In Senegal without Sunscreen

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The layout of the Dakar Airport arrivals terminal is terrible, and just when you think you’ve made it out of the gates, a long, perplexing wrought-iron fence blocks your way, the only thing between you and the city. I had just stepped off the small plane I’d taken from Ziguinchour across the Gambia. This was the second time that fence had vexed me. Try to get around it one way and you’re led toward the predatory taxi drivers; go the other way and you’re lead into the writhing snake-pit of SIM card salesmen.

I’d had enough stress for the day. I hitched up my pack and hopped over the fence. It was less stable than it looked and I almost fell flat on the other side. My un-Olympian landing drew some stares from bystanders.

“HEY — STOP! POLICE!”

One of the SIM card salesman had shouted at me, and now he was staring me down like I was a criminal. I thought he must be joking.

Sois serieux; be serious,” I told him, laughing.

He reached across the fence and grabbed my wrist with abruptness that was no joke. “POLICE!” he screamed again.

A grip’s weak spot is in the thumb. Twist your arm down and away from an assailant and he’ll find it impossible to hold onto you.

Once free I darted out of the man’s reach and turned on my heel, glancing worriedly at the gaggle of cops at the taxi stand. They seemed not to have heard.

Anger made me freeze in my tracks. I turned and looked the guy between the eyes. Bristling like a lion, I pointed a finger in his face. The venom in my voice surprised both of us.

Ne me touche pas! Don’t ever touch me!”

The man was silent. I stormed off, and didn’t stop walking until I’d hiked two miles along the dusty urban highway to my AirBnB. I rang the bell but there was no answer, so I sat on the stoop, still fuming. In a country with no rules, no traffic regulations, no discernible sense of order, someone tries to have me arrested for jumping over a fence? Hypocrisy triggers a special kind of resentment. Of course it’s different for tourists, I thought, just like everything else.

I remembered I had business to take care of. I dusted myself off to look presentable and walked around the block to have a word with that damn bunch of pharmacists. Here was the catharsis I needed. I’d spent two weeks thinking of all the mean things I could say to them. I strutted into the pharmacy like my spurs were janglin’, and regarded the display of sunscreen with haughty arrogance.

A man approached me, smiling. “You’d like to buy some crème solaire, monsieur?

“No thank you,” I said, “I’ve already bought some, you see.”

“Oh yes, you were in here a few weeks ago, I remember,” he said.

“You remember when you sold me sunscreen?” I said.

“I do.”

“And you remember me paying €30 for it?”

“Yes…”

I threw a tube of Vaseline on the counter in front of him. “Why, then, did you give me a bag containing that?”

The man looked blankly at the tube, battered and squashed from weeks in the back of taxis and in the bottom of my pack. Beside it I threw the tattered box, crumpled receipt, and a handful of dirt and leaves which had been in my pockets. With a look I dared him to deny the charge. Here was my chance at revenge for every mistreatment, every scam attempt, every prix touristique I’d been subjected to by the Senegalese. Self-righteous vigor burned in my veins and I gathered up another storm of venomous words, waiting for his reply.

“I gave you that, sir?”

“Yes you did. And I jumped on a bus to Tambacounda without noticing. And I got burnt very badly, see?” I pointed to my nose.

“Well I’ll give you a refund, then.”

For a moment I was at a loss for words. I’d got myself all geared up for another shouting match. I didn’t want a refund. That would be a  lame conclusion to something which had had me seething since the first day of my trip, and I wanted to fight it out. I suddenly remembered how uncharacteristically I’d snapped at the guy at the airport. What had this country done to me?

“At the same time you sold me a regimen of doxycycline,” I added, “which has the nasty side-effect of causing moderate to severe phototoxic reaction when the patient is exposed to sun.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” the cashier said woefully as he handed me a wad of bills.

I accepted the cash, thanked the man, and turned to go. Before reaching the door, I turned back to the counter.

“You know what, I’d better pay you for the Vaseline since I destroyed it,” I said.

Stan, my AirBnB host, answered his door. He beamed at me.

“It’s great to see you! Of course you can wait here for your flight. Come into the courtyard and meet my other guests, we’ve just ordered pizza. No, don’t worry about it, it’s my treat.”

Stan is a very soothing person. Born in Senegal, raised in Paris, he somehow speaks English with a thick East London accent which really helped me relate to him. I sat in his courtyard with some young backpackers — an Italian, a Catalan, and an Indian — and we ate pizza and shared a cantaloupe.

Stan was thrilled at how I’d spent the weeks since I’d last seen him. “That’s a very original adventure,” he said. “Do you want me to do some laundry for you? Your clothes are filthy!”

“It’s just ash,” I said. “I walked through a burnt forest for three days.”

“It looks like you got pretty scorched by the sun,” Stan said.

“I don’t even want to get into that,” I said.

Stan laughed. “So will you come back to Senegal for a second visit? You were here for such a short time.”

I had to pause at this, even though I’d been asking myself that question a lot since leaving Ziguinchour. Stan got up to answer the door. The Catalan had gone out and come back with a crate of cold beer; he passed them around.

“Do you mind?” I asked Stan as he sat back down, “I  know you’re a Muslim.”

“No worries, you’re my guest,” he smiled. I cracked the beer open and let the cold carbonation sting my mouth while Stan enlightened me on the eccentricities of Senegalese Islam, which he broadly disapproved of, favoring a more formal, modernized creed. I’ve heard similar philosophy from Muslims his age all around the world. But everything he said about religion in Senegal was new to me.

“Honestly this trip has been very taxing for me,” I told him, “I was exposed to a lot of difficulties I wasn’t prepared for.”

“Focus on improving your French,” he ribbed me, “that will bring understanding and earn you the support of others. And you’ll be able to hold up your end of an argument! In Africa, that’s important.”

I wasn’t so sure. Isn’t the greater part of communication non-verbal? I’d done a lot of successful arguing during the past two weeks. I’d also made a lot of friends. The fact of the matter is that if Senegal is, as Lonely Planet calls it, “Africa for beginners”, I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for the Sub-Sahara at all.

It’s an intense experience, when you’re not only estranged culturally and linguistically, but something more, something unique. It’s like sitting in the tropical sun without any sunscreen.

But I know from experience that travel memories take on a rosy tint. It wouldn’t be long at all before I’d forget the touts, the scammers, the frustrating public transport, the heat exhaustion, the pain in my wrist from being grabbed. The things I’d remember: drinking hibiscus syrup in the shade of baobabs, wading in the cool Gambia, being served French cuisine by candle-light in a cinder block hut in a mangrove forest on an island, sitting with fishermen and grilling fresh-caught crab over coals on a beach.

I think I made up my mind on the spot. “I’ll definitely return to Senegal some day,” I told Stan.

That night I took a taxi to the airport to board the first in a long series of flights. I slumped in my seat and took a long look at myself. My clothes were covered in ash, my arms had been scratched to pieces from scrabbling through the forest. I had sand in every crease from having slept on the beach at Cap Skirring. On the positive side, my sunburn was fading; I’d started to develop a tan.

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