Thursday, September 29, 2005

Island excursion and finding out what a sea urchin looks like

There are a few islands within view of the Dakar shores--Gorée, Ngor, and Madeleine. Saturday we visited the uninhabitated island of Madeleine just a 10-minute boat ride from here. It rises out of a gracious rock formation and at the top turns into hilly green before making room for a little patch of baobabs. The rocks drop down to form a small enclave in the center which fills with water as the waves break over the distant side and slowly seep into the pool. It's calm and serene and the blue green of the sea is a surprise after the dirtier parts of the ocean close to Dakar.

But it wasn't this picturesque pool that captured my attention; I discovered sea urchins. The conversation went like this:

Friend: "Watch out there's lots of sea urchins up here."
Me, while hopping up and down: "Ohmygod! Where? What do they look like? Is this a sea urchin?"
Friend: "No that's coral."
Me: "Are they everywhere? Why can't I see them?"
Friend: "No, they're just in the standing pools of water."

And finally I spotted the prickly little black things lounging in the crevices. And thankfully I could stop jumping around worried I would step on poisonous spiky oceansomeTHINGs. And that's what I mean about being a prairie girl at heart, at least there, the only things I was ever told to look out for were rattle snakes and buffalo.

But I loved even for a few moments feeling like I was alone. I hiked to the north side of the island and ran from the waves crashing over the rocks, and later just sat and stared sitting in my bathing suit not being hassled for the first time in a very long time.

The enclave.

The waves rushing in and rushing back out again.

The white on the rocks is bird poop. The birds were apparently out fishing while we were there.

Here they are! The sea urchin extravaganza!

Believe me, this isn't all the pictures. But these are the best.


The people in our program come from all over, have varied backgrounds, and most have traveled quite extensively for 20-somethings. One day when I was being taught the somewhat involved way to stand defense against the ocean waves (i.e. when to swim into them and when to face them, etc.), a Boston girl asked, "Where have you been that you haven't swam in the ocean?" Hehe... or the other question, "Are you an ocean person or a mountain person?" I'm a prairie girl and I'll leave it at that.

So the descent to 6 meters (19 feet) into the ocean was a little scary. I'd like to say I was the first one out of the boat (see not so adventurous afterall, Gray), but no, I was the last. I'd like to say I didn't have to come up multiple times to stumble through questions in French like "Am I doing this right?" "Are my ears supposed to hurt?" "Why am I having so many problems?" "Is this normal?" And that was only the "baptism" dive meant to give me insight into what kind of scuba-er I'm going to make. To that I have no idea, but I guess I'll keep going 'cause my brother wants to tour the scuba world this December.

Here are some photos of Adventures in Scuba (
plongée in French, like plunge, I like that).

Of the eight people who signed up, the Brave Three -- Me, Alix, and Zodiac.

Michelle in the boat while everyone else's scubas.

Are you finally going to take the plunge or what?

Part II with gear.

Mmmm... finally in the water, "Why didn't I bring my french dictionary?"

Being sick in Dakar -- Ce n'est pas grave!

I knew it would hit me sometime, but these things always come, well a bit, fast and loose and before I knew it I was joining the group with our coined and combined "Dakarhea." It's a bitter bitter cycle knowing virtually everything you eat is going to come out in liquid form. And knowing what things make it worse but knowing you have no choice but to eat that ceebu jen platter just one more time (it's the remedy for all sickness here no matter how tumultuous your stomach). Senegalese families don't understand "plain rice" or "plain pasta" or "plain" anything nor do they understand just not eating much while you're sick.

So, it's a struggle and also why I haven't posted in awhile. That and the internet being down day-after-day at our school, but ce n'est pas grave (it's no big deal, no problem, doesn't matter, just go with it -- what choice do I have?).

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Flash Flood Dakar

Before I came, I asked a friend who'd lived in Senegal before and who travels here quite frequently, if he thought I should bring rain gear since Senegal has basically two seasons rainy and dry. He told me I probably wouldn't need anything since the rain here never amounts to much. So imagine my surprise the first day I was here and the streets were flooded and cars were stalling from all the water back up. But my friend had reason for saying what he did since this is the first time in about 20 years (local sources say...) that Senegal has had this much rain. This weekend when we drove south to Toubab Dialaw we saw a lot of the devastation from this surprisingly wet rainy season. Since it's been so long since there's been this much rain a lot of people have built homes and businesses in areas where the water tables are pretty high. Now with all the rain the water just won't go down. It won't drain and it won't soak into the earth. Many people, poor and rich, have lost their homes and businesses to the water. And I don't think there's much for flood insurance.

This was taken one day a couple weeks ago on my way to school.

This the HLM fabric market in Dakar. Even with the flood most people were still buying and selling like usual.

This is one the route to Toubab Dialaw outside of Dakar (courtesy of Mike from "Holmes away from home."

This too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

It takes an old hand

Mom, you don't need to send toilet paper for Christmas, I've learned how to use the teapot. After some weeks of carying toilet paper around with me everywhere and some days of spilling water on myself and seeking the precise aim for such things, I've got it down... down there. So not to be too overly descriptive, all I can is this: If you pour the water down the small of your back and then use your left hand (that's why we only eat with our right) to clean-clean, you'll forever do a better job than toilet paper. Second, for the front, if you lean back a bit and pour the water directly down you can get a very direct stream that cleans good (hand usage not necessary). This method works so well I'm not even sure what we use toilet paper for anymore, and I've stopped instinctively reaching for it every time I sit down on the "throne."

Monday, September 19, 2005

A hammock weekend

We left Dakar for the first time since we've been here to travel to a small village called Toubab Dialaw, south of here about two hours. I didn't realize how tense I've been with everything -- the stress of adjusting, the high pace of Dakar, the constant traffic -- until I arrived at this quaint resort and gave in to all the hammock-filled corners, low-seated chairs facing the ocean, mosaic-tiled tables, shelled architecture. It made me yearn for endless days of writing and reading and pondering. And the food. I am learning to love Senegalese food which harbors tastes and smells I've never had in anything else, but it was good to have a few things with a Western flair including chocolate chip cookies and salad, mostly salad.

Friday, September 16, 2005

African toothbrush

It's really common to see people walking around chewing on sticks. For a long time, I just thought, "hmmm they're chewing on sticks the way sometimes at home when I'm walking through the field I chew on a weed." Which of course my American/South Dakotan explanation for all-things-African never suffices, so I finally asked and found out that these sticks are what people often use to clean their teeth (not to give you the impression that nobody brushes their teeth, because that isn't the case either). There's also a special "toothbrush" tree from which these sticks derive. And Jeremy has brought my attention to something he read in "Passion for Islam" by Carlyle Murphy that the prophet used to use a stick as a toothbrush and many people started emulating him. So as I discover more, I'll keep sharing. In the meantime, here's me doing my best to brush my teeth a la Afrique.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Slowly learning a place (ndank, ndank)

Sometimes when I encounter Senegalese here and they ask where else in Africa I've traveled and when I tell them they often say, "So you're African then." But what's funny is the longer I'm here the less I think of it as being "Africa" and even less as "Senegal" but in more specific terms like Ouakam (where my school is), Sacre Coeur (where my house is), Mermoz (where many of my friends live). On the plane over, I read the special National Geographic issue on Africa and it seemed like this tangible place. Now when I flip through the very same pages the images seem more foreign--NOW that I'm here--than they did on the plane. I think, before coming here I had created this idea in my head of Africa conceptualized by, "I want to study in Africa. Someday I want to work in Africa." But more and more the resounding blank "Everything You Knew. Think Again" cover of NG is piercing me especially as get lost and discover the very small section of my neighborhood. And to think, I used to say I was going to AFRICA.

All places become bigger and smaller to us as we travel, sometimes simultaneously, and it's just because I'm on the verge do I write this. But it's strange to think that even though I'd traveled here (here as in Africa) for three weeks in March that I though I knew this place (this place as in Africa) and I really don't. I probably had more accurate expectations than most and there are scenes that can be had all across, at least West Africa, that I was prepared for (dirty, garbage in the street, marriage proposals from men, Nescafe, bargaining). But I'm learning far more about this culture (Wolof? Senegalese? Both?) in only three weeks and a half (and counting) than I ever did about any of the four countries we visited during spring break. But I'm still not learning enough. One layer only reveals another layer. The moment I learn one thing it only opens up the door for a lot more things that I just don't understand. This is both motiviating and frustrating. But one thing is for sure that we all create familiar spaces for ourselves. Time it takes, yes, but eventually we do, and I'm finding those places. Comfort in walking through the gates of our campus every morning when the rush and the noise of the street suddenly fades. Having fewer and fewer surprises coming out of the kitchen at my family's home, "Ah I know what this tastes like. We had it last week." Even something like going to a place more than once: I've circled around Place de l'Indepdence (main intersection downtown) three or four times now and it makes me feel like I know this spot. Again, it always comes down to those little things, which will maybe lead to bigger things. But only if I'm lucky. "Ndank, ndank." (Slowly in Wolof).

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Some photos of my family

There was a baptism in my extended family this weekend so I had the chance to take some photos of my "maman" and her friends dressed up. Plus, some group shots of all my American neighbors.

Me, Maman, and Zodiac (my sister/roommate)

Maman always the mother. She calls us all her children. "C'est tous mes enfants."

Friday, September 09, 2005

Photo of the Day

I'm making a list of all the things that flabbergast me about Dakar. I'm doing it now because soon it'll all seem normal and I won't be questioning why the cows are in the middle of the busy VDN street. Instead I'll be asking, "Where are the cows?"

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Getting scammed in Africa

It was our second night here and maybe we weren't quite hardened enough to blow it off. He first approached two students on the program who were hanging out by the gas station. His story: "I'm from Togo and I came here for work, but I didn't bring enough insulin, and I need to buy some more. Otherwise I can't go to sleep tonight." He took them to the pharmacy where the pharmacist said it would cost $100 to replenish his supply, enough for 20 days, enough for him to leave the country. He said he'd tried the hospitals and the diabetes clinics but apparently since he's not Senegalese they wouldn't help him.

It was S & M and they came to the internet cafe, on top the gas station, asking what they should do. It felt like an ethical dilemma: Is this guy for real? What if he really does need the insulin? But, everyone needs help around here; we can't save everyone in Africa. Certainly no single person has the money to give to him, but collectively we could easily come up with it. And that made us feel guilty.

We felt like it was legitimate, because he didn't just want us to give him money; he wanted us to come with him as he bought the insulin and watch as he injected it. And he kept pulling out his empty insulin bottle and his needle to show us. After some discussion, those of us sitting in the cafe, pooled our stipends for the week and gave it to him. It wasn't enough, but at least we'd given something. We all thought it was over.

As we walked back to the campus, those of us who had yet to encounter him in person, he stopped us and repeated his story, and we told him we'd already given money. He followed us to the campus and continued asking the other students from our program if they could help him. As we ate dinner. He stood outside. We all discussed it further. What should we do?

So finally those who had not given produced their meal stipends for the week and we finally had enough, enough so he could go back to the pharmacy and buy insulin. Problem: the pharmacy was now closed. It closed at 8 p.m. and it was now 8:30. At this point we were so far into it that we couldn't just let leave. We walked to the telephone booth to find another pharmacy. There he talked to some people who said there was a pharmacy a short car rapide ride away; and it was open 24 hours.

We parted ways then. It felt legit. And no one wanted to go with him in the car rapide to the pharmacy. So after 10 or 12 people contributed to his cause, he walked away with 100 of our dollars.

It was a couple weeks later in our security orientation that our director was telling us all the different ways to get scamed or to get pickpocketed. She mentioned this guy: "He travels throughout Africa, says he's from Togo, says he's a diabetic and needs insulin, is pretty believeable, will often grab his leg as if he's in pain." We all sort of sat quietly until someone said, "Yeah we know him."

Monday, September 05, 2005

How little it takes

I remember a friend saying before I left for Senegal, "You will start to miss things about America. Even you, Michelle, will miss America." I scoffed at it then and even now I'm skeptical, but I will concede that there are certain luxuries I miss, and this weekend brought that into perspective. First, with the trip to quaint Goree. And then later, that evening, we ate at an Italian restaurant Chez Mimi's where we were somewhat delighted and perplexed not to find Senegalese food on the menu. I felt a bit guilty about caving in and having pizza after only two weeks here (and paying $8 for it, especially when you can get a good meal out for $2 here). And then getting wound up by the enticing espresso on the menu only to order one and find it's our formidable Nescafe.

Oh but it doesn't end there. We taxied ourselves over to a club called Chez Iba where we danced to Orchestra Baobab, Senegalese music with a salsa/world flair. My experience with the night scene in Dakar is still limited, but I can tell you that the way us toubabs (white people/foreigners) tore up the dance floor is probably pretty uncommon. We found out once we got there Orchestra Baobab is mainly popular with an older crowd and though they definitely had their groove on, they were much more subdued than our group of 15 jivving in the center floor, doubly affected by a low alcohol tolerance (lack of and malaria meds side effect?) and a need to seriously let loose.

Contemplating beauty on Goree

I think we were all a little taken with the picturesque-ness of Goree Island, a small island about a 20-minute ferry ride from downtown Dakar. For the first half of the day I was poised diligently with my camera taking in the French colonial architecture, the beautiful cobblestone streets, the yellows/reds/greens of the painted homes, and constantly running into the sea. But it was later when I got out from behind my camera that I realized, "This is great, but only slightly unrealistic. Take me back to the fumes and trash of Dakar. Goree is for tourists." I think all of us have in our bag of "reasons for coming to Senegal" the fact that we came simply because it's somewhere not France. Senegal is often coarse on the surface and it's an adjustment for us "first worlders" to live here, but that's the reason for coming, to discover all what lies beneath this complicated culture (even if that means going without toilet paper) and not to be awed by the romanticism of Paris.

Nonetheless it was a good trip. I haven't been out of the city since arriving here two weeks ago and I especially enjoyed the ferry ride to the island. It's an island that is reputed to have been integral in the slave trade but I've read that not very many slaves actually were transferred through Goree. Most went through the coasts of Benin (Ouidah) and Ghana (Cape Coast), which I visited and the forts there were massive compared to the tiny "Maison des Esclaves" (House of Slaves) on Goree.

I think what I loved most was wondering down the small alleys where I'd run into regular people going about their day (sleeping, cooking, visiting, washing clothes). The sounds of chatter and vendors advancing "my sister, make me happy be my first customer" vanished and I was left with the sounds of the street and the never-distant sea.

Coming in on the ferry

Tree-lined, flower-lined street

Drums in the market

Taking photos

The group in front of the "Maison Des Escalaves" (House of Slaves)

See what I mean about picturesque?

Kitty chillin' in front of some paintings

Pretty yellow flowers add to the ambiance

Thursday, September 01, 2005

C'est interdit! It's forbidden!

In a country where alcohol is forbidden, I've never craved a beer so much. The temperatures and humidity have been crazy and even though I drink a lot of water--mostly luke warm water-- during the day, the idea of a cold cold something is tantalizing. So, some of us broke down yesterday and went to the "Salon de The Fast Food" on the corner by our school. Skunky beer out of frosted mugs never tasted so good. And even the flies jumping into our bottles didn't deter us from drinking every last drop.

Finding place in a new family

I've been living with a family since Friday and though there's been some semblance of a routine I still mostly feel like I don't know what's going on, like who people are, who isn't related and who is, who lives there and who doesn't, when we eat, what we eat, where we eat. Last night was my host sister's birthday; she turned 23. We had a big party for her with people from the family (cousins, sisters, brothers, aunts, and who knows who else). My host sister, La La (probably not spelled like that, but that's how it sounds) is really into music; she loves to play the guitar and sing. So as a surprise on her birthday my host mom invited one of her favorite local singers, a man named Cher to sing.

It was a lot of fun to meet some of the extended family and to see how people interact and relate to each other and to also see my family break out the red carpet of food and goodies and other luxuries that we don't ever see (cake and soda pop). And as I was sitting there on the couch looking on as more and more people came in and fell into their tried and true familiarities and affections, I started missing my own family and my own people. It's hard to see that and be so far away from home knowing that even a phone call is difficult. But soon someone picked up the guitar and we started singing American songs and then learning songs in Wolof and singing happy birthday and I felt better and I felt like I could make a place for myself here.

This is LaLa; isn't she beautiful?

The American girl is Stephanie; she is also in the program and lives down the street from me.

This is the special guest singer, Cher.

The middle girl is Amina; she's my sister. The other two boys are neighbors/cousins.

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