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The South African adventure: Dakar to Johannesburg

DAKAR, SENEGAL– Most of the passengers on the flight from DC to Dakar left the plane, leaving only a handful of us who were continuing on to Johannesburg. I was feeling fucked up by time zones by that point, but was determined to power through. I made myself stop doing the math to consider what time it was back home and mentally get onto African time zones.

Bathrooms were locked as the plane emptied, so that the aircraft cleaners may get to them without wait. After some back and forth and waiting I finally found a small bathroom at the very back of the aircraft and proceed to pee and brush my teeth, which made me feel exponentially more together. Exiting the bathroom, I notice a “do not drink sink water” sign. Fuck. Whatever.

I return to my seat to find a boy in my spot. I say “boy” because by my own thinking he is a boy, a young man barely of age if at all who I assume to be off to meet up with friends in Johannesburg for a few days to do whatever recently of-age boys do. But by his own life’s measure he’s a man already, with a pretty girl’s photograph set as his phone wallpaper who is his wife, and photos of two small children. We can’t communicate much outside of gestures and simple English words– I don’t know what language spoke, and this also is later an issue with the flight attendant who offers him English, French, German, Zulu, Afrikaans, and something else similar to Zulu in sound and he simply wasn’t having any of it– but we sort out the seating and he shows me a few more photos on his phone.

He had a wide grin and kind face yet, as I would quickly learn, perhaps a major boundary and entitlement thing going on. But then, anytime I sit by a man willing to knock my elbow off the arm rest or elbow me in the boob I consider it an act of aggression and socialized entitlement. Anyway.

We took off from Senegal and I couldn’t capture the right things on camera though I wanted to: the small airport with very angular and cornered adobe buildings, the gorgeous coastline with large but smooth waves, the full moon, the yellow helicopter to the side of the runway with people scurrying towards it, and the stacks of mud brick houses that got smaller and smaller until we couldn’t see a thing below us anymore.

We settled in and divided up our space through a series of gestures (most of which made him shake his head at me) and soon were both asleep.

I awoke a about three hours later disoriented, and focused my eyes on my seatmate who had his blanket completely over him, which was disturbing for a moment as my brain wasn’t processing what I was seeing.

By then, it was nearly noon and I needed to stretch and pee so I tried to mentally will my seatmate to wake up because there is something awkward about trying to tap someone awake who is completely covered by a blanket. It works; he suddenly wakes up and looks at me with a question across his face. I point to the aisle; he lets me up.

Thought by this point I’d only slept only in fits and starts, I was beginning to feel like I could function on Johannesburg time just fine, like I could land, meet my cohorts for dinner, relax a bit, then sleep overnight.

Then, we are served a Senegalese chicken, rice and peas dish for lunch and I spent a solid minute thinking about how interesting it would be to collect and catalog the chicken and rice variation from every culture on earth possible before I realize I am perhaps not adjusting as well as I might think. Feh.


JOHANNESBURG– In the visa exempt line at Tambo airport, I started peeling off layers and jonesing for a real shower, given that by that point, I’d last showered 20+ hours and 9,000 miles ago, plus left winter weather in winter clothing and was suddenly in summer weather in the same winter clothing.

Taking in the airport and people watching while in line, I was immediately in love with the bright colors everywhere here. A woman with thick horn-rimmed glasses rocked a vintage-cut dress made out of two bright green batik fabrics, walls were splashed with bright colors, luggage all around me was tied with bright scarves of batik and tie-dye fabrics, a second woman passed in a red and blue print fabric dress and a blue, yellow and teal headscarf.

The conference sent a car for me, which I absolutely couldn’t find so I deliriously did math to convert dollars to rands and got in a taxi.

I met the group across from the hotel for dinner, ate and crashed. Woke up a little before 5am after deep sleep with very specific and vivid dreams, then awoke hearing an exotic bird singing outside my window and seeing the full moon shining in. No photo could have captured it, but I stood at my open window on this warm night with a warm breeze, listening to this bird’s serenade and to loud crickets, watching clouds move fast across the full moon, and it was all *lovely.*


I woke up the next morning, today, fully adjusted to the time zone, and had a marvelous day with the convening of so many brilliant people with dazzling huge and world-changing ideas.

After the full day program, we traveled to dinner in a place that put us overlooking Johannesburg, and servers brought platters and platters of food as we all sat around the table laughing and joyfully debating big political and social issues and talking about books and journalism and tattoos. Swoon.

Further reading: The South African adventure: Chicago to Dakar, and Johannesburg to Cape Town