Monday, November 19, 2007

Visitor

My first visitor left this morning.

He was here for 2 weeks, came all the way across the country to my site, to meet my family, and to see my life and work. He also met some of the other volunteers, saw our regional house, met my Thies family, saw Dakar, and even got to spend some time on the coast. It was a rushed but wonderful vacation for him. And quite an experience for me to have such a close friend from home come all the way out here, and actually get to glimpse a small part of my life. He left saying that it was probably the most exciting, eye-opening trip he has ever taken.

I asked him to contribute a blog entry, but he said that he would just wait and comment on my entry. So hopefully you can all hear directly from him at some point (hint hint Chris).

Parts of it were exhausting, mostly from my perspective as the responsible one. I was so worried that he would get sick, or hurt himself, or lost, or not like it, or pass out from heat exhaustion, but there was not even one single minor disaster. He ate street food from the first day, drank homemade juice with tap water, ate all the national dishes (usually with his hands), slept on concrete under a mosquito net, got water, did laundry by hand, went to the fields, played with the kids, toured my whole town, and was treated like a true guest of honor by my family.

One thing that he kept repeating was how incredibly honored, and at times awkward, he felt because of the hospitality from my family. He commented that they lived in the most abject poverty he’s ever seen and yet no relative luxury was spared. They went all out and made some of the most delicious dishes I’ve had to date. He was always given tea after meals, the best seat in the house (the plastic lawn chair), made comfortable, and fawned over by my adoring nieces.

What a treat it was to sit back and watch my family interact with him, to try and speak to him with sign language, their broken English, and his ten words of Pulaar. They were so thrilled just to have him say “peace only” in Pulaar that every time he greeted and just kept repeating it he got instant smiles and laughter. People were so honored when I brought him by to greet them. And I did. I made him walk all over my entire town checking off every person on the list that I could possibly think of to go greet. He really fit right in. Which I’m learning in a country with so much hospitality is easy to do as a guest.

And what an ego boost to hear him tell me he was impressed with my language and my ease at site. Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up with how far removed I feel, or how far I still have to go in terms of integrating culturally, or with my language, but having him here made me feel so proud. Proud of my work, of my progress, of my attitude.

Even walking around Dakar I learned so much about myself. I just take the harassment and constant attention in stride. Though sometimes to a fault because I have less tolerance and sometimes don’t trust people because my defences are up. I’m programmed to ignore people and ignore their pleas for my attention to come to their stands and buy their merchandise. I guess it’s that inherent American sense of personal space that kicks in. But because Chris was here and hasn’t become immune to the constant badgering yet, we ended up having a really great experience with a bag vendor that made me laugh and remember that while it’s much more tiring, joking and a little trust gets you a lot further with people.

We took a trip to the market. I was looking for a bag to carry back some of the stuff that I had accumulated. We must’ve had at least 5 men following us trying to get our attention and trying to get us to come into their stores. I was bee-lining to the bag shops when one guy started walking with us and really would not let up. He pulled the usual “hey, don’t you recognize me?” line…to which I replied “no I don’t know you, and you don’t know me either.” He wouldn’t give up and said he was sure he knew me so I stopped, gave him a sarcastic look and said “oh yeah? What’s my name then?” To which he replied (in English)…. “I know your name…it’s Impossible!” Chris and I both thought that was pretty funny. And he took it upon himself to take us around to stores to help me find the bag I was looking for. When I didn’t see any, he started leading us away from the market to another street. I started getting a little nervous, and wouldn’t have even considered following him without a big strong guy by my side, but eventually I just said forget it, we’re going back to the market. He pleaded with us to follow him a little further. But I refused. We started walking away and from up behind us he comes RUNNING with a bunch of bags in tow. Exactly what I was looking for. Then he explains to me that he can’t sell on the street because if the police catch him he’ll be fined. Sure enough, in the next ten seconds the police turned the corner and he and his buddy gestured for us to follow them…hurriedly. So we did. And what did we stumble upon? A huge, airy shop full of men sewing bags, cloths, clothing, in every pattern and style imagineable. So we haggled for a while and I walked away satisfied with the bag I had chosen and him satisfied with succeeding in bringing a tourist to buy his goods.

It was such a small interaction, that lasted maybe 10 minutes, and not only makes a great story, but made me realize that giving in just a teeny bit to the bombardment can be absolutely worth it in the end. And now I have a friend and he actually DOES know my name, and next time I’m in Dakar I’ll find him and buy beautiful cloth for you all at home…on my HUGE Peace Corps salary (insert dripping sarcasm and sly smile).

Having the time to really sit down with Chris and talk to him about my work at site was extremely helpful. Though he admitted that he does not know the culture as well as I do of course, it was refreshing to hash out ideas and take some of the primary health problems one by one and go over new and innovative ways to tackle them. I appreciated this so much because coming up with things on your own is always difficult. One of the things I hope that the Peace Corps will implement are standardized To Do manuals written by other volunteers who have had successful projects.
Again, patience and understanding…development moves slowly.

Chris suggested that I take an itemized list of health concerns that I want to work on and how I’m addressing them so that you can all follow along. A sort of mini-work proposal if you will. I’m going to try and get around to that soon.

I guess I hope that some of you out there will be inspired to come visit or at least to maybe visit another place you’ve been meaning to go to.
Once you catch the travel bug…

The only bummer is that now I’m left alone again and dealing with going back to normal life.

Chris will literally be remembered and talked about for the rest of my family’s life. He was invited back anytime and told he could stay as long as he wanted. In their eyes coming to greet someone from halfway around the world is one of the greatest honors anyone could perform.

So who’s next?

2 comments:

wendy said...

Well Shmait, I've wanted to come visit you since you left, and after reading this, I want to come even more. I'm definitely gonna e working on it. I miss you more than you know.......

Mahamadou Lam said...

Cait,

I really don’t know what else to add about the trip. Your description was perfect and you are a better writer than me anyhow. I guess all I can do is offer a testimonial that will hopefully inspire other people to come visit.

I can safely say that this was the most amazing trip of my life because I was able to see parts of the country that a tourist would never see. If I had traveled to Senegal without knowing anyone who lived there I would have went to Dakar, Sally, and maybe Thies. But I would have always just been a tourist and only gone to the well advertised tourist trap type places. Because you’re there I was exposed to a more complete experience of Senegal.

I will never forget egg sandwiches in the St. Louis garage, eating the freshest meals in Matam (milk from the cow and goat I was petting that morning), the outdoor dance club in Thies, and the unique experience that is Senegalese public transportation. When I stop and think about it there are so many experiences I had because I was not just another tourist. The best part of the trip was getting to meet your family, they are truly amazing.

In my opinion, anyone who is able to come visit you and doesn’t is missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. Senegal is an amazing country that I hope I get to see again (hint hint). Thanks again for taking care of me. Like I told everyone who asked about my trip, I love traveling with you to places where I don’t speak the language because I can relax and let you deal with everything. :^)

Chris