What to expect when you’re not expecting

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.


View of Dakar from the plane.

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.



Big scary US

As I prepare myself for my trip to Chicago next month, I realize once more what a big scary country the US still is to me. I cannot, for the love of God, figure out why.

The main thing that scares me when I travel in general is the language.

I always have this image of myself, stranded in the middle of a busy plaza, with nobody being able to understand me, and I have to find my way, to no avail. If it were a cartoon, you’d probably see a little scared Asian girl with a huge carrier screaming ‘Noooooo!’ in the middle of it, with people hurriedly passing her by. This is why I’ve somewhat been cautious about making trips to Germany (although, yes, I know, most Germans speak English, and I eventually did visit Kohln and Dusseldorf) and despite all the nice things people say about Eastern Europe, that’s a region of my beloved Europe I’m not ready to venture just yet.

So, really, the US should not be a scary place… yet, it still is.

I’m just terrified of getting off at the O’Hare Airport in Chicago and making my way all the way south to the University of Chicago. I have to take the CTA train, get off AND oh dear lord, transfer to a bus, AND walk 7 blocks more. Oh my god, how am I supposed to do this? This fear is really totally unfounded, yet when I went to the US for the first time in the winter of 2010, I had my sister do EVERYTHING for me. From ordering my meals to answering random questions from strangers.

Yet, I have been the ‘interpreter’ of the family ever since middle school and high school during our family trips. I cannot imagine how I pulled it off, thinking back now, but I would accompany my parents to banks and hospitals and travel agencies (yes, those still had a function back then)… in Spain. Granted, I hated it, but nevertheless, I performed my duty as the docile eldest daughter while furiously glaring at my sister, who, in my opinion, was just as good (or bad?) in Spanish as I was. And the same went when we traveled to countries where English was fluently spoken by the general population, such as the Netherlands or Austria… We can safely assume that there is nothing physically wrong with my linguistic skills then.

Language set aside, I also went to Spain and France on my own, when I was (much) younger while still being in undergrad, and took trips to other parts of Europe while I was there. You could have dropped me anywhere on the map, within the confines of Western Europe, and I would have managed just fine. I still can. I got lost in the woods somewhere in Inverness, walked I don’t know how many miles from a train station to the hotel in London just to save a few pounds (which, really, isn’t worth it), and got mistaken for an Asian hooker in the middle of the street in Paris (I swear I was not dressed inappropriately), but I still love Europe and can easily feel at home there.

But with, what I think, decent English skills and a few more years (and experience, and hopefully wisdom?) gained, the US is still a daunting destination. Why? I really can’t say.

Hopefully this will change soon. At this point, it kinda has to…