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Tales from the Beach

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  • pgosselin@wesleyan.edu
    Greetings from balmy... Dakar! Yes, for the past several days I ve been rediscovering the wonder of civilization during a surprise trip to Senegal. I d just
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 6, 2005
      Greetings from balmy... Dakar!

      Yes, for the past several days I've been
      rediscovering the wonder of civilization during
      a surprise trip to Senegal.

      I'd just gotten back to Zamsé on a Tuesday
      evening after a week of Bike-a-Thon. Thursday
      morning I got up, did some yoga, made some
      oatmeal, and sat procrastinating as usual before
      heading to the clinic when the white Peace Corps
      jeep showed up outside my door. Odd for them
      to show up unnanounced, and the driver was
      alone... I went out to greet him, and he told
      me he'd been sent to bring me back to Ouaga.
      My God, grandma's dead! He handed me an ominous
      Peace Corps envelope with my name on it, and I
      tore it open, anxious and shaky. It was from
      the PC nurse in Ouaga, telling me that I was
      being med-evac'ed to Dakar that weekend to
      consult with a specialist. Pack enough clothes
      for a week, and don't forget your passport! I
      looked at the driver, confused. But, but,
      but... Ok!

      26 hours later, on January 28, my 6th month
      anniversary of stepping foot on Burkinabe soil,
      I found myself back where it all began: the
      Ouagadougou International Airport. The airport
      has two departure gates. Really they're just
      two doors next to each other labled Gate 1 and
      Gate 2, and they both go to the bus outside
      waiting to take you to the plane on the tarmac,
      so it doesn't matter which one you go out of.
      Looking around, I noticed I was hideously
      underdressed. The locals who are rich enough
      to fly break out their formal wear for
      air-travel. But whatever, Peace Corps
      Volunteers have a slovenly hippie image to

      Soon I was aboard a Fokker jet on an Air Burkina
      flight to Dakar via Bamako. I'd been curious
      what an Air Burkina flight would be like after
      suffering through many other Burkinabe forms of
      transportation (to be detailed in the next
      issue), but never thought I'd get to experience
      one first-hand. Aside from the African murals
      on the divider walls, it looked like any other
      plane I'd been on. I was surprised: no live
      goats or chickens, enough space for both my
      elbows and knees, no one squatting in the
      aisles... Add to this complimentary newspapers,
      wine and an actual meal. Scary that USAir could
      take a few pointers from Air Burkina, official
      carrier of the third poorest country in the

      So, for the past week, aside from some doctors
      appointments (I'm doing fine, no need to worry),
      I've been busy exploring Dakar, walking all
      along the beautiful coast (of which there is a
      lot to walk along, as Dakar is on a peninsula),
      boating to islands, swimming in a pink salt
      lake that's impossible to drown in and a
      luxurious pool at the American Club, licking
      ice-cream cones... Today, for example, I sat
      under a little palm tree on a gorgeous secluded
      white-sand beach, watching French military men
      swim and toss around a rugby ball. (by the way,
      y'all aren't still buried in snow now, are you?)

      If I had visited Dakar before Ouagadougou, I
      might have noticed the garbage, the chaos, but
      now I see the cleanliness, the order! Dakar is
      everything Ouaga wishes it could be, and
      everything you need in a city: it's got
      pavement, occasional sidewalks, ice cream,
      mexican-themed restaurants blaring Celine Dion,
      and big buff black men doing calisthenics in
      speedos on the beach. Yes, it's truly a
      city--walking around, you can imagine yourself
      in a run-down yet bustling Eastern European
      capital, or the streets of New York. Of course
      some areas are as nice as anything you'd find in
      Europe. Visiting Dakar has given me some new
      perspectives and insights into why exactly


      The Lonely Planet guide for West Africa states:

      Ouagadougou is one of the cultural centers of
      West Africa... It has a relaxed atmosphere...
      It's a relatively compact city that is easy to
      get around on foot, and the streets are well

      Whoever wrote this has obviously never been to

      The city is a sprawling, disorganized mess, a
      real-life game of Frogger. You can't cross a
      street without your life flashing before your
      eyes. There are multiple lanes of insane
      traffic to cross, of all different speeds:
      You've got your donkey carts, your bicycles,
      your motos, your cars and trucks, and once you
      get past all of them you've got to face the
      traffic coming the other way. There is never a
      lapse, so you just have to step out in the
      street and hope for the best, all the while
      sucking in heaps of disgusting smog and dust.
      Of course sidewalks are non-existent. In their
      place are open sewer ditches to hop across.

      Navigating on bike is only slightly less
      harrowing. The cars and motos like to pass
      within inches of your legs, and god forbid you
      ever have to make a left turn. You stick out
      your left arm and pray that you don't get mowed
      over. So far that's worked for me. You still
      breathe dirty exhaust, and the stress of a 15
      minute ride to the center of town takes a day
      off of your life.

      The only decent way to get around town is by the
      green taxis. They're communal, so you scooch in
      next to the other clientelle, but only if you
      find one that's heading towards your
      destination. This is easy if you're in large
      groups, cause the driver will kick out the
      current client in favor of a bigger profit.
      We've been known to cram upto 8 passengers into
      the 5-seat taxis. If you're alone, good luck.
      Of course, the prices are never fixed, so you
      have to negotiate with the drivers who often
      try to rip off the nassaras.

      Having said all this, there's nothing to see or
      do in Ouaga anyway. There's the Marina Market
      grocery store for stocking up for village, the
      post office/bank for taking out African francs,
      and there's the American Embassy lab for
      dropping off stool samples. That's about it.
      Oh sure, there are some pretty areas in the
      city, but they're all private, and safely
      cordonned off from the dirt and disorder by
      large fences.

      The biggest shame of all is that Ouaga, indeed
      all of Burkina, has no place for the men to show
      off their amazing bodies. If nothing else,
      Dakar has always got the beach.

      Of course, the FESPACO film festival is coming
      up at the end of February. It's the Cannes of
      African film, taking place every two years.
      Supposedly this is when Ouaga pulls out all the
      stops and shows what it's made of. I'll give
      Ouaga another chance to win me over, but I'm
      keeping my expectations low.


      I know that many of you look to my example for
      fashion guidance and are dying to find out about
      my latest look. What colors are you wearing?
      How do you do your hair? Beard, piercings,
      jewelery? Tell us, Philippe, so that we may
      strive to be more like you, if only in

      Well, who am I to refuse?

      I've decided to take a "hands-off" approach to
      my appearance, in order to allow my natural
      rugged beauty to shine through. I did without
      a mirror all throughout training, and the few
      ponds here are too muddy for me to stare at my
      reflection. I can't express what a relief it
      was to not be reminded every single day how good
      looking I am. I only succumbed and got myself a
      mirror before going to Zamsé because I found it
      difficult to shave and floss without one. So
      now I do look at myself once, sometimes twice a

      During training, I went through an experimental
      phase, trying out a number of unique facial hair
      configurations. I arrived with the gay
      mustache and goatee. After our first 10-day
      stint in village, I tried out some chops
      connecting to my mustache. Then I tried the
      mustache with the ends drooping down past my
      jawline, then chin-scruff only. By far the
      hottest, though, was the one I wore for our
      swear-in ceremony, the one that was broadcast
      nationally on Burkinabé TV, when the mustache
      came off, leaving me with a sexy Amish beard.
      For now, though, I've gone back to my trademark
      look, Scruffy Philippe.

      Those of you who never ceased to torment me for
      the pallor of my skin, going so far as to call
      it "clear" and shilding your eyes from the
      whitness when the shirt came off, will be happy
      to know that I'm now sporting a wicked African
      tan. Unfortunately it tends to come off when
      I shower.

      My typical outfit comprises of cargo pants,
      rolled up to capri length to facilitate
      bike-riding, along with a tasteful yet vibrant
      button-down t-shirt, untucked always, slightly
      stained from bleach accidents, but I prefer to
      call it "art." What with all the poop-matter
      that gets on my hands, I thought it wise to
      forgo the contacts and instead exclusively wear
      a sophisticated pair of steel square-rimmed
      glasses. On my feet are always my birks. I
      wore shoes my first day in Burkina and never
      again. Probably the least useful thing I

      But Philippe! What's underneath??
      --well, wouldn't you like to know!

      As for my hair--yes, it's grown in, and let me
      tell you, it's... a fucking mess. Ok, you want
      the truth? Can you handle the truth? I've
      never looked this much like a dirty unkempt slop
      of a film major in my life. Not even while I
      was one. I have to cover my ratty hair with a
      cap at all times. Without hair gel to tame it,
      it's a lost cause, rioting on my head in every
      direction but down. Hair gel in village--and
      for that matter, deodorant--what's the point? I
      wanted to see if it could work long, but it'll
      get shaved come the hot season. You hear that,
      fuckers? Shaved! Maybe I'll dred them first,
      just to see them taste of the suffering they've
      caused me. Then of course they'll retaliate by
      abandoning ship when I turn 30. Or worse,
      migrating to my back.

      Oh, it's hard, not being as hot as I once was,
      seeing my beauty waste away. Hard, I tell you!
      What makes it harder is being surrounded by all
      these hot black men. I never thought I'd have
      body issues coming to Africa, but damn! One
      look at the smooth glistening muscled bodies
      around me, and it's just no comparison with my
      pale hairy ass. I put in many an hour at the
      gym back home, and was rather happy with my
      six-pack. Ok, my four-pack, but who's counting?
      It's a much sought-after rarity in the States,
      bestowed only upon a privileged few. Then I
      came and discovered that here, they come

      And it's not just the men that are jacked. Move
      over Venus and Serena! I've seen topless
      grannies plowing the fields with bigger arms
      than me. It was quite humbling, and somewhat
      disheartening. Surely working in the fields
      does a body good.

      I've conspired with some fellow volunteer
      entrepreneurs to market a new Burkinabé
      weightloss program in the US. We'd fly the
      participants to Burkina. The parasites and
      diarrhea would make them shed the pounds, while
      they'd buff up by working in the fields all
      day. I'm sure people would pay thousands.

      All this helpless staring at hot men makes me
      feel like an old lech. But hell, I get stared
      at enough in village, so I guess I should also
      get my fill.


      I get a lot of attention in village. It's quite
      a bit like being a celebrity, minus all the
      obvious perks--sure, technically, I have a big,
      gated house, but people barge through the gate
      and stare over the wall. I don't have limitless
      $$$, though everybody assumes otherwise. No
      celebrity incest, or any carnal action for that
      matter, no irresponsible boozing and drugging,
      no fancy car, and no jacuzzi. All I get are
      eyes on me wherever I go, and when I go (to the
      latrine). And they're not starstruck, adoring
      eyes, admiring my handsome face. No, Quasimodal
      would get the same looks of odd curiousity if
      he walked through the market.

      They look at me because:
      A: I'm white
      B: I'm queer, in the 50's sense
      C: I'm loaded, supposedly

      It's hard to know whether attention is genuine
      interest or sheerly because of my skin, or
      because they want to get something out of me.
      Walking around Dakar, you can usually assume the
      latter, but I still feel like an asshole for
      ignoring people who try to get my attention...
      What if they really do want to get to know the
      real me??

      In village, it's often a combination. The other
      day a new kid came to greet me, then asked for a
      magazine, then a ball, then some batteries,
      then some money... Listen kid, come say hello
      but don't just come to my house asking for
      everything you see! It's not something he
      would do with any other neighbor, it would be
      rude and inappropriate, but I'm exempt from
      these social norms cause I'm white.

      Often I wonder how much different it must be for
      the black volunteers. They still get attention
      for B and C, and they still get called Nassara,
      but at least they don't stick out like a
      flamingo in a lion's den, or carry the aire of a
      mysterious white ape. Of course I've heard
      that they also get a lot less help because of
      it. Truth be told, the attention isn't all
      bad. Being an American and being white does put
      me in a position of respect here, and if that
      gets people to pay attention and helps me do my
      work, so be it.


      Perhaps the only thing in village that gets more
      attention than me is my bike. No, I don't get a
      fancy car, but my bike is pretty damn nice. I
      still remember the day we got our bikes like it
      was yesterday, like it was christmas, but it was
      6 months ago and it was July. We'd been in
      Burkina for nearly a week, weary from walking
      the long dirt path between the training sites
      and the hotel, when one day we arrived for
      training and 28 sparkling new mountain bikes sat
      awaiting their new owners, whose names were
      indicated on little wooden tags dangling from
      the handle bars. We knew we'd be issued bikes,
      but it being Peace corps, I'd expected them to
      be well worn pieces of crap. No, they were
      beautiful, and riding down the dirt streets,
      the flies smacking against our faces rather than
      buzzing around them, that was a feeling of

      In the months to follow, I grew to resent this
      bike more than anything on earth. Every time I
      load the bike on transport, I must preempt
      their inquiries, saying Yes, it's nice, no, you
      can't have it! I can't count the number of
      times I've arrived in someone's courtyard or
      parked at the market, and the boys, even the
      men, just crowd around it. This has ignited in
      me pangs of jealousy. Look, people! Nassara
      came to visit, not the bike! Come on! It's a
      bike! Get over it! Hey, Wooo, look at me,
      white ape here!

      And then I swear that next time I'll come on
      foot. It's not like they haven't seen a
      multispeed before, though they are uncommon.
      They admire it because:
      A: It's sleek silver and black
      B: The nice gear changers
      C: A bell
      D: Front shocks. These are what really gets them.

      I swear, by now this bike must have a goddamn
      ego the size of a cow. Nobody wants ME that
      badly. It's become so self-absorbed that often
      it even forgets to switch gears when I ask it
      to. So I stop on the side of the road, kick it
      around, show it who's boss. But the heart of a
      bike isn't faithful like a dog's. It wouldn't
      hesitate to sidle up in between someone else's
      legs. (if it did, though, everyone in a 25k
      radius would know it belongs to Nassara). And
      so, like myself, I prefer to keep it nicely
      coated in dust and mud to stave off the
      attention and give it a healthy dose of


      A couple weeks ago I joined 15 volunteers and a
      handful of Burkinabés on a 300k weeklong bike
      trip down south near the Ghanaian border for
      Bike-a-Thon, during which we rode 30-55km per
      day, stopping in one or two villages along the
      way and leading AIDS awareness discussions and
      doing condom demonstrations. I now feel
      perfectly comfortable waving around a large
      wooden dildo in front of large crowds of people
      (I guess I should put this on my resume). We
      segregated by gender and age, mostly because
      women won't speak up and ask questions if
      they're amongst men. So I mostly led
      discussions with young men and kids. The kids
      especially asked some interesting questions:

      If my brother comes back from Cote d'Ivoire, and
      he caught AIDS, and he has a bleeding wound, and
      he sleeps on a bed and bleeds on the sheets,
      and then I sleep in the bed with the bloody
      sheets, and I have a wound, will I get AIDS?
      --um... maybe you should wash the sheets?

      What if I'm fighting with somebody and I bite
      him and it bleeds, will I get AIDS?
      --um... maybe you shouldn't bite people?
      (this response was deemed unrealistic by the kids)

      Then there were those guys who insisted upon
      conspiracy theories, that AIDS is spread by
      corporations in order to get people to buy
      condoms, or better, they put the virus in the
      condoms. How do you respond? Your skepticism
      of capitalism is in the right place, but I'm
      not here to spread AIDS. Really. But some
      people just couldn't be reasoned with.

      It was difficult, because everything needed to
      be translated, and outside of the Mossi plateau
      where I live, people speak many different
      languages, and people in some villages can't
      even communicate with each other. In those
      villages we needed to find people to translate
      between French and Mooré and Bisa, or another
      language, and the lag killed any sense of real
      discussion. And it's hard to know if we're
      making a difference, having any kind of impact
      on the people by coming into the villages and
      telling them, trust us! This is the truth! Buy
      condoms! But still I felt good about it. This
      was one of the first times I've felt I was
      actually accomplishing something here and doing
      my job. At the very least we got people talking
      with each other about the taboo subject, which
      is always good.

      We had a nice gift to help keep us motivated
      throughout the week. The mom of a volunteer who
      teaches at an elementary school had her
      students write us inspirational messages taped
      to PowerBars. Since it's a parochial school,
      some of the messages were religious in nature:

      You are a follower of Jesus!

      God is proud of you!

      Keep going!

      Don't ever give up!

      Even one person can make a difference!

      Almost there!

      Jesus loves you!

      One particularly lewd volunteer, Chris,
      suggested that we pervert the messages by adding
      "in bed" to the end of each one like Chinese
      fortune cookies. This kept us amused throughout
      the week.

      As part of my ongoing efforts to make The Real
      World Ouagadougou Bigger and Better than Ever!,
      I'll be announcing a new surprise sometime this

      For now I'm off to a Superbowl party at a house
      with a bunch of US Marines, aptly named the
      "Marine House." My eyes probably won't be on
      the TV.

      Peace out,
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