Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Next Up - Senegal

When it comes to Senegal, I'm not really sure where to begin. I didn't take very careful notes while I was there, and it was so different from my regularly scheduled life that I hope I can do justice to the experience in words. When I first committed to the trip, I was under the false impression that my travels to Morocco almost five years earlier would prepare me for the experience; I quickly discovered that simply was not the case.

About a month before the trip, a dinner celebrating my West African Dance teacher's birthday was held at the home of Nancy, a long time student of his who had been to Senegal on one of his previous tours. In attendance were a mixture of people who had been on one of his tours already, and those who'd signed up for the upcoming one. Advice was sagely passed on from previous tourists, pieces of paper and pens handed out to the newbies for note-taking. I scratched out a few details on a scrap of paper, consisting mostly of useful Wolof phrases (written phonetically) and items to consider bringing as gifts for people we would come into contact with:

Wolof phrases:
nanga def - hello
mangi fireck - I'm fine
djere jeff - thank you
no tudu - what's your name
mangi tudu - my name is
wao - yes
dedet - no
balma - sorry
soor na - I'm full
lekka - eat
nyoko bok - you're welcome

Gifts to bring:
mint toothpicks
crayons, paper
burt's bees
can openers
board books w/o words (or in French)
gum, chips, cookies

About the only thing I kept track of regularly in my notebook during the tour was sightings of t-shirts with English phrases printed on them. The ones I managed to jot down in my notebook are:

That's How I Roll (printed above a graphic of toilet paper)
Kiss Me I'm Irish
West Coast Family Reunion 2005
Add Some Fun To Your Fantasy
No Money No Lover
Catch Me If You Can

Hands-down the best t-shirt on the list is That's How I Roll. I wish I had a picture of that guy, but as it turns out its really quite difficult to take pictures of people in Senegal - at least it was for me. People really did not want their candid photo taken by a stranger, and there was pretty much no chance that I was going to blend in to my surroundings. Senegal isn't the most off the beaten track that you can possibly get to, but its as off the beaten track as I've ever been, and I just didn't want to become that big fat jerk who comes from another country and disregards the local customs to the point of offending locals, all in the name of getting a few snapshots. I did take some pictures, but a lot of them didn't come out that well because it turns out that my little point-and-shoot camera was designed for Chicago lighting (a lot of gray tones) and not so much Dakar lighting (extremes of very bright sunlight, and near-total darkness).

Sitting here in Chicago two months after the fact, my most striking memory of Senegal is how different the experience of time was. I'd been told about this aspect of Senegalese life, that nothing would happen in the amount of time I expected, that I'd have to throw away any and all expectations of timekeeping and its attendant properties. Someone told me about the acronym W.A.I.T., which stands for something like West African Itinerant Time. The example I heard to describe what this means is how public transportation supposedly works in that part of the world - instead of being on a schedule, a bus will wait until every seat has been filled. You could get on the bus and quickly move on to your destination, or you could wait all day.

My experience of Senegal, in addition to being amazing and beautiful, was extremely disorienting and at times quite stressful. In an attempt to re-create this experience I've decided to experiment with the way I tell this story; instead of going in chronological order as I did with my travels in Europe, I'll tell it in whatever order I remember it.

One thing I learned in Senegal it is that no matter how modern the world is, there are places where daily life is so different from my own that it overwhelms me to consider what life is like the world over. I was in Senegal for two weeks, it felt like two months. It opened my eyes in ways I didn't expect, and changed how I feel about life in my own part of the world. Don't believe it when people say the world is getting smaller. The world is big, really big, unimaginably so. It only feels small when you stick to a small portion of it.

More to come...

1 comment:

Midtagessen said...