Monday, 16 July 2012

Isles Madeleines

On Sunday, I got the boat to the Isles Madeleines, off the coast of Dakar. Dakar's more an 'experience' place than a 'things to do' place, and this was one of the few 'things to do' that I hadn't yet done, so when someone suggested it I jumped at the chance.

To get there, you go to the beach-where-they-bring-in-the-fish-next-to-the-market-for-the-tourists. It has an actual name, but I don't know what it is, but those instructions have always worked for me. You used to be able to get there on a legit boat, but after the national parks killed a fisherman there a few years ago while he was fishing illegally, the trips were stopped. So instead, you find a fisherman willing to take you over in his pirogue.

Ride negotiated, we got into the pirogue. On clapping eyes on it, I wouldn't sure we'd all fit (we were a group of 14), and considered refusing to go, but in the end I decided that they weren't so far out that I couldn't swim back if I needed to so it was worth the chance. Packed in, we chugged through the sea, with unexpectedly large waves throwing the boat around, and the bottom getting steadily fuller with water. I was with Elena, who was on the trip to Lac Rose, and we were literally clinging to one another till we got there.

Happily, we arrived safe, rounding the islands - volcanic rocks thrown out of the sea with a white frosting courtesy of the birds - and entering a small lagoon in the centre. We piled out onto the beach, explored a little, had a picnic, had a swim, then Elena and I headed off to explore. From the other side of the island you could see across to Dakar - but felt a million miles away. We climbed down to a tiny beach with massive breakers chasing us up onto the rocks, and with a baobab stretched out along the cliff seeking soil. Scrambling back up, we carried on around, climbing onto rocky outcrops and finding an abandoned building, with a yard and more baobabs.

Eventually we'd got all the way round, looking down on our friends in the lagoon, before scrambling down the rocks to walk around the base of the lagoon, getting back round to the beach for a nice cooling swim and some madeleines for the Isles Madeleine.

Later, we piled back into the pirogue and headed home. Somehow it wasn't as scary this time, though I'm not sure the waves were much smaller. Then my friend gave me a lift home, and I spent the evening reading Dickens and having a glass of wine. Perfect Dakar day, and I couldn't have asked for a better for my last Sunday in Senegal.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Empathy and Riches

Yesterday I read an article in New York magazine summarising a number of studies suggesting that richer people and people who've been primed to be more money oriented are less empathetic, possibly because being rich makes people feel important and thus less likely to empathise with poorer people.

The article was interesting, and spoke to a lot of the debates at the moment about high corporate salaries, inequality, poor social mobility, and so on. But fear not, this isn't going to turn into a pro-Occupy screed, although I can do that too. It actually niggled at me because it fed into one of the things that's wierdest about being out here - that here, I'm rich.

In the UK, I've got used to being not poor, but certainly only just comfortable. In Oxford I biked rather than getting the bus to save money, I only bought clothes in charity shops, I had two jobs, I made packed lunches, I lived in a house where we crammed lots of people in to keep the rent down, and whenever I went to the supermarket it would take ages because I had to compare the prices of everything to get the cheapest thing (including occasionally going to multiple supermarkets. Fun fact: in Headington, if you get Waitrose Essentials it's often cheaper than the Co-op and it doesn't fund the Labour party).

Here, I'm loaded to a level that is ridiculous. I still spend ages in the supermarket looking for the cheapest thing because it's what I do... but all the time I'm knowing that I don't have to, and sometimes I buy imported cheese or canned things because I can. I get taxis rather than the bus, because I can. I eat out often, because the food's good and it's a nice experience, and because I can - and a bit because I couldn't while I was in Oxford and I'm making up for lost time. And I still save most of my money.

It weirds me out on two levels. Firstly, the rapid change means that I've had to turn my self-image on it's head - to go back to the Occupy thing, I used to be the 99%, and now I'm the 1%. Globally, I suppose I always was the 1%, but here it's very, very obvious. Secondly, whereas in Oxford, I felt like a normal person, here, I don't. I feel like I'm a special breed - not a person, but an expat, in the same way I feel that rich people in the UK don't live on the same planet as the rest of us.

There's also an irony to it. In the development sector, developing-country experience is prized, mainly because it shows you understand how programmes work, but also because it's supposed to give you insight into the problems of development. I suppose it does, but in a way that makes the problems of development utterly distinct from the problems of poverty. Because here, I'm rich, and how can someone who's rich possibly understand what it's like to be poor? If anything, to understand what it's like to be poor we should be spending time doing insecure minimum wage jobs in a super expensive part of the UK - while all the while telling ourselves that we'd be middle income in a lot of poor countries.

So the empathy article fitted in with some existing concerns I've had. As a suddenly rich person, as well as becoming an expat rather than a real person, am I less empathetic? It's true that I've been grumpy a lot, but maybe that's just because I don't get enough sleep. And I've been a bit rubbish at trying to get to know my colleagues, but that's mainly because I'm moving away soon so couldn't be bothered. I don't think I'm particularly important which suggests that I don't yet have an exaggerated sense of my own importance. And yet... I get cross with taxi drivers for saying they know they way then they don't, although I know they only do it because they need the money. I don't always tip as much as I should. I know that one of the guards is desperate to learn English, and I could have helped him but didn't.

How far are these me being human, and how far am I losing my empathy? Of course I don't want to second-guess myself all the time, and I shouldn't believe everything I read on the internet. But, just in case, if anyone notices me turning into an evil bitch, please, please say something!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Change we can believe in

OK, so this post is totally just a spurious excuse to use the title...

One of the daily chores of living in Dakar is trying to get hold of change. CFA, the currency, comes in denominations of 10,000, 5,000, 2,000, and 1,000, with coins for 500, 250, 200, 100, 50, 25, and 10. The 10s are basically useless though. Mostly you see 100, 200 and 500 coins.

The trouble is, that when you go to the bank the money generally comes in 10,000s, but no-one will take them except supermarkets and restaurants. Sometimes the fruit stands and small shops will take fives, and very occasionally taxis. But mostly you need twos and ones, and sometimes they won't even change those. It's annoying, because it occasionally makes it impossible to buy things like milk or peanuts or a mango that come in small quantities and don't cost very much. Which is annoying.

It means that when you do have change, you hoard it. Or when you go somewhere that will accept tens, you pay with them and swear blind that you don't have anything smaller. In taxis it sometimes leads to games of chicken, where you say you only have a two, and they swear they don't have coins. Eventually either you crack, and give them 500 and they put it in pocket of coins, or they crack and you drop it in your handbag to clink against the others.

Olympic Swimming Pool

At the moment, the rainy season is starting in Dakar, which means several things:
1. It's getting steadily hotter
2. It's very humid
3. Every few days it chucks it down for a couple of hours and is blissful afterwards. Totally different kind of heat and unpleasantness to Mali (that was way hotter but also less humid. I'm not sure which I dislike more), but similar post rain gloriousness.

One of the things this means for me is that I'm less keen to go running. By the sea there's a breeze which makes it sort of bearable, but it's already about 1.5k each way to get to the sea, and given the heat I can't go much further than 8k, and when 3 of those are sheer hell and the rest are mildly horrible, it doesn't seem worth it.

Luckily, Dakar has a solution for me. About 5 minutes from the office (10 minutes from the house) is an olympic sized swimming pool. Entry cost 1000 CFA (about £1.30). It's open air, and is open till eight, which is perfect for leaving work at 7, getting home and dashing to the pool. The a/c in my part of the office is fairly rubbish, but there are few things more awesome than leaving the office and within 15 minutes being doing lengths in a clean, massive, refreshing pool - crucially, it's big enough that even when it's hot out, the pool isn't too hot.

I'm going to keep saying this till everyone believes me: I honestly don't understand why everyone doesn't want to live in Dakar. It's actually like paradise.


Here I often get around in taxis. I've used the bus a couple of times, but generally I'm lazy and I can't be bothered, and the taxis aren't expensive, and usually I can split the cost with someone, so taxis it is.

There are a few peculiarities of taxis though. The first one, is that you agree the price before you go. In some cases it's easy - I know it costs 1500 CFA to get into town - but you still have to go through the ritual where the driver says '3000, it's good' and you say 'no, 1500'. He says 'we say 2000'. And you say 'no, 1500'. He shakes his head, and you say, 'OK, we don't go' and stand back, and then they change their minds and agree to your price. It's kind of annoying - you know the price, it's really obvious you know the prices, but you still have to go through the process.

Where it gets annoying is when you don't know exactly where you're going, and you just have to guess how much their initial price is ripping you off by. My usual tactic is to go low and assume they won't take you for less than is fair, but this sometimes fails when they don't know where you're going either. In that case they (hopefully) start stopping and asking people, while steadily getting grumpier and grumpier, until eventually you get there. At that point they grumpily ask for another ludicrous price, and you give them whatever you think is fair based on how long you were driving for, usually about 500F more than you agreed. If you got it right, usually they accept it and you don't have to bargain again.

But the bargaining also serves a purpose. It signals the taxi is vaguely safe. I've learned the hard way that if they don't bargain, they're way too desperate for a fare. This has happened twice. The first time we were going from a restaurant to the house. We got in the taxi, only to find that it had to be bump started. When it started, it turned out the lights weren't that great, and the brakes didn't really work - he was engine braking the whole way and swinging around the cars in front when that didn't work. It was fairly terrifying, but luckily he was driving fairly slowly and we arrived in one piece. The second time was even funnier. I was coming back from a clinic in town and it started raining. Turned out the taxi driver had no windscreen wipers, so we had to sit until it stopped raining - which can take hours. Then it turned out the taxi leaked. After about ten minutes we were so damp that I got out in the storm and found a new taxi.

There's something else valuable - if you can have some banter with them ("3000F? That's the price for going, coming back, and going again, right?" "but have you seen the price of petrol" "the price of petrol hasn't changed since this morning though"), then you know they speak French. Which is super useful when you don't know where you're going and you know that they probably don't either.

Lesson: how long the taxi bargaining process takes is directly proportional to the desirability of the taxi.