Majesty of the Mundane

Joshua Gervais - Senegal


November 6, 2019

Well, here we are— a whole two months since I first touched down in Senegal. Two months of blunders, and triumphs; home sickness, and familial bonding; nightmarish faux pas, and phantasmagoric cultural experiences: the pitfalls of throwing oneself wholeheartedly into a new culture, and its indescribable rewards. After two months spent on this veritable roller coaster of a gap year vacillating between desperately clinging to the safety bar, and euphorically throwing my hands up, what has been the greatest takeaway? 

It’s quite simple, really— I love monotony. 

Yes, you read that right. I am completely enamored with the evolutionary autopilot that we call “routine”. Now, I know this is a rather odd proclamation to write a blog about, especially considering that I not only just traveled out of the U.S. for the first time, but did so for 7 months in a country that stands in seemingly stark contrast to everything I’ve been accustomed to for the past 18 years. So, again, why would I choose now of all times to talk about monotony? Well, it all started with a mango. 

First, allow me to provide some context. I have spent the past two months in Pout, Senegal: a sprawling town of narrow concrete alleyways, vast viridian forests, and, inarguably, the best mangoes the world has to offer. This is coming, of course, from my extensive globetrotting, mango tasting, escapades from which I can confidently stand by my assertion. Regardless, other than incredible fruit selections,  Pout is also home to approximately 23,000 farmers, businessmen, educators, and at least one Texan. In these senses, it’s just like anywhere else in the world— a dynamic community brimming with mesmerizing sights, intriguing people, and innumerable opportunities to learn more about its history. However, just like anywhere else in the world, Pout too, has its own fair share of the not so charming; and If I’m being completely honest, at first, all I could see were the “not so charming” aspects. 

When I was first placed in my site, I was overwhelmed by culture shock, intense loneliness, and a desperate desire to stop looking like such an idiot anytime I tried to interact with my host family. In a matter of days, I found myself 5,000 miles away from home, in a country that I knew little about, surrounded by a language I didn’t speak, with self-doubt and fear laden thoughts bombarding every corner of my mind. Of my time spent in Senegal— my two months; my 66 days; my 1,584 hours— these thoughts represented a whole one week of that time. 7 full days of… “earth shattering” awkwardness… and, umm…  ”paralyzing” fear and…uhh…”Scariness?”  okay, I can’t do this. I can’t truthfully say that my first experience in Pout was some sort of world-ending, traumatic experience that I “so bravely overcame” in the name of adventure, because, while it certainly felt that way, it wasn’t and I didn’t. 

Looking back, that week’s worth of adjustment was filled with totally valid emotional distress and uncertainty that comes with cultural adjustment, whose time frame varies for everyone. However, the worst extent of my negatives stemmed from (most of) my very first night in Pout:

I had spent the day of September 7th at our initial training center, Tostan, watching all of my friends excitedly greet their new families who had come to pick them up. It had been rather dark and stormy that day, and as our numbers began to thin, the general ambiance took a sharp turn from “nervous excitement” to “oh dear god, can I please just get picked up”. Well, as luck would have it, the rain had persuaded all transportation from Pout to stay within the major cities, making it impossible for my family to pick me up. Upon receiving this comforting news, my team leader and I loaded into a hired taxi and began the journey to what would be my new home. I think my journal entry from that taxi ride summed the day up pretty well:

A harsh storm delayed my arrival by several hours, turning the streets of pout to an earthen slush by the time I arrived. Amidst the mud, mingled rubble and trash that spewed upwards like a geyser of filth each time the [taxi accelerated]….Shrieking laughter and piercing “Toubab” ’s (foreigner)  tore the fabric of the air with such force and power that it rivaled the storm that had just ravaged the very streets they mocked from. These questions howled at the fortitude of my mind with gale-like intensity—

Will I too be reduced to nothing more than earthen slush? Trampled upon for play? Destroyed by the unrelenting storm?” 

Dramatic as it is, that was genuinely how I felt. By the time I finally arrived at my site, I was totally exhausted from the days events and could hardly wait to rush through the awkward introductions, wolf down dinner, and collapse on whatever semblance of a bed awaited me behind the doors of my unseen room. Well, just as I was getting up to rush off to my room for the night, my host father beckoned me over to sit down with the family. Annoyed, but not wanting to be rude, I painted on a smile and joined them on the cold, damp tile of the courtyard. It was there, in this cold, damp, exhausted moment that I would first fall in love with monotony. 

That was the first time I ever had one of Pout’s fabled mangoes. My new host family meticulously cut and peeled an entire bucket of them that we spent the next few hours slowly enjoying. During which, under the blanket of the star-filled night sky and the constant assistance of google translate, my host brother explained to me the importance of mango trees in Senegal and how Pout is encircled by their groves. For that next week we shared those mangoes in exactly the same way every night. It became the cornerstone of the foundation upon which I would forget about “Joshua Gervais” for awhile and learn more about “Samba Ba”— the Senegalese name they gave me that first night sharing mangoes under the stars. 

Over the past 7 weeks, I’ve incorporated more and more things into the repertoire that is my weekly routine. When the mango season ended, my evenings were spent playfully wrestling with my youngest host brother—one of the national sports here. My days became patterned with second nature bus trips to Thiès for language classes— a task I once thought of as impossible to do alone— or perusing the streets of Pout as a way to clear my mind. The more time I spend here, the more I realize that how you spend your time— one of the most precious things we have— is who you will be defined as in the eyes of eternity.

 In the grand scheme of things, it won’t be long now until I’m in the states again. I’ll leave behind my daily Ataya and “Ceebu Jen”, to face new unknowns. However, even if playing with siblings or attempting public transportation may not seem like much, the acts of testing my limits and stretching my comfort zone will be a part of me forever. 

And yes, I’ve also struggled a lot since being here, and I’m guaranteed to face even more adversity in the coming months, but I’m confident that I’ll love every second of it. Not because I’m particularly fond of my time spent completely lost amidst the markets of Thiès or enjoy being berated by strangers, but because I firmly believe that to fill your life with both the wonderful and the challenging— to exist across the full extent of the human experience—is to live the way life is meant to be lived: wholly

As I’ve become more comfortable trying new things, and have added increasingly more challenging things into my weekly habits, the more I discover and develop my idea of  the Majesty of the Mundane— the significance of our habits and the roles of our subconscious actions on our identities. As such, I wish to pontificate once again in my blogs by asking those of you kind enough to have read this far to consider the following late night journal entry I wrote as a letter to my future self: 

For the love of all that is “wholly”, keep stepping outside of your comfort zone. I’m not suggesting that you necessarily have to drop everything and travel overseas again, or even undertake some immense task in order to continue defining yourself; however, I do believe that you owe it to yourself and to the beautiful preciosity of life, to do things that challenge yourself, your viewpoints, and your global self. After all, what is the purpose of life if not to live deeply? 

Good luck and bon voyage, my friends.

— Samba Ba


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Joshua Gervais