Many people say they feel they get to travel here, too, through my journal. The most amazing thing about it is how everyday things are new… You wonder how to wash your hands, or tonight, how to eat properly when we all eat out of the same bowl. So this time in Senegal volunteering with the Bondial community, I'm going to share my diary. Really take you with me on this adventure. You can really see how oddball and crazy moments seem… And how they happen every day.
I get off the plane at 1:30 a.m. in Dakar. No one really speaks English. I speak German, Spanish and a wee morsel of Portuguese, and don’t expect anyone to speak my tongue; in an instant I am reminded how easy everything is when they do. You take it for granted.
“I have flight this morning. Germany. No check in for Ziguichnor.”
The ground attendant answers me in French. “Ja” is out of my mouth before I realize that I’m answering by default in German, because my subconscious wants to answer in a foreign language, too, just not French.
The ground attendant says she will tell police I need to check in for a transfer. Wait. She’s coming. She does not come. When the line empties, I get into the line for what must be getting my visa. I have no idea what that guy is telling me from behind his glass, but he hands me my approved visa, stamped, with a photo of me, so I follow the blue line that points to customs.
When I get to the police, I know it’s my last chance to ask someone what to do with this checking in business before I am released into the baggage claim and the Dakar world of taxi and people vying to carry my bags at 2 a.m.
“Does someone speak English?”
He points to a policeman sitting down, listening to music in his headphones. One. Just enough!
He tells me I can’t check in until morning. Yes, I can wait here. Upstairs. There is a salon. Go get our bag. But how can I get back in? In Germany, once you leave to get your bag, that’s it, you cannot get back in. I will be on the street at 2 a.m.
“This is not Germany,” he tells me. Of course. It does not have to be same, but it could be. Always ask. “This is a small airport. Come back through here.” I’m a little worried because it will be past that point of no return customs door.
I get my bags. People are asking me in French if I need help as I wait. That’s what everyone at every baggage claim in most countries do, to make a tip. I try to mime that no, I am going upstairs for long time. No one knows what I’m saying but I keep saying it and pointing because there’s all there is to do.
My ATM card works here. That’s a relief. I get 25,000 CFA out. I don’t really know how much that is. I just need to check.
I walk back through the point of no return. It works. In fact, I go through the airport security with a full unopened can of kickass (otherwise known as guarana soda) and a half drank bottle of water and the guy kept his head down and bobbed to his music while my bag passed through.
Police Helper personally walks me up to the second floor, where he tells me the salon is $12 and two drinks free. I feel bad thinking this, but wonder if he’s trying to get $12 off me. I thought he was taking me to a waiting room. You don’t charge someone to sit in a crappy airport waiting hall.
Instead, we go up a flight of stairs into a proper if not smoky lounge—like frequent flyer club open to all, for $12. There’s a bar, and an attendant, and a big room, half for smoking, half not, with about 20 couches and a few TVs and tables. It is quiet, there is one guy in it and he is sleeping, and I don’t need to worry about my stuff if I fall asleep with it laying beside me in hearing and grabbing in panic distance.
For $12, this is great. I gladly pay it, and get free WiFi.
Police Helper says they have a boarding at 6 a.m. and that he will come back for me to check-in with Senegal Airlines. I end up talking to friends in Nicaragua on Facebook, and then email everyone I can think of that “Hey, I’m in Senegal and the police hand walked me to the salon, and I don’t have to sit on the hard tile in a baggage claim for 7 hours trying not to be too friendly or not talkative enough and alert after 24 hours!”
I sleep an hour or so. At 6:22 a.m. I worry Police Helper has forgotten me. The attendant says he will come. He does.
He walks me to Senegal Airlines, and waits while I check in, and even handing my passport and ticket to the attendant. He deposits me back into the lounge, telling me we board at 8 a.m.
But my ticket says leaving, not boarding, at 8. This is the most confusing ticket ever. I applaud the free WiFi and tell Abbie, the linguist, not to meet me too early. And sorry, the plane actually goes at 9! I now have an hour. My phone is dying so I get up to find a plug. None work. I know it’s me, this works, but I can’t press it in deep enough or the hole is in the weird spot. I try again on the floor tiles by the wall, and see something moving.
It is a mouse, stuck to a glue trap. He’s sort of decaying and… wet. His little feet are running but he’s stuck on this side with this frantic look in his eyes, running and running, and starving to death, and I wish I had something to put him out of his misery. I don’t.
This is the stuff of nightmares. I will remember him kicking his legs, and how it will take days for him to finally die.
I wonder if I can take him to the bathroom and drown him. There are no tools. Nothing heavy for me to put on him and jump on him. Nothing can be done without the other woman, who is smoking and checking her phone, and the attendant and Sleeping Guy seeing me. And, worse, that might be a big cultural taboo right there. Instead, I opt to tell the attendant, who does not understand me. “OK” she says.
I sit on the couch. She goes and throws up about 10 times in the bathroom. There’s not enough water ever running to wash THAT down. Maybe I will wait to pee. She comes back and horks up some loogies beside the bar. I give this girl credit; she’s a mess and still reported for work.
A new attendant takes over and I try with her. “There is a mouse. Over there.” I point and flail my arms in a sad little running motion, and put my tongue out like I’m dying. I make ears on my head with my fingers. And then I say, “He will take a long time to die. He’s suffering. Someone should…” and then blast my arm down like a hammer on my fist. Blam!
She eyes me curiously. Smoking Woman translates into French. “I will tell my boss,” the attendant says. I leave with the little mouse still running in place.
Senegal Airlines is used by many here, but you can’t book them through some travel agencies or get that boarding pass, and well, it looks fine. My arms are too heavy to lift over the arm rest, but I don’t sleep, and I didn’t know that between Dakar and Ziguichnor there’s a desert but the window view says yes.
I land. Abbie is there, waiting, with smiles and a hug and Musah, a friendly taxi driver with cop glasses and a big wooden necklace.
We stop at a hotel that is cheap, good, with a great view of the water and good wifi, and have a Fanta and tea and have a chat with two people from the tourism agency. I watch some guys take people over on a big colorful wooden boat to islands across the way, and then we take a cab into the main part of town where I get money out of the ATM and at the same time a woman hawking carved wood tries to give me gift.
You don’t take these gifts. In these cases, nothing is free. I take it, then say, I can’t, and give it back. She hands me a necklace instead. Blows me a kiss. She won’t take that back. I have no choice but to carry it off. She follows me, and I say I will look at her stuff later, not now, and take the necklace. She won’t. I keep it.
I buy 2 pairs of sunglasses off the street for 2500 (that's US$4) because I can’t tell which ones look worse, or better, the cop ones or the small black lenses, and they will break anyway. When one does, I’ll use the other.
We get some staples, and then stop for water for my white-girl “toubab” stomach, and then we stop to get Orange, for a SIM card for my phone. The guy there makes my phone hook to the internet; we couldn’t figure that out in Germany. I giggle, remembering how my Zambian friend picked on me for him having to show me how to use my phone in Australia: “The U.S. is gadget land, girl!”
We go back to Brin in the taxi and immediately run over a goat. I feel its body under the wheel and hear it whap the fender. I look back even though I KNOW I will see it floundering in the street. Instead, he gets up, shakes himself off, and runs.
Brin is smaller than I thought. The Catholic Church is set in some trees, with a huge X beside it.
Our compound is fresh built, with a big ranch-like house, and a round hut and a guard’s hut. Papis (Pa-PEES) is the guard, and he stays here at night. I like that. Why not have someone know what’s happening while I sleep?
The inside is big. There are six rooms for the linguists and phDs when they are here, a kitchen with a gas stove and fridge, and a big mat for sitting. We are staying in the smaller house, shaped like a hut with two bedrooms and a bathroom. Same as in Kenya, the shower is part
of the bathroom. You put your stuff far away so it doesn’t get wet. Like the bathroom on a boat.
There’s also an office, with 5 little rooms for transcribers who translate Wolof, Joola and other languages spoken into French. A huge conference table is in the big room, with photos on the walls of an archeological dig from nearby, and cultural photos.
We have lunch. The cook, Josephine, prepared the national Senegalese dish: a local fish not unlike trout or perch, fried with carrots, eggplant and a cassava-type root, boiled and a little spicy. We sit on the mat together, Papis, Abbie, Josephine and I, and eat out of the same big silver platter with our forks. Eating out of the same plate is traditional, and comes from a time when people didn’t have extra plates or another serving bowl. I like it. It’s homey and intimate; like we are really sharing something. I miss eating with my hands, too.
I’m just about in a coma after two nights of four hours of sleep and then 24 hours of up and down travel, and ask for a nap.
Abbie later told me she heard a noise and realized it was me sleeping literally as soon as my head hit the pillow. I hear a kid singing out the window but she says no, there was no kid singing. I wake up and ask her for another half hour because my arms are too heavy to lift.
Half an hour later, I want to stay in bed, but Africa is waiting and I don’t want to be up all night, so I haul my carcass out and pull on my purple pants I don’t like that much now but they are lightweight, and then head out.
I have not seen the sun for several weeks in Germany. This sun is radiating like we’re ants under magnifying glass. You could burn to death out here!
We talk for a bit about language, about its tones and sound systems and the smaller things these linguists examine are like the molecules of this big organism, and how you see how we communicate through these things. That’s why these studies, and of these small languages, are so important. Discovering how they work show patterns and commonalities with how us humans have replicated communication all over the world and throughout time. I pulled out the word interpolation, which made me proud at this stage of the exhaustion game.
At 6 it’s finally cool enough for a walk. There are pigs in the church yard, grazing! There are three black and two pink and a girl in pink shorts sitting on the peeling-painted steps. Tons of cool photos!
“I love how when you’re traveling, the everyday things you overlook are suddenly new and interesting,” I say to Abbie. “I’m excited there are pigs in the yard. On the surface everything looks so different, but then after you are in it, it’s all the same.”
That is the amazing part of exploration: To discover that connection as if for the first time, every time. There are huts here and pigs in the yard and we are walking past a “boutique” and stop to talk to the owner, in languages I don’t know, but in a week this will be everyday life and that guy might be my friend, gesturing and speaking in super broken up sentences once I learn some Wolof or French. I kind of thrive in the differences, and take delight in the little surprises, and the times I have no idea what’s really happening, because it is so different. I have to guess. When I got off the plane, everyone stopped at a big 100-gallon container of water to wash their hands. What? Why? I don’t know. I stood in line and did it, too. Every moment is a new adventure.
When you can’t even figure out how to wash your hands, everything is new.
Lina, a transcriptionist for the Bondial project, walks with us and we are greeting people and I am trying to pick up “tuta l’eur” for “see ya later,” and we stop and say hi to Dodo, who is is coming to the office tomorrow. The festivals are over. There’s no more wrestling but Lina suggests we make our own little wrestling and dance event. I like that idea. We meet Papis, who has the other bike, and Abbie and I ride to a place past Djibonker, and take a path to the right off the road into what looks like a river outlet, to see the sun set and swim.
There’s a small dug-out canoe there, and some fishing baskets. We will learn how to do it one day. No one is around, so I shed my shirt and put on my swim top and wade in, in my underwear. It’s cold but great and I can hear a goat shuffling off somewhere, and I think, “Hey! I am in Senegal! In a small town that no one hears about, on a project that for the first time looks at people talking in 5 langauges at the same time, and did we overlook people speaking this way before?”
What an adventure!
My goose bumps tingle from the thought of it. We pedal back before it gets dark. Dusk meets us and I yell “Bon jour!” to the kids running and people biking past us on the street. A car goes by with blinking red and blue head-disco-lights.
The road is wide and there’s not much traffic. I’m not really afraid sharing the road with the Senegalese version of matatus – the vans doubling as buses – and cars. They seem to drive better than in Kenya, where this would be the worst idea, ever.
Her bike is good but the gears are low and I am churning those legs a bunch, wondering how 23K one way to that town this weekend will feel.
My hair is still wet, as is my pants, from swimming, when I holler back to Abbie if they have any animals here besides goats and sheep and cows and pigs – wild animals.
Sure. Monkeys. Crocodiles. “Wait. Crocodiles!?”
Tomorrow, Papis will take the frozen pig head out of the freezer and split it up for Josephine to make some special dish.
Oh, I forgot Whiskey. There’s a puppy here and I’m happy to have a furry little friend for company.