Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's the little things that matter

The little details about life abroad seem to become immensely important after the voyage is over. In the spirit of properly commemorating these things, this post is honors some of the smaller aspects of my daily life here.

The call to prayer: The slightly cacophonous call to prayer is something I have only recently noticed, as in my host family's neighborhood we are sheltered from the sound of the Mosques. But more recently as I have been spending more time at the Baobab center it has become a part of my daily life. The voice distorted by ancient PA systems rebounds from the top of the Baobab center, against the sea of walls of differing heights to create a small symphony of echoes, which is quite beautiful. Sometimes it will interrupt class, which is always a welcome pause.

The school-children: I seem to live in the center of a half dozen primary schools/kindergartens. No matter what hour I leave my host family's house, day or night, there seem to be hordes of little ones in their tiny school uniforms running around speaking Wolof. They are loosely hearded by adults, and interestingly

The Street Sellers: In Dakar you can never go anywhere without being surrounded by people trying to sell you things: for most people it is a question of survival, which explains in part why sellers can get so aggressive downtown - there is simply too much competition. Jobs are incredibly scarce, so many Sénégalese just buy something and resell it it for a bit more, or buy something big and divided it up into little pieces and then sell that. In my calm little neighborhood the sellers are mostly at little fruit stands (oranges, apples, vegetables in varying states), small boutiques (which have probably every imaginable item crammed into a stall the size of a couple telephone booths), sitting in chairs or on the ground like the women who sit outside selling peanuts and baignets, or standing next to their collection of shoes which they have displayed for people to peruse as they walk by. If you venture out of my neighborhood and into downtown there is literally nothing you can't find for sale, as downtown Dakar is as far as I am considered the mecca of shopping. My personal favorite so far is the man downtown who walks around selling nothing but coat hangers.

The Taxis: These machines can be shiny new cars painted pastel yellow or more often dillapidated death machines, falling apart at their shantily welded seams. Honking once a minute equally on open streets and in bumper to bumper traffic, at least once a day I am scared to death by a taxi that has snuck up on me and honked in my ear. The drivers always try to rip you off, and once inside will contribute their own soundtrack to the noise pollution of Dakar, normally loud Senegalese music from the radio.

The Pollution: The heavy, smoggy air that plagues Dakar and once seemed so impossible to live in has been surprisingly easy to adapt to. It has to be absurdly bad for my lungs, but I really don't have much choice. I have wondered how traffic-jam fumes compare to smoking a cigarette. Can't be too different. The culprits are easy to identify. Any moving vehicle emits visible plumes of exhaust, if you are lucky the car in front of you lets out light grey smog but too frequently it is a deathly black.

The animals: Let's see, where to begin? Goats, sheep, dogs, cats, kittens. These are all over the place, and most of them are quite calm, but every once in a while a goat will make a bone-rattling gutteral noise that is truly scares me. There are also lizards as long as 16 centimeters. They are reputed to leap great distances, but this I have yet to see with my own eyes. The bats downtown are also special, they congregate in particular at the Institut Français, revealing themselves at night to relieve themselves on innocent audience members at cultural events. At the time of this post none of us have received super powers from the bat contact, much to my dismay.

La Télé: The Sénégalese love their Television, and most of our host families seem to regularly follow soap operas in particular. These come in all shapes and sizes, from the home-grown Senegalese brew (in Wolof) to imported Indian, Spanish, and Latin American specials (all dubbed over in French). Much as in the United States, it is often the conservative families (which I would consider my host family to be) who watch the raunchiest family feuds and love triangles play out on their screens. I'm not totally sure but I think that my host family members have scheduled their daily prayers around their favorite shows. The American sitcom is also popular here, normally sponsored by some kind of Telecom company. So far I have watched Half & Half, Prison Break, Criminal Minds and Charmed, all, once again, dubbed in French. The commercials are equally amusing, as there are approximately 7 of them, three for different kinds of bouillon, two for telecom companies, and two more for last year's electronic devices sold at exorbitantly high prices. RDV and 2STV are the two main channels my family watches. RDV is my favorite, as they periodically broadcast Muslim prayers and have the best soap operas. Bonus of Horoscopes at late hours. Recently I have been wondering whether RDV is partly government sponsored, but this also has yet to be confirmed

Ramadan's Tent: Ramadan has a tent right outside of the Baobab Center. He is one of the kindest and most open people I have met here in Sénégal. He loves all the students who come to Baobab, especially those of Lewis & Clark. His specialty is the Café Touba, which he sells for 25 cfa in tiny disposable plastic cups. Sénégal must import an incredible number of these cups every year, as they are even more numerous than the taxis (this is saying quite a bit). It comes piping hot out of a large insluted container and then is poured theatrically from one cup to a second cup until it is appropriately frothy and reading to burn your hand through the thin plastic (the trick is holding the cup at the rim). Café Touba as far as I can tell is really more of a strong tea than a coffee, which packs a more powerful caffeine punch than anything I have drunk. It tends to make us a bit giddy, which is great for helping us relax among the half dozen or so Sénégalese men that are always hanging out in his tent. Being covered in dark fabric the tiny tent heats up like crazy, reminiscent of a native american sweat lodge of all things. It carries the odor of the daily multitude of patrons who have varying levels of cleanliness, and, of course, the Café Touba.

Signing off for now. Have a great Friday!