Suitcase and World: Gorée Island.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Gorée Island.

rom the Renaissance monument, we headed back towards the city to the terminal where we would catch the ferry to Gorée Island.

We arrived at the terminal almost an hour before departure time so we did a wee bit of *window* shopping….checking out a couple of souvenir shops just to get a feel for the types of handicrafts and souvenirs they sell here. I definitely have a liking for the carved wooden sculptures…..might have to bring one of them home with me.

The ferry terminal itself looks to be a fairly new building. Cheikh got us our tickets and we made our way inside. The downstairs waiting area was already beginning to really fill up. We followed Cherikh upstairs and from there, we had a good vantage point to watch the ferry arrive into port. Although there were a few fans to circulate the air, it was still stifling hot inside the terminal. I couldn’t wait to board the boat and feel the sea breeze.

As the ferry pulled into dock, people started to head for the doors. We joined the masses and since this is not the US, there is no such thing as a line to board. You just shove your way forward which is what we did. We headed for the upper deck, more specifically for the covered portion as I was not about to bake in the hot African sun.

It was a short 30 minute or so ride to Gorée.

As we neared the island, I left my seat to go and capture a few photos of the colorful buildings that I had seen so many times on various websites.

As the ferry pulled into the dock at Gorée, the mass exodus of people began once again and once again, we basically pushed ourselves off the boat :-)

The split second we set foot on the beach that fronts the town, the touts descended upon us. More head shaking and “Merci, mais no” from me. They are persistent but so am I.

Cheikh then introduced us to Laity who would be our local guide around Gorée. Laity began our tour with a brief history lesson.

As Laity was talking, I was soaking in the sites. Quaint, colorful French colonial style stone building line narrow cobblestone alleyways punctuated by stone walls draped with flowering bougainvilleas. Cobblestones line the walkways. Because the entire island is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s charming look and feel must be maintained.

There are no vehicles on this tiny island so you can wander about without fear of being run over by four wheels though you might get felled by a kid or two or three. There are a lot of children at play – the joyful sounds of children enjoying themselves brought a smile to my face.

Gorée is Cherikh’s home town and everywhere we walked, either he stopped to say hello to someone or someone would come over to say hello to him. I decided that Gorée is like one big family.

Laity led us down the streets and we soon passed by the famous Memorial statue which is reminder of Gorée's past as a departure point for slaves to the New World.

Of course, the highlight of any visit to Gorée is the House of Slaves. As we passed through the entryway, I immediately recognized the circular stairs and hidden under the first story of the building, the famous door….the door of No Return. The sight of this brightly colored building would ordinarily bring a smile to my face but knowing its history, it was difficult to be anything but somber and respectful.

Laity gave us a tour of the rooms that line the first floor. The slaves were crammed into these dark, tiny rooms – built of stone and with barely a window to bring in light – while they awaiting essentially what was deportation to another land. Men were segregated from the women and the young girls. Infants were separated from their mothers. Men deemed to be *too skinny* were isolated to be *fattened up* as larger, stronger men commanded a higher sales price.

It’s unfathomable to even imagine what the conditions must have been like for these people. Even more astonishing is the thought that the slave trader lived in housing quarters on the second floor of the house. How could anyone possibly shut out the deafening sounds of human suffering that would have filled the air below? It’s a sad place but one that cannot be ignored by anyone visiting Dakar.

Around the corner from the rooms was the famed "Door of No Return".  As Cheikh explained the significance of the door, I was lost in my own thoughts of how scary it must have been for each and everyone of the people who had to walk through this door to board a slave ship.  I could imagine the sounds of distress - men, women and children screaming and wailing with all their being.

The tranquil views of the ocean belied the rough times that laid ahead of them as they sailed away from the shores of their African homeland.

The upstairs floor of the house was dedicated to a one room museum that displayed artifacts from the time period.

Cheikh left us to wander around the house for a few minutes.  The house is so small and it was so crowded with tourists, that it was really difficult to linger in any one spot.  It wasn't long before Talibah and I decided we needed to move on.

With tears welling up in her eyes, it was obvious that this visit had really touched Talibah in a way that she probably wasn't expecting.  Considering her heritage, it came as no surprise to me.

We joined Cheikh and Laity out on the streets.  After the intensity of the House of Slaves, it was nice to wander the back streets of the island - just taking in the charming views....French street signs and all.

There was gentle breeze wafting across the island.  The sun was out.  It was simple pleasure just wandering down the cobblestone streets.

On our walk, we passed by a pair of women - one was braiding the other's hair.  Talibah had said she would get her hair braided in Senegal so Gorée seemed like as good a place as any to have it done.  Cheikh negotiated with the woman on our behalf and we would return later to get our (yes, *our*) hair done :-)

Walking through parts of Gorée felt like walking through an art gallery -artwork was everywhere.  Colorful African paintings were draped on every imaginable surface.   Wooden sculptures popped into view every now and again.

We even spent a few minutes with local sand painter.....

....who in a matter of just a few minutes, made a small sample painting for us. Talibah bought one of his paintings and had him autograph it.....her first souvenir from Africa!

We followed Laity to an area located uphill from the cobblestone streets. From high above the town, I could see the terracotta rooftops of the buildings, the ocean and beyond that, Dakar.

At the top of the hill, we arrived to stand in front of a sail shaped monument commemorating World War II.

By now, it was early afternoon and my stomach was growling for lunch.  Back down the hill we went. We were heading to a restaurant on the beach.  As we walked, scenes of daily life in Gorée captured our attention.

There were the animals.

And the island's pretty yellow cathedral.

When we arrived back at the beach, Cheikh gave us a choice of restaurants on the beach.  I think there were only three to pick from.....small beach :-)  First, a photo op before sitting down.

Lunch was our first taste of Senegalese food which I can only describe as French food made with African ingredients.  I had grilled chicken and Talibah had grilled shrimp.  Both dishes were very, very, very tasty!  If this is how they eat in Senegal, I will be very happy here!

After lunch, we only thing left on our Gorée agenda and that was to get Talibah's hair braided.  We went back to the two women we had come across earlier in the day.  With Cheikh translating, Talibah described what she wanted.  Then it was down to business.  I've never seen an African woman get her hair braided so I was completely fascinated by what was going on. 

Without a mirror to see what was going on, Talibah bravely let the women braid hair. Talibah said that she could feel that what the woman was doing was right. I watched the women take strands of hair and tightly twist them into braids. As the braids went down towards the neck, they got thinner.

To end of each one, she wrapped black thread around the tip of each braid.  This is definitely labor intensive work - sculpting to create a pattern against the scalp but the result is beautiful and unique hair-do.  Only Africans have the hair texture carry this off.  Which begs the question of why an Asian woman would agree to have her hair done up?

So, just as the one woman was finishing up with Talibah, the other decided she wanted to braid mine.  Uh??  Braid my straight Asian hair??  I don't think so.  So, I said, "No, thank you" about a million times but I eventually caved in to the persistent request not just from the woman but from Talibah as well.  *sigh*  But, I reluctantly agreed only after they agreed to put in a handful of braids. 
And...., Talibah videotaped the misery.  

I have to admit that having my hair twisted up into thin braids was really not comfortable plus it was weird not feeling the wind run through my hair. I really wanted to remove them but Talibah made me wait until I got on the ferry so as to not insult anyone so I waited.

We paid the women for their work and made our way back to the ferry where we backtracked to where Cheikh dropped us off at the hotel.  We tipped him for showing us around and I got his mobile number because I will be back in two weeks and I would like for him to take me to Pink Lake.  We bid him goodbye.

By now, our room was ready and we grabbed our suitcases from storage and headed up.  We had a room with a view of the ocean and two comfortable beds and the most important thing.....air-conditioning.  I headed out onto the balcony and was greeted by a view of the setting sun over the North Atlantic Ocean.

 My friend and former colleague, Abdoulaye, had called and left me a message so I tried to call him back but I had the wrong number I sent him an email.  We were to meet up with him for dinner so I needed to know what time he was going to be picking us up.  While I waited for Abdoulaye to call me back, Talibah and I finally got settled in.  First thing I wanted to do was hit the shower.

Abdoulaye soon called back and would be picking us up at 7:30pm.  It's Ramadan and he's Muslim so we had to wait until after sunset to eat.  It was so nice to see Abdoulaye - ever so friendly and always ready to shoot you a smile.  I was looking forward to catching up with Abdoulaye.  It's been years since we last worked together and he recently retired so I no longer even have any work related interaction with him.

  Abdoulaye took us to a very swanky hotel called Terrou Bi for dinner.  We ate in the hotel restaurant.  From the menu descriptions, I could tell the food was going to be good and it was absolutely dee-li-cious!!   I was right - it's French inspired African food. 

We had a wonderful meal - food was great but the company was even better!!  Just in case a few more years go by before I next see him, I asked Talibah to take a photo of Abdoulaye and I.

By the time we got back to the hotel, we were both exhausted.  It had been a long day of travel and touring and there would be more travel tomorrow as we have to continue our journey to Bamako.  All I wanted to do was get a good night's sleep.

It was a great day in Dakar and I'm glad I get to share these memories with Talibah.