Just last week, I was sitting at my carpentry apprenticeship with my boss and the other apprentices, waiting for the heat to let up before we got back to work (it never really does, you just have to power through). I decided to use this time to read through my old blog posts. What struck me was that if you came to Touba Toul and followed me around for a day, not much would be different between when I wrote that post in early October and now, early March. You might think there isn't much more to know about my gap year in Senegal because outwardly, my life is the same. I go to my two jobs, hang around in my family's compound, visit nearby Khombole for language learning and shopping with the other fellows, and do my best to use Wolof through it all.
But internally, I alone now have to prepare for the fact that the end of my gap year is in sight. As with every program I've done, I started this journey aware that it would end and that I'd head back home to move on. This year has been a whirlwind, and I'm pretty sure that it won't feel real in about a month, when all I have are my pictures and journals as proof. What prior immersive programs have taught me, however, is that I have to be really good at telling my story to others since their lives have continued as normal in my absence. I owe this to my host community here, who has welcomed me and showed interest in my home community by asking about every person in the pictures on my wall, whether my family made it home safely from visiting me here, how America is different from Senegal, and beyond.
Since my daily activities still are very similar to what they've always been, I was able to put off thinking about what leaving would mean- mostly, I was just excited to get home and eat some Thai food. But then the Coronavirus arrived here, throwing us all for a loop. Suddenly, I didn't know if I'd be evacuated with just a few days' notice, meaning I would need to start saying goodbye to Touba Toul right then. I was immediately much more aware of the small moments I'd miss, like my host sister bringing me the baby of our family to play with (they all know by this point that this is the way to my heart) or chatting with my carpentry supervisor about the most random things (Mike Tyson and the minimum wage, to name a few). I'll miss being constantly surprised; a perfect example of this is an event called an mbote that was held in my town last week. From my host family's chatter, I knew it was a big deal, but I was certainly was not expecting it to be a three day parade led by a man in a chicken costume being followed by townspeople beating sticks together. I'll miss the friends I've made here, especially my fellow fellows without whom I would have laughed far less and been far more confused. When you've gotten gifts like these, you know how hard it is to leave it all behind.
People asked if was nervous to do this, and up until I was standing at JFK airport about to board the plane to Dakar, I said no, which is quite amusing to me now. I said no because I though that was true; in reality, however, I had a relatively uncomplicated view of what I was in for based on limited knowledge, besides that I’d be getting "growth" and "cultural understanding." These phrases do have more meaning now, but the unexpected is what has made the most impact on me and what will be hardest to say goodbye to when I actually go home in about 4 weeks. And though Thai food is still at the top of my list for when I come home, I'm most hoping for willing listeners, because I've got a lot of stories to share.