My apologies for not blogging lately. I’ve been under the weather — and then, happily consumed with Christmas preparations. I was prepared to wish you all Merry Christmas and leave it at that — but I read my friend Valley Haggard’s blog and was inspired to write the following, about one of my favorite Christmases ever, one without all the glitter, gifts, or any expectations. I hope you enjoy — and Merry Christmas!
In 1988 – 89, I spent the year living and teaching in Senegal, in West Africa. Over the holiday break, I travelled to Mali with three new American friends, professors in Dakar. Christmas morning, we set sail for Timbuktu, four of us wedged into two small bunk beds, the last available spots on the General Soumaré. We had eaten dinner at a Chinese restaurant near the boat’s dock — the Chinese waitstaff wore little party hats and played American Christmas music on the tape deck. We toasted with cold beer and ate nems and found ourselves sitting next to a middle-aged couple, the man wearing a YALE sweatshirt. They were visiting their Peace Corps son. A large bearded man — African santa we called him — entered the restaurant and in a booming voice, sold Malian wedding blankets “for a nice price.” My friend Fiona and I each bought one, well aware that our “nice price” was probably triple what a Mailan would pay, but later, on the boat, in the chilly night, we were all grateful for the warmth.
I was acutely aware of it being Christmas, nostalgic, maybe, for not being at home, but also happy to be on this boat, on my way to the magical city of Timbuktu that had previously only existed on cartoon signs and in my imagination as the very end of the earth — happy to be with these new American friends on an adventure so far from home. Our present to each other and those who would share with us? Fresh watermelons, bought on Christmas Eve.
The presents we received? Hippos in the Niger River, sandcastle-like mosques and villages dotting the water’s edge, camel-riding Tourags that appeared, it seemed, from nowhere, their blue turbans in dark relief against the endless sand; young girls dancing with joy on the boat, comfort in knowing our immense good luck to be living this life, to be in each other’s company, to be traveling up the Niger to Timbuktu on this glorious day.