No longer a moto-taxi novice!

No longer a moto-taxi novice!
No longer a moto-taxi novice! It can be exhausting but it's great fun!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Rwanda Nziza!

I'm feeling very guilty as I haven't posted anything since last Easter's trip to Sénégal, now almost a year away!  Now, as the end of my time here seems to be rushing up to me I find I have a need  to reflect on my last two and a half years here in Rwanda.

Although my day to day work has become "normal" for me and I no longer feel the need to describe it in detail, I still often think how lucky I have been to have this experience.  One day last week I stepped out of the District Office to head home for lunch and was struck by the amazing view from the hilltop office across the green valley full of banana plantations to the hills dotted with the shiny tin roofs of little houses.  All around Nyakarambi it is easy to find wonderful views of undulating valleys and hills and once the town is left behind and a journey along a dirt track towards a rural school begins, the scenery just gets better and better.

Heading down the hill behind the District Office to cross the dam and head off over the  hills on the other side.
  Once I experimented by taking a video of one journey back to Nyakarambi and it gives a superficial feel of what the experience is like, however it is very difficult to take photos which reflect the scale of the views.

It occurred to me that I should try to do something of a travelogue about Rwanda to show that there are beautiful places to visit here as well as in Sénégal, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya.  As I steadily use up my third and last year here and it seems that visitors are not likely to venture as far as Rwanda, I can at least show you all what you are missing! 

Though Rwanda is less than half the size of Scotland and can be crossed from East to West in 6-7 hours by bus, it still offers a diverse and fascinating landscape ranging from Volcanic mountain forests in the North West to more gentle dryer slopes in the East, banana plantations and rice paddies in the valleys of the East, tea plantations and tropical forests in the South West. 

The climate here is very gentle - although Rwanda is only a couple of degrees South of the equator. because it is situated on hills and mountains the height keeps the temperature within very pleasant limits.  At about 1800 metres, Nyakarambi has temperatures on hot days in the very low thirties centigrade, tempered by gentle breezes.  After rainy periods the temperate can get as low as 15 degrees and a light sweater or fleece is needed.  In the rainy season each day brings a hot sunny morning followed usually by some torrential rain for an hour or so and then a fine evening.  When the rain falls you just take shelter or stay where you are indoors until it clears and life can continue.  If you are at home you can collect rainwater from the roof to add to the storage containers.  By the end of the dry season the countryside is dry and dusty and in the East of this District the farmers often get worried about their crops.  When the rainy season is expected the fields are all cultivated and ready for planting and stretches which are usually green are the brownish red colour of bare dusty soil.  After  few days with heavy rainfall the fields transform to the bright green which is so typical of Rwanda as the maize, beans, potatoes and new young banana trees begin to grow.

All of that makes it very easy to live here - beautiful scenery, never too hot or cold and , of course, friendly and welcoming people. But that is not the subject of this blog.  I want to tell you about some special places I have visited in Rwanda, places tourists do not tend to find but which would be a great attraction if they could be encouraged to leave behind the easy comforts of Kigali.

 Let's start close to home, here in the Eastern Province only half an hour away from the Tanzanian border at Rusumo Falls.  A narrow single lane bridge connects Rwanda to Tanzania and from the middle of the bridge there is an excellent view of the River Akagera plummeting down a waterfall only a few metres away.  This is the river, which after crossing Lake Victoria becomes the River Nile and you can imagine this broiling brownish water passing by the pyramids on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. 

The border crossing is rather like a chaotic motorway service area lorry park and it is good to leave the little town of Rusumo behind and climb the path which leads to the antennae on a hill beside the town.  It's a walk of about 45 minutes to get up and 30 to come down but well worth the effort.

Looking down on the border crossing, a single file bridge.  Tanzania is to the left, Rwanda to the right.

From the top you can see the Akagera coming from where it forms the border with Burundi in the West then continuing downstream heading due North towards Uganda.  It's like being on a balcony overlooking a different country.  The contrast between Rwanda and Tanzania is very marked.  Densely populated Rwanda has to cultivate as much land as possible to feed the growing population and the Akagera divides the banana plantations on one side from the predominantly grassy and scrubby hills of Tanzania with only a cluster of houses and a few cultivated fields around the border crossing town.  The West of Tanzania is a long way from the bustle of the rapidly growing capital city, Dar Es Salaam on the Indian Ocean and the people just over the border seem to be living much more hand to mouth and more isolated than the Rwandans.  This place is beginning to change dramatically as work has begun on a new border crossing and one stop customs post on the Rwandan side of the river and at the same time a dam is to be built to produce hydroelectric power for the bordering countries.  A huge lake will cover the river valley upstream from the bridge and some 1500 families have to be relocated and given equivalent land and housing.  For five years there will be around 4,500 extra workers in the District and when they have finished their work the views here will be very different but no doubt equally spectacular.  I'd like to be able to come back in a few years time to see the new lake.

Sitting on the lawns by Lake Mahasi, enjoying the views and the cool drinks from the"Seeds of Peace" guest house.
 Still in the East there are many natural lakes, large and small, which are wonderful to see but only a few offer opportunities to stay and enjoy them.  One such is Lake Muhasi which has several inexpensive guest houses right on the lake side where food and drink can be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings.  One such place is "Seeds of Peace" guesthouse not far along the road from Kayonza towards Nyagatare and easily accessible by bus.  Like many guest houses this one is owned by the Catholic church and has conference and wedding reception facilities as well as accommodation and a restaurant. 
Crested cranes are a common sight at most lakes

There are small motor boats which can be hired with the boatman for a cruise on the lake to enjoy the views and the many lovely birds. 

A kingfisher - there are also the smaller blue ones.

Although the food service is typically Rwandan slow, the views from the terrace help the time to pass pleasantly and gardens along the lakeside offer opportunities for a leisurely stroll. The absence of tourists makes "Seeds of Peace" a relaxing place to while away a warm afternoon and if there is a wedding party that adds a different kind of interest for the visitor.

A view over the lake at the Akagera National Park
Still in the Eastern Province the Akagera National Game Park is a rapidly improving destination.  They are building a new visitor centre with a cafe and lovely views. Also under construction is a perimeter fence which will keep the animals in so that they can encourage lions to return and breed in safety and protect the local population from wandering wildlife. For accommodation there is the expensive Akagera Lodge for wealthy tourists but even from Nyakarambi, some two hours away, a day's visit is most enjoyable.  Both of my visits were done on the cheap, sticking to the nearer southern section of the park.  The first time we saw zebras, giraffes, baboons, impala and buffalo very close up and hippos in the distance in the lake, beyond the papyrus and reed beds.  The scenery is beautiful and the guides are very well informed and friendly. 

On the second visit we were in the dry season so the giraffes and zebras had moved further north to graze leaving us with only impala, buffalo, baboons,  vervet monkeys and some interesting birds (eg a bright turquoise kingfisher).  When/if I go again I will take the northern section where there is much more wildlife to see including elephants.

Moving anticlockwise around the northern border with Uganda I made another visit to Lake Ruhondo to stay at Ruhondo Beach Resort.  Though still under construction at the time of my visit the site definitely has the potential to be a beautiful peaceful lake side retreat. 

Newly built rooms at Ruhondo Beach

 The rondavel style accommodation is on a promontory overlooking the lake and has a large restaurant and bar terrace overlooking lawns dropping down to the lake side.  We were picked up by boat from a village across the lake, which is a lovely way to arrive, though it is a very bumpy 40 minute motor cycle taxi ride from Musanze to the village.  The lakeside gardens are very attractive and beyond them a footpath continues along the edge of the lake offering a pleasant walk with lovely views of the volcanoes across the lake.  The resort is very much a work in progress at the moment, but in the future it could offer a lovely place to stay for a few days.

Continuing towards the West to the shores of Lake Kivu there are two beautiful destinations.  Firstly Gasenyi just beside the crossing point to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Paradise Malahide, near Gasenyi.

There outside the town is a guest house called "Paradise Malahide" - passed on by word of mouth from VSO volunteer to VSO volunteer this is a gem already offering great service as well as a beautiful location.  The rondavel style rooms are comfortable and overlook the lake side from the lovely gardens.

Fishing boats linked together like trimarans leave in the evening and come back in as you have breakfast

The food in the restaurant is excellent and there is a visiting troupe of Intore Dancers for entertainment after the meal served around a blazing open fire. 

Breakfast is served on wooden platters with wooden carved cutlery at tables beside the lake where the fishing boats can be watched returning with the night's catch.  A short moto taxi ride away is the Serena Hotel with it's swimming pool and tourist style restaurants but nearby is the sandy beach and a walk along the shore towards the Congo border post.

The views of the lake are lovely but perhaps not as stunning as another Lake Kivu destination at Kibuye.  "Home St. Jean" in Kibuye is the great value guest house favoured by VSO volunteers.  It is located on a headland above the lake with beautiful views from the bar/restaurant terrace and the terrace outside the best rooms.  The gardens slope steeply down to the bank of the lake where a rocky beach gives access for swimming. 

View of Lake Kivu from Home St. Jean

The service is friendly but meals other than breakfast are produced very slowly and are very basic.  A lovely walk around the headland leads to other more expensive hotels which also have lovely gardens and shore lines. 

Karen and her daughter and me as we set off from the Bethany Hotel for Peace Island

From the nearby Bethany Hotel you can take a boat to cruise out to Amahoro Island where the island tour includes cold soft drink.  The boat can drop you at any spot for example the "Cormoran Hotel".

Cormoran Hotel from Lake Kivu.

View of the Cormoran gardens from the restaurant.

This is an eco-friendly collection of lovely wooden buildings on stilts set into the side of a steep cove linked by paths through the gardens going up from the lake's edge.  The views from the raised restaurant looking over the lake are beautiful and the food here is very tasty with good service.

The room rates are fairly expensive but by staying at a budget guest house you can still enjoy the facilities of more luxurious establishments after a short ride by moto taxi or even a boat ride.  Once more there is a distinct lack of tourist crowds and the natural beauty can be enjoyed without any hustle and bustle.

Further south from Kibuye but moving east from the lake there is the Forest of Nyungwe where guided treks through the forest simply for the beauty of the trees and shrubs or in pursuit of chimpanzees can be organised relatively inexpensively. 
Nyungwe Forest National Park
 There are guest houses in the forest near the park offices and camping is also a possibility.  Sadly unlike the gorilla treks in the Virunga Park there is no guarantee that chimpanzees will be found.  Of course gorilla trekking costs some 700 dollars a day just to enter the park whereas the chimpanzee trek is only 80 dollars.

Our friendly park guide who sadly did not manage to find the chimpanzees.

One of the Nyumgwe Park entrances and information point
 I'm glad I was lucky enough to see the gorillas six years ago before the big fee increases. The drive to Nyungwe is long and bumpy even though it is a tarmac road and passes through tea plantations as well as the forest itself.  The temperatures here are rather cooler, especially in the evening and early morning, so you need to wrap up warmly.

The last place I visited recently links quite well to the idea of wrapping up warm as it is high and subject to a fair bit of rain.  The volunteers in Byumba to the North of Kigali organised a party event called "Northern Lights" and invited all who wanted to to join in.  The weekend was really good.  First of all in spite of the weather the week before it was sunny and warm in the afternoon of Saturday when we all went for a lovely walk around Byumba, creating quite a stir as we numbered about 20-25 abazungo.  The walk, which lasted about two hours and wasn't at all strenuous in spite of the hilly countryside as it was mainly around contour paths.  Byumba is apparently the highest town in Rwanda so the surrounding countryside is spectacular.

Of course you see these everywhere but he was posing for a photo.
Rather hot and sticky we got back to the Ubwuzu Guest House - which was really friendly and welcoming with excellent service for only 15,000 Rwf (£15)  forB&B for two people per room.  The owner has been supported a lot by the volunteer couple in trying to create a tourist attraction with visits to the wetlands about an hour away.

 The owner, Blandine had booked a local traditional musician with his guitar type thing and, even better, a troupe of young drummers who gave a concert in front of the guest house for us.  They were very very good, we all enjoyed it a lot - the women taking in the muscular young bodies with much appreciation!!

Volunteers enjoying the drummers' show at Ubwuzu.

Sunday morning was bright and misty but very promising.  The guest house staff left hot water outside our rooms which most of us discovered after washing in cold water and dressing!!!! Breakfast was good and quickly served.  About 13 of us wanted to do the Rugezi wetlands visit so eventually we set off in a very old tatty taxi bus along gradually deteriorating roads until the last stretch which had temporary log bridges over the water channels crossing the roads, while they were building new conduits and bridges.

I never cease to be amazed by what people and even children can carry on their heads!

We got there unscathed in bright sunshine and transferred to boats (the kind with one paddle at the back, but otherwise like a large rowing boat - no life jackets of course!)  With our guides we were about 8 per boat, which was fine.  We paddled and drifted about for about two hours seeing lovely views and something like 15 species of birds, including blue kingfishers and a spoonbill.   All in all a good weekend - a lovely place to visit - gorgeous mountain scenery, stunning wetlands with beautiful birds.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Visit to Sénégal

4 April - it was a long journey from Kigali to Dakar, after long wait at the airport for a 02.50 flight.  There was a further wait of three hours at Nairobi then an en route fuel stop at Ouagoudougou.  The plane was two thirds empty for the last part of the journey. On arrival at Dakar I was nabbed by a taxi tout and ended up in a tatty taxi with a driver who didn't know where the hotel was and continued to demand more money than we agreed. When he eventually found Hotel Djoloff he still argued with the lovely receptionist to get more money. I had already accepted paying1000 CFA (West African francs) extra but he left unhappy!! I was really tired after more than 24 hours en route, drank the welcome cocktail, went to bed at about 17.00 and slept through til nearly 8.00! The bathroom of the room I was given had an unfortunate smell of drains, which was really bad by the morning but they gave me another room with friendly apologies.
The next morning I had a good breakfast in the rooftop restaurant but found that there was a cool breeze from the Atlantic Ocean which made the conservatory area very welcoming!
The roof-top restaurant in the morning sunshine.

 The hotel decor is very nice, with many good pictures and even plaster murals with modern images on the stair walls. Fanta in reception was very helpful with finding a sim card shop, advising about a taxi to Saint Louis and directions on the plan to show where the hotel is located.
Some of the fishing fleet in the bay beside the hotel.

I walked along the corniche road towards the city stopping off at an interesting African Art shop not far from the hotel. Resisting temptation I continued towards the city passing through a local market area. After buying my sim card I looked for a bus to the centre. They have everything from really old buses to big modern ones called Dakar Dem Dik (it means "Dakar there and back"). It was like the tube in London at rush hour! Sardines and with a very jerky driver.

Side street scene in Dakar

Getting off at what I guessed to be the town centre, I hadn't gone far from the bus stop before being accosted by a man selling t shirts. I gave in and got some for my grand children, but that just led the next seller in selling necklaces and his friend who wanted to show me the craft workshop and the clothes factory. The factory is a huge old building stuffed full of piles of clothes and household items made of a large variety of African fabrics - all very different from the ones in Rwanda. In every nook and cranny were men and women sewing away busily, but smiling welcomingly at visitors.

 The "boss" showed me round and before long he was carrying a pile of shirts, dresses and t shirts which I had lingered on. The last section was wall hangings and floor coverings, which I managed to avoid having added to the pile. As the "boss" added it all up he blithely gave me a "good " price around £150!!  After some weeding out of the pile and pleading volunteer poverty he dropped to nearer £75 for 8 items - probably still more than I wanted, but some will make nice presents (I hope!). 

My guide took me off towards his place but I mentioned that I wanted to stop and eat. He, Barry, offered to invite me to his place to eat and drink tea while he showed me photos of his tours, so I could decide what to do after getting back from Saint Louis. Well, what with traffic on the way, waiting for the food, meeting his friends, looking at photos, listening to music, drinking tea with all the accompanying ceremonies it was soon nearly five o' clock.
Barry's friend preparing lovely mint tea.

We exchanged numbers as we went for a taxi and I gave him some money for the food and drink. I don't think he was satisfied but as he very honestly said we did not agree anything before starting out. He also wants more business next week I guess.  His photos and web site seemed to show that he has quite a good business and some wealthy clients from Europe and USA- one of whom gave Barry his old mac laptop on his last visit and set up his website. Getting back to Hotel Djoloff I was glad to sit on the roof terrace with a cold beer, after we had done the room change mentioned earlier. I had a good dinner in the hotel restaurant up on the roof. The service is very good and the fish is excellent!

Friday 6 April.
Already time to head for Saint Louis in the afternoon. Fanta, the lovely receptionist had booked a "quatre places" taxi which would pick me up at the hotel and drop me on the bus park at Saint Louis four hours later- all for about £10.
My taxi 4 places at stop en route to Saint Louis

Scene outside mosque where we stopped for the driver's evening prayers
I discovered that Senegal is full of old French cars which are still running more or less, years after the European counterparts have been scrapped.  There used to be a popular adventure travel option which involved buying an old car in France in order to drive via Spain, North Africa and then into West Africa to Senegal.  After the holiday the car was sold to local dealers, who specialised in that trade and the travellers returned to Paris by air. Two things have put a stop to that - instability in Mauritania on the Northern border of Senegal and then the government of Senegal banning all imports of vehicles older than 5 years.  That means that the taxi drivers can no longer afford to replace their cars and the taxis are getting more and more dilapidated - cracked wind screens, dodgy tyres and suspension, one guy was using a jerrycan in the passenger footwell as his petrol tank!!  Another consequence of the instabilty is that the famous Paris-Dakar Rally can no longer run to Senegal and has been moved to South America!  The name of the rally remains the same presumably as they hope to move back to Dakar eventually.

The morning was spent walking along the shore line to visit the fish market and then the craft village. I bought two nice paintings for a knock down price - "first customer brings luck so very special price- don't tell anyone"! I Also got a "sous-verre" picture (painting on the back of glass) of a typical local bus, which didn't even survive the trip to Saint Louis!  I found a very posh resort hotel on the beach where I could swim for about £10 a day!!! Unless the weather gets warmer it's not likely to get a return visit.
The trip to Saint Louis went off very well, though a less ancient car would have been appreciated. From the bus park a taxi took me to the Hotel Mermoz, where I found I had been up-graded.
The rooms are pretty good inside, but outside is rather grim!

The bar and reception area of Hotel Mermoz

The gardens of Hotel Mermoz

The room, with three single beds is spacious and has it's own hot water boiler, air con and tv. In fact the whole place looks disappointingly like an African Butlins holiday camp, with cement blocks of two or three rooms scattered around a sandy garden all linked by concrete paths. The bar, restaurant and pool areas are quite nice, but the cool weather has kept me away from the pool!   As it was dark by the time I had settled in I decided to opt for the hotel restaurant and leave exploring the other places in town for another evening.

Sheep are kept on the street as well as in the yards.
On Saturday I took a shared taxi into the town centre and had a wander around. The approach to the town is through the bustling fisherman's quarter, which has to be seen to be believed, but more of that on another day. The town centre is decaying French colonial buildings on an island in the middle of the Senegal river, which flows along parallel to the shore for several kilometres before entering the sea. The Hotel Mermoz is on the long tongue of sand dunes (La Langue de Barbarie) formed between the river and the Atlantic. The first impression is the strong smell from the fishing boats and their landings. It all looks chaotic along the shore or quay side and the picturesque scenes are rather marred by the pieces of plastic waste which are everywhere, especially in public areas. Even driving from Dakar, every town or village has a desolation of a couple of kilometres of strewn plastic  waste surrounding it. In the "world heritage site" of Saint Louis you could fill lorry after lorry with rubbish and take forever to make a difference.

Goats also have their places, here beside the Senegal River

View of river from Saint Louis along the jetsam strewn waterside

You can stroll up and down the island in a couple of hours, as there is not much to linger over, other than river views across to the hundreds of  pirogues of the fishing fleet. There are sheep and goats living on the pavements, running across the roads where small carts pulled by horses ferry goods and passengers through the crowded streets, where washing may also be hanging out. The side roads are just sand, the others full of pot holes.

The first day I found the Institut Français where they were showing a French film in the evening. I also spotted a Vietnamese restaurant praised in the Lonely Planet guide. Somewhat let down by the mess everywhere I retreated to a posh riverside restaurant and consoled myself with a pizza and beer. After taking it easy in the hotel I set off for town by taxi to see the French film before eating at the Vietnamese restaurant. The film was good and free, the restaurant was fine. On Sunday I took a walk further away from  the town through a small village and found a pleasant place to watch birds on the river bank - cormorants, pelicans, egrets and a small fast diving bird whose name I forgot, but they were putting on a great show at catching small fish. Afterwards I was talking to Suleman, the art objects seller in front of the hotel Mermoz. He told me about the history if the Hydrobase, now in ruins just beside the hotel and marked by a monument to Mermoz a pioneer of cross Atlantic flights from Africa to South America. Sea planes used to ferry mail from France via Morocco and Senegal across to the east of South America. The Hydrobase was sorting office, repairs and re-fuelling base for planes from the 1930's to 2003.  In Saint Louis the Hotel de la Poste was the R&R base for the pilots and crews, who seem to have been a riotous bunch of young heroes, flying those old-time bi-planes and sea planes across seas and deserts, risking desert breakdowns and capture by tribesmen or drowning in the oceans. The museum in town has photos, maps and models describing their exploits.
Suleman turned out to be the Mr Fixit of the village and after selling me a couple of masks we discussed a pirogue trip for Monday.

Local transport ranges from this generation to modern 4x4.

I walked into town via the fishermen's village that evening- it doesn't get dark here until about 07.30, which is a change after Rwanda. Near the bridge to the town there are hundreds of fishing boats moored and on the road similar numbers of refrigerated lorries waiting for the next morning's catch. Suleman told me that a full fishing pirogue can fill between four and six lorries, which then take the fish off all over West Africa and beyond via Dakar. The fishing village is full of people, children, sheep, ancient cars and buses, horse-drawn carts, bicycles and scooters. The space between the road and the water has fish stalls, racks of fish drying in the sun, enclosures full of sheep, lambs and goats, stacks of logs and planks to be built into boats in the building and repair yards, piles of fishing nets and floats, stacks of plastic crates for packing fish in ice, some small shops and bars, small houses and courtyards. In the evening there are charcoal stoves out on the pavement where women cook for their families among children playing football, skipping or just chasing around. All of everyday life here seems to be carried out in the open, be it washing clothes, gutting fish, repairing cars, welding, boat building, selling anything and everything. It looks like total chaos but it is all focused on the hugely important job of supplying vast quantities of fish for all over Africa.

Everyone turns out in the morning to help get the fish unloaded or simply to watch

On Monday I met Suleman at 10.00 to set off on a trip down the river towards the sea. On the way to the boat I got more background to the Hydrobase and saw children helping the fishermen sort out and wash their catch.
Suleman and our boatman.

 A young man to be our boatman joined us so that Suleman  could talk to me as we sailed. We saw great numbers of different types of egret, cormorants and pelicans in flocks on the water on the shore or in the air. Sailing through the mangroves we also saw fish eagles. We had to cross one stretch where the sea flows into the river. From what I can gather there had been floods in Saint  Louis about ten years ago and they decided to cut a way through the tongue of land between the sea and the rivet to let the flood water out. The intention was to block it again but the sea had other ideas for the 11 metre breach and overnight washed away all attempts to fill it. Now the sea has made a breach two or three kilometres long and is threatening to wash away the entire Langue de Barbarie in time , exposing the river bank to more erosion and allowing the salt water to travel miles upstream. They had to build a dam to keep back the salt water and allow agriculture to continue upstream with fresh water. Yet another example of man interfering with nature and getting the wrong result!

Our destination was a holiday centre in Touareg tent style set in the dunes among trees. A beautiful spot accessible only by boat from the mainland now that the spit of land has been breached.
Heading towards the mouth of the river, with the Atlantic waves in the distance

View of the eco-lodges hotel on the Langue de Barbarie.

I'm sitting on the red recliners you see in the photo above.

Cheeky birds steal our peanuts!

We had a good lunch in the big canopy sitting at low tables. I chatted to Suleman about the djembe drums which are very popular in West Africa. Of course he is a djembe player too and soon gave me a demonstration after the meal. He offered to find me a good drum and to arrange some lessons. The waiters proceeded to make tea by the traditional method which involves a lot of pouring from glass to glass at a great height. After lunch we set of to cruise quickly back to the Hydrobase as the weather had turned cold and grey.  Nonetheless, a good day overall!

Boxes of fish are passed ashore. Each "pirogue" will fill four refrigerated lorries.

On Tuesday morning as I was walking to town a car pulled up beside me. Out jumps Suleman carrying a large djembe in a brightly coloured case. He had rushed off to find a good djembe for me and was clearly pleased with the deal he had struck! He said he was foregoing his profit because I had bought him drinks and a meal yesterday and would get his friend to give me lessons! As I was on my way to town we left more discussion til my return. I was able to take a good look at the unloading of the fishing fleet which I described before.  The shore is crowded with people between the boats and the lorries as men and women wade into the water to carry boxes of fish ashore and pass them from one to another in a chain.  Ice is shovelled into the lorries with the fish and its melting adds to the mess all around.
The endless line of lorries awaiting their load of fish

Fish drying in the sun on the river bank.

Boat building on the river side.

In town I had lunch then visited the museum telling the story of the air postal service which had a base at Saint Louis. A lot of the information reads like Boys' Own story with brave young pilots doing exciting exploits to get the mail through. The famous French adventure writer St. Exupery was one of the pilots.
On returning to the hotel we got down to checking out the drum and after a quick lesson I decided to go for it. Suleman's partner turned out to be a good teacher and a friendly young man. We agreed to meet again the next morning to continue. This time another local, who sells tourist "art" and "craft" joined us and tried to annotate the rhythms using local Wolof language. He then made a great suggestion which was that I should video each style on my camera, which we duly did, to make more sense of his  "Guine tipi tapa Guine" notes!

Impromptu concert neat the hotel gate.

After a lazy day reading and a bit of a walk I returned for a late afternoon  lesson to find they had gathered three more drums of different types and were ready to do an impromptu concert outside the hotel wall. I played with them for a while but they wanted to do more and so I lent my djembe so the five of them could put on a performance, attracting other guests from the hotel. A couple of Swedish women travelling with a young son each got into the spirit of the music and joined in the dance demo from Diau. I videoed the musicians and Diau dancing, which they were really excited about when they saw it. I promised to send it to Diau's email address and he wants to put it on Utube and get the players together to go round the restaurants in town in the evening. The music and dance session was a great success and the players clearly enjoyed the chance to show off their skills and their culture. On Thursday morning the Swedes left, but I think the drumming and singing  had added to their enjoyment of Saint Louis.

Silly old twit!!

 I had two more lessons on Thursday and in between the sun shone strongly and I was able to catch a few too many rays by the pool!
My taxi would not leave until after lunch on Friday so I was able to have one more lesson with my friends before setting off. They were keen to make sure I would be able to remember all they had taught me and be able to continue playing after my visit.  They even spent time making sure I knew how to adjust the cords for tightening the drum head. There's no doubt that those three young men made a big difference to my stay and I'm so glad I trusted Suleman, who turned out to be a really kind and thoughtful friend, rather than a tourist tout looking for a fast profit!

The receptionist at Hotel Mermoz proved really unhelpful in booking a 4 seat taxi back to Dakar but a call to Fanta at Hotel Djoloff soon got it sorted and she sent a taxi to pick me up from Hotel Mermoz.

The journey back was hassle-free and I was soon back in the Hotel Djoloff.

The next day I set off determined to wander around Dakar town centre finding my bearings and avoiding touts or guides.  I took the Dik Dem Daar bus - an older version this time and managed to recognise where I wanted to get off.  I was near the President's Palace and was taking photos when I heard my name called out.  Of course it was Barry - my guide from the previous week.  I had intended to call him the following day, so was not too concerned to see him.  I asked him to work out a deal for three days of visits and we agreed on a price, all entries, transport, meals etc included.  As it was still mid-morning we decided to start straight away with a ferry trip to the nearby Ile de Gorée. En route we visited another market -  a rather posh victorian/islamic style of market hall which was very vibrant and colourful. 

The ferry trip was pleasant and we could see the port of Dakar and the island not far away.  The island has no motorised vehicles and very narrow lanes and alleys, mainly just sandy earth, though a few were paved with cobbles.  It is a small fishing village with a cluster of restaurants, souvenir stalls around the port and the fortress left from colonial and slave trade days.  Barry was good company and told me a lot about the island and the history of slavery.  We visited the old slave prison with its gate of no return leading from the cells to the quayside where the museum director gave us a good overview of the impact of slavery on West Africa.  He stressed that even before the colonisers came, African tribes had owned slaves themselves and that many tribes were guilty of selling their own people into slavery for profit, especially to get guns to use against other tribes.

Harbour on Ile de Gorée

Village square come football pitch with baobab tree.

Statue beside the slavery museum

The next day we had an early start to what turned out to be a long and varied day.  I was picked up at the hotel very punctually and we set off to drive to the Lac Rose or Lac Retba, which used to be the finishing point of the aforementioned Paris to Dakar Rally.  It was a good two hours drive though and to the north of Dakar, which goes on for ever spreading north over the peninsula.  There is one "motorway" which gets traffic out of the town centre pretty quickly, but the traffic on it is no different from any little road with buses and pedestrians everywhere.  At the lake our early arrival gave us a peaceful start and we were able to relax by the shore with a cold beer.  The lake is ten times saltier than the nearby ocean (visible over the dunes) and the salt and an algae combine as the sun gets higher to turn the water a pinkish red colour.  Our boatman accidentally lost his punting pole and was able to give us an unintended demonstration of how buoyant the water is as he stripped to swim after it.

He told us that the salt seeps in below the ground from the ocean and we saw fresh water streams flowing into the lake and wells only a few metres away which were full of fresh water.  There is a small scale salt industry on the lake shore which entails men diving to the lake floor (only two or three metres) to hack at the salt crystals which are constantly forming, scraping them into a box and lifting it onto the flat bottomed boat.  Women are no longer allowed to stay in the water to do that as they were having too many miscarriages as a result of spending too long in the salty water.  The women help to organise the heaps of salt drying on the lake shore and it is packed into sacks ready to be sold. 

Fresh water well made of old tyres only a few yards from the salty lake.

Of course there are women trying to sell necklaces, bracelets etc to the few tourists, who trail around after you possessively until you make a purchase or manage to slink off.  They were not too pushy and their prices were quite low compared to Dakar.

After some refreshment we set off on foot to walk over to see the sand dunes and the ocean beyond.  On the way we passed a group of camels sitting probably hoping for no tourists to disturb their rest - there was no sign of their keeper only white birds on their heads so we had no touting to take a ride.  There are also dune buggies available for those who want more excitement. 

As we neared the ocean we saw a group of fishermen on the beach who were pulling their nets back in a semi circle so we walked over to see the process and their catch.  It looked rather like  tug o' war competition, though there were men in the sea as well as on the beach.  They quickly heaved the fish ashore and we could see the catch included four or five big flatfish rather like rays with a long tail.  Barry explained that these were the fish steaks we had seen drying in the village which is nicknamed "Senegal Camembert", a very popular dish it seems.

Reaching the car we set off back to Dakar and went first to a local restaurant with the driver and I had a good fish and rice dish.  Then we went into one of the suburbs to find the stadium where the Senegalese wrestling matches were to take place.  Barry got tickets and we went over to three shady side of the stadium where we had a good view of the whole area.  It is a handball pitch but had been covered with sand and sand bags to form the wrestling area. 

Late evening sunshine fills the stadium with colour.

Wrestlers preparing to set to.

The noise and excitement inside the stadium could be felt as well as heard.  At one end on our left a large group of musicians, mainly drummers was playing at full tilt, sometimes accompanying or accompanied by a bellowing singer with a microphone.  Groups of wrestling club members and fans of the competitors were shouting and blowing whistles in various parts of the stadium, including just beside us.  Vendors pushed through the spectators along the cement seats selling sodas, peanuts and cashew nuts and some sweet doughnut-like cakes.  The senior club members of the competing wrestlers were marching up and down or dancing and chanting for their hero.  Wrestlers about to fight were strutting about pouring water and other ritual liquids over their bodies, occasionally adding a fist full of sand to the mix.  Their seconds scuttled around with bottles of water, extra talismans and whatever special potions the wrestler believed in.

The bouts lasted anything from 20 seconds to over 5 minutes.

Dancing group adding to the ambience.

Singers and drummers belted out their rhythms!
 The MCs with their microphones shouted over the drumming to announce the match and the two faced off making various marks on the sand and picking up hand fulls to toss down before their opponent.  They start of like a couple of cats pawing at each other until they manage to get a grip of a hand or part of the cloth worn around the pants area.  Eventually one manages to throw the other to the ground and is declared the winner.  The first match was over so quickly I hadn't got my camera raised for action! 

The others took little longer, fortunately, especially the one I chose to video which went on rather too long!  At one point a group of women dancers danced right round the arena as the next bout was beginning.  There were several things happening simultaneously the whole time, creating an atmosphere of confusion but also great colour and exciting sounds of drumming and singing.  The whole event was being broadcast live by television even though this was just a second or third level competition. The big matches are advertised on hoardings all over the country and you often see groups of men training together on the shore, lifting weights or doing push-ups or pull-ups.  It seemed to be as popular as football among the young men and boys. 
This was an event I would never have thought of going to but thanks to my guide I had a really good experience!

The following day we set off early again to visit the Ile des Coquillages, about two hours drive from Dakar, this time heading north east along the coast.  As we arrived at the car park we could see a footbridge leading across to the island and Barry had booked a dugout canoe and its boatman to ferry us out to visit the mangroves, see the Christian and Muslim cemetery and then visit the island. The whole island and the cemetery are made of about ten metres deep of sea shells and the bodies in the cemetery are buried as usual but the ground is all sea shells. 

View from the cemetery towards the island village.

No motorised transport allowed on the island!

We took a walk around looking at the views and the baobab trees as well as seeing to my surprise how long-lived many of the locals had been - several centenarians and many not far off that age.  Is it their diet of sea shells or the air I wondered.  One or two ex-pat Europeans had had their remains shipped back there to be buried in the sea shell cemetery.  Usually Muslims have a separate cemetery but on this island the ratio of Muslims to Christians is only one in ten- the exact opposite of the Senegal statistics and shortage of space has led to a peaceful compromise.  There were many pigs rooting around back in the village on the island, which of course you don't usually see in a Muslim country. 
Low tide allows the pigs to forage in the sand and mud flats.

We returned to the village by boat and went to the house of a friend of Barry's where a meal had been prepared for us. 
Fresh local fish and cous-cous.

That day the sun was really hot and there was no breeze from the ocean so we rested for a couple of hours after the meal before setting off to meet a man with a horse and cart, who had been engaged to take us to visit the Sacred Baobab Tree.  This involved about half an hour bumping across the tidal flats to reach the forest of baobabs. 
My ungainly failed attempt to squeeze in - I had to be passed in like a corpse

Barry had no such problem getting out!

Quite an impressive tree!

Seems our driver is a wrestler in his other job!

The sacred tree is quite impressive and a guide is there to show you how to get inside it and to tell you the tradition of leaving the bodies of their wise men inside, rather than burying them - a practice long since abolished I'm pleased to say.  The tree has a colony of bats inside too and a place where you are invited to put your hands and make a wish, which will come true.  (Typically I've forgotten what I wished for, so I will never know if it worked!)

The vendors around the tree have formed an agreement to avoid hassling the tourists, who had been complaining.  They have a rota and the tourist is invited to start with the one vendor whose turn it is, who tries very hard to make a sale and then you are free to look around the other stalls with no pressure to buy.  Sounds good in theory, but the poor seller in the spotlight is desperate to sell as he will not get a turn for days, so the pressure is still on the tourist to buy something.  It's annoying that an interesting natural site has become like a tourist trap with stalls right up beside the baobab tree,. but the village is very isolated and the poor people have to make a living somehow as there is no other work for them.  I'm coming round to feeling that as a tourist you should be ready to buy something in order to support the local community.  In most instances they have made the artefact themselves, usually very skilfully and as "rich" tourist it is almost insulting to refuse to buy anything.  Needless to say, with this attitude,  I end up with all sorts of stuff I don't need, but some can go as presents for my friends in Rwanda.

The journey back to Dakar started just before dark so most of the journey offered little to see until we got back to the sprawling suburbs.  One interesting sight was a packed "sept places" taxi which had a sheep sitting peacefully on its roof rack, gazing around as the driver zig-zagged through the evening rush hour. It was not too late to have a meal at the Hotel Djoloff restaurant, but it had been a long though very interesting day.  All in all my guide, Barry, had done a good job and I had visited many places I would have not explored or experienced without his local knowledge and contacts and I had no worries about transport, meals etc as it was all taken care of for me.  Barry claimed to have given me a good price so that I would recommend him to friends and through this blog, so that he can build up his business.  Amadou Barry is his full name.  I can recommend him as being honest and open, his French is good and he can also speak English.  It was clear that he is pretty well known by many as he was often greeted in a friendly way as we went around places.  I wish him every success in building up his tourism business!

On my last day in Dakar, 18 April, I determined that I would explore the city alone and managed to do so for about two hours.  Then I was lured into a conversation about Senegalese music, and of course I just happened to have found an expert!!  We went off to a market stall to listen to some djembe drumming CDs and some music by Youssou N'dour (now the Senegal minister for Culture and Tourism of the new government). This time I drove a very hard bargain, or so it seemed judging by the state of my "opponent"  by the end, but of course I was buying pirate CDs with badly printed labels.  I half expected them to have been switched for blanks in the process, but they are ok after all!  I managed to escape him and headed back for the relative peace of the area near my hotel to relax for a while.  I did want to get the case for my djembe strengthened for the journey as the straps were a bit weak for the weight.  In local shops I managed to buy nylon webbing and find a tailor who did a good job of sewing stronger straps on the case. Before dinner I took a walk and found that there is a pleasant beach not far from the hotel where some local boys were swimming.  I doubt I would have swam there knowing how dirty the sea is along the coast but it was nice to enjoy a evening sunset beer, watching the beach activity as they set up grills, chairs and tables ready for the open-air temporary restaurants. 

My last day was a short one as I had to leave for the airport by about 14.00, so I took a long walk along the corniche road and found plenty of space and fresh air to set me up for nice lunch back at the hotel roof terrace.

 My taxi was very punctual and the journey to the airport was fine.  As I entered the departures hall there was a machine for wrapping luggage in strong plastic film which was just what I needed to protect my drum, which I knew would be too big for hand luggage.  Off it went into the hold complete with "Fragile" label with my fingers crossed.  I was 5 kilos over weight but the check-in clerk just waved me through - phew!  On arriving at Kigali the suitcase and drum both came off intact to my relief.  Of course as I passed through the Rwandan customs I was stopped and given a pair of scissors to remove the offending plastic!  It felt good to be back in a country where plastic waste is not tolerated, after two weeks of trying to see beyond the waste problem in Senegal!