What to expect when you’re not expecting.
I think this was the title of a movie -rather a disaster I hear- starring Cameron Diaz and Elizabeth Banks. Although I am in no way of ‘expecting’ as the movie indicated, I do think it serves as a perfect subtitle to my trip to Dakar.
What was I expecting indeed? Getting lost from the airport to my airbnb place. Not being able to step one foot outside the door without being called ‘Chinois!’ or ‘Amigo!’ or ‘Ching-Chong’, like my 14 years of living in Nouadhibou had taught me, yet never accustomed me to. Being utterly unaware of how to find my way in town. So many concerns and anxieties, besides the main question ‘Does my research question actually make sense IRL?’.
What I was not expecting however is the wave of familiarity and memories that overcame me when I saw the little bit of the city from the plane. The lack of skyscrapers, the overwhelming presence of neutral toned colors – sand, tranquility, monotony – the flat houses invading one another on narrow streets, the occasional minarets, the vast parcels of destitute lands, and the multitude of cars – everything that I had forgotten, that time had tucked away in the further corners of my box of memories, came back. Granted, Dakar was not my hometown per se, it is actually a much more developed version of good old Nouadhibou (especially 20 years ago), but it didn’t matter. I could still recognize bits of my childhood in this West African capital.
Once in the city, I realized memories come in other forms than visual ones. It was not just the sight of ’boutiques’ that seem to have just popped out of nowhere from pieces of metal. It was more than the frequent horses (donkeys in Nouadhibou) dragging the carriages. It’s as if all my senses had been awoken by this trip back ‘home’.
It’s the heat of the scorching sun on your skin and in your eyes. It’s the smell and taste of the exhaust fumes from the run-down vehicles that constantly tingle the back of your throat (whoever thinks Africa is the land of pure air and nature blah blah has never been to African capitals). It’s the sound of the clip-clops from the horse carriages. It’s the sound of the distant, yet awfully close, call to prayers five times a day. It’s the tingle of the sand on your feet, it’s the struggle of trying to walk in that sand everywhere you go. It’s the constant thrill you get trying to cross a busy intersection, looking left and right, without the help of traffic lights – will you make it this time as well or will that car run you over? It’s that laugh and not-quite-shaking, not-quite-slapping of hands when you say something funny with your friends. It’s that smell of a mixture of piss and food gone bad from the heat and time that linger in the corner of every street.
It’s the feeling of finally being at home after all these years, something I have never been able to feel from the many instances I landed in Seoul, South Korea, the land of my passport.
Gosh, Africa (not to generalize), it’s good to be back.