Before I could even process what had happened, the pain hit me. It was burning, blinding, reducing me to a helpless, moaning lump. The one part of my brain that was still sentient tried to get help, to get water, to do something—yet I was unable to move in any direction for lack of vision. In that moment, any Wolof I had learned over the past two months abandoned me completely. “This is it” I thought to myself, “this is the moment where you are permanently blinded as punishment for trying to take a gap year”. Next thing I knew hands were grabbing me, leading me stumbling out of the area under the stairs that acts as our kitchen. My host siblings started shouting, my baby sister started crying—perhaps I was yelling and crying too, it’s a little unclear—and above all the commotion was my host mom yelling, “The spice got my child!” over and over again. Someone attempted to guide me as I blindly staggered along, managing to step directly into something warm and feathery which I later discovered was the bowl of freshly killed chickens waiting to be prepared for dinner. This obstacle did not discourage the hands that then dragged me outside, causing me to trip over the door still and land in a pile of dirty clothes waiting to be washed. As hands began throwing water in my face, I heard my mother pause her yelling to greet the unsuspecting neighbor who simply stopped by to say hello and found herself thrust into a world of chaos.
… And that story pretty much sums up how my host mom’s attempt to teach me how to cook has been going. Background info so the story above makes a little bit of sense: When I was trying to help my mom and sister prepare lunch, I was put in charge of mashing spices and various vegetables together to make some sauce of some sort. Happy to be able to do something of use (trust me, it doesn’t happen very often), I enthusiastically mashed away until a drop of the mixture flew up into my eye, temporarily causing both blindness and the end of the world as far as I was concerned. Fortunately, after copious amounts of water, my eye suffered no permanent damage and I can see just fine.
This story not only sums up how cooking lessons have been going, but how my gap year has been going—lots of yelling, crying, and not knowing how to communicate. In the approximately two months since I last posted on my blog (yes, I am aware how long it has been and I apologize), I have learned more, experienced more, and sweated more than in my entire life up to the point where I foolishly decided to get on a plane to Dakar. It turns out that there is a reason why not everyone decides to pack up their lives and move to a foreign, developing country where they don’t speak the language—it’s really, really hard. Even with a wonderful host family (which I have), and a friendly host community (which I also have), I found myself crying and counting down the days until I returned to Wenatchee on the daily. It hasn’t been pretty.
I have found out that despite the weeks spent packing and planning, nothing that I did truly prepared myself for the moment when the bus drove away, leaving me and my suitcase behind with a bunch of strangers who were supposedly going to look after me and keep me alive for the next seven months. There is no way to prepare for that moment. I knew that this year would be hard, I knew that it would force me out of my comfort zone unlike anything else I had ever done before, yet I must admit I don’t think I truly grasped the implications of my decision to take a gap year in Senegal until I was eating lunch with my hands from a giant bowl and it was too late. At the risk of scaring away any potential future fellows who happen to be reading this in order to get a sense of if a gap year is right for them, I spent the majority of September and October struggling to communicate basic needs with my host family, frantically scratching at mosquito bites, and dealing with seemingly endless gastrointestinal problems. Like I said, it hasn’t been pretty.
Yet despite of–and in most cases because of–the various challenges, I have been growing and learning in ways that would not have happened had I made the decision to go immediately to college. The following is only a short sample from the list of things I have learned and experienced, as the actual list is as long as I am away from home (approx. 6,077 miles):
· I can eat with my hands like a pro
· I know how to peel and chop various vegetables with only a knife (I am aware how silly this sounds but until coming to Senegal I had never not used a vegetable peeler or cutting board)
· I have been forced to dance at no less than five large gatherings of Senegalese women
· Bucket showers and squatty potties have become my norm
· I can tease my host siblings in Wolof
· I am slowly starting to learn to sew at my apprenticeship
· I know the best, cheapest ways to get around Senegal—and I can barter down prices with drivers
· Sleeping under a mosquito net is now second nature
· I witnessed the slaughtering and butchering of a goat
· I have eaten more watermelon in September alone than my entire life put together pre-Senegal
· My appreciation for wifi has increased by 1000000%
· I can sort-of make the squeaky sound that women in Senegal make when they wash clothes by hand
They tell us that culture shock is a U-curve, that entering a new country causes initial excitement, followed by a deep drop until one day when things start to get better. I have discovered that the old saying about how things seem the bleakest right before they improve is true: the day when I woke up and for the first time didn’t dread the day ahead of me was the day after I called Caroline (a GCY Senegal alumni and also one of the best people on the planet) and asked her how she didn’t give up and go back home during her gap year. I still struggle with various little things throughout the day, but I am no longer struggling with the day itself. I love my host family, am surrounded by an amazing support system both here and back home, and am learning more and more Wolof every day. I am safe and well cared for, and looking forward to what the following days and months will bring me. Perhaps taking a gap year wasn’t the worst decision after all.