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?
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.
Server: You could come here on weekends and we could be friends and I can make a baby with you.
Me: No thank you!
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!
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!