This was written a few weeks ago in preparation for my trip to Boston, where I am at this very moment ringing in the new year while being terribly, terribly cold. Enjoy!
In the shower today, I was thinking about this past year. There are some years where you can’t really remember what happened in them–they’re a pretty standard accumulation of the component parts that make up most of your life. This was not one of those.
This time last year, I was preparing to go to Dakar. I spent January through May of 2012 in West Africa, with a stopover in Barcelona and Paris. I had never been out of the country for that long, and I had never been to Africa or to Europe.
While in Dakar, I got used to taking cold showers and malaria pills. I sweated a lot. I drank in parks and was mopey and climbed inside a baobab tree and on a termite mound. I learned how to carry money, ID, and my phone tucked away in my bra after I had my phone stolen on my birthday. I was homesick. My dog died.
Over the weekend, I had the good fortune to participate in the StoryCorps project as an interviewee. For those whose parents didn’t make them listen to NPR as children, StoryCorps in an oral history project in which two people who know each other take 40 minutes to have a conversation–anything beyond that is up to them, though there are initiatives to capture specific stories (folk life, or experiences of major historical events). The most interesting stories are edited into NPR segments, and all of them are archived at the Library of Congress.
Walking in, my friend and I were greeted by an NPR employee who was certainly appeared to be cut from the same cloth as us. She went to my high school, has an MPH, and spent time in a different African country for study abroad. It was one of those small world moments that Atlanta is very good at providing.
Once the project had been explained, we were led to the recording studio (think black foam walls and very large microphones) and let to talk. The conversation–which we had originally planned to be about my trip to SXSW back when I worked for HackCollege. Because, let’s face it–sharing a hotel room with internet strangers for a nerdy weekend in Texas is Not a Typical Experience. (As my friend helpfully reminded me during the interview, she was somewhat concerned I was going to be murdered while I was there.)
So this is my third attempt to write my leaving Dakar post. The last two were whiny and introspective (I mean, as is like 90% of the rest of my blog), and went to weird places where I was talking about living a life of obligation (draft one) and the study abroad industrial complex (draft two).
But basically, they came down to the same thing: I don’t know how this experience is going to be written into my life history, yet. It was frequently unpleasant, but some really cool things happened to me here. I’m fairly certain that it was a valuable four months.
So, instead of talking about the experience, I’m going to jot down advice for study abroad kids in places like Dakar. Learn from my errors, blog readership.
Really consider why you picked the home stay: I chose a home stay because my dad lived in a home stay for his time abroad. This is literally it. In retrospect, this was stupid: I can go about a week into living with my actual family before I want to murder them, despite the fact that I love them more than words. This feeling is only amplified when you’re in a house full of people that didn’t feed you when you were a newborn. My home stay is the source for my deepest relationships with Senegalese people (and I do like my family a lot), but it was really, really stressful. If you pick the home stay option, write down why you’re doing it and paste that somewhere prominent in your room. That way, after your host mom makes you cry (again), you can remind yourself why you’re doing this to yourself.
Place yourself in a house with kids: Even if you don’t like kids. I don’t, but when my various nieces and nephews (aged 2-8) were here, life was so much easier. For one, kids are way more tolerant of you being an idiot. They’ll laugh at you, but they will not make cutting remarks to your face, because they know that if they do that you will probably not play with them. (And they want you to play with them, because the rest of their family is probably going to ignore them because they’re not new anymore.) In addition, small children are still being explicitly taught the rules of social conduct by the rest of the family, and if you pay attention you can often get explanations for behavior that’s confusing or that your family expects you to know how to do without being told, because you’re 21 and not 3. Also, kids are cute and will cuddle with you. Which brings us to our next tip–
Not in a, “my host mom made me cry way.” Not even in a, “I worked on a group paper for six hours why god why,” kind of way.
Today was terrible in a, “Bank of America closed access to my debit card while I still have 10 days–including a trip to Paris–between me and home” kind of way. (Also terrible in a, “this is the 21st century, why does this have to be resolved on the phone, no, Senegal doesn’t participate in the international toll-free standard, I’m switching to a credit union” kind of way.)
So yeah, that happened. Apparently BoA somehow came to be aware that someone had stolen my card number and all of its accompanying security information. How they came to know this, I have no idea. The purchase that they had flagged on my account was legitimate*, so I assume something else tipped them off. At least, I hope so, because if not my bank has just made my life really miserable for no reason at all.**
The kindly customer service people told me that they could keep the hold on my account temporary. So now I just have to call them and go through phone tree hell each time I make an ATM withdrawal or a purchase between now and May 25th, at which point they’ll send me a new card. It’s a terrible solution, but it is some sort of a solution.
This whole experience was a nice reminder of how incredibly terrible American banks are at dealing with travel. For me to resolve the situation, I had to call the bank on a telephone (rather than providing my verification information online), because apparently I live in 1999.
I’ve been quiet on the blog front lately for a variety of reasons–chief among them that my cold has evolved into what I am pretty sure is either bronchitis or the black lung. I’ve been spending a lot of time researching the difference between “your body is healing” sputum and “death death pain death” sputum. Yay, sputum!
On a related note, did you know that WebMD’s symptom tracker totally works in Senegal? It’s like my new Hulu.
But in addition to that, I spent the last few days out of town on a Public Health field trip. The trip was confusing on multiple levels, since none of the students knew where we were going, how we were going to do our work there, or whether the bus was going to show up.
It did, though, so on Thursday afternoon we all piled in and headed out on a 3 1/2 hour bus ride to Toukar, a Serer-speaking village near Mbour. The first night was completely weird, as it ended with the bus offroading us into a Catholic mission, where our professor emerged from the shadows with dinner.
So of course after publishing that last post, my host dad gave me halvah, my host brother had me help him clean dishes while he told me about Paris, and I was able to get all of my laundry without bothering anyone. (Yes, these all brought me equal levels of happiness. My scales will be recalibrated when I return home.)
I still think I am probably not that good at being a host student, but that last post represented one of the lowest points I’ve been at in three-and-a-half months.
If nothing else, this has been the most emotionally tumultuous four months of my life thus far. We’ll see if the crunch leading up to my honors thesis or college graduation tops it, but I hope to god it doesn’t. I can’t handle another four months of being reduced to despondency and filled with glee approximately 20 times a day.
For those playing along at home, these last two posts have been illustrated by the pictures my host niece and nephew drew on my index cards. Too cute for words? Basically.
Today was a day of communication success and really, really frustrating communication failure. It was also a nice reminder that frustration tears are actually just a permanent condition of existing here, if you are me.
First, the success. Today at lunch, I ate around the bowl with my family. I managed to get yelled at minimally, and I understood the lunch conversation (mostly). Given that it was in Wolof, this was very exciting.
Granted, this was only possible because the conversation (a discussion about perfumed rice produced in factories) contained a lot of nouns. Nouns and adjectives are my savior, because most of them (particularly when referring to post-industrial things) are just the French word. It was possibly the most boring lunch conversation in the world, but it was the first meal conversation I’ve followed along with in the last 3 1/2 months, so I was pleased. Tiny victories!
Now, onto the failure and the tears. Today, after locking myself in my room for two hours to nap/do homework/attempt to recover from my third cold since moving here, I moved out into the living room to chat with my host dad. He, realizing that I talk pretty much only to him because his first language is French, sent me in to go socialize with the rest of my host family. Harsh, but well-intentioned and effective.
I think that this afternoon might have been the most enjoyable one that I have had since coming to Dakar.
It started after school–I walked with some friends to a nail shop that a few other girls in the program have visited. The place is a hole in the wall–very close to literally. Most boutiques in Dakar look like they’re set up in a vacant garage of someone’s house (and this is true for many of them). This place looked like it was a vacant half-bath that someone had set up shop in. There was barely room for five people in the shop.
Inauspicious beginnings aside, I managed to get a totally excellent (and vaguely Toucan Sam-esque) polish change and nail shaping for 1000 CFA/$2. It was bonkers cheap, the people were nice, and at the end of it my hands were covered in glitter. There is nothing about that situation not to like.
This past Tuesday was May 1st, which in Senegal (and other countries that don’t hate workers) is Labor Day. This meant that I got school off, which I took as an excuse to wander about Dakar with friends/bother Ousmane the tailor. (The self-employed, in Dakar as anywhere, do not have national holidays off.)
We walked from Ceaser’s (the local source for both knock-off KFC and milkshakes, beloved for its wifi and its ability to break large bills) towards Semboudienne, the craft village next to the big fish market. It’s along the Corniche, the main road in Dakar–it hugs the coast all the way from the airport to downtown.
The group estimate was that the market was nearby–maybe a mile and a half. The group estimate was wrong. Even given nice weather and the Kansas-level flatness of Dakar, we were walking for more than an hour.