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Friday, August 28, 2009

The Sliding Scale of Sacrifice

My friend Renee recently offered to send us books and popcorn in the mail, the two things that she knows will sustain my sanity and my children’s, respectively. It’s been two weeks now that we’ve been trying to procure a post office box in the nearby city of M’Bour, but like everything else here, you need an inside connection to make it happen. It turns out we have one. As fate would have it, our friend Zorro’s second cousin is the Assistant to the Manager of General Sorting, who apparently has some influence with the Director of the Processing Department. Score. Or so we thought. The paperwork alone involved in securing the right to send and receive mail in Senegal is downright mind-boggling. “We don’t want to adopt the P.O. box”, I told Zorro, “just foster it for the time we’re here.” Apparently, we’re still under consideration.

When I enthusiastically thanked Renee for the popcorn suggestion on Jamie and Sunny’s behalf, she asked innocently, “You have a microwave, don’t you?” The “PussshhHah!” that inferred my “are you kidding?” response sent spittle onto the computer screen (we were skyping). As I began describing what we were living with, or without, I realized we had indeed embarked upon somewhat of a survival adventure, albeit a mild one. There are many people here who live with much less than we do, in conditions far worse, and certainly less sanitary. What I did realize, as I was describing our necessary inventiveness, is that most of us humans are quite adaptable when faced with less than ideal circumstances and that we were among them. It’s not that we’re suffering. Far from it. We have three meals a day, comfortable beds and a roof over our heads which happens to pitch out over a breathtaking beach on the Atlantic, whose waves lull us to sleep at night. “You should really write about this,” said Renee.

Let’s begin with the hotel kitchen. “Le Rayon du Soleil,” (the ray of sun) as our small Inn is called, boasts a rather well-equipped kitchen. There is a large refrigerator with an adequate interior freezer compartment, several nice prep counters and a commercial-grade oven with four gas burners, a separate deep frying section and a pizza drawer. The day I first wandered into this homey kitchen with it’s quaint round wooden breakfast table, I knew I would willingly assist Daba, the cook, as sous-chef every night if she would have me. My culinary fantasies got fast put up in the larder when I noticed that Daba wasn’t setting foot in the kitchen. She was squatting outside over a low pot set on a small gas tank which was making more noise than a blow torch. While the smells emanating from that pot were undeniably wonderful, I couldn’t help but thinking of my dashed dreams of cooking in that kitchen: two women, one American, one African, side by side over simmering pots, dicing this, chopping that, exchanging techniques, recipes, small talk, united across continents and cultures by the universal act of nourishing our loved ones (and the occasional summer client who would surely savor the melting pot.)

“What’s wrong with the oven?” I asked tentatively.

“Nothing,” she replied defensively. “It’s an excellent restaurant-grade gas oven. No one else, not even the French restaurants, have this good of an oven.”

“If it’s so good”, I ventured, “why aren’t you using it?”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “Because last year when there were no clients we sold the oven furnace to get money for food.”

“Oh . . . Well, can’t we replace it?”

“Not unless you’re planning a trip to France any time soon.” So that ended that.

Now on to shopping. The aisles of the local grocery store (which are patronized almost exclusively by “toubabs”, or white people) serve as a good barometer for everything else that’s going on, or not, at any particular time of year. In the produce section this week, which in fall and winter hosts an impressive array of vegetables and fruits, I found only a few wrinkled potatoes, a smattering of bruised apples, some potent sprouted garlic bulbs and a small basket of large dates, I think, left over from the week before. The IMPORT section (OK, so it’s my favorite) was utterly void of triple cream French cheese, cured Italian ham and Swiss yogurt. Packaged cookies were nowhere in sight and milk was past it’s due date. “What’s going on?” I asked Umi, the impossibly beautiful Senegalese owner of our local grocery store. “Did the delivery trucks get stuck in the mud?”

She laughed at me and glanced around the store. I was the only patron there. In fact, she and I were alone. Her staff was nowhere in sight. “Ramadan starts today.” She explained. “Few people work during Ramadan, so nothing can be delivered. I only stay open for the few toubab clients who are around, like you. I can’t bring in a lot of produce because it won’t get consumed. We don’t eat during Ramadan. It’s a fasting period.” It looked like I would need to get creative with her offerings for the next several weeks.

For one month, the ninth month in their calender year, the Muslim people refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or any other such consumption from sunup until after sundown. This includes water. It is permissible to rise at 5:00 am, before the call to morning prayer, to eat a small meal, but the daylight hours are to be passed in quiet repose and contemplation of Allah. (Pregnant women and nursing mothers, the elderly and infirm are exempt. Children strive to complete as many fasts as possible.) The month of Ramadan is considered penance for all the sins one has accumulated during the rest of the year, a fast which theoretically cleanses the body, so that one is free to in turn purge the impurities of the soul. I hate to think of the general health consequences of daylight fasting. In the past few days, I’ve witnessed more marital arguments, fist fights (the Muslims are typically non-physical) and general crankiness than ever before. Even the stray cats and dogs are on edge, deprived of the left-overs they would normally receive. Blood sugar, it appears, is immune to religious dictates.

I knew girls in college who sinned aplenty during the week, only to head to church on Sunday to wipe the slate clean, the religious equivalent of “I’ll start my diet tomorrow.” Their means of recompense seems like a get out of jail free card to me compared to the austerity of Ramadan. I admire the Muslims’ adherence and dedication to written creed and respect their decision to honor Allah, but I am by no means prepared to follow the fast out of solidarity. However, I’m also not one to flaunt my exemption by religious choice and so I find myself sneaking the gas burner into our apartment pre-dawn, squatting over the burner to heat water for coffee and scramble a few eggs as the sun comes up. We eat sequestered indoors, quietly, hoping the smells and jostling of pans won’t set off contempt for our irreverently full stomachs. If I happen to come back from the grocery store (with my bruised apples, large dates and pungent garlic), I skitter back to our rooms quickly, head down, keeping my purchases discreet.

Coinciding with the austere month of Ramadan is the violence of the rain storms. While the mortals have been accumulating their transgressions, the skies have been storing up rage, heat and humidity. Into the silent void that is particular to lethargy and spiritual contemplation, the storms come fiercely, especially since they originate and gather force at sea. Since our windows open out onto the beach, the impact of the crashing, churning angry waves and the deafening thunder that accompany it, make for a pretty intense storm. Anyone who has seen a Broadway production which featured rain as an integral part of the plot knows what I mean. Cue lightening stage left, (the entire theatre up to the balcony lights up) cue thunder stage right (a clack, although you expected it, jolts you from your seat). Cue rain patter ( surround sound) and you want to open your umbrella right there in row 22C. Storms in Senegal have the same effect. They are a theatrical production.

The electric company also appears to be fasting during Ramadan, conserving precious gas during the day, (i.e. no electricity) and allowing it only at night when electricity may be needed to cook the one meal of the day and ceiling fans are essential if one wants to sleep. (Did I mention that airconditioning is a luxury known only to certain expats and luxury hotels who can afford the outrageous electric bills, despite the outages, in addition to a generator which is needed at least a third of the time.)

I spent this particular day of Ramadan outside in a quiet contemplation of my own--that of our dirty laundry. I wash it by hand in a large basin filled with water and suds and hang it to dry in the sun. Kem, one of the girls who works at the hotel, could certainly do it for me, but I hesitate to tax her energy during the fast. Besides, the whole process takes less time than most rinse cycles and is surprisingly satisfying. There is no sarcasm in my statement about contemplation. Washing clothes by hand with no distraction is a great way to be alone with your thoughts, spiritual or otherwise. An added benefit is the muscles that get used. Who needs a membership to the local gym (hypothetically speaking) when washing clothes, squatting over a gas tank and carrying heavy grocery bags has made me aware of muscles I never knew I had, or could hurt so much.

There are a few who do not adhere to the fasting rules of Ramadan, namely manual laborer, like the small crew working with Richard to repair the earth house. I asked one of them about it today and this was his response: “My commitment to Allah lies in my heart, not my stomach. If I don’t eat, I can’t work and if I can’t work, I won’t make money to feed my family when Ramadan is over.” Practically speaking, this made perfect sense to me.

My curiosity about Ramadan, my desire to understand these people’s willingness to give up basic nourishment in honor of their God made me take stock of the small luxuries we ourselves have given up. Ours are not sacrifices, just inconveniences and ones that have us thinking differently about energy consumption, both physical and practical. I suppose it’s easier for me to do things the simple way here both because I don’t have a choice at the moment and because its’ the norm. If everyone else had a washing machine, I’d surely feel put out. But I don’t, not here. The spiritual punctuation to witnessing Ramadan is that I am thankful for what we do have.

Zorro is the one person who I can talk honestly and openly to about the Muslim religion. I like to debate with him on certain issues, which always leads to a deeper understanding of something I might otherwise have judged superficially. I am certainly capable of getting up on my high horse and trotting him onto a soapbox, (which if opened would contain a rather terse op ed), in order to make my opinion known. But I am here to learn. Today I asked him if he thought Ramadan still made sense in the modern Muslim world. He said for some it still did and others not (I thought of the laborers.) I guess my need to challenge the concept of fasting is born of my personal fears not only about deprivation, but forgiveness. I wondered aloud if there might not be a sliding scale for Ramadan which correlated directly to the degree of one’s misdoings, as in, sin a little, partake in food; sin moderately, drink water and so forth. I even went so far as to suggest that one could reasonably and consciously fast reversely. Why not give up the temptations that might lead to sin or focus on doing good deeds throughout the year so that the penance of Ramadan would be unwarranted? He pondered this for a moment, his willingness to consider other’s ideas one of the things I love most about him. But finally he explained that sins, transgressions, whatever we choose to call them cannot be easily defined and the gamut is too wide to categorize and chart on my theoretical sliding scale. He told me I was thinking practically about a spiritual subject, which seemed incongruous to him.

“Plus," he said, "we are all human and therefore prone to mistakes. Trust me when I tell you that it is easier to abstain from eating than sinning.” Food for thought, I’d say.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Flight of the Ephemerals

There is a restaurant in the village that we take the kids to when they are in need of the kind of comfort that only a good pizza can provide. This establishment makes a respectable one: fresh tomatoes, black olives, ham, oregano and Emmenthal cheese, baked crispy and thin in a half-moon brick oven. To the delight of Jamie and Sunny, who are allowed to watch the preparation, this cooking method yields a finished product in less than ten minutes. Although they have a full menu offering a variety of options, whenever I inquire about anything other than pizza, I am told “we are out of that tonight, Madame.” So pizza it is.

The proprietor of this establishment is a 50-ish Frenchman named Jacques who has a thick shock of white hair and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and Pastis. On this particular night, he has clearly overindulged and is asleep at a table outside when we arrive. We approach gingerly, not knowing whether to clear our throats loudly, or turn around and leave. Thankfully (for us, not him), the young Senegalese waitress, Fatu, emerges and slaps him on the side of the head, shooting us a look of familiar disgust. He sits up abruptly, his bloodshot eyes rolling about, attempting focus. “Oh”, he says. “I was wondering where you were.” I can only imagine by “you”, he meant any clients in general--the restaurant was empty.

“Right ziss way, my Merican frenz” Jacques says with an exaggerated wink in my direction. Scrutinizing the room as though he is hard-pressed to find a table, he ushers us to one near the open door, hands two large menus to Sunny and Jamie and pulls out my chair to seat me. As he leans in, my nose is affronted by an afternoon’s worth of Pastis and stale cigarettes. He returns a few mintues later and places eight wine glasses on the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be needing all those glasses,” Richard says. Jacques looks at the four of us, then the table and finally says, “Oui, oui, oui, pardon,” removing one of the glasses. This man is clearly drunk. Careening to the bar, he puts both hands around the cup of coffee Fatu has poured for him as though it were a bouy in the middle of the ocean and letting go would mean certain death.

Several tables fill up over the course of our meal and the place takes on a convivial ambiance with layered notes of several languages. I can discern the two most obvious: French and Wolof, but also catch bits of Italian, a cockneyed British and Serer, the language of Cassamance, to the South. I love this about Senegal: the small cosmos that gathers at any given moment. Tonight it is unexpected in this rainy season, in this little-known eatery with it’s checkered table cloths and plastic palm tree salt and pepper shakers, it’s poorly rendered murals of Africans running to catch the bus with baskets of fish on their heads, their noses, breasts and feet large and characatured. But it feels comfortable at this moment, this one seemingly ordinary evening.

As night comes, several winged bugs begin drifting in through the open door. They are silent and delicate, resembling dragonflies, with a thorax and two sets of wings, but a short rounded body. Soon, there are twenty or thirty hovering around us, landing on the table, on our shoulders, taking off again towards the ceiling. No one seems concerned but us. Jamie, who is particularly bug-phobic, is standing on his chair, screeching and waving his hands about, ducking the onslaught. Jacques comes over and says, “don’t worry, it’s just the 'ephemerals'. This will all be over in a few minutes. Just watch.” Perching on his barstool, he gestures at the swarm, as though he has arranged this spectacle for our entertainment. Sunny wonders aloud if they are fairies.

Apparently, these insects are born during the rainy season and live for a single day. Not many people get the chance to witness their struggled, short life span. It takes them the better part of a day to hatch and they are fully formed only at dusk. Tonight, they have come to our restaurant, attracted by the single bright overhanging lamp near our table. They ascend slowly and purposefully, their wings beating furiously towards their beacon. Just as they reach the summit, they lose their top set of wings and fall fast to the ground, where they struggle for a minute or two, then exhausted, they surrender and die. The life cycle that we are witnessing is narrated to us by a man sitting at the table next to us. I ask if these insects exists elsewhere and he tells me he doesn’t know. He has never left Senegal.

We find ourselves riveted, cheering them up and on towards the light. “Go, go, up, fly!” As they fall, Jamie, who is no longer afraid for himself, but deeply sad on these creatures’ behalf, tries to catch them before they fall in hopes of saving them. But nature would have it otherwise. Jacques is right. Within minutes, these beautiful ephemerals have lived their short lives and their bodies lie motionless on the floor. Only their delicate, transparent wings remain, floating through the air, taking flight again, independant of their host, on the current the ceiling fan provides. They descend slowly only to be lifted again into the air.

As we leave the restaurant, we turn to see Fatu sweeping the remains of the ephemerals out the door along with the sand and crumbs of the day. We walk home through the village, greeting people on their stoops who hope to catch that last cool breeze before retiring for the night. Predictably, the electricity has gone out and the street is dark. But there are candles everywhere illuminating the dark path and the stars are bright and numerous. It strikes me that we all seek the light, all of us, to different degrees. It is essential to our being.

Jamie takes my hand in the silence and says, “Don’t be sad, Mama. At least they got to fly.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Return to Senegal: Tomorrow is Tomorrow

We have returned to Senegal in the midst of the rainy season, a time when tourists and expats flee en masse, escaping the heat and daily storms. These foreigners describe the summer months here as savage and unrelenting, both in terms of the weather and the mood. The locals remain silent when they overhear their most precious and abundant season described this way. I have even detected a smile or two, suggesting that it was perhaps they who perpetuated the rumour in the first place. Naturally, we disembark with both curiosity and trepidation. According to some, we are moving to Senegal at the worst time of the year.

It is still dark when we land, the air damp and hot at this early hour, portending a scorcher of a day. But for the moment, as we drive from Dakar towards the coast, there is a breeze that brings familiar odors through the window--bread baking, spices, car emissions, burning trash--which all combine to signal that powerful olfactory recognition of a place and a people I know well. I breathe in the acrid smells willingly as the morning sounds of a city coming to life join in and the light begins to peak on the horizon. As we drive from crowded Dakar along the coast towards La Somone, we pass workers hanging from overflowing communal buses, reaching down to take bread from the children who sell it along the roads. As the sun comes up, I hardly recognize the Senegal that I left behind less than three months ago. I was introduced to this country as an arid landscape, charred brown and void of vegetation, where only the hardiest of weeds dared make an attempt at survival. However, what I see now resembles a lush tropical island--the result of constant, torrential (and nourishing) rain. We pass tall, bright green palm trees and an acre or so of the most beautiful flowering ground cover--large frangipane-like leaves with delicate fuscia petals. “What is that incredible flower?” I ask Zorro, our friend/brother/assistant (who jumped up and down when he saw us at the airport, knocking over our baggage to get to us.) “It’s just a weed,” he says dismissively.

Locals on the side of the road are collecting the abundance of mangoes that have fallen from their overloaded trees. We stop to buy some (twelve for the equivalent of two dollars) and marvel at their size. Their mass is matched only by their luscious odor, a sweetness that cannot be contained and oozes from it’s shell, like the sweat that begins to bead up at my hairline. Even the ocean seems transformed, turned bright blue by the welcome overflow of it’s water table, it’s tides churning up waves quickly and confidently. Everything, it seems to me, has come alive. It is a bright and beautiful day, our first day in Senegal.

We stop first at the project site, a brave decision on Richard’s part, as we have learned that the rain has done extensive damage to one part of the earth house. When we pull up, our faces fall. The same storms that have aided such beautiful growth have ravished the house. One section, the pillar that holds up the majority of weight for the outside corridor, has literally melted to half it’s original girth. (Unbeknowst to us at this time, it will fall in two days, taking with it half the domed ceiling.) Was nature really capable of vandalizing our house this way? I can only tell you that what I saw resembled a boxer after eight rounds. Huge areas of missing plaster exposed the bare, bruised earth walls and thick layers of mud spread down from the roofs, staining the pristine white lime a muddy, frothy pink--the color blood turns under a running faucet. In painful contrast to the ruin we found were the seedlings we had planted in the courtyard. They had flowered and proudly showed off their flourishing. They had clearly taken round one. And if we didn’t act quickly, we would lose the fight altogether.

It took Richard, who is more resilient than I, only a few hours to turn what I viewed as a tragedy into a potential positive. I thought of our dwindled budget and wondered how we would possibly finance what needed to be fixed. I saw this situation as an impossible and cruel failure. He saw it as a learning experience. We had been convinced by a local mason to construct the pillars from earth bricks rather than using the rammed earth we used for the walls. This turned out to be a huge mistake, as these walls had remained completely intact and solid. No erosion was visible. Richard came up with a plan. This setback--four months of reparations--would actually speed our original goal of training the locals to build with earth. They will help us repair the house while we train them and then, borrowing from the Habitat for Humanity model, we will help each of them build their own earth houses. It may take several years, but it is the sole solution both from a practical and financial standpoint. For now, all we can do is protect the house from what remains of the rainy season, and begin rebuilding again mid-September. We have a few weeks to endure the storms. How bad could they be?

After we left the site, we headed to the hotel where we will stay for the next several months, a small, no-nonsense “campement” on the beach in La Somone. We arrived to find 30 or so young Senegalese who had taken over the hotel for a day and night of fun on the beach, a last bash before the month-long austerity of Ramadan begins. This is typical practice for the youth from Dakar to pool their money and escape the city fumes for the relief of the ocean. They had brought everything necessary--music, food, lights, bathing suits and were setting up a rather impressive stage for fun. At that moment, it felt like an annoyance to me. I needed to side-step their smiling faces and swaying bodies. They contrasted too strongly with my own mood, heavy with uncertainty and fatigue. I dropped Richard off at the earth house with tarps that we had bought at Home Depot and travelled with, not knowing that the majority of damage had already taken place. We had asked a friend to take care of our cat while we returned to the states and the kids were anxious to pick him up--the perfect excuse to stay away from the hotel. After we profusely thanked “popcorn’s” host, we headed to the car under darkening skies. Just as I turned off the main road towards the brush land to pick up Richard, the skies opened and a rain like none I’ve ever seen began to fall in heavy sheets. I turned on the windshield wipers only to have the rising wind rip them promptly from the car. The rain seemed to bring with it an extraordinary heat that fogged the interior windows, but we were far enough onto the dirt road that stopping would surely mean the car would get stuck. Puddles were quickly forming and the rain beat so hard I could no longer see. I grabbed a baseball hat which Zorro had left on the front seat and rolled down the window. With my head outside the driver’s seat window, I searched for the turnoff toward the house, but couldn’t find it. Mistaking other dwellings in the distance for our house, I made several false turns while the kids persistently asked why I was driving all over the place and the cat protested loudly at the rain coming in the back seat. I finally spotted the house and turned onto what I thought was a cleared path.

With the house in plain site, I slowly advanced, proud that I had managed to navigate the car in the storm. Richard came out and waved his arms frantically at me, sharing my relief that I had made it. As the rear wheels spun and protested, I realized it was a warning wave, as in “stop, you’re about to hit . . . a mud trench.” I was stuck, 50 feet from the house, in a ditch, with the rain pounding down and covering the rear left tire like an elephant in quicksand. After many attempts at digging the mud away from the tire, several locals passing by tried to help us. It was a valiant effort, but it was clear that the car was going nowhere on this particular night. We called Zorro who said he would try to pick us up in a taxi if he could find one willing to risk it. Then the battery died on the cellphone. As they were leaving, one of the Senegalese who tried to help us said, “Today is today. Tomorrow is tomorrow.” All we could do was wait. And wait. And wait. It was now 9:00 pm and Sunny and Jamie’s dwindling lack of patience and increasing hunger told us we should begin to walk the two miles back to town . . . with a bag of groceries and a mad cat in the pouring rain.

I have to say that it’s times like these when children really shine and show us that their means of perception and tolerance are far superior to ours. Knowing that Popcorn would not appreciate the pelting rain and try to run for it, I emptied the contents of my purse, a wooden handled clutch, and shoved him in, receiving several retaliatory scratches in the process. We walked, heads down against the diagonal rain, in the pitch dark towards town, Richard leading the way, gingerly guiding the kids around puddles and thickets with each hand. I followed behind with the bag of groceries in one arm and the cat-purse in a death grip in the other. I knew I had to get that cat back to the house safely if my kids were ever going to speak to me again. Proceeding through the mud, flipflops were lost, clothes got caked and a cat, wishing he had stayed with his interim keeper, got his head repeatedly shoved back into a space half his size. But all the while, the kids took this as an awesome adventure, hearing the loud croak of a giant African bullfrog for the first time, jumping through vast and deep rain puddles freely, trusting that Richard (Captain Africa) knew the way back. All I could think of was the bottle of wine in the bag I was carrying, at that point at least as precious as the cat in the other arm. As the muscles in both triceps began to scream with fatigue, I weighed the consequences of letting either one drop. They were equally unthinkable so I renewed my resolve to continue.

When we finally made it back to the hotel, exhausted and soaking wet, the party was going full force and loud music greeted us at the door. Several young men beckoned us to dance and a beautiful girl brought us rice pudding on a tray. I shook my head no, but she insisted on sharing, which she did with a smile. I suppose she saw in our bedraggled faces that this day had not been kind to us. “Kai lek” she said. “Come, eat.” I delivered the cat to his new home, poured myself a large glass of red wine and returned to taste what would be my dinner. The sweet creamy rice felt comforting and tasted of childhood simplicity. As we settled in, the music finally reached my ears with it’s authenticity and it no longer sounded outside the realm of our day. I thought of our house, of how we would bring it back to life. For now, I would have to let go of the questions, of the whys and hows. We had survived this day, and I suppose our new friend was right. Tomorrow is tomorrow.