30 January 2014

la mosquée et la mer


i finally have internet after a week almost entirely without connection to the outside world - a challenging but probably fortuitous exercise. now that i've paid the equivalent of a small fortune and/or a hefty dowry (especially in senegalese terms) for a nifty little internet stick that gives me personal internet - at snail speeds, but internet nonetheless - it's time to attempt a blog post that even comes close to summing up my roller-coaster first few days here. photos will have to wait; i haven't even gotten my camera out here yet.

my flight left the evening of last tuesday, jan. 21, so i arrived in dakar very early on wednesday morning. the snow storm had significantly delayed my friend tamar's flight out of new york, so i'd be arriving alone, traveling the four hours to saint-louis, meeting the family, settling in, figuring out the house situation alone.

at the airport in dakar, getting a visa - for which i'd pre-registered and prepaid online - took forever as the myriad airport employees took their time ushering me into a booth, waiting for the computers to turn on, chatting, etc., etc. clearly no one was in a hurry. it was a first taste of that laid-back senegalese attitude that makes time-efficiency impossible but every task pleasant, relished at its own speed rather than wished away as one more box to tick on a long list of things to do.

i walked hesitantly out of the airport and was immediately recognized by the projects rep, cheikh, who'd come to meet me - believe it or not, there aren't too many lost-looking teenage american girls in this tiny airport at 7 am. he was super friendly and, after i did the mandated i.d. check for his identity, we were fast friends as we talked and waited an hour for the private car to arrive (dakar traffic wasn't in a hurry, either).

we stopped at a bakery so i could eat something before my land journey, and then, with a palmier and an espresso in my stomach, i was sent off on the road to saint-louis, just me and the driver hassan, since cheikh had to stay behind for tamar. hassan didn't speak english - he spent the whole ride talking on the phone to innumerable friends and relatives in wolof - and my eight-grade french 2 is turning out not to serve me too well, so it was mostly a ride for sitting and watching.

the car passed unchanging dry landscape on the long gray road, flat expanses of sand alternating between scattered trees and more developed areas, half-unfinished yet half-decrepit square brick buildings punctured by groups of more traditional thatched-roof structures. some stretches had markets where women sold handwoven baskets and children weaved through stalls, other times when we stopped we'd be surrounded by villagers in beautiful colorful dress, each trying to sell an identical bag of oranges. there were donkeys, goats, and accordion-ribbed horses everywhere by the side of the road: some pulling carts or grazing in groups but others seemingly roaming free across the monotony. there were also dozens of simple white mosques, one or two minarets soaring over the sparse landscape.

the sun illuminated the colors, the muted tones of the dirt, buildings, and trees against the vibrancy of the patterned scarves and robes. old lorries trundled by, people and goods stuffed indiscriminately into the bursting-full interior, battered suitcases clinging to the top with white twine, men hanging off the sides with one hand while checking their cell phones with the other like it's no big deal. and then there's the trash. the whole length of the drive, i noticed piles of litter everywhere and people casually tossing garbage out car windows or on the road behind them - a practice that i hope can change soon to preserve the beauty and health of the environment here.

despite the visual cacophony, i spent a lot of the drive in my head, practicing important french phrases and just psyching myself up for the experience that lay ahead. i love this. this is right. i don't want to be anywhere but right here, right now. it was true. it still is.

and this was all before i'd even reached saint-louis.

i knew we'd reached it when i saw the water. a glittering blue river, lined by myriad fishermen's boats banked in beds of sand that will be covered with water when the rainy season comes around. the driver took a right at the large mosque, before we hit the bridge to the main city on the island. it was my first introduction to the neighborhood, and i met another projects rep, habib, and then my host family and my house.

the first day was overwhelming, especially by myself. the french here was surprisingly hard to understand, and i could (can still) only really speak in the present tense. i was lucky that my hosts' other volunteer guest was staying one more night, so he showed me the ropes: the family always eats separately from the volunteers, so it's not a personal affront; mosquito nets are provided; toilet paper isn't (the first thing i bought, as soon as i could); a fitted sheet passes for a blanket despite the nighttime chill.

our house is in a nice neighborhood and the mosque is loud, twin minarets broadcasting prayer calls not five times a day, as in other muslim countries, but almost constantly, from 4:30 am until long after the sun has set in the late evening. my first night, i ventured out briefly to a projects social and goodbye for my housemate. we walked, so that i could see my new surroundings up close. the city is dusty but the air is clear and the sea provides a picturesque backdrop to the quiet walk down the main road, over the bridge to l'île, up one block and to the right to the hotel that i now see is our haven for comfy chairs, fresh mango juice, and functional wifi.

i enjoyed meeting the other volunteers at that first social. it's a much smaller group than argentina and a very different dynamic. but they were friendly and generous with offers to show me around: the local gym, the gas station that sells snacks, the favorite fast food restaurants and preferred markets. it's always funny to learn how these people from disparate parts of europe, north america, and canada ended up here, together, discussing local volunteer work in a tiny port city in senegal.

tamar arrived on thursday afternoon which was so exciting - i hadn't seen her since november!! it definitely helps to have a friend here to deal with all the changes and challenges. i love having her as a roommate/work partner. anyway:

there's no internet at the house. there's a pen of hundreds of chickens on the rooftop terrace, so at least i know the eggs are fresh, but so was the chicken blood dripping down two flights of stairs yesterday morning. the two sheep-that-look-like-goats in the tiny, filthy courtyard are here to stay, and so is the smell, and the flies. also one is pregnant. lovely. oh, and did i mention the showers? a bucket of cold water with an old margarine tub to scoop. believe it or not, you can get used to anything, and by now i even feel semi-clean after bathing with the bucket.

the family is hard to communicate with but really sweet, speaking french really slowly for me to understand and sharing basic wolof as well - they asked me no too doo? (what is your name?) every time they saw me for days until finally the response became automatic: mariama la too doo, i always say, using my senegalese name.

to add to the complications of adaptation, i got extremely sick my first weekend, thanks to some combination of traveling/unfamiliar germs/unhygienic (by our standards) or new foods. and i haven't had an appetite since i've been here, so for a while it was unintentional starvation until i finally started buying cookies at the "western" grocery store and bananas at the corner shop and forcing myself to eat them. one cannot survive on plain rice and water alone...

the transition to senegal was rough and the "culture shock" mostly had to do with my own living conditions and cleanliness standards. but i'm already getting much more comfortable here, though - and that's material for the next post.

légui légui - see you later.

x, m

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