Archive for July, 2004

Dress To Impress

In an unexpected windfall today I got to wash two loads of clothes in an automatic clothes washer. How very nice that is; no bleeding knuckles, no sore back, no mucking about with the clothes line. I’m definitely a fan of this technology.

It was a friend of Marc’s. I’m not very good at asking for things from people that I know I can provide for myself (like clothes washing). I don’t have any problems with mooching, I just have trouble setting it up. Fortunately Marc was my in, so I tagged along with him.

Oumar showed up at my house this morning at the now habitual 9am on his way to his computer class. I dragged my butt out of bed and chatted with him for a little bit. I mentioned that I was going to wash clothes and realized that he has never seen a washing machine in his life.

I described the basic idea to him: big metal box you stuff your clothes in and they get cleaned. He was largely nonplussed though. I suppose that since the women of his household do all his washing for him it really isn’t a pressing need in his life.

I haven’t washed clothes since I came back from France (about a month and a half ago), so my wardrobe was getting a little slim. When I did my clothes I even washed what I had on, changing into a pair of shorts in the interim.

When I was getting ready to leave, I discovered that the washer had eaten the button off of one of my new shirts. Not a big problem, since Sharon graciously sent me a little sewing kit a while back, but a temporary inconvenience.

I decided that I’d put on a tank top and wear the shirt open over top of it since I was headed to a party later on (the group of volunteers who were here when I arrived are now leaving). It is definitely more risque than what I normally wear, but I was in the rich part of town and I figured people would be accustomed to a more Western look. It wasn’t like I was wearing shorts or the tank top by itself or anything.

My first clue that perhaps I’d misjudged came about three minutes on the street when a random girl in a mulafa sitting on a stoop made kissing noises at me saying “chaud, chaud” (literally “hot, hot” and with the same connotation of physical attractiveness).

This was a much more blatant response that what I would have expected, even if I was breaking the rules. While I was still walking along considering it I had a bunch of kids start chasing me, chanting various things. This is not unusual since the roving gangs of youngsters often entertain themselves with us white folk. I usually reciprocate by yelling random English phrases back at them. There’s never rocks thrown or any serious malice, just good natured harassment on both sides.

This group though was following me along chanting primarily two things that I understood. “Habibi” which is “lover” in Arabic and “sai-sai” which is “player” (in the sexually permissive sense) in Wolof. Not necessarily bad things to be called, but again revealing that my outfit was not especially well integrated.

So, I buttoned up my shirt. All in all though I left the experience feeling pretty good. I’ve decidedly never been a playa in my life, so to be taken for one, even accidentally, made me feel sort of sexy. Granted I know of no way to translate this impression to the women in my life, but sometimes you take what you can get.


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I have ants in my house. This is reasonable since one of the staples of my diet are “camel biscuits,” a local cross-breed of animal cookies and oyster crackers. I’m actually sort of fond of them. Back in college I had a family of ants slowly consuming the gummy bear army I had guarding the window. During stage I had limited success training an elite force of attack ants to help me in my constant battle against the Ka?dian flies.

To date we’ve generally shared the space amicably. Every so often they’d get a little ambitious or greedy and I’d sweep up a couple hundred and drop them in the toilet just to show them who’s the boss. Then there was the debacle where a brash few of their lot were eaten alive for underestimating my love of cornbread. All in all though they wander about cleaning up crumbs and I am happy to leave them to it.

This is changing though. I whacked my foot on a rock a bit ago leaving some scrapes on my toes. For whatever reason the ants think that scabs are food. So, I will now often wake up during the night to find my feet covered with little ants doing their best to chew holes in my toes. It is more disconcerting that painful, though it isn’t exactly soothing. I was hoping that it was some sort of anomaly and that maybe I’d gotten something on my feet to cause it, but it’s been a week now of pretty much consistent toe munching.

I’ve stepped up my toilet drownings in an attempt to send a stern message, but to little avail. Other than reduce their numbers I’ve seen little change.

I think I’m going to have to start sleeping in socks.


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Beautiful People

While I was in Paris I hung out with a girl who was a self-proclaimed member of the “beautiful people.” Her membership rested not only on being an physically attractive person (which she was), but also being an engaging and interesting one. Given that her history included both marriage to a Pentecostal minister and a cocaine addiction I thought she qualified on the interesting axis.

Having never having had a member of this elect deem to pass some time with a plebeian such as myself before it gave me pause for reflection.

I’ve debated in my mind for a while what it is morally correct to believe about divisions of people. I think that the most compassionate people can appreciate the beauty in most everyone. I feel a bit tainted when judging and ranking people. To declare a class of them “beautiful” and by proxy the rest “not so beautiful” feels either elitist or depressing depending on whether I’m classing myself beautiful or not.

Beautiful is a bit misleading I think. It lies too much in the physical plane. The way I think about it is to think about reading a history book. Eras and cultures can be summarized in a few sentences, but there are a few exceptional people, the great leaders and creators, who were enough outside the norm to warrant mention beyond their peers.

Not that one is either destined for the history books or dreary trodding life of mundania. I do think though that the general concept of people being more or less interesting is one that holds up to scrutiny.

An article I read a little bit ago had this quote: “I remember the guy at my 30th high school class reunion who looked over the people there and remarked, ‘I can’t believe I came in person, while everyone else sent their parents!'”

Some people forge their personalities more so than others. This makes them more interesting. At least it does for me who is only mildly talented at beholding the beautiful soul in everyone. I know deep down that if I were a noble and magnanimous person (or perhaps simply secure) I’d not compare myself to others and judge myself better or worse, but as it is I seem unable to stop and accept it as another of my flaws.

This issue is one which is poignant currently because I recently achieved one year of celibacy. Granted it was not an especially difficult achievement since for half of it I was dating Steph and the other didn’t exactly see my door beaten down with women attempting to ravish me.

I’ve just been feeling a bit lonely in the last couple weeks and contemplating a relation amoureuse with the fairer sex. Seeing the new group of trainees come in really marked the passage of time. Traveling, as well, left me with lots of time to miss the company that I didn’t have. Also, in the last couple days I’ve talked to Steph a bit and that sparked memories of what things were like when we were together.

The idea of the beautiful people works in here because I am pretty picky. Once upon a time I was as enamored with the idea of being in a relationship as I was with the actual person that I was dating. It was just good luck that saw me into a string of relationships with solid women. Going out with Steph though the first time I really did it in the long term (4.5 years) and in that time I had ample opportunity for the glamor to wear off and to come to terms with the gritty reality of what entwining your life with another person’s really is.

So, now I like the idea of being involved, but not enough to do it without really being taken by the woman.

It begs the question of “how beautiful/interesting am I?” I figure this is an essential point to ponder since if I am going to set my sights it is best to set them realistically.

So far things have not been going especially well. Much of it boils down to a Jungian shadow sort of deal. I’ve got some good qualities, but they all seem exaggerated to the point of becoming flaws. Intelligence to the point of over-analysis and detachment. Dynamicism to the point if inconstancy. Confidence to the point of arrogance and condescension. One of the reasons I’ve not been writing was the onset of a general “I suck” funk wherein I couldn’t see myself as having much of anything to offer the world. A bit dramatic, granted, but I am, after all, passionate to the point of dramatic. =)

With my friends and acquaintances I am understanding and amiable. I’ve got relatively few requirements and am generally content to leave people follow their own paths. With myself and my girlfriends I am not so easy-going. I feel the press of life slipping away and the urgent call to do something meaningful. I can leave others to follow their own paths and wile their lives away, but I have to go somewhere. Consequently, if there is someone traveling with me she has to be going somewhere too or else I’m just dragging her along.

Now, I am aware that being a critical person does not necessarily make one the ideal partner for a relationship. When I’m in a condemnatory mood it is not especially entertaining to be me, let alone to be around me. So far as stopping though, I have a hell of a time shaking the fear that I’ll wake up one day 80 and wonder where exactly my life went and why I didn’t do more with it.

Anyhow, I just needed to talk a bit. I can’t see any of this mattering a whole lot currently since I do still live in Africa and my options, given I can’t talk intelligibly with 99% of the population, are pretty limited. There’s a French goddess who walks among us occasionally, but an unfortunate bit of miscommunication (I told a secret I didn’t know was a secret and it got told back to her) dashed my already slim chances. There’s another girl who is possibly interesting, but I haven’t yet been able to excite any response from her other than a friendly smile.

I read somewhere that around 15% of people would estimate themselves to be of below average intelligence. (Meaning 35% of people are wrong in their estimation.) I personally would think myself at least close to average attractiveness: a bit odd, but in an intriguing sort of way. Perhaps I’m a bit odd in a “let’s just be friends sort of way.” Maybe I’ll start polling people. That’d make for some uncomfortable moments…

I’ve waxed self-examinatory long enough. I reckon I ought to give up on this day and go home since I’ve been here for eight hours and have managed to accomplish nothing. Thanks for listening though.


P.S. In poker you have “tells” or unconscious actions that a player will do that reveal information about their hand. I was watching myself with this potentially interesting girl the other night and found myself looking over my glasses at her. I do this at no other time and with no other people except occasionally for effect in a conversation. So far as doing it unconsciously though, this is the only time. Just thought it was interesting.

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Well, hopefully the internet will not die this time… I started to post an update three days ago and the power went out. Since I’ve been out in the bush.

Right now I’m in Kaolack, Senegal. Carl and I have been on a whirlwind tour for the Fourth of July. In the last week:

I’ve been to a pig roast on the beach in Foundiougne. I learned that perhaps the worst way to prepare a pig is to throw it into the coals and let it singe for a while. This chars the outside while leaving the inside completely raw. It surprised me honestly since though Senegalese, as Muslims, can’t eat pork, they cook goats and sheep just fine. I chalk it up to a punishment for our hethan ways.

I’ve had a Senegalese fellow yell, “It’s not safe. There are caimen in the waters there,” as I was stading neck deep an the inlet off Sokone. (A caiman is a 9-12 foot long relative of the crocodile.) We continued on wary but uneaten, thankfully.

I’ve been to Djinak (known as “pot island” because that is the primary cash crop) and back by way of a pirogue through the mangrove swamp. Due to a bit of shadyness on the part of our hosts we were dropped off at a bus stop sized awning on an adjacent island and only allowed to sneak over after dark. They were watching the resort for the owner and by “watching” I mean sneaking people in and only giving him the money if caught. Our eight hours at the bus stop was well spent though and I got to learn quite a bit about Peace Corps Senegal in the game of Truth or Dare.

I’ve learned what baobab fruits and cashews look like when they fall off the tree. I’ve also cracked both open and eaten them as fresh as they can be found. Also in the eating front, I’ve been introduced to nyebe (bean paste) sandwiches, fish ball shandwiches, cheerie (millet) couscous, carasel (which looks like a spiky milkweed pod and tastes like papya) and mahd (which looks like a wrinkly orange and whose sour seeds are eaten covered in pepper and salt).

I’ve learned that having the widley divergent Maure and black African cultures has made the learning of the neutral third language, French, much more common in Mauritania than here in Senegal. I keep getting chastized for not speaking any Wolof. Fortunately we’ve had volunteers to help us along pretty much the whole time.

I’ve slept in a thatch hut and fought off the wide variety of distressingly large insects that inhabit thatch huts. It gave me serious time to contemplate the benefits and costs of city life.

The relationship that the volunteer we stayed with has with her Senegalese family is really admirable. Watching her sitting arond shelling cashews and chatting in S?r?re renewed my desires to make Mauritanian friends and learn a language that sounds like gibberish to the Anglo-Saxon ear.

I learned of the three truly magical places in the world:
1. Nyanmar (formerly Burmah)
2. Dogon Country (Southern Mali and Northern Burkina Faso)
3. Macchu Picchu, Peru

It is a goal to make it to those magical places.

Unrealized goals on this trip: (saved for future ones)
1. Swim with dolphins
2. Drink a frozen Pina Coloda under a palm tree on the beach

We are off to Saint Louis for the night. This trip has really worked out well. I’m looking frward to coming back, which I’ll have to do since I’ve contracted a djimbe (drum) with my African name, Idrisa, carved into it and I’ve got to pick it up eventually.

For a bit though I need to stay in Mauritania. My counterpart may be a bit upset with me when I get back. I told him I was going to Ka?di to help with a training. Unfortunately I didn’t tell Carl I told him that and Carl told him I was going to Senegal for a party. Oopsie. It shouldn’t be a real big deal; it’s just that I’ve been gone for about six weeks now. I need to get home and work a little harder at being a good volunteer.


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We got our new group in the day before yesterday. It was really quite a landmark for me because I could see all of their faces and remember the me of a year ago standing around in wonderment. It really brings into focus just how much and how little I am different now than I was then.

I feel very much the Peace Corps volunteer now. I think that my travel up to France helped to solidify some stuff that’s been building for the last year.

I had never really traveled outside of the South in the U.S., never internationally and never alone. The last year in Mauritania has helped me get a sense of how the world operates for a traveler and then doing nearly a month on my own helped me prove to myself that I could do it.

Sharon gave me a book of adventure stories in Paris and I’ve been reading them. They’ve made me more seriously consider a proposition by my mom to come back and head up to Alaska over land with my brother to meet up with her. As much as one can intellectually know that they’re capable of something there is a level of surety that only comes through doing. I understand much better the reasons that explorers have for wandering the globe. I think it is as much to find themselves as to find new places.

At the same time that I was proud of who I am becoming I felt sad seeing the passing of time and just how quickly this first year has passed.

This new group means that the group before me will be leaving in about two months. That is sad too. We are in a very real way a family. I know all of the volunteers. Even when our interests and outlooks are completely different we are still thrown in this together. The only other people who I have that sort of relationship with are my family.

It goes back to the aphorism, “you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” If either of my brothers ever needed my help in any way I would do whatever I could to provide it. Never mind that in the “real” world Matt and I would probably never even have met since our interests are so very different. He is my brother and nothing can change that. We have the common bond of our childhood and even though it wasn’t always fun it isn’t something that can be forgotten.

In a very similar way, when a volunteer needs something I do my best to help them. There are volunteers who I definitely would never have been friends with in the States. There are people who I likely would have chosen not to get to know even if I had the chance. Here though we have the bond of going through the alienation, illness and trauma of being a volunteer together and that is something that can’t be forgotten either.

So, I’m sad that many of my friends will be leaving in the coming months. I’m glad to see new faces, but wish there was some way to hold on to the old ones.


P.S. I can walk again. My knee has been coming along remarkably well given how nasty it looked initially. This is especially good since I’ll be in Senegal by tomorrow, Inshallah.

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