Travels in Senegal
by John Cho



Baobabs are melancholy. I don't mean that in an anthropomorphic sense; I mean that when standing in a savannah that is dotted with nothing but baobabs in every horizontal direction, I invariably feel melancholy. And when I remember standing in a savannah that is dotted with nothing but baobabs in every horizontal direction, I feel even more melancholy.

Is melancholy a state peculiarly associated with baobabs? My oldest sister was a piano major. When I was three years old, she practiced on the Yamaha grand for several hours a day. She played mostly Chopin. I listened carefully every day and pointed out to her whenever she made a mistake. She was incredulous. "How could you tell it was a mistake? You're only three!" I don't know how; it just didn't sound right. I asked her to play the Fantasie Impromptu again. I particularly liked the middle section because the key had many flats; that meant that the flow of notes would have a darker, unrequited feel to it, a quality that I would now call melancholy. This is all bunkum, of course. My sister played a modern piano with equal-tempered tuning. The intervals between notes, and thus the "flavor" of the harmony, should not have been dependent on the key. And yet the memory remains; and to this day I prefer to play in flats rather than in sharps.

But what about the baobabs? The Little Prince's home planet was a small chunk of rock around which a few baobabs interweaved their tentacular roots. I used to wonder how such a small planet could have such huge trees growing on them--wouldn't the branches poke out through the atmosphere into space? As a scientist studying the Earth's atmosphere, I can now confirm that this was a very good question. But returning to the point I was supposed to make in this paragraph: Was not the story of the Little Prince, indeed, melancholy?

I'm trying harder to recall. I think I lied earlier. The savannah in which I stand has more than baobabs. There is, for example, the baobab fruit. Or at least what I remember as the baobab fruit. Something white and chalky, with large seeds. I suck on the seeds to dissolve the flavor in my mouth. It is faintly sour and sweet, like the echoes of sour tarts that I used to buy at the corner five-and-dime.

I look closer. The fruit is being sold by an old woman. She is sitting in the sparse shade cast by the tree, her dark, cracked feet lying alongside a rippling root. She is also selling small plastic bags of a red liquid. I pick one up and look at the speckless sky through this ruby filter. The woman smiles toothlessly. I nibble a hole in a corner of the bag and let the juice trickle down my throat. Along with its taste and fragrance comes the name: bissap. A sweetened drink made from hibiscus flowers. I realize that is exactly what I wanted.

But it's really at night that the melancholy sets in. A moonless night. As the pupils expand I begin to see the bifurcating baobab branches as a silhouette against the Milky Way. There appears to be a foot path that meanders its way between the strangely regular spacing of the trees, so I shuffle along it. I take pleasure in the cool sand sneaking into my sneakers, the silky sound and sensation.

But this recollection, or the simulation of a memory, is slippery. What was I wearing? And carrying? Surely I must have had some luggage. Was there hunger? Weariness? A general sense of loss as if time, like the stars, were simultaneously too slow and too fast?

Contrary to what you might have concluded, baobabs are not always melancholy. For example, baobabs viewed from inside the glassed-in, air-conditioned carriage of a first-class train are simply sad. And, you must agree, sad is not at all the same as melancholy. Besides, these baobabs are moving very rapidly (in our reference frame), and can hardly be considered to be in the same class as the trees that we looked upon while standing in the savannah - there is at least a 40-mph difference.

Perhaps we have stumbled unto something here. Is slowness related to melancholy? After all, the middle movement of the Fantasie Impromptu that I thought so melancholy was also the slow movement. And one doesn't look at a girl who is running and think, "That runner sure is melancholy." Or, in a more accurate analogy to the baobabs, "Watching that runner sure makes me feel melancholy." However, watching a man sitting on a park bench watching the runner scoot by just might trigger that melancholy feeling.

We are faced with a choice. Beyond the plain of baobabs is a river. A cantilever bridge reaches across the river and on the other side is a city. The pale pastels of the buildings glow in the harsh sunlight. On the other hand, there is the ill-defined foot path among the baobabs in the still night. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I think I hear voices ahead.

The choice is yours. Hm? You want me to cross the river? So be it.

A diesel station wagon rumbles past as I walk across the bridge. It turns out that the city is not on the other shore but on an island in the river. It is elongated parallel to the flow like an enormous barge that sprouted colonial buildings. As I rest standing curbside at the central place, a church bell begins to ring. The irregular overtones set a nearby window pane to buzzing. I look north and south along the straightaway; I see not a single person.

It is a thin island - only five or six blocks at its widest. A simple composition - the river, the buildings, the sky... and no people - it would make a fine watercolor. But that can't be quite right. Because the next scene is me sitting down at a dark little tieb shop eating lunch. And I must have asked some people where I could buy a meal, because there were no signs announcing "I am a tieb shop; come inside and have a bite to eat."

But if there were a sign, it would have been wrong. Today's lunch was not tiéboudienne but mafé, a peanut stew. I didn't complain. I was enjoying the play of light and shadow in the rectangular, glassless window that opened onto the east side of the river.

By now you would have the idea that this was a sparse and silent city. That would be the correct impression. But I have withheld one important sensory element that I will now disclose as if nonchalantly waving a new semaphore: The smell of the sea. The far shore of the river is little more than a sandbar a hundred yards wide that segregates the oscillation of the oceanic waves and tides from the irreversibly linear flow of the river. Standing at its crest I can view the two worlds and be of two minds at once. Looking northward along the coast I can see the edge of the sand dunes, the southernmost edge of the great desert. That must be where the river veers inland and takes on itself the responsibility of a national boundary. The golden dunes flutter and wink in the afternoon convection.

I did not walk along the beach to those sand dunes that afternoon, nor on any other afternoon. Those sand dunes were never reached. I never walked amongst them, reaching down to sift my fingers through the hot granules, letting my gaze run along the parallel ripples casting frozen shadow waves across the rolling surface. Never.

* * *

Now I'm starting to get the uneasy feeling that I was wrong all along. Perhaps the baobabs are not the source of melancholy at all. Think about it: A four-lane boulevard lined with baobabs. Baobabs in Central Park. A baobab Christmas tree. A bonsai baobab. I don't feel melancholy at all. Do you?

* * *

Cut back to the plain of baobabs.

I'm not wearing socks, and I can wiggle my toes in the cool sand that pours in and out through the holes in my running shoes. The persistent, dusty harmattan winds of the daytime have died with the setting sun, and now the air is motionless, clear. The stars wheeling slowly about, no distant glow of city lights to whiten the horizon.

Then I hear voices. Vectoring my eyes toward the sound I slowly begin to see the outline of a small compound. I imagine that I can see the steady light from a kerosene lantern leaking through the slats of a hut.

Here's what you see next:

I'm standing inside the compound greeting a semicircle of seated men with one of only a handful of Wolof phrases that I know. The men appear either dumbfounded or entirely indifferent depending upon your own expectations. You may wonder what I'm doing there. Perhaps they do also. It may be that even I am wondering why I'm there. Besides, who am I?

"I am Abdou Diouf," I say.

Split-second silence. Then a tremendous burst of laughter, a general round of good humor.

I am offered the corrugated-tin shack of the very tall man in the white boubou for lodging. He, who is apparently the chief of the compound, will sleep in the bed of one of his wives.

You see, this is a useful trick. When in doubt, introduce yourself as the President of the country and you are bound to be treated with great hospitality.

Next morning I wake up to find a camel caravan outside the compound. Are camels melancholy? Yes, but with a certain levity. I bet Erik Satie liked camels. Now I'm trying to recall whether they are one-humped or two-humped. I rub the sleep from my eyes, but it's hard to tell. For simplicity, I will remember them as one-humped (less memory allocation, you know).

Many questions cross my mind as the caravan prepares to depart. For example: When you run out of water can you poke a straw into the hump and drink? Do nomads pay taxes? Do camels see mirages? Is it all right with Allah if you pray to Mecca while riding a camel? Do camel drivers think baobabs are melancholy?

When I grow up, I want to be a camel driver.

Days go by. In the morning I help the women shell peanuts. In the afternoon I drink tea with the men. Three rounds are brewed with the same leaves, which means that the tea gets weaker each time; however, more sugar is put in so it becomes progressively sweeter. But the real key is to pour the tea from above your head, so that each glassful develops a healthy head of foam. The arm movement of the veteran tea maker is smooth and precise, like the windup motion of a fastball pitcher. In the evening I eat supper with the chief, squatting on the prayer mat, dipping my right-hand fingers into the shared plate of ragoût and millet.

Eventually I will have to leave, and I do.

South of the baobab plains is a railroad track running east-west. If you follow it westward, you will arrive at the big city with the rectangular-gridded streets, clever pickpockets, and stalls selling bootleg cassettes. Follow the coastline south and you will see a village on a small island just off the beach. If you walk across the wood-planked bridge, you will find its streets and buildings to be made of sea shells. And, along with the unexpected sight of white crosses in a graveyard, you will notice a smell that you've not encountered in a long time--the robust aroma of roasting pork. If you then wander inland, you will cross salt flats and arrive at a town with a name that sounds like "cowlick." There the well water will be so salty that clothes will stick to your skin after bathing.

In the end, you will come to another river. But this time there will be no bridge, you will have to commit yourself to a ferry, there will be palm trees and a lush green on the other side, and it will be another country, another arbitrary colonial boundary, and I will buy my last plastic bag of bissap for the crossing, letting it dribble, blood-red, into my mouth like an IV drip, taking nourishment from the moment, from the images that will take root in the crevices of my brain, images that will grow and branch out to become inextricably tangled with the play of midnight sun on a patch of cloudberries, mist dispersing to reveal volcanic lakes with the colors of jade, sapphire, and black gold, a lioness yawning after her morning drink, whipless scorpions scuttling across a river cave wall, the comfort of pea soup and pancakes on Thursdays, and the windy gap in the hills where we used to lie in the tall grass, thinking that was our whole world, the sun, the wind, the smell of grass, you, and I.


Copyright 1996, John Nagamichi Cho. Contact John Cho at: jcho@pemtropics.mit.edu or visit his website at http://pemtropics.mit.edu/~jcho/

John Cho at Large / Technobeat Central