My experience of seeing Doctor Strange in Senegal adequately describes my experience in the country as a whole: visually spectacular but confusing as fuck. One would assume that in English, Doctor Strange is completely coherent but in a language that you do not speak, it becomes this puzzle that you must rely on visual storytelling to carry you through. Navigating Senegal with a minimal understanding of French and none at all of Wolof leads you to places as unusual as this mystical world Steven Strange finds himself. Like Strange, I was lost, inexperienced and depended heavily on the assistance of others. As life imitates art, I found myself navigating the unfamiliar with a mix of hope and fear on Senegalese streets.
When we first meet the titular doctor played by a handsome(?) Benedict Cumberbatch, he is on the top of his game, a cocky surgeon who is insanely rich with his high rise New York apartment, drawers filled with Rolexes and a car that when driven looks like a luxury commercial. On his way to a gala, he gets into a horrible accident that destroys his once perfectly steady, money making hands and is sent reeling trying to regain some semblance of normalcy. Vacationing in Senegal was my first experience in a francophone country and the longest amount of time I’ve spent in a non-English speaking area. As an American, I live in a similar life of cushy where I am surrounded by the English language that I take for granted. By residing in California there is a prevalent Latino population but in my day to day life I don’t have to worry about not being able to communicate with someone. Very different from living in Europe where there is a bounty of different countries and languages crammed into a land mass with lots of intersecting cultures. My immersion as I entered Dakar was like the rug being pulled out from under me when suddenly I’m unable to communicate basic needs. Even with the help of some gracious hosts, my housemate Molly, a grad student from Penn State who was my Rachel McAdams, trying to get around the city could be a struggle. In a foreign country, you have to relearn the fundamentals of how to get around, order food and ask for directions, not something I’m used to being an obstacle.
Amidst all the minutia of my problems, there’s a great world happening outside of me. The shape-shifting landscapes conceived in the battles of burnt eyes Mads Mickelson and Asian-fied Tilda Swinton are the twisted mirror versions of our reality. It’s breathtaking to watch characters run up buildings, giving a new perspective on our trivial surroundings. That’s often how I pitch traveling to Africa, that it’s a more surreal realm then you know. There’s a semblance of western ways concerning fashion, business and of course foreign built malls but the way daily life is conducted plus the lives you see in the smaller villages is completely new. As exciting as it is to see our heroes construct portals through space and time, I find even more excitement by having that glimpse into the Senegalese culture. It’s an alternate universe of same but different, they have buses but with fewer windows and more colorfully painted, they have fast food but it’s prepared by a woman on a bench. The end result is the same but the journey is different.
The most exciting and relieving part of my trip was when I finally found my community. As Strange is cautiously welcomed into the school of mystic arts in the mountains of Nepal, I discovered my home away from home in Saint Louis, an island city five hours north of the capital. In a three-story pink chateau once inhabited by the governor of Mauritania, I met peers that showed me the real life and passion of Senegal. The artists and dancers that spent their time either training on the makeshift stage or chatting on the terrace made me a part of their frat house experience. It was more educational than what that word often connotes even though by literal standards there was lots of fraternizing. As Strange consumes every moment of learning during his time in the commune, I absorbed every moment from a shared lunch of thieboudienne to the mates playfully arguing in Wolof and trips to the market for mellon and cafe Touba. It was an unexpected welcoming that was more personal than the tour guides or pleasantries between expats. While my stay was brief, it was expansive in impact and forever memorable.
I guess I’ve done a really terrible job expressing my feelings about the movie but then again it’s quite a difficult task when you can’t follow any of it for long stretches of dialogue. In case you’re worried I’ve continued my life ignorant to the plot, my boyfriend graciously answered all my questions over skype like “what was the point of the time loop sequence?”, “why does Chiwetel turn to the dark side?” and “what was Benjamin Bratt’s deal?” As far as a simplistic origin story, the movie is very enjoyable as a spectacle and with slapstick humor that translates in any language. As a movie I’ll give is 3 1/2 stars and my trip gets 4. It’ll give it an extra star once I learn French.