November 24, 2004

Ode (and apology) to the gas seller

Oh Gas Seller!
You are so great,
here I was just two days ago
snarkily saying "gas? maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month"
when you said yesterday that
gas had arrived just after I had left.

Oh Gas Seller!
Now I can eat hot foods and
junk those saltines that
have been the staple of my diet
for way too long.

Thank you. Thank you very much. I have to give credit to my year in Japan for this great haiku-like composition.

November 23, 2004

My kingdom for some gas

Since it is the end of Ramadan, the twins have been reunited. Upon returning to the kitchen and hearing their jibber jabber, I realized that I had really missed them. Ah, to be Siamese again! Today, the custodian introduced them to the wonders of the microwave. Much like Vanna White smiling stiffly while turning those letters around, he showed them various features of the white box. They exclaimed their wonder in the same voice ranges.

My boss wanted to get tea but unfortunately, the teacup just ran out of hot water. So I arranged for some hot water to be heated in the microwave. Behold the wonder of the microwave! I think that I scored serious points. I am patiently waiting my end of year bonus :)

I ran out of gas about two weeks ago, in the midst of cooking myself a monster meal. I
discovered that half cooked pasta and veggies are pretty inedible. I've been so lazy about getting
new gas that I decided instead to eat the following items:
(1) fruit (does not need to be cooked),
(2) bread (does not need to be cooked),
(3) paté (does not need to be cooked),
(4) crakers (do not need to be cooked),
(5) cheese (does not need to be cooked).
Whoever said that necessity was the mother of invention was a pure genius (although some
would argue in this case that laziness is the grandmother of invention). Yesterday I got around
to asking two stores if they had any gas. Seems like there's a Dakar-wide shortage.
D'oh. Serves me right.

November 22, 2004

Of Mice (and Cockroaches and Grubs) and Men

(Alternative title, "Lions and Tigers and Bears...and Mice and Cockroaches and Grubs...oh my!". I'm so witty I amaze myself sometimes.

My little baobab trees on the balcony were looking quite sad the other day and my persistent talking to them, watering them and preening of their leaves further threw them into a funk. I decided that the only way to revive them was to apply fertilizer. Problem: where the heck can you find fertilizer in Dakar? Alas, there are many clothing stores but not a single flower nursery to be found (OK that's a lie but they're too far from my house and damned if I'm going to negotiate with a taxi just to get there).

Dorothy had this brilliant idea to Make Her Own Compost! No only would it revive her plants but she would take an active part in Saving the World through Recycling. My hippy friends would be proud.

I took a bucket, promptly filled it with vegetable matter and cut newspaper. Every day I used my spatula to move the rotting foodstuff around, shoo the fruit flies away and aerate it to "create aerobic conditions within the composting chamber". It all went fine and dandy until I decided to add Niebe, the African equivalent of a potato. Big mistake! Not only did the Niebe take forever to rot but it smell quite unpleasant and attracted little white grubs. I thought this was not a danger until I got up one morning to hang my clothes on the line, only to feel wet things burst between my toes. The balcony was overrun with little white grubs wiggling and giggling, trying desperately to find something more filling than Niebe. Eeewwwwww! I ran to wash my feet, promptly disposed of my compost (encased in TWO sturdy plastic bags).

To make matter worse, I noticed little black specks behind my living room curtains. This is very much indicative of mouse poop and I swear to Allah, if I find it, it's toast. Then I went to throw the mice poop and the maggoted compost in the garage, only to find myself doing an elaborate dance to miss the multitude of cockroaches.

And I hoped I would get to see Wildlife. Moral: Be careful what you wish for.

November 19, 2004

Japan, meet Senegal.

Yesterday I went to a free Jazz concert, organized by the Japanese Embassy, in Dakar.

Or, as my friend puts it: "We were a group of Americans, Canucks, Swedes, Brits and French; watching Japanese Jazz players, in Senegal". Pretty sweet.

4 stuffy older Japanese men came on the scene and played a pretty believable set of Jazz songs, with the egotistical drummer and attention-craving Sax player to make it more authentic.

I liked the piano man the best. He was sitting prim and proper on his little bench. But when it came time for the piano solo, this guy really knew how to rock: his hands fluttered as quickly as bumble bees' wings and his mouth huffed and puffed like that of an old man chewing food with what little dentition is left. When he would get very excited, he would take his coat off and fling it on the floor and end his act with a curt little bow. When others were playing, his face would twitch and convulse.

It's hard to be a Bass man. First of all, it's difficult not to look ridiculous holding what looks like a grossly overblown violin. But the guy was cool and chilled, like you would expect any bass player in a jazz band to be like. He was clearly enjoying the music in a muted way, awkward in his holding position of the instrument, he would jut his chin in and out in syncopated rhythm and do a little shoulder and hip shimmy. The coordination of his hand movements was enthralling, with the hand on the top picking the strings, and the hand on the bottom composing noticeably more difficult combinations.

The Sax person seemed to be very needy of attention. He was good but hit those whinny notes too often for my taste (you know, the ones that sound like a hysterical lady or a teenage boy with a breaking voice). He'd get really close to the mic, put the opened portion of his sax against it and belt it out, often to the detriment of his band mates and our sensitive ears. Of course, holding a sax is difficult but there is a range of motions that are ultimately cooler than that of the Bass man. You can sway back and forth and curve your spin inwards for example, you can move your sax up and down with a little shake o'the head, and you can generally walk around with it in a cool strut and a little weird dance.

The Drum man was good and he knew it. While the other players generally took their solos in stride and played a variation of the music piece, the drummer, when left to his own devices, would sway off the piece completely and show us his crazy moves. While his moves were impressive, they broke the rhythm of the song, and the team work that one so relishes in jazz, was disregarded completely. My friends called him "the ego-maniacal drummer".

An impressive part of the show was when the drummer showcased his skills on the Balafon: he partnered with a Senegalese player using a set of hollow bowls, ordered from smallest to largest, topped with a wooden xylophone. The effect was terrific, hearing an African beat and a Japanese variation on it, and reaffirmed the coolness of discovering other cultures.

Who would have thought the Japan would meet Senegal in such a harmonious way?

This is a Balafon Posted by Hello

November 16, 2004

De We Ne Tti!

(Good year and many more).

To which you respond "Fe Kel De We Nee" (and you too).
Then of course, you feel obliged to say "Bal Ma Akh" (forgive me for all the wrongs I have done to you), which prompts the response "Bal Na La" (you are forgiven). This is the intricate greeting pattern that one must use after Ramadan.

Of course, I'm relieved. Relieved that I can drink a glass of water in public again, relieved that the taxi men will be less impatient now (ya right, I'm just dreaming), relieved that the traffic will be lighter as people are not rushing home before 6:45 (time when they can finally eat again after a whole day of fasting).

I celebrated Korite on Saturday, which marks the end of Ramadan. Some people chose to celebrate it one day later as this should coincide with the first showing of the moon--although I suspect that it's more about One Upmanship: showing how strong you are for having fasted one more day. This Ramadan period was particularly rough as the weather was unusually hot each and every day.

While I find the idea of fasting beautiful and spiritual, I am troubled by the construction workers that have to lift and tug cement block in the noon sun all day. As they are drenched with sweat, I shake my head thinking that surely it can't be good that they can't even indulge in one little meager glass of water. But no, Ramadan is very sacred. To the point where one should not use eye drops or this would spoil the fasting. As a matter of fact, one should not even swallow one's own saliva. Doesn't this seem a little rigid? I don't know.

I celebrated Korite with a colleague. Korite usually consists of eating a huge lunch with friends and family, preferably with some nice grilled meat on the side. I had BBQed sheep liver. Yum (I swear I am not being sarcastic, I love liver). Then you should don your best regalia (in the Muslim tradition, these are long flowing pants and shirts and BouBou's for women) and go around your neighborhood shaking everyone's hands and smiling a lot. The children go around collecting some coins. It's like Halloween without the chocolate. Or the costumes. Or the fake blood. Sigh, I miss Halloween.

The end of Ramadan also means that all but two of the beggars hanging out by my neighborhood Mosque are gone. I'm going to miss them dearly. De We Ne Tti!

November 11, 2004

Saint Louis

This was our last view of Saint Louis Posted by Hello

Pelican in the Djoudj park Posted by Hello

Soaking up the sun on a boat in the park Posted by Hello

Sick and Twisted tree on our way to the Djoudj Park Posted by Hello

Pirogue painted in the colors of Senegal Posted by Hello

This scary looking prophet is painted on practically every wall of the city Posted by Hello

Bridge created by Mr. Eiffel Posted by Hello

Our funeral hearse to drive to Saint Louis Posted by Hello

An old brick wall covered with cement to hold it together Posted by Hello

This beautiful architure is now completed gutted out from the inside Posted by Hello

November 10, 2004

The weather cools down

The weather is noticeably cooler now and it's possible to sleep a full night without having to wake up for water or drenched with sweat. I am sleeping 10 hours nights and it's not rare that I doze off while reading a book by 8:30PM (I'm reading Grape of Wrath, but still it's odd). In the mornings, I find that my face has been lined with creases from the pages pressing against my face and I haven't had time to do half the things I needed to take care of. Thank god I have a maid.

I am noticeably more efficient and cheerful. This weather is perfect, with light breezes that curl up into your room. The walk to work is pleasant; I don't have to squint my eyes from the sun or use the ubiquitous handkerchief to brush my brow. I am seeing clouds in the sky for the first time in months. I love it.

This morning I passed the two begging lepers with fingers missing to their first joints and thick glasses and waved hello. I even smiled at the man in the wheel chair, though I disapprove of him (he is a hustler of sorts): he monitors the men with leprosy closely, takes their money when they have amassed sufficient amounts and oogles at them when they should be more aggressive with passerbys.

I am sensing a general malaise and don't quite know what to make of it. I figure people are so conditioned to the hot weather that they are uncomfortable with 70 degrees weather.

I saw a cortege of car parked in front of my apartment this morning, with teenagers cleaning and polishing them. I giggled, thinking that it was a good sign that it was about to rain. But no rain in sight so far. The rainy season has passed and gone and I would be surprised to see it rain out of season. Things are generally like that here: there's a rainy season and a dry season, a mango season, a watermelon season, there's a regular season and a Ramadan season. Nature doesn't really surprise you it seems, it follows its rules pretty closely.

The vegetable season is upon us soon. This doesn't mean that new, innovating vegetables will be cropping up in markets (you can only get onions, potatoes, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and a plethora of strange African vegetables). This just means that vegetables will be affordable again and I can get my vitamins and other essential nutrients.

Tomorrow, I leave for Kaolack for business.

November 08, 2004

My tailor

I have been here for only three months and have already gotten 3 outfits made by various tailors. Sounds decadent doesn't it? But this is what people do here, from the poorest to the richest.

Benefits of getting stuff custom made:
1. It fits you purr-fectly.
2. You can get anything made (even that revealing, transparent green outfit J.Lo wore for the Music awards). For dirt-cheap.
3. You feel like a million bucks.

1. You do not get the instant gratification of buying something in the store.
2. It can turn out horribly wrong.
3. You feel like a spoiled brat.
4. You have to buy your own fabric which means that you have to fight and claw your way through Sandaga (the main market in Dakar) and be hassled everywhere along the way.

While my previous outfits were made from various tailors, I have a Marine Ball coming up and decided to get a nice dress made. A nice dress requires a good tailor.

I chose my tailor from a "Welcome to Dakar" booklet published by a group of American housewives. They describe him as follows: "Excellent training and skills!! He is able to make exact copies of clothing, as well as work from a photograph or drawing. Reasonable prices. Comes to your house to pick-up material, for fittings and for drop -off. A very nice honest and hard working person. He understands a little English".

He even had a little heart besides his name--which I took to be a good sign-- so called him and made an appointment.

Upon hanging up, I realized that I had called to wrong person: "Used by American club and International community for costumes, comes to the house, copies from pictures". Yikes! Too embarassed by my mistake, I refused to cancel the appointment. That night, I dreamt of walking seductively in a room, wearing a zebra dress with spikes down the back.

A few days ago, he came back to the house for another fitting. Apprehensively, I opened the door to let him in. I am ashamed to have ever doubted him. He made a wonderful sleeveless dress with the rather cheap material that I bought. I sent him back to fit the dress at the hips (it was a little too large--I don't blame him, I loose weight every week like it's nobody's business). Yeah!

Next time I get something made, I'll call this guy again and get better fabric. Then I can say to people who enquire: "this dress? I got it specially made by famous tailor to my specifications".

November 04, 2004

Thoughts about voting

After the terrible loss we incurred yesterday, I felt rather down as did dozens of my friends who had vested so much energy in this election.

An Belgian-American friend wrote me the following message: "I'm sorry you became a citizen for this... It's just embarrassing."

Thanks, that's really reassuring. I also received a beautiful email about becoming newly American from my Greek-Turkish-American friend. I would like to share.

"Well, my friends, today was an important day for me, because I voted for the first time in my life. As you know, I came here 20 years ago, and two years ago I became a US citizen, ready to cast my ballot in one of the most important elections for the US and the World.

In the days leading up to this day, I did what I thought a citizen should do. I read every article on current events, I listened to the news, I debated issues with friends and yes, I voiced my opinion. This morning, I woke up at 6:00 am (quite early for me) and literally felt as if I was going on a camping trip. I was energetic and ready to experience something for the first time. I took my voting registration card, and drove to the voting place, just couple of minutes from my home.

As I was waiting for my turn to cast my vote, I observed the people who waited to do exactly the same thing. The people seemed to be from all over the world; different races, nationalities and educational backgrounds (I live in a very diverse community in Maryland). In front of me there was a gray hair guy in a suit, a federal employee working for EPA (he was reading EPA reports). Behind me, there was an Indian couple talking about the sample ballot they received in the mail. Next to me there was a large Hispanic family reading about the candidates on a pamphlet and talking at the same time. A little further away my African American neighbor waved at me. At that moment, a great thought came to mind. Today, despite all our differences, maybe it is the only day, that all of us were equal in that room. No matter what we looked like and how rich and educated we were, each one of us had the same power. One person, one vote. At that time, I decided to write to all of you and share my thoughts.

After I voted, I went home and did a quick Google search to see what our great Ancient Greek philosophers had to say about voting, since they were so involved in politics and we admire them so much.

Well, Plato thought that most people were pretty stupid, and so they should not be voting about what to do. Instead, the best people should be chosen to be the Guardians of the rest (you see, he was coming from an aristocratic family). I disagree with him.

Aristotle said: “full excellence can be realized only by the mature male adult of the upper class, not by women, or children, or barbarians (non-Greeks), or salaried "mechanics" (manual workers) for whom, indeed, he did not want to allow voting rights. I definitely disagree with him as well.

Here’s my thought. I believe voting is a right, privilege and an obligation of any citizen of a democratic country, and it should not be taken for granted. If we expect the country to serve us and fulfill our demands and needs, this is one of our chances to ask for it. When we vote, there is a feeling of empowerment that we carry with us for the next four years. Certainly, if we decide to be vocal and voice our opinion about the government and its policies - and as you know, I’m not shy doing that – then we must exercise the right to act on our beliefs. Voting is an act that empowers us and gives legitimacy to our voice.

This has been a very positive experience that I believe will empower me to continue voicing my opinion – because I can’t do without- and hopefully the world will be a better place.


Bring tears to my eyes.

November 03, 2004

Wait, he hasn't lost yet!

I have had many "awww so sorry for your loss" comments about the election at work.

First of all, this is not very smart. I am angry and could induce bodily harm to colleagues if they taunt me too much about the elections.

Second of all, friends have resorted to extreme measures should Bush win: one wants to start a support group that would involve lots of chocolate, another is seriously considering moving the New Zealand.

To which I respond, HOLD YOUR HORSES, HE HASN'T LOST YET. It's a really close race and your ill predications are not helping. So close your eyes really tight, wish upon a star and wait for the miracle. I'm convinced it'll happen.

Can you imagine...

another 4 years with Bush in office? I'll be 30 by the end of his presidency. That's so depressing.

Waiting anxiously...

...for campaign results to be announced. Here's to hoping my vote will count.

Saint Louis

I wish I had an incredibly interesting, witty and dry sense of humor (much like the blogs of my fellow Canadian trapped in Belgium or even of the emails of my Australia travel companion or my CRS buddy in Congo). Alas! I have a headache and I must recount my trip to Saint Louis lest I get too lazy later in the week. On a side note, I have been sicker in my three months here than in my last three years in the states. An unrelated fact, but fascinating nonetheless, I have drunk more soda in these last three months than in my entire 25 years prior to coming to Senegal. I must stop these free associations; surely they can't be good for my work performance?

We left Saint Louis at the ungodly hour that is 8:00 AM on a Saturday. 6 white folks in shorts and baseball caps were greeted at the door by a friendly driver who was to bring us to Saint Louis. At the round-trip price of US $20 for an 8-hour trip (4 hours up and another 4 down), this was ridiculously affordable. Bad sign 1: the car was in fact a funeral hearse, elongated and sober with little black curtains and all. Bad sign 2: on our way out of the driveway, a man asks us "are you going to the bush"? we enthusiastically answered "yes!" and he muttered that the car better be air-conditioned or we would really suffer.

Well we didn't suffer much thankfully and enjoyed a view of Africa that we had longed to see: dry parched soil, dusty streets leading to straw hut villages, warthogs, buffalos that swayed provocatively in front of the car (with a look full of attitude to imply that they had the right of way in the middle of the freeway), crafts kiosk with women braiding each other's hair, women washing their family clothes bare-chested, errant dogs, stands gorged with watermelons (that held thousands of mangoes just three weeks ago)...

We get to our rather unimpressive hotel after a long drive and go on a promenade through the streets. Saint Louis used to be the ancient capital of Senegal and, until 1960 (when it gained its independence from the French) people could get a French passport. It's not uncommon to meet a Senegalese family in which the children born prior to independence are French while those born after are Senegalese. The architecture is old colonial French, but as you can see from the pictures that I plan to post, must of it hasn't been renovated over the years. It is falling apart, giving pictures that much prized authentic/exotic feeling. But that's about all a decrepit old building is good for.

6 white folks looking lost and confused is not a good idea in Saint Louis. We were constantly harassed by "well-meaning" people who insisted that we shake their hands and introduced ourselves. This was a catch-22 because, if we indulged, we would eventually be asked to check out their shop and (very aggressively) pressured into buying something. Also, it's hard to visit a town when one has to shake everyone's hands every 2 meters or so. On the other hand, if you chose to ignore the catcalls, the person will act hurt and get rather angry. A couple of time, a man would grab my arm forcefully to get my attention, to which I reply in an indignant manner "in my culture, men are not allowed to grab or touch women". Blatant lie of course but it saved me from more intimate encounters. That evening was spent trying to find jazz clubs (Saint Louis is famous for its jazz, much like its namesake in Saint Louis in the States). Unfortunately, it is Ramadan; and as I have discovered, nothing much in the way of fun happens during Ramadan.

The second day was just heavenly as we embarked on a little river barge trip on the Djoudj Park. It is said to be too early to catch birds at this time of year but we were able to see thousands of pelicans hanging out of a rock, water lizards and water lilies. The ride was pleasant until we realized that it was 11:00 in the morning and the trip back was nowhere in sight. The sun was intense and people started putting their baseball caps back on their bald heads, wraps around their shoulders... Being sickly white, I covered head to toe in my shawl. I consented to share my cover with an English girl of Irish descent: we white girls have to watch out for one another after all.

Our last day was spent on the Langue de Barbarie, a thin stretch of land of white sands. Utterly unbothered by anyone we stripped to our underwear and spent about 20 minutes in the sea. It was lovely and the first time that we felt truly alone in our three-day trip.

The ride back was eventful as one of us wanted to buy two large straw baskets, requiring much bargaining and a rearrangement of our already packed luggage. Much to my surprise, I was actually glad to be back in Dakar (you know you're back when you get the lovely whiff of decomposing fish). Next to Saint Louis, Dakar did in fact look to be the Paris of Africa.

Home sweet home. Or as a bad French translator would say: Maison sucrée maison.