I recently read a bit of wisdom in The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women that says, “Trips do not end when you return home—usually this is the time when in a sense they really begin.”* Although this nugget was penned over 50 years ago, it rings true for me today.
Five years ago I travelled to Senegal, West Africa, on a backpacking trip with my sister, Carmen Phinney. I’m often asked if I would return. At first, my response was “No, never.” More recently I found myself saying, “Maybe.”
Let me backtrack; join me on part of my journey.
It is mid afternoon. Sweat oozes from every pore of my 60-year old body. Using the bottom of my T-shirt, I wipe my face, only to smear a day’s worth of sand and grit across by brow.
I look at my sister and we exchange weak smiles that imply, “We’re almost there.” There—meaning the Bonaba Café, a campement on Lac Rose, a salt lake in Senegal. Campements usually consist of small cement huts with thatched roofs. Inside is a wooden frame with a foam mattress. There may or may not be mosquito nets, the door may or may not lock and the plumbing may or may not work. Matters not. It’s been a long day and we’re looking forward to parking our bones.
Nearing our destination, we slow down for directions and in less time than it takes to sip some tepid bottled water, we are swarmed. Villagers bang on the windshield of our bush taxi and badger us to buy beads, brightly colored pants, and plastic pots. We move on.
Shortly after we arrive at the campement, a man approaches. He insists on taking us for a pirogue ride (a boat made of wooden planks). We’re too tired to argue. There are no seats, so we sit precariously on sticky salt-crusted edges as our self-appointed guide poles across the water to show us mounds of salt on the far shore. Mid way across, he suggests we need a man in our lives. Imagine how well we would sleep after a massage! We are not amused. (Later, we learn that many women from France come to Senegal for sex.)
Day’s end, however, holds a sweet surprise. Although there is no electricity, our hut has an outdoor shower spout that actually works. As I take a shower by the light of the moon, I feel like howling, but fear that our “guide” will interpret this as a mating call. Before I crawl into bed, I place a paring knife within reach.Then I start to giggle. In fact, I get somewhat hysterical. Here we are, my sister and I, backpacking in West Africa. Surely we’ve lost our senses.
It all started when Carmen read an article by Katherine Zoepf in the New York Times titled “Catching the Rhythm of Senegal.” Intrigued and inspired by Zoepf’s article, we did some research; she purchased a guidebook and booked our flights. But nothing we read prepared us to deal with hundreds of talibés (children who beg for their religious leaders) in the capitol city of Dakar. Nor did we learn how to avoid being swarmed; how to haggle for a bush taxi; or how to cope with the hairy drives, often in ditches that were better by times than the roads.
But we did discover that as we got further away from populated areas, the more we could relax and appreciate Senegal and her people. They are resourceful, spirited and kind. They are superb hosts and we were often touched by their grace.
For example, our journey south of Dakar brought us to Campement de Palmarin, a co-operative venture between four villages. We were the first guests in months so it was a challenge for the caretaker to gather ingredients for our meal. Yet he cooked an incredible dinner over a grate of coals—fresh mullet (fish), french fries, and an amazing onion-mustard sauce.
The next morning I heard swish-swishing sounds. A handful of men, bent over homemade whisks, were painstakingly sweeping the grounds. Every movement was like an unspoken prayer. It was poetic and powerful.
I now realize that when I returned home, my first memories dealt with the negatives. As time passes, I remember the positives; they now outweigh the downside ten to one. I’ve also recognized some of my fears and prejudices and can see that when I most needed it, my sense of humour went AWOL.
So my journey to Senegal is ongoing. As I write this, I’m leaning toward saying “yes” to the question about going back. And if you want some tips about traipsing around Senegal, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Reference: Agnes E. Benedict and Adele Franklin, The Happy Home
“Pirogues and mounds of salt at the shore line at Lac Rose (Lake Retba)” The brown mounds are older and less desirable grades of salt compared to the white mounds. © 2010 Sandra Phinney. All rights reserved.
“Campement de Palmarin.” © 2010 Sandra Phinney. All rights reserved.
“Talibé children at a food shelter in Dakar” This is where the Talibé Team (started by Jane Penney, a Canadian Pentecostal Missionary) provides a lunch, some literacy education and basic health services once a day. © 2010 Sandra Phinney. All rights reserved.