Day Six: From Dakar to Toubacouta

It was six hours on the plane from Belgium to Senegal and then the journey really began. Goodbye to the world of winter coats and mittens. Lingering were long-sleeved shirts and jeans. Another world said hello. Ousmane picked Jo and me up at Dakar Airport (Lydia and the kids would be flying on Christmas Day). The sun was declining but the heat still made its way to my bones.

Like so many cities eastward across the pond, I never got to know Dakar. The airport was far away from downtown. The highway taking us four hours to the east was the only paved road I saw.

Minutes from our beginning, I saw my first wild donkey of the journey. Soon a few goats came meandering by. Later a pig or two emerged from the darkness to say hello. I remembered: this is normal here. And I remembered something else: people are everywhere, hanging with friends, some strolling casually about a metre from speeding traffic. I saw piles of huge green melons accompanied by a lone host, simple shops crammed inside and out with black folks, and huge tractor trailer trucks parked almost everywhere. A reddish dirt covered the land, broken up by scrubby bushes and strange-to-me overarching trees.

Jo announced that we were going to buy groceries in the next town – Mbour. I was expecting the tiny rooms and roadside stalls that I had seen last time in Senegal. But we pulled into the parking lot of what looked like a mini-Costco. “Woh. This does not compute.” Shopping carts. Rows of cans and packages. Counters labelled above within “Mon Boucher” (my butcher), “Mon Poissonnier” (my fishmonger) and “Ma Boulanger” (my baker). Checkout counters with conveyor belts and scanners. I was almost back in London, Ontario, Canada.

What snapped me awake were the folks walking the aisles. Women in startling colourful dresses with matching hair wraps. Some men (the unwesterned ones) flowing in their floor-length robes of white, grey and even turquoise. Babies snuggled low on their mommas’ backs. One stared long at some fellow from Canada.

Jo asked me to contribute to our carts. Bissap are bushes plumb with berries which Senegalese women harvest so that Africa can taste bissap juice and jam. Alas I couldn’t find any bissap jars. What was there was baobab jelly, made from the iconic baobab tree. I couldn’t resist. At this moment, I still don’t know what it tastes like. Soon I will.

Our carts were mostly full as we walked to the checkout. A young girl with purple hair was scanning the purchases of the previous customer. When the belt was clear, I started piling our items. I soon realized that the belt was not moving, so I began moving our stuff closer to her as she scanned. And I kept it up till we were done. At the end, she gazed at me sweetly and said “Merci”. I returned the sweetness.

Back on the road, the darkness illuminated all the moving human beings. Gas stations, storefronts, the front doors of homes were all places to gather. Wispy shapes blended with the chairs and trees.

Ahead, from my vantage point in the second row of the van, the rear ends of huge trucks loomed above. Time and again, the lorries crawled along at maybe thirty miles an hour. I breathed in their gas fumes and coughed. This went on for at least two hours and my lungs were sad. The rest of me was just plain tired. Toubacouta, dear friend, where are you?

We rolled in to Jo and Lydia’s home after midnight. In pretty much collapse mode, I sat down with our welcoming companions Ice Tea and Fatou, devouring a long loaf of bread lathered with a chocolate peanut butter spread.

And so to the closing of the eyes.

Day Five: Coughing and Hanging Out

So much happens in a day. I feel like focusing on just two aspects of Friday.

***

I’d been hoping that my head cold would dissipate in time for Senegal. Tylenol was doing some good but overnight on Thursday the coughing was getting deeper and more prolonged. The phlegm was going to yellow and brown, and there was lots of it. My travel memories have often included bronchitis. Did I really want to be going through that in a country that would have little medical assistance for me? Strangely the answer was long in coming.

I tossed and turned. I could just hope for the best. I only had one more day before flying and why rush around trying to find a doctor? An hour later, I marvelled at such logic. “Bruce! Your life matters. Go get some antibiotics because that’s probably what you need.” (Sigh) Okay, you’re right.

After considering the hospital a few kilometres down the road, I talked to Lore, the only one home. She thought her mom Lydia could set me up with her doctor. Within fifteen minutes, Lore had talked to her mom, Lydia found out that her doctor didn’t have time to see me, she got an recommendation for another physician, an appointment was set, and Lydia was driving home to take me there. Woh. There’s a woman on a mission!

An engaging young man of perhaps 30 welcomed me to his clinic. He examined me, asked some questions and zipped off two prescriptions – for an antibiotic and a powerful puffer. “An early stage of pneumonia. The antibiotics will stop that.” Wow. Fast, efficient and so kind. Plus my total cost for the examination and drugs was only $125.00 Canadian. Lydia drove me to the pharmacy, then back home, and then she was back to work. Thank you, my friend. I get to be safely in Senegal. Having no alcohol for a week is no problem.

***

The family had dinner yesterday at Anja and Curd’s home. Baziel is Jo and Lydia’s son and Olivia is Anja and Curd’s daughter. The teens spent two weeks with me in Toronto and London, Ontario last August. We had a marvelous time.

Last night there was a table for the seven adults and one for the five kids. The after dinner talk for us older folks was fast and furious and mostly in Flemish, which made sense. Someone would often add some English and I’d respond. After awhile, however, I wanted to sit with Olivia and Baziel, who were watching TV with a young boy. So I roamed over and added myself to the couch. The show was about a teacher becoming a mixed martial arts fighter but I couldn’t hear much of anything. The kids had Flemish subtitles to go by. There was far too much punching for me but I knew I would hang in.

I simply wanted to be with Baziel and Olivia, even though we weren’t talking. The three of us had formed a bond during the summer and it was still alive and well. We didn’t need to talk as the onscreen hero became even more heroic.

The kids presented me with a book of photos from our Canadian adventures. We did so many cool things. By far the best of the book were the inscriptions inside the front cover. Olivia said “Every woman wants to marry you.” That’s definitely not my impression but how sweet of her to say it. Baziel wrote “When I’m old and about to die, I will remember our time in Canada.” Oh, yes … so will I.

***

So life is profoundly good. The whims of the body can’t touch the majesty of the spirit. And that majesty resides in us all.

Day Four: A Walk on the Wild Side

I helped out for an hour yesterday at Lydia and Jo’s funeral services business, taking tape off a flat of urn boxes and then placing them on shelves according to colour. It felt great to contribute.

She had to continue working after that and suggested I go for a walk. Lydia knew of a scenic route that would take me into Oudenaard, where I could meet up with daughter Lore at 5:00 pm, after her exam.

Lydia wrote out detailed directions, naming all the streets and a few landmarks. As she told me all this, I followed along with Google Maps on my phone. Piece of cake!

Soon I was out and about on the streets of Maarkedal, joying in my touristic explorations. Ah ha – there’s the Boulangerie Vermeire that Lydia mentioned. A bakery sounds good to me. My purpose is not merely to admire architecture, but also to eat yummy food. Inside, a large custard tart beckoned me and resistance was futile. I munched as I strolled on, happy in the world.

The street curved past city hall and a towering church. Lydia’s directions were spot on. Okay, jog right at the t-intersection and find the sign for Ladeuze (a street). Yes, there it is. Now onwards to an imposing cream coloured house, then turn left onto a narrow paved path (about two feet wide).

The next half hour was bliss … fields to the left and right, cutesy homes out in the middle of nowhere, a stream cutting in from the left and accompanying me on my journey. A ringing bell came from behind and I made way for a smiling cyclist. And another. Then an unsmiling runner. We shared the path. Past a wee stone bridge, I climbed onto a vista of farm and home, clumps of trees and a meandering waterway. Such a gentle place was surrounding me.

And then …

No more named streets
No more juice in my phone
A niggly trembling in the heart

I paused. I breathed. I smiled. This was going to work out. I’ll guess about the turns. I’ll ask locals to point the way. I have Lydia’s list of street names. I’ll be there for Lore.

The path widened into a narrow road, with railway tracks joining me on the left. Ahead was a woman walking her dog. I never caught up with her to say hello. The land was slumbering under a grey sky.

“Turn left at the Nissan,” said the instructions, assuming I was on the road called Diependale. I wondered if that was a big assumption. I walked into a shop and faced a rough-looking fellow. “English?” I intoned. The reply was a vigorous shake of the head and a flood of Flemish. I pointed to “Diependale” on the sheet, and the gentleman shoved his hands downward, which I took to mean I was in the right place.

So onward, and soon a Nissan dealership presented itself. There was supposed to be a bridge over the Scheldt River but none graced my eyes. A gentleman was sitting on a bench. “English?” > “A little.” A minute later I was pointed to the river and city hall beyond. My step sprinted.

What astonishing beauty glowed from the walls of the building. I broke away from the wonderment as I realized I didn’t know what time it was, nor the location of the Tacambaro statue where Lore and I were to meet.

The solution was obvious: go into another shop. The woman inside was surrounded with jewelry displays, and was fully anchored in English. She went outside with me and pointed past the city hall. “Go straight. You’ll see the statue.”

And so it was. Lydia had shown me a photo of a young woman reposing in marble, and after several blocks a shining whiteness parted the moving cars and people. I stood beside the lady at 4:50 pm. Lore came along shortly thereafter.

It was a grand day for walking into the unknown, trusting that the goodness of the world would blossom.

Day Three: Snoozing and Awakening

After a thirteen-hour sleep from Tuesday to Wednesday, I followed that up with a two-hour daytime nap and then another ten hours of slumber last night. Part of it is jet lag and part a head cold. Whatever the causes, I’ve been good at accepting the current whims of the body.

Lydia and were talking yesterday on the long and wide couch in their TV room. She gave up consciousness first and I could feel the pull to join her. Even though the voice implored me to stay awake, the intensity was less than the day before. My eyelids closed and so did my awareness of the Nukerke world.

A few lifetimes later, someone’s hand was on my shoulder and “Bruce” floated in. I raised my head to see a woman leaning over me. Who was this spirit? Was it my mom? Was it Jody?

It was Sabrine. She and I had become good friends when we went to Senegal together last Christmas. I smiled … on the outside and all through me. I brought myself up to vertical and then to my feet. We hugged – the gentle prolonged way.

Sabrine and I walked to the dining room table to join Lydia, Georgette and Marie-Paule. Lydia said that I looked so “cute” sleeping away on the couch. I was too dozey to argue, and anyways I’m totally willing to be a cute 70-year-old.

I sat across from Sabrine and tried to stay with her. She talked about a current challenge in her life, and so deserved to have my full attention. Alas, that was not what she received. I tried so hard to concentrate but I was fading in and out. Other conversations were wafting over the table – in French and Flemish – joining my English one. Where was I? Where was Sabrine?

Even amid the dreariness, I felt my commitment to “be with” Sabrine, to give her all of me, to bring the space between us alive. There was a perfect intention and an oh so imperfect execution. I saw this … and smiled. I know that my love reached her in her moments of anguish. Something far beyond the realities of my body was moving from me to her.

I wasn’t bleary-eyed all day. In the evening, Lydia and I watched a movie on the sleeping couch. Partway through the adventure onscreen, I got it: however I am in mind, spirit and body is just fine. Love finds its way through it all.

Day Two: Jet Lag and Silence

Let’s start with the present moment, which is always a fine place to begin. I’ve just awakened from a 13-hour sleep, and Tylenol Decongestant has emerged as my new best friend. I’m wrapped up in a cozy chair in Lydia and Jo’s living room in Nukerke, Belgium. Either the chair or the world is spinning – I’m not sure which. The family is off to work or school (Lore and Baziel both have exams this morning).

Who is in the house is Lydia’s mom Marie-Paule, their aunt/sister and the weekly housekeeper. I’m sad but accepting that I can’t remember these last two women’s names. “You’re not Superman, Bruce.”

Another relevant fact is that all of these folks are French-speaking. Marie-Paule has a few words of English but I suspect the other two are unilingual. Then there’s the reality that I haven’t studied French in 2019 to prep for my return to Senegal. I summed up my current situation to Marie-Paule with “Je suis trop fatigué pour parler.” (I’m too tired to talk.) Sad again … since I love talking.

My two flights yesterday, to Dublin and Brussels, probably totalled seven hours. In Dublin Airport, I met a lovely young woman who insisted on serving me coffee, as long as I insisted on paying her. She spoke like a song, reminding me of all the Irish commercials I’ve seen in my time. I was tempted to ask her to marry me but demurred, aware of the fifty years between us. I loved her until she mentioned that I should be drinking Guinness. That bitter beer isn’t for me but the young lass and I are still good friends.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Lorraine and Sean on the way to Brussels. They’re off on a three-day getaway to the Christmas markets of the big city. For the second time yesterday, I visualized marriage but then concluded that Sean would disapprove of the idea. Lorraine spoke with great animation of spirit and I felt at home with them both.

Lydia and her best friend Liesbet picked me up at Brussels Airport. Truly a blessed reunion with my comrade of heart. After dropping Liesbet off, Lydia and I rendezvoused with son Baziel, whom I had hosted for two weeks in Canada last summer. Such a hug between two intergenerational friends.

We got home around 11:00 am, and so began my jetlag ritual. It’s simple, really: stay awake till bedtime in the new place. My goal was 8 or 9 … many hours away. It’s fascinating to see my mind gradually fade away. Clarity of thought goes off to visit someone else. Just for comfiness, I lay down on the couch that I’m currently staring at. Big mistake! Eyelids closing, body sinking towards sleep, unable to process the reality that sleeping daytime Tuesday means not much of the soft stuff Wednesday and Thursday. Wake up, Bruce! Move around. Ahh … go for a walk.

I turned left on Lydia’s road and stumbled towards the small city of Ronse, only a few kilometres away. Ancient row houses greeted me down the hill into town. I came upon a few people enroute but chickened out when it came to say hi. I rationalized that I don’t speak Flemish and they probably don’t speak English. Plus I was so dreary in the head. Still, way down deep I knew that I had fallen short of what the world needs.

Above the red slate rooves, I glimpsed a steeple. It was a magnet. I wanted to sit down somewhere out of the cold and I urged the church door to be open. It was. St. Hermes Basilica was completed in 1526 and welcomed me inside its expanse. Throughout my sojourn within the holy walls, I was alone. Statues, paintings and tapestries hung above me. A winding staircase in the middle of the sanctuary led to a platform from which the priest gives his homily. All was still.

I sat in a padded chair and felt my eyes closing. I teetered to my right and brought myself back. And then some being must have given me a quiet energy. For half an hour, I gazed at the majesty of it all. Soon I realized that complete silence wrapped me in its bosom. No pitter patter of feet. No ringing bells. No sounds of cars outside. It was totally quiet, and I bathed in it. The small voice inside expected interruptions to come but there were none.

Perhaps Sara Teasdale said it best:

From what undreamed of depth within your heart
Have you sent forth the hush that mqkes us free
To hear an instant, high above the earth’s stress
The silent music of infinity?

Day One: Departure Lounge

I’m in Toronto Airport, on the cusp of a grand adventure. Forty-two days from now, I’ll set foot in Canada again. Until then, I’m an honorary Belgian, Senegalese and American. All privileges. During this trip, will I be writing you every day, lilting over the events and people, the landscapes and architecture? I hope so, because no doubt there will be much to describe, to feel into, to celebrate.

There’s a main reason I travel: to come together with people, folks whose outward lives often seem so different from mine, but whose souls resonate with this Bruce. And here they are sitting in front of me in the departure lounge:

A tall young man in dreadlocks and Adidas sweats, fiercely punching his cell phone keys

A middle-aged Jewish couple, she with a head scarf and he with what I’d call a beanie, staring out into the rainy darkness

A well-bearded fellow resplendent in long hair, shorts, argyle blue knee socks and a purple baseball cap whose logo I can’t read

A cute blond teenager, alternating between her pink-edged iPad and her phone, with a glimpse of a smile on her face

A distressed looking Aer Lingus employee dressed in a sharp black suit, him no doubt dealing with the realities of a late-arriving airplane

A young man bouncing on his father’s lap, blissfully unaware of our overnight flight to Dublin, Ireland (and perhaps, like me, venturing on in the morning to Brussels, Belgium).

All human beings, doing the best they can to live this life with grace. Me too.

On we go across the big pond …

Unbidden

Words and images float into my brain these days and I don’t know where they come from. It’s not like I’m furrowing my brow and forcing things out from the inside. They just emerge … erupt … bubble up. I don’t even know if this stuff means anything, and I don’t care about that. I’m fascinated with the flow.

Should I be more focused, more intentional? Some small voice within says so. But yes, it is small. There’s a far larger span of being that welcomes the uncertainty, the non-sense, the misty whiteout that often comes close. (I look at the last sentence and wonder at the potential “craziness” there. And I know it’s just fine.)

Lying in bed as the sun rose this morning, I was flooded with the vibrancy of an emerald green field festooned with red flowers. I could smell their breathing. And the dew sat on the shoots poking out of the soil. It was wondrous, and seemed to come not from within me but around me.

Later in the morning, over coffee and a bagel, there came a starry, starry night of village homes, each twinkling on the earth. “This makes no sense,” volunteers the itsy bitsy self that cruises the surface of this Bruceness. (Wow! That doesn’t make sense either. Should I stifle the flow of pictures and colours and words, in an ode to normality? No, I shouldn’t.)

And then there are the words. In their own time, they come by to say hi. Such as “dearly” and “goodly”. I wonder why the “ly”, attached to words that don’t need them. Is there some recess in my mind that provides lots of room for the strange to fall in?

“There are many ways,” offers some far off and yet intimately close being. Or “living in the world at ease”. Or …

The underworld speaks

Love them all … light the world

Stand still in the ocean

Ask them … they know

Follow the drinking gourd [That’s a song, but why here and why now?]

Underwear king

Absent without leave [from some movie]

Sliding away from the vertical

Beckoning you nearer … Please come here

Space walks together, tethered to some immensity

Quiet in the space between your words

Lying on the softness, calling for home

There is no plan, no strategy, no structure. There is simply a broad opening of the mouth, happy with whatever comes forth. And a trust that what emerges will be good, be kind, be of service to … someone.

Frozen II

At the movies tonight, I was swept up into the blast of Elsa and Anna.  I didn’t see the original Frozen and that didn’t matter.  The intensity of II was extreme and I fell in love with the two heroines.

Right now, I can’t remember much about the film, which is thoroughly strange, since I just got home.  So how the heck can I write about it?  Somehow I’m confident that what will come out of my mind will touch home.

Elsa and Anna have huge eyes and the contact between them goes deep.  There’s an aliveness in the relationships here, a sense of going to the core of things, casting off the trivial, and seeing the beauty of the human being facing you.

Elsa hears a voice calling her forward to the unknown.  The music swells as she steps out into the fullness of life.  At one point she walks resolutely into the mist, somehow knowing that she will be safe as the landmarks disappear.  Hers is indeed a calling, and she holds her head high as she embraces the mystery of it all.

There are separations and there are joinings.  The ebbs and flows of living are well represented but the ebbs can’t stop the surge of spirit.  When Elsa sings, there’s a brilliant intensity, a full-throated volume as her mouth opens.  No half measures.  Something huge is propelling her into the marketplace of life, grappling with shallow forces and keeping wide eyes on the vibrancy beyond the mundane.

So it remains for all of us to reach out, touch our dreams, stay true to the world we know in our hearts and want to bring forth in reality.  You don’t have to be pretty or handsome, young and virile, or wise beyond your years.  You just have to see it and want it real bad.

Elsa and Anna stand tall in their vision and in their love for each other. They beckon us onward to our own individual promised lands and to a world that serves all beings.  We dare not settle for less.

The Parade

Every year, on the first Sunday evening of December, the fine citizens of Belmont, Ontario are treated to our Santa Claus Parade, complete with the big guy.  And every year since 1846 I’ve dressed up as Charles Dickens, handing out candy to the short people.

Yesterday morning I got a call from John, the owner of FreshMart.  He sponsors the float that I start off walking beside.  Every year, I’ve never been able to keep up with the rolling hay-bale bed full of kids, because children at the curb deserve their candy and a few words of greeting.

“Bruce, I have 250 candy canes.  Do you think that’ll be enough?”  The Belmont parade has always been a popular destination but as we spoke the freezing rain was coating the world.  I’m no meteorologist or predictor of consumer trends.  However …  “No.  Make it 400.”  I have no idea where that estimate came from.  It didn’t feel like it grew out of my cognitive mind.

I arrived at the staging grounds at 5:30, a half hour before the big rollout.  My task was clear: find kids on floats.  They’d be candyless and probably would remain so for the duration of the parade.  I bet I gave out forty candy canes before the proceedings started proceeding.  Right away, I saw the challenge before me.  Candy canes have their hooked ends, which in a bag tend to resemble a glob of clothes hangers.  Try to get the buggers apart.  Happily, my finger dexterity skills improved as we hit the streets (actually just Main Street).

And now we begin.  Just a sprinkling of kids on the first block, but they were already loving the glitz and glamour that passed before them.  The candy wasn’t bad either.  I saw a girl I had volunteered with three years ago in Grade 6.  She opened her arms for a hug.  I asked if she was under 12, my fictitious limit for bestowing canes.  With a smile she said “Yes”.  During the parade, I asked many adults the same question.  The hardy souls who uttered the same lie got rewarded for their bravado with one of the little hooked things.

In a parade, if a candy dispenser has a favourite line to say, he can do that over and over again since every person is new and fresh.  I loved approaching a little girl or boy and saying “Would you like candy or lettuce?”  I’m sure you can figure out the predominant response, but there were a few kids who bubbled up with “Lettuce!”, to which I replied with “Oh, I just gave out my last bunch two blocks ago!”

So many wide eyes looking up at me with their bags open, hoping that this guy in a top hat, fake moustache and trenchcoat would drop something in.  I didn’t disappoint.  I have a certain radar when it comes to locating children.  I encouraged their nutritional awareness by often commenting “Candy is one of Canada’s Four Major Food Groups … Sugar!”  The parents smiled, knowing that I had spoken the truth.

With two blocks to go, the FreshMart float was long gone, and I was passed by Santa Claus himself.  He and I made eye and wave contact and I silently uttered an oath in favour of a red Lambourghini.  Santa zooming ahead meant the parade was over and families were drifting off to their cars.  Still with candy in my bag, I chased folks down a side street, foisting my wares on unsuspecting but grateful young ones.

I ended my evening walking back towards my car.  Within the festive beauty of Belmont Community Park, I rummaged in my bag for the dregs.  Four adults approached.  I could tell they were all under 12, and so they received candy canes in their palms.  I went to a Christmas display and dumped the contents onto the frozen grass.  Merely fragments of candy remained.

Hey, John … 400 did nicely!  And all was well in the world.

Laughing About It All

In the Evolutionary Collective, we have the opportunity to meet online several times a week. During part of our hour together, each of us is paired with another participant to do the mutual awakening practice. Today I was listening to a fellow from Florida who’s fairly new to the EC.

“Maury” kept saying all these very cool, outside-of-the-box things. My eyes continually widened, and I started laughing, over and over again. I knew I was supposed to keep silent as he spoke but I was too enthralled to keep my mouth closed. I was swept up into the celebration of his words, and my joy kept exploding with his. Deep belly laughs burst out of me. Lovely.

Right now, I’m trying to think of the stuff he said and I can’t remember a darned thing! And guess what? I’m laughing again. Oh, this is strange … and delightful. Why am I so happy with the forgetting of today’s moments?

Tonight I’m going to a meeting in London that probably will last till 11:00. Up until five minutes ago, my understanding was that freezing rain will start around 10:00, leaving me with a wild ride back to Belmont. Now AccuWeather says the downflow will begin in the wee hours. Still, when I thought that I’d be slip-sliding away on my return home, I began laughing again. I imagined my new friend Ruby floating into the ditch and getting banged up some … and still guffaws poured out. What kind of insanity is this? I can’t just laugh my way through all the trials and tribulations of life (can I?)

I’m reminded of “Dustin”, a Buddhist meditation teacher of mine from years ago. He told us yogis about a teacher of his. The very old guy had developed a terminal illness. Time was short. He gathered his students around him, including Dustin, and proceeded to tell them that he had maybe a week left. Sadness poured down over the group. And then the esteemed one began laughing uproariously … “Yes! Only a few more days!” Dustin was stunned, dumbfounded, and any other incredulous word you can think of. Woh … so am I.

***

So, my friends, shall we just chuckle our way through the journey?
Shall we be totally outrageous here?
Shall we drink deep of the mysterious elixir?
What do you say?