Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Catching up

Since I started the posts on Mauritanian a lot has gone on in Senegal that I have yet to write. Last Wednesday I finished my program here, capping it with my first 10 page research paper in French. The end of the semester here is one of the most intense moments of our program with the stress of finals and the added pressure of wanting to spend as much time with the American friends who are leaving and getting in final dinners with our host families. And then just contemplating what it's going to be like to go home after an experience like this and figuring out what Senegal means. Saying goodbye is difficult under any circumstance, but especially, for me, saying goodbye to a place that is so integrated into my life that I have a hard time imagining it not there. The day that I wake up without a Senegal to step out into is going to be a very difficult one even as it's combined with seeing my brothers and my mom and my dad and my good friends who've waited patiently for me to come home. This is why I've been so hesitant to leave. So I'm staying on for another few weeks. I don't know what I intend to accomplish except to try to prepare myself to leave and to get in a few more moments with this place and the people who've become apart of it for me.

One day last month having lunch Chez Astou in the Medina.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Coming home

Trying to get the taxi started, but at least we're in Senegal again.

I want to say this about our voyage: I've never decided to set out like that, to discover a country on my own, to go without a plan. All of my previous trips have been with a purpose, never to just go on a whim, with no itinerary in mind. We were equipped with a few changes of clothes and an outdated West Africa Lonely Planet. En plus, we were two girls from Senegal making the trek alone, making it after a sejour of seven months in Senegal lending to our ability to dig deeper than just the topsoil of the place and really try to see it out -- within the rights of our limitations in how far you can really know in 10 days. We could shed certain cliches like traveling in a taxi brousse or the feeling of "being in Africa" or of buying a cheesy African souvenirs to take home. Further, we found ourselves embraced constantly by a Senegalese world, one in which we never would have discovered had we set foot in Mauritania cold without a Senegal under our belt. We found Wolof and names we knew to pronounce and family friends who aided and directed and talked to us along the way -- it was a a home away from home transporting us from familiar to new and back again.

And Tsilat was a love. The way we learned to mold ourselves to each other. You don't have tissue but I do. Where's my chapstick, here use mine. Sitting half on each other laps four deep in a backseat made for three of a small Mercedes and scheming when to best collectively shift so the dozing butt cheek could tingle to life again. The long talks in the desert staring out at the full moon lit dunes or entertaining ourselves with stories of our childhood, our adulthood, and where we go from here sitting in a car full of strangers who don't speak English and the strange feeling you get when just release something so private and hope that your assumption that no one speaks English is true.

And we came home. Back to Dakar. What a feeling to know the road, the buildings, the layout, the food, to remember what we love, what we hate, and to finally finally fall into the uncomfortable lumpy beds at our host family's house and know that it's ours, it's the familiar, and that we made it. Somehow, my god, Senegal we're back.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Sleeping with ants

I don't know how long we drove. I fell asleep with Tsilat untying my braids. When I woke up, she told me how the driver kept swerving to make sure people we're awake and would hit things near a sleeping person and was arguing loudly with the women in the backseat. I must have escaped his attention.

We stopped sometime with the driver pulling fastly onto the side of the road and he killed the car in front of a small square cement building and everyone tumbled out. Tsilat and I didn't really know what was happening and we asked a man getting out who said "The driver is tired and he wants to sleep."

At this point we were more angry than scared, but still powerless in our situation. We were on the side of a long road with only white sand desert on either side. I didn't have service on my phone and I didn't feel like I had the backing of the other passengers to organize a coup on the driver and demand he continue driving.

Since we were slow at getting out of the car, once we walked into the small, one story cement building where we were staying the night, everyone had already grabbed a foam mat on the floor. We were thrown a dirty pillow and pointed to the floor. Tsilat has her "netela" or scarf that she takes everywhere when she travels. Before she leaves she douches it in perfume so it always hints at the smell of home and familiarity. It was our one source of comfort this night as the cheap walls of this damned structure didn't keep out the coldness of the night. As the ants made their way up my pant legs and the back of my shirt and Tsilat and I huddled on the floor together trying to figure out how in the world we're going to be able to sleep.

The driver's alarm went off once and I thought for sure we must be going now. But he shut it off and still we didn't budge. By dawn, the men woke and went outside to pray, then came in and began making tea. The only thing I could think is, "No not now. Not tea." And, "how many rounds are they going to do?" as I watched the gas burner which was slowly running out of fuel and had only the tinest of flame attempt to boil a pot of water. They offered it to us and Tsilat and I both shook our head in one same movement not even wanting to associate this experience with the good memories of Mauritanian tea.

Finally, they took only two rounds and the door swung open to reveal sun and the flat whiteness of the land surrounding us. We squeezed again into the car our fumes stifling, our anger hurting us, and that's when we got a flat tire. Again, out of the car, sitting on a pile of sand calculating what we'll say to the taximan once we finally reach Nouakchott. Tsilat in her fierceness
asking me how do you say "liar" in french?" and wishing to hurle at the driver, "tu connais 'fuck you!'?"

And when we arrived in Nouakchott less than two hours later it didn't make any sense why we'd passed the night on the road if we were this close. Before the car even stopped, we were out, clutching for a bags, and leaving, walking away, getting out, finding our own way, jumping in a green Mercedes taxi. Chez Molly. We were going home. We were safe.

Molly heard our taxi when it pulled up. She came down her long stairs and we fell into her relieved and full of our scary tale. We made coffee from the US, ate frosted flakes she'd some how managed to acquire in Mauritania, and we relived, we let it go, lucky to be unharmed.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Driving in cars with boys

Our trip to get there, to arrive safely back in Molly's living room, was something of a bad dream. I'm hesistant to explain it here. It's the part in the story where I write to my mom telling her not to read anymore, but I'll go on with it.

It was mid-morning and we'd arrived back at our auberge in Chinguitti just in time to take the taxi back to Atar there we would get a taxi to Nouakchott where our friends were waiting for us. The owner of our auberge, Cheikh, offered us the services of his taxi driver friend who was going a little bit later in the day to Atar. It made sense since all the taxis leaving out of Atar wouldn't leave until after lunch anyway and this way we could rest comfortably here until then.

I took my time showering off the desert watching the sand cascade out of my hair and twirl in the drain. The cold water almost burned my skin it'd solar stored so much sun. We ate a lunch of cooked rice and carrots, overdid ourselves on the usual three rounds of tea by drinking nearly eight or nine petits tasses, then just laid with the breeze letting the hot of the afternoon come and go. When it became time, I asked Cheikh about our taxi. He said his friend was coming. But then when later came and friend didn't come, we headed into town to find some kind of car to Atar. We asked about and finally found a man driving a station wagon who said he was going all the way to Nouakschott. He already had two passengers and was intending to pick up more in Atar. The car jangled and moved rather precariously on its axle, but we had it in our head that we'd be in Nouakchott by night and we were soft-skinned and wide-eyed our desert trip, as if anything could go wrong.

I even hate to relive this, but here goes. We piled into the taxi getting rejolted out of our post-desert slumber to a dusty gravelly road coming at us fast and quick and loose. Dust filtered through every crevice and covered everywhere in the car. I wrapped a scarf around my head till only my eyes showed. The driver swerved down the roads only just controlling the car but I practiced my new state of zen and tried reading. I grew up driving a station wagon on gravel roads in South Dakota if ever there is one truth it's that it's not an easy task to drive fast and stay on the road. But I begged innocence and figured we'd be okay.

And we were. At least for that leg. We arrived in Atar. Tsilat and I waited at the station while the driver went to get the car washed of dust. We had toilettes and tea and some small fried doughnuts. Three little boys tried to talk to us and when they asked our name the one boy staring intently at me screamed out "Michelle!" and I realized he'd read the necklace from Egypt with my name written in Arabic.

Our driver came back with one more passenger and we finally thought we were on our way. We counted down the hours figuring we'd be in
Nouakchott by midnight. The sun was just setting as we left and a flash of a premonition from Gray about never traveling at night in Africa and here it was nearly night, here it was Africa, and here it was me in a taxicar and somehow I still thought it would be okay sending off my last message before we went out of range to Caleb and Molly waiting for us in Nouakschott, "We'll be there by midnight."

This whole time Tsilat and I had been slowly enleve-ing taking out my braids. I felt like I had half the sand of the Sahara stored in my tresses, my braids, and I was ready to be done with them. We stopped once just as the sun sashayed to a close for the men to pray. When they got back in they started to batter us with their questions about our marital status, what we were doing here, about how pretty we are, about how we should find husbands. At first it was just annoying and then persistent and then demanding and rude and scary. A shift in the car, a wall put up, a serious gap of seperation and not a pretty one and not one we had control over who could cross.

We stopped in some small town and picked up a large women dressed raggedly carrying a large bag. She bantered with the men and helped pull out my braids and the atmosphere changed slightly though I didn't feel I could trust her much. Then the driver said he was going to drop her at her village some ways off the road. It didn't seem like we had a choice to say no, but none of our other taxis had been like this. I wasn't sure what we w'ere getting into. All our other taxis had driven straight to the destination and now we were in one that didn't and with unpleasant, potentially threatening men. The circumstances we're entirely out of our hands with very few cities in between Atar and

As we were driving off-road to take the woman home the driver sensing our discomfort and our fear said he was going to stop for the night at her house eat couscous and drink tea. Obviously not something we wanted to do considering the circumstances and how much we just wanted to get to Molly and Caleb waiting for us. We continued never straight always forward.

We arrived in Akjoujt about midnight, the only semi-large town between Atar and
Nouakchott and everyone got out of the car except us. Pretty soon men started coming up to our window leering in "Hi How are you?" and asking "Are you from America?" It was the first and only time we encountered so many English speakers and in this case it wasn't a relief. In the midst of trying to fend off jeering men, the taximan came back and told us to get out he was going to go run an errand. We looked worriedly at each other and talked frantically asking to stay with the car. The last thing we wanted was to get out, out there. The driver refused and started yelling at us to get out, but we sat there preferring the car to being prey on the side of the road. The driver was angry, slammed the door. He got in and flipped the car around and took a side street into the interior of town. He was driving fast and angry and then stopped abruptly in front of a dark house. He jumped out and went in, and we still weren't sure how safe this was -- a dark road, two girls in a car. We clung to each other in the silence and then started talking options.

The driver came back and did his crazy drive-thru back to the station. We called Caleb to get his advice and it was nice to hear a calm, reassuring voice on the other end. He said to find a way out of our situation, we hung up with a promise to call later when wWe got out and walked up to what looked like a restaurant with a woman sitting in front. We asked her where we were, how far it was to
Nouakchott, if there was someplace we could stay. We got the answers: Akjoujt. 230 km from NKT. Rooms could be rented here.

Just as we got back to the car to get our bags, the driver was adding more seats "C'est pour des enfants." It's for some children he said in French and we saw the women and the children who'd be joining our car. We were relieved to see more innocents and so we wouldn't be the only women. They all nodded their heads to Nouakschott? so we decided to take our chances and continue on. Another message to Caleb and Molly before heading into the night "We're still on our way."

I'll continue the rest tomorrow.

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