Friday, April 1, 2005

Travelogue on Dakar published in Outlook

For most of us, it is hard to think of the shaded grace of Pondicherry and the hustle of Bombay in one breath – yet these are the two cities that spring first to an Indian mind on encountering Dakar. But our introduction to the city was slow and gradual – like all such introductions should be. We woke up in the morning - it felt very like a summer morning in Delhi – to the sight of an African mama walking across the road, in her brilliantly coloured turban and frock, followed by a mini-skirted professional young woman obviously on her way to work. Breakfast consisted of rolls and local juices, like bissap (deep red), ditakh (olive green) and the whitish juice of the Baobab tree, which is so spectacularly ugly that you wonder how it can yield such delicious juice.

We started our day with a visit to the Grand Mosque – which was shut, but ended up chatting to the brothers at the seminary nearby and eating the most delicious chep-bu-jen, (rice and fish in a peanut stew) in their lunchroom. Several seminarians at the next table dug in with gusto into a huge common plate. After that we walked through the Dakar version of a car parts heaven to a small silversmith’s yard turned tourist market, the Cour des Orfevres. But the far better market to visit is the Village artisanal on the Corniche Ouest, where you can buy your own maquette in white man’s solar topees and breeches, or get home an African babu. Some shops also sell masks and paintings. Once out, you walk down the boulevard looking out to the sea on one side, skirt large sofas and tables which are being sold on the pavement, and look west to residential streets with children playing, women washing clothes and old men smoking. Taxis come by frequently, and are a fairly cheap mode of travel within the city. But you need to bargain, as for everything, and French is the only language you can do it in.

If India - both government and people - had been more pro-active, one could have done it in Hindi. Some several hundred Senegalese are members of Indian film fan clubs, with names like Rafi ke log, Rafi ke khandan, Yar aur Pyar, Lata Mangeshkar troupe St. Louis, Bharat ki Khusboo and Phool Chandan. One of the oldest, Les Amis d l’Inde, was founded in 1966 and has 350 members. None of them have ever been to India, but they eat Indian food, wear sarees and have filmi dance competitions. They even know that old Hindi film songs are better than new ones. One person spoke perfect Hindi, which he had learnt entirely from films. The Indian embassy gives them small grants and a supply of film magazines, but a cultural centre and Hindi language classes would do wonders for India here.

But Senegal has its own cultural scene, which is quite as exciting. Our breakfast room at the Ganale doubled up as a bar at night, with stools whose legs ended in high stilettos. Most of the live concerts though begin around ten pm or later, and if you want to hear Youssou N’Dour, or Assane Ndiaye, you might have to shell out quite a bit.

During the day its hot, but by evening a sea breeze sets in, and on the Ile de’ Goree, its positively cold. This charming little island, a ten-minute ferry ride away from Dakar, has no traffic, and its pebbled paths wind through sandy streets lined with old colonial bungalows. The Maison des Esclaves – where slaves were brought from the mainland and kept before they were shipped off to America is a bare brick-red building, and even the dungeons beneath give little sense of the terrors with which it was once associated. The white traders who lived in spacious quarters above (now containing exhibits in a glass case), however, presumably felt no squeamishness even then. When we were there the island was taken over by children cheerfully marching up and down to the sound of a band in preparation for Senegal’s national day. The road from the ferry through the island culminates in a hill top monument to soldiers of the world wars – the Allies used many Senegalese, like Indians, as cattle fodder. But the space on the hill is relaxed and I sat for hours listening to one of the local men play a drum duet with two of my colleagues. The inside of the buildings are delicious, with deep yellow or rough whitewashed courtyards, palms, orange trees, and pink bougainvillea running amok. Try and stay in one of the guesthouses here – even with loads of tourists during the day, it’s a mellow place, and at night, or early morning, its very beautiful.

If you want to get out and really see the beaches though, take a taxi from Dakar to what is now almost a suburb, but is technically the city of Yof. To enter the compound of the mausoleum of Saidi Limamou Laye, founder of the Layen brotherhood, for which Yof is famous, you have to walk barefoot across the burning sand, so try and find another route to the sea, even if you have to walk on fish bones. But once at the beach, and in the company of kids cavorting in the sea, donkey carts going past, and a fishing village at the corner, it is hard not to spend hours standing at the beach gazing at the Atlantic as the ocean's icy waters flow in and out around you.