[Image via Prince Claus Fund]
"Bonjour, mon ami!" the man calls to me over my right shoulder. I´ve never seen him in my life. To the left, another man hisses "psst," angling for my attention. The sidewalk abruptly ends in front of me and I stumble into the street, where two cars narrowly miss me. Dirt clings to my clothes and the heat feels like the back of someone´s hand slapping me. My sister motions me over to a doorway, where we enter a shady courtyard full of elegant tables and afternoon idlers sipping coffee next to a photography exhibit.
Such are the contrasts in Dakar, Senegal, a city where I´ve been privileged to spend the last week, and somewhere it definitely pays to be the guest of a guest (my sister, working at UNAIDS). Dakar is the type of city that hides its secrets behind a chaotic, cacophonous veneer. It may well be the best kept fashion secret in the world; rarely have I encountered such impeccably dressed women, who each select the lush, vibrant cloths that make up their hand-tailored dresses, resulting in an explosion of individual chic that frankly embarasses someone who expected to be able to wear whatever I want. (Admittedly, the men hold to a lower standard.) While the French influence comes in heavy doses, the music is distinctly Senegalese, and offers some of the best world music there is. Nights out in Dakar are heedy affairs, with midnight considered early and a return home before 4:00 a disgrace.
All of this is what the guidebooks will tell you; what I´ve discovered in my own time here is that Dakar is hot, dirty, exhuberant, expensive, friendly, delicious, noisy, baffling and stylish all at the same time. When a Dakaroise (as the women are called) walks by in her dashing, sizzling bracelets, or when the men begin to talk heatedly of local politics, I´m aware of an energy I haven´t encountered elsewhere.
In a city where life is difficult (electricity regularly cuts out for hours at a time, particularly in the hot summers), the poverty abject, and infrastructure at times inept (it took me 10 hours to travel 150 miles), it´s both unnerving and incredibly seductive to feel such life pulse through one. There are certainly prettier cities, and easier destinations, but Dakar smacks of an irrepressible zest for life. If you want to sample a taste, head for Little Senegal on West 116th Street. If they have a drink called bissap, order 2; it´s a delicious drink made from hibiscus syrup. Yassa chicken is a national dish that will leave you wanting more, as Senegal, through all of its contradictions, is likely to leave me.