Wednesday, August 5, 2009

This One time in the Desert of Senegal, part DONE

Ahoy kind ladies, gents, and undecided (that joke is totally ripped off of “Will and Grace,” but for the sake of my internet ego, pretend it was all me),

I apologize for failing to keep you all au courant (up to date) these past two weeks, but as I made it out of nothing cubed back to Dakar and back to New York, my internet has been of variable reliability. Ironically, my steady internet connection in Matam was met with somewhat consistency in Dakar, and probably no access in New York since my lovely subletters apparently dropped the ball on bill payments. To that I say: Grrr!

Aaaanyway, I believe I last left you before my grand adventure to nothing cubed, so here we go…

After approximately 40 hours of discussion, it was concluded the best day for our departure to nothing cubed would be on Sunday, so of course, we left on Monday. The target area of nothing cubed is about 84 kilometers away from Matam, but since the roads consist of a fine selection of dirt and rock, it took us about 3 hours of steady bumping to reach the tin shack that would serve as “home” for the next three days.

That night, I decided to forgo eating dinner, partially because Ngone also decided to not go, and the thought of eating with our assemblage of 5 less than well-table-mannered Senegalese men + 3ish strangers seemed like something between purgatory and hell, so Ngone and I spent the night getting to know each other better through life talk and cereal. Enter trouble.

Somehow, I have managed to keep relatively healthy my entire time in Senegal, only throwing up once due to some overzealous Motrin taking (my back reaaaally hurt), but nothing cubed made sure to do a good job of kicking my ass. I don’t know whether it was the milk, the muesli, or the combination, and honestly, thinking about it is enough to make me nauseous all over again, but suffice to say that night was spent by the toilet and in bed clutching various parts of my stomach and praying the pain would go away, inshallah. The next three days proceeded with various states of consciousness, interspersed with work and explaining to people that the cure for my sickness was not eating strange looking fish covered in thick sauces and peppers; that Sprite might be a better alternative.

But despite all my suffering, nothing cubed turned out to be incredibly valuable for our research and probably saved the state of our (until that point) non-existent conclusions and paper. Thankfully I pulled myself together well-enough to make it back to Matam on Thursday through the maze of bumps and our entourage of Senegalese people shouting at each other via my ear. I even survived a rather long break when our car discovered the high-tech Orange (phone company) fleet who was going to nothing cubed to install landlines. After snapping a picture of the fleet as they parked by a donkey-drawn carriage carrying 18th century style farmers in hand-made clothes, our car successfully bought out all the mobile phones on the Orange truck, and we continued our bumpy journey back to Matam.

The final days in Matam was marked with a few notable mentions:

1. Ngone decided to accompany Latsouk and Andrea to the neighboring town to buy another phone, but first made them wait 40 minutes outside of our place. Then she had them drive to the post office 30 feet away and had them wait for another 40 minutes. Then they drove to the next town and waited for a few days outside of the phone store. Thankfully I decided go to the office in lieu of trip, and in the time the three of them waited on each other, I wrote a dissertation, drew a picture, and took a short trip to Paris. Au revoir Matam.

2. I spent the entire week in and out of normal health, and thus forewent having another soccer practice that week; however, my girls came in a few groups throughout the course of our last day, and the final batch arrived with the Minister of Sports. He’s a sweet old man, and made me a little certificate of awesomeness, which was presented to me on our stoop complete with handshake and picture. Cute ceremony, you should have come.

3. Athia, our cook, was by far the most valuable person to me in Matam, as her cooking kept me moderately well-nourished and totally not sick, so as a thank you, Andrea gave her a shirt and some money, and I gave more money. Not wanting to be uncouth/not wanting to do actual work, I used a Zappos shoes box, duct tape, paper and marker to make a…box. Yes, I made a box out of a box, but it was kind of cool and served its function of present holder well enough, and I’m pretty sure the box made Athia’s day; that, or the fact that its contents contained the equivalent of a month of her salary, and a shirt that she will totally rock out.

4. Andrea decided to cook the last night we were in town, and tried making Adobo, only with mutton. The dish was a huge hit, largely because the soy mostly burned out, leaving a dish that looked remarkably like what we ate for dinner 90% of the time. Yay for change.

Finally, the morning of our departure came, and after figuring out how to place all of Ngone’s luggage in the two cars, she bunkered in with Pap Sakho, and Latsouk, Andrea and I climbed in the other car with Pap’s normal driver, who turned out to be clinically insane. Andrea tried very hard to explain in French to Latsouk the term with which Pap’s crazy driver was afflicted: F-ING INSANE ROAD RAGE. The very sight of an animal, person, car, insect, or large particles of dust drove the man crazy, and we spent the first two hours on the road going about rocket speed until we pulled over to check out a small market. A fleet of kids immediately spotted us foreigners sitting in the back, and after 10 minutes had somehow concluded that I’m Italian. Out of boredom and an insatiable desire to practice my 100 retained words of the language, I went along with the charade and told the kids my name and that I’m from Rome, when one little girl looked up at me and then Andrea and informed us that we had a flat tire. Quelle suprise, Monsieur Road Rage flew over potholes the size of boats with no mercy, so after thanking the girl in a mix of French and Italian, Andrea told Latsouk, and we drove off to find a place that fixes tires.

In any Western country, the normal protocol for fixing a flat is pulling over to a gas station and having the interior slimed. The normal procedure in Senegal is oddly similar, and we soon found ourselves waiting by a small shack with what appeared to me to be a set of rusted tools entirely unuseful for fixing the tires; however, after a few minutes of watching the guys work, I realized I know absolutely nothing about car tires and decided to trust their judgment in the matter. Latsouk was in a National Geographic mood and pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of the area in an “artistic” fashion, and Andrea and I were soon half-ass posing. As my car skills extend to calling AAA, we thought it would be funny to take one of me pretending to change the tire, but given the color of the sand and my clothes, and the picture came out looking more like an advertisement attempt for Diesel shoes than anything else.

Finally the tire was fixed, and we headed out on the road once more, stopping for lunch in St. Louis. Being a little too giddy about eating in a restaurant, we ate more at lunch than we had in the past week combined, and packed back up to finish our ride back to Dakar.

Mr. Road Rage driver had an annoying habit of giving his opinion on everything from the color of the sky, to the virtues of small bananas, to idiot kids trying to cross the street, to anything and everything he had ever heard in his life. Fortunately for Andrea and I, we were happily seated in the back with iPods on at full blast and little to no comprehension of the Wolof language, so poor Latsouk endured the great brunt of trying to appear interested while resisting the urge to punch the man in the face. After he said the equivalent of “uh huh” in Wolof about 40,000 times, we finally found ourselves outside of the city limits of Dakar, which is marked by choking pollution and traffic backed up to Mali. I guess Matam has some advantages.

Thankfully we maneuvered our way though the city, dropped off Ngone’s luggage, and after a slight panic in not knowing where the hell we were staying for the next week, finally managed to get our stuff up to the dorm rooms we’d be crashing in until it’s time to go HOME. Half an hour later, a tin bus came rumbling up, and out poured the other 4 (plus 1 husband) New School kids and their Senegalese counterparts. Being that the bus was supposed to have arrived 5 hours ago, I got the general sense that no one who had been riding in the plastic and tin contraption was at all happy, but we all managed somewhat warm hellos and after half carrying/half throwing the 15 bags (12 of which were Veena’s) up the stairs, we gathered enough energy to make it out to dinner to an Ethiopian restaurant.

It was universally agreed upon by us Americans, the Senegalese students, UNFPA, and everyone at the university that recapping what we did the past 8 weeks would be a waste of time given the alternative of sitting on the beach/getting lives back in order, but despite this agreement, we found ourselves in a classroom with no internet for the better part of the week working on PowerPoint presentations that no one really cared to see nor talk about. Ngoné had things to do in her own order, so I (admittingly happily) spent the better part of the week getting my stuff together for the final paper and presentation, and on Thursday morning, we showed up to present first to a room full of 5 people. No matter, we presented, hi-fived, and at precisely the moment I thought we were done, everyone from the UNFPA office decided to show up. Crap. So, we presented again, hi-fived again, answered a few legitimate questions, smirked at a few asinine comments, and 2.5 hours after we started on our 30 minute presentation, finished for all its glory. Hallelujah, Inshallah, whatever you want to call it, that presentation was over!

On Saturday, my last full day in Senegal, Ngoné had me over for lunch. She was supposed to pick me up around 11 AM, so right on time, around 1:35 PM, she showed up and took Andrea and me over to her place. I had somehow imagined Ngoné living in a palace, but upon entering, found the house oddly comfortable and modest. I did get one image correct though. In my head, I imagined her sitting with her little glasses behind her giant computer at a table the length of Manhattan; indeed, a few minutes later, she was perched behind her giant computer with her little glasses at a table of a length twice my height.

As a present for all her help, I decided to give Ngoné my exercise ball so she could finally start her planned exercise regime. I should have known that bringing a giant rubber ball into a house with three kids would cause pandemonium, and sure enough, an hour after I got it inflated, everyone in the house except Ngoné had started their own version of an exercise routine. Ngoné’s son’s method was slamming the ball against the side of the house and headbutting his sisters when they attempted to do to the same. Somehow, an hour later, we managed to sit down and enjoy a fabulously cooked lunch while Andrea (yet again) dodged the subject of why she is not yet married with 4 children. I mentioned I wanted to go to the park, so Andrea, Ngoné, Ngoné’s kids, a random sampling of relatives and I piled into two cars and bumped our way down.

A few minutes after our soft landing, a friend of a friend of this guy Ngoné met once 15 years ago offered to let us into the animal park for free, so being the cheap ass profiteer I am, we went in despite the fact that I knew the animals would be in less than humane conditions and it would probably smell like a latrine. But damn is it good to profiteer! After getting over the initial shock that animals I have never seen outside of cartoon form were sitting feet away from me, I started snapping pictures of everything imaginable: ostriches, boars, hyenas, crocodiles, bunnies (they were cute, shut up), pythons, lions, crazy lakes, jungle gyms in an actual jungle, the list goes on. Actually, that was about it. Regardless, after spending 7 weeks in monochromatic Matam, the stimulation of the park was little overwhelming, but “Doesn’t take enough pictures Mala” walked out with 50+ pictures of the experience to document the drama.

Being that it was my last day in country, I had a modest list of things I wanted to do that day, but for all of our sanity, Ngoné and I have become friends, and I decided to go with the flow and instead went with her to her sister’s house, and then back to her house for dinner. Thankfully, my most important task of the day (buying chocolate croissants) was fulfilled by an oddly placed “La Brioche Dorée,” and I satisfied my fat kid tendencies, and bought Ngoné’s kids a little something as well.

Latsouk came over a little later, and after I animatedly told him of the various adventures of the week, we had lunch leftovers for dinner and tried our best to eat yet another batch of sticky-ish rice, compliments of Andrea. Finally, l’heure of goodbyes came, and for the first time, I felt a genuine sadness in leaving the country. (Here comes a serious part, so skip ahead if you can’t stomach the mush)

I think by most standards, I have done a good job of expanding my horizons through travel and putting myself outside of my comfort zone to grow as a person. Yet, in all honestly, through 5 trips to India and one trip to Togo, I have never worked nor lived so closely with the local population of a developing country. Latsouk and Ngone are amazing, well-educated people by any standard, but they are still very Senegalese in many ways, for whatever its worth, for better or for worse. Getting to know them on a more personal level, and sharing the experience of working in and living amongst some of the poorest of the poor in the world in Matam is something I will never forget. It’s easy to say life goes on in the fast-paced world of New York, but life also goes on in Matam; the latter is much harder to grasp. Hopefully I contributed something of worth with my soccer team, and will contribute something of worth with my research, but as much as it pains me to say, it’s possible I didn’t. Regardless of the fruitfulness of my work, I sincerely thank Ngoné, Latsouk, and Andrea for putting up with me and helping me better understand the phenomenon of poverty that I have witnessed, but have never had to endure.

Needless to say, it was the perfect last day in Senegal, and my goodbyes were heartfelt but happy, because as Ngoné has said many times, it is written I will be back to Senegal at some point in my life, and I will always try my best to keep l’Equipe Matam in my life if they wish to be a part.

I now write to you from my apartment in New York (picking up a free wifi signal!). Coming home has been shocking and amazing, and seeing people about whom I care very much will be a buzzed effect for the next few weeks. The duration of my stay this time around was not significant in the grand scheme of things, but the worlds I have seen in the past two weeks certainly are.

So, before I get too sentimental for my own good, I leave you with a jolly goodbye and genuine thank you for reading my various banterings. As a reward for your persistence, I’m getting a massage and every freaking possible kind of cheese out there. You’re welcome to come over if you’d like.

Good day, good night, loveundliebe, kys og kram, bisous, much love to you all,