Sunday, May 15, 2011

A vacation in Spain

I know, I know - what does a vacation in Spain have to do with Senegal?  Read on... 

One of the more obnoxious things about Senegal is that airline flights are reasonably priced for arrival in Dakar, but ridiculously expensive to fly out of Dakar.  For example, the Gambia - which is a country sort of tucked inside Senegal - is only a 30 minute flight from here.  The advertised "promotional" price for a round-trip excursion is about $90.  However, with airport departure taxes, the total cost of the trip will exceed $330!

I have also learned that airlines are completely irresponsible when it comes to pricing, because airfares from Dakar never make any sense.  TAP Airlines is based out of Lisbon, Portugal.  All TAP flights from Dakar to anywhere in Europe go through Lisbon for a connection.  If I want to fly TAP to Madrid, it will cost $650 - with a connection in Lisbon.  If I want to fly TAP to Lisbon - direct - it will cost $750.

Iberia Airlines is based out of Madrid, Spain.  All Iberia flights from Dakar to anywhere in Europe go through Madrid for a connection.  If I want to fly Iberia to Lisbon, it will cost $650 - with a connection in Madrid.  If I want to fly Iberia to Madrid - direct - it will cost $750.  Yes, you read those figures correctly.  It is always $100 more to fly direct than it is to take a connection.  There is no way two flights can be cheaper to operate than one flight, which is why I have absolutely no sympathy for any bankrupt airline.

Anyway, I decided to book Las Palmas in the Canary Islands (a Spanish territory) for 3 days, followed by 4 days in Madrid.  Price, of course, was $750.  Gran Canaria, the biggest island, is a beautiful place that is reminiscent of Puerto Rico.  Las Palmas has a population of about 400,000 people and the diversity on the island ranges from volcanic cones to sandy beaches.

I came to Dakar to get away from it all.  After a while, Dakar can grate on you.  The sand-swept streets, the trash strewn all about town, six guys on every corner trying to sell you a pre-paid phone card, taxi drivers honking and stopping asking if you want a ride across the street.  In addition, the stress of grading final exams and entering final grades, and then having to listen to students try to "negotiate" their grades as if that's part of the culture, and - well - sometimes a person needs to get away from the place where he "got away from it all." 

So... I was relaxing on the beach in Las Palmas.  Perfect climate (70's, slight breeze, topless women), perfect day, perfect everything.  Afterward, I went to dinner at an open-air, beachside restaurant where a street musician had set up to play jazz guitar and I enjoyed a seafood risotto (that kind of tasted like Spaghetti-O's, but in a good way).  It was about 10:00pm and I was just about to leave the restaurant when a man came in with an assortment of toys for sale.  These were the kinds of toys that a vendor might be huckstering at any silly carnival: glow sticks, noisemakers, cheap plastic gifts, etc.

The wandering salesman was obviously pushing his favorite: a flashing, barking dog toy.  He came around to each table with a big, toothy smile and said something to me in Spanish.  I speak very little Spanish, but I thought I recognized the phrase.

Then, I said, "Wait a minute. Where are you from?"

"Senegal!" he replied with a big smile. 

And what had he said to me in Spanish that caught my attention?... 

"I give you good price."

P.S. If you are not laughing right now, you may want to read this archived classic:

Off to Madrid.

I always like the unexpected on vacation and the unexpected in Madrid came in the form of a giant street parade on a late Sunday afternoon.  The Church of San Gines one of the oldest churches in Madrid, named after Saint Genesius of Arles, the patron saint of notaries and secretaries.  I'm not sure I ever knew there was a patron saint for notaries and secretaries, but it seems to me that if we are going to honor notaries and secretaries, we might also designate a new patron saint for bloggers.  I nominate Saint Suldog...

At first, I thought the parade was on old fashioned funeral march.  New Orleans style.  There were two dozen people carrying a giant statue upon their shoulders while a band played with drums and brass.  People were cheering on the streets and some guy in uniform - my guess is that he was the Grand Poobah - shouted "Viva!" to a screaming crowd of thousands.

The parade went down a long block, but took over 20 minutes to complete.  It ended with the giant statue being ceremoniously entered into the courtyard at the Church of San Gines.  I'm not religious, but I couldn't help but be drawn in by this spectacle.

I've never really learned to read music, much less write music, much less try to figure out how to write it on the Internet, but there was something overwhelming about a band playing some variant of St. James Infirmary while the church bells roared in a pattern of:
G G#__D#_G# G

There were women crying in the streets, children celebrating, a man who nearly passed out from exhaustion from carrying the statue, and hundreds of on-lookers from the windows above representing many races and nationalities.  I decided to enter the church and was treated to a show of glorious artwork from a church built in the 1600's. 

As I left the church and passed the courtyard where hundreds upon hundreds of people were now exiting, I noticed a beggar with a coffee cup asking for change.  All of these people celebrating the great glories and miracles; all of these people in high spirits - and not one person put a coin in his empty cup.  Most wouldn't even look the man in the eye.

I thought, "Wouldn't it be ironic if this beggar was actually Jesus?"...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Plage des Mamelles

I tend to post my blog Sunday mornings, but it never occurred to me to write about what I actually DO every Sunday.  I take Sunday afternoons off and head to my favorite, secluded little beach.  One might think this is quite selfish and that I do not want anyone to know about my favorite, secluded little beach for fear that my blog (read by - who? - tens of millions of tourists each day before embarking on their journeys to Dakar???) might destroy the character of this place.

In fact, I don't want the beach to become overrun with tens of millions of tourists.  But, after speaking with my favorite bartender, Adame, last Sunday, I realized that he WANTS more people to know about this fine place since this is how he makes his living.  Since this is my only outlet for spreading the word, the following is a picturesque tour of my favorite place in Dakar...

Surprisingly, I never knew this beach existed until I located it on a tourist map.  This is a classic tourist map where things are identified by little icons with short descriptions, such as an icon with a grocery store cart and a short description of "supermarche".  Le Plage des Mamelles had an icon of a little umbrella that the map key described as "site balneaire" (literally: nice tourist spot).  There was also an icon describing the place as safe to swim. 

The beach is very easy to miss because it is located next to Phare de Mamelles - a lighthouse located on the highest point in Dakar.  I love to run up the steep, winding path to the lighthouse to view the entire city.  To the north is the Almadies region with its sandy beaches, rocky points and distinctive cape formation that pokes out into the ocean like a bird's beak.  To the east is the airport where I can watch planes arriving and departing.  To the expansive south is the downtown section, but from here it is also easy to see the Madeleine Islands (a bird sanctuary with no human residents) as well as Goree Island.  This is a working lighthouse including a light keeper's family living amidst.  There is no fog horn, which I miss from Cape Elizabeth...

But, you can't see the beach from the lighthouse!  The lighthouse is situated on a 105 meter high cliff and the beach is located directly adjacent to the cliff.  From the beach, the lighthouse stands as a small building atop an imposing tower of rock.  The rocks show obvious striations, but there are also natural carvings in the rock that are reminiscent of Mesa Verde cave dwellings.  In fact, the entire rock formation and surrounding area looks like Arizona; a desert with cactus plants strewn about at random and dirt trails leading to nowhere. 

Now, picture Arizona with an ocean and a tiki bar.  How cool would that be?  Not as cool as Plage des Mamelles...

The ocean temperatures are actually quite cold!  Warmer than Maine waters, of course, but Dakar is on the same latitude as Belize, halfway between the Troic of Cancer and the Equator, so it would seem the waters here might be of a similar temperature.  No such luck.  Belize is tempered with the Caribbean Sea, whereas Dakar gets slammed with the mighty Atlantic.

"Slammed" is a perfect description for the waves that hit this beach.  The waves are normally over six feet high with a perfect surf or boogie board swell.  While this might not seem conducive to swimming, the natural formation of the tide line and the beach itself are perfect.  In the ocean, just beyond the "wave line," the sand has somehow collected such that you can be standing on your feet with your head above water while watching the waves hit the beach!  In other words, there are parts of the ocean less than 6 feet tall beyond where the waves form and hit the beach.  Not a sandbar, just a hilly formation under the ocean's waters.

The physical characteristics of Plage de Mamelles are beautiful, but what makes this place truly special are the people.  There are rarely more than 50 people at the beach - ever - on Sundays.  And, this is the only beach I've seen in Dakar that has a perfect mix of locals, tourists and ex-patriates.  I have always seen at least two mixed race couples (white male/black female and black male/white female), pairs of single females, single men in groups, groups of young ex-patriates and families with children (also often of mixed race).  There is almost always a group of people playing soccer on the beach - locals and tourists easily mixing into a game.

Some of the credit for this mix is due to the "owners" of the tiki bar: a group of three "Senegalese Rastafarians" who have taken the time to develop tiki huts to provide shade, as well as create a tiki bar serving cold beverages and the local sandwich.  The tiki huts are exactly as you might picture: straw thatch roofs set on sturdy poles.  What's especially nice, though, are the little artistic touches that are carefully placed about.  For example, an old plastic jug with a handle has been transformed into a happy face.  The handle serves as a nose, while two buttons have been added for eyes and a smile is drawn on to complete the "face."  This would be called "folk art" in developed countries, but here it's just something fun to add to the atmosphere. 

Adame is my favorite server.  He has a big, toothless smile (only two upper incisors!), yet he is likely not even 35 years old.  His English is as good as my French, but we seem to communicate well.  One week, I was on vacation and didn't come to the beach.  When I returned the next week, he smiled and shouted, "You're home!"

The Rasta-Senegalese have a monopoly here.  (As an aside, I don't want to get these guys in any trouble, so I'll just use Rasta-Senegalese as a code-phrase and you can sort of draw your own conclusions...)   They could charge whatever they want for drinks and food.  If this place was in the Caribbean, you would easily pay $5 for a beer and $10 for a sandwich.  Instead, beer is 1,000 CFA (about $2, compared to buying a single bottle at the store for $1) and sandwiches are the same price.  I think it's just easier for them to divide up 1,000 CFA bills at the end of the day...

The sandwich is a local specialty: a fried egg served on French bread, with fried onions and french fries stuffed into the sandwich.  The sandwich is topped with ketchup and a local spread that is made with mustard, oil and chopped garlic.  It's the messiest sandwich you can possibly eat, but there's an ocean a few steps away to wash your hands when you're finished.  It is also the perfect dish to accompany an ice cold local beer and both of these are the perfect accompanient to a sunny, 80 degree afternoon.

Tipping is not normal in Senegal, but I always leave something extra for Adame so he can buy cigarettes.  And, for Adame's sake, I hope this place becomes the most successful tourist spot in all of Senegal. 

Right after I leave...