It was early morning and still dark when I stepped off an overnight flight from Washington, DC onto the tarmac of the small Dakar airport. The airplane had stopped for an hour to refuel and drop off and pick up passengers before continuing to Johannesburg, South Africa. I disembarked to visit a friend and her family for the next six days, and though I was tired, I couldn’t wait to explore Senegal.
A few hours after arriving we were on our way to Palmarin and the Sine Saloum Delta in rural Senegal. A well-paved highway takes you out of the city and further onto a two-way road through towns and villages. As the sight of Dakar faded in the distance, I looked ahead to the open road and couldn’t believe I was in Africa.
Scenes of meat and fruit stands by the roadside, unfinished buildings and crumbling sidewalks, women in colorful attire, roaming goats, salt flats and baobab trees, donkey carts and horse carts and women carrying water or pounding maize played out in front of me.
After Joal, we found ourselves on the worst road I’ve ever traveled. I thought we were going to lose a tire to the large potholes that filled the road. As we came out on the other side of that bumpy red earthy road with tires intact, I smiled.
I was on an adventure of a lifetime and on my way to spend my first night ever on the continent of Africa in a majestic Baobab tree at Collines de Niassam Lodge.
A flashback to ATV riding on this beach in rural Senegal near Lac Rose (Lake Retba). I rode around the ‘pink lake’, past villages, down dunes, to this beach by the Atlantic Ocean and past stops on the former Dakar rally.
Le Centre Culturel c’est là the taxi driver announced.
C’est le Centre Culturel Derkle? I ask.
Non, c’est le Centre Culturel Americain
Derkle? He sounded confused.
I think back to my conversation with Amina, the nanny at my friend’s house. She also thought I was going to the American cultural centre. Maybe it’s the one most visitors go to in Dakar. I remembered that I saw ‘liberté six’ on the map when I showed her the location.
Now in the taxi and somewhat lost, I pull the map out of my travel bag and show it to him while pointing to The Derkle Cultural Centre.
C’est là, en liberté six.
Ah, oui, je le sais maintenant.
Ndiaye smiles and turns the taxi around as he knows where to go now. Relief spreads over me. For a moment, I imagined myself lost in Dakar and not being able to explain where I wanted to go. Senegal is the first place I’ve ever been where English speakers were difficult to find, a new experience for me.
We pull up to a rose-colored building in the middle of a residential neighbourhood in Dakar. There isn’t a tourist in sight.
C’est ici says, Ndiaye. I look around and hesitantly step out of the familiarity of the taxi and Ndiaye.
Merci Ndiaye, je vais vous répondre ici à six heures
D’accord, à six heures
Thanking him as I get out of the taxi, we make plans to meet at 6 o’clock that evening. I know that it’s the correct place as I spotted a sign before leaving the car.
There is a gated entry way; I walk through. A circle of senior women are on my right. They gathered in the shade of a tree. I can hear them talking, but I don’t recognize the language. I wonder if it’s Wolof. I want to stop and interact with them, but I have a class to attend, and I’m not sure where I need to go.
I continue and am now in the courtyard of the building. There are many rooms; they appear to be classrooms. I wonder where everyone is. I try to look for a sign that may point to where I’m supposed to go for my Djembe lessons, but there are none. I wander around and try and listen for the sound of a drum, but again, nothing.
I go back to the front of the building and search for someone that may know where I need to go. It looks like I’m at the front office, but I’m not certain. I step inside.
Bonjour? I call out. Suddenly a man appears from a back room. Bonjour.
Savez-vous Ibou? J’ai des cours de djembe avec lui.
Non, je suis désolé mais je ne le connais pas.
I’ve just asked if he knows Ibou, the man I’m supposed to meet. He tells me that he’s sorry but doesn’t know him. I thank him and say goodbye. The only person who seems to know anything about the place doesn’t know the person I’m supposed to meet.
I’m not even sure where I am in Dakar. I don’t know how far away my friend’s house is, and I wonder if there is a local bus nearby but then I don’t know how to get back to my friend’s house. I don’t have a transit map, and I don’t have a data connection as I couldn’t get my Senegal SIM card to work. I don’t even have Ndiaye, the taxi driver’s number, and I’m not sure I can speak French well enough to get me to where I need to go. Suddenly, I feel ill-prepared, and a bit of panic begins to set in.
I take a deep breath.
Okay Andrea, relax. Think. You are more prepared than this; you can handle this. In my excitement, I forgot that I was supposed to call the drumming instructor when I arrived. Good thing I added an Africa phone and text plan to my iPhone the night before since my local SIM didn’t work. I look on my phone, and there’s the information I need. I dial the number. A voice answers.
Why I Stay Connected When Travelling Internationally and How an Unlocked iPhone Helps Me Feel Safe Travelling Solo:
Staying connected while travelling solo internationally is essential for me. I do so to stay in touch with my husband and 2 boys via FaceTime and so they know my whereabouts in case anything should happen. I also like to stay “connected” as an extra measure of safety.
Reasons to Stay Connected
To use Google’s street view to scout the neighbourhood of the hostel/hotel I’m going to be staying at ahead of time. I can see what amenities are nearby and what the neighbourhood is like.
To open google maps and follow the “blue dot” to see if your taxi is taking you in the right direction. It helps to guard against taxi ripoffs. Prior to visiting Prague, I had read in various travel forums about the potential to be overcharged especially from the train station. I usually take a taxi when I arrive, especially at night. I used my iPhone to look up the typical cost using the World Taximeter website. By having data available, I was able to keep more of my Koruna as I could debate the cost of said trip. My driver went out of the way from the train station to the hotel so I knew he was overcharging me thanks to Google maps and world taximeter. He didn’t contest told and charged me less than what he initially asked for.
To use a Translate app such as iTranslate or Google translate. It helps me to say what I need to.
Most smartphone users know the high costs of data and roaming while travelling. So what do you do to keep costs to an affordable amount? If you have an unlocked phone you can purchase a local SIM card and prepaid data.
Purchasing an SIM card & prepaid data in South Africa:
Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport: There are several wireless provider shops near the international arrivals area. I went with Vodacom. It was easy to get set up and it was about $30-35 CAD for 1gb data, 20 minutes of calls to South Africa and texting.
Cape Town airport: There are several wireless provider shops after arrival in the Cape Town airport as well.
If you should need to top up, you can do so at any Vodacom shop or at stores like Pick n pay where you purchase of voucher for a certain amount and follow the prompts on your phone to credit your SIM card/phone number with the codes from the voucher. It’s simple and it’s in English.
Purchasing an SIM card & prepaid data in Senegal, West Africa:
In Dakar and many towns outside of Dakar there are Orange stores as well as resellers everywhere. You can barely go a few blocks without seeing an Orange sign. You can even find their prepaid cards while stuck in traffic from the vendors that come to your window.
To purchase data service in Senegal, follow these steps.
Purchase a microSIM card. If none are available, purchase a regular sized one and have it cut or cut it yourself.
Purchase either 10,000 (1-week internet) or 25,000 CFA (1 month internet) at any reseller. You will get a scratch card with the pertinent information.
Important: Visit www.passorange.sn to activate the prepaid card and choose which service you’d like.
Open up your browser and you should see that you’re connected.
If your phone is locked:
A locked phone means that you cannot change your SIM card from that of your usual wireless provider. You have to either “roam” (costly), rent (if available), buy something local or wait for a wifi connection. You can read that post here.
A Regional SIM card and staying connected in Europe:
In March 2012, I travelled solo to 8 cities in 6 countries in Europe and chose IPhoneTrip for convenience as they provide data plans for the world, a region or one country. I chose coverage for Europe so I could travel seamlessly from one country to the next rather than getting a local SIM card because I was only in some places 24-48 hours. I didn’t want to have interrupted service and I also didn’t want to spend my time having to find an SIM card on arrival. The service providers automatically switched as I entered a new country and I barely noticed.
iPhoneTrip sends you an SIM card as well as a backup SIM card in case there is something wrong with the first one. Rental is for a minimum of 7 days. At the time of rental, it was $11.99 USD per day for unlimited data. I only needed data as I use apps such as Vonage and Skype to make phone calls and iMessage and What’s App or Facebook messenger. My phone also worked as a wifi hotspot (tethering) so I could share my data with up to 5 devices if I wanted to. Fellow passengers on the tour bus to Budapest from Vienna became my best friends 😉
Prepaid SIM cards and Data Plans Around The World:
I checked Senegal and it’s not up to date, but I added a comment with some information. I also checked South Africa and it seemed pretty up to date. So please do further research before you travel before relying solely on the information presented.
There is definitely something to be said for wandering about and getting “lost” and disconnecting, but sometimes it is not okay to do so. For those of us that need or want to stay connected, I hope these tips will help you.
“Bonjour, ça va?” I ask as I open the creaking door to his black and yellow taxi.
I sit down on the gray, once fluffy blanket that covers the seat; it is worn and melds into the seat cushion. His taxi is a little worse for wear; dents and black duct tape everywhere. A missing side view mirror here, a cracked windshield there, but it smells okay. An air freshener hangs from the rear view mirror. I recall a brief conversation the night before.
“Don’t worry about the condition of the taxi, it’s battered, but it will get you where you need to go”.
That statement echoed in my mind as I look around. As we enter the main road, I notice a sea of black and yellow taxis in the same battered condition. The ocean is directly ahead and there is a large mosque on the beach of the Atlantic.
We turn right and make our way on to the main road. Fifteen minutes later, we come to a roundabout. Cars, trucks, mopeds, taxis and buses bottleneck into the middle, horns blasting every other second. I look right, a horse-drawn cart is beside me, even it competes for space on the road and shows no fear. It is slow moving, but intense, as there is much traffic.
A woman dressed in bright coloured traditional clothes appears at my window on the right; she is selling bananas. A man puts a long, clear plastic rung of orange and black business sized cards to my window. I smile and shake my head “no”. They remain. I shake my head again.
We exit the roundabout and continue our drive. Flashes of colour fly by my window. Beautifully dressed women line the street, some carrying loads on their heads and children on their backs, others wait for a bus or shop the market stalls. I marvel at how the women dressed in white boubous stay so clean amidst the red earth, dust and garbage.
Vendors line the road selling watermelon. Fresh meat hangs in clear view at the butcher stands as flies buzz about. A mother and her young children sell clothes, produce and canned goods on the sidewalks.
Cows are being herded and goats roam the streets.
Children play soccer, dust, dirt and garbage among them.
Crumbling sidewalks, unfinished construction, vacant and neglected shops abound.
Packed blue and yellow buses with men hanging off the back.
White buses are loaded down with luggage and goats on top of the roof; the bus looks like it could topple over at any minute.
It’s unlike anything I have seen before, chaotic yet beautifully choreographed, as the movement fits together like a dance. A feeling of gratefulness washes over me. I smile and think to myself, I am in Africa.
Captured photos from the video I took on this drive to my Djembe lesson at a local community centre.
iPhone captured photos of Dakar, Senegal Street Life