A Day in the life: Dakar

Dakar is the sticky, salty feel of a day at the beach: the tropical smell of sunscreen, hot sand in your flip flops and sweat that beads on your upper lip and traces a line from your temples to your chin. It’s not ever wondering what the weather will be like (hot and sunny), cloudless skies and white circles around your eyes from having to wear your sunglasses all the time.

It’s a drab canvas of concrete and rubble and trash, punctuated by brilliant color: a bright red hibiscus along a wall, a woman dressed in vibrant orange balancing a basket of mandarins on her head.

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It’s falling asleep every night to the buzz of scooters and motorcycles, the constant din of laughter and conversation and stray dogs barking on the streets outside your window, the frenzied, rhythmic drumming of the djembe players on the corner.

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Dakar is the shouts of boys playing soccer barefoot in empty sand lots, the beep-beep of taxis asking if you want a ride. It’s greeting everyone with Asalaamaalekum! (peace be with you) and ça va? (how’s it going?); It’s teranga, Senegalese hospitality — saying hello to a neighbor who immediately invites you into his house to meet the rest of his family and share a cold Coke.

It’s being stared at unabashedly on the street, your white skin a magnet for attention, little kids giggling and pointing and calling Toubab! It’s wondering if the taxi driver gave you a fair price or ripped you off, having to be ever-vigilant for pickpockets and scams, a thousand keys to get through the gauntlet of gates and doors and deadbolts protecting your house.

Dakar is riding in the back of a beat-up taxi with no seat belts and no air conditioning; sweating it out in the stop-and-go traffic, vendors jogging alongside and between the crawling lines of cars, selling peanuts and pottery and fabric, cell phone cards, newspapers, sunglasses, soccer balls. It’s sharing the highway with horse carts and herds of goats and sheep, crowds of people who randomly cross it wherever they like; the bright blue and yellow busses with boys hanging out of the open back doors. It’s the wind in your hair and a headache from the noxious diesel fumes.

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It’s waking every morning to the song of the local mosque: Allahu Akbar, God is great; to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the jingle of their bells as they haul carts — of trash, of vegetables, of fish, of concrete bricks — around the city.

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It’s cab drivers hanging pictures of their Islamic teachers in their cabs and horse tail talismans from their bumpers — a religious mixing bowl, Islam-meets-tribal-superstition, the living, breathing pulse of Dakar’s social rituals and norms. It’s people on the beach walking the shoreline with prayer beads looped through their fingers, chanting, praying, doing what they can to be “good enough.”

It’s giving your leftover pizza to a little talibé boy, watching him shout to a bunch of other talibés across the street who come running to share it with him. It’s the old man carrying ten live chickens upside down by their feet, and Marie, the street vendor who makes tortillas and bagels, delivering them right to your door because she had run out of them the day before when you stopped by to buy some.

Dakar is laundry on the rooftops flapping in the breeze, the hiss of a fan and the echo of tile floors. It’s licking fresh mango juice from your fingers and the sour pucker of madd fruit, their discarded shells littering the beaches.

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It’s the smell of bleach for washing dishes and fruits and vegetables and even eggs; pretending not to see all the flies that were shooed off the meat you just bought. It’s cockroaches the size of your palm and teeny tiny mosquitos you don’t notice until it’s too late. It’s hoping and praying your malaria medicine does its job.

It’s not knowing where to find anything but being able to find anything, even chocolate Betty Crocker frosting in a can, if you have the time, the patience, and the money.

Dakar has surprised me and thrilled me, exhausted me and frustrated me; captured my imagination and challenged my identity. It is constant noise and motion, an ocean of people, an endless landscape of dust and debris. The kind of place where you could lose yourself or find yourself, depending on your mood.

And now — it’s the place I’m learning to call home.

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