Saturday, September 2, 2006

So anyways, lots of people want to know about my host family. I know what you guys are all thinking so I'll just clear it up right now, are they black? Umm yeah DUH. I'm in Africa not Scandinavia. OK, so I'll continue on with the description, but keep in mind that I'm not exactly sure about any of the following details regarding my family for the following reasons. First of all, you're never supposed to ask a Senegalese person how many children they have: they are superstitious and they feel that if they answer something bad will happen to one of them (in which case the person who asked is a demon and cast out of society, and the last thing I need right now is casting). Instead they answer something like "a few" or "enough" as to not give a number—haha a convenient response for some people. Another thing, as I mentioned earlier, is that there is an open door policy here that is used and abused. There are always a lot of kids around and I don't know who's who. Also I'm pretty sure one of them is the maid/nanny because although she eats with us she also asks me for my laundry and does the dishes (but then again, she is a woman. Yeah I just went there, whatcha gonna do about it? huh?). Oh yeah, we definitely have a morning maid too which is awkward because I always try and talk to her but she looks down instead. (I don't think she likes me, which is confirmed by the fact that every morning when I'm taking a shower she always uses the courtyard faucet to get water to mop the floors when clearly she knows that the courtyard faucet comes before my shower on the water line. Which means I'll just be standing there forever waiting for her to finish so I can have a dribbling of water to wash off the soap. I mean, hello, it's bad enough it's only cold water but to add insult to injury it's not even consistent. Is a 5 minute steady stream of cold water really too much to ask for, Africa?)
So all that being said, here's what I think I know: there are two older siblings (like late 20s early 30s) and there are two younger boys (about 6 and 9) and a baby girl (prob. like one and a half). The thing I'm not sure about is whether or not the younger kids are the children of the older ones or my host parents just had a second round—at, ummm, children? I want to say that they are the children of the older siblings but on the other hand I haven't met significant others for either yet. Which reminds me, I haven't met my host mom yet… I think they said she was out of town on business but that strikes me as a bit odd because as I look around Dakar I'm wondering which of these "businesses" really would require travel. Because I'm pretty sure the vegetable lady doesn't really have pressing hostile merger negotiations to take care of in New York. Yesterday when I came home from class, there were two ladies sitting outside whom I had never met before, one of whom was very enthusiastically shaking my hand, I thought that she was my mom but alas she didn't pan through so I'm still a little confused. I'm thinking maybe she might have another family—you might think I'm joking but one of the other kids in the program's Dad is a polygamist and has two wives in two different houses. Oh and how about this for confusing family situations: in that same family, as a gesture of good will between the two wives, one of them had a daughter, named it after the other wife and gave it to her to raise. I know, "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!"
"Here. I made you a present. From scratch."
"Oh, you shouldn't have!"
"Don't worry about it, it was practically nothing."
"Oh. It's a baby."
"I know! Don't you love it! I have one in every color."
"Thanks. I guess."
In terms of like social status, my family is pretty well off. They have Xbox (I know, right?), and, get this, they have DSL!!! And as I said earlier, they also have two maids (Or at least like one and a half, I'm not totally sure. All I know is my clothes get cleaned every week. Except I have to hand wash my underwear myself because it's inappropriate for someone else to clean that for you here. But ok like how do you hand wash something?? I'm really good at throwing stuff in the washing machine but that goes with the premise that there is a washing machine. And there isn't. Luckily I brought a large collection of boxers). But like at the same time we don't have hot water (it's so hot that they don't need it or at least that's what they're telling themselves in the morning when cold water is dribbling down their bodies) and my bathroom has a Turkish Toilet rather than a regular one (for those of you that don't know, a Turkish toilet is a hole in the ground. See reference photo).
That's kind of the way this country works, just when you're about to make a judgment they send you a curve ball. It's like how you'll be crossing the street one day and you'll almost get hit by a taxi that's all rusty which is just scrapping along the ground and then the next time you'll look up and it'll be a BMW X5 or a Porsche Cayenne that's about to hit you. Either way it's Africa and it's headed right at you and there's nothing you can do so don't ask questions—that's been my mentality, if you spend too much time analyzing stuff here your brain starts to hurt because nothing really makes sense. And plus it's too hot to think. Duh.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Home Sweet Home

We moved in with our host families yesterday. The house is actually a lot better than I was expecting, it's not too far from something you'd find in America (except I'm going to have to put a big asterisks next to that statement because there are a few major characteristics about it that you would absolutely NOT find in America). I feel like if it were in the Middle East you'd call it a "compound" but it's not – it's in Africa so we'll call it, umm, big. Really big. It has three levels (I know, that's a lot of levels) which all open onto a main courtyard which has a mango tree and a fountain. Cute image, right? Me, basking in the courtyard eating my mango and lounging next to the fountain—so Africa. My room is right off that courtyard. The top level only has one room (my host brother's—his name is Moussa and I hang out with him the most, more on that later) so the rest of it is this really cool tile terrace. It's one of the taller buildings in this area so the terrace has a really nice view of Dakar. The best part about the terrace though is that there is actually a really nice breeze up there, and when the power goes out, the kids in my family sometimes bring cushions up there and sleep outside. It's right next to this really big Mosque which functions as the main mosque for a large portion of Dakar so throughout the day and at night I can hear the call-to-prayers. The first night I slept here the power went out (obvi) at 2:30 in the morning and I couldn't fall back to sleep. At 5AM there was the first call to prayer so I went up to the terrace to listen. It was amazing because I could hear a bunch of different mosques echoing in the distance, and on top of that, a lightning storm was lighting up Dakar. It was festive, one of those holy-shit-I'm-in-Africa moments.
But anyways, in the time beforehand I was just lying there in my bed for hours trying to ignore how hot I was. But the real problem was that I was extremely thirsty as well, but I had forgotten to ask where the filtered water was before I went to bed. All I could think about was water (incidentally the night before I dreamt about a sandwich and the night after I dreamt about a salad). By 4:30 I couldn't take it anymore so I went to the fountain in the courtyard and thought, hmm, what's the worse that could happen? I'm probably going to die from something or another while I'm here, so I drank a little bit from the fountain (ok it's not like a fountain-fountain that birds poop in it's like one of this Turkish-styled, tile-mosaic water spouts where there's a faucet coming out of the wall plus I had seen other people taking water from there, so whatever, right?). Well then today I was talking to my host brother, Moussa, who sorted a few things out for me:
"What's with all the people coming in and out of the courtyard."
"My father used to be the Imam," Imam being the Muslim version of a priest. Incidentally does that make me the preacher's son? Woah, I'm not sure how I feel about that, plus I think I've already crossed a few too many preacher's-son boundaries and I might get excommunicated before I'm even, well, communicated? "So they're coming to talk to him and pray."
"oh yeah, cause they're always using that fountain."
"That's because they're cleaning off their ablutions before they pray." Yeah, I drank the holy water. Woops. Don't tell anyone…

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It's Hot

So we finally got to our apartment in Dakar and dinner was waiting for us (see picture). Umm yeahhhhh. I had bread. Anyway, our apartment had air conditioning which was absolutely glooorrriiious. We left it on when we went to bed but by the time we woke up the next morning it was off. We later found out this was because there was a power outage. There have been six power outages since then (I'd venture to say you're just as likely to have power as to not). Incidentally, when the power goes out in Dakar your first instinct is to wait 30 seconds for it to come back on. Then you remember that you're not in America, you're in Africa and if you're lucky it'll be 4 hours until it turns on again. Yeah, it's going to be a long three-and-a-half months!
OK, so there are two seasons in Senegal, the dry season and the wet season (read hot and hotter). It's the wet season. I think they mean wet as in rain, but really it's wet as in that's what you are ALL day cause it's SOOOOO hot here. I personally enjoy being a walking bucket of sweat—it's good for the pores. It's kind of like the hottest grossest summer day at Georgetown multiplied by 10 with limited foliage cover and pretty much no AC. Our classrooms have AC but as I said earlier, the power situation is a crap shoot and more often then not there is none. I brought the materials for a double popped collar but clearly I will never be sporting that here, it's just too painfully hot to be fashionable (obvi I don't actually mean that, I've got plenty of light and breathable v-neck tees to look good for a while. Thank God summer '06 saw the onset of suede cotton and lightweight linen or I don't know what I'd be doing right now.) And you know how they teach you in science that deserts get cool at night. That's bullshit, they don't. Or I'd be asleep right now and not up writing this two page single spaced e-mail.
OK, I think that's probably enough for now. Sorry if I've bored you. The next e-mail is already in the works and it looks like it's going to be reallllllly good. I'll tell you why you never use your left hand in Senegal (it's gross), my encounters with Wolof (the native language here that I'm studying in addition to French) and I'll explain my first meal with my host family, and how two of my host sisters (I'm pretty sure they're my sisters but to be honest I'm not quite sure who's who's child and what not) felt that knowing me two hours was enough of a buffer zone to wear their bras to dinner. Yeah. Until then!


Oh yeah, Internet access here is, well, third world, so if you're going to reply, do so, but just remember that it takes like 2 minutes to load each new window so you better say more than just "it sounds like you're having a good time" and tell me how YOUR life is going and it better be entertaining! Or else I will make my new African friends summon the Gods by using their clicking language to align against you. And you don't want that to happen to you. Trust me, I knew someone who knew someone who it happened to and it did NOT turn out pretty.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Casablanca Layover

There are 5 other Georgetown students that are going to Africa with me and we all had to take the same flight because even though we are paying full Georgetown tuition (twenty something thousand dollars a semester) for a program that should cost half—if that, they are too cheap to pick us up individually. Everyone else wanted to pick Royal Air Maroc because it was the cheapest (well DUH!) so Royal Air Maroc it is! Let me tell you, it's no Lufthansa, believe me. And there was Arabic writing on the outside; I'm kind of morally against flying in an airplane with foreign writing on it, for some reason it just doesn't scream FAA regulation. But at the same time I think that Arabic writing on an airplane is the equivalent of putting a red cross on a van—no one's going to bother you. The cool part, however, was that we got to have a 12 hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco (incidentally Casablanca Int'l is more just a glorified road in the middle of the desert that happens to be big enough for planes to land on). Anyways, they gave us a free ride into the city, paid for three hotel rooms for the day and lunch (we're not exactly sure who "they" were but all I know is I didn't pay a penny, or in this case, a Dirham). Driving into the city we passed by this shanty town/slum. The weird part about it was that even though they were holding their roofs down with rocks, each of the shacks had its own satellite dish. I'm trying to imagine these people deciding between putting humus on the table or buying satellite TV so they can catch late night re-runs of "I Love Lucy"—and then choosing the latter—but clearly priorities are priorities and I'm not going to be the one to judge someone's love for television.
Anyway, Cassablanca is a lot less glamorous than it sounds. We spent an hour walking along the coast trying to find a beach—there were only grimy shipping ports—but instead we found this huge amazing mosque. Yaa da da da blah blah blah it was nice. Mainly I was just hot and grumpy and really confused about where I was—not just geographically but in general, like have you ever opened your eyes and realized you're staring at a Mosque in Morocco while you're halfway between here and there and it's really hot and you've been awake for the last 24 hours (ok clearly you haven't had that exact feeling but you know what I mean, it was just completely random—but that's how this trip seems to be heading, a string of random encounters tied together by awkward language barriers, strange customs and a mosque or seven). Did I mention I was really hot??
In other news, racial segregation still exists in Africa (what?? no!!) or at least that's what we've surmised thus far. On our flight from Morocco to Dakar the six of us were the only white people on the plane, which in and of itself is not evidence of racial inequality. But even though we all had booked our flights at different times, for some reason, they had us all sitting together and we were all in the first two rows of the plane. It was only mildly uncomfortable as we sat there in the front row, forced to subdue to a litany of disapproving mugs as people walked by.
"Don't blame me. Blame Monica at the check-in counter at JFK. She's the one who still subscribes to apartheid."
"Whatever, white boy. I'm surprised to see you decided to take off your pointy white hat for this trip. I'd just ask that you wait until after we get off the plane to burn your wooden cross. Tampering with lavatory smoke detectors is a federal offense, you know." I'm pretty sure Rosa Parks was rolling over in her grave (may she rest in peace).

Sunday, August 27, 2006

New York Farewell

Before heading to Africa, I arranged a three day pit-stop through New York so I could visit my friend Alejandro who just moved there after graduating Georgetown in the spring. He lives in the "hipster" part of Brooklyn—Williamsburg—which apparently means he had to ruin all of his expensive designer jeans and make them into cut-off capris. He's also invested in bandana's to tie his hair back during the hot days; it's kind of a Huck Finn meets the Scissor Sisters look, like maybe what a slave would have worn while listening to Benni Banassi's Satisfaction Remix while doing lines of coke, no?
So I lost my NY Bar virginity last night and $100 later and like 4 drinks passed that crucial line, I had a panic attack as I realized it was my last day in the 1st world. A little late but it had to come sooner or later. This whole summer I had either been avoiding the matter altogether or getting excited for what I basically thought of as a three-and-a-half month extension of summer in a "resort" town (quotes were added at a later date after discovering how oh-so-wrong that really was) sitting on the beach all day and absorbing a nice tan, basically avoiding the reality that I was going to the poorest continent on the planet. Period. People had told me that Dakar is remarkably cosmopolitan and developed and not unlike a city in Europe and blah blah blah but it's like hello, I'm going to AFRICA. I checked and Senegal's still on the list of top 20 least developed countries in the WORLD so evidently the next three and half months aren't going to be a trip to The Four Seasons. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I'm not sure which) it didn't hit me until I was standing on a random corner outside a bar in the East Village the day before my flight left. Bon voyage, right?
So yeah, I have this intense pit in my stomach right now as I'm writing to you guys. This is probably the most nervous I've been in my life, but I guess this is the biggest thing I've done thus far. It's not like I'm one of those people that has to be close to home – I spent a year of high school at a boarding school and I go to college 3,000 miles away from where I grew up – so distances hardly scare me. It's just like this time I feel like I'm leaving civilization. Cause I am. For a loooong time. And who wouldn't be scared by that, right? My Dad tells me that I'm supposed to be feeling this way but OK Dad that doesn't make me feel better and you're supposed to make me feel better. That only makes me feel normal but normal people don't go to Africa they go to Paris or London or some place where you don't have to get yellow fever shots and mosquito nets before you leave. So what does that make me?
My flight doesn't leave until 7PM so I have all of today to "enjoy" myself but it's pretty hard because I'm sitting in a McDonalds right now eating a hamburger and thinking this is my last meal. It's like I'm on death row. Oh which reminds me, I checked and there isn't a McDonalds in Senegal. So really it is like I'm on death row. Great.