Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, January 26


As the end of my service draws near (only 1 year left?) I decided to make a “bucket list” of all the things I want to do, visit and see in Senegal before I kick my African bucket. A list was born. I won’t be divulging its contents, because I’m no spoiler, but I look forward to sharing the exploits one by one with friends and family.

With that said, I crossed something off my list recently. I and a few friends set out to find us some camels. We got in a car headed north from Mboro, picked up Christine on the way, and started to look for an ATM to withdrawal some cash. I should’ve directed us down the road to Thies for this, I have no problem admitting that, but I honestly wasn’t thinking about the easiest option. Honestly. So we went north to Kebemere; the last town before we needed to turn off for our excursion. No ATM and the tellers were closed on a Saturday. The next town up was Louga… and it’s a bit messy to navigate. We asked for directions to a bank (any bank) no less than 6 times. While the driver made comments about our “tour of the world,” I kept telling everyone that this is how great adventures started: lost! But success was had shortly after and we made our way back to Kebemere and then west toward the coast.

Let’s pause. At this same point in time a Senegalese Islamic holiday called Magal was underway. Basically all the Senegalese who belong to a specific brotherhood of worship, and who have the means, make a pilgrimage to a town not too far away called Touba. This is the birth place of Café Touba (chai-like coffee drink) and one of the most famed mosques in western Africa. So here we are, sharing the same road with the millions of people attempting this year’s pilgrimage. To better explain the chaos endured I will say that at some point we passed a semi whose container box had been filled with scaffolding, which was then layered with people. And even more people were sitting on top of the container. I was never good at those ‘count the jelly beans in the jar’ games, but there had to be 50 to 75 people there. I wish that a) I was kidding and b) I had gotten my camera out fast enough for that picture. In addition, the number of near accidents forces me to use more than my fingers and toes to count. Adventure.

In the later hours of the morning we reached the town of Lompoul. This quaint village has nothing uniquely remarkable about it except for its proximity to something quite amazing. After parking the car near the “gift shop” row (read: 5 stands of identical product) we made a few calls, hung out with local children, and were then picked up by our transportation to the lodge. A pickup truck had been converted to a dune buggy with two benches in the middle and a surrounding of roll-cage-esque supports. We hopped in the back and within seconds were off-roading through the landscapes of the northern coastal region of Senegal.

The area is considered a nearly Saharan part of the sub-Saharan region; which is a tongue twisting way of saying the Saharan desert is spreading south at a slow and continuous rate and northern Senegal is transforming. So the further we drove the more vegetation died off and sand became prevalent. Next to a small village of a few huts we stopped the car to let some air out of the tires. This was apparently how we would make it through all the sand without toppling over. Adventure.

A 10 minute ride later, we pulled to a halt near some huts (that we later learned were showers) and disembarked to discover the lodge we had scheduled our excursion with. Past the shower stalls we stumbled into sand dunes. Rolling golden sand as far as the eye could see. On top of small hills or dug into valleys were little camps of 6 to 10 white tents. Large squares, the edges of which were buried under the sand, peaked in the middle at 4 feet high. Inside were straw mats for flooring and foam mattresses for overnight guests. We spotted at least 3 groupings of tent villages. Each one of them seemed to have an area of toilets… which were actually real shining white western toilets cemented into the sand and surrounded with thatched leaf walls. Bizzare. At the top of a larger hill were a set of more permanent buildings, one of which was marked “bar”- a promising sign. We were greeted, shown to a matted sitting area and offered cool beverages. Yes, it was astonishing to us that the beers were cold in the middle of this dessert. We sat back and enjoyed the view.

And though that never really got boring, we found ourselves ready to embark on the adventure that is dune surfing. Grabbing an old boogie board and a snowboard without its bindings, we headed for the largest dune in sight. I’d like to tell you that my years of skiing and minimalist attempts at snowboarding were helpful in this scenario, but that’d be a lie. Without bindings I lacked the guts to stand on the downward moving board. In fact, no one had ‘em. But using the boards as sleds on those dunes was a lot of fun too. Mildly less fun was falling off the boards, crashing into the sand, and eating it. But it did make things oh-so-funny. Unfortunately, there was no lift back to the top, so we only made it down a few times each before the mid-day sun roasted the sand dissuading us from additional climbs of the dune.

Back at the bar hut and seating area, we had yet another cold drink until lunch was served. Inside a nearby longer tent were some low rise reed tables and wooden step stools used as seats. We sat down to bread and a plate of shredded cabbage and carrots with boiled potatoes and hard boiled eggs drizzled with vinaigrette. For the main course we had beef yassa, or better known as sautéed onions in bouillon and vinegar sauce with large chunks of pot roast style beef poured over white rice. For dessert we had chilled clementines.

After a quick cat nap back on the mats, it was time for the main event. We hiked out to another dune and got ourselves acquainted with camels. The saddles were oddly shaped metal boxes with cloth linings strapped down to the camel just before his hump thanks to the use of some boating line. Just after the hump a rice sac refilled with who knows what (sand?) was also tied down. As there were 3 camels and 4 potential riders, Christine and I opted to share one of these lethargic animals. I sat in the box and she on the sac a dos. We mounted up while the camel was still resting in the sand. The most harrowing part of the excursion was the rise of the camel. Pushing his back legs up first, we were pitched forward as though on a bucking bull until the camel stabilized and lifted his front legs up, reorienting all 3 of us. Adventure.

And off we went, walking along the ridgeline of the dunes. All three camels were tied together with our guide leading the first one by a rope. Our friend Kenny rode backwards until the guide got angry and made him promise to stop shifting in his seat. Christine kept humming “Mr. Sandman.” We took a plethora of pictures and laughed the entire time. It was amazing. Back at camp we got another cold drink and made a few sand angels. Kenny bought a pillow (insert joke about the “real” Bed, Bath, and Beyond) and we humbly made our trip back to Mboro. “Once in a lifetime” is probably the only phrase that adequately explains this experience. What I’m sure was only a few hours in real time will last a lifetime in my memory as one of the best things I’ve ever done!

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