Beginning my Fulbright Journey: On Bittersweet Goodbyes and Warm Hellos (and Identity Theft)
I arrived in Dakar only four days ago, and I'm still in awe that I'm a Fulbright grantee and that I'm here... I'm actually in Senegal... as a Fulbrighter... Wow. As silly as it sounds, I always feared that there was some kind of mistake when they sent me my acceptance (and I sometimes still get that thought). I know it sounds absurd, but imposter syndrome and rationale are like oil and water—they don't mix (but that's a topic for another blog post). Despite living out of my suitcase at boutique hotel these past few days, I'm already beginning to feel right at home. Maybe it's because I've been here before, or maybe it's just the overwhelming kindness and care that I have been met with, from both my host family, and more to my surprise, complete strangers. I can't quite put my finger on it. I just know that I am more excited than ever for what's to come in the next 9 months, but even so, I cannot help but miss home.
My last few months in the States were particularly mentally and emotionally strenuous. Post-grad depression, the fear of what a year away would do to my relationships with loved ones, and the many (many) varieties of stress that come along with moving abroad really took a toll on my mental health over the summer. Having to say goodbye to my family and friends was a lot harder than I had expected. I admittedly struggle with asking for (and accepting) support when I need it, but I'm blessed to have an amazing support system that made it abundantly clear that I would be missed dearly, and more importantly, loved all the same while I was abroad.
My family threw me a heart-warming going away party in Saint Louis, where I was showered with well wishes and warmth by loved ones, many of whom I haven't seen since beginning college. My ships surprised me with a going-away dinner, where they gave me small gifts to take with me so that I may always feel like I have a part of them by my side while I'm abroad (literally how sweet is that??). My amazing friends threw me another surprise going away shindig and gave me a booklet with messages of love and support from dozens of people that took time out to tell me they love me. All of this occurred within my last two weeks in the states. Needless to say, I was ~emotional~. The overwhelming encouragement and support from my friends and family made me feel so, so loved and deeply cared for, but those feelings were swiftly followed by intense anxiety. "What am I supposed to do without them?!", I thought to myself.
With my departure date fast approaching, I began re-examining my decision to go abroad and what it would mean for my personal life. It didn't dawn on my until just 3 days before my departure date that I was traveling completely alone and boy, let me tell you, I was freaking out. Of course I have the support of the U.S. Embassy, and there are other Fulbrighters coming to Senegal (albeit at least a month after me), but there is no structure that in any way requires our paths to cross while I'm here. We don't take classes together, we don't live together, and most of them won't even be in the same city as me. My living arrangements, my daily schedule, my research timeline, along with everything else about my time here are my responsibility and mine alone. Sure, I studied abroad in Dakar so I do have some sense of familiarity with the area, but going with a very structured cohort of 20+ of my classmates is an incredibly different venture than going completely alone, and to be honest, I was beginning to rethink my decision. I didn't really share my reluctance with anyone, because I knew it was way too late to turn back now.... and honestly, I think it'd be pretty weird if I was moving abroad and had absolutely no nerves about it. So, I packed my bags, took a deep breath, and embarked on my journey to Senegal.
After two long flights and a two-hour layover, I finally arrived in Dakar. The first thing I did after leaving baggage claim was exchange all of my American cash, which was just enough to pay the driver that was sent to take me to my hotel. My plan was to get into the city (the airport is about an hour away from Dakar proper by car) and then go to an ATM to get enough cash to pay for my hotel, with a bit left over for pocket money. I meet up with the driver just outside the airport and head to my hotel. Once we're about 5 minutes out from the hotel, we stop at an ATM so that I can get some cash. I insert my card, enter my PIN and patiently wait for the ATM to dispense my funds, but much to my distress, the ATM spits my card back at me and reads "INSUFFICIENT FUNDS".
My heart dropped into my gut. In a laughably irrational attempt to calm down, I think to myself "Ok, so clearly the machine just doesn't have enough money for my request. The machine got insufficient funds, because I know it ain't talking bout me. We good. Imma just go to a different one." So, naive and hoping for the best, I go to another ATM. This one simply said "Your transaction cannot be completed." At this point I am FREAKING OUT. I'm in a foreign country with absolutely no money, no way to communicate with anyone back home, and a language barrier—all before even making it to my hotel. This was honestly one of my worst nightmares, and it was doubly terrifying for me as a Black woman travelling alone.
I take a few deep breaths because I know that if I allow myself to panic, I won't be able to think clearly enough to get myself out of the situation. I conclude that my top priority should be getting in touch my bank and straightening this out so that I could pay for a place to sleep that night. I go back to the cab driver, and explain what's happened. He kindly offers to take me to yet another ATM, but I decline, having begrudgingly accepted that I, indeed, was the one with the insufficient funds, not the ATM.
When I arrive at the hotel, I immediately explain my financial situation to the concierge and ask him for the WiFi password so that I can get in touch with my bank. Once I'm connected the WiFi, I roll my bags over to the sitting area in the lobby and try setting up a live chat with customer service from my bank. I had been sitting there for only a couple of moments when the concierge approaches me and says, "It's okay. I'm sure everything will be fine. We will take your bags to your room and get you checked in. You can pay tomorrow when everything is straightened out." I was overcome with relief, and honestly a bit shocked that the concierge was so understanding, but that was only the beginning of his acts of kindness.
When my efforts with live chat proved unsuccessful, the concierge offered me his personal cell phone to make an international call to my bank (keep in mind that international calls are far from cheap). Automated menus and hold times made the call longer (and more expensive), and a few minutes after finally being put in touch with someone, the call dropped (cue my internal screaming). I bowed my head in defeat and took the phone back to the concierge, who without a second thought (and without me even asking) happily reloaded the credit. The call dropped again, and he reloaded the credit a second time, still with no hesitation. He even attempted to reload a third time after the call dropped yet again, but the carrier would not allow it. At that point, he walked me over to another nearby hotel that had an international land line that I could use and waited there for me because he knew that I would need help finding my way back to the hotel.
I got in touch with my bank, and it turned out that someone had stolen my banking information and had been using my card in the United States while I was here in Senegal. Because I had already alerted my bank that I would be in Senegal, they put a hold on my card for fraudulent activity and that's why my card was declined at the ATMs. I'll save you all of the tedious details, but I was able to work something out with my bank and access my funds in a secure way. I went to an ATM with ~sufficient funds~ this time and finally returned to the hotel, where I paid for my stay (as well as for the concierge's phone credit, which he was of course reluctant to accept).
As soon as my phone reconnects to the hotel's WiFi, I notice several WhatsApp notifications from Thiaba (my host sister from my first time in Dakar), who had been worried because she knew when I was arriving and hadn't heard from me. I explained my earlier situation to her, and she called me immediately, offering to let me stay with her or give me money and whatever else I might need. I told her that all was well, but I was, again, shocked that someone that I have not known for very long was so kind and willing to help me.
Having your identity stolen while you're abroad sucks for obvious reasons, but (and I can't believe I'm saying this), it's hard to imagine a warmer welcome to Dakar (bear with me here). I had just left everything and everyone I know, and as soon I arrived, I found myself broke and, as I thought, alone. But that couldn't have been farther from the truth. I was met with kindness and compassion at every turn. A situation that could have very well ended in disaster ended with new friendships and good laughs. I feel assured, now more than ever, that I've made the right choice to be in Dakar for the next year. I do not mean to suggest that the following months won't come with their own unique challenges, but I know that no matter what comes my way, I'm gonna be alright.
I am cared for. I am supported. I am loved. From near and far. And for that, I am deeply grateful.
PS/Pro-Tip: You can call 1-800/1-888 numbers for free on Skype! If you ever find yourself in a situation similar to mine and need to get in touch with a bank (or any institution with a toll-free number) try to get ahold of some wifi and use Skype! I wish I had known this before, would've saved myself a lot of stress and the concierge a lot of money).