Day One, Hours 0-3
Dakar, Senegal (much like Addis Ababa in Ethiopia) sees a LOT of transit passenger traffic. These airports are like airplane travel hubs for the entire continent of Africa. I’ve flown to Senegal on a number of trips before, but this trip was the first time I would actually get off of the plane! I was excited! We would fly from JFK to Dakar where we would embark on our adventure.
We arrived just as the sun was rising. We went through customs easily, retrieved our backpacks (intact and unmolested), and changed our Euros (we changed our USDs into Euros before leaving CO) into CFAs without having to pay a fee (which was nice!).
CFA is the currency for Senegal. It is also the currency for much of French speaking West Africa: Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger and Togo. This group of nations is called UEMOA (Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine, or “West African Economic and Monetary Union”). CFA stands for Communauté financière d’Afrique (“Financial Community of Africa”). One thousand CFA is roughly equivalent to two American bucks. The 1000 note was the one we used the most. A CFA is called a franc, and the CFA is pegged to the Euro.
After making a rookie traveler’s mistake getting our taxi (I’ll probably post on the different rookie mistakes we made later), we were off in search of the Ambassade du Mali to apply for the visas we would need to enter Mali. It is very important to set a price for your taxi ride before setting off IN the taxi. This helps to avoid uncomfortable and potentially dangerous arguments about the fare when you reach your destination. This can be a challenge in that we really had no idea what the going rate was for taxis from place to place. However, we settled on an amount and headed to the Malian embassy. When we arrived, we learned that we’d need to wait about 45 minutes for the embassy to open. We told our taxi driver that we’d be needing to wait and that he could go on and that we’d get another taxi to take us to our hotel. No, he said he’d wait. We were very firm in explaining that we would NOT be paying him to wait that we’d only be paying the fare from the airport to the embassy and from the embassy to the hotel. He agreed. So we sat around and waited, the three of us, attempting to communicate in limited french (mine) and limited english (the taxi driver). Our taxi driver was named Aliel, but he went by Ali. Once the embassy opened, we filled out applications and dropped off our passports, passport pictures, and the fee for the visa. We could return at 3:00 the next day to retrieve our passports. I hated walking away from my passport like that, but that’s what you do!
Next stop was the Hotel Saint-Louis Sun. We’d decided on that from its review and good vital statistics provided by the Lonely Planet. Our competent driver knew exactly where it was and took us directly there. But then he wanted nearly twice the money we’d agreed on for the fare. Thank God (seriously) for Abner, who didn’t back down in dealing with taxi drivers everywhere, who handed him the money AFTER getting our bags out of the trunk and informed him that he wasn’t get any more money than we’d agreed upon. Ali knew he was wrong. We attracted some attention with the heated debate, but none of the locals sided with him. He let us walk away with our bags without too much of a fight after a minute or so.
Our primary source of information while on this trip would be the West Africa version of the Lonely Planet. These books are packed with information on destinations and are very user friendly. Potential places to stay, things to do, local adventures to engage in had been highlighted so that we easily locate entries that had caught our attention. The latest edition was two years old, but we figured it would still be pretty accurate. And it basically was, but the prices on things listed turned out to be less than the actual costs we encountered.
Like at our first hotel. Despite still being the cheapest habitable location in town, it was about twice what the book had indicated we could anticipate spending. However, it was clean, and it seemed mostly safe, it had a restaurant, and the rooms even had air conditioning. PLUS for a small extra fee we could use the Wi-Fi (only in french, this is pronounced Wee-Fee, which sometimes made us laugh, but always made us smile to say!).
Since we were already there, and because, although it was more expensive than we thought, it wasn’t exactly expensive in the grand scheme of things, we decided to enjoy the place! And to leave one day earlier than planned.
I was crazy with delight at being in West Africa…and it had only been a few hours!