by Stefanie Shepley
Dreaming Without a Toe on the Continent:
The grass lolls drunkenly under the shivering rays of sunlight. Thick trunks, like the rutabaga roots of trees growing upside down, dot the landscape. The wind is what catches you. Syrupy sweet with the blood of plump hibiscus petals and the faint stench of a hidden animal or two. The nothingness around you, just grass and majestically fat trees as far as the land can yawn. The expanse of crystal blue sky, and the weight of your own body; the vision of your lined hands against the stripes of yellow grass, tinted green in their own expectation. Dirt curling underneath bare-feet (who wears shoes in Africa?).
Bubbling sweat. And light, light everywhere, miles of it, so much that you could drown in the orangeness of it all. The warmth.
Here, Touching Down:
I am stepping off the plane through a rustle of humidity, my broken carry on clunking down the silver steps behind me to the plain asphalt of the landing area. There’s a bus a way off, rumbling and waiting for us. I’m here. In A F R I C A. A Senegalese flag, a stamped passport. Where am I staying again?
And then the nothingness of unfamiliarity, as buses and cars streak past my dirty window. I sit still on the seat of the taxi. There’s a green little flash of Arabic bouncing on the rearview mirror.
And the sun is setting on the city, and all I can see is sand, sand, sand and flashes of red and pink and yellow and green, luminescent and shocking in the sun. Tropical scarves perched on top of unhurried faces. Black faces. Everyone here is black. And the abandoned buildings, I notice those next, the ones that seem to spill out into the street, though the shaking Jell-O of traffic won’t let anything else in, much less let anyone drive straight. The shops peek out like little parakeets; gobs of sunshine, yellow behind heavy iron cages. Where is everyone? And the sand seems to spread out even as we hurry along the road.
I’m here, this is real, this is A F R I C A. But, really, where am I??
I just want to feel sand creeping under my sandals again, rubbing against my cracked heels. I want to stand on the third floor of the little house in Mermoz, listening to that goat bleating on the neighbor’s roof and be in love with the night, its breath, its aliveness; breathing in the Senegalese darkness, roaring airplanes overhead and all. I want to walk lazily on the side of the road, brown bag bouncing at my hip, with the salt of sea wind playing with my hair, defying the supposed fury of the African sun. The welcoming branches of the giant baobab near our house. Asking for 50 Franc CFAs of choco-spread on my daily morning baguette. Sitting on tiny wooden stools around the giant dinner bowl with the other Mbathies, twisting spaghetti, onions, and way-too-peppery eggs onto my fork. The handshake. Ooooh yes do I miss the handshake, the sweet slap and clutch, and holding on to their fingers, perhaps for too long. I want the little classroom with the whirring air conditioner and the little tables; the parade of fascinating professors and experts that filled our minds with history and stories and unheard-of truths.
Please let me go back. Someday, anyway.
The paradise that is Sine-Saloum. The sweltering hot-as-hell volcano vortex of the beautiful city of Touba. The yellow tinge of St. Louis. The most succulent fish ever consumed. The dance of little purple crabs on the beach. Philosophical conversations with Senegalese teens as the sea grumbles next to us. Walking to church with my violin strapped on my back. Oh, take me back. Let me see my sisters again.
Now, that’s the thing about travel; it creeps under your skin and sits there like a wriggling three-year old child: let me go, let me go, LET ME GO, until all you can do is snag a loan and catch a plane. It sits on your heart like an impatient cat, every so often digging its claws into your flesh, friendly-like, but bossy. Where to next, eh?
But, how can you hold it all?
The more one travels, the more space you must make in your heart. Or it grows, I can’t tell really. But the ache; to see places, touch people, lick holy black beans off your lips that you’ll never have again, that you’ll dream about forever.
Imagine finishing your favorite book and having to burn it immediately afterwards.
Even if you go back, you can never really Go Back. Not exactly.
However, the ache, the itch, that will be your constant companion, your familiar if you will.
And even though you know that it’ll be different, it won’t be as rosy, back you go!
Back one must go; because their smiles and their laughter stick themselves inside your head like Charlie what’s-his-face’s fingers in the cherry pie, and the only way to pick them out is to hold them in your arms again, so you know that they don’t only exist in your head. That Senegal doesn’t only exist in your head.
I really went there, didn’t I? Senegal.
A F R I C A.