As always, I'm at a loss as to where to start the story of my last week and a half--but rather than use an African proverb to aid me this time (remember slowly, slowly catch the monkey in the bush? or if you prefer, ndank, ndank, goro moor ci jaay yap), I'll turn to a oft-repeated quote from a book I just devored, Cutting for Stone. "Begin at the beginning, and go until the end, the King said, gravely, then stop."* We boarded our great white beast early Friday morning--it's about a 13-hour drive to Kedougou, our final destination, but happily we were saving that particular misery for the return trip. On our way down, we were breaking it into two parts, apparently it's not safe to drive at night, the roads are bad, and there have to be some kind of labor laws for our poor driver. Well actually now that I think about it, there probably isn't. Anyway, we stopped a humane halfway (ish) distance between Dakar and Kedougou, in Tambacounda---we stayed at an Auberge that would have been forgetable if not for the in-ground pool, a rarity here that we took full advantage of. Much to the delight and extreme entertainment of the staff, we played an intense game of marco polo well into the night, stopping only to eat dinner at a white napkin table laid out under the stars. Before you get too jealous, I'll add that eating outside meant we attracted every bug in a 30 mile radius, so not only was I covered in a thick layer of repellent but I also dodged more than one unbelievably huge cockroach-esque insect.
The next morning we headed further south still to Kedougou, hurtling down red dirt roads that made the bus shudder everytime we thunked over the occasional pothole or rut, and by occasional I mean constant. Our driver was weaving through the worst of them like a drunk on the third day of a binge, but it still made for a rough ride. Luckily the view outside more than compensated--the rainy season had every living thing climbing all over each other in their eagerness to finally grow. It was verdant. It was living. It was a sight for my sore, Oregon-deprived eyes. These country roads were taking me home.
The natural wonder tour continued once we arrived in Kedougou. After being installed in a peaked, thatched roof hut at Auberge Nieriko, which featured a red christmas light bulb over our double bed and a fantastic purple mosquito net, we hit the trail. We started at the bottom of a mountain in a tiny Bedik village, and then commenced the ardous climb up. It was pretty much a straight-shot to the top, and there were enough tree roots and boulders criss-crossing the trail that it wasn't too bad. Of course, as we huffed and puffed our way up, the village kids would race past us and back, and then come and ask if we were tired. We stopped at the top in another, tinier village--this one established at the highest point so they could watch for intruders, and as we learned from the village Chief, send the killer bees out of the sacred tree to "dissuade" the enroaching Malian people from coming any further. Needless to say, I'm tryna stay on this guy's good side. I'd hate to have to be dissuaded.
Our glory was not in the killer bee sacred tree, however, it was higher yet--one of the local boys brought us to the base of what could have easily passed for Pride Rock. Have I mentioned that I love the Lion King? I think I floated to the top. Actually I climbed, squeezed, and heaved my way over so many boulders--I'm not going to shortchange myself here. But as always, it was worth it. Once we made it, the view was breathtaking in every sense of the word, and I'm not just saying that because I'm kind of out of shape now and the hike up hurt me. I thought I had seen some wide open spaces. I thought I had seen big skies and plains as far as the eye could see. But I have never seen anything like this. It was horizon like God intended horizon to be--flung out so far that it looked like it was moving, like the sky was rushing out to meet it and it was in a hurry to get there. It was vast beyond vast--there was no interruption in the land, except for the barely visible wrinkle of huts. We stayed through sunset, even though it made our guides nervous, twilight is when the spirits come out. But we had to watch the sun say her slow good-bye to this side of our world, had to watch her blow a peachy-red kiss goodnight.
Downside of the sunset--had to descend in the dark. Of course we didn't go prepared with headlamps, let's be realistic. We only brought a healthy sense of urgency, fear, and in my case, an imagination that could only recall the scene from Lion King where Scar sings Be Prepared with a chorus of ravenous hyenas.
As if my Pride Rock moment wasn't enough, we headed the next day for a waterfall that was surely the inspiration for the scene in which Simba and Nala frolick together to the dulcet tones of Elton John--by the way, I could feel the love that night. My excitement was only heightened by the hour and a half I spent hunched in the trunk of a jeep--the nausea from our bumpy ride only added to the experience. The hike in to Cascade Dindefalo wasn't nearly as difficult as our previous hike; more of a nature walk through the shadows of trees and the crazy-straw loops of vines hanging from them. SEveral times we crossed a meandering stream--not even deep enough to cover the tops of our shoes, but I was still surprised when suddenly the forest parted and we were faced with a staggering rock face and the water that cascaded over it and down into a pool below. For a waterfall of significant height, I expected more noise. It wasn't until I swam over to it taht I could hear the thunder that I associated so strongly with waterfalls. We couldn't resist swimming, even though it was at our own risk. The water was cool and deep, and behind the the falls were wide, smooth ledges that we sat on, our feet dangling into the water below. There was farm more fun t obe had jumping in and out of the pool through the falls though, and staring up at the dizzying height of the falls, floating flat on our backs, or swimming underneath the surface of where water hit water, feeling it hammer your skin in a way no jacuzzi ever could--it was hard to stay in one place for too long. We tore ourselves away from our Indiana Jones-esque paradise eventually, spurred on mostly by hunger and two snakes spotted in the water, but it wasn't easy.
The ride home left me exhilirated rather than sick--I hitched my ride in the back of a pick-up, standing in the wind as the truck flew down the now familiar red dirt road. My skin was tight from the water and sun, and I could feel dust gatherin the creases around my squinted eyes, and my hair was stiff from sweat and dirt and God only knows what else, but I was so deliriously happy that these things of being were rendered inconsequential.
The next day we headed for the villages. Minutes before we stepped off the bus, the sky turned a steely gray and started pouring rain--so when we arrived we literally hit the ground running, cauhgt up in the perfunctory gaggle of village children. We were pulled, in about 30 soaking wet seconds, into a dark hut, adn greeted enthusiastically by our village chief and the host Father of my good friend Alexa. We would learn later that he was the proud husband of four wives, and the proud father of many, many children. My host father, Souleymane, was one of them. He had four wives, but all the extended family lived together in the same compound. The compound was a sort of fenced in yard of sorts, ringed by a number of huts used either for cooking or seleping. Every other aspect of life took place outside. WE spent our first night being entertained by our newfound friends--I was clung to immediately by Aissa, my 9-year-old namesake and one of Souleyman's daughters. She, with the other girls, played endlessly in our hair, braiding and rebraiding, and singing songs to us. We, in turn, sang songs to them, by the time we left they were masters of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, hand motions and all.
What I could do is go on forever** about the pople here, teh dynamics of the relationships in my adopted family, the fleeting vignettes of life that I had the privilege of witnessing. I want to describe everything, I have so much to tell. I want to talk about the incredible work ethic of the women, I want to talk about how the survival of their families rest on their shoulders. I want to tell you about the serious eyes of a little boy who cried when another tried to wrench his hand away from mine, and I want to tell you about the little boy who cried when his older brother held him out near us. I want to tell you about how my heart went out to my little host brother, who at 5-years-old, should not have rotting teeth. I want to tell you about Moustapha, the fattest, happiest baby I've ever seen. I want to talk about how refreshingly beautiful my surroundings were, how everywhere you looked was green and lush and growing--over paths, huts, fences. I want to talk about how two young boys look climbing a tree, their skinny arms backlit high against the sky.
But alsa, I do not have the time. I'm caught back in the riptide that is the pace of life in my beloved Dakar--I sometimes catch myself yearning for the way time sort of trickled by in Badou Kandi, how two hours spent peeling stems off a bowl of plants with my host mom felt like I'd accomplished something that day. Much of my time was spent sitting with a crowd of kids, talking to Alexa while cracking thousands of peanuts, and being pulled along by Aissa on journeys that only she knew the purpose of.
Of course, I get over that nostalgia pretty quick--we go to the beach on a free afternoon, go get ice cream on our way to a documentary showing and meet and greet with the film director at the French Institute, I go for a run on the cliffs along the water's edge, and I"m reminded that life in Dakar is still a fairytale after all.
Actually, all I really have to do is think about the breakfast we were served every morning in the village, a combination of millet balls and the unmistakable smell of rancid milk, and any lingering nostalgia is quickly banished.
Our last day in the village concluded with a hundreds strong good-bye party as we got on the bus, leaving so many little hands waving and yelling in our wake. It was bittersweet, but I knew I was headed for a shower that would take place under running water and not with a bucket, outside and with only a short fence between me and the main path. Although that wasn't without its merits--being naked as a jaybird out in the wilds while simultaneously trying to minimize accidental flashing and trying to get clean certainly added a layer of excitement to my shower that I've yet to repeat.
Our last day in Kedougou was spent hiking up another mountain with more spectacular views and another older than time village that, this time, boasted what easily is the biggest Baobob I've ever seen in my life. It was so huge that it wasn't comprehensible--it took me a solid walk around it to grasp the neormity of the mass of life that we were dealing with here. It took all 23 of us with our arms stretched, hands locked, shoulder blades popping, to reach around.
We concluded with a visit to the local market, where we bought honey (I'm guessing it's made from African killer bees--go with it), and indigo, a locally dyed fabric that is somehow a shade of blue I've only ever seen before in the night sky. Sound poetic? It is. It also sort of turns your hands blue when you handle it a lot, which I found out the hard way.
Then we got on the bus at 6 in the morning and didn't get off until 8 at night, I'm not great at math but I know that adds up to a long time in the bus. And now I'm back in Dakar, with my family who missed me and told me how my host sister here cried every night I was gone, and with my host mom who keeps telling me I'll be Senegalese when I gain 3 more kilos. Life is good.
*This is actually a passage from Alice in Wonderland. My other favorite quote, as my family in the US will tell you, is this: "Alice came to a fork in the road. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter." Thank you Lewis Carrol. **I have decided that I will, in fact, try and go on forever about my time here. I've been given a month to design a project and research a subject, so I chose, more or less, myself. I never said I wasn't conceited. In fact, while we were on our trip, a friend, quite authentically, coined the term Lalaland. And it has stuck. But really, I'm going to try and write a book. This is not a drill.