It's my birthday, or will have been by the time you read this. I am happily back at North Park University (or “The Park” as we students like to say.) Tonight my friends took me out to eat at a Persian restaurant and I happily ordered what I've been missing – a big plate of Persian rice accompanied by a big 'ol dish of sauce. It was amazing. I was so happy when I saw them set my “Vegetarian mix” down in front of me- the stew-like sauce looked exactly like something Aichatou would cook; tomato sauce laced with cinnamon, full of boiled potatoes, onions, green beans and carrots; even cauliflower! I was hoping it would be even half as good as Aichatou's . I very nearly squealed with delight.
Upon returning to my apartment I found a magazine clipping about Niger from Rotary Internationale's publication that my grandparents sent along with my birthday card- seeing the pictures was almost too much for me- everything was so familiar, from people's names, to the outfits women were wearing in the pictures to the kind of bowls they carried on their heads. I about had a cow. The article was even written about a woman by the name of Hadeza Seydou – my next door neighbors (the ones whose brother was born while I was in Niger) are named Hadeza and Seydou. The article was very sad – it talked about the upcoming hunger season in Niger, a famine that could easily take place, just like it did last year, if not enough rains come to garner enough millet and rice for harvest. It also quoted a number of statistics, like the fact that Niger is the poorest country in the world, it has the highest fertility rate, one in four children die before the age of five, less than ten percent of women are pregnant, and their average life expectancy is age 44. But it mentioned some good things too, my favorite being that Rotary considers it one of their most important responsibilities to educate girls in the nation, saying that they are the secret to ending poverty in the country. They are doing good things the Rotarty Club, I approved of it.
But the point in the end is that I have been overwhelmingly reminded of Africa today and finally gave into that guilty feeling that has been nagging me all week to update my blog. But I know it's time—it's past time.
The Journey Begins
The night I left Niger, Tom loaded me, Halima (Aichatou's cousin, 18 yrs old who had returned from Zinder withus) and the rest of the family in the car. He dropped Halima and I off at the musee so I could find some cool batik cloths to augment my collection. We met a really nice artist there who gave me a GREAT deal on batiks, I'm still happy about it. Then Tom returned and surprised us by taking us out to eat- awesome!, and on a nice roof deck overlooking the city, too. It was great to spend some good quality time with my short-time family before I left. We talked about how time flies, what great progress and growing the girls had done since I'd been there, and how much I've learned. When we got home I brought out my presents from the States and shared them with everyone in the neighborhood. They loved them. I got to take some fun pictures, and gave lots and lots of hugs. I was too nervous/busy to fall asleep that night, so I stayed up that night until we had to leave for the airport at 2 am. Ramatou, Halima, and Zeinabou all told me that they wanted to come to the airport with me and see me off ( I'm not sure if I even have friends in the US that would do that!) So 2am saw a groggy-eyed Tom and I getting into the front seat and Ramatou running out of her grass hut with Nadira (her baby) in her arms, wearing a wool hat of course because it gets chilly in the evening, you know-- in the low 80s even sometimes. So three Hausa speaking women loaded into the car and off we went. About four blocks from home, Nadira started crying a little bit because she woke up, at which point Tom said “Il y a un bebe?” which in French means, “There is a baby?”
“Oui,” we all responded, and I chuckled to myself. He hadn't seen Nadira get in the car and I treasured his surprise as we drove through the darkness of Niamey. I was just such a Nigerien moment.
At the airport, as we were walking in, Ramatou grabbed my hand and, finding the finger it fit perfectly, pushed her ring on me saying, “Here is my gift.” I had given her earrings, so it seemed fitting that I received jewelry. The difference was that Ramatou was giving me something of her own – a valuable part of the little that she had.
In the airport I had to get in a line that went forever to check my bags. The Nigerien police told me my visa was expired, and later that it didn't have a number, which is wrong. I was terrified they weren't going to let me leave the country, but upon further review of my visa, I think the police read the date wrong, and I really was legal. Nevertheless I suppose they figured I was leaving the country anyway, so I couldn't do anymore harm. I went out into the waiting area one more time to say good-bye to my good friends Halima and Ramatou, kiss sleeping Nadira on her head and bury myself in one of Zeinabou's all-encompassing, safe-feeling hugs. I didn't know how or what words to use to thank Tom for all he and his family have done for me, but somehow I got it out of my mouth and walked through security to my gate, waving to the three of them watching me from above and disappearing into the passenger waiting area.
It was there that it started sinking into me what I had just done. I sat down and read a thank-you card the Johnsons had made for me and stared at their pictures. I looked at Ramatou's ring and realized that there was a very good, in fact more than likely chance that I would never see her again in my life. I thought about all the relationships I had formed there that I was just walking out of, and realized I didn't know if I was ever going to walk back into them again.
When we were boarding the plain, a kid, maybe about three years old, started crying right behind me. I had to fight a lot of instincts to keep myself from turning around and asking him what was wrong, or to pick him up in my arms. It was weird to not be responsible.
At 7:30am I arrived in Casablanca, and Royal Air Maroc shuttled me to a very nice hotel in the tourist area where I had a free room and meal. I loved the bus ride because I got to see the famous mosque of Casablanca as well as the beautiful beach. I made plans to go exploring, but by the time I had a nice nap, woke up, and ate, I had to go back to the airport and fly to France. Casablancans are very nice, and Royal Air Maroc is an A+ airline. I recommend it.
I left Casablanca in the evening and arrived to Paris near midnight. I had a two night stay in Paris because of the way we arranged the frequent flier tickets, so I had to find my bags and make it to a hotel, but everything worked out just fine. The first thing I did (after eating the mint off my pillow and jumping on my bed to see if it was springy enough for me) was create the largest bubble bath I've ever taken in my life. It was phenomenal. Hot water! And a bathtub!! I've never taken more advantage of a hotel before. I went to bed and slept in until about ten in the morning, took my time getting ready and then asked the people at the desk for directions on how to get to the metro. Looking at a map of Paris, I had decided I would see the Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre because I had never been there before (it's rather far away from the rest of the Paris attractions that I've already seen) and I was on that side of town. So, after a bit of work, I found the train station, got a ticket, and was headed into the city. I met a nice American mother and daughter on the train who were just on the beginning of a trip to Europe, and they updated me on all the airplane carry-on regulations that had recently been enforced. I made another connection and came out at the stop that the woman at the hotel had told me-- only I didn't see the Sacre Coeur anywhere.
In fact, as I climbed the steps from the dark of the subway into the Paris daylight (or, cloudlight) I found myself in the midst of a lot of black people- black people, I discovered, who were wearing African clothes, selling African spices, and food, and music. African fabrics. I had landed myself in the middle of Paris' equivalent of Chinatown, only with Africans. It was wonderful! I felt like I was home! I strained my ears for Hausa and amused myself by the thought of how comfortable I felt there, and how simultaneously out of place I looked. I couldn't have been happier to see African prints in this big, fast-moving city. After asking some nice women selling corn on a street corner where the Sacre Coeur was, I realized the woman at the hotel had given me the wrong stop to get off at. I consulted my map though, and after going only a few blocks out of my way, oriented myself in the general direction of Montmartre. I even stopped in a few African music stores to look for Hausa cd's, but the overwhelming response was that Hausa music is rare, especially among Senegalese sellers, which most of them were.
Eventually I found myself walking up, and up, and up...so I figured I was going in the right direction. The streets were curiously empty, though, and I knew the shop owners couldn't have been taking sieste. Finally, as I practically rock-climbed my way up one last steep, narrow street, I turned a corner there it was, smiling benevolently down at me from its prestigious perch atop the tallest physical point in Paris: the Sacre Coeur, one of Europe's most famous cathedrals. It was beautiful.
Slowly working my way from the back to the front, I realized I heard a great mass of voices, and turning another corner was confronted with a great procession of people headed up yet another small street. I realized with all joyfulness that hey, I was here by myself and this is the type of thing novelists or travel-book guides write about when their protagonists are wandering about the streets of Paris alone. So I joined the procession, and listening closely realized that they were reciting the Hail Mary in French. Positioning myself next to a very kind-looking older gentleman, I leaned over to him and said,
“Excuse me, but which service is this?”
“The Feast of the Assumption,” he replied, “August fifteenth?”
“Oh, of course,” I replied, “I forgot.” (The 'forgot' part may have been a bit of a fib on my part- the Protestant in me had nothing more than heard of the feast of the Assumption, much less knew it took place on August 15. But I wanted to fit in, you know?) The procession led us into a church that I supposed to be the Sacre Coeur, and where I lit a candle for my Catholic grandmother, as I do in all the great cathedrals of Europe. Upon exiting I realized it was not the Sacre Coeur, but in fact a church built directly next to it. Woops. So I continued my tour, and after taking pictures of the skyline of Paris from waaay up high, I made my way into the actual Sacre Coeur, where there was yet ANOTHER Feast of the Assumption service taking place, and after investigating the architecture and art, I knelt and listened to the most beautiful sound I have ever heard in my life—French nuns singing. I won't attempt to describe it, but let me just tell you that if the angelic choir in heaven is anything like that of French nuns, we have got something pretty amazing in store for us.
Eventually I found my way to a charming cafe directly below the Sacre Coeur. I sat outside and enjoyed looking at her from below my awning (it rained a little) and devoured dinner, ice crean (oh my gosh!!!) and cafe au lait. The waiter/owner man sat down and talked to me for quite a while too. He complimented me on my beautiful eyes, and we talked about Africa, France, the US, politics and everything else in life. When I asked him where a local grocery store was that I could get some things for my morning breakfast he pointed me a few blocks down and said that he had friends that owned the store and to tell them that “Mohammet the Egyptian” sent me. True to his word the shop was there and they knew what I was talking about. I fully plan on returning to visit him this coming spring if I make it to Paris. Here's one thing that made me quite proud of myself: On my way to the train, I was asked by a young couple if I knew how to get to the Moulin Rouge. I didn't, but I was happy enough knowing that to them, I looked like I belonged there. I also picked up a book (Alfred Hitchcock stories in French and English together), and when I walked into the bookstore and found out how much it cost, I told the manager that that amount was a lot more than the other books outside!! I had to put the book away and walk away to keep myself form bargaining with him.
I made it back to my hotel, took a bath, called my parents, and left early the next morning to catch my flight to Copenhagen, Denmark. Entering the Copenhagen airport is like walking into the future-- everything is clean with straight lines and wooden well-swept floors, which I found interesting. I was too tired to do anything more than find my gate, go through the very heightened security and board my plane. The most interesting part was during my flight when I sat next to a Danish woman who told me a funny joke about French and Italians. She said that Europeans have a saying that the French and Italians both drink a lot of wine but the French are alcoholics and the Italians are not because Italians love life and take joy out of it, which is why they drink, as opposed to the French who are just mad at the world. It's funny, I know.
I made my following connections to Atlanta and Memphis just fine. I knew I was in America when I was enveloped by a cloud of touring cheerleaders looking at t-shirts in the Atlanta airport. What a crazy country we have. It was good to be home.
I will have another upcoming entry with reflection on the experience as a whole and a link to an online photo viewer where I will post all my photographs; I figured this was enough for you to read right now.
Catch you on the flip side!