12 months, 12 countries

I came to Senegal hoping I’d be lucky enough to see a bit of this country and a few others nearby. Things worked out beyond my wildest dreams, and I ended up visiting 12 new countries in 12 months, a personal record. Half the trips were for work, half for vacation, but all of them were a pleasure to see. (Though they were definitely not pleasurable at every moment, to say the least.)

I’ll share my favorite pictures from Dakar later, but first, here in one place are my travelogues from all the countries I visited from last February to this January.

Senegal: the western and northern parts, and a central / southern part

Portugal

Morocco: Marrakech and Casablanca

Liberia

Ethiopia

Tanzania: safari on the mainland and Zanzibar

South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg

Benin

Mauritania

Burkina Faso

The Gambia

Cape Verde: Cidade Velho, Praia, and Mindelo, and the island of Santo Antão

And with that, I’m off to the airport, America-bound…

The Gambia

The last destination on my 4-country shoot in December was The Gambia. After some discussion about whether to postpone due to the political situation, we decided that it should be safe to go during the (albeit tense) lull between the time when outgoing President Jammeh reneged on his promise to accept the election results and the time when West African nations launched hard-core diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Continue reading

Travel as ecstasy

In college I heard an urban legend that has stayed with me for almost two decades:

Supposedly there was a guy who had sex while high on Ecstasy, and it was so mind-blowing that it ruined regular sex for him. After just one time, his mind and body flipped a switch, and sober sex became so lackluster in comparison that he could no longer get it up without taking E.

That story, and its perhaps unintended warning about being too greedy with pleasure, popped back into my head recently when I thought about the prospect of moving back to the States. After a year of heightened experience while abroad, living in the land of my upbringing now seems so much… not like living.

Hyperbolic, yes, but also true to form. When I was four and a half, my dad’s job got transferred and my parents moved our family from the New Jersey suburbs to central London (and, to be fair, to the London suburbs soon after). It was the mid-80’s, there were punks and new wave rockers everywhere, and the sights and sounds of England were wondrous to a little kid.

A year and a half later, we returned to the States, and we eventually settled right back in to the same house we had lived in before the move. Eight years after that, teen angst hit me hard, America no longer cut it for me, and I became obsessed with my time in England. I hated my bland suburban existence and fantasized about moving back to London where everyone was more interesting, witty, good-looking and stylish. Granted, my anglophilia coincided with the dawn of Britpop, which made everyone want to be British. But it also had to do with my burgeoning sense that life was best lived outside of one’s home country.

We used to go to Israel every couple of years to visit my dad’s family. Since he had been in the Israeli army before moving to the United States, and since soldiers are considered re-call-up-able until a certain age, my father had to get written permission to leave the country each time our vacations ended. Before heading to the airport, we’d go to the army base, and while sitting in the car waiting for my dad to come back from whatever office he was in, my mother would wistfully say, “I hope they make us stay.” Then the kids would threaten to go back home alone. But secretly I always wished that we’d get stuck in this land of my cousins and grandparents, of very few seat belts or rules, of an exotic language and biblical-looking scenery, of complete foreignness mixed with assurances of belonging. Instead of going back to my boring school I’d get to continue being on vacation, indefinitely, in a strange and wonderful place.

I suppose I still have the naiveté of a child, because being abroad this year – even on days when it has sucked and been nothing but a hustle – has still felt like vacation. Everything is new and different and exciting, even when it’s sort of not. I suppose if I stayed away another year or two, it might lose its luster and go back to being just like regular life. But at this point in time, it feels like being on (really amazing) drugs, and I fear that it has ruined me for America.

[The photo is from the Mauritanian desert.]

Have a good weekend!

Here are some interesting reads from this week:

The French are fighting back against 24/7 on-call work culture.

Reducing your language learning baggage, or: “All you need is to keep going.”

An interesting article about the E.U.’s swelling language roster.

The most misused words in English (I am forever getting bemused and nonplussed wrong).

And finally, the New York Times has just released its annual “52 places to go” list, and it has me feeling slightly possessive and territorial because Botswana is on there. Stay away, please; it’s all mine in 2017!

Have a great weekend!

P.S. The photo is apropos of nothing, really. I saw the can in the supermarket and thought it looked like gorgeous art. Also, this week I did roast chestnuts for the first time ever. They were delightful even though half the joy of eating them is the wintry feeling and it is in no way, shape or form winter here. (Thank you, Mark Slomiany, for that one time you made them and I saw how easy it looked!)

Ová it

When I used to do silly things as a child, my mother would tsk tsk me, “Rootie Schtootie,” because schtoot in Hebrew means nonsense. Today I am Rootie Schtootie-ing myself on her behalf, because my idiocy / vanity has cost me my best West African adventure yet. (Though my mother – who is, to put it mildly, not a fan of my travels – will be thrilled.) Continue reading

Havana mi amor

This day last year was a very, very good day.

It started with me getting high as a kite on my first espresso in maybe ten years, at a paladar in a nondescript apartment building overlooking the city and the sea…

I then proceeded to the Callejón de Hamel to hear a Sunday rumba session that got me higher than the espresso did. The woman above was one of the dancers, and she floored me. Too bad my internet connection stinks or I would upload one of the videos from that day, which I keep on my phone for emergency pick-me-ups.

Then I ran into the guys above, just up the block…

…followed by this man, who called me over to ask me in very broken English where I was from. When I answered, “The United States,” he exclaimed, “Elvis Presley! Whitney Houston!” before starting to strum “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” on his guitar. I sang the words and danced along in the middle of the street, feeling like I was in my own private movie. He gave me his address and mimed a request to send him the pictures I took. Since the resumption of mail service between Cuba and the US had been announced that very week, I promised him I would. And I did, though I will never know if they reached him, and what he thought when he saw his face smiling back at him.

Then I took a walk to visit these guys…

…and I quite literally pinched myself because it felt like a dream. The same feeling I had in Burkina Faso, where I was shooting this week. When you finally get somewhere you’ve wanted to go for years and years, it’s almost unbelievable to actually be there.

And the dreamlike feeling was also because it was as much time travel as geographic travel. Scenes like the one above needed absolutely no airbrushing to look like the golden age of Hollywood. Midcentury is such an emotional punch in the gut for me. I don’t know why. Maybe I grew up in the 50s in my past life.

And thus concludes the epic romanticization of one of the best days of my life, one year ago today.

[P.S. I “stole” this post from my Instagram account, where I also posted photos from the shoots I just finished in Mauritania and Burkina Faso.]

South Africa part 2: Johannesburg

In Johannesburg I stayed with an acquaintance of an acquaintance. About two years ago I met up with someone I had briefly worked with on a couple of projects, and I mentioned that I was planning to move to Senegal. He put me in touch with an Irish woman (whom he had never met but with whom he had somehow conversed in an online artists community, maybe?), who also worked with non-profits, had moved to South Africa a few years before, and was perhaps a kindred spirit who might advise me on my journey. I Skyped with her from New York, she was wonderfully supportive and helpful, and before we hung up she invited me to stay with her and her partner in Johannesburg if I ever made it that way. At the time I joked, “Sure, why not travel from one end of Africa to the other? See you in a few months!” But in the end, that’s exactly what happened. Continue reading

Tanzania part 2: Zanzibar

After our safari adventure, Randy and I flew to Dar es Salaam, where we spent a day seeing the sights before taking the ferry to Zanzibar the next morning. Dar paled in comparison to Zanzibar so I’ll just skip it and get right to the good stuff. Continue reading

5 intriguing things about Liberia

I’ve been meaning to write a post about certain things that struck me while I was in Liberia months ago. These “things” are all fairly nuanced and a certain amount of research is required to delve deeper into the whats and hows and whys in order to write intelligently about them. I started the research but never finished it, and at this point it doesn’t seem like I ever will. The problem is that I still want to write about the things that struck me.

So what I’m going to do is throw them all out there half-formed, like conversation starters as it were, and I’ll let you do further research yourself, should you be so inclined. I’ve even provided links for you! But I make no claims as to the veracity of the information within those links. So basically I’m not very helpful at all…

1. There is a dual currency system.

In Cuba there are two official forms of currency: one tied to the American dollar and used mostly by tourists (the CUC), and one subject to crazy inflation and used mostly by everyday Cubans (the CUP).

In Liberia, it goes one step further: the actual American dollar is one of the two forms of legal tender. For example, my ATM in Monrovia spit out my money in US dollars. I was able to use it throughout Monrovia, though it wasn’t widely accepted in the countryside. Also, the value of Liberian currency is tied to the value of the American dollar somehow. I find that fascinating, and yet meaningless because I never took an econ class in my life and have no idea of the implications.

More on this here.

2. Its origin as a colony for former American slaves is fascinating in itself, but the way in which that origin has impacted its history up until the present day, is also intriguing. (For example, ethnic tensions rooted in colonization at least partially influenced the Liberian Civil War that wracked the country for fourteen years from 1989 – 2003.)

I’m going to link to Wikipedia here and let you do further digging if you so choose.

3. It has an interesting (to use the most neutral term possible) relationship with several countries.

The United States: because of aforementioned history and close political ties.

China: because the Chinese are building roads and who knows what else across the country in exchange for… well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Lebanon, or rather the Lebanese: Because there is a huge Lebanese diaspora in Liberia (and throughout West Africa). In Senegal, the Lebanese, as former French subjects in a former French colony, did well for themselves. They are full-fledged Senegalese citizens who own a large proportion of the wealth and businesses here. But in Liberia, where citizenship requires you to be of black African origin (yet another fascinating subject), the Lebanese are barred from owning businesses, because there’s another law that says only citizens can do that. So the Lebanese apparently have shadow partnerships with Liberians, who officially own the businesses while the Lebanese manage them.

More on American-Liberian relations here.

More on the Chinese in Liberia here, and about Chinese investment in Africa here and here.

More on the Lebanese in West Africa here and here.

There’s also a fairly new book about the Lebanese in West Africa that I’d like to read.

4. Liberia has some exceptionally strong and politically powerful women, most notably the President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and the leader of a women’s group that was integral to ending the civil war, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.

And yet, levels of sexual and domestic violence in the country are off the charts, and laws to protect women and punish perpetrators are fairly new (and often weak), or nonexistent. For example, spousal rape was only criminalized in 2006.

I find this contrast really thought-provoking.

5. This is a small thing, but I found it fascinating that almost every shop in Liberia was called a “business center.” I guess my larger fascination is with the evolution of Liberian English and with its particularities and distinctions from American and British English. For example, I loved that they don’t use the word “pregnant” there – they say that the woman “got big belly.” And diarrhea is known as “runny stomach.” (These are the things you notice when you’re working on a video about public health.)

More on distinctive Liberian vocabulary / speech here.