Purgatory

Three and a half months in to Global Authorized Departure from Senegal, and it’s still unclear when I will return to Senegal. The U.S. Embassy Dakar is at Phase 1, meaning that things are still not great, but holding steady. COVID cases keep going up, but the infrastructure is holding steady. I did not anticipate being in the U.S. for so long, but my life has now assumed a new routine.

Still living in the AirBNB, still work Monday through Friday. My day is divided between meetings and trying to do some behind the scenes work on visas. The consular section remains unable to process routine visas, but it doesn’t mean I can’t try to get some files screened and ready for processing so that when we do open up, we will be a step ahead. So that takes up a lot of my day. I’ve also been taking remote French classes so that I won’t forget everything, doing online trainings, and updating some of our website language and SOPs. I guess it’s nice that we are able to catch up on some of these items, since normally we would be too busy.

I try to stay away from people as much as possible. Georgia cases are rising exponentially, and when I go to the grocery store, people ignore the “one way” aisles and don’t wear masks. In over three months, I have been to the grocery store less than half a dozen times. It’s stressful, and people do not seem to be taking things seriously. I guess it does not help that the governor of Georgia just prohibited any city or county from mandating mask wearing…while simultaneously encouraging mask wearing. Some confusing messaging all around for folks, I guess.

Diplokitties are still doing fine. They are enjoying spending more time with me, and I with them. Which is good, since when I go back to Senegal, I might not be able to bring them with me if the airlines aren’t accepting pets (which it looks like they are not). They’ll hang out with my parents until I get back to the U.S. for home leave.

Then again, I’m not even sure when that will be. My supervisor and I put in an extension for me to stay in Dakar awhile longer in February, and haven’t heard anything about it since. I am supposed to PCS (Permanent Change of Status) in December and in theory, I am supposed to know my onward assignment. With an uncertain timeline, it’s definitely difficult to figure that out. So now only is my near future unknown, but also my unknown future. Hopefully news will come soon either way. Every Monday I think “This is the week I will find out something” and every Friday I think “well, ok maybe next week.”

It is an uncertain time for the entire world, and I am lucky that I have a supportive family, good health, and a job that pays my bills. I will keep you updated.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

COVID-19 comes to Senegal

After the Secretary of State’s visit, I focused on getting my foot better and getting off crutches. We all figured life would finally get back to normal. However, there was a growing rumble of this virus COVID-19 around the world. I had been planning a crisis management exercise for the past 6 months, and my supervisor and I decided to move it up a few weeks. In early March, the consular staff met at an off-site location and went over what to do in the case of American citizen evacuations – a revision of promissory notes, passport applications, and more. Little did I know that it was one of the last time we would all be together as a happy group.

That weekend, sensing tension in the air, I hopped a ride with my neighbors/friends to my favorite place – Sine Saloum. I foresaw the possibility of a lockdown in Senegal, but was not sure what else my future held, and I wanted at least one last chance to enjoy the beauty of the Delta. I’m so happy I did. We spent the weekend kayaking, enjoying the peace and quiet, and eating delicious food at Ecolodge de Simal. It gave me a reserve to draw on in the coming weeks.

The week after changed everything. COVID-19 hit Senegal, President Macky Sall declared a national emergency, and borders began to close. Americans began to worry and email, call, and show up at our door. We cancelled routine appointments per the a worldwide ban. And we realized we needed to get people out.

During a mass evacuation, the entire mission shifts gears and the focus becomes getting Americans home. My colleagues and I worked day and night to answer questions, working with all agencies to secure flights, calling local contacts to secure travel authorizations for those coming from other regions, creating manifests, digging through manifests and emails to identify at-risk individuals to prioritize. It was stressful, exhausting, and like nothing I have ever experienced. The vast majority of Amerians were pleasant, but of course it is a stressful time, and that showed in many of the individuals that contacted us. A lot of people believe the U.S. Embassy is all-powerful, able to swoop in with Marines and Black Hawks to extract Americans from wherever they are stuck (thanks, Hollywood). Unfortunately, that is not the case, so managing expectations also became a large part of the job. Other Americans believe that the U.S. Embassy has unlimited money and can provide free flights or make planes magically appear in Senegal. Also, not the case. Nevertheless, we were able to evacuate hundreds of Americans on a few flights.

As we continued our evacuation, focus also turned to mission personnel. A Global Authorized Departure had been announced, and those that felt at-risk were urged to leave on one of the evacuation flights. From the beginning, I said I would not go and I would stay behind. But as time went on, and the reality set in, I began to change my mind. The Embassy management folks started urging us to think about leaving temporarily, and some of the following ideas casued me to rethink my previous decision.

#1. If things did get bad, and we were forced to evacuate at that time, there was the big chance that I couldn’t bring my cats. The thought of leaving them behind to fend for themselves was not an option for me.

#2. The health facilities in Senegal may be overwhelmed, so if I did get COVID, it would be likely I would not get the help I need. Plus, I developed asthmatic symptoms while in Dhaka and felt that might create some complications if I were to get COVID.

#3. We would be teleworking regardless of our location due to social distancing. And I am likely to have steady internet, electricity, study food supplie, and potable water in the U.S.

These decision points caused me to jump on the last of the evacuation flights with two kitties in tow. One of my friends who was also evacuating was nice enough to carry one kitty for me, and I carried the other.

The flight was somewhat stressful, but I was surrounded by at least 40 of my co-workers and friends. The landing itself was one of the scariest I’ve experience (so much turbulence). But overall, my diplokitties behaved very well. We arrived to an eerily empty Dulles. Rather than try to negotiate a flight to Georgia, I had rented a car. After a day of rest in a nice hotel, I shoved the kitties in to a large dog crate in the SUV and drove 10 hours. The roads were nearly empty, and kitties again were very well behaved, though unhappy at being cooped up.

Now I am at my safe haven, living in an AirBnB near my parent’s house. I go on near-daily bike rides, telework throughout the day, enjoy ample time with kitties, and try not to stress over when I will return to Senegal.  I watch the cases rise in Senegal from afar, and try to keep in contact with those that stayed behind. Kitties are enjoying all of the spring birds and squirrels, and we have settled in nicely. No idea when I will return, but the plan is to get back and try to get back to work sometime in the next few months. Until then, it’s quarantine life for me! At least I have good company.

VSZS8551

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Senegal 2020

In my previous post covering through December 2019, I forgot something that was quite exciting. I was chosen to be on the election monitoring team for the presidential run-off in Guinea-Bissau. Since there is no Embassy in Guinea-Bissau, the U.S. Embassy in Dakar also covers this unique country.

I spent a few days between Christmas and NYE in the capital of Bissau, visiting the various polls to observe how they were running – i.e. if there were instances of fraud, if people were doing what they were supposed to be doing, if there was any intimidation going on,etc. I had a blast – the Bissau-Guineans were friendly, the Portuguese food was delicious, and the polls were very interesting to watch. It is a fascinating country and I wish I could have spent more time there. I perfected my two words of Portguese while I was there – hello and thank you!

2020 started with a trip to the beach with my best board-gaming-buddies. We rented an AirBnB a few minutes from one of the best beaches in Senegal. Our day was spent playing games, wandering, eating, and even jet-skiing.

A couple of weeks after my trip to the beach with my friends, I had another visitor from the U.S.! My best friend from Peace Corps and her baby arrived for a two week extravaganza. Now that I knew Senegal a little better, I felt confident that I could show them a good time. The addition of the one year old baby was definitely a challenge, but we made it work. Plus she is possibly the cutest baby in the world, and we spent an inordinate amount of time dressing her in Senegalese clothing.

After resting a little while in Dakar, we headed south to my favorite places – Saly and Sine Saloum! We of course started with a lunch in Bandia, where we discovered that there was a buffet brunch on Sundays! We then spent a night at the Hotel Royam in Saly. Resorts in Saly can be a little strange – they tend to be filled with 60+ year old French folk who spend their days on lounge chairs encircling the pool. They take short dips in the pool infrequently, and generally look displeased with having younger people around. We took baby into the pool using a floaty we bought in Dakar – the water was frigid but she loved it! So picture the three of us in the pool, surrounded by sullen looking old French people. Nevertheless, the  resort itself was very pretty.

The morning of our departure from Saly, we sat down to our breakfast buffet. When my friend went to get more food from the buffet and left me with baby, a server approached me. The conversation went something like this (note time of approximately 7:30am):

Server: Is that your baby?
Me: Nope!
Server: Do you want babies?
Me: Nah, I like just hanging with my friend’s baby and being the fun aunt.
Server: I could help you make a baby.
Me: Uh…what?
Server: You could come here on weekends and we could be friends and I can make a baby with you.
Me: No thank you!
Server: But…
Me: NO THANK YOU!!!!

On that note, we decided to head on south. On the way there, we made a pit stop at Taaru Askan organic farm. My friend is an organic farmer, so I figured this would break up our 2 hour drive and fulfill her need for vegetable growing knowledge. Taaru Askan is owned by a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and the farm supplies a lot of delicious vegetables to stores in Dakar – including a lot of kale. We meant to stop just for an hour for a brief tour and lunch – we ended up spending most of the day there! After touring the gardens, we also went down to a turtle sanctuary, where we also played with gigantic puppies. Then we had one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Senegal, eating as a group around a bowl – just like old Peace Corps times.

 

After saying our farewells to the crew at the farm, it was time to travel onward, back to the baobab tree house place Les Collines de Niassam. This time we stayed in one of their family rooms, which gave us two separate bedrooms. The tree houses are fun, but also not so baby-proof. And for some reason the family room, which is at least 3x as big, was half the price. The highlight of the trip may have been the horse cart ride – we went in search of hyenas! The ride itself was lovely, watching sunset through the baobab trees was magical. We saw one hyena from a very far distance. Our boat ride into the delta the next morning was also fun. We spotted a jackal and monkeys moving through the mangroves, walked on a hill made entirely of shells, and had a nice relaxing time.

After our adventure in the Delta, and a few days rest in Dakar, we headed north to Saint Louis. We stayed in a budget hotel, Hotel du Palais, in the heart of the old town. It has definitely seen better days, but it is clean and has character – most importantly, it is in a great location. Much quieter now in not-Jazz Festival time, we spent a day roaming the colonial streets, ate delicious food at Chez Peggy’s, and took a horse carriage ride. Our guide spoke only French; nevertheless, he was quite funny and knowledgeable. Plus it cost us less than $20 for a two hour ride. Those 7 months of French training at FSI finally paid off outside the office. It was a great way to see the local culture in a semi-anonymous way (i.e. nobody bothered us!).

After stuffing ourselves with some crepes, we set off for our next location: Lodge Ocean et Savanne. Located an hour south of Saint Louis on a new paved road, this place is still off the beaten path. Note, things have changed since we went there, and I heard that they installed actual electricity throughout the resort. When we visited, we had electricity for a few hours a night, I never got the wifi to work, and there was only one menu item. The food was not great so that was a bummer, but the location is just splendid. The bungalows are adorable, there is a lovely little pool, and plenty of places to lounge about. There is even a mini-golf course! I especially loved the outdoor shower and toilet, even though the water was so so cold. I am a sucker for bathing under the stars.

On the way back from the resort, we took an even more-brand-new paved road on a gorgeous route through large red sand dunes – some of the prettiest scenery I have seen! We had a brief stopover at Lac Rose, and then back to Dakar. Our last few days were spent exploring Dakar, including some fabric shopping and a trip to Goree Island.

I was sad to see my friend and her baby go, but it was time to get back to real life. A few short days after she left, while I was playing softball (the Embassy and other missions and groups have a softball league every ‘winter’), I hit a very good ball over the shortstop. Unfortunately, as I was running to first base, something snapped audibly in the bottom of my foot. Turns out it was my plantar fascia. OUCH.

I till found myself in a boot and hobbling on crutches at the same time that our Secretary of State was scheduled to visit Senegal. NOT ideal. I was taken off of a duty that would require me to be mobile, and put onto less ambulatory tasks. Nevertheless, the trip went well and we kept Pompeo and his wife alive. Success!

IMG_4790

After Secretary Pompeo left, we thought it would be life back to normal. I handed the American Citizen Services reins over to my fellow consular officer and prepared to take on visas full-time. While being ACS chief was always very interesting, it also meant 24/7 availability and dealing with some very difficult cases – domestic violence, destitution, mental illness, children abandoned by their parents, jail visits, deaths, and more. Never a dull moment, but it can get exhausting emotionally. Visas feel more clear-cut – there is the Foreign Affairs Manual to guide you in decision making. With ACS, you might have sombody having the worst day of their life in front of you, or somebody not mentally well making demands that make no sense, and you have to figure out the best way to move forward. Not for the faint of heart!

Shockingly, my transition to visas was interupted by a little thing called COVID-19. You might have heard of it. I will be discussing a little bit of my experience with corona in Senegal on my next blog post, so stay tuned!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Year Recap (October-December)

October-December 

In October, I did a quick weekend up to Amsterdam to meet up with some of my friends from Dhaka. They came from Honduras, Ukraine, and France – and of course me from Senegal! We spent the few days together walking the streets, drinking delicious beer, and catching up on life. Rainy, wet, and cold – the complete opposite to Dakar!

Every November, the Marines host an annual ball aptly named Marine Ball. Think of is as prom for nerds (aka diplomats). We get all dressed up, eat fancy dinners, drink fancy drinks, and dance the night away with our friends and colleagues. It is one of the few times we let our hair down and just have fun with each other. Even the Ambassador danced with us. This year, I had an added addition – an old friend came to visit me from DC and got to experience my life for a little while. This was only my second Marine Ball, but I was a night to remember.

After Marine Ball, my friend and I made our way south. We of course stopped at Bandia Reserve for some lunch, but we also did the safari. As I mentioned before, this is a man-made reserve. However, the landscape feels wild, with gigantic baobab trees sheltering herds of giraffes and eland. They even have a couple of rhinos! If you suspend disbelief for a little while, you can pretend you’re on a real safari in a wild wild place. We timed it very well, showing up first thing in the morning, so we barely saw any other cars and had the wildlife and baobabs mostly to ourselves. Then of course we availed ourselves to some delicious food while keeping on the lookout for thieving monkeys.

We stayed at Rhino Resort in Saly for a couple of nights, which was a lot of fun but eerily deserted except for some Brussels Air flight attendants. The coolest part of the resort is an underground grotto with a waterfall and jacuzzi. Our days were spent doing a dune buggy tour of the countryside (complete with small Fulani girls hitching a ride) and finding tasty food.

Next up was Sine Saloum Delta. You’ll recall I went there with my parents in May, when we stayed at Les Collines de Niassam. I decided to take a leap and try a completely new place that I had found on booking.com. I wasn’t sure about it, but why not? Turns out the place was just lovely! Ecolodge de Simal  is hard to find, but once you are there, it is the most peaceful place I have ever experienced. It is a simple place, with thatched-roof huts and no air conditioning. On the edge of one of the arms of the Delta, you can take boat rides, horse cart rides, or just plop down on a kayak to explore on your own. The food is simple but delicious – freshly caught grilled fish, rice, and sides that will make you happy to be sitting under the shade of huge trees, listening to the waters lap the shore. If you get tired of the river, you can always take a dip in the sublimely refreshing pool. Seriously, this place is so good I have recommended it to numerous friends, who also fell in love.

Lest you think that all I do is travel and have fun, sometimes I travel and have fun while working! In December, my colleagues and I set off to do American citizen outreach in cities outside of Dakar. We wanted to spread the word about citizenship transmission for Americans born abroad and demystify some of our processes. Plus, it is always good to see that we are real people. We hosted town halls, accepted passport applications – I even conducted a radio interview which was terrifying. We also met with important religious people and local government authorities, including police. This way, if an American is arrested or in trouble, we would have the relationships formed to assist us. It was a LOT of work, but also very fulfilling to meet face-to-face with Americans living and working in Senegal.

 

If you think that Christmas is not so much a thing in a predominately Muslim country, you’d be wrong. Christmas in Senegal is spectacular. Suddenly all the street vendors have on Santa hats, the grocery stores sell imported real live trees from the great north, and lights adorn many of the buildings. Even better are the multitude of Christmas markets that pop up every weekend in December. One of the most unique ones was a market on the beach, where I watched the sunset while drinking mulled wine.

2019 was capped off at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party. We watched nearby fireworks from his roof, drank delicious beverages, and enjoyed the time spent together. I reflected back on my past year and how much more comfortable I was in Dakar. Many of the people at this NYE party were folks I had met for the first time at the previous NYE party. But strangers had become friends. One of the most difficult things in this job and life is that you are always saying goodbye to people as they cycle on to the next tour or country. But thankfully most Foreign Service Officers are good at bonding quickly, and its moments like these that make it worthwhile.

IMG_2300

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Last Year’s Recap (July-September)

July marked the culmination of  everything I’d devoted much of my energy to the past five months – the U.S. Embassy’s Fourth of July celebration. Now, I know that sounds like a lot of fun, but trust me, it is not. The celebration is not for us Americans, but rather for our contacts in Senegal. In other words, it is the chance for us to share the American experience with Senegalese and other foreign missions.

This year’s event took place on the back lawn of the Embassy, and featured a military band, food and drinks galore, and a huge fireworks display. I had the lucky pleasure of being the chair of the food and drink committee (which also sounds way more fun than it is). I was in charge of planning a menu and working with caterers to get everything finalized. Imagine doing that for more than 1,000 people! It was definitely out of my comfort zone. Nevertheless, I had a strong committee who helped me along the way, and the event was a success. Most of my night was running around making sure all the bars were stocked and that the servers were coming out with the appropriate courses, so I don’t remember too much of it!

 

One of the highlights of my entire year happened out of the blue one day in Senegal. A friend and colleague of mine, who is also a pilot, sent me a text message one day asking me whether I wanted to fly. I answered immediately “Sounds terrifying. YES!” I met him at the old Dakar airport, and off we went in a 4-seater with two other friends. The trip was indeed terrifying, but incredible. Seeing Dakar from above like a bird was just breathtaking. The blues of the ocean and the multitude of shades of brown in juxtaposition. I felt truly lucky to get to serve in such a cool city.

In August, a new consular officer joined the office, filling the gap and completing our office. This was exciting because I was the only “Entry Level Officer” throughout the summer after my old supervisor and the other ELO left. This meant that I was doing nonimmigrant and immigrant visa interviews as well as serving as the American Citizen Services Officer. It was exhausting (especially when you include the Fourth of July planning). The new officer was also a second tour officer and had arrived from a country that did a LOT of visas. So having my new teammate on board was great!!

While I seem to be complaining about the amouhnt of work I was doing due to our staffing caps, the great thing about consular work is the overall work-life balance. Due to the nature of our work, we generally keep standard hours.  So even though I was working very hard during the week to get everying done, and also prepping for the Fourth of July, I was still able to explore Senegal.  Beaches, game nights, trying out delicious new restaurants made for a fantastic time.

A quick review of some of my favorite restaurants in Dakar:

  • DakySushi: Who knew West Africa was the place to get delicious sushi? I probably ate at this restaurant at least once every couple weeks. Fresh and tasty!
  • Pointe des Almadies: This place has some of the best paella I’ve tried. And really, any little restaurant in this cul-de-sac is an adventure for the taste buds.
  • Marina Bay: Sunday brunches here are pretty darn good. It’s expensive, but if you’re making a day of it and need beach time and do not want to head out to Saly or Somone, it’s a great alternative.
  • Sharky’s: Beach Road (or the Petite Corniche) has dozens of restaurants to choose from. But I keep coming back to this solid little place. It’s especially nice to bring new guests. A lot of folks swear by Chez Fatou, but for me, it’s Sharky’s.
  • Mawa’s : This was my go-to when I was missing good old Southern food. The shrimp and grits is legitimately delicious. Need a skillet? They have that. Sausage biscuit? Yep! Chicken n waffles? You betcha!
  • KoTao: This newly arrived restaurant in Almadies rivals most restaurants for fresh, healthy, and tasty ingredients. My go-to is the BoBun Bowl.
  • Chez Loutcha: Why the heck aren’t there any Senegalese restaurants on my list, you ask? Well, I eat a lot of Senegalese food, both in the cafeteria and out and about. For a solid restaurant, Chez Loutcha is the place to go. Maafe and theibou dienne are my favorites. But you cannot go wrong with a poulet yassa!

I could go on and on about even more delicious restaurants, but I will stop there for now.

September arrived, and it was time to meet up wtih my parents again. This time, starting in Johannesburg, South Africa for a 2 week long safari, the safari of a lifetime!! Our journey with Friendly Planet tours took us to South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe (just to Victoria Falls), and Botswana. SWOON, right?? Victoria Falls, Chobe National Park, Okavango Delta, Cape of Good Hope. I’d been to South Africa briefly when I was 18 years old, but it was nothing like this. This was a true luxury safari.

 

To get to our camp in Okavango Delta, we had to take three itty bitty planes. They were so much fun. It was one of those moments where I realized I was living a dream and I did not want it to end. Sadly, the flights were fairly short. The first flight fit all 16 of our tour group, but then we had to go down to an 8 seater, and then down to a 4 seater since our camp had such a small landing strip. Spotting elephants and giraffes from the plane was so much fun. Okavango was sadly experiencing a drought while we were there; however, this concentrated the animals near the remaining water, so it worked a little in our favor. That being said, I MUST go back someday when the water fills it up like it is supposed to do.

I had a couple more days in Cape Town when my parents left. I used this time to go shopping, get a hair cut, and drink delicious beer. Oh, and I went whale watching, which was so much fun. I went out on a tiny boat with just a couple of other people. Some whales approached our boat, so close that the guide even whooped for joy.

 

An interesting story was my actual travel to and from South Africa. I had booked a very affordable ticket to Jburg non-stop on South African Airlines, but five days before my flight, South African cancelled the direct flight (like, forever). I had to call them multiple times to have them rebook me on other airlines. I ended up going from Dakar to Abidjan on a random airline, then on to Accra, then on to Johannesburg. On the way back, I stopped in Nairobi. So I guess I got the real tour of the African continent!! It was not fun, and in Abidjan we got taken through some back way through customs, and the ticket agent got mad at me for daring to check in online (she tore up my printed ticket in front of my face while yelling at me), but I made it!

Well, I think that is enough for tonight, don’t you?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Last year’s recap (March-June 2019)

OK, as you can see, I forgot about this blog over the past year. But what a year it has been! Incredibly busy yet fulfilling. Lots of travel (because that is what I do). Now that I have temporarily evacuated on Authorized Departure in the U.S. due to the COVID-19 outbreak (more on that later), I have a lot more time on my hands and figured it was time for an update. But since it is an entire year’s worth of content and photos, I will break it up over the next few days. Exciting, right?

March-June

In March 2019, shortly after my last blog post, I traveled to Cape Verde with some colleagues – the main island of Santiago to be exact. We went on a day-tour of the entire island, from Praia up to the northern beaches in Terrafal, and the spent the next day wandering an old fort in the old town. I was surprised at the stark beauty of this island nation. Jutting mountains, breathtaking beaches, delicious Portuguese food, (way cheaper than Senegal)…and incredibly clean and safe. I was entranced. Plus I discovered caipirinhas.

At the end of April, I decided to drive the 5 hours up to Saint Louis for the internationally renowned annual Jazz Festival. Saint Louis, previously the capital of Senegal until 1902, is bursting with colonial charm. I stayed in the very quaint, very atmospheric Hotel de la Poste, near the Faidherbe Bridge. The old town in Saint Louis is a narrow island surrounded by the Senegal River on the Mauritanian border.  While the streets were crowded with jazz lovers and locals, with some unsavory individuals milling around, I nevertheless had a blast wandering the streets searching for jazz venues throughout the town with my friends. I even met up with some Peace Corps Volunteers, and had a very interesting experience involving getting yelled at by the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant. All in all, worth it.

At the end of May, yy parents arrived in Senegal for a two week trip, and we visited some of my favorite places in Senegal. After touring the usual places – the Phare (lighthouse) des Mamelles, Ngor Island, and the Renaissance Monument, we left Dakar for Sine Saloum Delta. On our way, we stopped at Bandia Reserve for lunch. Bandia is a 3,500 ha man-made reserve for animals; even though it is artificial, it is still a lot of fun – especially the restaurant! With unexpectedly delicious food, this shady, outdoor restaurant overlooks a watering hole where crocodiles gaze right back at you, and you can watch warthogs and antelope graze. You have to be vigilant because some very feisty and skilled Vervet monkeys love to steal food (especially pizza). I’ve found it makes for a fantastic little rest stop on the way to Saly or Sine Saloum.

Our actual southern destination was one of the best places in Senegal – Les Collines de Niassam.  This place is about 3 hours south of Dakar, on the edge of Sine Saloum Delta,  and a place I highly recommend. Peaceful and gorgeous, where else can you spend the night in an actual baobab tree? The rates are somewhat pricey, but they include breakfast and dinner and all the relaxation you could want. The food is…inventive, but overall very good.  The pool is a delight, with birds flitting all around you and the sounds of distant cows and wind in the trees to make you feel completely at ease. And do not even get me started on the sunsets!

My parent’s trip did not end in Senegal. Obviously, I liked Cape Verde so much the first time that I decided to take my parents to the places I discovered just a couple of months prior. This time, I rented a car (such a tiny car!) and drove us around Santiago. Then we hopped on a short flight to the tiny desert island of Sal. We stayed in the all-inclusive Melia Tortuga Beach.  It was very fancy, and very strange. The island itself is so barren, but then you reach these fancy resorts and you’re suddenly in Cancun. Perfectly manicured foliage, gorgeous pools, sparklingly clean beach. Transitioning from moonscape to lush tropical paradise was a little jarring.

In June, I decided to go visit my A-100 buddy and her partner, who are currently serving in Casablanca, Morocco. After meeting up with them and having a little rest, we travelled to a music festival in the coastal town Essaouira. We explored the medina and walked along the beach, eating some mouthwatering tajines along the way.

On the way back to Casablanca, my friends dropped me off in Marrakech, where I spent a couple of days on my own. I stayed in Les Jardins de la Koutoubia, an opulent hotel on the outskirts of the medina. I did it up in style, with a nice massage and more delicious tajines.

Since Marrakech turned out to be extremely hassly for a single woman just trying to walk around, I decided to explore the Atlas Mountains on a guided tour. I had a fantastic time – with two very jovial English folks and three very sulky Americans, who weren’t impressed by anything. I returned to Casablanca by train from Marrakesch, which was a great and unhassly experience – $11 for first class! I was so grateful to have such great friends who showed me such a good time!

 

As you can see, March to June 2019 was quite a fun and busy time! At the same time, I was also saying goodbye to my old supervisor and fellow ELO consular officer, who both transitioned to their onward posts around this time. But I was also starting to feel more settled in, with a stronger friend group to hang out with, both Embassy and non-Embassy folks. American Citizen Services was challenging, our visa season was peaking, and I had more tasks than I could finish in a day. While I knew I had a difficult summer ahead with some staffing gaps, I felt ready to take on the challenge.

On the next blog post…Fourth of July (our biggest event), new folks, and more fun outtings! Stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Settling in phase

I can finally say I’m feeling settled here in Dakar, Senegal. All of my stuff arrived, including my consumables. So I have most of the creature comforts of home. Granted, running water sometimes disappears, and some mornings mid-shower my electricity will go out, and the Harmattan days make my lungs unhappy, but other than that, I’m living a pretty ‘normal’ life.

A couple of weekends ago, I got a real carpenter to come in and screen in three of the balconies so that my cats can spend more time “outdoors.” They absolutely love it, and I like being able to have some of my doors open without having to worry about mosquitos. My apartment compound is filled with flowers and birdsong most of the time, so it is quite pleasant.

 

I’ve been also getting settled in at work. It’s nice to feel useful again after 7 months of just learning a language in Virginia, where it was difficult to show demonstrable results on any given day. Here, I know how many passport applications I’ve processed, how many babies I’ve determined qualify as American citizens, etc. I have too much work, but it is better than too little. And the work days usually fly right by. I’m usually too tired after work (after interviewing anywhere from 3-6 hours at the consular windows) that I am not very social.

However, on the weekends I typically go out to eat with new-found friends, go to parties, host board game nights, or chill at the beach. The first couple of months were a struggle, but I am making friends gradually and getting invited out to do fun things.

There’s none of the drama of Bangladesh (knock on wood), where I think part of me always expected to get a phone call about another terrorist attack. I remember constantly checking my work phone to make sure we didn’t have any emergency messages, and just feeling slightly stressed at all times. When I first arrived in Dakar and ‘braved’ walking down the road, I was constantly on high alert. Looking around me to gauge potential threats, walking fast, clutching my bag. Over the past couple months, I have eased up on the constant vigilance. Now, I stroll down the street, enjoying the sea breeze and sound of birds in the palm trees. I sometimes even take the long way home from work to spend a little more time outdoors.

Also, I bought an SUV! I enjoy driving it around town, but still need to get up the courage to take it to one of the beaches, which are about an hour and a half away. So far the traffic is nowhere near as insane as Dhaka. Then again, what traffic could ever be that bad? Drivers are terrible here, but at least I don’t also have to contend with rickshaws, tuktuks, people crossing without looking in either direction, huge trucks and busses and all other manner of craziness. Here mostly I just have to worry about taxis staying in their lane, which so far has been ok. And the roundabouts everywhere, which I am not a fan of but am getting the hang of gradually.

While it is warm now, I am looking forward to a hotter season when I can swim in the ocean and outdoor pools. Maybe I should take up surfing?? Also looking forward to mango season! There are fruit and veggies stands within walking distance of me, and I can get pretty much any thing I want. So instead of ordering in (so expensive), I am finding joy in cooking for myself again.

In the next couple months, I have a trip to Cape Verde and to the St. Louis Jazz Festival planned. While Dakar is fun, it’s also nice to have trips further afield to look forward to.  À tout à l’heure!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Senegal, na nga def!

Well, I’ve been in Senegal for about a month now. I haven’t been able to post previously because I didn’t have good wifi until now. I’m getting settled in, I have my computer actually set up, and my apartment is finally feeling like a home. The diplokitties also seem to be doing OK. They enjoy gazing out the window at the many birds that live in my compound. I was able to screen in one of the porches so that they could go out there from time to time and get up close and personal with the birds, without actually killing them.

Work is interesting. I’m doing a little bit of everything – American Citizen services, immigration visas and a smattering of non-immigrant visas. It’s a small section, with a stellar local staff. The Embassy itself is gorgeous – situated on the western most tip of mainland Africa, I eat lunch overlooking the ocean. There is definitely no shortage of work to be done, but I feel like I can really contribute to the section here, and that makes the job even more worthwhile.

And what about when I’m off work? Starting life over when you don’t know anybody in a city (or even in the entire country!) is daunting. Learning how to buy groceries, figure out negotiating a taxi, learning where the safe and not-so-safe places are is exhausting. That said, Senegal has some great spots and I’m enjoying slowly checking them all out. I am still carless (but working on getting a car) and that limits me. Once I get some wheels, the road is mine! In the meantime, I’m relying on the kindness of strangers, who are becoming friends, to cart me around.  I’ve been to the beach a couple of times and felt like I was in paradise each time. I guess I could get sick of sitting under the shade drinking a cold beverage and listening to the waves, but that may take me some time yet. Plus, the weather is just stunning at the moment. Breezy and sometimes even a little cool, the sun reigns over everything. And I’m really enjoying the food. Fresh fish, shrimp, and new foods like poulet yassa and thieboudienne. I am not going hungry!

I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of what Senegal has to offer. There are bird sanctuaries, national parks, mangroves, farmer’s markets, concerts, delicious restaurants, lively markets, a mall, movie theatres, a pink lake, desert dunes, gorgeous resorts, and more! Getting to know a foreign country is one of the reasons I wanted to join the State Department – unfortunately, that did not happen in Bangladesh due to the security restrictions. That makes coming here even more exciting. Senegal is generally safe (knock on wood) and developed. Plus, I hope to plan some awesome trips outside the country to to places like Morocco and Cape Verde.

Stay tuned!

cat

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

À La Prochaine

After a frantic rearranging of my test date due to the day of morning for President George Bush, I managed to eke out a 3/3 on my final French exam. Apparently this means I have “Professional Working Proficiency.” For the Foreign Service Institute’s testing purposes, it meant I can give a presentation on a variety of topics, ranging from the pros and cons of immigration, the effects of climate change on the global economy, and more. I can also hold conversations and get my point across. It remains to be seen how this translates (pun intended) into real world Embassy work. I’m looking forward to getting out into the real world and flexing my French skills.

The past 7 months have been a lot of work, and I’m happy it paid off. Sitting around talking about things in another language for 5-6 hours a day sounds like fun at first…but after the 3rd month, it gets old quick! Mostly I’m happy because it means I can leave for post on time. And by on time, I mean next week! I’m so excited to join the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal. I’ve known I’m going to Senegal for about 2 years now, and it’s always seemed like a distant dream. Now departure is upon me, and I’ll be spending the day today sorting through all my stuff.

Moving to another country is never easy, and there are so many moving parts that you fear you maybe forgot something essential. I’m also attempting to transport two kitties who hate to travel across an ocean, so that adds an additional spice to the mix.

Senegal is also a consumables post (unlike Bangladesh), and my Thursday night was spent filling up carts with Costco goods – shampoo, cleaning supplies, etc. I know that Senegal will have a lot of what I need, but it’s nice to save some money by buying in bulk and knowing I have the things and brands I like. But now I have to prioritize what is going in the suitcases versus what is going via air shipment versus what is going via a ship. Once I arrive in Senegal, I’ll have 4 shipments coming to me! 2 “ship” shipments (one from Bangladesh!), plus consumables and UAB. It’s a lot to juggle – and how did I acquire this much stuff??

I’ll keep you updated, and hopefully the next update will be from my new digs!! The diplokitties are about to get an upgrade.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Round Two, sneaking up on me

I realized this week that I have less than 2 months until departure. I swung into action, attempting to begin the stressful task of moving me and my household (i.e. two cats) across the ocean again. I feel a little more prepared for this than I did in 2016, but it’s still a lot to take on alone. The diplokitties need dental work before we set off, I need to figure out how consumable shipments work, and I don’t actually really know anybody in Dakar – whereas when I was going to Bangladesh I already had a few friends from language class.

French is progressing. I took my “interim” test and got a 2+ (oral) / 3 (reading). I need a 3 in both to be able to go to Senegal. Luckily, this means I only have to re-test in the oral, so I can focus on my speaking for the next 4 weeks. I also have a new French teacher who I really like. I still feel like I am speaking like a 4 year old who is trying to speak like an academic, so there’s that. But I’m still fairly confident I’ll get to where I need to be.

In addition to attempting to learn an entirely new language, I have been trying to soak up as much fall weather as possible. Fall came a little bit later this year due to hurricanes and whatnot. Nevertheless, I was able to get out to Shenandoah National Park and surrounding areas a few times, including a couple of lovely cabin rentals and some wine tasting days.

I still have a lot to do in the next 6 weeks to get sorted and ready to go. I’m sure time will fly, and I’ve got some fun things planned for the coming weeks! Wish me luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment