Thursday, March 30, 2006

Day 3: Riding in Mercedes

The next morning I quickly understood what Dan meant by never having privacy at his house when six girls came trumping in from the bush tossing their dusty bags on the floor, on the table, on the chairs. They chattered away opening up the fridge, taking down packages of cereal, mixing bowls of millet and our intimate group of four where we’d gotten so used to each other in only one quiet evening—the way you start to feel you're the only ones in the world—sat somewhat stunned at the kitchen table our pancakes thereafter untouched. Somehow the welcoming warm was destroyed and we felt out of place—it was no longer our space. Tsilat and I quickly showered and gathered our things, and accompanied by Dan we headed to the gare to find a taxi to Nouakchott, the capital.

The gare in Rosso probably takes its cues from Senegal since upon arrival we were bombarded, even with Dan knowing his way around, by people trying to hound our white faces into a car. We would later learn that the farther you get from the border (with Senegal that is) the more straightforward and calm—almost professional—it becomes to get a taxi to the next city. We paid our ticket and hung out under a tree until the taxi filled, then quickly shepherded into a car, stuffed snuggly with four people into a three-seater backseat, we were off.

There are a lot of Mercedes in Mauritania, and it doesn’t mean you’re rich if you drive one, because most of them are in pretty tough shape. When I asked around about the Mercedes Phenomenon, no one really knew for sure except that maybe at one time there was a large shipment of them coming in and the local mechanics learned how to fix them and there were parts available and somehow they just held out. So it is most of the city taxis in Nouakchott and when you go to the garage to get a bush taxi if you want a good car, you always ask for a Mercedes. THESE cars remind me of my mother’s philosophy about cars which is, you buy old sturdy cars (used of course), drive the shit out of them until they just plumb have no choice but to die, and even then you get my brother, my step dad, or the sketch-mechanic with all the cars in his front yard to take a look at it and see what he can jimmyrig to get it going again (for the cheapest possible price possible).

Cars on the Nouadibou street.

Nouakchott, though the capital and presumed happening, has a deserted feeling partly from all the dust and sand blowing in for miles to leave the desert and be jetted out into the ocean. Sitting on the ocean, the city makes no pretense of being a beach town. You can head to the fish market and see men coming in with the day’s catch but that’s about it, no curving corniche or seafront real state. It's a city traditionally founded by nomads--those used to the unlimited space of the desert and the terrain of the sub-sahara. So though a small city, it spread itself out and takes awhile to get from one end to the other.

We arrived and were immediately embraced in more peace corps hospitality with Molly, a good friend of a good friend of mine, taking us in and housing us in her posh (posh for around here – even has hot water) apartment. We spread ourselves out on her bedded-down futons eyeing each other about, playing the dance of getting-to-know-you and waiting for the time when we can know each other better and ask the tougher and infinitely-more interesting questions about who do you love and where, when it hurts and why, and letting down the guard that let’s us laugh without pretenses. We got there with her, this place of knowing, but more so the second time around; we spent our last two days in Mauritania with Molly, but only after we’d been seasoned with travel apres qu' on a fait le tour and we fell into her arms after a scary overnight taxi ride. But this time, this first time, we only let go of our histories, how we’ve come to be, where we go or not go from here.

Nouakshott garage before we left.

We ate at The Sahara, a Lebanese restaurant we would crave later in the desert (once we were really in The Sahara) half-eating sand in every morsel and drink, but for the moment we ordered fatah (battered and fried dough with meat and onion inside) and the babel ghanoug (hummos made with eggplant) and the flat Lebanese cheese pizza. We strolled home in the dark wrapped in the warmth of our conversation and a good dinner sitting contentedly in our stomachs, but it was when we started asking about religion and politics and sharia law that Molly stopped us looking around saying it would be better to talk about this later fearing our voices would carry, even in our English. And it was the jolt that we’re in a country not our own, a country where it’s illegal to be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or frankly anything but Muslim. There’s something severe in that to our pampered AmericanDreamFreedomofReligionFreedomtoChooseWhatYouBelieve ears, but you’re not normally accosted with it if you’re a visitor to Mauritania, so laisse tomber I’ll leave the rest for another day.

We opened the doors to Molly’s roof climbing the dark stairs resting on her terrace examining Nouakchott in the night. I realized I’d barely taken any pictures and we were already leaving for our next city in the morning. But we buried our heads in the pillows and left our travels be for the moment.

Tsilat riding the chariot.


Wearing Molly's sunglasses.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A word about our peace corps friends

A few weeks ago Peace Corps West Africa descended on Dakar for a four-day weekend of softball, beer, hot dogs, and a little taste of the America we all get a yearning for being so far away from home. I purposely saddled up to the Mauritanians in hopes I could make some contacts for our trip. What I didn't expect was that I would like them so much and I ended up spending a good part of the weekend cheering them in softball, going out to dinner, dancing, and drinking. Once word got around that I was from South Dakota, I was immediately paired up with the only other South Dakotan in the group, Dan from Sioux Falls. Before he left Dakar, we exchanged emails and numbers and started texting even before I left for Mauritania. Zach, who is from a small town near Okoboji in Iowa, I met by coincidence when were laughing about some red neck, hick joke and he was like, "You MUST be from like Montana Sate University or something." And I was like, "Better yet, South Dakota State University." And he said, "No Way! Sioux Falls! I go to your mall!" It's not every day that you find someone who knows South Dakota much less the Sioux Empire Mall.

So the evening we all sat down to dinner, we couldn't help but recount the familiar--street names, places, midwestern mannerisms "how do you give directions in the midwest?", the way the old guys at the coffee shop talk about wheat prices, fields, weather. It was sad and funny and falling asleep that night I felt empty and full at the same time. It seems the more you try to fill the hole of stuff you miss with replicas of the real, the hole just gets bigger and deeper. It was a strange state to be in: homesick in Mauritania, eating Pad Thai, and talking about shopping at the Sioux Empire Mall.

Me, Zach, and Dan

Map so we know what we're talking about here

Day 2: Crossing the frontière and eating Pad Thai in Rosso

The border (frontière in French) between Mauritania and Senegal closes every day from 12 to 3 for the patrol to take their long lunch, pray, and drink tea. I've heard rumors--unconfirmed of course--that it's one of the only borders in the world that closes in the middle of the day for an extended period of time, but after knowing both of these countries it jives pretty accurately with the culture and the mentality (i.e. eating, taking tea, and praying are utmost).

After messaging with my peace corps friend Dan who was meeting us at the border and after fullfilling his request "to buy the cheapest bottle of vodka u can find" because alcohol is non-existent and illegal in Mauritania, we took an early lunch, gathered our bags, and headed to the gare to find a sept place to the border. We found a car that was going to Rosso, but it only had one spot left. Thankfully, everyone moved over and we successfully stuffed nine people into our our sept place (meaning seven spots), including a little girl on her mother's lap. And we we're off... well not quite... We stopped to fill gas, air the tires, and then when the driver forgot his change from the gas station man we had to turn around and go back all packed one on top of the other in the rising temp of the afternoon heat. Welcome to transport in Senegal.

Our neuf place to the border and the back of Tsilat's head.

Getting off at the river we made our way through the usual hassle of men trying to help us, "My sister, let me show you the way. You have to change your money here." They often think up schemes to get the frazzled and unknowing traveler to part with money or possessions. A Senegalese friend even told me of the first time he crossed the border and he believed the guys telling him it was already closed and that he needed to stay in their house. He found out later he could have crossed the river with a pirogue and stayed for free on the other side until morning. Even when you know where you're going and tell them you don't need help, they still swarm and if you utter any unkind word, they accuse you of being racist or not a nice person.

On the ferry.

Anyway, we hopped on the ferry and once on the other side, we were met by Dan and Zach, both in the peace corps. They helped us negotiate getting our passports stamped and getting through the Mauritania border control. We changed money dollars for the Mauritanian currency, ouigya, then Dan proposed dinner, "Do you want Chinese stir fry or pad thai for dinner? I make the best Asian food in all of West Africa." These are two foods not normally found in my diet in Senegal so it was funny to come all the way to Mauritania to be faced with the challenge of deciding between these two dishes.

Dan cooking pancakes the next morning.

We bought our ingredients at the market near Dan's house hearing the evidence of our border crossing as French, Wolof, Pulaar, and Hassinya words were thrown out to accomplish the task of buying the kilos of vegetables, peanuts, and fruit needed for our dinner. The faces were still largely Senegalese, but we were starting to see the occasional Mauritanian boubou (traditional men's dress) and most of the women were slightly more veiled than those in Senegal. We still had many more miles to travel and much more to learn about this new country, but it was good to refresh and relax before we continued our journey.

The Rosso market.

Public transporation in Rosso: A chariot. It costs less than ten cents.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Day 1: Getting to Saint Louis

The first leg of our trip was tame compared to all the rest -- but we had to start somewhere, right? The morning before we left I asked Tsilat if she'd ever traveled outside of Dakar with public transportation. Probably something we should have covered before, but it's evidence on just how little we did to prepare. Somehow, we'd both managed to be the only students in our program to never take the station wagons, or sept places, that serve as the public transport for getting people to and fro cities in Senegal. We arrived at the Gare Routiere, Dakar's Grand Central Station, not at the bonne heure (early hour) like we probably should have, but around 11 in the morning hoping to find a car to Saint Louis. I knew it would be rough getting through the crowds and the guys who always trail you trying to get you into some car or another, but there's something to be said about learning to keep your cool and having fun with it. And that's just what we did.

Tsilat in our mini-bus.

A woman who rode with us.

One of the many vendors circling the waiting cars. You buy seats in a car and so if there are seven seats you have to wait until more passengers come along before departing.

A guy who was sitting in our car to make it look more full. You always try to find the cars that are the fullest since those are the ones that are leaving the soonest.

Saint Louis was deserted for Dakar as the capital sometime mid-colonial period. What's left is a quiet historic downtown, protected by UNESCO, with all the old French colonial architecture still in place. Aside from the trailing talibe (little beggar boys), it's a pleasant place to just walk the streets and imagine it really is in the past. It's about two hours from the border with Mauritania and about three hours from Dakar so we thought it would be a good jumping off point letting us get into the rhythm of traveling while we're still in Senegal and still in our comfort zone.

We stayed at the auberge of my host father's brother and had dinner with his nephew overlooking the bridge that interlinks the island of centre ville and the rest of Saint Louis. The city georgraphically is in any interesting position since it's the place where the Senegal River enters the Atlantic Ocean. The centre ville, where all the French lived and the part which is protected today, is on an island formed by a fork in the river.

Dakar was still fresh in our minds but its roar was diminishing with the calm of Saint Louis, however we still had yet to enter the desert, where the true silence would reign.

Back from Mauritania-land

Getting back to Dakar early last week, we found the city'd been in rolling blackouts since we left. Electricity is still pretty scattered. Sometimes we have it in the evenings, sometimes the mornings, some places have it the entire day, but not the next. Apparently the power company and the government are in dispute about how much money is owed, and there are rumors of politicians skimming off the top, but no one knows for sure. But not having power made for a fitting return. After days traveling through the desert, it made it easier to deal with the bustle of Dakar and gave me a few extra days to recover before looking at my emails or the news.

Finally getting online today with my laptop, I want to start writing about my trip, but I'm not sure where to start. It was an incredible journey both in physical distance and in learning, so I'm going to try to post about it day-by-day. That way it gives me time to sort through it and gives you time to follow it piece-by-piece.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Dakar stadium food (and music and soccer)

The other day we descended on the stade for a match of soccer and a long list of live music including Lauren Hill, Vivian NDour, Youssou NDour, Alpha Blondie, Angelique Kidjo. It was a chance to see some of the biggest stars in Africa and see them all at once. I went with two friends and it was late in the day and we'd just finished school, so we almost literally ate our way to the stade, carving a little path from Sacre Coeur 3 just about to Yoff leaving behind orange peels, peanut shells, and sandwich droppings. Vendors were alongside the road in either direction anticipating the crowd coming in for the game. Children walking around with poles of plastic bags jangling with peanuts, women selling little muffin cakes, who Karolyn in all her tri-lingualness said to one woman after the exchange, "thank you very much!" and started walking away and only turned back when she realized all the women were laughing and said "jerejef, merci!" When we finally got to the first inner ring of the stadium we found rows and rows of women selling sandwiches stuffed with viande (lamb meat usually), fried onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, fries and lettuce. It was only after we'd consumed everything that we patted our stomachs and started for the stairs leading up to the seating.

And because even getting a seat at a game is an adventure in this land, we circled the stadium a few times before finally finding the right door (apparently we'd come through the slums and we'd had VIP tickets). But in our walk, we saw men who'd laid down their prayer mats and we're praying along side little boys peeing into the corner while the toilet was only a few feet away. It was almost one of those things you walk by until you realize just how strange it is.

The concert was incredible and I was jivin' like never before. Good reggae by Alpha Blondie, who I only recently heard. It was awesome to finally see Angelique Kidjo, who I discovered this summer going through the Africa section at the Plymouth library. And just good to be with friends, be in a crowd of thousands, take pictures, hear some good music, dance crazy, and have all the hype and anticipation and lights of seeing some good acts live.

Leaving for Mauritania tomorrow. I'll be on with pictures and stories in a couple of weeks. Much love!

Karolyn, also known as Fatou. She's the most Senegalese of all of us, but hails from Wisconsin.

Just as the concert was starting.

On the ground, Tsilat and Kate lifting me up to take pictures.

During the game that I unfortunately saw very little of seeing as I was too busy eating.

Concert from the ground.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Je me suis tressé -- Yes, I have braids.

The white person who comes to Africa must do three things: wear an oversized necklace either made of "natural" wood pieces or thick gaudy beads, buy a bag made with African fabric, and get her hair braided. Now you can go back to wherever you come from--Europe, France, US--and tell everybody in appropriate tones "I've been to Africa." But as a resident toubab I feel some level of superiority over those people who come for a week, stay at a nice hotel in centre ville, visit the few tourist sites, and go home. Cushy, plush, no homesickness, no sickness whatsoever because they're eating in restaurants that cook imitation French food, and they're paying people to cater to their every Western need. They talk to a few vendors, a taxi driver, and feel like they "saw" Senegal. I know I need to work on my snubbery and I am, but it explains why I had--up until this point--not gotten my hair braided. This is no easy task in Senegal especially having long blondish hair and especially living in a salon de coiffeur all last semester.

So, why now? The timing seemed right since I'm almost out of shampoo and you can get your hair braided and it'll stay in for four or five weeks, during which time you don't wash it. Plus, I'm going to Mauritania (country directly to the north of Senegal) next week and I wanted something low maintenance (I don't want to spending a lot of time primping while I'm in the desert). And what dawned on me yesterday as I was promenading to the store and being inundated with attention (more than usual) is that I wanted to wait until
I could at least dole out a few Wolof words, because people's first reaction is to say, "You're a true Sengalese now!" I don't take this as lightly as they like to hand it out so my small repertoire of Wolof helps me feel like I'm more deserving of being Senegalese now.

I spent the day in my host mother's salon with two or more people constantly at my head. My hair was stretched and pulled and picked and burned and cut and waxed and meshed and oiled and sprayed and I wasn't let loose for nearly six hours, except for the ten minutes I spent digging into a big bowl of ceebujen with the other hair stylists. And as I walked out to find the sun setting, the same security guards and people standing in the street almost nearly forgot to greet me in their suprise at the same? no, different toubab? as I came trudging around the corner making my way home to bed to rest this big head of hair that had been beyond coiffed.

In French, they say "je me suis tressé
" as in "I got my hair braided," but translated literally it would be more like "I've been braided" and that's sort of how I feel especially seeing as how my head hurt for a good 24 hours afterwards (well the all-night dancing and drinking probably didn't help either). Also, a note to the purists, I'm not sure if "tresser" is actually a French verbe or if the Senegalese just use it in this context.

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