This year, I had an amazing New Year’s Eve with my host family and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Katie. The day began by a trip to Belingho in the Gambia to check out a huge rock my host parents had raved about; apparently by standing on top of it, you could see all the way to the Gambia. They had been telling me about this rock since I arrived here, and I was excited to climb it. But before we set out, they warned me that it’s too large to climb; if I tried to climb it, I would fall into the Gambian River which ran below it; and it was too steep to even attempt. Nevertheless, we headed out to the village – approximately a 15 km walk form my village. My host mom had wanted to accompany us part of the way, so that we wouldn’t get lost in the bush, but we insisted that we could ask for directions and didn’t want her to go out of her way. To prove this point, we rushed out of the compound so that she wouldn’t have time to change into her nice travel outfit.
We picked up bean sandwiches for breakfast and headed on our way, asking various passers-by for the dirt path to Belingho. We had just arrived at the start of the path when a woman yelled, “Do you know the way to Belingho?” I thought it was very nice of this woman to follow-up with us, and called back to her that we had found the path and were all set. The woman kept coming towards us, and I was impressed by her interest in our day-trip. As she neared, I noticed that her outfit and peculiar head-wrapping (to keep out the dust that flies everywhere now that the cold season has brought strong winds) looked somewhat familiar. I turned to Katie, jokingly asking, “Is that my host mom?” Turns out, it was my host mom; she and my host dad were worried about us, so she had taken a horse-cart to Farfenni and asked people along the way if they’d seen two young white women walking. She then accompanied us part of the way until she finally agreed that we could continue along our own (a straight dirt path) and turned to go home.
The road to Belingho was beautiful: two tiny villages along the way, lots of trees due to the proximity to water and lack of deforestation in the area, small hills (a contrast to the flatness of my area), pretty birds, and cool weather. The two of us continued to the end of the path and arrived directly in the village. We walked through it and met the Gambian River; we could see to the other side of the bank, not too far away. Two kids had accompanied us to the river, acting as our tour guides. It was a bit difficult to communicate because the village speaks mainly Saucee, while I speak Wolof and Katie speaks Pulaar, but we were able to get the gist of our ideas across to them. They kept watch for us while we sat and enjoyed the view and then alerted us of the approach of “a crazy man” who we should avoid. Hearing this, we jumped up and proceeded back to the village. We repeatedly asked the children to lead us to the big rock, but they didn’t understand what we were talking about. I looked around, a bit confused. If this rock was as large as my family suggested, I should be able to see it from where I was standing; all I saw were some small hills. Finally, the kids understood what we were talking about, but advised against approaching the rock: it was too steep, far away, and weeds covered the path. I insisted that I wanted to at least attempt to summit it, and the boys grudgingly led us to a path a few meters from where we were. We began to follow it up. The path was a bit steep in some points with some loose gravel-like rocks, but within 10 minutes, we had reached the top of “the rock;” in actuality, it was just a small hill. Nevertheless, the view from the top was gorgeous (though trees and other small hills blocked the view in the direction of Banjul). We enjoyed the scenery for a bit, then continue back to the village. My host mom’s son lives in Belingho, so we requested to be led to his house. Senegalese hospitality does not have an American parallel; people are so friendly and welcoming. His wife greeted us warmly, invited us in, provided us with some fresh bread and hot tea (exactly what we wanted at that point), talked with us a bit, and invited us to nap in her bed. It felt so normal to be lying in that stranger’s bed while gazing at the trees and hills outside and listening to her prepare lunch – rice with fresh fish balls (like a meat ball but made of fish, and this fish was straight from the river).
We stayed for a little after lunch, talking to my host mom’s son when he returned from the rice fields. I wanted to stay longer and hear about the village, but we wanted to arrive back in my village before sunset and so we set out. Neither of us were particularly excited by the prospect of a 15 km walk at a brisk pace and both hoped a car of cart would pass us by and offer us a ride. After walking for just a bit, we saw two donkey carts approaching. They were stacked high with firewood, but the drivers called out to us, “Hop on, if you can!” We didn’t need a second invitation and laughed as we leaped on top. It was a very interesting ride. They spoke to us in English (the Gambia is an Anglophonic country), and we talked most of the time about a range of topics from ruminating animals to good vibrations (his spin on the expression “good vibes”) to American music. As we sat perched on the wood, joking with the men, staring at the greenery, watching the dirt path stretch on, listening to music play from a cellphone, and passing small villages, I realized how adjusted to life here I am; this all seemed so normal and so comfortable. I felt calm and at peace. They brought us back to Farfenni, and then we continued the last few kilometers back to my village.
After dinner, we began the New Year’s Eve festivities. I haven’t stayed outside my room past 10:15 (I usually retreat to my room around 9:15) nor have I stayed up to midnight since arriving in my village, so this was a big occasion. I told my family that they all should stay up with me, and we’d drink juice at midnight. They were excited. We sat around the fire, talking and dancing a bit. I was exhausted, and around 9:30, Katie and I snuck into my room individually to take a bite of kola nut. I had never had one before, but my host family loves them, and we thought the high caffeine content might help us stay awake; we didn’t have enough to share with my family, so it felt as though we were involving in illicit activities by retreating behind closed doors to taste them. It turns out that kola nuts are very bitter, and I do not like them at all. When we returned to the fire, only a few people were left: my host mom (who curled up on a mat outside to rest, refusing to go to sleep until she’d drank juice), my host sister, my two host brothers (both of whose eyes kept closing – the younger insisted he wasn’t tired and the older kept trying to leave to go to bed but we refused to let him), my host grandma, my host aunt (who was still her talkative self at all hours), and a man from my village. Around 11, I returned to my room once again, this time to make sugar popcorn. This was a big hit; they had never eaten it before, and they loved it. (I do admit that the first batch was a bit nerve-racking to make, and I thought the lid of my pop might fly off, but it all went smoothly and was very easy.) At this point, everyone was really ready for sleep, but I refused to let them drink the juice before midnight.