Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Into the city alone

Yesterday my roommate, another American in the same program, and I ventured out on our own. Both of us have traveled extensively. Her: backpacked Europe for four months by herself, travled to Morocco most recently. Me: France at 16, Germany twice, West Africa. We're both used to exploring countries and cultures, and this was the first time we'd traveled into Dakar on our own. I put emphasis on this simply because it's not easy to be white and to be female here. We attract attention everywhere we go and are constantly warding off advances from men, and if not men seeking American brides, then peddlers or vendors.

It was a relief to be away from a large group not just for ease of moving around but for the sweet taste of freedom. Picking up Lonely Planet and deciding to head to le Marche de Soumbedioune was the first independent decision we've made since we've been here.

We took the car rapide to the Medina, an older and poorer part of the city that you enter right before getting into the thick of downtown. Then we walked for several blocks to get to the edge of the peninsula to wear the fish market is and the adjoining art market. It's hard to sum up all that we saw. There's activity everywhere. Rows and rows of shacks with people selling everything one could possibly find used and new in this part of the world (bras, shoes, towels, underwear, peanuts, electronics). Then there's cars: SUVs, taxis (about every two cars), rundown autos, motos horse-drawn wagons. Then there's people fixing cars in the street, building statues out of wood, cooking food. And quite often there's usually just people sitting around doing nothing (usually younger men).

And it stinks. I'm not going to romanticize the smell. I think I took one breath the whole time I was downtown and that was only when I lost my footing and fell into a knee-deep hole in the sidewalk. There's rotting garbage, fish guts from the morning cleaning, sewer smells, fumes fumes fumes, and at one point, the fresh scent of newly-washed clothes blowing politely and innocently in the wind.

On our way back we heard drumming coming from down one of the streets, so we went to check it out, and found a group of teenage boys teaching younger boys how to play the drums. But mostly it was just an occasion for all the kids within hearing radius to come out and play and dance.

This is the drumming party.

My roommate, Zodiac, trying on a pagne (sarong) at the market.

The Grande Mosque of Dakar in the background.

A view of the point of the peninsula.

Trash, because it wouldn't be right without it.

Land of the car rapides.

Eating in Senegal

Even though I can still probably count on my hands and toes the number of meals I've had in Senegal, I'll try to sum up what it's like. As a traveler, one of the first ways you experience the culture is through the food. I can tell you a bit what it's like to take a meal with my family, but from comparing with some of the other students, each family is different. For example, in our orientation we ate with our hands from a bowl, but so far in my family I haven't seen them eat strictly with their hands. Usually it's a combination of hand and utensil (most often a spoon). We always eat out of a large communal dish set in the middle and we eat sitting on the floor. Only the right hand is used around the bowl, which is a whole story in itself. With the idea being that the left hand is used for cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom (most people don't use toilet paper just a plastic pot filled with water).

Each person around the bowl has his or her own section. Usually the triangle area right in front of you. Since the plate it communal, it presents some difficulties, like how do you cut the choice meat in the middle of the plate or distribute the whole carrots. This is usually the job of the host. He/She will cut the pieces and distribute them in each section.

And unless it's breakfast, we don't drink with the meal. We drink either water or juice after everyone is finished. More traditional meals take three rounds of sweet strong tea afterwards. But my family only does that for special-occasion meals.

One of the nice things about eating on the floor is our table is moveable. So in my house we sometimes eat in the master bedroom, which is air conditioned, or sometimes out on the patio, but if it rains then we eat in the salon. It's a bit hard to digest your food in that position especially when my "maman" is constantly throwing food into my section urging me to eat more. This is apparently part of the Senegalese hospitality but it's really hard to refuse when you are actually full.

We eat a lot fish and rice and other meats that I'm not really sure I can identify. We don't eat much for vegetables unless it's one cooked carrot (that we all divide) or a side of greasy onions. But that's what fruit and mult-vitamins are for: supplementing my diet.

Sunday night was somewhat of a break in the routine. We ate millet and yogurt. Which I still haven't figured out. When I got to school Monday everyone was commenting about the "weird" dinner they had the night before with their family. My maman said we have it every Sunday. I'll have to ask her the significance.

Breakfast is the easiest meal and the most predictable. It's usually just baguette bread and a choice of Laughing Cow cheese/nutella/butter/jam.

I really enjoy taking meals with my family, and I enjoy eating communally out of the same bowl. It makes it feel like we're really sharing the meal together and it feels really special. Usually dinner lasts over the course of two or three hours. Mostly because we sit around awhile before the food is served (it takes a long time to prepare food here). Then quite often our neighbors come over just to visit. And the television is usually on though rarely is anyone really watching it unless there's a lull in conversation.

This was taken at the Baobab Center, a local cultural center, during our orientation.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Small things

Because it's so hard to contemplate all that goes with having an experience like this, I'm sticking to the little things. I love the fresh fresh fruit (mangoes, apples, bananas) from the little fruit stands that are all over the city. It's fruit as it should be, exactly as it should taste, and it just crushes you with flavor and I think I'll never go back to supermarket produce. I love how each day walking to school is its own little adventure, especially when it rains and the streets flood and the sand turns to mud. The car rapides will always make me feel good on a bad day, I've decided. They're small buses absolutely packed and crowded with people in every possible corner. Yesterday I rode it in the rain and the flaps came down over the open windows and the little red light in the back partially illuminated us all squeezed one atop one aside. And it just felt like Africa; and it felt like I was apart of it. Last night I stood on the roof of our home with my new sister and stared out over the neighborhood. It was one moment of the day that I could actually say I was completely there, completely in the present and not worried about tomorrow or my "goals for my sejour in Senegal" or the countless other challenges that await me.

Traveling here, or anyplace, as a tourist is different than coming and staying for four months or ten months. I harbor the knowledge that I'm here for awhile and that I can take my time seeing and visiting and learning, but on the other hand I'm just as clueless as a tourist. And tourists can have their jollies in one or two weeks with that departure time always looming where I feel like I'm slowly running a marathon. Building myself up during these first weeks so I can have a foundation to live by over the next months.

I want to do it right while I'm here. Live everything. Live every moment so hard and so full, but sometimes it's easier just to sit on the terrace of my new home or to watch traffic in the quarter with the other people in the street. That's part of what I love about Africa, that the pace slows down. And I can't forget that's what I'm here to do, just to be here.

Here are a few images from the past week.

A little boy on the plane over New York.

Section of the beach nearest to the university. This is from my first day.

This is Tiebou Dienn (pronounced cheb-oo-jen). It's one of the traditional dishes of Senegal. In this picture we are learning how to eat it with our hands in addition to the many rules of "around the bowl" etiquette.

Before eating, the girls learned how to tie a pagne.

Here is small view of the university where I'm taking classes this semester.

A few people in the group during our excursion to downtown Dakar.

A neighbor girl who decided to plop herself down on my bed.

We went to the beach on Sunday. The waves were perfect and it was my first time swimming in the ocean. I loved it.

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