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Chapter One: Dizzy in Dakar
DAKAR, Senegal – When you're traveling alone in Africa, there are certain things you don't write home about.
Like how the hostel where you're staying is known as a den for prostitutes. Or that your intestines are being taken over by a bacterial welcoming party. Or how you got scammed trying to buy a phone card – by a boy who looked about eleven. Details like these would only worry friends and family, loved ones who were already concerned just because I was in Africa. Besides, I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing. Like going to Africa by myself was a good idea.
So I didn't tell anyone what happened on the third day of my trip, when I found myself lying helpless on the floor of a Senegalese convenience store. My mother did not need to hear about how I'd walked around all day in the sun, thinking I could handle the heat. After all, I'd come to Africa from humid Houston, where it was so hot that employees got from one downtown building to another via underground tunnels. But surprise, surprise: West Africa didn't have air-conditioned tunnels. What it did have was plenty of shady general stores, and I'd stepped into this one looking for a cold drink.
Yet as soon as I ordered at the counter, my legs went weak, dark splotches floated before my eyes, and the room tipped slightly to the right. I'd only fainted twice before – once during my first trip to Africa six years before, when malaria got the best of me, and again after a too-long soak in a hot tub with a good-looking guy – and yet I knew instinctively what these symptoms meant. I was, as we say in Texas, about to “fall out.”
Please don't faint, I thought. Not here, not in public, not by yourself. Holding onto the counter for support, I waited to see whether the dizziness would pass. If I could just get my hands around a cool bottle of Coke, if I could just take a few sips, I knew I'd be fine. I was overheated, that's all. I needed some sugar in my veins, and I'd walk out of here just fine. Please don't faint.
The store was full of customers, some waiting to buy a baguette or a can of tomato paste, others looking, like me, to escape the sun. Still holding onto the counter, I breathed deeply, trying not to panic. But when the man who'd taken my order put a perspiring glass bottle in front of me, I couldn't even hand him my change. It clinked onto the counter as the room spun, and I lowered myself to the floor, knowing it was better to go down willingly than to pass out and hit my head. Laying flat on my back, I turned my head and rested my left cheek on the hard, dusty concrete.
Feet shuffled around me. Cars honked outside. Reaching down to my side, I felt around for my long skirt, making sure it covered my thighs and knees in case I blacked out. I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them, a Senegalese man hovered over me, his dark face close to mine. “Ca va?” he asked. Are you okay?
Taking another deep breath, I nodded, wishing I could remember the word for “faint” in French. But speaking French required energy, and I could barely stay conscious. Way to go, Lexi, I thought. Only days into your African adventure and already you're causing a scene like a typical naïve westerner.
As I motioned to the man to pass me my Coke, a store employee stepped over me, trying to reach a plastic bag on the opposite counter. “L'hôpital?” He wanted me out of his shop, which made sense since I was taking up half his floor space. I shook my head, no. I didn't want to go to the hospital – certainly not an African hospital – and turn this into an even bigger ordeal. What I needed was to get back to my hotel and rest in the air conditioning.
Had I been traveling with a friend, this would have posed only a minor problem. I would have looked up to see a familiar face, not a stranger speaking a foreign language. I might have even laughed afterward, reminiscing with my travel companion about my fainting episode, just a blip at the beginning of our trip.
But I had insisted on going to Africa alone. The only person I could count on was me. Dizzy, sweaty, pathetic me.