toubab umpaloompas

It only takes one cross-country trip on local transportation in a developing country to learn that in addition to visiting a restroom before departure, it is equally essential to avoid all intakes of fluids and squeezable foods for a good three hours prior.

I have followed my own advice, but it is now late afternoon, and although the heat is giving an admirable shot at challenging this ratio, my body is still made up of an uncontrollable 70% water.

I have to pee. My legs, as well, knock knees against each other in an escalating debate over if they’ve ever been actually capable of extension, or if the idea is only a romanticized memory of a fondly recalled past that never actually existed. My screaming knees and bladder are silenced in a collective hopeful squirm when the taxi slows and pulls off the road alongside a tiny village shaded by Balboa trees.

The driver opens the door and leaves. The rest of the car sleeps. Not a single stir till I shake the taxi in a clumsy crawl forward and over the middle seat. I cannot believe that these six men, all with twice as much cramped leg and numb bum as me, are not moving! While normally I follow the lead of locals, I have no choice but to break file for I am at the command of my body which has as well as put a gun to my head.

“Where are you going?” A sleepy head lifts just long enough to ask me.

“Out. Out. Out. Please open the door.” I say softly but with the haste and determination of the white rabbit.

The taxi has warmed up by 20 degrees without the breeze of 40 miles per hour and I fall out of the car on a final suck of what I imagine to be the last molecule of oxygen in the carbon-filled chamber of air in the taxi. Eventually the men (except for the sick one), casually, and only because it seems there isn’t much better to do, follow.

After I shake my legs and swallow a few fresh breaths of air, I scout my surroundings for the alley that seems most promising of leading to a discrete corner.

I judge by the fact that all the people on shaded porches have turned their chairs and knees to face us, that this is not the typical taxi stop.

Four dark little bodies pile up from behind a tree, heads peaking out, one over the other, with wide white eyes emphasizing piercing curiosity.

Suddenly, the tallest one chirps…

“TOUBAB.”

And then two more follow at the same time,

“Toubab!” “Toubab!”

And then the first again and the lowest little head in a squeaky voice chimes in,

“TOUBAB” “toubab!”

And having found their harmony, their heads begin to bob in time to their song, like the little choreographed umpaloompas of Charlie’s chocolate factory:

“Toubab!” “Toubab!”

“TOUBAB!” “toubab!”

“Toubab!” “Toubab!”

“TOUBAB!” “toubab!”

Toubab, by the way, is me.

Specifically it refers to Europeans. Historically, it might have meant “doctor.” Generally it means foreigner. Most commonly, it refers to any white person. And presently, it means me.

And just in case my whiteness was not seen from the few-mile radius from which it is strikingly obvious, I have an attentive little chorus calling me out on it.

“Toubab!” “Toubab!”

“TOUBAB!” “toubab!”

“Toubab!” “Toubab!”

“TOUBAB!” “toubab!”

Along with my knees, I may have once romanticized this adventure in Senegal and can quote myself firsthand, pre-trip, as saying, “How interesting it will be to feel, for the first time, what it is to be a minority!”

Toubab!” “Toubab!”

“TOUBAB!” “toubab!”

“Toubab!” “Toubab!”

“TOUBAB!” “toubab!”

I am actually not disturbed at all by this song and dance. And I would only quietly laugh and or play curiously within the dimensions of this attention if it were not for the fact that my thoughts are more concerned with the pressing question of finding a “discrete” corner whilst a vocal audience calls constant attention to my presence.

To my unbelievable luck, a police patrol car pulls off the road and at the congruent pause in the toubab song, I jump at the timely distraction and duck down an alley relatively unnoticed. I find a corner and do my business knowing that the color of my bottom is flashing like a lighthouse beacon to those strolling the horizon a mile away. But at this point, I care far much less for modesty than relief.

 

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