I can’t remember the first time I saw him. It must have been on my first Senegalese morning. I had arrived late the previous night, my plane having landed at midnight. Samba and Samba had come to the airport to pick me up and we had waited for a group of Danish guys for two hours, sitting on the sidewalk in front of Dakar airport, introducing ourselves and laughing at my attempts to speak Wolof, the local language. By the time we had made it to the surf camp, I had fallen into bed, barely awake enough to notice that there seemed to be no running water.
At breakfast, I was still half asleep. I munched on a slice of toast, not feeling very hungry. The sticky, overly sugared jam didn’t help. I remember noticing the surfing instructors and it must have been there that I first saw him. He seemed to be the cool guy, with his Quicksilver t-shirt, his Burton backpack and his artfully twirled hair. It took me days to notice the holes in his shirt, the tear in his backpack and to pick up that what I thought was a carefully prepared hairstyle came from him twirling his hair when he was bored.
Looking back, the first days are a blur, all meshed together in a haze of sun, sand and salt water. We all got a bit sick back then, some more than others. I was lucky, getting along with drinking coke when my stomach felt upset. A virus, the camp owner told me. There had been a huge outbreak in Dakar. The lack of running water, that lasted for days, didn’t help.
During one of those days, down by the beach where he was carrying my surfboard, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. I stiffened, instantly knowing where this conversation was going and not liking it one bit. I’d had locals ask me to marry them before, but those had been strangers on the street. I’d shake my head, then throw it back with laughter. Sometimes, I’d wave at them before walking away. It was a game that I had learned to play but I had never played it with a surfing instructor, someone who I spent hours on end with every day.
I tried to let him down as gently as I could, happy to get into the waves that would hide my glowing cheeks. For the rest of the day, I avoided him, telling him I wanted to paddle out myself to get more strength. That I could do it on my own. By sunset, my arms were aching and that evening I dropped into bed, exhausted.
Too bad he hadn’t gotten the hint. The next day, my plan was to visit the Island of Goree. I hung back at breakfast but wherever I sat, he was close to me. And as soon as he found out that I wanted to do some sightseeing, he offered coming with me. “That’s a good idea,” the surfcamp owner spoke up before I had a chance to say anything. “You’ll have a local guide.”
What was I to do?
The day started out awkward but somewhere in between climbing a giant canon and taking pictures in the island’s narrow alleys, I relaxed. He told me about life in Senegal and slowly, I began to piece together a picture of him. Of a flat too small for him, his parents, grandparents and many siblings living in a crammed space, of learning a profession but not getting a job, of teaching oneself whatever was required to survive. Until a year ago, he had never even stood on a surfboard but once he had been hired, acquiring the necessary skills had been quick. Not because it was easy but because it was necessary.
We talked and laughed and maybe we flirted a bit. Maybe we could have gone on for the whole day, having fun, enjoying ourselves. But then, in a secluded corner of the island, he told me he liked me. And once again, I shied back. I made up a holiday romance with Dieter, a German surfer back at the camp, but my lie was too obvious and I know that he never believed me. Still, I had gotten what I wanted, or rather what I thought I wanted. He backed off.
For the next couple of days, we slowly returned to normal. I still had his attention but the more time we spent together, the more I enjoyed it. He’d carry my surfboard and he’d push me into the waves so I would be sure to catch them. My surfing didn’t improve but I had immense fun.
And then, my last day arrived. I lay on the beach, exhausted from the waves but unwilling to go back to our camp. How could I leave this beautiful place? A horse cart rode along the beach and I jumped up to take a picture when I saw the fishing boat. I had noticed the fishermen before and knew that fishing wasn’t a solitary activity. Everyone jumped in. And soon, I was standing amonst a crowd of Senegalese men and women, pulling the net towards the beach. Seagulls watched our every move.
“See them?” he explained to me. “See how they dive down over there? Some fish must have escaped from the net.”
I still pulled as hard as I could. He jumped in, helping me. Later, he explained to me about the fish and the blue crabs that had gotten caught in the net. I wiped my dirty hands on my legs and brushed my sweaty hair out of my face.
“We should go for a swim,” I suggested and so we did. Without surfboards, we jumped into the waves. We swam, we dived and then he kissed me. It was a salty kiss, interrupted when a wave knocked us over and pushed us back to the beach. He helped me up and guided me out of the water, to the well, where he filled a watering can and pulled me behind a bamboo wall. Gently, he washed my hair and dotted my neck with kisses before we returned to the group.
He went back into the sea to help one of the surfers but I was happy to lie back and watch him. When he came out, water glistened on his skin and I took a picture just as he lifted his arms, giving me a victory sign.
Not ready for the afternoon to end, he invited me for coffee, a sweet and sticky drink filled with herbs that I could barely keep down. In return, I paid for his ice cream at the bakery.
That evening, back at the camp, we had a barbecue. Before I had even gotten a chance to eat, I saw him. He had dressed up, wearing jeans that for once were not torn. The grilled fish became less and less important as we left the crowd behind and walked away from the camp. By now, the sun had dropped behind the horizon and darkness crept upon us within minutes. Our path only illuminated by the moonlight, we walked over to the cliffs and sat down on a bench.
It read “Endless Summer”.
We kissed and we talked. He told me he wanted to come to Germany with me and I know I should have ended it right then. But then he kissed me again and his hands were warm on his hips. Waves crashed into the cliffs and the moonlight glistened on the sea. The evening was too magical to break up.
He came to the airport with me, sitting next to me in the back of the bus and holding my hand in the darkness. Once everyone else had gotten out, he kissed me once, a careful peck on the mouth, afraid of being seen. Public affection, I had learned, is not common in Senegal. We hugged goodbye and he pressed a plastic bag into my hand, telling me not to open it until I’m home.
Sometimes, when the nights are warm and the moon glistens on the river outside my window, I open my drawer and look at the necklace he gave me. And then I remember those magical Senegalese days. The endless summer.