Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day trip to Lac Rose

I let Papi (my Ile de Goree guide) talk me into hiring him and a car and driver for a day trip to the pink lake and tortoise sanctuary—the former was considered a “must” by both the travel nurse and the LP; the latter I’d never heard of but sounded interesting. Mainly I wanted to get out of Dakar, which had proven short on tourist attractions and long on hassle. I expected that I was overpaying both the “real” price and my normal budget when I bargained him down to $100, and that it would be a lot less interesting than the last excursion on which I’d spent so much money for so little a time, the Aral Sea. But when you expect little, it’s hard to be disappointed—or so I told myself.

Lac Rose has an extremely high salt content, which is what makes it pink. During the rainy season, however, it gets sufficiently diluted to lose most of its signature color. When we arrived it was barely pink from shore, but pretty convincing once we got out on it in a “pirogue” (boat) with a salt-collector. We poled out to where his colleagues were standing up to their chests in water, pounding and scraping the lake bottom with six-foot-long hoes, dredging up piles of dripping salt which they passed to a partner in the boat, who sieved it through a fishing net. When full of salt, our boatman said, the boat would weigh 100 kilos. The digging process looked akin to Sisyphus rolling the boulder back up the hill: an enormous amount of pounding and scraping to produce only a few pounds of salt, much of which was water. It seemed they’d be lucky to fill the boat before dark, and the sun was remorseless. Even for these “professionals,” the work was too grueling to do every day: they worked four days a week and rested, ate, and pre-hydrated the other three. This is, of course, yet another example of the forgotten luxury of the American lifestyle: not what we have—TVs, cars, A/C—but what we don’t—backbreaking physical labor. Much of the salt wouldn’t even be high-quality enough for the table, but usable only for road-clearing and the like, meaning it would fetch only a pittance.

The shore of the lake resembled the salt-flats of Utah, but with piles and sacks of gathered salt everywhere, and colorful, ramshackle wooden boats here and there. The only sign of life, apart from a few boatmen, were men selling sand-paintings and women dressed rather like the Chiquita banana lady—whether consciously or not I wasn’t clear—all but demanding that I take their pictures, holding out slips of paper with their name and address for me to “send a copy.” This was obviously a ploy, since their head-baskets were filled with jewelry and trinkets; if they couldn’t extract a coin or two for the picture, they’d surely find a way to earn it back in beaded bracelets. They seemed rather shocked that I refused their advances so completely. I wouldn’t have minded a picture, and I don’t object to people charging for them, but I don’t like photography, which has the potential to be a form of spontaneous cultural exchange, reduced to a forced transaction. Nonetheless, the irony of the situation was not lost on me: one of the women was young and quite pretty, and I wondered when else in my life I’d be in the position to refuse to photograph, or talk to, or take the address of, an attractive woman.

Aside: Gambian women have the most wonderful posture: walking down the street in their semi-traditional garb (long batik skirts and headdresses with coordinating t-shirts), they somehow look even taller and more slender than they really are, as if the exaggeratedly long, lean figures in all the batiks and paintings aren’t exaggerated at all. Westerners slouch and swagger terribly by comparison. It’s commonly acknowledged, by Westerners at least, that “the women in Gambia do all the work,” and “if you want something done, you’d better talk to a woman.” Yet rather than bend their backs with fatigue, this labor seems to have lent women a special pride. Notwithstanding this, on the drive from Senegal I saw more than a few women stooped in the fields over ridiculously short hoes, digging away at the earth in that pose that always reminds me chillingly of slavery, the butt higher than the shoulders, the back seeming to know all too well how to bend.

The highlight of Lac Rose was swimming in it. True to legend, I floated like a feather. I’m not a naturally buoyant person, yet the salt made the water so heavy that I actually struggled to swim, much the way one does when wearing a life-jacket, or arm-floaties. It helped that the day was viciously hot, and the water so warm it wasn’t even shocking to immerse yourself, yet still cool enough to be refreshing. Afterward I paid a man to douse me with several buckets of water cold enough to make me wince, including, at his insistence, two buckets each down the front and back of my swim-trunks. All well and good to wash away the salt, I suppose, but this may be as close as I’ve ever come to paying for pain.

We had an extremely leisurely lunch of yassa poulet, broiled chicken breast with rice, onion sauce, and red chile sauce, the same thing I’d had the day before on Ile de Goree. Papi had said he always has fish for lunch and meat for dinner, but there are no fish in Lac Rose, while chicken farms surround it, thus this was the specialty. It was very good, though I don’t know that I would have guessed it had been slaughtered minutes before reaching the table.


  1. Interesting stuff! What is it about salt that makes the water pink? Interaction with the flora?

    I forgot that about salt water and buoyancy. Strange.

    If I give you a dollar, will you take a shot of these women? :) "Cultural exchange . . . forced transaction" -- an interesting point, but too much integrity might weigh you down, even in salt water . . .

  2. You're prob. right--but you also prob. have no idea how repugnantly pushy women (and men) in touristy areas of the developing world can be. Unfortunately for these ladies, I'd already used up my tolerance on people in Dakar--and the punishing sun didn't exactly encourage lingering anyway.