Re: A Different Sky
Hotel La Croix du Sud
Dakar, Senegal

Alan just woke up and is beginning again the process of working through the slowly diminishing pile of highly technical medical copy editing that he does for a German publisher. In many ways this is a perfect job for him. He receives and transmits the files electronically which allows him to travel freely to any place he can plug in his computer. I've told him that he probably has enough information stored in his unconscious to practice medicine in at least 10 different fields. He came with a tremendous amount to do. It keeps him staring and pecking away at his portable computer for hours at a time. Often he'll be working when Alioune and I leave for the beach and still be there when we get back. He said once that it feels like slavery; a remark that rings with irony given where we are.

Until he's done, and until my new credit card arrives from Bank of America we're stuck here in Dakar and my days have fallen into a familiar routine: I wake up at about 8, feeling wonderful and either hot and muggy or chilly, depending on if the air conditioner is on or off. After washing up and opening a mango for us, I sit here on the floor and write these messages on my fantastic portable keyboard and Palm Pilot. With that done I then begin preparing for whatever the day has to offer.

Alioune usually arrive at around 9 from wherever he lives in the city and turns on the TV to watch dubbed movies or episodes of Felicity while I get ready for my daily run/swim.

Alioune has become a bit less mysterious with all of the time we've spent together. He spoke his first word of English yesterday in the supermarket. He said "Yes" with a smile when I asked if he wanted his own container of salted cashews. Wouldn't it be interesting if he understood more than he appears to. Yesterday while we were eating at the Mex Musical Cafe as we usually do I drew him out a bit about the calligraphic scar on his arm. It looks like a European number seven and he shyly admitted that he had burned it into his skin with matches. "That must have hurt" I asked nonchalantly through Alan's interpretation. "No" he nodded. "Wow, you must have great courage" I said. "No" he nodded and we left it at that.

We eat our one meal per day there because Marie-Claire, the waitress with the beautiful sad eyes, knows exactly what I want: a two-egg omelet without yokes and a large side order of sautéed vegetables; but also because invariably Abraham arrives to sing us his medley of songs in his high operatic voice. Abraham is a small man with an alive smile who clearly plays the healing role of the town fool in this neighborhood. He wanders in with his hands full of the napkins he sells for a living and, with studied grace he grabs the empty microphone stand from the bandstand in front of the cafe; he then brings it over to our table with the manner of a professional, he raises his chin with great pride; clears his throat, lifts his hand in a dramatic flourish and sings: one stanza of "Guantamera", one verse of the Hallelujah Chorus, and one verse in Italian of an opera I don't know. He usually will then riff our names into some song he sings in Wolof to amuse whoever is near.... and then he leaves. It's always the same, and always amazing.

Alioune has taken to surfing the internet with me when I stop everyday at the Ponty Bar and Cyber Cafe. If she's there I always say hello to the Hamburger Hooker and she always gives me a wonderful smile. Yesterday Alioune succeeded in logging onto Elisabeth Sunday's website (www.elisabethsunday.com) and finally found something on the internet that he truly loved. "This is great!" he signaled to me. "Yep" I smiled. Minutes later he asked with his hands, "How does she do this distortion stuff?" I was lost in trying to explain about curved mirrors when, thankfully the sharp young guy came up to say that our time was up. I'll bet that the first thing he does today is go right to her site.

It's funny the things that come to mind when you run the same hill everyday:

First, I am always very aware that this is the West Coast of the same Africa where my ancestors one lived. I usually think something like "They must have seen these same waters, maybe even that same black rock over there. What did they feel?" I am of their flesh, is there a way I can know?

I always begin by running past the cesspool that for some reason collects behind the Teranga Hotel where we are told the blacks from America who won't touch Africans stay. Just past this on the left, backlit by the sea, is where the young toughs gather. Roughly the same number every day. They just sit around there in their impossible rags and joke amidst piles of rotting trash. It always makes me nervous. I have memories of running away from gangs as a child in Brooklyn. These guys always wave and smile at me as I go by.

A bit further up, on the left is the local karate/judo/aerobic step and yoga place. There's a cartoon of a bulky powerfully built giant next to the sign that reads "Body Sculpt". I always think how funny that is when all of the incredibly fit young men who dash past me are of the slimmed down to lean, smooth black muscles variety. This guy would be at home at Muscle Beach on another ocean coast.

Next up comes the back of the Presidential Palace where it's obvious that they have recently raised the wall. It's impossible to miss because they have also paved not only the sidewalk but also the hillside down to the water with irregular white stones. It's hard to run on so I usually hit the pavement there.

Then there's the tiny shanty town that I've written about before. I've recently realized that only the old man actually has a house there. The other structures are shelters for cooking that women use who live in the larger community across the road. (Can you tell that I'm running uphill with the sea on the left?)

The road curves towards the ocean here and there's a billboard advertising the Miss Senegal contest coming up in August. After all this time I now know that there are ten paintings of beautiful women standing in a row wearing the same dresses. Those images must be portraits of the contestants, if not the artist has a great imagination.

Usually at this point I'm thinking, "It's really hot here!!"

"Ok, so practice mindfulness with this. If you bring these sensation to the top what else is there?"

"It's still hot!".

"Yes, we know that. What else is there?"

"Ok, hot feels like this particular sensation on my skin and it makes moisture run down my face and back, and it makes me notice every single sea breeze as a welcome thing....."

This stuff usually gets me through a few more steps.

By now I'm passing the rough trail down to the beach and wishing that I was on the way down the hill instead of up. There's another fancy hotel to pass where there are usually some white people posing by a car to remind me of what they look like; and then finally the road opens to the sea.

There's a spectacular view of La Goree Island here. I photographed it on my first trip up.

I've almost reached my turning around point now. It's an outdoor exercise area with red dirt pathways and wooden structures to climb on and workout. (About here I usually think to myself that I'll leave that kind of training for when I get home).

This spot always reminds me of the abandoned artillery placements at the Marin Headlands overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. There's a huge round, concrete-lined hole in the ground at the top of one last short hill. A massive gun must have been there once but for me it's where I head back down the hill.

Alioune always meets me at the beach. He brings me water and my sandals. I take a long drink, strip off my shirt if I'm wearing one, and dive into the warm sea. Nothing could be better.

Alan met a sweet man walking alone on the beach our first day in Africa. We were on the beach of that swank hotel and it was raining softly. His name is Badou and he has proven to be a great man and an important teacher for us. He's agreed to take time off from work to be our guide and translate for us on our trip.

One evening not long ago he took us to his village. He made the point very strongly that we HAD to get out of the city and see real Africans and the way that they live. "We live by our hearts" he would say. "We are your brothers and you must come and let me share my home with you".

We took a taxi out into the north and it was one of those rides that defies description, but once again I'll try. The people here wear vivid colors. The buses are small and dilapidated and men hang out of the back with their legs swinging. The buildings line narrow streets and are either made from cinderblocks or jagged pieces of wood. The children are open-faced and smile easily. But the taxis that are everywhere are juggernauts that KNOW that they have the right to go anywhere they please and do so; despite the fact that the sidewalks are filled to overflowing with the above mentioned colorful, smiling Africans young and old. It's a wonder that I have never seen anyone hurt. The cabs honk constantly or flash their lights at night and it all works out somehow in tribute to humanity.

We eventually left the city and entered a wilderness of scattered small buildings, still made from blocks but more widely dispersed with people sitting out front taking in the traffic.

Night fell and suddenly we were at a traffic circle and there was Badou's smiling face. After greeting us he walked us through a maze of small businesses and tiny homes that is his village. More goods are being sold in more micro-stalls than I can imagine. The merchandise hangs from hooks on the walls behind the men who have to climb over the front counters to get in.

Badou knew everyone and he told us as we walked that he had been there with his family for about eight years. His wife was from this village and he had come from elsewhere in Senegal to work as a caddy at the fancy hotel where Clinton stays when he's in town.

Badou suddenly turned into an opening in a cinderblock wall and we were in his home. It was an enclosed space open to the sky with a watertap just to the right of the entryway and doors leading to tiny lit rooms facing the center. The common bathroom was in the far left corner and against the back wall there was a small completely enclosed room where a goat was hidden, complaining bitterly. Mothers sat caring for their babies on chairs or on the ground and Badou's dwelling is the first on the left.

The first thing you see when you go in is a room just big enough for no more than six people to sit on the couches on the long wall. The short wall has a very modern-looking TV and stereo system and the wall are either covered with hanging cloths of many colors or photographs of holy men.

We sat and Alan talked to Badou and his friends in French while I sat wishing once again that I had paid more attention in high school when they were attempting to teach me the language. Badou put on some music but it was quickly too hot to stay inside so he ushered us into the courtyard and offered us chairs that the mothers were currently sitting in. When we protested he once again insisted that this is Africa (which was hard to deny), and that it was his place to share what he had with his guests. We took the chairs and sat in the night. A noble looking young man in white robes was introduced to us and he and Alan began a long conversation that inspired Alan very much. He apparently is a local Marabout teacher who has the responsibility of teaching young men the ways of Islam. While they talked I sat noticing for the first time that I was under a different sky: that the Big Dipper was so far north that the dipper itself was below the horizon....

Badou made tea by heating a small pot on a camping burner and pouring the brew into small glasses over and over again. I had plenty of time to observe and finally figured out that he was not pouring from great heights just to show off his skill; in fact that was the way the tea got mixed properly. When it came I knew that I would have to drink it, whatever was in it. In fact it managed to be both sweet and bitter in a wonderful way. As Alioune made the next batch I was actually glad and waiting for it to come.

I spent most of the evening observing the many new things around me and trying desperately to avoid being eaten alive by mosquitoes and fleas. It's days later and my ankles are still swollen, but no matter. From now on I will wear long pants and socks regardless of the heat.

After a while Badou signaled that it was time to go and he lead us through a fantastic maze of homes and windows. I had impressions of how easy it was to look in on what would be intimate scenes in other cultures: young men watching TV with their feet on boxes; old women sitting in the narrow path selling mangoes and nuts; the naked back of a young woman, rising from a crescent of green cloth..

He took us past a mosque where I asked about the large covered stall outside the door. It was for the women he said, as if that was obvious.
There was a tree with a thick, long, gnarly limb that passed over a doorway and went back into the ground with wooden crutches holding it up. This was the famous Tree with Two Trunks that is why the village is there.

And then we were at the beach. It was dark and quiet and small white boats rested on the tide. In the near distance there was a small island with lights and tiny buildings. This was North Gore Island that gave the village its name. We could stay there Badou said. Alan and I looked at each other a agreed that that would be a perfect way to end this part of our trip.

The last stop was a nightclub where a spirited man played the kora and sang songs with his band to a table full of white tourists. They looked like the kinds of people who would be friends of mine in any other setting. Here I was content to blend into the background from their point of view. That's a new experience for me....

The prostitutes gave us the eye and when they instantly sized us up as worthless, one of them got up to dance slowly at first, holding every other beat to begin with a sultry pace and then, turning her back to us, she began shaking her knees rhythmically in a way that caught every beat in a furious pace. I asked Badou if we were seeing the famous "ventilation dance" that Elisabeth had told me about. Badou gave me look that made me wonder where Elisabeth had gotten her experience with this bit of local culture. He told me no, that dance involves doing with the buttocks what this woman was doing with her knees. In your mind see her wearing a tight white top and black stretch pants with her hair pulled into a tight knot on the top of her head.

Alan immediately said "I'll take her up on that and rose to dance with her. I sat wondering if and when I would ever be free enough to join them..... I took some pictures.

A cab took us back to our hotel.

It's days later.... a man with no hands and feet is singing under the arcade, out of the rain across the street.