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.