Categories: Africa, Food Travel

Letting Go in Senegal

A donkey walks a roof in Popenguine, Senegal

View from the road in Popenguine

When Scott and I travel for Eat Your World, it’s hardly relaxing. Before even getting to a destination, our minds are already swimming with loads of pre-trip research, we know what foods we’re tracking down and where, and we have a game plan—a soft itinerary of sorts, which always changes upon arrival—of how we might go about squeezing it all into our limited travel time. Once in town, we run around eating and drinking and writing and hiking as much as humanly possible. Sure, it’s the best kind of stuff to busy yourself with—and, in truth, we’d be doing it on a smaller scale even without the website—but it’s also pretty exhausting.

Which is why on longer trips, like the one we took to West Africa this spring, we’ll try to build in some actual vacation time—you know, the “sit in the sun and read and have a cocktail and do little else” kind of thing. We’re really not very good at it, actually, so this time usually ends up being just two or three days. As we get older and busier, we’re realizing just how important it is, how even one day of letting go can recharge the mind and body for days to come.

Pirogue on a beach in Popenguine, Senegal

The beach at Popenguine, once the sun showed up

In Senegal, the beaches south of Dakar represented our vacation. Our Eat Your World coverage concluded in the capital, and after 11 eye-opening days in Sierra Leone, we’d made last-minute plans to follow our expat friends’ advice and stay in the quiet seaside village of Popenguine, about an hour south of Dakar, for two nights before we headed further south to the stunning Siné-Saloum Delta, where a reservation at a gorgeous splurge-worthy resort awaited us.

After some serious haggling at the airport, we found a taxi to take us directly to Popenguine. The weather, unfortunately, was dreary. Gray, wet, unseasonably cool. It was not the best day to arrive to a seaside village; it had that abandoned, dismal look of a shore town in winter (mind you, it was still summer). What about the sun and the books and the cocktails? I wondered, climbing down to the beach from the road, pulling my one long-sleeve shirt tighter around me.

Our prospects seemed even bleaker on the empty sand, as we pursued a hastily scribbled tip on an apartment rental from a friend in Dakar. We couldn’t get hold of the owner and our poor French was much more of a barrier here than in the city. We bided our time looking at a few other depressing properties, one infested by mosquitoes and the other a room in what appeared to be a mini hippie commune.

What were we doing here again?

Man enters a beachfront apartment in Popenguine, Senegal

The key to our happiness


Finally someone arrived with the key to the place we’d hoped for, an adorable second-story one-bedroom apartment with a cozy sitting room and a hammock-strung, ocean-facing terrace. At $50 a night, it was a steal. Our vacation, we hoped, had finally begun.

But there was very little to do in Popenguine in this weather. We started walking down toward what we guessed was the village, stopping for café Touba en route. A few storefronts—if they can be called that—were open, an unmarked little grocery here, an art shop there. Reggae music came and went. The vibe here was very chill, and we instantly liked it.

It didn’t take long for us to meet Mandir. He knew very little English, but he made a valiant effort in his gentle voice, and invited us in for tea at his friend’s custom-designed clothing shop. He said he’d walk us into the village to get dinner, but first he embarked upon an elaborate attaya tea preparation, after which we all sipped green minty tea from the same little glass.

Senegalese man makes green tea in Popenguine, Senegal

Mandir making tea


Mandir knew everyone. He guided us at a slow pace through the sandy alley that led to the village proper, down the hill from the more touristy high road, and into a restaurant we never would have recognized as a restaurant, as it was no more than a single picnic table behind a curtain of bedsheets. The chef, a woman in colorful dress, asked if Moroccan- or Senegalese-style couscous was OK; we told her we’d eat whatever she made us. While we waited for her one-dish restaurant to open, we visited down the road with Mandir’s family, who promptly invited us over for lunch the following day.

A bowl of homemade family-style ceebu jen, or thiéboudienne, in Popenguine, Senegal

Family-style ceebu jën 

It seemed we had found our groove in Popenguine. And indeed, until the moment we left town, in between the private walks we took on the beach and the wine we sipped on our hammock, Mandir was our vacation angel. He made sure we got cheap, tasty local food. He showed us which door to knock on to buy a bottle of fresh bouye, a delicious local juice made from the fruit of the baobab tree, and he took us on public transport to admire a nearby baobab forest, just off the highway to the south. His family served us homemade ceebu jën in their yard for lunch; his sister insisted we take some of her beaded necklaces. All he asked for in return was our phone number, so he could stay in touch with us when we left.

Baobab forest near Popenguine, Senegal

Walking among the baobabs

It was as if he’d been expecting us, waiting to take us under his wing and give us just what we hoped for.

Popenguine, it turns out, has all the makings of a terrific vacation destination: the sea, the slow pace, the upscale French restaurants on the beach. What we found, in drearier weather, was a different kind of vacation, no less blissful—one in which we could abandon any agenda and embrace the opportunity to go with the flow, to put ourselves in the hands of a new local friend and just let go.

What about you? Have you ever struggled to “let go” while traveling?

Published On: July 27, 2012

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