Korak in Pal-ul-don
A few years ago I entered the new millennium by going on a four month trip to West Africa. A charity related group had employed me for a team which would attempt to set up a database to categorize the fifty some people groups in the country of Senegal. The country was about 90% black, 90% French-speaking and 90% Moslem. My main task turned out to be drawing the maps of each tribe. Because I have a sense of claustrophobia whenever I cannot understand the language, I took a crash course in French in which I was able to knock down about a 2000 word vocabulary, just enough to allow me to communicate my wants to the Africans.
I got off the airplane at Dakar and was picked up by my host. We took a scenic drive along the sea, and saw the magnificent mosques built along the ocean. His house was a beautiful two-story overlooking the Pacific, and I had dinner with his family. Afterward he took me to my quarters in another part of the city. I was staying in a complex that had been built as a school but was no longer in use. It was constructed in the African architectural style, and greatly resembled a lost city from a Manning comic book. It had a stockade wall all around it, and a couple of interior courtyards, one of which was a basketball court. My rooms were hidden deep in the building, complete with a bathroom, shower, and kitchen. During the day a handy man worked on the premises, and at night there was a guard posted at the gate.
Our team met in the suite adjoining my rooms, and was comprised of several young white women and a handful of local black men. The original plan had been for us to travel throughout the country in landrovers researching the various tribes, but because of the fact that our group was so filled with girls he changed the plan-- we would simply interview residents of the city who were from the different parts of the country. I was dismayed to learn that we would be confined to the city-- it was about like being stranded on a desert island with 2 million people!
The weather was exquisite from January to June, with an invigorating, mellow breeze blowing from the sea. Most of the modern luxuries were present-- we had running water and electricity, though occasionally either the water or the power would go off for some time. I was unable to watch TV, however, for various reasons, and had brought my own CD player to entertain myself in the evenings. Sometimes one of the girls would play me a game of chess, and she was often able to beat me, in spite of the fact that I played a computer chess game regularly.
For transportation, few people in the city owned cars, but there were a vast number of beat up old taxis running around constantly. I preferred to travel with one of the team as a guide, since the drivers would rip me off if I went alone, unable to communicate well in French. Later in my stay, I finally bought a bicycle and rode it to the nearby private American high school in order to work out on the weights in the afternoons. A great number of animals roamed the streets, from mangy looking dogs and cats to horses, cows and goats.
For recreation, some of our team would take me to various sights, such as the light house high over the sea, or downtown Dakar where the world famous hustlers incessantly harass shoppers trying to sell them trinkets. There was a French bookstore there that had an English section which I loved to go visit from time to time, and there was also a magnificent old Catholic church that I would attend on the weekends. It was lovely to hear its booming bells chiming over the city on Sunday mornings.
One of the main problems that I had during my stay was food. It seems that the residents were accustomed to a steady diet of rice and tuna, which they would share at a table together off of one immense platter, each person working towards the center. This cuisine they ate for almost every meal, three meals a day. I quickly grew tired of this and ventured out into the streets to find something else. I found that on many streets, there were small stands set up which served a kind of plain, spartan beef submarines. These were a delicious alternative. Also, after looking all over the city, I found a Lebanese fellow who made pizzas, and I could laboriously order these over the phone to have them delivered by scooter to the complex where I stayed. Apparently they had never heard of Mexican food (not even cans of chili were available at the store), and, used to a typical variety of American junk food restaurants, I began to crave food much of the time. There were a few places where I could get a kind of hamburger, that not only had an egg on it, but the fries were loaded under the bun as well! In my quarters, I could boil some spaghetti and put some sauce on it, that I found in a grocery store, that looked like it was imported from France. Fresh milk was unknown to them. I had to buy expensive bottles of sterilized milk imported from Europe, which had a peculiar taste to it. But once I found some boxes of Disney's Tarzan cereal, and each box had a different 3-D postcard of Tarzan in it. I saved these as souvenirs.
One night, around 3 in the morning, the guard awoke me by banging loudly on the door and shouting that there was a fire. I rushed outside and saw that the junkyard adjoining the palisade of the complex was burning furiously. We called the fire truck, and eventually it showed up, just as the flames were licking over the wall onto my rooms. The junkyard was a total loss, but fortunately they managed to save the center where I lived from more than a toasted north wall.
The time came eventually when I had to renew my visa, and in order to do this I had to cross the border into the neighboring country of Gambia and then return, having my visa stamped. Gambia was a former English colony, and their official language was English. However, unlike Senegal where I was staying, Gambia did not require a public education, so few could read and write, and few could actually speak English fluently. This nation was a small, richly forested country that surrounded the large Gambia river that emptied into the Pacific. It reminded me much more of the tropical rainforests in the Tarzan books.
A teammate accompanied me, and we took a bush taxi along the main highway between the two capitals. This main highway turned out to be a narrow dirt road that ran through the jungle for most of the trip. We finally made it to the border, and had to cross the river on a ferry, for no bridge had been built. As I crossed the Gambia, I could not help but be reminded of the gloomy Zarkheeba River in the Conan story, Queen of the Black Coast. I had stumbled upon the definitive location for a film of that adventure!
We had a lovely weekend there. Our quarters were a guest lodge owned by the group, and it was about a half mile from the beach, where my teammate and I spent several hours swimming. Along the way to the beach was a bookstore, and I was greatly relieved to find one that stocked mostly English books to satisfy my lust for buying souvenirs. We got into some trouble there as well, for the English embassy was along our route, and I stopped to snap a couple of photos. Out came the guards and had us hauled into the compound. They treated us with respect, however, and a couple of days later returned my film. We then flew back. I had some trouble at the airport because of the large, locking "Adventurer" Swiss Army knife I was carrying. Finally they decided to let the Captain keep it in his cabin until we got back.
During my stay I learned how to operate a computer. I had never had any doings with this machine, but because we needed to use it for our work, the girls taught me everything I know about using a computer. They set me up with the email account that I still use to this day, and soon I was surfing the net, learning how to run up my credit card from the comfort of my desk. It was because of this experience that I am able to use a computer at all.
To entertain myself, I had brought along a number of books for the trip, including the set of Dark Horse Tarzan adaptations drawn by Russ Manning. I not only read these but were able to convince one of the girls on our team to read them as well (the prodigy who could beat me at chess). She invited me over to her home near the high school and her mother made us a delicious home-cooked dinner, which was greatly appreciated. They were one of many families that I met and visited during my stay in the city. She and I also took a field trip to the Zoo nearby, which was so huge and well stocked that it was about halfway a kind of small game reserve, and visited the off-shore island where the infamous slaver castle was situated. At the Zoo we were able to freely handle and pet the various species, such as pythons, who were enjoyable to wrestle with. The apes were especially friendly and communicative, appreciating someone who could actually speak their language! Also while I was there, I reread all the Conan adventures that took place in that area, such as "Vale of Lost Women," which had been inspired by the Tarzan stories. I read a great deal, since there was no TV in the evenings after my teammates had left the center to go home.
Overall my adventure was a tremendous learning experience. There were a million other things I could share, but I want this to be an article, not an entire book! It was fascinating to see a people like that go from the stone age into the space age in just a few decades. Such a transition would be a strain for any people group, and I greatly admired them for their spunk. All over the city large mansions were being built, in their characteristic African style, and growth was everywhere. There was also great poverty and squalor, but time and education should eventually win out for their nation.
After four months abroad, I was more than ready for a feast at our local Mexican restaurant! If you ever go to Africa, I would strongly recommend the incredible beauties of the wilderness and country. Though there were some beautiful things about that city, I do not think that Tarzan would have remained in a city like it for more than a few days.