Hello everyone and greetings from Madison!! I got home on Thursday and have been spending the last few days catching up with family and friends while enjoying some of my favorite hometown activities. I definitely haven’t quite gotten used to being in the US, but I’m really happy to be home!!
My final week in Dakar was fairly uneventful. I hung out with friends, spent some quality time at three different beaches, and ate dinner for the last time with my host family. Unfortunately, I caught a nasty stomach bug the weekend before I left, so my last days in Senegal were essentially spent laying around on the couch recuperating.
I headed out from Dakar on an evening flight and was feeling a little nervous that I would be delayed or my bag would be too heavy or some random problem would arise. While none of those factors ended up being an issue, my antibiotics-fueled brain did forget my laptop on the security conveyor belt and I did not realize it was gone until I landed in Paris. Luckily, thanks to some frantic Whatsapp communication and two of my lovely friends going to the Dakar airport on my behalf, I was able to get it back safe and sound! Thankfully, this snafu was the only major bump in the road and the rest of my vacation went smoothly as planned.
My flight to Senegal back in October had a several hour layover in Paris, so I was able to extend that layover into a week-long trip on the return flight. I decided forever ago that I wanted to visit a new region of France, as opposed to returning back to Marseille, and chose to divide my trip up with several days in Lyon and several days in Chamonix.
While the stress of realizing I forgot my computer on a different continent overpowered my initial impressions of leaving West Africa, I definitely felt some culture shock throughout my entire vacation. Everything felt so structured and well-organized, with a plethora of signs directing my every move, strict transit schedules, precise Google Maps data, and unlimited francophone individuals to interact with. The TGV was so smooth and fast that it honestly felt almost unsafe to me. It makes me laugh to think about how overwhelmed I was to move to Europe the last time around.
The first half of my trip was spent in Lyon, France’s third largest city (after Paris and Marseille) and I really enjoyed my stay there. The city spreads between two hills and is intersected by the Rhône and Saône Rivers, making it beautifully picturesque. I spent my first day walking around Vieux Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautiful attractions like Roman ruins, a beautiful basilica atop the Fourvière Hill, and Renaissance-era architecture, including its covered passageways known as traboules. That afternoon, I also visited the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs and walked around the Presqu’île, the spit of land in between the two rivers that is home to Lyon’s commercial district.
The next day, I ascended the second hill to the Croix Rousse neighborhood, which was historically home to Lyon’s silk-weaving industry. I stumbled upon a tour of two different weaving workshops, which was a fascinating insight into the character of Lyon and that neighborhood in particular. I also visited the Musée des Beaux Arts. My final day in Lyon I had a few hours to kill before my bus, so I stopped by the Parc de la Tête d’Or, France’s largest urban park!
I had such a lovely time in Lyon and really appreciated wandering around such a beautiful place in blissful anonymity. Even when I was visiting the city’s most touristic streets, no one harassed me in any way and I was able to play a tourist without negotiating anything or shaking off anyone. Everything was so clean and I felt like there were postcard-worthy views at every street corner. At the same time, it was weird not to greet people and I missed all the street vendors selling produce, peanuts, phone charge cards, and whatever else one might ever need. At moments, I even found myself having a slightly hard time understanding the rapid, non-Senegalese French. How far I have come from my first weeks in Dakar…
I then took the bus to Chamonix, a touristic town known for its ski resort and proximity to Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. During my last several visits to France, I never made it to the Alps and was eager to do a little high elevation ecotourism in close proximity to the snow after such a flat, dusty last nine months. From the moment I stepped off the bus, I was overcome with how jawdroppingly beautiful the mountains were. Even the town of Chamonix itself was lovely, filled with classic chalet-style buildings and cobblestoned streets.
The ski resort opens its lifts up even in the summer, so that day-hikers, backpackers, rock-climbers, and glacier-hikers can appreciate the mountains without having to physically ascend every single day. I got an unlimited two-day pass, so I could take as many lifts as I wanted without stressing about buying a bunch of tickets. This strategy ended up working out well, because the resort’s most famous lift (known for its excellent views of Mont Blanc) was closed both days due to high winds and I had to take some alternative routes.
None of that really mattered, because the hikes I got to do turned out to be so incredibly beautiful and enjoyable. A particular highlight was visiting Lac Blanc, a stunning glacial lake. I also got to see several different glaciers on my full second day, which was fascinating and made me a little nostalgic for Midwestern winters. I love spending time in nature, and the whole visit left me feeling so rejuvenated and peaceful. If the lift tickets were free, I honestly could have spent several more days there just frolicking around the mountains.
On my final day in France, I headed back up to Paris and ended up couchsurfing for the first time. I had such a lovely time hanging out with my hosts and felt so grateful to them for making my first couchsurfing experience a positive one. After only about 12 hours in Paris, I went to Charles de Gaulle with a final destination of Madison!!! Except for some delays in Detroit, the voyage was smooth sailing and I was so excited to see my parents waiting for me when I arrived.
I think that this trip was the perfect transition back to the US, as it gave me some time and space to reflect on the radical change in scenery. After a few days, I am starting to readjust to being in the US, although certain things still make me feel like a stranger in my own hometown. My immediate first impressions upon returning home were how large the lawns and car lanes are. The atmosphere of a midsize Midwestern city filled with mostly white people definitely contrasts with the vibe in a cosmopolitan West African capital. I don’t really know how to react when people ask me “so how was Africa?”
It’s so crazy to think that less than two weeks ago I was in Dakar, it already feels like such a world away. My entire Fulbright grant was such an important personal and professional learning experience and I feel so incredibly lucky to have had such an opportunity.
Senegal forced me to confront so many of my own privileges, biases, and outlooks on the world. I had to deal with many extremely challenging situations and learn a lot about a culture that is very, very different from my own. I was welcomed into six Senegalese and three American households with hospitality, kindness, and openness. I realized the challenges and benefits of being your own boss and learned a myriad of skills including (but not limited to): properly putting up a mosquito net, eating while sitting on the ground, eating with one’s hands, negotiating a wide range of prices, using a bathroom in a wide range of conditions, properly greeting one’s neighbors, saying thank you (and some other stuff) in three more languages, navigating a transit system with little to no signage or direction, and appropriately using “alhamdoulilah” and “inshallah” in daily conversation.
It still hasn’t completely set it than I’m not going back to Senegal soon and I think I’m going to be in denial for a little while. I’ll hopefully be enjoying my next few weeks at home before setting off on my next adventure. I’m obviously going to take a little break from writing this blog while I’m home and then I’ll probably restart again when I move to French Guiana. Gros bisous to all of you and thank you so so much to everyone who’s been reading my blog up until now!!