Saint Louis, Senegal, October 23 - 24, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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41
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Flag of Senegal  ,
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

. Saint Louis is located in northwestern Senegal not far from the spot the Senegal River empties into the Atlantic.  It was the French capital of the colony of Senegal and the first French settlement in Africa.  The town's historic center is located on a long narrow island in the Senegal River about 15 miles from the river's mouth but also sprawls onto the mainland and the narrow sand spit with great beaches and fishing settlements that separates the river from the Atlantic Ocean. 
Saint Louis is a UNESCO World Heritage sight and with its colonial era architecture and prominent annual jazz festival is often compared to that other former French colony on the other side of the Atlantic - New Orleans.  That comparison might only be apt, however, to a New Orleans a couple weeks after being hit not only by Hurricane Katrina but also an earthquake and a rubbish blizzard.  Saint Louis is described as having a faded elegance, but if its elegance fades much further it'll be completely bleached out.  Although there are a few spots of gentrification in Saint Louis, on the whole I thought it was rather shabby and didn't quite live up to its reputation, let alone its potential as a tourist destination with its dilapidated old colonial buildings.  Beyond the busy markets typical of those throughout Africa and the bustling fishing port, Saint Louis was actually quite a sedate place, at least when we were there. 
After a week in alcohol-free Mauritania, it was certainly nice to have beer again on our first night in Saint Louis.  It isn't something you think about much back home, but it just seems so wrong to have to go an entire week without beer when on holiday.  Our nice beachside campground (Camping Ocean) was memorable for its evening dips in the sea, refreshing beach bar, and a population of land crabs so dense I was kept awake as they climbed onto and fought over territory on top of my tent. 
I spent a full day wandering lazily around Saint Louis and taking in its sights - Guet D'Dar fishing village near our campground, the fisherman's cemetery, Governor's Palace, Saint Louis Museum, Cathedral, Place Faidherbe (central square), and a number of African art galleries.  As in most places in Africa, the most fascinating parts of Saint Louis were not the buildings, museums, and other traditional "sights" but rather the people, especially the busy fishing communities with their boat builders, fishermen putting out to sea or returning with their catches, and the merchants trading the fish.  Ed and I then enjoyed a very good lunch at a riverside table at a Vietnamese restaurant on the island's northern tip while we watched Monitor Lizards on the riverbank. 
Saint Louis was the first place we experienced the strange phenomenon of having difficulty changing U.S. dollars at banks and bureaus de change, perhaps the first place I've been in the world where the dollar is absolutely not king.  With the currency used in most former French colonies in West Africa (Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote D'Ivoire, Benin, Togo, Niger), the West African CFA, being pegged at a fixed rate against the Euro, Euros rather than U.S. Dollars are clearly the preferred currency.  Unfortunately, I had brought mostly dollars with me, which in Saint Louis meant settling for a poor rate of exchange of 400 to 425 CFAs to the dollar rather than the 450 to 460 official exchange rate. 
After some time at an Internet cafe I returned to the campground for a late afternoon swim and a beer or two at the beach bar.  A group of six of us including drivers Dave and Ben decided to go to dinner a few doors down at the Pelican Restaurant where (keeping with my tradition) I tried to order the regional specialty.  Here in Saint Louis that was Poisson et Crevettes Saint Louisienne, a sauteed fish of some indeterminate sort with shrimp and a sweet and spicy brown onion sauce. 
The highlight of the evening, though, was not the food but the show I put on that gave everyone a good laugh. I was seated on one of those flimsy outdoor plastic chairs, the type that sells for about $2 a piece at Wal-Mart in the US.  I found myself continually shifting my weight as the chair's legs slid outwards.  As I was completing my appetizer I did so again and noted to everyone at the table, "I'm starting to think I'm too heavy for this chair."  No sooner had I finished the sentence than I went crashing to the floor, the chair's two rear legs breaking clear off. 
Now if this had been in America I would have immediately been surrounded by restaurant staff helping me up and managers ensuring my wellbeing lest I take up the offer of one of the ambulance-chasing lawyers certain to be present to sue the restaurant for the maximum it's insured for.  This being Africa, though, the waiter (possibly proprietor), a middle-aged blond Frenchman, gave me a look that absolutely screamed, "Huh, you are so stupid," made some joke I didn't understand, and gave me another only slightly less flimsy plastic chair to sit on.  I just felt fortunate he didn't try to charge me for breaking the first one.
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