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Tiana: MSID Beginnings

January 21, 2010

We arrived at the airport at around 6 in the morning — oomph!  And while it felt like we should all be going to a hotel and sleeping for a good 12 hours, we knew that we had one long day ahead of us. Who knew that it would be one of the most exhausting, exhilarating days of my life?

Going through customs at the airport was the first test of our French skills.  I failed miserably.  Not in terms of language usage, but rather in terms of composure and presentation.  I fumbled and bumbled my way through the brief conversation, and thankfully made it through the queue with only my pride wounded.  It’s disconcerting and altogether humbling to feel like you know so much, only to realize that you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do.  That realization, when combined with the raw emotions and nerves described in the last post, yields a bittersweet concoction.

Baggage in tow, us MSID-ers headed outside the airport to find our contact (if I haven‘t mentioned it before, MSID means “Minnesota Studies in International Development“.  Because our flight was not to land until around 6:55, we had a bit of waiting to do.  In the meantime, we observed.  The first thing I noticed was a temperature decidedly warmer than that of the city I left behind, Minneapolis.  Next I noticed the PALM TREE situated just outside the airport and two lit Christmas trees outside of a building to the right.  (For future reference, I am nearly obsessed with palm trees; so, if I mention them frequently, you now know why.)  Everything I was seeing was different than anything I’d ever seen, but was so similar at the same time.  Waly, Adji, and Awa, three of the program’s go-to contacts picked us up and drove us to a nearby hotel.  We unloaded, moved into our rooms (which were, in a word, idyllic — we opened the windows and were welcomed to Senegal by the sound of a rooster crowing in alarm, just like in a movie!), and had about three and a half hours of free time before we were to be picked up.  Thus, a wonderful croissant and tea breakfast was in order, followed by a spontaneous walking excursion through the neighborhood.

What I have seen of this country is truly incredible.  There is something beautiful in everything around you, and there is also often something that tugs on the heart strings.  A ruined building with a vibrant, colorful personality.  A poor, hungry child with a glimmering smile.  Every second that I spend here serves as confirmation that this experience is going to change my life.

At 12:30, we were picked up and driven a short distance to a nearby villa.  Walking through the villa to the roof, we saw a large, canopied area with mats on the ground and a stunning vista to the left.  The view from the roof included a forest of palm trees, a nearby mosque, and the ocean just behind it all.  Orientation began with each student dressing in an authentic garment (for the females, sarongs), sitting, and listening to some logistical information delivered by Waly and Adji.  Waly was wrapping up the introduction when he explained that dance is a critical part of Senegalese culture.  He put on some music, and we started learning some basic steps!  It was extremely awkward, and we were all hesitant at first, but we soon began to loosen up and move with the beat.  The music was really neat!  I definitely plan on investing in some to bring home with me!

Dancing was followed by lunch.  We ate ceebu jen, rice and fish with vegetables, the traditional plate of Senegal!  It was DELICIOUS!  The technique at meals is unlike anything we’re ever allowed to do in the States — Four giant plates of food were prepared, and four people shared one plate.  We sat on the floor and ate with only our right hands, according to Senegalese tradition.  La sieste, a period of rest, followed lunch.  We all laid down on our backs on the roof of that villa, some staring at the blue canopy and the even bluer sky above, and some (well, make that most) drifting off to sleep for a brief nap.  It was one of the first moments where I began to realize…I am really here.

After la sieste, we participated in a Senegalese tea ritual, ataya.  Green tea is prepared very meticulously (the tea must be moussed, or foamy at the surface) and served in small glasses in three separate servings.  The first serving is extremely strong.  The second, slightly less strong.  And the third, even less strong than the first two.  Ataya can sometimes take up to two hours because the goal is to really engage in conversation with the people surrounding you.  So much of this culture seems to center around being connected with others.  I love that!

Three more hours of orientation, including a discussion on host-family etiquette, gave way to a long walk through the Yoff neighborhood north of Grand Dakar, including stops at the beach and the fish market.  Huge ocean waves crashing into the rocks…ahhh…I could never tire of that sight, nor the sounds that accompany it.  The fish market was single-handedly the most colorful place I ever have seen.  Hundreds and hundreds of boats of hundreds and hundreds of colors were on shore while hundreds and hundreds of people gathered there to trade, play futbol (aka — soccer!),  watch the ocean, stare at the toubabs (us foreigners), etc.  While it felt like we were as conspicuous as floats at the Thanksgiving Day parade, it was an insightful excursion, revealing more of how this society works, and I ended the day with far more questions than answers.  This, I’ve decided, is a good thing.

After our refreshing walk, we returned to the villa for a dinner of French fries, chicken, and bread, after which we returned in a food coma to the hotel and absolutely crashed.  I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep so fast in my entire life!

Day one was complete.  With the amount that we learned and saw and did, it felt like we’d been here an entire week already!

Hoping all is well back in the States!

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