As you might expect, my friends and I had developed a routine by the second week. We all woke up at 7:30 and were at theBaobabCenterby 9 a.m. We made a habit of buying newspapers together after each class (for an ongoing project we had), and then treating ourselves to a bit of ice cream down the street (the parlor was air-conditioned!). We even started to grow accustomed to some of the strange quirks of the country, such as the apparent lack of garbage cans, and the stairs being at all different heights. Unfortunately, home-sickness also settled in, which we happily traded for the physical sicknesses that some of us had suffered for a few days after arrival. By and large, though, things were looking up by week two.
Usually, our schedule consisted of class in the morning, lunch with our respective families, a siesta, and then some group outing in the afternoon. Many of these outings brought us into downtownDakar– the loudest, hottest, most colorful marketplace I’ve ever seen. Most of the vendors there spoke Wolof, French, and English… which meant they could harass us in three languages. Wolof, by the way, is the African dialect most widely spoken inSenegal. Although French is the country’s official language, only a small portion of the population speaks it, and they are largely concentrated in urban areas such asDakar. My group and I picked up a little bit of Wolof here and there – fortunately, a girl from our group named Awa was born inSenegal, and speaks fluently. Whenever there was a language barrier, she was quick to knock it down with her awesome linguistic skills. She’s quite good at French, too!
Shopping inSenegalis very different than here inAmerica. There is no fixed price on the items that street vendors are selling – either you make an offer, or they suggest a price. Since most of my group was easily identifiable as foreigners, the vendors would ask ridiculously high prices in hopes of catching us off-guard. Lily immediately stood out in our group as an excellent haggler, and Awa always got discounts because she spoke Wolof and they knew they couldn’t pull a fast one on her. After a lot of haggling, most of us got our merchandise down to quite reasonable prices before buying. Some vendors would frustratingly follows us through the streets even after we’d left a booth, pestering us to make another offer; others were extremely friendly and helpful. Either way, it was an exciting crash course in French. Forget the “à la marché” unit in your textbook… just spend an afternoon in downtownDakar!
That weekend saw our second excursion: we were to spend two days in Saint-Louis, the touristic capital of Senegal. This waterfront city was once the capital of all of West Africain early colonial times, and it didn’t take much to see why. As soon as our van drove across the iconic seven-arc bridge, a beautiful grid of colorful buildings presented itself to us. Calèches, or horse-drawn carriages, rumbled through the streets past gaggles of vendors selling pants, bracelets, and wood carvings. Our hotel was downright luxurious. Like most Senegalese houses, it had a big, open courtyard. The rooms were spacious, air-conditioned, and well-decorated with a tropical motif. After having lived in very different conditions for our first half of the trip, it was so refreshing to chill out in our little pocket of paradise as we explored the city. It was a blast!
My favorite part of being in Saint-Louisthat weekend though, wasn’t the comfy beds or glorious water-pressure. On our first night there we went on a calèche tour of the city, and along the way we passed through a smaller residential district. Children were playing in the street everywhere, and when they saw us ride by, they stopped what they were doing and shrieked, “Toubabs! Toubabs!” This is the Wolof word for “white person.” It’s not an insult (unless it’s hissed at you, which I admit, happened more than once) – these children were just shocked and excited to witness girls with blond hair and white skin. Some waved to us, some ran to tell their friends, and a few even chased after our carriage. The children were so happy to see us that I couldn’t help being happy, too!
On Monday, it was nose to the grindstone again… but I had survived a low-grade fever, my midterm, and two weeks of living in a foreign country. I was halfway home.