I am not a risk-taker by nature. Most people would say that's a ludicrous statement. I am, after all, about to board a plane to Senegal, Africa, for a six-month family sabbatical. I have agreed, reluctantly, to accompany my husband, an auto-didactic architect, to a country where there are no building codes so he can construct an earth architecture house with no pedantic constraints. Though he has researched this alternative building method with passion and aplomb, I realize early on in his presentation to us that this is really about a basic need to play with dirt, which appeals wildly to our two small children. He has always tended to color outside the lines, which to him were blurry to begin with, however, this particular divergence seems to be the manifestation of a mid-life crisis, albeit an admirable one. Relieved that it hasn't involved a size two, twenty-two year old blond (my antithesis) or a long unquenched desire to play electric guitar (my nemesis), I agree to support him. I hear the adventurer that I long to be say, "Sure, honey, that sounds exciting. Let's do it." What I am really thinking is, "over my dead body." And that's exactly what I envision: my malaria-stricken form, sweaty and prostrate on the bed, surrounded by my teary children reaching out to touch me one last time, their small fingers widening the holes of our faulty mosquito net.
These macabre visions are unfortunately nothing new. Where Richard sees the beauty and potential in the open flow of living something unknown, I imagine the thickness, the dark what-ifs that we may not have control over. I can't help it. As hard as I try to dive into life the way my husband does, I am more likely to be waiting at the side with an outstretched fluffy towel when he resurfaces. But I trust him, his instincts and talents, and so I almost always acquiesce to the bigger decisions in our lives, like moving to Africa. I credit myself with at least recognizing the value of being led out of my comfort zone from time to time. It's the smaller, seemingly insignificant choices that always pose the bigger problem for me, the ones that are my decision alone, that don't effect anyone else. I tend to be the one who sits on the sidelines and watches, who stays behind (because someone has to), or if I do go, to be the slightly resentful designated driver.
For this particular adventure, I volunteer to pack for everyone, not out of kindness, but because I am terrified of what might be forgotten should anyone else do it. My knowledge of Africa has been authored, filtered and pre-packaged by the American press and I can only conjure up insurmountable images of sick, skeletal children, flies buzzing at their sticky eyes, razed, burned villages, women in dire need of a sympathetic god. But Richard assures me that Senegal is a diverse, democratic and stable country where we will be welcomed, a country of progress and equality. Everyone there is poor by our standards, but tragedies are managed and gorillas (both Pongidae and human) tend to exist in the more tropical regions of Africa, far from our arid and peaceful destination.
Two weeks after we arrive, Richard has fully adjusted, my children have nearly adopted, but and I am still somewhat adjacent to this new culture. We decide to take a short trip with six French friends to the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal's only functioning area of protected waterways. After surviving a four hour drive along the hot sand route to avoid traffic and vertebrae crushing potholes, I sit outside our solar powered eco-hut taking in the views while my husband and children nap. This gives me a chance to reflect on the arsenal I have packed. I run the list through my mind: insect repellent, anti-itch, anti-nausea, anti-diarrheal, sunscreen, snacks, vitamins, extra water, toilet paper, clothes, flashlight, candles, matches. Yes, I am comforted by the prophylactic protection I have provided for myself and my family and I begin to relax. As I sip on a bottle of filtered spring water imported from France, I hear laughter echoing from the river basin down below and decide to explore. Our friends have all changed into their bathing suits and are splashing in the river. Because it is low tide, there is an area of open shallow water and then a large part of basin lies exposed. I watch as they swim across the river to the delta and begin to walk among the birds and close to a large cluster of dense mangroves. Their distant voices call to each other and travel up the slope, reaching me long after the words have dissipated. On a whim, I run back to our hut, strip and search for my bathing suit. I will join them. Exhilarated, I pull out ziplocks filled with gels and creams, clothes rolled around glass containers, shoes stuffed with socks to avoid a potential hiding place for scorpions. I reach the bottom of the bag and then search through the second small duffle which I already know holds mostly food reserves. I sit down hard on the floor as the realization comes: I have forgotten my bathing suit. But this is Africa and so I uncharacteristically ad lib. Donning matching underwear and bra and a large beachtowel, I run down the path, descend the rickety stairs and come to a halt. By the time I get there, they have already swam back and are lying on the beach, panting out their enthusiasm. "SOU PEAR" one says as he passes me on the stairs. "C'etait incroyable" another rasps, wiping droplets from his flushed cheeks before bounding up the stairs with the others.
Oh, I think to myself, I missed it. Maybe next time. As their voices fade, Africa and I are alone for the first time. I let the towel go and walk into the river to wet my feet. I can't see the bottom. The air is starting to chill and I am tired. Dangerous, perhaps. My book is waiting. It's just as well. Still, I can't help but take one last look across to the wide expanse on the other side. Is the shore near or is it far? The flat bottom of the river is bubbling up visibly in the distance, birds hovering, some picking their way along the massive flats, mangroves swaying at the edge of the shore, waving to me. I look back down at my feet in the water, inch in a little further. Sun descending. A small current swirling and chirping. Something darting between my ankles. Feet in the water isn't much, I think. A small shiver. And I dive.