Cooling down in Casamance

 

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I crawled out of Niokolo-Koba national park like Wile E. Coyote crawls out of a smoking crater. I’d avoided crippling sunburn by wearing long sleeves and pants despite 110º heat. The four days I’d spent hiking through burnt-over forest had left me coated in ash. I resembled a grilled fish.

Besides the heat, I was having a great time overall. I was sad to leave my friends at Campement du Lion after such a short time. When the park ranger dropped me off on the main highway it was with an air of never wanting to see my face again. But after driving off he pulled a U-turn and came back toward me.

“You’ll never catch a lift in this place; I might as well drive you to the next town.” He drove me another 5km and refused any sort of payment.

At a busy little roadside town I went on a mission to find the bottle of Pomme (apple soda) which I’d been hallucinating about for days. It was lukewarm and disappointing. I sat on a bench making a mess of a baguette and a bag of mangoes. I got into a conversation with a Catalan who’d just bicycled there from Casablanca, and Niokolo-Koba was going to be his finishing point.

“Congratulations on almost finishing,” I told him, “but I think you’ll find the Gambia was more impressive.”

His stories were really inspiring. Although he had a tent, he’d been hosted almost every night by a Senegalese family. This made me realize my vacation was half over and time was running out to really get under the skin of the country. So far I’d had contact with nobody outside the tourism industry.

Worse still, I’d only just now discovered that mangoes were at their peak ripeness and cost less than a dime. I’d have to spend my remaining week making up for lost mango-eating time.

It took me two days to get into Casamance. Sharing a taxi with a Peace Corps volunteer did me good; hearing the perspective of someone who was in Senegal with a real purpose helped me to take my own objectives less seriously. I felt as though I put my foot in my mouth more than once during the conversation. From that point, I’ve tried to use very reserved language when talking about cultures alien to me (which should be evident in this series of blog posts). Meeting her left me wishing I could conduct myself with as much finesse in life as a PCV can in the chaos of a Senegalese bus station.

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Once in Ziguinchour, I slipped back into dissatisfaction. Casamance was beautiful, and I wanted to spend a lot of time here. But to get back north for my return flight would eat up half of my remaining time. The obstacle was Gambia, which, much like the wrought-iron fence at the Dakar airport, seemed always to be in my way. Without the necessary paperwork to cross the Gambia, it looked like I’d have to retrace my steps the whole damn way. I stood on a pile of rubbish under a palm tree by the river, sucking moodily on a mango and tossing flecks of peel into the water.

I ran to an internet cafe and with sticky fingers typed an email to my wife.

“I feel helpless,” I said. “I need to get back to Dakar but I’m staring down a 36 hour taxi ride in one direction, and Gambia’s diplomatic hanky-panky in the other. My plans have been flipped upside down and I don’t know what to do.”

She wrote back, “There’s always a way to take control; it’s just that there’s something blinding you from seeing how. Do whatever it takes, spend whatever you have to, talk to whomever you need to. The answer’s likely staring you in the face.”

She was right. Across the street from the cybercafe was a travel agent’s office where I was able to book a flight for Dakar, meaning I could spend the next three days exploring Casamance rather than sitting in taxis retracing my steps. Sorted.

I bought six mangoes and took a taxi to the woodsy village of M’lomp, and then found passage on a pirogue going to Île de Carabane.

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If I ever decide to knuckle down to write my novel, Carabane is where I’m going to do it. This was evidently the low season for tourism, and I envied the handful of other westerners who had clearly been here for some time, having settled into a routine of fishing off the beach and getting tipsy on the terrace of their homestays between meals.

There were perhaps ten of them in total, all dressed in whites and khakis, all smoking cigarettes like it was their last day on earth. All the ones I spoke to were German. Germans tend to materialize at all seasons and locations, in contrast to the French and Spanish who, as far as I’ve seen, keep their mass migrations to predictable schedules, coming and going like the tide from the beach towns of Africa.

After I spent a couple days swatting at mosquitoes and walking on beaches, a family I stayed with on Ile de Carabane offered me a place in their boat to Cap Skirring, Casamance’s tourist hub. I was happy not to have to deal with any more taxis or bus drivers.

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Cap Skirring is interesting. Evidently it sees a lot of tourism, but I was there at the off-season. I couldn’t decide if that was better or worse. The only tourists I saw there were old French men and women, each arm-in-arm with a young Senegalese sugar-baby. But overall it seemed like a very good place for young backpackers. There’s a strong rasta culture among the young locals.

I bought a bag of mangoes and walked down to the beach, which was alive with guitar music. The only stretch of beach accessible from town belongs to the fishermen, who have a pleasant little shanty-town set up on it, and all their boats lined up on the sand. Luxury hotels outside the town keep their beaches clean of trash and undesirable humans, but I was content here.

I hung out with some restauranteurs who had closed up shop for the season. One of them contented himself with sitting on a pile of fishing nets playing guitar, and I recorded him.

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The beach was buzzing with fishermen who’d returned from their morning’s work. Small fires were popping up here and there, and women with baskets of fish on their heads were busy unloading the beached pirogues. I walked down toward the water to get a better look at the boats, when a couple of guys squatting by a fire whistled me over.

“Come eat with us,” they said. “We’re having lunch.”

This was one of those caricature moments of travel, when you can’t believe your luck. These guys were Usman and Hamed, cool young dudes who’d been fishing for most of their adult lives. They’d sold their catch, and were cooking the left-overs, an exotic melange of fresh sea creatures.

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“Actually I’m trained to work at a restaurant,” Usman said, as he used his fingers to flip the fish over on the hot coals, “but where are the restaurants?”

We tore apart fish, crustaceans, snails, singeing our greasy fingers as we plucked them off the coals. I sat back in a gluttonous ecstasy, sucking clean the legs of a crab.

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“That was just an appetizer,” said Usman, smiling “Come with us, we’re going for a proper lunch.”

I hoped he was joking, but he took me to a three-walled beach shack made out of wicker and bamboo. There were about 10 other guys there, one of whom was “le capitain” of their fishing boat. The captain’s wife had fixed an enormous platter to be eaten by everyone. She was a very cool lady. It was a pleasing contrast to the Arabic world, where women never dine with men, to see this lady nudging men out of her way, grabbing bigger fistfuls of rice than anyone, and making jokes at our expense. Her kids were adorable too, and I made myself useful by keeping them occupied with a pack of crayons and my notebook while their mother washed dishes.

I was allowed to sleep in the beach shack, with my belongings hidden under a pile of fishing net.

Hamed mentioned that if I paid the captain, I could go out with them on the next morning’s fishing trip. Waking up at 5am, however, I found they’d decided conditions weren’t right to go out. I’ve never been more disappointed. I still passed a nice day with Usman, exploring the outlying villages and chopping vegetables for lunch and dinner. That night a group of us sat on the front step of a derelict building on the beach, eating haut-cuisine by the light of our cell phones and singing:

Manamanama, eh eh
Waka waka eh eh
Manamanama zangalewa
‘Cause this is Africa

Which was perfectly true.

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