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The importance of packing light was apparent within the first few hours of our two-week trekk as I soon regretted bringing five pounds of trail mix. No matter how many times my instructors advised me to pack frugally, I needed to experience the hip bruises and aching muscles to truly understand what items were essential.
I did a mental inventory of my backpack in attempt to identify all the unnecessary items dragging me down: the set of ten colorful MUJI pens, a four hundred page Stephen King book I don’t even enjoy reading, a five dollar rain jacket that is most likely not waterproof, and two sets of extra batteries for my headlamp. As days passed and I got strong enough to help carry some extra items for my struggling group members, I realized the heaviness weighing me down the most was emotional baggage. I wasn’t able to sort through “good” and “bad” thoughts, leave the unwanted, burdensome behind and shove only helpful ideas into my backpack to bring along. The strain of spending the majority of the eight-hour hikes alone with my thoughts became too much. One day, I just sat in the middle of the trail and cried.
Trekk challenged me both physically and mentally. I cried a lot, coughed up blood, walked until my bloody blisters throbbed, lost feeling in my fingers at night, and contemplated giving up too many times to count. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of trekk. Of summiting a mountain just to go back down again. There are a lot of things you have to do in life that may be confusing at the time, but it is important to reflect on those experiences and always ask, “why?”.
It took me a while, but I believe the “why” of trekk was to learn a little bit more about yourself, show up for your group and help redistribute the weight when life gets to be too heavy, and forge deeper connections with the sacred Himalayas. Humbled by the immensity and beauty of Nepal, during trekk we came together as a family and made life a little lighter for one another.
When returning from Nepal, the most strikingly obvious difference was my physical surroundings. Nepal was lively and colorful; I would spend ten-hour bus rides mesmerized by the views. The vibrant cities gave way to lush hills which turned into the breathtaking Himalayas, whereas December in New Jersey was gloomier than I remembered and everything seemed to be washed over with a pale, cold grayness.
I missed the noises, too. I missed turning off my futile 7 A.M. alarm after waking to the sound of scrappy stray dogs and the monastery bells. I missed the shopkeepers shouting across the street to one another over the background of Nepali moped horns. I missed the extensive bargaining that preluded each and every purchase. I missed debating with my friends how to best spend our two dollars at the grocery store. The jarring silence of the suburbs was eerie.
In an attempt to assimilate back to life at home, I offered to run errands for my mom. Upon walking into ShopRite, I was immediately overwhelmed with the surplus of food. My eyes darted all over the store, trying to absorb everything at once. In Nepal, fresh daal bhat is a daily ritual eaten for lunch and dinner. Now, there was too much going on. Too many options. I walked down each aisle slowly, so that I could focus on small sections at a time.
An hour later, I realized my cart still only contained ten items. I looked around at the carts filled with mounds of food and thought about how Nepal grocery stores didn’t have shopping carts, nor was there a need for them. As I paid, the cashier made a comment about my refusal to put my produce items in individualized plastic bags. And for the first time in my life, I thought about where my trash ends up. Once I bring the bins to the end of my driveway every Tuesday night, I never think about where it all disappears to. In Nepal, I didn’t have to wonder. When the trash piles would grow too high, they were set on fire to free up space. Acrid smoke from burning plastic fille dour nostrils, quite literally forcing us to choke on our own trash.
I rushed to my car and cried in the parking lot. I cried because no one in the grocery store had talked to me besides the cashier. I cried because I missed all of the honking annoyed motorcyclists, inviting street vendors, and human interaction involved when making a trip to the local ten by twenty grocery store in Nepal. I cried because I was dumbfounded as to why I wanted strangers at the grocery store to smile at me, something I probably would’ve considered creepy in the past. I cried because I knew my homestay family, living in a small village in the outskirts of our consumer-driven society, was more influenced by climate change than anyone at the store. I cried because I felt misplaced and lost in a town that I had lived in my entire life. I cried because I was confused about who I was. I cried because I knew a piece of myself was still in, and always will be, Nepal.
I’d like to discuss something very close to my heart today: food. Senegalese food, to be exact. I promise you that each dish will leave you begging for the recipe– and you’ll want them all. Especially the street food one’s because street food is just so good here. And no matter how often Americans tell you to eat street food at your own risk, when you spend 150 CFA on a spaghetti, onion, and pea filling for your daily ½ a baguette, you will know that Senegalese food, quite simply, rules.
Walking down the street you’ll smell deliciousness before you can see it: small fatayas and beignets fried in oil; peanuts cooked in hot sand over a fire; and Senegalese-style eggs called “omelets” (fried eggs with onions and crushed-up bouillon blocks for spice). And then there are the foods you can’t smell: the frozen bissap in tiny plastic bags you get after school; the thiagri (cold yogurt with uncooked millet) before or after dinner; and the unknown fruits that you can’t wait to take a bite out of.
But remember! No walking and eating. What I’ve realized in Senegal is that the United States is really such a fast-paced society. In my small town of around 5,000, walking and eating is a no-go. You don’t do it, ever. Unless you want to face the wrath of your yai!
But while inhaling street food is in my nature, Senegalese meal time is not. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, I just mean it’s different. At my house we sit around a large plate with raised sides,– essentially a huge circular casserole dish with another huge circular casserole dish flipped on top of it– and we all eat out of the same plate at the same time. Then, under the plate, there is a mat with a picnic-style blanket on top of it that serves to catch all the excess food that doesn’t reach your mouth fast enough. When lunch is ready you’ll hear “Kai! An!” which means come and eat lunch in Wolof. And when the plate gets put down on the mat, slowly the people will come. Your siblings, friends, and parents will dip their right hand in the water bowl, take off their shoes, and grab a spoon if there are any. Then the top plate is picked-up and the feasting finally begins.
During the meal though, there are a few incredibly important things you must remember.
First, and most importantly, your left hand cannot be anywhere near the food when you’re eating. Put it behind your back, hold it in the air, or cut it off, but whatever you do your left hand must not be seen close to the food. Outside of the US and Europe, the left hand is often used when you go to the bathroom in lieu of toilet paper. And in Senegal that’s what the left hand is used for. Even if someone hands you something while you’re not eating and you take it with your left hand, you should apologize. So eating with your left hand is definitely out of the question.
Second, you also better get used to having food thrown at you. Well, not exactly thrown at you, but gently tossed in your direction. Let me explain. When the food is placed on the plate, the rice goes down first, then the crispy rice in the middle of the plate, and then the fish and vegetables are put on top of the crispy rice. The vegetables change according to the season and right now (December), we usually have one carrot, one cabbage cut in two, a piece of squash, one potato, and two pieces of tapioca with fish and rice. Since we’re all sitting in a circle around the plate, you’re likely to only have one or two vegetables in front of you. That’s where the tossing comes in. The oldest women at the meal will usually eat with their hands and they will pass you the “good stuff.” Say you’re placed on the opposite side of the cabbage and you’ve been craving cabbage all day (I’m not joking it happens here!), the oldest woman will break you off a piece of cabbage and toss it in your direction. It’s tossed not placed because they are usually doing this for six to fourteen people at a time, and, I mean, they have to eat too!
Third, remember that even if you don’t like what has been placed in front of you vegetable-wise, it will be okay. The person dividing the food will learn what you prefer quicker than you think possible. At my house we have Chep bu Ghin (the dish I described above) for lunch about four days a week, and I always get passed pieces of carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, and I never get passed okra or fish. I’ve been getting the same thing for almost four months, and they always get what I enjoy eating right. And even if you’re not the biggest fan of a meal, I promise it will grow on you. Well, at least most of them. There’s always going to be that one meal that you dread (mine’s “Soup au Kanyay” or white rice with an oily fish and okra sauce on top).
Fourth, when you’re full don’t wait around. Put down your spoon or wash your right hand in the water bowl and head-out. I always head straight to my room to blow my nose and drink some water because our food is so spicy! People are usually packed around the plate like sardines, so if you’re sitting there not eating because you’re full, you are literally, at that moment, a waste of space. Get up and leave and allow your family a little breathing room. For example, today at lunch we were eleven around the plate, and, if people didn’t get up when they were full, I would have been so squished that I wouldn’t have been able to fit any food in me!
Finally, number five. Don’t worry that you won’t get enough food, I promise you will. You’ll probably get more food than you can eat as Senegalese culture pushes eating constantly and people will look at you disappointed when you say “Soug naa” or “I’m full.” Even when there are fourteen people around a bowl, there is always enough food. I swear it is impossible to go hungry here. No matter if someone you’ve never seen (and will never see again) comes by the house and asked for a plate of food by singing, you will still have enough. Even if five people stop by to drop-off bags of onions on their route and your yai says “Kai! An!” (which she will say to whoever shows-up around lunchtime), and they stay to eat, there will still be enough food. Let me be clear when I say that you will never be hungry here and both of these situations have happened to me. And I would suggest that in the unlikely chance you are hungry, go and buy something for yourself. Just trust me on this one. Because if you say you’re hungry, you’ll be having three dinners that night, and you’ll have to finish them all.
From Maffe, to Yassa Ginard, to Chep bu Ghin, to Chep bu Yapp, to Chep bu Nyibby, to Ndambe, and to all the other dishes, Senegalese culture is full of spice, heat, and (almost always) pounds of rice. And while in the US we complain about having to spend thirty minutes making dinner, Senegalese lunch starts being made around 11:00 and is finished at 2:30, when we eat it. But honestly, that’s what makes Senegalese food so good– you can taste the hours and care that went into making the meal. You can taste the delicately fried onions and fish; you can taste the scallions, pepper, and pink spice that were “dubb” or grounded in the mortar and pestle; and you can taste each morsel of rice that was steamed over than sauce than added to it. And I want you all to taste what I’m describing– I really do. But, unless you come to Senegal and stay for a while, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Because learning to “dubb” with both arms and how to identify what a sauce needs by smell alone are things a recipe can’t teach you.