One of the best aspects of the Peace Corps invasion of Sobo-Badé was the roundabout way in which it introduced me to Jeremy and Sarah. On the road as in normal life, people understandably tend to coalesce into groups that are bound by a common language, and my newfound Peace Corps friends soon introduced me to another American couple, who were planning to head south in the morning. I had a choice between sitting round for another day on the sun-soaked beaches of the Petite Côte, or latching on to the only moving company I could find, and the homesickness bug won; I wanted to share the road for a while, at least until I was firing on all cylinders, and Jeremy and Sarah were only too happy to let me tag along.
Our destination was a twin town called Joal-Fadiout, some way down the Senegalese coast. In Senegal it makes sense to travel in large groups because it keeps the transport costs down, but the fun part of travelling with Jeremy and Sarah is that they can't speak a word of French, so all of a sudden I have become the group's communications expert. I might have been feeling language-lonely over the last few days, but at least I can string a few words together; Jeremy and Sarah are having a tough time with no French, but they're winning, and I can't help feeling complete admiration for them, not to mention some shame at the self-pity I've been feeling at being isolated from other non-English-speaking travellers.
So, with the blind leading the blind, we finally managed to get to Joal, which my guidebook described as 'interesting'. Obviously journalism isn't an exact science, but when we visited Joal, 'interesting' was not the first word that sprung to mind; instead, Joal seemed to be having the urban equivalent of a Bad Hair Day. There was indeed a beach, as promised, but the sea was a worryingly black colour and the sand barely peeped out from under the rubbish; meanwhile our hotel, which the book described as having 'soul', had power failures, mosquitoes, birds cooped up in incredibly tiny cages, two poor pelicans locked in grotty cells in the corner of the restaurant, and rooms that made the hole in Calcutta look positively bright and breezy. I noted for future reference that 'soul' was possibly something I could do without during my West African sojourn, and I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn't enjoying this unique cultural experience alone.
For nothing quite brings people together like scraping the bottom of the barrel. Having exhausted the delights of the beach, making sure we kept our shoes well and truly on, the three of us sat in the hotel's pelican-flavoured restaurant, enjoying our meal while the local insects enjoyed theirs, and reflecting that even though Joal hadn't turned out to be as interesting and soulful as we'd been expecting, at least we could move on if we wanted to, something that the poor caged pelicans watching us eat could only dream about.
Credit must go to the local cockroaches, too. That night I put up my mosquito net and made sure I'd tucked it in carefully under the mattress, ensuring that nothing could get in overnight. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was woken up at 2am by a buzz, a thud and a gnawing suspicion that I wasn't alone. Grabbing my torch, I shone it in the direction that my instincts told me to, and came face to face with a two-inch-long cockroach, squatting inside my net and looking at me as if to say that this was his room, and I wasn't welcome. I couldn't believe it; there was no gap in my net – I'd checked it twice – so I can only assume that I'd been sharing the bed with him all this time. Luckily Senegalese pillows are traditionally made from concrete, and a swift lob in the direction of my newfound friend proved that cockroaches may be tipped as the species with the best chances of surviving a nuclear holocaust, but even they can't survive the impact of a Senegalese pillow.
The reason that Joal-Fadiout is on the tourist map is because Fadiout, the second half of this excitingly duplicitous town, is perched on an island that's made almost entirely of clam shells. This, coupled with a strong Christian influence, makes Fadiout a relatively off-key destination (for Senegal at least), and even more interesting is a second clam-shell island, linked to Fadiout by a second bridge, which is home to hundreds of Christian graves, each marked by a cross and a pile of shells. In such a predominantly Muslim country this whiff of Christianity is not only bizarre, it's positively welcoming.
Unfortunately, so are the local guides, who insist on accompanying you for every step along the rickety wooden bridge to the island, irrespective of how many times you say, «Non merci.» The island itself is, well, just an island, with a small town cramping its style and a bunch of clam shells crunching underfoot. There isn't a great deal else to excite the senses; it has atmosphere, but most of that is provided by the decomposing rubbish that gets dumped on the island's long-submerged beaches.
The cemetery is interesting though, if only because it's crammed with graves, a lot of them quite recent additions. From the cemetery island's modest hill you can see the town's food store – a bunch of huts perched on stilts in the lake to make sure that fire can't destroy them – and the large crucifix on the crest of the cemetery almost manages to pull off an atmosphere of colonial times gone by. It isn't worth crossing the continent for, but it's a pleasant escape from Joal.
By the afternoon we decided that Joal's soul wasn't quite soulful enough to persuade us to stay, and we made plans to head further down the Petite Côte to the beach paradise of Palmarin. Before finding a taxi, though, I stopped off at a pharmacy to buy some mouthwash to combat a mouth ulcer that was threatening to take out my entire upper jaw. The mouthwash seemed to do the trick, though I was more than a little concerned to read the following on the bottle: 'There is a risk of seizures in young children and infants, and agitation and confusion may occur in older patients.' I wondered if I'd accidentally bought a bottle of the local moonshine instead; perhaps that's the elusive secret of Joal's soul, after all...