Dakar is one of those cities that has a thousand stories to tell… everywhere you look there is something unfolding, behind every face there is mystique and even the ocean roars like no other I’ve ever seen. 12 hours after arriving here the eXXpedtiongirls already have a catalogue of stories to dine out on for years and anecdotal mishaps that, coupled with bags of adrenalin, are the only thing keeping us upright under this beautiful African sun.
Meeting Christine at 3.30am with a wake up call to her room from reception asking if Jess and myself could possibly just hang out on her bedroom floor for a few hours after our reservation had been mislaid was not how I’d envisaged it, but just as I expected, hugs were thrown around like confetti and within minutes we were all exchanging tales of delayed flights, Senegalese customs officials and colourful taxi rides from the airport!
This morning we all hopped in a taxi with one objective for the day: retrieve Christine’s underwater drone batteries that had been shipped from Norway. I needed a pack of AAA batteries too and sensed they would probably be harder to find than drone batteries out here… but just like all my expectations of today, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The taxi journey was nothing short of spectacular… we snaked our way across the city, taking in all the sights and sounds, lots of traffic fumes and endless piles of rubbish but happy, smiling, busy people on every corner, literally spilling out of minibuses and congregating under any secluded spot of shade they could find. It was exactly midday. Our timing was anything but impeccable.
To cut a long and expensive story short we made three trips between the hotel and various DHL offices across the city before finally realising that the batteries hadn’t yet cleared customs in the airport. I’m going to leave the rest of that eventful story for Heather and Christine to regale in A tale of two cities: Part Deuce!
For now I’ll pick up where we decided to split up. Heather and Christine headed off for an unannounced visit with the Senegalese customs officials, and what that would look like was anyone’s guess, and Jess and myself had only one plan; to get in the sea! We’d seen the beach from the taxi and the water looked so inviting, and to be honest anything that stopped us from being as hot as fire was a good idea. We walked the few hundred metres from our hotel and quickly realised no amount of overheating was going to warrant dipping a toe in these waves. They were huge and fierce and my irrational fear of the sea suddenly became real again.
Plan B consisted of huge bowls of ice-cream that worked a dream and weren’t going to kill us, so we set about mooching along the sands to see if the beaches were indeed as polluted as we’d been told by the Pangaea Team.
It’s the worst I’ve ever seen a beach littered with marine debris. Mostly micro plastic and beads and very small pieces of degraded plastic, obviously afloat for years and years, most likely not the result of the poor waste management practices they have here, but more likely from a place even further afield, with an even bigger problem.
An unfamiliar voice quickly joined in the conversation, explaining that it wasn’t usually this bad but that the recent storm had brought in a tidal wave of rubbish and we shouldn’t think badly of Senegal because its beaches were so dirty…. The voice belonged to a young Senegalese guy that was touting a small restaurant on the beach. Clearly Jess and I were anything but hungry as we scoffed our huge bowls of ice-cream before it melted, which was impossible in this heat and so just tried to manage the constant dripping instead. I did what I always do in these situations, I avoid eye contact, answer every question with No thank you and just keep walking.
That wasn’t to work this time and our new friend was in danger of becoming the 15th member of eXXpedition with his persistence. After realising that we definitely weren’t hungry and after I explained that we were actually very interested in the plastic because we were research scientists, crossing the Atlantic sampling the oceans for plastics, the conversation turned to the environment and I was actually really quite overwhelmed to hear him talk so passionately about how he saw the ‘plastic problem’ and how it isn’t enough to simply expect consumers to tackle the problem, that it needs to come from the Government and the companies responsible for making the mess.
He’d made it past another stage of my internal security system… he clearly wasn’t going anywhere, had given up on trying to entice us into his restaurant and for a young guy in a West African country, where English is a third language at best, had some pretty interested points to make… eye contact was still off the cards though, and plus i’d turned my attention to the plastic now and my magpie instinct for collecting pretty ocean plastic for future art projects had taken hold…. even Jess could see I’d slipped into my hunter gatherer mode and excused herself back to the hotel. I was alone on a beach in Dakar with a guy I was fiercely trying to avoid looking at… what could go wrong?
He fell silent and it was only a hand reaching over my shoulder that alerted me of his presence… he held out his hand. It was full of micro plastic. OK security system was completely disabled. I stood up and thanked him for helping me. I explained why I was collecting the plastic and held out my hand in exchange for a name…. David was his reply.
We walked and talked and we laughed as I tried to figure out how to use my new GoPro… turns out badly, as I later found out I’d filmed everything upside down. I felt bad for assuming the only reason David might want to talk to us was to sell us something, and so now I bombarded him with questions by way of an apology. Turns out he actually lived on the beach, and when I seemed shocked at the thought of living amongst all this rubbish, he insisted that he show me… I scanned the beach for houses or notable buildings. None existed. Did David actually live in a pile of plastic? Anything seemed possible out here. My intrigue was tipped. YES, show me please, spilled from my lips.
Just past the restaurant was a small stone hut. It had holes where windows should be, a doorway where a door should be and a roof that looked like sand would just fall straight through. He stepped onto the beautifully mosaiced floor *the only truly remarkable thing about the whole place* and gestured for me to follow. It seemed spacious inside but only because there was no furniture. A wooden platform rested against the wall which served as a bed, and there was a small table with pots and pans and a BBQ grill angled, so as to make what appeared to be a designated kitchen area. There were tiny flip-flops hanging from the ceiling, coupled with a few pictures in plastic wallets nailed to the timber roof, making for the only form of decoration I could see.
It was by no means a home 99.9% of UK residents would even consider a home, I’ve seen fancier garages back home, but there was something perfect and peaceful about this place. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I stood against the back wall and looked straight out of one of the two window holes, and then I knew. That view. That sound. David’s house was filled permanently with the call of the ocean.
The best was yet to come though. He guided me outside and off to the right was another area, roughly the same size as the house but with no walls or roof. This one had the furniture though, and more people. Family.
David introduced me to his Father, sister, older brother and friend, all greeted me like a long lost part of the family and as if my arrival in their home was the most normal and expected thing in the whole world. Couches were shuffled and dusted down and before I could refuse we were sat staring out at the roaring ocean and setting the world to rights.
When I enquired after David’s mother his face lit up like a light house. Turns out David is the youngest of three children and is still the apple of her eye… while I sank into the sofa a little deeper at the thought of this family life playing out, here on this beach, surrounded by such beauty and such ghastly rubbish all at once, his phone is out and he’s calling his Mother. He holds the phone to my ear, it’s ringing, just as he says she speaks no English but he knows she’ll be pleased to speak to me. The three way conversation consists of David holding the phone, her speaking in French to me, him translating while I try my hand at garbled introductions in French. When I ask where she is, David explains that they have a house in the centre ville but that his Father, Brother and himself can’t stand living in a box and choose to live out here permanently so they can always be close to the Ocean.
He holds his hand to his heart and tell me that he feels great peace here. That the water opens his eyes and his mind and he feels connected to her in ways that he can’t express. He rises with the sun to catch fish with his family and spends his days no further than a stones throw at all times from the waves. I get it. I feel it. This place has magic. It could still even the busiest mind.
The harsh reality is that the fish that David’s family catch is likely riddled with the same stuff he helped me collect off the beach. A reality David and his family can do very little about. Their lives couldn’t be more simple. They don’t have the power to initiate change here. They cannot afford to manage the problem either, and so they tolerate it. Even amongst such waste all David and his Father see is beauty and love. Love of a planet that speak to them through the rhythm of the tides. These are good people, connected to Mother Nature, living with someone else’s unconscious behaviours and consumer choices.
As I make my way back to the hotel I can’t believe how my first 24 hours have played out in Senegal. I had no preconceived ideas about what to expect, but it wasn’t this. I didn’t expect to find a friend and ally in David. Someone in this country that felt as strongly about its protection as I do. Somebody that recognises the problem for what it is and even knows how it needs to be tackled. I didn’t expect to feel at home in the company of strangers or to find myself being welcomed with such humble intent into someone else’s home. I had no idea that the night before I ready to board Sea Dragon I’d be awake desperate to let these words spill on to the page before I lose them to the next part of my adventure. I didn’t imagine Senegal would even be an adventure. It was just a box to be ticked before the real fun started, but as the air conditioning unit whirs like a tumble dryer and Christine sleeps like a little perfectly formed Norwegian angel beside me all I can think about is how much Senegal and it’s people have opened my eyes and shaped my journey towards Ascension already.
I really couldn’t have asked for a better experience if I’d scripted it. My heart will board Sea Dragon in a few hours full and brimming with excitement.
Thank you David. Thank you Senegal.