Not a whole lot to tell this month, because I spent most of it traveling – to America, in fact, and most of the lovely people reading this blog saw me there. It was a great trip. I saw a lot of people that I hadn’t seen in a while (exactly fourteen months, in fact), and it was great to reconnect. Shockingly enough, my job is occasionally lonely, and with the miserable cell phone networks here communication has been spotty, so I’ve felt a little cut off at times. Seeing my friends and family again, even for such a short time, helped me feel grounded again.
Getting there, however, turned out to be tricky. The cheapest flight I could find to the States left out of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. I’ve been there before, and there weren’t any problems, so I was anticipating smooth sailing. My flight was at one-thirty in the morning, a target I thought even I, with Fate’s big bullseye on my back, could hit comfortably.
Before I even left the Gambia the ferry broke down, and we had to wait for the emergency back-up ferry (and you can imagine what a proud and noble vessel this was) to get started up and take us across. The ferry normally takes an hour to cross the mouth of the Gambia river; this time it took five. This same trip I heard from someone that the French had offered to build a bridge there, but Gambia turned them down. They wanted their independence.
Then no-one wanted to go to Senegal. Then everyone wanted to go to Senegal, and all the cars left without me. Then the border official felt the need to cause trouble. Normally these guys see that I’m Peace Corps and basically wave me through, but this particular GI Joe had a problem with the fact that I’d been issued a two year visa, when the maximum was supposed to be one year. I explained that his government had issued me the visa in an agreement with my government, and that although I’m sure both of them had meant to make sure it was all right with him, it had probably slipped their minds. So that took an extra hour or so. Then at the car park people kept lying to me about where they were going, when they were leaving, and how much it would cost. The lies seemed entirely frivolous, not trying to cheat me so much as to see how gullible the toubab was. What a fool am I, to believe someone when they say they will take me somewhere. So that took another four hours, and I spent a lot of time counting to ten.
Finally I got on my way, crammed into a station wagon that had been converted to hold seven passengers, driving on the comically bad African road. This road had been paved, once upon a time, but since then had turned into one giant pothole, with occasional patches of smooth asphalt. No one ever drove on the paved road if they could help it; instead they drove on the medians, gradually widening them until the whole thing was really just a wide dirt road, with a crazy obstacle course as a median. I did the math, and figured I was going to make it with about an hour to spare. That’s when we were robbed.
It actually took me a while to realize that was what was happening. The military stopped us, which is common, but they didn’t search anyone’s bags or check our passports. They talked to the driver for a few minutes, then he started yelling, then they slapped him (lightly, like a bad dog) and walked away. And then we sat there. And sat there. No one in the car spoke English or Mandinka, and I think they were all embarrassed by what was happening, but eventually I figured out that the police wanted money. No justification, not even a pretense. It was highway robbery.
Fortunately, I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating bribes. I got a pen and paper and strode over to the shoulders. We spent an amusing half-hour bickering in the moonlight, scribbling numbers, gesticulating, throwing pieces of paper around, until I got the price for my car’s release down to a reasonable level. All the passengers were put in, and we were off. To thank me for my assistance the driver sped like a demon the rest of the way to Dakar – all on the partly paved section of road. It was like driving a monster truck rally in a Prius. It was actually a lot of fun. Every few minutes I’d shout out how many minutes were left until my flight, and everyone would groan and scream at the driver to go faster.
And in the end I got to the airport half a damn hour after the plane left. The next flight, of course, left at the same time, the next morning. So. Twenty-four hours in Dakar.
The airport left something to be desired in terms of comfortable seating, or places where I could nap without worrying about being stabbed for my shoes, so at three a.m. I headed off into the city. Outside I could see, thrusting up from the buildings, silhouetted by a faint light, what looked like a giant headless guy trying to kill a baby. This was good. I had a goal now.
A garbage truck stopped outside the airport to pick up some trash, and I just marveled at the novelty until it started to pull away, going in the direction of the behemoth. So I grabbed my bags and hopped on the back. When the truck stopped again and the two guys got out they seemed a little surprised to see me. I gave them a little wave, my best Arabic greetings, and then picked up one of the trash cans and emptied it into the truck. I don’t know if this kind of thing happened to them a lot, or if being a garbage man in Africa just makes you generally unflappable, but without a word they loaded up the rest of the trash and moved on, with me standing on the bumper.
I ended up riding around with those guys for about six hours, helping out at each stop. I never got much closer to the statue, but I did end up seeing almost the entire city. I’m not qualified to comment on the amount of funding going into waste disposal in Dakar, but as far as I could tell, this was the only garbage truck running in town, because we went everywhere. The downtown business district, the artisan village, the beaches, the Presidential Palace, the slums (and nowhere does slums like Africa). We stopped to chat, whole communities greeted us. Well, they greeted the real guys. But I got included.
And these guys were smart. It was Ramadan, the month when you fast from dawn to dusk, which means people put a lot of effort into their breakfasts. And, of course, when someone stops by, you invite them to eat. We had breakfast five times. It was delicious, although usually had no idea what I was eating.
Right before dawn we stopped outside this tiny little nightclub in a dirty part of town. People were still partying, and a number of them had taken it out into the street. When they saw us they started chanting something (I can only assume it was “garbage man” in French). As we collected the trash they swarmed around us, dancing a kind of rhythmic shuffle in time to our lifting and throwing. I got annoyed, but the real garbage men started dancing along – pretty well, actually. They were men cut from a very special cloth. We spent a while grooving with the drunken revelers and tossing trash bags back and forth. One girl decided to climb inside a garbage can and dance, which would have worked a lot better if she hadn’t knocked it over once she was inside. She gave a little yelp as she rolled away, and my colleagues and I decided it was time to move on.
We finished our shift and I bade them a fond farewell. One of them gave me an egg. Raw, as I discovered later when I tried to eat it. I got a fix on the statue, the original object of my quest, and set off. Passage was complicated by the fact that half the streets were closed off for construction. There’s a building craze sweeping the entire city, and everywhere you look there are cranes and scaffolds and half-finished structures. This continually confounded my progress and I felt a little like a tip of a pencil line in a puzzle-book maze, until I remembered my magical toubab powers. I found a busted up old hard hat, put it on, and strode through every construction site that stood in my way. My way was unbarred. Doors opened at my touch. No one bothers a white guy in a hard hat.
When I found what I had first assumed was a headless man murdering a child, it turned out to be a little more disturbing. He was indeed headless, also huge and absurdly muscle-bound. Like a cross between He-man and the Stay-Puf Marshmallow Man. It was a baby in his hand, but this was a far from helpless creature. It gazed boldly out into the ocean, one majestic arm stretched forth to point the way. The way to the future. Its baby face was settled into a stern and shockingly precocious expression of the most intent purpose.
The man wrapped a woman in his other arm. She was my favorite. Her Western-style hair swept back dramatically as she folded into his embrace. Her dress, which wasn’t much more than a sheet (although a giant bronze sheet a hundred feet wide), barely contained her… ampleness. And, worst of all, it rode above her knees. This is a big deal. No West African woman ever shows her knees in public. They’ll walk around with their breasts bare without a blush, but a flash of a knee and they’re shamed for life. I was seeing thigh here. Miles of it. I was surprised to find I was actually offended; it seemed indecent.
Having reached the veritable Holy Grail of my quest and found it wanting, I moved on to the next thing I could see on the skyline: a giant lighthouse. Thrusting the mocking voice of Virginia Woolf firmly to the back of my mind, I set off, threading my way through yet more construction sites and fruit markets. On the way I stopped and feasted on a beef sandwich that tasted exactly – I mean exactly – like the Sloppy Joes my mother used to make. This was turning into a strange day.
The lighthouse was one of those strange old affairs where it wasn’t really a functioning civic structure and it wasn’t really a tourist attraction, so you’re never sure if you’re welcome. It was beautiful, though, and the view from the top was incredible. You can see the entire city, and miles out into the ocean. It was like I was on top of the mast of a big urban ship. I amused myself for a while tracing the route of my shift that the morning.
A friend of mine visited this lighthouse once with a guy she liked. They bought a bottle of wine from a grocery store and (discreetly, this is still a Muslim country) toted it up the windy staircase to the lighthouse. I imagine there was a lot of bumping and giggling, although she didn’t supply details on that point. They crawled onto the very top, through tiny winding staircases, ladders and trapdoors, and snuggled on the rickety little metal ledge. They watched the sun start to set as they leaned back, stammered a little at each other, and tried to open the wine, only to discover they had no opener. So the guy crawled back down, found the old caretaker and his family at dinner, and asked them if he could borrow a knife.
They spoke Wolof and he spoke Mandinka, so he resorted to a series of inane gestures to convey what he needed. Why the white man climbed up to the top of a lighthouse, with a young girl, just before dark, and then suddenly remember he needed a knife, they didn’t know or want to know. They just handed him the biggest butcher knife he had ever seen, offered him some dinner out of politeness, and said goodbye. The guy crawled back upstairs, at several points having to hold the small sword between his teeth while he used both hands to climb. Scared the hell out of the girl when he popped his head up. With a glance at the setting sun, he took his machete and pried at the cork of what was supposed to be the ice-breaker.
I can only imagine the frustrated rage that powered his wrists, because he snapped that knife right in half. They both stared in slightly hazy disbelief as the gleaming point flipped end over end down the side of the lighthouse, rhythmically catching the sunset’s light. With heavy hearts, sword shattered, bottle unopened and boundaries unbroken, they limped their way back down to the ground to tell the family they’d broken their knife.
Take that, Virginia Woolf.
After the lighthouse I walked on the beach for a while. Some older men hanging out in a shallow cave gave me a grilled fish. We had a long conversation (in the few words of different languages we had in common) about how, although they were fisherman, and good fisherman, they had an excellent and rational reason not to be fishing fish at exactly that moment, and indeed at any second they might be taken with the urge to do grab a real and go to town, and if they did, woah, watch out. For my end I relied mostly on the time-honored Peace Corps conversational tactic of saying “Eyoh!” (meaning OK) and nodding my head. I’m sure they thought I was a genius.
What was interesting was a latticework structure frame on the wall behind them, woven out of wood, pieces of rebar, and strips of canvas. It stretched most of the way up the cave wall. Tied to it were hundreds of small carvings and talismans made of bones. The meta-fisherman explained that each of these was a ju-ju (they pointed to the one on my arm to demonstrate) to commemorate someone who’d died. It seemed a lot more complicated than that, something about both staying and leaving.
It’s funny. This was exactly what I’d come to Africa to see. This was the reason I’d flown across half the world, braved hippos and camels and bush taxis, pit latrines and heat rash. To see something like this, something totally new. And here it was, in a cave, and I'd found it by mistake.
The beach called to me, and the waves. I stashed my bags under a rickety roof someone had built into the cliffs near the water, got down to skivvies, and went in. These, however, were not the gentle waves of the Gambian beaches, or the soft current of my river. These things were serious. Every time I forged in they tossed me back on shore, disdainful of my puny self. After seeing my feet above my head for the fifth time I began to wish for a surfboard and a Ninja Turtle. The embarrassing headlines that my death here would cause flashed through my head and sent me back onto dry land.
Where there was a guy sitting on my bags. Lots of emotions made themselves felt as I dripped over to him. Anger, at first, of course, then a twinge of unease as I wondered if he was crazy, then embarrassment, as I realized he had on the outfit of an imam, a Muslim priest. I’d been righteously offended at the Big Bronze Striptease, yet here I was in my underwear dancing around someone’s beach in front of an imam. But when I sat down that little bit of unease came back; his eyes were so red they were almost black, and he was spreading dozens of ju-jus on the ground. He was a witch doctor.
He spoke Mandinka, which helped, and he explained that these were not ordinary ju-jus. Not like the crap I had (no offense). These ones would make me Bruce Lee, Donald Trump and Spider-man all rolled into one. He had some for defense, some for wisdom, some for potency, some for avoiding traffic jams. I asked if he ever used any ju-jus, and he lifted up his tunic to reveal what looked at first like thick leather skin, encrusted with jewels. He had thousands of these ju-jus; each one was a square pouch of leather an inch or two on a side. Some had fake gems on the outside, some had pieces of mirror, some had patches of cloth or animal skin. Some were like thin leather belts and some were necklaces, and he had them all. The man was a walking tannery. I was amazed he could move. He also showed me his fine selections of magic powders, which he said would make me fly like an eagle. I believed him.
Then he pulled out the prize of his collection. His face was a mask of reverent awe as he lifted up a long strip of white cloth, with a simple pattern sewn in. I had to admit it was at least better craftsmanship than the others. The maribout (witch doctor) said that this ju-ju would make me invincible. I said, I thought the others ones made me invincible. He said, well, yeah, but this one makes you really invincible. Like, from anything. Bad spirits. Bad thoughts. Bad fate.
I asked how much. He named an absurd price, five or six times my monthly stipend. I told him to go to hell. He came down, but not a lot. It was obvious we weren’t going to make any kind of middle ground, so I said no thanks. He was getting a little agitated, and his dark eyes made it hard to tell where he was looking.
Then he took off. Just left all his stuff and staggered toward the edge of some high rocks. He called out, watch. The crazy bastard was going to throw himself off. I cursed and sprinted after him, and he giggled when I tackled him to the ground. It must have hurt. He said, see? I am safe!
I said, I’ll take it. What can I say, the guy was a hell of a salesman. I pulled out some Dalasi, the currency of the Gambia, and said that I’d have to pay with that. I meant the type of money, but he thought I meant the bill itself, and snatched it. It was only 100 D, about a hundredth of what he’d originally asked. He examined the whole thing carefully, from one end to the other, sniffing at each tear and smudge like it was my fault. He pointed to a number scribbled in the corner and asked if I’d written it. I said no, they all had that. He nodded, satisfied, and shook my hand.
I made my way back up to the road and kept walking, figuring eventually I'd find something else insane. It was the hot part of the day, though, when the air is thick and muggy and seems to be cooking in chunks on the sidewalk. I walked for a couple hours, lugging my bags, in sodden and sandy clothing, and eventually ran out of water. The streets I passed were all residences or office buildings, no restaurants or anywhere to just sit. But damned if that ju-ju did not work as advertised. Just as I was starting to see the upside of passing out, a big wooden building with the words “Gallery and Bar” appeared like a sweet mirage.
Inside was dark and cool, and I blinked away the afterimage of the day outside. Hundreds of masks lined the walls, some sized for a person, some five or six feet tall. Every surface held carvings and statues of fantastic things, some recognizable shapes, some not. They drew the eye in a way that was hard to resist. The hostess appeared from the darkness and asked if she could help me. She was as beautiful and calm as the room was, and I was very aware of my filthy, sunburned, and bedraggled appearance. She explained that the bar was not open yet, they were just setting the business up now, but she had some cold water, would that be all right? At that moment nothing had ever sounded better in my life.
As we sat and I drank we talked. I asked her about life in Dakar, the gallery. It was going to open up at the beginning of the month, a pet project by a wealthy French and Senegalese couple who wanted to compile artwork from all over the continent. She gave me a tour, and it was quite an education. To be perfectly honest, although I’ve always loved African art, I’ve always felt that if you take away its exoticness it isn’t actually all that beautiful. But what I’d seen were the quick tourist rush-jobs, or the Smithsonian anthropological oddities. This was art. These were masterpieces, created by men and women with an understanding and passion for beauty greater than I’ll ever have. The hostess pointed out to me spears from Rwanda, paintings from Tanzania, works I had no name for from places I’d never even thought about.
She showed me the whole place, top to bottom; she was very friendly. I met the management and some of the staff, and helped move around a few heavy pieces that they were still trying to find places for. They were going to have a restaurant attached, and the chef was trying out some different recipes, which they invited me to share to break Ramadan fast. I reflected, not for the first time, that there’s a lot of things we do better in America. But there’s a lot of things they do better here.
As I left the gallery it seemed like Dakar took its bow. Go out on a high note, they say, and it had been a stunning performance. I made my way simply and without incident back to the airport, read and took a nap, then got on the plane to America.
While I was there I saw some of you lovely people. I won’t go into details; this entry seems long enough and no one’s signed off the rights to have the details of their lives exposed and mocked here. But it was wonderful to see everyone I visited, family and friends, and I wished I’d had more time with each of you, especially the ones I didn’t get to see at all. Thanks to everyone who rolled out the red carpet and gave me a bed or couch to sleep on. And thanks for checking in on this blog. I was surprised how many of you had read it. I was annoyed, at times, too, because every damn story I had to tell you’d already read. And I didn’t even get to see your faces at the really big lies.
3 weeks ago