the weekend is here…


…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.

(get over the) hump day inspiration: Rilke edition

rilke beauty and terror.jpg

I’m not sure whether anxiety and depression are feelings, or mental states that keep you at a distance from your feelings. Regardless, a big old ball of anxiety tinged with despair has been hanging over me like that little Zoloft cloud lately, and every which way I’ve tried to fight it – or not fight it and simply get through it – has failed miserably…

…including posting this quote. Oh well. Maybe it’ll work for you.

(I don’t know whether this rightly belongs in the “inspiration and encouragement” category, but I don’t have one called “let’s all feel like shit together,” so it’ll have to do.)


laundry days in Dakar

Laundry was included in the cost of my homestay, so during my first month in Senegal, I’d leave the washerwoman (who I’ve never actually seen) a basketful of dirty clothes on Monday and get them back clean by Friday. I’d hand-wash my underwear and socks myself, in the shower because I’m lazy. (But not while wearing them! I’m not that lazy.)

The first few times I got my laundry back, I didn’t notice any problems, but soon enough I started finding tiny holes and broken seams in my tank tops, and my formerly tight t-shirts started fitting like maternity wear. Knowing I would probably ruin it all through work and travel, I had only brought my most worn-out and least loved clothing to Senegal, so I didn’t really mind the damage. But when it got so bad that I had to throw stuff out, I realized that my already tiny wardrobe was dwindling too quickly and I would soon run out of things to wear. So I decided to wash my clothing myself.

Every other weekend, I set aside 2 or 3 hours to do my laundry. My technique and my set-up has improved over time: I now use one bucket for pre-soaking, a washbasin with a built-in washrack for scrubbing, another bucket for rinsing, and a final one for wringing. I’ve learned to go easy on the washrack, since my overzealousness at first caused just as much stretching and created just as many snags as the washerwoman had. I’ve switched from gentle-on-the-skin baby wash to chemical-laden but much easier to use laundry soap. And I’ve discovered that I can stream the radio from my cell phone without any Internet connection, so I listen to mbalax on the sunny third floor terrace while telling myself that hand-washing is meditative as opposed to mind-numbing.

(Not to mention finger-busting. By the end of each laundry set, my hands are frozen into the shape of fists and every slight movement of my fingers sends jolts of pain coursing up my arms.)

As with other facets of settling in to Dakar (getting Internet access, topping up phone credit, figuring out how to get around, etc.), I didn’t realize until very late in the game that there is an easier option than the one I defaulted to because it was the first thing that became apparent or was suggested to me. Mamie informed me recently that there are laundromats – with washing machines you can operate yourself – in Dakar. I’m guessing they must be the “blanchisserie“s that I see all over and had taken at face value (or rather, at literal translation value) as places where you get your whites bleached. They could also be the “pressing“s, which are even more common than blanchisseries and which I had assumed were places where you get your clothes dry cleaned and ironed. (I had half-wondered why bleaching and ironing shops were ubiquitous but laundries non-existent… But there are so many things I half-wonder about here, all vying for attention from my overworked brain, and this one just wasn’t important enough to make the leap from giving my consciousness pause to compelling it to pursue an answer.)

It’s taken me so long to discover the better, faster, easier way to do so many things here, that I suspect there’s a part of me that prefers the more time-consuming and complicated way. Perhaps that’s because in the still more-analog-than-digital environment of Dakar, I am rediscovering the hidden benefits of boredom. If I stop hand-washing my clothes, I’ll save a lot of time, but I’ll also lose 3 hours of mindless, repetitive motion that gets the wheels of my creative brain turning.

Have a love and disco-filled weekend!

Ngor bench

This week I visited Ile de Ngor, one of three islands just off the coast of Dakar. We took a five-minute ride across the water on a motorized pirogue and landed on a picturesque beach with lovely views of the city.


We ate lunch, walked around the island, and lay on beach mats that you can rent for less than $2. (Not the “royal” we, btw – I was with a friend that I made through this very blog!) I attempted to read French fashion magazines, with limited success. It was a peaceful and relaxing getaway.

This weekend promises to be similarly low-key, aside from a still-tentatively-planned Senegalese wrestling match on Sunday. If I go, I’ll report back…

In the meantime, here are some interesting recent reads/views to start your weekend:

French chefs and refugees team up for an unusual food festival in Paris.

The most commonly misused English words. Apparently I’ve been using “bemused” incorrectly.

Traditional wedding dresses around the world. The bridal headwear in some of these puts American veils to shame.

Walking while black.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a link about the Olympics refugee team. Meet the team members.

Eater’s list of the best Paris restaurants. #33 speaks to me. 

Atlas Obscura’s guide to an entomologist’s dream vacation

Linguists dissect and analyze Hillary and Donald’s speech patterns.

Jokes from young people around the world. I like the Norwegian one.

Syrian refugees in Greece put their tent on Airbnb, promising scorpions, dehydration and ‘broken promises’

How a Portuguese-to-English phrasebook – written by a man who spoke terrible English – became a cult comedy sensation.

Silencing the auto-correct in your head.

And finally, my friend shared this video from the 1979 World Disco Finals on Facebook during the Republican National Convention, and it restored my faith in humanity.

This weekend, remember: we were born to be alive. Don’t let the hate get you down, and do some good living!

[Photos: Isabella Ssozi]

my side gig: drug pusher

Recently I’ve formed a new habit.

Any time Mamie or Tantie complains of an ailment, I pipe up, “I have something you can take for that!”

First it was Mamie with her constant stomach problems. After finding her moaning on the couch post-meal one too many times, I plied her with charcoal tablets to absorb whatever bad stuff she had eaten. Another day I gave her some of my “gluten defense” pills, just in case it’s gluten intolerance she’s suffering from. A third time, I handed over a full sheet of Pepto-Bismol chewables. And she knows where I keep my Immodium, just in case she ever needs it.

Then Tantie started complaining about an on-again off-again cold. I asked her if she thought it might be allergy-related and when she said, “Maybe,” I encouraged her to try my Claritin. And I assured her that if her sniffles made it hard to get to sleep she could always take one of my Nyquils.

Today Mamie came home squealing in anguish after a teeth-whitening session. No sooner had I read online that Aleve could be used to relieve the pain, than I jumped up and headed for my bulging medicine bag. “I’ve got that!” I cried triumphantly while holding the bottle aloft.

That was the moment I realized I have a problem.

You can walk into any Senegalese pharmacy and buy a bunch of powerful medicine for which you’d need a prescription in the United States. But the Senegalese don’t seem to use drugs with the frequency that Americans do. I’ve noticed this even when it comes to stimulants as mild as tea and coffee. While I refuse to do anything before I have my espresso, the Senegalese get on with their caffeine-free lives, drinking nothing but attayah – green tea – at midday, and impotent cafe touba in the morning and evening. They don’t seem to medicate stomaches, headaches, or colds – at least not the people I’ve met (admittedly a small sample size). My host family didn’t even have a thermometer when I wanted to take my temperature last week.

I consider myself a drug-averse individual, and yet I just counted all the drugs I came armed with to Senegal, plus the ones I have picked up here in Dakar, and the grand total is 21. I have more drugs here than underwear.

But the stockpile itself isn’t what bothers me. When it comes to my own usage, I’ve only taken a handful of drugs since arriving, and I keep the rest around only in case of emergency. What’s disturbing is how I’m all too enthusiastic about pushing them on everyone else, even when they are barely called for. I get this gleeful feeling every time I put drugs into someone’s hands, as though I am a caped superhero bearing otherwise-elusive pain relief. My self-worth shouldn’t come from perceiving myself as a helper, and my self-perception as a helper certainly shouldn’t come from offering controlled substances to people.

So, for my personal psychological growth if nothing else, as of today I’m imposing a moratorium on offering unsolicited drugs to others. Let them sneeze, let them grip their stomachs, let them knead their foreheads – unless they come to me asking for the drugs by name, Ruth’s American medicine chest is now off-limits to everyone but myself.

Addendum: I wrote this post and then went downstairs to eat dinner before actually posting it. Within a three-minute span of time, Mamie came back from the hair salon and reported that the Aleve had miraculously taken away all her tooth pain, and Tantie breezed in to tell me that my allergy pills “worked really well” and that she feels “much better.” It may be too late to cut off their supply… Looks like I’ve already created two monsters.

[Photo: Steven Depolo]

coffee chronicles

An update on my quest to find freshly brewed coffee in Dakar:

A while ago, Tantie (Mamie’s younger sister; real name Armand) recommended I try Presse Cafe, in the neighborhood of Plateau. After three caffeination-starved months in Dakar, the sight of their bean grinders and espresso machines felt like spotting a unicorn.

I now stop in to the cafe every time I’m downtown, but it’s too far to go for my daily fix. Fortunately, I recently discovered an even better place right in my own backyard.

A ten-minute walk from my house, through the dusty pastel streets of Amitié, an inconspicuous shop called Coumba Cafe does their own roasting and grinding and brews an uber-strong cup of espresso topped with a perfect layer of crema (a word I learned only during my recent coffee obsession).

The first time I drank one tiny shot of it, I had to down a liter of water and eat a banana to calm the coffee shakes. Tremors aside, it was heavenly to be so wide awake.

Now I’m a regular there. I love their decidedly non-cafe-like decor and that they’ve been around since the 80s.

For less than a dollar, I get my espresso fix from someone who knows my order without me saying a word. Apparently they make a delicious version of cafe touba that, unlike the kind sold on the street, actually wakes you up, but so far I have stuck to the espresso because I don’t really believe in a world in which cafe touba possesses powers of caffeination. Maybe one Saturday when I don’t have any work to do I’ll try it out.

On that note, I’m heading there now because my brain is still not fully functional and it’s after 12pm!

West African money is beautiful

The CFA is the common currency of eight countries in West Africa. (People call the money “say-fah.”) CFA banknotes are gorgeous. The image doesn’t capture the subtle overlay of shimmer on parts of the bills, but trust me when I say they are truly stunning. If this particular combination weren’t worth about US$62, I would glue them to a board and frame them.

here comes the rain

Last Thursday night it drizzled, and after five months in Senegal with nary a drop of rain, the scent of freshly-wet earth read to my nostrils as one of the loveliest smells in the world.

Today I got caught in another teeny tiny shower and realized that for the first time since arriving here, I’m going to have to start checking the weather report. The rainy season is upon us, and Mamie warns me that it will be “dégueulasse” when the water overflows the gutters and everything turns to mud.

But for now I feel positively Gene Kelly-like. And I’m excited about the prospect of using my second-favorite French word, parapluie (umbrella, topped only by pamplemousse, grapefruit), as frequently as possible.