Mary Ellen over at http://www.jamessproject.com/ wrote this stunning post for us. Thank you so much Mary Ellen. I really enjoyed the post and it made me miss West Africa even more!
Over to Mary Ellen:
What moves you?
Think about it. What truly MOVES you?
What motivates you to get up? Get moving? To explore and discover places that you have never been; people you have never met; with languages spoken you do not understand?
What can get you to go there?
For me, it has been my children.
What else would give a middle aged suburban soccer mom who nearly failed high school French the guts to travel solo to West Africa?
That’s right. Her child.
My teen age daughter is living in a village in Senegal for the school year as part of her bridge year as a Fellow with Global Citizen Year. When the decision was made that she would go, the expectation is we would not see her until she returned in eight months to American soil. As life would have it, some gifts and hard work offered me the opportunity to visit her new home away from home. Only I would be travelling solo until we connected. And then still, it would be this not so continental middle aged mom and one young and growing American teen.
But my children move me. My daughters inspire me. It was time to say hello to the young traveler inside me that I had left on the side of the road of early motherhood some twenty years previous.
I started my journey to Senegal by doing a ton of online research. As much as I varied my search terms: Senegal, solo travel, woman travel in Senegal, developing country, best ways for Americans to travel; safe travel, etc – the google results were TripAdvisor and a couple of individual blogs including “LivingInAfrica”.
Unsure about what was more reliable I ate it ALL up! During the trip I realized that these websites that had landed on were quite reliable and I was anxious to help another a new traveler to Senegal have a positive experience too. Senegal is VERY do-able for any new traveler. You just need to be prepared.
Hopefully my experiences will help push anyone sitting on the fence about visiting Senegal to go ahead and book their flight. It’s an adventure worth having. It’s one that you will continue to discover new parts to it long after you have returned home, too. Here are Five Things to know About Westerners Travel to Senegal.
- Where to Stay: Booking.com & Trip Advisor are your best friends. The reviews on these sites are quite accurate which can help you determine what your non-negotiables are on hotel stays in a developing country. Senegal IS a third world country. There are power outages at times and the shower head usually is not affixed to the wall. Yet, the power always comes back on and its better than a bucket shower! There are a couple five star, very expensive western hotel chains in Dakar, Senegal. However, if you are hoping to experience the feel of the host country I would encourage a stay at a locally owned hotel. I found Hotel Sunugal via the reviews at Booking.com. While it did not receive rave reviews for its wi-fi, they did have it available at the hotel restaurant and I just didn’t want to be glued to the web anyway. I did appreciate that the Hotel had a reputation of cleanliness and comfort. In addition, while there I much appreciated the respectful way the hotel staff allowed me to try my limited French and understood when it was better for us to communicate in English.
- Getting Around: I went the “easy” route and hired a driver. The quotes imply there is no easy way. Taxis and buses abound are very do-able. Taxis are reasonable so long as you feel confident haggling the price with the taxi driver before you get in the car. The reception staff at Hotel Sunugal where we stayed was very helpful finding a reliable taxi driver for us for an evening outing. However, daily use for extended driving it is probably best to get a driver for those days. Again, haggling the price is important before you go. Make sure that there is clear mutual agreement on who is paying for gas and what gas. I agreed on $40,000 CFA ($80 USD) a day plus gas. My understanding was I would pay for the gas needed for driving me places. Not the gas the driver used up going other places without me in the car. Buses are another option but certainly are not for the faint of heart.
- While On The Subject of Money: The best and easiest way to go here is to use your VISA/MC debit/credit card. Call your bank a few weeks in advance of your trip and ask your bank to mark the dates you will be travelling out of the country. Let them know what countries you will be in so there will be no difficulty in taking money out of an ATM machine. Keep in mind that sometimes the ATMs may be out of money – especially if it you arrive on a holiday or near a weekend. I arrived the day before New Year’s Eve and found that six different ATMs did not work. In this case, you may want to exchange a small amount of money at the airport just to make sure you have some case ($50,000 CFA) will be enough for taxi fare and getting settled in your hotel. You can always try to withdraw a lesser amount as well if it does not work at first.
- Religious Pilgrimages: These actually should be a sub section of “Getting Around”. When I visited, there was a religious pilgrimage to Gamu the same day we wanted to travel to Lac Rose and then on north to St-Louis. As the infrastructure is still being developed this meant we would run into all the traffic of this pilgrimage. It took us twice as long to make the journey as expected. Just something to keep in mind – check the Senegal Public Holiday calendar when setting an itinerary!
- Mosquitoes and Visas: You will want to set up an appointment with a travel doctor leaving ample time for a yellow fever and typhoid vaccination. While there talk to the clinician about what type of anti-malaria medication they would recommend for you. There are three possibilities at this time with a variety of side effects. Something for everyone! Most hotels will offer a mosquito net and you will want to use them. Learn how to properly tuck the net under the mattress. A little insect repellant should suffice throughout the day to keep the bugs at bay. The Senegalese Visa is also a process to allow time. Approximately one month before you travel you will apply for your Travel Visa online. Follow this link and follow the directions closely. You will be printing out your receipt. You will pick up your Visa once you get to the airport.
- Oi de toilette? There are a few common phrases you will want to understand while visiting Senegal. Americans are terribly insular – to our disadvantage. It is not only polite to your host country but quite helpful to you as a citizen of the world to at least TRY to communicate in the native tongue of where you are visiting. The official language of Senegal is French. “Ca va?” and “Cava bien?” are perfect ways to communicate – especially in the urban areas like Dakar. “Nange daf” is a nice greeting in the native tongue Wolof spoken by a large amount of the Senegalese. They will be surprised to hear you say it and their smiles will broaden. It’s a great way to show respect for their culture and give you a chance to explore in depth. A phrase book is a great help.
- Leaving Dakar: It’s not easy. Chances are good you will not actually be ready to go. You will want to explore Goirree Island a second time. You will want another day at Lac Rose. You will wish you could have made it to Ngor Island. Then there is the night life – alive and vibrant in what is actually the wee hours of the morning! However, all good things must come to an end. Have your passport out and ready to show several times. You will show it to be able to enter the airport. You will need to show it at the enrance to the Check in line and at least another three times before you even get to the Customs Officers. Once you get through and to the other side. Don’t get that bottle of water and think you can bring it on the plane. You have to drink it all before going through ANOTHER luggage inspection. You will head out of the building, onto a bis and head to the place for your final departure. Watch your step leaving the Dakar airport building. The last step is a doozy! I know. I got to fly the 9.5 hour flight home with a sprained ankle on a full flight! (Ahem, Delta has a direct flight to New York but not the best customer service. That’ll be another post someday!)
If you’d like to share your ideas here please let me know in the comments section 🙂
If you’d like to read about more tips when visiting different places please click here.
Have a great day!