a walk in Dakar

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Last Saturday was the first time I really ventured out in Dakar to see the sights. Here are some of the highlights from my stroll around town.

First I walked down my street in the direction of the ocean. It’s a busy road and to cross it you have to dodge constant two-way traffic, including amazingly decorated cars rapides.

car_rapide Continue reading

le week-end is here…

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Tonight I was planning to check out an acoustic set at a restaurant only two blocks from my house… but then I got lazy. I literally haven’t been out once past 8pm since arriving in Dakar so it’s high time I get my nightlife on. Tomorrow! I’m going with someone I met at the language center to see a popular Senegalese band, Pape et Cheikh, at a club called Villa Krystal. Or we might change our minds and go to see a reggae band, Tiken Jah, at Just4U, which is apparently a very cool place in spite of its ridiculous name.

I also just found out that Youssou N’dour, whose music is half the reason I’m in love with Senegal, is playing a benefit concert at the fanciest hotel in town next Saturday. The unfortunate thing is that tickets are $100. I don’t think I’ve paid that much for a concert anywhere, ever. $100 is a small fortune here… though it’s worth a small fortune to see Youssou in his home country. Then again I’ve heard he plays here often, and I’ve also just heard about another great show the same night, so I might go to that one instead.

Anyway, it’s nice to be spoiled for choice. I hope your weekends are similarly filled to the brim with amazing options.

Here are some weekend reads, provided your internet access is not, like mine, virtually nonexistent.

What do free, open, and peaceful borders look like? 

This article about straightening out croissants is not from The Onion, but it could be.

Both this lady and her lawsuit are awesome.

“How scared or not you are is an emotion, not a statistic.” How to make rational safety decisions when it comes to travel (and many other things).

Language learning has made me more open to try new things, but unfortunately not in the way illustrated in this cute cartoon.

Two dishes tied for France’s favorite. For some reason neither of them are choucroute garnie (which came in third).

This documentary about an Afro-Cuban community’s links to Sierra Leone is on my to-see list – for the next time streaming video becomes a remote possibility.

You can now download all of NASA’s beautiful / awesome retro-style space travel posters for free.

An alfajores recipe (alfajores = best cookies on earth)

Passez un bon week-end!

[Photo: boys playing soccer one street from my host family’s house.]

And away we go…

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I’m hanging out in the Brussels airport waiting for my connection to Dakar. This is a trip 23 years in the making, and for a long time I wasn’t sure it would ever happen – I thought maybe I had let the dream die – so I’m a little amazed that I’m finally following through after so many false starts and delays.

My 13 year-old self would be so psyched for me, though she might also be like, “What took you so long?” It was in French class that year that I learned about francophone West Africa and seized upon Senegal as the most fantastic-looking place on earth. I thought about studying abroad there in college, I thought about going right after college, I thought about spending a few months there instead of going to grad school, I thought about spending a few months there after grad school, I thought about going there for vacation two years ago… I thought about it a lot over many years, but I always wimped out or felt like the timing or my financial situation wasn’t right.

And then two years ago after I returned from my vacation to Argentina, where I had gone with a decade’s worth of airline miles originally earmarked for Senegal, I decided that if I didn’t start making serious plans it would never happen – and I still really wanted it to happen. So I did start making plans, and now here I am with nothing standing between me and my long-held dream but a few hours in the airport and a six-hour flight. Not to get too epic about it – but it does feel epic in my own personal journey.

I hope I love Senegal as much as I’ve always believed I would, but even if I don’t, just stepping foot there is going to be surreal and awesome.

And with that, I’m going to go find my gate.

[The picture above was drawn by my lovely friends, who have a whimsical view of both life and my baggage situation.]

happy weekend to all and to all a good night

liza.jpgSooo… I think I may have ended up with Liza Minelli hair. Which I am surprisingly unfazed by, probably because at this point I’ve got bigger fish to fry. With the scary haircut behind me, the very very scary trip is ahead of me. One more day to do all the million things I still have to do, and then I get on a red-eye before another 7-hour flight before I start my life over, sort of, in a country where my phone, credit cards, oh and the English language, will not work.

You may or may not hear from me again before I leave, depending on how rushed and/or panicked I feel. So, please accept these weekend reads as my maybe-parting gift:

As is their wont, the French are up in arms about changes to their language

And yet they still have time to do awesome/useful things like ban supermarket waste

Inside the Delegates Lounge aka the United Nations bar

And with that… See you on the flip side, or possibly right before the flip side. Only time will tell.

[Photo: Capitu]

a très bon bon voyage

blurry_party.JPGOn Saturday I had a going away party at the same Alphabet City bar where I gathered my friends almost 15 years ago, on my last night in town the first time I left New York for parts unknown (in that case, Los Angeles). Esperanto has been trucking along at the corner of 9th and C for two decades, as oblivious to my comings and goings as the rest of the city, and that thought is oddly comforting to me. 

The place looks pretty much the same as it did in 2001, but boy has my world changed since then – or rather, boy has it expanded. 15 years ago a small band of high school and college friends came to see me off as I embarked upon adulthood with very little understanding of what that would actually mean. This past Saturday, in addition to those wonderful lifelong friends, I was surrounded by a crowd of people who were connected to me by new threads unimagined at age 21: grad school in Austin, a filmmakers collective in Brooklyn, a global humanitarian aid organization, my French conversation group, a producers guild, and a certain world body that shall remain nameless. 

The next day, someone who hasn’t known me long remarked, “You have lovely friends.” He was exactly right – they are lovely friends and lovely people.

Taking stock of them all from the back of the bar, I was a bit overwhelmed. What a beautiful reminder of the amazing amount of love and friendship and cheerleading and general awesomeness of character in my life. 

Then a French guy at a table a few feet away from me called me over to flirt/ask me if I was French. Of course I ascribed symbolic significance to this and I responded, “J’irai à Dakar la semaine prochaine pour améliorer mon français et ce soir-ci, c’est ma fête du voyage. C’est une très bon signe que tu as demandé ça!” Of course he didn’t really understand why it was a good sign, or maybe he just didn’t understand me, but either way I knew the universe was telling me to go forth and conquer French (and Frenchmen).

When the party died down my high school besties and I headed to a nearby new wave club that I’ve been going to since college. Like Esperanto, Pyramid has remained virtually unchanged since the first time I stepped through the door.

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November 2001 at Esperanto, back in the days when you could smoke in bars and people took photos on film!

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February 2016 outside Pyramid, where the concept of time is meaningless.

I am in thrall to nostalgia more than anyone I know, and it’s hard to overstate the rush of visceral emotion that washed over me when the DJ played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” This is one of just a few songs I remember listening to and loving as a five year-old in England, which was my first (short-lived) ex-patriot experience and what probably set in motion my abiding wanderlust.

It was another powerful strike to the heart, which, combined with the deja vu of dancing with friends who I have been dancing with since I was 15, sent me into a heightened state of preemptive homesickness perfectly balanced with euphoria for the future. 

The words of the song are vague enough that I could bend them to my fancy and convince myself they were karmically delivered for that exact, ephemeral moment.

In short, it was a very good night and a very good way to say goodbye (for now).

worry time

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The cafe where I get my coffee every morning has a strange habit of playing brutal nature documentaries on the TV behind the bar. I’ll be sipping my espresso while glimpsing killer whales ripping apart baby seals, or adorable snow foxes feasting on scavenged carcasses of polar bear prey. Nothing like being reminded, first thing after waking up, that life is a ruthless competition for survival.

This morning for some reason I found that thought comforting. My anxieties about departing from stability and not knowing where my next job is coming from pale in comparison to having to outrun a lion.

But trouble finding work abroad is just one in a long list of fears I’m juggling about my upcoming trip. Most of the time I can keep calm and carry on but I’ve also had moments of utter insecurity and panic.

There’s a cognitive behavioral therapy technique called “worry time,” and it’s just as straightforward as it sounds. You carve out five minutes a day to articulate and dwell on each of your worries, the idea being that listing them out will take away their bite and you’ll stop obsessing over them.

So, here’s my current worry time rundown:

  • I had counted on only needing two months of immersion to become proficient in French but lately I’m realizing that is probably a very big underestimate, especially in Senegal where the accents will be new and challenging to me. I don’t have enough money to continue this trip indefinitely and I’m nervous that I’ll have to come back before locking in solid language skills.
  • Out of sheer force of disgusted and terrified will, I haven’t thrown up in more than 25 years, but I fear there is no way I can get through Africa without at least one bout of food poisoning. While I begrudgingly accept that I’m going to have to break the no-vomit streak at some point in my life, I’m horrified at the thought of breaking it many times in quick succession.
  • I spent almost $6,000 on a camera package in the hopes that “if you build it they will come.” I have a few good leads for short video production jobs in Senegal and a couple of other nearby countries but nothing locked in, and I’m worried that I won’t be able to pay back the cost of my kit. Maybe I should have used the money to just travel the world instead of over-ambitiously trying to study and work and travel all at once.
  • On the opposite side of the coin, I worry that I’ll get lots of work but screw it all up and be blacklisted from the entire continent.
  • I’m concerned about what’s going on in Mali and Burkina Faso. It sucks in its own right but I’m also worried that it could impact the security situation in Senegal.
  • I fear that the doxycycline (malaria prophylactic) that I’m about to start taking will make me antibiotic resistant to some weird Sub-Saharan disease I’ll later pick up.
  • I’m also afraid that the doxycycline will give me an allergic reaction and my throat will close up. (Even though I have taken this drug before, with no adverse effects.)
  • I wonder whether the needles that my new miracle-working acupuncturist left taped into my back (yes, you read that right) will give me septic shock and / or pierce my spine and paralyze me just days before my flight.
  • My quasi-conquered roach phobia is most likely going to be given a run for its money in Africa, and that gives me pause. Very, very long pause.
  • And finally, every time I think of the haircut I’m getting on Friday I worry that I will break the vomit seal in the barber’s chair instead of in Senegal. The real worry, though, is not nervous wretching. It’s that if I hate my new hair, I’ll have to hide it under head wraps for six months while it grows back from hideousness.

Of course, I can counter each of these fears with very rational counterarguments for their being unrealistic, overblown and / or not necessarily all bad. I’ve been doing that, a little. But mostly I’ve been forcing myself to continue putting one foot in front of the other despite my constant worry about everything big and small that could go horribly wrong.

[Photo: Domiriel]

I’ve got an onward ticket!

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Update on this situation: After speaking with a bunch of people in the know, I concluded that I most likely wouldn’t have any problem getting into Senegal with a one-way ticket. But I also concluded that in the very unlikely scenario that I did have a problem, there was a distinct possibility I could be barred from my flight and lose the 40,000 frequent flier miles I spent on the ticket.

Rather than taking that risk, it seemed like a better deal to get an onward ticket for a random destination and arbitrary date, and to write off the change fee that I’ll eventually pay – when I figure out where and when I’m actually going next – as the cost of entering Senegal.

United’s rules for mileage tickets are pretty straightforward, and pretty reasonable. It costs between $75 and $200 to change the ticket or refund the miles into your account. So I booked a one-way ticket out of Dakar on May 12, the last day I can stay in Senegal without a visa (which BTW you can only apply for once in-country).

The destination? Casablanca by way of Lisbon, because the first twelve cities I chose didn’t work out for various reasons related to my inability to make anything easy for myself. At first plugging in Dakar – Nairobi, Dakar – Kigali, Dakar – Accra, Dakar – Cape Town felt really worldly and exciting, but as one destination after another proved logistically impossible I became increasingly frustrated and worried. I know this is just a placeholder ticket but booking it has shown me that traveling around Africa on airline miles is not going to be easy, and traveling around Africa with paid tickets is not going to be as cheap as one (who is naive) might have thought.

Well, I’ll figure it out eventually. There’s a lot of time between now and May 12.

[Photo: Aquila]

A very New York sort of day

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This morning at the subway turnstile I realized that my Metrocard had expired, and since I have so little time left in New York I renewed it with a weekly unlimited pass instead of my usual monthly one. It was kind of bittersweet, kind of shocking, and kind of awesome.

After my downtown meeting directly across the street from the Woolworth Building, I took a moment to walk casually past the “no tourists beyond this point” sign and gawk at the spectacular lobby. (Had anyone stopped me I would have said, “Humph, I’m no tourist!”) Even though it’s one of the world’s first skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building had never been on my NYC bucket list, but after seeing it in person I now know it should have been.

My next order of business was in Midtown and a huge pain, but when I was finally done and waiting for the subway at Grand Central, the finale of a pretty delightful song by the speakeasy-style band on the platform harmonized perfectly with the sound of the train pulling into the station.

I thought, you will get none of this in Senegal. And yet.

Today I received information about the family I will be staying with in Dakar for about two months. The homestay was arranged by the language-learning center where I’ll be doing 40 hours of one-on-one lessons over two weeks. I had found and loved the sound of this particular program two years ago when I first started looking into immersion possibilities in Senegal, and very (very, very) coincidentally, my newish-at-the-time friend found and chose the same program when she decided to do her own French immersion last summer. She loved it and especially loved her host family so I requested them as well, and today I found out that they are free, and that’s where I’ll be staying.

Yes, I’ll be giving up skyscrapers and subway symphonies for awhile. But soon I’ll be feasting my eyes and ears on all new sights and sounds, and I am so excited about that.

[Photo of Woolworth Building lobby: Christ-ophile]