Our Lady, Notre-Dame

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After living in Paris for much of 2017, my last week was the one between Christmas and New Year’s. On December 22, I stayed out all night with a couple of new friends and we bar hopped from speakeasy to speakeasy. I meant to post about it here but I never did (maybe I will get around to it one day…).

The idea to visit a bunch of speakeasies in one night came to us after we discovered a shared passion for exploring the city. The challenge to stay out all night was my addition to the plan. I believe that spending 24 hours wide awake in any given city reveals otherwise unknowable things about it and also inspires high-on-life-low-on-sleep euphoria that forever solidifies one’s connection to it.

That’s exactly what happened on that night in Paris. We visited four or five speakeasies between 10pm and 4am. After we decided we had had enough of bars, we made a last-minute change of plans and wandered around until we found a 24-hour brasserie close enough to the Seine to hop out at dawn and watch the sun rise over the river.

The brasserie happened to be just across the bridge from Notre-Dame, and as we walked across the plaza in the first hints of light, I realized that the cathedral would open to the public in just fifteen minutes. Nobody was waiting outside, so after another last-minute change of plans, we were the first to go in when the small entrance within the huge wooden doors opened.

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I had passed Notre-Dame many times during my nine months in Paris, but I had only been inside once before, on a family trip to Europe when I was 13 or 14. It was so packed that I could barely see a thing, and I was therefore underwhelmed. This time, the cathedral was nearly empty, very dark, and decorated for Christmas.

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The stained glass in the rose windows looked black; it was still too dark outside for the colors to shine through.

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Although the light inside came from electricity, there was so little of it that the cathedral resembled how it must have looked when candlelit hundreds of years ago.

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The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps falling and snatches of a hymn being sung by choir members near the altar. Maybe they were practicing for the next night’s midnight mass, or maybe they were getting ready for the first mass that morning. I walked through the nave feeling the sacredness of the space, the peacefulness of the moment, and a deep gratefulness for having visited Notre-Dame in such a special way.

Watching the cathedral burn this evening was heartbreaking. Notre-Dame connects millions of people who have been awed by it for over 850 years, and if that chain is broken it would be a tragedy for all of humanity. But it would especially be a tragedy for all those who have not yet visited and felt its power.

That goes for people of all religions or none at all. Notre-Dame belongs to all of us – the “notre” is everyone’s “our,” not just Catholics’. I’m not a religious person, and if I were it would be in the Jewish and not the Catholic faith. Yet cathedrals move me in a way that feels unexplainable, given my lack of belief. Actually, it is entirely explainable. Gothic architecture objectively evokes an emotional response, a sense of wonder and holiness. While cathedrals hold a special purpose and meaning for Catholics, they are special, full stop, for everyone.

In my opinion, Notre-Dame is not among the most beautiful of Paris’s cathedrals, but it is one of the most magical. It has towered majestically over the banks of the Seine since the 1100s, when Paris was in its infancy. Created by humans in a remarkable feat of engineering and ambition, it has witnessed and outlasted countless other human dramas including the Revolution (and all those other counter-revolutions and rebellions I once learned and have since forgotten about) and two World Wars. It was around before the plague! Almost every important figure in French history must have been inside at some point.

It is a beloved fixture of the Paris landscape, at its heart and in its heart. As I said, I’m not religious. I identify as agnostic, and if I had to choose one way or the other, I’d say I don’t believe in God. But in spite of that, I found myself praying this evening. “Please, God, in whatever form you take, let there be some sort of miracle that allows Notre-Dame to escape nearly unscathed. Please let nothing truly irreplaceable be lost. Please let it be possible to rebuild so that people still feel connected to humans who lived a thousand years before them. Please let Notre-Dame continue to survive threats of destruction, just as it has done before, as a testament to the sacredness, ingenuity, resilience and beauty of humanity itself.”

That December morning in Notre-Dame, we only spent a few minutes inside, because we didn’t want to miss the sunrise entirely. I took for granted that the cathedral would always be around, but the dawn would only last a few more minutes. We quietly left the cathedral and walked around to the back of it, where these views awaited us.

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My heart aches to think about the view looking back at the people in those buildings tonight.

Ghana: Elmina and Cape Coast

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The bulk of the planning for my Benin-Togo-Ghana trip went into the Benin portion, and I figured that I’d play it by ear in Togo and Ghana. Had I done a bit more research ahead of time, I would have realized I’d want two days to explore Elmina, Cape Coast, and Kakum Park. Instead, I tried to cram it all into one very long day trip that started at 6am and ended at 9pm in Accra. There was not a minute of downtime in the itinerary, aside from a lunch that tried to kill me. More on that another time. Continue reading

Ghana: Accra

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I’m heading to Sierra Leone tomorrow, and I still haven’t posted photos from the Ghana portion of my vacation, nor from the Casamance region of Senegal, where I went for work a couple of weeks ago. In an effort to catch up,  here is a quick and dirty recap of Accra (and you can read a few stories about some of the women I met in the Casamance here).  Continue reading

Togo: Lomé

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At the border between Benin and Togo, I got out of the car and walked across the border on foot. There were no problems, just a little bit of a wait. My driver, who had some sort of laissez-passer travel document, went across in his car and met me on the other side.  IMG_6043

From there it was about an hour and a half to Lomé, where we parted ways. I had a day and a half to wander around the city before I was due to cross the border into Ghana and head to Accra. Continue reading

Benin: the slave trade in Ouidah

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Well. We have reached the point in my trip when it turns abruptly from the (mostly) life-affirming wonders of Vodoun culture to the despair-inducing horrors of human trafficking. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, as many as 12.5 million people were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World between 1501 and 1866. Almost 2 million of those people embarked from the area around Ouidah called the Bight of Benin, and Ouidah itself was one of the busiest slave ports on the African continent. An estimated 12-13 percent of those who boarded the slave ships did not survive the Middle Passage. Continue reading

Dakar’s stunning railroad station

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On Saturday when I took a walk downtown, I got a closer look at the renovated railroad station, which I had peeped from the car a few weekends ago. Here are some better pictures than the ones I posted then.

The station was inaugurated in 1914 and went out of service about 100 years later after both the Dakar-Bamako and Dakar-St.Louis passenger trains stopped running. (I believe the suburban commuter line moved to a station a little further north but I’m not entirely sure.)

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For a few years, there were plans to demolish the station and build a park there instead, but thankfully that would-be travesty never came to pass. Instead, the government decided to renovate the station and make it the southern terminus of the new express commuter line that runs through the suburbs and ends at the just-finished airport an hour outside of town.

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I’ve also heard about plans to rehabilitate and relaunch the Dakar-Bamako line, which would delight me should it ever actually happen. I have seen footage of the 40+ hour journey and it looks like the stuff of dreams (punctuated by extreme boredom, fatigue, and discomfort). For now, I’m overjoyed to see my favorite building in town being resuscitated and returned to its former splendor.

P.S. Chemins de fer (literal translation: path of iron) is such a beautiful way to say railroad, don’t you think?

Good things happen in threes

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I just realized that yesterday was the three year anniversary of the day I first landed in Dakar, bleary- and wide-eyed in equal measure. I’m so, so grateful to be back, especially in February when the weather is (mostly) lovely. During this time of year, the Harmattan winds do have a tendency to sweep in and turn the sky yellowish and cover everything with dust for days at a time. That’s no fun, but knowing it’s sand from the Sahara desert being deposited on us is pretty neat. I also find it neat that even though I’ve only spent about 15 months in Dakar total, this is my third February here.

I’m spending this weekend prepping for my first shoot of this trip (happening on Monday), as well as fleshing out my ideas for a documentary that is getting me very excited even though I haven’t even asked the intended subjects of the film for permission to make it yet. Getting ahead of myself is my M.O. in life, and while it has its downsides it also gives me lots of fodder for fantastic daydreams, which I enjoy.

On that note, I will now turn from words on (digital) paper to images on digital video.

But first, just to complete the theme, three beautiful buildings I passed in the downtown neighborhood of Plateau this morning (the one at the top of this post was not so much beautiful as incredibly bizarre – note the ceramic swans!). Have a lovely weekend, and see you next week!

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