SENE­GAL

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY GINANNE BROWNELL MITIC travel@wash­post.com Mitic is a writer based in London. Her web­site is gi­nan­nebrownell.com.

Lac Rose, out­side Dakar, is fa­mous for its epony­mous hue and high salt con­tent.

Not sur­pris­ingly, my track­suit­wear­ing guide slid onto the back of his drom­e­dary with great ease and aplomb, barely notic­ing that the camel let out a huff as he set­tled into the sad­dle, and lifted the rope that was at­tached to its jaw. I, mean­while, was hes­i­tant, gin­gerly step­ping to the an­i­mal’s side, leery of be­ing spit on.

My camel was down on all fours and looked lethar­gic in the hot sand. In­ap­pro­pri­ately dressed in capri pants and flipflops, I must have gri­maced slightly as I sur­veyed the scene, be­cause the man who had just taken my $13 at the lit­tle hut where a few other camels were loung­ing laughed and told me in English not to worry. “You are in good hands,” he said as he helped me sit­u­ate my­self on a leather sad­dle that had thick ver­ti­cal sides, mak­ing it feel more like I was sit­ting in a bucket. As my camel slowly rocked onto his knees and then legs, I lurched for­ward then was slung back. The sad­dle’s leather pinched painfully against my thighs. My guide, pop­ping on his head­phones, grabbed my camel’s rope and at­tached it un­der­neath his sad­dle. My hope for an in­ter­ac­tive tour was quashed.

The rhythm of the camel’s lope took a bit of get­ting used to as we saun­tered down a sandy road lined with palm trees and small shrubs a stone’s throw from Sene­gal’s pink-hued Lac Rose. As the sun beat down, I watched the sand that my guide’s camel sent fly­ing as it walked — which was mes­mer­iz­ing and some­thing to fo­cus on other than how un­com­fort­able I was. When we reached the clearing, I was taken aback by the wide beach along the At­lantic Ocean, where Sene­galese chil­dren yelled in Wolof as they played soc­cer.

I could have been on any num­ber of beaches on my beloved Lake Michi­gan; the sand was the same tex­ture and color, and the dunes to my left looked just like ones I climbed as a child. This stretch, the bluish-gray waves storm­ing onto shore and then gen­tly re­treat­ing, should have felt for­eign, yet it was very much like home.

I was at Lac Rose (also called Lake Retba) on a late-morn­ing pit stop be­tween the Sene­galese cap­i­tal of Dakar — about an hour away by car — and the north­ern city of Saint-Louis. I had read about the Pepto-Bis­mol-col­ored lake, its hue caused by its high salt con­tent and an al­gae that pro­duces a red pig­ment, and I fig­ured it would be a great place to take a break. The camel ride os­ten­si­bly took tourists along the shores of the lake, which is sep­a­rated from the ocean by a thin strip of dunes, but I only got a dis­tant glimpse as we re­turned to the camel hut af­ter our 30-minute ride. When I men­tioned this to my trans­la­tor, he spoke in French to the camel wran­gler, who in turn called over a friend who had a Jeep. Af­ter cut­ting a deal with the man, we headed off to­ward the lake, which I saw as we ap­proached was not the deep ma­genta color I had seen in some pho­tographs, but more like that of cot­ton candy. (The color varies de­pend­ing on the weather and the sea­son.)

My guide asked me if I wanted to swim in the wa­ter, which be­cause of its high salt con­tent — up to 40 per­cent in some places — has a buoy­ancy ef­fect sim­i­lar to that of the Dead Sea. But I was more in­ter­ested in talk­ing to the peo­ple col­lect­ing salt.

The breath­tak­ing process was fas­ci­nat­ing to watch: hun­dreds of men and young boys take pirogues, nar­row ca­noes, out into the mid­dle of the lake and, us­ing spades, break off chunks of salt at the bot­tom and load them into the boats. When they re­turn, women — who, like the men, coat them­selves in shea but­ter to pro­tect their skin from ex­po­sure to the salt — wade into the wa­ter with plas­tic bas­kets and take the salt back to shore, dump­ing it into piles. Later, it is pro­cessed with io­dine and hauled off on mas­sive trucks to be sold at mar­kets across West Africa.

A few women came up, try­ing to get me to buy trin­kets, which in­cluded beaded bracelets and paint­ings with sand mixed into the pig­ment. I firmly told them no, but one woman put a bracelet on my arm any­way. “It’s free, it’s a gift,” she said with a smile. When I thanked her and started to walk away, she said, “You are go­ing to buy some­thing from me, right? That’s why I gave you that.” In the end — guilted by my “gift”— I bought a shell neck­lace.

With the taste of salt on my lips from the wind, we headed off to the nearby vil­lage of Bun­aba, where most peo­ple haul salt. The lo­cal chief showed us around and then took us to the vil­lage co-op, which sold wood carv­ings of pirogues and the wo­ven bas­kets for which Sene­gal has be­come known. I bought one for $7, amused that the same type is sold in up­scale London shops for at least $50. We climbed back into the Jeep and sped off over the sand dunes to­ward the beach. I knew from my child­hood days on Lake Michi­gan that driv­ing over dunes and on the beach was bad for ero­sion and the en­vi­ron­ment — but what a blast as my hair whipped in the wind and I took in the salty hu­mid air. I let out a “woo-hoo!” for good mea­sure as we passed the chil­dren still play­ing soc­cer on the beach, cre­at­ing their own sandy child­hood memories.

BERNARD PAPON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

MARTIN LIND­SAY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

TOP: The lineup of salt work­ers’ boats at Sene­gal’s Lac Rose. ABOVE: One of many la­bor­ers re­moves salt from the lake. RIGHT: The au­thor and her trans­la­tor, Al­pha Jal­low, ride camels on the beach fac­ing the At­lantic Ocean, near Lac Rose.

COURTESY OF GINANNE BROWNELL MITIC

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