Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rue Felix Faure...

We've secured our small 2 bed apartment  in Plateau - the Centre Ville neighborhood in Dakar.  (Tracie - you would appreciate this ;+}).  Needless to say it was actually a daunting, tiring and agonizing task.   We tried our best to use immboliers (real estate agents) and two on-line resources (we're talking nothing like Craigslist)  - knowing we had a tight time frame and no prior support to make it happen before we arrived. And trying to ensure at least a week to spare to orient getting ready for the kids school to begin on September 12th.

I mentioned in the last post the Frumpy apartment and the Anglophone/European ones in terms of decor. Since then we had a chance also to see another place that was more in between the others with a reasonable price as well. That apartment was currently being rented by a Senegalese (yet American educated) guy -  "Azziz" - who was doing some business development. He was heading off to Guinea looking for someone to take over his place for a period of time. Observations of his place - large living room and bedroom, more modern furniture, sort of functional kitchen - it had a cook top, microwave, fridge but no oven - apparently he spent little time in the kitchen because he had a maid who did all the cooking and cleaning. No washing machine either - as she washed his clothes in the big utility basin.  The location of his apartment was about 12 blocks from the school which we had a concern about in terms of seriously getting 2 boys with backpacks - walking to school by 7:50 - needing to dodge people, vendors, homeless, taxis, cars and the such. We've learned that if we stay within a 6-8 block radius - it could actually be a successful  experience just to arrive on time. Alot of people here also employ  'drivers' they rely on - on occasion and "Azziz" had one. He was open to including the driver for the 'morning shift' to get us all to their school - which in my use of equivalent situations was the same as me driving in Berkeley - yet as we continue to walk around the city - we notice much of the time it can be one big traffic jam (embouteillage).  There are no traffic lights (a challenge with electricity outages) and no apparent stop signs. While we really appreciated his offer (he was motivated to get a renter) - we were having less than confident thoughts about arriving on time.  Perhaps for school it's the only time you must arrive on time. All other times - you make an appointment - and receive a text - "I will be late - I'm sorry - in traffic". 

We spent the night mulling this all over with little sleep - discussing all the pros/cons of each apartment and the aspects they had (or didn't have).  The immbolier of the European/Anglophone apartments provided a slightly reduced rate after presenting the initial price but still  out of our budget. We did have one Senegalese contact here who was willing to help with further negotiations. We put that on hold and decided to go back to the Frumpy (lower budget) apartment - it deserved a 2nd look. To clarify a bit more - regarding the goat and my angst a bit of considering this place - this apartment is in a private courtyard and owned by a very interesting Senegalese/Vietnamese man (the reason I share the specifics of the peoples ethnicity is mainly to orient perspectives they bring to the table when we talk to them as Americans - and their awareness of our ability to adjust, adapt, and accept (or not) what we see around us). To get to the apartment you must walk down a pathway - not to far- between a 5 story highrise  apartment (on the left) and the wall of a store (magasin) on the right. After the store - you turn to the right into a gated garden area and then the locked gate into his 'compound' with another tall wall, and alot of vines and plants and greenery - it's actually quite inviting coming off the madness of the street. This private space is made up of a courtyard, and 2 houses, the manager in one and the 2nd house divided into 2 apartments. The lower apartment rented already by a French woman working in the American Embassy  (of all places) - if we understood that right and the upper unit is the available one. If you did not turn right into the first gate but continued past the first gate you would actually enter into an enclave (definition: any small, distinct area or group enclosed or isolated within a larger one) of Senegalese families. It appears they occupy what is an abandoned/dilapidated concrete house/structure with corrugated roofing to create a protected space from the elements between the various buildings. They've jury rigged their plumbing and electricity as well. Then beyond their house and behind the highrise is an abandoned lot that is fenced in - that is where the herd of goats are.  In American terms we might assign the word "squatter" to this circumstance but that may not even be correct/appropriate in this case.  Was it troubling to see this - of course it was and yes I cried a bit - this was up close a personal in more ways than I was prepared. I've already seen plenty of people/children sitting on the corner streets block after block - I had no sense of it all given we would be sharing this short path together between buildings. It was clear that they were respectful of keeping all things clean and tidy.  Honestly completely harmless actually, but it was necessary for me to ask the owner about "the neighbors" (les voisins).  The manager shared with us that life is hard here. He did imply he was not supportive of young girls and woman having more children - making it harder to support - digging deeper into the poverty they already are in. Yet he said alot of people live in the Dakar suburbs and never see what we have seen.  He told us it was best to not give them any money- try not to feel bad - and  just live side by side.  They say 'bonjour' , we say 'bonjour' and everyone goes about their day.  Once we discussed this and we saw the apartment again - we realized that truthfully the location could not be beat. And I also realized by the nature of how the Senegalese family house was situated - while we do share the path - all houses and apartments and people on the backside of the block exist with this as well.  This apartment is 6 blocks to the school. 3 blocks to the French Institute for language classes. 15 minute walk to the Gym (yes there is one!), a pharmicie on the corner, a patisserie, a cleaners if needed and the computer shop (we may need to buy a printer).  At the end of the day - I can make this work - for 2 months - giving us more time to look now if we choose -  but I have to say I'm stepping back 18 years into a kitchen that I once had when I first moved into the house my husband owned in Berkeley. Our dear friend Marion who assisted us in our kitchen remodel in 2004 will know!  I asked Parker about the choice we made and he said - as long as we have shelter and food and it doesn't leak and Addison added - TV - then I guess for the short run it should be okay.  Soon enough we'll have the opportunity to share pictures - this past 10 days have really not provided time or attention for that. And in fact as we continue to blog about this experience - we have to think about how to take the photos that present the things and people and situations we see while still respecting the people and culture - who live in it.

Eid Al-Fitr - End of Ramadan

Today and this evening is the celebration of  Eid Al-Fitr - marking the end of Ramadan and the fasting period of 29 to 30 days. From our perspective in the hotel we are clearly on the periphery of this event since we don't know anyone to celebrate it with and have truly been hunkered down on all the tasks to get even remotely settled. During the week we were given a heads up by our French family that stores would closed for the day.  Apparently the date is based on the sighting of the new moon and then communicated accordingly - so no-one knows until announced. The Casino grocery put up a sign in their window on Tuesday that helped me understand it was going to be today (Wednesday). The Casino grocery always seems packed to me but this time it surely was different. Many shoppers trying to get their goods for their celebrations.  I realized I'd better pick up a few more luncheon items, yogurt, cheese  and fruit to last us through an extra day.  We're still in the hotel managing with a tiny fridge just for small snacks and such. We'll be checking out of the hotel tomorrow. Today given the celebration - we took an opportunity to walk over to the apartment we've settled on for now. I'm not sure if I've mentioned how congested this city is - well today - I'm not joking - there was literally *NO ONE* out.  No dodging cars or people or vendors. In fact we walked in the middle of some  roads without any taxis tooting at us.. It was actually kind of nice with regards to a reduction in 'noise pollution'. As far as the apartment - a blog post coming soon on that.

Taken from Wikipedia - For the holiday of Eid Al-Fitr  everyone puts on their best, usually new clothes; and communal prayers are held in the early morning, followed by feasting and visiting relatives and friends.  

Taken from Wikipedia - Ramadan  is the ninth month of the Islamic Calander which lasts 29 or 30 days. It is the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during daylight hours and is intended to teach Muslims about patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. Muslims fast for the sake of Allah  and to offer more prayer than usual. Muslims believe Ramadan to be an auspicious month for the revelations of God to humankind, being the month in which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.

Friday, August 26, 2011


5 key tasks at hand - the bank account, the apartment, the school books (from pencils, paper, dictionary, calculator, books, even a tiny dry erase board, etc..etc..),  the school uniform and the phone - we've successfully opened our bank account, purchased the school books and have a mobile phone number.  3 out of 5 ain't bad in 4 days.  A special thanks to our French family here for their assistance with the bank.  As for the apartment - it may be perhaps more of a challenge than we thought.  We looked at 4 apartments with furniture  (which also includes cooking utensils, some appliances, sheets, towels and basic items to make it work when you are only arriving with bags). These places range in both price, size and style.  We're talking a  workable apartment  - more on the rundown frumpy side - some needed touches (at least I've got a handyman in the family).  I've seen this kind in my own neighborhood in Berkeley sadly enough with landlords who don't take care of their properties (yet somehow here - it's no surprise in Dakar - while they actually try to make it a nice place to live). Then there was also the bleating goat I think we heard in the next house over - but no different than chickens in Berkeley I suppose.  On the other extreme there was the  European/American type flats - clearly geared to expats along with the price - likely because the expat companies are paying for the apartment. Not in our case. So we'd love to find something just in between super nice and frumpy ;+}  Nuances of each appartment may or may not include -  if it has a generator or not (meaning there are alot of power outages), if the building has security, if a maid/help comes in 3x a week to clean (but not cook), wifi, extra channels on the tv, air conditioning (to help combat the mosquitoes and the heat) and laundry facilities. For example -you can have that super nice apartment with all the electrical gadgets  but if there is no generator - you can't do anything! Not even e-mail after your pc runs out of juice.  Yet - ironically enough - the frumpy apartment does not need a generator because it is on the same electric grid as the President's son, Karim Wade- so apparently - no outages with electricity in this particular block. We've setup another appointment with an immbolier tomorrow - so our search continues -- but not for too much longer before a decision must be made.

Make New Friends...

...and keep the old....;+}

What a way to make an introduction - at breakfast - when one of the twins rested a bowl of dry cereal on the buffet and knocked it over - spilling it and breaking the bowl. A mother - with her two girls - looked over and nodded with a sweet smile.  We introduced ourselves learning they were a French family just now arriving to live in Dakar for at least 2 years. All of us getting a  handle on this new city and country - so different from their origins in France and the same with us from the US.  Of course the best part of the conversation was discovering - our children - while not the same ages - would all be attending the same French/Senegalese school in the neighborhood.  What a relief to know just one family!   And now in just 3 days Parker and Addison want to either swim or play games with their new friends - who only speak French!  And speaking of games - much credit goes to Irene and Marien.  It was Irene who suggested packing a bag of games (that was 1 of the 7 bags) and Marien who threw in a last minute 12 in 1 game box of which just so happened to be 12 more games *not* in our original stash.  So as you can see - they've already come in handy!!  And of course a game given to us by Mike and Corina just waiting to be played called Ticket To Ride. They told us it was addicting. We'll find out soon enough.

Do the Hustle...

As we started our reconnaissance  mission to find our kids school  on Tuesday - a nice well dressed man (1st mistake) - who suggested that he worked in/around the Presidential Palace (2nd mistake) - saw we were reviewing our map to get our bearings and offered to guide us. So we took him up on it. He had good command of English and French and we spoke to him in both. He pointed out the school and somewhat distracted us from actually going in, wanted to show us the market but we said we had to visit the bank first (our 3rd mistake). He waited patiently - outside in the 90 degree heat. After we figured out the banking situation - we walked through this chaotic market - Sandanga  (we think that was the name and perhaps I'm being generous in actually calling it a market) - - with people, cars, goats, broken down buses, taxis, welders, woodworkers, outdoor sewing factories, food stalls, you name it - it will require a future visit with a camera for sure.  At one point I said to Manning something like - Are you sure he's not asking for any payment and Manning said "no" (4th mistake  believing Manning - always finding the best in people). We were then directed to this one shop where we could definitely see they were sewing the African shirts (and one of the twins said - I don't think this is coming from China - "true") - we did bargain (5th mistake - not hard enough) two shirts but there was a bit of discomfort  - as more items were being pushed upon us to purchase. 
We moved out of this open air factory of people and sewing machines, fabric and completed sewed goods. It really was amazing extremely colorful - yet extremely overwhelming. At that point I wanted to end our excursion at which point the gentleman gave each of us a tiny gift which we tried to refuse. He talked about a new baby and a celebration. And that he was going to buy a lamb. At that point it's possible he wanted to continue having us come along but we made it clear it was time to part ways.  We thanked him for his time and then he asked for some money for being "our guide" - at that point we were a bit off kilter on how to handle it - we ended up giving him equivalent to $10 -  then we realized we'd been "hustled" - thankfully - he was actually harmless.  He did walk around with us for approximately 3 hours. After we returned and thought about what had transpired - we searched the web and found - the "buyer beware" blog posts on tripadvisor about our very exact experience!  Lesson Learned - Day 1 - and perhaps now that - that experience-  is out of the way (and we know nothing terrible happened - no pickpockets or anything stolen) - we will be more in tune with any future 'guides'.  Yet we know there are many many many nice Senegalese people all around us. We also acknowledge that the US is not immune to the 'hustler factor' either - it just comes in different forms and different flavors.
There's no question that what we have observed  and experienced is that this is an impoverished city, densely packed - with people trying to figure out how to live (or maybe even survive). 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

We've Arrived...

We made it  Monday night - 7 pieces of luggage, 4 back packs, 2 carry ons and one guitar!  Smooth sailing on Air France from San Francisco to Dakar. Turns out both our flights had a fair amount of empty seats - making it feel more 'open' if you want to say that is possible on a plane. One area of the plane even had a wider aisle - perfect for yoga poses - cat/cows, downward dogs and planks!  We had a lovely sendoff in SF from some very good friends we'd known for over 20 years. After arriving in Dakar and collecting our bags  and walking out of the terminal- it hit us - the heat, the throngs of people, taxi cabs and the 'helpers'. The 'helpers' - all kinds of  "self-employed" folk that want to help you with your baggage to a taxi.  It's actually very daunting at 9:00 at night. When you are new to the country, without any local currency, bogged down with luggage, and exhausted from  a long flight --one can make an easy target for these operators.  Fortunately we'd been given enough insight and warning about the 'hazards' of arrival. Manning had arranged prior - for a hotel pickup - and all I can say was "our guy" was waiting. Apparently hotel staff are allowed to enter into an area away from 'the helpers'.  In my mind I was somewhat ready for this - as we wheeled our way through the crowd - a man did grab the metal portion of my rolling carry on - and I kept going and repeatedly said "ne touche pas - c'est ma valise" (yes, I practiced this phrase a few times before landing). Eventually he let go.  Another 'helper' followed "our guy" and Manning - mainly having his hand on our luggage - in order to ask for money.  He was ignored with vigor. Finally we got into our designated hotel bus and our driver negotiated his way out of the madness. Nothing new to him I suppose.

Monday, August 22, 2011

How Did We Get to this Spot...

A while back (at least 9 months ago) the wheels were put in motion with the idea of living abroad. It's always something we've talked (and even joked about on one level for years but were challenged by the concept of making it happen) - so Manning started researching - he works for a non-profit called Techsoup -- and it all started with a good friend and colleague in his company that made a trip to Senegal along with another colleague who was from Burkina Faso (geography lesson here!). That led to a contact, which led to more contacts and more conversation and before I realized it -- the compass was not pointing to France (of which we were quite familiar with bike trips and house exchanges there) but Africa - a continent I never put on my radar. Then Manning talked with his company - they basically said - if you want a sabbatical we'll have a job for you when you return - they  really like and respect him in the orgnaization. Major hurdle removed. Then I thought about my soap business and all my efforts to start the company - I'm really proud of what all has been accomplished with A Slice of Delight -- yet I thought to myself would I make A Slice of Delight be a barrier to not going  for one year. After I worked through my sense about it all - I realized I would know what to do when I return. And have the confidence that I can just pick up where I left off with it - but there will be work of course to get the momentum going again. Along the way we applied to some French schools in Dakar (the capital of Senegal) and our kids were accepted - yet another roadblock removed - as they had to be accepted to an equivalent French/Senegalese school overseen by the French Education Ministry. In line with the curriculum at  our kids school here in Berkeley (Ecole Bilingue) so there is a smooth transition back a year later. The admissions director of our kids current school was instrumental in helping us pave the way. We could not have done it without her.  The last dynamic for the most part was the rental of the house and what felt like the eleventh hour getting this last piece in place- we heard from an ideal family from Denmark ready to take it over. A couple of mishaps with other potential renters fell through prior and that was deflating however - in the end - the Danish couple with 3 year old child was to only come with suitcases in hand and can care for our cat Houdini - was actually the best scenario!! Also their visa requires them to leave by July 31st, 2012 - so we know with Berkeley being such a 'pro-tenant' city we could avoid any unforeseen issues regarding our return. The last thing on our list was buying the airline tickets (and with the help of my husbands cousin who is in the travel industry- she can decipher any airline industry code!) and of course with us all  being of sound mind and health - we would be headed to this develping country with alot to learn. When we arrive we will seek some support to find some temporary housing near our kids school in Dakar. And do our best to get oriented.

Manning and I will continue to take French lessons - the official language (and pick up Wolof too - a  national African/Senegalese language). We'll be there along the way with Parker and Addison's attendance at  their new school. And with the contacts Manning has made - we will likely be doing some volunteer work from supporting the conversion of a small non-profit software tool from French to English, fixing laptops for a program called One Laptop Per Child at this school outside of Dakar --> - a must view, teaching basic computer skills to adults, Habitat for Humanity activities, perhaps teach English depending on needs of community centers or even our kids school which will be taught in all french. OR maybe even help woman start businesses!

Is this crazy - well of course it is - yet at the same time we've figured out that the cost (or savings) of not sending our kids to their current French school in Berkeley, taking the funds from renting the house and savings - we can accommodate and finance this year abroad in this country. 

Let the adventure begin....