What would it look like if you could take a high-speed train along the coast of West Africa from Dakar, Senegal to Lagos, Nigeria? Perhaps something like this. First of three parts.
The moment I’ve been waiting for is here, my first trip to West Africa. We’re joining a small band of friends for a two-weeks journey along the West African coast from Senegal to Nigeria — 11 countries in 14 days.
Two things make this trip possible. One is the visas we have that allow us to travel freely throughout the region.
Some members of our group have the ECOWAS tourist visa, which allows visitors staying fewer than 90 days to travel freely through any of the countries belonging to the Economic Community of West African States.
I have the diaspora visa, a special travel document allowing African-Americans (and Africans returning home) unrestricted travel for 90 days anywhere on the continent.
I have this one as much for reasons of pride as practicality. Even before we left home, it was one of my most cherished souvenirs of this trip.
The other thing that makes this journey feasible for us is the sleek and gleaming new high-speed train than run from the Senegalese capital of Dakar in the north to Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos. It’s a journey of just under 2,200 miles, not quite the width of the continental United States.
(If my brother, George, were with us, he might be tempted to jump on a dirt bike and join in the famed Dakar off-road rally. He got the daredevil genes in the family; I’ll stick with the train!)
Were we going directly from Dakar to Lagos, we’d take the overnight express train and take advantage of its sleeping compartments. Go to bed rolling out of Dakar, wake up rolling into Lagos. But that’s not the plan for this trip. We’re making stops.
Lots of stops.
CONVERGING ON DAKAR
I’m coming in to Dakar on one of South African Airways’ wide-body Airbus 340-300s. from Washington-Dulles (IAD). Others are arriving via Delta from Atlanta, and a third couple are landing on an Air France flight from Paris.
Outwardly, I’m trying to project the air of the cool veteran traveler as Flight 208 touches down at Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport. Inside, though, I’m as nervously excited as the 12-year-old boy making his first flight by himself — and I’m glad I can still feel that way.
Things have improved here since Patrick Smith described Dakar as “the world’s worst airport” in his Ask the Pilot column in Salon.com. We’re all due to arrive within an hour of each other, so I collect my rolling duffel and find a place to get a cold drink and brush up on my less-than-expert French. I know I’m going to need it here.
We all arrive within about an hour of each other, and pile into the waiting shuttle van for the ride to our hotel, relieved to be together. When we’d made our plane reservations, we failed to consider French labor relations. The Paris flight had taken off moments ahead of an airport workers strike at Orly.
After a nap and a shower, we meet for dinner. but we turn in early. A full day awaits us tomorrow.
The next day, we are all over Dakar, mostly by taxi. Negotiating fares with the drivers gets us in the spirit we’ll need for bartering in the markets later. We may be foreigners, but we’re not rich foreigners!
Place de l’Independence to me blends elements of Paris, Buenos Aires and Tijuana, with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop.
It seems there is shopping all over the place in Dakar — artisan goods, fabrics, wood carvings, jewelry, fabrics. The only thing that saves me is a bit of my own advice, which I’ve given to friends making their first trips abroad:
“Whatever you buy, you have to pack. If you’re not careful, your suitcase will gain even more weight than you do!”
But I just have to pick up a CD here after learning that one of my favorite French rap artists, MC Solaar, hails from right here in Dakar!
If you’re not used to it, tropical humidity can make you feel incredibly hot, even when it really isn’t. Good excuse for me to sample some local drinks like ginger juice or bissap, made from hibiscus flowers. I’m curious to see how it compares with Mexico’s jamaica (pronounced ha-MAI-ka) made from the same thing.
Later, we’ll take a shot at one of Senegal’s national dishes, thiéboudienne.
But we have a special appointment here with Goree Island, one of the many West African terminals for the slave trade. It’s a 20-minute ride from Dakar by ferry.
This place was the last sight of Africa for uncounted numbers of captives bound for a life of servitude and cruelty in the Americas and elsewhere. There’s a good chance one or more of my ancestors passed through here. Now, there’s a museum on the island dedicated to the memory of what went on here, la Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves.
Outwardly, I am quiet. Inside, I am a cyclone of emotions. Please, Greg, no tears. Not now. Not here.
We leave with me recalling something I’d once read about forgiveness:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
But the highlight of my day, by far, is the drumming lesson. I’m learning how to play the djembe, a drum found throughout Africa and the Middle East. A few minutes of instructions and I am ripping on this thing. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, but I’m having a wonderful time! My teacher is having a ball too — no doubt at my expense — but I don’t mind at all.
That afternoon, we check out of the hotel and head for the train station, located in the heart of Dakar. We have our rail passes for the entire journey, similar to the Eurail passes sold through train travel in Europe. Ten minutes before departure, we head for the platform. The sleek, new train is waiting. We walk down the platform until we find our car and climb aboard. Stack our bags in the vestibule,then find our seats.
Ten minutes later, the train glides smoothly out of the station. Au revoir, Dakar, et a bientot!
Our destination is Gambia, the smallest country on the Mother Continent. Its capital, Banjul, is just about 100 miles away.
We’ll be there in just about an hour.
NEXT: Banjul to Conakry