have a delightful weekend

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In the two weeks since getting back to Dakar from vacation, I’ve been attempting to create a sustainable routine, something that has been lacking since I arrived here in February. It’s been hard, since my schedule has been all over the place – sometimes out of town for work, sometimes traveling, sometimes doing nothing / half-heartedly studying French. But in order for this place to feel like home, and if I want to avoid weird jags of isolation and anxiety, I need to think of myself much as I think of my nieces and nephew: little powder-kegs waiting to explode if they don’t do the same thing at the same time every day, if they don’t get enough sleep, if they don’t eat well, and if they don’t get a chance to run around like maniacs every once in awhile.

With that in mind, I went to my first ever “aquabike” class yesterday night. My usual form of exercise is running, but it’s been way too hot for that lately. I recently discovered that the place I thought was a community pool just two blocks from my house is actually a dedicated water-biking center. You’re halfway-immersed in the water and an instructor leads you through a one-hour workout that involves a combination of spinning and calisthenics-type stuff. The trial session I went to last night was awesome mostly because I got to be outside in the night air without feeling like I was going to melt or get eaten alive by mosquitos, but also because it was a just-intense-enough workout after weeks of being a couch potato. The pricing is fairly ridiculous – going twice a week would cost about half my monthly rent – but I’ve decided it’s worth it to put something regular on my schedule that’s beneficial to my mental and physical health.

Along those same lines… tonight I’m going out dancing for the first time ever in Dakar. It’s going to be a relatively early night, though, because on Saturday I fly to Benin to start my next job (!!). I – and thus my blog – will be gone for a week, but I look forward to picking up where I left off when I get back at the beginning of October.

In the meantime, here are a few interesting and relevant Web pickings for your reading and viewing pleasure. Have a good weekend / week!

Visual journeys by six photographers to six very different countries (including Ethiopia).

I just found out that Dakar’s beautiful, wonderful car rapides are on their way out and I am so, so sad.

11 funny-because-it’s-true(ish) French travel tips for visiting America.

How (and why) you should talk to strangers when traveling.

Two different writers discuss why they travel alone as married women, here and here

[Photo from Aquabike Centre Dakar]

beautiful buildings of Dakar

I am a big fan of midcentury design in general and a huge fan of midcentury African architecture in particular. There seems to be a huge range of styles, each drawing from different regions, periods, and influences. I’ve been calling it all Midcentury African for now and promising myself to look for actual terminology and history later, whenever I find the time to go down that rabbit hole.

For months I’ve been taking pictures of my favorite of these buildings in Dakar and it’s high time I shared them… Continue reading

(get over the) hump day inspiration: Jack Canfield edition

I harbor a very strong fear of posting cheesy* motivational quotes by multi-millionaire self-help gurus on my blog, but since everything I want is on the other side of that fear, I’m doing it anyway.

*yet powerful, practical, and true

Ethiopia

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Last month I went on a whirlwind three-country tour of Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa. Carrie Bradshaw once told Big, “We’re so over, we need a new word for over.” On this vacation I repeatedly told myself, “This is so amazing, I need a new word for amazing.”

This post is devoted to my Ethiopian amazement… Continue reading

masse critique, or something like that

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Last night I went out for drinks with three native French speakers, including one Parisian. (This is significant because Parisians speak three times as quickly and enunciate half as much as Senegalese.) We spent three hours gabbing away, during which my fairly infrequent mis-comprehensions were quickly smoothed over and my more frequent mispronunciations never stopped the conversation short. As is my wont when my French is going well, I had a moment of exiting my body and looking down at myself from above with a nearly overwhelming sense of pride and astonishment. I felt like I had crossed over some great divide and earned my stripes as an official French speaker, though I couldn’t tell you where or when the transition happened.

The ironic thing is that the precise moment I wandered off into the clouds to pat myself on the back was the same one in which the person I was talking to abruptly switched gears to ask whether I could understand him. He probably noticed my eyes looking through him into the middle distance of fantasyland. I assured him that yes, I had understood everything, but in fact, you can’t understand what you haven’t actually listened to.

In English, when I find my way back to a conversation after becoming distracted, I can do a sort of rewind to the last thing I missed, because my ear processed the words even if my mind didn’t. I operate sort of like my sound recorder, which is capable of capturing audio starting 2 seconds before I hit the record button. (I have NO IDEA how this works.) But in French, if I miss something, I can’t get it back, because it was never there to begin with. The sounds flittered through my subconsciousness, yes, but my brain never bothered turning them into words.

So, in that respect, I’m still stunted in my French. But who cares, because when I actually pay attention to what people are saying, I can understand the words coming out of their mouths. I can understand words which were once meaningless gobbledygook.

It’s pure and utter magic. (Magic that took a lot of work.)

[Photo: Kurt Bauschardt]

home again, home again

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Landed back in Dakar on Wednesday morning at 3am, two hours late and in the midst of a downpour. It was hotter and more humid, by a long shot, than I’ve yet experienced here. And it has continued to be stifling and sweaty the rest of this week.

Still, it’s nice to be back. I call this place home, but it only halfway feels like it because of how much time I’ve spent out of town since I first arrived. It would have felt like cheating to skip out on Senegal’s rainy season altogether. And the speed with which I dispensed with my money during my one month of vacation had started to worry me. Especially after I got word, halfway through the trip, that the job I was supposed to start tomorrow has been delayed indefinitely. Eeks.

I’m now waiting to hear about three separate video projects, in Benin, Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso. I would be thrilled to do any of them, not only for the work but also for the travel. I figured going to three new countries in the space of five weeks would calm my wanderlust but it only fueled it. In Ethiopia, my friend and I started calling out names of countries we wanted to visit and we didn’t stop until we had basically listed everywhere on earth. Just saying the names of those places out loud and rapid-fire got me tipsy with euphoria. And in Johannesburg, I hung out with a group that included a guy who told a story about borrowing his mom’s bakkie (South African slang for a 4X4, derived from Afrikaans) to go on camping safari in the Botswanan Kalahari. My eyes were like saucers and I informed him, “If you ever go again, I am coming with you. It doesn’t matter when. Just let me know, and I will be there.” And then everyone else wanted in, and it was agreed: 2017 Botswana road trip.

BOTSWANA ROAD TRIP. What kind of amazingness is my life right now, that that is an actual thing that could actually happen? What kind of transcendental awesomeness is it that I could tell myself – and realistically mean it – that when I return to Southern Africa to go to Botswana, I should add at least four weeks on to the trip in order to properly see the parts of South Africa I missed this time around, to climb the orange sand dunes of Namibia, and to check out Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zambia while I’m at it. And to maybe fly to Madagascar, too.

Of course, that’s all dependent on me getting my next job so that I can finance such craziness. So for now I will stay happily put in Dakar, hustling and crossing fingers for good news.

I’ll post vacation pix here as soon as I sift through them all…

In the meantime, have a good weekend!

P.S. Here are two cute things I read today:

How kids around the world get to school.

Lost luggage goes to America’s greatest thrift store. 

on teranga

gateau.JPGAll week, I have been almost-crying with frustration as I attempt to upload videos for my client in New York. My average network speed ranges from 1MB per minute to 1MB per seven minutes. Not joking. Really, really not joking. My host brother has a different service provider that goes at about 2MB per minute, which is much better, except that the uploads frequently crash. Even when uneventful, it still takes hours upon hours to get a file of less than 1GB into the digital ether. (Faster connections exist, but I can’t access them because of the neighborhood I live in. And I can’t borrow them either, because all my people with better connections are away on vacation this week.)

The ongoing upload debacle has slowed everything else down during a week when I’m frantically trying to get things done before I leave on vacation tomorrow morning. One of my errands was to print all my itineraries and reservations. There’s a shop near Cor Coumba cafe where you can hop on their computer and do printouts. I rushed in there a few hours ago ready to get to business and cross one of eight million things off my to-do list.

When I stepped behind the counter (because you’re borrowing the store’s computer as opposed to using one reserved for the public), I saw that the three employees were sitting around a shared bowl of thieboudienne. They immediately told me, “Viens manger.” I thought I might have misheard, because why would strangers invite a random person to join them in their meal – especially a meal made more intimate by everyone eating with their hand from one bowl.

I demurred. They said it again. My mood shifted from frazzled to touched. (But I still demurred, because I had just eaten and because even though it may or may not have been polite to turn them down, I just really was not in the mood for fish.)

I did my printing. On my way out they offered me attayah. Again, I was really touched, but again I declined as politely as possible. I actually don’t know why I said no this time, because I really like attayah. I think I was just in must-get-shit-done mode.

But on the walk home, I thought about how Senegalese teranga – hospitality – makes up for all the times I’ve wanted to punch a wall because the Internet is simply not moving an inch.

Back at the house, I smelled something delicious wafting from the kitchen, and Tantie told me, “I made you a cake.” She loves baking but I’ve never been able to eat any of her confections because there’s always wheat flour in them. This time she used my gluten-free saracen (buckwheat), which after lots of searching I had recently found at a supermarket geared towards ex-pats.

I am not sure if the cake was because I am about to leave town for a month or just a well-timed coincidence, but either way I thought it was a really sweet gesture.

I cannot wait to be done with my uploads and on vacation in a new-to-me part of the world tomorrow, but I’m really going to miss my adopted family and my adopted neighborhood and Senegal in general. Somehow the planet-sized ball of molten Internet hate eating away at me this week has been sublimated, by their heart and by the otherwise-amazingness of living here.

P.S. There’s no way I’m going to get around to writing anything else here before I leave (and probably not while I’m away, either), so have a lovely August and see you in a month!

at long last, Liberia pictures

Since I was there in a professional capacity, I spent most of my time in Liberia working, i.e. filming, or in a car on my way to film something. I didn’t take many photos, and everything runs together because we were constantly on the road. So, it’s hard to form a linear narrative. Instead I think I will just post a bunch of photos (many taken from inside the car – sorry!) and impressions and call it a day, aside from one other post with some additional random thoughts, if I get around to writing it before I leave for vacation tomorrow… Continue reading

the weekend is here…

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…but I’ll be working my way through it to try to complete a video project before I go on vacation next week. I’m heading first to Ethiopia, then to Tanzania, and then flying home by way of South Africa. The southern detour was a last-minute addition, which happened after I booked the first two legs of my trip as one-way tickets using my United miles (at 17,500 miles each), only to realize right before I booked the final homebound journey that I could have worked the system much better.

This New York Times article alerted me to the fact that when you book an international round-trip ticket with United miles, you are allowed to add in one stopover of any length AND two open jaws (meaning the destination or the origin is not the same in both directions), all for the same number of miles as a standard round-trip ticket. So, had I booked my three tickets as one round-trip instead, I could have spent only 35,000 miles to go from Dakar to Addis, Addis to Kilimanjaro, and Dar es Salaam to Dakar.

I tried changing my ticket retroactively but some of the dates were no longer available. Since that meant I was looking at spending an additional 17,500 unnecessary miles to get home, I decided I better make those miles go further than 35,000 would have. After hours of plugging in a million different combinations of dates and destinations unsuccessfully, I finally found one that worked:

I changed my one-way Dakar to Addis ticket into a round-trip (I had decided to fly there one day earlier so I would have paid a change fee in any case).

I left the Addis to Kilimanjaro ticket alone as a one-way ticket.

For the return portion of the round-trip ticket, I booked an open jaw from Dar es Salaam to Dakar, with a five-day stopover in Johannesburg en route. (I first figured out where all the possible stopovers were by identifying the overlapping cities in two Google searches: “direct flights from Dar es Salaam” and “direct flights to Dakar.” Then I picked the one that was most attractive to me – albeit thousands of miles out of the way.)

Total cost: 52,500 miles, the $75 change fee, and maybe $200 in taxes – a teeny tiny price to pay for a 3-country tour across Africa.

I spelled this all out as a PSA of sorts. Before you book your next trip with miles, I would encourage you to do the due diligence I did not and make sure you are getting the absolute most out of them that you can.

That said, I’ve always wanted to visit South Africa so I have no regrets about the way this turned out. I am so, so psyched for my upcoming adventures… but have yet to plan any of the South African portion, so I have to get to work on that this weekend in between actual work.

Enjoy your weekends! Here are some relevant reads and videos that I found interesting this week:

American politicians who speak Spanish.

Can you guess what the most metal word in the English language is?

A 17th century constructed language divided everything in the universe into 40 categories.

A life is a life, wherever and whenever it is cut short.” The devastating human toll of terrorism.

How colorful is your language?

The grief that white Americans can’t share.

We need a language and a system to understand spin.

P.S. I would gratefully welcome tips on: reliable Ethiopian car hire companies; places to eat in Zanzibar; where to stay along the northern loop in Ethiopia, in Addis, and in Cape Town; and the best things to see and do if you’ve only got five days in South Africa.

[Photo: courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.]

5 things foreigners should know before going anywhere in Dakar

1. Even if by some small miracle you have an exact address for your destination, it will be useless.

Technically, most streets in Dakar have official names and most houses have official numbers. But if there are no street signs on the actual roads and no numbers on the actual houses, they’re not going to do you much good. When Google Maps can’t even tell you where a specific address is (which I’ve found to be the case 9 times out of 10), don’t expect a man on the street to be able to. Except for the very biggest thoroughfares, people don’t know or use the proper names of roads. The “ancienne piste,” for example, has a real name but I have no idea what it is.

Which brings me to…

2. You must know the landmarks near where you’re going, or you will get lost. (You’ll get lost anyway, but it will be less painful if you know what else exists near your destination.)

That’s why instead of giving taxi drivers my cross-streets, I ask them to take me to Bourguiba (my neighborhood’s main road) between Saveur d’Asie, a restaurant, and Casino, a supermarket.

A few months ago, I went to someone’s house for the first time. Instead of providing me with any sort of address, he instructed me:

From the VDN [highway], go past the Citydia in Liberté 6 ext, take a right at the pharmacy across from the mosque, and call me from the empty lot on the left.

Spy movie or just another day in Dakar? You decide. (Incidentally, there are many Citydias, many pharmacies, many mosques, and many empty lots in Dakar. Once in the general vicinity of his apartment, I became woefully turned around and had to call back several times to play guessing games: “Pass by the Citydia while on the VDN or on the access road?” “Is it a green mosque or a white mosque?” “Are you talking about the pharmacy in the middle of the street or at the end of the street?”…)

3. You can’t trust addresses you find on the Internet.

I once painstakingly made my way to a faraway side street on which Google Maps had promised me there was a bakery. It turned out to be a random residence. When I needed to visit the Liberian Embassy for a visa, Google searches turned up three different locations for it. None of them were correct. I would suggest that you always call a place before visiting, to confirm that it is in the location you think it is, but good luck with that! If you can manage to find a phone number online, it’s often incorrect, or no one picks up.

4. You’re going to take taxis a lot; know the rules.

– You must negotiate the price before getting in the car, or you’ll get ripped off. Whatever they quote you at the outset is usually 25%-50% more than you should pay. It’s a buyer’s market, and I’ve found that if I step away from a taxi after offering them a fair price that they initially turn down, they’ll call me back and wave me into the car, which basically means, “Alright, you win.”

– You must know exactly where you’re going and how to get there, because your taxi driver often won’t (and may pretend he does and then drive around in circles while calling his friends to ask them where to go). In my experience, showing a taxi driver a map and pointing to your destination doesn’t work, because most of them don’t know how to read maps. By this point I know much of Dakar well enough to direct drivers street by street, and they are neither surprised nor insulted when I tell them, “Tournez à gauche là... tout droit… C’est par ici…” Think of Dakar as the exact opposite of London, where taxi drivers have to pass “the knowledge,” and do your homework before you get in the cab.

– Many taxi drivers don’t speak French, but they’ll fake it ’til you make it into their car, and then you’ll spend the entire ride trying to communicate in French while they answer in Wolof. Not worth it. Politely turn down the ride and wait for another one. (If you speak Wolof, good for you! I speak six words of it, most of them borrowed from French.)

– Though Dakar’s taxis may look universally run-down, there is a difference between run-down but running, and run-down to the point of breaking down en route. I’ve learned this the hard way. If a taxi approaches that looks unfit to ride in, wave it on. There will be plenty of others behind it.

And finally, the most important thing to know before attempting to get any place in Dakar:

5. The Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

When I feel like bashing my head against a wall because of how unnecessarily maddening it is to get to where I’m going, I take a deep breathe and remind myself that Dakar is a journey, not a destination.