Big entry Pt 2- life and leisure activities

Trip Start Sep 09, 2008
Trip End Nov 2010

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Flag of Senegal  ,
Thursday, April 2, 2009

I hope you are all still reading after that last rather dry entry, hopefully part 2 will be more entertaining. The past month has generally involved commuting back and forth between work in St Louis and chill time in the village, which means I am the village van driver's new best friend. Every day Maguette, our next door neighbor drives a big white van (kind of like what I pictured the DC sniper to be driving but a lot more decrepit) back and forth between the village and the market in St Louis. His clients are mostly old ladies going to do the day's shopping so I am often sharing the packed van with small babies, bowls of fish, and live chickens.

Thanks to the gossip mill in the village and the fact that, while I know only a few people, everyone knows me, all the old ladies are very curious about the kitten that I've recently acquired. No sooner had I let it be known that I wanted a cat than seemingly every child in the village ran off to find me one. I ended up with a kitten that was probably too young to leave its mom but I guess you have to get them early here if you want a disease free animal. There are tons of cats here but people mostly throw sandals at them instead of keeping them as pets. Despite this, Paco the cat (named after the tall and brooding star of Au Couer du Peche, our favorite Brazilian soap opera) is very popular. I even had an old lady offer to hold its milk dish for me while I fed it with the eye dropper I've been using. Every day when I get on the van the ladies ask me about the kitten. They want to know if it ate breakfast, if it likes fish, if it slept well. Sometimes I wonder if they like the cat better than me. I suppose the cat doesn't butcher the Wolof language.

When not working in St Louis I've mostly been spending down time in the village with my family. One morning I went running on the usual one un-sandy road and saw that there were tons of people out on the flat area thats covered in water in the rainy season. Apparently the salt harvest had begun. I was informed that every year at a certain time all almost all the women from the 3 villages in the area go out on the big flat area and harvest the salt that is left when the water dries up. I'll put some pictures up, its actually really neat to watch. Each women has her own square marked off and spends about 3 or 4 days collecting the salt. I went out for a day with my mom and sister to get a better idea of how this is done and if my aching back the next day was any indication, salt harvesting is not easy. Though it is also not complicated. All you do is pound the ground with a stick to loosen the salt, then sweep it into a pile. As I spent hour after hour pounding the ground with a stick I began to wonder, might there be a more efficient way to do this? Here are people who have cell phones and satellite tv and they are harvesting salt with sticks and brooms. If there is I have yet to think of it but I suppose I have a whole year before the next harvest to come up with something.

Living near to St Louis, there tend to be a lot of people passing through and March was no exception. A group of my friends from up North came through on their way back to site from Dakar and were lucky enough to catch a ride from a group of army guys working for the embassy. We all went out to dinner and we enjoyed hearing about how great things are in Texas and how you go from being in the army to driving around an African country giving money for humanitarian assistance projects. They had come to town to meet with government officials and conduct a needs assessment at the hospital so, being the only French speaker around, I got to go translate. I spent the entire three hour interview trying to come up with creative ways to ask if they had things like MIR's and x ray machines and often had to resort to asking if they had "that thing that takes pictures of bones that are broken." But I got a free lunch out of it so its all good. The next weekend some more northern volunteers passed through and during our night out we discovered a new bar with not only a real pool table but a working jukebox mercifully free of Senegalese music and filled with oldies. From there we went to the Moroccan restaurant with a little back room decked out with Arabic looking cushions and drapes where they serve hookah. It was a fun international group, a few peace corps volunteers, some volunteers from the French version of peace corps, another American volunteering in St Louis named Kirsten and her Belgian friend who's studying economics and rice. The next day was spent as all good post night out Sundays should be spent, hanging out at Kirsten's making brownies from a precious care package box of mix and watching the latest illegally downloaded movies.
More festivities were to come later on in March when I spent a weekend in Richard Toll to celebrate St Patty's Day (although a week late)/Spring Break. Richard Toll, known for its big sugar factory and rice production, is a pretty little city on the Senegal River about an hour and a half north of St Louis. Most of our time there was spent hanging out at Jet's apartment grilling and trying to enhance the festiveness of our beer by adding food coloring from the big supermarket in Dakar to our Gazelle's. St Patty's was celebrated with burgers grilled on Jet's terrace overlooking the river. We were all happy to discover that you can buy frozen patties just like the one's people use when they're trying to do a bbq on the cheap in the US. Sadly these patties were probably the best meat we've eaten in country. Nights were spent in Richard Toll's one bar who's primary clientele are the sugar factory workers and the prostitutes that court them, which always makes for an interesting evening. The bar is dimly lit, has concrete seating, and the only decor consists of technicolor posters of fairy tale scenes and fruit baskets but there is disco ball and they never run out of drinks. Plus they even obliged us and played some pop music that was popular at middle school dances instead of the regular mbalax fare. We also got to chill at the local hotel that has a dock out on the river with deck chairs. I discovered that the French hotel owner likes to take people out on his boat to waterski and wakeboard which is now my number one priority for my next visit to Toll.
The next adventure occurred a little closer to home. Rumor had it that there was a place outside of St Louis that made goat cheese, real goat cheese so Nik, Brendan and I set out to find it. After a taxi ride and a horse-cart ride through the sand during which Nik convinced our driver to name his new horse "horse", we arrived at what the locals rather ominously call "the project". The place kind of reminded me of a commune or a kibbutz. For you Lost fans, it could have been the others' village if the show had taken place in Senegal. Its a place where they give vocational training and other services to the poorer residents of the area though there is also a community of people that live there. The project is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and set up by a Belgian organization. They have a health center, schools, a garden and stables, and training classrooms for things like plumbing, car maintenance, fabric dying, and of course cheese making. Apparently they supply the cheese needs of nearly all the hotels and restaurants in St Louis. The place is run by the Sow brothers, one of which showed us around. It was really cool to see a place producing unique products, unlike most of the country, and we all bought batik scarves and of course lots of cheese.
Finally, my last fun activity was yesterday when I attended the Journee de Lancement of the project is doing with my park. Nearly every NGO project is not complete without a journee de lancement, a kind of ceremony to celebrate the beginning of a project. They are mainly events dedicated to thanking people, congratulating one another, and eating rice with meat instead of rice with fish which is the standard journee de lancement fare. This one was no exception. After very long introductions, the beneficiaries of the financing each came up to thank everyone again and explain what they were going to do with the money. Then it was time for discussion, a very dangerous thing. Though Wolof is a language with limited vocabulary, this does not stop people from making very long winded speeches, which has been the case at every such ceremony I've attended thus far. It was entertaining however to watch each beneficiary go up to receive their certificate of funding. As each one went up the announcer, on a sound system entirely too powerful for the size of the room, announced the amount of money they were receiving followed by sound effect such that you might hear from a bull horn. These consisted of sirens, the bomb dropping and exploding sound, and, my personal favorite, gun shots. Everyone in the audience seemed pleased with the effect.
And that brings us to the present. I'm up in St Louis today awaiting the arrival of our country director (the big boss) who is passing through to visit. Nik and I are going out to dinner with him which I am kind of nervous about but then tomorrow we get a free ride in the air conditioned peace corps car down to Dakar. There I will spend 2 days washing my clothes in a washing machine, watching movies, and showing around the new stage who is coming to do their Dakar visit on Sunday. After that its vacation time, I'm going to Italy for a week. Thanks mom and dad, see you soon!
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