Senegal & The Gambia

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French-speaking Dakar is both colorful and rock-bottom priced

It's when you board the River Gambia ferry that you get the full impact of West Africa's fascination. Late-model Toyota four-wheel drives maneuver around sacks of rice and herds of goats; torrents of humanity carrying burlap-wrapped bundles are costumed in a dazzling array, from crayola-bright gowns to T-shirts and baseball caps proclaiming loyalty to the Chicago Bulls, Tide detergent, and Drexel University. Hawkers sell toys, transistor radios, toothpaste, metal cookware, and Coca-Cola. A thirtysomething man navigates the crowd--tall, regal, in a flowing, indigo print robe seemingly millennia-old in design. As he comes closer, the pattern becomes clear: cellular phones gaily splashed across traditional cotton cloth.

Welcome to a joyous mix

It all epitomizes West Africa's ability to mate its rich traditions to elements of modern civilization, such as luxurious beach resorts and impressive historic monuments--all adding up to an ideal holiday in these former British and French colonies, safe tropical paradises with continental flair. And while exotic, "Senegambia"--French-speaking Senegal (one-third the size of Texas), and thrusting into it, the Anglophone sliver (less than half the size of Vermont) called the Gambia--is also amazingly cheap.

West Africans are warm and friendly, and traveling and eating with them is not just the cheapest but the most memorable way to go. If you avoid establishments catering to busloads of tourists, you won't be treated like one, plus you'll have more fun and help dispel the myth that every American is wealthy.

Travelers concerned about venturing into the "heart of darkness" can relax. Savvy Europeans have relished West Africa's travel bargains for years, and a tourism infrastructure is well established. Styles of accommodations and eating may differ from your norm--especially on a budget--but it's purely a cultural difference. Healthwise, the worst case of traveler's diarrhea I've experienced in 70 countries was in Indianapolis, not Africa. Don't obsess over diseases or AIDS, either; if you're thinking of more than shaking hands with locals, come prepared.

For first-time travelers to West Africa, Senegal and the Gambia are user-friendly choices. Since exploring their interiors is fascinating but time-consuming, it's simplest to make Senegal's capital, Dakar, and Gambia's capital, Banjul, bases for day-trips.

SENEGAL

West Africa with a French accent

A definite aura of Gallic cachet pervades this country, especially its capital--with aromas emanating from patisseries and the elegance of women who would not look out of place on a Paris runway. Whatever high-school French you can drag up is extremely useful, but despite the plethora of bonjours and mercis, this ain't remotely La France.

During your first stroll through Dakar, you'll feel like an extra in a biblical epic. In this city of nearly 2 million people, cultural diversity abounds; you notice swarthy Mauritanian Moors (remember Othello?), Saharan Tuareg nomads swathed in indigo, gazelle-like Fulani, Wolof, and Mandinka in bright cotton prints. Street traffic is as varied as pedestrian flow, as motor scooters hauling a family of five, a few chickens, and the week's groceries weave around taxis, horse-drawn carts, and bicycles.

It's fun and lively, as street sounds mingle with assertive music from shops in competitive cacophony, and smoking aromas from food stalls and exhaust fumes vie olfactorily.

Dakar deals: Les hotels

Even in one of the cheapest places on earth, there's a range of accommodations. Locals traveling here from villages don't expect lodgings to be more than simple places to wash and sleep, and, since you're traveling like a local, neither should you. The camaraderie of smaller hotels and the opportunity to interact with other guests more than compensate for marble lobbies with fountains and mints on the pillow.

The Pacha Hotel (40 & 42 Avenue du President Lamine Gueye, 823-1018, fax 821-4803) is a standard, tourist-style property with a magnificently carved wooden bar; A/C-equipped doubles are CFA 19,200 (about $30; at press time, one greenback equalled 650 CFA francs). The spacious rooms sport African-themed paintings, phones, and generous storage space. Large, well-lit bathrooms boast bathtubs approximately the size of my college apartment--most welcome after a day of sightseeing in tropical humidity.

The Hotel Balanou (7 Rue Paul Holle, 821-6734), near the markets, offers doubles with A/C for $12.50, and breakfast for $1.60. Stairs from a small, unadorned lobby bring guests to simple rooms with twin beds and bath with shower (in Africa, simply a showerhead attached to the bathroom wall). Rooms are clean, the restaurant is cheerful, and renovations are underway.

At the Hotel Massalia (10 Blvd. Djilly Nbaye, 822-9747), doubles with fans run $19.50 and $23 with A/C. Large, quiet rooms are situated away from the street along fern-flanked, brick walkways. They come with traditional-style woven bed coverlets, desk, dresser, bedside tables, and full bath. Security from the sort of crime plaguing any large city is less of an issue here, as guests have keys for the locked gate to the street.

Near Kermel market, the Hotel du March, (3 Rue Parent, 821-5771) has 20 rooms arranged around a cozy courtyard guarded by shade trees and three napping cats. Doubles are $15-$20, with fans (no A/C) and shared baths with toilet and shower--a bit dim, quite basic, but clean.

But to really experience Africa, stay with a family. Head to Restaurant Khadimou Rassol (10 Rue Paul Holle, 822-9341, fax 822-8184) down a short alleyway directly across from the Hotel Balanou. Its charming and gracious proprietor, Mme. Penda Ringaye Mbengue, has space for four at her home in a sandy residential neighborhood a fifteen-minute walk from the ocean. It's a typical African compound: a narrow walkway leads to rooms arranged around a courtyard. One has a private shower and toilet, and another has a television set. It's all exquisitely clean; her sixteen-year-old son speaks some English, and Penda's dazzling smile will make you feel instantly welcome. The cost is $6.50 per person, with breakfast. It may be a bit different from your usual digs, but try it, even for just one night. Really.

"Doing" Dakar

In the city, everything is within walking distance. Most in-town destinations are a $.48-$1.60 cab ride (nonmetered taxis are cheaper, depending on your bargaining ability); bus fare for a single ride is about $.50. Begin with the IFAN museum on Place de Soweto ($3.50), whose superb examples of tribal art help you bone up for your own shopping expeditions. The Sandaga and Kermel markets are the best shows in town--and free, unless you're taken in by hawkers pulling you into their shops. Ah, the sensory psychedelic kaleidoscope of an African market: turban-crowned women with sleeping babies strapped to their backs buying brilliantly colored material, squawking chickens, Adidas socks, cassette tapes, pungent fish, ribbons and embroideries, wooden sticks used as natural toothbrushes, loofahs of rhun palm, spices, Day-Glo buckets, mangoes, baskets of magenta sorrel leaves, bolts of fabric, and tribal gold and silver.

Choose your fabric ($8-$9.75 for 20 feet!) and the market's tailors will make an outfit for $10 within 24 hours. For standard souvenirs, avoid downtown markets and head for Soumbedioune Artisans' Village, displaying fabric items, malachite chess sets and jewelry, and wood carvings. Bargain hard. If you're turned off by "ebony" (i.e., cheap wood with black shoe polish) renditions of Rodin's "The Kiss" and a Noah's Ark's worth of wooden animals fashioned solely for tourists, visit Po's wall--you can't miss it streetside at the junction of Avenues Albert Sarraut and Braconnier (633-3693). Po is a radically cool Senegalese whose wall is a bewildering battalion of carvings from all over West Africa (most not antiques, but good examples of tribal art). When you're tired of shopping, stop by a local hairdresser and have your hair elaborately braided for $4.

English-speaking guides are arranged by hotel concierges and local tour operators; an excellent one, for about $20 a day, is Senecartours (64 Rue Carnot, 822-4286, fax 821-8306, senecar@telecomplus.sn). A cheaper, more interesting option is to contact Mrs. Dia at the English department of Universit, Cheikh Anta Diop (246-370, fax 254-977). She'll put you in touch with the English Club, which provides student guides for $9.70 per day plus expenses.

Do not fail to visit Goree Island, just 20 minutes away by ferry ($4.80 round-trip). First settled by the Portuguese in 1444, it remained an infamous slave trade station into the nineteenth century; the Dutch, French, and British were also here, a fact reflected in Goree's architectural styles. The museum ($.32) is housed in a circular military fort, but its most important component is the slave house ($.65) with its "door of no return," where slaves were loaded onto ships. At the souvenir shop, ask to see the livre d'or (guest register). In addition to Bill and Hillary Clinton's remarks, the comments and family photos from visitors for whom this is a place of pilgrimage are often difficult to read without tears. Caveat: Most tourists are herded through the slave house and museum then plopped in pricey waterfront restaurants, tempting bait for pushy shopkeepers until the ferry arrives. So after you've seen the main buildings, amble along quiet streets taking in colonial buildings and observing the lifestyle of the 1,200 Africans still living here.

Le diner a Dakar

You'll enjoy sampling West African cuisine. Don't worry about being served monkey brains parmigiana, but you may be perturbed if you're hankerin' for a Heineken in a Muslim restaurant that serves no alcohol. As for portions, they're enough to feed entire villages of nouvelle-cuisine types.

Restaurant VSD (91 Rue Mouse Diop near Rue Georges Pompidou, 821-0980) offers a broad selection of steak and fries, roast chicken, and classic African dishes such as yassa (chicken or fish with rice, lemon, and onion sauce) for $3.25; gourbane serene (millet with peanut sauce served with meat or fish), also $3.25; and saka-saka (sauce of palm oil and potato leaves over fish or meat) for $4; VSD also becomes a jazz club at night.

Restaurant Le Point (16/18 Rue Mohammed V at Rue Assane Ndoye, 822-6201) does continental breakfast for $.65; at other meals, starters of salads, shrimp, and spaghetti are $.32-$1.15 and maffe (a hearty, peanut chicken stew) or chicken couscous is $2.40. Meanwhile, Touba Restaurant (95 Rue Joseph Comis) provides continental breakfast for $.56, rice and chicken for $1.30, rice and fish for just $.81, and maffe and couscous for $1.15-$1.30. For a change of pace, skip the relatively expensive Chinese eateries and try Ali Baba's (Aves. Georges Pompidou and Mohammed V) to fill up on kibbe (ground lamb and bulgur), hummus, kebabs, and other Middle Eastern specialties for $.65-$1.95.

An even cheaper option: stop at Dakar's Score supermarket (Rue Albert Sarraut), which caters to French expats, and pick up delicacies for a picnic. Brie is $1.29 a kilo, pates $.84, biscuits $.39-$.95, pastries $1.05, and French table wines $5.65-$15.35 a liter.

Senegalavanting further afield

An interesting sojourn is Lac Rose, ten times saltier than the ocean and indeed pinkish in strong sunlight. Bush-taxi fare is about $1.60 one-way and takes 45 minutes; a nonmetered taxi may bargain as low as $12. After floating in the lake, enjoying a picnic, and wandering among craft stalls, visit the salt factories along the shore; waist-deep in water, women load buckets from the mineral-rich bed, and salt is piled on the shore to dry.

If you're interested in "alternative" healing, visit the Hopital Traditionnel du Keur Massar (Dakar-Fann, 824-6095, fax 824-7703). The decoratively painted hospital, resembling a typical African village, was founded by French physician Dr. Yvette Pares. Call in advance to ask permission for a tour. This is not an official tourist attraction, but do give a $2 or $3 donation per person.

Another delightful day-trip is Joal Fadiout, 90 minutes from Dakar ($4.20 each way by minibus). This fishing village is made up of three islands connected by long wooden bridges and composed entirely of seashells. By the shore, negotiate for a pirogue (dugout canoe) to the islands for around $9.70; the island, housing graineries on stilts, can be reached only by pirogue. Another holds the Christian cemetery, where graves are marked by mounds of shells. The third is the village proper, complete with a market and seashell-encrusted paths and houses. These are connected by bridges, reachable without paying for a pirogue. The nearby town of Mbour boasts Senegal's best beaches.

THE GAMBIA

Banjul, beaches & beyond

With a currency called the dalasi (recently 10.5 D to the U.S. dollar), this tiny English-speaking land provides an intriguing contrast to Senegal, and its beach resorts are heavenly. As you head south from Dakar to Banjul (235 miles/six hours, at a cost of $6.50 one-way via bush taxi), vegetation becomes more verdant, with hibiscus frothing over walls, humanoid baobab trees, leafless branches curved like welcoming arms. There's an innocuous border-crossing jammed with men chanting, "Change money, change money."

A 1 3/4 hours' drive brings you to Juffure, immortalized as Kunta Kinte's village in Roots; from Banjul, it's 28 miles/45 minutes by ferry ($.28) to Barra and an hourlong, $.95 bush-taxi ride to Juffure. All visitors must stop at the compound of the Mandinka tribe's chief, currently 35-year veteran Tako Talia female! (Give her a donation, for the benefit of Juffure's denizens.) I'd expected the place to be a West African Epcot but was delighted to find a typical traditional village. The shell of an eighteenth-century trading station remains by the water, and a boat takes you to the ruins of the slave station of James Island. Down a sandy lane is the home of Binta Kinte, Kunta's oldest living relative, who will relate family history and show a photo taken with Alex Haley. Optional donations are used to help the family.

Unlike urban Dakar, island-bound Banjul has a village atmosphere (nearby Serekunda has appropriated the role of commercial center), and everything is within walking distance; in any case, most taxis run $.47 ghts include the National Museum ($.95)  e bulletin board lists events such as the annual "Roots" festival, lectures, and music and dance performances--many of them free. The Arch 22 proffers a display of traditional crafts and the best bird's-eye view in town, while the Albert Market is a less frenetic version of its Dakar counterparts. Watch traditional wrestling, the national sport, weekends at 5 p.m. at Serekunda's Arena Babou Fatty ($.95). As tribes compete, drummers beat in particular tribal rhythms so spectators know who's winning. Banjul Water Sports and Fishing at the Atlantic Hotel arranges raft rides ($5.70), waterskiing ($19), windsurfing, sailboat, or speedboat rides ($9.50), dolphin-watching ($38), and fishing trips ($47).

Banjul bunks and feeds

Run by three generations of a hospitable family, the Carlton Hotel (25 Independence Dr., 227-258, fax 227-214) is entered through a patio canopied with lush vines and purple flowers; spacious air- conditioned doubles with a large brass-trimmed armoire, desk, dressing table, and full bath are $27.60 (shared bath $19), including breakfast.

Owned by a countryman of Dodi Fayed's, the Princess Diana Hotel (31 Independence Dr., 228-715, fax 394-015) features decor including photos from her awkward teens and a Diana painting strung with Christmas lights. It's a bit dim and not quite at the standard of the Carlton, but its clean doubles are $23.80 with breakfast and A/C (with fan $19).

If you can make do with fans instead of A/C (depending on the season, your own internal thermostat, and proximity to the ocean, you may well be able to), even cheaper options include the Abbey Guest House (38 Grant St., 225-228), near the market, whose very basic doubles (twin beds and not much else) with fans, shared baths, and breakfast go for $14-$19. Don't be put off by the dark flight of stairs with peeling paint that leads up to the hotel itself--the reception area is quite presentable and has an airy balcony where guests congregate; rooms are clean and tidy. Or try the recently renovated Duma Guest House (1 Hope St., 228-381), formerly a private home in a residential neighborhood. Rooms are simple (twin beds, end tables, desk, and chair) but clean and fan equipped; both private and shared baths are available for $9.50-$11.40, including breakfast.

Dining rooms at the Carlton and Princess Diana offer sandwiches and burgers for $1.40-$2.30, and entrees of yassa, steak and fries, chicken cordon bleu, and fish for $3.30-$6.70. The Ali Baba Restaurant (Nelson Mandela St., 224-055) serves standard sandwiches, hamburgers, or chicken with fries for $1.40-$2.40, fish for $3.80, and Middle Eastern specialties such as kibbe ($.66) or falafel ($1.40). The African Heritage restaurant at Liberation and Anglesea Streets serves European and African dishes for $2.30-$4.75.

Beach-bound

The Atlantic coast near Serekunda is home to the Gambia's sybaritic beach resorts--unspoiled, palm-fringed oases such as Fajara, only 15 minutes from Banjul across the bridge to the mainland (a private taxi costs $11.40, as low as $6.70 with hard bargaining; a minibus is $.09-$4.76).

The top bargain is the Leybato Guesthouse (Atlantic Rd., 497-186, fax 497-562), whose charming four-person bungalows include breakfast; its price is $24 in low season (May-September), otherwise $32; for $5 more, you get kitchen facilities, plates and cutlery, and daily laundry service. The beachside patio is dotted with round, thatched-roof pavilions and inviting hammocks in shady areas; a restaurant serves African meals for $1.90 and continental fare for $5 to $7. The owner has a Land Rover and can arrange safaris including driver and guide for about $7 a person. In Serekunda, the Douniya Motel (7 Mussa Dukureh Rd., 370-7412) has doubles with A/C for $26.66, including breakfast.

For a splurge, Fajara Hotel (Atlantic Rd., 495-339, fax 494-575) has doubles for $71, including breakfast. If you're there for several days or off-season, bargain. Features include formal lobby, tropical gardens, tennis courts, pool, and private beach bungalows. The spa offers a 90-minute massage for $19, and bicycle rental is $7.60 for a full day and $3.80 for a half day. The African Village Hotel in nearby Bakau (98 Atlantic Blvd., 495-034, fax 495-042, europrop@qanet.gm) is another seaside tropical paradise: a magnificent pool with swim-up bar, bright flowers along the shell-strewn paths between bungalows, massage service, and bike rentals. Doubles run $43-$48 with breakfast.

Fajara's best seaside eatery is Adidas Beach Bar & Restaurant, near Fajara Craft Market; plates of fish or chicken, chips, and salad run $1.90-$2.40, sandwiches $.95, maffe with rice $1.42. In Bakau, Jaggleh Fast Food on Bakau Road is a bright, cheerful blue spot with similar offerings and prices. In Serekunda, the Diner's Den (Kairaba Ave., 372-360) serves continental, Middle Eastern, and traditional fare at prices ranging from $.47 to $3.50.

More Gambian gambols

Day-trip options from Banjul include the Abuko Nature Reserve ($3), which is 14 miles/45 minutes via private taxi ($4.75-$7), or the craft market of Brikama, then lunch ($4.75) at the Sayang Beach Paradise Restaurant on the Kombo Coastal Road.

Afterward, the nearby Tanje Village Museum is a remarkable re-creation of a traditional African village, which, for $2.30, offers a nature walk, craftsmen, and a restaurant serving only local fare (try the baobab juice). To experience the traditional lifestyle, there are four round huts where guests sleep on straw mattresses and draw water from the well ($12 per person with breakfast). At a reasonable cost, curator Abdoulie Bayo can also arrange for you to stay with village families, attend ceremonies, meet traditional healers, or learn from batik makers or woodcarvers (call 371-007 after 8 p.m., fax 495-546, or e-mail tanje@dds.nl or nyang@commit.gm).

Or consider a visit to the Kachikaly Crocodile Pool ($.95 in Bakau, 11 miles from Banjul (bush taxi $.28). Locals pray here for fertility, and the croc known as Charlie may be petted without fear for life or limb. Then check out the Bakau art gallery and go to Mama Tie & Dye ($3) in Serekunda to watch women working on batik. Take a $.19 bush taxi to Fajara, lunch at a beach restaurant, then find a secluded stretch of beach or go waterskiing or fishing.

Do you enjoy African music, dancing, drumming, and crafts? Sheikh Tejan Nyang (460-638, tejan@qanet.gm) will help you delve where most tourists never venture, arranging family stays for $15-$30/night and other activities for around $15-$20 with an English-speaking guide (such as lessons in drumming, African dancing, or crafts; visits to schools and hospitals; meetings with professionals sharing your interests). Other excellent general contacts: Mr. Saikouba Sisay and Mr. Malamin Ceesay at Alkamba Travel & Tours (tel./fax 202-059, alkamba@gamtel.gm).

West Africa on the line

Preface Dakar phone numbers with 011-221 from the U.S. and Gambia numbers with 011-220.

The Middle Passage reversed

Air Afrique's (800/456-9192 or 212/586-5908) seven-hour New York-Dakar nonstops run $1,120 this summer but can go as low as $937, depending on time of year. British Airways (800/247-9297) also has good service three times a week from London via Abidjan in the neighboring Ivory Coast (from $1,000).

Going the package route, the best game in the business is a five-night Dakar-based package from Magical Holidays (800/228-2208), which for as little as $999 will fly you from New York and provide hotel with breakfast, airport transfers, and some sightseeing.

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