Getting there: a long ride through Senegal

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
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Trip End Dec 16, 2007


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Friday, August 31, 2007

The trip from Maryland to the Gambia was a long one, to say the least. I can't complain about the food and service on international flights, but the dakar airport is another story (4 of our bags didn't make it, one of our group almost couldn't enter the country, and in the mob of people outside someone else had $20 taken from them). Needless to say, we were happy for the rest we got Monday night staying at Hotel l'Ocean in Dakar. This beautiful hotel provided some nice moments, including sipping coffee (my last real one...) and fresh-squeezed orange juice on the clay and tile balcony in the morning, watching the waves slide over the West African continental shelf and crash and crash against the rocky shore, excitedly discussing the months to come.

but by 7:30 am the next morning-or whatever time our brains thought it was after all the time zone changes-it was back to travelling: an 8 hour bus ride through senegal then a ferry trip to Banjul, finally arriving at Happy camp in Kanifing Estates around 6:30 pm. This is my journal entry from the bus ride:

We've seen so many new things on the bus ride, my eyes hardly know what to do with themselves...and my brain is even more confused. As the colorful "Gambian Tours" bus pulled away from Hotel l'Ocean, I was amazed, clutching my camera and constantly snapping photos of anything I could see from my window. And based on American standards, everything WAS amazing and picture-worthy. But looking back on the pictures later on in the ride, many of the pictures seemed boring and mundane. I guess it's all a matter of adjusting... and never having been out of the country before, I didn't anticipate this.

Dakar is a dusty, crowded, colorful city covered in dirt, both of dilapidation and of development. Construction weaves in and out of crumbling buildings with almost no sense of order. This sense of confusion was heightened by the fact that we wandered lost for about an hour through these streets as soon as we left the hotel. The city is spotted with familiar cars, signs, and products - Nestle seems to have a strange hold on this region especially - but everything is different. A horse cart is parked in front of a Coca Cola billboard, a boy selling slabs of raw meat from a shack by the road is wearing an Eminem shirt. There are many things that are sad for a middle class American girl who spends most of her time in the suburbs. Some people, both old and young, are flopped down on the side of the road, as if they had no plans or goals for the day...they show no emotion, movement, or life, really. But for the most part my brain is not forming many intelligent judgments. Everything is too new for me for that part of my brain to be working, it is far to distracted by simply seeing. To take a quote from Chinua Achebe's Man of the People, "I was not making those judgements at the time, or not strongly anyhow. I was simply too fascinated by the almost ritual lifting of the clouds, as I had been one day, watching for the first time the unveiling of the white dome of Kilimanjaro at sunset. I stood breathless.." Many people seem happy anyway. The people we pass by often stare at us wide-eyed tubabs in our "Gambia Tours" bus, peering from the windows of our self-enclosed cage, barreling through Senegal, only extending our touch towards the people on the streets for a random purchase of candy or cigarettes (not for me, mom and dad;)). I feel like I am in a very strange social arrangement, and I'm not quite sure how to act in it.
There are a couple of things I've noticed. Though traffic was hellish in Dakar (lanes do not exist, and at one point we were speeding by going the opposite direction of all the other cars on a road, and I don't even think we were doing anything wrong by Dakar standards), the roads are paved better than I-70 going through Missouri. Even out of the city, in the country this remained true for quite a while.
Also, though men and children peer at our bus from the side of the road, and little kids yell "tubab, tubab," the women show almost no sign of seeing us. They walk by with high chins and straight backs, often with colorful clothes and maybe eggs or a bucket balanced on their head and seem far to dignified to acknowledge such a spectacle as our bus.
The whole group was very happy to make it out of the city. As the surroundings went from dirt to lush greenery we stopped coughing so much and could actually breathe. We were even happier to cross the Senegalese border into The Gambia. Stopped at customs, before passing into The Gambia, little kids as well as people around our age surrounded our bus, sticking their hands in the windows and asking, sometimes demanding, money, pens, gifts...anything. This was my harsh initiation to a question I've been struggling with for the past few days. It is completely logical that they need money, clothes, etc. more than I do, and would appreciate what I give them more than I do. Yet I cannot just give away my money and belongings like that...there must be some sort of plan and organization and moderation. Besides, the way they demanded things hardly inspired compassion. We gave away all the pens we had, but the same people would come back demanding more, threatening to cry, and not moving their hands from the window. I ended up partly angry, partly guilty, partly confused, but mostly just wishing these sorts of interactions didn't exist (that people wouldn't act this way, and that such inequality didn't exist to make them act this way, and that it wasn't so easy to shelter oneself from the reality of that inequality that this could be a completely new situation for me) In the Gambia, people were very friendly, asking us about America and our lives and generally being ridiculously friendly. But then, one or two times, they would eventually ask us for money or a favor, and we would again be burdened with the idea that we might have to question the true motives of any person we meet...In fact, I think of all the experiences I've had here, that has been the most confusing. I'm simply not yet sure how to fit comfortably into this position of a tubab in Africa. Luckily I have plenty of time to work this out, and I'm really excited to do so.
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