It’s Just a Dollar

Last night, a situation occurred that I believe accurately sums up Senegalese culture as a whole. I will tell this story with as little bias as possible because I do not want to seem insensitive to this country that I love so much.

Time: I dunno. 8 PM?
Location: Kaolack, Senegal

My friend Kourtney and I are walking to the boutique together to buy Sprite. I have my wallet in my pocket, but Kourtney is carrying some money in her hand. We are approaching the boutique when Kourtney drops a 500 CFA piece on the ground (roughly $1). Neither of us has our phone (which has a fancy flashlight on the end), so we’re rooting around on the ground for a good five minutes looking for this money.

As we’re searching, two Senegalese people get on the ground and start helping us search, too. Then, the owner of the boutique comes out of his store with a huge lantern, which illuminates the scene (it was rather dark before). Kourtney and I keep telling them that we can search alone, but the growing crowd insists that they want to help.

Finally, we give up. We tell them it was only 500 CFA, and that we can return in the morning and hunt for it some more. The helpful citizens go back to their original positions (aka loitering outside the boutique). While I am waiting for Kourtney to buy the Sprites, a girl stands up that had been silent and immobile the entire time. She walks over to the area where the money was dropped, picks up the coin, and hands it to me. I thank her.

Kourtney and I start discussing how wonderful Senegalese people are. In America, if I dropped money on the ground, a crowd would never gather to help me find the missing currency. We are genuinely impressed.

Unfortunately, as soon as these feelings of happiness arise, the girl who found the money finally breaks her silence with:

Girl: Give me 100 CFA.
Me: Excuse me?
Girl: I helped you find your money. Give me 100 CFA of it.
Me: ……
Girl: I helped you find your money! Give me 100 CFA! Give it to me!
Me [walking away and laughing]: Ha! You’re funny….

As Kourtney and I walked away, we discussed how typically Senegalese that whole scenario was. As a whole, Senegalese people are genuinely nice, but only to an extent. You can walk by someone’s compound that you don’t know, and they will invite you to lunch. This sort of hospitality is called teranga in Wolof. The Senegalese are famous for it. Regrettably, teranga has limitations. Yes, a Senegalese family will invite you to have lunch with them, but the second the meal is completed, they will either tell you to leave or completely ignore you, implying that their hospitality has ended.

Thus, the girl probably sat there the whole time we were searching for the money. She probably knew where it was from the beginning but wanted to be the one to find it so she could collect her reward. Unfortunately for her, the two stingy toubabs who lost the money in the first place were not willing to put up with that sort of behavior.

I also find it funny (and I’m segwaying here) that people in Kaolack can always point out the Peace Corps volunteers. Kaolack is the third largest city in Senegal, so white tourists show up all the time. They are gracious and speak French. The Senegalese can always pick out the volunteers though because we speak in the local language and don’t put up with bullshit. When I am harassed at the garage, I yell in Wolof and shove people when they touch me. They always just laugh at say, “Ah, Corps de la Paix.”

Miss Me?

Forgive me, my adoring fans, for I have been quite busy these last few weeks. The life of a Peace Corps volunteer, if you didn’t know, is stressful and hectic. Like any 9 to 5 job, I must constantly keep my composure while being frequently bogged down by the trials and tribulations of my life.

OF COURSE I am joking. My life, though it may seem fun and adventurous, is actually pretty lame. I read a lot, and I go to a lot of meetings in Wolof, which result in nothing getting done.

If you don’t believe me, ask my sister Sara (we will call her Sca-rah) and my best friend Allyson (we will call her White). They recently came to visit me (I guess they took my threats in previous posts seriously). They were here for almost two weeks, and it was amazing seeing them and catching up. It was wonderful showing them around my country of residence.

Surely you want details of the trip. If so, ask the girls. Better yet, swing on over to Facebook and look at the hundreds of photos White and me have posted. They are definitely worth a look.

I will solely cover highlights here. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

We rode camels up north in Lompoul, which is a small, natural desert on the coast. Riding back from that fabulous adventure, we got a ride from one of the employees of the campement we stayed at. He picked up a couple of his buddies on the way. The ladies and myself were sitting in the back of a truck. Up ahead, there was a group of large birds feeding on a dead donkey lying on the side of the road (oh, Senegal). Instead of slowing to allow the buzzards to get out of the way, the driver speeds up and plows the truck into a number of birds. He slams on his brakes, his buddy jumps out and retrieves one of the dead birds.
Meanwhile, the toubabs in the car are wildly disturbed. His friend throws the dead bird in the back of the truck, where our luggage lies.

Me (in Wolof): Um, excuse me. Did you just throw that dead bird onto our luggage?
Man: Oh my Allah! You know Wolof??
Me: Yes, I know Wolof. I repeat, did you just throw that DEAD BIRD onto our LUGGAGE?
Man: Haha! You understand Wolof so well!
Me: Listen, and I’ll speak slowly to ensure your comprehension, did you just throw that BIRD CARCASS on our stuff?
Man: Ha!

Clearly that isn’t a verbatim retelling, but you get the point. On the plus side, as a result of this sadistic detour, I got the driver to lower the price of the ride. Remember kids: violence is never the option. It results in angry toubabs and a pay cut.

En route to Toubacouta (a town in the delta south of Sokone), I spied a bizarre sight in the road up ahead (apparently the “road up ahead” in Senegal is crawling with wildlife). Initially, I thought it was a dog galloping across the road, but dogs don’t move like that. As we passed, I noticed it was troop of MONKEYS. These were obviously big, dog-sized monkeys, too. They stopped on the side of the road, whipped their monkey heads around, and glared at us while we passed by in the car. It was mildly frightening. Luckily, they refrained from attacking.

Traveling in this country is not fun. It is exhausting, stressful, overwhelming, and HOT. Going it alone is a chore itself, but when I have two white girls with big look-at-the-toubab-tourist backpacks, it is insane. To put it simply: we were swarmed. Every time. Upon entering the garage, we had people selling a variety of items including (but not limited to) sunglasses, peanuts, birds, teakettles, and hair extensions. I felt like Uma Thurman surrounded by a hundred Japanese henchmen at the House of Blue Leaves (the reference is less obscure to me because I just watched Kill Bill last night). They thought we were idiot tourists who were willing to dole out lots and lots of money. Little did they know that I am in fact an irate Peace Corps volunteer with a short attention span.
Anyways, so everyone swarmed us, resulting in our inability to walk. It’s like being on the dance floor of a club. You’re surrounded by sweaty people, you can barely move, and you can’t hear yourself think.

Man: Toubab! Where are you going!
Man: Hey! Toubab! Come with me!
Man: Hey! Toubab! Want some peanuts?
Man: Toubab! Look at these toddler-sized overalls I’m selling. Pretty, right?
Men: Ha! The toubab knows Wolof! But seriously, about these overalls…

I can’t remember how many times I flipped out, but I know it was more than once. If you want numbers, ask the girls. I just was not prepared for that sort of reaction. As an American, it’s impossible to fly under the radar at garages, but if I have one small backpack and I’m alone, it’s a lot easier than being in a group.

I know there are plenty more stories to tell, but I don’t want to bore you with the details of our uneventful trip. Haha. Sarcasm. But seriously, to sum up, it was amazing seeing two of my best friends here after months of separation. My Wolof improved babysitting the girls, and I got to see parts of Senegal I’d never visited before.

As of right now, I am still clicking along. I am starting a big garden at the high school in Sokone, and I am actively involved in a Girls Leadership Camp we’re hosting at the end of June. I will try to be better about updating. Apparently my fan base is bigger than I thought.

The Sokone Film Festival

Every evening, I spend quality time with my host family. When I say “quality time”, I mean a number of activities including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Watching the women cook
  • Watching the men pray
  • Going to my sister’s friend’s house for boisson (Sprite, Coke, or a delicious pineapple soda called Annanas)
  • Walking to the market with my sisters to buy fruit
  • Watching the news in French and/or Wolof
  • Drinking tea
  • Counting the number of times one of the babies throws a tantrum
  • Avoiding the stampede of farm animals in my compound

Naturally, all of these things are accomplished while a steady stream of gossip clouds float through the air, creating a haze that limits visibility. Wolofs, as a culture, really know how to talk. Their volume is deafening and their words-per-minute are record breaking. This, my loyal minions, is the soundtrack to my life.

On occasion, my family decides to mix it up a little and watch a movie that is airing on television. Usually, the films are obscure and foreign (foreign meaning not American). Lucky for me, from time to time a film I do know comes on. Of course, the film is always dubbed in French, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it. This is because my attention is focused on my family’s running commentary. It is hilarious.

EXAMPLE 1: The other night, I walked outside and found my family watching Zorro. After hearing I had seen the film, they kept asking me when Zorro showed up. Oh, and in case you were wondering, “Zorro” in Wolof is “Zorro” (“mask” is the same, too). I told them to be patient, and no, Anthony Hopkins was NOT Zorro. The men thought Catherine Zeta-Jones was beautiful, and the women thought Antonio Banderas was very handsome. They would help Zorro out and tell him to run when he needed to (“Run Zorro! Don’t be crazy and RUN!”). I don’t know if Zorro would have made it without my family keeping him on track.

EXAMPLE 2: Recently, I watched The Lion King with my family. They kept asking me how to say the title of the film in English. I repeated it several times. They loved the songs, and they were heartbroken when Mufasa died. They kept telling me that Simba’s dad was dead. I told them I had seen the movie before.

EXAMPLE 3: A few months ago we watched The Gods Must Be Crazy. If you’ve never seen it, it’s about a remote African village that finds an old coke bottle and doesn’t know what to do with it, assuming it’s a gift from the gods. My Senegalese family thought these villagers were HILARIOUS. Ironically, the villages didn’t look too different from the ones I’ve visited here in Senegal. They thought the toubabs in the film were equally crazy. Every time a white person was on the screen, their eyes kept darting in my direction to see my reaction. I kept saying, “Hey! Look at those crazy toubabs!” I don’t think the irony was lost on them.

Every time I watch TV with my host family, I realize how identical we all are. I find myself constantly agreeing with their opinions on things. We all laugh at the commercial with the dancing baby, and we all make fun of the Indian soap opera because it’s SO BAD. We still watch it every night though. I am just as enthralled with these characters as they are. Every night, my sister comes to me and says, “It’s time! Our show is on!”

I feel like I wrap up all of my blog posts with my own rendition of “It’s a Small World After All”. I tell you that, regardless of culture, people are all pretty much the same. Yes, it’s repetitive, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I still have 18 months left in Senegal, and if the only thing I take away from this experience is that we’re all the same, then I feel like my Peace Corps service would be worth it. Not a lot of people have that sort of firsthand perspective. I’m glad I do.

Damn, now I have “It’s a Small World” stuck in my head.

The Bieber Has Landed

It always comes in waves, and before you know it, it has grown in strength and spread to the far reaches of the country. Initially, it’s a did-I-just-hear-what-I-think-I-just-heard kind of moment, walking home from the market. You brush it off and keep going, blaming it on the dehydration or the Mefloquine. A few days later, it happens again. “Yep, that is definitely what I’m hearing,” you think as the volume swells and the number of hearings increases with every passing day.

Of course, I am talking about BIEBER. The shaggy-haired American tween heartthrob has finally made his way across the pond. Not to England, where the locals are used to screaming girls holding glittery “I LOVE YOU” signs and swooning (The Beatles, anyone?). I’m talking about Senegal, my lovely country of residence.

When I first came to Senegal, Rihanna was Miss Hot Stuff 2010. A day did not go by where “Rude Boy” wasn’t stuck in my head at some point due to excess of unwanted listens. The Senegalese love her. To this day, a typical first-time conversation with someone still goes something like this (translated from the Wolof):

Beggar on the street: Are you French?
Me: No, I’m an American.
Guy: You’re American? Do you know Rihanna?
Me: Yep. We’re biffles. It was MY frozen bag of peas that kept the swelling down after Chris Brown was done with her.

Obviously, I’m paraphrasing. The Senegalese people think all Americans know each other. In reality, I tell them America is big place with lots of people, and that the odds of me personally knowing Rihanna are slim. Of course, they still ask. Initially, I thought they meant if I knew OF Rihanna, but after being corrected several dozen times, their real question finally surfaces, although usually it’s more of a statement than a question (“You DO know her, don’t you?”).

After the Rihanna wave came the JoJo wave (remember her? 12-year-old, white R&B artist signed by Diddy who sang WAY too much about true love considering her age?). I would rather not discuss this period for personal reasons. To sum up: I about pulled a van Gogh on several occasions just to make it stop.

After JoJo came Bieber (obviously the locals’ taste is rapidly deteriorating; I cringe to think what could possibly be worse), and here we are.

I especially find it odd that more men than women listen to these, and I use this term loosely, “artists”. I hear Bieber, and a look of disgust appears on my face; I turn, and I see a group of high school boys singing along in an unrecognizable English Adjacent language.

Of course, all of these American hits are interspersed with obscure local artists who rap in Wolof. Example: Nit Doff (translated as “Crazy Person” in Wolof). Most Senegalese songs have English words thrown in, too. One song’s chorus is “I love you” over and over again. Although that’s not the only English being thrown around here. The Senegalese also love saying “Dafa NICE” (“It’s nice”), although my host family thinks “nice” means “beautiful”. I have told them several times that this is simply incorrect, but everything is still “nice”: clothes, jewelry, people, goats.

Television has also been influenced greatly by America. I find it hilarious when I come home and my host family is watching dubbed-in-French episodes of Friends and Dirty Sexy Money. The latter I find especially odd considering A) it was cancelled after less than a season, and B) one of the leading characters is a transvestite. It is illegal to be homosexual in this country, yet my 50-year-old host Dad is unphased by the woman on the TV seducing Alec Baldwin’s brother for political gain.

Obviously, these shows were dubbed in France, but I still find it interesting how popular they are in West Africa. I’m sure my Senegalese family, as well as the rest of the Nation of Islam, wasn’t the expected demographic when NBC decided to air these shows in America.

After living here for so long, I still find it strange to hear/see American pop culture in my small Senegalese town. Perhaps everything American slowly trickles down until it has reached the far corners of the world. Perhaps it is inevitable. Regardless of the how and why, when I joined the Peace Corps, they gave me medicine to prevent malaria. What they failed to provide, unfortunately, were the pills to prevent Bieber Fever.

Dinosaur Kisses and Mefloquine Dreams

After taking malaria medicine once a week for seven months, it has finally started to wildly screw with my mind. As I previously mentioned, side effects of Mefloquine include vivid and hallucinatory dreams (in addition to that whole not-getting-malaria nuisance). It is basically a hippie’s paradise drug. It is a mental oasis for Peace Corps volunteers (i.e. tie-dye clad crazies stuck in the 60s) looking for an escape from village life. No wonder the Peace Corps has a reputation for recruiting hairy women named Clover and soft-spoken men named Rain.

Mefloquine has also been known to cause major nocturnal freak-outs amongst volunteers. I know one volunteer who dreamt his four-year-old host sister was in his room trying to kill him, so when he woke up, he ran outside and completely freaked out his host parents when he told them their precious daughter was, in fact, a hired assassin. Another friend of mine tore his hut apart because he thought it was caving in on him. Both volunteers have since been switched to a different malaria medication.

Until last night, I hadn’t had any Mefloquine-related episodes. Sadly, I can now be added to the list of deranged PCVs in Senegal.

I went to bed at midnight here in the PC Regional House in Kaolack. I had taken my Mefloquine after dinner, as I do every Sunday evening. I crawled under my mosquito net and quickly fell into a deep sleep. I woke up two hours later to a mouse running across my leg. I sat up and FREAKED OUT. I grabbed my cell phone (which conveniently doubles as a flashlight) and started frantically hitting the mattress repeatedly, trying to kill the vicious rodent. I was rapidly moving sheets aside looking for the perpetrator but found nothing. I then calmly fell back asleep as if nothing had occurred. A few minutes later, the mouse reappeared on my leg. I then had a second violent fit with the same result. This mouse was officially out to get me.

“I must get to higher ground, just like in Jurassic Park. This is just like that. I’m being hunted,” I told myself in a rational manner. I then slowly started exiting my mosquito net, keeping my eyes peeled for both mice and dinosaurs. I found a ladder and started climbing it. Naturally, I couldn’t touch the ground because T-rexes are fast on their feet. I got to the top of the ladder and surveyed my surroundings. My legs remained mouse free and there were no velociraptor sightings. I came to another mosquito net and made my way through it, arriving safely inside. I assessed my new location and found nothing. The danger was gone. I was finally safe, nothing could get me. I then fell back asleep, exhausted from my Lord of the Rings-esque journey to sanctuary.

I woke up this morning on the top bunk of a completely different bed. I slowly sat up and looked around. Evidently, I had crawled out of the bottom bunk, grabbed the ladder attached to the bed I was sleeping in, and climbed it. I then jumped to the adjacent bed like a flying squirrel and fell asleep on the top bunk. How the other people in the room didn’t wake up to A) the nonexistent mouse attacks and my reaction to them, B) the stalking T-rex that I had SO believed was there, or C) my leap of faith, I have no idea. Luckily though, they all slept through it.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure I was asleep the entire time. I must have been sleepwalking or something. I remember being so terrified of this mouse, and I hated that it was after ME and me alone. I also remember relating the situation to Jurassic Park, which is probably how the dinosaurs entered the picture. Next week, when I take my Mefloquine again, hopefully I won’t have to ward off giant lizards. If so, I may have to switch meds. I’ll keep you posted.

Oh, Senegal. How screwed up you have made me. Thank you for slowly eating away at my sanity in addition to completely taking away the little amount of self-composure I possessed in America.

SILVER LINING: I don’t have malaria.

Gang of Three

I have lived in Senegal for over six months now. At times I feel like I just stepped off the airplane, eyes wide with wonder at the dingy airport and the locals attempting to rob me. Other times I feel like my service must be ending soon based on the fact that I’ve been here FOREVER. The truth is, both are a little correct. Six months is a substantial time to be in one place, but compared to two years, I still have a lot of time left.

Since arriving, I have lived in three cities: Thies, Mboro, and Sokone. In each of these places, I go by a different name, and each of these names is attached to a personality. I call them the Gang (not actually but it adds stylistic flair to this post).

Before coming here, I knew life as a Peace Corps volunteer wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I knew I would miss my friends and family in America, as well as America itself. Living as a minority in a developing country is hard. Luckily, I had mentally prepared myself for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t expect to have split personality disorder. I am pulled every which way; I answer to different names, and people expect different things from each part of me.

So, do you guys want to meet the Gang? They all look relatively the same, but believe me when I say they are very different.

Jamie W.: you guys know him! He’s 23 now, which is weird. He’s an American. He loves to listen to music and travel. He has two sisters and a dog back home in Florida. Occasionally he likes to drink, GASP, alcohol and go out and have a good time. He’s a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Senegal. You can find him mostly in Kaolack and occasionally in Thies or Dakar. He has tattoos and he wears shorts because people in big cities don’t care about tattoos. He also likes wearing shorts because Senegal is HOT.

Medoune Diaw: he only comes around occasionally. He exists purely in Mboro or whenever he’s elsewhere and talking on the phone with his family there. He’s super chipper and doesn’t drink. He goes to bed early and likes to sit around and read. Because he first appeared back in August, his Wolof isn’t all that great. By the time October rolled around though, his Wolof had improved drastically because he went to school every day to learn it. He never wears shorts.

Baba Mansaly: he’s ALWAYS AROUND. Of course, Baba lives in Sokone. He’s definitely the smileiest of the group. He wants to make a good impression on the locals in Sokone, including his host family. His Wolof is pretty good, and he learns new words every day. Like Medoune Diaw, he doesn’t drink alcohol. He likes to read and hang out with his family in the evenings. During the day he rides his bike around town and meets with people about potential projects. He has a little garden in his yard, which he waters every day. He doesn’t care about his appearance, and like Medoune Diaw, he wears long pants only.

It is always odd when I have to switch from one to the other. I occasionally run into people from Sokone in Kaolack, which is always bizarre. I chitchat with them and introduce them to whichever friend I’m with. I force myself to merge one part of my life with another, even if they don’t necessarily compute mentally. In addition, every time I get to the garage in Sokone when coming from Kaolack, I have to switch to site-Jamie (aka Baba). I smile a lot, and I greet everybody I see. I come home, and I greet my family joyfully. It’s a mental workout.

In order to get through the loneliness of being at site, I dream of when I can go to Kaolack and speak English and surf the Internet. I try to be constantly surrounded by other volunteers when I’m out of site to make up for the lack of interaction I have with them while home. I read so much in Sokone that I try NOT to read when I travel elsewhere. The two scenarios are polar opposites, which can sometimes make for jarring transitions.

Anyways, these are the kinds of difficulties I have to deal with as a Peace Corps volunteer. Like I said, it was something that appeared unexpectedly, and I had to adjust and compartmentalize in order to successfully adapt. Hopefully, in a year and a half, when my service is done, I’m not completely crazy. Here’s hoping.

Take Offs and Landings

Emotionally, life in Senegal is much like life in America. It has its’ ups and downs. As humans, this unpredictable bipolarity is normal and expected. Unfortunately, here in Africa, where us Americans are slightly out of our element, this emotional roller coaster has higher peaks and deeper valleys.

Let’s take me, for example (it is MY blog, after all). I had a wonderful day yesterday. I walked around town greeting people with a genuine smile on my face. I finally, after weeks of pleading in broken Wolof with various persons around town, acquired garden space. I have a small garden outside my house, but I needed more space to garden in. Mostly it was for practice, but I also wanted it to become a demonstration garden to show off the agricultural techniques drilled into my head by the Peace Corps.

To sum up, yesterday was good. My Wolof wasn’t too bad. I understood the people; the people understood me. The food my family gave me was edible and considerably tasty. I was in a good place.

Cut to this morning, where the camera (if this were a movie) shows me in my room sobbing.

Let’s rewind a little bit.

I had woken up in the middle of the night with a mild sore throat. I drank some water, put on more Chapstick (you know, mine and Lindsey’s middle-of-the-night-can’t-see-without-our-glasses routine), and went back to sleep. I woke up this morning though, and my throat was on FIRE. This sore throat was not messing around. It had grown in strength during the night, much like a hurricane. To make matters worse, when I clawed my way out of my mosquito net and stood up, I almost fell over. I was lightheaded and dizzy. I drank more water, popped some meds, and took my temperature. After converting the number from Celsius to Fahrenheit on my cell phone (why the PC, an American program, gave us a thermometer in Celsius is beyond me), I discovered I had a mild fever.

Regrettably, this was my third bout in the ring with illness in the last month. Africa, my friends, has finally caught up with me.

Luckily, I still had an appetite (unlike a month ago where I had no appetite and was vomiting on my living room floor at 3 AM). Thus, I stumbled outside wearing God knows what and headed towards the nearest boutique (store) to buy bread and eggs. On my way, I ran into my host mother and sister. They proceeded to yell at me for sleeping so late (it was 10 AM) and also laughed when I told them I was sick. I’m pretty sure they didn’t believe I was actually ill.

I kept walking in a huff. I bought my bread and eggs, and when I walked out of the boutique I almost ran into two teenage girls. They take one look at me and start repeatedly calling me toubab and laughing. This scenario pisses me off when children do it, but I take it with a grain of salt because, come on, they’re children. However, if you’re above the age of 14 and calling me THAT word, it is officially rude. These bitches knew better. I’d had enough, so I yelled at them and called them out for calling me THAT word. They looked at each other and burst out laughing again. They repeated what I said in singsong voices and added another “toubab” to their rapidly growing list of verbal punches to my stomach. I walked off, attempting to ignore them. Unfortunately, I stumbled on a rock and almost dropped the eggs. The girls laughed even harder.

I got back to my room, put my recent purchases on a table, took a deep breath, and burst into tears.

I am not ashamed to be sharing this on a public forum. Life here is hard, and I think I’m lucky to have made it almost six months without crying. I believe this moment of catharsis was bound to happen sooner or later. It was a mix between my sickness, my family being rude to me, and those girls picking on me. I was also very frustrated because I had been looking forward to starting my work on the garden today after weeks of stress looking for the space.

The cry lasted less than a minute. I then washed my face, blasted Florence + the Machine (percussion-heavy band with British female lead singer), and started preparing breakfast. The rest of the day was spent in my room. I watched 127 Hours, which is an Oscar-nominated film about a guy who gets his arm stuck under a rock and must cut it off in order to free himself. Sadly, as I watched, I found myself relating to this man. Of course, looking back, these thoughts were a bit dramatic. I’m sure the fault lies in my slight delirium brought on by lack of sleep and head-to-toe bodily illness.

Now, with my physical and mental health slowly getting back to normal, I have found the perspective I lacked earlier today. Sometimes you just need those days where you don’t leave your room, down a couple pills and bottles of water, and watch American movies and television shows.

It’s days like these where the title of my blog is highly applicable to my life. Yes, it’s the name of a Rilo Kiley album (alternative pop band). Yes, it references an airplane, and this is kind of a travel blog. But also, it’s a metaphor for my life in Senegal, which has its’ take offs (ups) and landings (downs). Tomorrow, if I’m up to it, I am going to start work on my garden, and hopefully that metaphorical airplane will start moving skyward again.

Sarcasm in Wolof Culture

They don’t get it, but let’s start from the beginning.

Picture this: me walking down the street. I’m rocking my reflective aviators for intimidation purposes. I have a straw fedora, which is worn topside in order to appear cool and also to protect my head from the African sun. I’m sporting a t-shirt bought from Goodwill and pants purchased from Urban Outfitters (a store that, SHOCK, doesn’t exist in Senegal). I’m greeting my neighbors in the local language, and I’m understanding their responses. To sum up, I’m feeling pretty good. I may even splurge and buy a Sprite later.

Then it happens. I spot a child. I pray he doesn’t notice me. Then, he whips his head around (in slow motion, for effect) and spots me. “TOUBAAAAAAAAAAAAAB!!!!” he screams in a high-pitched tone heard only by dogs and white people.

My head, held so high 30 seconds prior, drops. A single tear trickles down by cheek, catching first on the end of my aforementioned reflective eyewear, and then slowly making its way down my face, falling from my chin and moistening my expensive ($2) Goodwill t-shirt.

My loyal readers, do not fret. Although this is a daily occurrence in my life, I have found a way to parry these verbal assaults.

THE PLAN: when the vile children decide to say THAT word, I will counter their rudeness with a few choice words of my own. Now, when they say THAT word, I have started to answer sarcastically (for those of you who know me well, you’re not surprised). Here is how the conversation goes (translated from the Wolof):

Me: WHERE? Where’s the toubab? I don’t see him!
Me: Where? Let’s get him!
Me: Oh, me? I’m not a toubab! I’m Senegalese! Obviously.
Me (patience rapidly dwindling): Look, kid. My name isn’t “toubab”. Shut it.

Basically, the plan doesn’t work. It has about a 5% success rating, and even then it’s not successful. In the rare occasion that the child gets that I am joking, he laughs but continues calling me THAT word.

As a whole, the Wolof culture does not understand sarcasm, which is a little disheartening for me. The Senegalese people DO have a sense of humor, in general. Unfortunately, sarcasm, my favorite subspecies of humor, is mostly lost on them. As a result, I save up all my sarcastic quips and use them on my fellow volunteers, which I’m sure they appreciate (and as you can see, I also cunningly drop them into this blog).

No worries. I have 20 months left in Senegal. This gives me plenty of time to teach the neighborhood children my American wit. When (not if) you come to visit me, hopefully the children will be dropping sarcastic Wolof bombs like there’s no tomorrow. I have plenty of time to embed my way of thinking into their brains, hopefully resulting in a permanent change. After all, Peace Corps is all about sustainability, right?

The Yearly Trifecta (Senegal Style)

Each year, three big events occur back to back to back in my life. Of course, I’m talking about Christmas, New Year’s, and my beloved birthday. Now normally (i.e. when I’m in America) I celebrate with my family and friends. Usually there’s drinking, general merriment, and present opening. In Senegal, it wasn’t much different, just take away the family aspect and add lots more drinking.

Christmas I spent in Dakar. I ate lots of food (a couple PCVs made an epic breakfast), drank excessively (spiked cider, hot chocolate, and egg nog), and got gifts from my Secret Santa and through the White Elephant gift exchange. All in all, it was really fun but felt NOTHING like Christmas. Because of this, I actually wasn’t too homesick. I got to talk to my family on Xmas Eve, and I spent the day with really good friends. So, if you guys were losing sleep worrying about me, no worries because I’m fine.

The time between Xmas and New Year’s was uneventful. I stayed in Dakar and did what one does in Dakar: hang out, spend lots of money, and eat. Goodness, my life as a volunteer is so strenuous and difficult (…he says sarcastically). I’m quickly learning that my PC experience is very different because I have a Dakar. It’s a large, Western city with lots of tourism from Europe. It’s a major port for the African continent, so there are lots of people coming in and out all the time. Plus, it has a lot of history in terms of the African slave trade. It’s a cool city to visit for any traveler, not just someone coming to visit me.

On the last day of the year, a bunch of us headed up to St. Louis for New Year’s. From Dakar, the trip took about four hours, which isn’t bad at all. I had never been to St. Louis before, and I was only there for the weekend, but I already know I’m going back soon. It’s SUCH a cool city. Walking around felt eerily like New Orleans. Like NOLA, St. Louis was an old French colonial town, so there’s lots of cool architecture that’s now worn down, creating a very unique kind of beauty. It was really wonderful, and it’s right on the water, so we went to the beach as well. When (not if) you guys come to visit me, we will definitely head up there.

New Year’s was, as you can imagine, a little ridiculous. St. Louis was crazy because Akon gave a free show at midnight, so EVERYBODY was there. In case you didn’t know, Akon is from Senegal, so everyone here loves him. Every time I tell a new person that I’m American, they immediately ask me if I know Akon (KNOW him, not know OF him). I tell them no, I don’t know Akon, nor do I know Rihanna or Chris Brown.

Anyways, so I never made it to Akon, who was apparently phenomenal. Extenuating circumstances beyond my control kept me from the concert. It involved lots of alcohol and someone (not me) blacking out in the backseat of a taxi. Kids these days…..

So I headed back to Sokone after St. Louis. It had been a while since I’d been at site, so it was a bizarre adjustment back into Senegal after speaking English with other PCVs for over a month. My family was happy to see me, and I didn’t lose that much Wolof. Unfortunately, I did get sick right after I got back, which sucked. I’m better now though, so again, don’t lose any sleep on my behalf.

My birthday was also an event. I headed to Kaolack and spent a few days at the regional house. My fellow PCVs threw me a party (with blacklights), which was really trippy and cool. They made me baked goods, which I greatly appreciated. I just got back yesterday, and as of now I have very little to do. I am currently looking for a space to start a demonstration garden. Thus far, I have had no luck. I am looking forward to starting projects though now that everything has calmed down.

Moving on…sorry the time between posts keeps getting longer and longer. I’ll try to be better!

IST and the Holidays

So, when last you heard from me, I was fresh off a whirlwind two days at the Urban Ag conference in Thies. Since then, I have completed IST (In-Service Training) in Thies and hung out in Dakar. I was busy busy busy until I wasn’t wasn’t wasn’t.

Let’s start from the very beginning. IST was two weeks of additional training at the Center in Thies. I was expecting a lot of tech training (i.e. gardening), and in theory, that’s what it was. What it ACTUALLY consisted of was the UAg-ers sitting in a room listening to PowerPoint presentations all day for two weeks. I did learn a lot, but it was WAY too much sitting when we should have been outside digging in the ground. We did do a little of that, and it was super helpful, but I was definitely disappointed because I was expecting more hands-on training. I mean, I do feel prepared to go back to site and start my garden and begin working. I’m looking forward to it, for sure, but I definitely could be MORE prepared.

Things I did during IST:

  • Doodled so much out of boredom I now have a decent sized portfolio
  • Went to an artisans expo in Dakar and bought African goodies (for myself and others)
  • Went to my country director’s house in Dakar for the Five Week Challenge party
  • Watched ‘The Lion King’ at aforementioned country director’s house
  • Led the ‘Grease’ sing-a-long at the party as well (my sisters would have been proud)
  • Ate CHINESE food in Dakar (the owners don’t speak English, Wolof, OR French…only Chinese)
  • Caught up on ‘Glee’
  • Went dancing at a club in downtown Thies

I left Thies on Sunday and came to Dakar. There’s a train that runs every morning at 6 AM, and it’s supposed to be a really cool way to go to Dakar. So, a bunch of people from my stage woke up at 5 AM, gathered up our luggage (a month’s worth), and walked to the train station. Let me tell you, the train station is pretty far from the Training Center, and we couldn’t find taxis that early. We finally arrive at the station, and OF COURSE the trains don’t run on Sundays, even though we asked some Senegalese people the day before if it did, and they said yes. So, we ended up taking the bus, which was fine. Personally, I was livid that I woke up so freakin’ early for no reason, but it’s fine now. We made it.

Since then, I’ve been hanging out in Dakar. This city really has everything. I ate delicious pad thai last night, and I have eaten amazing ice cream on several occasions. I went to the only bowling alley in West Africa and took photos in the photobooth there. I have been swimming in the pool here at the American Club, which is an exclusive club for ex-pats. It’s free for PCVs. I have gone to Casino a couple times, which is a French grocery store that is AIR CONDITIONED. I walked up and down the aisles experiencing reverse culture shock. Casino even has Ben & Jerry’s, which blew my mind. I know I’ve only been here for four months, but it has been four months of Wolof and ceebu jen only.

Today is Christmas Eve, which is very surreal for me. It doesn’t feel like the holidays at all. It’s difficult to get into the Xmas spirit living in an Islamic country. Dakar is more decorated than the rest of the country, but it’s still bizarre to be away from my family this time of year. The PCVs staying in Dakar all have Secret Santas, and we have a White Elephant gift exchange planned for Xmas day. It should be fun. For New Year’s, I am headed to St. Louis, which is the second largest city in Senegal. It’s up north, also on the Atlantic coast. It’s an old French colonial town, so there’s lots of cool architecture there. It should be fun.

Anyways, readers, I hope all of you have an amazing Christmas and a happy New Year. Relish in the fact that you are with your family in a country that celebrates these holidays. If I don’t update again, I’ll be seeing you in 2011.