Sunday, July 31, 2011

My sunshine

I promise I will update my blog more regularly, I planned on posting more today but it is late here and I have been gone all day but instead I will leave the world with this.  The most precious child! Mohammed, who lives next door and brightens my day as soon as I see him.  He is my sunshine!


I think it is time to update my blog, I am not nearly as good at blogging as I had hoped, but then again, I had also hoped that the last two weeks of my life would had gone very differently than they have. 

I have been out of America for a month and a day now and it has been a quite the roller coaster ride.  A long-winding roller coaster ride, so, I will provide a snapshot rather than drag on with the minute-by-minute details of why I am where I am right now.

I spent a week and two days in Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Freetown was where I was supposed to be until December, but it seems that the fork in the road has lead us elsewhere because Freetown was a challenge to say the least.

Freetown is a city still trying to pick up the pieces after the war the ended ten years ago. It is a place where even the upper class doesn't seem very well off; it is a place with poverty like I have never seen. It is a little rough around the edges, and it gave Alex and me a run for our money.

In a nutshell, this was my week and two days in Freetown...
After arriving at the airport and making the journey across the bay and then across downtown Freetown, where the traffic puts Manhattan to shame, and then down the cliff that is called Boyle Lane, we entered our guesthouse.  As soon as we walked in, panic entered my body, and I knew that I could not live there. The room was not what we had been told we would have, the compound was home to a preschool and mechanic it seemed, not at all what I had envisioned, so, we promptly left in search of a place to live. After meandering all over downtown Freetown, with no luck, desperate, exhausted and defeated, we agreed to stay at least that night in a Catholic mission.  Nice enough, the door locked and there was access to food downstairs, however there was no running water and electricity came and went as it pleased.  But we just wanted a place to sleep and I could make it work for a day, little did I know what lay ahead.

Having not eaten in 24 plus hours Alex and I set out the next morning in search of food.  Traipsing through the worn asphalt streets avoiding pools of dirty water and garbage we didn't have too many options, so when we stumbled across white bread we promptly purchased it and head back.  I don't like white bread to begin with, but that bread did not taste right.

After a meeting at AID where we were to work, Alex started to feel off, assuming it was the after affects of the morning bread, we didn't think too much of it until he started to feel worse and to my great dismay he felt like he was on fire.  Fever in Africa is always bad, and usually means one thing, malaria.

Indeed, Alex had malaria as well as typhoid. Perfect! The next week took us on a tour to three medical facilities in Freetown. We saw four doctors and countless nurses.  There was a strict regiment of medication, 2 of these twice a day and 3 of that.  Fever would come and poor Alex would be on fire but feel like he was in the Arctic.  Our parents called daily, if not more from the States doing all they could from thousands of miles away.  The US embassy was on speed-dial and the consul knew us.  Meanwhile, we hadn't showered in five days and my hair no longer needed a hair tie to stay in a pony tail.
Alex feeling awful
 It was a bit of a nightmare and we needed to figure out what to do.  Freetown lacks in most areas, the infrastructure of the country is decades behind and medical care is not to the standard that Alex and I are used to.  If Alex got any sicker we have had no other option but to leave, and we were both questioning whether we were ready to handle a land with such desperate needs.  Ultimately with the advice of our parents and the US Embassy , we made the decision to return to Gambia, where medical care was slightly more promising, and we had a family who could help us.  So a week and two days after arriving, we made the journey back across Freetown and across the bay to the airport and back to the safe haven of the Kassama compound in Gambia.

For me, leaving Freetown was hard.  Although our time there was very less than ideal, it is a country that I could see myself falling in love with.  A gem hidden behind the troubles of the past and the poverty.  A place of promise where a little work will go a long way.  I know it is a place where I will find myself again one day.  But for now I am settled in the Gambia until the end of Ramadan trying to find work and make an ounce of difference on this beautiful continent that has already taught me more than I could have dreamed. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

I haven't had the internet in a few days and the electricity has been out off and on for the last week, I will blog soon but in the meantime I wanted to add a few pictures of our last two weeks. 
Fisherman on Goree Island, off of Dakar
Leybato Beach, where we stayed the first three days in The Gambia
Alex at the beach
Enjoying our cokes (in glass bottles)
Gei and her baby sister, some of the neighbor girls
Bintou, Mustapha, two of our lovely hosts, with Alex
A monkey at Abuko Wildlife Reserve
Alex and I at Abuko
The streets of Gambia

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Truly Once in a Lifetime...

a sept-place very reminiscent of the one that we took

     The Gare Routeire Pompiers is a entanglement of buses, taxis, sept-places, people trying to sell you water in bags or hard boiled eggs, and bus drivers asking you where you want to go, all while you are trying to navigate your way past piles of rotting garbage and stagnant pools of water carrying 50 pounds on your back in the early morning heat.  This sums up my morning.  We ventured out at 7 to start our journey from Dakar to The Gambia.   it was already hot and with my 50 pound backpack strapped to my back, I instantly began to perspire. 

     The Gare is a hub for public transportation, buses that take you god knows where and the now infamous sept-place.  When I first read about sept-places I figured, "oh it's just some van type bus with seven places," boy was I wrong.  A sept-place is an ancient station wagon of some sorts that has been converted into a courier for seven people traveling long distances; the driver and passenger, and two additional rows of seats for three people to pack closely together leaving no personal space.  Not to mention no air conditioner and for the three rows of people there are only windows in the first two.  To say I was not looking forward to the journey is an understatement! I figured if we got there earlier enough, before it was full  (they don't leave until they're full no matter how long it takes) we would have a good chance at getting better seats, ones next to the window.  But of course that did not happen, even though we were the third and forth passengers to arrive.  We were sent to very back of the station wagon, atop the gas tank, Alex next to the window, that did not open, and I, smack dab in the middle.  And there we sat, waiting for all the seats to fill.  We thought about buying an extra seat so we could have the whole row, but my frugal side thought we should save the money.  Once we were full, which really didn't take too long, we were off on what I will call the adventure of a lifetime.

    The road out of Dakar is two lanes but once we were out it was one lane the rest of the way.  Every truck or bus in front of us we passed.  When goats or cows or people got too close to the road the driver would lean on his horn.  The road was not bad for the first three hours of the journey, the occasional pot holes were dodged.  We passed village after village where women were gathered selling mangoes and everyone else escaped the sun under the shade of trees,  napping in wheel barrels or children playing in the dirt.  And Alex and I crammed in the back of the sept-place par took in a sort of lyrical dance, moving this bag here and that foot there every thirty minutes or so when something feel asleep.  This routine continued throughout the trip, but once we passed Koalack, a new curve ball was thrown at us, washed out road. 

    I would not recommend traveling in sept-place on a washed out road.  For what seemed like 200 miles through Senegal, the once tar road has made way for a part dirt with spots of tar road with dips and routs over a foot deep, pools of water, and rocks.  Our sept-place was all over the place, swerving to avoid damage to the ancient vehicle.  Half the time we were off the road entirely because the shoulders were a better alternative.  Alex and I were flying all over the place.  I just wanted it to end.  Just about the only saving grace, was the little boy traveling with his mother and sister.  He was probably about two and wore a New York Yankees hat.  He was insanely cute!  As Alex and I were flaying in the back seat, he would turn around every so often and wave, reassuring us that everything would be ok.  When we finally reached the Senegal/Gambia border, 6 hours later, I was relieved momentarily.  Our stopped car was bombarded with people selling things and trying to convince us they would give "best price" to exchange money.  Our journey was not yet over.  From the border, we traveled 20 more minutes by taxi and then had to wait for our ferry to the capital.  The ferry we were told would take 50 minutes (40 if the current was going our way) but the 50 minutes soon turned to an hour, then two as we floated across the river.  The ferry's engine seemed to be entirely useless.  So when all was said and done, we spent close to ten hours making our way to Banjul.  A trip that I can say without an once of doubt I can go the rest of my life without doing again.  Truly, once in a lifetime!

Dakar: The Manhattan of Africa

We haven't had internet in a few days, so here are a couple posts.
     Crazing driving, crowded streets, people selling stuff on every corner,  garbage, many languages: things Dakar and Manhattan have in common.  Dakar is a place of stark contrast, nice houses and BMWs juxtaposed with shacks built off outer walls of compounds and barefoot children begging for money.  Downtown Dakar has buildings many stories tall.  There are embassies, hospitals, banks and restaurants nestled in the skyline.  Smog hangs in the air and trash is littered in the streets.  Merchants stand with their carts flanking every inch of the street eager to sell whatever they have.  Taxis are everywhere, honking.  And the flurry of languages invade your ears, I recognize a few words here and there but never enough to make sense of what is being said.
      And the driving, oh the driving! As we make our way from Yoff (an area about 15 minutes from downtown) in a taxi, many prayers are said and my eyes close frequently as we swerve around another vehicle.  The drivers seem to know how to navigate the horse drawn carts, motorbikes, cows and goats, but not without a near heart attack.  Two lanes quickly become three as cars squeeze between fast moving objects.  It is quite the experience to say the least.
     Dakar spreads out across a peninsula, it would take months to see the whole thing and years to really figure it all out. We were able to make our way through downtown, well some of it at least, where the streets wind and meander.  The Presidential Palace is a sight to see.  Gates a mile high surround the perfectly manicured lawns.  Police stand like beefeaters with M-16s outside the gate and dozens of cars are parked inside.  I understand why he wants to ensure he stays in power forever, who would want to trade a lavish life like that to go back to some rural village.  The ocean is spotted with pirogues carrying fisherman out to open water.
      I am transported into a world that seems eons away from my home yet at the same time, Dakar is a place I seem to know quite well.  A place where everyone walks down the street speaking loudly on their phones.  Mothers chase their children and try their best to keep them occupied.  The twenty somethings hit the local restaurants to have a bite to eat and chat about what they might do that night (very reminicent of my nights at home).  And children are simply children.  A reminder that we all occupy one world regardless of how different the parts may seem.  That even 5000 miles across an ocean I am really not that far from home. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

40 cent baguettes and 10 dollar coconuts

I am on the "African Diet."  Carbs.  Shortly after arriving (well after my 6 hour nap) Alex and I ventured out into the humidity and construction that is Dakar, in search of sustenance to resolves my grumbling stomach.  I had heard that the bread in Senegal was particularly good since it is a former French colony and a baguette sounded like it would do the trick.  We headed out on a sidewalk that traces the ocean hoping that we would stumble across something delicious.  We wandered past dozens of half complete construction sites (a reoccuring scene here), past fruit stands stocked with mangoes and papayas, and children trying to entertain themselves while their mothers worked.  I was drenched in sweat by the time we found heaven, Grain D'or.  And grain of gold it was, complete with AC!  We got a baguette to share and the best part, a mere 40 cents we paid!  Two older ladies and a mother with her three children were sitting outside; when we walked out they began to ask us for some bread )or so we thought) and so we broke off half and gave it to them.  After making sure we were certain we really didn't want that half, they smiled and we walked on. When it costs 40 cents a loaf and is this good, I'll share it with the world, one loaf for everyone!

some of the coconut recipients
Downtown Dakar is quite a shock to the senses, and so, while we waited for our Gambian visas, Alex and I abandoned the crowded streets (where Alex got carried away bargaining for cologne) and headed towards the ocean.  Goats wandered freely, grazing on the little bits of green hidden by garbage and the sea birds squawked overhead.  Nearing three, we began to head back to the crowded streets and I asked Alex if he could please avoid trying to purchase unnecessary items.  Behind the presidential palace lies a tree in the middle of the road with a lion painted on it, we stopped to be tourists and take pictures and a gaggle of small boys on their way home from school walked past us.  Coming down the hill was a young boy carrying coconuts on his head.  The school boys got our attention, without much effort, all they really had to do was smile.  They wanted coconuts, a nice afternoon snack.  Alex and I could not resist their grins and eager faces and figuring that a coconut could not cost very much, we obviously obliged.  The boys did the negotiating, grabbing whatever they pleased.  If they looked at us for confirmation we said yes, we didn't care.  Before we knew it we were up to 1100 CFA (about $2.50) but all we had was a 5000 note (about $10).  The boy selling the coconuts did not have change, so coconuts for everyone! The poor vender could not keep track of all the little hands reaching for coconuts, so an older boy stopped to help add it all up.  I'm not sure we ever really figured out how much it actually was, but everyone got a coconut and we covered the bill.  I would say it was the best ten dollars I've ever spent.  After tasting a piece though, I decided I think I'll stick to my 40 cent baguette and the all carb diet.