Friday, January 27, 2006

Back and trying to make sense of it all

I got back to Dakar late Tuesday night after spending a difficult seven hours in the Casablanca airport thinking about changes and feeling pain, feeling alone, chewing my nails while slowly getting a headache from sipping Moroccan beer and taking in too much second-hand cigarette smoke.

My comings and goings are always my greatest challenges. Leaving familiar places, saying good bye, starting over, and learning how to go at it alone without the comforts of home. And I find it gets more difficult as time goes on. I'm growing up, my loves get stronger and I'm learning to give more of myself and learning to take more in.

Being back in Dakar is familiar in the way that all homecomings are, but Senegal is a different place to me. I've had a lot of time to contemplate my time here and to also feel quite actutely the challenges that another semester here presents especially as most of my good American friends went home and I moved in with a new host family.

But there are things to look forward to and I think that's why I do it -- keep coming and going. I'm already feeling the trill of new beginnings, making semester to-do lists, discovering more Dakar secrets, and it all just keeps building on what I already know.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

"I'm very very tired" and all its connotations

Snuggling in for the train ride to Alexandria, I couldn't stop the TGV nostalgia. As we pulled out of the station into the Egyptian countryside, I looked out half expecting to see France's rolling green hills and the misty grayness in the winter clouds. I suppose it was the palm trees and the Arabic all around me that gave it away, but for a moment I smiled remembering the times discovering the train system from Dijon realizing it wouldn't take much and I could be to Paris or Marseille or even London.

Just another train stop: A couple sitting on a bench, mosque in the background.

Alexandria was a reprieve from Cairo. Though still a big city, the crowds were smaller and less demanding, the traffic was quieter, being used to the ocean air in Dakar I was happy to be near the sea -- the smell and the space of it. Armed with a map and a general sense of direction, we made our way walking through neighborhoods and shopping districts to the historical sites. Being one of only a handful of tourists made us more of an oddity than normal especially during our walking tour which from the looks we got most tourists probably prefer the taxi. We'd walk past groups of men in standing the street who would look up surprised and shout out after us "Welcome!" or little kids who would yell, "What's your name?!" or one man who's first English words he thought of upon seeing us, "I'm very very tired!"

A view. Negotiating the route to the catacombs.

I'm used to being stared at in Senegal. No matter how much wolof I use to try to blend in, I'm always very evidently a toubab. I've made children cry in my whiteness, I've scared men coming around the corner not expecting to see a toubab, and I've had women discreetly rub the skin on my arms and then turn and run away. But being a foreign woman in Egypt is challenging, and Alexandria brought that out even more -- fewer tourists, not in Cairo anymore. There were more looks, more advances, more staring prompting Jeremy to say after coming back from an outing alone, "I walked from here to the store without so much as a glance."

Just outside the entrance to Pompey's Pillar.

One night, after a full meal at the elegant French restaurant with the guy on piano reminding us of Herghada by playing Beatles' "Yesterday," we walked the Corniche with the other lovers... Egyptian guys in their faux designer jeans and jackets slicked back hair (yeah man) and women with skirts and headscarves slowly strolling the lit sidewalk or propped up against the side of the stone wall whispering softly and closely, almost touching. Even with religion's limitations, courting goes on.

The Corniche at night.

Pompey's Playground

Though I know very little about museum displays, I once interviewed a museum director about an upcoming show at Sioux Falls' Old Courthouse Museum. Though she was still a youngun herself, only a recent graduate and only a few displays under her belt, she explained-me the care that goes into not only preserving items in a museum but also in thinking about the best way they should be displayed much in the same way a copy editor figures how to display the stories on the frontpage of the newspaper. It's a science as much as an art. I know some thought is given to such things in Egypt, but I think the country finds itself overwhelmed in antiquities that it just doesn't know what to do with it all. You can walk and stub your toe on a granite sphinx or you can turn the corner in the Egyptian Museum of Art in Cairo and find yourself staring at a pile of dust-covered statues.

In Alexandria, as we were climbing the hill to the catacombs, we came across Pompey's Pillar, an 82-foot Roman column spiking out of the earth. We diligently paid the 5 pounds (about a dollar) to get in. Hardly anyone was there save for a few Egyptian kids running about and I soon realized these were probably the kids of one of the workers, and Pompey's Pillar to us was in fact Pompey's Playground to them.

Alexandria's culture-ish

We made it to the station with enough time to have the customary morning shot of Lipton served by men in striped shirts and bowties reminding me of something out of an old movie complete with the old-fashioned Grand Central train station. I tell Jeremy "Egypt's made me a tea drinker," because I've decided even Lipton is better than Africa's substitute for real coffee, the instant Nescafe. In Egypt, Lipton is probably a bigger brand than Coke. Lipton tablecloths fit snugly over the outside cafe tables while men smoke their shisha (or hookah), and the tea's posters adorn the small sidestreet makeshift grocery stores. Walking the streets you see guys carrying trays full of glass tea cups around to the security guards and police who can't leave their posts (almost every street corner is home to a permanent rotation of uniforms and guns; strangely commonplace until it suddenly started to seem excessive, but all apart of the country's martial law and its attempt to maintain a sense of security).

So we boarded the train for the two-hour trip to Alexandria, a city founded
in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great when he was 25 located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Even though the weather was nice--in the 60s--it is winter in Egypt (and cold by Dakar standards by the way). Compared to how it can get in the summer months, we pretty much had the place to ourselves -- cheap hotel prices, half-deserted tourist sites, and our walks on the corniche were fairly unhastled from vendors (only one little girl who was determined to sell Jeremy a package of tissues).

The Corniche at sundown.

It's a city that combines a lot of cultures. Egypt does that anyway, but it's even more evident in Alexandria since it was once part of the Roman Empire, once the capital of Graeco-Roman Egypt, and much later it was a landing stop for both the French and the British. Visiting the catacombs, a sort of underground tombyard started during the 1st century and used until about the 4th, it was striking to see the combination of art techniques used to carve the sculptures and pictures alongside the tombs (a practice often done in Ancient Egypt to commemorate someone's life). From the grapes and vines of Greek art to the Roman s-curve in a statue to wall drawings depicting the Egyptian gods producing this imaginary dialogue, "Well, boss, which do we use?" or maybe they were just trying to pay homage to all cultures of the time. One statue carved into the wall of the tomb was a combination of a dragon from Greek mythology and a python from Ancient Egyptian beliefs with the tour guide's limited English description, "It's nice. Nicer than nice. It's nicety nice."

This is the main tomb with the dragon/python carvings on each side of the entrance. Not my photo, but one I took from the internet because I wasn't quick enough to smuggle my own camera in.

The indirect sea view from our hotel room balcony. Not bad. The real treasure was the secret watching of people in the windows across, and taking breakfast with the sun peeking through the buildings barely keeping warm in the Mediterranean's version of winter air.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fortress me

We made our way zigzagging the ever-complicated Cairo street system. Going from firstclass, what's considered restaurant district because everyday people don't go there. Down through the immigrant potholed 'hood staring up at the highrises each floating in its own colored style, aging design, hanging clothes, and what poverty says about the hodgepodge of balcony belongings. The ride left little doubt that this is where the extras are kept--built for maybe 2 or 3 million Cairo is now housing over 25 million people (due to immigrants and rural exodus; the same problem exists in Dakar). But it was former glory we were after: The Citadel. Hardly the warring enemy or potential assasins, we had to hike the length of this fortress and its gates before we found the way in. Most of the former palace is in ruins, but mosques and buildings that now house museums still stand. But, really, most of the fun is just getting to the top and staring out over Cairo -- the faint and tiny pyramids on the horizon, government housing at our feet standing out in its whiteness, and the tiny Bab Zwella towers we climbed the other day thinking we were so tall. One museum about assasinations during the British occupation of Egypt. One museum about military history which was a bit like reading a government propaganda manual--Mubarak is the greatest! Again, it was the view and the arches that I liked, plus reading the funny English plaque translations and misspellings,"A bamb (bomb) used in 1957 war." Or this, "Tank made by the USSB (USSR)."

Cairo city view.

Mohmed Aly Mosque

Lights and tourists galore inside mosque.

Standing at the ablution fountain (where muslims wash before praying).

Two blondes under a tree and Cairo in the background.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

It only takes a little Garrison Keillor to remind me of home

It's morning and I'm stealing wireless from a neighboring apartment so I can tune in to Prairie Home Companion. It's been so long and I drink my Lipton and it almost feels like a Sunday morning drinking coffee sitting in the winter sun. Nostaligic for the familiar (and the predictable perhaps), Jeremy and I have been missing home a little bit; maybe that's why I tuned in to PHC. Being together makes home more tangible especially when being abroad like this you start feeling like everything started and ended within this time frame, because all the people you meet and all the sights you see, well, you have no other reference points. Yesterday we got ourselves comfortably lost just to explore. Munching on crunchy baked goods along the way and sipping fresh-squeezed oranage juice while Jeremy tries to learn all the Arabic for the fruit hanging in the doorway. I'm not weary of turning new corners just occasionally I get these pangs of longing for "all-things American" and I get to missing that feeling you have when a place just makes sense to you (the good and the bad of it). So I call my dad and cry for a bit and though the dreary feeling stays for awhile his words start to cheer me. Oh, and after all, I am in Cairo -- here's some pics.

Here's the juice stand with the fruit hanging in the doorway. Jeremy, what's pomegranate in Arabic?

Islamic center towers.

Street in front of the American University. McDonald's is peeking around the corner.

Hopelessly scouting out the French in this town. So far I've only found remnants of the language (English won as the foreign language of choice I imagine) and most of the influence remaining seems to be in the French architecture.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

I swam with the fishes in the Red Sea

Part of my fear of diving in the beginning was this: When you first learn to dive, they teach of every possible way you could die underwater (well, not quite, but every possible way something could go wrong). And, unfortunately, throughout it all, you have a tendency to lose sight of why you're really down there -- to look at fish (which being in the Red Sea sufficiently made up for). Plus, diving off the coast of Dakar isn't all sunshine, sand, and clear water -- sketchy weather, choppy waves, and coarse, unsympathetic French diving instructors scoffing at my mistakes.

But once I fell off the boat into the Red Sea for my first dive outside of the Atlantic, I was magnetized by the stretch and diversity of the coral (some of it's green, some that looks like a human brain), the millions of fish (I rarely saw the same species twice), and the color, so vivid and which even the camera has trouble picking up. It was truly incredible, and if not for my recent adversity to the cold, I could have stayed forever.

Here's a taste of it all:

Just after we jumped off the boat and put our heads underwater, these schools of fish just swimming about.

Timmy taking pictures.

Yes, we saw dolphins. Most people take 30 or 40 dives and never see them, but we were lucky enough to see them on the first dive (and of course my brother chased them -- hehe).

Boat culture: Being on the boat was almost as much fun as being off the boat. Jeremy and me chillin' just as we're leaving the port.

And don't miss Timmy in the lens.

And see more photos here.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A love affair with a slightly more developed country: Morocco in a day

Traveling these days is no longer about shedding my American perspective, but rather about expanding the one I've acquired in the last four months. My reference point has shifted and traveling outside of Senegal is slowly allowing me to see that change. My reflex is no longer to make a comparison to my background in the US or to my travels in Europe, but rather to Senegal--the country where I've most recently been immersed. It also makes sense because I'm traveling in mostly-Muslim countries and ones that are, technically, still on the African continent, even though I do find myself repeating, "You're not in Africa anymore, Todo" (another story for another day).

So, Morocco, my first introduction to North Africa, and first introduction in awhile to a slightly more modern country. I hated myself for still speaking a colonial language (French) and not knowing a lick of Arabic to at least distinguish myself from the other tourists, which is something that gives me advantage in Senegal (I'm not over-charged as often and I get a lot more respect from people even if my few uttered Wolof phrases are poorly accented and poorly phrased). It was also my first time being a tourist in awhile, ahem, out comes camera, in comes feelings of cultural insensitivity (especially because we were doing it in a day). When we get to the train station, I almost giggle that train times are listed (and subsequently on time), but am silenced by the Euro-style trains and the cheap ticket prices ($3, because yes I'm back to converting to dollars). The intial giggle came from this: In Senegal, transportation comes when it comes and there ain't no set times and there ain't no posting of nothin'. It felt easy in comparison and I sighed with the ease of modernity while asking, where's the adventure in that?

Our primary destination once we got into Casa was to see the Hassan II (deux) Mosque, the second largest in the world after the one in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where muslims make their pilgrimage. It's the main tourist destination in the city and I also wanted to see how it compared to Senegal's mosque in Touba which I visited a couple weeks ago. Hassan II is certainly far more grand and elegant than Touba, but both serve the ironical purpose of rising up out of poverty making you wonder if the money could have been better spent. But once inside, I was silenced by its peace and its enormity. And inside, what was it... the feelings that always come over me in huge religious structures (France's cathedrals for one): a sense of being belittled and a disconnect from whatever it is your supposed to feel connected.

Here's a sampling of photos, but more can be found by going here. Once there, you can click, "Lancer le diaporama" to see it as a slide show.

Playing with angles: the bottom of the minaret, the tallest structure on any mosque allowing you to see it for miles away. This one is actually 200 meters tall, the largest in the world.

View of the mosque from a distance, and Timmy in the left-hand corner.

View from inside. Most of the material used to construct the mosque was found in Morocco except the chandeliers which are from Italy and the interior white granite columns.

Rounding the bend to the Turkish baths on the bottom floor.

An oft-viewed scene, at least from my day there: Guys sitting outside coffee shops drinking tea and what... shooting the sh*t.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Looking back

Sitting in a Cairo coffee shop yesterday with my two lifelines--cappuccino and wifi--at my fingertips, I marveled at how those first weeks in Dakar would have been easier if only I'd had a few tastes of western luxury. But really, looking back, I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment, not necessarily from having survived the last four months in Senegal (something I didn't think I would be able to do, much less to stay on), but more from learning to live that life, and, the kicker, to be downright content with it. And it's freeing in a way... to realize I don't have to be dependent on internet and coffee and western conveniences, but that my life is more fulfilled by personal interaction starting with the many people in my house who never gave me personal space to the greetings in the street to making music in the courtyard with my good friends and having ataya (Senegalese tea). In that culture, we create fewer boundaries and more occasions to share what we have, which sadly arises from the poor living conditions but happily creates this larger social desire to give and to share.

My first lesson in this came the first day I moved into my family's house and my roommate and I realized we were going to be sharing a bed (not to mention a very small room), and when Zodiac commented on it, my host mother replied, "On portage tous au Senegal. C'est comme ca." (We share everything in Senegal.) And it was this sentiment that was echoed in action and in word throughout my stay and it was something that we as Americans studying there began to adopt as well. If I had money, I paid. If you had money, you paid. If I had water, you drank it. If I had an orange, everyone got a slice. And on and on. At one point I even had a (baay fall) fellow explain to me how in his brotherhood they share everything including candy to the point that if someone has one piece of candy, it's sucked on and passed from one person to the next. I've never seen it done, but you get the point.

I found it provides a sense of comfort and a strong sense of family, especially for someone like me setting out to live in that country alone. I think this is also why whenever anyone is introduced it's, "this is my brother or this is my sister or my grandma or my mamma" when in fact they really aren't, at least not by blood. It took some time to realize it and become familiar with it, but when I finally did, I felt the same protection and the same trust and just the overall feeling of being taken care of the same as I do when I'm at home in South Dakota.

So being away from it all and being in a different environment has given me the time and space to mull a bit over some of my experiences. Hopefully there's more to come. I also have photos and stories to share from Casablanca and the Red Sea. All in good time.

At die kaffee shoP, y0

View (vue) from Jeremy's flat (did I just use that word?)

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