Pictures from Senegal

Monday, December 20

Christmas Card

Dear Reader,

I should probably explain that I've been absent for a while due to my impending Christmas holiday plans. On top of my regular lack of consistent internet availability, I've added last minute projects and 2 weeks of fun filled quality time with loved ones to the agenda. So basically, I won't be blogging for a bit. Have no fear, a glorious return is planned for January.

Thank you for a year of listening to my mind's idle chatter. Happy Holidays to all.
Alys

Wednesday, December 15

Diva Cup

Stop. Before we go any further, I need to make the following announcement: this blog is about menstrual cycles. If you’re a guy perhaps it’d be better for you not to read this. I’m serious. This means you, Dad.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way… it has come to my attention that people I don’t actually know read my blog because of its informative properties. Therefore, I’ve chosen to share (in the most professional way I can hope for?) my knowledge on being a women in either the Peace Corps West Africa and dealing with my monthly gift.

The Peace Corps handbook tells a future volunteer to pack everything they could want for the next two years and specifically lists feminine hygiene products as a part of that pack. They say this because more often than not there is no place to buy what you’re looking for. Either it doesn’t exist, or you’d have to travel way too far to either find it, or easily return, on a monthly endeavor. If you’re a mildly OCD type like me, you’d be facing an excel “packing” spreadsheet attempting to calculate an average tampon usage per month multiplied by estimated duration in Africa, with buffers for any changes inevitably incurred by unforeseeable strain on the body (because let’s face it, adjusting to PC life is NOT easy). I didn’t like statistics class in college and therefore couldn’t find an acceptable calculation that didn’t involve an entire suitcase full of tampons.

So I opted for the alternative, Diva Cup, for the sole advantage of saving packing space. The diva cup is a closed-ended funnel shaped piece of molded plastic designed to rest inside a vagina and collect waste matter. Periodically the cup is extracted, emptied and reinserted. At the end of a menstrual cycle the cup is cleaned, sterilized, and stored until next month. This one product can be used for the entire duration of my Peace Corps service and takes up less room in my suitcase than a bottle of Tums.

I found one of the only stores in my state to sell the device on its shelves and dragged a trusted friend with me. The economic crisis being in full swing, and everyone looking to save a few bucks, I talked my friend into buying one too. I didn’t have an opportunity to try the method out before heading to Africa but she did and, quite frankly, her results were inconclusive and a bit daunting.

Naturally this meant that along with all the other things I had on my mind, I got slammed with starting my period my very first night in Africa. Hurray! So I got out my cup, read the directions another seven times and spent a good half hour making sure I’d positioned it right. And I did all of this without dropping it down the new squat toilet I was adjusting to; bonus points! Thank god the Peace Corps took mercy on us in that first week by providing a running tap next to the hole in the ground as well as some toilet paper. I probably would’ve cried if they hadn’t been there.

The application of this product is something I’ve never had experience with… going inside. With the tampon’s easy applicator and removal string, who had the need? But honestly, the whole experience was similar to giving up toilet paper. The first time you do it a panic attack nearly cripples you with nightmares of germs and disease and you spend no less than ten minutes washing your hands. The next time you bring it down to a mere 5 minutes. Eventually, you relax. You haven’t gotten sick and, after all, that’s what soap was invented for.

As the months continue to rack up, I’ve become more and more appreciative of my Diva Cup. The benefits are more than the initial savings in suitcase room. Because it’s made of plastic, it can be worn for longer than 8 hours if necessary without fear of toxic shock syndrome. Additionally, there is no fear of leak (after you’ve gotten the hang of insertion, that is) and therefore no fear of embarrassing stains or inability to wash them out when I do my laundry by hand. If that weren’t enough, there are frequently times when water isn’t always available to wash either the cup or hands so this option allows me to wait until I’ve returned to the privacy of my own home, or at the very least a trusted locale. 

Now let’s talk about trash. There are no landfills, no recycling centers, and no compost facilities to make things better. What we do have is a lot of delusions about how the trash isn’t affecting our environment. The outside perimeter of the city is covered in it. Either you carry it there yourself, or if you’re lucky (like me) someone goes around the neighborhood collecting it for you… and then dumps it out there. My family creates about one small desk size waste basket of non-biodegradable trash per week. That’s pretty impressive considering there are 8 of them. I make about one basket all by myself, and I’m constantly looking for a way to stop making more (damn drink mix packets!). Anyway, there’s a lot of waste product involved with the whole tampon issue and I’m seriously thankful that I’m not contributing all that to the town’s trash field. Kids and animals alike both play there, and the thought of them discovering (and playing with) my waste makes me cringe with embarrassment.

What do the Senegalese women do, you ask? Well, my understanding is that they employ the tactic of cotton fabrics stuffed in underwear which is then washed and reused. The whole process is well hidden as I’ve never seen anything resembling this hung out on the laundry line to dry. Feminine hygiene products are available for sale at western stores, but they are very expensive, and as I’ve mentioned before generally don’t appeal to the publicity that accompanies the trash removal aspect of society.

So now that I’ve convinced you to purchase your own Diva Cup (whether you’re joining PC or looking for a cost/ environmental savings at home) I’d like to touch on my one and only mishap with the cup. As I’ve mentioned before, at the end of the week, I clean and sterilize the cup before storing it away until the next month. In Mboro this means I borrow my family’s gas tank to boil it in water for about five minutes then soak it in a bleach water solution for another five minutes. Attempting to avoid the cup’s discovery by one of six of my brothers, I wait until the house is empty. As I’m always attempting to accomplish more than one task at a time this means I once found myself sufficiently distracted to the point of forgetting about the cup while it boiled on the gas. I remembered it again shortly after the water had completely boiled away and the plastic started to melt and smoke up the kitchen. Oops.

In utter panic I contacted my sister and explained that she needed to purchase me a new cup and mail it out within the next 24 hours so that by some miracle it would arrive before the next month. It got here 7 days later in one of those small flat yellow envelopes; alhumdililahi (frequently used Arabic saying for ‘thanks be to god’). Since that incident, I’ve altered my sanitization procedure so that I now remove the boiling water from the gas before put the cup in, followed by bleach. And I’ve also got a renewed sense of comfort knowing that my sister’s on call for African emergencies.
 

Wednesday, December 8

Henna

According to my African mother, older women cover their feet in henna designs for 3 reasons. The first is that it is believed to hold medicinal properties. As in, the elderly who suffer from arthritis find a certain relief in the henna that soaks into the skin. The second is that the henna helps undo the damage done to the heels from years of trudging through the sand in flip flops. You wouldn’t believe the calluses I have after a year and a half… so imagine what a life time looks like: cracked heals, surfaces of stone, and a permanent flip flop tan line (that last one I only imagine in my case). The third reason henna is so popular is more basic: It looks pretty.

I know when I say henna most of you imagine the really pretty rose or brown colored designs found on Indian women. Like everything else here, the practice of henna is completely different. First up, we use black henna. It comes from a base of who knows what and is actually packaged as black hair die from China. It is sold in the pharmacy (how CVS of them, right?) I couldn’t tell you want they use in India but it’s obviously different. In addition, the designs are much more basic, more African. There are no little dots forming flowery designs. Senegalese women use athletic tape to form their patterns and cover the whole area in the henna mixture… leaving the taped area is the break in the color. The parts of the body decorated are typically the bottoms of the feet, and the inside of the palm and the fingers (but usually only the left hand- because it’s already dirty).

I’ve attempted henna twice. The first time was over a year ago when I spent the day at a women’s house and told her I was interested. She enlisted her daughter to commence in my first experience. They attempted a red version (I’m nearly certain we can call it a botched Indian knock off) that involved taping my hands off, putting a creepy green paste over nearly every surface, and covering my hands in plastic to protect them. I was to spend the better part of half a day attempting to not use my hands. It was tedious. And I gave up early, 4 hours later. After voiding my hands of all objects, a barely yellow tint was visible. It left a few days later.

The second attempt occurred just recently and coincided with the visit of my sister. Granted I’d been asking my mom for a year to do henna with me, but apparently a visitor warranted the activity. This is probably because of the 3rd utilization of henna, it’s pretty. Semi-permanent tattoo sightings are much more prevalent in Mboro in and around holidays, because these beautiful works of art make things more festive. Another reason could be that a week is taken off for every holiday, thus leaving the peoples with plenty of extra time to kill. Or maybe they take a week off for all the preparation. It’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum, if you ask me.

Anyway, I digress. The week of Tabaski, my mom mentioned doing henna together. Our plan was to do it Friday (the holiday having been on Wednesday). My sister was to arrive Saturday morning. My suspicions lay with my Senegalese mom always trying to get me to dress better (read: more Senegalese) and her not wanting me to fall short of proving to my actual family that I have indeed spent too much time integrating into my current lifestyle. We started by calling a women who performs the art as a side business in another neighborhood. My mom got a quote and I agreed. Later, my mom talked to some friends, and decided we could do the whole thing ourselves with the help of a neighbor in our area of town. Hmm; this should have been a sign. So should’ve the fact that I’ve been asking my mom to do this with me for a year now… only to learn that she’d “never done it before.” Odd as I’d seen her with it…

So, like any other task, we sent one of the children out in search of the necessary ingredients. For two days, the boy came back empty handed. By Friday night, I suggested we attempt to do it with my sister upon arrival the next day. It wasn’t until just before my sister, her boyfriend, and I were scheduled to leave Mboro did the items miraculously appear. And then, as in most instances with my host mom, I got bullied into doing something I was not actually willing to do at that point in time. Drinks with a friend were postponed and my sister and I were seated in the foyer of our house. The neighbor girl arrived and the Chinese hair dye was mixed.

At this point it’s time to revisit something my mom said: that she’d never done this before. Apparently this meant that she’d never a) used the black Chinese hair dye version and b) been in charge of actually forming the designs on skin. I’d told her from the beginning that she was in charge of the African design that needed to appear on my significantly paler skin. And since this artwork was scheduled to last for weeks at a time, putting all that in someone else’s hands is kind of a big deal for me; a trust issue if you will. I did give her one single restriction: in no way shape or size did I want a heart to appear on my body. I’ve always felt this was tacky, and I just can’t live with tacky for weeks on end.

So we got started. The neighbor showed my mom how to use a small stick or match to dab the henna onto the skin. From there a design already mapped out on paper was used. I mentioned a number of times that my drawing could be much simpler than 20 or plus shapes that lay out… but no one was listening. I guess they still weren’t listening when I said I wanted the design on the top of my foot, because the actual one started about 3 inches up my leg and worked its way across the top of my foot. After an initial line was drawn, my mom left me in the hands of the neighbor girl to be finished and started working on my sister. Squiggly lines, diamonds, dots, flowers, and swirls began to take form in black. I distracted myself from its ridiculousness by translating conversation between my mom and sister.

I should have been paying attention because when I finally turned back a heart was smiling smugly back at me from the center of the design. Unbelievable. This “artist” of a neighbor had gone too far. It’s finished, I tell her. My mom bullies me once more into putting a tattoo bracelet on my left arm. Fine, but NO hearts! I end up with two (what were aimed at) straight lines around my wrist with dots in the middle. In the end my sister ended up with basically the same things both on her foot and her wrist. We were instructed not touch them until the mixture dried. The neighbor girl bumped my wrist while attempting to design it… so from the get-go it was messed up. I made it worse by grazing a wall. And I guess wrists are difficult for everyone because sister did the same thing with hers.

We eventually left for our drinks at the local watering hole so that making jokes about the whole debacle would go down easier. I started to refer to it as the time “a 3 year old drew on me with a marker,” because that’s what I believe it looked like. I spent the next week using my sister’s make up removing face wipes to diminish my works of art as quickly as possible. I also had to shave my arm hairs (which were dyed black- it is hair dye of course). It didn’t take long. In the end, I’ve learned the following lessons (although it’s not been the first time): my host mom is great at bullying and I’m great at getting bullied, if you want something done right (or without hearts) do it yourself, and finally that nothing- absolutely nothing- is going to get done when I first imagine or plan it to.

Sunday, December 5

Food Porn

The idea of food porn is not my creation. In fact, I actually can’t attribute it to anyone in particular. But it is, however, a much thought about and highly integrated part of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s life. The word porn is used in this sense to mean an unfulfilled desire captured in video, picture, verbal exchanges, and publication- cyber or printed. And of course it has to involve food: making, buying, preparing, ordering, eating, or just simply staring at a coveted food item. The practice of engaging in one of the aforementioned verbs related to food is considered “food porn.”

For the average PCV, food porn is a daily vice like nicotine or booze to an alcoholic. Perhaps, it’s the mere exercise of sitting in one’s room smelling the preparation of lunch and day dreaming about what the day would be like if your favorite meal were in store- instead of the rice and fish you’re going to get. Some volunteers will watch cooking shows like Iron Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, or anything found on the Food Network to get their fix. Others explore all the different substitutes possible in their favorite recipes given what’s available in Senegal. For example, I have made a fabulous batch of chocolate chip cookies substituting honey from the Casamance region for brown sugar. Don’t judge me or I won’t share any of the millet banana cake. And still others spend time looking up pictures or articles about food online. Websites like thisiswhyyourfat.com and one’s giving food critic reviews are nothing to dismiss.

There is a volunteer produced cookbook with tricks of the trade: building your own stove or baking with a gas tank and the more successful in-country substitutes for unavailable ingredients. But whenever possible we prefer to spend money at import stores buying western ingredients to cook at home or in our regional houses. Volunteers often have their favorite foods shipped to them by loved ones. Peanut butter, spices, dried or freeze-dried items, and even meals for created for mountain climbing enthusiasts. Again, don’t knock some of those pasta dishes until you’ve tried them.

Volunteers frequently attempt to make American meals to share with their host families. The success rate is dismal but the efforts continue. To my knowledge one of the truly “amazing” things my predecessor made for my family was a pot of extremely spicy chili (though it’s unclear if the success was due to the level of spice or that the spice clouded the taste of the foreign meal). For holidays I attempt to make my family some of my favorite desserts. And they eat it politely but I can always tell they don’t understand the concept of apple cobbler or why anyone would want to make such a chocolate moist cake (read: brownies).

And when none of this is sufficiently satisfying, we PCVs travel over multiple days to reach the splendor that is Dakar often creating a weekend agenda centered solely on food. The attraction is of course the bevy of western restaurants and menu items. Cuisines of Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Lebanese, Ethiopian, French, Italian, Mexican and even an American diner food and a KFC knock off are residents of Dakar.

But none of this will ever compare to the day we actually go back to the Western worlds from which we came and our food porn was born. With my pending vacation in the great land of convenience (aka the USA), I can’t help but imagine my first meal back home. Not just casually thinking of my favorite foods, and narrowing them down to most important, I take it one step further to food porn because I picture myself preparing and then sitting down to the master piece of a meal. I can smell the kitchen and grill smells, lick the bowls used in preparation, see the familiar colors of my favorite items, and I salivate. In fact, since I’m thinking about it now, I might as well share.

My dream starts with some fresh pieces of veggies (like carrots, cucumber, and broccoli) dipped in the hidden valley ranch packets that are mixed with sour cream to make dip. It should be noted that I mix 1.5 packages to prescribed amount of sour cream for increased flavor. This is washed down with my favorite white wine Relax, a type of Riesling. For dinner we eat a McCormick seasoned steak grilled medium-well and served with horseradish sauce (made from a base of wasabi mayo and horseradish). On the side is a salad with the following toppings: dried cherries, feta cheese, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, and croutons. The dressing is, of course, jalapeƱo ranch from Pepperidge Farm. For dessert there’s a giant bowl of cold berries (really any fruit ending in berry will do) and barely thawed cool whip. Oh, and let’s not forget the large warm chocolate chip cookie. I don’t like a lot of chocolate chips in my cookie, just one or two, because I’m really in it for the dough- of which I’ve already a few spoonfuls when raw.

No, not all of those items go together, but I suppose it wouldn’t be food porn if they did. Or if I hadn’t described it all in what I’m sure was boring detail to you (which was pretty agonizing for me). I do think it’s telling that most of the items were based from fresh healthy foods… that were accompanied by dairy based products. It says that I don’t get either of those food “groups” in sufficient quantity here. You should be concerned if my 1st supper had included rice, pasta, bread, or any other form of carbohydrate. But anyway, I figure you get what I mean by food porn by now. And yes, Dad, the above was a not-so-subtle hint. Thanks.

Wednesday, December 1

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving being my absolute favorite holiday, and since I’d stayed with my family in Mboro the year before, I saw fit to travel this year. So I went to Dakar for the best gig in country to be celebrated in the form of an upscale dinner party. Every year the Ambassador to the United States opens her home to the lonely likes of the Peace Corps Volunteers residing in Senegal. It’s a potluck whose arrangements is organized only a few days before when a person calls, texts, or emails their desired food contribution to the PC headquarters office. I personally went through 3 rounds before settling on something not requested by others and not similarly represented. As my sister was visiting I also made arrangements for her to join the festivities as well.

The day of my sister, her boyfriend, Christine, and myself woke up in another town, organized our possessions and set out to find a ride to Dakar. Looking for a car out of Popenguine had us walking all sorts of scenic routes, until we stopped a passing car to ask directions back to town or a garage. He turned out to be a French priest at the mission in town and offered to give us a ride to the next town’s garage. After we got in, it was discovered that he’d been living in Senegal for 3 years and was currently travelling to Dakar on business… he offered to take us the distance and would not accept money or gifts. He drove us within 3 blocks of our destination in Dakar in a record time nearly half of what is considered normal travel.

On the road we discovered that my cell phone provider was offering 'buy one get one free' in cell phone credit. This felt like finding treasure as any other promotional day I've been privy to has only offered a 50% upgrade. 100% was only a myth... until now. Our phones work off of prepaid credit that is purchased in card form from any aspiring entrepreneur. They are more common than lemonade stands in a US subdivision during summer. Though this seems like a sidebar to the festivities, it could've been equated to a Christmas miracle and was therefore highly appreciated.

For breakfast we ate lunch items at the diner in downtown Dakar. Chances to sit in AC, drink lemonade, and eat pizza and fries would put anyone in an American mood. Followed by checking into the hotel, taking hot showers, and getting dolled up for the evening- all of which improved the experience. I haven’t looked that pretty since I got ready for New Years Eve 2010. Depressing and pathetic, but true… and also a cost savings. While Christine, sister, and I did our makeup and exchanged accessories, sister's boyfriend spent some quality time watching Senegalese music videos and learning the art of traditional dance. Both he and sister can do a remarkable impersonation of a appropriate leg shaking and lifting with accompanying blank faced stare.

In the early afternoon, we bought supplies at the nicest store in town for our contribution to the buffet and took them over to the regional house. There we showed sister how each local volunteer has a locker but the bunk beds are up for first-come-first-serve grabs to the people who arrive there. Unfortunately preparations for dinner side dishes and desserts worked much the same way… and by the time we got there barely any of the cooking utensils were available for use or storage. After some shifting of side dishes and bargaining for stove top space we managed to boil our pasta and cut our sausage, cucumber, olives, and onions. The dressing was to be tossed in just before dinner was served (although that was somehow lost in translation with the kitchen staff at the ambassador’s residence). And just as we were finishing it was time to grab the barely used heels from my locker and head out to our party.

We took a taxi and actually got there by telling him the neighborhood and whose house we were going to. This surprises me because I couldn’t tell you the location of any other ambassador’s house in any other country. But then, I’m not strong in geography. Upon arrival, the security guard checked our names off a list, in a VIP club sort of way, before we walked through the gates. The Ambassador herself met us at the front door with greetings and a member of the kitchen staff (there to receive our dish, which she would later transfer to a new plate and sans dressing), and after offering our thanks for the invitation we signed the guest book and headed to the patio for some drinks.

The back yard of the estate (yes that is the appropriate word for the place) was the perfect place for a twilight cocktail hour. A bar and two bartenders served red and white imported wines, beer, and local juices while my fellow volunteers and members of the PC staff mingled around the pool. Sister spent a fair amount of time chatting up and getting to know my friends who were beautifully dressed in a way that made me miss holidays, formal functions, and generally being clean and well groomed.

Just as the sun set, we headed inside to the grand living room where eight round tables we covered in beautiful white linens with matching white chair covers and place settings. It was like a fancy wedding, and combined with the lighting (which for the first time in a long time wasn’t florescent), made me consider whether or not I have a problem with season effected disorder or just bad lighting. The wait staff (I’m talking men in dress shirts and vests, seriously) brought wine periodically. For dinner we ate all the usual fixings, each made from at least 3 different “recipes from home,” and I tasted them all. Well except the green mashed potatoes… and that’s just good common sense. I ate so much that I got a second plate, but I couldn’t finish it.

We stuffed ourselves like this for quite a while before they brought out coffee and cleared the buffet table (the promise of optional take home bags whispered through the air). Then it was on to dessert, where the table was once again covered with brownies, apple pie, corn bread (another lost in translation item), carrot cake, and other items I couldn’t manage room for. Luckily the others at my table all wanted mere bites so we shared one of everything.

As the sleepy drug of turkey took hold of the room, I found the already cleaned pasta pan and secured for it safe passage back to the regional house with other friends. Then I collected my sister and her boyfriend and Christine and got them back to the hotel room, where we called our families (possibly only due to the 100% promotional phone credit miracle) and laid down in a poor attempt to let our stomachs digest. This didn’t last long, as we’d promised to drag ourselves up and out to the nearest bar for beers with friends. We made it through one sad beer before calling Turkey Day a success and going to bed. And that’s how an ex-pat does an American holiday in style, Peace Corps life style be damned.