As often happens when I return from a trip away from my site, I return exhausted, dirty, and with a backpack full of filthy clothing. Last weekend was no different: I arrived home from Kédougou on a Thursday. Once I biked home from the garage, I promptly unloaded homecoming gifts upon my host family (tea, sugar, cookies, bananas, juice, matches), greeted everyone, and proceeded to engage in three of my all-time favorite activities: bucket bathing, eating, and napping. Bucket baths are better than showers, for a couple of reasons: (1) the water comes from a well and not pipes, and is therefore refreshingly cold; (2) my bathroom area is a clean private outdoor space open to the sky, which is neither smelly nor musty like indoor showers. It was about 3 p.m., and after 10 hours of car travel I was starving, so after bathing I ate the family’s leftovers, maafe gerte (rice with peanut sauce–I’ll admit, it’s not my favorite, but I’m not complaining). Then, luxury of all luxuries, the nap. There are few other great joys I have than lying sprawled amongst all my belongings–my backpack having been allowed to rupture all over my room and my bed–and slipping into the most deserved, deadweight sleep, even if for only a couple hours.
Despite a desire to prolong my post-vacation resting/unpacking limbo, I awoke at 7 a.m. the next day and got back to work. Back in the mix, as we say. I went to a planning meeting with my site-mate Nathalie and our counterparts, Abou and Mamadou. We are planning a Kolda region agricultural producer’s fair that will take place almost a year from now. The idea is to have a massive 2-day expo, invite dozens of local producers of vegetables, milk, fruit, and artisanal goods to represent themselves, provide live music and food, and have the event sponsored by local banks, hotels, and cell phone companies. We hope to open up a stronger business circuit within the region and also encourage these entrepreneurs to invest in banks, something few of them do. The next day, Saturday, I attended Nathalie’s attestation party, which was a small ceremony to hand out attestations (French for “certificate”) for completing her 4-week long training course in business for young entrepreneurs. Surprisingly, the Prefect (a notable member of local government) came, and the morning was finished off by muffins, sodas, and “family” photos of the trainees holding up their certificates.
Which brings me to Sunday. After a timely nighttime rain, the ground was perfectly moist for plenty of digging as part of the permagarden that I implemented with my family that day in our yard. Disappointingly, though we intended for the day to be a small training event for members of our neighborhood, few of our invitees came. In the end, it was just me, my counterpart Abdou, my host father Alpha, and my brothers Mamadou, Moussa, and Aliou. We created a permagarden big enough for six planting beds. When evening came around and it was time to plant our seedlings, it started raining, giving all of us a perfect excuse to just stay in and watch the World Cup Finals.
Nearly a week later, I can finally reflect on my 11-day trip to Kédougou, a town in the southeastern most corner of Senegal. From Kolda, two of my friends and I had strapped our bikes on top of a car for a 4-hour ride to Tambacounda. There, we met up with two more friends, unrolled some maps and pens, and hatched a plan for our upcoming bike trip down to The Gou. We re-packed our bags, making sure to bring food, water, oral re-hydration solution (ORS), drink mixes, tents, mosquito nets, sleeping pads, sun-block, minimal clothing, cameras, and of course, iPods and portable speakers for the ride. The night before the trip, we had a memorable “dinner of champions:” carbo-loaded pasta with chicken, eggplants, tomatoes, and olives.
We originally planned to ride for 4 days and 3 nights, wanting a mixture of a workout with enjoyable biking. The trip ended up only being 3 days and 2 nights, as the last day we decided to simply push all the way through. Two of us, Anna and I, were inexperienced bikers, and if not for exceptionally high morale and an easygoing attitude on the part of all members of our group, I’m not sure the trip would have been as feasible as it was.
Our first day was the hardest for me, about 50 miles. Not only had I never biked that much before, I wasn’t used to having a heavy load on my bike. I kept wondering if I would have to quit after a certain time since this was all new to me. At the same time, I told myself that I never know what I’m capable of until I try, so I should just keep pushing on. We stopped in small towns to get street food, mostly bean sandwiches with hard-boiled eggs and homemade mayonnaise. At the suggestion of a Peace Corps volunteer friend we ran into along the way, we took a mid-day break at the beautiful Hotel de Wassadou, perched along the Gambia river. With only two French guests in sight, the place was empty and we were free to eat our packed lunches and simply order Sprites and beers. After taking naps in their hammocks and using their clean bathrooms, we put our shoes back on for some evening riding. We reached our first overnight stop, Dar el Salaam, at about 6 p.m., just before a massive rain storm hit. We decided to stay in a campement (small hotel), and with dinner it ended up only being about 5 mille ($10) per person.
The second day of biking took us into the Niokolo-Koba reserve, a World Heritage site and home to wild animals including warthogs, baboons, monkeys, hippos, crocodiles, lions, and more. Since no one lives in the park, there would be no roadside bean sandwiches or places to get water (except for the park ranger station). The landscape drastically improved, however. There were lush green fields, hills, twists and turns. The park guards at the entrance stopped us and reminded us that there were “animaux sauvages” and to ride at our own risk. We eventually reached the park ranger station, where we were greeted by the guard Boubacar in his cutout shirt and short shorts, all in camo print. Thus commenced an unforgettable several hours of “living” at the park ranger station: we took bucket baths, did laundry, napped, took walks, ate two meals, and slept there. The all-male park team was probably just as amused by our all-female group as we were with them. It’s not often, if ever, a group of young Pulaar/Mandinka/Wolof-speaking American women rides through the station and stays the night there. They cooked two meals for us, made tea, and we talked and laughed. On our own, we took nature walks among termite mounds, saw obscure elk-like animals, spotted crocodiles and baboons, and even woke up at 5 a.m. to try to find lions. No such luck. Before bed, we made s’mores with dated Christmas-colored marshmallows and taught the guards how to make them. We slept under the overhang right next to the road where the guards sit all day to inspect passing vehicles.
When we finally left the park ranger station the next morning, they warned us about the hilly expanse ahead of us and offered to drive us the first 20k, which they said was the toughest. Ha. No way. By the second day I had started to enjoy biking up hills. I found I could get into my “zone” while climbing, focusing on breathing and the road immediately in front of me. Finally, the Niokolo-Koba park stretch came to an end. By late morning we started to spot domesticated animals (goats, cows) and other signs of human civilization like cultivated fields, which seemed strange after a day of wilderness. We reached the town Mako, ate more street food, and followed signs to the misleading Hippo Lodge, another campement along the Gambia river to relax and eat our BYO food. Despite the name of the lodge, there were no hippos in sight. We did take a dip in the murky river, probably acquired Schistosomiasis, and took some pictures. A few sodas and beers later, we decided to just continue to Kédougou.
The final stretch afforded us striking views of green valleys and mountains. Every tough uphill climb came with a reward of an amazing lookout point, made even more delicious by the evening sunlight. Unlike being in a car, on bike you can stop and take photos, or just catch your breath and let your surroundings sink in. The road meant so much more to me on bike, since every long uphill took a physical toll; I had such a different relationship to the landscape than I would have had in a motor vehicle. This is something I noticed on my way back home–on the bus ride from Kédougou back to Tamba, my entire 3-day, bike trip whipped past me in a mere 4 hours, in reverse. All the stories and memories I had of specific sign posts, villages, and punishing hills blurred into one another, becoming generic, forgettable car-view scenery.
Well, you guessed it. We eventually arrived in Kédougou. It was dusk and we rode into the Kédougou regional house to find people playing music and beer pong. Being handed a cold beer that night was like someone giving me a trophy or a gold star, as if to say, “Congrats, kid. You made it. Now come join the party.” It was a great way to start the 4th of July weekend. And no 4th of July is more fun than one spent outside of the U.S., with a bunch of young Americans overcompensating for their homesickness by roasting three pigs in the ground, making tons of cole slaw and potato salad, drinking endless amounts of beer, and playing Wizard Wars with roman candles and firecrackers. We did sing the National Anthem, in harmony. But not “Proud To Be An American,” which would have been a real high point.
The adventure continues in Part 2 (coming soon).