Around the communal bowl.

The Senegalese serve most of their meals in large communal bowls. In the photo below, children in the village of Kiniabour crowd around a serving of ceebu jën – the archetypal Senegalese meal of fish and rice with steamed vegetables.

Twice a day, I would crouch by the bowl in this crowd and reach my hand in for a serving. Usually my hosts would tear fish meat from the bones with their hands to distribute it around the bowl. Throughout my half-year in Senegal, I learned two things: how to comfortably crouch on my knees for long periods of time, and that Senegal is embedded with the virtue of community and hospitality as shown by the way they eat.

A more detailed reflection of my experiences around the communal bowl can be read in an article I wrote for the Emory Wheel, found here: “A Taste of Humanity

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Travel breeds ignorance.

Senegal tells a story like no other place in the world. And I’ve taken it upon myself to listen to that story with patience and an appreciation for what the often-forgotten country offers in its own right. Religious coexistence, interethnic peace, colonial dynamism. Seasonal rains, a shifting desert frontier. Countless variations of fish and rice. Even baobab trees, for instance—the most bizarre tree I’ve ever seen, and it defines and distinguishes the Senegalese countryside.

I published these words in a blog post called “An African Easter Travel Philosophy” for Let’s Go Travel Guides. At the time, after a frustrating bout of food poisoning and general discomfort in Senegal, I wrote this story to instill a fresh wave of patience and purpose.  

“The discomfort is an added bonus,” I later wrote. “It keeps me consciously in the moment.”

Exactly a year ago today, I had taken only the first few unsteady steps on what would become a five-month-long slippery path. I can sum up my time in Senegal with one word: struggle. I don’t mean that in the physical sense, though Michael Maltese and John Favini can attest to that sleepless night at a hostel in Joal-Fadiouth – where I exhausted myself in a feverish fit, keeled over in the corner of our cramped room, violently relinquishing any chance of ever again enjoying a serving of yassa au poulet

Senegal challenged the knowledge I believed I had acquired throughout my entire life of traveling to Africa with my family. I admit, I didn’t enjoy this challenge. No cultural orientation or African studies class could have adequately prepared me for the complexities imbedded in this country and myself. I walked into that country a year ago, feeling like I knew much more than most. I left, five months later, knowing hardly anything at all. Or at least, I had become more aware of what I did not know.

In a book titled Ignorance: How It Drives Science, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein endorses the pursuit of a “higher-quality ignorance” within scientific research. The best exploration renders questions that in the beginning you had never thought to ask. If your goal is concrete knowledge in the form of hard-written facts, you’ll be shocked to discover that the best questions we can ever ask render not an easy answer, but (at least) ten more questions.  

In the same way, a struggle to fully understand any given place is a lost battle from the start. In Dr. Firestein’s thesis, the words “scientific research” can easily be replaced by “travel.” Travel breeds ignorance, not knowledge. But could this ignorance be embraced? Could stepping off the ledge into the lapses of our knowledge, rather than remaining with the answers we’ve already procured, bring us further into understanding?

The world is full of such paradoxes. In this sense, my struggle with Senegal – much like a bone-chilling fever in the mangrove swamps of the Sine-Saloum delta – was an experience I needed to have. 

A new year with some new words.

I’m back. Refreshed. The Chattahoochee River looks particularly good today. So I’ll take that as a personal prod to return to this blog.

Nearly a year ago, I published my last post about a trail I had hiked in South Africa, the Hoerikwaggo. This path from the Cape of Good Hope to the summit of Table Mountain is not particularly long. Most people can complete it in the span of a long weekend. In fact, over a year after completing it, it takes a certain stimulus to pull the memory of that hike from the recesses of my mind (a gust of dehydrating heat will usually do the trick). Five days on this trail have been swallowed by 365 of the most formative days of my life. 

But I still remember how I had anticipated this trail. My plan to hike the Hoerikwaggo at the zenith of South Africa’s summer was a strategic attempt to start the year doing something I love with someone I love. 

Before the fact, I knew 2013 would be a memorable year for multiple reasons. I would be briefly reunited with Mindy. I would be back on the African continent for an uninterrupted six months. I would follow that time with four months in the mountains of northwest Montana. I would then proceed to the final installment of a four-part series of my undergraduate career in Atlanta.

Of course, the year would become much more than that. Amid five days at the Cape, three weeks in South Africa, five months in Dakar, four in West Glacier, and an autumnal return to Atlanta where I sit by the Chattahoochee and write these words – I’ve been implanted with much more than I can begin to explain or even comprehend. Maybe I’ll attempt in subsequent posts.

A year ago, at the top of Table Mountain, I stared off into the beautiful strain of peaks and troughs. I didn’t yet know what this image would signify as the year progressed. 

I brought in 2014 in a similar way in a much different place – staring off into the clouded azure of northern Mexico from Texas’ South Rim. And I can say with the same uncertainty of a year past that more uneven ground lies before me, with a personal invitation. 

So I’ll strap on my boots for 2014. Happy New Year!

A Sunset View from Table Mountain

The sun travels further across the horizon and I always want to follow it. Keep the sun on your face and the wind on your back. 

In her celestial path, the sun leads us in circles – always traversing, bringing the dawn and the dusk. But today, I’ve come to the edge of the earth and the only thing left to do is let her sink out of sight.

I stare into the blue of the ocean, the afterglow of the sun, the shadowed mountains of the Cape Peninsula. A blood-red separates the blues. My contentment is compromised by a nagging urge to follow the sun on its nautical voyage westward.

But I remind myself of the derivative moments of life’s journey. We are constantly becoming, never finishing this process that is anything but linear. Still, along the way we reach paradoxical moments of self-conclusiveness.

Today, the sun sets in a momentous display of cloud and color. She is powerful and irreproachable. Before disappearing with finality, the sun spills her radiance across the horizon, leaving a trail of daylight for those of us she has left behind. 

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At the edge of humanity

John Muir taught me that the lessons of pure nature are best learned from the edge of a cliff. In his constant goal to learn from the presentation of God in the Yosemite valley, he is perpetually drawn to the heightened cliffs, waterfalls, summits – further from the path, from sanity. Step by step, he approaches the drop. His human tendency tightens his heart and beckons his return to safety. He reaches a point of fear, and takes another step further. Fear, and then another step.

A step further, and all that was learned will be sacrificed to the force of the Teacher. He stops with complete faith in the stone beneath his feet. 

Stories of Muir’s riding avalanches and braving mountaintop storms have taught me that he might not serve as the best role model. Yet I venture slightly off the path – atop wind-shaped stone, in the air of a darkening dusk. At the edge of our humanity, God shows us where we belong in His Creation. 

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