Labor Day and Chinese Food

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This past Tuesday was May 1st, which in Senegal (and other countries that don’t hate workers) is Labor Day. This meant that I got school off, which I took as an excuse to wander about Dakar with friends/bother Ousmane the tailor. (The self-employed, in Dakar as anywhere, do not have national holidays off.)

We walked from Ceaser’s (the local source for both knock-off KFC and milkshakes, beloved for its wifi and its ability to break large bills) towards Semboudienne, the craft village next to the big fish market. It’s along the Corniche, the main road in Dakar–it hugs the coast all the way from the airport to downtown.

The group estimate was that the market was nearby–maybe a mile and a half. The group estimate was wrong. Even given nice weather and the Kansas-level flatness of Dakar, we were walking for more than an hour.

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Wedding Crasher

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A few nights ago, I attended a Pular wedding. My host mother was late to come home due to attending what turned out to be the first part of the wedding, and–as I was helping with dinner–we had a conversation that went, in full:

HM: You’re going to help at a Pular wedding.

Me: Ok!

Because I am dumb, I assumed she meant sometime in the future. She did not, as evidenced by her watching me eat melon after diner and looking impatient. Finally, I got:

HM: I’m waiting for you!

ME: For…?

HM: *sigh* We’re leaving now.

And so we did. I put on a jacket and she shoved me into a taxi. As we arrived in the neighborhood where the wedding was happening, she cheerily pointed out the women’s prison. So that was fun.

When we got in, she said hello to everyone and left me in a room full of her distant relatives without much in the way of an introduction. As in, I don’t think people knew why I was there or what my connection to my host mother was. They thought I was a French woman there on vacation.* Nonetheless, they were very accomodating, and a younger relative turned herself into my translator for the evening. Let it never be said that Senegalese folks will not roll with the punches when a stranger shows up to a family gathering.

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Background Noise (and Unnerving Silence)

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Tonight is the first night my host house has been quiet since I moved in here three months ago. This happened only because the power company decided to cut our (and only our) power for the evening. As the angry Wolof phone conversations have finished, this has left is more-or-less complete silence.

It’s very weird.

This is one of the things that no one thinks to tell you when you are moving abroad, particularly in regards to a host family. My family (and, as best I can tell from other students, most host families in the program) has some sort of noise going constantly. The TV is frequently left on as background noise, and if the TV isn’t on the radio is. Frequently multiple radios or TVs are turned to different stations at the same time, both left loud enough to be heard in the central room. My host mother sleeps the whole night through with the TV or radio (occasionally both) in the background. Senegalese music (including the snapshot above from an Independence Day festival) is like 90% Very Loud Drums.

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Three Weeks Left

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Three weeks left in Senegal, which is terrifying and wonderful all at once. It’s put me in a weird place, because I have to deal in earnest with arrangements for the summer/rest of my life, and that’s always troublesome.

Also, over my lunch break, I launched a new business venture. (I also learned about setting a static homepage in WordPress! It was an exciting day.) I’m hoping to make some money by editing folks’ cover letters for them, so if that interests you/some recent college grad in your life, please get in touch. I work quickly, edit this particular kind of copy very well, and enjoy helping other people get really cool jobs.


I’m not particularly interested in going into my conflicting emotions (they’re easy-enough to imagine–I will miss people here and yet I want to go home, which is the plight of everyone who has ever moved temporarily).

What I am interested in talking about is the obligation to feel.

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Let’s Talk About Higher Ed.

So, lately I’ve been thinking about study abroad, and about how the ways in which higher ed institutions approach it is kind of profoundly broken.

At most universities, once a student applies to and is accepted to their program, their university piles them into a room with all of the other study abroad students and everyone has a nice chat about how to not get murdered. Culture shock is discussed. Personal boundaries are tested. Slideshows are played.

Sometimes discussed in the meeting is the graph charting students’ study abroad experiences. At the beginning, the student is in a honeymoon period. Life is great! Locals are just like me! Then, reality sets in and the student is bummed out for a while about cultural differences or loneliness or whatever. Then, there’s a spiky bit on the line that trends generally upward, and by the time the student finishes their time abroad they don’t want to go home, they feel like they are one with their new countrymen, etc. etc.

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Both of these are really stupid ways to prepare folks for the study abroad experience.

Because here’s the thing–both the meetings and the graph treat study abroad students as one group. And, for university insurance purposes, they are. But I think there are actually at least three distinct subgroups within study abroad students that need different information, have different goals, and will have profoundly different experiences during their time abroad.

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Toubob Frappacino

Today I had a tiny food revelation. In the midst of another game of “things I will eat when I go back home” (the favorite game of ex-pats and study abroad kids the world over), I said, “iced coffee.” For a country in which 80 degrees leads people to start wearing scarves (really really), Senegal has in no way hopped on the iced beverage bandwagon. People are still more than happy to pop a cafe touba* for their caffeine fix.

But, in the midst of this game, I realized that every component of my coffee experience in this country is already water soluable–instant Nescafe, powdered milk, and white sugar. There was no reason I couldn’t make my own coffee.

So, I meandered on over to my local grocery store. (True fact: you are never more than 2 minutes from a place to buy food here.) I grabbed a 16 oz. bottle of water, two individual-sized Nescafe packets (like those Crystal Light things for your water bottle, but full of mediocre instant coffee), and–in a moment of excited product discovery–a packet of presweetened Vitalait (slogan: “Fatfilled sweetened milk!”). Continue reading

Massage Weirdness

So, the massage from last entry? Was great. Worth every last CFA that I paid for it, if just for the use of the hot (hot!) shower alone. It was also completely weird.

The first thing that I noticed about the massage was that my French vocabulary was pretty much not in any way up for the task. My French, like most school French, was learned in a series of themed units—“Talking about hobbies,” or “Makeup,” or “Describing the floors of buildings and their furnishings.” There are a variety of units that were not covered (“Insulting cat callers,” “Ordering mixed drinks,” and “Explaining to the tailor that you want a cuffed sleeve made out of the lining fabric,” among them), and unfortunately “Getting a massage” falls into this category. The massage therapist kept asking me questions about the kind of massage I wanted, and after enough smiling and nodding she basically just did what she wanted and told me to shout if it hurt.

Mostly, this was fine—I just had to concentrate on not laughing when she touched my feet and/or “My Heart Will Go On” came on the radio (twice). But then, the massage therapist gestured for me to roll over on my side. While trying to clutch a towel to my chest, I propped myself up so that the massage therapist could do some sort of crazy chiropractic stretches on my legs. (At this point she had stopped speaking, instead just moving me where she needed me.) Continue reading

Spring Breakdown

So, remember that time when I went to Barcelona for spring break, but then it wasn’t spring break at all and I just bailed on a week of classes? Well, fun fact, it’s actually spring break now! I have elected to stick it out in Dakar because a) I hate sept places and b) I’m saving up my broke-being for my trip to Paris in May. So, I’ve been kicking around with a group of girls in Dakar, instead.

We started the week off on Tuesday (Monday, being the day after Easter, is a national holiday, and so was dedicated to writing papers) with a trip to the West African Research Center. While there, I took advantage of the sweet, sweet wifi and copy edited a friend’s cover letter to Linden Labs. I also managed to obtain the first of the approximately 87 blisters I from this week on the walk over to WARC.

After we finished researching/creeping on Paris housing rentals, we walked to a nearby pizza place. They were having their fabulous Tuesday promotion, in which you could get two large pizzas for $12. We ordered that, and so were surprised when they brought us four pizzas. We waited for a few minutes to see if they were going to come back for them, but they didn’t. Being unethical and also hungry, we chowed down, and each managed to eat pretty much an entire three dollar pizza. Fulfilling American stereotypes is delicious.

During lunch, a man selling pirated DVDs came by. Several were purchased, including American Terrorist Film and Time Cop. We attempted to watch these in the evening, but eventually gave up for the wiles of French-language Titanic (which I have still never seen in English). Weeping and Celine Dion were had.

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I Don’t Hate it Here.

So tonight I Skyped my sister. Which was great, because I haven’t actually spoken to her since… oh, I left the country. Talking to her is always so great because whenever she’s freaked out about something, I can be like, “I remember that being terrifying! It turned out to be in no way a big deal.” And then, if I’m feeling perspective-havey, I realize that there is some two-years-older me doing exactly the same thing to my own at-the-moment all-consuming problems. Then I calm down.

But anyway, after we chatted about our linguistic failures (me and Wolof, her and Ancient Greek), she said, “You know, [our mutually-shared, fabulous undergrad adviser] reads your blog.” Which I was sort of aware of, but had filed away along with the information that my parents have had sex and that somewhere out there my LiveJournal still exists as best not to think about ever.

“Yeah,” she continued, “She thinks you hate it there.” I spluttered. “Well, except for your tailor.” I stopped spluttering, because once again, my tailor is the greatest, she is correct.* But she is also correct about this blog sounding like I hate it here. And, to be fair, I’m still not sold on this experience as a pleasant one. I am not ashamed to say that my friends and I spent an hour at the weird expat mall this afternoon pointing out that, for a few hundred dollars, we could go home tomorrow. We all kind of wanted to.

The truth is, Dakar is not beautiful. It is not particularly comfortable. Living in a family is hard, and made harder when they’re not yours and you don’t understand half the conversations going on around you. Though I am fully aware that this experience is going to be a valuable one in terms of forcing me to realize that—though I could have left, because I am holy-shit-an-adult now—I didn’t, and that that is a good thing, I make no pretenses about this being a fun experience in the way that studying in Europe probably would have been. (Not to say that Europe can’t be difficult—I have friends there now and have had friends there in the past, and it can certainly be a head trip in a lot of the same ways just because you are far away from home and lonely and also broke.)

But I don’t hate it here. If I really, truly did, I probably would have left by now, because this is not an academically-valuable-enough experience for me to stick it out if I hated it. So, here’s a list of things that I am legitimately tickled with about my time in Dakar.

My host nieces: Today my oldest niece spent ten minutes constructing an elaborate crash scene using a toy boat, a miniature car rapide, and a makeup brush she found in my room. She narrated the whole thing in Frolof. It was adorable. Continue reading

On Tattoos and Children

I had a quick, bizarre interaction with my middle host niece today. She’s three, and because she is little she has not quite realized that my inability to speak Wolof is indicative of a single missing skill, rather than general idiocy. (Her sister, who is five, has figured out that I understand her beginning French and most hand gestures. We work it out.)

She was sitting on the eating mat and looking at my feet. I figured she was checking out my shoes, since they’re gold. She said something to me in Wolof that I completely did not understand, both because it was exclusively composed of verbs I don’t know and because she’s three and kind of mumbles.

My host dad laughed at what it was that she said, and answered back. They chatted for a minute before he turned to me and (in French) said, “She likes your tattoo.”

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