Washington Post: For Visitors to Senegal, a Closer Look at the Salt Lake Harvest

LAC ROSE, SENEGAL-Not surprisingly, my tracksuit-wearing 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 flip-flops, 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.

Photos: 1) and 3) Lac Rose 2) Ginanne Brownell Mitic