The Unexpected Delights of Mbour and Somone

Mbour happened by accident. Not the city itself; I’m sure that was planned, at least to some extent (not that you’d know it from the mesmerizing chaos of the fish market), but our visit to it. It was a late-night phone call to my boyfriend Gez, him in Sheffield, me in Dakar, in which we excitedly discussed plans for his 10-day visit, which involved half the country by the time we’d hung up. It was only when doing some more practical planning that I began to think that perhaps getting to the Casamance and back, as well as exploring the entirety of Dakar and its surrounding islands was a tad ambitious. (Having just returned from a solo trip to the Casamance, I can verify this!) After a bit more random Googling and poring over maps of Senegal, we agreed upon Mbour as the location for our Senegalese getaway. It wasn’t too far from Dakar, there were some hotels with swimming pools – after a hot, dusty month tramping around Dakar, Saint-Louis and Thies, I was practically hallucinating swimming pools – and it seemed that there were a few bits of nature around. For us, that ticked all the boxes, and those were the limits of our expectations. The dazzling contrasts in Mbour. Well, from the moment we arrived, Mbour knocked our socks off. First was the hotel. We’d chosen one specifically in Mbour and not in neighbouring Saly, known as the tourist capital of Senegal, precisely because we had no great desire to be in the tourist capital. Instead of the sterile developments of ‘California-style’ hotels we drove past in Saly, we found...

Tickled Pink at Senegal’s Lac Rose

When I was about five or six, I went skipping down the road with my Grandma singing ‘Lily the Pink’. It’s a special kind of skipping dance you have to do to that song, to accompany the rather raucous lyrics: “Aaaaand we’ll drink a drink a drink to Lily the Pink the pink the pink, the saviour of the human ra-a-ace, for she invented medicinal compound, most effacious in every case”. Recently, it was all I could do to stop myself skipping with the all the abandon of a five-year-old who has no idea what effacious means but likes singing the word all the same, when I found myself at Lac Rose, Senegal’s naturally pink lake, where loquacious vendors flog fleur de sel harvested from the lake, spinning promises of its medicinal properties into their sales pitches. There’s always a chance of disappointment when it comes to natural wonders, especially in this age of Instagram filters. Those multicoloured mountains might turn out to be varying shades of beige, while waterfalls which are supposed to shimmer with rainbows and quite possibly fairy-dust, may turn out to be grey chutes of water, disappearing into a fog, rather than a delicate mist. So I was keeping my expectations of a pink lake in check. Perhaps, I thought, Lac Rose might have a hint of some unusual colour about it, but I wasn’t holding my breath. After a bumpy, two-hour journey from Dakar, via the boisterous town of Keur Massar, we arrived at Lac Rose (you can do the journey in about 40 minutes on a private tour, but it costs about twenty times as much,...

The Haunting Beauty of Ile de Gorée

Just a short boat trip from Dakar is a small island festooned with tropical flowers and pretty, pastel-hued buildings. It’s a burst of colour and light in comparison with dusty, hazy downtown Dakar, and its architecture is the epitome of what guidebooks like to refer to as ‘colonial charm’. But Ile de Gorée viscerally demonstrates that there is nothing charming about colonialism: beyond those sweet candy colours lies the island’s dark past as one of the foremost slave trading posts in West Africa. Today, Ile de Gorée is an extraordinarily peaceful place. It was one of my first trips out of the city, thanks to Ibou – my new-found friend in Dakar – and the change of pace, along with the lack of industrialisation, provides some relief from the overwhelming teuss-teuss (chaos and noise, in Wolof) of Plateau. We happened to visit on the same day that a huge religious ceremony was taking place, so in the queue for the ferry, we were surrounded by hundreds of worshippers dressed in dazzling white. As we set sail, people were taking photos of each other to mark the clearly special occasion (Ibou told me it happens once a year) and a particularly jubilant group struck up a sing-song. Soon, the whole boat had joined in, and the singing didn’t falter as we disembarked and the stream of white flowed into the island. But then things grew very dark and very quiet. Ibou led me to the slave house, which has been preserved as a stark reminder of the slave trade which took place here between the 15th and 19th centuries. More than...

Ndank, Ndank: Life in Dakar’s Slow Lane

“In Dakar, you do one thing in the morning, and one thing in the afternoon”. This is the advice I received from a friend before my first ever trip to Senegal’s capital, or to anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, for that matter. It was the advice she’d received from a friend upon her arrival in the city, where she tried to take life at her standard pace, and failed. I have no excuse, since I’d been forewarned, but learning how to take life ndank ndank (slowly slowly) is still a work in progress for me. Dakar is a strict teacher though; there’s punishment in store if you go too fast, but when you go slow, this vast, chaotic city starts to make sense. My first lesson in living the slow life came on my very first day. I was anxious to see the city – all of it! All at once! To go here, there, and everywhere! But Iberia managed to leave my suitcase in Madrid, meaning I had nothing in Dakar apart from the clothes I’d already been wearing for the past 24 hours. So my first morning was spent in Ouakam market, haggling for skirts, t-shirts and sandals of various shapes and sizes, in the vague hope that they might sort of fit when I put them on. But that was the best training-ground possible for life in Dakar. I learned the basic rules of etiquette and haggling, in part from speaking to so many vendors, and in part from the pure, desperate fact that I didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend on clothes, and...

Destination West Africa: Travel Plans for 2016

These are the soporific, lazy days between Christmas and New Year when the leftovers seem never-ending; piles of chocolates and mince pies still adorn every surface; and everyone is in a slightly boozy state of relaxation. It seems like a good time to start thinking about the year ahead, as 2015 ambles to an unseasonably warm close. For me, it’s all about destination West Africa, as I prepare for two months based in Dakar, Senegal. Africa is a continent which has been calling me for a long time. I’ve worked as a film reviewer of African cinema, I’ve hosted an African series on this blog, I’ve completed a Masters in African film, and I’ve lived vicariously through friends’ experiences. But I’ve yet to really get to know any of the cultures or places first-hand. 2016 will change all of that, as I head to Dakar for a while. I’m planning to continue with education and research there, with classes in Wolof (the main language in Senegal besides French), meetings at the university, and lots of time watching films and researching cinema. But of course, plenty of travel will be involved as well. I’ll navigate the journey to Guinea-Bissau, one of the world’s least visited countries, perhaps via the Gambia, and I’ll spend some time in the Senegalese city of Saint-Louis, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m leaving on the last day of February, arriving in Dakar on the first day of March, with everything, except flights, to sort out before then. But I have always been a last minute sort of a traveller. As with all my big adventures,...

Where to Eat in Lisbon

Now, this is no definitive guide to the best Lisbon restaurants. I’m nowhere near hipster enough or in-the-know enough to even attempt that. No, this is more a tale of my own wanderings and feastings around the Portuguese capital, with a few ideas of where to eat in Lisbon. The thing I love about return trips (and to Lisbon I have returned many a time in the last couple of years) is that you have the luxury of shifting perspective, from the big sights and tourist must-sees to hidden museums and snapshots of everyday life, to – finally and deliciously – the food. And boy, did we eat Lisbon up. It’s not that we planned this Lisbon trip around food exactly, but I went with my friend Fiona, and when we’re together, eating and drinking becomes our central activity. We just seem to sniff out the best wine, partake in petiscos, and test out flavours. She’s an incredible home chef and makes her own wine, so she knows a thing or two about those. We were staying in an airbnb rental in Alfama, the old, Moorish part of the city which is a warren of cobbled becos and travessas, and gorgeous, slightly crumbling buildings, many of which house tiny restaurants. The first night, we decided not to venture far, so we wandered along the Rua dos Remedios, where Fado club marketeers waved leaflets, and cozily-lit restaurants tempted with wafting aromas and blackboard menus. We chose Alfama Cellar, enticed by the wall of wine we could see from the window. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a tiny place, with just a...
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