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Russell: T-shirts & peanut butter

September 24, 2010

Yesterday, I went on a small adventure to pick up a package sent by my parents. I hopped in a cab to la poste de Medina, what I hoped to be my final destination. The wheels of the rickety taxi waned to and fro on the corniche, as the cloudless sky rained heat onto the stranger and me. When we reached our destination I was in a world of my own and had not noticed the post office on my direct left, so the driver asked if this was good, and I responded oui, c’est bon. I sat outside the building eating my peanuts and Parisiene baguette. People passed by me, investing countless glances just to see if I was worth the conversation about what they were selling. I popped peanuts in my mouth, the product of their labor, while they looked to me for more business. The relationship was very clear. Did this mean that the relationship won’t change?

I then went into the office. I didn’t notice at first, but it was lit dimly. I sat down feeling timid but looking French. After 10 minutes, I asked a woman next to me what’s going on, as no employees were at any windows in the foyer. I quickly learned that she only spoke Wolof. I was able to say that I’m in the process of learning Wolof, but don’t really understand enough to talk. She smiled warmly, tried a few times to explain things to me, and after I failed miserably to understand I motioned with my hand and retreated to my phone to call my mother back. As I sat speaking with her in boisterous English, the office slowly filled with other frowning unknowns seeking some kind of help. It would be difficult even for a local to truly summarize the variety of possible requests seated in the office, jailed to their hard chairs by obligatory patience. After speaking to mother, I stood and tried for the nearest worker behind the windows, showing him the package receipt I had and mumbling something that I hoped was intelligible French. He quickly retorted something I couldn’t understand. After asking what I would say to a taxi driver so I could get wherever I was supposed to go, a man seated near me interjected and explained where I needed to go, within walking distance.

I took to the streets happily, enjoying the sights as I went. The Grand Mosque of Dakar is one of the most magnificent things I’ve seen since arriving. It is huge, prismic, and washed with the colors of green and white. In my diminutive glory, I reached the quite obvious “poste centrale” de Dakar, and hesitatingly went inside.

If I were a television director, this is when I would begin the SNL sketch. I kid not. This is my attempt at a Dave-Barry-like take on my experience of retrieving my package.

A police officer immediately saw my paper and directed me to the set of windows down the hall. I got there, sat down, and was hastily told to stand up and go to the window that was available. Whoops. The man looked at me, looked at my paper, asked if it was my name, I said yes, and then handed him my international ID card. He said “do you really not have your passport?” and I followed with “I may be a silly white person, but if I had my passport I would have handed it to you,” to which he responded “good point, but you should really have your passport for something bureaucratic like this” and I admitted “yeah, I really should, but I just got legalized copies and forgot them at my school, the information for which is on the card you’re holding” to which he finally agreed “yeah, I guess this is you, and it’s not like a rocky conversation with you about where your passport is would be any easier than just putting my dumb little stamp by your name on this list I just spent 11 minutes sorting through papers to find.”

After taking my first paper, the man gave me three more and sent me around his window to a set of desks and offices. I had no idea where to go, so I just stood there until a nice man pointed me to one of the back offices. There, I got the top of my 3 papers stamped, and was sent to the desk of the other nice man. He looked at my packet, nodded, put a tiny mark in a corner with his pen, and sent me to a room next to this one, which connected to a small warehouse.

I stood awkwardly until told to sit on a nearby bench. I was sitting for about 4.5 seconds when another man motioned for me to give him my papers. Oh wait, no, just the second of the three papers. I re-sat, hoping to get a little more time on my butt before my well-honed primate-baby-like instinct of following pointy fingers was called upon once more, but no such luck: the man came back with a small box, my package, and motioned for me to supervise its unpacking. The nice man joined in for fun, the reason for which I can only assume being the sheer entertaining fun of this whole encounter. After verifying that yes, “JIF” peanut butter was a different, more sugary version of Senegalese Pate d’Arachide, I was not given my package but instead told to sit down again. I did so, and after the usual 4.5 second wait, to which I was now well-accustomed, was told to go to the adjacent office to receive the first paper I gave to the man at the first window, now from the hands of a new person at another desk I hadn’t encountered. I took that paper back to nice man’s desk, wherein he wrote my name on the back, had me sign it, and directed me back to the foyer wherein I was to meet the first man again.

I was greeted by being given the 3-paper packet from the back, now with 2 new marks on the front (shut up, I like passive voice). I signed the back of that and then waited patiently while the man wrote the information on my ID card as slowly as a homosapien can hope to write on parchment. After he finished, he gave me the third of the papers, and sent me to the window next to his.

There was a woman working there, which, if the 4.5-second-butt-sitting hadn’t excited me, definitely got me going. She rapidly completed her tasks with another customer so that she could instead give me the gift of waiting for several minutes in her immediate presence, which was really nice of her. She then asked me to pay 1000Fcfa, which I did. She wrote out a little receipt, which I signed, and then she stapled it to that 3rd paper and handed the set back to me, directing me to the continuing window next to hers. I was worried at first because there was no one at that desk, but I should’ve learned by that point to relax, because to my relief the desk was quickly occupied.

…by the woman I had just spoken to. She took the papers she had just given me, put a stamp on the receipt, and handed me, you guessed it, the original paper I had brought to the post office, now with 3 small mysterious marks in the bottom right corner. She kept the receipt of the payment, and directed me with my paper to the original window, wherein I handed the man my paper, he returned stack-papers number 1 and 2, and then left to get my package. Before handing me the package, he made sure to place it affectionately on the desk in front of him, just out of my reach, and get 2 stacks of 3 papers for 2 new customers that had arrived on both sides of me.

He then handed me my package, gave me one last visuo-telepathic “inshallah we will all die soon and heaven will have a postal system with more women and fewer stamps,” and I left with my t-shirts and peanut-butter.

So that’s my story. If you’re curious, my day continued by realizing I didn’t have any small bills, which is a recurring and significant problem in Senegal due to how informal the economy is—it’s not like unincorporated street vendors can just go to the national mint and say “so, can I have some small bills?”. So to solve my problem, I sauntered around this poor, run down, but bustling part of the city looking for something cheap I could buy to break bills. After a few awkward failures, I stumbled upon a cute bakery, in which I sat down and ordered one of the most fattening, sugary, delicious cream-filled eclaire/donut things ever. I then returned safely to WARC accompanied by one of the many taxi-driving strangers here, and wrote this account.

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