This post begins from a shaded porch in Kankan, with an improvised soccer game unfolding at my feet. It’s not really a game, in fact, but more of just a ball being punted around by kids yelling in Malinke (the local language). A few minutes before, as I initially tried to start writing, I was interrupted, since this improvised soccer game among Guinean 8-year-olds morphed into a sort of brawl, which ended with the sole girl body-slamming one of the boys to the floor. It was actually very impressive, but come on–isn’t there already enough violence in Africa?
The shaded porch on which I currently write is attached to the house in which I currently live (and will live for the next 2 months), home to a father, Mory, a mother, Awa, Awa’s younger sister, also Awa, their younger brother, “Lo,” Mory’s younger sister, Fadima, and his son, Adama. The house is part of a nicer neighborhood, just at the edge of town and on the road to Kouroussa, of which I have grown rather fond: it’s quiet ’round here.
The streets of Kankan are relatively open, a good thing yes, but unfortunately, they play vein to a Big-Mac-diet coagulation of everywhere-you-look motorbikes, and the indiscriminately purposeless hooonk of the horns that always follows close behind. I have a bike, here in Kankan, and on the road home, I bob weave yell and pedal until I reach our street, cut hard and right into the turn, lean left around the red brick wall (the one that shields the garden), and suddenly, almost like the power went out, it all goes away.
What’s left is a dirt path, maybe 3 meters wide, red dirt with a bit of egg-noggy sand, and the cement skeleton of a half-built mosque that looms overhead. Don’t overcomplicate it–the picture is simple: off the highway, I find myself on a dirt path, with a half-built mosque before me, pedaling slightly uphill and breathing deeply. The reason I describe this part–the reason it’s special–is because while moments before with so many horns blaring in my face and muting the sound of even my own thoughts, I’m now alone on a dirt path quiet enough such that–picture it–I can hear the sound of my tires grinding the crusty red ground. That’s the kind of quiet I have in this neighborhood, and that’s why I like it so far.
On December 30th, I woke up to my first full day in Dakar, Senegal, and that’s where our story restarts.
On that first morning–breakfast was good. We brought a mat up to Naomi’s roof–awkward (in a physical sense) for me because of my dire inflexibility–and indulged in a simple yet elegant and “woohoo she’s French” breakfast of fresh baguettes, butter, Nutella (!), coffee, and marmalade made from a spiky-green West African fruit. I learned 3 important things during this breakfast: Burundians speak French (a really nice French–a parallel of Bogotano Spanish, even), mango trees look vaguely like massive marijuana plants, and, lastly, Nutella is never to be underrated, nor is it to be overlooked. It had been a while, and man, that stuff is a treat.
That afternoon, Naomi, Dedith and I took the bus–the Dakar Dim Dikk–deep into town, and eventually arrived at one of Dakar’s two sea-pointing capes. We proceeded to walk down from the cape, along the coast and past the baobabs, even stopping to take the odd picture in the odd military bunker, or point to the spot and tell the tale of one of Africa’s most infamous slave ports, Île de Gorée, in the distance. The water was turquoise green. We met a man on the way, a friend of Dedith’s I believe, who asked me lots about how to best and most cost-effectively visit his sister in Los Angeles. I like these games, and I guessed: take buses to Madrid, and then fly round trip to LA, if you have all that time. What do you think?
Once off the shore, we again found road, and found ourselves, on this road, on the road that all the embassies call home. The Egyptian embassy, the Italian embassy, the Brazilian embassy, the Yemeni embassy (I’m really just making these up)–all the foreign embassies that are in Dakar were, more or less, on that road. What makes all of this interesting is, when walking on this road, you’d forget completely that you’re in Senegal! At a rate of probably 5 cars per minute, you’re zoomed past by Land Rovers, Jaguars, Porsches and Suzukis all driven by expats, often whole families, with several bumbling children staring at their iPhones and an inevitably paranoid mother, living luxury seaside lives in a sprawling African capital.
Furthermore, just below this embassy row and once again on the shoreline, one can find (as Naomi pointed out) the largest concentration of “squatters,” or people who have built homes out of makeshift “stuff” and live there until they are removed. An interesting contrast, I think. I wonder what the embassy kids are like?
Lastly, after seeing some of downtown Dakar and a few scoops of ice cream, we went to check out the American embassy (the only one that gets to block off the whole street for itself, I think), as it was pretty close by. I approached the gate, waved to the Senegalese gaurds, and was quickly told that I couldn’t stand too close to the building. Isn’t that my embassy?
The following day was December 31st: New Years Eve, motherf*cker. Some people, like me, choose to introduce the holiday with sarcastic profanity, while others just flat out call it the most overrated holiday on the Gregarian calendar. However, this was not Jeff Lipman’s frat house, nor the $60 open bar at that place in Philly (a great deal, which included transport into the city from our suburb, but the kicker was that while you could in fact drink all you wanted, you couldn’t actually reach the bar in the first place, as it was permanently and hermetically membraned by a crowd of about 100, being serviced by 3 idiotic bartenders who wanted nothing more than to get piss-drunk themselves).
But sorry, I digress. This wasn’t your average New Years Eve–this was NYE in Dakar (motherf*cker)! And the boys and I–Kevin, Andrew, Ejikeme from Nigeria and Hassan from Sierra Leone–we wanted to do some drinking. So, we went to the center, the main plaza, Place d’Independence I believe, and grooved around and chatted folk and scoped the night ahead.
There were fireworks. So many fireworks. Usually when there’s fireworks it’s just a few people lighting them, the people who are supposed to be lighting them as well as the riffraff of adolescence trying too hard to be heroic, but here, in Dakar, it was everyone: the 2-year-olds, the men in suits, the ladies making baguettes stuffed with meat and peas and potatoes–everyone was endlessly, recklessly, and rather dangerously just firing off fireworks in every which direction, whether in the air, at their feet, or into the face of a fellow night-goer. It was utter lawlessness.
After about an hour, and realizing there probably wouldn’t be any live music as promised, we left in search of alcohol. It wasn’t that interesting–probably not even worthy of even a short paragraph. I will say though, before moving forward, that I got the best of the situation: I grabbed two big beers from the shop, drank half of one, and then the owner grabbed both bottles from me and put them behind the counter, because apparently you can’t drink on the street (grow up Superman–this isn’t State College), so he gave me my money back, and thus a free half-beer, which I took with glee and un peu d’énergie, and hopped in the car with these two Moroccan businessmen I had just met who were parked in their Mercedes on the street, and proceeded to enjoy a Dixie cup full of Red Label with them (whiskey is my favorite), and then got out of the car shortly after, to the boys who were again bound for town, with arms full of whiskey, beer, and rum, which I had the high privilege of sharing as well. I strongly maintain that I got the best of the situation.
Next, we headed back to the park–back to the lawlessness. We found a bench, and we drank and watched the world. Not too close to the police though, who were lined up in lazy formation alongside the park, since apparently, public drinking is illegal in Dakar. But seriously–settle down: there’s just gotta be bigger problems to handle. Like people shooting fireworks in each other’s face. Utter lawlessness. Ask Kevin and Andrew.
After a while, I tore away from the group, and found a bench for myself. The day, as all New Year Eves are, was December 31st: just shy of one year of travel. I needed to reflect.
I started from the beginning–where I was a year before–thinking back to how just 365 days ago, I was sloppily crooning through some pizza at this late-night Italian place in downtown Philly, talking about girls and life with one of my best friends, Scott Gershenbaum, and letting my mind wander through the next few days–a bon voyage party with all of my friends and family, and a second-level seat at the Winter Classic at Citizen’s Bank Park, Flyers vs. Rangers, shared with my brother, Jordan–all the way up until me getting on that first plane, 3:30pm on January 3rd, 2012, and kicking off the trip of a lifetime.
Next, I went through it all. Every country, every person, that time I was at the end of the world, the time I stood looking up at the northern lights (that absurd, wacked-up ballet in the sky), the time Petra and I got pizza–the best deal in Helsinki, and even the time where I came out from the bathroom in La Paz and Kelly Inge Alex Carina Julien and the rest of our crew that night were flashed out in neoprene Spider-Man costumes lining up shot ski’s and waiting for me to join right in.
I won’t delve too much deeper. For now, I’ll say, the epic of my trip began to really hit me, that wacky night, sitting in a park on a bench in a country which I had no singular thought nor morsel of a material plan to visit before I left home. I sat there smiling, there, by myself, with all the fireworks ripping aloud and my friends a few dozen meters away, just taking in the moment, really as best I could, the energy of the people and the beauty of the world.
When the clock hit midnight, the mob moved to the shore. We didn’t know why, but we certainly followed. Intentionally or not, the mob grazed past the entrance to a party, Macky Sall’s party, the President of Senegal, in the nicest hotel in Dakar, just there on the shore.
Like I said in the last post, being white in Black Africa can have its advantages. You get a lot of attention, and the overriding assumption, which I say with only partial cynicism, is that everyone thinks you are made of money and are endlessly interesting.
We marched straight into the party–no one tried to stop us. We got a good laugh too: “Let’s be clear–the only reason we are in this party, where everyone is wearing a tuxedo and we are in sandals, is being we’re white. Crazy, eh?”
While the party was dying down and the President was nowhere to be found, the free champagne, cake and shrimp were in no short supply. We dined, drank, and befriended an English couple who had wandered into the party under the same pretense. Ah, champagne on New Years–just like old times. We drank and ate until it all ran out.
The next day, after a morning at this very overdone, Greek God-type statue donated by the North Koreans, Andrew, Kevin and I headed to Île de Gorée–one of Africa’s most infamous slave ports.
The island is lovely, to be honest. Cafés and restaurants painted with pale tones of bright colors. Lots of trees, lots of bright flowers, and a bit of music hiding around most corners. Lots of people selling art, and of course, lots of tourists. The only tangible remnant of Île de Gorée’s grim history is a museum which tells the story.
The museum itself is built upon a few of the rooms in which they used to keep the slaves before shipping them off. Honestly, the museum doesn’t do a great job: there’s nothing to show the conditions, the number of people, or anything. You’re just left to your imagination.
I found a perch at the back of the museum, just outside some of the doors that would have locked slaves inside, which faced out to the open ocean. Oh how different my life is to those of the others, who also stared out at this water not so many years ago?
That evening, Naomi, Dedith, Kevin, Andrew and myself went to Dakar’s other sea-pointing cape, Ngor Beach, and enjoyed some beer (the name of the beer is escaping me, but it had like a picture of an elk on it, or something) and seafood before I began the slow crawl to Kankan the following morning. A breezy night with friends, as a Guinean band played just a few meters back, at the western-most point in Africa. Ah, what a life.
I finish this post from the couch, just before the party. It’s a birthday party: Adama turns 1 today! In the last 3 days, we’ve had a death in the family (an aunt died, and man, death is “treated” very differently around here–more in a later post), a wedding (which I attended, definitely more in a later post), and now, a 1st birthday: they say that life in Africa moves slowly, but it all seems pretty quick to me.
From paradise, depending on your viewpoint,
Will–You are helping me relive our wonderful time in Senegal, which paradoxically in my mind was our best trip ever even though it was the hardest in all respects. We were there in August! Enough said.
The “African Renaissance” statue was one of many things that gave us pause. It was commissioned by Abdoulaye Wade the past president (very old guy who stayed on too long). Wade was/is married to a younger French woman and many thought this to be a disloyal act on his part. Furthermore, as you observed, Wade allowed the muscular body of the man and the curvaceous body of the woman to be scantily clad and on full display in the enormous statue. This apparently angered about half of the Muslim citizenry, but was a source of pride to the other half. And his allowing the North Koreans to design and build the statue was another mystery. Why oh why? We continued learning from puzzling situations all over the country! I loved it.
Be careful though. With all this action in Mali, some may be looking for westerners to kidnap!!