Burning red suns fall across a land of sand, colour and burgeoning hearts, where wild creatures tall as trees roam freely, the lion awaits, an oasis brings rest and peace, and the stars glow brightly in an ink-black sky.
You are swallowed into another portal of culture – mesmerised by the colours of the world transforming before your eyes.
A horizon of pure gold.
Words apt to describe this place might be Wisdom, Peace, or perhaps Serendipity, for my coming to this land wasn’t foreseen, and yet, perfectly place in a journey changing from green to gold, from the Tropics to the Sahel. Many dreams became their first reality.
This land has left me rich with treasures beyond imagination. This was surely a meeting with a Wise Soul – she’d seen many things in her years between invasions, slave trades, rising rebellions and prophets, yet had found a peace with her past, ushering in this stranger with open heart, open arms, open shores.
For the real word for this land is Teranga – local for hospitality. These people pride themselves on it. You’ll never find yourself alone in the cold here.
I found a slower pace of life on her long, tranquil coastlines.
A chance to absorb and exhale, hypnotise and hallucinate another fantasy to life.
This land is Senegal, of course ~ once the westernmost point of the known world before the discovery of the Americas ~ the ‘Old World’. It has been a whole new landscape and geography for me to explore. Here, a strong blend of cultures from sub-saharan Africa and the Arab World come together to form a rich and varied land. I arrived in the dense heat of the dry season when the earth was yellowed and bare, with sparse plant life, only to see it burst into Eden-like vivacity with the ensuing rains – a landscape transformed dramatically before my eyes.
My month stay in Senegal was an education in the power of seasons, earth, family and oasis. This land showed me that things must first die… to be reborn even more beautifully.
It was a long journey travelling up the coast in sweltering heat, using only the cheapest public transport (minus horse and cart perhaps) and the help of many locals who always seemed more than happy to help – help me buy a local simcard, find toilets (European bladders do not match the stamina of African ones), gave me information on what to see, where to stay, sometimes insisted on paying for our share of taxi rides etc. Locals are always the best guides, and I found the people of Senegal refreshingly unintrusive, which may be in part to do with my crap French, and the respect people seem to have for foreign travellers here. Tourism in this part of the world is quite different from countries in SE Asia for example. I only met a handful of europeans – mostly volunteers in groups or more seasoned travellers returning to a favourite hotel or to see friends. Hardly anything you see along the road is tailored for ‘tourists’ here. Everybody I met was kind and welcoming and I wasn’t once (that I can remember) pestered or hawked beyond comfort, not even in busy markets.
I’ve been treated a lot worse in Africa I can assure you…
Sitting by the side of the river under temporary grass shelters with local sellers eating fresh coconut whilst waiting for the ferry to arrive – that’s a memory of peace for me, and one of my favourite parts of this kind of travel. We all had to cross – there seemed to be no division between we travellers and locals. A respect and an ease of being. We didn’t want anything of each other, just to share the air, the moment and the universal power of smiles.
Eventually I found my oasis…
In the seaside town of Toubab Dialaw at ~ Begue Pokai ~
This place became my home, its residents my family.
Welcome to paradise…
Colourful birds, butterflies, lizards and chameleons climb amongst the banana trees, aloes and great swathes of flowers. Every inch of the thoughtfully-designed hotel reminds you that Begue Pokai is family – a place for travellers and friends to come together. A place of community – come here to unwind and connect (quite literally – here was the first EVER good wifi connection I’ve found in West Africa).
The people I met here, the dinners we shared, the love and heart – my perfect oasis after weeks of travelling through rural parts of West Africa. At the table we spoke a mixture of Italian, French, Spanish and English – no boundaries or prejudice. That’s my kind of cocktail.
Ana from Barcelona will read your stars, Stephanie is the kindest host you’ve met on the earth, the Italian ladies are busy in the kitchen ~ the coffee’s always hot and the fish always fresh from the sea.
The village thrives on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The sandy streets make way for horse and cart, busy markets stalls and passing buses. People watch you from the steps of their homes, children run out to hold your hand as you pass ~ the sun dances along the coast, changing colour as the season matures.
One day some of the travellers staying at Begue were walking into town to attend a ritualistic exorcism. I joined them, out of curiosity. We were lead by local children to a house down a winding, sandy alleyway where many people were gathered. We were ushered in, given front row seats and a band of dyed wool to put around our necks for ‘protection’. I wasn’t so convinced, did my own prayers of protection for myself and everyone present and wore my cross. The ceremony was utterly fascinating – the people of the town were trying to cure an elderly lady of epilepsy. It was utterly absurd, and yet fascinating… One of the elder males playing the drum took a liking to me and asked me to play the drums – I did, naturally. We were drumming to a rhythm of my own making, remembering some of the rhythms I’d learnt in Ghana, whilst everybody watched. It was a moment of joy, but around the time they placed the woman under a blanket with a tied-up goat and began swinging a live cockerel tied-up by its feet around her head, I decided to leave, before the sacrifices began. We’d already been there for a few hours and I’d seen enough…
Stayed long enough to get some kind of henna before I left though, with a female friend of mine… turns out they were preparing us for marriage. Nice try, ladies! I’m not giving in that easily.
An episode I don’t think I’ll forget in a hurry. I’ve seen stranger rituals in my time. No judgement… I mean, the drumming was fun…
On days I wanted to be alone I took myself off for walks through the barren landscapes around the town, trying to find signs of nature. As you can see, the rains had not yet come, but they were on the brink.
“It’s beautiful to be alone. To be alone does not mean to be lonely. It means the mind is not influenced and contaminated by society.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti – long-standing one of my favourite quotes; I find ever-greater depth to its meaning as my own Journey deepens…
I chose to avoid the chaos of Dakar – a personal preference – but rather than miss out on the chance to explore Senegalese marketplaces I headed to Rufisque, a city on the suburbs. A once-thriving port populated by a mix of European architecture; I found its streets and its people a bustling myriad of fascinating culture. It is a poor commune of Senegal, neglected by failed industries. Yet I found its humble people more welcoming than in any rich part of the world I’ve been to. I was invited into people’s homes, fed good food, given clothes, the usual tours of the neighbourhood, rides on horses, and plenty of warm, loving heart. It is always the simple or free things in life that make the most enchanting and memorable gifts. I have a lot to learn from these people.
“The desert is the theatre of the human struggle of searching for God.” – Jan Majernik
The voice of God can be found amongst the highest mountains, and between the smallest grains of sand… if you only have the ears to hear it. The essence of a pilgrimage is to move, yet, at some point along the way, you realise you do not move at all ~ the pilgrimage moves you.
Travelling further north, passed Dakar, on the road to St. Louis,
my global pilgrimage finally brought me my first dance with the desert.
And what a dance it was…
I’m not sure the desert can really be described as a landscape or place – more like an element. A whole new element your wide eyes have never beheld. Perhaps I know now how people feel when they first see the sea ~ for my eyes were lost in those deep and ever-stretching waves. Yet here, I did not swim.
Ever ran through the desert as fast as your feet can take you?
Your heart pounds, you head rushing as you sprint up the highest dunes, your feet getting lost in deep, powdery sand – gold like the sun – heat burning down through misted sky. Your kingdom come. Your heart knows this is not merely a place to pass through – this is your destination. Now, here, you have arrived. Here, you have the excuse, the strength, to just be… nothing. All that you are, all that you are not. Thoughts of becoming vanish entirely.
~ You are perfectly lost ~
As you approach the north of Senegal the landscape begins to change, ever-more arid – pockets of desert come up, and eventually you reach the greatness of Sahara.
The Lompoul Desert is the first corner of desert to greet you. I travelled across on camel-back with the help of local people and chose to stay at Ecolodge de Lompoul.
Ecolodge de Lompoul offers luxury tents on an authentic, unpretentious camp at the edge of the desert among the dappled shade of some of the desert’s only trees. I danced at night with a bedouin band, chased the setting sun barefoot, and lay flat on my back across the highest dunes facing the swirling skies above, hypnotised and stilled, before forward-rolling all the way down to the bottom in childish hysteria.
I connected to a simple and pure energy. I wasn’t interested in taking a 4×4 raging across dunes.
I prefer to mold to a landscape and a people.
Local food, relaxed, authentic settings, colourful fabrics and textiles, and warm heart from the staff and family who live there ~ my every need was taken care of. As with the rest of Senegal, I fell very easy into the way of life here, and with the local people.
The desert will never leave me – even my camera still has grains of its sand in every corner and gap. A camera which has survived sand of desert and rain of jungle, and still lives to tell another story. A loyal companion.
Time for me feels like a spiral, a coil narrowing at the tip, and as we get closer to the middle, to our Maker, time is speeding up.
My life is already flashing before me and I’m still trying to live it for the first time. Somebody recently asked me how old I was and I can honestly say I was unsure, had to start counting down the years to my birth on my fingers. I’m not lying! Too much happens to me!! You will never know. I’m in one place, feeling so much, feeling a whole universe of depth and emotion, feeling so constant and present and connected to this leg of my life, to the task at hand, as if nothing else came before and nothing will come after, and then, suddenly, I am gone again… gone again down that long dark passage of memory, looking back at this time which now feels simply like a dream, a drug I took, or a story I once heard. I have pictures, many of them, but even they seem somehow fabricated, props in this stage version of my life.
Already it is approaching 2017 and I feel like I’m just getting started with 2016!
Well… I did my best. It wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel and so I learned to touch. I told the truth, didn’t come all this way to fool ya… and even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah…
Rest in Peace Leonard Cohen.
Man of song.
And so it was with Lompoul. One minute I’m laying in the sand, in silence for many hours, looking back at the white tents of the camp, wondering if I should just stay forever. Then suddenly, somehow, I am gone again… I am gone again.
Time no longer seems to be passing in the ‘usual’ way.
Whilst this was a landscape of peace I did not want to leave, as the 4×4 bumped along the sandy roads leading back to civilisation, and as I began my journey to the green plains of the Senegalese Savannah in the south, I realised you cannot simply leave the desert behind. And yet you cannot return… She has to come back to you. It is a romance ~ now you have danced with her, you made eye contact and met each other in the middle of the room ~ you knew it could only last as long as a song, but you didn’t care, you were alive only for the sake of those lips. And as the music finally died, before your sweating hands unclasped, she leant forward and whispered something in your ear, something that still rings clearly to this day ~ “I’ll be seeing you again.”
She made you a promise. You know she will keep it… she’s that kind of girl. I’ve never been one for one night stands anyway… leaves no room for heartbreak.
Till next time then…
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