The sun blistered overhead as we trudged forward through the stained sand. With few patches unmarred and uncontaminated, it was difficult to tell what its original color might have been.
Allured by the cliché image of pale sands juxtaposed azure West African waters, I decided the beach had once been white. I’m not sure why its original color mattered — now, it was little more than a dumping ground. Years of carelessness left it to absorb litter and oil and putrid trash juice and rotting fish that took turns punching my nose in waves as we waded through the pollution.
Deep inside, the western capitalist in me tried to not cringe as I thought about the tourist gold mine Senegal was sitting on. And then another part of me, deeper still, was saddened to see the destruction of such a beautiful piece of God's creation.
Feeling as though I was being watched, I squinted against the sharpness of noon’s sun at a nearby grouping of boats, permanently docked on the sand and rotting with time. Beneath them, fishermen huddled in the shade, attempting to find respite from the heat.
For a moment, I wished I could join them as I felt another trickle of sweat roll down my already damp neck. Instead, we continued our marche forward past rows of trucks monopolizing views of the Atlantic.
That morning, we left the apartment prepared for an odyssey that we only hoped would culminate in a relaxing afternoon by pristine waters. With no definitive plan, we knew adventure was sure to follow in some form. After all, we were sloping around an African capital with nothing more than a water bottle, camera, and just enough coins for a snack.
The only fraction of a plan that we did agree on was that exploration should take place on foot — no taxi’s or vehicles allowed. Because if there is one thing that we’ve learned from traveling and living overseas, it’s that your experiences directly relate to your mode of transportation.
If you’re in a tourist bus, you’re going to experience things differently than if you’re in your own personal vehicle. Locals will look at you as a camera (or an ATM, depending on the destination) just passing through.
If you’re in your own personal vehicle, you’re going to experience things differently than if you’re in a taxi. Your dialogue is sure to be more predictable and possibly boring without a bit of local flavor added in.
If you’re in a taxi, you’re going to experience things differently than if you are riding a motorcycle, or a tuk tuk. Out in the open air, you get to smell the destination.
And if you’re on a motorcycle, you’re going to experience things differently than a biped strolling down the street.
Exploration on foot means you get to use all five of your senses to experience a place — good and bad. But more importantly, it opens the door for communication with the locals. Granted, here in Dakar our French is limited, their English is broken, and our Wolof is non-existent. But throw in some hand gestures and you’d be surprised at the depth of your conversations.
We started our meandering urban hike along the main road that runs just outside of our neighborhood. Because Tabaski was quickly approaching, sheep were everywhere and I found myself dodging droppings.
Also known as Eid al-Adha, Tabaski is one of the most important Islamic holidays celebrated in Senegal. Set to take place 70 days after the end of Ramadan, it is a day to honor Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, after Allah commanded it. Per tradition, a sheep is slaughtered in remembrance of Allah providing a ram for Ibrahim to sacrifice instead of Ishmael.
Somewhere in the storyline I thought there might be a lesson in plagiarism to discuss with my writing classes.
Absorbed by the transition to a new country and new language and new ministry, my observation skills were dull and I had failed to notice the plague of sheep that had descended upon Dakar in the days leading up to Tabaski.
Once aware of them, it was impossible to pay attention to anything else. By the time Tabaski arrived on Saturday — the day after our urban hike — Dakar had transformed itself into a slaughter house as it prepared to sacrifice more than 750,000 sheep for Tabaski’s Eid al-Kabir (Great Feast). Men dug pits in the sand outside of their homes for the event while some homes hung parts of the animal by the front door for baraka, or blessing.
“Prepare for sights and smells you might not be accustomed to,” came a warning from one co-worker. Between the sheep, their droppings, sacrificial pits, the polluted beach, and other scents carried to us on the breeze, our walk certainly kicked off with a multitude of unfamiliar sights and smells.
But there were high moments that far surpassed the low. At one point, we stumbled upon a motorcycle mechanic’s shop. The owner, a tall man named Fara, came outside and greeted us warmly, as though we were old friends. Several minutes and a lot of hand gestures later, we gathered that he owned six motorcycles and specialized in working on BMW’s. Although he doesn’t sell bikes, he seems like a good person to know when the time comes to purchase wheels.
About halfway through our walk, when I thought surely our water bottle was boiling in the heat, we decided that the time to purchase wheels might need to be sooner than later. It was then that we happened to spot the tiny lion-themed car.
Don’t worry mom and dad — it hasn’t come home with us… yet.
Not long after Fara's shop, our sense of direction (or perhaps weariness) told us to cut left if we were to find a clean beach to eventually collapse on. Our turn took us through the heart of Dakar’s Industrial Zone, where neither of us had ever seen so many shipping containers.
Towers of the containers seemed to run for miles in every direction. We would know — we spent another 45 minutes walking past them as we made our way deeper and deeper into the Industrial Zone. As we moved further inland, there were fewer towers. Instead, we saw loaded trucks preparing to haul the containers overland to their final destinations.
Because it was Friday, and the day before Tabaski, many had gone to the mosques. It seemed all work had stalled in the Industrial Zone as workers stopped to pray and then share a midday meal. As we walked through a new wave of smells — couscous and rice and chicken and spices — I realized I had become quite hungry.
Steered by something innate or by divine guidance, we turned up a side road, leaving the Industrial Zone behind, and down a dirt path through a small shantytown. From the heart of the precarious lean-tos came the banging of pots and pans as women also prepared a midday meal for their little ones. It seemed everyone in the city was eating, save us. And I worried how our adventure might end if I turned hangry.
But then, by what could have only been divine guidance, we found ourselves at the gates of a hotel with private beach access. After nearly three hours of wandering, we had arrived at La Plage de La Voile d’Or.
We ordered coke and soda water with lime, followed by fish and chips. The entree did not come out quite as expected, but was delicious, nonetheless.
Once full, we ordered another round of fluids to ward off dehydration. We rested in the shade until we feared we might become too comfortable to leave. Any trace of the morning’s first beach was long gone from our minds as a fresh, lightly salted breeze blew over us.
Eventually, as our skin grew tender with the realization that sunburn was sinking in, it came time for us to leave. We stretched, made a note of the hotel’s name, and prepared to head home. Somewhere on our walk to the main road, it was unspoken but agreed upon that a taxi would be procured for the return trip.
Despite our legs telling us we surely had walked off Dakar’s massive peninsula, we knew we could not be too far away from our apartment. We counted our change, prayed it was enough to get us home, then hailed a yellow car.
And after three hours of exhausting ourselves through the maze of side streets and shops and less desirable beaches to find La Voile, we realized we lived less than five minutes away by taxi. We counted its proximity a blessing, daydreamed of days off spent there, and decided we wouldn't have wanted to discover it any other way.