One of the huge perks to being in the military is getting the opportunity to travel to countries around the world and work with partner nations military forces. When I checked into one of my units, I was assigned to support operations in Africa which admittedly I knew little about politically or culturally. After a lot of studying the strategic objectives and prep work, my introduction to Africa was during a military exercise in Dakar, Senegal. Despite reading up on the background before departing, I still was unsure what to expect upon arrival. Debarking the plane, I was met with an organized chaos in the airport which led into the busy street. However, after spending some time in the city and around the country, I came to realize that Dakar embodies both the traditional culture of the country while also being a modern and urban working city. Dakar is the westernmost city in mainland Africa and has a population of over 1 million people. It is a vibrant and busy metropolitan city, but has a population who are kind and generous. Thankfully I have had the opportunity to return several times and below are a few of my favorite experiences.
Wrestling matches (Lutte Sénégalaise)- a recommendations from my predecessor was to attend one of the famous traditional wrestling matches. For about $2, the match provides its moneys worth with the several rounds of competition and the endless hyping up of the crowd. Although the wrestlers (called mbër) do not perform the full traditional dance (called a bàkk) before the start of the combat, they did complete a full cleansing and preparation ritual which lasted significantly longer than the actual fighting. It took several rounds to figure out the rules of the match, although I certainly am still missing many of the finer details, but it seemed vaguely similar in parts to sumo wrestling. However, the steps and the process leading up to the beginning of the fight with the numerous rituals were actually almost more fascinating than the fights themselves. The energy and enthusiasm from the crowd was quite contagious as they loudly cheered and hollered for their favorite fighters throughout the match.
Lake Reba (Lac Rose)- This naturally rosy lake gets its pinkish hue from the Dunaliella salina algae growing in the water as well as the high salt content. The entire area has also been an important location for salt mining with large mounds of white salt stacked around the waters edge. The actual hue and intensity greatly depends on the time of year and the natural elements of when you visit. On the day that I had a chance to stop by it was more of a murky brown with only a hint of pink. However, I have seen numerous photos from friends and locals demonstrating exactly how stunningly pink it can get in the right conditions. If time permits, there are numerous places in the area that offer quad rentals in order to explore the outer edges of the lake to make the most of a visit, or it is easy to hire one of the local boats to take you out for a spin around the shallow lake.
Gorée Island- Just a few miles off the coast of Dakar lies Gorée Island. From the 15th to the 19th century, this small island was actually the largest slave-trading centre along the African coast. The architecture is characterized by the beautiful homes of the slave traders along with the natural beauty of the island which stands in stark contrast to the bare slave-quarters that serve as a grim reminder of the island's history. At the end of the 18th century as the slave trade began to significantly decline, the island was converted back to legitimate commerce resulting in many of the inhabitants leaving Gorée. One of the most historic stops is at the House of Slaves or Maison des Enclaves, which is one of the oldest houses on the small island. The house is now used to show the final exit point of the slaves leaving Africa from the little cells they were crammed into while waiting their departure from the Door of No Return. The museum is used to memorialize the horrors of the slave trade and many important world leaders have visited the site including Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and US President Barack Obama. The Island of Gorée was designated a historic site by the government back in 1944 which greatly contributed to its preservation and was later added to the World Heritage List.
Muscle Beach- one of the first things I noticed was that the long strip of beach in Dakar was consistently full of people working out. Handfuls of runners and sports teams getting slayed, there are always crowds of people getting their sweat on. Although most of the crowds fill the beach in the evening hours after work and when the temperature has cooled down a bit, it remains popular throughout the day. It is an excellent fitness culture where everyone shares space on the sets of workout equipment on the beach at various intervals. Later in the afternoon it would be hard to find space though due to the numerous crowds and workout groups that fill the beach.
Wildlife Reserves- before this trip, I had always imagined that safaris in Africa were extremely expensive and that it would be way out of my price range to have such an experience, at least for quite some time. However, Senegal certainly proved me wrong with their affordable close encounters with wildlife. Although the safari style trips are still targeted for the tourists, the prices at several places close to Dakar were quite cheap. At the Fathala Wildlife Reserve near Toubacouta, there are several options for different activities ranging from guided game drives to fishing in the Mangroves. I opted for a lion walk where we got to spend about 45 min walking a back trail with two young adult lions (and their trainers). We kept over an arms length distance and walked a bit behind them, but it was incredible to be strolling down a path beside Simba and Nala! I was grinning from ear to ear the entire time while watching them climb up in the trees and walking around with them, and obviously I was humming Hakuna Matata throughout the entire duration. Closer to Dakar is another nature reserve that also offers safari game drives. Bandia la Reserve is a 3,500 hectare area filled with giant baobabs and a wide variety of large animals including antelopes, gazelle, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes. We saw most of the types of animals on the reserve and constantly had our head on a swivel to spot the next herd of animals. The park also has several massive thousand year old baobab trees which contain tombs in their hollowed centers that the guide showed us. Both of the wildlife reserves were fantastic opportunities to see some of Africa's animals up close and learn a bit more about the history of the area.
Hostel Average Cost: $22
Currency: West African CFA Franc
Drink: Bissap- this is a drink made from a variety of dried hibiscus flowers and usually contains a good bit of sugar and sometimes other flavors added in.
Food: While the Yassa Poulet or any variety of local fish fried up make for a cheap and delicious meal, the sea urchins are quite tasty and unique! Also I am hooked on the spicy ginger hot sauce they serve everywhere and I always try to bring home several containers of. It only takes a tiny dip of the spoon to make a whole dish spicy and delicious.
Electric Outlet: European-Type C
Visa: Not Required- but they do require proof of a current yellow fever vaccination.