New Year, New Beginnings

Trip Start Dec 28, 2007
Trip End Jan 15, 2008

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Flag of Senegal  ,
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Though it sounds cliché, the New Year brought new joys into the trip. Undoubtedly, there was a noticeable chance. Perhaps this is because we began our journey into the backcountry of Senegal, but overall, the events were more and more positive. We woke up on time to the alarm and were able to make sure all of our peers were awake. Breakfast was still only relatively on-time, but that is to be expected. We went to the epicerie to buy drinks and snacks. Planning ahead, I bought enough Vimto that I would not need to purchase any of the overpriced drinks at the hotels for a while.
Our drive was not long at all-only about two hours. We stopped in a village called Dar Salaam right outside of Niokola Koba Park. When I first got out of the bus, I had been bombarded by children asking for pens (which they called "Bics" before changing to "stylos" when they realized we didn't understand), gifts and money. They pointing to my wallet that I was using as a camera case and when I tried to show them that it was empty except for a plastic bag, they immediately grabbed it. At this point, we had begun giving our empty plastic bottles as "gifts" to the children, in a weird form of recycling. The children would make toys out them-filling them up with rocks and shaking them, molding them into plastic cars, etc. The creativity they exhibit is refreshing and tempts me to only give my children plastic bottles to play with instead of the increasingly ridiculous technological toys.
Here we distributed pens to the children. A fairly young man, who appeared to be the teacher (though they were still on holiday), organized them into a line. Once this stopped working, he called them up one by one. I got a chance to talk with him and he thanked us for bringing the pens. In return, I thanked him for organizing the children instead of allowing them to swarm us. He explained how the little kids were often pushed out of the way for the bigger kids (what I saw as a miniature reflection of the hierarchical society). Originally, we had run out of pens but after a few little kids burst out crying, Ross and Patrick climbed on top of the bus to find more. I wanted to ask the man more about the schooling, etc. but we were interrupted when he was forced to go intercede in a fight between two younger children. The responsibility the villagers take in raising the children is mind boggling in our self-centered societies. I can not even be sure that this man was the teacher and from my conversations with some of the children I don't think he was.
I was struck by a young boy with whom I was exactly able to converse with in French. He was 12 years old and had started learning French when he was seven. I asked him questions about his school and learned that there were about 50-60 students and two teachers. Originally he too had asked me for gifts, but while we watched the student receiving pens together, I explained how in the US, college students do not have a lot of money, so we did not have much to give. He did not acknowledge my statement, but when other children would come and ask me for gifts, he would laugh and tell them not to bother. I spent most of the time talking with him and I felt hindered by lack of practice in French. Eventually, I was swarmed by other children who wanted me to take their picture and I actually had a few take pictures with my camera, which they enjoyed even more.
Overall, the experience was exhilarating. I was glowing. For me, it was like being in love. I wanted to share the feeling of connection I had found. Unfortunately, I had been unable to catch the boy's name and I could only inarticulately ramble an interview to Tyler. Still, the more I look back on it, the more I realize that there was truly something that drew me to that village.
The ride into the park was bumpy and difficult to navigate. We were lucky to have Bakary as our driver. We saw an abyssian roller, green monkeys, bush buck, baboons, helmeted guinea fowl. We stopped at one point to observe some of the monkeys and we ended up feeding them the leftover bananas. We all gathered on the left side of the bus to watch how one monkey learned to catch the pieces of banana in its hand. As we were watching, it suddenly ran and jumped toward the bus where Rob was sitting with the banana. His hands were actually on the bus window sill, but Rob threw the rest of the banana out and quickly slammed the window closed. We had quite a laugh over our stupidity (of course you shouldn't feed wild animals) and luckily Patrick caught it on video though we all jumped back and there were several curse words shouted. Afterwards, we also saw a antelope/gazelle-like), wart hogs, more bush buck, and Egyptian plover.
When we eventually made it to the hotel, we were surprised to see a British man who appeared to be the supervisor. At the time, I did not think much of it and hurried to put my belongings in the room I shared with Emily and JaVon. We ate our lunch and did our laundry before going on the boat trip. We were impressed with our creativity-using a sock to stop up the sink so they could soak, then rinsing the clothes in the shower before hanging them on the lines that we had strewn all about the small bathroom. The view from the hotel was beautiful and as we waited, we were able to spot crocodiles sunning themselves on the opposite shore. Somehow, waiting did not seem like such a bad thing here.
We took a quick walk down to the motor boat and I was sandwiched on one of the back seats. For a while, I wasn't able to see very much because my field of vision was small, but I switched with Rob. Throughout the course of the ride we saw hippopotami, king fisher, (grey?) herons, fishing eagles, warthogs, baboons, crowned cranes, eagrets and the three types of crocodiles found in West Africa (Nile, pygmy/dwarf, and slender-snouted). It is hard to convey the moments of suspense, watching the hippos in such close proximity on such a small boat as we waited for them to reappear, the almost-stampede like run of the warthogs on the hill, the family of baboons just chilling in a tree, oblivious to the beautiful sunset behind them... Overall, the trip was filled with good humor and relaxation, despite our desperate attempts to snap some good photos of the wildlife.
After dinner, Colvin gave us one of the most inspirational talks. Luckily, I had decided to take notes in my small journal so I was able to capture many of his pearls of wisdom. I should add the set-up for such a talk in feeling that my plans to just become a high school English teacher seemed more or less unsatisfying. I felt this urge to do more and actually make a difference in the world. I was immediately captivated by the story of this man and how he came to stay here.
He began by giving us the history of the park. He explained how the villages were forced to move when it was made into a UNESCO site, which disrupted the balance created between the local people and nature. As a result, on the lakes had dried up and many animals had disappeared. He went on to explain his frustration with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and how a lot of money is absorbed in its administration. He had a unique sense of spirituality as he saw how fate had prepared him to work here. His various skills set him up to actually make a difference. In his fourth year in the region, he has started his own NGO to raise money to help women grow gardens in local villages. He emphasized the importance of self-development and making such that projects are designed to fit the needs and the desire of the local people so they will be sustained. He spoke to the generosity of the people and hoped to encourage eco-tourism as a way to preserve the environment and support the locals. Though he realized that this could result in lifestyle changes, he pointed out that it was not his right to tell them to stay in huts because he wanted to bring people to come look at him. His words really struck the museum-like (or even zoo-like) quality of many of our travels from within the confines on the bus. Yet with his encouragement, I began to see more and more of the potential in his work and even in mine.
Afterwards a few of us came to ask him questions and thank him for the lecture. Emily and I were especially touched by his speech because of our interest in the environment. We ended up talking for a long time, finding new seats as we shared some of our experiences and exchanged stories. Slowly our group migrated to look at pictures and talk on the balcony while looking at the stars. I had just asked Colvin if he had any experiences with cannibal witches when the generator kicked off. (The timing couldn't have been better, especially when it came to scaring Emily!) As we let our eyes adjust to the dark, we exchanged ghost stories. Colvin told us how he had woken up during the night and walked outside. He said he saw a bat and watched it suddenly transform into a gnome with hair to the ground and a big nose ("just like in the pixie-tales"). He could not be sure about what he actually saw, but he was positive that he had gone outside. When talking with on of the guards, he was told that it must have been a certain type of (benign) spirit that can take any type of form and searches for a particular food.
His other story revealed a belief in reincarnation. He explained that the town where he was born in England had the same wildlife as the park centuries ago. His father also felt a similar connection when traveling in Norway-as if he had been there before. When his father died, his mother was a spiritualist church and felt a certain warmth. After the service, a man came up to her and warned her not to be alarmed, but he saw a Viking standing behind her during the service. The man said that this Viking was there to protect her and watch over her. It is much harder to reject such notions after being in this place and seeing the conviction of a man from a similar Western background. If nothing else, it has made me more accepting of others' beliefs, refusing to mark them down as primitive.
Kyle also shared some Civil War ghost stories. We looked at the stars and we excited to see them reflected in the water. When it was at last time to retire, we said our goodbyes and walked back to our rooms. We were startled when Tyler jumped out at us, and Emily was especially scared as she is not a fan of ghost stories. Eventually she fell asleep while JaVon and I talked about our religious beliefs. Our conversation ended with me asking her to invite me to pray with her at some time. It was the perfect ending to such a life-changing day and I was filled with hope for the year ahead of me.
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