Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Au Revoir Senegal

I apologize for the long delay on this entry. Please realize that, when I do not have access to internet, there may be a significant lag between the time when I finish typing a post on my laptop and the time when I actually upload it to the internet.

What’s up; thanks for checking in. I’m currently writing from the United States as I enjoy a week at home before taking off again for the next leg of my journey. I write with renewed energy – not only because I’ve finally caught up on sleep or gotten over the bronchitis I apparently developed while surfing in freezing water but also because I’ve learned that a number of my friends actually read my blog! I find their criticism and comments – but mostly their criticism – to be highly interesting. It’s funny how some people enjoy reading my reflections or descriptions while others detest these and prefer my stories (and some, I’m sure, dislike all aspects of my writing). The bottom line is that I’m writing for myself above all else, and I find certain writing techniques better suited for capturing certain experiences such that I can sit down with my blog at a later time and really feel – with all five senses – those experiences as if I were truly reliving them. Plus, I’d like to think that taking a variety of approaches to writing this blog allows each reader to find something enjoyable. Regardless, I’d like to describe my final days in Senegal, offer some concluding thoughts about what I learned there, and transition to my next stint as a globetrotting fool…

The week and a half after the village stay remains nothing more than a blur of surfing; reading, writing, and research; and goodbyes…but I can probably remember a few details if I try hard enough. We returned from our respective villages on Tuesday the 16th, and all our classes concluded on the Friday of that week. Prof. Dickovick and Prof. Kamara (now teaching the Literature and Media class) did an excellent job of wrapping up the program and facilitating discussion of tough questions like whether – and, if so, how – Senegal/W. Africa/Africa had changed us and what – if anything – we feel Senegal/W. Africa/Africa needs most in the future. One thing I was really hit with during these classes was the notion that "Senegal" and "Africa" are most definitely not synonymous. Prof. Dickovick warned us that, when we returned to the US, our friends and family would almost positively ask "So how was Africa?" as opposed to "So how was Senegal?" For some reason, most of the West thinks of Africa as this one big, homogenous "Dark Continent," and I must admit that even I was probably a bit guilty of this before my trip. Prof. Dickovick’s prediction has proven to be true, and I can’t help but grin every time I receive that question from someone. I was stunned to find that even on Webshots, the website on which I post my pictures, no distinctions are made for individual countries in Africa. Before I can post pictures on Webshots, I’m required to select the category under which they fall…so, when I was posting my Senegal pics, I chose "International Travel"… "Africa" … and began searching for "Senegal." But, despite the fact that even the "Asia" and "South America" categories have individual countries listed as sub-categories, there was no "Senegal." In fact, there was not a single African country listed! What does this say about our perception of Africa and the African people? …Wolof class concluded in a surprisingly unpleasant way, as we learned that we would be given a final and comprehensive test…and that it would include not only a written but also an oral component! Apparently we had been warned at the end of the previous class, but I think I may have been surfing then so I missed out on that little news break. Nevertheless, after some cramming and a bit of panicking (though the results of the test wouldn’t have mattered because Wolof was not going to count towards our final grades for the program…I’m just kind of a perfectionist), I was ready and managed to conjugate correctly most of the verbs on the test and then survive a 10 minute Wolof conversation after that. My only real slip-up occurred with numbers; guessing that I probably would be asked my age in order to test my knowledge of the numbers, I figured out before my oral exam started how to say nineteen. I couldn’t repress my grin when I heard the question I was hoping for – "…And how old are you?" – and answered confidently, thinking I was home-free. Unfortunately, that question was followed by a request to count from 1 to 20 and an ensuing puzzled look on the teacher’s face as I sat there silently, knowing I’d been beaten. In the end I felt relieved but also quite pleased that I knew more Wolof than I had thought. Saturday through Tuesday were set aside as research days, during which we could write our final papers for Literature and Politics. Gnagna didn’t like the fact that I had to hibernate in my room and work all day long and began taunting me playfully with "Je dois faire mes devoirs…je dois faire mes devoirs" ("I have to do my homework…I have to do my homework") every time she saw me. Originally, I had planned to work hard on Friday night and Saturday and try to get my work done early so I wouldn’t have any worries, but one of the best swells of the trip arrived on Friday, and I couldn’t resist procrastinating. My mom invited two of the other students – Arie and Chris – to join us for dinner on Thursday night, which I thought was a very kind gesture. She had met them earlier and, to convey interest and concern, would ask me often "Harry et Creez…ca va bien?" It was nice to spend time with two of my friends within the context of my Senegalese home and to introduce them to my family. Sunday brought an interesting change of plans, as I was informed rather matter-of-factly that we (my family) would be visiting Lac Rose, the Pink Lake. I knew from analyzing offshore buoy reports online that Sunday morning was going to be the peak of the swell and that the wave size would be dying rapidly by the afternoon, so I had been prepared to get in an early morning session. I figured spending time with my family was more important, though, so I readily agreed to go along, actually kind of excited about seeing this famous lake which is said to radiate a pink glow due to some rare kind of microorganism that lives in the water. Well, let’s just say that when we finally got to the lake, my initial question to my family was "How much further to Lac Rose?" Madeleine pointed excitedly at the water and told me that it was exceptionally pink that day. I just sort of nodded and let out a muted "Wow," imagining what the waves were like back on the peninsula. I did manage to surf that afternoon and, on my way to the beach, was treated to a stunning surprise. As I was walking down one of the roads along the coast looking for a cab, a car honked at me and pulled onto the shoulder. I figured it was another ridiculous take-advantage-of-the-foreigner ploy but was surprised to hear my name called by the driver. It was Corinne, the Human Rights Watch leader who had sat beside me on the plane from Paris to Dakar! She let me cram into her car with my board and gave me a ride to the break, saving me the trouble of finding a cab. How such a coincidence could happen in a city of 4 million people I have no idea; what a small world… Another memorable event occurred that night, while I was enjoying some much-needed sleep after a great surf session. At approximately 3 AM I began having dreams about water; first, it was the lake, then the ocean, then rain. As I began edging slightly closer to consciousness, I became convinced that it had begun raining outside and that we were in the midst of a torrential storm. I was still totally out of it, and my next thought was that I was back in the village in my room with the holes in the roof, and I remember shaking my head at the fact that I would have to deal with getting rained-on all night. The sound of the downpour was becoming louder and louder, though, to the point where it was almost deafening, and I kept telling myself in dazed confusion, "I thought it was still the dry season…" At last, I bolted upright and realized that something was seriously wrong. A jet of water several inches thick – like what is emitted from powerful firehoses – was shooting horizontally out of the bathroom next to my room, hitting the side of my bed head-on, and sending a geyser up to the ceiling; the floor was already covered with a half foot of standing water. I ran out of my room and, not really knowing what to do, started knocking on doors; when asked what was wrong, my French was surprisingly comprehensible: "Il y a beaucoup de l’eau… dans ma chambre" ("There is a lot of water…in my bedroom"). Madeleine managed to stop the flow of water, which was coming from a ruptured pipe, and an hour later, after most of the water had been swept into the bathroom, I climbed back onto my wet mattress, indifferent to my exhaustion, thinking only, "This is one for the blog…" Monday was the much anticipated (by Gnagna) picture-day, when I was to take pictures of my family and have a friend take group pictures as well. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Gnagna became increasingly comfortable around me as my trip progressed. Since I was the first foreign student to live with the Cissé family, she was just a bit shy at first; by the end of the trip, though, she was completely attached to me and constantly played jokes on me, asked me to dance, and started games of hide and seek. Our little ongoing source of amusement was to take turns calling each other "fou-fou," something along the lines of "crazy person." Anyway, all day long on Monday she begged me to take pictures and only agreed to leave me alone at last when I promised emphatically that I would take pictures that night. Keeping my word, I announced to everyone after dinner that I was going to get my camera and would be right back; when I returned, I went straight to Gnagna, jokingly reminding her that I hadn’t forgotten and expecting her to start dancing or to strike a dramatic pose. Instead, however, her expression changed, and suddenly she burst into tears and ran into her mother’s bedroom, burying her head under the pillows. I guess it finally sank in that I would be leaving soon because she cried her eyes out for thirty minutes and wouldn’t even come back in for the family photo. I was totally shocked and genuinely moved – I know I’m going to miss her personality, smile, and impishness as much as nearly anything else about my time in Senegal…well, except maybe the waves.

That’s right, the final evaluation is in: Senegalese Surfing Rocks! Normally, I’d keep such information to myself, but I think the rabbit has already been let out of the hat so here goes. I scored some of the best waves of my life in Senegal, the locals were cool, the weather was perfect, and the cultural aspects of riding waves in W. Africa were totally unforgettable. Strictly in terms of the conditions, things couldn’t have been much better – out of all my sessions, the waves were only under head-high twice, it was never flat, and, because Dakar sits on a peninsula, at least one of the breaks always featured perfect offshore winds. But surfing in Senegal was so much more than just sweet waves. While we were waiting for our plane in Paris during the trip home, one of my friends asked me if my experience in Senegal really would have been that different had I not taken surfboards and spent so much of my time in the ocean. I was speechless – I just couldn’t think of a way to explain how…how intricately interwoven surfing had become with my journey to Senegal. I will forever look back and remember the experiences I had surfing off the Cap Vert Peninsula not as part of some greater experience I had in Senegal but as complete experiences in themselves. Contrary to what many people believe, I’m sure, surfing in Senegal wasn’t a diversion – a way to escape the rigors of class and cultural immersion; it was just the opposite: a unique and unforgettable way to engage the world around me. It was a way to meet locals, to speak local languages, to witness first-hand a merging of cultures and an exchange of information, to be awed by the natural beauty of a foreign land, to make new friends, and – perhaps most of all – to challenge myself. When I surfed with locals, I found myself in the unique position of having a shared passion like surfing to use as a medium for beginning conversations and exchanging ideas. When I surfed alone, I found myself in a sort of bubble, removed from all the clamor and commotion of Dakar yet still able to observe it – and able to contemplate all the customs, traditions, and wonderful eccentricities of its people. Ultimately, surfing and Senegal go hand-in-hand and will continue to go hand-in-hand for as long as I’m able to remember the brilliant journey that constituted the last six weeks of my life.

As I said, a major part of my surfing in Senegal was challenging myself. The challenges ranged from little things like bargaining in French for cabs (consider that, by the end of the trip, I was paying no more than 1300 CFA for the same trip for which I paid 4000 CFA on one of my first days in Senegal) and determining which breaks would have offshore winds (once, having realized I had made a poor choice after the cab had already left and not wanting to wait for another, I ended up having to walk over two miles) to the big things, like staying alive. Senegal was the first time I had surfed extensively over reefs, and the dangers posed by these underwater cheese graters constituted a real presence in my mind at all times. The last few days of the trip, in particular, brought huge waves and some seriously close calls. On Saturday, I rode the biggest waves of the entire trip at Club Med with just a few locals and visiting surfers. Two of my closest surfing buddies – a French guy and a Senegalese guy – and I were basically just taking turns catching wave after wave and watching each other get the rides of our lives. At one point, though, as the Senegalese guy and I were paddling back out to the lineup, I nearly witnessed a tragedy right in front of me. I looked up to see Pierre, the French guy, take off on one of the biggest waves of the day. He took off very deep, meaning he was very close to the initial impact area of the wave and thus over the shallowest and most dangerous part of the reef. The wave was steep, and he lost his balance right from the start, falling headfirst from the top of the wave and landing well in front of it, where the water was still shallow. I thought for sure he had broken his neck and began paddling over to help; to everyone’s relief, he somehow surfaced with just a few scrapes and was able to continue surfing… My own close call occurred the following Wednesday morning, during my final session of the trip. A fan of symmetry, I decided to return to N’Gor Island to conclude my surfing in Senegal at the place where it began. Before I hit the water, I laughingly mentioned to my friends that I hoped the symmetry of my return to N’Gor wouldn’t include a second encounter with the sea urchins…if only I had known. N’Gor is a very technical break, with two rocks – called "Mami" and "Papi" – protruding through the water where the wave breaks. Taking off on waves inside these rocks means some kind of floater or off-the-lip maneuver is necessary to avoid hitting the rocks as a surfer speeds horizontally down the line of the wave. Realizing the danger of this, I started off on the opposite side of Mami and Papi, catching waves once they had already passed the rocks. The downside of this, however, was that the waves were almost finished breaking by the time I stood up, and, thus, my rides were relatively short. Eventually, I became a little braver and decided to try a wave on the other side of the rocks, opting to paddle out further and wait for larger waves. Though choosing big waves brought with it added challenge, it also meant I might be able to avoid the rocks altogether, as larger waves occasionally break a bit further out to sea. The first wave I took was big but looked good, and I brushed aside the image of the reef ahead of me and stood up. Just as I began to drop in, though, it became very ledgy (meaning its steepness changed abruptly part of the way down the wave-face), and I flew off my board very similarly to how Pierre had wiped-out at Club Med. I fell at least ten feet but fortunately landed on my stomach instead of my head, though this knocked the wind completely out of me and left me gasping for air when the wave finally let go of me and allowed me to surface. I was intimidated but couldn’t let this be my last stand at N’Gor, so I paddled back out for one final go. I was pretty nervous so I waited for awhile before picking what would be the last wave of my trip. Finally, I decided they were all monsters and just picked one that looked somewhat rideable. I survived the drop and carved up the wave just in time to avoid the lip which came crashing down behind me. As I carved down the line on what was turning out to be not only the last wave of my trip but also the best ride of my trip, I started surfing more and more fluidly, propelled onward by nothing more than that oh-so-highly-acclaimed thing called stoke. Before I knew what I had done, I had completed my first-ever truly genuine roundhouse cutback, a maneuver which many surfers consider to be the bridge between intermediate and advanced surfing. So excited about this accomplishment, I lay on my board laughing for a few seconds after successfully exiting the wave. But when I finally got around to looking up again, my whole world came crashing down before I could even begin paddling. I noticed immediately that Mami and Papi were further out than I, and all I could see as I looked seaward was a series of behemoth waves lined up and rolling towards me. I knew from the start that I stood no chance of making it out beyond the rocks before the waves broke. As the water beneath me began receding in the wake of these huge waves, I realized I wouldn’t even be able to dive beneath them. I was left simply clinging to some rocks with my board trailing behind me as the horror unfolded in slow motion. The first wave crashed directly in front of me and sent me somersaulting backwards and hitting my head on the reef with each flip. Now that I was in the middle of the reef, the water became extremely shallow each time it receded, and I was forced to cling to the coral and rocks, which, of course, were completely covered with sea urchins – their five-inch-long spines protruding like daggers in every direction. The reef at N’Gor is expansive, and it took at least six or seven waves to knock me all the way across it. With each wave, the only thought which distracted me from the urchins piercing my body or the reef against which I was repeatedly thrown was keeping my surfboard leash from pinning me underwater each time it became tangled on a rock. Just when I started wondering how much more I could really take, I found myself floating in the channel on the other side of the reef, my hands bleeding, head throbbing, and wetsuit dotted with protruding spines. I looked up at the cliffs with dismay to find that not only had no one taped the incident but no one had even witnessed it, and I gingerly got back on my board and began the 10 minute paddle to shore. Reflecting later, I couldn’t help but wonder… if I had a chance to do it all over again, knowing what I would have to go through, would I still take off on that wave? Ultimately, I decided I probably would. Fear and pain are small prices to pay for the rush of being stoked – of knowing with one hundred percent certainty that you’re alive – and pursuing that rush is, I admit, a bit of an all-encompassing addiction. I do my best to take only calculated risks, to do so only after acquiring as much knowledge as possible, and to stay in top physical shape, but, certainly, I realize that things do go wrong. Acknowledging and respecting the gravity of this yet still accepting and engaging the incredible challenges offered by life, I believe, is the quintessential meaning – and beauty – of living and, indeed, of being human. I can only defer to the stirring words of Chris McCandless, one of my heroes, who died living out an incredible dream in the woods of Alaska: "So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind; but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."

I spent Tuesday tying up loose ends and also made a trip to the market to buy some artwork and gifts. I returned home only to be showered with gifts from my family – including ones to take home to my American family; the spirit of terranga (hospitality) is definitely still alive and well in Senegal. That night I took Basse and Gnagna to a little soirée which was being held at ARED for everyone who had contributed to the W&L program. On Wednesday I rushed home from my surf outing to N’Gor – still bleeding and nursing a bit of a black eye – had my final meal of tieboudienne, and exchanged goodbyes with my family. Basse and Gnagna had been allowed to skip their afternoon classes to see me off, which was amusing to us all since Madeleine had teased me the previous week after forcing me to confess, "Oui, j’ai seché les cours" ("Yea, I skipped class…"). Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning were spent with the rest of the group at Toubab Dialow, a "resort" – though I prefer to call it a retreat – south of Dakar, on the coast. The only real obligations we had there were, on Thursday, to present (and, in some cases, defend) our theses in front of the rest of the group and, on Friday, to read a journal (or, in some cases, blog) excerpt for everyone to hear. Otherwise, we were free to relax, sleep in, enjoy the beach, and just reflect privately on what we had experienced in Senegal. It was a memorable way to conclude the trip, and the retreat itself was well-suited for the purpose. Described as "artsy" and "Tolkeinish," Toubab Dialow is truly a one-of-a-kind place, with unique architecture, cozy hammocks, and an endless supply of nooks and crannies. I really wouldn’t have been that surprised had a hobbit wandered through one of the dwarf-sized circular doors on the premises. I did have to spend much of my time using tweezers and scissors to slice into my fingers and feet and dig around for urchin spines, and then, as if I actually were trying to hurt myself, I also managed to electrocute myself while plugging in my laptop. Stretched out on the floor and trying to reach a plug under my bed, I somehow stuck my finger into the socket…Arie walked in just after my full-body convulsions had ended and wanted to know why I was lying on the floor with a stunned look on my face… I also developed what was later diagnosed as bronchitis, but, other than these things, I really enjoyed Toubab Dialow and the downtime I had there. The trip home was long and, by that time, everyone was a little tired of being crammed into busses and planes with our luggage – even Chun Yi, one of the nicest people in the world, got up and violently slammed the door of our bus in the faces of some cute little children asking for money and gifts. [Haha, I was told I must include that little anecdote in my blog]. When I stepped off the plane in Washington, though, I didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of relief; in fact, what I really wanted was to continue traveling. Despite the obvious challenges of adapting to Senegalese culture, I considered Dakar my home – at least temporarily – and never felt as though I were just trying to "survive" the experience – instead, I was constantly embracing it.

Of course, the ways in which Senegal changed and influenced me are far too numerous to discuss fully in this blog – and many of them, I’m sure, I have yet to realize – but there are three major things that stand out in my mind. The thing which I find most rewarding – though not necessarily surprising – concerns issues of race. This is a touchy subject, I know – even discussions of race in the classroom produced a good bit of tension – but it’s undeniably an aspect of the trip which can’t be ignored. In striving to treat all people equally, one issue I’ve always dealt with is whether or not, when I meet an African-American, for instance, skin color should come to mind at all. When I meet a Caucasian person for the first time, "He has white skin" obviously never enters the picture, so I debate whether the same should hold for meeting an African-American or whether failing to acknowledge that person’s different skin color is in some way failing to acknowledge an important part of who he is. Though I never really found an answer to this question in the classroom or while pondering it in my spare time, I believe I resolved the issue simply in the course of living. By the end of the trip I had become so accustomed to being around black people that issues of race seemed ridiculously irrelevant; at the same time, however, I felt as though I were somehow subconsciously granting to the people around me an acknowledgement that I recognized their differences and, moreover, respected them. I don’t think I can fully understand, at this point, the implications of what I learned by living for six weeks as a very recognizable minority, but I am led to believe that I grew in an exceedingly positive way, and I am bolstered in my belief that some of the world’s greatest problems could be solved if people were just a little more willing to break routines, stray from the comfort of home, and open their eyes to the reality of the diverse world in which we live. The next two ways in which Senegal influenced me have, I think, positive and negative elements, but ultimately both are important and both contribute to my worldview. First, I leave Senegal much less of a trusting person. I was really impacted by the way in which I was treated by some of Senegal’s con-men/entrepreneurs/whatever you wish to call them. I was especially influenced, for example, by the man who approached me at the beginning of the trip, put on an elaborate show of friendship, forced me to accept a "hand-crafted" gift (promising that he expected nothing in return), and then – ten minutes later – suddenly changed has act and asked for/begged for/demanded money or a gift. I don’t have a problem with cab drivers overcharging foreigners who don’t know what the price of a trip should be or shop owners trying to make a profit on their goods, but I do have a serious problem with locals taking advantage of foreigners’ willingness and desire to learn about and integrate themselves into the local culture. My first experience was not an isolated one, and eventually I simply grew accustomed to being propositioned with obvious ploys; unfortunately, what this did was to force me to take a relatively cold attitude towards strangers. By the end of the trip, anytime a stranger approached me I instinctively went on the defensive; only over time could anyone earn my trust. One of the other big impacts this trip had on me was convincing me to reconsider the idea of being judgmental of other cultures. Of course, as a philosopher, morality – particularly in terms of relativism and absolutism – is something I consider often, but I have in the past shied away from judging other cultures. I still take a very cautious attitude in considering the values of other cultures, but I can’t deny that I saw some things in Senegal which I really felt to be wrong. The treatment of women, in particular, bothered me throughout the trip (and I’m not typically one to focus on feminist ideals), as did the treatment of maids and servants and the exploitation of the talibés. I fully understand the historical significance of hierarchy and paternalism within West African culture, but I’m just no longer convinced that "Because it’s always been a part of our culture" is justification for morally questionable traditions. The issue of moral relativism is undoubtedly something which I will spend a lot of time considering as I continue to travel, and I’m glad I had a chance to experience the realities of West African culture. So often travel is associated solely with taking pictures, rest and relaxation, maybe seeing some wildlife or scenery…but, to me, it’s much more. In fact, I believe it’s the most effective way to reexamine one’s own values and those of his culture; without learning about the rest of the world, we can never really hope to understand our home, and, without learning about other peoples, we can never really hope to understand ourselves. This is probably the most fundamental reason why I like to travel.

Though some of the realities of Senegal bothered me, the collage of images, sounds, and experiences I walk away with is without a doubt overwhelmingly uplifting. As I write, the Senegalese music streaming from my computer beckons me, inviting me back to an unforgettable place where women in colorful boubous dance to furious drumbeats, old men meet beneath gigantic baobab trees to converse, and waves pound a rocky coast beneath mosques so unworldly they seem to have originated in a dream. Families gather around bowls of rice and fish and devour it with their hands in the midst of lively conversation until Arabic resonates through the streets and they retire with their personal thoughts and fears to their prayer mats. My collage of memories envelops all five of my senses: I can taste fresh fish and ripe mango, smell the incense burned after dinner. I can hear the laughter of children playing football in the street and the sound of waves breaking over reefs; I can feel the sand in my sheets – that desert sand that permeates everything and reminds me constantly of where I am. The equatorial sun is so hot it burns in minutes, but the ocean remains always cool. Nothing seems predictable, yet everything seems grounded in tradition. Each day brings new surprises and annoyances, but each evening I find myself shaking the hands of my family as I do every time I see them, and I find comfort in the rhythm. Noise and commotion define life in this city, but inside my home I am surrounded by the warmth and kindness of people who genuinely care about me. Yes, that’s what stands out most. When I set aside all the memories of surfing, of beggars, of noise, of poverty…I’m left simply with that impish grin of little Gnagna and all it represents. The sincerity, the compassion, the strength, and, most of all, the beauty – of the Senegalese people. I will never forget it.

Yesterday, Senegal; Tomorrow, Tahiti. The journey continues. I hope you’ll stick around. Au revoir.


Post a Comment

<< Home