I awoke slowly to the real Africa

No retractable mechanical arm was outstretched to greet us as we disembarked, so we stepped from the controlled climate of the 747 directly into the Senegalese night. It was like walking into a damp cardboard box.

"Where's the city?" I asked the stewardess as she wished me a pleasant stay. From my window seat during the descent I had only been able to make out my own face reflected against a backdrop of uninterrupted obscurity. "Là-bas," she said. "Over there."

Her vague wave to the south covered 30-odd square kilometers of darkness. Either she was joking or the brochures advertising a "bustling African metropolis" had taken some serious liberties.

The words of Mr. Cooper, my sixth-grade math teacher, came to mind. He was famous for his repertoire of cryptic reprimands deftly deployed on those who were talkative or troublemakers among us. "Don't get stuck in a wet paper bag," was an old favorite, punctuated nine times out of 10 with my name. Standing on the tarmac with a hundred other listless passengers, waiting for some sign, I wondered if Mr. Cooper hadn't been right along. Maybe I truly did have a talent for misdirection.

Some good shepherd managed to steer me and a dozen other students past customs agents who stared with longing at our bulky luggage, then led us through a throng of thwarted taxi drivers toward a bus that would take us to "chez nous," our house.

Racing along what I deduced must be a highway, I could only make out those things that fell into the path of the headlights. A young child. Two lanky men who appeared to be wearing robes and holding hands. A cow...?

The bus slowed as it maneuvered through a labyrinth of narrow streets and walled-in homes, all of them dark and seemingly abandoned. Just as it came to a stop before the gate of our accommodation, I noticed three or four men sprawled suspiciously around a small fire on the opposite sidewalk. They watched us with faint interest.

"Coupure," a tall silhouette explained in French. I guessed that the voice belonged to the man who had accompanied us from the airport. Power outage! Things were finally beginning to make sense. This was not a ghost town or a phantom city after all.

As the other students dropped their bags in the common area and rushed to claim the best rooms, I remembered the homeless men across the way and stoically decided to stand guard in the pitch dark instead.

Not long after, the lights came on and we were able to unpack and explore the house. It was a large, high-ceilinged stucco affair with tile floors designed to keep the temperature down - in vain.

All of us eventually gravitated toward the second-story terrace, where one could catch an occasional sticky, salty breeze. Whoever had brought us here had gone. We were now officially American college kids unleashed on an unsuspecting Africa.

At around 4:30 a.m. a loud noise woke me. It was a downpour of biblical proportions. I climbed to the terrace, wanting to expose myself to the elements as they expressed themselves in this part of the world.

While everything until that moment had seemed utterly impenetrable, this event required no explanation.

Nature's language was direct, transparent and powerful. Thunder shook the house and wind whipped down our narrow street, bending the palm trees I was delighted to discover when lightning split the sky.

And then the rain stopped, all at once, as if someone had flipped a switch. Coupure? I wondered, as water continued to run off the roof. Then that, too, slowed to a steady drip.

Studying the horizon in the hope of a sequel, I began to make out various shapes and realized that dawn was coming. The surrounding houses were much like ours: large, well kept, with flowering bougainvillea forming a friendly barrier.

And then I heard the cries. First came a man's voice caught in a long, mournful wail. Another joined in from the opposite side of the neighborhood. Then another off to the east, until soon the early morning air seemed to carry this sad and beautiful song throughout the city, in whose existence I was once again beginning to believe.

I ventured a guess that this most foreign chorus must be a song in praise of the rain, taken up spontaneously by the local residents of this place that - so far - most corresponded to my idea of what Florida must look like.

Many things came into focus after the sun came up. By the end of that first day in Dakar, I had heard the "rain song" four more times, minus the rain.

Eventually, I caught on: It was the Muslim call to prayer being broadcast from the loudspeakers of various neighborhood mosques. Besides having mistaken Islam for animism and taken a daily occurrence for the rarest of rituals, I hadn't been too far off.

Two of the "homeless men" later introduced themselves after giving us the chance to wipe 4,000 miles from our eyes. They had names, Thierno and Aliou, and they also had a home - ours, which they had been hired to protect. Their friends from the night before were guards, too, not thieves.

Finally, an afternoon stroll through the city center provided sufficient proof that Senegal was far from being Florida, whatever Florida was. And it was anything but a wet paper bag.

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