I don’t want to eat rat, but we are going to eat rat.
Kepa Acero and I have just arrived in Senegal—our boards haven’t even been lifted off the taxi—when we are called to join in the hunt. A towering, broad-shouldered Senegalese man with a long scar traversing the right side of his face steps into the doorway of our wooden shack. He clutches a machete and a metal kitchen pan, one in each hand. His name is Deeko. He hands Kepa the pan, and another man hands me a piece of gnarled wood.
“Venga,” says Kepa. “Let’s go.”
Marching off into the West African desert, Deeko is packing a handwoven rope, and a troop of young men from the village follow along. They dance and sing as we walk. Kepa is among them, carrying the frying pan over his shoulder.
In over an hour of walking along the sandy trail, the enthusiasm of the group never wanes. Mile after mile, they dance and sing. We walk so far that I wonder if we will ever get where we’re going. With the sun halfway to the horizon, we eventually come upon an elaborate mess of holes in the red earth. Rat holes. Rats the size of small dogs.
Deeko places his net over the largest hole. The rest of the group stuffs as many of the other holes as they can with sticks and dry leaves. Then they light the holes on fire. The idea is that the large jungle rats will flee above ground as the smoke engulfs their subterranean network. We each take a position beside a hole, clutching pans, sticks, rocks, and machetes.
I look to Kepa, perched over his own rat hole. A quiet intensity simmers over the smoky haze. Eyes swollen and agitated from the ashen heat, skin sunburnt and sweaty, his stocky and eager posture stands in stark contrast to the natural ease of the locals.
Within moments, a rat bolts from underground. Its speed is exhilarating as it darts past the barrage of weapons and through the group’s youthful vigor. Baye, a hulking man, rushes after it barefoot, jumping over thorny bushes while hacking wildly with his machete. But the rat is gone. I am left to wonder if I would have possessed the courage to whack at the rat had it raced in my direction.
We continue through the groves of cashew trees and the soft, golden grass that lines the jungle floor. There are more holes, more fires lit, and more rats. But as the sun sinks low into the trees, it seems the rats have won the day. My swollen feet ache as we trudge the long trail back to camp, empty-handed. No rat will be eaten tonight.
Kepa first came to this village in 2013 while attempting to drive from his home in Basque Country, Spain, to Cape Town, South Africa, only to be thwarted by a gas crisis caused by an outbreak of Ebola. On his attempt to turn back, he became stranded in Senegal, where he happened upon a wave. He came back to this location a year later with a truckload of surfboards to provide the cultural exchange of wave riding in return for their previous hospitality.
Such journeys are Kepa’s mode. The more extreme the conditions, the more remote the location, the more challenging the situation, the more comfortable he becomes. Over a decade of friendship, he has led me on several adventures throughout West Africa, from the deserts of Angola to the outskirts of Gabon. And he’s the reason that I’ve come back to this part of the world, this time to Senegal.
We’re not exactly near the coast, but, in anticipation of the first of the incoming swell’s energy, we accept the damp mist as a sign of the arrival of surf. All we need
to do is to wait for the tide to drop and pull the sheets tight on what we hoped would be a ruler-edge, sand-bottom point.
The grit of instant coffee still clings to my teeth as we arrive at the beach. My nose clenches at the scent of rotting fish. Flies overwhelm our taxi as we rush to pull our boards off the roof and gather our bags. We have arrived directly into the hustle of a coastal fishing village, with hundreds of hand-carved canoes lining the shore. Locals mingle about inspecting fresh catches, ignoring us newcomers and our too-small “boats.” Seabirds circle above, diving frantically at any scraps they can find. A sideshore wind blows strongly, carrying a featureless gray haze across the town. Out front, a thick shorebreak of muck-brown water pounds the sand.
I look to Kepa to gauge his impression of these conditions. I’d been expecting to see a pointbreak, but this beach is wide-open and walled. And a rising wind makes it feel like our window of opportunity is slipping past. But Kepa begins striding along a narrow, sandy trail away from the fish market. I follow. The tide is draining, and each step is shaky as the sideshore wind catches
our boards like sails. Nearly tripping over a final cinderblock wedged between clusters of forgotten barbed wire, we arrive at a wide, flat stretch of sand fanning into a calm bay.
On this section of coastline, the errant wind is a light offshore. The commotion of people, trucks, and city life has faded to a deafening silence. Just up the beach, a natural rock formation juts out into the sea, allowing the straight and powerful swell lines to bend into the bay across the contoured sand bottom.
Paddling into an eddy formed by the rocks, we notice the wave pausing for a brief moment before wrapping like a whip down the point. The takeoff provides an incredible lift into the tightly angled transition of the wave. Pulling off the bottom, my heel-side edge locks firmly into the curvature of the pocket. There’s no drag—only a weightless glide. I push my foot down to drive along the face of the wave as it moves into the speedy and shallow inside section. As I feel the strength of this section unloading onto nearby dry sand, my nose pokes and my board sails up with the wind.
I run up the beach toward the top of the point, watching Kepa as he uncoils a beautiful sequence of turns. Five waves follow him down the point, each one unique and shifting speeds between a swift, hollow curl section and the softer open faces, then back into the fast, racing pockets until the waves wrap out of sight.
Surfing in solitude allows you to access a realm of connection that often becomes clouded. The ability to feel the energy of a wave generated thousands of miles away becomes a natural extension of your own intuition. The dynamic interplay of movement, expression, and interpretation unfolds itself across the contours of an open face with no other distractions.
There’s only one other person down the beach, walking alone and paying no mind to the elated shouts reverberating across the water. This scene plays out similarly over the next few days.
One morning, Deeko arrives at our porch with a glowing excitement.
“Surf, Kepa,” he bellows.
He flashes a big smile, then laughs. The swell has dropped, and the local crew is ready to go. A big van has been borrowed from the next village, with seating for eight people. Within moments, boards become visible from all corners of the village, carried by young kids and teenagers. Feet pound the ground, filling the air with dust. In the year since Kepa first introduced surfing to this village, their opportunities to get out to the coast have been few. But when the chance does arise, it becomes a celebrated event.
Every board is strapped precariously to the top of the bus in a towering pile, and the vehicle overflows with more than 20 kids. There’s a surge of weight needed to slam the door shut before we fall back into any remaining free space.
Rhythm comes first in Senegal. Claps from one corner of the bus serve as a foundation for a beat of accompaniment from the opposite side. Next comes the bass line, a baritone erupting from somewhere near the back where three kids are crunched into the nook behind the rear seat. Fists hit the ceiling. Finally, the driver interjects and simmers the swell of energy that is threatening to overturn the van.
The first glimpse of waves reignites our excitement into a fevered rush. The van stops and we pour out onto the dusty road, blood rushing back into our stiffened legs. Without missing a step, the merry band grabs the boards and continues down the dusty trail to the beach. The boards are then passed around with a mutual acknowledgment of each surfer’s individual needs. It’s an environment of support and compassion. In fact, the act of surfing seems secondary to simply bobbing around in the waves.
The unique Senegalese song drifts on the warm afternoon wind. The water splashes as feet jump and legs groove to their own mix of melody and instinct. On the waves, the kids are naturals—a low sense of balance, composed posture, casual arms swinging loosely by their sides as an inevitable smile breaks across their faces on every wave.
It’s our last day in the village. My skin is pulled tight as leather, battered from extended sun exposure. My muscles are sore from exhaustion. We’ve scored a solid run of waves and hunted for rats several more times. That initial flood of anticipation—the great vulnerability of plunging into a new place and wrestling with the unknowns of any trip—has dulled. Warmth now fills what were holes of uncertainty. I feel as though I could linger here, waiting out the next swell. I feel as though I’ll be back someday. I look to Kepa, already his third time here, and know he feels the same.
As we pack our boards in the shack, we hear Deeko laughing and cackling in the distance, somewhere beyond the mud walls of our small shelter.
A moment later, he’s towering over us with a long, fat rat dangling from his grip. Word had spread of our many fruitless attempts, and someone in the village had gifted us a rat for the occasion of our departure.
As the scent of meat cooking on open fire fills the air, I wonder how the history of surfing here will unfold. Everywhere I look, I am reminded that the joy of surfing is not reserved solely for the act itself.
Dinner is served. The rat glistens in an oily milk. I’m shoulder to shoulder, knocking knees with my fellow hunters. We are taught to push our hands deep into the bowl and swipe the chunks of meat along the metal surface of the pot to soak up every trace of flavor. The singing has stopped. For a moment, only the wind speaks as we slurp at this delicacy before us.