Waiting to board the boat to Gorée Island, I sit on a metal bench and watch a recorded message that runs on a loop demonstrating the proper method of hand washing. There are places like Gorée Island up and down the coast of West Africa - former slave trading ports that have been converted into heritage sites. The Maison Des Esclaves on the island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. I've been thinking about the island ever since I thought about making this trip five years ago, and in the past two weeks its importance has been reinforced in conversations with my old French teacher Abdou, and my cousin's friend Ndeye, who met me for dinner one evening. "La il-le faut," you must go there, Abdou had said to me, pointing his index finger at my chest.
Idy has hired a tour guide, a man in a blue kaftan with silver threads running through it and wire-rimmed spectacles; the arrangement is made just before boarding the boat. It's only a 3 kilometer ride from the mainland, but even before we land vendors begin plying their wares. "Bonjour madame," a woman says to me; "bonjour," I reply, and before I know it she is showing me pieces of jewelry and telling me to visit her shop on the island.
Sun-washed buildings painted yellow and rusty red make this place seem like a holiday resort, and for the 1,000 people who live here, it is simply home. First claimed by Portugal in the 1400's, then Holland, Britain, and France, it was named Goeree by the Dutch, and approximately 20 million Africans passed through here in the 400 years that it operated as a slave trading port.
We step off the boat and are followed relentlessly by women selling jewelry; they walk behind us and beside us like shepherds. I keep my hands close to my sides, not wanting them to place anything in them. They follow us up and down the hills of the island; stand in my peripheral vision as the guide explains the architectural significance of the buildings around us. They sit when we sit, stand when we stand. It's like having an extra shadow. They are more aggressive here than other parts of Dakar, with the exception of the Lac Rose, where I didn't even want to open my bag to get my bottled water for fear that they'd think I was reaching for my wallet. On the shores of Lac Rose, I lost my cool. "Madame," one of them began, after having followed me for a quarter of a mile through the heat and the sun, "non!" I barked, surprising even myself. This caused the woman and her companions to break into laughter. "Non?!" she said, incredulous. I looked away, ashamed and frustrated. We were the only group of visitors at Lac Rose that afternoon, and the attention that was being focused on us wore on me. All I wanted was to be able to walk for ten minutes in peace, to be anonymous outside the confines of the house. I had pictured a bucolic respite from the gritty urbanity of Dakar, but there was none to be had.
The only way to escape from the vendors at Lac Rose was by sitting on the edge of a rickety wooden boat that looked like an oversized milk crate, while a guide pushed the vessel forward with a stick that reached the bottom of the lake. The attraction of Lac Rose was that supposedly it looked pink from the naturally occurring salt on the lake bed that was dredged up and heaped into piles on the shore. The day we went it looked dishwater brown, and ropes of dirty, salty foam washed up onto the shore. Our navigator took me and three other women out to the middle of the lake, where a man stood up to his neck in water, pounding the salt rock beneath him with a pointed stick, scooping it up with a basket, and dumping it into a boat tethered to a pole. "Does the salt bother his skin?" someone asked the guide, "they cover themselves in oil before getting into the water, and only work a couple days a week," he replied, "they only do that job for a couple of years - then they become guides, like me."
I will never again have cause to complain about my working conditions. As it was, I was covered in SPF50 sunscreen, wearing sunglasses that just barely kept the blaze from my eyes, and wearing a hat with an enormous brim, and I could just barely tolerate the salt and sun that was reaching me. I wouldn't have lasted an hour out there.