Friday, August 6, 2010

We've been here for a week, but it feels like much longer - Senegal contd.

taxi cab
We've been here for a week, but it feels like much longer.  After breakfast we walk to the Centre Culturel Blaise Senghor for our dance class, or if we're feeling lazy we split into two cabs.  The fare is negotiated before we open the door to the cab, the price is bargained down by increments that sound impressive, but amount to less than a dollar.  The cabs are all dilapidated in one way or another -- the passenger side door doesn't open, or it can only be opened from the outside.  None of them have seat belts.  We pass a car that has no windows at all, two men riding in the front seats of a rusted shell that looks as if it might stop working at any moment.

Abdou in his home
There are no stop signs or traffic lights, but somehow the traffic circulates.  When Abdou, who was my French teacher in Chicago, picks me up from the house one afternoon, he points to a car in the parking lot across the street and says: "That was my first car in Dakar."  It takes me a minute to realize that he means that is the actual physical car he used to own, not just the same brand and model.  I grill him on all the things that don't make sense to me.  His is the only car I've seen that has seat belts.  "Why don't cars have seat belts here?" I ask. "This is Africa," he replies, as if this explains everything.  I continue in my line of questioning, which no doubt sounds infantile to him: "why do people throw garbage in the street?"  "This is Africa," he repeats, "if you tell someone not to throw garbage in the street they'll say 'why, is this your uncle's house?'"  At this he laughs, and I laugh along with him, although I don't get the joke.  He asks me how the trip is going.  "It's going great," I say, "but it's very different.  I thought I would be more prepared, having visited Morocco a few years ago, but..."  "This is Black Africa," he interjects, "this is different."  I'm dumbstruck by his pronouncement, and remain quiet for a moment.  Abdou has made a career as a journalist, and has traveled the world meeting dignitaries and interviewing heads of state.  He moved to the US with the idea that he could break into American journalism, "I thought I could get a job at the New York Times," he once told me.  When it turned out not to work out quite that easily, he turned to teaching.  He returned to Dakar four years ago, and runs his own PR firm.  He wears an ear bud constantly, and interrupts our conversation to take calls from clients. 

Car radios that work are tuned to loud music or talk shows.  There seems to be a penchant towards playing music loudly, no matter how cheap or tinny the sound system is.  One night at dinner the TV (which was only in the house for a few days) is tuned to a station playing music videos.  Fina joins us, and brings her cell phone downstairs.  Seemingly oblivious to the music that is already playing on the TV she begins playing a song on her phone and turns the sound up.  Music blares from vendor stalls on the side of the road, and from TVs in convenience stores.  One night we walk past a group of people watching TV out in the open, seated on folding chairs.

Our bodies are becoming used to the environment - some are having more luck than others.  My roommates both get upset stomachs; first A is up all night running to the bathroom, the next night it's her sister who's ill, then it reverts back to A again.  E has a bad reaction to her malaria pills because she takes one in the morning with breakfast just before dance class, and S gets sick from eating too much bread (she's allergic to wheat).  I keep expecting it to be my turn, but my body has reacted well so far.  I'm thankful for my gut of steel, or my luck of the draw, or whatever it is that's keeping everything in check.  I've learned to use very little water when I bathe, and very little toilet paper (we had to bring our own).  Our new-found habits are certainly more environmentally friendly, if not uncouth in western terms.  I joke that my mother would be so proud of me -- eating on the floor, sticking my hand right into communal plates of food.  Sleeping on the floor has gotten easier for me, but sitting cross-legged on the floor at dinner has gotten harder.  I shift and squirm at mealtimes, moving from one side to the other.  "What I wouldn't give for a table and chairs," I find myself saying to my roommates one night, just before drifting off to sleep.

The dancing is sublime, as I knew it would be.  It's not until after our first class that I feel like myself in this new place, my sweat pushing out any inhibitions and doubts I might have had about making this trip.  We practice our moves after dinner in the living room, Idy snapping his fingers to the beat and giving us notes on how to perfect our moves.  We're due to have a recital at the end of our stay, in the courtyard of the Centre Culturel Blaise Senghor.  We've watched other dance troupes practice there, moving with the grace and agility that comes from a lifetime of dancing.  From time to time we're invited to participate, the dancers approach the perimeter of the room where we are generally seated, take us by the hand, and pull us into their dance.  As with anything, if I don't think about what I look like while I'm dancing, I do just fine.

We venture out into the city as a group, touring the fish market, and an area known as the Village Artisanal where vendors have set up their wares in booths.  If a vendor catches my eye they speak to me, and sometimes take me by the hand, walk me into their shop, show me their wares and tell me they'll give me a good price.  Idy and Mustafah act as intermediaries for us, bartering and negotiating prices.  I end up buying some fabric; two miniature buses made to look like the Touba buses -- Renault vans that have been colorfully painted and are used as public transportation; carved masks depicting the seven days of the week; and three hand painted signs -- two listing prices for haircuts, one listing prices for the treatment of various medical ailments.  The highest price for a men's hair cut is listed next to the word "toubab" (white person).  I get home before I realize that one of the panels on the medical ailments sign shows a man farting, painted lines emanating from his buttocks into a cloud that is surrounded by flies.  Another shows a man vomiting, "look," I say to my roommates, "it's you!"
women's hairstyles
men's hairstyles

medical ailments

toy Touba bus
Touba, public transportation
stomach ailments


Wade said...

I am so happy you are sharing this!

JP said...

I was in such a bad mood this morning, and when I got to work I snuck a peek on my account and saw your comment, and it made me feel so much better! I'm so happy you're reading this!

Anonymous said...

I love this post...your perspective and details are always appreciated by me!

Midtagessen said...

Bravo...I love your adventures. I can't imagine being sick in those conditions...being ill is such an intimate affair, to have it broadcast in such privacy limiting accomodations would be a low twist in Dante's inferno for me. Thank you for sharing! Always well done.