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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Mykel's Africa Blog Chapter 16: Behind Nirvana

Mykel's Africa Blog

Chapter 16: Right Behind Nirvana

Wealth is the desire for isolation, its greatest achievement is isolation, its godliness is in its isolation. --E.L. Doctorow

I write this on my last evening in The Gambia. I'm sitting on the bed with a bunch of Gambian students. It's Saturday night, so they'll be up a long time. It's hot in here: a small concrete room with a single lightbulb, and an electrical switch hanging by one red and one yellow wire.

Without ventilation, it's unbearably humid, just what the mosquitoes like... besides me. They LOVE me.

More on that in a later blog. Let's go back to my last days in Senegal.
I've switched hosts. I've come from where, before you enter the bathroom, they ask “do you need water?” which is code for are you going to take a shit? If the answer is yes, then you need water to poor down the toilet to flush and to wash your left hand... they don't do the toilet paper thing here.

I've transferred from hosts who wouldn't let me out of the house unless accompanied by a family member. Who, even in my room, constantly check up on me: Are you sleeping? Are you fine? Are you hungry? I can't make a move on my own. I feel smothered, though I really love the family.

And family is the main thing here in Senegal. It's a cliche. Two Senegalese men meet each other on the street. They shake hands:

How are you?” says one.

Fine, how are you?” says the other.

Good, very good. And how's your first wife,” says the first one.

Good, very good. And how's your first wife,” says the other.

She's very good. Fine and healthy,” he answers. “And how's your second wife?”

She's fine,” the other man answers. “Living a bit far, but very good. How's your second wife.”

Fine, fine,” says the first man. “You know how it is. And how's your oldest son?”

Oh he's in school now,” comes the answer. “Studying very hard. And how's your oldest boy?”

He's a bit stubborn,” says the first man, “But he's a good boy. And your daughter? The little one?”

And this goes on. Not only through the first, second and sometimes third wife, but through parents, aunts, uncles, in-laws. It's standard operating procedure here. And they expect it of guests too. (Check out my first and failed host(ess). She dumped me because I didn't inquire about her family.

And after this oh-so Senegal experience, where do I go?:

Private guard outside the house gate, swimming pool, bathrooms with hot water... several... one bigger than my NYC apartment. And toilets? The queen of England could proudly place her ass on this one. It's like a porcelain t-cup. Check it out:

And art? Up the wazoo. African all of it... but everything. In the house of my last host, the only wall decorations were family photos. Maybe something clipped from a magazine. But here... it's African Art, African Art, African Art. Even the furniture is a kind of African... but not what you'd find in the home of any local I've visited!

Even the serving trays are decorated in some kind of Aunt Jemimah-ish African art that most Americans would find... er... camp.

I've had the cook prepare a nice dinner,” my hostess tells me. She's French, but her English is excellent.

I hope it's not rice and fish,” I say.

She laughs, “No, I don't think any course includes rice and fish. And after, if you want, we can go listen to some live African music. It's free entrance.”

Course? Yowsah! Feast tonight! Soup, salad, quiche, froi gras, strawberries and cream for dessert followed by real-brewed coffee. Hoooeeey!

And it's about time to see some live African music. It's one of the reasons I came here in the first place.

Magdali, my hostess, takes me on the house tour, explains which shower is best, introduces me to the family (Boys, 16,14,8 Girl 7), then says.

Just leave your stuff Mykel. We've got to get to the art show.”

We get in the car, the chauffeur drives us to the French Cultural Center, and we get out for the art show. Magdali's husband meets us.

He's a friendly guy with pretty good English. His company is sponsoring the art show: a Graffitti artist/spray paint show with artists from all over the world. You can see a few of my photos of it by clicking on the picture below.

Grafitti Art Show --Dakar
Yo! This is an art opening... Muslim country or not, that means beer, wine, and chicken on wooden sticks. I leave the display area and head for the free booze. Once a beer is in hand, I hang, watching a live demonstration of the art of spray painting.

Que pienses tu?” comes a voice behind me.

This isn't the first time people just start talking to me in Spanish. Happens all the time... and I like it... I wouldn't want anyone to mistake me for an American.

Pienso que hay algo bien y algo...” I hold out my open left hand, palm down, and shake it right to left.

The guy talking to me is Senegalese, and because I've been speaking broken French since I started this trip, my Spanish has become contaminated.

[THE BOARD THEORY OF LANGUAGE PRODUCTION: I think human brains... mine at least... are divided into Native Language and OTHER. When you converse in your native language, it's effortless. When you switch to FOREIGN, and you need a word you don't have in one language... another word just pops in. Your brain doesn't care as long as it's FOREIGN. Sometimes I don't even know what language it's in... just that it's the right word. -end-]

... comme si, comme sa.” I finish.

He laughs.

Just then, my hostess steps in... in English. “I didn't really see anything inspiring here,” she says. “Did you?”

Well,” I tell her, “I liked that ying-yang one.”

I guess so,” she says, “but whenever you're ready to go, so am I.”

That might mean skipping my second free beer... but I get a full course dinner... with no rice and fish!

How 'bout now?” I say.

My hostess's husband is driving the SUV himself. Magdali and I pack in... I get in the back, and the husband maneuvers around the tight streets.

I don't understand how people can take taxis,” he says over his shoulder. “Most of the drivers are illiterate... at least in French... couldn't even read their own names.”

When he gets on the highway, he speaks to me... again in English.

You know the DSK scandal?” he asks.

Remembering the World Bank guy who was accused of rape by a hotel maid, I say, “Sure, he was lucky to get out of New York.”

There's more,” he says. “There were orgies, and huge expensive parties.... all paid for by a French company... one that had government relations.”

I pretend that I knew all that. “Of course,” I lie, “I heard all about that.”

I'm the president of the African branch of that company,” he says.

When we get back, Magdali and hubby greet the guard, introduce me, then head into the livingroom. Her three youngest kids are there.

All hell breaks lose. Mom goes berserk. A long stream of French invectives... at super sonic volume. She grabs the girl by the right wrist... screaming all the way... dragging her over to the livingroom table. Maybe it only lasts ten minutes. It's so uncomfortable it seems like an hour. I have no idea what she's angry about. I've seen similar tirades by my Senegalese mother in “the ghetto.” I figure it's an African thing.

Mom, worn out by her tirade, slumps at the table, holding her head in her hands.

They ate everything,” she says to me... still slumped, “They ate our whole dinner... dinner for all of us. Just ate it up. I think I can scrape up some lettuce and tomatoes. That's all.”

That's all right,” I lie. “Things happen.”

After “dinner,” I ask about the African music show.

I'm just too tired,” she says. “I'll drive you there, but I'll have to let you off and go home.”

And how do you expect me to get back?” I don't ask. “Senegalese don't have addresses. I don't know this neighborhood. I have to explain to a cab driver how to get to someplace I don't remember in a language I don't speak well? Yeah right.”

As if reading my mind, she says, “I'll write down the instructions so you can show the cab driver when you come back.”

You mean to show the illiterate ones?” I don't ask.

She writes half a page of instructions... with the first line written all in capitals: BEHIND NIRVANA. Then there's a lot of apres and avants, a few a driots, an a gauche, and an en face.

Well, it's not going to matter. Ouseman will meet me at the bar and this will be one time I'll be happy to have him take care of me... explaining in detail how to get to where I'm going.

Sorry I can't stay with you,” says Magdali, “I don't like African music anyway.”

In the car, Magdali complains about Senegalese drivers.

You know,” she says, “in France... and I guess America... people think the road belongs to EVERYONE. They have to share with each other. Here, people think the road belongs to NO ONE. They drive how they feel like... on any side. They don't care about other drivers. I've been here two years... and I just don't get these people. I've tried, but I can't.”

We pull into the parking lot and Magdali points out the club to me.

It's over there,” she says. “I'm sure you'll have no trouble getting back. Just tell the cab driver it's behind Nirvana. I wrote the directions clearly. You can show them to him... if he can read.”

I get out of the car and walk into the club. A bouncer stops me.

C'est trois mil Franc pour entre.” he says.

Fuck, that's more than $6. I can barely afford it. Will Ouseman be able to pay that much? He's coming all the way out here to meet me. Can he pay admission? We're meeting at 11... and it's 10:30 now. He's probably on his way.

Well, I'm here now, I have no other choice. I pay my admission fee, sit down, order a beer and prepare for a night of African music. Here's what I get

Jee-zus! A cappella HOUND-FUCKIN'-DOG! I paid six dollars for a bunch of Africans singing a song made famous by a white American who stole it from black Americans???? Aaahrgh!

After they finish, I see that there are a few more performances. A folk-singer with a guitar and songs that sound like Trini Lopez (I shit you not.) It's midnight and no Ouseman. I text him.

I'm not sure.” he texts back. “How much is the entrance?”

trois mil,” I text.

I'm sorry,” he texts. “I will see you tomorrow at the couch surfer meeting.”

Fuck! I'm going to have to negotiate with the cab driver myself? I've never done that before. I've got to explain directions, in French, to a place I've only visited once? I can't do that. Ouseman did everything for me, before. I'll be up shit's creek if I don't have help getting back.

I will pay your admission,” I text him.

I need you to take care of me. Help me.” I don't text him.

All right, Mykel,” he texts back. “I'll see you soon.”

By the time he shows up, there is a real African band on the stage. Drums, and drums, and Afro-beats. I pay for his admission, buy him a fanta. He doesn't drink alcohol. It's a Muslim thing, you know?

The band isn't bad. At least I get a taste of the real thing... and the audience is three-quarters African... a good sign.

After the show, Ouseman gets me a taxi and explains how to get me back to my place.

See you at the couch-surfing meeting tomorrow,” he says. “And don't forget, when you go to The Gambia, take a 7-person taxi. Sit in the front seat if you can.”

Thanks,” I tell him. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

I give him a couple thousand Francs to help with his taxi back. The driver gets me back to Magdali's perfectly. I have my hot shower, and go to sleep under the mosquito tent. I sleep well.

The next morning, I meet Madali and her family over breakfast: eggs, toast, jam, and instant coffee. The kids have to go off to school. Mom, stays home, so we can talk.

I just don't understand these people,” she says, “they always want something from you. I saw you tried to tip the chauffeur. (She's referring to an earlier errand he ran for me.) Please don't do that. We don't tip here. I pay a monthly fee.... and sometimes you have to wait. Senegal is always waiting... you want some more coffee?”

After breakfast we go into town. I wear the shirt I made in New York. NO THANK YOU in English, French, Wolof, and Arabic. I know what it's like walking on the street here. I read the guidebooks, and have visited Mexico, where a NO GRACIAS t-shirt performed the same function. You can see my shirt in the couch-surfing picture below.

I'm glad you don't need someone to hold your hand,” Magdali tells me, as we climb into the car and the chauffeur gets behind the wheel. “I'll drop you off in town and you can look at the market. Then I'll meet you at eight at the couch-surfer meeting.”

The driver stops the car in the lot of an expensive restaurant. He gets out and holds the door for Magdali and me.

Magdali points to a crowded street. “The market is over there, Mykel,” she says. “Have fun. They'll be all over you.”

I thank her and walk toward the street. I don't reach it. A young guy in dreadlocks comes up to me. I'm ready, I think.

The Lonely Planet guide warned against all kinds of scams. The hustlers who won't leave you alone. The ones who say Remember from The Hotel?, but won't say which hotel... and then try to scam you for some money because “they've had a bad time.” Then there are the ones that give you something... a necklace, a beaded bracelet... anything. Then talk for awhile and ask for money. Or the “guides” who attach themselves to you, follow you everywhere, then expect you to pay for their services.

I'm ready for them all I think. I've got a ton of strategies. Let's see if I can beat them at their own game.

Here's the first one.

Hi,” he says... a very clever opening line. “I'm a drummer. Do you like African music?”

I love African music,” I tell him. “Youssou N'dour and Kula Futi.”

We're playing here soon,” he continues. “Why don't you come with me and I'll give you a flyer for the show?”

He turns, heads into the market. I follow.

They're at my uncle's shop,” he says. “We'll go there and get it.”

He turns off the main market street, into a back street, he turns again. We walk. We walk some more, through dusty-sandy roads, past open sewers.... no white people here. We keep walking... Oh, I get it.

I turn on my heel... about face. It's a few seconds before he realizes I'm not with him anymore. He reverses directions, runs to catch up with me.

What's the matter?” he asks.

C'est trop loin,” I say. “Je reviens sur le marché.”

I understand,” he says, now at my shoulder again. “It doesn't matter.... I want to invite you to my father's shop... in the market, it won't take long and you don't have to buy anything.”

I'm getting pissed-off... but I have all day, so I follow him. He brings me into the market and shakes hands with “his father,” who doesn't look much older than he is.

I want no money from you,” he says. “Just look.”

I look. It's mostly women's dresses, a few bolts of nice, but not spectacular cloth. I'm not interested.

I'm not interested,” I tell him.

That's okay,” he says as we leave the market. “Here, let me give you something. It's called a gris-gris. It will protect you on the street, and keep any plane you fly in the air. No accidents.”

He gives me a beaded necklace with a small shell in the front. Not ugly, but not what I usually wear on the street. Okay, how much is he gonna want for it.

It's only a gift,” he says. “I don't care about money. It's a gift for you.”

Jerejef,” I say, showing off my Wolof. He smiles.

We walk together a bit and then enter what looks like a small grocery store.

I don't care about money,” he says again. “I only care about food. Can you buy me some rice?”

The store owner comes over to us. I ask him the price of a bag of rice.

12,000 Francs,” he says.

I reach behind my neck to take off the gris-gris. I can't figure out how to unfasten it.

No! No!” says the rasta guy. “It's a gift.”

I reach in my pocket and pull out a thousand franc note... about $2. I give it to him.

Voici mon cadeau pour toi,” I say and walk out the store. I hear footsteps behind me. I turn. It's the store owner.

That is not a good man,” he says. “You should not listen to him.”

I nod.

I have another shop... near here,” he continues. “Lot's of nice things.”

Jerejef,” I tell him, and break into a trot.

I lost him! I take a few more steps and hear a voice to my left.

Hey,” says a guy... also rasta looking, “Venez nous rejoindre pour café.”

There's a few of them... five or six. They look like they could be in a Jimmy Cliff movie. One wears one of those Jamaican red yellow green knit caps. The ones that look like Jiffy Pop popcorn cookers.

Non, Merci,” I say and walk past them. I'm still pissed as hell from the last guy and in no mood to deal with them.

Hmmm, there's some nice carvings... more than the typical elephants and giraffes you see everywhere. There are no elephants or giraffes in Senegal... except in the zoo. But carvings... when it's not elephants, it's giraffes.

The air is oppressively hot. It slows me down. I stop for a second to look at the carvings. It's a second too long.

I give you a good deal on this!” says the stall owner. “Look here, I have nice African things... dresses too... for your girlfriend.” He takes me by the wrist and begins to pull me into his stall. I wrench myself free. Say, NON, MERCI, and continue walking.

I sense a presence next to me. Keeping up with me. It's one of the Jamaican crew... the one in the hat. He has a bowl of coins and is shaking it at me. NON, MERCI, I say. He refuses to give up... keeps shaking the bowl at me. I look for someone in uniform. I see what looks like a security guard... in a white hat.

POLICE! POLICE!” I yell as loudly as possible. “Police. C'ette homme voudrias mon argent!”

The guy in the hat looks startled... backs off. Touches his fist to his chest in the universal African gesture of apology. He walks away.

I guess I was unfair to him. Just another guy asking for money. But I lost it. I was still pissed from “the drummer” and got hit before I had time to implement my plan. Missed that one.

I don't have to wait long for the next chance.

Hey!” comes a voice on my left. “What you looking for?”

I look and see a young Senegalese guy, blue shirt, light colored pants, rubber sandals.

Gnaw m'sup tang,” I say in the very little Cantonese I know.

Now soup tee?” he says trying to repeat my words.

Using my best variety of tones and cliches about Chinese speech, I just let off a string of gibberish, “Chop suey, fu young, fubar, Addida,” I say with a rising and falling intonation, trying to sound as Chinese as possible.

What you looking for?” he asks again, lagging slightly behind me.

Dim sum, nooky nooky, curds n whey, kung fu, Bruce Lee,” I sing to him. “Waku, waku, m'sup do desuka.”

Finally, the guy stops... turns back... shaking his head.


I'm heading for Independence square... more of an oblong than a square. It's a large park in the middle of town. Space, but not a lot of shade. Maybe I can find a spot to read out of the sun. It'll take some doing.

Just before I reach the park, a tall guy, wearing a hat and one of those white robes you expect people to wear in Africa, stops me.

Hey,” he says, pulling of his cap. “Remember me?” he says.

I'm ready for this.

I go to him, hug him.

Uncle Fallou!” I say. “From New York! What are you doing here in Senegal? It's great to see you. Perfect timing.”

I put my arm around his shoulder and whisper in his ear. “You remember that girl? You know the one...” I make a big rounded motion over my rear parts.

She took my money!” I tell him. “All of it. I'm broke now. I'm waiting for more to come from Western Union in New York.”

I bend closer, putting my lips next to his ear.

Could you loan me a couple thousand until the money comes from New York?” I ask him. “You know, we're old friends. I'm good for it.”

He pulls away from me. Breaks my grip around his shoulders. Says something like “Je suis desole... un error.” Takes off, down the street... like he's seen a ghost.


That evening, I manage to find the couch-surfer meeting. There are a few Senegalese hosts-- Magdali among them-- but it's mostly white... and off white... guys who find themselves in Senegal at the moment. What a mix of nationalities: Japanese, South African, Ghana, Spanish, Turkish, Indian... It's almost like drink club.

Unlike in drink club, we each pay for our own drinks. I pay for Ouseman.

Here are a few of us:

I'm one of the last to leave... as is usually the case anywhere there's beer. And I have to get up early tomorrow. Get to The Gambia.

You'll be all right as long as you leave the gare by 9,” says the chaufeur who takes Magdali and I back to her place. “After that, you might miss the last boat.”

From North Senegal, The Gambia is only accessible by ferry. If you miss the last one... I don't know what happens... Sleep outside in the desert? The last boat leaves at 10PM... I think.

I set my alarm for seven. The chauffeur will drive me to the gare at eight. That should give me plenty of time, right? Yeah, right.

It's always nice to get comments to these entries. Please leave one. You can also contact me on Facebook or at If I'm traveling, however, I may not be able to answer your email very quickly.

This is the 16h entry of my travel blog for this trip. Here are links to the past entries:

Episode 1 here (Before leaving New York 1)

Episode 2 here (Before leaving New York 2)

Episode 3 here (Before leaving New York 3)

Episode 4 here. (Before leaving New York 4)

Episode 5 here (New York to Paris)

Episode 6 here (Strasbourg Party Time)

Episode 7 here (Ryan Air)

Episode 8 here (Back to Paris)

Episode 9 here (Death in Tangier)

Episode 10 here (Resurrection in Tangier)

Episode 11 here (Monkey Business in Gibraltar)

Episode 12 here (Entering Senegal from the rear)

Episode 13 here (Killing Me Softly)

Episode 14 here (The Road to Dakar)

Episode 15 here (Rags to Riches)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice idea.. thanks for posting.