Re: Cheetah
Hotel La Croix du Sud #550
Dakar, Senegal

I wonder if any of you laughed when you read the words I wrote yesterday at just this time with great sincerity:
"It really does seem as if we are leaving for the bush this morning. There's a bird calling in the dawn light and I have to get up soon to go to Western Union to get the money ....'

If not, you should definitely be laughing now; the little bird was singing me a hint... It knows the Christian calendar better than I do....

As I came back in from my trip to Western Union the smiling man at the desk asked me yesterday, "Are you checking out?" "No" I said with as straight a face as possible.

Just as I did the first time I had to walk the few potentially dangerous blocks between here and the nearest Western Union office, I looked back at Alan sitting typing at the desk and hummed a few bars of James Bond's theme. It had worked the last time perfectly well. This time though I did notice that the streets seemed strangely calm but I assumed that I was just up earlier than everyone else. It turns out that one of the many redeeming things about Senegal is that they are so tolerant of diversity that they celebrate Ascension Day, even though this is a Muslim nation. I found that out as I walked up to the clearly closed office yesterday morning. The guard sitting there calmly tried to tell me what was what by saying "Five, five, five" in French over and over again. It was the 15th of August he was trying to say, which is why the office was closed.

As I walked back to the hotel... slowly, I had to laugh at what was becoming a comedy of errors.

But, determined to make the best of this reality, Alan and I decided that there must be more to see near Dakar and we were right.

When we picked up Badou at his village as planned he wondered why the car seemed so empty. When we told him what had happened he took the news with his usual calm strength and humor. "Sure" he said in French, "Do you want to see big animals?" "Sure" we said in English, not having any idea what we were in for.

The drive south takes you past a number of small villages that press uncomfortably close to the road to allow vendors to sell mangos and things to the bus passengers and tourist that slowly crawl past. It's frankly impossible to imagine how many mangos there are here. Every few yards there are women sitting behind little tables filled with pyramids of mangos of various colors. They must have protein because they appear to be like bread in Paris to the people here... another advantage they have over the Western world.

Our tiny 4 wheel car rattles and moans as it goes, but it does go and finally we were past the villages and into the flat, red and green landscape of Senegal. The soil is a deep rouge and, during the rainy season the vegetation is lush. The distinguishing features are the BoaBoa trees that stand like sculptures against the sky. The thickness of the trunks makes them seems incredibly strong with a massive texture that reminds me of the Bristle Cone Pines my hiking friend Robert and I saw in the Sierras a few years ago. Those are the oldest living things on the planet and they have a reddish bark and are smaller, but the presence they project is just as powerful as these.

After an hour or so Badou told Alan to turn to the left and suddenly we were facing my first African National Park. There were only a few cars behind the gates and, with images from Wild Kingdom in my mind, I was struck by the human scale of everything there. It was a "real place" with very real experiences to offer. The tough-looking man behind the entry desk took our money but insisted that we also pay for a guide. Something happens to your judgment when you find yourself bombared with solicitations from every side so at first we seriously considered refusing; besides, our tiny off-road vehicle was cramped with the four of us, how could there be room for a fifth man? It was this point that I noticed the rifle resting behind the man at the desk and then Alan translated that he was not offering us an option, we simply could not go in without help. Then, Badou, with his usual calm manner said, not to worry, he would just ride on the hood and that would be that. It looked dubious to me. After all, even if he could stay on, the driver's view would be blocked, but..... Just then a small, swarthy balding man in sandles and a tee-shirt walked up and introduced himself as our guide. I liked him immediately and he solved our problem by just squeezing into the back with Alioune and Badou and we were off.

The park is a vast wooded expanse with tall trees and thorny brush that looks deceptively attractive with tiny, silver-green leaves. The greens and grays of the brush are so thick that it's simply impossible to see anything except for the foliage and the bright red,exremely muddy roads that twist and curve off in every direction. Still, the experience of the partk quickly condensed into two dominant themes: Alan would try his best to negotiate the incredibly bumpy, slick roads while trying to take directions from our guide; and then suddenly the guide would shout "Arret!", and Alan would slam on the brakes. How the guide actually saw anything is a mystery I will never fathom but there, magically were some of the largest animals I have ever seen; but just as suddenly I was not seeing them because of the thick brush.

They were somehow in the "antelope" catagory but so much more massive that all of my pretensions about avoiding simplistic, National Geographic-like photography vanished. They had striped markings and horns that curved beautifully in at lest two directions. I asked if it was safe to get out of the car and was told that he said that yes it was. With some hesitation I opened the door and tried to find a point of view that would make an image I dared of any kind. This of course meant moving in and around as the six or seven beasts moved off nervously. Then I noticed the exception to that behaviour. Right in front of me was a horned creature that just stood there with its eyes squarely on me and a manner that suggested that I might not be welcomed. Until then I had assumed that my interest in them was the point. I suddenly realized that things could change dramitcally if these animals took an interest in ME. It was just at this point that two things happened: first I heard Alan calling to say that the guide had also said that, while it was ok to get out of the car, it was definitely not ok to pursue them; the other thing that happen is that the huge creature in front of me suddenly was not. For something so big, I still can't imagine how it could have moved so quickly. It, and all of its mates that he was protecting were gone. I had thought that I was still at what felt to me like a safe distance, I instantly knew that if it had wanted to come in my direction, it would have been on me before I could have moved a step. My internal concept of "safe distance" had just been radically reformed! Getting back into the car felt like the wise thing to do, so I did and we were off.

It's fascinating how one's sense of what is "real" and "important" can focus and shift in an instant. I guess that's the principle that makes movie theaters work. Until that moment the woods and the possibility of seeing more animals had been dominant. All of a sudden the state of the road became the most important thing in th world. Until then I had never even conceived of it being possible to drive over surfaces that wet and bumpy. The tracks of much larger vehicles had made ditches in the road that were filled to the brim with red water and there was no way to tell how deep they were. The thick red mud that made up the rest of the road was slimy and dark. I couldn't imagine that we could pass through but, that's apparently what four wheel drive vehicles are made for. Sure enough, Alan gunned the engine and we went into the ditch with a crash; water cascaded off to the sides, the world went down and up with a jolt and then we were back on "solid" ground. I was getting a sense of what we were in for. My first thought was, why don't they fix this road?, but I instantly saw how ridiculous that was. We were in the habitat of creatures that didn't need roads and that was the reality here. I also noticed how my sense of "traction" became something I could feel viscerally from the combination of the sounds and momentum, or the lack of it. Also, I could see that Alan was having a hard time maintaining his direction. The car would veer off to the one side or the other without his help. But, from one trouble spot to the next, we made our way.

Then I understood the guide to say "giraffe" and I frantically looked around and saw them! Against the trees and brush there were impossibly tall, serenely graceful animals that were standing in the distance watching us. My appreciation for the guide increased because I would never have seen them without his help.

I leapt out of the car and could instantly tell that these creatures were no harm to me. Then the guide told me with a gesture that they could kick violently if threatened but my main goal was to get an angle where their beautiful heads were silhouetted against the sky. They stirred when I got too close and began to move off as I shot frantically frame after frame. For some reason I looked to the left and then realized that I had walked right by one that had been resting on the ground! Incredible.... really, to watch it slowly get up and move away in front of me! And then they were gone too and that experience was over.

Back in the car Alan once again struggled to take directions from the guide and also try to find passable ways along the narrow road. He had a tendency to drive fast so we would rush up to and through the slick, bumpy sections and the guide would yell as we went. Every time I felt that it was impossible to get through, we made it over and over again... until the ratio between engine noise and momentum shifted radically in the wrong direction! We were stuck! Really stuck in this incredibly hot and muggy and potentially dangerous place. It was then that I realized that I would have to get out... into mud so deep and thick that wearing my running shoes was impossible. There was nothing to do but strip off my shoes and socks and finally fulfill my fantasy of placing my naked feet on African soil. But "soil" was the wrong word to describe this. It was warm, red soup up to my mid calves and it felt wonderful. The problem was that I was there to supposedly help push a car out of trapping mud. And so we began a process that was to be repeated time and again over the next two hours: We would rock the car back and forth, trying to either dig away mounds the tires were struggling to climb, or place brush under the wheels for them to move over. It was hot, difficult work but with a massive expenditure of testosterone, we were able to make it out every time. One problem was that many of the bushes we wanted to use for traction were full of long thorns. The other was simply that it was awesomely hard to do given that there was hardly any place solid to put your feet to push from. The most fun was when it was necessary to push from directly behind a tire what was kicking mud in your face by the bucketful. We were already comically dirty so the only real problem was when the truck would suddenly lurch forward threatening to land you face into the mud. Somehow that never happened to any of us, but it was always in your mind as you pushed.

At one point I volunteered to drive and found that I was no better than Alan at negotiating my way through the trouble spots. After a brief episode of pushing I started off, determined to try Alan's method of racing through the hardest, bumpiest parts. So off I went, concentrating as hard as I could on the road... up and down, back and forth with mud flying off to all sides, with banging all over the car.... when I suddenly realized that there really was banging happening from a strange part of the car, the roof! I was then aware of Alan yelling "Stop, stop" for no reason that I could see... until I looked back and finally noticed that, Badou had chosen that moment to try riding on the back of the car, hanging for dear life on the spare tire attached to the back door. All I could see from my seat were his desperately splayed torso and arms. I couldn't see his frantically clutching fingers on the roof of the car, or his eyes....

Later that night I discovered that laughing can be a wonderful exercise for the abdomen. Alan and I were in the Mex Musical Cafe as usual when we began to wonder what would have happened if I had kept going for a few seconds more.... Badou would surely have lost his grip and gone flying into the air, no doubt landing face up in mud and water so thick that when we looked back we would have seen.... nothing at all! Just the road, and red water and then, slowly at first, Badou rising transformed into a red, glistening vision of calm dignity. Ah well.... the things we humans do.

We eventually saw everything from rhinos to huge turtles, but these were in pens. They are not native to this region and by this time we were so tired and muddy that we didn't mind.

Alan was walking along a path when he came upon a sweet-faced man with a chimpanzee hanging around his neck. The chimp's name was Cheetah, and she had been brought to the man by her mother who had been wounded in the Sierra Leone fighting a year ago. Alan instantly fell in love with her and the two of them petted and played with each other until I wondered if Alan's love,Yesim was being threatened.

But finally it was time to go and we drove away from the park eager to get clean somehow. Badou came up with a great suggestion. He directed us to a beach community about an hour away. It was a long, perfect beach, far south of Dakar. There was a poor road leading down to it and the people living there were just as poor but very happy and friendly. I stripped off my clothes and ran into the surf in my shorts after a good four mile run down the beach and back it all felt great!

But on the way home finally, I found myself musing over feelings that were not so great. As we got closer to the city, I could once again see the masses of oppressively poor city dwellers, pressed dangerous up against the roadside and oblivion. I couldn't help wondering what the answer to this could be. I then asked Alan, what he would do if he were Emperor of Senegal. He was not at all interested in discussing this issue and said so. But he did indulge my pondering as I realized that there had been a disturbing progression to my reactions since arriving here:

At first I was amazed just to see the incredible density of the sweltering poverty in Dakar. At that point I was surprised that it didn't revolt me. I was actually at home in ways that were hard to access. All of the cultural shifts were inspiring to observe but now, driving back to the hotel, I sensed that there was a problem with even tacitly celebrating other people's suffering. And yet, the only solutions I could imagine were Western ones and there was problem with that also. I could see the effects of Western culture in the strange aesthetic that emerges when you combine advertising and all of the off-brand clothing that gets sent here from the United States. This issue could also be seen in the use of cinderblocks as the primary building material here. It's obviously cheap, but incredibly ugly. Any attempt on the part of the poor to build anything African out of this rigid stuff was pointless. And yet the West did have effective answers to so many of the health care and humanitarian concerns in Africa.

As we drove slowly through the helpless hands of mournful eyed children I realized why Ghandi had been willing to be imprisoned to preserve the rights of his people to find Indian solutions to Indian problems. We can spin our own thread, and make our own salt he had said. Now I understand.