Thursday, May 2, 2013

Expat Diaries: Les Rastas Dorés

It's the first Thursday in May, so I'm going to hit pause on the prompts provided by "Blog Every Day in May" challenge, and also link-up with Postcards from Rachel & Lost in Travels during their monthly Expat Diaries link-up party.

You could say I've been waiting for this day of the month for quite some time now (I marked it on my calendar!). I'm so excited to meet fellow expat bloggers, and to tap into a community of online expats! 

I wrote about my "awkward beginnings" a little while back, and thought this link-up would be a good opportunity for me to post the next installation in my story. I stopped off at my decision to study abroad in Dakar, Senegal... where I still live five years later (there have been some breaks in that trajectory)! The following essay was actually published a few years ago, and remains my only published work to date, hehe. The fun part is I actually get to include pictures this time! 

Honestly, I've evolved a lot more since writing this, but still, here's a peak into how studying abroad in Senegal changed me and, ultimately, my life path!

(Warning: It's a long one ;)

* * *

Les Rastas Dorés

A preview of what is to come ;)

Still feeling the effects of sea sickness combined with a stifling vomit-scented basement cabin, I tore myself from restless sleep and surfaced from the bowels of the ferry, relieved to feel the fresh air and salty breeze immediately invigorate my dulled senses. I sat perched on a bench, nestled between my travel companions, four girls also in my program, excited to witness our arrival in Ziguinchor, the capital of Casamance, the southern region of Senegal, Africa. The deck swarmed with fellow explorers impatient to discover the once unstable region, regal-looking Senegalese families dressed in their most exquisite boubous, as well as elusive travelers I couldn't quite categorize.

The ferry sped through the murky Gambian river, swiftly past expansive mangroves, spotted with buds of white birds flittering through the branches weighed down by salt-water oysters, all set against the equally murky gray sky—clear but sunless and tinted slightly green.

What was I doing, surveying a remote corner of Western Africa from the outlook of a high speed ferry, about to embark on a ten day journey through Casamance? A year earlier I had confidently decided to spend a year abroad in Paris, France, thrilled to immerse myself in the country of cheese, wine, and fine living.

But somewhere in the process of sifting through various French programs and discovering African history, culture, and literature in my classes at Georgetown, I realized that a) I couldn't really afford an entire year in Paris, b) I wanted to focus my studies on African and European studies, and c) I would probably gain far more cultural perspective by living in a country so vastly different and unfamiliar to me. I solidified my plans to study in Dakar for the fall of my junior year of college, followed by the spring semester in Paris.

Upon exiting the shelter of the guarded port, a trail of vendors and self-assigned guides followed us through the sleepy city, down wide, dusty avenues lined with oversized trees and decrepit colonial buildings, bright colors peeking out from behind scratched paint and political graffiti. Gradually the parade of helpers dispersed and we began fielding invitations to various “spectacles” (in most cases, drum circles). Though wary of committing to anything, we did make tentative plans with Patrick, a fellow American we'd met earlier on the ferry, to meet in "Kola…" (the end was a mumble we couldn't quite decipher). Patrick's Senegalese friend, Souleyman, the incarnation of relaxation as he zipped through the streets on a moped with his bleached dreadlocks flying in the wind, promised an animated performance.

Settled in a standard Senegalese taxi—windshield cracked, rear view mirror missing, pictures of religious leaders taped on all surfaces—our driver didn’t get far based on “Kola…” and pulled over for directions, followed by a rapid slew of Wolof. “A spectacle?" the man on the street asked us. "What did these men look like?" After describing Patrick (the more memorable character, we assumed), he exclaimed, "Ah! Souleyman! Avec les rastas dorés, laissez moi vous le montrer, il est mon frère!" (Souleyman! With the blonde dreadlocks, let me bring you to him, he is my brother!)

Whether or not they were in any way related by blood or the veins of friendship, which often run deeper in Senegal, we put complete faith in this helpful man. He guided us off the main paved road through an increasingly crowded neighborhood, clay alleyways darting and dipping between houses—all to the approaching sound of drums somewhere in the maze of cement.

Finally, we arrived at the source of the sound: a courtyard filled with five men drumming intensely and nearly thirty people of all ages dancing, clapping, and whistling, forming circles around toddlers and elderly women alike, displaying their skills. With our entrance, the crowd erupted into shouts, the drummers running towards us, drums still in hand, children grabbing our hems, twirling in our tracks, everyone ecstatic to share this ceremony with foreigners.

Bouncing subtlety to the beat, I stood back and watched the dancing rage on, entranced by the involvement of everyone in the community. Suddenly out of a shed jumped what can only be described as a giant, brown furry mascot-like creature who began breaking it down as the beat grew faster and louder… As if on cue, fat rain drops fell on our faces and arms and legs moving with the rhythm, seemingly reverberating through the earth and the skies, falling faster and harder with each strike.

Old ladies getting down, and furry mascots joining in the party!
My harddrive has crashed (multiple times) since 2008, so these are all pics from facebook

Determined to keep celebrating, the crowd raced for the door of a one-room, tin roof house. Crammed in a stifling room, the drumming carried on and this time Souleyman was intent on seeing us dance for everyone.

My stomach dropped. I do not dance publicly. 

As much as I was loving this amazing display of animist culture, the rehearsal for a male circumcision ceremony to be performed the next day, I had yet to become even slightly comfortable with the dancing constantly expected of toubabs (foreigners). Not wanting to offend these welcoming people but also seized with the fear of making a fool of myself, I attempted to appreciate the atmosphere while strategically avoiding Souleyman’s pushes into the circle. My three friends each took their turn in the center and I searched frantically for a way out.

The last push was inescapable. Thrust into the circle, thirty expectant eyes on me, I found some source of movement or rhythm to fill thirty seconds of dreadful dance. I wish I could say I suddenly burst into an impressive choreography and led the group in cheer, or at least found pleasure in my contribution to the ceremony, but the fear and extreme discomfort never really left me. Beyond the anxiety, I felt deeply disappointed in myself for not enjoying the opportunity to take part in such a unique experience. With great relief, I rejoined the circle as an onlooker, my heart finding its regular beat again as the drumming continued.

If I look slightly terrified and overwhelmed... I was.

The rain continued to pound on the tin roof, a staccato accompaniment to the music filling the room. As darkness began to seep in through the window, we realized it was time to leave and find our way back to the hotel before it was impossible to navigate the drenched streets of Ziguinchor. We entered the night under the persistent rain, skipping over and through muddy puddles, guided by our new friends. The main road was devoid of activity; the world had paused in the storm.

For the first time since my arrival in Senegal two months ago, I felt cold, the chill of freezing rain breaking the barrier of the perpetual heat. Shivering as the wet rain washed away the sweat and dirt from the day, surrounded by strangers who were suddenly family, the past three hours took on new meaning. The moment I had felt so extremely out of my comfort zone was painful, like an awkward high school dance magnified one hundred times—a moment I probably would have fled given the chance.

I was suddenly relieved there had been no escape. 

Throughout my semester in Africa, my comfort zone would be stretched time and time again. It is because of these uncomfortable, sometimes painful moments that I grew to embrace and thrive in the culture and among the people of Senegal. Its also these moments that thrust me out of my "awkward beginnings" and into a new realm of adulthood, a place I still reside both physically and figuratively five years later.

This post was written as part of the Blog Every Day in May Challenge (2013).

1 comment:

  1. you're so awesome for marking it on your calendar! this is such a great post! what an amazing beginning to i'm sure, an unforgettable experience! and i'm the same way about dancing, i am not one rhythmic bone in my body! thanks so much for linking up with us!


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