Trip Start Aug 17, 2007
Trip End Sep 22, 2007

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Flag of Senegal  ,
Sunday, September 9, 2007

For you true football (aka soccer) fans out there, I have quite the story. As much as people can complain about the heat, the boredom, sometimes the danger, and everything in between, about the job that we are doing, we all have to admit that sometimes the benefits far out way the hardships. We did, in fact, work our longest, most physically demanding day this week in 120 degree heat. It was hot. We were all drenched in sweat and gulping liters of water, taking shelter in the vans idling with the AC on whenever possible. But, we survived, and we're all the better for it if you ask me. It seemed that for one reason or another this week was tough for several of us, but yesterday afternoon redeemed the entire week in only three hours.

We knew tickets had been purchased for us to go to the Senegal/Burkina Faso soccer game because of our "connections", but we didn't know for how much or where or how we were supposed to get there. I can explain our connections later if you were interested, but for now all you need to know is the team has been staying at our hotel this week. All I knew was to meet in the lobby at 3. At 3 we find out that not only were the tickets only $10, but we were to be escorted to the game as part of the team motorcade!
So we watched and took pictures with the rest of the hotel guests as the players loaded on their giant bus and then we filed onto our own tiny bus, directly behind theirs, taking our place in the middle of the motorcade behind cop cars and motorcycles, all of us with flashers on, heading out for the big game. It was fun to drive through town and watch people gather and wave. So much hope is placed on athletes...as if by the simple fact of playing a game for a living they have risen above the poverty, disease and despair that hold so many of their compatriots prisoner. Most, if not all, of these players actually play on European teams because you can't make a living as professional athlete here, but for Africa Cup they come back to their own Senegal and you could feel the pride as we drove through town.
Arriving at the stadium, the motorcade was ushered directly beneath it and giant metal doors slammed down behind us. Amidst the flashing lights of the press and the watchful eyes of our own (Senegalese) bodyguards, we snuck through the crowd and walked right across the middle of the field...imagining the thousands already in their seats an hour before the game wondering what in the world this gaggle of random white people was doing on the field. Of course we took pictures of each other and every one of us, no matter how many times certain had worked with VIPs or had similar experiences, expressed our excitement and disbelief at what we were doing.
We climbed to our excellent seats and settled in, eyeballing the cold bottled drinks which were only $1 (Can you believe it? At a national sports stadium!), the bags of homemade, already sliced bread, the baskets of peanuts in the shell and little girls with trays of fruit passing between spectators looking for their seats. Thank goodness for an overcast sky, 'cause the heat was a bit much anyway. We were just below the overhang of the shelter and felt like we were melting, even though we could reach our hand out and feel cold air just two feet in front of us. At halftime I stupidly decided I might as well find a restroom. Well, seeing as how neither the guys on our team or the other ever let us go anywhere alone, two jumped up to accompany CÚline and I to the bathroom, along with our Senegalese driver.
When we reached the outer walkway of the stadium that from the inside could be anywhere in the world, we found ourselves again in Africa. Young boys facing Mecca kneeled and prayed on sheets of newspaper, women sold stacks of fried bean cakes, peanuts and fruit and the scent of body odor and unidentifiable garbage wafted softly as people rehashed the first half. Our driver pointed to the restroom and the four of us Americans exchanged confused glances. The open door was crowded with people coming and going...but only a few of the people were women. We asked the driver if this was a unisex restroom and he said it was but maybe best to wait until the game started again for the crowd to thin. Imaging stall-less toilets side-by-side and not even considering the cleanliness, I agreed and we wandered around for a bit. Soon enough the crowd had disappeared and while the other Americans chickened out, I, mostly out of curiosity, decided to venture in, fully aware that I could always just come back out and hold it for the rest of the game as I wasn't in urgent need anyway.
Unexpectedly, the driver accompanied me in. We entered a large room, tiled from ceiling to floor in tiny, square, white tiles. To our left there was a slightly raised border demarcating the non-existent urinals, where several men relieved themselves against the wall, from the rest of the wet floor. To our right were four stalls, all marked with the universal man symbol, all closed. He checked and they were occupied. When a man came out of the first stall, the driver pushed the door open and recoiled in disgust. I wasn't surprised to see a hole in the floor with typical footprint sides, but to see that it was completely overflowing and the floor was covered in waste. The driver quickly turned around, shaking his head and gestured that we weren't using this one.
You probably didn't want those details, and neither did my companions. CÚline by this point decided she didn't have to go that bad, but since the driver was so gallantly offering to accompany me, I didn't want to resist and turn down his assistance, so we set out across the stadium for different restrooms. This was the true adventure, as people were packed into every seat and sitting buns to buns on every step. We squirmed, wiggled and pushed our way up the stairs and then sucked in our tummies and slid past the stats tables, leaning gingerly over the heads of people sitting beneath them. We pushed and tapped and grabbed random shoulders for balance and after taking several minutes to go around only one section of seats, emerged into another open hall. This time, despite the standing unidentifiable liquid on the floor, there was indeed an actual toilet, itself covered in unidentifiable liquid...If ever I wished I had hand sanitizer, despite having only opened the door with the back of my hand and not touching anything else...today was the day! So we made our way slowly back through the mass of hot human bodies and by the time I got to my seat, my shirt was soaked, my forehead dripping and I was very glad to sit down.
The moral of this story is that stadium bathrooms are never clean and they reflect accurately the generally cleanliness of the streets immediately outside, whether they be in New York or Dakar. Take hand sanitizer or don't drink anything!
The game itself was amazing. I'll spare you the play-by-play, but you should know that Burkina beat Senegal in Burkina a while back but had since been eliminated from the Cup...lending that much more importance to a victory for Senegal. Not to worry. 5 to 1, Senegal, and the crowd went wild. The two teenage girls behind CÚline and I tapped us on the shoulders and we exchanged high tens all around. The armed military and police posted around the stadium were visibly prepared to keep the crowd in the stands, but despite the fact that last time they lost crowds apparently threw rocks through their bus window, injuring some players, the crowd just filed happily and peacefully out of the stadium.
We waited our turn and when we were given the signal, our escorts started controlling the crowd to make room for us to get through. The file of people on the stairs was stopped by a guard with a stun gun while we jumped the rail and preceded to the now nearly empty field. We were briefly stopped by some military guys until our guards caught up, explained who we were in Wolof and the response changed to one of grateful recognition instead of suspicion. So we were led to our little bus where for the next 20 minutes we observed the patient crowd waiting for one final glance of their heroes of the day.
Our motorcade advanced very slowly as the crowds rushed in around us, running alongside, shouting and waving. At some point the crowds were pushing a little too close and we started to wonder if someone would get run over in their zeal to cheer their team. A couple security agents jumped out of the buses and began running along side, brandishing stun guns and startling the excited crowd with sudden shocks for those who didn't listen to the orders to get back. Probably angry that a handful of white people were part of the motorcade or just generally angry, one man ran alongside us at full speed, his middle finger raised as he gained speed...until suddenly another runner in the opposite direction slammed directly into him and he was knocked to the ground. Of course this brought an eruption of laughter from the guys in the bus and when the runner caught up, he hung his head and turned away. What goes around...
Seeing the security agents control a crowd that was running alongside their team in support, we hated to imagine what would have happened had the team lost and the crowds turned on them...and us. But we obviously were perfectly fine and the vast majority of the town came out of their homes and shops to wave and cheer as the team passed by.
At the hotel we were met with more security, more cameras and more fans. We were ushered to the elevators, the "VIPs" that we are, and headed down for some dinner.
When I get home, not only will I not have sat behind the wheel of a car for 5 weeks, I won't have observed any semblance of traffic laws and I'm pretty sure I'll expect any and all traffic to stop and let me pass just by me putting my window down and waving at them...you could really get used to this traveling in a motorcade!
That was my excitement for this week, as my Senegalese friend that I met on my last job in the US came down with the flu this week and wasn't able to show me around town as planned. Hopefully he'll feel more up to it next week! Having told my only story for this week, I leave you with some pictures...
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