This year in Dakar



Several people have written to ask me how many vacation days we get while serving in the Peace Corps, how we can use them, and where we can go.

We accrue two days of vacation for every month of our service after we swear in as Volunteers, which means that PST does not count. For accounting purposes, they assume that we are going to complete our two years of service, giving us an allotment of 48 days to use as we wish. In most cases, these days refer to travel that is outside of the country. If people stay in the country and visit other sites with the approval of their APCD, those days do not count toward vacation.

The only restrictions concerning where we can go are related to off-limits destinations as designated by the State Department. As for timing of vacation days, the only sector that has proscribed dates are the people in Agro-Forestry, who must stay at their sites during the seasons when most of their work has to be completed.

During the first three months and last three months of service, we are supposed to stay at our sites. That gives us an eighteen-month period during which we can use our 48 days.

There are Volunteers who go to the US for holidays, weddings, and other events. Some meet family in Europe - the most popular place being Paris, since there are daily nonstop flights that connect Paris to Nouakchott. Everyone has his own approach to vacation days. My goal is to stay in Africa; we shall see how that works out.

For those of you who have been following the progress of Babah's search for employment: the day before I left on vacation, he started a new job. He is learning a trade that, as far as I can tell, has to do with installing, decorating, and painting ceilings in homes. The pay is half again as much as he was earning at the supermarché, they give him lunch, and the hours are shorter. Overall it looks like a good deal. I had the sense that he was not a slacker, and that he was serious about working, but it's not always easy to understand people so early in friendships.

I had heard that there are usually taxis at the Novotel, the big hotel across the street from my house, early in the morning. The day before I left for vacation, I thought I'd better go over there and find out if there would be a taxi there at 6:00 AM. I found out that they are not always there, but a front desk worker called a taximan to arrange for a pickup at 6:00.

I arrived at 6:01, which is not only considered to be on time in Mauritania, but early! When I waited a few minutes and didn't see the white car that was supposed to be there, I went into the hotel to ask if they could call the driver. That's when I found out that he had already been there and left! The clerk volunteered to call the driver, and when he did, we heard a ringing phone on the counter: the driver had not only left, but left his phone behind at the hotel.

As I went outside to size up the situation and see if I could find a taxi on the street, a car from the US embassy was depositing George, one of the guards who has worked at the PC bureau and embassy, at the hotel. I could see that there was virtually no traffic on the road, so I was without a way to get to the airport. George came to my rescue by calling a taximan he knows; I had a ride within five minutes! I got to the airport with time to spare, since I was taking only carry-on luggage.

I made a bit of a blunder at the airport. As I entered the check-in line, a guy asked me to give him my ticket and passport. Thinking he was an airline employee, I handed it over. All he did was pass it along to the airline employee behind the desk. As I made my way to the luggage x-ray machine, this guy was expecting me to pay him. For what, though? "For helping you check in," which was something that I had never seen or heard of before. I had to refuse him, since I had left all my spare ouguiya at home.

As we left the terminal and approached the plane on the tarmac, the passengers separated themselves into two lines. I didn't take stock in the situation to realize the way they were segregated, so I just joined the line on the left, which was shorter. That's when somebody pointed out to me that I was standing in the women's line. It reminded me of the old days in elementary school, when there was a boys' line and a girls' line in the schoolyard.

The Volunteers jokingly refer to Air Mauritanie as "Air Inshallah." ("Inshallah" = "Allah willing.") I found the aircraft to be up-to-date, though. We left a little late, but made good time. It takes only about 50 minutes to get to Dakar from Nouakchott.

My first order of business in Dakar was to let the PC bureau know that I was there. That was a good move anyway, since it allowed me to leave my bag there so I wouldn't have to schlep it around with me while looking for a hotel and taking care of other chores. Here I was, on foot, in a new city, with a basic guidebook map and lots of things to do.

A flood of familiar feelings rushed over me: the excitement of being in a new place, the challenge of figuring out the orientation of the map, and the myriad tasks to accomplish: getting local currency, finding a hotel, fending off the advances of the overly friendly people who want to "help" their "friend."

I recalled the image I had seen in many cartoons when I was growing up: the appearance of a vulnerable character who transforms, in the eyes of his prey, into a huge lollipop with a wrapper that says "SUCKER." Of course, there is no way that I can possibly walk around anywhere in Africa without people taking a look and thinking something on the order of, "He's not from around here." I need to make peace with being seen as an oddity. It's fine, just as long as people are not deciding, "He's not from around here. Let's jump him."

I stopped at the office for Cabo Verde Airlines to book my itinerary to go there. I had wanted to stay in Dakar for only a few days, but found that the next flight with a seat available wouldn't be until Saturday, which meant I would have to be in Dakar for five nights.

Then I was off to the Cape Verde embassy to apply for my visa. The embassy is on the 13th floor of a 15-story building. I haven't seen a building that tall since I left the USA.

The next task was finding a hotel. I find the guidebooks particularly valuable for this, in that their recommendations include such factors as price, cleanliness, and atmosphere. One hotel I tried had a fairly good write-up, but when I entered, I could see that the bevy of beauties in the lobby was just a little too eager to see me. On the wall next to the front desk was a sign that informed the esteemed clientele that the clerk would be happy to arrange a massage for you in the privacy of your room. That is NOT the kind of hotel I was looking for.

I went back to the PC bureau to take care of some e-mailing. Colin, one of the Senegal PCVs, invited me to join him for lunch. In the process, he told me about one of the nicer hotels that gives a PC discount, which brought its price into the more reasonable range. That is where I stayed for my five nights.

Colin and I went to eat at a place that has Middle Eastern food. I told him, as I wrapped my pita around the hummos and tabouleh, that this would be my last pita or any other bread for the next week. When I told him why - Passover - he told me that the Country Director of PC Senegal is Jewish and was going to have a seder at his house on the second night; for the first night, he was going to the seder at the home of the Israeli ambassador. As it turned out, the seder given by the Israeli ambassador is one that is usually open to PCVs and any other wandering Jews. This year, though, the ambassador's wife is ill (though not gravely) and is in Israel, so that is the reason why it is a much smaller affair.

At the home of the Country Director, there was his family, a few PCVs, some college students who are studying in Senegal for the year, and a member of the Jewish Volunteer Corps. It was wonderful to be welcomed into a home of strangers and share an experience that was so familiar to all of us. This is part of the connection that I feel to the Jewish people, and it is a link that transcends both time and distance.

(The meal was complete with matzos, which were delivered via a process called the Diplomatic Pouch, a benefit of being either an embassy employee or one of the higher-ups in the Peace Corps administration. This service employs a full-time staff of elves, gnomes, and (in the case of the embassy in Dublin) leprechauns to work at an address in Dulles, Virginia. When those authorized to use the Pouch want to order something by mail - whether it is books, groceries, or anything that can be ordered on the Internet - the shipment is delivered to Virginia, and then the government transports it for them to the embassy of their choice. Not bad, eh? So you see, we're all really VIPs; it's just that the initials "VIP" stand for different things. In the case of the ambassador and the Peace Corps brass, you are already familiar with its meaning as Very Important Person. For us Peace Corps Volunteers, you can be sure that it means Virtually Insignificant Peasant.)

We traditionally say at the end of the seder, "Next year in Jerusalem," and one of the interpretations that I take from that statement is that we will be free enough so that being in Jerusalem at this time next year will be a choice we can make if we would like to make it. I hope that all the people of Jerusalem - Moslem, Christian, and Jewish - can worship freely and grant each other the religious freedom that they so earnestly want for themselves.

One of the sights to see in Dakar is Gorée Island, a place from which slaves were shipped, on their one-way trip away from Africa. There is a question as to how many slaves were actually sent from this particular point. The Lonely Planet guidebook explains, "Gorée itself was never a major shipment point for slaves." In talking about such a hateful act against humanity, it doesn't matter how many of the 20,000,000 African slaves taken from Africa left from Gorée.

With freedom from slavery as a Passover theme, I was particularly moved to be in this place at this time. It was an experience that I will not forget.

I had heard before I got to Gorée that there is a Peace Corps Volunteer who lives and works on the island. It's not too surprising, then, that I got to meet her. She arrived in Senegal in December of 2000, which means that she is now in her fourth year as a PCV! Makes me feel like a slacker!

We met first at the PC bureau in Dakar, and then I ran into her on the island itself. She invited me into her home and offered me tea; she told me a lot about her life, her family, and her time in Senegal. She is a great-grandmother. I didn't ask her age but I am guessing that she is older than I am.

Dakar is very different from anything I have seen in Mauritania. The streets are paved and named, with building addresses and sidewalks. There are many modern buildings, and there is lots of traffic. The population is predominantly Black, so there is no Moor/Arab influence. The population is more than 90% Muslim, but the country is not an Islamic Republic, so there is not the sense that the religion dominates the society in the same way that it does in Mauritania. In Senegal, there are churches and parochial schools in plain view, whereas there is only one church in all of Mauritania (in Nouakchott) and it is an unmarked building. Furthermore, Mauritanians are not allowed to enter it.

Yes, there are sidewalks in Dakar, but they are not easy for pedestrians to use, as they are venues where shop merchandise is displayed and delivered, as well as taken up by parked and waiting cars. Traffic is dense and slow in the "downtown" area.

When Robert Louis Stevenson observed, "Everyone lives by selling something," I wonder if he had been to Senegal. Pedestrians share the sidewalks and street corners with people selling a myriad of things. Many of the vendors are sedentary, but some are ambulatory. Since the auto traffic is as slow as it is, it is safe enough, in the busy "downtown" section for vendors to weave in and out amongst the cars or along the sides of traffic as they implore pedestrians and drivers alike to buy their hangers (plastic, wooden), jeans ("Levis," "Wranglers," unknown brands), rolls of fabric (batik, tie-dye, wax print, plain colors), cans of fruit and vegetables (pineapple, tomatoes, fruit cocktail), bags of popcorn, key chains (fuzzy animals, carved wood, leather lariats), mirrors (from small personal size to wall sizes), framed photos (singers, actors, athletes), rugs (prayer size, throw, scatter), socks (all colors, nylon), men's underwear (boxers, briefs, bikini briefs), women's underwear (brassieres, panties), personal care products (Q-tips, toothpaste, toothbrushes, perfume), tape (Scotch, masking, duct), fruit (oranges, bananas, apples, pineapple, mangoes, papayas), clothespins (plastic, wooden), clocks, tissues, bathroom scales, shoe laces, calculators, cell phones and phone chargers, extension cords, matches, peanuts (in shells, shelled, with reddish skins, without reddish skins, sugar coated), watches ("Rolex," "Timex," unknown brands), glasses (sun, reading, drinking), jewelry (earrings, necklaces, rings, bracelets), cigarettes (individually, packaged), carved wooden figures (animals, people, large, small), animal horns (real, plastic, carved, plain), music (cassettes, CDs), radios ( small transistor to large boom boxes), and musical instruments (drums of various sizes, wooden xylophones, wooden sticks and balls to clap together, thumb harps)… and this is just a partial list!

I don't know who has it worse: the vendors who stay in one place, squatting all day, or the ones who are continually on their feet and lugging around their merchandise wherever they go. I am more partial to the ones who set up shop on the sidewalk because they can't come after me to persuade me to buy. The ones who follow are insistent and persistent. They have a variety of standard lines that they use to engage prospective customers: "Don't you remember me?" "We met yesterday/last week/last month." "What country are you from?" "How is your wife?" In the morning I hear, "You'll be my first customer; you'll bring me luck."

They also do not take "Non, merci" for an answer. There is not anything I can say that does not bring on a counter argument. The first line of defense for their product is that it is not expensive, which is often expanded to explain that it is less expensive than "the Lebanese," meaning the owners of many of the shops against whom they are competing for business.

Then they progress to wanting to take me to the boutique or showroom, "just to look." If I explain that I am traveling and don't want to carry anything with me, they argue that it is not heavy. If I say I don't need it, they suggest I buy it as a gift for my wife/child/niece/nephew. At least nobody has suggested that I buy anything for my grandchild!

Why isn't "Non, merci" the end of the conversation? For most people, it's just the beginning! In France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Tahiti, St. Pierre et Miquelon, Martinique, and the French-speaking parts of Switzerland and Canada, "Non, merci" means "No, thank you." In Francophone West Africa, it seems to have a variety of meanings, non of which is "no, thank you." Some of the vendors interpret it to mean: (1) "Yes, please;" (2) "Does it come in blue?;" (3) "Is there a place where you could take me so that I could see your entire array of merchandise - perhaps in an environment without so much carbon monoxide?;" and probably the most frequent interpretation of all, (4) "I'm not really interested, but if you follow me around wherever I go and harangue me for the next hour, you'll probably find that I'm likely to change my mind."

I find that my response to these salesmen varies with my mood. If I speak English or French to them, it only encourages them to keep the conversation going. Sometimes it works for me to say something incomprehensible, so I throw together Japanese or Tagalog, or make up a few nonsense words that sound like, "Zenzen waka mo uri." Whatever they say, my only response is, "Zenzen waka mo uri," or something equally short and meaningless. Then I smile and shrug my shoulders, and they are gone.

On other days I am in a better humor to talk, so I say, "That's very nice of you. You are very kind. Thank you. I really don't need that," and I repeat it maybe five or six times, just like I used to have to say to my students, "Yes, you really do have to finish your math before you can go to recess."

Sometimes it works, when somebody asks me what I am looking for, to say, "I am looking for your smile," which I then get, we shake hands, and it is all over.

One thing is for sure: it is easier to philosophize about the situation than it is to deal with it face-to-face on a daily basis. At the PC bureau in Dakar, I found a book that I read in my hotel room over a few evenings. It is The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, by Terry Ryan. It is the true story of the author's mother and family, which took place during the same years as my own childhood. Evelyn, the author's mother, had a knack for writing poems and completing the contest entries that were so frequently part of American consumer life at that time.

The father of the family was an alcoholic who drank away large portions of his income, putting the family in jeopardy on several occasions. But the mother's contest skills were able to win the family one prize that was enough money for a down-payment on a house and then, many years later, another grand prize that saved the house from being foreclosed when the father took out a second mortgage that was in danger of not being repaid in time.

Shortly after I finished the book, the thought occurred to me that Evelyn Ryan and the Dakar street vendors, at a very basic level, were driven by the same goal: to do what they could, to do what it took, in order to keep their families together. People are moved to action in the same way all over the world.

It may seem, from reading the above, that Dakar doesn't have or need stores. It does, which is an improvement over the situation in Nouakchott, where most establishments are small and many consist of a counter that serves as a barrier between the customer and the merchandise, which requires asking for any item s/he wants to see.

There's a wonderful store there called SCORE, which is about the size of a large Safeway and just as bountiful. Its treasures include several items that are not for sale in Nouakchott, such as cotton bath towels, cotton dishtowels, cotton sheets, and washcloths. I had only recently thought that it would be handy to keep a wet washcloth in a Zip-Loc plastic bag with me when I travel. I was going to ask somebody to send me an old washcloth for this purpose. But lo and behold: there, at SCORE, was not only the washcloth, but one that had been sewn on three sides, so that I could put my hand inside it. If I ever need to entertain myself, I'll have a wash cloth hand puppet!

SCORE also has lots of food items, but since I recently discovered the Mother Lode of tofu in Nouakchott, I am not wanting for anything in the culinary department.

Dakar provided me with several first-in-a-long-time experiences, such as sleeping in a bed with legs on it, showering standing up because there is a shower head mounted to the wall, using an ATM that has access to my home bank account, and using my VISA card.

I had two visa problems - actually one VISA and one visa problem. When I went to use my VISA card to pay for the plane tickets to Cape Verde, the employee told me that the charge was refused. I had no idea why that would be. The only thing that I could think of was that it hadn't been swiped through a machine since I left the USA. There are some phone numbers on the back of the card, including one to call collect from overseas. But that meant finding a place where I could make a collect call, or finding such a thing as an AT&T access number. I tried the card's website, but they didn't answer for two days.

When I finally got through to AT&T and made the collect call, the VISA people told me that they had neither received nor denied a request for payment of a charge from Dakar, and that the problem had to be on this end. So I went back to the airline office, and this time the charge was approved.

Then came the visa problem. I was leaving Dakar on Saturday morning, so I waited until Friday morning to go to the Cape Verde embassy to pick up my passport with the visa stamp in it. I went to the office building and told the guards at the entrance where I was going. Their response was, "Tuesday," meaning that the next time the office would be opened would be next Tuesday.

Next Tuesday? But my flight is tomorrow, and my passport is up there!!!

They told me to go on up and see if anyone was there. Sure enough, the gate was closed and padlocked. I knocked on a door and, fortunately, a guard inside responded. He called out to ask what I wanted. I answered through the closed door. Pause. He called to ask my name. I told him. Pause. He called to ask my nationality. I told him. Pause. I fully expected him to tell me that the person with the key to the drawer with the passports was in Cape Verde and would be back on Tuesday. But in a few minutes, he opened the door, had my passport in his hand, took my receipt - good thing I had it with me! - and then he handed me the passport.

That was just too close!

And so it was off to yet another country: Cape Verde (French name) or Cabo Verde (Portuguese name). I will tell you all about it in next week's post, as I have already gone on long enough this week.