|Me, in a paddle boat, on the way to Ngor Island.|
On the blue line heading home from O’Hare Airport, I stare out the window as the train rattles along a raised track, dividing eight lanes of highway traffic. Miraculously, the suitcase and djembe that I checked at the Iberia Airlines counter at Léopold Sédar Senghor airport three days ago appeared within minutes at baggage claim, intact, with orange British Airways tags labeling them "rush". K tells me via email that the djembe she’d brought with her broke en route to Poland. We meet at a café later where I give her the unbroken drum, and she presents me with a set of Polish nesting dolls as a thank you gift for transporting it.
Security at the Madrid airport was tighter than anything I’ve experienced. There had been the usual x-raying of bags and bodies, followed by standing in lines determined by gender, getting patted down, answering a series of questions, and opening carry-on luggage for inspection. The plane filled achingly slowly - a number of passengers had been taken aside for more thorough screens, then wandered through the door of the aircraft bearing facial expressions that told of things that could not be un-seen.
It turns out that I missed a bad cold snap and a flu virus that had made the rounds in Chicago, and I’m grateful. Things that have changed since I left: it’s now 2010; Conan O’Brien’s days at NBC are numbered (this really hits home, his new show started when I got laid off, and it gave me something to look forward to on days when there wasn’t much else going on); I’ve received two more rejections from the same potential employer I’ve been interviewing with since September, bringing the total number of times they’ve rejected me to 4 (and in the coming months they will reject me twice more); and my husband bought us new phones and a coffeemaker that can be programmed to turn on by itself in the morning.
My first week home I sleep like it’s the key to unlocking some ancient mystery. I commune with my pets. I’m even less capable of handling trips to the grocery store than usual – my sensory perceptions are overwhelmed by the sight and smell of food stacked eight feet high in cavernous aisles, sealed and wrapped in refrigerated display cases, most of it processed and packaged to the point where it no longer resembles its original ingredients, all of it accompanied by incongruous music piped in through overhead sound systems. The cold Chicago weather, while comforting in its familiarity, feels willful and unnecessary.
When people ask me about Senegal I answer in generalities: "it was amazing," or "it was challenging," unsure of where to begin or what to say. The tiniest events have become large in my memory – someone handing me a choice morsel of food from the other side of a plate because it’s considered rude to reach across a communal dish, and rude to keep the best pieces for yourself; Ibou punctuating his sentences with “Che Yallaaaah,” and, after being taught how to say it in English, “Oh mai god”; the empty plastic water bottles that accumulate by the front door during our stay in the rented house; joking with my Polish roommates that they should invent a new dance based on their gastrointestinal distress called “The Toubab Two-Step,” comprised of alternately sitting on a toilet and kneeling in front of it; and Abdou’s perennial refrain to my questions – “this is Africa.”
My husband marvels at the objects and photos I’ve brought back with me, the stories I tell him, and the sounds I was able to record using somewhat dated technology (I still have to upload the files to our computer). I take the last of my malaria pills – the prescription began a week before my departure, and I have a few left.
In the months since then, I’ve taken special notice of cab drivers; Idy had told us that a lot of Senegalese immigrants in Chicago drive taxis for a living. I always overtip them.