Stepping out of the front door of the regional house feels a bit like stepping onto another planet. Headlights wink through a haze of dust hanging in the air, silhouetted figures loom suddenly out of the darkness, illuminated by a moto bike whizzing by in a blaze of sound and light, and strange languages echo from shadowed doorways. You clutch your little plastic bowl a bit tighter and click on the small flashlight on the end of your nokia cell phone even as you question your decision to bring it along. Careful to illuminate your every step, you slowly pick your way through the animal poop and trash strewn about the dirt road, moving through the landscape like a pale ghost. Besides a few half-hearted calls of "toubab" from some sleepy talibe children you might as well not even exist.
Out on the road the dust is even thicker and the bright lights of cars impair rather than enhance your vision as they trundle along. As you shuffle through the sand you keep your eyes fixed on the other side of the road, straining to pick out the glow of neon lights behind the nondescript red curtain that to anyone else screams "brothel," but to you indicates a hot tasty meal. You pass a familiar broken down old truck and your heart sinks when you realize that comforting red square of light is absent from the derelict old building across the street. It looks as if no one is home.
But wait! What was that? There are small lights moving behind the curtain in the doorway and you can just barely catch a whiff of grease over the smell of trash and raw sewage. Perhaps someone is there after all? Only one way to find out. You time the rhythm of the passing taxis...one...two...three...then make a dash for safety. Keeping your eyes fixed on those moving lights you wind your way past sleeping dogs and discarded flip flops until you reach "the bridge." Nothing more than a 3 meter concrete slab, it is old and crumbly and the only thing between you and the small swift river of water and human feces that flows from the broken pipe up the street. You cross your fingers, hustle across and stand before that tattered old curtain, the gateway to masticational delight and intestinal distress. You take a deep breath, pull back the curtain and step through the doorway. "Asalaam Malekum"
Tangana is the wolof word for "hot," and its an appropriate name for these type of eating establishments. Three propane burners on full blast ensure that this little three meter square room maintains an average temperature of 100 degrees and the food is guaranteed to scorch your mouth. The man behind the table smiles as you step inside, and the beads of sweat pouring down his face spring up on your forehead as well. As you sit down on the rickety 2x4 supported by cinder blocks that passes for a bench you take in the scene. The space is small, literally no more than a hole in the wall. There are two large curtains blocking off the back left corner of the room, possibly concealing the prostitute the red light outside seems to offer. All of the space that is left is taken up by three propane gas tanks and a low table piled high with flats of eggs and sliver bowls of potatoes, onions, spaghetti, bread and mystery meat. Three 20-something young men sit hunched around the table over plates of fried eggs and meat piled on top of a bed of spaghetti. The normally bright blue florescent light is dark and instead a single tallow candle is burning on a jerry can and everyone is illuminating their meal with their cell phone flashlights. "No electricity" the men say with a shrug.
The menu is a la carte, so in your most basic Wolof you ask for eggs and potatoes and gingerly push your little plastic bowl towards the chef. The pan crackles to life as he pours nearly a quarter of a liter of oil and then cracks in two eggs. The man dips his hands into a bowl of water, and after months in Senegal it is a comforting sign of some attempt at sanitation, before grabbing a couple of potatoes from the bowl and slicing them up in his palm. The whole mixture takes less than two minutes to cook and before you know it your dinner is steaming in front of you. You toss a couple of coins across the table and receive a scrap of newspaper to wrap up your bowl in an attempt to keep out the ever-present dust.
Stepping out of the door into the relative coolness of the night is like a breath of fresh air, but as the smell of sewage assaults your nose you decide to save your deep breath for later. The heat and weight of the bowl is comforting as you retrace your steps with a renewed sense of urgency. The thought of the meal to come has your mouth watering and your small intestines cowering in fear. A quick stop for a fanta and you're home free. Stepping back into the light of the house you re-enter the closest thing to America you will see for the next two years. You've survived your journey into the seedy Kaolack night. The next question is will your body survive the new assault of amoebas and microbes you're about to introduce into it?