Saturday, August 21, 2010

Floatin' down the river

Loyal readers may be wondering what's become of me for the last week-plus. Well, my placement in Gambia ended, I crossed back overland to Dakar (see previous post, "Overland from Dakar to Banjul" and turn it upside-down), and on to St. Louis, where I joined Le Bou El Mogdad, a vintage cruise ship that plies the Senegal River. It's a more luxurious excursion than I tend to go for, but it was described by the Lonely Planet as "like something out of an Agatha Christie novel," which was nearly all the hook I needed. A couple times before I'd made major plans based on a colorful sentence or two in the LP, and I'd never been disappointed. My luck held this time. There's a lot to say about a week-long cruise, but I'll start with some highlights:

Children—and adults—wave to us with great excitement from the shore. They do rhythmic clapping and chants, and chase after the boat along the shore. Not clear if they know the schedule (biweekly) or hear it coming, but they’re always there waiting for us, brimming with excitement. They seem not to mind, in some cases even to crave, being photographed. Once so far there were women wading topless in the river, seemingly apathetic to being stared at or photographed. It’s common for women to go bra-less, and rare but not unheard-of topless, but both are quite practical given how much time they spend nursing or washing or gathering water. Taking people pictures from the boat reminds me a bit uncomfortably of snapping animal shots on safari—this is the first time on this trip, and one of the only other times at all, that I’ve used the long lens. I try to wave, and await a reply, before raising the camera, in hopes this signifies approval, and makes them feel less like zoo creatures. A very small thing, but I think that most of these people are so isolated, and their lives so simple, that the passing of the boat, and waving and the pointing of cameras, is one of the most exciting things liable to happen.

By my standards, the boat is certainly luxurious. But the real luxuries are hidden. For starters, the food is French—those who've been to France will understand the significance of this, but in brief, it means strong coffee for breakfast, three perfectly balanced courses for lunch and dinner, scrupulously serving ladies first,... and, to add a Senegalese touch, they roasted a whole lamb on the back of the boat! The motion of the boat creates a breeze which goes a long way toward mitigating the horrific heat. This and/or being in the middle of the river means there are no mosquitoes—so I can actually gad about in shorts and sandals at night, and not slather my arms in DEET. We always drop anchor at night, though, so the lack of breeze just about balances out the cooler temps. As on the shore, it’s far cooler outside (in the shade, with the possibility of a breeze) than inside. Locals hardly ever go inside except to sleep—which is why traditional buildings are windowless, or nearly so.

People wash everything in the river, starting with themselves. Women seem to bathe together, roughly if not strictly separated from the men, who are more likely to bathe alone. They sit on a rock, or a 5-gallon oil jug, stripped to the waist, and lather up. Only babies and toddlers get to go in the river naked. A couple times now we’ve seen a man bathing his horse, up to the withers in the river. Just now a boy stood on its bare back and waved as the boat passed. Reed mats, rugs, clothes, pots, everything short of houses gets dunked in the river, lathered up, and scrubbed down.

Since this is the low season, the boat is well under half-capacity. (The cruise director says they won't even run it at this time next year.) There’s one black family (mom from St. Louis, dad from Mauritania, pre-pubescent daughter), and one Swedish/Senegalese guy attached to a French lady. Everyone else is French, Swiss, or Belgian—or me. Apart from one French(?) cruise director, the crew is entirely black—including one older guy, the excursion director, who seems to speak practically every language on earth (Wolof, French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and more). This is pretty much how it always goes—whites vacation while blacks work. I wonder if there’s anywhere in the world you can go where the whites serve the blacks. For me the issue has been less race than language: I'm the only one on board who isn't a fluent French speaker. The others keep asking if this doesn't bother me, but I don't know how to explain that I've spent so much time in places where I don't speak the language that it hardly seems strange anymore. Meals are a bit awkward, as I get lost in a sea of strange accents and verbiage, but at other times I'm happy for some alone time to read and journal--and watch the river go by, a surprisingly engrossing activity.

(Yes, Virginia, that's a swimming pool on the boat, which more than made up for in coolness what it lacked in size!)


  1. Further proof of my theory that you get the best grub in former French colonies.

  2. Very interesting, esp. on race and language. And heat. Once again, with some shame, I'm glad to let you do all this for me--with help from National Geographic and such.

    Any more stories about your work in The Gambia?