while visiting another country. Senegal has not had a single case of ebola that originated within its borders and yet, thanks to the sensationalism of the international news media and a general worldwide ignorance of geography, its once growing tourism industry slowed to almost nothing.
Dakar is full of empty hotels, abandoned information booths and postcards stands stocked with yellowing pictures of brightly dressed women and peaceful beaches. It is not, however, quiet. Dakar does not stop. The streets are rivers of taxis and people; the sidewalks are more often than not used as parking spaces. Even at night, when the streets are dark, quite literally as it seems at least half of the street lights do not work, people are moving about, everyone has some place to go or to be.
On our first ventures into the city we were met with aggressive "tour guides" and taxi drivers. When we made our way into the city we were followed by people asking for money, or pushing sunglasses, CDs, candy, anything we might possibly buy in front of us. It was overwhelming to many, and to some frightening. The first evening in port is usually rather quiet as people head off on overnight trips or out for a dinner off ship, but that night the dining room was more full than I'd yet seen while we were in port.
I had experienced the pushiness of vendors in the markets of Casablanca and Marrakech, but there I was one tourist among thousands of others. If I said no or walked past a vendor's stall they quickly turned their attention to the next person. Here though tourists are few and sellers seem loath to let you walk away.
Had my visit been restricted only to Dakar I'd have left Senegal with a sad and poor impression of the country. Outside of the city though, things are quieter, slower. Village markets are full of food stands rather than items meant to appeal to tourists, though in the places where visitors are likely to spend time, you will find vendors with baskets of bracelets, dresses and sand paintings seem to materialize out of the heavy, humid air.
My journey outside of the city was to visit a Benedictine monastery in Keur Moussa. Here 30 monks from Senegal, Guinea, Mali and France live, tend a large and prosperous orchard and engage in religious contemplation and meditation. It is a peaceful place, even the heat and humidity seemed to be calmer here . There were no honking horns or yelling. Instead the air was filled with non-stop bird song; cooing, chirping, tweeting and whistling from every tree and bush.
Brother John Paul guided us through the orchards filled with grapefruit, lime, lemon and mandarin trees as well as cashews and tamarind. The monks make wine and an array of preserves that are sold in their small store. Alas due to ship restrictions I was not able to purchase any of these to bring home with me; grapefruit marmalade is a wonderful thing and should anyone find a source at home I'd be very grateful.
While the orchards were lovely what I had come for was attend Sunday mass, or rather the music of Sunday mass. Instead of an organ or piano the monks play the kora, tam-tam (djembe) and other drums for the accompaniment. The experience of the mass, with the monks singing, the delicate notes of the kora and the steady beat of the drums is something I am not sure I can adequately describe. It was music made of light, if light had a sound. It was transportive, as I suppose spiritual music is meant to be; I felt lifted into the moment. All else, the heat, my worries about this journey, were set aside and there was just this chapel and the music. I left feeling very grateful that I'd chosen to come here, not just due to the music, but also to see a different face of this country.
Senegal was the first port that was a challenge for me. All of the other places we have stopped seemed focused on making tourists as comfortable as possible, catering to the needs and whims of their visitors. Senegal, with all of its contradictions and contrasts, was different. It was not comfortable or easy; there was no cozy cruise terminal with wifi and coffee, few street signs and little guidance in English. Air conditioning was nearly unheard of. I have yet to figure out where the post office actually is let alone how to mail a post card. I admit that after our first day here I thought I'd never want to come back. Now, on the last day as I write this, I find that my curiosity is raised and I am adding Senegal to the list of places I'd like to explore more.
Tonight we leave for Brazil. We will be at sea for seven days. When my feet again touch land l will have crossed the equator for the first time. I will be looking up to gaze upon a sky filled with different stars. I will also have passed the midpoint of this journey.
I was not able to find reliable Wi-Fi in this port. This should be a bit easier in Brazil. I will share photos, update Twitter and FaceBook and catch up on email. Thank you for reading.