One of the many things my mother worried about when I told I would be going off to Senegal was my health. The bit about the yellow fever shot scared her quite a bit, of course, plus there was the laundry list of other dangers including (but by no means limited to!) malaria, typhoid, rabies, dengue, meningitis, amoebic dysentery, etc., etc.
I think I got about 9 different vaccinations before I left home, but paradoxically, the sickest I got was when I was trying to avoid getting sick: I had a craving for eggplants and washed them in Clorox (or eau de javel as it is known here). I had the runs for three days, and I am convinced that it was not the fault of the poor blameless vegetable but the radical steps I took to cleanse it. I no longer brush my teeth with bottled water as I did at first, which just goes to show the extent to which I have let down my guard.
Yet still, if anyone would have told me back in New York that I would one day find myself buying an unknown local fish which had been carried around for hours in a cooler in 80 degree heat from an unknown, poorly dressed man of dubious hygiene I would have laughed and said something along the lines of “Sure, when Niagara Falls,” or something quite possibly more profane than that.
Most of my fellow liberal New Yorkers would agree that wild-caught salmon (never farmed!) from a nice clean glass case from a reputable place like Citarella’s, Zabar’s or The Food Emporium is the appropriate kind of fish purchase. Yet one Saturday morning I did the unexpected: a man simply appeared at the closed gate of our school (yes, our students get locked in – and so do we! – just like chez Oprah) and rang our bell with his cooler in hand.
Overwhelmingly curious, I looked inside, and there was a row of freshly caught fish nestled in the cooler, mouths agape and glassy-eyed, but otherwise quite contented looking. On an impulse, I bought two of them and took them with me to the beach where I spend a good deal of my free time with a group of Senegalese who have made this spot their own.
“Look, boys! Fish!” I called when I arrived. They flocked from every corner and started rinsing and preparing the fish. They were delighted to see that I had also brought several loaves of fresh bread, salt, pepper, wonderful tart local limes, onions and garlic. We plucked basil from a nearby bush (gorgeously fragrant basil grows like weeds here – the bushes are as tall as I am – and it is used to flavor absolutely everything) and got two stones from the sea to make an improvised mortar and pestle for our basil and garlic mixture. One guy cut slits in the fish; we put our mixture of spices inside and then lay the fish on a charcoal barbecue, with the equivalent of a wire hanger as our grill. And do you know something? It was, astonishingly enough, the best fish I have eaten before or since.
Part of it was that the entire experience was so sensual: eating on the beach, you hear the crashing of the waves in the background, which is stupendous. There is the heat of the fire contrasting with the slight chill of the salty evening air, there is the sense of community as you cluster around the fish together, grabbing little bits of the tasty flesh and the accompanying chopped raw onion salad with your fingers; there is the fragrance of the basil and the scent of the garlic; it is a moment of pure contentment, pure poetry. On several other occasions I have now early on a Saturday morning even purchased fish directly from the local spear fisherman in the neoprene suit (complete with spear and matching booties): hard work to get fish fresher than that, I should think!
And once again I find myself realizing that absolutely nothing here is the way it is or would be at home – after all, on est en Afrique! – but that this is not by any means a bad thing: just, er, well, different.