Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Small World

It's a very small world sometimes. Mostly we say that when things happen that are actually totally predictable, like meeting someone I knew in Uganda here (expats in Africa move to other African country shocker) or meeting people in airports (everyone transits the same places... and yes, I'm embracing the stereotype) or when people on Gap Yahs meet people from school in hostels in Thailand.

But sometimes it really is weird.

One of my colleagues comes from a village close to my grandmother's village in France. Considering the population of the area, this counts as weird.

When I moved to the US, there were three other British people - and I had at least one friend in common with all three of them.

Then yesterday I was talking to a British guy whose wife works at Save the Children. Turns out he was in Exeter M1 just before I was in Pembroke M1 - we didn't actually compete, but nearly, so lots of Torpids chat was had.

And then there are all the times your friends know one another in unexpected ways. A lot of the time you only notice because of Facebook - seeing a status, then seeing that someone you know has liked it, and thinking 'hang on, how the hell do they know one another'. My favourite one of these was when last year my then boyfriend ended up going on holiday with someone I know from Kent - and didn't realise until my parents were stalking me via his parents.  

Sometimes it feels suffocating, like even when you leave you're still enmeshed in a web of people who all know one another and come from the same places. And most of the time it's really a sign that I need a more diverse social circle - even when I move to Africa I end up hanging out with middle class people from Southern England!

But sometimes it makes you feel at home - and I did enjoy being able to talk about rowing for an hour or so on Sunday evening.

Monday, 25 June 2012

An Indian, a Moldovan and a Brit went to a Lake...

It might sound like the start of a joke, but it isn't. Last weekend, I went to visit a lake near Dakar - it's called Lac Rose because it has a high concentration of salt (higher than the Dead Sea) which means it looks pink in the sunlight. I went with my friend Dev - who I know from Uganda, and from Couchsurfing, and who now lives in Dakar (cue exclamations of how it's a small world). Elena, a girl from couchsurfing who works in a Swedish call centre and is in Dakar training workers for a new Swedish call centre, came with us. From that auspicious start, the day if anything got weirder.

We got the bus to the lake sans incident, and there sat down with some people Dev knows - a man from Mauritania who once walked a camel 700 km to sell it for a profit, only to have it die 20 km from its destination. He now lives by the lake, and runs camel rides around the dunes. We had mint tea with him and his sons, then set off for a walk around the lake.

First bit was over the sand, which was tricky walking and not much shade but otherwise fine. Then a bit on the road, past a place that does horse rides, and stopped for a coke. Then it got interesting - we decided to go walk by the lake, so cut across a field (walking on the raised boundaries between fields, not over the farmer's crops!), then through a swamp to get down to the shore of the lake. The lake's low at this time of year, so we were walking over a salty crust - again, not a piece of shade in sight, but it was beautiful in a barren kind of way. Realising it was too far to walk, Dev suggested cutting across the lake - apparently something he once did successfully, though with slightly burnt feet as the mud's hot.

Never one to turn down a challenge, I immediately whipped off my trousers and shoes and headed towards the lake. Tactical error. Not only was the mud super boiling, it was sinky. Before I knew it I was stuck knee deep in mud and it took several goes to wrench my feet free and get back to more solid ground. Worse still, the salt crust scratched my feet and legs, which were then caked in salty mud from the sinking - so it stung a bit. In case anyone's wondering, there are two lessons here. One is 'lake floors are sinky and this is bad' and the other is 'don't be a damn idiot and engage your brain before doing anything'

We carried on, but it was clear that I just couldn't go all the way around the lake, so we cut back up over the swamp (blissful relief as I sank a bit into the fresh water) and found a well, where there was a young man with a bucket and a bottle. So we washed ourselves, or to be more accurate, Dev washed himself and Elena and I got our legs wiped down by the young man, who positively refused to let us do it ourselves! Then we found a taxi to take us round to the other side of the lake, where we wandered through mounds of salt drying, and watching people harvesting the salt - scraping it off the bottom of the lake, cleaning it, piling it up to dry, loading it into bags, and driving it away.

After that it all got rather less dramatic. We walked round to the Campement, which has a restaurant, and had lunch and went and floated in the lake, and climbed up to an observation deck to see how pink it looked from above (very), and sat by the pool until it was time to get the bus back to Dakar. Then I did some sleeping.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Minimalist Tailcoat

One of the geeky joys of having a blog is looking up what terms people have used to get to your blog. In my cases it's either 'Explorer Laura' or something like that, or Moscow stuff - apparently there are a lot of people typing 'Amazing Russian Hairstyle' into Google.

But not one, but two people in the last week have got to my blog by typing in 'minimalist tailcoat', which just seems... odd... anyone know what a minimalist tailcoat is? Or why it would lead you to my blog?

Dakar Paradise

Dakar is genuinely the closest place I've ever lived to paradise. If I had to pick my second favourite country after the UK, it'd still be Uganda by a mile, but on every plausible measure of quality of life, Dakar's street's ahead.

First up, the weather. At the moment the three-month hot season is beginning, so it's starting to feel a bit sticky. The rest of the year, it's mid-20s, with a breeze, and sunny. Not much to speak of in the way of mosquitoes, cool enough to run, and still glorious blue skies. Which is basically perfect weather.

Then, there's the beach. Dakar is on a narrow peninsula, so the sea all but surrounds us. There are parts where it crashes against cliffs, there are sandy beaches with gently lapping waves, and there are beaches with all ranges of surf breaks. It means at the weekend its easy to get a taxi to the ferry point, go across to N'Gor island (or swim over) and chill on the beach, or to go surfing at Yoff, or go to the Radisson hotel and watch the sun dip into the sea. And it means that in the evening I can go running by the sea as the sun sets.

Then there's the food. Fresh seafood at point des Almadies, the westernmost point of mainland Africa, fruit and vegetables in the street, and tasty peanuts on every corner. That's for every day; for special occasions, there are the kind of restaurants I can't afford to go to in the UK - fancy sushi, Thai, French, Argentinian, you name it.

There's the music. Every bar we go to seems to have a live band, playing jazz, covers of pop songs, or their own beats. On Thursday-Saturday this weekend I went to three different bars, all of which had live jazz - and I wasn't even trying to see live jazz, it just happened. People don't always dance - a lot like British people, kind of all bopping in our chairs but not getting up - but the music's great.

Of course, I'm sure a lot of European cities are like this - glorious weather and great food - but I can't afford to live like this there. I suppose that's the key - my quality of life here is great because my money goes further. If I wanted to eat out in the centre of town every day it *wouldn't* go further, but I don't, so that's OK.

But a few weekends ago I was on the ferry to Isle de Goree, and spoke to a couple of Senegalese men living in France. They asked me how I liked Dakar, and I gave my standard answer, which goes along the lines of 'Dakar is amazing and wonderful and I don't understand why everyone doesn't want to live here'. They answered that everyone did want to live here, but there weren't the jobs. Obviously this works on two levels - *they* want to live here, but there aren't the jobs so they're in France; and everyone wants to live her but just hasn't had the chance yet.

I'm told by people who've been here a while that the honeymoon will wear off, but right now I still don't understand why everyone doesn't want to live in Dakar.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Dakar Jubilee

We didn’t get any days off for the Jubilee, and France 24 only offered short sections of coverage, so I missed a lot of what was happening in the UK – plus the street party being held in my parents village, which they assure me was a great success despite the weather!

Instead, I had a tea party with some British friends on Sunday, hosted by a journalist working out here. Also there were a couple of my colleagues, a girl called Izzy that my sister Emma knew from Uganda and put me in touch with, and an architect called Will who turned out to be descended from the inventor of Marmite!

Rose, our host, had decorated her garden with bunting left over from a party Oxfam hosted for the royal wedding, and on a recent trip back to the UK had acquired some Union flag cups, napkins and plates, so all in all it was a very well decorated little corner of Britishness. She’d made Victoria sponge, and decorated it with a plastic Buckingham Palace, with figures of a coach, the Queen and Prince Philip, and some corgis. We had Earl Grey tea to go with it, made in a teapot from leaf tea, and then moved on to toasting her majesty’s health in gin and tonic.

Then yesterday was the annual Queen’s Birthday Party at the embassy. As the British community isn’t very big here, we all got invites. I was pretty excited – not only free food and drink and an opportunity to meet people, but despite growing up in the FCO I’d actually never been to the QBP – so was excited to finally remedy it. So on Thursday we all put on our glad rags and made our way into town.

The party was held in the garden of the Residence – a lovely space in the heart of the city. As predicted, there was free cheap Cava, and lots of British cheese. I was very impressed by this – in places we lived there were direct flights from the UK, and we could occasionally convince them to bring the cheese out for us, but getting it out here will have been much harder! Later in the evening they brought out fish and chips and cupcakes with little flags in them, and a fruit cake. All in all a very well stocked evening!

The crowd was fairly evenly split between dignitaries – who all looked very smart indeed – and members of the community – who all had dragged their ‘smart outfit’ out of the back of their wardrobes. I met a couple of new people, and managed to avoid being rude to someone from British American Tobacco who sells cigarettes here and in Gambia and Mali (I asked, and he doesn’t smoke). Slightly depressingly it seems like the main British companies here are BAT, Imperial Tobacco, BP and Shell. Go the national image there!

The Ambassador and the representative of the Government, the Commerce Minister, gave speeches, then we all sang the national anthems – embarrassingly, I had been in the cheese queue when the speeches started so was right at the front, so I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be in a lot of photos when they all go up next week! Then the Commerce minister gave a toast to the Queen’s health and a little speech on how Senegal was going to export tomatoes and onions to the UK (note to self: find out more about what Senegal exports), and we all got back to making merry.

Of course, my little group of friends from the tea party were among the last to leave, partly because they didn’t close the bar and we assumed that would be our hint. It did give me a chance to ask the Ambassador how he procured the cheese though - apparently he’d been back in London a few weeks ago for the annual Heads of Mission meeting, and had bought it there, then brought it all back (23kg of cheese) in his suitcase! I just hope he had the stilton in a separate bag to his suits!

Between them, a nice few evenings – somehow these things seem to take on more significance when you’re away from home, so it’s nice to feel we’ve marked the occasion in our own little way.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

In Which I Find A Puppy

Many years ago, before I was born, my parents adopted a little dog. She showed up on their doorstep one day, with a docked tail and obviously tame and used to belonging to someone. And after a few days they couldn't take it any more, so they let her in and fed her. Of course that was that - they called her Sandy, or sometimes Dig-Dig, and she lived with us for fifteen years until she died on Christmas Day when I was fourteen.

In that time she lived in five different countries, and went through quarantine twice - not a cheap process, but she was a lovely dog and we all adored her. I've taken from this two key lessons. One: never feed a strange dog unless you're ready for dog ownership. Two: dog ownership can be managed as long as you don't move too often, but international dog ownership is very expensive. While I would love to own a dog, clearly my life isn't stable enough for it to be fair on the dog right now, and I definitely can't afford it.

Unfortunately, puppies have big brown eyes that stare at you and can't be denied, and today my resolution was tested.

I was out running (horrible unfitness = inevitable result of a month of no exercise but not as bad as I feared), and on the way back a little brown puppy, looking a lot like a labrador but probably a mongrel, dashed across the street, jumped up at me, licking and sniffing my hand, before stopping and looking up at me reproachfully. I've been a bit wary of dogs ever since being bitten by one in Cote d'Ivoire and having to get a rabies shot, but this one was obviously tame and totally gorgeous. She didn't do this to anyone else, which makes me think she's owned by a white person so I look more like home to her than anyone else on the street.

I patted her a few times and looked at her collar - she had one, but no tag on it so no number to call. Considered brining her home and feeding her, because I hate the idea of her being out there all on her own and lost and maybe getting run over, but I'm not allowed pets in the guesthouse, and I'm scared of drifting into dog ownership. Obviously if I did that I'd put posters up to try and find her owner - but what if I don't find them? If I knew I'd be here all year, I might do it, but I might not be, and anyway, I really can't afford it and I'm clearly not responsible dog owner material. And I didn't have a lead or anything anyway.

In the end I cross the street again, wait for a gap in the traffic, then call her across, and ask some of the guards in the street she came out of if they've seen her before - none of them have. At least she's on the right side of the street now though, so if she does manage to find her way home then she hopefully won't have to cross any busy roads on the way.

When I get home, I tell Christina, the other English girl in the guesthouse, about it. She says she saw her too, the day before, which makes me even more worried and sad. I decide to go back later and see if she's still there - if she is, I'll get her some food from the supermarket and feed her in the street.

Luckily, the story has a happy-ish ending. I go back to where I saw the dog, and don't see her, and, to my relief, also don't see a dead dog in the street. I go down the street she came out of, and a hundred metres down the road I see her curled up outside a little corner stall. The owner is just shutting up, so I stop to talk to him - he tells me she isn't his dog, but that he's going to look after her until her owners find her. I'm glad she's found a friend, and she seems happy, so I ask if I can come back and visit (at which the stallholder clearly thinks I'm crazy but decided to humour me) and leave it at that. 

Friday, 1 June 2012


So I realised that I never got round to trying to describe Bamako, which feels like something of an omission. Although ACI 2000 and the weather were my dominant experiences in Mali, in a short time I did manage to pick up a bit more than that.

The first thing to say about Bamako is that it sprawls. Dakar feels like it's crammed into as small a place as possible, which makes sense because it started by the sea and has expanded backwards up a narrow peninsula. Bamako has the Niger river - hundreds of metres wide, and this is the dry season - through the middle of it, but no natural boundaries, so it's just sprawled, with long low suburbs stretching for miles. And of course, because of the weather, it's grey and dusty.

Dakar also has an obvious centre - Plateau, where the government buildings and embassies are. Bamako doesn't seem to have that - there's certainly a kind of downtown, but the Presidential palace is way up on a hill (which made it even more obvious that the crowd had been allowed in when they got in to beat up the interim president), and I'm not actually sure where the parliament is. I know where the central bank is, because it looks like a tower from mordor, but there's nothing really close to it so not sure if it's really in a centre centre. There's also the market and mosque, which was a lot more lively and which felt a lot more like a centre, but which are further away from all the administrative buildings, and Place de l'Independence and the Musee Nationale, where a lot of the marches were held, which is a different area altogether. All in all I just wasn't sure. It also meant it never seemed an option to get a taxi to an area, and then walk around - because even within a quartier, things are really spread out.

It was also a difficult city to get your bearings in, partly because it's so spread out and partly because it all looks the same - low buildings made of concrete, and people selling things in the street and hanging their wares off the walls. Of course it didn't help that I was going everywhere in taxis - even though to get a taxi in Bamako you need a rough idea where you're going as the taxi driver likely won't, that works more on the micro level (how to get to the exact place from a well known landmark) than the macro level (where places are in relation to one another). And taxis seem to cost the same to go basically anywhere in Bamako, so that isn't much of a clue either.

So far it hasn't sounded very nice. But there were bits of it I liked a lot - we found a restaurant overlooking the river, where you could see a bridge with street lamps on it and a couple of buildings with neon signs at the top on the other side of the river. Not much of a Bamako Riviera, but the closest we got. Hippodrome has some nice hangouts, and before curfew kicked in I managed to go to a live concert, which was fun and made me realise it would have been fun to be there longer. The park by the national museum and botanical gardens were utterly gorgeous. And I liked ACI a lot, despite the fact that I couldn't buy vegetables or tonic there. 

Of course I realise I didn't exactly see the city at it's best - hottest time of year, and a curfew to boot. I wouldn't mind going back and getting a different view at a better time. But on the whole it's fair to say it didn't bowl me over. I think the problem comes down to: it's a big city, so didn't have the oversized-village feeling you get in somewhere like N'Djamena, which is a bit irritating sometimes but is also nice when you're new and don't know many people. But it didn't seem to have big-city amenities - supermarket, clubs, etc. So  while I'd like to go back in cooler (politically and literally) times, it's not going on the list of African cities I've fallen in love with - at least not yet.