The Smell of Chinatown

Alec Yeh - Senegal


October 3, 2009

We arrived early this morning. When we landed, the condensation immediately collected on the windows. The plane said it was about 85 degrees outside. With the temperature combined with the humidity, I knew it was going to be awful. I began to sweat profusely the moment I stepped off the plane. It was disgusting. Yet oddly settling, just simply because I was in Dakar. The flight, including the layover, was 14 hours long. But it was worth it. The long awaited arrival had come.

We drove to the apartment that we are staying at for a couple of days before we move to our homestays. We arrived around 6 in the morning, and I slept until noon. When I got up, I had my first Senegalese meal. It was yasa-jen; yasa being the onion sauce, and jen being the whole fish. It was pretty good for a first meal. After, we walked to the Baobob Center, which is where we will be taking all our language classes. It was a quaint place, with really nice people. We had our orientation there, in which we all almost fell asleep. But that’s to be expected with jet lag. We then took a sortie (excursion, they use the french word sortie here) around the area just to familiarize ourselves. Walking around was pretty cool though. There are a lot of people who just hang around the street since they are either vendors or beggars. There are a lot of child beggars. It’s so sad since you can’t give them any money. You never know where the money is actually going. The cars here go wicked fast, and they will not stop for you. It’s similar to Boston, except the rules of the road are ignored. Lots of random one way streets. Every once and a while you see an officer. When I walked past this big white house (which turned out to be the President’s private residence), there was a guard there with an M-16. It was frightening.

The most distinct thing about Dakar though is the smell. The moment you got out of the airport, the air smelled old. It don’t know how to explain it really. I guess it smelled a little stale, but since we were so close to the ocean, it wasn’t as bad. Once you reached the heart of Dakar, the scent shifted. And this scent, I will never forget. It will forever be in my memory. It smelled like Chinatown, with the plethora of open sewage systems. Every once and a while, you’d get a waft of burning trash, or the coals from cooking. It was such a distinct smell, that whenever I come back, if I ever come back, I know I’d immediately remember the smell. Gaya, who has been to Dakar before, even said something was familiar about the smell.

It’s weird that something so far away can remind me of so much of something at home. How Dakar can smell like Chinatown to me. It almost makes me miss Chinatown, but then again, why would I want to be in Chinatown when I can be in Dakar?

Alec Yeh