In Defense of Education, Books as Armor

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At first glance, they look like books. At a second glance, more like homemade versions of book covers. In fact, they are shields — albeit made out of cardboard and painted. But they do have handles on the back of them. These book shields, as they’re known, were created for Wednesday’s May Day events at Cooper Union, where students and activists plan to hold classes and a march to promote increased access to higher education. Conor Tomás Reed, an organizer of the book-shield project and a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, told me that while book shields represent a symbolic merger of art and politics — “We’re showing that our ideas and politics protect us” — they also offer very real protection during any possible clashes with the police. Continue reading at nytimes.com

Undoing a Spell (Without Magic)

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As someone who uses The Times’s stylebook frequently enough to have installed it in the upper-right-hand search window in Firefox — it’s my second search-engine option, after Google — I’ve been interested in the ways that words are continually evolving at The Times. A couple of days ago, editors at the paper updated the stylebook’s guidelines on the use of “illegal immigrant”; a little more than a week before that, Margaret Sullivan, The Times’s public editor, argued that more attention should be paid to the way the paper uses the terms “torture” and “targeted killings.”

Another term (albeit less loaded) that generates some debate is “Voodoo,” … Continue reading at nytimes.com

End of the Adventure for an Enigmatic Heiress

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This New York Times Magazine cover story from 1989 marked what the author, David Margolick, now calls the “last hurrah” of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born immigrant who married into the Johnson & Johnson fortune. Margolick, a former New York Times reporter, wrote about Johnson’s attempt to “become a heroine” in her native country by donating as much as $100 million to rescue the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, an effort coordinated by the labor activist Lech Walesa. After what Margolick calls her “marvelous P.R. stunt” failed, and sometime after his article was published, he told me, Johnson “fell off the face of the earth.” She died on Monday.

Here’s how Margolick described Johnson in his article: … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Parking Spot Causes Fight (No Drivers Are Involved)

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

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Kate Blumm moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in June 2011, seven weeks before her daughter, Zelda, was born. After “falling in love with the merchant community,” Ms. Blumm, and her husband, Michael De Zayas, opened a cafe last March on Franklin Avenue called Little Zelda.

The couple began to notice that bicycle parking seemed to be scarce in an area where bike traffic seemed to be on the rise.

So they did what a handful of other small-business owners in New York had started to do: ask the city to install a bike corral, a new style of rack that accommodates multiple bicycles and is installed in the street, taking the place of a parked car. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

When Living Hand to Mouth Becomes a Career

Grant Cornett for The New York Times. Food stylist: Suzanne Lenzer.

Grant Cornett for The New York Times. Food stylist: Suzanne Lenzer.

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This mouth, appearing on the cover of this weekend’s issue, belongs to Laura Williams, a model whose lips, teeth and hands are frequently sought for advertisements.

When we conceived of an image to accompany Michael Moss’s article on the addictive science of junk food, we wanted to emulate the way a food advertisement looks and feels — idealized, clean, enticing. So we called Parts Models, an agency that specializes in body parts, and it led us to Williams. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

When North Dakota was ‘The Country of Lonely Old Women’

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The North Dakota in this Sunday’s magazine is one marked by rapid transformation, a place where oil derricks are springing up everywhere, and as the author of the cover story, Chip Brown, puts it, you might find “single-family homes with Tyvek paper flapping in the wind of what just yesterday was a wheat field.” Striking black-and-white photographs by Alec Soth, taken in the Williston Basin, in the northwest corner of the state, accompany the article. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s Experiment with Images

Courtesy of Rhizome

Courtesy of Rhizome

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When Taryn Simon, a photographer and artist, collaborated with the computer programmer Aaron Swartz last April, she noticed that the way he logged into his online accounts seemed exceptionally complex. “The length of time it took to enter his password conveyed a certain pressure that was upon him,” Simon told me. And indeed, he was facing criminal charges at the time, following his arrest in 2011 for illegally accessing Jstor, a private scholarly database. “There was this sense that something was closing in on him,” Simon added. “Something that needed to be guarded against.” … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Snapshots of the Instagram Debate, Through the Lens of Professionals

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“During Hurricane Sandy, I was on assignment in Arizona. At the hotel where I was staying, they had really bad cable. The best way I could follow what was going on with the storm was by seeing the photos being posted to Instagram. It was amazing.”

That’s how Mark Peterson, who has photographed many stories for the magazine over the past 20 years, described to me his regard for Instagram. But now Peterson is one of many professional photographers, many of them Times contributors, who are upset with the photo-sharing service for changing its terms of service on Monday to allow for the possible use of posted pictures in advertisements. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Six Things I Learned Reading Every Last Word of Huck

 

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

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Among snowboarders and skateboarders and others, to “huck” is to throw oneself into a jump without inhibition (the term was inspired by the wild spirit of Huckleberry Finn). But in the British magazine of the same name, the boarding subcultures are but entry points for articles about music, politics and places all over the world. My initial skepticism (a British surfing magazine?) turned into appreciation for all the waves I caught in the August/September issue. (I read it in print, but you can also read it in full online.) … Continue reading at nytimes.com

The Last King of Print

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

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“I don’t actually go to newsstands anymore,” said Tina Brown, the editor in chief of Newsweek/The Daily Beast, a few days after she announced last week that Newsweek would become an all-digital publication and terminate its 79-year run in print by the end of 2012. But while Brown insists that she prefers reading on her Kindle when traveling and she sees “everybody reading screens,” there are still places in the world that thrive on stacks upon stacks of printed matter. One such is the corner of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Could the Next ‘Cult Wine’ Come From Manhattan?

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On his patio last Saturday afternoon, Matthew Baldassano stacked up crates holding the 2,500 pounds of fresh, deep-purple California grapes (petite syrah, cabernet and zinfandel) that had been dropped off for him on the sidewalk that morning. Two wooden barrels of wine took up part of his living room — he keeps his ground-level Manhattan apartment at 68 degrees or below so that it can be a sort of year-round wine cellar — and all over his place there were signs of pre-party chaos. A friend helped string lanterns while Baldassano arranged large, plastic liquid-catching tubs outside (meanwhile, his dog scurried in figure-eights around my ankles). Baldassano was preparing for the “first crush” of the grapes that night, his second annual party where 60 people or so gather to help pulverize the fruit, marking the start of a new winemaking season. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

What the Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure

This post was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Volunteer life bursts with cultural faux pas, fruitless projects and second guesses. For two years, I felt like the joke was on me. Even on my best days in Senegal, the sudden scream of “toubab,” a taunting word for foreigners, reminded me that my cheerfulness was jinxed, my presence perhaps unwelcome.

In West Africa, I confronted the toubab version of myself, a self previously foreign to me that was lethargic, cynical and at home with failure.

For a long time I hesitated to admit that I felt incompetent as a Peace Corps volunteer. I felt that if I expressed my suspicion that I was inept, it would confirm criticisms that the program itself is irresponsible and presumptuous. I signed up largely because I saw myself as a go-getter and I wanted a challenge. I have a childlike loyalty to getting things right; I lack a cleverness for bullshitting. Yet these traits, from which I had previously derived strength, became the source of my immense heartbreak.

I did extra work in my demonstration garden only to find out later that agriculture agents resented me for it. I had lengthy, optimistic conversations with a village chief about starting a community garden only to discover that I misread his reaction and that he was, in fact, against the whole endeavor.

When a project faltered, I wondered if I should blame the cultural difference or my language skills, my lack of expertise or my accidental impropriety. I never knew for sure.

And yet, seeing my confidence unravel was helpful. Maybe everyone needs a period in their lives when they barely recognize themselves.

The story that Peace Corps volunteers like to tell — and Americans like to hear — is one of urgent and awe-inspiring work. Americans like to feel that at least someone is out there fighting all those incomprehensible African problems.

This narrative is too simplistic.

As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary, some still find it hard to put a finger on what exactly the program achieves. There are both quantifiable yields, like number of wells dug and trees planted, and unquantifiable gains, like the intimate bonds volunteers make with people all over the world.

One benefit of the program that is never trumpeted (and likely never will be) is that it produces a group of young Americans who understand failure.

Americans, especially the variety who join the Peace Corps, are raised to believe that hard work pays off. We come from a place where the phrase, “We’ll meet tomorrow at 5,” means, “We’ll meet tomorrow at 5” — where you put a stamp on an envelope and it gets delivered.

“Failure is not an option,” according to the locker room poster likely brought to us by the same people who birthed “Impossible is Nothing.” Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that’s why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it.

We all have failures, yet we bury them in the folds of our pasts as curious gaps in our résumés and cryptic replies to direct questions. If we are unable to emerge triumphant, our failures eat away at us.

My Senegalese comrades are less brittle. They admit freely that their lives are full of fiascoes, delays and disappointments.

When I asked locals in Pulaar how work was going, I didn’t often hear: “Oh, just fine!” Instead, the response was a more honest, “I’m trying, little by little.” It seems to me that growing up with unpredictability has better equipped the Senegalese people to persevere in the face of real obstacles.

The same barriers Senegalese people manage to climb over regularly ended some of my projects. When I tried obtaining a grant for a women’s farm, the land rights had to first be legally transferred to the women themselves. While the paperwork lingered in a government office, I foolishly kept preparing for the project that would never be, blocking off months in my calendar that I would devote to it. Meanwhile, the women moved on, continuing their own, smaller version of the farm they wanted. They knew not to rest their hopes in government offices and the men who shuffle within them.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Peace Corps volunteers don’t accomplish anything. We do a lot of the things other aid organizations do, but our version is less grandiose: We hold small-group trainings on childhood nutrition and organic pest control. We help small businesses grow, often through a series of one-on-one interactions. Our hyped-up expectations of success are often quashed–we learn quickly that smaller is better.

I survived two years in the Peace Corps. My proudest accomplishment during my time in Senegal, one that can’t be expressed on a résumé, is how much I grew up.

I now know that no occupation, despite my generation’s obsession with passion-following, is without compromise or disappointment. And I know that failure, despite its negative connotations, takes practice.

 

 

 

My friend Emilie’s interpretation of my transformation from a legal assistant in Manhattan to a free-wheeling Peace Corps volunteer

On coming back

Out of the window of my Royal Air Maroc flight into New York last week, one of the most exotic things I saw below was red-colored leaves. We seemed to be flying over a suburban area of Long Island. Little houses, knitted together with streets and autumnal trees, reminded me of the feeling I get about New England: thoroughly “American” but from my perspective, never quite “home.” I was flying in from Casablanca after having changed planes from Dakar; almost everyone on the plane was Moroccan. As I’ve experienced from other plane rides I’ve taken in developing countries, everyone clapped when the plane landed, myself included. Perhaps it was to thank the crew. Or to rejoice in the end of a cramped situation. For me, it was for being alive and back in New York.

My first night back, my friend Jessica acted as my stylist as we used her wardrobe to pick out some updated, weather-appropriate clothing for me to wear so that we could go out to dinner in Brooklyn. I was like a clean slate—not used to the cold yet, no pulse on fashion yet, and only hesitant memories of which train stops where. I had lived in New York for the same amount of time I had lived in Senegal. I was an American on reset.

The cheese selection in the C-Town grocery store in Bushwick.

Of course, I’m still on reset—and it’s a blast. I believe this feeling is one of the greatest gifts I could ever give myself—the chance to experience something I love and know quite well (in this case, the United States), as if it’s new again. Rite Aid. Cheddar cheese. New Jersey accents. Cafes. Good booze. Babies in strollers instead of on backs. Brunch. Public parks. Anonymity. I’m that person walking down the street gazing at everything, eating lunch alone just because the food’s really good, agreeing to meet friends in absolutely any part of town they want, agenda-less.

I’m wondering if the whole reverse culture shock idea is overblown. Some of my friends who are returned Peace Corps volunteers say it was like a hoax the way people advertise it and then it never materializes. Maybe it’s like amoebasI was convinced I’d contract them in Senegal, yet I never did. And maybe being away for two full years allows a person to come full circleyou’re coming back at a point when you’re truly ready to come home, rather than still being high on foreign adventure.

Yesterday, after hearing about the midnight police raid on the protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement, I went down to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to see the scene. I’d heard so much about these protests for months from abroad. Then, it was as if the minute I returned to the United States, the park was swept clean like nothing ever happened.

A police officer staring me down in Zuccotti park.

Except, of course, things weren’t normal in the park—police were now occupying the space. I took pictures of the officers behind their barricades, many of them wearing riot helmets. I talked to protesters and bystanders. Demonstrators marched around the perimeter, yelling at the police. There were little clashes everywhere. A man was arrested, wriggling behind a cop as dozens of cameramen leaned in to take snaps.

What a sight! No dumpsters. Not a trace of the tent city and all its inhabitants that had been there hours before. Police officers allowed me to approach them with cameras and talk to them, something I wouldn’t expect to go over well in Senegal. The yellow trees were flawless. Amid the tension; despite the injustice of police blocking anyone from entering a public space; in face of the mounting anger with which the Occupy Wall Street movement would now move forward; in my eyes, an alien swiftness to everything.

I realized once I arrived at Zuccotti Park that I had once eaten lunch sitting in it, more than two years ago. It was for work; I was attending an arbitration that my law firm was involved in. It took place in the large black skyscraper adjacent to the park, One Liberty Plaza. Back then, I thought I wanted to go to law school and accompanied the lawyers in my firm to any interesting event that they would let me attend. The lawyers and I ate lunch at least twice in Zuccotti Park during our breaks from the arbitration. Our client was a woman bringing a gender discrimination claim. We had worked hard on her behalf. We lost.

• • •

By now, I’ve gotten used to wearing socks again. I’m still startled though, when I crawl into bed and notice that my feet aren’t cracked and dirty like I’ve been used to. I plug my electronics straight into the wall instead of wiggling them into an adapter. I switch lights on from the inside wall of a room. I tip waiters. I’m more friendly to strangers than I ever was before. I’m excited to keep meeting new people.

But I know, as a huge adjustment from Senegal, that I’m not supposed to greet random people on the street.

Image

Meanwhile, back in New York…

pretty trees

Notice how gorgeous the trees are amid this tense situation as police block Occupy Wall Street protesters from using the park this morning. Police were jovial with each other and allowed me to approach them with my camera quite close up. Such a shock from the unspoken no-camera rule in Senegal.

A protester being arrested this morning.

An experience you won’t soon forget

Why overspend on a spa-quality sauna when you can enjoy a 6-12hr, frequently treacherous, mobile sweatroom as the parched scenery of Western Mali flickers past the sealed windows? Join us in our moving saunas, where we do our best to never let the internal temperature dip below 90 degrees. As your only viable transit option, we elevate you from the confinement of “expectation” by keeping you guessing: When it will end? Will I reach my final destination? Was this all just a big mistake? Here, you’ll discover in yourself a new you: a you who claws for the last of your tranquilizers and becomes prayerful over the continuation of your iPod battery, all in hopes of numbing you through the body odor bonanza.

MTC Sarl Bus Company, Bamako, Mali
Member of the Transit Shitshow Extravaganza Alliance

Senegalese Sex Tourism

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

Many Europeans come to Senegal for sex. They do it because West Africa is poor, anonymous and convenient. Fancy resorts, with their attendant communities of tourists, are few and far between here. The country’s grittiness keeps away the judgmental gaze of Western visitors.

In coastal cities like Mbour and Ziguinchor, male prostitution is common. I have observed as older white European women embrace young, athletic Senegalese men for company, and I presume, for sex. In Mbour, I’ve seen the men exercise on the beach, flexing muscles: auditioning. They later approach female tourists, who take their pick. Some men, after their workouts, have traipsed up to me as I’m reclining on the sand, hoping I might be interested. Perhaps it’s clear after I respond to them in a local language that I’m not a tourist with money to spend.

Inland, where I live, female sex work is more common. The main hotel in Kolda, a leafy oasis with a pool, a sports bar, a restaurant, and wireless internet, is the hang-out for European men and their Senegalese “girlfriends.”

These men spend their days in the bush outside Kolda somewhere, being driven around in 4WDs, walking through the forest in their camouflage-print outfits, shooting at game. On days when I use the internet at the hotel, I see them arrive in the evening with their Senegalese guides trailing them in matching camo gear dragging their furry catch. If these men wanted to hunt, they would have headed to East or Southern Africa. Here they settle for warthogs, squirrels and pigeons.

By night, the Europeans sit at long dinner tables by the pool, each of their arms slung around young Senegalese women. It’s like they are all on a singles retreat or at a swingers’ party. Everyone canoodles with everyone else.

There seems to be a lot of pretending going on. The Senegalese women pretend to be girlfriends, spending time with the men, talking, laughing and sleeping with them. While I’ve never seen money change hands, the monetized nature of these relationships is something everyone talks about. A woman my age who I teach English to after her shifts as the hotel hostess says she’s embarrassed to sometimes be confused with the other young women who hang out there as prostitutes.

Perhaps there are deeper romantic connections I’m unaware of between the European men and their Senegalese paramours, but given the attractiveness of these women, I doubt that overweight, middle-aged men from the South of France would be their ideal mates if it weren’t for the monetary and immigration issues at play.

Some say that this is a harmless win-win for everyone. Senegal’s HIV/AIDS rate, at 1%, is one of the lowest in Africa. Locals I talk to about it seem ambivalent: they seem quietly disgusted by sex tourism, but then shrug it off, unable to come up with a more viable financial alternative.
There is also the argument, propounded by some economists, that African women who choose to engage in sex work are making an extremely rational economic decision, one that could improve their lives in real ways.

All that aside, I still can’t help but be sickened by the obvious power differential between an affluent Westerner making a kept woman or a kept man out of a Senegalese local. I have a visceral reaction to this form of inequality. Sex tourism, with its explicit racial components, seems like colonialism of the most intimate and worst kind.

The Only Time I Ever Have—Or Will—Asked for a Donation

Last month, I celebrated two years in Senegal with the Peace Corps. That’s two years since I’ve tasted fresh strawberries, two years since I’ve been chilly enough to wear anything made of wool, two years since I’ve worn high heels. As many of you know, my time here has been incredibly challenging, yet also very rewarding.

Up until this point, I have been firm on not asking friends and family for donations in any projects that I do. I believe that support must come from within and that budgets should remain small.

But the program I’m seeking funding for— the Michele Sylvester Scholarship—is an unusual case in that it is so straightforward, and its effects have been proven over many years.

The link to make a tax-deductible donation is here.

Aissatou Combe Djiba, one of the young women whose good grades qualified her for the scholarship last year.

For the past two years, I have taken part in the Michele Sylvester Scholarship, which was started in 1993 to honor the memory of a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal who was killed in a car accident during her service. Both years, I worked with the principal and a female teacher at a local middle school to select 9 girls who had good grades but were needy financially. The 9 selected girls were then evaluated by a writing contest, teacher recommendations, and interviews with me and the teacher where we visited their homes and asked them questions about their aspirations as women. I also helped organize workshops for them on self-esteem building.

3 girls went on to become winners and received school supplies ($30 each), and all 9 candidates got their school entrance fees for the next year paid for ($10 each). While this is a tiny amount of money by American standards, for the poorest Senegalese families this goes a long way. Many girls do not continue with school because it is too expensive for their families. Instead, they often get married off (sometimes in their teens), while their brothers are encouraged to continue with school.

The principal at my school has said that the scholarship has already encouraged young women to keep up their grades. We often don’t realize how rare it is for young women in this part of the world to have people tell them how smart they are, how hard they’ve worked, and how going to university is a worthwhile dream.

Together with other Volunteers, I am helping to raise the $10,000 it will take to fund this program for more than 400 girls nationwide. While this may sound like a lot, even contributions as small as $10 can help one of these girls stay in school for another year. The cost for the entire program in my community is just $200, and any funds raised above this target will be used to support the program in other schools and to fund follow-up activities to further empower these young women. To make a tax-deductible contribution, follow this link.

I truly think basic girls’ education is one of the most pressing issues in development. Research has shown that advancements in education, particularly for girls, lead to faster economic growth, smaller and healthier families, reduced rates of HIV transmission, and more equitable and democratic communities. As leading economist Lawrence Summers puts it, “…investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world.”
Thanks for your support.

—-

“Peace Corps provides the best return on the dollar in America’s entire foreign policy budget. The program educates thousands of young Americans in each new generation about the reality of life as lived by most of the world’s population. It creates a permanent constituency of informed Americans who will go on to work in development, politics, journalism, diplomacy, and other fields, and will care about the underdeveloped world and carry an intimate knowledge of one corner of it for the rest of their lives. It builds long-term relationships between Americans and people around the world who ordinarily are forgotten when foreign policy is discussed. It leaves behind a generally warm and hopeful view of America and Americans in the minds of people around the world whose individual and collective lives can have a profound effect on the rest of us. In an age of chronic anti-Americanism, with the U.S. portrayed in cartoon-like fashion by much of the global media, the presence of a flesh-and-blood American for two years in a poor village or city slum is a badly needed corrective. Generously funding Peace Corps is a no-brainer for anyone who cares about poverty around the world and America’s standing in it.” -Rajeev Goyal

Rain Biking

Boy on bike, Kolda, Senegal. Click to see larger image.

I got caught in a rainstorm yesterday and hung out with the others taking refuge under the awning of the Credit Agricole Bank. We commiserated about the lack of cell phone service. The internet and electricity had been out most of the day too. I was sort of lost, just stuck in this African rainstorm, cut off from the world. I decided to take pictures.  For once, I wasn’t the one getting drenched while biking in the rain.

The Things She Carried

Two years ago, I stashed my belongings wherever I could—the basement of an ex-boyfriend’s mom, my dad’s garage, my mom’s storage unit—and moved to Senegal with little more than a hiking backpack and a tube of Chapstick. I have almost no recollection of the things I own in America.

I am now repeating the process of sifting through all my belongings in preparation for the long trek home. I’m still in that stage of life where every few years brings a major transition, marked by a liberating shedding of possessions.

While I don’t sentimentalize most of my material items, I do think the things we own are acquired for a reason and tell a lot about our lives at a particular time.

Incoming volunteers often ask me what they should bring to Senegal beyond the obvious headlamp and camping towel. As I did, they search for the definitive Peace Corps packing list. This is no such list, but rather a few essentials that someone might consider bringing, and that define this moment in my life.

Noise-canceling headphones

This is by far the smartest, least obvious thing to have in Senegal. I believe in taking in the world around me as it is; I spend a lot of time sitting with people, talking, and observing. But when I am in a car for 12 hours straight (as is common), at some point I need to distract my brain from the intense physical discomfort I’m in. I love becoming engrossed in podcasts about things like psychopaths or the invention of cocktails while totally unrelated Senegalese scenery whips past outside. When the going is rough and the road is all potholes and rocks, listening to heart-thumping hip hop makes the experience of being thrashed around in a car exhilarating. This physicality of a car ride—and a soundtrack to go with it—is something you almost never experience on a road trip in the United States. Regular iPod headphones don’t work because you would have to physically press the earbuds further into your ears or turn the volume way up just to hear (both damage hearing), and neither would achieve the clarity of sound—especially of spoken word—that noise-canceling headphones do. Mine are by Etymotic Research.

Moleskine notebooks

They don’t need to be Moleskine, but having small and durable notebooks to take with me everywhere has improved my writing, my desire to observe things, and my ability to have a lot of information with me everywhere I go. Owning quality notebooks, as opposed to cheap booklets I could buy in the market here, makes it so that I’ll actually value them and write in them. Here in Senegal, if I remember an email I have to send, or information I want to research, I can’t just do it impulsively on an iPhone—I write it in my notebook so that I remember it next time I use the internet. Having dates written next to my notes helps me look back on my two years and remember what happened when, which is useful when I’m writing work reports or just making sense of the mass of recipes, phone numbers, and thoughts I’ve collected. I’ll take the practice of carrying a notebook everywhere back to the States.

Earplugs

When I go to sleep, there are noises in my room (crickets, lizards, mice), and outside my room (children, parties, donkeys, calls to prayer). Earplugs lock me into a cocoon of sleep. They are especially useful when staying at a regional house or other place where there will be unpredictable levels of noise. My mosquito net creates an air chamber, boxing me in physically so that I can sleep. Earplugs do the rest of the job.

Good Reading Material

This may seem like another escape mechanism, but that’s a narrow way of looking at it. I’ve found that my mind, and heart, have been more open to the things I read here than they were in the States (when I was busy, distracted). This in turn has enhanced my service and my interactions with people. A college professor of mine agreed that his time working in Africa was one of his life’s great literary opportunities. My brain felt especially sponge-like in the beginning of my service. Those first several nights in my village homestay, when it was 97 degrees in my room and I didn’t know how to ask to borrow a hand fan yet—those moments of isolation made me so thankful I still had the New Yorker I bought at the airport (which I read voraciously, stopping at regular intervals to fan myself with it). I read Monique and the Mango Rains, a memoir written by a Peace Corps volunteer who helped deliver babies in Mali. It was so intimate, and felt like a cheat sheet in interpreting West African cultural cues. I now have a trunk full of magazines and books. I’d suggest bringing just a few choice reads—a couple paperbacks not likely to already be in the volunteer libraries here and some magazines. Or you could also bring one of those gadgets people are using these days… what are they called? Kindles? iPads? Just bring a protective case and accept the fact you may not always be able to keep it charged if you live in a village.

Ramadan: A Visitor’s Perspective

I came home to Kolda the other day to find everyone in the thick of Ramadan. I had been gone for a work meeting in another part of Senegal. Breakfast stands had vanished, candied dates were being sold everywhere, and young men had stamped out the last of their cigarettes. My co-passengers remained silent for our entire 5-hour journey, the seven of us intimately squished in a Peugeot station wagon.

When Ramadan arrives, there is a seriousness to everything.

I decided this year I wouldn’t do the dance of seeing whether I could fast like everyone else. This is the fourth Ramadan I’ve experienced while living in Muslim countries (once in Morocco, three times in Senegal). I usually fast for at least a few days.

I fasted for the entire month when I lived in Morocco (meaning I refrained from food and drink during daylight hours and consumed only at night). It invigorated me. But those were also the days when I played integration like a game, dating a Moroccan guy and doodling Arabic in my notebooks. I loved haggling endlessly in the markets, drinking ultra-sweet tea, and doing things that made me feel like I fit in.

But in the end, no one is asking me to be more Senegalese. I’m not Muslim, and no one is hoping I’ll become a religious convert. The experience of fasting made me more compassionate toward Ramadan’s meaning and toward the dedication it requires. But of the things I’ve learned, one of the most important is knowing when to stop proving yourself to others, and most of all, to yourself.

Someone in the New Yorker recently quoted the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss as saying, “[I]n an encounter between two cultures, you have to find the right distance in order to really get to know each other.”

Many Peace Corps volunteers dread Ramadan and plan vacations to escape it. For those who live in villages, Ramadan can be especially rough: even less food than normal, thus more pangs of starvation. Our work projects slow down. People in our communities are tired and thirsty, so it’s difficult to convince them to help double-dig soil, start up community gardens, or give young women self-esteem building workshops. It is frustrating sometimes to feel like everything is on hold

For any type of traveler in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it can be hard to experience things as they would be normally. Businesses are closed or have unpredictable hours, making breakfast and lunch hard to find. People expect modesty, so engaging in vacation behavior, such as tanning on the beach in a bikini, is tricky.

Sometimes during this month, sunlight seems like a punishment, an examination lamp upon everyone’s movements and desires. But experiencing Ramadan, whether you’re fasting or not, can be a worthy, eye-opening cultural undertaking.

The main way to participate in Ramadan as a non-Muslim is to restrict yourself from eating or drinking publicly during the day. You feel how challenging it is to ride a bike uphill or take an all-day dusty car ride with locals when you can’t sneak even a sip of water. You may feel, even if artificially, the sense of community during Ramadan, of everyone around you sharing the same physical torment. Later, in the safety of your hotel room, you can scarf down a few Clif bars and realize what a fortunate experience it is to eat.

Ramadan is also interesting because rather than being a private religious ritual, it is evident in the very rhythms of the day. In Senegal, it is a rare month to choose to travel (both culturally and seasonally), so you’re not likely to encounter many other tourists. You’ll experience the emptiness of sundown, when the streets are vacant because everyone is breaking the fast; the chatter around midnight, when people are eating dinner; and the unusual calm of morning, when people are still dozing after their 5 a.m. snack and prayer. If you’re staying with locals, they’ll usually invite you to break the fast with them.

An outsider is bound to notice the distinctness of Ramadan—its odd schedule, the special foods eaten, the way it’s the subject on everyone’s lips—and walk away with this memory from their travels.

I’ll spend the rest of the month hiding my eating habits. I’ll be crouched on the floor of my hut cracking open cans with my Swiss Army knife for my one-woman lunch. I’ll be at the 9 p.m. dinner bowl for the odd ones out: the kids who are too young to fast, the menstruating, the ill, and me. And maybe, like Lévi-Strauss said in the quote above, that puts me at the right distance.

 

 

A version of this post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

 

Senegal’s Accidental Hipsters

Photo by Marcie Todd

My daily romp around the city where I live in Senegal affords me a view of urban fashion trends. I’ve lived here for two years and speak the local Pulaar in addition to French, but no matter how “integrated” I’ve become with “the locals,” I’m aware that I’ll always be a foreigner. Being a constant outsider, while imprisoning at times, allows me some freedoms.

Senegalese people already think I’m wacky, so I waste less time caring about others’ opinions of me. I can’t always communicate, so I spend more hours just thinking. People stare at me, so I stare at them.

In my de-facto role as an observer, I have become fascinated with the style choices I see on the street. On one end of the spectrum, there are older women, who by loyalty to convention or lack of economic freedom wear head-to-toe complets and matching head scarves. This satisfies a stereotypical vision of traditional West African attire: sculptural head wraps, quirky patterns (Obama’s face, a severed finger), and unapologetically loud colors.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are more experimental with their fashion. Men tend to do this more, often because they are granted more social freedom and have more disposable income. They wear bold hats or provocative t-shirts, at times looking silly; at other times, avant-garde. I live for the sight of elderly men ready for Friday mosque, in long robes and Moroccan fez hats, clutching prayer beads and looking utterly conservative, yet who with one touch–classic round sunglasses–are chic. Whether wearing $2 plastic jellies or a woman’s velour sweater, it’s one’s confidence that lends to one’s swagger.

For nearly two years, I found myself dying to take portraits of all the stylish people I saw around town. The problem was, taking pictures of strangers in Senegal is a sensitive act; I’ve been berated in the market for snapping a shot of fish lying on the ground. With time, I gained a better feel for people and learned that photo opportunities come of informal conversations and asking for consent, not of claiming other people’s images at the slightest touristic urge.

After I started shooting, a friend pointed me in the direction of the guerilla-style fashion site Accidental Chinese Hipsters. On it, contributors post photos (often taken furtively) of Chinese people wearing outfits that at first glance seem awkward, yet upon further reflection could be construed as hipster. It dawned on me that maybe what transfixed me about Senegalese men’s style was a certain fuck-you attitude toward clothing, a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it otherness that conveys humor and that people might aptly describe with the overused term, “hipster.”

Thus, my fixation on the accidental hipsters of Senegal, the people who wear the detachable hoods of ski jackets as hats and who zero-in on t-shirts with wolf illustrations in the thrift markets. Their look is refreshing because it’s not over-calculated–they just like what they like. One of my favorite outfits was a woman’s complet with a retro floral design and gold zippers. I couldn’t get her picture; she was on the back of a moto, speeding fast ahead.

The fashion I’m witnessing is the result of a shift taking place in Senegalese style. Much of it is due to the global used clothing industry. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, used clothing was the 5th largest import to Senegal from the U.S., clocking in at $7 million as of 2009, the date of the most recent data.

Used clothing is shipped to Senegal and many other African countries by middlemen who specialize in sorting and exporting clothing bought by the ton from places like the Salvation Army. It winds up in the fookijaay in every market in Senegal. Fookijaay, the Wolof word for “thift market,” literally means “shake out” and “sell.”

Snippets of Americana, stamped on t-shirts and paraded as everyday fashion, are part of the landscape. As I bike around, I see “Bacon Eating Championship 2005,” and “I’m a Jesus Freak” advertised unwittingly by Kolda’s Muslim, non-English speaking crowds. I see men wearing “Real Women Have Curves” or “Glenview High Ladies Ice Skating Team” t-shirts. They exhibit cultural dissonance, and they own it.

Many point out, however, that the global used clothing industry is destroying local textile production all across Africa. Some mourn the trend away from people taking pride in beautiful local fabrics and toward an approximation of Western style. I admit I’d be dismayed to see my tailor go out of business if traditional fabric disappeared and American hand-me-downs took over entirely.

But for now, witnessing the negotiation of Western thrift and old-school African style is what is fascinating. It’s clear that Senegalese people love the thrill of injecting artifacts of foreign clothing into their wardrobes. They love being the only one out of their friends to have a certain bag or a specific shape of dress. They do this without apology, and thus, panache. I think they’re onto something.

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

Barthelona

After nearly two years in West Africa, I finally left for a vacation. I hadn’t wandered from the Senegal/Gambia/Sierra Leone/Guinea-Bissau zone because I clung to a silly idea that doing so would mess up some sort of living-in-Africa equilibrium I had achieved. Besides, with practically $30 to my name, clicking around on travel websites felt irresponsible. I was content to stay where I was, relegating things from my Western life to a fantasy realm I experienced only through the internet.

Thankfully, and with no foretelling on my part, I was yanked out of that state.

Barcelona would seem an apt destination for someone seeking romance. However, what lured Jeremy and me toward the Spanish city was the ever-glamorous matrix of low airfares on Kayak.com. Thus our trip was never inherently about Barcelona. It didn’t carry the weight of having “always wanted to” study the Sagrada Familia or speak with a lisp. Barcelona was just the result of us bending time and space in such an arrangement that we could be together. It turned out to be one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.

I scraped up some funds from my below-the-poverty-line salary in preparation for the trip. Since I didn’t trust my Senegalese ATM card to work in Spain, I changed my West African CFA into Euro. I did this by walking past the Africa Star nightclub in Dakar, approaching a shady man who rubbed his fingers together at me, and engaging in illegal currency exchange at the low, low rate of 3%. And I didn’t even have to bargain.

I had become skinny, I assumed, due to my low-protein Senegalese diet and the intense heat. It turns out that I also have a worm infection—sexy, though not as serious, as it sounds. Even my malnourished Senegalese colleagues commented on my thinning frame. Once in Barcelona, my mission was to eat. I’m lucky to have in a partner someone whose ravenous hunger is as constant as my own. Jeremy and I embarked upon what was essentially a 9-day all-you-can-eat-a-thon around the city. My body came back, as Pulaars say.

Razor clams

Frequently, we would lay our guidebook on the bed to collaborate on the day’s itinerary. We gave the art and architecture sections the obligatory glance, but what we really studied were restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. We had no loyalty to a set schedule of “must-sees.” It stays light in Barcelona until 10 p.m., and dinner isn’t until at least 9 p.m. (my ideal schedule), making one feel like there is time to do everything, nap included. As two over-eaters in the making, we let our momentary food cravings be what guided us around the city.

Iberian ham

In the market La Boqueria, we ate chorizo-and-cheese sticks, aged Iberian ham, razor clams, mixed mushrooms, and dragonfruit. In Raval, we had baby grilled octopus, pan con tomate, and fried calamari. On Montjuïc, we ordered paella and sangria, neither of which I found spectacular—they seemed mass-produced for tourists. At a random octagonal intersection (most crossroads in Barcelona are octagonal), I got a slice of spinach tortilla (savory potato tart) I’ll never forget. I ate it on a narrow street outside an old-fashioned salon where I got my hair cut.

Our most mind-blowing meal was at 41°, the tapas bar run by the famous Adrià brothers of El Bulli. It’s a place where the guest list is strict, the cocktails are serious, and the waiters wear curiously unattractive sneakers bearing the name of the bar. We ate false olives (reconstituted olives which look like olives but instead burst and then melt instantly in your mouth), false pistachios (same idea), beef carpaccio on toast with purple flowers, caramelized foie gras on a cloud (like a luxury marshmallow), parmesan ice cream sandwiches (my personal favorite), and oysters with various sauces of kimchi, miso, and chicken consommé. Neither of us had experienced molecular gastronomy before. It was divine, but it left us hungry.

Beef carpaccio... now with edible flowers!

We wandered around Poble Sec, deferring as we often did to Jeremy’s BlackBerry, held up in front of him like a compass. I noticed what it’s like to stroll with someone again, slowing in unison every several meters and automatically leaning in to see new maps and restaurant options appear on a phone. We finally settled on a place that served burgers, beer, and had a vacant corner window where we could watch passersby. We ordered a Whopper Doble, a steakhouse burger with bacon and fried onions, french fries and a cerveza. It was called Burger King, and to me, it was heaven.

Burgers and beer

One great thing about living in the developing world for a long time is that you’re like a kid again when it comes to American fast food. McDonald’s, Domino’s—these places become fun cultural landmarks worth discovering, not places to turn up your nose at. The shame I may have associated with those fast food joints in the past has been replaced by nostalgia and wonder. And frankly, I love that what might be seen as pretentious science food at 41° was mirrored by the faux-chicken of (“reconstituted”) chicken nuggets at Burger King.

In the middle of the trip, we rented a car and drove two hours to Cadaques, a town on the Mediterranean near the border with France. We explored the town’s cobblestone streets and conspired to rent a boat. One night we tucked into a menu-less restaurant, the kind where the owner charmingly bullies you into ordering dishes you’re not sure you want, in a language you don’t entirely understand. We sat at a table with other couples who were similarly perplexed. It was delicious! Dorado fish, grilled shrimp, salad, and wine from a nearby vineyard we visited by motorscooter the next day.

Cadaques

The place we stayed in Cadaques was an apartment owned by an Italian family who rented it out when they weren’t vacationing there. It was themed vigorously in nautical blue-white-yellow; it was as if they were inspired by fabric with fish swimming in coral and decided that it wouldn’t really be a vacation home if every goddamn accessory didn’t remind you of ocean and summer. I loved the slightly lived-in feel, the pictures of the family on a wall, the neurotic reverence for their cat (welcome mat: “This House is Purrr-tected by a House Cat!”, decorative pillow: a print-on-fabric picture of their cat). It had a kitchen and a terrace, both of which we put to good use. Waking up to grapefruit juice and home-cooked omelets with chorizo and manchego cheese overlooking the Mediterranean ain’t a bad way to start the day.

In Barcelona, I had wanted to meet Senegalese Pulaars who had migrated there and interview them. I didn’t end up having time for that. We didn’t see many people of color in Barcelona, and certainly not in Cadaques. We also missed some of the protests about joblessness that have swept across Spain. Like Paris, Barcelona has an ultra-clean, civilized feel. It didn’t have the mixed-in grittiness that I love about New York, which is louder, busier, and more diverse. But Barcelona still had layers I’ve yet to discover, and I enjoyed navigating its alleyways while doing things you don’t really do in Senegal—eating while walking, holding hands, and wearing shorts.

La Boqueria

On the beach one night, in the area called Barceloneta, people celebrated the summer solstice. The boardwalk was packed with people carrying open containers of alcohol and shooting off fireworks in every direction (apparently neither are illegal). It was kind of like walking through a war zone, except with drum circles and toddlers on bikes

Our hunter-gatherer tourism finally caught up to me. On one of the last nights, we double-mealed it for dinner, then explored nightlife. We found that aside from some upscale bars, Barcelona doesn’t do cocktails. Many bartenders refused to make drinks consisting of three or more components. I asked for a gin and tonic—it came deconstructed (a bottle of tonic water and a separate glass of gin). But I suppose this doesn’t matter much in a country where delicious wine is so affordable.

I managed to get tequila, brandy, vodka, gin, beer, and Red Bull in me (on top of the two dinners) before the night was through. After a few bars and a Euro-trashy club, we finally found a dance floor with hip hop. We danced for hours. Later that morning as the sun came up, we got back to the hotel, and I was forced to surrender. Jeremy gave me some motivational speaking in the bathroom as I coughed up the goods, like a shoplifter forced to hand back all the things she stole. Not since my early days in Senegal had I felt such painful sickness.

Maybe I overdid it, but that’s sort of what I set out to do. As I continue in my last few months in Senegal, eating for two,* and bracing myself for the rocks that might be in my food, I won’t regret how gluttonous I was in Spain.

*The worm(s) and me, that is. The worms will be gone with medication that is en route, (crossing fingers).

 

The Hangover of Adventure

Pangs of homesickness, those dangerous and nettling feelings, have started to emerge. They poison daydreams and warp one’s relationship to what could normally be an open-ended calendar. In my stubborn and moneyless situtation, I have not yet left West Africa in almost two years. The sensation of burning, literally from the intense heat, and figuratively in terms of mental burnout, has overwhelmed me at times. When the adventure of going far away wears off, the hangover of staying far away ensues. The hangover of adventure is what you choose in doing Peace Corps Africa as opposed to backpacking through Africa. Choosing to stay despite the novelty having vanished allows for a new type of adventure.

The United States, through a foreign lens, has become intensely curious to me. I want the microwave dinners, the strip malls, the company of overeating sports fans. I want to visit Texas, summon a pizza through the phone, and be in a crowded New York subway. I also want all the things I’ve realized are rare in developing countries: encouragement of creativity, critical thinking in schools, male-female parity, entrepreneurial spirit, appreciation of diversity. The survival aspect of life in Senegal precludes most people from indulging in these privileges.

Americans, or anyone for that matter, ought to experience life abroad and all that it entails: the packing up of one’s life, the goodbyes, the suspension of loans/apartments/jobs/cellphones/relationships, the giving of oneself fully to an unknown place. The overwhelming (and exhilarating) uncertainty. The willingness to get sick. The willingness to become homesick.

It is freeing to choose to live in a culture where you will be constantly surrounded by different people who have no concept of alone time. In so doing, you choose in fact to be alone, even if it is not in the physical sense. That aloneness frees you to think; to negotiate your boundaries of self; to adopt, even, a new persona. And yet the bonds you forge in this period of solitude and homesickness, with people whose language (such as Pulaar) you’ve learned not to boost your résumé or your eligibility in international business but instead for the sole purpose of speaking with them, become some of the most heartfelt connections you will make with other human beings.

And in this period of homesickness and longing, one’s heart is more open. The complexities and intensities of emotions are more readily felt. What you gain from savoring the hangover of adventure is a braveness and an empathy and a vulnerability we are not often afforded in the midst of cluttered American life.

Vanity Flair

This picture in my Vanity Fair, of the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert ("A Journey to the Heart of FABULOUS") inspired the kids.

So they wiped chalk off of the chalkboard and put their own spin on it.

Mango Season

Right now is the hot, dry season. My garden is anemic. It hasn’t rained in at least 6 months. Heat rash is common. So is taking repeated bucket baths and staring mindlessly into the distance. It’s also the season of mangoes, of the fruit thudding on my roof, of people marching around with 20-ft bamboo poles to tease ripe ones from the tallest parts of trees. I have a mango tree in my own yard. I sleep under it every night due to the intolerable heat indoors. In this season, the impossibility of napping in the daytime means I sleep more drunkenly at night, impervious to the possibility that mangoes might pummel my face and to the dinosaur noises of nearby donkeys.

There is this mystique of otherness around mangoes: tropical, exotic, imported. The thought that I could reach my hand up 3 feet, eyes unwavering from my book, and produce a mango inspires jealousy in some of my States-side friends. Mangoes connote places of green abundance and brown people. But Senegal right now is lethargic and arid. Mango trees, which take years to produce fruit, have deep taproots which siphon moisture from the water table several meters below ground. This is how, long after the rains have ended, and right about the time the landscape is colorless, mangoes sprout copiously. The arrival of mangoes marks a welcome injection of life to cut the barren mood of dry season.

The distinctness of the seasons here is at once comforting and monotonous: from March through May I’m certain I can sleep outside and not get rained on, yet I know every day will be the same sweaty, mind-sapping slog. I believe that the human brain liquifies with heat. I often find myself motionless in my room, knowing that there’s somewhere I have to be or something I should do, but my mind is paralyzed by heat. Then I look at my L.L.Bean digital clock/thermometer, and see that 40 minutes have passed and it’s 106 degrees in my zinc-roofed room. Granted, 106 degrees can be bearable in the land of air-conditioning, 7-11s, Slurpees, electricity, fans, ice-cold lemonade, showers, and put more simply, moments of escape. Here, the heat imprisons you everywhere you go.

Aside from a general concern over my African sun exposure pre-qualifying me for skin cancer, few things give me more pause than the prospect that my brain has atrophied due to malaria medication and extreme heat. The sun has bleached my hair, endowed me with freckles, and guaranteed me a year-round tan. I no longer get sunburned. My newfound blonde highlights are moderately attractive; will early onset senility be also?

I suppose the physical investment of living far away—far culturally, physically, emotionally, infrastructurally—is just part of the experience. It’s woven into the adventure of exploring one’s human capability. Am I less healthy now that I eat less protein, drink well water, expose myself to parasites, get baked by the sun, battle staph infections, play with grubby kids, and regularly ingest chemoprophylactic medications? Or, am I more healthy now that I get full nights of sleep, bike daily, eat fresh local ingredients, take spontaneous vacations, laugh more easily, and have a job that allows me to set my own schedule entirely?

In this far away place, where mangoes mean heat, seasons are predictable, and health is relative, I’m happy to leave most questions unanswered and simply pass out under the stars. But I can’t wait until rainy season.