Saturday, June 19, 2010
I wake to the sound of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, his voice droning in my ear like a mosquito. I stuff my hand underneath the sweatshirt that serves as my pillow and retrieve my wristwatch - the ticking had kept me from sleeping so I removed it during the night. It is 4:30am. I have been sleeping on a mattress that is two fingers thick, ensconced in a sheet that has been sewn together into a kind of sleeping bag for the sub-Saharan by my dear upstairs neighbor in Chicago. I am alone in an unfurnished room on the second floor of the house that has been rented for our group. There are three bedrooms upstairs, and so far there are five of us here: K and her sister A are across the hall from me, S and E are in the room next door. Downstairs a man I'd never met before tonight is sleeping on a couch so that we won't be left in this house alone; he is a relative of Idy, my West African Dance teacher. Outside stray dogs bark in the lot across from the house, punctuating the air with short, sharp notes that underscore my solitude. The floors are veiled in a fine layer of insidious red dust that covers the city of Dakar, comes indoors on feet and wind, and no amount of sweeping can get rid of. I wash my feet a minimum of once daily, although it is a pointless exercise, the minute I step out of the tub my feet become covered in dust again. I've been in the country mere hours, but it feels like much longer.
I bought my airline ticket months earlier, I found a cheap flight from Chicago on Iberia that required a ten hour layover in Madrid. The plane from Chicago still had ashtrays embedded into the armrests and bulging, convex television screens that dropped down from the ceiling in the center row. It cost $1100 including taxes. I found the deal on Expedia on a Tuesday, the same day as my class with Idy. "You won't find anything cheaper than that," he said, "book that flight today." I went home and booked it, and the next day the price went up to $1800. I've been wanting to join Idy on his annual tour of Dakar for five years, and I figured now was the time: I'm unemployed so time is no object, and I found a flight that cost $700 less than normal.
My aunt and uncle have friends in Madrid who picked me up from the airport and took me on a whirlwind tour of the city during my ten hour layover. I couldn't sleep on the plane, and followed them around in a daze. First they took me to their home, where a lavish holiday breakfast had been prepared, including an entire leg of ham. There were three generations sitting around the table and I felt like an unscrubbed intruder in my red bandanna and traveling clothes. It was raining, I'd packed for Africa and was unprepared. The matriarch of the family lent me a raincoat for the day, I piled into a car with the patriarch, his son Javier and his daughter-in-law, and their four week old daughter. I remembered Javier from a trip he'd taken to the states several years earlier, he'd visited my aunt and uncle in Madison, and they came to Chicago for a couple days. He had a sharp memory of my husband because of M's tattoos, and remembered me well enough to recognize me as I exited the baggage claim area. We drove through the center of town, the patriarch pointing out significant buildings and historic sites. We stopped for coffee, and again for beer and tapas. When I felt loose enough I told the daughter-in-law that I hoped I hadn't roped her into taking her four week old out into the rain. She explained that she was stir crazy from staying home with the baby, and had been looking forward to my arrival as an excuse to get out. By the time they dropped me off at the airport again I was practically delirious with travel and sleep deprivation, I'd been awake for 24 hours.
I'd hoped to sleep during the flight from Madrid to Dakar, but my fellow passengers had other plans. It felt more like happy hour on a cruise ship than an intercontinental flight. At the gate in Madrid cliques had formed: there was a group of Italian tourists who had struck up a conversation with a man from Nigeria who wore a pair of shades on the back of his head. Their acquaintanceship carried over onto the plane. I was seated across the aisle from the Italians, and within minutes the Nigerian stood from his seat and walked through the narrow aisle of the airplane, bought rounds of airplane wine, and entertained his newfound friends. He leaned over on the armrest of the Italians, bending over so that his rear end invaded my personal airspace. He crouched down and stood up abruptly to illustrate a point in a story that he seemed to find quite hilarious, nearly knocking a tray from the hands the hostess who was trying to walk past him. I expected her to reprimand him, but all she did was sigh and move on. "Nanga def," he said, at the top of his voice, over and over, and I racked my brain trying to remember what that meant. "Africaaaah," he said, "c'est comme ca", and broke into a dance that involved crouching down and moving his ass in the air. I drifted in and out of a restless, unsatisfying sleep as the Nigerian sustained his in-flight party persona and leaned into me, practically sitting in my lap every time someone needed to pass him, and the passenger behind me engaged in behavior that seemed like he was punching the back of my seat at regular intervals. Finally I turned around and made eye contact with him, and saw that he was easily six foot five, folded into his seat like a letter in an envelope, a look of abject misery on his face. I returned my seat to its upright position and did the best I could to get comfortable. I gave up on sleep, read my Senegal guidebook, and breathed slowly.
On landing at Leopold Sedar Senghor airport in Dakar, I waited in line for passport control, manned by an official who scrutinized each passport and a security guard whose stared into the middle distance, an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder. In the baggage claim area taxi drivers solicited rides. "Non merci," I said, negotiating my way through the tightly packed room. I was asked to drop my bags on a conveyor belt to be x-rayed before leaving the area, which seemed curious. On the other side I stared out into the crowd, looking for a sign of Idy. Finally a security guard approached me. "Are you J?" He asked, in English. "Yes," I said, surprised. "Your driver is here for you." I walked outside into the remarkable darkness. A tall man with a large round face approached me. "J?" He asked. "Yes," I replied. "My name is Malal," he said, extending his hand. Malal wore a kaftan and held a wooden cane. "I'm going to call my driver," he said, and lifted a cell phone to his ear. In a moment a car pulled up, and Malal began walking towards it in slow, labored steps punctuated by his cane. An aging man in a gray beard and a headdress approached me with US dollars in his hands, asking me if I wanted to buy West African Francs. My guidebook had warned against buying Francs from men like him at the airport, they gave a bad exchange rate. "Non merci," I said, and ambled along, my suitcase catching on a rock. Another man approached me with his hand out, offering to help me with my bag. "Non merci," I said again. My book had also warned against accepting any offers of help with bags, as they always led to an expected payment for the service. The man held his hands up as if to say "I'm just trying to help you out."
Malal opened the trunk of the car and dropped my bags inside. "Do you want to talk to Idy?" He asked. "Yes, that would be great, thanks," I said. Malal made the connection and handed the phone to me, and I heard Idy's voice, the first familiar sound I'd encountered since my plane took off from O'Hare the previous day. I peeked into the car and made eye contact with the driver, and introduced myself. "My name is Mustafah," he said, "welcome to Senegal." Mustafah looked about as tall as Malal, and had a long, handsome face with chiseled features. I climbed into the back seat, closed the door, and automatically reached for a seatbelt. I found the empty joint where one once lived, looked at the front seats where Mustafah and Malal sat, and realized they weren't wearing any. "Are there seatbelts in this car?" I asked. "No," Mustafah said, as casually as if I'd asked what time it was. We began driving to the highway, and I stared out the window at the scenery. The buildings on the side of the road looked dilapidated, and the highway was dark. It began to dawn on me that I was very far from home. "How did you know who I was?" I asked. "Idy described you to me," Malal said. "How was your flight?" Mustafah asked, and I launched into the story of the Nigerian party animal. Mustafah and Malal laughed, "Nigerians are like that," Malal said, "they drink and do drugs. In Senegal we are Muslim, we don't drink."
We exited the highway and began driving on city streets, and finally onto a dirt road. Mustafah pulled the car into a dark lot next to a row of dumpsters where a cabal of stray cats feasted on garbage, and cut the engine. "We're here?" I asked, my strained voice betraying my efforts to appear calm. The car was dark and there were no street lights, and I couldn't figure out how to open the door. Malal opened it for me, we got out, walked twenty feet and approached a metal gate. Malal opened it and I followed him into a cement enclosure in front of a building that had bars on the first floor windows. Malal knocked on the door and a hand opened it from the other side.
The hand belonged to Ibou, Idy's nephew. "Hibou?" I asked in French, idiotically. "Your name is Hibou, like the French word for 'owl'?" "No," he explained, his face an inscrutable wall, "like Ibrahim." He wore jeans halfway down his ass in the manner of American city kids, with three inches of boxer shorts showing, an ironed button down shirt, and had head full of short, knotted locks. The front door opened onto a livingroom that was furnished with a wood framed couch, a loveseat, and a queen sized mattress. Ibou led me upstairs to the second floor, where he introduced me to my fellow travelers and set up my bed with great care, covering the foam mattress in a piece of striped green fabric, and determining the best corner of the room to lay it down .