Bethany Reichen - Culture and Customs of Senegal, Senegal, Africa
Every day since I came home, someone has asked me "How was your trip?" and all I can do is smile and tell them "it was amazing!" And then they look at me, expecting more, and for once in my life, I have nothing else to say.
So if you are one of those people, I am sorry. If you have been reading this as I went, then maybe you can understand why it was amazing, although that still does not excuse my lack of further explanation.
I guess it's hard to tell someone that a three-week trip changed your perspective on life without sounding superficial It's difficult to explain how much I learned about myself and my place in the world without crossing that delicate boundary of pleasant vs. awkward interaction. So I will write it here, and feel more comfortable, and you may cringe or sigh as you see fit without my knowledge.
I am now more aware of my opportunities. We complain about the work that needs to be done to get where we want to be in life, when we should be thankful that we even have the chance to get there. We really can change the world, and I don't think I ever believed that before this trip. I have been looking into graduate schools lately, and sometimes just the number of choices I have amazes me. And it's not just me- most Americans, every day, make choices that other people will never get to make. Think about what you had for lunch today. Chances are, you had quite a few options. Some days, we even consider this a hard decision for our day... which should I have, the sandwich or the soup or the salad (can you tell I ate at Panera?). And if we don't want any of those things, we can just go somewhere else. And we can buy our food, with money we earned (or were just given), and be secure in the knowledge that tomorrow we will be able to do the exact same thing.
I take more notice of small, yet beautiful, things in my day to day life. The other day, the sunset was one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen. We were in the car and my boyfriend and our friends probably thought I was insane because I just couldn't stop staring at it. I notice rhythm in things that seemed ordinary before, and when I have been inside all day, I miss the sun.
I miss the warmth. There is a kind of warmth in Senegal that has nothing to do with the sun. There is a warmth in the people, in the way they see themselves and the world. There is a warmth in their eyes, in their smiles, in their dancing, and in their voices. You don't need to understand Wolof or French to feel it, and it is something I never expected to be a part of. When I travel, I expect to be treated as an outsider; the way Americans treat tourists. In Senegal, I was family. We are all in the same boat.
If there is anything else I can say about the trip it's that it is truly a once in a lifetime chance. Obviously, you could go to Senegal on your own (and I fully intend to, even if I do nothing but laze away at Sobo Bade) but you won't have Mme Briere, Dr. Hickey, and Professor Ndiaye with you. Trust me, they are one of the most important parts of the trip. You will come to love them as if they were your aunt and uncles (and you will probably wish they really were).
If you are worried about using French, don't be. I went as a French major, and the trip worked wonders on not only my French abilities, but also my confidence. I was also paired with a non-French speaker (the beautiful and brilliant Becca) and being her translator was at times frightening (did I translate that right?) and at times just plain amusing ("I'm pretty sure I just told her it's about to cry"). Outside of Dakar, French wasn't particularly useful anyway, and then we all had to muddle through Wolof (but don't worry- you get lessons!).
If you are worried about living with a host family- it is one of the best parts of the whole trip. You will meet so many different people (and possibly even start a romantic relationship as our Tori did), and that is really the only way to experience a different culture. Staying in a hotel lets you see it, but staying with a family lets you live it.
The only legitimate concern you could possibly have is sunburn. And it fades.
As someone who had studied abroad in China before this trip, it didn't even compare. If you are choosing between any two trips, this is the one you should do. My trip to China changed my life, yes, but my trip to Senegal changed how I looked at my life.
Get more details about the Culture and Customs of Senegal program.