‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.’ Andre Gide
Did we lose sight of the shore? Not quite but we closed our eyes for a few minutes along the way.
Recently, my son Marlon and I went travelling together in Senegal. We were, it turns out, a bewildering combo. One rarely witnessed, if the reactions were anything to go by.
‘Are you his grandmother?’ asked Monique, a flamboyantly dressed stallholder who managed to verbally capture us on the ferry going over to Goree island near Dakar. She was, of course, more interested in our visit to see her wares – wooden masks, omnipresent bracelets and more. We didn’t go. Not because of the question, but because we weren’t interested in this particular strand of touristville.
‘Are you his wife?’ asked an array of male hustlers. The latter was in pursuit of a sugar mummy. Particularly at the beach village of Toubab Dialaw, which hovers between a tourist trap, a hubbub of djembe workshops and a relaxed environment for mixed race couples. We were entranced by it, by the way.
‘Are you his mother?’ More often and gratefully received in all sorts of different places from the taxi to the beach.
When I got home, I googled Travelling With Your Adult Children and discovered that it is a burgeoning holiday sub-section especially amongst Baby Boomers. There have been articles in the New York Times on this very subject. However, it’s usually families going on holiday together. Not a mother and grown-up son.
How did it happen? This mother and son adventure. Well, my mother died in summer after six years of Alzheimer’s. She was almost 92 and it felt as though it was her time to go. I felt blessed that she was able to let go then before she didn’t recognize us anymore. And, of course, it was distressing. Three weeks before, that, one of my closest friends, Jayne, chose to end her life at 48 because she couldn’t stand living with the torment – it had been 10 months – of suicidal clinical depression anymore.
It was a shocking, tearful time. And as death does, it prodded me into focusing on being fulsome in the present. Marlon and I had been talking about going away on our own. Having a little voyage without our partners. It’s allowed! A new propulsion arrived. Okay, let’s go to Senegal – somewhere I’ve wanted to go since having a ‘flingette’ with a gentleman from this West African country during my year out in Paris during 1973.
Senegal was a new place for me. And Marlon. It is also safe and relatively politically stable. I knew I’d get to speak lots of French. These were influences. I booked the flights to Dakar in September.
In December, I realized I hadn’t done anything other than that. I researched hotels – eventually found one recommended by the Guardian that seemed to be near to the beach. Hotel du Phare. It looked funky, maybe other travellers would be there with precious information. I booked it for four nights and a taxi from the airport to make our arrival as easy as possible. I’m an oldster traveller!!
On the plane in early January, I still hadn’t read the guidebook. My travelling modus operandi – previously in Cuba, Bali, Rajasthan etc – is to book a few first nights and then travel on the hoof with my book in hand and ears open. It does require an intense reading of the guidebook – and over the years I have honed the knack of hotel-hunting by getting to the know the subtexts of what I want and what is there, sometimes I’ll prioritise the location and others the hotel – to get what you want.
Seriously, I read the Brandt guidebook (which I recommend in this case) and one other book – a Senegalese classic So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba – when we were away and Marlon read five!
But I enjoy it. The ad-hoc planning, that is. Be warned. It isn’t for those who desire complete relaxation and comfort. There are errors and not so much insulation from the rough and tumble. When I was in Cuba with my friend Amanda in 2017, there were so many more tourists than I had imagined – a new diplomatic détente with the US had happened – and finding places to stay was tough. I had to try very hard, with friends of friends of our various hosts and speak Spanish as best I could. It was the sort of challenge I like.
Funnily enough. when we arrived at the aforesaid Lighthouse Hotel in Dakar, we were both ill with British colds and coughs, and there was a disco for 18-20 year olds going on!! Not the ideal. And the hotel had style but not much organization. Towels were difficult to obtain. We were paying £60 a night so I wasn’t impressed.
But the location in Mamelles – which is dusty but leafy too – near the sea was perfect. Yes, mamelles does mean breasts, it refers to the two hills in the area. One of which has the 19th-century French lighthouse – it is still used – on it.
Immediately, we discovered just how French Senegal still is. Baguettes and croissants for breakfast, the currency is tied to the Euro, everyone speaks French as well as their local tribal language and there are gendarmes everywhere too. It became independent in 1960 and the first president, Leopold Senghor, the poet-president as he was called, was all for Negritude – promotion of black arts and culture which still affects Senegal positively today – but also into keeping close links with the colonial power, France. Not everyone agreed with him in the latter respect believing it would hold back its evolution as an independent African country.
But it’s sandy. It is the Sub-Sahara. And Dakarois take the biscuit when it comes to knowing how to sport their often jaunty boubous and hats. With so much grace and attitude. It’s not a strut, just relaxed pride. Even at the bus stop. There would be those attractively clashing stripes for the men plus maybe a trilby, and the architectural headscarves for the women in yellows and oranges. No pastels here.
Big news. We made it to see Yousn’dour. He is the superstar Senegalese singer and musician who did that amazing duet Seven Seconds with Neneh Cherry in the early 80s. It sold millions. Marlon noticed he was playing locally with his band Super Etoile. So we made our way over there, through traffic jams and desert dust and managed to buy tickets.
We thought we were arriving reasonably late at 9pm, in other words, he might come on soon. Four hours later, a whole host of Senegalese pop stars had appeared but not the man himself. And we were standing! This was a mistake. As we bought the tickets, it wasn’t obvious that there was a choice. We wondered why the seats were all empty – perhaps he’s not as popular as he used to be, haha – and then three hours later, they began to fill up. Some people knew something. There was a dazzling array of sparkle on display, ‘selfies’ were de rigeur and Nicky Minaj seemed to be the main inspiration for the women.
However at 1am, this outdoor venue, which was now packed – erupted. The atmosphere was one of deep personal love. Everyone knew all the lyrics and sang along. There was much swaying and boogying. Yousn’dour’s voice is plaintiff, electric, devotional. I couldn’t help falling in love myself.
By 2 pm – after five hours of standing, we were both tired out –and decided to wiggle our way out, the band was still playing and Yousn’dour’s incredible voice unified the crowd. In fact, as we departed, groups of young people invited us to dance in their circles. Of course, you know which one of us took up the offer!
‘Well done, mum,’ pronounced Marlon, too grown up to be embarrassed. We finally got to bed at 3pm. Earlier, it has to be said, than the rest of the crowd.
There was also the trip to Goree island – the notable encounter with Monique – which has the UNESCO heritage site, La Maison des Esclaves, visited by world leaders from Obama to Mandala. This is one of the places where thousands of Senegalese people who had been captured as part of the Atlantic slave trade – were deported to the Americas. There were dungeons, places of torture for the recalcitrant, and the final doors where they stepped out to either death at sea or servitude. 33,000 people and children were trafficked from Goree over a 300 year period from the 15th century. This was just from this one port in Senegal. There were at least four more.
The information is mostly in French, and I did my best to translate. One of the shocking bits was that a woman ran the place for a long time from 1776. Anne Pepin was a signare and a metis – she was the child of a Senegalese mother and French man, and she herself was in a relationship with a French aristo – and in Senegal it was common for the signares to be the interface between the slaves, the traders and the colonial power. This was a clever move, in their terms.
We learned how Africa was weakened by this trade, how their cultivation was severely affected by all these tribal growers being captured and trafficked. Whole families were taken. It is dark reading matter but essential for understanding the bigger colonial picture and the shame of it. We were moved and reflective afterwards.
Toubab Dialaw – about an hour and a half by taxi south – is by the sea and our next destination. I confess that an important part of my travel vocabulary these days – is hire a taxi to get to the next place. In the 80s and 90s, and even ten years ago, I was still getting local transport. I have passed through that stage! The roads are crazy in Senegal, the driving is ‘organic’, and there are a lot of accidents. I have to say my 30something companion didn’t seem to mind this choice either.
The guidebook describes TB as bohemian and teaming with artists!! I booked into Sobo Bade, which was designed by Haitian artist and architect, Gerard Chenet. It has turrets and towers, – Gaudi and Dali were on his mind – there are mosaic crescendos. It is a marvel. Turns out that Mons Chenet is 87 and still lives in one of the rooms. I tried to meet him. Unfortunately, he was sleeping every time I enquired. But we did get to stay in a thatched turret overlooking the sea.
The first artist we met, was Picasso. Naturally. On the beach with his paintings. Turned out he was the younger brother of Picasso after all. We were assailed every time we hit the beach – with the Senegalese terranga. In other words, welcome. Which often translates as ‘Come and see my paintings’.
Toubab Dialaw was fascinating. Crafts salesmen but an empty beach, French tourists, super duper contemporary homes, and shacks beside the sea selling Yassa Chicken, one of the most popular local dishes with onion gravy. It is a winsome mishmash.
It is a mixed race couple hot spot. There are the couples that I assume have met, for instance, in France. A Senegalese man with a French woman. And then there is the pervasive boyfriend trade – which comes in different forms. The offer to be a boyfriend for the day with sexual services thrown in. I happened to be reading in one of the hotel’s hammocks when the-younger-than-my-son security guard showed himself eager to visit the Sine-Saloum Delta with me. Expenses paid of course. I didn’t take up the offer.
Later that day – we went off for an afternoon visit the amazing Theatre d’Engouement, a magical location, theatre plus rooms, swimming pool and off the wall sculptures also created by Mons Chenet, for performances and festivals – we found ourselves being consciously lured into a crafty shop. It had some Malian wall hangings that I liked the look off!
Well, Bad Boy was eye-catching at first. With his haphazard, stylish dreadlocked side ponytail. The father of all Sufi neck pieces – we are about to learn that he’s a Baye Fall which means he belongs to the Mouride Sufi Muslim brotherhood that is known for their mostly liberal ways – which features a photo of his spiritual guru on a very thick leather cord. It is a fuck off spiritual accessory, to say the least.
We’re offered mint tea and we accept. There is much pouring. To create a decent head of foam. A young Danish woman comes in and is obviously partnering up with one of the Baye Fall brethren because she’s just been to Touba, their holy city and is full of it.
Before I can mention Mali and fabric, Bad Boy has gone all spiritually soppy on me. He gazes into my eyes as though he is seeing a woman for the first time. I have to say they are rivered with red. ‘You must come with me to Touba,’ he announces as though I have no say in the matter. ‘You’re my Yaye Fall.’ There is an absolute nature to his tone. I give Marlon a nudge and we beat a gentle retreat while waving at Tiffany in New Orleans on one of the other guys’ phones. Oh the joy of craft shops.
I must say I hadn’t been expecting this kind of attention. We’re both bemused.
Although less so when a very drunk dreadlocked gentleman leers and lurches up to me in the pitch black later that evening. For a moment, – and it’s the only moment on our entire trip – I’m frightened. We walk rapidly in the other direction.
Our next stop is Joal-Fadiouth, which is at the beginning of a new greener landscape around the Sine-Saloum Delta. And so many spiky, remarkably shaped bulbous baobab trees. Regarded as sacred in Senegal, they have many healing properties as well as fruit for juice and oils. They are wonderful as they mark this desert so undeniably.
Hmmm, our auberge is in a great location in that it looks out onto the water and the mangroves. In the morning, we spot several pied kingfishers in black and white, bloody great pelicans, sandpipers, cormorants, elegant herons and whiter than white great egrets. As Marlon remarks. ‘ They all have their different methods for killing, some stay still, others dive, the sandpiper gets hold of a crab and knocks it about until it dies.’ It’s quite a massacre at 7am the next morning.
We loved the location. The room and services less so. The room had strip lighting and basically no running water. We were supposed to tell them when we wanted water and they would turn on the pump. However we had one whole day without any water. Let’s not talk about flushing the toilet. Why didn’t we leave? Because we really liked the river and the staff, and this is an adventure after all.
Leopold Senghor, the first president grew up so we went along to his old house. Lots of fading photos and dense French text on the walls. However, the only employee who was called Stephane – Senegal is 92 % Muslim but those French missionaries did their job well down here and there are Catholics including Stephen and the Senghor family. Now Stephane was a hoot, which is just what was needed.
‘Don’t go in that room,’ he warned, ignoring my post-menopausal status. ‘It is dangerous. It’s a baby factory. Senghor’s father had 43 children with five different wives.’
It turns out that Leopold was child number 21 by the third wife. So often we laughed out loud in our Senegalese encounters. Stephen did a brilliant comedic turn.
Fadiouth is the famous shell island – over hundreds of years, cockle shells were discarded here– and is connected to Joal by a footbridge. You have to take a guide to go over there. We did but in comparison with Stephane, he was so on script we were quickly bored and doing our own thing.
Mostly goats are the ubiquitous animals in Senegal but here it’s pigs and piglets. Catholic, you see. There is also conch meat and stingrays out drying, not to mention a woman chopping the hammer off a hammer head shark and then doing a little dance to show how it moves in the water. More masks and bracelets to be avoided. Marlon did however buy a bag of dried cockle meat for his dad – we’re not together but we’re friends – to cook up one of his spicy stews on our return.
The star visit is to the graveyard. Surreal with shell hills, crosses lie on one side and moons on the other. Muslims and Catholics lie here together. There are even the ashes of a Black-American who discovered her ancestors came from here and wanted to be flown back.
Joal is poor. It’s a fishing village with dozens of brightly painted pirogues on the beach amongst the mountains of detritus. It’s a challenge and also needs to be seen. There’s the smell of sewage and the water problem. But there’s also the spirit of community, people sit outside their family compounds cooking fish, drinking mint tea and chatting.
One of the hotels – Hotel de la Plage – is mentioned in my book but looks closed. We wander in.
Giles, the eloquent caretaker, tells us what happened. Climate change is raising the water levels, the sea is coming much further in, it has broken up all the front of the building and the swimming pool looks as though it’s been hit by a tsunami. It’s for sale but no-one is going to buy it. This really is the world changing right in front of us.
There’s also a tourist crisis. We really don’t see many tourists in Senegal and certainly not one British one. Giles explains that the Ebola, increased prices and the financial crisis have deeply affected tourist numbers.
After a big heartfelt send-off – they were really sweet people – from the auberge without water, we are on our way further into the delta.
Faoye is a rural community on the north of the Sine-Saloum Delta. When we arrive, we can’t believe our luck.
Oh Lordy, this is an idyllic spot. After the chaos and dirt of Joal, this is a row of thatched cottages on stilts, which looks onto a vast expanse of water with salt plains at the side. It is simply magnificent. We exclaim a lot in disbelief. As usual, we are the only visitors.
And there is running water. No electricity but that is part of the treat. Early to bed and early to rise. Keeping to those rhythms of nature. Now we are in dream holiday land. It isn’t an expensive luxury eco-lodge but rather an encampment created by a Spanish NGO, which is run by members of village and the profits go to the community too.
The food is cooked by Khady who often has her third child, eight-month-old Mohammed, strapped to her back. Fish, chicken, beef. Simple tasty fare but it would be tough for a vegetarian, as would most places in Senegal. As the sun goes down, villagers arrive with their goats and horses to wash in the delta. Horses are very much part of the transport system in these parts.
We could easily have stayed a week but we just had two days. The next morning we go out with a local fisherman in his leaky boat. There were some initial difficulties. The engine kept stopping as we ‘phutted’ across this vast delta arm, he also decided to pull alongside his mate’s boat, a fisherman with no engine. And I have to add – we were paying quite a lot of money for this trip. £40.
Aminata had also come along, a young woman who was working at the encampment – to help translate. He spoke Serer (the ethnic group here is Serer) not French. So she speaks French to me. She is wearing a dazzling white dress. I am a little frustrated when she points out the ‘cows’ on the banks. It turns out she’s actually a business student in Dakar but the President, Macky Sall, has cut all funding for the moment – in other words because there is an election which needs funding – and the students have all gone home.
Finally, after an hour, everything improves. The fisherman sets free his friend’s boat, we find some mini mangroves and pelicans. And there are the inimitable salt-covered flat islands. These strange landscapes. Marlon jumps into the water, the fisherman buys some fish from friends in another boat. We end up on an island, it could be Treasure Island, we could have been stranded there for days. There is nothing but shrubs, fish and driftwood. No shade either. We crouch under a distinctly unleafy shrub while our ‘man’ makes a fire and grills the fish. They are delicious.
In the end, we are out for about six hours without shade, we got back delirious but happy. I even paid him extra.
Our final resting place is another city – this is four hours away from the delta by car and north of Dakar – but this time the old capital Saint Louis, which is squeezed onto a thin island. Pinks and yellows, crumbling 18th-century buildings with iron balconies – it reminds us of New Orleans, of Havana. There is an ambling, laidback quality to it. The perfect city to stroll in.
I am delighted because we find a big old room with a balcony that looks over the River Senegal, which has great white cotton sheets and fluffy towels, hot water and a flushing toilet. Plus electricity. I appreciate the rough and tumble of cheap hotels but then I relish the opposite. Totally. This is a room we can luxuriate in.
The wondrous encounters continue. We see what we think is a bicycle shop, we go in and it is a bike jungle instead. There are bits of bicycle hanging plentifully from the walls like a host of strange fruit. Ah ha, there is an artist in the other room. Of course.
Meisse Fall – we find his sculptures everywhere later – is the sort of gentle artist that I long to come across. His words have a lyricism that carries them along. Like a hymn to life. And ordinariness. ‘I was repairing bikes, my family always did that but I did so well that people weren’t coming back. I had nothing to do. I became an artist.’
He talks about everyone having a memory from their childhoods about bicycles and how his sculptures evoke that special time. He’s actually wearing a lyric cycling top – he cycles everywhere. There are masks from the saddles and metal animals from spokes. ‘We always say that looks are deceptive but with bikes you get what you see. They are naked. When you see a part in the road, you know it’s from a bike.’
There are contemporary galleries – one near our hotel is opened up by the owner himself, businessman Amadou Diaw who proceeds to show us around his modern creation – local restaurants, old colonial hotels, caleches, and the young fisherman who goes home and records a whole brilliant USB stick of great Senegalese music for us, the PE teacher Joel who we end up going out with. It really goes on just like that…
Senegal – you were extraordinary and have ignited my travelling spirit all over again, – that openness, that trust, that flow to whatever comes along. There’s nothing else like it. The shore is disappearing.
TIPS FOR OLDER TRAVELLERS
- Buy a great guidebook and learn to deep-read it. This takes a little time but reaps enormous benefits as you start to realize what it all means.
- Allow yourselves spontaneity. If you book everything up, you’ll miss the thrill of the new adventure. This means making a few mistakes and relishing the glory of the exquisite choices.
- Don’t bother with local transport. Let yourselves book a taxi and driver. It can all be arranged when you get there. We often did ours on the hoof.
- Pack lightly so you don’t have heavy bags to drag around. Not a backpack necessarily. I just took a small wheelie this time.
- Buy a post-bite stick. They are brilliant at de-itching mosquito bites.
- Hone up on the language beforehand. Gosh, it makes all the difference.