For those who have not perused my new facebook photo album as extensively as I’m guessing my mother has, here’s the low-down on what I did this weekend: Rode a camel for 8 minutes, “camped out” in the desert in an absurdly fancy tent, witnessed a car accident that resulted in the death of two of the Senegalese president’s deputies (I also caught a glimpse of the president’s son! Starstruck.), explored the hipster-esque city of Saint-Louis, went on a bird-watching boat ride, sat in a bus for upwards of 13 hours, and contracted food poisoning.
All in all, an eventful weekend, but there’s only one story that I really want to tell in detail, simply because I cannot stop dwelling on it:
The bird-watching site we visited was, predictably, filled with middle-aged European tourists. One such older Frenchman approached me and asked if I spoke English. When I confirmed, he pointed to the boats and said, “Ees good!” I replied by telling him (in French) that the Wolof phrase for that is “Baax na.” He did not comprehend, because he didn’t know what Wolof was (the most widely-spoken language in the country he was visiting, might I add). He said, “Oui, parfait!” as if my ramblings were just a poor attempt at French. I tried again: “No, Wolof, the language.” He then started to say, “Oui, voler!” mimicking the wings of a bird, as if “wolof” were just a pathetic attempt at the French word for “flight.” As I tried again to explain what I meant, he patted me sympathetically on the arm and made an “isn’t she cute?” face at one of my friends, then walked away.
Everything about this situation made me annoyed. First of all, I speak French. How could I have carried on the first half of the conversation if I had such low proficiency that I could somehow confuse “neex na” and “parfait”? Secondly, how can you come to a country and not even bother to learn the name of the language spoken there? In the end, though, I just had to laugh. His patronizing attitude didn’t keep him from being the ignorant one, and I took a certain vindictive pleasure in knowing that he would soon get robbed blind by taxi drivers (who notoriously hike up their prices for tourists who don’t know any better)…I’m kind of a horrible person, it’s okay.
The only other news of import is that today is Thanksgiving! Nothing says “Hey, sucker, you don’t live in America anymore” quite like having a full day of classes on Thanksgiving day, except maybe for the fact that my Thanksgiving lunch will probably be a power bar and a bag of yogurt (yes, yogurt is sold in pouches here…like go-gurt, but worse).
So today while all my fellow Americans’ stomachs are full of turkey and sweet potatoes, my stomach will be full of the 5 liters of water I drank today in order to flush all the food poisoning out of my system. But hey, it’s cool, because while sleet and snow descend upon the midwest, the weather here is consistently in the 80s and sunny. So THAT is what I’m thankful for this year: T-shirt weather in late November…and the little blue passport that will let me back into America in just 25 days.
I’ve been slack about updating, but only because I’ve been busy having such a fun and crazy week that there has been no time!
My friend Chris came to town two Saturday nights ago, so Sunday morning I woke up freaking out with excitement to see a familiar face. After showing him around my neighborhood, we gallivanted around downtown and I got a chance to see his swanky hotel. Seeing the hotel was my first experience with really nice things since coming to Senegal: first elevator ride, first time using hot tap water, first time not having to constantly sweep the floor with my eyes for cockroaches (I still did, though; habits die hard)… Even the smell of the hotel blew my mind…it reminded me of America.
Fortunately, all of the hotel employees thought I was Chris’s wife, so I was welcome to show up there whenever I wanted. This came in handy when I was able to sneak into the rocking breakfast buffet the hotel puts on every morning. Now, I’m a sucker for buffet-style things in America, too—mediocre hotel continental breakfasts have always overwhelmed me with happiness; who knows why—but this one was just unreal. Bread, eggs, sausage, pancakes, crepes, fruit, cheese, jam, cereal, and REAL COFFEE. I was in heaven, and Chris can attest that I ate an obscene amount.
Anyway, the past week has been spent in an alternate Dakar universe…from the breakfast experience, to seeing an old friend from my hometown juxtaposed with my regular life in Dakar, to suddenly getting a glimpse of the “rich white people” sector of the city. I actually enjoyed pretending I didn’t speak French or Wolof while at the hotel so that I could remain as anonymous a “tourist” as possible.
Sadly, Chris has now returned to the illustrious United States of America, and things in my neighborhood have taken a turn for the crazy. From getting ambushed and asked for money by my host mom late one night while the power was out, to my friend’s host mom pulling a machete out on her maid, to the biggest surprise: Finding out that my host dad has another family I didn’t know about. I found this out because one of his sons from his other wife died after getting hit by a car (that part was unsurprising, in light of how many times I’ve almost gotten hit by buses/cars here). And they haven’t told my little brother. But nobody warned me that he didn’t know yet, so when he came to me asking about it I almost spilled the beans on accident).
Apart from those major upsets, things have just been a bit on the bizarre side here. I find myself in the midst of many uncomfortable conundrums, such as, “Should I ask the maids why my t-shirt came back from the wash with a burn hole in it?” Or like today, for instance, when I fell INTO the sidewalk on my way to work (there was a large hole that apparently I did not clear effectively enough. My knees took quite the beating). There was also an instance the other day when a man asked me if he could have a lock of my hair to remember me by. I said no. He responded, “Just a small piece. You won’t even miss it.”
All in all, this has been one of the most surreal, rollercoaster-esque weeks I’ve had in Senegal. I’ll be very proud to be able to look back on my semester and say that I honestly did run the gamut of experiences here (and relieved that I lived through it, Inchallah). In the meantime, I will be locking my door at night and hoping there aren’t too many more crazy surprises in store for me (other than this weekend, when I’m going camping in the desert in northern Senegal…camel-riding and mosquito bites await!)
In the meantime…I encourage everyone to be grateful for sidewalks that don’t fall in on themselves and to double check with their spouses/parents that they have no secret extra families (clearly you never know).
I’ve begun to notice a strange disconnect between Things That Are/Are Not Acceptable in America and Things That Are/Are Not Acceptable in Senegal. For example: Hitting/screaming at your kids in public…usually not acceptable in America. Totally fine here. Also, in America, an insurance company giving out 100 sheep as prizes for a sweepstakes probably wouldn’t go over well with its constituency. Here, however, sheep are given higher value than pedestrians (although I guess that isn’t saying much, considering the nature of Senegalese traffic).
However, there are a lot of things that Americans might do in Senegal totally innocently that would make people here super-offended. These things are more tied to respect and purity, two things that aren’t valued quite as much in the US. In Senegal, touching food/other people with your left hand is rude, because the left hand (used for wiping…) is considered dirty. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve been turned down for an unthinking left-hand high-five by a little Senegalese kid. Another big purity thing is with feet—bare feet are okay, but shoes are for some reason considered way dirtier than feet (although I can say with certitude that my feet are usually WAY dirtier than my shoes).
So one day, I’m in a car rapide (the colorful yellow buses), my head jammed into the window because there are about 30 extra passengers crammed in, and my stop approaches. In order to catapult myself over the masses (and to extricate myself from the man half-sitting on top of me), I have to step on the edge of the seat. An old man grabs my ankle and pulls it off, yelling about how wrong it is for me to put my foot on the seat. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t even respond, but I’ve had ample time to think about what I would say now, should l suddenly become fluent in Wolof, and it would go a little something like this: “We are sitting in a dilapidated bus made essentially of fortified tin foil with no working mirrors or brake lights. I can see the road speeding beneath us through holes in the wooden floor, and I just groped the woman in front of me in order to extricate myself from in between the large hips of the Senegalese women sandwiching me, not to mention the fact that the pleather casing of this seat has already been entirely ripped away, leaving only foam and exposed springs. But clearly my shoe touching the seat is the real problem here.”
The most confusing dichotomy: I’m not allowed to show my knees, but taxi drivers pull off on the side of the road and urinate on the edge of the sidewalk. Similarly, many middle-aged women whip off their shirts (no bras, might I add) when it gets hot in the house. If this makes sense to anyone, then please enlighten me. Until then, remember to greet with your right hand, and PLEASE keep your shoes off of everything. This is not a drill.
Well, my “Rural Visit” ended up being pretty much the opposite of the experience we were supposed to have. As our program director prepped us for these week-long trips, he told us to be ready to be surrounded by Senegalese villagers who didn’t speak French or Wolof, to be put to work harvesting peanuts or transforming cereals into millet, and to be totally disconnected from the outside world.
Instead, I found myself in Thiès, a fairly large and bustling city, staying with a Peace Corps volunteer who works a regular 9-5 job at the Peace Corps house in an air-conditioned computer lab. Instead of harvesting peanuts, I partook in the devouring of TWO half-pound Reese’s Cups. Rather than transforming cereals, I ATE cereal…lots of it. For dinner. Along with all other manner of Western food: salads, garlic bread, popcorn, and tons of vegetables. It was like a reprieve from Senegalese living, rather than an immersion into it. So although I wish I could have had a real “rural” experience, I still had an enjoyable week.
On to my favorite subject of the moment: Halloween. I realize it’s November now, and therefore I should no longer be celebrating Halloween. BUT: the same lack of noticeable weather and season change in Senegal that is making me miss Fall in Ohio also enables me to totally ignore typical holiday boundaries (silver lining!). If I want to watch Halloweentown in November (although, let’s be real, I also watch it in July), then who cares? It won’t feel any less like Halloween than October 31st did, when I wore a tank top and skirt to class and still sweat bullets. Same with Christmas: While everyone else has to wait until the day after Thanksgiving (ostensibly) to have Christmas cheer, I can start the merriment whenever I want. So today I will eat some candy corn, wear ghost earrings, and watch Halloween TV specials online. Maybe tomorrow I’ll listen to some Christmas carols and pair my (one) reddish shirt with my (one) pair of greenish pants. Who cares? Certainly not the Senegalese man I passed today sporting a “Drink beer, get more head” shirt, paired with a prayer cap and jelly shoes.
Merry Hallo-ChristmEasterukkah, folks.
Yesterday was my halfway day! That means that as of today, I am officially closer to coming home than to having left home. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I want to jettison on out of here; it’s just nice to look back and see how much I’ve accomplished. Hopefully the toughest days are behind me. I certainly have a TON to look forward to in the upcoming two months:
1) Rural Visits! This Monday I leave for Thiès, where I will be shadowing a Peace Corps volunteer for a week. Word on the street is I will get the chance to take orientation classes with some brand new Peace Corps volunteers, as well! Hopefully it’ll give me a better glimpse into what could possibly be my future…or at least will help me decide if I WANT that to be my future.
2) Visitors! Not only will my friend Chris be here for 10 days in November for a USAID conference, but another friend of a friend might be visiting in late November/early December! It would just be awesome to see some familiar faces.
3) Care packages! One of them arrived today: The McCombs family has officially seen to it that my Halloween will not be devoid of candy corn. That is…if the bag of candy corn lasts until Halloween…
4) Tabaski! I have had the rare and exciting chance to be in Senegal for Ramadan, Korité, AND Tabaski (they change based on the moon and stuff, so it’s not common that they would all occur in the same semester), and word on the street is that Tabaski will involve even more goat-slaughtering than Korité. Suffice it to say I am pumped up. Plus, I get the day off school.
5) Trip to Saint-Louis! In late November I’ll be going on a weekend trip to the desert in Saint-Louis, which apparently will involve camel rides and merriment.
After all of these exciting November happenings, I will suddenly find myself at the last week of classes! That is just surreal, my friends.
On another note, today as I was walking home from school, a riot formed as I passed the headquarters of the National Democratic Party. Not sure what it was for, but there was a LOT of yelling. I escaped without incident.
On ANOTHER other note, this morning I decided to finally break into the Starbucks via packets that my friend Cassie sent with me (thanks to her ever-useful status as an employee of the ‘Buck). I only drank part of a tiny, tiny cup, but about two hours later (as I was observing a classroom of 6-year-olds at the local private school, no less), I was hit with crippling nausea, dizziness, shaking, adrenaline rushes, and hyperventilation. Oops? Clearly readjusting to American living (which in my case involves copious amounts of coffee) will not be the cakewalk I had anticipated.
Finally: Last night at dinner, my host mother casually mentioned, “Hey, by the way, I’m going on a pilgrimage to Mecca on Tuesday. I’ll be there for two weeks. But don’t worry, I’ll be praying for you.” I love that I live in a place where that type of information is run-of-the-mill.
The other day, my host brother walks into my room and holds up a piece of paper, saying, “This is a picture of you dying. Look, that’s you falling off a ten-story building into a pit of lava.” And it wasn’t like he drew a picture of some random person and then decided to tell me it was me as a joke—the stick figure had long hair, just like mine. For me, there’s a huge difference between drawing a comic of someone dying while they watch you draw the picture (could be humorous) and coming into someone’s room and being like, “Hey, just so you know, here are some pictures of your death that I doodled in my spare time.”
So I told him, “Saër, that’s mean!” He conceded; then, to make the situation less horrid, he added in a car and said, “But look, I drove my car under you and caught you inside!” I thanked him for saving me, but then he replied, “Oh, you still died. Just…not in a pit of lava. So it’s better.”
To top it all off, the previous night, Saër had come into my room with a box of matches. He proceeded to light them 3 at a time and throw them, still burning, on my floor. I told him jokingly, “Don’t do that, you’ll set my room on fire!” His response? “No, that won’t happen until I bring gasoline to pour in your room first.”
If I die, you all know the culprit.
In other news, I have started playing a new game during my commutes to work and school. I used to play one called “How Many White People Will I See in the Next 30 Minutes,” the answer typically being one: My reflection in the bus window (one time I counted THREE. It was a big day). Because this game quickly became boring and predictable, I have since moved on to a new game I like to call “Shirts That Senegalese People Wouldn’t be Wearing if They Knew Their Meaning.”
Allow me to expound on this: Basically, West Africa is the place where all of those shirts you throw into garbage bags during spring cleaning end up. All the clothes that Goodwill can’t sell, the extra shirts from high school blood drives, and various other random garments are sold in roadside stands here called, in Wolof, “Dead White People’s Clothes.” The reasoning behind the name: Why would people give up their perfectly good clothes unless they were dead?
So anyway, this leads to some pretty hilarious t-shirt sightings: A woman in a “Real Boobs” tank top, a man wearing a shirt with the gay pride flag (Senegal is SO anti-homosexual that, even if this guy were the most flamboyant man since Liberace, he would never dare to wear this shirt in public if he knew what it meant, lest he incite a public riot… Thankfully no one else realized what it meant either, so no stoning occurred), my conservative Muslim boss in a t-shirt that read, “If it has tits or wheels, it’ll give ya problems.” The streets of Dakar are full of hilarious t-shirt gems such as these, and I take great pleasure in regarding them as I head to my next destination.
P.S. Although my brother is undoubtedly a kooky kid, I have no real fear that he will ignite my room in a fiery blaze or somehow orchestrate my fall from a tall building. We just bond over weird stuff. So don’t freak out, Mom. I’m fine and plan to make it home in late December, mostly un-scorched and wholly alive.
You know how in ’90s family sitcoms, episodes would focus on a certain theme and then every single character on the show would somehow encounter a problem or experience that magically coincided with the week’s theme?
Well, I’ve been thinking lot about language recently, and my life turned a little ’90s-esque in that language became the theme of the day yesterday (although maybe that’s a little less preposterous than a sitcom, considering I happen to live in a place where I switch between 3 languages every day).
Anyway, it began at Colombin, the pottery place where I work. Work is always a fun conglomeration of languages— my boss speaks French and Wolof, but the kids who help out around the place are deaf and mute. They introduced themselves to me and started chatting in sign language, and here’s the crazy part: I understood it. Anyone who knew me back when I was a precocious 7-year-old will know that I went through a phase of several years where I was obsessed with learning sign language. However, I thought that after a good 13 years, I probably would have forgotten most, if not all, of it. I was shocked to find that I still remembered enough to talk with these boys. I was filled with this weird exhilaration that comes from realizing a childhood dream, if over a decade late. It was also a huge brain-twister to use sign language to spell French and Wolof words…trippy. Just another way that I have to gather and use all my language faculties in order to aptly communicate with people here.
So later at work, my boss starts talking to me about languages and mentions how French is a way harder language to speak and learn than English. Now, this is not the first time I’ve heard this—probably three or four people here in Senegal have told me how easy English is compared to French. The funny trend among all of these people is that none of them actually speak English. It strikes me as hilarious but also a little obnoxious every time this happens, because I want to say, “Let’s consider the fact that I’m the only person in the room who speaks both French AND English…maybe I should be able to contribute my opinion regarding which one is harder.” I tried to explain that I teach reading and writing to kindergardeners as my job at home, and that although English conjugations are easier than French conjugations, the amount of exceptions and irregularities in the English language, along with the myriad of different sounds each letter of the alphabet makes (in French, most letters make just ONE sound…makes so much more sense) cause it to be one of the hardest languages to learn, from a linguistic standpoint. But when I say this, they all just laugh at me and go, “No, French is definitely harder. We have masculine and feminine articles.” At this point, I have to just let go.
A more gratifying language experience occurred last night as I was skyping with Shelby: We had been chatting for a bit when my host brother walked in. I turned to talk with him for a couple minutes, telling him a bit about Shelby and asking him what he wanted me to tell her in return. When I turned back to face Shelby, she asked me with some surprise if I realized what had just happened—namely, she had watched me be kind of fluent in French. To be honest, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I had switched languages.
It’s easy for me to think I haven’t gotten much better at French while here, but then I see my ability from the perspective of someone who hasn’t seen me in a few months and I realize that I basically live my daily life in French here. As I have decided to label it, it seems I have moved from being a good French student to a bad French speaker; basically, I have a long way to go, but at this point I definitely speak French, whatever that means.
To end out the sitcom-esque night with a continuation of a theme, my brother came in to my room to talk about bicycles and cars (his favorite subject). As we googled the maximum speed in kilometers of the Honda Civic I drive in the states (I don’t know why he wanted to know, but we were bonding so it’s okay), he looked at the webpage full of English I was reading and said, “You don’t understand any of that, do you?” I had to remind him yet again that I am fluent in English (a fact that is forgotten by almost everyone here, including myself). It’ll be sad to come back to America, where no one will be impressed by my ability to read a page of text in my native language. Oh well, I guess seeing my family, taking a hot shower, drinking coffee/eating American food, and being home for Christmas will kind of make up for that loss.
Instead of sleeping last night, I made this little map to show where, exactly, my Gambia travels took me. I hope it’s illuminating. I would also like to add that it is extraordinarily hard to find a detailed map of the Gambia, as if it weren’t the insane tourist hotspot we all know it is…