A Walk in Dakar

Street vendors in Dakar

Street vendors in Dakar

My alter ego, Anastasia, went for a walk in Dakar this afternoon.

Anastasia made her first appearance several years ago in Istanbul as I tried to avoid the annoyingly persistent Turkish rug salesmen. Their usual approach was, “Hello, what is your name? Where are you from? Ah, Seattle? I have an uncle there.”

But they were like mosquitoes. Telling them you weren’t interested, ignoring them, or downright rudeness did not dissuade them. It was hard to dodge them long enough to even get back to the hotel, since they insisted on following me, accusing me and all Americans of not being friendly.

I tried responding in German, “Ich verstehe nicht,” thinking that was a less commonly spoken language than English, but that didn’t stop them. With so many Turkish families living in Germany, I found that the very Turks I was trying to avoid spoke German better than I did and were actually encouraged by my use of German.

So I created Anastasia. When they asked, “Hello, what is your name? Where are you from?” I answered, “I am Anastasia from Belfast.” The combination of a Russian-sounding name with a city they’d never heard of startled them enough for me to quickly escape.

Anastasia in Africa

Today I landed in Dakar, my first trip to Africa. When I travel in Europe, I try to blend in, but it’s hopeless here. Being on a new continent with very little sleep after a long flight, probably gave me that wide-eyed, novice look. Add blonde hair to that and, well, I was a magnet for everyone selling anything.

I mostly managed to fend them off (and actually had a very interesting half hour conversation with one young man who was thrilled to practice his English). But I didn’t quite put off the charming Muslim historian who showed me the market (lots of carcasses hanging from hooks and hungry-looking cats slinking around) and then hit me up for money to “buy tea for the boys at the mosque who will pray for you.”

So, I became Anastasia, staying at the Novotel (not my hotel). I found it helped to carry a bottle of water with me, too. A big bottle, not the kind a tourist would typically carry. A purposeful stride, a “Don’t bother me, I’m tired and just need to get home with this big bottle of water” look, and ignoring all comments thrown at me in English and French (Senegal’s main language, after the local dialects) seemed to reduce their persistence.

Lonely Planet suggests an occasional dismissive “bakhna” (that’s okay). If that doesn’t help tomorrow, I may become Anastasia from Berlin and start barking German at them.

I think I’ve hit my stride. Dakar, here I come.