Lady in Saint Louis

The first thing that struck me about Dakar was how much more developed it was than Bamako. Tall buildings—or really any buildings at all—were a stark contrast to the low-slung structures that lined the streets of the Malian capital. All of the roads were paved instead of just the few main streets, and some of the buildings reminded me of ones I would see back home in London.

The second stark contrast came when we arrived at our hotel, Le Meridien President. Housed in a tall tower and bearing the stamp of a corporate American chain, it was a far cry from the bohemian Sleeping Camel in Bamako. While we had the good fortune to be upgraded to a suite thanks to my boyfriend’s Starwood Platinum status, it didn’t have the local touch we enjoyed so much in Mali.

The manager of Le Meridien took us up the elevator to the fourth floor, where he walked us down the hall and stopped in front of an alcove. When I saw that the room had three sets of doors, I knew we had been given a large suite. But it wasn’t until he opened the first set that I realized just how large it was. Embarrassingly large.

First came the dining room table that sat eight, then came the living room area with several sofas and a TV. Following that was the master bedroom, the first bathroom, the second bathroom, and the mini bar room. Yes, even the mini bar had its own room.

We settled in with a plate of complimentary cookies, then quickly started to feel dwarfed by the room. Leaving the hotel, we walked down the street to La Pointe des Almadies, the western-most point in Africa.

We made our way through the swarm of touts selling everything from artwork to jewelery, then walked down to the small beach which was flanked on one side by restaurants and on the other by a jumble of souvenir shops.

Our first impression of the beach was a memorable one. To the right side was a man fishing on a rock, sitting dangerously close to a giant pink pelican. We started to watch the pair, and quickly discovered that the bird was the man’s pet.

For five minutes, we watched in awe as the pelican, which was twice the size of the man, angled its beak between the man’s hands to pry out the fish he was using for bait. At one point the bird got so agitated that it jumped up onto the man’s back and sat for a few minutes prodding at the man’s arms with its two-foot long beak. It was pretty amazing.

The man eventually got up, picked up the bird, and tossed it lightly onto the roof of a market stall. The bird, who had clipped wings, stood on the roof trying to figure out how to get down. It was not pleased. A friend of the man’s came by, and the pelican took its revenge by clamping the friend’s head between the long halves of its beak, eliciting a girlish shriek from the victim but no help from the master.

When we had been sufficiently entertained by the man and his pelican, we wandered along the beach, which was full of large, beautiful shells. Further down we noticed large bags of the shells, which were presumably collected from the beach for sale or use elsewhere.

We then headed back to Le Meridien and found the hotel’s beach. It was larger than the one at the Pointe, and we walked down the jetty and along the rocky shore, admiring the immensity of the waves that were pounding their way onto the sand.

Darkness fell and we escaped the hotel’s buffet restaurant by heading back to the Pointe des Almadies for dinner. We enjoyed crab farcis and scallops while fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, then headed back to our palatial room to get some sleep before our trip to Saint-Louis the following morning.

Saint-Louis is one of the northern-most cities in Senegal. Just a few kilometers from the border with Mauritania, the city is the former colonial capital of Senegal and—as our noses would shortly learn—an important fishing city.

The four hour drive from Dakar to Saint-Louis passed fairly uneventfully. The traffic getting out of Dakar was bad despite the fact that we were told that leaving at 8am would allow us to escape it. Once we were out of the city, it was a long, flat journey through colorful villages, small towns, and vast stretches of land filled with bulbous baobab trees.

We arrived in Saint-Louis just after noon, and checked into our lodging, the Hotel Mermoz. Located four kilometers down a peninsular beach from the center of the city, the hotel was a sandy oasis of peace.

We had a quick lunch of crab sandwiches and croque monsieurs on the beach, then started walking up to the city. The first stretch was picturesque; huge colorful fishing pirogues lined the beach while goats trawled the coastal garbage deposits for food. Children ran out from the dusty streets on the opposite side to say bonjour and watch the foreigners stroll by.

As we progressed, the odor of dead fish grew from a faint annoyance to a nausea-inducing stench. We had reached the commercial fish market, the economic heart of Saint-Louis.

There the number of pirogues multiplied a hundredfold and everywhere there were tables with drying sardines, iced baskets full of silvery fish, and lorries leaking streams of bloody water into the streets. There were calèches, or horse-drawn carts, piled high with baskets for the haul, and men and women with crates of fish balanced on the tops of their heads.

We weaved our way through the crowds of people in brightly colored clothing, and sloshed through the black sludge and fish heads that carpeted the street. Despite the smell and the obstacles in our way, we found the market a fascinating place to observe.

Eventually we made our way through the bustle and into the city center, crossing the bridge to the heart of the 18th century colonial town.

Suddenly we realized that we had no idea what there was to see there. Stopping by a hotel, we got a bottle of water and started to consult the Internet. Unfortunately, everything we read about Saint-Louis lamented the lack of anything interesting to do.

We decided to wander around, visiting the historic Hotel de la Poste and the Governor’s Palace (which was disappointingly hidden behind a large tree), and walking through the streets to admire the French colonial buildings in their multicolored splendor.

When we had finished exploring Saint-Louis, we walked back to the hotel along the beach in order to avoid the fish market. The first stretch was chock full of discarded fish heads, grazing goats, giant cockroaches, stray cats and dogs, boys playing soccer, and bundles of green fishing nets. The back of the market was awash in thick black smoke punctuated by the occasional colorful dress of the female workers.

The beach finally broke out into a wide stretch of white sand that reminded me of what most beaches must have looked like before the days of mega-resorts. We had the natural beauty of the thin peninsula almost entirely to ourselves as we meandered back to the hotel.

Our evening was spent on a leisurely dinner of Poulet Yassa, a delicious local dish of chicken in a sauce of onions and lemon. The restaurant at Hotel Mermoz definitely served up some of the best food we had eaten on our trip.

The next morning was another early one. We were out of our room at 8am and on our way up to the Parc national des oiseaux du Djoudj, or Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary. Located just south of the border with Mauritania, the park was famous for its migrating white pelican population and came highly recommended by a friend of mine that used to live in Dakar.

After an hour or so of driving down a mix of paved and dirt roads, we arrived at the park. There was large lake there that was full of the cousins of the pelican we saw on the beach in Dakar. Swimming in big groups and diving simultaneously, they entertained us for quite awhile as their full yellow beaks shivered with the movements of the large fish within.

We stood on the banks for awhile, watching the pelicans and the other waterfowl catching their breakfast. We were also visited by a passing band of warthogs, complete with a gaggle of adorable babies. As if that wasn’t enough, we also spotted two giant pythons hiding in the grass.

When our boat arrived, we set off on a 14 kilometer river safari through bird country. We spotted herons, spoonbills, cormorants, egrets, fish eagles, and a myriad of other bird species. When we reached the end of the route, we saw several crocodiles, some prehistoric reptiles, and a seven foot long snake on the bank of the river.

We returned to Hotel Mermoz in Saint-Louis around 2pm, hungry and covered in a thick layer of dust. We tucked into some excellent sandwiches at the beach bar, and discovered several translucent crabs and two giant tortoises.

After lunch we relocated to the pool to relax before the drive back to Dakar, which took five long hours and left us exhausted. We arrived back at Le Meridien, washed the dust and grime off ourselves, and headed downstairs for dinner. The hotel restaurant was serving a special Valentine’s Day menu, which we promptly discarded in favor of two portions of Poulet Yassa and a beer.

Tomorrow we’re hoping to sleep in for the first time in a few days. Rested and re-energized, we’ll start exploring more of the bustling city of Dakar.

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