Sunday, April 30, 2006

Where's a matzah ball when you need one?

It was bound to come up eventually.

On Friday, I ventured, for the first time since arriving in deep, dark Africa, to the doctor.

I got her name from the US Embassy website for Americans living in Dakar, (and found her again on the French Embassy website) and I called first thing in the morning to make an appointment. This was, by far, the most difficult part of the operation, as the receptionist kept asking me whom the appointment was for, and I kept saying, “for Dr. X. I want to make an appointment with Dr. X.” Apparently she knew that part already.

I’d been sick for nearly a week, with what I kept insisting was “just a cold.” I don’t really like going to the doctor or taking medicine, because I’m young and healthy and antibiotics are overprescribed and that’s why God gave me an immune system. Also, I have an unreasonable fear of being told to quit being such a big baby, there’s nothing wrong with you. But that might (possibly?) just be one of my Issues.

So instead of going to the doctor, I chose to whimper and whine my way from Saturday through Thursday, with a fever, a sore throat, and a cough. I alternated between pretending there was nothing wrong (of COURSE I will still go to the outdoor dance party until 4:30 am on Saturday night. Why wouldn’t I?) and writing out my will (to the intestinal parasite in my belly, I leave my favorite sandals, because they’re BROKEN, and it serves you right you wormy bitch!**). On Wednesday, I felt enough better to go to dance class and to go running on Thursday morning. On Thursday afternoon, I learned that had been a Bad Idea, as by lunchtime I was back in bed lamenting my fate.

Thursday night, I moaned to Suzanne, “when will I feel better?” and despite having listened to nearly a week of such charm, she managed to refrain from kicking me in the shins. She merely replied, very sensibly, “when you go to the doctor.” And then she went back to watching the Columbian soap opera we’re both addicted to.


And thus we return to the beginning of the story, in which I confuse a receptionist, read about crocheting a dress in the latest summer 2004 styles, and finally see a doctor. She was kind, competent, efficient, and charmingly understanding as I attempted to explain my symptoms in French.

“What does it sound like when you cough?” She asked.
“Err.. It sounds like… [cough]…. That. “
“Ah yes. Of course.” And she nodded and made a note.

She looked in my ears, nose, and throat, and said, yup, you're good and sick all right. She even pointed out (warning: grossness ahead) that I had white spots on the back of my throat, which constitute Not a Good Sign. I, of course, had to get my flashlight and look for myself as soon as I was home and in front of a mirror, and sure enough, it was like I was incubating horrible, white, people-eating mold back there. Turns out it was dead white cells from my immune system's futile attempt at Operation: Heal Thyself, and not evidence of a losing battle with death (thank you Google) but all in all, I was not pleased.

So she (the doctor) prescribed me some antibiotics and some antibiotical throat lozenges which are doing wonders, and also some unnecessary Other Stuff which I have promptly stopped taking (why she felt I needed an antihistamine for an infection is something I don't really understand). I am, however, taking aleve (pain killer/fever reducer), echinacea (to boost my immune system), Halls Mentho-lyptus, and chicken noodle soup (home made!), so I've got all my witch doctoring ducks in a row. But the end result is that I can now swallow without wanting to scream, and I even have the energy to type this blog post. Which is perhaps unfortunate, because now I no longer have an excuse to avoid my work.

So voila. I was sick, but now I’m feeling better. And I promise a more exciting post soon.

** I do not have an intestinal parasite. But tell that to a girl with a fever, a cough, and a stomach ache who lives in Dakar and you might get a kick in the shins. Tell her that when the stomach ache goes away and you might have a more receptive audience. I’m just saying.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Just visiting

ETA: This felt very true when I started writing it yesterday morning. Now it just kind of feels self-indulgent and overdramatic. But I believed it when I wrote it, so I'm posting it anyway.

Yesterday I asked my friend Théo about his childhood.

“I left school in ‘89” he told me. He’s somewhere around my age, so he would have been about 8 years old then. “I went to work in the fields. I did that for about six years, but I didn’t want to do it anymore. I made some money, but not enough. So I decided to come to Dakar to learn a trade. And that’s what I did.”

He says it with no trace of regret or self-pity. No sense that things could have been any different. He is the oldest of six children and the four oldest all live and work in Dakar now and send money home to support their parents and younger siblings. Although I think, to varying degrees, they were able to stay in school longer than Théo, none of them made it to high school. But their youngest brother is nearly 15 now and still in school—his sisters pay his school fees.

When I was eight years old, I took the yellow school bus home from my suburban elementary school every day with my best friend, Sarah, and we spent the afternoons playing games with our cabbage patch dolls (my favorite was when the dolls bungee jumped from her second floor). The biggest injustice in my life was that Sarah had a key to her front door, and my mother refused to entrust me with one of my own (nevermind that I regularly lost lunchboxes, spring jackets, and who knows what else).

We stopped by the apartment Théo shares with two other guys, which is just down the street from mine. It consists of two small windowless rooms with two mattresses and not much else.

My apartment here also has two rooms, if you don’t include my private bathroom with shower and hot water. It is bright and airy with big windows and my monthly rent is a third of what I paid in DC and probably five times what my friend Suzanne, Théo’s sister, makes working here as a maid. When I was having problems with my ATM card, my parents wired me money to keep me going until I could work it out. When we went to Suzanne and Théo’s family for Easter, they brought home money, food, clothes, and a radio to give their parents and brother.

Awa, the other maid here, is a trained seamstress, but can’t afford to buy a sewing machine. Suzanne, who braided my hair, and Anna’s hair, and regularly braids the hair of her friends, cousins and sisters, for free, would love to open a salon with her cousins who also love braiding, but she can’t afford the course to get certified, let alone start a business.

On our walk, I complained to Théo that I’d been up since 6 am working. I hated myself a little for saying it, for needing to prove that there was something valid and difficult about my work, which involved sitting in front of my expensive laptop in my pajamas writing about politics and mining in Senegal. I hated myself even more when he gave the response my comment obviously demanded, “Wow, you’re so dedicated. You must be exhausted.”

There is nothing about my life that is the same as Théo or Suzanne or Awa’s. I don’t really want to believe that. I want to believe, because people dress like they stepped out of a music video and can sing along to Black Eyed Peas, and I live in Dakar and take the cars rapides (buses), that it doesn’t really make a difference that I was born in America and they were born here. I introduced Anna to people as my oldest friend from my village, as if the yuppified New York suburb we grew up in has something in common with the villages my friends here come from. I talk about how I’m making no money, as if my cashflow worries as a freelancer are comparable to my friends’ struggles to earn a living and support their families.

Okay, I know. I get it. You get it. This is Africa. People are poor here. Not exactly breaking news. And there are plenty of Senegalese whose lives are more like mine. I know university students and musicians and a journalist and a photographer. And America has unfortunately far too many people whose lives are far too difficult. I’m just not one of them.

It’s not like I didn’t know this before coming here. But what gets me is this: part of the reason I wanted to live in Africa was because I didn’t just want to come here as a rich, American tourist, staying in western-style hotels, traveling in hired buses, and never penetrating beyond the artificial veneer put on display for Westerners: a stranger who points a camera at the pretty animals and gawks at the primitive huts.

But as many weekends as I might spent in a rural village dancing to tam-tams, as many Muslim pilgrimages I may attend, as many lunchtimes I may spend in the kitchen with Awa and Suzanne hearing their gripes about life and work and boyfriends, I will never not be a rich American who is just visiting. I’m still gawking, I just have more to gawk at. All these wonderful people are opening up their lives to me, and I’m just sitting back and taking it all in, offering nothing in return.

I’m not saying my friends should or do expect anything more from me than friendship. And I’m not saying that they are somehow noble for the facts of their life. They’re just living their lives like I’m living mine, enjoying what is enjoyable and bitching about what sucks, and cracking up over everything in between.

Except that, by accident of birth, I have access to a life of wealth and opportunity and incredible freedom, which I am using to do… what, exactly?

The thing is, I’ve never wanted to change the world, and I still don’t. I have lots of friends who are searching for ways to contribute in some positive way, and while I admire them for it, I’ve never felt driven in that direction. All I’ve ever wanted was to see the world.

Well, now I’m looking.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I'm like Miss Africa 2006 over here - Edited

Today I woke up with the best of intentions to spend a busy day at the computer, on the internet phone, and in general being a productive freelance journalist. I have a gigantic project due a week from Friday, and needed to get cracking.

Murphy's Law being what it is, I sat down to my computer at 8 am, only for the power to cut out two minutes later. We'd been having such a good run—the last power outage was on Sunday, I think—that I'd not anticipated this possibility.

Well, damn. There's an internet cafe that magically always has power, but I can't really afford to spend an ENTIRE day there. Since i had a phone appointment at 3, I figured I'd go after lunch, and spend the morning doing the other Very Important Project on my to do list.


I hate doing laundry. In DC, I used to wait weeks until the hamper was so densely packed with (smelly running) clothes that it verged on becoming a black hole. And yet the task was fairly painless. My building had a laundry room three floors down with twenty washers and twenty dryers (driers? both look wrong) and within two hours, most of which were spent on my couch watching TV while I waited for the loads to finish, I had dry, fluffy laundry.

Here, it's a little different. As far as I can tell, there are *no* washing machines. There are a couple dry cleaning places I've seen, but really, everybody washes by hand. It's not like they haven't heard of washing machines, but if you ask them, they'll tell you that a machine could never work as well as hand washing.

That may be true, but it turns out that it's also a huge pain in the ass. But the only other option is to pay someone else to do my laundry, and I just can't bring myself to do it. Partly it's the money, but also, I kind of feel weird about asking someone else to scrub my dirty underwear with their bare hands.

Plus, Awa and Suzanne get a huge kick out of watching me scrub away. And between yesterday's cooking and today's laundry, I'm turning into a model African housewife.

African Washerwoman

Note also my braided hair and sarong (called a "pagne" here). Am I the African-est or what?

I confidently told Awa and Suzanne that the power would be back by the time I was done with my laundry. I didn't really expect it would be, since the usual pattern is for it to stay out until at least 4, if not until after dark. But lo and behold, at 1:30, just as I was gearing up to head to the internet cafe, the power was back. Hurrah!

To see a few other pictures (really very few, it takes forever to upload, and I'm lazy), go here.

ETA: I got ambitious, and uploaded some more pictures. Now you can see vistas of Dakar and scenes from my neighborhood and even Anna standing in a pink lake.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I throw kick ass seder

All Senegal is celebrating this week. Between the prophet (Muhammed) 's birthday on Monday, and the messiah (Jesus) 's resurrection on Sunday, it would be easy to overlook the third people of the book. But not if you're hanging out with me. I may not know any other Jewish people here, and I may not be cool enough to get invited to the Israeli embassy (or rather, I may have waited too long to call and they didn't have any space left), but that is not going to stop this Jewish girl from commemorating the Exodus. We were slaves, yo, and now we're free, and in my world, that means one thing: dinner party.

A brief explanation for those who are unfamiliar: Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays. Unlike the other very important holidays, however, the main observance is not in synogogue. Instead, families gather for a ritual meal and retelling of the biblical story of exodus (think Charlton Heston and The Ten Commandments).

This is only the second time in my life that I haven't been home for Passover, and I may not be the most observant Jew in the whole world, but I needed to have a seder.

Y'all. I have never hosted a dinner party in my life.

Okay, that's not really true. In college, my roommates and I used to have people over for dinner all the time. But in a quasi-apartment-dorm kitchen, there's not a lot of pressure. Plus, we used to cook together. Which actually had a tendency to cause more problems than it solved, but still. I've never cooked an important or a fancy meal. My sister is the master chef of our family, and has been cooking all our family meals (Thanksgiving, Passover, and everything in between) since she was in high school. Which left me free to specialize in what I really loved: dessert.

So the prospect of feeding the nearly 10 friends that I invited (to my friend's apartment, since I don't have a kitchen or dining room) was slightly terrifying.

I planned a fairly simple menu, conveniently leaving out or changing the traditional foods that i didn't like. Such as: in my family, Charoset—which symbolizes the mortar the Slave-Jews used in Egypt—is made with apples, walnuts, raisins, and wine. I think. I never eat more than the tiniest taste, since I think both walnuts and raisins are gross. Since all the other recipes I found called for things I didn't think I could find here (candied ginger? pistacios? err...) I figured I'd improvise. So my charoset had apples, dried apricots, orange, and a little wine. It looked nothing like mortar, but it was delicious.

Of course, not everything turned out like I thought it would. But the secret to a good plan is to be flexible. So they don't sell meat for pot roast in Senegal (the butcher looked at me like I was crazy). Roast chicken! And so what if everyone you've invited suddenly wants to invite more of their friends? Three chickens it is.

In the end, I fed 15 people, including four people I'd never met before, and one I still haven't met (he shook my hand and thanked me very sincerely when he left). There was enough food, but not a scrap extra, which is a shame, because I wanted to bring some home for Awa and Suzanne, who were working and couldn't come.

And y'all, it was GOOD. I don't even like roast chicken, but this was some tasty roast chicken. I also served salad, roasted potatoes, zucchini, all the ritual foods, and fruit for dessert. My friends brought the wine and the fruit, and Lena made an additional vegetable side dish. But I cooked for 5 hours. (Can you tell how proud I am? TH------IS proud.)

Once the food was on the table, I had to explain what it all meant (in English and in French), which people didn't find nearly as boring as I'd feared. I even asked (and answered) the Four Questions. (That's only funny if you're in my family, but it's late and I don't feel like explaining.)

Anyway. I felt the need to share.

Next year in Dakar.

Naari weer laa fii am***

*** I told you the Wolof would start eventually. This one means, "two months am here have." Or rather, I've been here for two months.

You can blame the lack of recent updates on Anna, who was visiting for the last ten days. Anna is my oldest friend in the world (in duration of friendship. In age she is one month younger than me). We car-pooled to nursery school together, and ate grilled cheese sandwiches and played with shaving cream at each other's houses (we were three), and weathered adolescent death-ray looks and quasi-adulthood living on opposite sides of the world, and still managed to stay friends.

Which is pretty cool, actually. (Also actually, I should mention that my second oldest friend in the world, Sarah, who is only four days younger than me, only loses this game by about a year. And when Anna was off in Jewish day school, and we only saw each other at birthday parties, Sarah and I made up for that lost time with hundreds of hours of Charles in Charge and Saved By the Bell reruns.)

Anyway. Anna was here, and I should really write all about the fabulous time we had. And I will. Eventually. I swear. But I also have some pressing work, and a seder to cook, and so it'll have to wait. Check out her blog, though, for her version of events. (Which makes things sound much more adventurous than it seemed to me at the time...)

How are you all?