Lots of holidays

Trip Start Sep 09, 2008
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Trip End Nov 2010


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Flag of Senegal  ,
Saturday, January 10, 2009

Its been awhile since the last post but think of that as a good sign that I am keeping busy.  We're still in the "settling-in" period but somehow thanks to the many Muslim/Christian holidays and regional strategy meetings I've been on the move quite a lot since install in November.  A quick overview of recent events: I spent Tabaski in the village in early December, then a week or so later a bunch of my friends came up to St Louis for Xmas, then even more people came for New Years, Tam-Xarit was Wednesday, now I'm at site for another week before going up to Djoudj for the big January bird count, then on to Ndioum for our next regional strategy meeting and the 2nd annual Man-o-que, then back to site for another week before going back to for 3 weeks to do In Service Training. 

Tabaski involved a lot of meat and onions.  Our family had the good fortune of having not one but two sheep available to kill and I have the good fortune of living in the compound where the sheep are kept so I got to watch the whole thing on my front stoop.  After taking many pictures (everyone it seems wants a photo of the family dressed in their Tabaski best posing with their sheep) the sheep were killed and I even held one of the legs while they chopped them up.  The rest of the day involved the chopping of more onions than I've ever seen in one place at a time and now I can say with much confidence that I am an expert at cutting onions without a cutting board. 

Everyone wants to show off at Tabaski because it's the most important holiday and the whole family comes home from wherever they spend the rest of the year to celebrate in their village.  Most people get a new set of clothes made, the women get new hairstyles, and a lot of them spend days putting henna on their hands and feet.  My family was really nice and bought me a formal Wolof outfit, complete with embroidery.  I'm hoping all the compliments from the neighbors made it worthwhile.  For about three days I hung around the village, helped to chop onions and watched while my family cooked dish after dish of meat.  Every night visitors would come by to greet the family, mostly people who work in Dakar or other towns who were back in the village to celebrate.  Most marriages take place during Tabaski as well so as to ensure the maximum number of guests.  I got to go to two weddings and while I tried to be inconspicuous, the DJ-type guy at both announced the arrival of a toubab to the 200 or so guests so I ended up having to get my picture taken with the brides.  At least I knew my outfit was ok thanks to the clothes my family got me.

While I thought weddings here might be interesting in a traditional African sort of way, they were more an attempt at being as Western as possible within the means of a family living in a small village.  My sister said that some people rent out places to have the reception if they can but most can't afford it so they have the ceremony and reception in their compound.  They set up chairs and mats and bring out couches and tables for the bridal party seating area.  They rented or borrowed big speakers for music and the announcer.  While waiting for the bride and groom to make their entrance the guests were served popcorn and soda and in the case of the second wedding someone had baked a cake clearly meant to look like a wedding cake but resembling something more akin to a bake sale item.  The brides are all very heavily make-uped with huge hairdo's and white dresses that kind of look like really showy prom dresses.  If they can afford it the men wear suits but if not, as was the case with the first wedding I went to, they wear jeans and t shirts with English writing on them, or traditional Senegalese clothes.  There's not much organization to the whole thing, people just kind of show up and go in and out as they please.  We stayed long enough to see the bride, groom, and bridal party walk in at both weddings but then left to go greet people.  I'd imagine the whole thing goes on pretty late as there were still a ton of people there when we left both times.

Tabaksi ended up taking a lot of time as most people are traveling or hosting guests so by the time the sheep had all been eaten and life went back to normal it was almost Christmas.  I decided not to go too far away for Christmas as I had just been in Dakar a few weeks before so was happy to host a group of people from my stage up in St Louis.  Peace Corps owns two apartments in St Louis, one for the urban agriculture volunteer and the other for a third year volunteer that wants to spend their extended service in the city.  Luckily the third year was home in the US on vacation so we had the apartment free.  It was so great to see many of my good friends who I hadn't talked with save for a couple of text messages since install at the beginning of November.  It seems that we're all in more or less the same state of semi-confusion as to what we're supposed to do with ourselves besides try and learn our local language and "settle-in".  Some people were lucky to be replacing volunteers with active projects so they've been able to start working.  Most of my friends said they walk around, talk to people, read books, watch movies, etc.  But so far no one from my stage has decided to early terminate which is an accomplishment considering Peace Corps ET rate is about 25 percent. 

Christmas and New Years in St Louis were both a ton of fun.  We had a group of about 10 for Xmas and decided to go to one of the hotels on the island and have a nice xmas eve dinner.  Then we went to the big Catholic church the French built when St Louis was still a colonial center for their midnight mass.  The service was in French and the place was packed but the whole thing was kind of interesting and they had a really good choir that sang with drums and African instruments.  On xmas day we mostly sat around the apartment, read magazines, and caught up on The Office.  Thanks to the apartment's real stove and oven we made French toast that was almost as good as the real thing, just with honey not syrup.  Daniel had the idea to do a gift exchange so we all assembled our less-than-2000 cfa items and played white elephant.  Then we cooked up dinner complete with decorated xmas cookies made even more convincing with the packet of red and green sprinkles someone found at their regional house.

New Years was also fun but very crowded as the majority of PC Senegal descended on St Louis.  Luckily most of them stayed in hotels though we still ended up with about 15 ppl in the apartment for a few nights.  We got to meet a lot of volunteers from Mauritania as well because St Louis is the closest city for many of them and has a lot more to offer than most places in Mauritania.  We spent most of the day around the pool and at the beach at the hotel where a group of our friends were staying.  After dressing up as much as possible given our limited clothing supplies we all headed to the island where for one night almost everyone in the bars and clubs was American or French.  There was no ball being dropped but one of the bars shot off some fireworks at midnight so we all more or less knew when to say happy new year.  Despite the people waiting outside of every bar to try and pickpocket you, we all managed to get back with our money and cell phones and spent the next day enjoying one more day at the pool before people headed back to their sites.

  All in all it was a great vacation, not only because I got to see my friends but because it gave me an excuse to spend some time exploring St Louis.  I really lucked out being so close to the city.  There are a bunch of interesting little artisan shops on the island and its fun just to walk around and look at all the old architecture.  The city is crumbling and is still not anywhere near as clean as cities in the US but there is a charm here that is hard to find anywhere else in Senegal.  Plus there are pretty good restaurants and all the hotels have little roof top bars where we would go to get a drink and watch the pirogues go by.  I even found a piano I can play at the French cultural center. 

It was sad to see my friends go but my family was very happy to see me after such a long vacation.  They absolutely loved the package of Chips Ahoy I gave them as a holiday present from a care package I got sent.  There's nothing quite like chocolate chip cookies here and my host mom had to lock the box up in the cabinet to keep my brothers from stealing more cookies.  I discovered the other day that an NGO gave my park a solar oven that they don't use so I'm going to try my hand at some baking when I get a chance.

No sooner was xmas and new years over than I got the chance to put my mad onion chopping skills to good use again at Tam Xarit.  Tam Xarit is the Muslim new year, celebrated with primarily...more meat.  This time not just meat and onions though- meat, onions, and couscous.  Sadly this is not couscous as we know it but instead something called chere in Wolof.  Its couscous made with millet so its heavy not fluffy.  The women spend the day cooking together in big communal pots and I alternated between watching them stir pots of meat and chopping onions.  Until I can prove my worth by cooking the lunchtime staple ceeb u gen (fish and rice) by myself it seems the only tasks I can be trusted with are chopping and peeling, which is fine with me.

The Tam Xarit chere is served as the evening meal after which everyone gathered in the village square to pray.  After praying everyone went back to their house to await the Senegalese version of trick or treaters.  All the kids get together; paint their faces, then the girls wear boy's clothes and the boys wear girls clothes.  They go around from house to house in little groups banging drums and asking for rice.  At each stop they come into the house, great people, then the family makes them dance before they'll put rice in their bucket.  This goes all most of the night and a good part of the next day.  I was informed that the kids then sell the rice and use the money to buy supplies to make fatayas, which are samosa like fried dough things with stuff in the middle.  Why they don't just go trick or treating for fatayas and cut out the middle step is a mystery but I suppose that takes away some of the fun.

I was invited over to my counterpart's house for the second day of Tam Xarit (kind of like New Year's day) so I went up to his village the next day.  My counterpart is the head of the ecogaurds at the park and he spends most of the week living at the park and goes back to his village on the weekends and holidays.  Most villages around here look exactly alike and his was no exception.  His family was really nice though and spent most of the day trying to stuff me with as much food as possible. It was cool to see another village and meet my counterpart's family but staying at someone's house all day with no means of escape when you can't speak Wolof very well is kind of awkward.  Even if I could speak perfect Wolof there is really only a limited amount of conversation that's possible given the cultural difference and the fact that we don't know that many people in common. Its expensive to take a cab to go visit another village here so when people go visiting they spend the entire day and often stay the night.  I just finished reading Pride and Prejudice and it kind of reminded me of the way people would call on each other in Victorian England.  So I ended up coming in the morning, being served breakfast, then lunch, then tea, then we spent the afternoon making beignets to hand out to the village (apparently this is a Tam Xarit thing). I would have stayed for dinner too but I said I needed to get back to St Louis.  They made me promise that the next time I visited I would stay overnight.

Well I've managed to catch up on the all major events of the past few weeks and now all that remains is a general overview of what I've been up to these days.  The answer is not all that much besides celebrating various holidays, but I have managed to create some kind of a general schedule of duties for myself.  After spending a lot of time sitting around and talking with the park staff I'm beginning to see what my role should be in working with them.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is a lot of money coming to the park from various NGO's.  Over the next two years the park is pretty much getting everything they want: an artisan boutique, new buildings for offices, electricity, supplies to fix the fences, and maybe even a restaurant.  While that's great for the park, it doesn't leave me with much to work for.  The park staff keep saying though that they want to attract more visitors though, so that's at least something I can start with. 

Besides that I've decided that I'm going to learn to garden.  The urban agriculture volunteer in St Louis really knows his stuff and has a big garden but is leaving at the end of March and isn't getting replaced for 6 months because Peace Corps is changing the timing of the stages of volunteers.  So I said I'd learn how to garden and keep his projects running for him in the interim.  We decided that after new years I should come up to St Louis 3 times a week to learn so that when he leaves I can keep stuff going on my own.  I hope to end up spending most of my week in the city and coming back to the village on the weekends.  That way I can do the gardening and work on marketing the park to the hotels in St Louis.  I think I'll end up being more productive spending a good amount of time in St Louis because there's really only so much I can do sitting at the park when there's no internet or electricity and all the tourists are in the city. 

So that's the general plan that should keep me occupied from now until the end of March.  There will be about a 3 week break in there for IST and then when I get back to site at the end of February it will be time to "officially" start work.  I'm hoping that between the gardening, making a website for the park, and making contacts with the hotels I'll have enough to do. 
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