Please note that the opinions reflected on this blog are solely MY opinion. They do not reflect the Peace Corps or the US Government in any way.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What's a sept-place?

I know what you’re thinking…another post already?! Must be Christmas early or something! I guess I feel like I have some making up to do for being such a slacker the entire month of October. In a previous post I promised to talk about the joys of public transportation in this country so I figured there is no time like the present! Now, I’m not very savvy on how transportation works in other developing countries so perhaps it is like this everywhere, or even worse; this is simply the experience that I have had so far.

In order to get anywhere in Senegal the first place you need to go is the local garage. This is fine unless you’re in a town or village that doesn’t have a garage. If this is the case then you need to basically hitchhike, walk, ride in an animal drawn buggy or take whatever form of transportation that is available to the nearest garage. It’s when you get the garage that the real fun starts. First of all, you will be hit with a plethora of different, interesting aromas. These can range anywhere from sweat, feces (human and animal), to different foods and decaying trash all mixing together. These smells are pretty typical throughout Senegal but they seem to be compounded at the garage. Along with the odors you are also going to experience people shouting at you in several different languages trying to figure out where you’re headed. Some of these people may be helpful but they are mostly trying to rip you off.

Travel tip number 1: When at the garage, handle your own bags. The minute you give them over to someone else to help you, they have become your bellhop and you are expected to pay them. This may seem obvious but sometimes they may have literally put your bag in the backseat of the car so just keep track of your own things.

After you finally locate the area of the garage where you can find your destination you have to decide which form of transportation you are going to take. There’s the more expensive, posh option that is designated as the sept-place. This is basically an old station wagon that has an extra set of seats in the trunk space in order to fit seven, or sept, passengers comfortably inside. I use the term comfortably loosely as the majority of the time you are nestled in there between two other people and I’ve even heard stories of livestock being crammed in as well; but, as far as the transportation choices go, sept-places are the cream of the crop. There are also alhums (medium-sized buses), mini-buses and the popular, but deadly, night buses. Once you determine your vessel there will be a man shouting at you, “Pass, pass!” This is not your driver or even the man who will start the car, this is simply who you will pay for your fare. Usually they will try to charge you for whatever baggage you have as well. Unless you carry your items on your lap, you’ll probably end up paying extra for it.

Travel tip number 2: Travel LIGHT. I’m talking wear the same thing 4 days in a row light to avoid having to deal with extra fees for baggage. As Peace Corps volunteers we typically don’t change up our wardrobe too much anyway so this tip is more for you people who still care about your general appearance. This tip always goes for traveling light regarding your money as well. Try to have as small of bills as possible so that getting change is not an issue as it is always an issue in this country.

Alright so now you’ve paid and you’re probably being herded into the car. In some garages you’re issued a seat number so there is no negotiating where you will be but in other garages it is first come, first served and the fight for a good seat can get pretty brutal.

Travel tip number 3: In a sept-place, always try for the front seat first. Good luck, I have yet to sit there and I’ve been here for 6 months. Most likely the front seat will be impossible so then you should attempt to sit in the middle row near a window. The back row is your last resort but if there are no other options, at least try for one of the sides so that you have something besides a person or a goat to lean against. If you're lucky enough to be traveling with fellow volunteers, at least you'll have each other to lean/sweat on (see pics below).

Once you’re seated you will probably check out the car and hopefully it has a floor, doors that properly shut and windows that roll down. If you’re looking for a seat-belt then you have forgotten where you are! Bring yourself back to Senegal and rest assured that you’re packed in so tightly that you’ll probably be fine in the event of a problem. When all of the passengers have arrived, and this part of the process can take hours as the car will not leave until each place is filled, someone will come and start the car. And by start the car I mean he will steer while a bunch of other guys push it in order to push-start the vehicle. You might think that you’d be on your way but this is when your driver finally arrives. You will be lucky if he looks a day over 14. He usually will drive you over to the gas station, a step that would probably make more sense before getting passengers, and then you’re off!

Did I mention that during this entire process you are probably dripping sweat, have people shouting in your face, coughing on you, shoving you and also trying to sell you all sorts of crap? Some of what they’re selling makes sense like water, snacks, and tissues but then there’s that guy selling a live bird or a pamphlet on karate. I just want to know, who is actually buying this stuff? You also have a more difficult situation of beggars, as young as 5 year-old children trying to solicit money and food from you.

Such are the joys of traveling in a developing country. One way I know that I’m becoming more integrated is how much less bothered I am by traveling here. When I first saw the garage, I remember thinking that I will never leave my village. Now, it’s just a matter of knowing a few words in the local lingo to get where I want to go and to not pay more than I should to make the trip.

On top of integrating in the transportation realm I am feeling much better in my village as well. I’m not going to sugarcoat it here; my first few months at site were incredibly tough. Not to bum you guys out or anything but there were a few mornings that I woke up and just had to cry a little. I mean I usually would pull myself together, snap out of it and get on with my day but life in the Peace Corps is no joke. They really weren’t kidding when they said it is the toughest job you will ever love. I’m sure I’ve talked plenty about why it is so tough so I won’t bore you with that again. Of course, the language becoming a little easier and people becoming more familiar with me has helped but I’ve also developed some strategies that get me through those rough days.

I have this new game I play where I make up what people are saying to each other. You see, 90% of my interactions are in a group of people that I don’t understand what is going on; therefore, if I just make up conversations they could be having, everyone wins! I am entertained and they just think I’m even crazier than they already did when I bust up laughing at my imaginary conversations. Along the lines of people thinking I’m strange, I’ve been known to sing greetings at people. Greetings are very important in West African culture so you have to know what to say to people and, in Serer culture, the proper time of day to say these things. I have found that even if I don’t know exactly what I’m saying, if I say it in a high sing-songy, happy way they either think it’s cute or that I’m just a little strange and those are better than thinking I’m an idiot for saying good morning when it’s 6 PM. This is getting better as I learn more but it was for sure a coping strategy in those early days.

This has been ridiculously long so I’ll wrap it up with one final point. This might seem obvious but I have learned that I can’t expect every, or even most, interactions to be a positive experience. Some days I will go from having the best conversation with someone to another person literally bringing me to the verge of tears. Some of the best advice I have learned to heed is to be patient, observe, listen, smile, shake it off and most importantly, laugh. Peace Corps is certainly no joke but there’s no way I’d make it through if I couldn’t laugh it off.

Until next time,