The Middle of Nowhere

Thies Travel Blog

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After the pit stop in Thies, we were off to the villages to rough it with our homestays. We drive through sand fields of nothing and pull up on the side of the road where a loud party greets us. There are drumbs banding and children dancing. The bus parks and the doors open. Nobody moves. Nobody wants to get out.

Ken descends to be bombarded by the family he stayed with last year. He said his 'father' is the one person in the series of nearby villages we are being housed in that speaks any English.

We slowly get off the us and are pushed into plastic seats arranged in a semi-circle. After a brief speech in English by Souleye and in Wolof by the head woman of the area. They start calling names of students and their assigned families.

I'm called second and taken totally by surprise. Chelsea has to yell at me, "Kelly! It's you!" Crap, I am so not mentally preprared for this. I meet my mother and she gives me a huge hug. Ken captures everything on videocamera.

We walk 1 km to our village - Ker Dem Ba Kebe (at least that's how it sounds). One of my brothers balances my duffle bag on his head, and my sister carries my two-day supply of water while she talks to me. She's the one who can speak French well , and she becomes by go to person for all my needs. While we walk, she teaches me my name (Astu Mbaye), my father's name (Ibra Mbaye), my mother's name (Nyuhnga Mbaye), and her name (Astu Mbaye). Yup, I'm named after her.

Throughout my stay with them, I find myself trying my Wolof, but relying heavily on my French. It's amazing how much I've come to rely on in to survive, when just three weeks ago, I could barely order a Coke.

We arrive at the town, which is basically three compounds centered around a common area where the water well is located. My compound seems to be the biggest of all. They show me to my room, which is a cube, 3 sides concrete and a tin roof, with a mattress on the floor. It's actually quite cozy and cute.

But I barely have time to get a good look at it. They instruct me to drop off my things, then procede to introduce me to EVERYBODY. I know many of the names I will forget. There are aunts and uncles, and cousins, and second cousins, and the horses, and the sheep, and the chickens, and the donkey. One big happy family. They really were. This placed seemed more welcoming and more like a family than my homestay in Dakar. It was really cool.

They pulled out a chair for me. My sister, mother, and the children gathered around me like it was story hour. We discussed the names of the village and of everybody (so I could write them down), the Wolof I learned, about my family at home, and more. Jill, a John Hopkins grad student who hopped along with our group for the five-day trip, lived in the compound next door, and she was brought over as well to sit among another plastic throne that provided prime view of the children's heads below.

They helped to teach me the Wolof version of "Head and Shoulders,"  the fun body part song that all us American children love. I taught them our English equivalent. I even sang the song we learned in lower school to remeber all 50 states in alphabetical order. They started stomping their feet and clapping along as I sang it. It was quite hilarious.

Afterwards, my surrogate sister showed me her notes from her English class in school. She proudly read me a paragraph she had wrote in English about John's blue pants and red shirt. I, in turn, read a short description I had written of my parents and brothers in Wolof class.

Speaking of my family reminded me to get out my family album to show pictures. The purple album was passed around and around, every hand touching it and flipping through every picture. By the time I got it back, a nice think layer of dirt had accumulated on its surface.

Next, my camera came out to take pictures and document the compound. The cause of the camera's emergence led to the effect of a mass photo shoot. Take a picture of her. Take a picture of me. Take a picture of your mother sitting on her bed. Take a picture of these two children agains the wall. Take a picture of the horse. Take a picture of the donkey. Let me take a picture of you and your sister.

I spotted an orchard off in the distance behind the compound, and made the comment that there were lots of trees back there. My sister offered to take me on a walk. So me and a bunch of the kids took a stroll through their mango orchard. The family sells mangoes when they're in season for a small profit. The kids plucked some green mango, not fully grown, and started eating them. I tried a piece. It was extremely tart and sour, but really good.

When we returned, I brought out the presents I had brought for the family. I think they didn't really get the placemat and napkin set I gave them from Thailand. But they really loved the carboard rectangles that they were wrapped around, using them to fan hot coals and to write on. I demontrated how to tie the corners of a box that are held together with ribbon. Accordingly, I had to teach my sister how to tie a bow, trying to remember how I was taught to tie my shoes. It's quite interesting that my 16-year-old sister has never needed to learn to tie a bow.

After watching the kids play soccer in the sand, they brought me dinner in my bedroom. Apparently, I eat alone. But the kicker was that my sister set one of the placemats I had just given them on the floor before setting my meal on top of it, accompanied by a loaf of bread wrapped in one of the napkins. I laughed out loud, smiled, and thanked her.

After dinner, I headed outside to see the family wrapped in jackets and sitting on mats under the stars. Without any electricity, they only have oil lanterns and flashlight to provide light. The village and the ones surrounding it are supposed to start getting electricity soon, as a promise President Wade made when he got reelected. Now it's just a matter of paperwork.

I was given a small dance lesson with the little girls. They showed me how to dance the 'tam-tam,' a dance that all young girls are supposed to do. It's all in the legs. And how they violently jerk and jump around. It's a whole new kind of dance for us Americans. We all (the students) later realized that this dance is like a courting ritual to attract boys.

I finally yawned wide enough to get my sister to show me how I could clean up to get ready for bed. My 'bath' was a rinse with water in a blue bucket carried to the bathroom - a concrete cube located in the stable for the horse, goats, and chickens. So you get clean then leave the bathroom by walking through a mix of sand and poop on the ground.

It took me about 45 minutes to figure out a way to hang my mosquito net so I could at least sleep in a ball in the corner of the mattress they gave me without the net touching my skin. I had to tie and retie the end of the net with masking tape. Eventually, after some rearranging of the furniture (foam mattress pad), it worked out okay. The hope is now that I don't get malaria or get eaten alive.

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The five-day excursion begins. We pile onto the bus with our bags and head to our village stays with a few stops along the way. The nervousness of the impending village stay lingers in the back of everyone's mind; I think it prevented lots of us from fully experiencing the sites along the way.

Lac Rose (or the Pink Lake) was our major destination. Disappointingly, it wasn't very pink today. Salt farmers use large sticks to break up deposits of salt on the lake floor, and hills of salt sit on the banks to dry. There is some kind of chemical reaction that causes the lake to get its famous pink hue, but they say when it rains it can fade in and out. We got out and took pictures of the boats, salt mountains, and the nearby village setup. Then we headed to a resort area for tourists, who can have meals and get a tan overlooking the lake.

Next, we headed to Thies, a town right outside of Dakar. We lunched at this nice restuarant run my a big Lebanese guy named Joe. He knows Souleye and Ken well, which is kind of funny when you see them interact with each other. The yassa poulet is delicious, and I clean my plate.

Thies is amazing. It's clean and quiet in contrast to its New York City equivalent of Dakar. After lunch, we had some time to shop and walk around. However, being Friday (holy day for Muslims), most businesses were closed. But it was so refreshing just to walk around without getting hassled all the time (not to say that we didn't have a few run-ins) and without taxis honking at you.

photo by: jeannajumps