DAKAR, Senegal -- Bleary-eyed after an all-night, nonstop flight from New York, we stumbled into Dakar's forlorn airport terminal only to confront the money changers.
The two young men spotted me when I paused in front of the ''closed" sign at the exchange booth. They offered to convert dollars or euros into the local currency, the franc CFA.
''No, thanks," I said. ''Non, merci."
The message did not seem to register in either language. The young men pursued my wife, Susan, and me as we schlepped our suitcases out of the terminal into the predawn darkness. They continued to cajole and badger us until we got into a taxi.
No matter. We may have been tourists traveling to Senegal for the first time, but we had been told about the aggressive street vendors in the capital city. Annoying, but nothing to fret about. We knew once our taxi reached our hotel, we would be able to change money there to pay the driver.
In the rickety taxi, though, we felt shivers of doubt about our choice of this West African country -- or anyplace in the developing world, for that matter -- as a vacation spot. Unfolding before us in the morning's first light was a disheartening scene: Barefoot children darted along the dusty road past pockmarked cinder-block houses, while a tide of battered cars and trucks rushed pell-mell toward the city.
Truth is, we probably would not have journeyed those 4,000 miles as we did last winter, had we not wanted to see our 20-year-old daughter, Alexa. She was spending a semester at a university in Dakar. Combining a parental junket and a winter's break in Senegal during its mild, dry season had seemed like a winner.
Our spirits lifted once we checked into the Hotel Savana, which is removed from the city's hurly-burly and has a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean. The Savana is a mini-resort boasting palm trees and a terrace-like dining room overlooking a mammoth swimming pool.
Senegal was a French possession until it gained independence in 1960, and the Savana stands as a graceful throwback to the colonial era. It is French-owned, and the guests, many of them French nationals on holiday, spent their time poolside.
Although our guidebook classed the Savana with four stars, its rooms were small and austere by American standards. In the bathroom, a device consisting of a nozzle attached to a hose served as both sink faucet and showerhead.
Importantly, however, as far as our daughter was concerned, there was hot water.
When Alexa appeared late that afternoon, she wasted little time before taking a steamy shower. Hot running water is uncommon in Dakar's residences, including the apartment in which Alexa was living with a Senegalese family. The Savana's hot water was a big draw that week, not just for Alexa but also for three of her American friends studying in Dakar, all of whom turned up at our hotel.
We deputized Alexa as tour guide. Senegal's official language is French, but it is an alien tongue for the vast majority of Senegalese. They are far more comfortable speaking one of several African languages, particularly Wolof, which Alexa was studying.
Having a Wolof-speaking daughter was a point of parental pride, though no one could have mistaken us for anything but tourists (or ''toubabs" in Wolof, which has a slightly unflattering connotation, as Alexa informed us).
Alexa was in class during the day, leaving us to our own devices. Walking the streets of Dakar seemed to offer the best introduction. So we set out from the Savana on foot.
A sprawling city of 1.5 million inhabitants, Dakar covers a peninsula of long boulevards and gritty residential streets. It has an appealing human scale. There are few tall buildings. The streets belong to the throngs of pedestrians, but the taxis, exhaust-belching minibuses, and other vehicles give no quarter.
Walking the streets was to mingle with stately women in flowing, gaily-colored dresses (known as ''boubous") and turbaned Islamic men washing their feet before bowing in prayer to Allah. It was to sidestep goats tended by little boys and long-horned cows that seemed to tend themselves, and to dodge the endless parade of vendors hawking everything from peeled oranges to ironing boards.
In the open-air marketplaces, the dollar stretches far. One day, we stopped at the March HLM, famed for its African textiles. We wanted to find a ''jupe-pagne," the wraparound skirt that is one piece of the boubou ensemble.
To buy only the jupe-pagne, we soon learned, was not possible. In a back corner of the market we happened upon, a tall, striking woman, Brigitte Diene, presiding over a small piecework shop with five sewing machines.
''Why not buy two meters of material down there?" she said, pointing to a nearby stall displaying bolts of cloth. ''I'll make the jupe-pagne for virtually nothing."
It took a half hour of shopping to find the right cotton fabric, a fish-like pattern over an ink-blue background. The price was $6.
By the time we returned to the shop, Brigitte had left. But her jaunty manager, Babacar Sack, said, ''No problem. We'll make the jupe-pagne for you." While Sack explained that Brigitte bought cotton fabric from Mauritania and satin from Mali, to produce apparel for export mostly to Nigeria, a sewing-machine operator cut and stitched.
''How much?" we asked Sack, when the jupe-pagne was finished.
''Nothing," he said, smiling.
That night, Alexa joined us for dinner at Chez Loutcha, a lively, unassuming restaurant in the city center. Prominent on the menu were Senegalese dishes: fish, beef, or chicken, and mounds of rice enlivened by spicy tomato or peanut-based sauces.
Chez Loutcha is popular among toubabs, as is the all-but-obligatory excursion to the Ile de Gore off Dakar's southeastern coast. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush both visited Gore on their travels through Africa, as though to confirm the island's importance as a dark symbol of the slave trade.
Gore is accessible by a ferry that leaves every few hours from Dakar's downtown harbor. We took the ferry on a warm, sunny afternoon for the half-hour ride to the island.
For all its tragic history, Gore seemed an unremarkable Mediterranean fishing port of tiled-roofed, pastel-hued houses. Down a narrow lane lined with red bougainvillea is the stark and barren House of Slaves, where abducted men, women, and children were imprisoned and parceled out like livestock to American and European buyers well into the 19th century. The horror of it all seemed to seep through the building's salmon-colored walls, despite a guide's overbearing commentary.
Before we left Dakar, the family with whom Alexa was living invited us to dinner at their modest, three-bedroom apartment. By then I had learned something about Senegalese etiquette. Eating with one's left hand, for example, is extremely rude.
Nar Diop, the big-hearted woman whom Alexa considered her second mom, had prepared a traditional meal: yassa chicken, served with rice and seasoned with onion, pepper, mustard, and vinegar. The food was placed on a big platter in the center of a plastic table. Nar's husband, Lamourdia, Susan, Alexa, and I helped ourselves, spooning the chicken and rice from the big platter into our mouths.
Nar ate apart from us, sitting on a stool in the kitchen, along with the couple's 14-year-old son and four daughters ranging in age from 10 to 22. The custom in their household dictates that men and women eat separately. Susan and Alexa were considered special guests.
As for me, I sat on my left hand and concentrated on making polite conversation with Lamourdia. I thought the evening went well.
''Dad, how could you?" Alexa scolded me later. ''You aren't supposed to talk while you eat."
Clearly, I had more to learn about Senegal.
Joseph Rosenbloom, a freelance writer living in Newton, can be reached at JoeRBloom@aol.com.