An anthem by birds replaces that of the night bugs as sun floods my room and scrambles my eyes and ears to snappy attention. The walls of my world spin only for a moment before I remember…
“Senegal! I’m in Senegal!”
Untangle from the sheet, search for the seam in the mosquito net, escape the tent, slip into clothing, sneak out the door, silent steps up the stairs, through a creaky door – and catch the sun tiptoeing its own way up the horizon and over Senegal…
I’m so excited to have a perch from which I can inconspicuously watch that I do rotations around the roof, excited by the spy of the most mundane; colorfully-clad women expertly balancing baskets or basins on their heads, bare-boned horses drawing equally rickety carts, sauntering men shaking hands and exchanging animated greetings, small gangs of siblings scavenging for wheels, balls, string and anything else that might function for the purpose of play.
After fully scoping my surroundings, I draw out my mental plan of day-attack. It’s not particularly courageous or sneaky but much more simply: “Get local currency. Find local market.” And yet these simple tasks still inspire a small tremble of stomach stomping nerves.
I skid down the stairs and into the kitchen and try all my French greetings on the cook who, after politely and patiently listening, explains to me that he’s from Ghana and English is his first language.
One of the American journalists from the house finally stumbles down the stairs, rubbing his eyes and yawning morning’s greetings. I attack him with a barrage of obvious-answer questions and he is only slightly (and rightfully) appalled at my too-early, over-eagerness. If not amused, he is still patient and handles me like he would an overexcited puppy. When I ask for his help in putting into action my intricate, double-objective day plan, he waves a hand and says, “just take the driver.” But I insist that walking is more my mission than the destinations, and to this he flutters his eyes at me but still kindly consents to my requests for hand-sketched maps.
And so with these maps folded up in my pockets, and covered modestly from arm to ankle as the Islamic culture requires, I shake hands with all the guards as they unlock the door, wave goodbye with huge grins, and wish me a happy day’s adventures.
Once out the door, I’m hesitant to look at the directions in my pocket thinking, ridiculously, that more than my glaring white skin, it will be the maps that will identify me as a stranger. Spontaneously, I ignore all my instructions; instead following the scent of a salty wind, in the direction of the sea that I spotted at sunrise, having learned from experience, that my most reliable compass is a coastline.
But as is the custom of dependence on anything too comfortable, I find myself suddenly turning circles on sign-less streets, having lost the scent of sea, and hearing a voice in the back of my head having a rather hearty laugh at me. I wander down dusty paths, through rubble-stacked alleys, past row upon row of tarp-covered abodes, peeking back discreetly at the eyes peeking, through glassless-windows and doorless-doorways, at me. I pretend to walk purposefully as I wander down the streets and panic only for a minute when I take account of my resources and realize that I left the house without a phone number or physical address. Leaving without a phone number, I admit, wasn’t bright. The address part, however, I requested twice from my host to which he finally replied, “Address? No. It doesn’t work like that here. There is no house address. It doesn’t exist.”
So I amble, with confident stride, for over an hour, and give thanks all the while, that if I’m sweating any anxiety, it’s conveniently masked incognito by the heat of a tropically aligned sun. Finally I spot a lot of taxi drivers and, remembering an echo of words putting their place somewhere just off the border of my map, with relief realize that while I’m far from home, at least I now know its general direction.
With no hesitation now, I blatantly unfold my map from its twisted and damp form wetted by my anxious and clammy hands. I excitedly recognize my direction, swivel on my heels, and make haste homeward.
By the time I return, two hours have passed. When I walk through the gate, the author of my map greets me, “Oh there you are! I was just starting to wonder about you. Did you find the bank? And the ocean? And the market?”
When I tell him, no, no and no, he looks at me incredulously but politely excuses my absurdity, shakes his head and says, “I told you to take the driver.”
My misadventures under extreme midday heat have exhausted me, so I stumble up the stairs, into the bed, and fall asleep. When the sun has passed its most violent hours, and the shadows have grown long and bearable, I stumble back down the stairs. This time I ask for a phone number and scribble it down along with little clarifications on the corners marked within my map.
“Really? You’re going to go at it again?”
With resolve, I shove the edited map into my pocket, grab a mesh market bag, and insist, to him as much as to myself, that I can do it. And out the gate I go again.
Turning right at the dirt field, keeping the swampy pond of stagnant water to my left, crossing a paved main street, passing the hair cutting stalls, to the main taxi drop-off turnabout, crossing towards the bakery, following the traffic to town, I finally find an ATM. I do some fast but poor math and pull out too little money. And then I pass the market indicated on my map, but find another that is smaller but still suits my shopping list. I decide to count these both as successes. For a few bonus points, I even manage to haggle, in French, with the women working the stalls along the street and, with quicker and correct calculation, fill an additional bag with fresh fruit.
When I return to the house, arms loaded with the evidence of my mission accomplished, I am happy for the pats of praise I have earned, “Well. Look at you. Looks like you managed after all.” As I grin happily and drop all my groceries on the kitchen table he puts a hand into the bag and pulls out a plain glass jar with a loose lid and handmade sticker, “What’s this?” he asks me as he holds it up for closer examination.
“Peanut butter,” I state.
He shoots a shocked look of perplex at me, “What? Peanut butter? I had no idea peanut butter was sold here. I’ve been having my family send shipments from the States!”
And it is this comment that I smile over and consider my final success of the day.