Things My Parents Warned Me Not to do in Africa, in pictures: Playing with feral animals, letting my guard down, petting monkeys, consorting with strange men, eating food made on the streets, being involved in riots/near fire. Sorry, Mom and Dad, I accidentally turned your list into a checklist.
Despite having given the hotel staff every reason to despise us and our cheapskate selves (although there was no ATM in a walkable distance, so we were cheap out of necessity), they somehow still cared about our livelihood to the point that one of the hotel staff accompanied us on the 4+ hour trip to Kololi (the last destination of our trip), just to make sure we got a safe hotel at a fair price.
We wrangled yet another miraculously cheap deal, this time at the Manjai Resort (there was only one other guest in the whole place, so I think they were as desperate as we were). After tracking down an ATM, we walked with the swagger of people who have a reliable source of income and food. As we surveyed the landscape dotted with some truly hilarious businesses—a pub touting food that was both “Simply Irish” and “Locally Gambian,” a surprisingly large number of hair salons mislabeled “Saloons” (a pretty novel idea, so long as the person holding the scissors isn’t drinking), and my personal favorite, the Istanbul Bakery, open 24 hours a day—we were overwhelmed with all the choices available to us. All of a sudden, I realized how overwhelming it will be coming back to America. These days, I have to avoid looking at pictures of people drinking Starbucks, eating Sun Chips, or even standing in close proximity with their parents. So many things that I miss will just be handed back to me in one instant! I can’t even begin to fathom how it will feel.
Anyway, we spent much of the next few days simply recovering from all that we had done in the preceding days—made it to the beach, received some jewelry gifts from male Gambian suitors who truly believed that we would marry them in return, and ate many a roadside sandwich (having money didn’t keep us from being cheap).
On our very last day, we made it to some tourist hotspots like the monkey park (MORE MONKEYS! I couldn’t resist) and the “Craft Market” (really just a place where they peddle the types of touristy gifts you can get anywhere, but at way higher prices). We weren’t sure how we were going to spend our last night, but then the president of Gambia decided for us. Let me explain: The Gambian Peace Corps were celebrating their 50th anniversary that night. All week, we had seen various Peace Corps members making their way down to the beach for this big celebration, where there would be speeches and the president would be there and there would be much rejoicing. However, at the very last minute, the president of Gambia decided to just not show up. This meant that there were approximately 50 Peace Corps members gathered together with no plans and pissed that they had traveled all this way (traveling through Gambia is stressful, mark my words) for nothing. They decided to go out all night instead, and with our newly-acquired status as Peace Corps groupies, we were invited along. After some delicious pizza at tourist prices, we made our way around downtown Senegambia. At about 3:30 AM, I realized that my alarm at the hotel was set to go off in a little over an hour. We reluctantly took our leave, arriving at the hotel with just enough time to pack up our things and set out for the ferry.
We made it home without too much trouble (the car only broke down once, which, considering how broken-down it looked already, was better than I could have expected). I got to my house and collapsed in bed. I have proceeded to avoid anything other than sleeping and eating since that moment. I fear for next week, when I might possibly be expected to exert more effort than the average bum, but I will ride the “I’m tired from vacation” wave until it cannot support me any longer.
To end on a completely unrelated note, it has officially been over 6 weeks since I drank a cup of coffee. I dream about it regularly, along with Sun Chips, candy bars dipped in peanut butter, and chicken salad sandwiches.
We left Banni, the village, in the morning, our bellies full of rice pudding. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it would be our last full meal for approximately 40 hours.
Thus, we entered the second stage of the vacation, when the list of Things We Went Without came into play. After hours of frustrating travel, we connected with a Peace Corps guy named Kevin at a car park (I was willing to offer him my firstborn child and possibly my eternal devotion in exchange for some guidance), and he managed to score us a cheap-ish taxi to our next destination, Tendaba Camp. However, once we reached Kwinella, the village just outside of Tendaba, our cab driver refused to take us any further without extra pay. Because we had no more money to give, we decided to walk the last 5 kilometers to the hotel. In the dark. On an abandoned dirt path. We made it there without incident, however, and looked so pathetic that the hotel owners cut us a very generous deal. After a Clif bar dinner, we collapsed into bed.
The next morning we got to go on another boat trip, this time to scour the scenery for crocodiles and rare birds. Although we did get a fleeting glimpse of a crocodile, mostly the trip involved oohing and aahing at mangrove trees and mudfish, a strange amphibian/fish combo that looks like it got stuck in the middle of evolution.
After a lunch of complimentary bread (the hotel staff REALLY pitied us), turned into the best ketchup, butter, and salt sandwiches that I have ever eaten, things got desperate and, if possible, more pathetic. We realized that we had run out of water, but we didn’t have enough money to buy water bottles at the hotel. Thus, we set out on the 5K trek to Kwinella in the midday sun, in search of water pouches. By the time we got there, we all had dehydration chills and were disconcertingly unsure of reality. The first two boutique owners seemed to not understand the word “water,” but we finally had luck at the third (and final) boutique. After downing several bags of water apiece we hit a new low: An old woman who was selling peanuts on the side of the road came hobbling into the boutique, hand clutching the only two coins she had in her possession, offering to buy some crackers for us. Needless to say, we refused, but it made us realize just how pitiable we must look. To further highlight this fact, at about kilometer 3.5 of our walk back to camp, a bush taxi stopped and picked us up, free of charge.
Things began looking up after that. With water replenishing our systems, we began cracking up about how we had somehow become all of Gambia’s charity case. We spent a relaxing evening in the pool and finished the night out with a $1.80 dinner under the stars, care of our new friend who runs an ecotourism restaurant just for broke messes like ourselves.
Upon reflection, I realize I’ve never been so dependent on the kindness of strangers in my life. It is a jarring experience to discover that you literally have no way to support yourself, but it’s also gratifying to see human kindness come to fruition at just the right time. And although there were definitely some moments of desperation, we were able to laugh at them by the end of the day: Being pitied by a woman who spends every day selling peanuts for 20 cents a bag, our dramatically flailing hand gestures as we tried to explain our need for water to the uncomprehending boutique owners, and the amount of enthusiasm we had for our lunch of ketchup sandwiches…these are the experiences you just cannot make up. And we didn’t die! So, I mean, what more could you ask for.
Some final anecdotes: Apart from the existential bus we passed, I saw a number of hilarious things during our long day of travel. Among the best: a breaking-down Gelli Gelli (bush taxi) with “Mercedes Benz” painted on its rear; an honest-to-God official sign that warned, “Beware landmines”; and a salon called “Everlasting Barber” (I wondered, is it the barber or your haircut that’s everlasting? Either way, it’s crazy more people haven’t heard of this place).
We received our bimonthly food stipends today (worth about $15 dollars a week), so just out of curiosity, I tallied what I spent on food and water for the week I was in Gambia. The final tally? $14.50. I do not know how this happened, but the whole baguette, two cups of dry cereal, orange, and crackers I ate for breakfast this morning suddenly make sense.
Keep an eye out for the final segment of Gambian Adventures, coming soon to own on video-cassette.
Because the week was such a crazy blur, I’m going to do my best to write cohesive reports on the trip in smallish sections. Wish me luck…
I set out for the Gambia carrying nothing but the same tiny Jansport backpack that I use for school each day, except this time, it was filled with the essentials: 3-4 outfits, band-aids, deet-heavy bug spray, an entire loaf of bread and some Clif bars, a headlamp, and my passport. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but as I left my house at 5:30 AM that morning, I realized that I was leaving the country and only taking a small backpack. It didn’t seem that impressive, since the Gambia is so close to Senegal, but the more I thought about it, I realized that I would have no more access to the things I had left behind in Senegal than I would had I left from the United States. Thus, I truly was traveling to another country with just enough to carry on my back. It was a freeing feeling. However, taking almost nothing with you means having almost nothing with which to support your livelihood. Thus, while traveling, I began to construct a list I liked to call Things We Have Little or None of in the Gambia, a lengthy tally which includes (but is not limited to) food, water, solid plans, showers, sleep, clean clothes, and our dignity. I will expound more on these topics in future blog posts.
We took a car from Dakar all the way to the Gambian border, where we were asked exactly two questions by the customs officer: 1. How old are you? 2. Do you have any guns in that backpack? (they didn’t look inside to make sure I was telling the truth). Quite the harrowing border-crossing.
Once in Gambia, we had to take several more buses and taxis to get to Farrafenni, where we met up with one of my travelmate’s childhood friends who works for the Peace Corps in Gambia. Peace Corps Joanna was seriously a lifesaver—apart from scoring us a cheapsauce hotel for the night (a white girl speaking Pulaar impresses every hotel owner), she also organized the next day’s boat trip at River Gambia National Park.
A brief aside regarding something I noticed: Although certain things like national parks and hotels are listed in Lonely Planet travel guides and have websites and thus seem official, there is very little in Gambia that actually feels official. Example: Every hour or so, our car had to stop at a “police checkpoint,” where men who were ostensibly police officers stepped out of tall grass on the side of the road, held loaded AK-47s in our faces, and asked us for identification. These men were often not wearing uniforms, had just woken up from a roadside nap, and usually only looked through bags if they thought there was something they could take from it as a bribe, and yet they were given these HUGE guns. It’s honestly pretty funny to face a stern man holding a killing-machine and hear him say with a simpering smile, “Ohhh, you from America! Yes, that place I like. Obama, he is black man president. You have met him, yes? Oh yes, Americans, very nice. Are you fine? Yes, okay, have nice day.” Indeed, being an American made the checkpoints infinitely less intimidating, but really only just drilled in the fact that the police are so very unofficial: they can go from wielding guns to mooning over Americans in 30 seconds.
So on the subject of unofficial things, River Gambia National Park is seemingly a well-known place—you can read about it on Wikipedia, it is mentioned in most travel guides, and it is labeled on google maps. However, had we not had Joanna with us, we would not have known how to arrange a visit there. When we said we wanted to go on a boat ride to see the chimps, she said, “Oh yeah, there’s a guy you have to call for that, Matt. I have his cell, I’ll see if we can make it happen.” Now, the average tourist might be interested in going to this park based on what s/he read in a travel guide (official), but how could s/he have gotten there without Matt’s cell phone number (unofficial)? Regardless, we were very thankful to have an insider helping us coordinate.
Thus, our first full day was spent on a boat, just the five of us, lazing down the River Gambia looking for chimps in the trees and hippos in the surrounding water. It was one of the best moments of my life. In addition to feeling like I had jumped into the pages of National Geographic, I also felt the awe that accompanies being in a place that so few people have ever seen—in addition to being the only people on the boat, in the three or so hours we spent traversing the river, we didn’t see a single other boat. The overwhelming isolation was incredible. AND I saw monkeys, so you really just can’t beat that.
To round out the unbelievable day, after our boat trip we jumped on a horse cart to travel to Joanna’s village for the night. As soon as we got there, some women started dancing to welcome us. One of them grabbed me and had me dance with her, just to show how welcome I was. The children, on the other hand, were not so enthused—a little toddler looked up to see not one, but FIVE white people surrounding her and burst into tears. I imagine we looked kind of like aliens to her, with those strange contraptions attached to our backs and our messed-up pigmentation. Eventually, the children warmed up to us and I got to hold quite a few babies. We ate some delicious fish meatballs with rice (they pulled out all the stops for us—Joanna told us we were the largest group of foreign visitors that had ever come through) and sat outside under the most incredible array of stars I have ever seen, until going to bed on a wicker bench in Joanna’s hut. Again, I was overcome by the uniqueness of the experience and by the feeling that I was always meant to see this place.
Because that was an overwhelming first post covering the first 1.5 days of the trip (it was jam-packed, I’m telling you), I will end with some light-hearted anecdotes just to keep you interested:
Most public buses have the word “Alxumdulilay” (Thanks be to Allah) painted on their front. On the way to the border, we passed a bus that had “Mais Pourquoi?” (But why?) written there instead. Thanks to an existential bus driver, I have since attempted to ponder the same question.
A specific type of tea called attiyah is really popular in Senegal/Gambia, and is usually drunk in 3 rounds, each cup increasingly sweet. In Joanna’s village, the only brand of attiyah people buy comes in a red box with a picture of Africa on it, and it simply reads, “Obama.” Priceless.
While on the boat trip, I asked if there were many snakes in the water, and our guide said, “Oh yeah, there are tons of pythons and cobras all through this water—maybe we’ll get lucky and see one.” Fortunately or unfortunately, we did not get so lucky. Maybe next time.
Today I added a new experience to my ever-growing list, Things I’m Glad My Mom Can’t See Me Doing.
So I was sitting at work, making pottery (there were no kids again, so it was basically a clay free-for-all), when the boss’s son turned to me and said, “It’s time to find food! Today is your turn.” Since you just can’t say no to a command like that, I followed as he led me outside and pulled me onto his moped. After a terrifying ride through unmarked streets, we stopped at some shack thing (“house” just would not be the appropriate word) and went inside. I was handed a baby and told to sit quietly, so I did. About ten minutes later, the baby was taken away from me and replaced with a massive silver bowl full of rice and fish. It was this bowl that I then carried on my lap, ON the moped, without a helmet or long pants and sleeves, at 70 mph on a dirt road full of potholes and crazy drivers. There were several close calls (we passed multiple buses illegally, my bare legs literally inches from the other vehicles). All I could think was, “Please God, don’t let me die. But if I do die, please let my mom know that I realized how dangerous this was the whole time and looked for a good way to get out of it.” It seemed a little unfair that a conscientious person like myself should die from something she KNEW was dangerous and wished she could avoid. However, at the same time as all these thoughts were jumbling around my unprotected cranium, there was also another unexpected and overarching thought: This is so exhilarating.
But indeed, I did live. As I ate my maffe, I savored the feeling of not being plastered to an unpaved road with my internal organs spilling out. It had never tasted better.
I haven’t quite mentioned this yet, but in three days a couple friends and I are going to the Gambia for a week! After taking a bus called a “Sept Places” (a local described it as a disintegrating car going really fast over horrible roads, but my 11-year-old host brother says they’re fine) to Banjul, the capitol city (we hope. You have to bargain with the driver about where to take you), we plan to travel up the river somehow and end at River Gambia National Park. In addition to having hippos, chimpanzees, and crocodiles, this park (and the whole Gambian river) is full of puff adders, spitting cobras, and green mambas. So to orient myself, I googled “spitting cobras.” A reputable “Snakes of Africa” website helpfully informed me: “This is probably the most dangerous snake, second to the Mamba.”
So…that’s reassuring. Don’t worry, Mom, only the two MOST dangerous snakes in Africa will be swimming through the Gambian river as I travel it in a little canoe.
[From left: Spitting cobra, green mamba, puff adder…otherwise known as my three travel companions]
So I saw this commercial on the TV station I have dubbed “The Channel,” because I think it’s the only one:
A woman is in the kitchen. She is introduced as the third wife of some man. Woman attempts to make dinner without utilizing Jadida margarine product. She serves dinner to the man and he makes a “what is this rubbish?!” face (oh, no!) and she runs away, shamed.
Flash to another woman (introduced as second wife) in the same kitchen. Man is hungry by now (I mean, three wives; the guy is busy). Woman makes dinner and forgets to add the Jadida! Needless to say, her meal is turned away by her ravenous and ever-more-peeved husband. She, too, runs away shamed.
Now we come to wife number one! She waltzes into the kitchen with the secret weapon (ding ding ding): Jadida margarine. Presumably, she adds it into whatever dish she is making. She serves it to her husband. (Drum roll…) Husband is pleased! Clearly they both know whose bed he’s sleeping in tonight. The other wives look on, wishing that they had a margarine product good enough to win his elusive affection.
This is the type of commercial you see on Youtube, usually labeled “1950’s commurrshul SUPER SXIST OMG.” Except here’s the thing: This was on Senegalese television. In 2011. People watch this commercial and laugh (and, of course, decide to go purchase some Jadida margarine!)
Some context: Polygamy is still totally a thing here in Senegal. When you and your husband go to sign the marriage contract, he (HE) decides if he wants it to be monogamy, limited polygamy (2 wives), or unlimited polygamy (which means up to 4 wives, despite the name). Then, at any time in the marriage, he is at liberty to take other wives without telling you. It is not uncommon for a man to one day bring home another set of children to his wife and inform her that they are his other kids and that she needs to look after them (for date night with wife #2, I guess). And that’s how she finds out he has another wife.
Additionally, one of my professors was explaining the Senegalese value of fayda, which I have surmised is kind of like an integrity/courage/determination/purity combo. She explained that you can have fayda but you can also lose fayda (ñakk fayda). Women often lose fayda for losing their virginity before marriage. When I asked her whether men lose fayda if they lose their virginity before marriage, she laughed, “Of course not!” So I clarified: “Men can have sex before marriage. But women can’t have sex before marriage. But men aren’t supposed to have sex with other men.” When she affirmed this series of statements, I asked, “So…who are the men supposed to have sex with?” Again she laughed and said, “You’re right! That doesn’t make sense!” It was as if we were discussing why someone might wear mismatched socks—she recognized that it was kind of weird, but who cared enough to make the person change?
Of course, these are all symptoms of the larger societal issue, which is ubiquitous, unyielding patriarchy. The word for man/husband in Wolof means “the owner/ruler of the household.” In most households (not mine, but many of my other friends’ host families), boys are not expected to do housework or cooking of any sort (often they just send their sisters to fetch things for them and serve them food). It’s the type of thing I would like to fight against, if only I knew how to say “lazy, narcissistic jerk” (feel free to substitute in noun of your choice…but children read this blog) in French and was interested in alienating myself from basically the entire population of Senegal.
So while men are busy having sex with imaginary women who somehow retain their virginity, I will continue to explore (and probably be angered by) gender roles and expectations here. Rest assured that you will hear more from me on this topic (and maybe by then I’ll have used my French dictionary to compose a really effective insult).
Because I don’t like sitting around, I acquired a second job here in Senegal! This one is at a place called La Pouponnière, where malnourished babies are sent when their parents can no longer care for them. The institution also takes in all of the orphaned babies in the area (I asked one of my professors where they find these orphaned babies, and she said, “I was wondering the same thing… Maybe they just search for them in alleys and stuff?” Like infant hide and seek, except nobody really wins.) I start for real on Monday, but my understanding of the job is that mostly I get to hold babies, which is ideal.
Going to visit the site last Friday morning was, as expected, kind of sad; orphans are just generally a little depressing. It was surreal to think that these babies didn’t have anyone that owned them or had claim to them. But this thought, for some reason, was also kind of funny. (Hear me out, I’m not a horrible person. Well, maybe I am, but reserve your judgment.) This orphanage is the type of place rich, infertile white couples come to pick up their new African baby, and the reason the whole thing struck me as humorous was because the building felt like a baby supermarket: All the cribs lined up in a row looked almost like the shelves of a grocery store, and the amount of discernment between the children was about as refined as the difference between Jif and Skippy peanut butter. What I kept thinking was that although there isn’t much difference between the babies right now, they would all grow to be such different people. It’s crazy to consider the amount of expectation and chance involved in adopting an infant—new parents could literally choose any of these babies, and think of how different their lives could be depending on the choice they make. Much longer-lasting consequences than a peanut butter purchase, and yet how can you choose any more carefully than just saying, “let’s pick that one”? And for the babies that don’t get picked…I had to wonder what becomes of them?
In a strange twist of fate, that question was answered for me later the same day at my real internship, Colombin. A group of orphans, ages 3-5, came to the center to make a little clay project and play around. I got to talking with the director of the orphanage, and she told me that most of these kids came straight from La Pouponnière: Once they reached 1 1/2 years, they moved on to this orphanage, which took kids of all ages. As if that weren’t a strange enough connection, it turns out that the director herself was an orphan at Pouponnière as a baby, then lived in orphanages all through childhood before taking charge of this place herself. Again, I thought about the strangeness of chance (or call it fate): What if some American couple had snatched her up at Pouponnière while she was still an infant? She might have been just one crib away from life as an American citizen. Or what if she hadn’t gotten the job she has now—where would she be right now? When you consider the limitless possibilities contained in every moment, it’s almost incomprehensible that we have ended up exactly where we are. And yet, in another way, it makes perfect sense.
So I savored the feeling of being right where I was this Friday, holding a three-year-old girl with no parents to her name. She may never have that one person that will always be around to guide, defend, love, and comfort her, as most of us with parents have been so lucky to have, and yet I was there and she was there and we could cling to each other, if just for a day. The realm of possibility is so vast, and the most imperceptible occurrences the catalysts of the most radical change, that how can it be anything but a miracle that we are where we are?
As promised to one Meagan Longanecker, this post will be exclusively devoted to talking about bread.
But really, okay, so you know (I hope) that Senegal was colonized by France back in the day. It is for that reason that the people here speak French, kind of dislike French people (who just takes over a country?), and eat a TON of baguette. I would say that I eat baguette for at least two meals a day. In the morning, plain baguette with tea. In the afternoon, baguette sandwich. At night baguette is a side dish to whatever dinner we have. I mean, I love baguette, don’t get me wrong. But eating too much of anything makes you tired of it eventually (except cereal. And peanut butter. And chocolate. And cookies. And watermelon. So never mind, a lot of exceptions to this rule).
The highlight of my week thus far has been my discovery of the hidden gem, Boulangerie Mermozienne, a bakery that is a stone’s throw from the CIEE study center. They sell massive baguette sandwiches filled with unidentifiable meat and hard-boiled egg, as well as baguette sandwiches with fake Nutella on them. The price: 20 cents. Yes, folks, 20-cent mystery meat sandwiches. As someone who doesn’t like to spend money, this bakery is like heaven. As someone who likes to know what she is ingesting, it is slightly less desirable; but still.
Spotted in Senegal today: Woman gets onto the bus with her toddler. Immediately hands toddler to stranger (I assume) while she pays. Finds a place to stand. Retrieves baby from stranger, hands baby to OTHER stranger, who is sitting down. Boy remains on strange man’s lap until woman gets off bus.
Now, okay, maybe I’m a horrible, jaded American, but would you ever do that?! I can’t believe the amount of trust people have in others here in Dakar, nor am I entirely comfortable with the laissez-faire attitude taken toward child-rearing. But…it works. That’s what’s crazy: It works! That’s what I’ve noticed here—there are things that I see, hear, and do that make me think, “This is nuts.” And yet, when I consider the culture and the flow of life here, somehow it starts to make sense. I have to keep remembering that people are adapters—there are very few societies where people continuously do things that are counterproductive (besides overeating, binge drinking, too many video games… Okay, actually, never mind.). But my point is that whenever I see something here that just seems ridiculous (like today on the bus when my head was literally pinned between some guy’s back and a metal bar because there were 30 people crammed into 12 seats), I need to pause and consider how, in fact, this may not be so crazy.
Maybe if we all started trusting strangers more, we’d find that they deserve our trust.
I currently have not found a way of rationalizing the over-stuffed buses.
Another thing I have noticed recently is the prevalence of one very specific, endlessly frustrating term: “Là-bas.” It effectively means, “over there,” and people find it to be sufficient for directions to any and all places.
Me: Where might I find the nearest bank?
Senegalese person: Oh, là-bas.
SP: You know…là-bas.
Me: Where is your brother?
Me: Where is Mauritania in relation to Senegal?
Me: Okay, then where is Ghana in relation to Senegal?
(It should be noted that, at this point, the Senegalese person begins to get frustrated with ME for not understanding).
Another thing about directions: Senegal is known as the international home of Teranga, or hospitality. Thus, most Senegalese people love to be helpful; they crave it. In fact, if they have no way to be helpful, they might even create a problem so that they can later be helpful in fixing it. It is for this reason that asking Senegalese people for directions is a horrible idea, because even if they have no idea where the place is, they will say, “Oh, yes, I know that place!” and proceed to give you extremely specific and entirely incorrect directions there. They may even offer to take you there and proceed to lead you around in circles for the next hour. I haven’t figured out the rationalization behind that one yet, either. But I do know that I will never again believe any directions that didn’t come from a (specific and accredited) map.
So tomorrow when I take an overcrowded bus là-bas, I will remember that there is a reason for everything societies do…except when there isn’t.