Wednesday, May 17, 2006

From Sea to Shining Sea

As the sun is swallowed up by the ocean in an explosion of red and orange, I stare longingly into the distance, searching for one of those bulges in the horizon which, though nearly imperceptible at first, hold the promise of four or five or maybe six magnificent set waves. Looking left, then right, I still see nothing and continue to wait patiently. I look down and notice that I’m floating back and forth with the current over the jagged reef which is a few feet below my board, and I feel a quick rush of adrenaline shoot through my body. Small fish are jumping and splashing everywhere; I steal a nervous glance behind me and brush aside the image of razor-sharp teeth suddenly clamping down on one of my legs. Unfazed by my presence, a duck dives beneath the surface (giving new meaning to the term duck-dive) and reemerges with its evening meal, though it struggles to get the flopping fish all the way down. Overhead, hundreds of birds circle in the thermals, some searching for fish and some – I can’t help but imagine – simply playing. Cold and wishing I had worn my hooded vest under my wetsuit, I look back at the cliff-face where I stashed my gear, but the thought of paddling all the way back to the channel, letting the waves push me into the urchin-covered rocks, and then scampering quickly across them while trying to protect my board from the incoming whitewater deters me. The swell which has persisted for the last 8 or 9 days is finally dying off and there’s a long wait between sets, but I really don’t mind; it’s the first time I’ve had this break to myself, and the solitude is refreshing. I’ve already gotten several awesome rides, and I’m almost as content simply to sit on my board, watching the sun set and breathing the salty air, as I am to ride more waves. I close my eyes and have no trouble imagining I’m floating off the coast of southern North Carolina; I can hear the cawing of the seagulls, the laughter of children, the whistle of a lifeguard. Suddenly, it’s not the whistling of a lifeguard but that of some local kids on the shore which brings me back to reality – back to Africa. I look up at the horizon, grin, and begin to paddle…

Bonjour and salut everyone – thanks for checking in. Senegal continues to amaze me in so many ways, and I have a lot of great stories to share. The surfing has been unbelievable, with the session I described above being one of the most satisfying of my life. I’ll talk a little more about the surfing later, but first… some recent experiences on terra firma.

Monday, May 1st, found me and the other W&L students marching through downtown Dakar in the Labor Day parade with hundreds of locals. Constituting the one and only cluster of white in a long stream of Africans, we were easily noticeable for the thousands who lined the streets, leaned out of windows, and sat on rooftops. Reflecting on the experience afterwards, many of us expressed concern that our participation in the parade had been neither respectful nor tactful. Though it was perhaps amusing how our motley crew stumbled along without any semblance of order or unity in between groups of workers wearing matching outfits, carrying banners, and marching in unison; how the size of our group constantly fluctuated as individuals still not accustomed to the local food took turns dashing off for bathroom emergencies; or how, at the end of the parade route, the dumbfounded MC went silent – not knowing how to introduce us to the crowd – and the pens of the government ministers awaiting our requests froze in midair; were we really justified in taking part in this political and ceremonial activity about which we knew next to nothing? I think the original intent was for us to interact with local advocacy groups and to have a chance to decide, based on a tangible experience, whether the democratic process in Senegal is genuine or just a façade. In this respect, taking part in the parade was certainly beneficial, because we did acquire first-hand experience with Senegalese democracy. I’m still not convinced that we really should have been in the parade, but, based on some occurrences during the event, I’m fairly confident we didn’t do any serious damage to international relations. Most of the crowd actually got a kick out of seeing us – video cameras seemed to focus on us from all angles – and I received a standing ovation from several rooftops full of people when I accepted an invitation to join local dancers as the march paused at an intersection. Additionally, several of us were interviewed by enthusiastic and curious reporters (though the most intelligent thing I could think to say was “Go Senegalese football!”). Overall, our marching in the Labor Day parade wasn’t pretty – and may indeed have been slightly out of line – but it was definitely one of the most memorable and bizarre experiences we’ve had in Senegal.

After three weeks here, I’m really starting to settle in and find a rhythm. I’m more comfortable than ever in my homestay; having long ago switched from vous to tu when speaking with my family, I’m now on a very familiar level with them. Basse and I continue to hang out quite a bit, and, together with his cousin, we’ve watched several movies, gone to the internet café, etc. Gnagna, as I correctly surmised from the start, is a cute little ball of energy. She is constantly singing, dancing, or trying on new clothes in front of the mirror, and, to her mother’s dismay, she wakes up at 5 AM. Ironically, she usually limits herself to one word answers and a grin when I try to talk to her, but I think that’s beginning to change now that she is becoming more comfortable around me. She proudly offered me some Pringles today and has even agreed to show me her pictures from her recent trip to Turkey. In other homestay news, I was slightly mistaken when I reported earlier that we typically eat meals at the table. Actually, we eat quite often “around the bowl,” and though eating this way is a bit laborious for me (my legs usually become numb halfway through the meal because of the way you have to sit), I actually enjoy it and definitely feel more a part of the culture when I’m sitting on the floor with my family and their friends, eating with my hands (well, make that my right hand), and speaking in broken French and Wolof. The religious aspect of the homestay is fascinating. It’s not uncommon for me to walk into the living room to see Mme. Cisse watching a Catholic mass on television and, at the same time, several of her friends kneeling on their prayer mats and reciting Koranic verses. It’s also interesting to see the effects of Western values on traditional African and Muslim values. My family is in love with a French soap opera called “Un, Dos, Tres,” and we watch it every night during dinner despite the fact the nearly every episode has at least one scene which results in an awkward silence broken only by a playfully disapproving “Ooh-la-la…” from my mom. Similarly, Basse, like most Senegalese teenagers, is obsessed with the American rapper 50 Cent. The other day, in front of his mom, he handed me a page of lyrics for one of 50 Cent’s songs so I could doublecheck his pronunciation as he recited the words – I stopped him around the third line after maybe 8 or 9 curse words, professed that I saw real talent in his singing, and left things at that.

My infatuation with Senegalese music continues, and I seek out local tunes whenever I can. Two of my most recent music outings, however, brought with them some unexpected surprises. The first surprise occurred when I was heading to a downtown club with some friends. We split up for the taxi ride downtown, and I ended up with two girls. I told the driver to drop us off in the Mohammad Cinq district – which is known for good nightlife – since we didn’t know the exact location of the club where we were to meet the others. Problems started when we were given incorrect directions from a passerby and we began heading in the wrong direction without knowing it. Then, a Senegalese man approached us and began harassing the girls despite our requests for him to leave us alone. Of course, we had been briefed on the possibility of this happening and immediately recognized the cultural dilemma. It’s considered normal in Senegal for men to approach women they don’t know and flirt, make marriage propositions, etc. in a nonviolent yet aggressive manner. I did everything I could to keep myself between him and the girls and was very direct in telling him to leave, but nothing seemed to work. What made the situation really frustrating was that the man wasn’t really harming us and kept insisting that he just wanted to be friendly and that this was just how Senegalese people act; basically, he didn’t go quite far enough to allow us to do anything forceful or call for the police. Nevertheless, he continued to harass the girls for at least ten minutes, following directly behind us and refusing to leave, and we were getting pretty uptight. At last we arrived at a relatively well-lit street, and I took the girls into a Chinese restaurant and did my best to explain the situation to the manager (ironically, I instinctively used French – I was a bit flustered – though my Chinese would have been much clearer). She reassured us that the man wouldn’t have harmed us (basically reiterating what we’d been told about the cultural difference) but nonetheless yelled at him in Wolof and kicked him out of the restaurant – yes, he had followed us inside. Then, a couple Lebanese men who had just finished dinner asked what the problem was and I again struggled to explain the situation in French. They got the message and ended up driving us in their car to the club we had originally been looking for, which was nice because the man was waiting for us outside the restaurant. So, after a rough start, the evening turned out great, and we had an awesome time dancing well into the morning… My second experience with a musical outing turning sour happened this past Wednesday night on Goree Island. Youssou N’Dour and several other famous Senegalese musicians put together a joint concert on the island to celebrate the abolition of slavery. My mom got excited when she saw a commercial for the concert and decided we could go over to the island as a family, take sandwiches for dinner, and enjoy the music together. This ended up being a fantastic idea, as the concert was really amazing – a huge stage was set up right next to the beach, people were crowded onto the rooftops of the European style cottages which cover Goree, and waves lapped gently against the shore behind us. The problems began after the concert ended and we headed for the ferry dock. Knowing not everyone would fit on the first ferry, people began crowding closer and closer to the gate on the dock. At first I just shook my head in amusement, having often witnessed the same behavior in China. As I moved slowly closer to the bottleneck, though, the situation transformed into something for which I was totally unprepared and had never experienced in my life. In a matter of minutes I went from being uncomfortable to truly in pain; the crowd was packed so closely together I could barely expand my chest to breathe; I was repeatedly hit, scratched, and groped; and I was starting to feel really claustrophobic. At this point I realized that tripping and falling could honestly mean being trampled to death (and I suddenly remembered watching news clips of the deaths caused annually when masses of pilgrims fight to be the closest to different holy sites), so I was forced to put my arms out and push off the people around me for balance. Typically, when in crowds I keep my hands in or over my pockets and remain extremely cognizant of both my belongings and my surroundings. In this situation, though, everything went out the window, and I was fighting for survival. It was all a blur at the time, but, looking back, I remember almost exactly what happened. Just as I neared the gate, a woman near me had some sort of panic attack and started screaming hysterically and hitting everyone around her. This caused the crowd to lurch to my right, and I ended up pinned against the wall next to the gate. As I struggled against the force of hundreds of people, a man next to me reached for my right cargo pocket. One precaution I take is keeping money only in my two cargo pockets, which have both Velcro and zippers and are pretty tough to open. It’s so strange to look back on what happened because I can visualize it all so lucidly, but at the time I was only subconsciously aware that I was being pickpocketed. The man had trouble unzipping my pocket and didn’t succeed until the exact moment when I managed to dislodge myself from the wall (which took maybe 10 seconds I’d guess). I used all my strength to twist into the crowd and, finally breaking free, spun to my right and tumbled through the gate. His hand went into and came out my pocket just as I was beginning to spin. So, the end result? I lost less than $20, made it safely to the ferry, and enjoyed a great night of music. I was, however, left feeling pretty flustered and even betrayed in some ways. Not betrayed in the sense that I was robbed (I realize W&L’s honor system doesn’t apply to the whole world) but betrayed in the sense that I did everything right and still lost. I wasn’t playing the part of the stupid tourist with a big fat wallet in my back pocket, and I had taken precautions and was aware of the dangers. Nevertheless, I was put in a position in which I had to choose between protecting my pocket change and protecting my life; moreover, I didn’t even choose this situation but found myself in it because I had to follow my family as they made their way towards the ferry (I generally avoid crowds when alone). I don’t know why the incident bothers me so much – it was really nothing more than a small growing pain in my maturation as a traveler – but I have a difficult time brushing aside the panic and claustrophobia I felt when I was caught in that mob. The collective power of human beings is truly amazing. An inspiring leader can take that energy and make it the foundation of the most noble of all undertakings, yet it takes but one person to derail everything and transform that energy into an overwhelming wave of panic, chaos, and destruction. I think the sense of helplessness – the total loss of individuality, control, and personal freedom – that I felt in that mob is one of the worst things I’ve ever felt in my life. It was as if I were chained down and submerged – unable to move, unable to breathe – in the blind conformity against which I fight so fiercely. It was the horrible feeling of drowning and not being able to do anything about it. It was a reminder that although I like people, I always seem to prefer the times when they’re not around. :)

Wow, I didn’t intend to write so much about such downer topics; but, then, traveling isn’t all good times, and, if it were, I don’t think it would be nearly as rewarding. Either way, I think I should change the subject now and what better thing to focus on than…yep, you guessed it.

You know, I wish I could just say or write the word surfing – just toss it out there – and everyone within earshot, everyone reading…could simply understand the essence of it all. The mere sound or sight of the word conjures up so many intense emotions and feelings in me, but I know this isn’t true for many people – after all, how can it be if you’ve never experienced what surfing really is? The anticipation which grows steadily more intense as set waves loom larger and larger, rolling ever closer towards you. The terror of looking over the lip of a large wave, having already committed to drop in, and seeing a jagged reef two feet below the surface. The incredible acceleration as the wave takes hold of you and then the sudden sense of harmony and peace as your being merges with that of the wave and you notice out of the corner of your eye the vertical wall of water next to you which suddenly begins flowing over your head in a graceful arc. Underneath that graceful arc is a world within a world, free from the constraints and limitations of everyday existence. It is a world of motion and speed: motion of the body relative to the board, of the board relative to the wave, of the wave relative to the ocean. It’s a world in which a vertically moving wall of water can provide as much support for an outstretched hand as a solid wall on land, in which conscious thought does not and cannot survive, and in which time stops and all worries cease to exist. Surfing is the most beautiful expression of living I know, and I only wish I could better capture its essence with words.

Fortunately, I can recount my latest surfing adventures, one of which I’m particularly proud. Last Thursday I took the afternoon off to search for the best waves in the region. I started at Virage because the swell was out of the North, but the winds were also out of the North, making for poor conditions there. Next, I took a cab to Memelles, located beside a really cool lighthouse perched high on a rocky cliff. Here, as predicted, the wind was offshore (that’s good), but, unfortunately, the waves were very closed out. Closed out means that the entire wave breaks at once instead of starting at one end and gradually breaking. I got a good laugh out of allowing a local kid to confuse me as I approached the beach by telling me “C’est fermé,” which literally means “It’s closed.” I initially thought he meant the beach itself was closed and I awkwardly tried to inquire whether it would be ok if I walked around the beach because I just wanted to surf. Yea, he gave me a nice long stare and just walked away. What makes it all worse, though, is that exactly the same situation occurred in Costa Rica two years ago when a local there told me “Esta cerrado.” Apparently I’m a slow learner. Anyway, once I realized that Memelles was going to get me killed if I tried to surf it that day, I left and walked several kilometers up the coast looking for waves. Just as I was getting discouraged, I stumbled upon a break called Vivier. Practically the entire surfing community was there, and I’d suddenly broken into the scene. The waves were outstanding – well overhead at both the left (Gauche) and Right (Droite) breaks at Vivier. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as videocameras on tripods recorded surfer after surfer getting covered up in long tubes and pulling fancy moves above the lips of the waves. After I’d gotten my fill of the surf (ie. when I couldn’t paddle anymore), I started chatting with some of the locals, and they informed me there would be a pro contest the coming weekend at that very spot. I noticed, however, that the posters they showed me clearly stated that all competing surfers must have a valid license. When I got ready to leave, one of my new local friends said he’d see me at the competition on Saturday and I replied that maybe I’d come and watch but, of course, I couldn’t compete because I didn’t have a license. He grinned and told me reassuringly just to show up a half hour early on Saturday, explaining that he’d seen me surfing and could “arrange things.” Well, my good friend came through. With a small exchange of currency and a few handshakes on Saturday, I got my license. That’s how I came to be an officially licensed professional surfer in the nation of Senegal.

So, you might be thinking that, since I decided to enter a pro contest in Africa, at a break I’d only surfed once, and after only one week of surfing in months, that I must have a lot of competitions under my belt. No, this was my first. That doesn’t mean I let anyone in on this secret, though. Let’s just say that, for the three or four hours before I actually competed, I was the dark horse no one knew about. I had an entourage of several female W&L students who came to watch and support me, so this drew immediate attention. I also own a pretty nice surfboard and all the flashy gear and accessories to go along with it, so, to the local crowd of surfers, I was very possibly a sponsored, pro surfer from America who had traveled to Senegal with my entourage for the sole purpose of winning this competition. If only I’d thought to sign autographs before I competed… Well, I not surprisingly didn’t win, but I certainly didn’t get last either. I took 3rd in my heat of 4 people (the top 2 advance), actually having had a chance to slide into second earlier in the heat. I got two solid waves early on, then took a bad whipeout on what ended up being the biggest wave of the heat for anyone. That happened at 10 minutes into the 20 minute heat and, unfortunately, the break I was surfing essentially went flat for the remaining time and I couldn’t get another wave. With each surfer’s best two waves counting, I was in good enough shape for 3rd but couldn’t advance. Nevertheless, the competition was really fun and an awesome experience. A DJ pumped out great music throughout the contest, while an announcer narrated each surfer’s moves and called out the remaining time in each heat. More people than I ever would have imagined showed up – literally overrunning the venue and crowding out onto the rocks to watch – and I was really moved when a number of them applauded as I paddled back in at the end of my heat. As the only non-native French speaker in the contest, I was welcomed by everyone and treated really well. Overall, the contest was an incredibly unique experience and, generally speaking, a fairly solid showing for my first time as a licensed pro surfer.

Let’s see, a few final notes… The Cinema de Paris no longer exists in Dakar. Hoping to catch a movie during our free time, some friends and I spent nearly an hour trying to find this theatre. Using my guidebook, I knew its approximate location and just needed someone to point it out to me. Everyone I asked seemed to point in the same general direction, but it was nowhere to be found. I thought I was going crazy as I walked in circles around the area that was supposed to be a theatre but wasn’t. Finally, someone laughed and explained “Il n’existe pas,” making a sort of slicing motion with his hand. Things made sense pretty quickly. We ended up resorting to having juice and peanuts on top of the Hotel d’Independence, which features a rooftop pool and fine views of the coast. I also recently had my first (and only, at this point in time) non-Senegalese meal. As always, I was craving cheese and couldn’t resist a pizza. By the way, I have never eaten so much fish in my life! Barricuda, mackerel, tuna, tiny fish that are basically just bones; fish heads, fish eyes, fish bones; fish and rice, fish fillets, fishballs, fish and bread, fish that seems to stare at you, fish that seems to stare at the person next to you (it always stares at someone), fish, fish, fish. …What else? We visited a really interesting NGO recently called EcoPol. It employs local children from the poorest neighborhoods and teaches them how to recycle trash from the streets and turn it into creations which are practical, aesthetic, or both. Some of the things they do are absolutely amazing, like making toy bicycles of out steel wire, genuinely attractive pocketbooks out of plastic bags, or picture frames out of bottle caps and cardboard boxes. I’ve also done a ton of academic work recently, including the reading of three novels and writing of one paper and one blog update in five days. I might post some excerpts from my paper at some point, as it hits on some interesting cultural phenomena.

Tomorrow morning (Sat. 5/13) we leave for our village stay in the Sine-Saloum Delta, located several hours south of Dakar. We are heading to three separate villages, and I managed to make sure I’m heading to the one which is located on the coast. Needless to say, I’ve already checked the wave forecast. I’m not sure just how rustic things will be – I’m pretty sure no electricity and no running water, for starters. I’m sure it will be right up my alley, so I’m very excited. I’m hoping to post this update in the morning before I leave (by the way, in case I haven’t made it clear, for this particular trip I type updates on my laptop and then transfer them to and post them from computers in local internet cafes); if there’s a power outage or something in the morning, then I’ll have to post it next week as I won’t have computer access until then. I wish you all well until next time – aloha and au revoir.


At 2:25 AM, Blogger Grandma said...

Your vivid descriptions of surfing leaves ne with no desire to learn how to surf - I would be a nervous wreck!! Good that you are having such an incredible time, but I hope you come home soon. You really do write a most interesting letter!
Love you lots,
Grandma and Grandpa

At 7:14 AM, Blogger Neil said...

you're incrdible...marathon skiing, pro surfing...we need to go traveling together sometime...i could imagine we'd have lots of good times...hope all continues to go well!


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