Archive for the ‘Tiana in Senegal’ Category

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Tiana: Remarkable experience

June 1, 2010

The road outside my Dakar home.

America and Senegal: two almost entirely different realities, different cultures.  Both of which are now a huge part of my reality, the one that I’ve had the opportunity to live and grow in. I’ve been home for three weeks now, where green, leafy trees substitute dwarfing baobabs. Where the nearest ocean shoreline is approximately 3,000 miles away. Where time is money, and both time and money are in increasingly short supply. Where at least one garbage bin can be found every square meter, where automatic toilets occupy hundreds of public restrooms, and where everything is ridiculously overpriced. Where I am blessed with family and friends who welcomed me home with open arms and warm smiles.  And where I am struggling profoundly to reconcile the past five months with the past 21 years and the rest of my life.

My final week in Dakar was the most bumbling and busy week that I encountered in the entire semester.  The return from Joal felt like a bona fide homecoming, as I was met with the warmest of greetings from the kids (Aminata, Doudou, and Xadi), and I spent that afternoon exchanging news of the past weeks with Maman, Mariama, Nogaye, Ami, and others in the family. I showed off some of my new Wolof skills, much to the delight of those who were in close hearing proximity. Turning in early that evening, I remember trying to make a mental list of all that I hoped to accomplish in the coming days. I fell asleep at around task number 43…

In terms of academics, our final week was spent in a wrap-up seminar. Monday and Tuesday, we re-convened courses with each student giving an internship presentation, highlighting key points and events for the insight of the rest of the group. We also had a final country analysis class, final international development class, and re-entry seminar. The workload was light (except for those who hadn’t yet finished their internship reports), which was the ideal situation and allowed us ample free time for other shenanigans besides class.

My little niece, Khadi.

For me, such shenanigans constituted mostly hanging out with my family. I was able to go home for lunch almost every day, which wasn’t true during the eight weeks of class before my internship, and which meant that I got to see the kids more often. One day, a friend visited from Joal. Another afternoon, I hung out with the kids, bringing them with me to a fruit stand, letting them color and draw on my old homework, etc. One evening, I was taught yet again how to make ataya, but found myself completely lost because it was different than the way that I had learned before. (A small digression on the topic of ataya: After an entire semester of close observation and vain attempts to develop a specific formula for ataya-making, I’ve concluded that there is absolutely no way to put a recipe on it.  This was, at first, incredibly disconcerting and difficult for me to accept, as I like specific measurements and precise instructions, but I do believe I’ve come to terms with the facts.) One morning, I went one final time to Aux Fins Palais (for caramel pancakes and omelettes) and to the market (for an ataya pot and glasses, among other things).  That same day, Britney and I went one final time to N’Ice Cream.  That week, I ate my final Senegalese ceebu jen, watched my final Senegalese sunset over the ocean, drank my final Senegalese tea, had a final Hamburger Friday with the MSID family, went to the gym with Anta one final time, you get the picture.  It was a week of finals, obviously not in the academic sense, which made it just plain hard.  Not to mention exhausting.

At the final MSID get-together.

Friday afternoon was our MSID send-off. We were told to meet at WARC at around five in the afternoon for some light snacks and some goodbyes. Light snacks, my friends, was the understatement of the century. The snacks were, in fact, very very heavy, and I’m pretty sure we all ended the afternoon more heavy because of them. We aet our weight in fataya, various cakes, and little egg roll-type snacks that I forget the name of, and filled in any possible empty spaces in our stomach with different juices of about ten different flavors. Yiddema! Talk about one last and whopping manifestation of teranga (which, you’ll recall, describes the characteristically Senegalese hospitality).  We said our goodbyes to Waly, Adji, Korka, Awa, tout le monde at WARC and headed out one final time.

Saturday, my final day there, felt like just another day. I went to myShop near school to connect to the internet, where I met a nice group of four Frenchmen. They invited me to meet them back at myShop that evening, an invitation that I respectfully declined, explaining that I was going home that evening. (Note: Even if I was not flying home that evening, rest assured, I would still have declined the invitation.  The fact that I declined is important to the rest of the story, which is why I include it.  Just to clarify!) That’s when it really hit me the first time… I was going home. Was I excited?  Honestly? No.  There was a twisted knot in the pit of my stomach that refused to untangle as I headed home for lunch.

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Tiana: Joal—the final stretch

May 8, 2010

Where has the time gone? I’ll tell you right now that it seems way too soon for me to be leaving Joal. I’ve just begun establishing friendships that I swear could last a lifetime, and now it’s time to go home? It just isn’t quite sitting well.

Anyhow, buckle your seatbelts, folks! I have a whole bunch of information to share with you from the past few weeks. First, let’s begin with current events:
Joal was hit with a heat wave at the end of April. Everyone was sweating bullets, and there was virtually no way to escape the heat. The day at work was rather dull. I was mistakenly called “Doc” by one of the mothers accompanying her ill child, and I really like the sound of it! After leaving work and eating lunch with my family, I drank a mixture of bouye and bissap juice to rid myself of some lethargy and headed to the beach that afternoon to cool off. As I was walking along the shore looking for shells, I heard a chorus of children shouting, “Tiana! Tiana! Tiana!” I looked up and saw some of the neighbors swimming just down the coast, Fatou, Papi, and Ami among them, and strolled over to join them. Taking pictures and shell-searching for the afternoon was so much more enjoyable with people to laugh with and pass the time with. Fatou helped me collect shells, and we all headed home at the same time, together. The kids and I made shadow puppets for practically the entirety of the evening, and voila, another day in Joal was finished.

Thursday afternoon, my host aunt (but more like an older sister) Agnes invited me to the beach with her and her English-speaking friend Lamine. We all camped out under a palm tree with some delicious lait caillé, or sugared milk, and spent the afternoon chatting, taking short walks, and looking through an English grammar. Once I got home, I learned that nine-month old baby Aissatou, a neighbor of mine, is now nicknamed after me! Her mother now calls her Aissatou Tiana! I was blown away by the compliment, and had a nice Wolof conversation with the mother in the process. After dinner that evening, I headed to the center across the street. My friend El Hadj and his friend Alioune tutor middle school children every evening. Mamadou instructs English, as he has his diploma from the university at Dakar in English language, and Alioune tutors math. I went and helped out with the English class a bit and have been going every night since! If I didn’t want to be a pediatrician, I think I would want to become a teacher!

Friday was rather uneventful, but with one particular note. I somehow forgot to wear earrings to work on Friday, and for some reason, literally everybody noticed! “Tiana, where are your earrings?” “Tiana, you look different. You’re not wearing earrings!” It seems that jewelry is absolutely integral to female culture here, something I didn’t notice until that very moment because it’s a normalcy for me to wear it!

The weekend was a lot of fun! I had previously planned to go to Mar Lodj, a small, paradisiacal island in the Sine-Saloum delta, but decided instead to rest with the family for my final full weekend in Joal. (Of note: when I come back here, I am definitely going to Mar Lodj! It’s supposed to be incredible!) I began my 20+ page internship report on Saturday, but quickly tired of it and decided to go to the beach and soak up some sun before lunch. Then after lunch, I went back to the beach, but this time with friends! El Hadj, Amadou, Alioune, and I all camped out under a palm tree for a couple of hours and made tea! One thing that I love about being here is that I have Senegalese friends, more specifically Senegalese guy friends—y’all back home know that I’m really shy, so this is a welcome departure from the norm.
When I got home that afternoon, my host dad’s friend, Madia, brought an American Peace Corps member by our house to introduce us. I had heard that there was another American girl working in Joal, but had never met her before. Alexis has been here for around two years with the Peace Corps working in environmental education. She speaks practically fluent Wolof and has spent a lot of time here, so it was fun to hear her perspective on the city, on Senegalese life, etc. I ended up going to dinner with Alexis, Mike, Brian, and Jacob (Mike and Brian are also Peace Corps members here in Senegal) at the Taverne du Pecheur. It was so nice to have a break from the daily grind of French and Wolof!

Sunday was as low key as ever. I hit the beach twice. Played with the neighborhood kids outside of the social center across the street. Learned to make baignets with the instruction of Mam Clo. Went to help out at English class. Went to sleep…

The following week came and went in record time. Monday, we took a good number of pictures at work, because it wasn’t only my final week, it was that of Dr. Bangura and two other interns also. I went on a walk through Joal with some colleagues from the clinic. We tried to go to the museum that used to be Senghor’s home, but it was closed, so we went to the bridge of Samba Dia. We made a heart in the sand, lined it with shells, and took pictures of each of our initials within the heart. Dorky? Sure. But it was really nice to spend time with them outside of work. On the way home, we did just fun random things—found a stray bill for 10,000 FCFA (the equivalent of about $20), stopped by a sand art shop, picked flowers that were growing from cactus, walked along the beach, and then parted ways. After dinner I went to English class and then helped Mama out with her homework! She has a penpal that wrote her a letter and drew her a picture, and she was to respond in kind. It was so sweet; she kept asking me what she should say, what she should draw, if her French was spelled correctly, etc. I loved it!

Tuesday, I intentionally woke up before sunrise so that I could run over to the middle school and photograph it. I do not regret getting up early whatsoever! It was stunning. The sun rises just over the basketball courts and behind a layer of palm trees. Once you pass through the school grounds, there’s a door that opens to the bras de mer, the arm of the sea, and you see the sun rising over a forest of baobabs, Fadiouth, and the cemetery. WOW! Before work, I stopped by the neighbor’s house to greet Massif, the sweet puppy there. The work day was short, and I ended up going home early because work was so slow, giving me the opportunity to help Agnes cook lunch! She showed me how to make the traditional plate, ceeb-u-jen, and allowed me to pound the spices, pick through and cook the rice, peel and clean the vegetables, and even help with the dishes! This was monumental, as I have wanted to help in that capacity since I got here, but haven’t really felt comfortable doing so. After lunch was ready, I climbed up to the roof to wave to the kids as they came down the long road from Fadiouth, then we all ate together and passed a peaceful afternoon and evening.

Have you ever had a day when your alarm goes off, you hit the snooze, and then sleep way too late because the snooze doesn’t work for some reason? Welcome to my Wednesday morning! I slept in until 8:45, the time that I usually leave for work, and had both Agnes’s in the family calling to me through my closed door to see if I was alright. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and here’s why: Typically, in such a situation, I would be completely panicked (heightened heart rate, irritable disposition, grumbly, etc.) as I really dislike being late. I believe I can safely say that Senegal has changed that in me quite a bit. The general mentality here is founded in patience and the practice of taking things in stride, two things I never quite realized I needed so badly to learn. At work that day, I took weights and temperatures for the incoming children, one of my absolute favorite tasks, despite its simplicity. I love being able to interact directly with the kids in Wolof, and I’ve found that their reactions to toubab presence at the clinic typically fall into one of three categories: You’ve got the kids who just stare at you, as if you were an extraterrestrial being; then you’ve got the ones who wail, as if you were there to hurt them in as many ways possible; and then there are the ones who fall in love with you at first sight, come to shake your hand, laugh and play around, etc. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Tiana: living, loving, learning

April 15, 2010

Easter was quite a big day for Senegal: a celebration and feast, a national independence celebration, and a huge and highly anticipated wrestling match all packed into one 24-hour period. My Easter started off with mass at the local church…

I arrived there with Paul and my siblings about ten minutes before mass started, and was heartened to see people pouring through the doors.  I, personally, am not Catholic, but it is always encouraging to be in the fellowship of other believers in Christ!  I took my seat on a wooden bench next to my sister, Mama, and I imagine it was quite a sight to see for anyone seated behind us.  There I was, this tall, blonde toubab, and I was sitting in a section with all of the younger kids!  It was so strange, and ever so interesting, to see and hear an Easter service in French (and, intermittently, Wolof)!  Not to mention, all of the songs were accompanied by characteristically African tunes on keyboard and the now-familiar beats of a chorus of djembes.  The service ran quite long, just over two hours, but I didn’t mind.

Mass was followed by rest and a gigantic feast for lunch.  Rice, chicken, and loads of vegetables!  I then went to buy credit for my phone at a nearby shop so that I could call Matar, my cousin from Dakar, who was in town visiting family and friends.  It turns out that he was about a block away from the shop I was at, so we met up and caught up on all things new in Dakar and in Joal.  The family in Dakar is well, and I think Maman might be visiting Joal sometime next week.  In any case, it was great to see a familiar face that afternoon.

Another epic wrestling match, similar to the one described in a previous post, took place that evening and, just a fun little note, the wrestler from Joal, named Yekini, won the match!  Everyone went nuts!

Monday was a lazy day—no work, nothing to do but relax and write a couple of papers.  I ended up taking the short walk to the beach and spending about an hour there taking pictures and collecting shells in complete serenity.  There’s nothing like some alone time, especially when the only sound surrounding you is that of waves crashing onto the beach.

I worked with the resident Social Assistant, Demba, at the center on Wednesday.  He’s quite the busy guy with quite the charged job description: providing general social services, taking on social cases, distributing antiretroviral drugs to patients affected by HIV/AIDS, regulating scholarships given to orphans and children affected by HIV/AIDS, organizing and executing activities in the community to educate and inform the population about HIV/AIDS, distributing donated food to pregnant women, patients, and families in need and the list goes on!  I had the opportunity to sit in on some counseling sessions and learned how to distribute the antiretroviral medications, then I headed to the pediatric center.

There wasn’t much to do, so I went and sat with Tata Ana, or Aunt Ana, who holds down the fort at the very front of the center, distributing consultation tickets when patients come.  Aunt Ana is an older woman, I would estimate between sixty-five and seventy years old, with one of the sweetest attitudes I have ever encountered.  She hadn’t been at work on Tuesday, and I soon found out why: sadly, her younger sister had passed away over the weekend and she had gone to Dakar for the services.  We had the opportunity to just talk for about an hour about everything and nothing.  She is the first person here in whom I feel I can really confide.  By the end of the discussion, she was telling me that I simply must visit her sometime at home because I am now her adopted daughter!

Later that evening, I decided something.  I need to work out more regularly.  Living here, I haven’t been able to eat very complete meals, not much fruit, not many vegetables, not much protein, and not many dairy products, so I knew that I’ve got to do something to maintain a decent level of health.  I’d played basketball with the kids at the middle school across the street a couple of times, but wanted to make it a habit.  So early Thursday morning, I woke up with the sun and headed to the outdoor court.  It was perfect.  The sun was rising just behind the palm trees behind the court, the air was fresh and cool, and I was totally alone.  I had forty minutes to run, shoot, and do drills to my heart’s content, and then was joined by Modou, a local guy  who came to train.  We rebounded for each other, shot some free throws, and then I headed home.

Waly and Korka, from my school in Dakar, visited on Thursday morning!  I was at work, and we had a chance to discuss a bit of what difficulties I was having, what I would like to see change, how everything in general was going, etc.  I was so happy to see them, and the day was starting off well.  Work on Thursday became tough. I wasn’t feeling very well again, as with any breath or bite of food I took, my chest hurt like crazy.  It was also busy.  Most notably, there was a young accident victim who was rushed to us and then evacuated to Thies and a young girl whose hemoglobin level was way to low because she had been eating only sand, thus requiring a transfusion.  It was a day full of observations and seeing the clinic personnel in action, and we were all exhausted by the end.  Ergo, I rested quite a bit that afternoon and woke up early Friday to hit the court again. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Tiana: living & interning in Joal, a tropical paradise

April 12, 2010

It’s been two weeks since I left Dakar, and I am finding that my time in Joal is a perfect complement to my studies there both academically and in terms of ambiance.  I’ve been placed in a situation where work and vacation coincide for me (if that’s even possible!).  Allow me to explain:

When we first arrived at my new home, I wasn’t half as nervous as I had been the first time around.  The house is gorgeous, tranquil, and tropical.  The windows and doors are almost constantly open and draped by light curtains that move ever so gracefully whenever the ocean breeze blows by.  There are four different buildings in this familial complex: The main house is where Mama (grandma) and Papa (grandpa) live with Ferdinand, Clemence, and Agnes.  I live in a house with Paul (dad), Agnes (mom), Chlotilde (little sister), Robert (little brother), and Therese (little sister).  I have a perfectly sized, simple room with bed, desk, chair, and shelf.  One of the other buildings consists of a shower and toilet, the other is half-kitchen, half Augustin’s (uncle) room.  A grove of palm trees is basically in our back yard.  The beach is a small handful of meters away from our front door.  And there is a basketball court about a thirty-second walk away.  I have no complaints!

What a delight to find out that I have younger siblings here!  Chlotilde, whom everyone calls “Mama”, is bright and seems quite wise for her age, which I believe she told me is ten years old.  Robert is an active little man of around eight, and he and his cousin, Jean, can always be found goofing around acting like kung fu champions or wrestlers.  Therese is a little bundle of energy of about four years old who chats, sings, dances, and pesters every waking hour of the day, and she is one of the cutest kids I have ever in my life met!

The family has been so nice!  They have lodged several students in the past, so they seem to know the drill really well.  Agnes has allowed me to help with the cooking a couple of times, and just this afternoon she showed me how to do laundry by hand. The kids and I played basketball the other day, and we all often study together. Agnes makes ataaya almost every evening; I was able to attend church with the family this past weekend; the entire family has been willing to help me with Wolof and even some Serrere; I now have a Serrere name, Nilan Thiaré!

Joal as a community is quite the idyllic place.  Everyone seems to know everyone else, whether personally or through a friend of a cousin of a friend’s brother‘s son, etc. One neighbor, who is an English teacher at a nearby village, has offered to help me with Wolof if I help him with English.  Another neighbor wants to teach me to play the djembe.  Yet another, who just received his degree in English, is also eager for conversation.  I love the feeling of walking into work or walking down the road and seeing familiar faces, exchanging long salutations, feeling a bit like a member of the community.  I feel so blessed to have the chance to stay here for a while, not just pass by for a few days.

Work is another cool part of this unfolding story.  As aforementioned, I am interning at the Centre de Pediatrie Sociale in Joal, an institution started by the German army in, I believe, in 1987, then taken under the wing of a Swiss NGO. It is now functioning based on the participation of the community through payments for consultations, medication, etc.  I work with a lively crew with a family feel, led by Dr. Eugenie.

In any case, I cannot reiterate enough how incredibly blessed I feel to be placed here.  Not only are the personnel wonderful, but I’ve been given opportunities the likes of which I didn’t even imagine before my arrival.  They have allowed me to set up an IV for a dehydrated patient, prepare diluted syringes dosed with the appropriate amounts of medicine, evacuate a premature infant with respiratory troubles to a larger hospital in Thies via ambulance, do cleanings and pansements for burn victims and sutured patients, sit in on a session at the radio station to inform the public about the polio vaccine, participate in the national campaign to vaccinate infants between zero and five years old against polio, aid in the treatment of different tropical diseases, and so much more.  And all in just the past two weeks!  It’s an entirely different method of learning and, as I mentioned, is proving to be quite complementary to my classes in Dakar (particularly public health and Wolof).

The vaccination campaign was really interesting to witness.  Senegal hadn’t had a new case of polio since what I believe was the 80s, at least not until January of this year when the first case in years was seen at the very place that I am working!  I had an opportunity to briefly meet the young boy and his mother, and what a heartbreaking story they have.  Since January, seven other new cases of polio have been discovered in Senegal, hence the need for this campaign.  The vaccines are funded by the Ministry of Health so that they are absolutely free for the population.  Community workers called “relais” went door to door for four days (March 27th through the 30th) briefing parents on the disease and vaccinating the infants of which the parents agreed to the preventative measure.  I worked with two colleagues from the hospital, Doudou Diouf and Maguette Sylla, as well as with Babou Faye, the chauffeur, and the staff from the Poste in Fadial, a small town about ten minutes from Joal by car that is surrounded by tiny villages.  We visited several different villages and homes, supervising the relais who administered the vaccinations to see that they were following the designated procedure of briefing the parents, marking the infants properly, marking the homes visited properly, etc.  The days were long and exhausting, two things amplified even more by the presence of scorching temperatures, but it was an incredible experience just the same. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Tiana: Spring Break Diaries III

April 11, 2010

We were dropped off and waited at the village of Lompoul for our ride to the desert encampment.  Off-roading through the sandy and sparsely vegetated slopes, and passing camels, cows, and goats along the way, we became more and more able to see the site and the dunes, frightening in height and, we soon found out, incredibly uncomfortable to walk on in the heat of the day.  Unloading the truck upon arrival, we were escorted to our Mauritanian-style tents.  We dropped off our baggage and trudged through the scalding sand to the common area, a space shaded by tall, thin trees and situated atop a small dune.

Undeterred by said heat, Kelsey and Laura hit the desert for some dune jumping, and Kenta and I soon followed.  There’s something frightening about running to the tip of a dune, gathering as much momentum as possible to throw yourself off the point, when you can’t at all see the other side where you’re going to inevitably land, but that makes it all the more fun.  We tried to get cool pictures, but believe me when I say that it’s really hard to capture such dynamic, ephemeral moments.

The first word that I would like to say about camels is that they’re tall.  Second word, they’re not very attractive animals (in my opinion), but they’re ugly in a really really cute way. Allow me to digress for a moment to give you a small piece of advice.  If ever you are given the opportunity to ride on the back of a camel, opt for a camel that is not visibly drooling at the mouth.  Because if you do get on the back of said drooling camel, the saliva will find its way to your foot or your leg during the journey, especially if you’re headed into the wind.  Just an FYI…

Post-camel adventure, we jumped a few more dunes, collecting more and more sand in our jean pockets in the process, and then settled on tiny benches placed in a circle around the common area while camp staff gathered around tam tams and played traditional mbalax music as the sun set before us. Soon, several people were up dancing, or rather, trying to dance in the middle of the circle right up until dinner time.  The short dinner tents were just behind the circle of benches, and we enjoyed an incredible meal together, all eleven of us.  Surrounded by brightly patterned fabrics and feeling as if we were in the middle of the movie Hidalgo, we dined on couscous with sauce and accompanied by an excellent selection of meats and vegetables.  Dinner was followed by dessert, sliced pineapple soaked in pineapple juice.

While some among us went on a nighttime walk through the dunes, Devyn, Zawadi, and I situated ourselves right outside of our tent and spent the next half hour or hour staring up at the night sky watching for meteors and singing random songs.

What I loved about break this year was that it was an actual break.  I remember taking time at La Louisiane, for example, to sit on the balcony and reflect on the fact that I’ve been all-go, no-quit, study hard, never sleep Tiana since probably before my freshman year of college.  Even when I’ve taken “breaks,” I’ve always had pressing concerns or scheduled agendas.  This week, the agenda book was thrown out the window.  Disconcerting, to be sure, but more necessary than I ever imagined.  I also loved the various, precious, and plentiful “Oh my gosh, I am in Africa right now riding a camel” or “face to face with a crocodile” or “riding on a rickety cart behind a horse” or “singing Disney songs at the foot of a giant sand dune under the stars!” moments.  I wish I could explain it all more eloquently, but despite my efforts, I know I could not do it justice.

The closer we came to Dakar that final day of our journey, the more excited I became at the thought of seeing my family.  I anticipated a bittersweet weekend ahead.  I had two and a half days to spend every possible second with my family and prepare myself mentally for an entirely new element of my journey in Senegal.

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Tiana: Spring Break Diaries II

April 9, 2010

The ride to Djoudj was a) hotter than the ride to Saint-Louis, b) dusty as all get out, and c) bumpy enough to make even the most settled stomach turn over.  I was exhausted, and tried to sleep for most of the time.  Little by little, as we neared the village, it felt like we were driving further and further into the middle of nowhere.  We stopped several times to refill the leaking coolant in the bus and to ask directions to the hotel, but made it safely to the hotel at Djoudj, a small oasis in a vast, flat, dusty land.  And when I say oasis, I mean it in every cliché sense of the word. We’re talking palm trees galore, air-conditioned hotel rooms, bright blue pool water, etc.

We grabbed our snacks and hit the pool, as it was almost unbearably hot that afternoon.  It was the perfect vacation setting.  We might as well have been on a Caribbean island for how well that place was laid out.  After lazing about for a bit, we visited the boutique outside of the hotel, which is run by villagers and offers jewelry made by local women and tours of the nearby national bird park or the Mauritanian desert.  We then peeked into the small eco-tourism museum, accompanied by a guide that briefed us with basic information about the park.  Thanking the kind villagers, we headed back to watch the African sunset à la Lion King.  The hotel manager gestured towards us as we approached, told us to turn on our cameras, and pointed out a cute little owl perched in the branches of a palm tree!  The evening was rather poetic, really.  A group of young men were playing soccer on a sandy field beside a basketball court while onlookers watched from plastic chairs beside the hotel.

I have never in my life seen such a night sky! Thousands and thousands of stars twinkled clearly and brightly, meteors streaked through the sky about once every two to three minutes, and to add to the fun of the evening, I received a call from my family in Minnesota and was able to talk to my parents, my sisters, my grandma and grandpa, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, and cousins!  Not to mention, it was a great opportunity to jog my memory of the astronomy that I learned as a child (you know, constellations and clusters, planets and galaxies, etc)!

Wednesday morning, we took a group excursion boat ride on the river in the national bird park.  The morning and early afternoon were spent, encore une fois, poolside, and we headed to the rendezvous point for the excursion at around three o’clock.  Two horse-drawn carts pulled up, our modes of transport to the embarkment!  We loaded the carts and began the seven kilometer journey to the river, during which time we saw wild boars and exotic birds and listened to the soft clip-clopping of the horse’s hooves on the sand. At one point during our cart ride, someone asked, “Are we there yet?”  Johanna, seated next to me, responded, “No, but we’re here now.”  What a cool reminder that was about the importance of living in the moment; that in large part, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, the people around us, the precious moments that we have been given the opportunity to collect.

The embarkment was so exciting!  There were hundreds of pelicans and other diverse bird species, as well as wild boars, some bathing in the water and some munching on the grassy surroundings.  It was like being in a documentary on Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel!  Pelicans, by the way, are huge!  Their average wing span is larger than a meter!  And when they fish, they fish in numbers and in unison, as if they were competing in synchronized swimming.  Our guide pointed out a python that was coiled up and resting in the long grass that bordered the river.  Once everyone arrived at the docks, we loaded onto a boat and began our tour.

We passed two crocodiles, one on shore, and one in the water.  The one on shore was just sitting there with it’s mouth wide open, taking in the early evening air, as if it was a statue. After visiting Mr. and Mrs. Crocodile, we approached an island.  But this wasn’t just any island.  No, this island was absolutely infested with birds!  Seriously, nearly every square foot of the landmass was occupied with some sort of bird (mostly pelicans)!  We saw  young pelicans (grey in color) and more aged ones (white in color).  And again we saw a bunch of wild boars (aka “Pumbaas”).  After taking our share of pictures to capture the moment, we headed back to the embarkment.  Though we thought the fun was done, yet one more surprise was in store, the grand finale of the tour.

As we approached the docks, hundreds of birds took flight.  Literally…hundreds.  Why?  I have no clue.  But in any case, the winged creatures absolutely filled the sky!  It could be a scene from a horror movie, or the final scene from a triumphant, inspirational movie (views differ based on personal affinity for birds).  I prefer the ladder.

That evening, we walked fifteen minutes in absolute darkness to eat at an encampment in the village of Djoudj, socializing a little bit with four delightful, retired, traveling French folk who also ate there.  Later, we called the same bus drivers who had brought us to Djoudj in order to negotiate a deal for them to bring us to Lompoul, our next destination, and then home to Dakar.  We got the whole thing for 115000 FCFA, not a bad deal, as we had paid 105000 FCFA total to get from Dakar to Saint Louis to Djoudj (with half of that journey in two separate vehicles)!

The night and the following morning passed quickly, and we soon found ourselves desert-bound to begin the third and final chapter of our spring break in Africa…

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Tiana: Meet me in Saint Louis

April 3, 2010

Crossing the bridge to Saint Louis

Spring break couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  Excited for the week ahead, I hopped in a taxi on Saturday and arrived at Dakar’s insanely busy gare, a garage filled with buses, taxis, and sept-places (aka: decked-out station wagons). I soon found our group and called our contact who was to find us a genuine good price. We found two cars to fit the eleven of us, 35,000 FCFA each (approximately 12 dollars per person), and we hit the open road.

Technically we didn’t hit the open road right away.  We sat in traffic for a good half-hour on the way out of Dakar, partly caused by construction and partly by the fact that the roads leading out of Dakar are a little bit narrow.  But despite the traffic, our group dynamic remained exceptionally positive.  After all, we had fataya (a delicious snack, kind of like a perfected egg roll, that Johanna’s host mom made), we had no homework, and we had each other.  We were on a road trip with absolutely no idea what was to come.  Usually this would freak me out, but I found myself actually relaxed for the first time in what I would contend to be years.  Remind me to be spontaneous more often…

The ride was long, and boy, oh boy was it hot!  So you can imagine our exuberance when we got within close proximity to Saint Louis, our first destination and the former, oceanside capital of Senegal. Our arrival was accompanied by cool breezes coming from the ocean and the river that surround the city.  We crossed a long pont, or bridge, to the island portion of the city, and were driven past colorful, colonial buildings and down a sand alley to arrive at our gem of a hotel, La Louisiane.  Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted by incredibly friendly staff and shown our beautiful, spacious rooms.  Just outside our bright blue door, there was a quaint, charming little courtyard equipped with table and benches, bright pink flowers, and completed by a cat napping in the shade.  Passing the tranquil restaurant area of the hotel, we found ourselves on a narrow balcony greeted by the cool breeze and an enormous vista of the river and the peninsula, complete with palm trees and painted pirogues.

Aside from an entertaining mini-concert of traditional music and dance put on by a local music troop, the evening was calm.  We ate bread and chocolate and salted and sugared peanuts, drank large quantities of Ananas (a delicious, carbonated pineapple juice), had some girl-chat time, and went to sleep.

Sunday, I awoke early and had some breakfast with Devyn. The food was great!  Hardy, good bread with butter and a fruit jam that turns your tongue black, complete with a bottomless cup of coffee.    The day was spent exploring the island, which is only about a mile and a half long and eight or nine blocks wide, and bargaining with local vendors for scarves, bags, jewelry, gifts, etc.  Devyn and I split from the group and ended up having some pretty cool encounters with local folks.  One man who works at the church on the island offered us a look inside.  It is the oldest church in West Africa, dating back to the 1800’s, and was a very interesting site to see.  Continuing our walk, we ran into a local woman by the name of Amine who shared with us her experience of becoming a sort of women’s rights advocate in Senegal.  Coming from a family that didn’t encourage her education or her involvement in commerce, she worked her way through school and is now involved with a women’s microfinance group that allows women to start their own business.  She was really excited to meet us, and we had a super-insightful conversation.  Afterwards, we reached the very southern point of the island, snapped even more pictures, and met up with everyone for lunch.  Then, after a bit more shopping, we returned to the hotel to rest for the afternoon.  Day turned into twilight, which turned into evening.  We spent the evening looking out over the ocean and listening to the waves crashing at the foot of the plateau that we were standing on.  It was an eerily awe-inspiring sensation, to not really be able to see the waves because of the darkness, but to still be able to hear their power so intensely.

Fisherman at sunrise

We woke up at around 6:45 in the morning the next day, eager to head out and watch the progression. Fishermen, near and far in the water, readied themselves for the day’s work.  A large crane waded through the shallows.  And then, the sun came.  It was breathtaking!

Monday was spent as another casual day in the shops and around the town.  We found an incredible restaurant called Chez Agnes for lunch, stopped several times by the Galerie Nomade, arguably one of the coolest shops on the island, and walked once more to the ocean to watch the sunset. Our final night in Saint Louis was spent relaxing once again.

In the morning, we ate another delicious breakfast, made travel arrangements (thanks to the incredible hotel personnel who located a bus) that would take us all to Djoudj for 35000 FCFA (about 6 dollars per person). Suddenly, we were off on the next leg of our great spring break adventure…

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