Into Dakar: The logistics of a journey into Senegal

It’s surprising to many that Dakar is actually closer to the United States than many points in Europe. As the crow flies, it’s under 4000 miles from New York City to the westernmost point on the continent, a 7.5 hour flight from the bustling streets of Queens.

Given the proximity, it’s not too difficult to manage a trip as short as a weekend or use DKR as a waypoint for further travel into Africa. Delta Airlines flies direct from New York’s JFK and Atlanta, while South African also connects from Washington Dulles and JFK on its way south. Tickets start at around $1000.

Unfortunately, Dakar airport charges airlines an outrageous tax for flights departing and arriving during daytime hours, so many flights transit between the miserable hours of 2AM and 5AM. Knowing this, the airport stores and restaurants also stay open during these times, providing solace from the often unbearably unconditioned terminal.

Once you reach the border, you’ll need to fill out a common immigration form and present it upon entry. There is no advance visa or fee to worry about, but you’ll need to put an address on your form, so make sure you either know where you’re going or have a fake address ready.
Dakar airport is also one of the few in the world without an ATM or money changer handy, so you’ll either need to be prepared to pay in dollars or use one of the stodgy money changers that drift around the airport. A fair exchange rate is 500 francs to 1 dollar, so you can expect to get 250 to 400. If you exchange a twenty now, you can withdraw francs from one of the numerous ATMs in the city later.

Taxis (especially from the airport) should never cost more than 5000 CFA in the city, while most fares shouldn’t be more than 3000. If you don’t find a driver that will accept your offer, try moving outside if the airport a bit. Many taxis circle and drop off passengers, and one of these will surely take a reasonable offer. You can give your driver instructions to your hotel in French or just give him a map – chances are, he won’t speak English.

Once established in Dakar (and most likely after your nap) getting around the city is fairly easy by cab. As an alternative, it’s often possible to take car rapides, a sort of minibus throughout the city, but for the casual traveler it’s probably not worth your time acclimating to the routes and payment systems.

Good restaurants can be difficult to find, so make sure that you print out the wikitravel guide or tear out a few pages of your Lonely Planet before heading out into the streets. And while the the tap water is clean and drinkable by even tourists, it’s probably a safe bet to drink bottled water wherever you are.

Finally, observe the practices and patience of a smart traveler. While Senegalese are very welcoming and supportive of toubab (literally “of European descent”) travelers, belligerence and ignorance have no place in this country. Keep your head down, quiet and your money in your front pocket and you’ll have a great time in Dakar.

Into Dakar: The Typical Tourist Trifecta

It’s already been said that one doesn’t go to Dakar for the proper tourist attractions. Pick up a Lonely Planet guide to the entire country of Senegal and you’ll find a book about the size of the Kalamazoos. The draw to Senegal is not in its proper monuments or attractions, but rather in its people, history and culture.

That said, there are a few interesting sites to see if you’re looking for a day of relaxation, photo opportunities and maybe a little hassling from local trinket vendors. Break them up into a few days if you would like, but all three of these can be done in a good solid day.

Ile de Gorée (top photo)

Historically known as a slave trading hub (although the volume of slaves exported from here is questionable,) the island of Gorée 2km off the coast has been restored over the last few decades to pay respect to the ancient industry. Numerous buildings have been rebuilt to historical accuracy, with yellow and red painted walls brightly bordering the perimeter of the island. It’s a stark contrast to the buildings on the mainland, and a fairly obvious pull to tourists.

On the 45 acre island, one can visit the slave museum, history museum and any number of small shops and historical alcoves to piece together bits of Gorée’s past. Walking up to the crest of the island affords a beautiful view of Dakar as well the company of a towering concrete monument of mysterious origin.

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Expect to find a wide variety of overpriced Senegalese trinkets and art on the island, as well as guides offering their service to take you around. Maintain a steady line and you’ll avoid most of the ruckus.

There is also a small beach on Goree, but it’s fairly overcrowded and not a safe place to leave your personal belongings. If you really fancy a visit to the beach, consider Ile de Ngor on the north side of Dakar (pictured above,) with quieter, safer and nicer beaches with attendants and umbrellas.

Entry into the museums is less than $5 each while the ferry for Goree leaves frequently from downtown Dakar.

Pointe Des Almadies

A small volume of tourist-centric commerce has been built around the westernmost point of continental Africa, Point Almadies (pictured below.) One can grab a meal of fresh fish and fries at one of the numerous restaurants then walk out to the pier and take photos near the lighthouse. Afterwards, an artisians market is nearby and on the way home there is even a casino that one can stop in and visit.

Cab fare from central Dakar should cost about $5.

The Plateau

Like Paris, Dakar is divided into several regions called arondissiments. Here, however, the divisions are purely bureaucratic, and the locals rarely refer to their neighborhoods by what arondissiment it’s in. Where government and popular opinon overlap, however, is in the Plateau, the southernmost point of Dakar and home to many of the embassies, officialities and pomp of Dakar.

Here you can scour around for cafés with wireless internet, mainstream restaurants and boutiques selling traditional Senegalese wear, all against the backdrop of street vendors hawking and taxis buzzing by.

The best place to do this is on Ave. George Pompidou (also known as Ponty) just west of Place de Independence. From here you can also walk south towards the Presedential Palace, in front of which it’s rumored that “even the trees hate the President.”

Unless you’re in Dakar during the dead of winter, it’s going to be a rather sweaty visit throughout the city, so make sure you bring a bottle of water and take plenty of breaks. Worst case scenario, you can always jump into the Atlantic and cool off between destinations.

Read more from Dakar here.

Into Dakar: An introduction to cultural interaction

As a travel writer, it’s almost cliché to say that a particular culture has the “most friendly, welcoming people in the world.” In truth, it’s easy to be see altruism and warmth when in that culture-hungry state of mind – even if it’s not at the surface, the brain interprets what it wants to find.

Alternatively, consider the Senegalese in this way: they take greetings and pleasentries to a whole new level outside of the empty cordialities of another country. It’s all illustrated in their greetings. Where many in other countries kiss cheeks four times, or mutter a “good day,” the locals here shake hands. Emphatically. Not among friends or colleagues, mind you, but preceding any physical presence.

One enters into a conversation or setting, for example, by shaking hands with everyone and opening with a “Ça va?” or “How are things?” Depending on the familarity between each pair, handshakes get more complicated and include fist bumps, hand slaps and all sorts of exagerrated motions. Put two large groups together and introductions can take a while.

Children pick up the habit from a young age, grazing hands with those they pass and wandering off in one single, dreamy motion, as if it’s programmed into their DNA. On the street, if a taxi driver is outside of his vehicle you shake his hand, exchange greetings and begin to negotiate prices. It’s almost a cordial declaration of war.

In a more formal environment, walking into a business, for example, one opens with the Wolof “Salama le’koum” or roughly “Peace be upon you,” to which you’ll always receive an “Upon you be peace.”

As a toubab (Wolof for “white person”) in Dakar, one is treated with respect, just like any member of the community. Notwithstanding the adaptation to non-western amenities, the most trouble that a tourist might have is in braving the markets and in negotiating taxis.

Like in many developing countries, market vendors are aggressive and a toubab will pay a fortune if bartering isn’t aggressive in kind. A pair of plastic sandals that should cost $3, for example, starts at $30 in the marketplace, while wooden trinkets advertised at $20 should cost less than $5. Similarly, taxi drivers (especially from the airport) will try to charge outrages prices for journeys across the city.

Bantering with prices is a way of life in Dakar though, and just like a visitor, locals have to argue for fair value as well. Once one gets used to the system, knows the proper price and sticks to it, the bartering system becomes a simple daily routine, and the faster one acclimates to it, the faster one can become comfortable in the culture. Only after crossing this line, integrating with the culture and really soaking in the way of life in Senegal does one really then start to appreciate this wonderful place.

Into Dakar: Inside the tourist’s frame mind

No, there are no ancient pyramids, sprawling vineyards or safari tours in Dakar. Five star resorts neither encircle the peninsula nor do tourists flock into the city to take part in the haute gastronomic culture. So why does a tourist head to Dakar?

It’s true that the capital of Senegal isn’t the cosmopolitan darling of Africa. The busy metropolis of over one million people is a growing creature, a financial powerhouse in Western Africa and a stable epicenter of trade and industry throughout the entire region. Business happens at the blink of an eye on every corner — fruit stands sell plump yellow, green and red mangoes and internet cafes turn over hundreds of clients as decrepit taxis and mini buses fly past in a blur.

Yet throughout the hubbub of daily modern activity, a deep current of culture and history flows. It’s a culture apparent in every interaction, with Wolof and French languages mixed together as friends, neighbors and strangers shake hands and communicate throughout the day. Here, French is the official language, but a mixture of regional tongues bleeds into the population, with many youth speaking three if not four or five different languages.

This culture is what the tourist of Dakar comes to find, a current of diversity, energy and fabric so strong that it teems from the flowing populous. A long-boat ride between the northern coast and Ile de Ngor full of raucous, happy children. Snapshots of a restaurant where a half dozen locals sit on the ground gathered around a deep, heavy dish of searing lamb. The eerie quiet of West Foire at night, as residents sit on cinder blocks on the street and wait for the power to return to their homes.

Tourism isn’t in a monument or a restaurant or a night club in Dakar. It’s inhaled through the air, soaked through the skin and consumed in every visceral way as you pass through the breathing streets, a powerful force just beyond physical contact. It’s an experience like no other.

Check back here for more dispatches from Dakar later in the week.

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.