Re: Podor
Podor Village

Badou has proven to be an extraordinary man. The first thing you would notice about him would be his smile; it's quick and full of joy and knowing. Next would be his eyes; at first they appear red and tired, but actually they are deeply relaxed and warm, the way he is at all times. Finally you would have to notice his ears. I have never seen anything like them. Under the arched top of each one there's a beautiful extra outward fold; as if he were casually wearing shell-like black sculptures on both sides of his calm face.

But the most remarkable thing about Badou is that he embodies a philosophy of life that meets all difficulties with the same sincere reply "No problem". "Badou, the tire is flat". "No problem". "Badou, it's 125 degrees in Podor where we're going!". "No problem". And he really means it. I wish I could convey the quality of the way he says it. There's a deep, open-hearted lilt to his voice that gives you great confidence that all will be well.

He has told us a number of times that the most important thing in his life is his family. He has two girls and one boy who for some reason live in a village miles from NGore where he lives and works as a caddy at the elite hotel where Alan and I regret spending our first night in Africa. One of the only things he has asked for money for is to call his family everyday from the tiny telephone concessions that can be found everywhere here. That amounts to about $1.50 per day for his services as a friend and guide on this trip.

The other important thing for him is to make sure that we understand the true spirit of humanity and hospitality that defines "Senegal" to him. "You are our brothers" he tells us with a convincing passion. "You don't need to pay for anything here. Our money is your money". From most of the people we've met on the streets on Dakar, that statement would have ominous implications but from him it's inspiring.

We discovered, as we sat in the stylish internet cafe in St. Louis, that he has actually been to Podor! I was very glad to hear that. I chose it as a destination because the Lonely Planet cited it as being on the extreme Northern border of Senegal and said that there were friendly people there to meet. As the first stop on our trip away from African cities, I was a bit anxious about what to expect. We would have gone under any circumstances but knowing that he had been there was reassuring.

The trip to Podor began late in the afternoon because St. Louis had much to offer. First there was the Western Union office where I made a necessary stop, and then there was the beach; an incredible sight with hundreds of long colorful boats lined up on the shore and hundreds more children playing in the filthy surf. I did portraits until I made the mistake of running out of film, which I regretted when Alioune, Badou and I took a horse drawn carriage back to the hotel. After some hasty writing and journal posting we were off on the long and bumpy road into the bush.

The trip up from Dakar had given us our first sights of people living on tiny farms amidst park-like landscapes. I've mentioned that Senegal is flat but traveling long distances gives you a real sense of how fascinating "flat" can be. The trees are either alive or dead; skinny or comically thick but they are always distributed on the land as if planted by a garden designer. When you come upon a village the difference between the cinderblock buildings and the thatched huts is dramatic. At some point down the road, (I didn't notice when),the perfect balance to this contrast emerged: building blocks made from mud and straw. The configurations of the buildings remained the same but the architectural aesthetic shifted radically when the brown/red bricks replaced the sterile gray blocks. Mud bricks are much more tolerant of being formed into curved surfaces and they deteriorate into sculpture rather than ruins. Round is the traditional shape of homes here, often with small triangular windows. In some villages the building seems scattered at random but in others the defining characteristic is the wall that defines a housing group with all of the dwellings facing inward. Goats and mule driven plows provide for survival and the powerlines never stop for these communities as they march by.

The lush greens and reds of coastal Senegal give way to a gradually spreading dry yellow as you move North and East. Eventually the powerlines disappear and you are aware of a surreal sense of space. There is nothing but an occasional spot of brown foliage, an oasis and then another village that makes you wonder how they could possibly survive.

When you come to one of the few towns on the way it's a familiar shock. Crowds of desperate people press against the road with the usual mangos and gadgets to sell and the density of activity seems out of place in this setting.

We might stop for diesel fuel and then we are back on the road. Other than the landscape, the road itself would be a free ride except for two things: the pot holes that are deep and either exactly where you need to drive or where you will need to drive on the way back. The other unavoidable things on the road are the ubiquitous mini buses that are the only way most people get from one place to another. They are always filled to literally overflowing and the roofs are sometimes piled with bags until they are twice the bus's normal height. They move slowly and, together with the trucks, make traffic often slow and nerve wracking. But eventually all of life here requires that you adapt to its paces and realities. As a result, tolerance for stress becomes a profound benefit of becoming African.

But becoming African is only an abstraction for a person from a culture where almost unconditional generosity is more the exception than the rule. Here, things are very different.

When we pulled into Podor we were torn between fascination with just seeing the place and concern over where we were going to stay. A hotel may or may not have been an option. It didn't appear so at first glance. Podor is at the end of the road in this country and the flat, brown look of the place seemed empty and lonely. The reality is very different.

I was surprised to discover that it actually is an extremely remote town not a traditional village.
The first person we saw at the entrance to the town was a stern-looking man in military uniform standing next to the telephone office. While Alan and I immediately logged on with his portable computer and corresponded with our respective loves, Badou began a conversation with the man as if they were old friends. In fact he was a perfect stranger but nevertheless he directed us to another man who eventually invited us to stay at his house that night and for as long as we wanted.

The house is on the last street before the town becomes desert and has a huge thorn tree in the middle of the courtyard. Opposite the main house there's a dollhouse for the pigeons they eat for dinner. There is also a large black goat on a short chain who brays with a deep voice that reminds Alan of Barry White. We have been here for almost two days as I write this and it's almost impossible to imagine that the extended family who lives here were total strangers to Badou only days ago. We have been fed and treated like relatives at every turn. Every attempt to pay for anything is politely refused but we were told that it was important to introduce ourselves to the mother of the house and present her with some of the gifts we brought for that purpose. She is the widow of a famous war veteran but like all of the women here it seems to be expected that she will do all of cooking and housework while the men sit under the tree and sleep and talk all day. We also learned that men here are allowed to have up to four wives and when I asked if there were really that many extra women that question seemed to confuse everyone.

The town is officially run by a Mayor but the most respected families are the traditional heads of the local tribal group. We were told that it was not expected that we would pay them a visit.

I have finally figured out that Africans do everything communally if they are of certain classes. This includes eating and sharing common spaces. Dinner means sitting around a huge bowl and eating with your fingers until all the food is gone. This spirit of sharing goes well beyond family loyalty. In fact, when you don't share a language, it's incredibly hard to even tell who the family members are. Men and women come and go, sleeping all night where they happen to be when night falls. The fact is that sharing at this level meets so many human needs that it seems to me that, while the rest of humanity was wasting time migrating to far away lands, these particular Africans were spending their time figuring out how to live together. It's not perfect here but if only the rest of Africa could follow this example.

Living here I have begun to feel as if this is the way to meet so many human needs that when I get home I will try to fold more of my loved ones into my life in ways I never imagined before. I know that Susannah will be a huge help with this.

The spirit of family and openness is so powerful that when Badou asked if we wanted to join in with them for their Islamic prayers we agreed and followed the ritual of ablutions and bowing as closely as we could. First you fill a colorful tin pitcher with waster and sit on a low stool and wash with ritualistic precision: fill the mouth three times and spit; wash your hands three times; wash your arms, right arm first three time; then your eyes nose and face, hair and feet. Once clean and fresh you bow three times with your head to the ground to the recitation of what in a Buddhist temple would be the sutras. It's all humbling and deeply respectful of something vast and nurturing. Here and now, it was hard to imagine anything more appropriate and it put me in a reflective mood.

But Alan needed to talk so we left the bustle of the courtyard and went out into the street. Being at the edge of town this house catches breezes from the desert lands beyond. Out there to the left is a huge quiet and dark presence that looms. Luckily a man we had met earlier came up and engaged us in conversation. For the first time I welcomed not speaking French because I suddenly had an excuse to go off by myself as they walked back to the house. I went along the edge, past abandoned homes and stray goats and dogs. I was trying hard to not be frightened by the heavy darkness and to understand the quietness I felt within me.

I walked past a ruined dark house on the right. It was surrounded by rubbish and I imagined vermin crawling around but I also felt compelled to not avoid my fear. I walked over to it and stood on the threshold. I didn't need to go in. I walked on.

Past the empty stadium there were more abandoned homes and then a hollow white painted house appeared on the left, the boundary. I went towards it and past in the direction of a bridge I could see in the moonlight that lead to the wilderness beyond the town.

Deep piles of trash lined the irrigation ditch and I could sense more than see the huge expanse on the other side. I was determined to go there, but I was not ready just then.

Walking back I thought to myself that the silence I felt in my heart was not empty. Iwas filled with silence and suddenly that was not a bad thing.

We slept under the stars and listened to the sounds of the animals as the moon and stars passed overhead in the warm night.

I did sleep some that night but I was so aware of this being the first time I had been under the sky of this land. It felt awesome and meaningful. When I did sleep I dreamed of Sissy Spacek playing a detective in a crime drama. She did a gratuitous nude scene in front of a mirror.... that felt meaningful also... in its own way.

At dawn I woke to see what looked like a huge smiling face in the clouds. I grabbed my camera to catch it but the flash went off pointlessly. I'll remember.

As I meditated with my eyes on Venus I found that, in the most focused moment, the bright star moved slowly but definitely across the sky. I tried this experiment a number of times and it was reliable and convincing. A neurological effect no doubt.

I have learned the great joys of mosquito netting. At some point before dawn of the first night Badou got up and covered us with the netting Assane bought for us and went back to bed. The problem is that netting lying against your body is not very effective against insects desperate for your blood. It was the extreme generosity of his gesture that touched me. We decided to stay a second day and this time Badou helped me string it up properly into a translucent tent. In the moonlight the thin fabric glows and I have learned to love the sound of frustrated mosquitoes as they fight to get in. I woke well before dawn and smiled deeply to myself to think of what Susannah will say when I tell her that I want netting like this in our bedroom. Of course we won't have African moonlit skies overhead but there will be other compensations.

Talking to Badou just a few minutes ago he said something that sums up all of the philosophical and spiritual reading I've been doing for years. He said "A man who has a good heart has everything. A man with a bad heart has nothing". This is the way he lives.

I just lost my temper at Alan for the first time; another inner event to process.

Tomorrow we begin the trip South to what may be the homeland of my ancestors.