Into Dakar: Flirting with the dark continent

Your first taste of Dakar begins long before you cross the Atlantic Ocean, or even get onto the 757 bound for West Africa. It all starts at JFK, where the direct flight on Delta takes you from the bustling neighborhoods of Queens onto the western most tip of Africa.

Without much of a tourist industry in Senegal, most people on these flights are here for other reasons — visiting family back at home, working on the developing infrastructure or connecting onward to Abuja, Nigeria. Men in traditional Islam garb dot the gate, families with crying children patiently wait for boarding and there is an air of anxiety in the atmosphere — all around the corner from the Relay selling US Weekly.

I happen to be here on my way to visit a friend in Dakar, an archaeologist who just returned from the field in Eastern Senegal to finish his analysis at Université Cheikh Anta Diop. Long ago over beers at home we agreed that I would try to make it out at some point this summer, and running a travel blog and all, I couldn’t break this promise.Western Africa isn’t a journey to be taken lightly though, even for an experienced traveler. While it’s definitely possible to touch the ground, dive into a coach and shuttle straight to Le Meridien, most aspects of tourism in Dakar are far from the norm. Infrastructure is mixed, with some neighborhoods paved and square while most are developing, sandy and furiously under construction. Good water pressure and electricity can be spotty, and July temperatures soar into the nineties.

Alas, one doesn’t go to West Africa for the spas and high thread count sheets. A peek into the dark continent, Dakar is a breathing metropolis, the financial center of West Africa and a volume of history from the French occupation to the dark slave trade of the 1700′s to the current Wolof dominated society. In other words, you don’t go to Dakar, you experience it. Stop by later this week for more dispatches from Dakar.