• Katie

Stories from Senegal: When You’re Sad, Just Smell Some Trash

Updated: Sep 29

I moved to California about 6 weeks ago, and I’ll never forget walking outside to our backyard that very first morning.

The first breath I took when I opened that door folded time and flooded me with memories from Senegal. This was pretty much the best first impression that California could make on me, and I felt like it was a sign that we had done the right thing by moving here. It just felt like home. That smell and the morning heat, blue skies, and palm trees gently swaying were so reminiscent of Senegal, I felt equal parts fierce joy at being here and heartache at not being there. Such is the way of those with Wanderlust.

Plot twist: that smell was coming from a wildfire.

I didn’t know it in that moment, but it turns out that the night we arrived, a wildfire had broken out nearby, and what I was smelling this first morning was smoke.

Makes sense. Senegal’s lack of efficient trash disposal systems resulted in constant little piles of trash being burnt everywhere, and yet it took me 11 years to realize that that was the key ingredient to the secret, dirty sauce of this Eau de Memory.

I can’t help but laugh now (lovingly) at 20-year-old me, stepping off the plane after arriving to Dakar for the very first time. I was immediately struck by the smell in the air - attributing it to the sea or spices or some other rose-scented bullshit filter - but guys, it was trash. Most definitely burning trash.

I can’t stop laughing as I write this. How we see and interpret experiences is so fascinating, especially with what the gift of time allows us when we look back and try to make meaning out of experiences. Who we are now inevitably informs and shapes how we remember and write about them. What I share with you today about an experience I had in Senegal has undoubtedly been shaped by what has happened between then and now.

I’ve been trying to write about my experience there for years. Sure, I had a light-hearted blog that I wrote while I was studying there to share fun updates with friends and family, but that wasn’t and hasn’t ever been the full story. None of my blogs have been - not the year I spent in France or the year in Saudi Arabia (definitely not the year in Saudi Arabia). Not even the two years in grad school in good ol’ Minnesota, where I reached the lowest point of my life.

Why? Big surprise: fear. Fear of… everything. Fear of being judged, fear of being too vulnerable, fear of sharing how hard I struggled at times, fear of my loved ones’ reactions to scary or difficult events, fear of misrepresenting or stereotyping or making a freaking single mistake.

It’s no way to live, friends.

The truth is that I just haven’t been ready to put it all out there, but I am now. I’ve started out once again in that light-hearted vein (because I require a dose of humor with just about every thing - how do you think I’ve coped all these years?) but Stories from Senegal will ultimately include the whole experience, the good, the bad, and the smokey.

When I was at a goodbye gathering at the end of my year in France, I remember sharing a funny anecdote that seems relevant now. During the dinner, a friend was asking about my experience in Senegal the year before, and I shared that I recently had a fond memory when I walked by some trash bins and was reminded strongly of some of the more sour corners of Dakar that I had to walk through to get to school every day.

His eyebrow shot up and was followed by a skeptical smirk, and I explained that despite the smell of the trash itself being gross, it was forever associated with an otherwise positive, challenging, life-changing, transformative experience, and it always lifted my spirts when I’d get a good, bad whuff of the stuff.

“Well, that’s just great then, isn’t it?” he said in his English accent. “Any time that you’re sad, you can just go smell a bit of trash and feel better.”

Yes, yes I can.

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