Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Baay Bia

This weekend. Where to start….

Pop quiz:

Which of these is least likely to have been true of Naomi’s Sunday night?
a) She spent the night reading a memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer in China, by the light of her headlamp, because the electricity had gone out again.
b) She was out until 3 am partying with a Senegalese rap star and his fashion designer friend—and cut the night short after only one dance club, because she had her Wolof class to attend the following morning. At which point, she was escorted to her door with cries of “Good night my sister!” and “Saturday we’re really going to dance!”
c) She went to a dinner party at the house of Michelle’s Senegalese friend—a musician, music teacher, and talented artisan who builds a wide range of beautiful traditional instruments. We ate grilled fish and salad, and were serenaded by beautiful African folk tunes, played and sung by many of the other guests, who were also musicians.

Clearly, b) is the least likely to be true. As we have discussed previously, I am not what you’d call a “fly” girl. I don’t hang out with rappers. I don’t stay out until 3 am on school nights.

And, of course, the rules of dramatic narrative require that, in fact, my Sunday night was occupied by the activities described in b).

(For the record, a) is what I did last night, and c) is what I did on Friday night.)

The rapper is Baay Bia, the husband of a woman in Seattle, whom I spoke to before I came to Dakar. She is the friend of a friend of my African dance teacher and she is also an artist and a dancer.

Ask yourself this: if you got a phone call from a stranger, some weirdo foreigner who’d spoken once to your wife, and she wanted to meet you, what would your reaction be? Would you vaguely agree to meet up for coffee at some point? Would you invite the person over for dinner one night, and complain to all your friends that you’ve got to host some stranger for dinner, and what on earth are you going to cook, and what could you possibly have to talk about?

Last September, my cousin came to visit me in Washington for a week. Although I was glad to see him, I complained endlessly about the invasion of my space, and the weighty responsibility of keeping him entertained.

Baay Bia, before having met me, immediately offered to let me live in his house indefinitely. This is what I mean about how friendly people are here. It’s ingrained in the culture, and guests are given the best of everything and welcomed with open arms. After all, the guest would do the same for someone else who was a guest in his country.

It’s a lovely cultural trait, and is great for me as a newcomer. When I went to interview the peace corps guy in Fatick, his host family invited us for lunch, where they served a giant bowl of meat yasso (a traditional dish). Normally they eat fish, which is cheaper and more readily available, but for me, the white visitor and friend of their friend, they served meat, and chided me constantly to eat more, and get more of the meat.

But this trait is also partially the source of some of the biggest culture clash. Senegal is a poor country. People here know that, and feel it. They also know that white people’s countries are much richer, and so by extension, all white people are rich. And if white people have so much, why wouldn’t they share it with the impoverished people in the country they’re visiting?

On Sunday afternoon, I was meeting up with a freelance journalist who has been here a few years already, and I ended up waiting a corner for a few minutes before she picked me up. This was pretty far out from the city, near some of the bigger, fancier resort hotels. It wasn’t a commercial area, and there weren’t many people around. But there was one guy, standing on the corner next to a bench. I got out of my taxi, and he immediately called to me. Welcomed me. Invited me to come sit on his bench.

Lovely and friendly, right? Except that there’s always a catch. I wasn’t sure what it was (although it’s usually money), and I wasn’t sure how to say no. I told him I’d prefer to stand in the shade. But there was a bench there, too, so he came over and invited me to sit with him. I didn’t want to get into this, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. So I sat down. Where are you from? How long have you been here? What are you doing here? These are the questions that everyone asks, and they’re very polite.

And then the guy pulled a little, ugly, beaded necklace with a shell as a pendant from his pocket, and told me it was a gift. No thank you, I told him. But he insisted. Take it. It’s a gift. Enjoy it. It’s from Senegal. So I held it in my hand, wishing the woman I was meeting would hurry up and get there already.

But she wasn’t there, and the man was looking at me expectantly. Didn’t I have a gift for him from America? 100 CFAs maybe? And there it was. This was the point of the entire encounter, and I was annoyed. Could I have given him the 100 CFAs? Probably. It’s only about 20 cents. But I didn’t want his necklace, and I hadn’t asked for him to chat with me. This was an area full of Toubabs (white foreigners) and this was his racket, and I didn’t want to pay into it. So I told him no. And I got up and walked towards the corner to wait in the sun. And he asked for his necklace back.

So there are two sides to the welcome here in Senegal, and it’s sometimes hard to figure out which kind of welcome you’re getting. And the friendlier someone is, the more worried I get, because I don’t always know what they’re going to ask for in return.

Still Baay Bia seemed genuinely friendly, and his wife in Seattle was an American (which means something about his ability to cross the cultural barrier, I guess) and he invited me out with him and his friend for Sunday night. We taxi-ed downtown, where he bought dinner. And then we picked up some drinks, and headed towards the main square to hang out and chat for a while. It was about 10:30, and apparently in Dakar, it’s not worth going to the dance clubs until at least midnight. I’ve heard from others that on a Saturday night, things don’t pick up until 2 am at the earliest.

Baay Bia, with his neatly-twisted dreadlocks (covered by his rasta-themed wool hat) and his pimp walk, Bamba, his friend, in fashionable jeans and a black zip-sweater, and… me. Drinking in the empty square. On a school night. Baay Bia pulled out his discman at one point, and played his upcoming album for me. It’ll be released next week—his second solo album, with tracks accompanied by Youssou N’Dour and Baba Maal, two of Senegal’s most famous musicians. Youssou N’Dour has won (one? or two?) grammies.

So okay, now you have an image of Baay Bia the rapper. Take a moment to shift gears, because he is also an environmental activist. He walked me past the Presidential Mansion and the office building for all the ministries, and he told me about how he worked for a year with the Ministry of Fishing on a water clean-up project. He organizes a free concert every year in his home village as a fundraiser for the environment. And each of his albums features at least one song discussing environmental issues.

But shift gears again, because Baay Bia is also a devout Muslim, in a very Senegalese manner. Remember those dreadlocks? In Senegal, that’s a sign of Baay Fall, a very unorthodox brand of Islam, very popular among young Senegalese, and practiced only here. They don’t pray, they allow their followers to drink alcohol and smoke, they don’t learn the Koran. Baay Fall see their role as supporting the marabouts (spiritual leaders), whose learning and charity they can then be a part of. So Baay Fall donate a portion of their earnings to the marabouts, with the understanding that it will be distributed as aid to the truly needy. Baay Bia spent nearly an hour telling me stories from Senegal’s muslim history and of upcoming pilgrimage to honor one of Senegal’s heros, Serigne Touba, and of his beliefs as a Baay Fall Muslim.

And then we started teaching each other tongue twisters in Wolof and English (“Said the flea to the fly to the floo, oh what, oh what should we do? Said the floo to the fly to the flea, we must flee. Said the flea to the floo to the fly, we must fly. And they floo.”) Which is one of my favorite things to do with speakers of foreign languages. Tongue twisters sound so cool when you don’t understand what the words mean. Just sounds and rhythms that are impossible to remember and even harder to say.

And, finally, when I was ready to go home and go to sleep, we headed for a night club. Which was much less foreign seeming than the dance club in Bostwana (and much emptier), but equally fun.

And I haven’t even told you about the softball tournament organized by the US Embassy. Softball, y’all, in a country that has never heard of the game, played on grass fields growing within driving distance of the Sahara Dessert. Professional stadiums in Africa sometimes don’t have grass. And we ate hot dogs and Doritos specially imported from America, and watched drunken Peace Corps volunteers from all over the region (Mauritania, the Gambia, Benin, Senegal, Guinea, etc.) play against each other and lose to local international school teams. The back of the Gambian tshirts said, “Je ne sais pas French.” Because they speak English in Gambia. That might not be funny, but it cracked me up.

And on Sunday afternoon, (after a day of hanging out a pool at the American club, which was open to the (American) public for the duration of the tournament) I went for a late lunch with a bunch of foreign correspondents and freelance journalists, at a little restaurant on a beach next to Club Med.

Welcome to my life.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

La Ville

I know that I’ve promised photos, and I’ve taken a few of my apartment and the courtyard and of my landlady, but they were taking forever to upload, and I got annoyed. The internet connections have been pretty good—all DSL, I’m pretty sure—but the pictures weren’t working.

In the meantime, I’ll describe the city a bit. Keep in mind that these are just first impressions, based on a few days of wandering around. And I've been known to be less than 100% observant. In my freshman dorm, I didn't notice that there were trees growing in the atrium until after Christmas break.

Dakar is broken up into small neighborhoods, each with a name. Mine is called SICAP Baobab, which is in an area with a bunch of other SICAPs (SICAP Liberté, SICAP Karak, etc.) in the north of the city. There are a number of wide boulevards that criss-cross the entire city (my house is on one of them), and that seem to form the boundaries of the little neighborhoods. Between the wide boulevards, there are lots of small, windy, narrow lanes with row houses and tiny shops (it’s a bit different downtown, but I haven’t spent a lot of time there). My house is on one side of SICAP Baobab, and the Baobab Center is on the other side. To get there, I could walk on the boulevards around the perimeter of the neighborhood, but it’s faster to go through. But there is no road that goes straight through. All the roads are on diagonals and curves, and lots of them end in dead ends. So that’s why I spent three days in a row, wandering around in circles for half-an-hour before I emerged on the other side.

This part of the city seems very well off. My house is an enclosed compound of sorts, with an elaborately carved wooden door at the entrance. There is a courtyard in the front and one in the back, and there are lots of lush plants (potted ferns, cactuses, leafy trees) and brightly-colored flowers. The house, the (home-)office, and my apartment open into the courtyards. Elsewhere, the houses seem to open directly onto the street. But of course, I haven’t been inside many houses, so I can’t really say for sure.

Most of the buildings are made of concrete (I think, I’m no architect), but these aren’t tin-roofed shanties. At a minimum, they are well-constructed boxes, with flat or peaked roofs. In my part of the city, nothing is much taller than three or so stories (in general). There is also a fair amount of interesting architecture and bigger buildings. There are gas stations every few blocks (Mobil, Shell, and Total, etc.) it seems. And, as you get further downtown, the buildings get taller, and more city-like.

There are paved sidewalks pretty much everywhere. Mostly they are asphalt, but in lots of places, people have tiled really pretty mosaics into the sidewalks. Or else they are cobble stoneed. There are also plenty of stretches that are covered in sand or dust, and again, as you get closer to downtown, they begin to become more full of venders and merchants selling all kinds of things. Mostly fruit and peanuts, but also fabrics, drinks, random household items, large pieces of wooden furniture, and chickens (still alive, sometimes clucking and walking around on the sidewalk, sometimes hanging upside down and perfectly still in the hands of a walking vendor).

There’s no grass or low-lying bushes—the ground is either paved or dirt—but there are lots of trees lining the streets with green leaf-filled branches, and lots of shade. Dakar is on the southern tip of a hook-shaped peninsula that sticks out west into the Atlantic Ocean, so there’s ocean on three sides. I have only been to the western edge of the city, to the western part of a long avenue (La Corniche) that traces the edge of most of the city. This is the part that’s near the University, and is, apparently, where you can find tons of runners in the morning. There’s also a canal that crosses east-west through the city (I’m guessing to try to help catch and drain the flooding when it rains?) that is mostly dry. Most of the city is very clean (dust, sand, and goat droppings, notwithstanding) but you come across pockets that are filled with trash, and, right now, the canal is one of them. Peace Corps guy says there is no trash collection in his city, and I’m not sure if there is any in Dakar.

A brief introduction to the people in my house:

Aby, my landlady, and the director of homestays for the students at the Baobab center. She has three grown children, all of whom live in the United States. One is a kindergarten teacher in Ohio, one is a med student in Ft. Lauderdale, and one is getting his master’s degree in IS/IT in Miami. I haven’t met her husband, but she tells me he is around sometimes. I don’t know what he does when he’s not here.

Awa and Marie-Susan are her two maids. They are both Serrer, but not from villages near each other. Awa is Muslim and Marie-Susan is Catholic. They are both around my age (vaguely, anyway) and are really nice. I hang out with them whenever I can, and they are pretty willing to help me out when I need it (for instance, Awa came out to negotiate a cab for me to the bus station, so I wouldn’t get ripped off).

Aby’s nephew also lives here. I’ve met him, and he seems really nice, too, but I haven’t spent much time with him yet. He came by my door the other night to invite me to watch TV with him, Awa, and Marie-Susan, but I was exhausted and about to go to sleep.

There’s also, I think, a groundskeeper and a nightwatchman, but I don’t think they live here. I don’t really recognize them yet, and I’ve been told, but I don’t remember, their names, but I’m figuring it out.

Friday, February 17, 2006

It's a hard knock life

There’s always something to puncture my bubble. Remembering something from the Lonely Planet, I stopped at a corner store to buy bread for breakfast today. I went inside, and explained that I wanted something on the bread, and discovered that I could choose between chocolate and butter. As if that was a choice. So I bought a dime’s worth of break, with a dime’s worth of chocolate, and walked away, extremely content with my lot.

I headed directly to a new cyber, where I discovered that, for the same price as at my original favorite, I could have an hour at the computer with a QWERTY keyboard. So I happily typed away my hour, and then headed back home. I was still hungry, though, so I decided to stop again at the corner store. This time, I was going to buy a full baguette, which I’d take home and use later for a sandwich or something for lunch, and maybe for breakfast tomorrow morning. But the chocolate was so good, I decided to ask them to take a small part of it to spread with chocolate.

All was going well, I thought. I explained that I wanted part with chocolate, I showed him how much to cut off the end. And then he started slicing open the big piece. No, I explained. I only want this little one with chocolate. He looked at me, and nodded, and continued slicing. Then he brought out the chocolate. No wait, I said. I wanted the chocolate on THIS one. The LITTLE one. He looked at me, nodded, and continued spreading.

Oops. I need to learn some better Wolof, already.

Not that I won’t enjoy the whole, chocolately, bready goodness. Who needs vitamins in their food? I take a multi-vitamin every morning! And I had an orange. Very healthful, I am.

Anyway, to answer somebody’s question: yes, Wolof is a language. It’s the language of the largest ethnic group in Senegal, and has become the lingua franca of all the cities and larger towns. Which means that even if your family is, for instance, Serrer (another ethnic group), you’ll learn Wolof when you leave the village. And more and more, children are learning Wolof immediately, instead of their own language. In Dakar, most people speak French, but this is less true outside of Dakar (which I saw yesterday, on my trip to interview the Peace Corps guy), and even in Dakar, there are a fair number who speak minimal French, and speak Wolof much better.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what is different and scary and overwhelming here (and see below for another entry of more of the same), and there is certainly a lot to say on that subject. But in fairness, I think I need to spend a minute talking about the many ways in which my life here is NOT hard. I don’t mean in some worldly, “when you look at how tough some poor people in Africa have it” sense. I mean, compared to YOU, reading this on your computer, in America or Israel or Australia or wherever, my life is a bowl of peaches and cream.

Let’s talk about Wednesday, for a moment. If I can be said to have a “routine” after less than a week, Wednesday exemplified that routine. I woke up around 9 am to yet another gorgeous, clear, blue-skied, sunny day. The temperature in Dakar is a breezy 65-75 degrees every day, and it won’t rain until July at the earliest (although starting next month, apparently, it will get much hotter).

I showered (in my private bathroom, attached to my bedroom), at some breakfast (yoghurt, I think, out of my mini-fridge) and walked to my 10 am Wolof class, at the Baobab Center, which is 10 minutes away.

(A moment of self-congratulation: for the first time, I was able to walk in a direct route to the Baobab center, instead of walking myself in circles for a half hour before finding it. Progress!)

I arrived at the center, said hello to all the people that I’d been seeing every day, and grabbed a cup of hot milk (they put out warm milk for coffee—Nescafe—but I don’t drink coffee, so I thought I’d try a “steamer” of sorts—hot milk with a sugar cube. It was yummy).

I went to class (two hours of elementary instruction in Wolof, with a 15 minute break in the middle). Wednesday, for the first time, I was able to join a class with other students. They are 3 Norwegian exchange students who arrived a week before I did. I took Wolof classes on Monday and Tuesday to catch up to their level, and now we’ll continue on together.

When class was finished, I explained that I was going to have to miss the class scheduled for Thursday, since I needed to go to Fatick to interview my Peace Corps dude. The Norwegians immediately offered to reschedule the class entirely, so that I wouldn’t miss anything. The teacher immediately agreed, and told us he was available to make up the class whenever we wanted. We agreed to tack an extra hour onto our class on Monday, and decide where to put the other hour at some other time.

After class, the three Norwegians (Christian, Nina, Lena) and I walked off together to find some lunch. We ended up heading towards the University (where they are taking their other classes), and going to the internet café there, before actually finding lunch. With a whole extra week under their collective belts, they are far more experienced in the ways of Dakar, so they explained lots of things to me, including the very scary (not really) car rapides (buses, kinda) and whatever else I asked about.

Lena and Christian planned to wander towards the ocean, vaguely in the direction of downtown, after lunch, and they invited me to join them. I needed to call my bank to try to work out the ATM card problem, and they decided to wait for me.

And so we wandered, and chatted, and wandered, and looked at the ocean, and when we got tired, we found a bar that looked out over the ocean, and drank a beer and chatted and looked at the ocean. When we were done, Christian helped me find a car rapide going to my neighborhood, and I went home.

So to recap: class, email, wandering, ocean, chatting. Tough day, right? And, not including my Wolof class, the entire thing cost me less than $4, plus another $4 or so to call the bank (unsuccessfully, it turned out, so part of that was my call to my sister to get her to try to fix the problem from her end).

See what I mean? La vie est tellement dure. Which means “Life is really hard”, and is a complete lie.

P.S. Remember how, on Sunday, I couldn’t find a bank for love or money? Well the little bank, the one that didn’t change money, was at the intersection of two main roads. When I left, I continued walking south. Had I turned west, instead, there would have been two full-service, international banks within about a five minute walk. Just thought I’d mention. For the record.


It’s very tempting to continue telling stories of my confusion and general patheticness. There are, and will be for some time, plenty to tell. Tonight, for instance, I took a car rapide (actually, what I took was an “al hamda”, which is short for “Al Hamdulilay” which means something like “Thank God” in Arabic, and is painted on the front of a certain kind of bus here) from downtown to my neighborhood. In theory. And in fact, it left me off very near my apartment. Except I promptly started walking in the wrong direction.

But let’s not focus on that for a moment.

Or on the fact that the electricity just went out. Apparently that happens around here. It happened yesterday afternoon, but the power came back on before it got dark. But now it’s almost 8 pm, so it’s on the dark side. Oh well. The battery on my laptop is fully charged, I have my trusty head lamp, and it’s not like I was watching TV (there are two TV’s in my landlady’s house, but I don’t have one in here.)

Shall we focus on the guy who appeared at my screen door while I was on the cell phone with Michelle about a half hour ago, with what appeared to be very important business? I hadn’t met him before, but he was gesturing impatiently, and told me to come find him as soon as I got off the phone. (Awa, one of the maids, just came to light a candle for me. Yay Awa.)

So I finish my call with Michelle, and go into the house, where Karim (the guy left his name and cell phone number for me, so that I could call him if it was too much trouble to go find him at the house, two feet away) was eagerly waiting. To convince me to go out with him to Magic Land this weekend, where there will be a concert or something.

Maybe you want to ask my name first? (Actually, he did ask my name first. Formalities dispensed with, he proceeded directly to business.) Ahh Senegalese men. Charming.

I feel like I should clarify a few things. David commented that things seem very laid back here. They are and they aren’t. The bank closed at noon, but it was Saturday, and most banks in the US aren’t open late on Saturdays either. The taxi driver came back later that day for his money, but he was trying to avoid getting paid in dollars. He’d taken me to an ATM and two closed banks (it was 6 am) on the way from the airport, so he’d seen me trying to get cash. Most importantly though, he knew where I lived and he knew my landlady, so he was pretty sure he’d get paid.

People are extremely friendly, and there is a strong culture of hospitality. Greetings are very important, and everyone asks how you’re doing and how your day was. And if they know you, they ask how your family is doing and how their days are going.

But it’s also a big bustling city. People are trying to make a living, and that means trying to sell you something (at whatever price they can convince you to pay) and that also means getting somewhere else (so the roads and sidewalks are crowded with cars, bikes, merchants, and pedestrians).

Hey, the electricity came back on. 20 minutes, total. Not bad.

Another point to clarify—there are in fact numerous employees that live and work here. But, as far as I can tell, that is not the norm. My landlady is, quite clearly, loaded. And I’ve read, although I don’t know for sure that it applies here, that in developing countries, it is seen as almost a social obligation to hire people if you have the means. People need jobs.

In general, though, the story of today is that things are going well. I’m meeting people and making friends, which is a key first step to getting situated in a new place. And I talked to my landlady about staying in this apartment more long term, which she was very amenable to. I also came across a second option: today I joined a Wolof class with three Norwegians, two of whom are moving into an apartment not far from here. They move in on March 1st, and they will have 5 rooms (not sure how that breaks down into kitchen, living room etc), which they said meant there was definitely room for me to share the apartment.

Meanwhile, Scooter, you are hearby banned from making any comments about “working” or “journalism” or “how do you expect to support yourself young lady.” I’ve only been here for five days. I’m working on it.

Actually, today I had a frustrating email. I had pitched a story to a small magazine in Pennsylvania, for a story I wanted to do before I left. I pitched it in early January, and I intended to follow up and get it all taken care of before I left. But then I got busy and distracted getting ready to move here, and I didn’t hear back, so I let it go. Today, the editor wrote back saying she’d love for me to do the story. Which is going to be a bit more difficult to accomplish from Dakar. Right.

Meanwhile, life will no doubt become more interesting again tomorrow, as I head out of town to interview someone for the article I’m writing for my alumni magazine. It involves going to a bus station (such as they are here), which means negotiating a fair price from a taxi driver, and then finding the correct bus (actually, more like a van) and then getting off in the right place. But I have a cell phone, and if anything goes awry, I can always call the guy I’m meeting and ask for help. Very professionally, of course. (Yeah, I threw “professional” out the window about five days ago. I’ll go back and get it in a month or so.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Petit a petit, l'oiseau fait son nid.***

*** Means, little by little the bird builds it's nest.

My first year of French class, in sixth grade, we learned a new proverb every week. This is the first one we learned (and the only one I remember, at least at this moment).

I hate it when other people throw in words from another language, as if you’re just supposed to know what they mean. Or else to make them look smart. I don’t know why I feel compelled to do it when I’m some place where they speak French, but I can’t seem to stop. I just like words--the shape of them and the rhythm. It's the same as when I use "y'all" or "dude" (which, rest assured sounds equally foreign coming out of my mouth). That sounded like a better reason in my head.

Anyway, today (meaning yesterday, now that I'm posting this) was a good day. I have a cell phone, which makes me feel connected to the world. Of course nobody has the phone number, and nobody needs to call me, and I hardly know anybody here, but. But!

And! Buying the cell phone! Triumph, I tell you. Of course, I probably still would be wandering the streets, too afraid to walk into a store, if it weren’t for Michelle.

Here’s a glimpse of Naomi, the Intrepid World Traveler. I have finished my first Wolof lesson, which had been scheduled from 11 am to 1. Fantastic. And actually, it went quite well. My French is starting to come back to me (especially as I start to relax a little—I lose the ability to form coherent sentences in English when I’m nervous or shy, so forget about it in French), and the lesson was conducted almost entirely in French. Which, before it started, I was wondering about, and had thought would make things difficult. But of course, I’m learning simple concepts in Wolof (What’s your name? How are you?) which I know how to say very well, thank you very much, in French, so it wasn’t confusing at all.

Okay, right, back to my story.

It’s one o’clock, and the lesson has been a raging success. I’ve packed away my lesson book, and marched myself back to my favorite cyber (i.e. the only one I’ve been to so far) and sit myself down at a computer to send off the last few bits of my Peace Corps acceptance materials (yeah, really). An hour later, I’m done with all my email, and I’m ready to grab some lunch before meeting Michelle at 2:30.

There’s a man selling fruit and nuts and other items right outside the cyber, so I quickly buy a banana. Success! But then I want something a little more substantial. Does it occur to me to walk back into the neighborhood behind the cyber, on which I’ve seen many a little bread stand? Ahh non. Instead I wander stupidly around the two blocks of main road nearby, where the only things I see are more fruit stands and barbershops. Does it occur to me to ask somebody if there’s some place to go? Does it occur to me to go back to ask at the Baobab center, where I had my Wolof lesson (a block away), which is an alleged cultural center and a resource for exchange students? Mais, bien sur que non. (I know, I did it again with the French.)

I see a Mobil station on the corner, with a convenience store. I scoff. Clearly I can do better than this. Clearly I can find something to eat. I am Naomi, Intrepid World Traveler.

I wander for about 3 minutes more, and then I go into the Mobil station. And what do I buy? Cookies.

I bought cookies for lunch.

NOT a raging success.

I went back to the Baobab Center to wait for Michelle, feeling a little chagrined. But the cookies were tasty.

So like I said, if it weren’t for Michelle, I’d probably still be wandering the streets with no cell phone. Or I’d have gotten home hours ago, having eaten nothing but cookies and a banana, and hid under my covers for a nice defensive nap.

Instead, we went to a lovely little restaurant for a real lunch, and chatted for hours about journalism (she wants to be a journalist, too) and traveling and whatever else. And we ran into, and chatted with, two of her friends from another University program.

Afterwards, we went to a little store she knew of to buy the phone. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough Senegalese cash to buy it. (Remember how my ATM card isn’t working? And how people don’t really accept credit cards here? And how finding a bank that will change money isn’t the world’s easiest task?) But the guy didn’t want to lose his sale. So when I asked him where I could change money, he ran off to see what he could figure out. And then he grabbed the phone, told us to follow him, and took us to a little newsstand/snack shop around the corner, where the guy gave me a better exchange rate than I’d found downtown, and even sold me a SIM card for the phone.

Unqualified victory.

So now I’ve made plans to head out of town on Thursday to visit the Peace Corps dude I’m interviewing for my story (should be an adventure, but he gave me very detailed directions, so I think I should be okay. And if I have a problem, I can call him on my CELL PHONE!)

And I’ve called another freelance journalist who I’m hoping to meet up with sometime this week.

Petit a petit... Yeah, I'll shut up. But just wait until I start throwing in the Wolof. THAT will get annoying.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Me voici

After being here less than 12 hours, I discovered a huge flaw in my planning. Why did nobody warn me of this impending catastrophe?

People here speak French (wait for it, wait for it) which means that they *also* type in French (I’m getting to the point now). Which MEANS (aha! My point!) that they use Francophone keyboards.

It’s horrible. I’ve used these keyboards before, in France, and, you do start to get used to them, eventually. But man do they suck. I grew up with computers, and learned to type practically at the same time I learned to write. For me, typing is an extension of my thought process. I don’t think about typing any more than I think about speaking. I think the thoughts, and they appear on my screen.

Except when the “w” is where the “z” should be, and there’s a weird “u” with an accent where the apostrophe should be, and you have to hold down the damn shift key every time you want a numeral or a period.

To complicate matters further, I have my own laptop here, with its blessedly normal keyboard. But, as I just discovered, after my second visit to the cyber (internet café), where I finally got to the point where I remembered to use my right pinkie finger to type the “m”, I start making mistakes when I switch back.

Okay, enough bitching. Tell the truth, you would have been disappointed if I started off with anything OTHER than petty whining, right? I mean, here I am, finally in Senegal, after months of planning, panicking, and excitement. I’m living the dream, or at least what I’ve convinced others (and myself?) is my dream, and what? You want to hear about the beautiful courtyard, full of flowers and birds? You want to hear about my landlady/host, who is the world’s nicest woman? You want to hear about the kids playing soccer in the street?

Actually, you probably do. And they’re all here, and my apartment couldn’t be lovelier. (Pictures to come.) There is running water and electricity (not surprising in Dakar), and also HOT water (which was a bit of a surprise). I have a teeny little fridge, and a tiny, two-burner gas stove (but no oven). I also have a guest room, so feel free to stop by for a visit.

I don’t know how long I’m staying in this apartment. I planned for a week, and meanwhile, I thought I’d explore my other options. I think I could stay here longer, if I wanted, but I’d need to ask. I feel a little more like a burden than I’d expected. The apartment is completely independent of the main house, but I, most decidedly, am not. I’m full of questions, and helplessness, and my landlady (whom I’ve already started thinking of as a host mother, so that just goes to show MY state of mind) couldn’t be nicer about it.

Yesterday, after a morning full of napping, I wandered in the general direction of downtown, with a single goal: get some cash in the local currency. Actually, I was full of optimism that I’d get some cash, explore downtown, grab some lunch, and maybe get a cell phone. But I decided I’d count it as a victory if only I managed to find some cash—especially since I still owed my taxi driver from the airport, who was supposed to come back that afternoon to collect.

I *did* find a bank, only to discover, after waiting for my turn for nearly half an hour, that they didn’t exchange money there (it WAS awfully small). Unfortunately, by the time I got out of there, it was after noon, and the rest of the banks were closed. I hoped to find an ATM (even though my ATM card didn’t seem to be working at the first machine I’d tried on the way from the airport, or at the tiny bank) or a bureau de change or a hotel or something, so I continued on my wandering.

But, since I didn’t really know where I was, or where I was going, I didn’t really want to get too far off course and wind up lost. So I just stayed on the one main road I recognized. And, nearly 40 minutes later, I had not seen a SINGLE bank or ATM. I also had no idea where I was going. I was pretty sure if I kept going, I’d end up downtown, but I wasn’t sure how long that would take.

Finally, I saw a sign for a bank, pointing me up another main road 800 m. I contemplated the pros and cons of changing course. On the one hand, eventually there HAD to be a bank on the road I’d been walking, and the odds had to be in my favor, right? On the other hand, the sign looked very promising, and 800 meters didn’t sound ALL that far.

I gambled on the sign.

And, after only losing courage for a moment (I asked directions at a boulangerie (bread bakery) where they confirmed I was on the right path), I found the bank. Which was, no surprise, closed. But there was an ATM, and there were many comforting logos on the outside: Mastercard, Visa, Cirrus, Plus, Maestro, etc. Many of those logos also exist on my ATM card, so I felt relatively confident in my success.

Foolishly confident, it turned out. My card was rejected. I honestly don’t know what the problem is. I’ve used my ATM card everywhere I’ve traveled, including Botswana, and never had any problem. A neighbor from my hometown spent a few months here in 2003, and she said that she used her ATM card the whole time. I did bring cash and travelers checks with me, just in case, but with everything closed, they weren’t any help.

Thoroughly discouraged, I decided to head back home. A street vendor tried desperately to sell me some peanuts (he was willing to make any kind of bargain, and the peanuts looked pretty good), and I doubt he believed me when I told him I had no money.

I hadn’t managed even the simplest of my goals for the outing, and when the taxi driver came by, he had the choice either to accept dollars or to take a chance that I’d get my act together and finally manage to exchange some currency. He was very nice about it (if slightly disbelieving), but he took the dollars.

My landlady came home a little later, and she just pulled out her walled and offered me 10,000 CFA ($20) and told me to pay her back on Monday.

The point I’m trying to make, I suppose, is that it’s profoundly disorienting to be in a new place. This is not unexpected, but it’s always a bit humbling. And, the other point I was trying to make, I think, was that I’m not all that unobtrusive, living in this little apartment 2 feet away from my landlady’s house, and she may not want someone here long term.

Of course, I’ve only been here for (as I type) 36 hours, and, of course, things will improve. The plus side of my unsuccessful wandering yesterday was that, when I got home, I pulled out my giant city map, and was able to orient myself much better. Now I know where I am, and where that is in relation to other parts of the city, and this morning when I walked out the gate, I knew how to get to downtown. And I DID get there, and I FINALLY changed some money, and I even bought myself some lunch. (Let’s not talk about all the “rules of safe eating” that I forgot about, like how I ate the uncooked tomatoes in my sandwich, and used the ketchup and mustard in little cups that they put on my table, and the food was on the lukewarm side, and… Yeah, I suck at following those stupid rules. But at least I’m taking my anti-malaria pills, so that’s gotta count for something.)

And my landlady has invited me to join her family for supper, so that makes two real meals, in contrast to yesterday’s all Clif bar diet. Okay, I’m exaggerating—after my landlady lent me some money, I bought bread, cheese, and yogurt, and her maid had brought me some fresh fruit in the afternoon. (Oh wait, did I mention that she has a maid? Actually she has two of them. Plus a guard/groundkeeper type.) But I probably ate 4 Clif bars in total, before I managed to find alternate food. Today, so far, no clif bars at all.

By the time I post this (I’m typing at home, and I’ll attempt to save it on my jump drive and then use my jump drive at the cyber tomorrow…) I’ll have started my Wolof class, and maybe even met up with Michelle who is going to help me buy a cell phone and also be my friend (I’ve decided).

A bientot!

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god.

I am leaving tomorrow. Less than 24 hours, if you want to get technical. I didn't think I would get this feeling until I got on the plane. But no. There I was, driving home from Circuit City (spending yet more money) and, oh yeah, I know that feeling.

It's a good thing, this vaguely nauseating rock that has formed inside my stomach. This is not real fear. There's nothing to be scared of. This is. I don't know what this is.

This is the moment on the roller coaster when, after climbing every single foot of the highest incline (very, very, slowly) you're about to hurtle back down. This is the reason you got on the roller coaster to begin with. Doesn't mean you're not terrified. I've seen people get off those roller coasters though, and they can't wait to get back on. Except me. I hate roller coasters.

Don't tell me I'll be fine. Don't tell me it'll be a great experience. I know all that. I believe all that. I'm excited.

And honestly, I hope everyone feels like this sometimes. This feeling has preceded all the fabulous things I've ever done. This feeling means I'm doing something right.

I'm as ready as I'll ever be. By which I mean, the plane takes off at 5:35 tomorrow night, whether I'm on it or not, and I plan to be on it.

In the meantime, ACK. And I'm taking it out on my poor mother, who didn't want me to go in the first place. And she's finally come to terms with the fact that I'm going, and is trying to be nice, and I would appreciate it except for the fact that I'm too busy being a snotty brat.

Anyway, i had lots more to say, like about how when people tell me they're going to miss me, I feel guilty and apologize, instead of the normal (and accurate) response that I'll miss them, too. Because I feel like they're all thinking, "If you were REALLY going to miss us, you wouldn't go."

But now I need to go pick up dinner (I requested pizza, and then bratted about what kind and from where, as if this were my last meal EVER and couldn't people please just do EXACTLY what I say for once?) with my mother, and try to make up for my obnoxiousness.

And I'm not sure what the point of this post was. But I gotta go.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Loose Ends

Before I forget, thank you to all the lurkers for revealing yourselves. It's so fun hearing your stories. There's a lot of accomplished and aspiring marathoners and half-marathoners (not, I suppose, particularly surprising on a blog called "26.2 miles vs." something). How have your races been going? I'm sure I should go read all your fabulous blogs to find out, but I'm having trouble keeping up with my reading, now that I don't have a day job. (Heh.)

And of course, thank you to the regular commenters, whose responses I always love hearing. Riona, we should talk about the Gambia (like how much I adore that they passed legislation to add the definite article to their official name). I am hoping to travel there at some point. Also, Anne, you say you have lived some of my journalism dreams. Any advice?

Speaking of 26.2 miles vs. Something (which I was, a bunch of sentences back. Don't get all literal on me), it has been suggested that I need a new name for this blog. There are, as you can imagine, infinite possibilities.

I could go with a theme: 26.2 miles vs. Africa

or for a horrifying pun: Naomi is the SeneGAL!

or maybe plagiarism: Circling the Baobabs

But somehow none of these is singing to me. So please chime in with any suggestions. If there are enough good ones, maybe I'll conduct a poll.

Of course, a new title would require a new banner, and I don't really have the technology for that anymore (See above, re: lack of day job). So we may just stick with what we have.


In other news, I consider it a triumph of sorts that my announcement of marathon retirement has not prompted anybody to question whether I will stop running altogether. After the first marathon, that was a frequent (and entirely justified) question. Apparently, though, two marathons crosses some sort of threshold, after which people just assume you don't want to stop running.

Which, it just so happens, is true. I DON'T want to stop running. I. like. running. (I like to keep saying it, because it sounds so bizarre.)

Of course, I haven't been running since the marathon. This, as you all can guess, has not failed to cause a fair bit of panic in my neurotic brain.

Except not really. It's been a week. I've kind of loved the vacation. But I'm bringing running shoes to Senegal, and, unless I find out something about safety, I'll soon be running along the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

I know. Pity me.


I was going to write about how I'm going soft, and losing my cynical edge (which is true). This is particularly true in my African dance class, where I hugged people goodbye today, and promised to stay in touch, and gave my teacher a copy of a CD that I thought she would like, and didn't even cringe a little bit when she talked about relaxing into our breathing space, and how now we should add our hearts to a certain movement. It's a good thing I'm moving to Africa, because I'm dangerously close to becoming ungaurded, open-minded, and friendly.

But it's lunchtime, and I need to call my twin brother back, and I'm meeting friends for coffee soon, so I'll just have to save that for another time.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Another baseball term

My brother was waiting for us and taking pictures at the finish line. (My mother and grandmother had stayed at mile 21 to cheer for a while, and then went home to wait for us there.) He and Deanna helped me stretch, and carry my things, and listened to me gush about how much less sore I was this time than after Anchorage. The three of us eventually managed to meet up with David, Rachel, and Brent (you've seen the pictures) and we sat on the grass, stretched, and gabbed for almost another hour. The weather, when not running, was actually gorgeous.

Everyone was starving, but I was determined to go to the ocean and let my legs soak in the cold water. Since we didn't really know where to go that was near the finish line, we decided to drive back to the beach near my dad's house. The traffic was still pretty bad, and I almost gave up, but I'm so glad I didn't.

I think there will always be a part of me that wishes I'd managed to keep running, and that I'd hit the finish line at 4:30. That wonders what would have happened if I hadn't stopped to walk through the aid station at mile 19, or if I'd thought to carry a couple salt packets with me. That wonders how the race would have been different if the temperature had been 10 degrees cooler, as it had been in previous years, and that calculates how if I'd shaved 30 seconds off this mile here, and that mile there...

But that's pointless. I can always come up with a calculation that would have resulted in a better time, and hell, if I'd run 4 minute miles, I'd have set a world record. Even if I had finished in 4:30, that same part of my brain (the dumb part) would probably be wondering why I didn't hit 4:22. It's the part of me that, when I'd get a 96 on a paper in high school, wanted to know where I'd lost 4 points.

I did the best that I could at every step of the way, and, for once, that's good enough for me. I can't swear that I'll never run another marathon ever. But right now, I don't want to.

I leave for Senegal a week from Friday. And Peace Corps sent me a letter inviting me to teach English in Cameroon, starting in June.

I'm not exactly sure if I'll end up doing Peace Corps. And I have even less of an idea of what I will be doing in Senegal. But I'm pretty excited to find out.

I plan to keep posting in this blog, but I imagine I will write less about running, and more about Africa. I hope you'll all stick around and keep me company. I'm going to need it.

In that vein, I'm going to ask a favor. I know there are a few people who read this blog, and don't comment. Which is totally cool. I hardly ever comment on other people's blogs. But I'm curious to know who you are. So I'm asking all the lurkers to say hi. Tell me where you're from (be general--I'm not trying to stalk you). Do you run? Ever been to Africa?

A hit

I ran to the right, making sure to plant my foot squarely on at least one of the "marathon" cartoon footprints. Don't ask why. I'm also the girl who would avoid stepping on any cracks (to not break my mother's back) and who would step over the darker rows of tiles in my elementary school because, well, I guess I'm OCD.

With two-thirds of the runners heading for the half-marathon finish line, the field thinned considerably. This allowed me, finally, to use a porta potty. I'd wanted to for miles, but there was a line at all the previous ones.

Soon I was back on the road, and beeping over the mat at the halfway point, at something like 2:14. Well on target for my goal, and feeling pretty strong. I was two miles away from finishing my third 5-mile race, and three miles away from where I was supposed to meet Deanna and my family. My fuel belt was running low, but I had left two replacement bottles with my brother, and Deanna had filled one of her fuel belt bottles with additional gatorade for me.

I didn't really want gatorade though. Although I've never minded the sweetness in training, on race day, the sun-warmed, syrupy, orange concoction was driving me crazy. I hadn't taken anything from any previous water stops, but at mile 14 I grabbed a cup of water.

These next few miles were fairly residential and somewhat shaded. I was still loving my music, and, unlike in Anchorage, keeping mostly to myself. I'd spoken to Derek, and also to Angela (around mile 10), who was running her first half-marathon and determined not to have to walk. But I was mostly running my own race, and in fact I was running in sort of an empty pocket. If I have one complaint about the race organization, it was that they failed to post road closures effectively, and it was clear that non-running Miami was severely inconvenienced. There were cops directing traffic at every intersection, and cars lined up seemingly endlessly. Occasionally they would let a single car through ahead of or behind me. But there were plenty more cars, and the honking didn't seem like it was meant as encouragement for the runners.

Around mile 15, I fell into step with two runners in pink. I don't think they knew each other, but they seemed to be running together at that moment. We greeted each other, and I mentioned that I felt good, but wished we were about 10 miles further on. And in the process, I depressed myself by realizing that, 10 miles on, I would still be running. But I had started my fourth 5-mile race, and was about to hit my reinforcements.

In theory.

As I ran through the 16th mile marker, the water stop, and the general area of where I had thought I was meeting my family and Deanna, it became obvious that they weren't there. I held out hope until about mile 18, but to be honest, by the time I had hit 16.5, I already knew that something had happened and they hadn't made it.

At that point in Anchorage, I was exhausted and trying to keep up with LadyFab, and looking forward to meeting our families as a chance to stop and catch my breath. When we didn't see them at 16, I was horribly disappointed, and by the time I saw them 2 miles later, my legs had cramped and I was falling apart. This time, I was disappointed, but running comfortably on my own with my music, so I was determined not to let my family's non-appearance shake me. My only worry was that my fuel belt bottles were empty. But there were water stops every mile, and I knew I'd be okay.

It was getting brutally hot, though. I grabbed a cup of gatorade at the 17th mile, and downed a few gulps (and splashed a lot all over me). I grabbed a cup of water at the 18th mile, and drank almost all of it. But I was starting to worry about drinking too much. Also, I'd been fighting stomach cramps the whole time, and gulping down huge cups of water or gatorade every mile didn't seem like a good plan.

So at mile 19, I took a cup of gatorade, and walked through the aid station. I drank a few sips, and then poured the rest into one of my fuel belt flasks, filling it nearly to the top.

All to the greater good. Except, good lord, the walking felt good. It was so slow, and I had so many miles to go, but. Walking. Wow. Unbelievably good.

It was not easy to start running again, and even harder to keep running once I'd started. I made it to the next water stop at mile 20, and once again walked and refilled one of my flasks.

This time it was even harder to start running again. I passed through the water stop and tried to pick a landmark or feature in the near distance where I would start running.

But I kept walking.

Mentally, I think, I was losing the battle. I was so hot, and so tired, and I had six endless miles to go. All I wanted to do was stop (or walk, at least) and chug gallons of ice cold water. I envisioned running off the course to the beach and submerging myself in the ocean. I wished for someone to appear with an icy towel. Or ice. My kingdom for an ice cube.

A minute or so later, the lady in pink from mile 15 passed by. "Get a move on! Stop walking" she shouted. I grunted some sort of response. But as I watched her back, I realized she was right.

So I started to run. I told myself I'd run at least half a mile, but by the time I'd been running again for 5 or 6 minutes, I'd hit some sort of stride, and, though I was running slowly, I'd stopped wishing so hard that I could stop. I still had a full flask from the last water stop, and I told myself to keep running until mile 23.

The course took us through Coconut Grove, a ritzy suburb of Miami that I'd visited once with a friend. There were a lot of spectators (many lounging at sidewalk cafes) and lots of fancy store windows.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Deanna appeared at my side. Later, I heard about the incredible traffic, the roads closed without warning, the unhelpful cops, and the helpful race volunteer. About driving backwards the wrong way down a one-way street to escape the traffic jam where they'd sat stationary for more than 20 minutes, and about entering a twilight zone traffic warp, where no matter what direction they drove, they ended up at the Hyatt Hotel. About endlessly calculating and recalculating where I might be and where they could catch up with me, but never getting any closer, until, thanks to dumb luck and iron determination, they'd suddenly arrived exactly at mile 21, minutes before I would get there (they hoped).

They had been driving almost as long as I'd been running, and they felt terrible that they hadn't been at mile 16. I was simply grateful that they were there at all, and I squeezed Deanna's hand and managed to tell her "I'm so glad you're here!" before starting in with the whining. "I'm so hot. It's SO HOT."

"I know," she said. "But you're doing so well. You look great. And your family is just up there. Just a little farther up."

When they'd found themselves at mile 21, they'd hopped out of the car, and Deanna immediately started running towards mile 20. She only made it about a quarter mile before she saw me, and she kept telling me where my family would be and how happy they would be to see me. My brother was there, and so was my mother and grandmother. After finally managing to start running again, I was unwilling to stop, so I waved as I passed by. My brother had the camera, my mother passed off my extra fuel belt flasks to Deanna, and my grandmother cheered. I heard my brother try to apologize for not being there earlier ("You meant we should come later, right?" he joked) but I didn't stop.

A couple minutes later, though, I had no choice. My calves cramped.

The last five miles were like a--much less unpleasant--repeat of Anchorage. I'd walk until the cramps passed, and stretch my calves on the side of the road. Then I'd walk a bit more, and then start running again. After that first cramp, I was able to run almost the rest of the way to the next mile marker. I think I passed David somewhere around this point. He was walking, but he seemed in good spirits. Mile 22 was harder; getting from 22 to 23 took an eternity, and I kept having to stop.

I was sick to death of the gatorade, and I started drinking Deanna's Vitamin Water/Electrolite Water concoction because it was less sweet. And, at the aid station at mile 23, someone had pretzels, which, at that moment, were a chalky, dusty, piece of heaven. A little further up, some spectators had a bowl of cheez-its, which were even better, and a bit beyond that, another family of specatators were pouring bottles of aquafina on passing runners. Few things have ever felt as good as having that 20 oz. bottle of water poured over my head.

Whether it was the salt or just the mental boost of having only three miles to go, the cramps seemed to alleviate after 23, even if they didn't disappear entirely. The worst cramp I remember hit just in front of a Gordon Biersch restaurant that I'd noticed the day before. One calf seized up, but the other foot kept moving, and I spun around and yelped in pain. But that was the last cramp I remember. I'm pretty sure I ran the last two miles without stopping.

Every part of me wanted to let loose and speed through to the finish line, but my calves couldn't take it. Still, I ran those last couple miles in about 11:20 each, and I didn't even have to stop when we hit the last little "hill" (a tiny bridge over the Miami river).

I was finally able to lengthen my stride slightly as I hit the final straight-away, which I was dying to do, if for no other reason than to make my finish line picture look better. They haven't posted them yet, so I don't know how well my plan worked. And I choked up (with pleasure) when they handed me my medal. Which, I'm not going to lie, is one of the ugliest things that I will never part with.