Have You Seen A Gal Stranded On An Island?

February 23, 2019 - travel

There are many things that bring me joy in this world, but few come close to the joy of gazing up into a starry night sky. Whenever I’m out at night, I have this immediate reflex to look up into the sky to see if the stars are twinkling overhead. When I’m in Virginia, the odds are consistently in my favor, and often I just go outside and lay on the ground staring deep into the constellations as a reprieve from the often starless skies of Brooklyn. When I think about my life in Brooklyn, maybe it was some sort of Pavlovic conditioning that met every reflexive bend to the stars with a gaze into the deep blues that left me wanting more.

It’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to seeing on my travels, what the sky looks like around the world. Someone even told me recently that the southern hemisphere sees completely different constellations than what I’ve seen my whole life in the North. To think, we’ve been looking at different skies all along. So far, France offers some lovely night skies, especially in Villiers-Saint-Frederic. If only I knew how to take photos of the night sky that would do it justice. But believe you me, I could lay under that sky all night and never get a minute of sleep.

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When I got to Dakar, it was no different. On my first night I looked up, no stars. Second night, same thing, just a dull blue ceiling with a nice cool breeze. I mentioned to my uncle and his colleagues —it just so happened that my uncle was in town for business for one day and let me tag along to dinner with them— that I had been disappointed to not see any stars in Dakar’s sky. They let me know that it was because of all the dust in the air and that normally you can see the stars quite clear. Feeling assured that I would see some stars before my trip ended, I moved on to other pressing complaints that they also had no control over, like why I hadn’t danced Sabar yet, and my disappointment that Thiebou Djeun is not a dinner time meal.

Senegal's National Dish & Dance

Thiebou Djeun is the national dish of Senegal and the previous night, my friend Amadou told me that I shouldn’t expect to see it on a lot of dinner menus because it’s typically for lunch. And Sabar, is the national dance which I learned in Brooklyn and wanted to try my skills in a traditional circle.

This of course led to the inevitable question of what brought me to Senegal in the first place, because surely I didn’t just come to Dakar to dance Sabar, eat fish, and look for some stars in the sky. Except that I did. And interestingly enough, of all the places that I’ve chosen, Dakar probably had the most reasons to visit on my itinerary. I let them know that I’m traveling the world for a year, seeing as many places as I can, improving my French along the way, and you know, just following my curiosity. My uncle’s colleague, who sounded an awful lot like Trevor Noah’s impersonation of Nelson Mandela turning into Barack Obama, offered me some sage advice on a whim. “Never limit yourself. I tell this to my daughter all the time. I look at your generation and I see you have everything at your fingertips, you have opportunity all around you. But if you’re going to invest in anything, invest in knowledge because it won’t go to waste.” He said he had just watched the movie Hidden Figures and that he came away thinking, “that black women are so disregarded, but capable of so much. You have the power. I learned from that movie, we are all the same, if we just have the chance to show what our brains are capable of doing. Because the brain isn’t black or white—” to which my uncle chimed in that, “It isn’t man or woman either.” These men were like a feminism 101 course, and I ate it all up alongside my seafood pasta.“Exactly.” Mr. Mandela Noahbama said to my uncle’s co-sign. They went on to wish me great success on my journey and uttered the same sentiment that I had heard the night before about me being brave. I didn’t know how to explain that it didn’t feel brave but rather impulsive and quite possibly fruitless, but I did leave dinner feeling a sense of validation, and grateful because I got dinner, and leftovers, out of it.

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The next day, I decided to venture to Ngor Island, me and all my bravery. Ngor was about a 30 minute walk from where I was staying and there I would be able to catch a boat to the island which was a less than 10 minute ride. When I got to the boat embarkment, there was a gentleman there who could probably smell an opportunity to hustle me because he immediately hopped up and over to me offering me a 5,000 CFA exclusive ride to the island. The general ferry is 1,000 CFAs. “Non, merci.” I said and bought my general admission ticket and sat to wait for the boat. He then took my ticket and said he’d go and get me a life jacket, and since I didn’t see anyone else with one I figured this was about to be another hustle so I took my ticket back from him. “Non, merci.” I said, whether it was legit or not that I needed a life jacket, what was more important than drowning to me was that I not get hustled. Anyway, I arrived on Ngor Island finally, barefoot, without a life jacket, and proud that I didn’t get hustled. There’s a restaurant just at the shore where I decided to have some Yassa poulet and read a little bit of the novel, Maimouna, that I picked up in the market a couple of days before. After eating, at around 6:30pm, I was torn with whether I should just sit and wait for the next boat or explore a bit more of the island. I wanted to walk along the shore, going east, but there was a dilapidated structure there that seemed like a barrier. “Je veux marcher autour de l’île, puis-je aller là-bas?” I asked a young lady pointing to the dilapidated structure. She had just gotten off work at the restaurant and she looked at me like I asked her for another plate of Yassa. It was only a few days later that I realized why she looked at me so strangely, I had used faulty French in that I was asking her permission when really what I needed was direction. After she told me I’d have to walk the other way around, clockwise, I asked when the last boat would be leaving to which she told me 8pm with a little smirk that I caught between her and her friend, either way I thanked her and set out to circumvent the island. I figured I had enough time to walk around the island and come back to the shore in time to get back to the mainland.

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Walking around the island was incredible. Being able to look out on the endless ocean and consider how for thousands of years, billions of people have looked out over this scene, and what it must have been like for people not knowing what was on the other side of the water, and if there even was another side. I walked along as the sun began to set, the magic hour bringing a certain enchantment to the colors of the island. I walked in and out of these little paths, through gardens of cacti, behind beautiful homes that overlooked the Atlantic until I got back to the South side of the island where the boat would be taking folks back to Dakar. I figured I could just cut through the dilapidated structure that led straight to the shore where I arrived but approaching the structure, there was a group of men sitting around and chatting with each other. I paid them no attention as I climbed up the steps to cross over. “Eh, Eh, Eh where are you going?” I could gather was the sentiment of the question, whether it was in Wolof or French I don’t know. “Je vais au restaurant.” I said pointing to where I had just had lunch. He looked at me like he didn’t understand, so I figured my French came out wonky, “Le restaurant, là-bas.” He shook his head and furrowed his brow as I kept repeating “le restaurant” and pointing, but at this point I know it’s not my French that’s the issue. Now I’m not sure if fear and panic make you see things but at this point all the men seemed to be getting closer to hear what was happening, and another one pointed down an alley and said that that was the way to get back to the restaurant. Listen, it could have been legit but I didn’t want to exhaust whatever bravery I supposedly had. So I said, “Non, merci.” and instead turned around to walk all the way back around the island as the setting sun seemed to be plunging below the horizon quicker. When I got back to the shore, after speed walking most of the way, there was no one there.

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At the restaurant, I asked the server behind the counter if the last ferry was still coming at 8pm, to which he laughed and said something in French to the effect that it will come. So I sat at the shore, waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, around 7:30 another guy walks onto the shore and I can tell he’s also waiting for a boat, so I feel a bit better, but not completely because where are the women on this island?! It’s a strange thing, but I don’t think, if I had considered it before this experience, that I would have been opposed to the idea of being stranded on an island full of men in theory. However in reality, beloved my whole being was screaming get me off the island! Then, a woman comes, from whatever place of heaven is tucked away on this island, to get dinner at the restaurant with a male friend and I’m just praying she stays there until I’m off this island and on a boat back to the mainland. It’s after 8pm at this point so I walk over to the other guy I know is waiting for the boat and I ask him if he speaks any English. “Yes” he says. I ask him about the boat schedule and he’s like, “There is no schedule it just comes when it comes.” Oh, word.

Feeling duped but safer because at this point three other women have crossed my path, one getting beers with her beau, one with two male companions, and another one getting dinner with her husband. It wasn’t much, but at least I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, this little girl came dancing out of the darkness and hopped over to the counter to order some sweets. She was alone. She was fearless. She was on a mission. And her presence put everything back into perspective for me because I instantly felt at ease.

Finally after what seemed like hours, it was 8:30pm and a boat arrived. Again, all of these men are on it, but there was one woman veiled in a bejeweled pink hijab perched in front. I went towards the back of the boat because I had to make room for the other guys climbing on. But then that sucker started rocking and water splashed a new round of panic in me, so I jumped two rows like I was FloJo and sat right next to my sister in the front and just leaned over to let people pass over me. As the boat made its way across the water, I couldn’t help but feel like one of the Titanic survivors lucky enough to get on a lifeboat as the unsinkable sank. Before I could get too deep into my role playing though, I realized the boat’s driver had been talking directly to me.

“Oh sorry, quoi?” I said, and then he just starts yelling at me, making everyone on the boat look around and I’m just like sir, “je ne comprend pas Wolof.” I realize he’s yelling at me in French now along with some other passengers, so I look to my sister beside me for some help and she just looks back at me blankly. To which I realize the sisterly comfort of some women isn’t necessarily in the conversation, but in the mere presence of each other. He’s still yelling but I manage to make out, “billet” and I’m like oh, my ticket. I take it out of my pocket and he tells me, “C’est fini” and that I can’t use it to come back. And I just look at him in my best Respectfully-sir-why-the-fuck-would-I-want-to-come-back-to-this-place-tonight face, and simply say, “D’accord.”

Feeling a bit more calm, and the laughter around me is tolerable even if it is at my expense, I take a deep breath and look up. There in the sky is every constellation, shining brighter than I could have ever imagined.



Dominique Taylor

Professional reader of books and people.