The word burst from an excited passenger aboard my Air Afrique flight, giving expression to my own feeling of anticipation as we made our landing approach to the Senegalese capital of Dakar, a stop on the way to Togo and the beginning of a three-week visit to the continent.

The sight of West Africa's reddish-brown earth rising up to meet us brought a flood of emotions. I was a black American making my first trip to Africa. It was, for me, a pilgrimage to "the old country."

I had worked two jobs and saved for three years for this trip. In the upcoming days, I would meet many people and see many sights entirely new to me. These are some of my impressions.

Friends had warned me that I would be viewed by my African brothers first as an American and only secondarily as a person whose history was entertwined with theirs. So I had left the United States prepared for the worst -- the African version of "Yankee go home!" But during my three weeks in West Africa, I was continually, and happily, caught off guard by the sense of having connected with something in my past.

Richard Pryor described similar feelings in one of his routines. In Africa, he says, he often encountered people he felt he knew, look-alikes of his buddies from Peoria.

I finally realized that Pryor wasn't joking as I sat on the plane in Dakar watching the new passengers board. Tommi, a friend from home, walked toward me, exquisitely dressed in a beautiful African print and elegant head wrap. The words "What are you doing here?" were nearly out of my mouth before I realized that this woman, who looked as if she were Tommi's identical twin, was in fact not even distantly related.

I laughed at my own gullibility, and made the same mistake time and time again during the next three weeks.

My time was spent in Togo, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Each country is a curious blend of African culture influenced by the heritage of its former European colonizers -- the French in Togo, the Ivory Coast and Senegal and the British in Sierra Leone. But the overall flavor is unquestionably African.

For much of my life I had tended to lump all Africans together. Now, as I made my way up the coast of West Africa, I began to appreciate the differences among the countries.

In tiny Togo, which bills itself as "Africa on an accessible scale," I was struck by the race to westernize. The Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan reminded me of Washington -- a small town putting on big-city airs. Sierra Leone was the least developed but also the most congenial country I visited. And Dakar, Senegal, was the ultimate in sophistication.

In Togo, a sliver of a country wedged between Ghana and Benin, the five-course meals and rich sauces are the telltale sign of past domination by the French. But the setting -- the humid weather and palm-fringed white beaches -- is purely Togo.

At the Hotel de la Paix in Lome', Togo, I met Koffi Afawubo, the hotel's assistant director of public relations. He is a well-educated Ghanaian who worked for the Peace Corps for a number of years. During that time he acquired some western traits, including a fondness for banana splits. (He ordered one at dinner one evening while I insisted on trying Togolese food.)

He invited me for a stroll along the beach, telling me that he looks forward to opportunities to talk with black Americans. He believes cultural and informational exchange among black people around the world is vital. As the Gulf of Benin lapped up on the sand a few yards away, our conversation touched on a variety of African topics.

Koffi introduced me to the culture of the Ewe (pronounced "eh-vay"), his ethnic group, which lives in both Ghana and Togo. He told me about facial scarification and said that it is done among the Ewes for ethnic and religious identification, as well as for health reasons. And he described the fetishes (voodoo charms) that are sold in the market.

I asked if they have any efficacy, and he shrugged and said, "If you believe they work, they work."

"As an intellectual affair," he said on my last afternoon in Togo, after a village ceremony in which the elders had prayed to the ancestors on my behalf, "we should try to examine our customs. And those that are outmoded, we should leave behind, and we should maintain those that are worthwhile. If I discard everything that is western, I will lose my identity."

Yet moments later he admitted that he will probably practice facial scarification on his first-born son, even though its use is diminishing. I sensed he views it as a kind of insurance, a way of making sure that he doesn't become too western despite his culinary tastes and precise English.

"I don't want to annoy my ancestors in their grave," he said. "I don't want to kick too much against tradition."

In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, I met Leon, an American journalist who lived there. But I had to make it through customs with my broken French before I could scout him out. Leon had warned me not to be surprised when the customs agent took my passport and handed it to someone in an office. But he hadn't told me that when the agents finished with the passport they would simply leave it lying on a desk with dozens of others.

I was appalled. What, I asked him, was to prevent just anyone from walking off with my passport? "Nothing," he smiled. "Welcome to West Africa."

After Leon fought our way through a crowd of insistent luggage porters and bargained for a taxi into the city, I settled in for a relaxing ride -- until he told me firmly to take my arm out of the window.

"Abidjan at one point had a higher rate of traffic accidents per capita than any city its size," he said. "They drive like madmen. And don't ever sit in the front seat of a taxi. A Peace Corps director died as a result of injuries he received in a taxi accident."

That bit of information, combined with the knowledge that Abidjan is the fifth most expensive city in the world, reaffirmed my decision to spend only a weekend there. And Monday was not going to come too quickly.

When I learned that there was no electricity in any of the rooms at the Novotel Hotel, I allowed myself to feel ever so slightly superior for having packed a candle and a flashlight, which doubled as an emergency alarm. Having managed to get an additional candle from the hotel management, which meant I had the luxury of individual lighting for the bathroom and the sleeping area (while writing postcards by flashlight), I thought myself as self-sufficient as a Girl Scout. It was the calm before the storm.

About 5:30 Saturday morning my phone rang. I stumbled to the desk and tried to rouse myself enough to summon my high school French. As best I could make out, someone either wanted to know who I was and what room I was in or whether some unknown party was in my room. After trying in vain to make myself understood, I hung up.

I dozed off, only to be awakened around 6 by a key being turned in my door. Impassioned screaming and the alarm scared the would-be intruder off, but I was unable to get to sleep until the sun came up. Leon's words of the night before took on new meaning. "In Africa," he had told me, "women are sex objects, bearers of wood and bearers of children."

I hadn't taken him very seriously when he said that I might be confronted by men who saw me as a loose woman on the prowl; African women of good character do not usually stay in hotels alone. But I was shocked to learn that those assumptions could extend to the point that someone would force his attentions on a disinterested traveler.

My adventure was in full swing.

Abidjan by day was another city entirely.

Directly across the lagoon from the hotel was the Treishville Marche', one of the city's main open-air markets. A trip to West Africa is worth the cost simply for the experience of seeing the markets.

Each village of any size has its own, but they can't compare with the large markets found in major cities. They consist of numerous outdoor stalls where vendors hawk everything from cassette tapes and digital watches to handmade leather purses (which cost about $2). The stalls are set up along the periphery of the main market -- a two- or three-story concrete building that can be as large as a city block.

From the moment shoppers step inside the building, a total maze, they are completely immersed in a cacophony of sounds and lively sights. On one counter, bright red peppers are grouped into small handfuls -- the portion in which they are sold. Arranged alongside are shelled peanuts or oranges, which are greenish yellow in color because they have no artificial coloring.

The next aisle, teeming with people balancing fabric or food or other packages on their heads, is the local equivalent of a fish market, with a dozen varieties of fresh shrimp, crabs and fish. Turn the corner and you are likely to encounter live turkeys and chickens in baskets on the floor.

Situated somewhere in the center of this rectangular puzzle are the stairs, leading to an astounding array of dramatically colored fabrics on the second level. I saw local tie-dyes, prints dyed in the country or in Holland, and numerous variations on an African weave called kente cloth.

Abidjan slowly began to grow on me; maybe my stay in the city wasn't going to be so bad after all. Especially since I had become very fond of lying by the pool under a blazing mid-December sun, watching the people on the balcony of a nearby apartment building decorate their Christmas tree.

It was in Abidjan -- after a week in Africa -- that I finally was struck by the difference in the daily pace.

As I weaved my way in and out of the crowds, walking briskly toward the market, I realized that I was virtually running an eight-minute mile in comparison to the amble of the people around me.

What, I asked myself, am I in such a hurry for? This was not Washington, where life is dictated by the ever-present Week-At-A-Glance. I was on vacation, and still my biological clock was running as if I were on deadline. From that moment on I slowed down to what felt like a near crawl and began to immerse myself in the African way of life.

The flight up the coast to Sierra Leone was uneventful. But the process of getting on the flight in Abidjan made up for that.

To an outsider, West African airports bustle with exotic life in the hours preceding a flight. There are Moslem men clad in floor-length robes and women with babies tied to their backs. They push or pull or balance on their heads an incredibly vast array of luggage: gigantic shapeless bundles wrapped in African prints and tied with string; large straw handbags filled to overflowing; badly worn suitcases the size of footlockers; boxes of all dimensions. Much of it, I was surprised to learn once we boarded, was carry-on luggage.

Once at Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone, much of that luggage was somehow loaded into the rear compartment of the 20-passenger bus that runs between the airport and the Paramount Hotel in downtown Freetown, the capital city. The scenic commute takes nearly three hours one way. (Remember this the next time you're tempted to complain about a mere 45-minute drive to Dulles.)

Palm trees abound along the two-lane paved road. Amazingly, they spring from soil that looks like a cross between clay and sand. Small brightly painted mosques and squat one-story cement houses in muted shades of blue and orange popped up periodically, appearing as spots of color against a blazing sun. Finally we reached a bay off the Atlantic Ocean, where we boarded a small ferry to cross to the capital of Freetown.

The bus was one of just a handful of vehicles on the ferry. Most ferry passengers walked on, loaded down with the same variety of baggage as their airline counterparts. But as we got under way, the color and activity on board the ferry were quickly outweighed by the beauty of the majestic mountains that formed a backdrop for Freetown.

The contrast between the beauty of Sierra Leone's countryside and the dinginess of the city itself was jarring. The crowded downtown streets are lined with what looks like tiny shanties made of corrugated tin. But this is where expert tailors and other businesspeople ply their trade. Garbage floats in the open sewers. "This is awful," I thought as we bumped along the crowded, narrow street. I checked my airline ticket and muttered, "I'll be glad when Saturday comes."

From the hotel, I caught a cab to the Clinetown area to find the Koroma family. A former Peace Corps teacher I know had arranged for me to stay with one of his students, Peter Koroma, a married school teacher with three children who was studying for an advanced degree at the time I visited.

When I arrived at their home, there was a power outage in Freetown -- a fairly common occurrence in West Africa. But I had become accustomed to such outages by now, and sitting out on the balcony talking with Peter by the light of the moon seemed just right for this part of the world.

What Freetown lacks in physical amenities is made up for by the warmth of the people. I'm convinced that their giving spirit is at least partly a result of the enforced closeness generated on the poda podas. These are privately owned vans filled with bench seats that are a common form of public transportation.

The seats on a poda are occupied by more people than an American would think possible -- as many as five or six people in a space usually reserved for three. The doors on the passenger side have been removed for the sake of efficiency -- no opening and closing as passengers hurriedly alight and jump off.

On each poda, a young man stands in the doorway collecting the fare as people "come down." He hangs on by one hand and yells out the destination as the poda approaches a stop, then bangs on the roof to signal the driver when he can take off. It's also up to this conductor to see to it that people squeeze in as tightly as possible, and he takes his task seriously.

The podas are usually painted with the name of the proprietor or words of wisdom: "If you hurry you sorry," admonished one. "Be wear sic of friends," warned a second. My favorite proclaimed a universal truth: "To be a man is not easy." The classic "Be patient" summed up the way of life in Sierra Leone -- a country that functions around the hurry-up-and-wait principle.

On a poda, or packed sardine-tight into a communal taxi -- I once shared a Toyota with six other adults and three children -- you quickly find out that the drivers proceed at breakneck speed. When they run into the inevitable backup, everyone sits patiently until the traffic resumes its daredevil pace. Only if the delays last longer than five or six minutes might anyone become disturbed enough to grumble a little.

The Koromas wanted their children to gain the benefits of western education while holding on to their own heritage. The children were given both a "Christian" name, which they used in school, and a native name, which they used at home.

On my final day in Sierra Leone, the Koromas' 2 1/2-year-old son Felix spotted my bags sitting in the living room. When he asked his parents who was going away and they said "aunty," he broke into tears and refused to be comforted. I felt as if I were leaving my family.

In Dakar, where for the first time there was no one meeting me at the airport or expecting me at their home, I was taken by surprise. I had the sensation of being in Paris as I passed sidewalk cafes and neon-lit bistros. After two weeks in "black Africa," the many European shopkeepers came as a visual shock.

Almost as much of a shock was my hotel, which could be delicately described as slightly rundown. I paid top dollar -- $10, to be exact -- for my room so that I could have a shower and toilet in my chamber rather than down the hall.

After moving up the street to the Hotel Nina ($30 a night) the next day, I set out to explore the "Paris of West Africa." Dakar, regional headquarters for many international business and government operations, was truly a cosmopolitan city. On the streets along Independence Place, a gigantic square in the heart of the city, the fashionable Senegalese were interspersed with French, Germans, Italians, Americans and Mauritanians with their faces swathed in cotton.

The Senegalese street vendors reflected the aggressive personality of the French, a marked contrast to the British reserve of the Sierra Leonians. "Seester, seester. Come, look. I give you a good price." The vendors had developed an eye for spotting black Americans, and most of them seemed to have passed an English for Merchants correspondence course. Unlike Abidjan, where I had been an object of curiosity, especially in the hotel, in Dakar I was just another foreign woman.

Nowhere was that brought home more sharply than at the airport as I tried to get on a midnight flight to Paris. There was the usual confusion, only more of it -- masses of people crushing together trying to get the attention of the two ticket agents. Lines were an unknown commodity. And people from every imaginable country were intent on making their way back home or to some other part of the world -- Right Now.

I was very weak in the knees, having been in my room all day with the typical tourist's intestinal disorder, and with barely enough energy to stand up was in no mood to be pushed about. My physical state, however, was of no concern to the gentleman behind me, who insisted on pushing his luggage ahead of mine. As his porter bent over to pick up a box and put it on the baggage scale despite my protestations, I summoned up my dwindling reserves and applied a strong end-to-end shove, causing him to topple over.

I quickly hoisted my luggage on the scales ahead of him and smiled apologetically for the accident, sweetly offering, "Je ne parle pas le franc,ais." I wisely tried not to gloat openly over having won the war. It turned out to be a preliminary skirmish.

The crowd of at least 100 continued its forward surge toward the ticket agents. But the man, taller than me by at least half a foot, was better than all of us. He simply leaned over my head and handed his passport and five others to the ticket agent. Once the paperwork was done, the agent asked for his party's luggage. My bags were literally thrown aside as a dozen and a half boxes, packages and suitcases were loaded on. It was his turn to smile.

Despite this encounter, for weeks after arriving back home, I missed Africa in a way that I couldn't articulate. As much as I had enjoyed visiting other places over the years -- Jamaica, Nassau, Europe -- I had never longed for any of them once I returned home.

But Africa was special. It was on the continent that I saw my first black flight crew, my first black president, got my first taste of what it must be like to grow up without ever considering one's skin color as a liability. For three short weeks in my 30 years I had truly been part of the dominant culture.

I felt privileged to have been able to make the trek to "the old country." And as I started putting my pennies aside for a return trip, it was with the satisfaction of knowing that the years of saving and moonlighting had led to the single most enriching experience of my life.