I was caught in an intensely beautiful sunshower yesterday, complete with sideways rain and a scraggly rainbow, at the intersection of US Highway 30 and Route 2 as I was heading back home from an afternoon of errands. That stoplight, in between my neighborhood and most of the other points of interest in Valparaiso, Indiana, is one of the most familiar places on the planet to me. I’ve spent many content moments there, coming back from swim practice in high school or picking up my sisters from meetings and lessons, imagining that the yellow inflatable man at Petey’s Gyros is dancing to the music blasting from my car. Waiting for the light yesterday, the familiarity mixed with a strange foreignness as the sun and the rain decided to coexist for a few minutes.
Something about the sky right then filled me with an overwhelming sense of excitement about my upcoming semester in Senegal. The yellow inflatable man happened to be dancing to the song “Israeli Caves” by Maps & Atlases, and the lyrics seemed to channel my thoughts: When you look out on the Midwest plain / do you realize the moon is still the same / that rose above Israeli caves / the day the words you praise were written?
Of course, I had to substitute “mid-sized town” for “plain,” and “sun” for “moon,” and “Dakarois marketplace” for the last couple lines, but the spirit was right. In just a few days, I’ll be squinting up at the sun from the African continent, but it’ll be the same sun that made my hometown truly look like a Vale of Paradise yesterday. The thought of being connected to home through the sun and the sky is comforting, even more comforting in its sentimental way than the knowledge that I’ll be connected to home through the Internet and modern technology. The past few weeks, I’ve been able to talk with a few people who have lived in Dakar, and the impression I’m forming is of a rapidly modernizing city with more contradictions than a sunshower.
Despite the preparations I’ve been making mentally and the much-appreciated advice from friends and strangers, I’m well aware of the fact that I am heading into an experience that’s as brimming with uncertainty as it is with adventure. On one level, the timing of the worldwide travel advisories has been unfortunate; although the safety of the area I’ll be traveling has been attested by multiple official sources, the past week has been nerve-wracking (especially for my parents, to whom I am sincerely grateful for their support, however cautious). Unless something drastic occurs in the next few days, I will be on my way to Senegal this Saturday, with my emergency kits ready and my wits about me.
For me, the uncertainties that actually manifest themselves as butterflies-in-the-stomach are not international security threats, but rather the day-to-day aspects of life in a society so different from my own. I still don’t know anything about my host family, the neighborhood where I’ll be living, my internship placement, the other students in my program, or my textbooks. I spent most of this summer in DC, doing research at the Berkley Center (which equipped me with some basic knowledge of international development concepts) and working with preschoolers at Hoya Kids (which was just plain fun). I tried to integrate Africa-preparedness into my routine – I cooked fish to get used to seafood in my diet, and I forced myself to go running outside in the humidity instead of going to the gym so I won’t have excuses not to exercise in hot, humid Senegal. I spoke in French to the babies I babysat. There were many days this summer when I felt more than ready to take on this study abroad adventure, like on my visits to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, when I was reminded how much this whole loving-the-cultures-of-the-world thing is a part of me.
For all my interest in other cultures and the research I’ve done on development, I have never been to a developing country. I’ve only been outside North America once, on a touristy (but still very fun) school trip to France. The fact remains, though, that I am passionate about culture, language, education, religion, the environment, and social justice. I have a wonderful home in Indiana, and I have a wonderful home at Georgetown. Both places are familiar and comfortable, and now I am ready to be uncomfortable. I am ready for sun and rain to coexist, and I’m ready to be thrown off by such contradictions. Senegal, je viens!