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!


Blogger Kim said...

Sounds like great experiences. Not easy but amazing. I'm in awe. I would so freak out not being able to change my money etc. Hence, I live in my bubble.
I can't wait to hear about more of your adventures. Enjoy every minute.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Dori said...

I would have been in tears of frustration when I couldn't get any money. It sounds like you're adjusting quickly to your new environment. I'm as excited to read about your experiences in Dakar as I was about your marathons.

3:20 PM  
Blogger susie said...

Bonjour, bonjour!! An exciting first start...I loved hearing all about your first couple of days. You will be fine, you know? And I'm sure your host mom likes having you around. Keep us posted:)

6:14 PM  
Blogger David said...

I am amazed at how laid back the natives are. The taxi driver comes back the next day for his pay? The bank closes at noon? Your land lady has all that help? Where did you find each other? What an other worldly place. So casual it seems.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Rae said...

Hmmm, I think I need to get a bank job over there!! Your adventure sounds exciting already. Can't wait to see some pics!

8:16 PM  

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