Standing on the curb, my stomach growling, I waved my hand discretely to beckon the weathered yellow taxi slowly driving by. The midday city heat had tiny beads of sweat rolling down my face. My to do list was over flowing in my head. All I wanted was to get home, eat, and get to work. It’s moments like these that I really miss my car. Or even the antisocial ambiance of the Parisian metro. The last thing that I felt like doing was negotiating with a taxi for a fair price to get home. I nevertheless forced a smile, and made my way towards the taxi. Leaning over, my arms resting on the windowsill of the taxi, I muttered “Salamalakumm”. After waiting for his obligatory “malakumsalaam”, I explained in rudimentary Wolof where I lived and how to get there. I asked how much “naata la?” To which of course he responded with an outrageous price. No, I said in Wolof, “Dafa cher” (that’s expensive). I started to walk away, just barely turning my back to the cab (which is the custom) and the driver symbolically honked his horn, signaling to me that he would in fact accept my price. I opened the door, sat down and pulled out my iPhone to get a head start on the day’s to do list.
Learning wolof with taxi drivers
Most of the time I am really friendly with cab drivers. It’s a great way to practice speaking Wolof and it makes the 15-20 minute car ride much more enjoyable. On this particular day I was tired and cranky, not wanting to engage in a conversation. The driver however, had other plans for our time together. He smiled at me through the rearview mirror and laughed, saying in Wolof “ha, ha, you speak Wolof. You like Senegal then. Senegal is great. Where are you from?” I quickly answered his questions, and went back to my iPhone. The driver didn’t seem to notice that I was preoccupied, he continued, “How long are you in Senegal for? Do you have children? Do you like ceebu jin?” Now I was annoyed, why wasn’t he getting the signal that I just didn’t feel like chit chatting? I looked up and saw him staring back at me through his bright red Ray bans, a blue quicksilver hat tilted to one side of his head. He looked like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air gone Malibu beach Ken. I reluctantly put down my iPhone and we started talking about life in Dakar, current events in Mali, the best beaches in Senegal. At a red light he bought a bag of peanuts from a street vendor and passed them back to me, saying, “here, you eat, you look hungry”. By the time we arrived in front of my street, my mood had completely changed and I had gathered plenty of useful information about the football scene in Senegal.
Every interaction counts
Following this encounter, I’ve made a conscious effort to look at my time in taxis as an opportunity to learn about local life, rather than as an inconvenience. Sure it’s nice when a friend who has a car gives me a lift home: we get from point A to point B in half the time with zero negotiations. However, I’ve come to realize that what I am avoiding is the very reason I am in Senegal: getting to know the Senegalese way of life. Living a globetrekking lifestyle means traveling for an extended period of time in countries where the cultural logic I grew up with doesn’t apply. At times it can become exhausting and difficult to maintain the level of energy needed to navigate these systems. Yet, it is precisely during such “down moments”, when globetrekkers may be feeling frustrated, isolated or simply tired, that we should jump in a taxi (or on a bus, or go to the vegetable market) and start chatting. In my experience, engaging in these moments may feel like a huge effort, but each time it opens a window into another way of being, which is after all, the reason why we chose to travel in the first place.