Last weekend was an absolutely lovely retreat from Saint Louis life to Dakar, Senegal's capital, a sprawling and fascinating city. We'd have been excited to visit under any circumstances, but even better, we were able to stay with Dad's cousin Laurie and her family during our three days there. They've lived in Dakar for four years and showed us around the city: where to shop for souvenirs, the far-and-away best ice cream shop, even Gorée Island. They were also incredibly interesting to talk to; Tamar and I learned about Laurie and Bush's experiences in development and developing-country field research as well as hearing a lot of great stories. They also provided us with everything we could want: fresh croissants for breakfast, a driver to take us all over, a respite from the sheep-urine smells and fishy (literally) "vegetarian" rice lunches of our home in St. Louis.
I was so lucky to have such gracious hosts; really, family is an incredible thing. It's a powerful idea, that blood relations compel people to take you in no matter where in the world you end up. I hope that when I'm older I can extend that kind of generosity to family and friends and friends of friends of family. Or even extend that generosity now, in smaller ways.
I'm not going to lie: it was great to live back in the first world for a weekend. I had so much appreciation for the little things, an appreciation I hope I can prolong once I'm in France and back home. Pasta, making boxed brownies, warm showers, getting greeted by a dog at the door, fast wifi, real mattresses, brushing your teeth with tap water. What a world we live in.
Of course, I feel a little guilty too, assimilating into or purely tolerating all the material inconveniences of St. Louis life only because I know it's temporary, part of an ~experience~ that lasts only two months, with a hot shower and comfy bed waiting for me in Bethesda or even Dakar. Most people in St. Louis - in the world - will never know that comfort. Do Senegalese just think of showers as an unpleasant necessity of life? Or do they really not mind dumping buckets of cold water on themselves twice a week? Or is their perspective on these sorts of luxuries just so foreign that I'll never really understand?
But that's another post. Back to Dakar.
I feel like I barely saw anything but I loved the city. Such a weird place, somewhere in limbo between traditionally Senegalese and globalized metropolis. Lonely Planet loves to describe places as "a city of contrasts," but it isn't wrong about Dakar. Skyscrapers and mosques. Big waves crashing on beaches and scraggly, dusty hills. Talented, diverse artists working in a commune and vendors who speak to tourists in English, French, and Spanish hawking wares that were probably made in China.
Friday morning, we decided to walk to the Mamelles, Dakar's twin hills right by where we were staying. We hiked up one to the African Rennaissance Monument, a ridiculously ostentatious and imposing statue commissioned by President Abdoulaye Wade, built by a North Korean firm, and completed in 2010. It's the tallest statue in Africa, it dwarfs the Statue of Libery and Rio's Christ the Redeemer, and it's absolutely absurd. You almost have to laugh.
It was a smoggy, gray day in Dakar, apparently atypical for a city by the sea accustomed to clear blue skies.
|I didn't edit the colors; the market tents really stood out against a monotone horizon.|
|These girls asked me to take their photo at the base of the hill.|
|I love how North Korea's name sticks out, even in length if not geography.|
|The other "mamelle" (the hills are referred to as Dakar's "breasts") with its lighthouse. It's famous for its panoramic views and, we also noticed, as a hill running workout. I'm hoping to hike it when we're in Dakar right before leaving Senegal.|
|That's a buff baby.|
|Wade was really trying to leave his mark.|
Later on Friday, we decided to head to the Musée Theodore Monod, a small but interesting collection of African (mostly West African) art and traditional everyday objects.
Upstairs, things got even more interesting. It was an exhibit examining the clash of new and old in Africa, particularly in the use of newfangled and wasteful materials such as plastic, which contribute to massive pollution and environmental problems and compete against more traditional, sustainable methods. First, an ode to typical life in Senegal today:
Then a fascinating section that placed traditional items side by side with their modern counterparts. I have to say, at least in Senegalese cities today, the balance seems tipped towards the plastic.
The exhibit also discussed how Africa can blend postmodern and traditional ideas to create and culturally and environmentally sustainable society. I was so, so glad to see that someone had noticed and addressed, even in a small way, the obviously huge environmental problems in this part of the world. I think in the future I'd really be interested in working on a project (like a Peace Corps assignment? Who knows) for greater education and awareness of environmental issues and impact in a place like here.
|Outside the museum.|
We stopped briefly to see the Palais Presidential, the president's house and office. It's a massive complex.
We were also eager to see Sandaga Market, the largest in Dakar. Unfortunately, it wasn't the most pleasant experience. While the market was mostly everyday items, there were also sellers catering to tourists who harassed us and followed us the whole way, making it impossible to look around and even more impossible to actually look to see if we were interested in buying anything. My pictures are lopsided and blurry because I subtly took them with the camera hanging around my neck. We made a quick circuit with Laurie and Bush's driver René, then headed back to the car where vendors literally tried to forcibly stop us from closing the door.
|The tiles are printed with baobabs and lions, the two emblems of Senegal. Lions are extinct in Senegal, and baobabs were originally imported from Madagascar...|
Of course, we had to try out (twice) my family's favorite ice cream place in the city, N'Ice Cream. It was delicious. Also, they had a flavor called Obama.
|Chocolate with chocolate cookies and chocolate sauce!|
We were beyond excited at the prospect of baking brownies. Just being in a real kitchen (read: not outside, not shared with sheep, no fish heads on the floor, has a stove and oven) was refreshing, and I've missed being able to make something, and also having it be chocolatey and fudgey and YUM.
On Saturday morning, Tamar and I went with Laurie to the Village des Arts, a commune of artists' studios where you can watch and talk to artists at work, then buy some beautiful, interesting, unique pieces (if you have the funds and suitcase space, so that wasn't for me this time). We were shocked by the diversity of artistic styles represented and the gallery-level quality of the work. People are so talented! We ended up spending three hours just wandering and admiring.
|Even the tree is adorned.|
Continuing our art-appreciation morning, Laurie showed us a favorite restaurant near their house, owned by a European collector who's been traveling in remote parts of Africa for decades amassing a huge collection of African art and objects. He houses them in this restaurant-gallery-storage room, and we glimpsed a small fraction of what's there.
|An employee explained to us the tradition behind this statue, which represents the robe a seven-year-old boy had to wear after circumcision. I don't remember where it was from, though.|
Later that day, we tried to go to Gorée Island, but the ferry had just left. Instead, we got a nice lunch with Daniel and Laurie at the French Institute before Tamar and I got dropped off at the souvenir market, where we wandered and browsed and bought (presents for ourselves and for others). For hours.
|Pre-market: picking up Daniel at tennis.|
Not sure how much of the stuff at the market is authentic, and like we mentioned above we learned fast that these experienced vendors knew every language we could speak. (Tamar's lamenting not teaching me basic Dutch, for secret communication...) However, the numbers were in our favor: there were very few shoppers in a huge market, where many booths sold the same things. We drove a hard bargain, but still emptied our wallets.
I love giving presents.
|"If you get on my nerves, I'll take a second wife." Lovely sentiment.|
Saturday also ended on a high note. We didn't get to go to the highly-highly-recommended-by-Lonely-Planet concert venue Just 4 U, because we were far too exhausted and scheduled to attend a show starting at midnight. But we did help out with the dinner, which Daniel artfully plated a homemade salad. Tiger would be pleased.
Most of Sunday was spent touring Gorée Island, and then traveling home. That'll have to be it's own post though - far too many incredible photos.
I can't say enough what a great weekend this was, and how grateful we were for the hospitality. I'm glad I'll get to see Dakar for another day or two before I go!