Hotel La Croix du Sud
I had volunteered that Alioune and I would take our turn sleeping on the hard floor this night but Badou came up with a foam mattress so I was fairly comfortable. Badou and Alan shared the bed. Other than Alioune, who never complained, we were all under mosquito netting so it was a much more peaceful night than the one before.
We needed to leave Badou's village early in the morning so that he and his wife could take their children to a hospital in Dakar. One of his little girls had a deep cough. The other children seemed fine. It turned out that the first step in our journey home was a car ferry across the river at 8 am. There wasn't much to do to prepare so we were on the road in 20 minutes.
At the far end of town there's a port where the ferry pulled up and Alan drove on as the first car on board. This turned out to be a good thing because it meant that we were the first car off so we had the road ahead to ourselves.
Alan seemed stressed for some reason; you can tell because he moves faster and seems agitated. He said that he hadn't slept again that night and was extremely tired. Still he wanted to drive which was fine with me. This was my last opportunity to shoot and there would new things to see on the way.
The ferry ride reminded me of the trip to Staten Island, except that here there were women in colorful African dresses with baskets full of fish. The trip across the river gave me a good view of Foundiougne from the water. It had obviously once been a major colonial port city. You have to wonder what the cargo may have been back then.
After the short boat trip we started down an extremely long and straight road that barely rose above the water on either side. It was an extraordinary sight and I would have loved to stop and shoot but there was barely any room to pull over. Occasionally we would see isolated men sitting waiting utterly alone for a bus. I had to wonder how they got there. We were at least ten miles from the next town and there was no other place they could have come from, short of being dropped off by boat. I finally figured out that they had to have walked for miles down the road to be sure to get a seat on the bus when it came. That would also explain why there was a younger man about a mile further along than a middle aged man. I imagined a kind of walking competition that had landed them far from any signs on life on this wet road. The sight of them sitting alone in the mist, with the water behind them was eerie.
At this point I was very aware that these were my last miles before returning to busy Dakar. I looked intently at the land and people around me, trying to take it all in and find meaningful things to photograph. We began to pass more of the tall sculpture-like ant hills and I realized that I needed to get them in my camera while I could. I had rarely asked to stop on this trip. It seemed too disruptive to the flow of things; and yet, shooting from the moving car was not giving me what I wanted; and besides, this is part of why I had come. So, when I saw a young boy herding huge horned cows across the road, and then saw a beautifully isolated anthill, I did ask for a chance to take some photographs. It proved to be an important stop for many reasons.
The boy was willing to be photographed but was shy. He held is hand in front of his mouth as the cows milled around him and the anthill made for an amazing background. I made what I hope are some interesting portraits and got back into the car, not sensing that Alan had become even more upset for some reason. I was too full of the experience of working. But soon things became clear. When I saw a thatched village that seemed set apart enough from its surroundings to show its scale I again asked Alan to stop and he had had enough. "You know that I have things I need to do in Dakar; I'm really tired and I want to get some editing done so that I have time to work on my screen play. I have to ask you to restrain your need to stop. Is that OK?"
I replied that I understood but that I had been restraining myself as things were.
"Let me rephrase that then." he said with new intensity. "I'm not stopping anymore for you!".
I sat silently, taking in this new situation. There was no sense of compromise or good will. Apparently that had already been used up and we were on an edge.
"Well?" he demanded.
"I'm considering it." I said.
Then l got out to photograph the village quickly and got back into the car.
Hoping l could get a dialog going on the issue of creative work l asked him "Tell me more about what it is you'll be working on''. At this point the emotional storm that had been building hit.
"I have to tell you" he said "I have been trying to practice understanding, rather than needing to be understood like the book says, but I'm fed up with how self-centered and arrogant you are!. Everything on this trip has been about you! You are the most selfish and disrespectful person I've ever known and I'm tired of it.... " This went on for a while.
It's hard to characterize the tensions that have emerged between Alan and I on this trip. It feels like the expression of deeply different souls in some ways, but we obviously share many of the same values and our conversations about love and spirituality have been profoundly satisfying for both of us.
To call it a rivalry would beg the question of what we could possibly be competing for? Who is having the most meaningful experience? That's silly, and yet there is some aspect of that in subtle tensions over who is sleeping or creating more. The fact is that Alan had tons of work to do and I had lots of time and relatively more money to spend, so there was an irritating imbalance that had become a minor theme of our interactions.
Or perhaps it's just that, with the normal tensions of the road, he has developed an allergy to my way of viewing and coming to understandings about what I'm experiencing here. For example. It irritated him when I speculated just after arriving in Dakar on how so many of the women here straighten their hair. Memories of the smells from growing up with my sisters and mother in Brooklyn came to me as I wondered why, at least in the city, the standards of white women were as pervasive here as in the West.
Alan immediately criticized me for drawing that conclusion. He felt compelled to defend both his right not to know the "why" of these things, and the entitlement of African women to have other motivations.
I was open to any of this but the emotional charge of his response was surprising and disturbing.
It doesn't surprise me that my enthusiasm for discussion of this stuff can be overbearing, but there is certainly no bad will involved. Other things must be happening. I don't know...
But I do know that, during the baptism and my encounter with Babacar, a day after my blow up at him in Podor, he took us on a walk by the canal where the women had washed their rice, and told me that he no longer trusted me with his confidences. Hearing this broke my heart and I felt as if, in that moment, I had lost a special quality of friendship, one that had brought me to Africa in the first place.
I respectfully listened to his feelings and told him that I understood, but I know that my dark imaginings about him in the night, when we were stopped by the lack of headlights, were an echo of this pain....
But as we drove along the narrow road back to Dakar I was having a strange and different emotional reaction to his outburst: I felt calm and reflective as he expressed his strong feelings. I wasn't feeling either hurt or angry in response to his attacks and that gave me much to consider about how my own heart may be changing. Was this a sign of some deep emotional progress on my part. In some ways perhaps, but I could also feel childish pride, and an inclination to smirk and I could sense the lack of compassion and pettiness in this. Clearly there was still much to do, but, I did manage to hold these feelings in suspension so that, after a short while Alan had expressed all that he needed to, and apparently felt heard. The beautiful landscape continued to pass but it felt appropriate to just take it in without making an issue of my own needs at that point. I wondered if Alioune and Badou were aware of the complex dynamic unfolding before them. When I took a second to glance back at Alioune he gave me an affirmative wink so I wonder....
Soon enough one of them pointed out that we were passing the game preserve where Badou had chosen the wrong moment to ride on the back of the car while I drove and I realized that we were again on ground we had covered before... and essentially our trip into the African country side was over. Alan seemed calm as he drove and we eventually pulled into the parking space in front of our familiar hotel and I went in to rent us a new room.
There were still chores to be done before we could rest. The car had to be returned and another strange thing happened: we only needed to drive three short blocks to the car dealership but, when Alan got in and turned the key.... it didn't start. This was the first and only time that had happened the whole time we were away! At any other point if we had had that problem it could have been a disaster. So we walked those three blocks and dealt with the car, and made our way back to our room, this time on the top floor of the hotel.
It was early afternoon at this point and it was clear that Alan and I were in very different states of being. He needed to wash and get to sleep immediately whereas I felt full of energy and purpose. First of all our return plane tickets needed to be confirmed so I volunteered to walk over to the travel agency to do that while Alan slept. All went well. I found them right away and as I walked back to the hotel two moving things happened one right after the other. First, I saw a young woman with ragged short hair, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk apparently braiding the long strands she had just cut off with the razor blade I could see at her side. I tried to ask if I could take her picture, and she seemed to agree so I did. I then tried to give her a coin, and she took it, looked at it with an odd smile and said something I could not understand as she handed it back to me. This had never happened before and I stood there trying to understand, when I heard a friendly voice say, "She doesn't want your money". Standing behind me was a tall man with very prominent teeth and a huge smile. "Don't you recognize me?" he said, smiling even more broadly. It stunned me to hear this. I know I have a terrible memory but I certainly didn't know this man.. I thought.
"Where are you from" he asked with a sly grin".
"Oakland, California", I offered.
"That's right!" he exclaimed. "You really don't remember me do you? That's strange because we met not long before you came on this trip. I'm the brother of someone you know back in Oakland".
At this point you may have already guessed that this was a very clever and well executed scam but I have to admit that I did not. By asking me leading questions under the cover of my faulty memory that was "hurting his feelings" he managed to get me to the point where I was beginning to sympathize with the fact that his mother had taken ill and needed to be brought to Dakar for treatment, and ".... wasn't it amazing that I happened along right at that moment" Of course this is actually a great way to hook me and I didn't catch on until I had begun to offer him $7 for his gas. At this point he over played his hand and asked for $500 that he would pay back right away. I finally got what he was up to. I stood there amazed at the roles that both of us were playing. I looked him in the eye and said, slowly, "This is a game isn't it?"
"What!" he exclaimed. "Well, if you don't want to help, that's ok" at which point he left me standing there looking carefully at the closed zipper of my money pouch.
When I got back to the hotel I was eager to tell Alan these stories but he was fast asleep so I was left to my own devices. I could have slept but I actually had too much going on inside that I needed to process. What I did was decide to go for a run, which proved to be my last in Dakar. Although I didn't know it then, I was soon to come down with the cold one of Badou's children would give me.
Before leaving for the run I realized that I had not one item of clean clothes so I went to the store, bought some washing soap and proceeded to wash. But as I did so, I had a chance to think deeply about the state I had been in since Alan's outburst. If I really made emotional progress then I would do something that I honestly didn't want to do. I would volunteer to wash Alan's clothes.... And I would do it in a true spirit of giving to a friend. He was up and typing away at this point and apparently he didn't notice when I grabbed the pile of his grubby clothes and began to wash them. As I did so I monitored my feelings and I could tell that there were still resistances and angers inside, but, I could do this, and I did it as well as I could.
Clearly real emotional maturity was not near, but as I dried my hands and prepared to leave for the hill, I knew that it was in this direction.