Feb 28, 2011

Top Ten?

According to latest livability index compiled by The Economist, Dakar, Senegal is one of the 10 worst cities to live in the world. the worst city to live in the world is Harare, Zimbabwe, followed by Dhaka, Bangladesh, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Lagos, Nigeria, Algiers, Algeria, Karachi, Pakistan, Douala, Cameroon, Tehran, Iran, Dakar, Senegal, and then, the best of the worst 10 cities on the index, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The Economist Intelligence Unit survey ranks cities based on 30 factors such as healthcare, culture and environment, and education and personal safety.

Well, Dakar is definitely not the easiest place to live, but almost every ex-pat we've met says they have been stationed in far worse places--in fact they like Dakar. hmmm.

Feb 19, 2011


You never know where you'll end up when you get into a taxi in Dakar.
Taxis are everywhere. Empty yellow cabs, exhaust pouring from tailpipes rattle by on almost every street. They pause or honk as if begging you to take a ride.

Taxi fares are negotiated, and the negotiation usually involves a performance by both parties:
Taxi driver "3000 CFA"
us: "No, no, no. That's way too expensive. 1000 CFA."
Taxi: "That's not enough."
Us: "its not far..."
Taxi: "2500 CFA."
Us. "No, no. 1500."
Taxi. "2000"
We begin to walk away.
Taxi "ok. 1500 CFA."
All this before we even step into the car.

Actually getting to your destination is another matter entirely. The strange thing about taxi drivers in Dakar is that they seldom know how to get anywhere. There are very few "real" addresses in Dakar. Don't try to send me a letter because it probably won't get here. Instead you must direct the driver by landmarks, which means you have to know where you're going.

We'd never been to the beach at Ngor which meant when we hopped into a taxi last Saturday morning, we did't know where we were going. After taking us to the wrong beach a couple miles north, the driver turned around and finally stopped by a small hotel, promising that the beach was just beyond the buildings that lined the road. We saw a path leading to blue. We had arrived. Or so we thought.

The beach wasn't what we expected. The tide was in and there was a small strip of sand covered in bottle caps, cans and other bits of trash. We walked, a bit demoralized. Where was the white sand beach we had been promised? Or even just a bit of clean sand for maggie to shovel into her pail? We've been to some beautiful beaches in Dakar; this just wasn't one of them.

Jon stopped and asked a man if there was a nice beach nearby. And this is when our true adventure started.

He was young, or at least young to my eyes, late twenties, perhaps?--clearly I'm getting older here for I find myself talking about the peace corps volunteers as "kids". After we had been talking for a while he took out a pack of cigarettes and started smoking--something I seldom see in Dakar. It was as if he wanted to demonstrate his affluence, or at least show us that he was cosmopolitan. He said that if we waited until the afternoon the tide would shift and take with it all the debris that had gathered on the beach. I imagined all those bottle caps and plastic bags floating in the water. Somehow it wasn't appealing.

To be fair, the true draw of Ngor is the island beach that sits a small distance from the mainland. Boats ferry passengers over for a couple of dollars. That day the water was choppy. The wind blew sand into our eyes and carried debris along the beach. We decided to leave that trip for another day.

The man offered to show us the way towards a hotel a little ways down the coast which we knew had a small beach and playground. We agreed, and followed him into a narrow alley, its small path made entirely of sand.

Buildings rose around us, their windows open, walls covered with laundry-fabrics and jerseys and skirts drying in the sun. Sometimes the path tightened and we stepped aside to let others by. Men were out walking the maze like paths; their children darted past with bare feet. The path opened and we passed a woman with tin pots ladling food into small bowls and passing them out to the children and men.

The village of Ngor truly was a maze. I don't that we could have found our way out without help. Occasionally I smelled the salty sea air blow through, but mostly the smells were those I've grown accustomed to: a mineral smell that permeates everything in Senegal, cooking onions, spices, and the not so pleasant scents of sewage, exhaust and rotting animals. We followed our guide for awhile, and I began to wonder, where is he taking us? But suddenly we ducked through a low door and we were inside his home.

We entered and I thought immediately, so this is where all the women are. Young women cleaning floors with bleach, wiping ledges, and taking care of children--the house was full of women, and they all seemed to be in some way related to the man who was our guide.

He showed us his family's house with pride. His eyes were bright and happy, and though at first I felt like we were intruders in a family's private realm, I couldn't help but feel happy and privileged as well. He introduced us to his sisters and then led us upstairs. We entered a small room and found more family: three sisters and their mother. His mother was not there, but he told us she was one of his father's four wives (!!). Truly it was a big family. Then he took us into his room, and again, he beamed. It was a big room, made bigger by the scarcity of furniture or other items: only a mattress, several small items, and in the corner there was a painting. It was a painting of his grandfather. We finished the tour on the roof where the air was fresh and the ocean seemed to be all around.

He certainly had not taken us to a place we expected to go, but I truly felt the blessing of the simplest things in his life, and the pride he felt in sharing that with us. It was pretty wonderful.

He took us back outside, but there were a couple more things he wanted to show us: the cemetery, filled with the history of his village and his family, and one incredible Baobob tree growing up from the maze of houses. He pulled some leaves from the tree and told us to make a prayer and give the leaf back to the tree. As I tossed my leaf towards the tree I already felt the gratitude for everything in my life. Blessings all around.

The Baobob prayer tree:

Our guide taking us through the narrow paths of Ngor:

Feb 7, 2011


We made it.

It might sound like nothing, but travelling alone with a toddler from San Francisco to Senegal is not an easy thing to do. It's not something I want to do again.

The waiting room at JFK bustled with people waiting for the Dakar flight: The fifty-something woman doing Tai chi next to the window, a group of peace corp volunteers exchanging stories, a senegalese man and woman talking in wolof. I watched an american couple rifle through a Senegal guide book and felt, strangely, like I might offer advice if asked.

When had it happened to me? I understood some words in wolof...I understood french. I understood that some people were returning to their home, the place they were born. Some were returning to the place they had made home: working for the embassy, NGO's. Some, perhaps like the woman doing Tai chi, were returning to a place they loved like home. And me?

So much had already happened in our six months of travel. We spent two months in Paris like tourists, visiting museums and monuments; we loved it, we hated it. we felt at home, we felt homesick. Then on the eve before leaving for Dakar we discovered something: I was pregnant.

To say it made the transition to Dakar a little rocky would be an understatement. It was hot when we arrived in November. Mosquitos were everywhere. We couldn't find a place to live and then when we did, it turned out to be the landing path for all the airplanes coming into the Dakar airport. That first night it felt like were being dive bombed from above every hour or so. That and the general sense of living amongst rubble and dust and I felt like we were in a war zone. It didn't help that french and american military jets were practicing above the city that first month in Dakar. So we moved out. lost some money in the process. Looked for a new place. couldn't find anything in our price range. Expanded that price range. and finally, the third week, we moved into the apartment where we live now.

On Friday (Saturday) I returned with my two babies, one who had been screaming and kicking for much of the second flight, the other, thankfully, still tucked away, a part of me. I walked out toward the baggage claim, a heavy backpack on my back, an exhausted toddler in the stroller and I thought, almost there. You only have to get your baggage, make it through one more checkpoint. The door is over there....

A group of men approached me, offering to help, wanting my money, I walked right past them. I chose who I wanted to ask for help (because I did need help). I negotiated with him in french. 5 dollars...I only have five dollars. He helped me with my bags and got me to that door where Jon was waiting.

That night we were all lying in bed. It was well past midnight and we were awake. There was a mosquito net over us. Outside we heard chanting which would continue throughout the night. Maggie was crying a bit when she said to me, "mama, I want to go home...I want to go home to nanny's," and I thought, me too. I want to go home.

I looked towards the window. I felt sadness. I let the sadness sit there for a moment and then let it go. Again and again I let it go. We are here. I know that looking back this will be one of the most enriching experiences of my life. But for now I just have to make it through each day, to see the beauty in what is right in front of me. And there is beauty.