I got back recently from a long stint on the road, spending two and a half weeks in Thies and then Dakar. I had a series of reasons to be in Thies, the first being my stage’s COS conference (stage is the training group I came in with, COS stands for Completion of Service). Yes, I and the group of people who arrived in Senegal in March 2014 are now preparing to go home. My official COS date is April 28th, a little over two months away.
For the first time, going home really hit me. Sure, it has been on my mind throughout my service. But being surrounded by people who are all in my position and talking about it for four straight days made it real. We had sessions about the looming future: readjustment, finding jobs, graduate school options, how to explain Peace Corps on your resume or at networking events, etc. We also had more immediately relevant sessions like how to say goodbye to your village. I found it difficult to put too much thought into the future. Perhaps this is a product of my integration into a culture where the future is by no means certain. I am very much still here in Senegal, both physically and mentally.
After COS conference, I spent two days at the beach with friends, before returning to Thies for four more days of meetings for various reasons, plus a day off where I was able to visit my host family from training. I hadn’t gone back to visit in a year and a half, and it was a trip to see them. They were impressed with my now much more advanced Pulaar (and ability to greet in Wolof), and I was amazed at how much all the kids had grown. The baby that was there when I arrived in Senegal was walking and talking and I didn’t even recognize her. My host-sister whom I had grown close with was in her last year of high school, hoping to go to University soon. It made me emotional to see the passage of time that I hadn’t been around to witness. It also made me think about all of the changes that I haven’t witnessed in my two years away from my own home.
After Thies I went to Dakar for the weekend. There was a mass gathering of the PCV and ex-pat community. Everyone came together for the annual WAIST softball tournament (which I wrote about last year). It was entertaining, and as it hit me at one point during the weekend, the last time I will be in Dakar until I go up there to come home.
I don’t think I’ve ever explained Senegalese transportation, but I think it provides a useful way to examine the ways in which I’ve changed over two years, so bear with me. Public transportation here is, well, difficult. The roads are bad, there are few ‘scheduled’ cars, and in a country the size of South Dakota it can take 12+ hours to get from one side to the other. The most common form of transportation that volunteers use is the sept-place, which is a station wagon crammed with 7 people (8 including the driver). There are garages in major cities where you can catch these sept-places, but you are at the mercy of waiting for other people that have the same destination. You buy your seat, and you wait for the car to fill up. This can take hours or minutes, depending on the day of the week, popularity of the destination, and other mysterious factors.
When I first got to Senegal, I was terrified to travel. Garages are hectic places. They are full of people trying to sell you things, begging for food/money, or tying to coerce you into taking their car. To make things worse typically the people who work at them only speak Wolof. Foreigners are often taken advantage of: asked to pay a higher price for their pass or for baggage (or both), misled into taking the wrong car, or getting ‘help’ from someone who demands payment afterwards. I’ve gotten in countless fights at garages, and come close to tears many times. It’s one place where I am forced to realize that even though I’ve lived here for so long, I’m still an outsider and will always be marked by the color of my skin.
At the beginning, I took comfort in the fact that I could usually travel with my volunteer friends. If I had a training or reason to be in Dakar, there was probably someone else from my region that had to go too. We would arrange travel plans and brave the system together. I would obsessively charge my iPod to make sure it would last the whole journey.
But now, I can and usually prefer to travel alone. I have enough basic Wolof to explain where I’m trying to go and to negotiate prices. The fewer white people I’m with the less I have to fight. And after that, 12 hours in the car without someone to speak English with can be a prime time for self-reflection. Where I used to listen to music constantly to pass the time, now I barely do. I mostly just sit and think.
Or sleep. While I used to be unable to sleep in these cramped conditions, I can now sleep no problem no matter what seat I’m in. I think it’s an evolved coping mechanism. This ride, in my conscious hours, I thought a lot about my time in Senegal.
I recognized all the major towns we passed through on the ride. The landscape is so familiar after two years. I didn’t over-pay for anything. After I was done negotiating my seat in the garage in Dakar, I heard two men talking about me in awe. “That white person speaks Pulaar AND Wolof!” Not true, but I’ll take it.
The first time I went to Dakar, I bought an entire duffel bag worth of snacks at the Westernized grocery store there to bring home. While I was there I ate pizza, burgers, ice cream — all of the things that you can’t get anywhere else in Senegal.
This time, I didn’t do any of these things. I even went inside the big grocery store to buy ingredients to cook dinner one night and didn’t buy one thing to bring home. I didn’t have ice cream once. I guess when you do without things for so long, you forget to seek them out.
And so, here I am. My days (and blog posts!) left in this country are numbered. It is hard to think about saying goodbye to this place. But I am trying to force myself to, little by little. If I don’t I fear it will take me by surprise. Long sept-place rides are a good opportunity. So are long afternoons drinking tea with my family. I saw a quote recently, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” This is the sentiment I’d like to focus on these next couple months. Sure, it’s hard to say goodbye. But that’s a good thing right? It illustrates the fullness of my life here, and how much I have gained in these two years. I wouldn’t have it any other way.