Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bobbing Toubabs


Group headed to Mboro (note flat of eggs)
In our last few weeks of Pre-Service Training, we were able to break free for a bit of R & R.  The first weekend we were officially allowed to venture out on our own, the other 3 trainees from my village and I met up with 8 trainees from a neighboring village and rented a beach house in Mboro for the night.  Mboro is a relatively short distance, yet a far cry, from Tivaoune, the Islamic holy city that 4 of us have called home for the past 9 weeks.  Mboro  is supported mainly by an Indian-owned  phosphate factory that employs most of the town’s inhabitants, plus quite a few ex-pats.  It sits just 15 minutes inland from a lovely beach and fishing village.  Although only a 45 minute drive from Tivaoune, the vegetation is remarkable different, much greener and with palm trees peppering the landscape.  When we arrived, we met up with the other group and spread out in the market to buy food and drinks for our overnight stay before crowding in several sept-places (7-passagener taxis) to find our beach house.  In hindsight, it was a mistake to assume that the 15 young twenty-something’s that I was traveling with had coordinated a plan for group meals.  Acquiring liquor and mixers, however, had of course been top priority, coordinated days in advance, and this plan thankfully included a bottle of red wine for me.  Food, on the other hand was a free-for-all, which having not been well-communicated, left my group of 4 with just a 2.5 dozen flat of eggs, a bag of mangoes, and 4 grapefruits to eat--food we’d purchased thinking it would be our contribution to the group meals.
Finding the beach house was another challenge.  The rental had been arranged by a current volunteer who had to leave town for a project and couldn’t join us.  She left instructions with her uncle to escort us there.  He delegated the job to someone else who took 3 of our group in advance, dropped them off on the beach and pointed in the general direction of the beach house.  When the rest of us arrived, an hour later, they’d still not found the place.  Nevertheless, after a few phone calls and the arrival of the missing uncle, we finally made our way to the house, only to find that a young Senegalese couple had converted one of the rooms into a secret little love shack.  The man renting us the house seemed not as surprised to find them as he was to see 12 of us, as he’d been led to believe that there’d be just 4 of us and therefore had only supplied four foam mattresses on the floor, and one of these, which we’d all just witnessed, had been freshly test-driven.   He also told us that there was not currently any running water, but directed us to the well and bucket out back, that the electricity was not hooked up, and that there was no propane tank to use for cooking.   Then and there, I knew that this was bound to be an interesting night.
Charet in the foreground,
bobbing toubabs in the background

Mboro Beach House / Hut

 Yet, once we looked up from our surroundings and saw the beautiful beach, we put all of these worries aside and enjoyed a swim in the ocean and some very sub-standard libations.  The Atlantic over on this side  is pleasantly warm and the waves entertaining.  When dinnertime rolled around, and it became clear that everyone but my three village-mates and I had assumed we were fending for ourselves in the food department, we broke out my Swiss Army knife and started slicing up mangoes.  When that didn’t satiate us, we started looking longingly at the flat of eggs we’d bought and wondered how difficult it would be to find a way to cook them given our current limitations.  Being Americans, our first thought was, “we’ll pay somebody to cook these for us,” but that attempt failed when we discovered that the neighboring houses also had no gas, in fact we were on the cusp of a country-wide gas shortage that lasted for the next two weeks.  So, with no other choice, we started gathering kindling and driftwood to make a fire and salvaged one of the empty cans of tuna from which our housemates had feasted without us to use as a cooking vessel.  Surprisingly, the eggs were edible, once you got past the bits of sand, ash, and pine brush that made their way into the can while they cooked and we ate them by stabbing at the bits of eggs chunks with the point of the knife.

Making fire

Eggs on the embers the next morning
 We saved the remaining uncooked eggs and grapefruit for breakfast which we supplemented with bean sandwiches a woman was selling a little way down the beach.  Bean sandwiches are an affordable  Senegalese delicacy and are available on most village street corners throughout the early part of the day.  Other simple, yet delightful, sandwiches often found at these little stands contain sautéed onions, stewed peas, seasoned spaghetti/macaroni, or stewed beef with French fries (or any combination of these that you desire).  When I say these are affordable, I‘m not kidding.   A half baguette costs 75 CFA (there are ~ 500 CFA to a US $) and, aside from the beef/French fry combo (which will run you 400-500 CFA), each topping  costs only 50 CFA each.  So, basically you can be enjoy a bean, spaghetti, and onion sandwich for just 225CFA (about 50 cents). I love the bean sammy ladies!  Sorry they're shy and wouldn't let me take their picture.
 After breakfast we enjoyed a lazy day of swimming, reading, and lying about.  Most people were exhausted from staying up late dancing the night before.  I, however, the token “mid-career” trainee (Peace Corps tries to make it sound so much nicer than middle-aged) was equally exhausted from lying in my tent just 10 feet away from all of the late-night activities trying unsuccessfully to get my beauty rest.

When I returned to my host-family later that evening and told them the story of our weekend adventure they all got a big kick out of the fact that I couldn’t feed myself properly without them (mangoes and eggs for dinner sounded absurd to them) and that we’d all survived 24 hours without consuming rice (which may actually be a record here in Senegal).  “Silly Toubab“, they thought, using the moniker assigned to all Westerners (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not).


One of our Al-Hams

Just one week after that beach adventure, the entire training group (all 61of us) piled into 2 rented Al-Hams (rickety old buses that have Al-Hamdoulilah (Thanks be to God) painted on them) and headed to Popenguine, a beach town on the Petit-Côte just an hour south of Dakar, for a celebratory gathering to mark the near completion of our training.  Popenguine is the prized Eco-Tourism placement site of Peace Corps Senegal and has been assigned to Kelsey, who’s been living in Tivaoune with me (that‘s good for me and anyone who wants to come visit be while I‘m over here).  It’s an incredibly scenic beach neighboring a hilly nature reserve.  The beach is much more built up than the one in Mboro, frequented by both locals and vacationing Europeans, but still not overrun with commercialism.  We rented two houses this time--one reserved for 10 people (the quiet house) and the other for the remaining 50 or so (the party house).  Both were lovely and catered to weekly renters, with fully stocked and operating kitchens, a few bedrooms with mattresses and mosquito nets, and indoor plumbing.  By request, I was assigned to the quiet house, which was good on so many levels, but mainly because I was taking medication for amoebic dysentery that had decided to wreak havoc with my insides and apparently drinking alcohol while on this medication produces ghastly side-effects.  There were other people who also chose to spend the weekend in a calmer environment so I was in good company.  It was nice to all be together away from the training center and just play in the water for the day.  There were rocks to climb, the nature reserve to explore, and a sweet little Catholic village with Toubab stores just down
the hill.

Inside the fabric fringed Al-Ham

Nicer digs at Popenguine

A view from the deck of the Quiet House

More bobbing Toubabs
The nature reserve on the hill

 Having planned ahead this time, I had the makings for a salami and cheese (score!) sandwich so I made myself dinner, treated myself to some juice, and found a little corner in the living room in which to curl up for an early night with my book.  In the near distance, I could hear the revelry next door and was glad to have some refuge from it…for a while, that is.  About three chapters into my book, one of the party-house guys, Will, came stumbling through the door accompanied by a few concerned friends.  He had suddenly, out of the blue, spike a fever of 105 degrees.  Burning hot, we threw him into the shower and called the PC Medical Emergency number.  While I was on the phone with the medical officer, Pam, another trainee, burst through the door with a bug in her eye, the same eye that she’d had a surgical procedure on the week before.  Not ten minutes after that, two other folks who were staying in the quiet house because they felt like they were coming down with something--came down with that something and started lining up to use the bathroom, soon joined by yet another person who was quite surprised by her sudden explosive symptoms.  So, one minute I was enjoying a good book, a glass of orange juice, and the sound of the ocean waves, the next minute the house had become a veritable M.A.S.H unit and I was listening for Radar to warn me of more “Incoming!”   Because I seemed to be the only one of our entire group who’d heeded warnings from our medical staff to travel with a mini-med kit, I became the Florence Nightingale of the Quiet House, dishing out Ibuprophen, Tylenol, band-aids, thermometers, oral hydration salts, and Immodium to the masses.  The following morning we put three of the sick-bay inhabitants in a sept-place to go to the medical office in Dakar where they spent the next few days recovering and the rest of us headed back to Thies and then to our villages for our last two weeks of training.
Florence Nightingale's Magic Box


  1. OMG April, you are a saint! Are you having fun? It's fun following your blog. Stay well!

  2. "I seemed to be the only one of our entire group who’d heeded warnings from our medical staff to travel with a mini-med kit"

    That's how you identify the mid-career trainee in the group...

  3. Dear April, Without your blog (and Chris's and Kelsey's) I would have gone mad these last 2 months! Thanks so much for all the stories and pictures. I will keep reading even as the old gang is scattered through Senegal. (Now there's a name for a blog...)

    Linda, guess who's mom ;-)

  4. WOW April, I so look forward to each and every one of your blog writings....Thank you for sharing and for doing it to eloquently. I can close my eyes and almost envision your wonderful experience. Thanks for all you do.