Stories from Senegal: The Ocean is My Teacher
Over the next month, my life in Dakar found a rhythm that matched my insides.
After pretending like I was a student for three hours a day, I’d leave class and seek out my real education, my real teachers: literally anywhere else: the stinky streets, friendly and warm strangers, and endless walks and exploring. I can tell you that, a decade after my study abroad experience, I remember virtually nothing lectured about in that stuffy room, but I can still close my eyes today and hear the ocean waves crashing against the shoreline like I’m right there. I can still hear smell peanuts being cooked over an open flame in the streets on my walks home. I can feel the hot sun beating down on my pink skin and the breeze tangle my hair as I marched along to the tune of the local birds.
Almost every day, I would set out from those school gates like a girl on a mission, but I rarely knew where I was going. That was the beauty of it. Blissfully before FOMO became a thing and crept into my bloodstream, I would choose a general direction each day and just… walk. For hours. Without a map, without anybody with me. Just my dirty sandals or sneakers and my backpack with a water bottle and a hell of a lot of energy.
I had a favorite spot. Just five minutes from the school, and you reached La Corniche, the road built along the ocean so that important people who came to Dakar wouldn’t have to see all the poverty in it, just the beautiful ocean and fancy hotels and shops that only the rich expats and diplomats could afford.
If you were the kind of person who liked to wander aimlessly and in a state of perpetual curiosity, you might notice a boulder jutting out of the earth quite close to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. I certainly did.
It was there that I’d often end up, sitting and staring out over the vast ocean in the hot sun, unable to process its enormity. While buses, taxis, and horse-drawn carts clogged up the road in the background, I tuned out the racket by trying to see all the way across the water. The US was on the other side - my home for the past two decades - but it was here that I felt like life was making more sense. That I was making more sense.
I know… this probably doesn’t make sense.
Bear with me.
When I worked in France the next year after graduating, I would finish up that experience with a 10 day solo trip through England and Scotland. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a middle-aged, bald Australian man who was sitting in front of me on a train that was snaking its way through the mountains in the Highlands.
I had just spent one of the best days of my life walking 10 miles alone through the Pentland Hills. I had started with the sun and hiked up and down dewy, grassy bliss through the clouds, through sheep, and finished in a field of sunflowers.
While this stranger and I chit-chated about our respective adventures that day, he commented on the almost romantic way I talked about my hike that day. I thought about it.
“It’s hard to describe,” I said, full of unhelpful adjectives, “I felt so alive, so connected to everything even though I was by myself. It was beyond just beautiful, it was… I don’t know, so peaceful, calm, and everything just felt right.”
He laughed good-naturedly and nodded, “Ah yes,” he said, “conversations with mountains.”
I remember smiling in response but didn’t quite fully appreciate his words at the time, but looking back on both that experience and the many hours I spent staring out over the ocean, I think they have a lot in common.
Conversations with mountains, conversations with oceans… What are they but honest, raw walks and reflections of ourselves, our insides, our hopes and desires, fears and dreams?
By being surrounded by the vastness of mother nature, we are awed by the outward beauty but changed forever on the inside. It allows us to slow down. We see our selves, our lives, and our purpose differently once we see how we are both tiny specks among the greatness, yet also part of it.
Can’t say I’ve ever had a textbook produce quite the same experience.