Final thoughts upon leaving West Africa

Sunday, January 16

West Africa isn’t an easy place to travel. I’ve written a lot about the transportation challenges. The poverty and garbage and squalor are ugly; too depressing for most Americans to stomach, I imagine. Steve and I also got tired of constantly feeling grubby. When we reached our hotel in Madrid Saturday, anyone walking by our room right after we checked in probably mistook the moans and groans issuing from within, but in fact it was the sound of our pleasure at getting thoroughly clean and being able to expect that condition to last for more than an hour or two.

Still, I have to rank this trip among my best travel experiences. Hiking through the mangroves in the Saloum Delta, watching the misty form of the Bijagos islands take shape as we sped away from the coast of Guinea Bissau, bird-watching from that dugout in the croc-infested river in the Gambia, eating grilled oysters and later gazing at the incredible night sky from the beach on New Year’s Eve. These are intense, unforgettable memories, and we had others —  more than I had time to write about.

We never got sick (unlike I did in Paris, where, incredibly, I lost weight.) The only time I ever felt unsafe was when we were on the road. The vast majority of people where we traveled are god-fearing Muslims, and with one or two exceptions (e.g. certain areas in Dakar at night), we heard no reports or warnings about personal crime. We gave up wearing the money belts we had packed, and I grew so lax I even walked off one night in Kolda leaving my purse at the table where I’d been working on my computer. I was halfway to our cottage when one of the waitresses came running after me with it. 

The daily civility of the average West African also charmed us. In Senegal, common courtesy dictates that one greet people not only with a “Bonjour!” or “Salaam aleikhum,” but also to follow that with a “ca va?” (how’s it going?). “Fine,” you’re supposed to reply (in French). How’s it going for you? Often we were asked if we had slept well. If these are mere pleasantries, they do make daily life more pleasant. 

Despite their difficult lives, despite their lack of many things that Americans couldn’t conceive of doing without, so many people we met exuded warmth and joie de vivre. Many expressed pride in their countries. When they asked us what WE thought, and we told them the truth, the invariable reaction was delight.  It was mutual.

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