Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Westward Vista

Asalaa Maalekum from Dakar, Senegal, on the Cap Vert Peninsula, the westernmost region of the African continent. On this cape I can’t help but look continually westward, towards home, and wonder how things can be so different yet simultaneously so similar on either side of the great big pond which now separates me from most of my readers. Arabic fills the air five times a day as it resonates from the towers of elaborate mosques, small children begging for change cover the streets like a plague, and a strong equatorial sun beats down upon the sands in and around this city of the Sahel. At the same time, though, friends gather in front of their homes, talking and laughing well into the evening; families sit down together for dinner each night; and old men rest on the cliffs outside of town, staring out at the line between blue sea and bluer sky – searching, seeking, questioning. For all the differences which exist here, I do, in many ways, feel at home. But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I…

Although I swore to myself some time ago never again to travel with a “tour group,” I decided to take a chance with this program run by Washington and Lee University in the US and the ACI Baobab Center here in Dakar. I do recognize the inherent advantages of organized tours (less stress, group discounts, and – with professional guides being guaranteed at all times – the opportunity to learn a great deal of factual information), but I believe that the learning which takes place when an individual traveler has to figure things out on his own, often making mistakes along the way, is far more beneficial. Nevertheless, I was attracted to this program from the start – particularly because it seemed to offer a reasonable balance between “the individual” and “the group” – and decided to give it a shot. So, on Monday, April 24th, I found myself in Washington, DC, mingling with the rest of the group and chatting excitedly about what lay ahead. After eating dinner together on Monday night at an Ethiopian restaurant, we divided our time over the next two days among a variety of orientation activities intended to acquaint us better with Senegal and Africa as a whole. We attended lectures by a past US Secretary of State for Africa, an attaché of the Senegalese ambassador to the US (the ambassador himself had to cancel at the last moment), and a Peace Corps alum who had served in West Africa. We also toured African art exhibits, visited DC’s largest mosque, and discussed West African cultural traditions. Feeling a bit outnumbered by the 20 girls in the group, the six other guys and I also managed to score tickets to a Wizards basketball game on Tuesday night. Wednesday evening found us boarding our plane at Dulles and, before long, we were on our way to Africa. Coincidentally, I ended up sitting next to the Human Rights Watch’s number one person in West Africa, and she shared with me some fascinating information about international politics and some incredible stories from her travels within the world’s most war-torn and volatile regions. Oh, in case anyone reading happens to be a surfer, I should mention that I highly recommend flying Air France on surf trips whenever possible. Apparently, their check-in attendants are either unaware of the company’s policies or are simply sympathetic towards the surfing community because I got away with checking my two surfboards without any paying extra fees (which could have cost up to $320 round-trip). And in case you’re wondering, I am aware (at least partially aware) that this is an academic trip; the fact that I brought two surfboards, a wetsuit, wetsuit accessories, extra fins, an extra leash, wax, a ding repair kit, a giant boardbag, etc. etc. and forgot to bring a notebook or writing utensils is understandable considering that my intent – noble to say the least – is “to study the people and culture of Senegal’s coastal areas, using surfing as a medium to do this, and ultimately attempt to gain a more complete understanding of West Africa from the very waters which separate it from other lands.” Hmm… Truthfully, surfing does provide an amazing opportunity to learn about local cultures (I remember the hours I spent in the waters of Costa Rica chatting in Spanish with local surfers and then, last year, the many long conversations I had in Chinese while hitchhiking with my board up and down the east coast of Taiwan), and, at the same time, it is indeed possible to balance work and play.

Rolling my eight-foot-long boardbag behind me on Thursday night, I found myself exiting the airport outside of Dakar and entering an exciting new world. I spent the next three nights housed in an apartment complex with the other W&L students, slowly growing more accustomed to my new surroundings. Saturday and Sunday were devoted to further orientation exercises, these coordinated by the local Baobab Institute. The orientation was extremely thorough, and I found it exceedingly interesting how many of the “do’s” and “do not’s” I had already figured out for myself during my own travels. It seemed ironic that everyone was just being spoon-fed the information I had gleaned piece by piece by making mistakes, enduring embarrassment, and tolerating a bit of hardship on occasion. Nevertheless, the orientation benefited me for sure, and I felt very confident that my upcoming homestay (my third one in less than three years) would go well. I also learned some important cultural facts specific to Senegal that I must keep in mind constantly. For instance, greetings are extremely important in Senegal, and if you approach someone on the street for directions and begin with nothing more than an “Excuse me…,” you may be shunned and ignored. Even the most basic transaction or exchange of words should include most, if not all, of the following Arabic/Wolof greeting: “Asalaa Maalekum…Maalekum Salaam…Na nga def?...Maa ngi fii rekk…Ana waa ker ga?...Nu nga fa…Al hamdulilaay!...Al hamdulilaay!” Greetings between acquaintances often last more than 30 seconds and involve a variety of handshakes and embraces. Dining etiquette is also very demanding. The traditional way to eat in Senegal is termed “around the bowl” and involves each person sitting cross-legged on a mat around a large bowl of food. The heads of the family typically reach in first and tear apart whatever may be in the middle – a fish, a couple squashes, and an onion perhaps – and toss the torn bits into each person’s pie-shaped “territory” of the rice around the outside of the bowl. Then, each person reaches into his territory, grabs a handful of rice with some of the food just tossed his way, and molds the contents into a fist-sized ball ready for eating. Of course, only the right hand is used for eating (for reasons which should be obvious if I tell you that typically a kettle of water can be found in the bathroom rather than toilet paper), and using the left hand would be a grave mistake (which is why I have resorted to sitting on my left hand for the duration of meals). There are a variety of other rules about eating around the bowl, but the end result is always rice- and sauce-coated hands and faces and stained clothes (well, for me at least). I could elaborate on all that I discovered during the days of orientation – as much of it really is fascinating and surprising – but I think it will most likely emerge as I continue to describe my experiences here in Senegal.

There is, perhaps, one last thing I should note about those first few days I spent in the apartment before transitioning to my homestay. During that time, I was struck with the notion that Africa really does move to a different beat. I formed what I believe will be some of my strongest memories as I took in everything around me, a bit tipsy with adrenaline and excitement. The music of Senegal, in particular, captured me immediately and I was soon swaying to the intoxicating rhythms of this part of the world. Dakar is known as the music capital of West Africa, and, spending the first nights in downtown clubs with the rest of the group, I wasted no time in verifying this distinction. I don’t even know how to describe the local music (and it is, of course, diverse), but it’s almost always highly percussionist and fast with a great beat that makes dancing irresistible. The first night most of the group was a bit timid, but a few of the girls and I wanted to dance, and, after we broke out our West African moves in front of the stage, the band went wild and we couldn’t seem to go anywhere without being stopped and told by astonished (or was it amused?) locals, “Vous dansez bien!” On that first weekend I also got to hear the man himself, international superstar and local demi-god Youssou N’Dour, at his famous club Thioussane. Everything happens a bit later here in Dakar, with many families not eating dinner until 10:00 or later, so N’dour doesn’t even start his act until 2:30 AM. Needless to say, it was a late night, but the experience of cramming into an overflowing Thioussane and joining locals in swaying back and forth to the fervent beat of his music is one which I will long remember. More than anything, I have been absolutely enthralled by the uninhibited joie de vivre which pervades the clubs and music venues here. Outside, on the streets, Senegal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with the average citizen dying before the age of 50; but, in the clubs, all the country’s troubles cease to exist. Icons like Youssou N’Dour on stage sweating and singing with incredible passion to captivated audiences are this country’s images of hope. Once taken away by the music, people have no worries or concerns; instead, they revel in a sort of collective bliss, and, indeed, with a uniquely African pulse. When I returned to the apartment late in the morning after dancing all night, my gaze was drawn constantly by the lights of downtown Dakar. On the third floor of the apartment was a wall with circular openings to the outside along its entire length. For some reason, I was mesmerized by this wall and often found myself leaning against it, staring out through the holes at the yellow haze over the city. One night, with the wind against my face, I was simply taking it all in – the rumble of music still filtering in from far away, the darkness which covered the desert around the city, the mosques visible in the distance. Suddenly, I was experiencing the same rush – the same sense of passion and exhilaration and energy – which I had felt in the overflowing clubs; when the feeling subsided and I had regained my thoughts, I realized that this was the pulse of Africa.

I want this blog to recount many of the experiences I have while traveling, but, at the same time, I don’t want it to read like a day-by-day journal. So, as I continue writing, I plan to approach things from a broader perspective, focusing more on the themes and interconnected occurrences which I believe to be representative of what I experience on a daily basis. There certainly will be some simple recounting on a chronological basis of what I did, saw, and heard, but hopefully the majority of my posts will not take that form. With this in mind, I’ll offer a few stories from and information about my most recent week in Senegal. On Sunday evening I moved into my homestay with Mme. Madeleine Cissé and her fourteen-year-old son Basse and eight-year-old daughter Gnagna. They live in a nice apartment located close to the Baobab Center and the ARED Center (where we also have class). Mme. Cissé works in the Senegalese Dept. of Finance as an income tax auditor and is wonderfully outgoing and friendly. Basse is one of those people whom you know from the first moment could not be any kinder or more sincere. He is extremely mature (I constantly forget that he’s only 14) and, perhaps because he’s almost the same age as my own little bro (hey dude!), we bonded instantaneously. Gnagna actually just arrived home today (Sun, 4-30) from some kind of trip, but, judging from what I heard early this morning while still in bed, she’s a little ball of energy. In all, the family situation couldn’t be any better. I’ve been treated amazingly well and already feel attached to my new family. They speak to me in French (though Basse speaks some English), and this is helping me tremendously, as I expected. There’s just no substitute for learning a language immersion-style, and this is proving to be a third success for that philosophy. Let’s see, what else… I actually have my own room and bathroom, which is nice, and by now I’m used to cold showers when I travel. There are quite a lot of mosquitoes, and malaria is a serious problem, but hopefully my Malarone will work. The weather is exactly the same every day with sunny skies and highs around 80. It’s not really that hot, but the sun is so strong here that it feels hotter and I don’t leave the house without my wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Now that class has started, I follow a similar schedule each day. Breakfast is the same each day – French baguette; butter, jellies, or camembert cheese; and tea. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I go to Wolof (a local indigenous language) class at 9:00, so I’m able to eat breakfast with the family before they leave for school and work. My West African Politics class taught by Prof. Dickovick runs from 11:30 until 1:00, and then I return home for lunch with the maid (as in many countries, having a maid is very common). From 3:00-5:00 I attend Prof. Lambeth’s West African Literature/Media/Culture class, and dinner, as I said earlier, is late in the evening. My family is relatively “French,” so we usually sit at the table and eat in basically the way as one eats in the West. Meals are always Senegalese – tieboudienne, yassa poulet, yassa poison, etc. – with rice and fish being the two staples. We do sometimes eat in the traditional way, also, on the floor, “around the bowl.” I was looking forward to a quiet lunch alone last Friday when suddenly Mme. Cissé and a bunch of her relatives, colleagues, and friends burst in and set up the bowl. Friday, the holy day in Islam, always seems to bring surprises as everyone wears traditional clothes, beggars are out in full force, and mosques overflow. My family is actually Christian, which is interesting because it provides insight into what it’s like for a 5% minority to exist peacefully within a Muslim society. Plus, most of the extended family is Muslim, so I really am in a fascinating position to learn about religious cohabitation in Senegal. As far as class, things are going well despite the fact that we have a ridiculous amount of work. It’s difficult to read novels, write papers, and do daily assignments when there is so much else going on; nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll manage. Wolof is an interesting language, more difficult than Spanish or French because it’s not a Romance language, but certainly easier than Chinese because it’s phonetic and does not have a system of intonation. I can say some basic things in Wolof now, but there’s really no way any of us will be able to communicate on a conversational level by the end of six weeks. I’m looking at it more as a study of linguistics that might help me better understand my other languages. And actually, the Wolof classes are taught almost entirely in French, so I’m really learning two languages at once; as for the students who don’t speak any French, I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to learn a language you don’t know…in a language you don’t know. Bizarre.

Just a few last notes on this past week, and I’ll try to wrap up this lengthy post. I went with my mom to the fish market last Monday, and that was quite an experience. There were literally chunks of fish landing on my head as I navigated around vendors chopping off fish heads and slicing off scales. I was amazed watching my mom bargain with the vendors – she was dressed in traditional clothes (as she usually is) and moved about with an air of confidence and – I guess you could say – elegance, though elegance is not something I typically would associate with fish markets. On Wednesday the group spent the entire day on Goree Island, located just off the coast of Dakar. Goree, a World Heritage Site, was one of the principle centers of the West African slave trade, and we were able to tour the Maison d’Esclaves, the prison used to hold slaves temporarily before they boarded ships for the Americas. The tour was led by a local guide, and he was blunt and straightforward in speaking about the atrocities committed there. The rooms in which slaves were kept are unbelievably small and confining, and the horrors endured in them are unimaginable. Most haunting of all, though, was the Door of No Return. This small door overlooking the ocean and facing west, served for 300 years as the portal to the New World for millions of slaves who would never again see their home. I literally felt chills as I stared out through this door, knowing I was looking in the exact direction of my home in North Carolina. Outside of the Maison d’Esclaves, Gorree is an enchanting little island with no cars and few crowds, and many Dakar residents come here to enjoy the peace and quiet. We had time to tour the island as well as explore things on our own for a bit. I was intrigued to learn that the artillery gun on Goree was used to sink a British/French ship during WWII and keep much of West Africa under Axis command. It’s hard to believe that the effects of the war would be felt somewhere so far removed as this island off Dakar. After the tour, I found a nice quiet little spot by the ocean where I curled up with a book. Looking up from my book every once in a while and staring out at the Atlantic, I couldn’t help but think about how much own views will undoubtedly change as I continue to view the world from this new perspective. After reading for a while, I was in need of a bit of adventure, so I embarked a little surfing odyssey. I had brought my board over on the ferry hoping to find waves (though not expecting any, as the surf is very inconsistent on Goree), so I ended up using it to paddle nearly the entire circumference of the island. I got some interesting looks as I made my way slowly along the rocks which line the coast and especially as I returned to the ferry through small alleys in my wetsuit, board underarm. Watching the sunset over the Dakar skyline from the water was absolutely amazing and made even the lack of waves bearable.

Speaking of waves, I have indeed scored some surf recently! I’ve now been to Almadies (the point of Africa which juts out farthest west), N’Gor Island (filmed by Bruce Brown for his classic film The Endless Summer, which revolutionized surfing and essentially took the sport mainstream (for better or worse)), and Virage (home to the only “surf shop” – and the quotations are intended – in the country, to my knowledge). N’Gor and Almadies are very rocky and a bit treacherous, I suppose, depending on the tides. At N’Gor, 5-inch-long sea urchin spines repeatedly pierced my wetsuit booties and lodged themselves in the side of my foot; it took me several painful hours to pull them out with tweezers. This weekend we’ve been enjoying an excellent North-Northwest swell – big enough for a small craft advisory to be issued – so the waves at Virage have been great. I actually got the smack-down laid upon me by the ocean the other day when I got caught on the inside and pummeled all the way into the shore by one wave after another. The way I look at it, that’s just the ocean’s way of reminding me who the boss is, which is definitely a good thing, because those who play in the ocean without any fear or respect don’t last long. I also met some local surfers, including a semi-professional who lives at Virage and whom I had read about online before arriving here. I now have some phone numbers and local beta, which makes surfing much safer and easier. The other day, when I finished riding my first wave in Senegal, I sat back down on my board filled with the same euphoria I feel every time I surf but also with the simple yet satisfying thought that “That’s that…I’ve now surfed in Africa.” It’s so bizarre to walk past the shanties in Dakar or hop into a long, narrow pirogue with locals to be ferried over to N’Gor Island with my surfboard under my arm or on my head, wetsuit hanging off my backpack. There’s something really special about surf travel to exotic locations that makes the experience worthwhile even if there aren’t great waves. So far, however, the Senegalese waves have been good and promise to be better, making for a very, very happy yours truly.

Well, that’s a pretty lengthy update of what I’ve been up to, so if you’re still reading you certainly deserved to be commended (or maybe reprimanded). I prefer to make updates more frequently so that they’re not so long, but that just hasn’t been possible thus far. This one did contain a lot of general information about Senegal, though, that will not be necessary in future posts. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed the update and will continue to follow my blog. I have to get ready now for another week of classes; cross-cultural, cross-language communication; and excellent surfing. From Dakar, Alhamdulilay!


At 2:33 PM, Blogger Jamie Gould said...

Great hearing from you and knowing you are doing well and enjoying so much. Really enjoyed reading about your experiences and can't wait to hear more.
Love, Dad

At 11:55 PM, Blogger A. G. Fralin said...

Mille mercis for so generously sharing your experiences with us. Having enjoyed your update from beginning to end, I'm going to recommend it to my wife and others. Needless to say, your intellectual curiosity and friendliness make you much more adaptable than I could have ever hoped to be among people who, according to my daughter who spent a year in Dakar, have a conception of life totally different from ours. Soak up the French, and continue studying it when you get back to campus, and may the encounter with a sea urchin be your only excruciating adventure. Quoi qu'il en soit, continue à nous tenir au courant de tes activités. C'est passionnant. Bonne continuation. De ton ex-prof qui t'apprécie et envie.
A. G. Fralin
P.S. "principal" au lieu de "principle" dans ta mise au courant écrite en anglais

At 1:20 AM, Blogger Neil said...

hey alex,
i couldn't have enjoyed your blog entry any more than i did (even reading it two weeks later). every piece of your adventure sounds incredible and so much fun. i'm very envious. you know how much i like to travel! hope all continues to go well.


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