It’s one night in Senegal. Any night. All nights. I can’t sleep. I settle into bed, usually between 11pm and 1am, depending on whether I have to read or write or watch television with friends. If it’s watching tv, I try leaving early enough because I know my friends like their sleep. As they should. As I would, if I could.
Sometimes I walk into the hotel room and my roommate is praying, in a hunched-over kneel on her bed. I move about quietly, gathering my things into the bathroom for a quick shower.
I negotiate with the showerhead, try to put it in a place where I can stand under it without getting the whole bathroom wet. On the days when the bathrooms have shower curtains, it doesn’t really matter. That piece of fabric is a mere formality, existing only to facilitate splashy chaos on that gritty tile with the moldy grout.
The bathroom sighs an aroma of shampoo and squeaky-clean May-ness as I open the door. The light on my side of the room is on, and my roommate has tucked herself into bed and caught a deep, rhythmic slumber. Lucky $%@%*!. While I write, or read, or think, the towel wrapped around my head absorbs most of the water from my hair.
If I’m reading, it’s with whatever book we’re studying and a pen and a dictionary and me getting through one chapter–maybe two–before I get frustrated.
If it’s writing, it’s any of the following:
-Je suis allée à l’orphelinat (à la Fête de Mères), et j’étais heureuse et triste au même temps.
-Je m’assoie et pense. L’hôtel est tranquille et je ne peux pas dormir. [Comme d’habitude.]
-Le mois passe rapidement. Tous les matins je me reveille avec mal à la tête.
-J’aime le musée.
-Aujourd’hui, c’est l’anniversaire de mon père….It is so easy to misspell words in a foreign language….Je ne bois pas assez d’eau, et j’ai mal à la tête tout le temps. (I really do stop complaining about headaches. I promise.)
-(At a VERY EXCITING conference:) Je fais semblant de faire attention. J’ai mal à la tête. Tout le monde rit et je ne suis pas pourquoi.
-LA PLAGE! J’aime la plage! La plage me rend heureuse.
-Shouldn’t I just have one or two days during this whole study abroad where I can write in English? I know I need the practice, but I really miss how fast my pen can go when I can think in successive sentences without stopping.
-Je veux être une griotte, mais je ne sais pas nourrir tous les enfants. HA!
-HAPPY HALFWAY POINT!
-I think I want to be everybody’s friend. I think I am making some really great friends. This trip is a lot of fun, even with the humidity and language barriers and poverty and foreign food and hagglers. There’s love and unity and abounding happiness in the children. There are stories and memories and dancing and singing with lots of laughing and big smiles. As much as I miss America, leaving this place is going to be hard.
-Je dois écrire des choses importantes, mais je n’ai pas d’énergie.
-I really have to take advantage of my experience here. IT’S AFRICA. There are beautiful people and endless landscapes and so many things to think about. How do I make a difference? I have to get back in the habit of finding inspiration in everything, everywhere. Everyone….Kylie was really nice and gave me a page from her crossword puzzle book.
-Country Road, take me home, to a place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home country road. On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah with my friends, j’ai hâte de voyager encore. Oui!
-Des HIPPOPOTAMES! Ils sont énormes!…Oh! Des singes! Ils ont “attaqué” Kylie et Sarah ce matin….Il y a des morceaux de toit qui tombent sur mon lit. It’s annoying….P.S. My roommate, Chloe, is great. I’m very glad we get along. Bon soir, SWEATY MONKEYS.
-CAR RAPIDE et the DUSTS OF HELL! Des combinations secrètes à la derrière du bus. UGLY DUSTY RED FACES OF FUNNINESS!
-LE CASCADE! Mais d’abord, promener à pied. J’ai beaucoup transpiré, mais c’est l’Afrique. TOUT est l’AFRIQUE.
-J’AI UN MAL À LA TÊTE. OUAIS!!!!! Nous sommes dans le bus. J’ai fait la sièste et de me reveiller and I AM VERY CRANKY. I shouldn’t be parce que les autres chantent des canticles. C’est joli, mais je peux seulement pleurer. C’est stupide.
-J’ai nagé aujourd’hui. I dove into the water et j’ai oublié à enlever mes lunettes. Oops, donc, après le dive, les lunettes étaient au bas de la piscine. Britt les a retrouvé, et j’étais reconnaissante.
-(In Sarah’s handwriting:) Aujourd’hui, j’ai commencé par être awesome, puis, j’ai continué à être awesome jusqu’au déjeuner, où je suis devenue même plus awesome. J’ai continué comme ça jusqu’au dîner, où j’ai rencontré Sarah, et la force de votre coalition de awesome était for qui on a commencé a brûler. Et puis, j’ai dormi.
-I feel like que je sois dans une autre dimension. Quel est vrai? Quel est la realité? Comment est-ce que ce voyage m’influence?
-DRAW ME A PICTURE PLEASE THANK YOU. What kind of picture? PRETTY KIND. WHATEVER YOU WANT. [Insert pretty picture here.]
Once I’m done reading or writing, I finish drying my hair, then I turn off the light and slide under the covers. I close my eyes, and whatever happened that day or the days before or whatever will happen in upcoming days float in my head. I open my eyes, and it’s the two o’clock hour. I create French conversations. I try to connect thoughts to make sentences, then I imagine I’m saying those sentences to people who can only speak French and as if my life depends on it. Sometimes I turn on my iPod and listen to music or watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, which helps. Then I pretend my eyes are drooping, and much of the same happens, over and over again. I reach down for my water bottle and slake my dry throat. Almost on the hour, every hour, I check the clock on my cell phone. Between 5am and 7am my brain finally gets tired enough, but then it’s time to wake up. People are barfing their brains out around me, people have real reasons to want to go home, and my problem is that I can’t sleep. Get a grip.
So, I get up and change clothes and carry a book, a dictionary, a pen and a journal outside, and I try to catch some morning light to study by.
I’ve never been an awesome sleeper, but the insomnia has taken a different form lately. It has been exactly one month since I returned to the United States. I spent a few days in New York City before returning to Provo, and it’s been … hard. Fine, I am grateful to be brushing my teeth from worry-free tap water and showering with a shower curtain that keeps water in the tub and I am very excited to have some of the effects of the malaria medicine go away; I am very grateful not to be eating meat at every meal. And, I don’t have headaches anymore, because I’m finally back to drinking the amount of water I used to nearly two months ago. But one night in Provo is any night in Provo–any night after those nights in Senegal.
Between 11pm and 1am, I look at my bed, and we have a showdown. Are we going to do this again, I say. What you mean, “we”, bed says, I’m the one that doesn’t need sleep. I slip on some socks, because I can’t sleep when my feet are cold. I pile on blankets because my roommates like to keep the apartment cool and Africa has tempered my blood. Finding a comfortable position is a challenge.
Shutting off my brain is the biggest challenge of them all.
Every night, I close my eyes and see mangoes and the big white bus and faces of children and the homeless and feel the tense political air. In my mind I’m laughing at having to listen to Justin Bieber yet again or eating another baguette or mafé or yassa poulet for the frillionth day in a row. I’m watching bad movies in French or cooking shows or anything else that could be in English. I see waterfalls and bats and giant baobabs and then also fertility statues in museums with their penises and breasts, and I can feel the pieces of the crumbling roof on the space next to me in bed. I see more stars than what I deserve to see in the firmament; I snicker at scared faces who have gotten way too close to sociable (and hungry) monkeys. My jaw drops at mating goats or overexcited donkeys and horses. I hear laughing and singing, drums beating, my own animal impressions; my own (and others’) swears; I’m crashing a wedding or walking away from a vendor or saying what I should have said at the time one–or all–of those women tried to rip me off. I see the soul of civilization; I sense its struggle, its solemn sanctitude. My heart doesn’t know what to reconcile.
Every hour I open my eyes and check the clock. Then the sun peeks through the blinds, and it’s time to start the day.
Everyone has a little haunt in my mind, a cubbyhole, part of one of the wrinkles. Everyone comes and visits me, flashes in my memory, and of course I’m happy to see everyone, their personalities, their expressions; my friends. An entire month removed, and I can still see things and people so vividly.
Every night, all nights, it’s the same two related questions:
Will I ever get to sleep? (then)
Will my vision fade?
So far, for both questions, the answer has been the same.