Île de Gorée is by far my favorite place I’ve visited so far in Dakar. As it’s name suggests, it is an island located off of the southern corner of the Cape Verde Peninsula on which Dakar is built. Due to its central role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is now a world historical site protected by UNESCO. To get there, you have to take a 20 minute ferry ride from the port of Dakar. It’s kind of an interesting experience because you’re sitting on a fairly small ferry smack dab in the middle of enormous oil tankers, huge cargo ships, and really big fishing vessels. They come from everywhere. The two largest we saw were from Argentina and Panama. There was another good-sized ship from Malta. I had no idea Malta did that kind of trading – go figure. To give you a feeling for how big these ships were, Lissa Jones and I watched big cranes lifting 52-foot semi trailers onto the decks. They looked like Legos. And the European-style vans that were being shipped as well looked like little Matchbox cars… you know, the tiny little cars that were popular in the late 80s. Yes, I just dated myself. Yes, I was a tomboy. Yes I wanted some. And no, my parents never bought me any. Obviously it left an indelible mark on my psyche. Smile, Mom and Dad, I’m just kidding. We were maybe 250 yards away from that particular boat, and that’s how small the cargo was in comparison. Trust me, those ships were H-U-G-E.
Anyway, the ride over to l’Île de Gorée takes about 20 minutes. And it’s a pretty nice ride. The island is about 4 or 5 times the size of l’Île de Ngor and there are lots of restaurants and small boutiques. Vendors are on the shore to meet the people getting off of the ferry. Some are annoying and other’s aren’t. I was really surprised at the level of some of their English. They told me that they learned just by listening to the tourists as they walk around the island and as they interact with the people who live there. I’ve noticed that in general, the Senegalese are very gifted language learners. They pick them up just by listening. Amazing. Lissa and I decided to forego paying for a tour guide because they’re really expensive and you have to pay a special tax for them, so we just wandered around the narrow streets that wind themselves around the island. Plus, I’ve read quite a bit about the island and there’s plenty of information on the internet. We discovered that there used to be some kind of a fort built on the western-most point of the island. Judging by its size and how well it was built, I’m assuming that back in its day, it was probably quite a formidable building. There are remnants of bunkers, large cannons, etc that for some reason are turned in toward the island… kind of strange considering that they’re supposed to protect the island from outside invaders… Oh well. Now days people have turned the bunkers into makeshift galleries or homes. They’ve done the same things to the small passageways that used to lead into the interior of the fort. Other people have just constructed little lean-to shelters out of wood, cardboard, and corrugated tin. In my experience, I have found that those shelters can serve as both the vendor’s boutique and their home. Sometimes the home consists of a little crawl-space covered in woven mats and prayer rugs.
After Lissa and I visited the Maison des Esclaves (the Slave House), we ran into one of the women vendors who met us when we alighted from the boat. She’s one of the people who spoke English well – granted, it was limited to “business English,” but it was pretty darn good. Since she wasn’t one of the vendors who badgered us relentlessly, we followed her to her boutique. She sells pre-made boubous and lots of neclaces. I bargained with her for two pairs of earrings and Lissa bargained quite nicely for a very pretty black and white necklace. My favorite purchase of the day were four bracelets from a different vendor, and I got them for a really great price. I think they’re quite lovely, and they’re actually something that I would wear back in the United States.
One man tried selling us some of his wooden sculptures. Business is slow during this time of year, and evidently this man hadn’t made a sale in quite a while. He wanted 30,000 CFA ($60) for a carved tiger. Nope, way too much. Plus neither Lissa nor I wanted it. I don’t have a need for sculptures at the moment. When I told him that we weren’t interested, he kept pressing us and asked what I’d pay for it. I told him 8,000 CFA ($16), but reminded him that I had no intention of buying it. He was a little scandalized by that answer (they usually are when you give them a much lower price) and he wanted to keep bargaining. We walked away and he literally ran after us and said he’d sell it to me for 10,000 CFA ($20). He followed us to a small restaurant not far from the dock. Remember that he caught up to us when we were a good deal away from his shop. Lissa and I were dying of thirst so we ordered some water ($2) and bissap ($1) respectively. He came right up to our table and said, “I haven’t had a sale for a long time. I’ll give it to you for 7,000 CFA.” That’s $14. This experience demonstrates 3 things. First, they always try and stick you with an outrageous price. They expect you to bargain – it’s part of the fun of the exchange, and sometimes you gain a pretty good contact out of it – and it can go on for quite a while. They’ll joke with you and they want you to joke back, and then when you finally settle on a price, you take your goods and go. That’s what we did with the necklace and earring lady. By the way, they always remember your name and face. Second, the vendors will never allow you to cheat them in price. They’re willing to go down to your price because they’re making something from the exchange. If you insist on a price that isn’t fair, they will end the discussion. So offering $16 wasn’t low-balling him at all. Third, this guy was desperate to sell something. That tells me that he really hasn’t had a lot of business for quite awhile and that he’s probably really hurting. Knowing that kind of makes me feel bad for him. When I’m ready to buy some sculptures, I’ll probably go back and buy some from him because he did have some pretty nice stuff.
Overall, I thought it was a great day. I will definitely go back to l’Île de Gorée. It’s a charming island, and its history actually has a lot to do with my doctoral studies. I’ll write about that in a following post.