Hello. My name is Laura, and I absolutely adore the ocean. Growing up, I wanted to be a marine biologist (a dream that only died when I hit high school biology class and quickly realized that was not the career for me). When I go to the beach, I am in the water. I do not, never have, never will understand people who go just to sit in the sand. How dull!
So you can imagine my joy upon discovering that my training host family during Peace Corps lived less than two miles (3 km) from the beach. I've never lived near the ocean before, not to mention I had left behind a terrible winter back in Minnesota (the polar vortex year, if anyone remembers that joyous time). I was pumped.
There were a few Peace Corps folks around, and every Sunday we would all get together for a beach day. Usually it was just the group of us who were training in Mbour (about 25 of us), and we simply plopped down on any large spot in the sand. However, one Sunday we did something a bit special - the other 30 people who were training elsewhere took taxis to Mbour so that they too could have a beach day. We decided to have them come to one of the tourist hotels in Saly, which is rather popular with French and Belgian tourists, as well as amongst the Western population in Dakar.
Peace Corps workers only get stipends rather than salaries, so this excursion was a bit hefty for us. But it was worth it to enjoy the thatched umbrellas, western food, coke with arabic writing on the cans, and, of course, to see friends who were training elsewhere who we did not see very often.
The most memorable moment of the day, and one of the more schadenfreude events of my entire Peace Corps service, was when my friend Jessica decided to go swimming. She was in Mbour training with me, but every time we went to the beach she somehow would forget her suit. Finally, she had remembered to wear it this time. She tore her regular clothes off, ran for the water, and was almost immediately pummeled by a monstrous wave that shoved her against the ocean's rocky bottom. When she emerged, sputtering, she stood up to reveal one hell of a bloody knee. Seriously, I haven't seen a knee that scabbed since elementary school! Needless to say, it was too deep of a wound to stay in the salty water. Poor girl.
As we all hung out, I couldn't help but feel incredibly lucky that my training site was where it was. Not only did I have an amazing host family, but I literally went to the beach every single day. My friends (including Sarah in the white hat up there) who were training elsewhere did not have this opportunity. I loved my afternoon excursions to the beach, where I was able to soak up that African sun, take in the morning's Mandinka lessons, and just relax while I eased myself into my Peace Corps service. I would float in the waves, watching the palm trees on the shore, and think of how lucky I was that I was experiencing that moment because my country offered such an incredible service.
My host family was highly amused at my obsession with the beach. Every day at lunch, they would ask, "bii, i be taa baa kono?" "Are you going to the beach today?" "Heck yeah!!!" was my enthusiastic response (in Mandinka, "eeye, waati wo waati!" - yes, always!). Every day, some of the kids would come with me. I even brought back my old swim teaching techniques (I was a swim teacher for a year after college/uni) and tried desperately to translate into Mandinka. It didn't really work, but everyone had a good laugh while I tried!
I especially loved it when Pape came. He was my host brother (well, technically nephew, but my host mother was really old so I shift it down a generation in my head). He was easily my closest friend in Mbour, plus he helped me keep an eye on the kids in the water. And best of all, whenever he came along, we always bought beignets on the way home. And who doesn't love a good beignet?
These times at the beach are some of the most special memories I made in my entire 26 months in Senegal. Not only do I love the beach, but I loved those kids and they loved me. They took such good care of me, and I hope I returned the favor.
Prior to the first time I took them all with me, I had wondered what we would look like to outsiders - a white woman with a whole host of African kids. But then I started going to the beach with the other Peace Corps folks, and after observing the scene that thought went right out of the brain.
One thing that was relatively common to see was an older white person with a young Senegalese "friend". The white person was typically French, and was married to the 20-something Senegalese person. It's an exchange of looks for a visa. Apparently this also happens frequently in SE Asia (I have not one, not two, but three friends whose dads or uncles have married young Thai women, for instance). Compared to that, who cares if I'm hanging out with my host family!
Jokes aside, I never judged those people. You do you, ya know? The only time I saw something at the beach that caused mortification and a desire to apologize on behalf of the White World happened one Sunday morning. I was with three of my Peace Corps friends, and we were sitting on the sand watching local fishermen drag in a huge net (see photo). Then, in the distance, a rumbling began to sound. Soon, four tourists riding 4-wheelers came right up to the fishing net and only stopped in the nick of time. Then, rather than going around the men, they simply waited for the Senegalese to stare at them, then put their net lines high in the air so that the 4-wheelers could go under. And nary a "merci" was heard.
People can turn into real assholes when they travel. And westerners have been taught that they are superior to poor Africans, so this incident was a bit of a double-whammy, I suspect. Either way, I still physically cringe when I think of that moment.
To end on a better note than jerks in Africa, the weirdest encounter I had at the beach was with this guy. My friend Caroline and I were bobbing in the waves one day when suddenly she squealed, "ummm what is this??". He looks fine on land, but watch that link - it was a creepy, creepy critter to have floating next to you!