Senegal Time: a Road Trip & a Conference

The Fellowship is so much more than just a job. It’s an ongoing series of projects which are loosely connected by the theme of English Language and Cultural Exchange. The project for the weekend of December 10 was the 25th annual conference of the Association of Teachers of English in Senegal (ATES). Like everything else I’ve experienced here, it happened on a timeline all it’s own.

T-minus 1 Month: November 8th-28th

I received the call for submissions in my inbox. If you recall, my arrival in Senegal was marred by a minor crisis of housing, and at that time I was in my 4th temporary housing situation, living with the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants. That was also the week I got my first real details about what I would be doing at the Veterinary School, and it was at the same time I was given a Zoom meeting project to organize and direct. When it happened, I didn’t fully appreciate what I was getting myself into, but since the submission was a 100 word abstract due by November 20th, I decided in the end to go with a variation on the workshop I’d designed for my most recent professional development course, “Training of Trainers”: how to use TikTok to motivate ESL learners. Decision made, I moved on with the very grinding work of designing the materials for the school (needed by Dec 5) and the Zoom debrief (Dec 3).

It may be relevant to note that my brainstorm for this TikTok workshop was at that time entirely theoretical, since I had only encountered TikTok videos when they were occasionally ported over to my Facebook feed. I didn’t actually install TikTok until I was preparing for this conference. I could have done something for both the class and the conference that I was more familiar or experienced with, but I wanted to use this Fellowship to really push my boundaries and try new things. Mission accomplished.

I had a fair amount of emotional rollercoaster over this process as well. Despite how long I’ve been teaching abroad, I haven’t actually given very many presentations to peers in my career. Teaching is a daily presentation, but professional opportunities like this are just not things that have come along often. I worried that my topic would be too different, but then I also worried that it wouldn’t matter what I proposed because I’d seen as the “foreign expert”. Then the RELO made it seem like the submissions process was more exclusive because they were limiting the number of foreigners to make space for local presenters (which would have honestly been great because I don’t want to be chosen just for being American, and I really don’t want to take a platform away from a Senegalese teacher), and then it turned out there were not actually that many submissions anyway, so probably didn’t matter.

I turned in my material on time (November 20) and was expecting to hear back by the 25th (their own deadline for announcements). In the mean time, I moved into my new apartment, kept working on my materials for the school and Zoom debrief, and put the conference on the back burner, unwilling to prioritize mental and temporal resources to it until I knew whether I would actually be presenting or not. Friday the 25th came and went with no news, and I waited patiently until the following Monday to write and ask. With less than 2 weeks left, I was told everyone who submitted was accepted. Way to make a girl feel special.

T-Minus 10 Days: November 28-December 8

I finally knew that I would be presenting and started on the process of travel plans. Particularly since the RELO from the Embassy and other ATES teachers from Dakar would all be going, I thought that there might be some kind of assistance or direction in how I would get to this conference. I was so very wrong. I have made my own travel arrangements in many countries, often “off the the beaten track”. This isn’t usually something I balk at, but I had come to appreciate the deep difficulties involved in transit here in Senegal which are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

I tried to get more information from the conference organizers about the location of the conference within the town of Kaffrine, or any advice on hotels or transportation options, but they simply referred me back to the Embassy staff who had no answers either since they were provided a US Govt issue driver. To make matters more fun, although Google Maps showed several hotels in Kaffrine, only one even had a website and that website was a photo and phone number. Booking and Airbnb had no listings for the town at all. Booking a hotel online would not be possible, and yet I didn’t feel comfortable going without a reservation since this was “the largest” conference for English teachers of the year, and we thought the nearby hotels might all be booked up. Silly me. (also that railway station marked so optimistically on the map is a shut down relic of the colonial past. no trains)

That Wednesday, November 30, I met up with the Fulbrighters to hammer out the reservations. I don’t know if I would have been able to do any of this without them. They are both much more fluent in French than me, plus one of them speaks passable Wolof and has a local boyfriend. This turned out to be a big advantage in the “getting shit done” arena. She called the main car service in Dakar and they were willing to drive us to Kaffrine on Friday (Dec 9) for 85,000CFA (140$USD) but they refused to send someone to Kaffrine to pick us up the following Sunday.

I considered the possibility of renting a car and driving it myself. I got my international driver’s license before leaving the states and verified it’s valid here. I wouldn’t want to drive in the city, but the countryside seemed ok, and for 140$ I felt like we could rent a car for 3 days and then we wouldn’t have to worry about getting back and forth between the hotel and conference either. However, I didn’t know if there was any reason that the Embassy might disallow it, so I called the RELO to ask. I left the conversation with the impression that it was technically allowable for me to rent a car, but by then the Fulbrighters had turned up more information on the rental situation, and the availability of automatic transmissions here is even less than in Europe. I really need to learn to drive stick. We put car rental on the back burner as an option of last resort and got back to searching.

Talking to the other Fellow in St. Louis (also about 5 hours away from Dakar) I learned that the ATES teachers there were planning to rent a bus as a group to drive down on Friday, and I tried to reach out to the ATES leader in Dakar to see if they were doing the same. When we finally did get an answer back (several days later), we found they planned to leave Dakar in the wee hours of Saturday morning rather than spend Friday night at a hotel. The conference was set to start at 9am, and presentations at 11am. I couldn’t imagine leaving Dakar at 4am Saturday to just barely get there in time. Additionally, the Embassy has strong feelings about us not being on the road after dark.

We checked on the Dakar/Kaffrine bus route via an app called Yobuma; however, the daily bus going from Dakar to Kaffrine was not matched by a daily return, and we would not be able to get a return bus until the following TUESDAY. We looked also at Kaolac which had a better bus schedule, but then realized we still didn’t know how to get between Kaolack and Kaffrine. Finally, we gave up and called the Senegalese boyfriend for help. He got in touch with a driver he knows and we finally got a quote, 120,000CFA for the round trip with A/C. That’s 195$ for those playing the US currency game.

Africa is surprisingly expensive: I can’t really wrap my head around this. I have taken buses, trains, and rideshare cars all over the world, and that’s just an insane amount of money to get to a city 5 hours away and back. The previous week I’d done some internet research about tour groups to various sights around Senegal and was shocked by the high prices, but it seems like that’s just what drivers cost around here. Travel really is a luxury. Additionally, it blows my mind that the conference was set in an out of the way place. I understand the desire to move it around the country each year, but the neighboring town of Kaolack would have been far easier to arrange both transportation and lodging for.

Thankfully, the hotel was much easier. A simple phone call in French got us room rates and basic information about things like air conditioning and payment options. Single rooms were 30CFA (about 45USD) per night. We booked the rooms with relative ease, although, again, I’m sure if I had to do it on my own, with my terrible French, it would not have been so easy. I had hoped to use this trip as a way to learn more about how I might go sightseeing, but all I really learned was how expensive and difficult everything is when compared with nearly every place else I’ve been lucky enough to travel.

I spent the next week juggling plates as two of my three projects came home to roost, and I frantically tried to create the visual accompaniment to my presentation in between. It’s not enough to just say TikTok is useful for motivating students, I had to figure out a way to show a room full of older teachers who had also likely never used the platform themselves how to use it. I also had no idea if there would be internet at the conference, so I planned to download every example video and be able to make the presentation offline if needed. In addition to finding a wide cross section of TikTok videos to use as examples. Every waking hour that week from December 1-8 I was working, either with students, in a meeting, or on my laptop at home scouring the corners of the internet for data, commons license images, and TikTok videos, all while frantically trying to practice the speaking portion and timing over and over to be sure it made sense, flowed, and fit in the available time.

T-Minus 1 Day: December 9th

Friday the 9th finally arrived. We were expecting the driver around 11:30am. Sometime around 11:15 I got a message that he was running late because of traffic. The ongoing stream of messages for tardiness continued for the next 2.5 hours. The traffic in Dakar is truly awful, but it shouldn’t have taken more than an hour to get from one place to another, and any driver who’s worked here for more than a week should know to plan for the traffic. All things considered, I didn’t expect him to actually be on time, but I didn’t think it would be more than 30-45 minutes delay.

By the time we got on the road, all of us were very frustrated. Our goal of getting to Kaffrine before dark was entirely impossible now. The conference schedule (which I’d received only a day before) indicated a cultural event on Friday evening at 5pm that I was looking forward to attending, and felt disappointed that this delay by our irresponsible driver would make us miss that. In addition the traffic to get out of the city was truly insane. It took us over an hour to go the 15km to the highway, adding even more time to our estimate.

The ride itself was not unpleasant, especially once we got out of the city. The sun was glaring, but the driver had agreed to run the A/C for our quoted price and so we were fairly comfortable. We had some road snacks and enjoyed watching the baobab trees and cows throughout the countryside. I took some video of a small town we passed through which was fairly representative of the journey. In English, I’d use the colloquialism “one horse town” to refer to a place so small, but in reality they had quite a few horses around!

The very large highways are fairly well-kept and clear. The one connecting the airport to the city, for example, is impressive. However, once we got out past the airport, we were on roads that were full of potholes and speedbumps, and frequently stuck behind enormous trucks hauling goods around at very slow speeds. The process for passing was pretty much just peek around the truck to see if the oncoming lane was clear and going for it. There was definitely a type of headlight flashing communication between drivers, but it seemed to signal anything from “I’m here” to “you’re clear”. It wasn’t until the sun started setting that I realized the road dust and haze might make an oncoming car hard to see, and the flashing was a good way to stand out.

While on the road, I got word that the cultural event was being pushed back to “not earlier than 8pm” but more likely 9pm to midnight, and also that it was relocated from the conference venue to a nearby hotel.. I thought the delay was probably wise given how many of the attendees would be unlikely to arrive in Kaffrine before dark. The bus of teachers which had left from St. Louis hours before us was still hours behind us, even though the actual distance between St. Louis and Kaffrine was only slightly farther than that between Dakar and Kaffrine. I guess the bus was travelling much slower.

We arrived at the hotel around 9pm and were able to check in fairly easily. We had been told there would be food at the cultural event, so we decided to head over to that location and eat there while enjoying the event. One hitch, we hadn’t seen any taxis since arriving. We asked the front desk at the hotel to call a car for us since our driver was only contracted for the inter-city driving and had taken off as soon as we were at the hotel. The “taxi” was a plain car, and the driver was asking an entirely unreasonable fare. It’s hard to put in perspective, so don’t think of it in terms of USD, think of it in terms of Dakar taxi costs. Dakar is the big city, things are supposedly more expensive, and for me to take a 5km trip up to the pub costs between 1,500 and 2,000 CFA depending time of day. The trip to the cultural event was about 2km and if it hadn’t been dark (and also like 35C/95F) we could have walked it. He wanted 3,000CFA. I’ll admit, it’s not like we had a lot of options, but he also didn’t have a lot of customers. In the end, I think we got down to 2,000 and got his number for the return ride. (he ended up being our defacto Kaffrine driver and made close to 10,000 off our group that weekend for a few trips under 3km)

When we arrived at the location we were given for the cultural event, no-one seemed to know what we were talking about. It was after 9:30 and while we had been warned things would be late, I had expected the hotel staff to at least be aware of something happening. We were all road weary and hungry, and decided to go ahead and order food from the hotel restaurant since no event food was forthcoming. We sat down and got some beers, and a few of the local people came over to say hi: one a rather skeezy dude who kept insisting one of our party looked just like his ex-Scandinavian girlfriend, and the other a very sweet woman who was delighted that two of our party spoke some Wolof and wanted us to dance with her.

Like so many restaurants in Senegal our meal took a very long time to arrive. We joked that they had to catch the chicken after we placed our orders. We didn’t get our meals until around 10:30, and by then there was finally some sign of an event. Drummers and a stringed instrument player were joined by a couple of singers for a kind of African improv jam session called Ngoyane. More people arrived and the place started to fill up, but we were loosing stamina fast and were expected to be at the conference at 9am the next day.

By the time we finished eating, our cohorts from St. Louis had still not arrived and according to an ongoing WhatsApp chat were experiencing a comedy of errors that put our own to shame. At one point, they transferred from the bus to car, but then the car stopped in an empty parking lot and the driver got out to look around with a flashlight. No one seemed to know what they were looking for, only that it made no sense to look for a whole hotel with a flashlight. We decided to wait until 11:30 to see if they would make it before we had to turn into pumpkins and they did with minutes to spare. It gave us a good chance to say hi and exchange crazy travel stories, but none of us wanted to visit too long because the day had been exhausting for everyone. We got back to our hotel a bit after midnight and I was able to sleep fairly well if all too briefly.

The Conference

9AM – The morning of the conference, we called our local “taxi” and headed over, knowing we’d arrive after the scheduled start time but before anything actually started. Again our expectations of just how late “late” is here were wildly inaccurate. The 9am opening ceremonies finally started at 11am. Sometime around 10am, I and the other presenters were asked to sit up on the stage instead of in the audience. It was very uncomfortable, but at least I was in the second row, behind the real VIPs. I didn’t really enjoy being on display, but in the end it may have been a cooler place to sit due to airflow.

11AM– The vast majority of the speakers were addressing the conference in French, which is fine, because it’s the primary language here, though I had hoped at a conference of English teachers there might be more English. I can follow along ok with basic French, but the content of the speeches was not especially easy, interesting, or relevant to me, and it was very difficult to maintain focus. Finally, the opening ceremonies concluded and the keynote speaker was set to begin. He was given a long introduction… Senegalese people love to talk … and talk… and talk. His presentation was in English and he was an excellent speaker. I genuinely enjoyed listening and was appreciative of his attitude towards students and education. He started the presentation by reviewing the movie Akeelah and the Bee, which shows two very different approaches to mentoring students through a spelling bee competition, and shows in the end that love and encouragement work better than harsh discipline and criticism. He was very student centered, focused on student-led learning and the need for engaging and motivating activities, but above all, support and encouragement.

At the end, the moderator claimed she was going to limit questions to the first three people, but instead of questions, it was mostly stories and praise, and as much as I admire this cultural devotion to storytelling and mutual uplifting, it wasn’t only us Westerners getting impatient at this point in the proceedings. I overheard one of the local VIPs on stage with me say to his neighbor in a frustrated tone that the time for paying tribute was over and the people should just sit down. Even then, after the 3rd person to take the microphone finished, the moderator called a 4th to speak. I’m mildly surprised there wasn’t a riot. In the end, the tech in charge of the sound board simply cut her mic off, forcing her to abdicate the stage.

1PM– When we were finally allowed to get up, it was nearly 1pm. According to the schedule, we should have not only concluded the opening ceremony and keynote speech, but also a coffee break, and both presentation slots, and be on our way to lunch by 1pm. It’s no surprise that as soon as we were released everyone flooded to the snack tables outside.

I personally booked it for a restroom. The only ones we had found were co-ed and non-flushing. I don’t mind co-ed for single seaters, but it is a bit awkward when there are stalls. The lack of flushing is harder because with “seat” toilets it almost always means it’s not clean. I want to hope that maybe when classes are in session at the building the restrooms are cleaned more regularly, and maybe it was just dirty because of the overuse by conference attendees. I want to believe that no one has to use facilities like that on the regular. I’ve been in a lot of different styles of toilet over the years, and what I’ve come to find is that all of them are basically ok if they are clean, and all of them are truly miserable if they aren’t. Whether you are flushing, pouring water, or sprinkling ashes/sawdust doesn’t matter as much as the overall maintenance.

Next, I set off in search of coffee (it was a “coffee break” after all) and found some Nescafe packets and hot water. Once I was reasonably refreshed, I began to look for my presentation room. It was obvious the written schedule that had been handed out was meaningless for times, but I had been assigned room 1 for the first set of presentations. There were 5 of us presenting simultaneously, which I found odd when I first received the schedule: two rounds of presentations before lunch and then it’s over? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a round of presentations after lunch to let people attend more talks? Of 10 presentations, each person could only see 2, and presenters could only see one. I wouldn’t be able to watch any of my colleagues who were all scheduled to speak at the same time as me. Yet, as it was approaching 2pm before the first presentations even started, the plan made more sense to me. Somehow, even though they felt obligated to schedule the event for an early start, the planners knew in their hearts that things would end up like this.

2PM- It took a while to find my room. No one from the conference staff made any attempt to help me find it or help me get set up and organized. The “moderator” for my slot turned up in the room as I was setting up my laptop, and in the process of discovering that there was no audio available in the room. The thing about TikTok is that its an AUDIO visual medium, and for my purposes it’s about speaking practice more than anything. Without audio, my presentation would be confusing and pointless. We started the search for audio equipment, delaying the start of my presentation even further.

When a speaker was finally brought in, the person trying to hook it up had two power plugs and no audio cables. I couldn’t seem to get them to understand that the second power cable would NOT actually connect the computer and the speaker. Thankfully, one of the Fulbrighters had offered to take photos for me that day and was playing assistant. She figured out the speaker had a Bluetooth option and after no small amount of fiddling with the settings, we got the computer and speaker paired and I was able to proceed – with sound – more than 3 hours after my talk was originally set to begin.

Perhaps because of everything that had already gone wrong, I felt my anxiety drop away as I started to speak. I got through the whole thing and I really enjoyed watching the audience of teachers slowly change their minds about this crazy young-person fad. I had a fruitful Q&A session afterwards which gave me some quality insight into how I can improve the presentation before the next conference, and then it was done. I wandered back outside and rode a little wave of serotonin for having made it through what had come to feel like a Herculean task. We sang songs with a group of high school English club students and I did a short video interview for a teacher from the Casamance region. By the time I came down enough to question what was happening with the second round of talks, they were already underway and so I just stayed in the shade sipping water and chatting to the other attendees who had also opted to sit out the second round of talks.

4PM- When the last presentations were over, we tried to file over for the lunch on offer, but the rooms which had been set up were not large enough to accommodate the number of attendees. I don’t think it was more than 200 people, but it looked like the long tables would seat 100-150 depending on how cozy they wanted to be. Additionally, it was hot AF and the meal was Thieboudienne served in the traditional huge communal dishes and eaten with hands. I think I could have done 2 out of 3 of those variables (hot, crowded, messy eating) and I was not alone in that feeling. All the Americans collectively decided that rather than trying shove in, we would call it a day and go back to eat at our hotel. The remainder of the conference was internal business to the organization of which we are not members, so we didn’t feel obligated to stick around.

The hotel restaurant was, of course, out of most of the food on their menu, but grilled chicken and pizza were good enough. We even managed to get ice cream for desert. I collapsed under the air-conditioning in my room before 8:30 and watched old cartoon network videos on YouTube via the sketchy Wi-Fi until I fell asleep.

The Aftermath

The next day, our inter-city driver was actually early to take us back to Dakar (no traffic in Kaffrine). We had our hotel included breakfast of baguette, butter, eggs and cheese-product with a side of Nescafe. The drive back to Dakar was just as long and full of cows, but we all made it home before dark this time, at least.

I don’t know what to say about this trip other than it was a wild cultural experience. It was so much harder and more stressful than anything that small and close to “home” has a right to be, and yet I’m also very grateful that I was able to participate in it, not only for the professional opportunity to present at the conference, but also for the cultural experience in all its gritty glory. This will help me know how to approach future travels in Senegal and Africa. Whether it’s tourism or my next scheduled event in Zanzibar, it will give me a metric by which I can set appropriate expectations and experience fewer frustrations as a result. Every experience helps me not only to understand this place and it’s people, but to reflect on myself and my place in the world, and what that means for my obligations to myself and my fellow humans. So yes, it was hard, and hot, and frustrating, and dirty, but it was also an entirely unique and worthwhile experience in which I got to come face to face with the teachers and students who are shaping Senegal and ultimately West Africa into strong and independent culture of the future.

All I Want for Christmas Is to Stop Having Culture Shock

It has become unavoidably obvious that I am caught in the grip of some of the worst “rejection phase” culture shock I can remember. I was in denial about this up until this past Monday, but I can’t keep lying to myself about it. I was already upset that I didn’t get a “honeymoon” phase for Senegal, and I’ve spent almost every day since arriving here telling myself to stick it out because it will get better when… when I find an apartment, when my classes start, when the weather cools off, when I meet more people, when I finish this conference… it’s a never-ending goalpost-shift that I’m doing to myself. The wildest part about finally realizing that my anger, doubt, and frustration is “normal culture shock” is that it doesn’t make me feel any less angry, doubtful or frustrated… it just makes me feel very predictable and if anything even more angry, doubtful and frustrated that after 8+ years living abroad I’m still susceptible to this kind of extreme emotional wreckage.

What Is Culture Shock?

There’s a million articles about this, so I’m not going to go over every detail here. The most important things to know about culture shock are a) it’s not something you can just willpower yourself out of, and b) it follows a pattern within parameters. It’s a lot like grief or trauma response in this way. Most people know the “5 phases of grief”, but fewer know the phases of culture shock.

  1. honeymoon – “everything is awesome” or at least quaint, charming, or some other positive adjective
  2. rejection – “everything sucks”
  3. adjustment – “maybe I can make this work”
  4. adaptation – “I got this”
  5. reverse culture shock – “home doesn’t fit the same anymore”

These are often presented as a U-curve but in reality we know it as a rollercoaster that never ends, but just goes around and around and sometimes leaves you stuck hanging upside-down.

Much the same way that reaching the “acceptance” stage of grief doesn’t mean you magically stop feeling sad about the loss of your loved one, reaching “adaptation” doesn’t make you suddenly immune to culture shock.

A lot of the talk about culture shock is on a timeline of a year, roughly in quarters, and I think that’s because a year is a very standard time of living abroad for study or work. I’ve seen people on holiday pass through all four stages in a week, going from loving everything on Monday to nearly getting on a plane to fly home on Wednesday to navigating the public transit system and haggling with the street vendors by Saturday. Then there’s long term expats like myself who never really stop fluctuating through the effects of culture shock, but experience them in less extreme forms.

The brain goes through a bunch of changes when we leave our familiar surroundings. New neural connections are formed, chemicals and hormones are released in new and different ways and amounts. The honeymoon phase may just be extra dopamine and serotonin, and the rejection phase may be extra adrenaline and cortisol. It’s normal to seek the cause for any new emotion in our present environment. I learned about it while studying the trauma phenomenon of “emotional flashbacks” in which we experience an emotion as a result of past trauma but without the accompanying memory, we ascribe the cause of the emotion to the present, to whatever happened just before we started to feel it (the trigger).

When we are still new to a host culture, it’s easy to assign responsibility for any extra emotions (pleasant or un-) to the most obvious changes in our condition – the new culture. When we live in a foreign environment for years, we still experience the extra emotions, but tend to cast about for things within our lives like work or personal relationships which may have changed more recently. It’s classic the correlation/causation mix-up.

For a really long time now, whenever I have had brain changes resulting from culture shock, I didn’t think about them as being related to the specifics of Korean culture, but was able to see them as part of a broader pattern of the expat emotional roller coaster. I was having culture shock, but it wasn’t manifesting in the stereotypical ways. Now, I find myself suddenly having some very textbook-example culture shock symptoms, and I almost didn’t see it because I thought it was just for new travelers. Silly Rabbit, culture shock is for everyone.

Realizing I’m a Stereotype

At lunch the other day, my American colleagues patiently listened to me explain why I was having such a hard time here, and then while agreeing that my observations were valid, also pointed out that my emotional reaction could be culture shock. I gave it very little thought at the time, but it sat in my brain, and by the time I got home that afternoon (grumpy, exhausted, and questioning my life choices) I decided to do a little Googling. At first, I wasn’t finding any resonance. Yes, I missed my honeymoon phase because of housing and weather issues, and I had some complaints about things like chronic lateness and haggling for taxis, but I had plenty of examples of Senegalese culture that I appreciated. I love the food, I really enjoy driving along the corniche and watching the ocean, I like the way that everyone grows flowers to give color to the otherwise sand colored land. I was able to enjoy good nights out, and butterfly migrations, and students having fun. Surely I couldn’t be in this “hate everything” phase and still enjoy all that. Surely my litany of complaints were grounded in objective reality and not in an involuntary emotional response? Right?

Most people focus on the part of the “rejection” phase that centers around negative thoughts and feelings toward the host culture, but it’s not the only thing. There’s a whole pile of physical and mental health issues that come with this phase, especially if one is making the conscious effort to resist cultural judgement.

FATIGUE, ILLNESS, EATING/SLEEPING ISSUES – I wrote before about Bessel Vander Kolk’s seminal work The Body Keeps the Score. That book is about trauma manifesting in the body, but it carries the broader message that all kinds of unresolved stresses will come through as physical symptoms, especially in the form of chronic fatigue, chronic pain, eating/digestive issues & sleeping issues. Culture shock stress is no exception.

Am I extra tired because it’s hot AF, and because everything takes more time and energy to do, or because of culture shock? Am I feeling icky because of new local bacterial strains or because of culture shock? Am I not sleeping well because it’s a new apartment or is my insomnia acting up because of culture shock? Eating ice cream and bread for dinner is probably culture shock, but my recent bout of “I wanna die” fever/chills/aches/bed-to-bathroom/please-let-the-antibiotics-work-soon illness is probably the result of some local microbes my body has no immunity to.

MOOD SWINGS: ANGER, DEPRESSION & ANXIETY – Everything makes me grumpy, I have no resilience for minor obstacles. I hit fight, flight or freeze waaaay sooner than my own personal baseline. This results in some unhelpful reactions like loosing my temper at drivers who can’t use GPS or mentally checking out when I need to be focusing. Are my feelings of grumpiness proportional to the circumstances? Maybe sometimes? I mean, how many cockroaches do you have to squish before it makes you crazy? Is it reasonable to get angry when someone leaves your window cracked and the mosquitoes attack you in your sleep? What about when the neighbors kids get in a screaming match under your window for the 15th time this week, or they are redecorating next door and spend hours every day with hammers and drills? Am I grumpy all the time because of bugs and dirt and noise or because of culture shock?

I’m no stranger to anxiety either, but I was very interested to find that culture shock anxiety comes in new flavors like special concerns about water/food safety, a preoccupation with being scammed or robbed, and an obsession with cleanliness. I am not gonna lie, having to boil all my water even to brush my teeth means I spend more time thinking about it. I also sanitize my produce, which is not a thing I’ve done in other places (wash yes, but here we soak it in a mild bleach solution and rinse it with boiled water, it’s way more). I am also finding myself preoccupied with the bugs that I find crawling around. Intellectually, I know it’s just part of living in a climate like this. Even living in the US southern states you’ll be living with bugs, but I have noticed I think about it more here.

I’m starting to see that culture shock and emotional flashbacks have a lot in common. They are both strong emotional states which are frequently misattributed to coincident actions or environmental conditions. After I learned about the existence of emotional flashbacks, I had to start learning how to evaluate triggers. Sometimes, I’m triggered by things that are genuinely innocuous. In those cases, my emotional response is 100% not caused by the trigger. Other times, people do things that are objectively crappy and I have to sort out how much of my emotional response is flashback and how much is reasonable given the circumstances. I have to learn what a proportional emotional response feels like.

It’s reasonable to be upset and express disappointment when someone flakes on plans, but not reasonable to scream and cry for days about it. It’s reasonable to be frustrated that professional drivers can’t read maps, but not reasonable to yell at them about it. Why allow ourselves to be upset or angry at all if it causes so much trouble? Our anger protects us from abuse and harm. It’s reasonable to stop making plans with a person who never follows through, or to cut a person out of your life who won’t stop hurting you. It’s reasonable to leave a job that has a hostile work environment or move to a new city if the pollution is wrecking your health. Our proportional emotional responses serve to help us establish and maintain boundaries and ask for what we need in life to be comfortable and safe. The trick is identifying those when you’re in a state of emotional dysregulation.

SELF-DOUBT – This is the one that completely ate my brain when I found it. I was sitting around thinking things like “maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake”, “maybe I’m not strong enough to meet this challenge”, “maybe I’m a spoiled white-girl American after all”, “I don’t know if I can do this again, but I feel like a loser for not wanting to take advantage of this opportunity” and then I read this: Culture shack manifest as…

  • Questioning your decision to do this work
  • Feeling more shy or insecure than normal
  • Questioning long-held beliefs about religion, gender, morality, or other core convictions
  • Feeling like you’re an imposter
  • Questioning your ability to overcome adversity

Questioning My Decision to Do This Work

I already felt like the work I was doing in Korea was pretty darn meaningless, but the ability to travel the world on my holidays made up for a lot. During the pandemic when I was teaching required English classes online to students who were not interested in learning or using English and generally slept or played video games during the class, and I was totally unable to travel, the pointlessness of it all was eating away at me. When I was offered this Fellowship I thought, “well, no matter that Senegal will come with heat and dirt and bugs and other hardships, I will be doing something meaningful, and not in a “White Man’s Burden” way by imposing my own values, but by providing support to locals who are building meaningful educational programs themselves.” Reality has yet to measure up to this expectation.

The work I’m doing is if anything less meaningful. Meeting veterinary students one day a semester to promote the value of English education when no English education is available to them and no school resources or faculty members are allocated to help them is a waste of energy to promote a façade. Don’t get me wrong- I love meeting the students. I love watching them have fun in English and shake off some of the language anxiety, but I am frustrated by the total lack of ability to form rapport, or to provide growth opportunities. I feel like someone at State is going tot read this and ask me why I didn’t ask for more help from the school or the program, but the reality is, I’ve asked for help and been told “Inshallah, maybe next year” and due to the long list of culture shock symptoms listed above, I don’t have the energy or conviction to keep banging my head into that particular wall. And the idea that I, the foreign visitor, should be the one to spearhead the change or improvement or new program is exactly the kind of crap Kipling was advocating in his famously racist poem that I am working so hard to NEVER exemplify.

Feeling More Shy or Insecure Than Normal

I don’t know if I will ever actually be “shy”, but I have definitely had a lot of thoughts of insecurity – not only related to my ability to do the work or overcome the challenges, but in a social way. I have a lifetime of misreading social situations, and over the past many years I had come to a kind of peace with that where I became ok with people wandering off or didn’t listen because I just decided I would spend my energy on the people who wanted me around and showed it. I find that the people who stick around are a much more fulfilling category of relationship and I’m able to enjoy the more causal company of others with no expectations.

Now in Senegal, I’m suddenly I’m having the “are they secretly laughing at me when I’m not in the room” thoughts again. I feel like I’m imposing when I ask for help from the people whose job it is to help me. I feel like I’m incompetent in communicating when people say they can’t understand my French (it’s objectively accented but not unintelligible). I have to psych myself up to place delivery orders because I’ll have to talk on the phone. “I don’t know if I can do this” is starting to feel like a mantra, and it’s not a good one.

Questioning Long-Held Beliefs About Morality or Other Core Convictions

Questioning long held beliefs is a hobby of mine. I love reading/watching stuff that makes me think. I love the fact that living abroad makes me question myself. I love that teaching university students makes me constantly aware of changing values by generation. I have questioned my religion, gender, and sexuality to death, but I still managed to find a new morality / core identity issue to question here in Senegal: my privilege, my biases, my culturally baked-in racism, the morality of existing as a person whose privilege comes from the multi-generational exploitation of the country I’m in (one of the biggest slave ports was here in Dakar), and my responsibility within a problematic system.

It started because things are hard and I complain, and I end up feeling very “spoiled white girl” complaining about difficult, expensive, or uncomfortable things, which then makes me feel guilty, which then makes me self referentially aware of my white guilt, and I get sucked into a moral rabbit hole that would give Chidi Anagonye a very upset tummy.

When I complained about stuff in Korea, it was cultural not economic. Things were not better or worse, they were just different. Here, my lowest acceptable standards for long-term quality of life are actually quite high relative to the local people’s lived experiences, and it’s not something they can afford to change. One could argue that it’s a class/economic issue separate from the question of race, but the reality is the reason most of Africa is in poverty is because of the exploitation of the slave trade and colonialism.

Even though I experienced poverty by American standards, I still grew up with relative wealth and privilege that came directly from the historical destruction of this culture and economy, and now I’m so spoiled by all that privilege that the way many of these people live seems substandard to the point of discomfort and even disgust to me. Do I have any right to complain? And yet I can’t make myself comfortable with the local quality of life just by acknowledging this disparity. I always say it’s not the Pain Olympics and we shouldn’t engage in comparative suffering, but I can’t help wonder if I’ve become the global version of the kid who is mad they only got the second newest iPhone for their birthday.

There’s pressure to conform to the white savior trope, too. I am pushing back against that, but I can feel it coming not only from the program and the Embassy, but also from the locals. I know my intentions are good in being here, but there’s a huge accountability gap between “not purposely making it worse” and “not actually making it worse”. I can’t say for sure that my presence here isn’t making things worse. The school ditched their local English teacher when they got a foreigner, and they don’t have any plans to hire real English faculty (I’m not working here as a full time teacher), so now the students have a “meet the native speaker” day instead of a real class with a Senegalese teacher. It was supposed to be “in addition to”, but this is what happens when people assume the white/American/native English speaker is automatically a superior resource. When I go to conferences and speak, I’m given preference simply because I’m perceived as a foreign expert, and I have to figure out how to balance my desire to further my own career with my responsibility not to take away time/attention/resources from locals.

Regardless of my intentions before arriving (when I didn’t yet understand the full reality we can argue I was not making a moral transgression) but now that I know do I have a moral obligation to take a different course of action? We hold people accountable for being a knowing and complicit part of a damaging system, so the question is: is this a damaging system (in the assumption that we as Americans occupy a position of needing to step in and help or manage programs in developing nations, and are we helping in the sense of following the locals’ lead or “helping” in the sense of telling them what to do?), and is staying and doing my best more or less morally responsible than leaving this “white man’s burden” parody of diplomatic relations?

I don’t expect an answer, it merely illustrates the point that my “questioning moral and core beliefs” switch has been fully engaged in this round of culture shock.

Feeling Like I’m an Imposter

A lot of “former gifted children” feel this. Being told for years that you’re smarter and more driven and more creative and generally better than your peers is not actually helpful, as it turns out. I managed to maintain the illusion until I got to grad school, where I was suddenly surrounded by all the other gifted kids, many of whom also had major economic advantages in terms of private studies, internships, and study abroad programs and were leaving me feeling like I didn’t belong at all. My polyglotism is a chronic source of the strange see-saw of confidence/imposter syndrome. Compared with the average American, even the average American with my equivalent education, I have awesome language skillz. I can get unlost in 7 languages. However, I can’t have a reasonable conversation in more than 2-3 and I can’t have an advanced topic discussion outside of English. Compared to most of the people I meet in academic or government programs, I’m a language idiot. Every one of the 6 Fulbrighters (22-24 year-olds) who I met at orientation is fluent in French and several are already passable in Wolof. They were selected for the program in part for this skillset, while fluency was barely a consideration for my position and I shouldn’t feel bad because I was selected for a highly competitive program based on a lifetime of education and experience, but I feel like I’m somehow less qualified to be here than the new college grads. Imposter!

I also feel that the expectation that I’ll be organizing projects, mentoring teachers, and presenting at conferences is in a big way setting me up for another round of “I don’t belong here”. That’s playing back into the insecurity, but insecurity and imposter syndrome are best pals. After all, if I’m not actually qualified to do this and people figure that out, they will dislike me, right? So far I’ve been able manage the projects I’ve been asked to take on (feeling like a faker the whole time); however, there’s no doubt that the imposter syndrome is stopping me from asking for more opportunities or creating more for myself, which contributes to the feeling that I’m not doing any meaningful work, which contributes to the self doubt of whether I should be here at all. It’s a vicious-tangled-circle-web culminating in…

Questioning My Ability to Overcome Adversity

Everything I complain about, all the feelings of doubt and inadequacy, all the physical discomfort, the obstacles to personal and career goals, and the ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety are ADVERSITY, so as soon as my ability to overcome adversity comes under fire, it makes all those other issues that much bigger and by definition insurmountable.

When we are young, we feel immortal and almost arrogantly confident. We don’t know enough to know that’s supposed to be impossible so we do it. As we age, we learn our limitations through painful consequences. Perhaps 25 years ago, my faith in my ability to overcome was based in youthful grit and stubbornness, but these days it comes from a place of experience. I have overcome adversity in the past, and any time I can compare my current adversity to a past adversity which has already been conquered, it’s easy to have faith that I’ll make it. The reverse side of the “past experiences” coin is that my anxiety is also based on experience: “this horrible thing that most people only imagine and isn’t actually very likely has already happened and is therefore 100% likely and reasonable to feel anxiety about”.

Of course, at some point everything we overcome has to be overcome for the first time. Artists don’t start by painting museum quality oils. Athletes don’t start by running a marathon. We start small and build up. It’s true that we get older, we become more risk averse, but I can continue to do things like “quit my job and go to a foreign country” because my experience tells me that is actually a low risk activity for me. Before coming here, I thought that my past experiences of living in China and Saudi and travelling around the Middle East and Southeast Asia would prepare me for the challenges I’d face in Senegal. Now I’m wondering if there are just some adversities I have Murtaugh Listed out of being able to handle

Psychological Side Effects

There’s one more factor about living in Africa that is unique to this continent: anti-malarials. The British relied on quinine, and while I love a good G&T, these days we have pills to fend off severe malarial infections. There are a lot of options on the market, but they all have pros and cons. Cost is a big factor for a lot of people. Daily vs weekly doses is another consideration. I’m not good at daily pills even short term, so weekly was a big appeal for me. Then there’s strain resistance. Malaria in some places has become resistant to the more commonly used drugs. That includes Senegal, for which Chloroquine is contra-indicated due to resistant strains of malaria that dominate here. That left me with Mefloquine which has a higher than desirable risk of psychological side effects, many of which are co-morbid with the psychological effects of culture shock, with the added bonus of vivid dreams, possible hallucinations, and seizures. Yay. Studies are fairly limited and there is no data which studies the effects of the medication in the subject’s home culture, so no way to know what amount of the distressing symptoms are a result of living in Africa as a foreigner or of the Mefloquine.

And I hate hate hate the idea that as women we are constantly judged as overemotional due to our hormones, but I did just turn 45 and some of this mood swing business could legitimately be a part of perimenopause. So we have at least 5 different factors in play: 1) pre-existing conditions, 2) environmental adversity, 3) culture shock, 4) medicine and 5) getting old. The chances of my mental/emotional state being only and entirely just ONE of these factors is 0, and 3 of them are directly related to living in Dakar.

Is It Real or Is It Culture Shock?

The time is coming where I have to start making decisions about my future. We’re already making plans for our mid-year conference, and before you know it, the 10 month Fellowship will be over. Whatever happens, I know that this is a life altering and immeasurably valuable and unique experience. I don’t regret the decision to come in any way. I just want my future self to be able to tell some “it was so awesome” stories about Senegal alongside my newfound stories of resilience and overcoming adversity. However, I’m having a really hard time making plans or looking forward to anything while I’m in this particular loop of the emotional rollercoaster. So please, Santa, all I want for Christmas is no more culture shock… or if that’s not possible, then I’ll take one in blue.

A Random Day in Dakar

I have been in Dakar now for 8 weeks and no two days are the same here. I had some hope that getting an apartment and starting work at the university would create some regularity, but that’s just not how things roll here. I wanted to paint a picture of average daily life, but the truth is every day is different, so I’m just going to pick one at random.

My Fellowship is very much not like a regular job. I have some days at the “host institution” (for me, a veterinary school which has no actual English program or staff), and on other days I’m working on whatever professional development projects or cultural exchange experiences I can find. On the days I’m scheduled to be at my host institution, there are no regular classes. Instead, I’m set up to run an English Clinic as part of the veterinary clinical rotation from 8:30 – 4:15 (-ish) where I’ll see each of the year 3 and 4 students a grand total of one time during the semester. It’s obviously not a “class” in the educational sense; I’ve chosen to think of it as an English Promotional Seminar, which definitely makes me feel like less of a teacher and more of a “cultural exchange experience”, so I guess that’s on mission?

Nothing in West Africa starts on time, but so far, I keep trying. Feel free to place bets on how long that lasts. To get ready for English Clinic, I wake up at 7am, bleary eyed on a Monday and wondering why anyone would choose this. Marcus Aurelius hated mornings too, so I feel validated in my preferences for sleeping late. I start trying to find a car between 7:20-7:30 but there aren’t any. I watch the ride-share apps search and search for drivers to no avail. I go out to the street to scout for taxis, but the black and yellow vehicles which make up 80% of the cars on the road at all other times of day are nowhere to be seen at this dawning hour. When one finally appears and stops for me, he flatly refuses to make the drive south to the university. Though the taxis are thin on the ground, there’s no shortage of talibés (begging children) who have been forced out onto the hot and dusty streets by the so-called “teachers” at the Quranic “schools”. I retreat from the human rights violations that make me confront the horrors of humanity far too early in the day, and return to my apartment to continue trying the apps.

When a driver finally accepts my request around 8am, I know I have to face the inevitable phone call. There are no addresses in Dakar, so you give directions for everything. The apps have GPS maps, but most drivers don’t know how to use them well. Heetch, a French company in neon pink, has an option to share location and an in app messenger, but the drivers call anyway. Yango, red for Russia, even includes a “do not call unless it’s an emergency” option, which the drivers ignore completely. The drivers speak in rapid French accented with Wolof or another African dialect. When I first arrived, these calls were panic inducing, but I’m finally getting used to it. They’re probably going to ask where I am, they might ask where I’m going, or they could tell me they are stuck in traffic. This one is all three. I agree the traffic is terrible, and I know I have to wait. Two minutes later, he calls back asking me to cancel.

I keep trying. All drivers busy. No drivers available. Eventually another driver accepts and calls. They ask where I am, even though it showed the location on the app before they accepted the job, and they ask where I’m going. They tell me how long they think it will take for them to reach me, even though the app tracks them by GPS and shows me when they are near. It’s everything I hate about talking to strangers on the phone plus language barrier – every time. The driver arrives around 8:30 and we set off. He doesn’t want to take the Corniche, even though it is the most direct route it will be a traffic jam at this hour, so instead he weaves through side and back streets. He cuts back and forth between the seaside road and the interior road. Both are choked with cars. I watch the traffic which seems to be an ongoing negotiation, drivers signaling by any means except the turn signal – leaning out of windows to chat or yell, and occasional passing pedestrians helping to direct cars when things get truly jammed up. In the early morning rush hour, most major intersections and roundabouts have an officer directing traffic. There are no traffic lights anywhere.

Most drivers know where the campus is generally, but not the veterinary school. This driver is flying blind, no GPS in sight, so when we near the campus, he asks me for directions. It happens probably slightly less than half the time that the driver can’t or won’t use GPS (phone data costs money after all), it’s not the norm but still very common. This was another source of panic in the beginning, since when I was newly arrived I had no idea where anything was nor the best way to get a place. Now, I at least know the roads I travel regularly and I have enough working knowledge of the city’s geography to use Google Maps without getting lost. I am able to direct him to the school and we arrive a little less than an hour after leaving my apartment.

I walk onto the campus greeting staff, students and faculty in a mix of French, Wolof, and English, deposit my bag into my office and head to the security guard who has the key to the conference room that has been issued for my use. Today, the room is in use by another group, but no one thought to tell me about it until I was trying to get in and set up my clinic. It’s a wild departure from both Western culture (where I grew up) and East Asian cultures (where I’ve worked the last 6.5 years), but then again, so is showing up 60 minutes late and not getting reamed, so … when in Dakar, I guess. A few other faculty members who were wandering the halls popped over to help, and soon I was placed into a new conference room, a special room usually reserved, I’m told, for the director general. The complex process of making sure that my computer can be hooked up and both audio and video can be delivered to the students starts all over again. A third faculty who is more tech savvy must be called in for this. As we begin to get the TV and speakers online, I realize that the students have no idea where to come due to the unannounced room change, so a fourth faculty must be contacted to issue a broad text message to the students.

After some trial and error, we get the computer, tv, and speakers all talking to one another and I’m able to begin class around 10am. Just 90 minutes later than scheduled. Of the 14 students expected to show up, 10 are seated around the conference table. I breeze through the introductions and ice breaking games with the students, all but one of whom are uncharacteristically shy. I myself am particularly low energy having spent my weekend on an exhausting but interesting road trip. Perhaps were I less tired, or the students were less shy, we could buoy each other up, but instead, I declare a break after our second game.

Returning from the break, we charge through the listening comprehension activities and then break again, this time for lunch. I feel like I’m missing a part of the picture of how things work here and that I’m scheduling the sections and breaks badly. The students never act like I’m doing things the normal way. When I ask the one member of the faculty that speaks English well, he assures me that they are just being students trying to get out of work, but also points out that sometimes the teachers offer to skip breaks/lunch in order to finish early. That sounds exhausting, and I’m hungry. I need breaks too!

I walk out the back gate, passing the cows that no longer startle me so much, watching the pied crows drift lazily between the fences and the trees and listening to the calls of raptors riding the thermals above. The sun is oppressive. Despite the fact that it’s early December, and the temperature in the shade with a breeze might even be considered pleasant, the sun feels like it’s trying to eat my skin. It feels like reaching into the oven when the heating element is on, but everywhere. The faculty restaurant is nestled in a lush garden and in perpetual shade. During October’s heat wave the shade was not enough to make the outdoor dining bearable (and there is no indoor option), but today it’s fair enough without the hungry sun.

I like the faculty restaurant because it’s close, cheap, and fast. Most restaurants bring food out with the same attention to time as everything else here. If you were hungry when you sat down, you’re hangry by the time the food arrives. I wouldn’t dream of trying to eat at a regular Senegalese restaurant in less than 2 hours, but the faculty restaurant is half cafeteria. The dishes are cooked in advance and are waiting for the teachers to come in and order. Today I choose Thiebou Yapp, a traditional beef and rice dish served with a kind of onion chutney sauce that is a little piquant and only slightly spicy. Some days I might finish up with some attaya, a very sweet strong tea served in tiny cups, but I can see I need to leave to get back to the class on time, and I still have this lingering attachment to being on time. An attachment the students do not share.

I get back to the conference room/classroom just in time, but no one else is there. I wait and wait, and after about 30 minutes I decide to go ahead with the 5 students who have shown up. Over then next 30 minutes, 3 more students trickle in one at a time, the last returning over an hour after I asked them to. I don’t keep attendance or give grades. I will not see any of these students again inside a classroom until next spring. I understand why they might feel like it’s a waste of their time, and I can’t be upset at them for not wanting to do this ill-conceived program. I feel a lot like the school just wants to be able to say “English happened”, which was one of the biggest things I disliked at my last school. If my job is to teach, then I want to teach, not talk to myself in a room of 5 people who are falling asleep, reading their phones, or just zoning out because they can’t understand me, none of whom I will see in a classroom again for 3-4 months after our one day together.

The after lunch section is my least favorite part of the single day “curriculum”. The school asked specifically for clinical roleplay, but I’ve discovered two main problems with this. One – I’m not a veterinarian, so I don’t know what goes on in a veterinary clinic. And two – 90% of the students do not have the English ability to have a basic vet-client conversation even with a helpful worksheet. I can deal with the first part a little by researching, but nothing I do will make it possible for the students to gain conversation skills in a few hours. I desperately want to cut this section, and I am mentally preparing for how to do that, but I feel backed into a corner with it now because I need to be able to say that I tried it their way before I junk it, plus I’ll need time, energy and brain space to invent something to take it’s place (none of which I have on this day). It’s a struggle every time, and with this extra shy, extra small group of students it’s even harder because they are so reluctant to speak, but we survive. I praise them and smile and applaud and they decide to forgo the last break in favor of leaving early.

I don’t mind the idea of leaving early myself, so I walk everyone through the last section, a self-study guide with a list of free resources, and introduce the final game of the day. I love this game because everyone universally gets into it. I read somewhere that first and last experiences shape the emotional memory, so I want the students to have fun at the beginning and the end of my clinic day. AGO is a Japanese card game based on UNO but designed for learning English. It never fails to arouse competitive feelings and get lots of people smiling and laughing. In this case, the students who were so eager to leave early they wanted to skip the break end up staying late to finish their games. It’s a tonic to me too, when after a long day of pulling short quiet sentences from shy and reluctant students I can see them having fun again. It rescues me from the pits of despair that this otherwise futile educational effort brings on.

When it’s finally time to leave, I have to search for another car. There are no taxis along the small internal campus road, so my options are to use the apps or walk to the main road. I sit in a small courtyard waiting for a driver to accept my request. When one finally turns up, it’s an actual taxi, … part of the reason we agree to pay more for the app cars is that they are better cars, usually with AC, while the beat up little bumble bee taxis are frequently falling apart and have no AC, fine for short trips but rather miserable to be stuck in traffic in. But what are you going to do? I sit in the back and try to pretend that the wind through the window is enough for the nearly hour of traffic back to my apartment.

While I’m sitting there, feeling tempted to complain and feel sorry for myself, I slowly realize that the ever present butterflies of Dakar have become a flurry. There are always what I as a city girl think of as “a lot” of butterflies, but today the small white wings fill the air by the thousands. It’s impossible to film or photograph because they are so tiny and move so fast, yet as I stare out the window in the heat of stalled traffic, I am transported by the pure magic of witnessing this Senegalese snow. I had never thought of butterflies as a weather condition before, and yet even the largest of butterfly greenhouses I’ve visited have nothing on the migration I am witnessing from the back of the beat up taxi. The way they drift through the air looks like cherry blossoms or snowflakes caught in a breeze, though both are sights I associate with much cooler weather. I think about how un-Christmas-like I have been feeling as December continues on, and marvel at this little whirl of white. How can I be upset at traffic or late students when this beauty exists?

At home I go straight to the shower to rinse off the sweat and dust of the day and the traffic. I prepare drinkable water by moving the boiled water to the bottle in the fridge and boiling a new kettle to cool overnight. I watch tv, eat dinner, and log into another zoom call to manage the bureaucracy. The next day, I’ll decontaminate my produce delivery to make the fresh fruit and veggies safe for my delicate western constitution, and I’ll figure out what the next step in the next project that needs my attention is. Life here is more different from any place I’ve lived in a long time, there’s no routine in my job because everything is always changing, and no routine in my life because it’s always breaking down, getting replaced or being updated. I am still not sure how I feel about this lack of stability and constant uncertainty, but I do know that without it, there wouldn’t be unexpected moments of beauty and joy, so for now, I’ll take the trade.

Life in Dakar: Week 3 Part 1 – Maslow Was on to Something

Since arriving in Senegal on October 17th I “lived” in 4 different places in just three weeks. I have struggled to reach the most basic level of the famous hierarchy of needs which includes food/water/sleep and have been very touch and go with tier 2: shelter and safety. I have to say it is absolutely wild how much your mental focus shrinks to encompass only these things when they are at risk. Today, I’m writing about how my world got sucked down to the tunnel view of food-water-sleep because I think its important to reflect on the ways that insecurity over food/water/shelter can grind a life or even a whole population to a halt.

The original draft of this week was far too long for a single blog post. Anywhere you see an asterisk* that means there’s some extra details in the part 2 post of side adventures and footnotes.

Some Words About Maslow: the hierarchy is old, and the details are outdated. I don’t personally think “reproduction” or “sex” belongs on tier 1 because we aren’t going to die as individuals without it the same way we will die of starvation, dehydration, asphyxiation, or exposure without food, water, air, and climate control (shelter, clothing, fire, a/c, etc). I would put it in tier 3: love and belonging. The debate rages on in the dark corners of incel internet -just, not in my blog. So when I talk about the tier 1 physiological needs I mean the things we die without: food, water, breathable air, and enough control over the climate/our own body temperature so that we neither freeze nor overheat. Tier 2 is “safety” which includes things like having a reliable long term source of income, having decent health, having stable housing, and of course not being in danger.

Some Words About Comparative Suffering aka “It Could Be Worse”, aka “The Pain Olympics”: Nope. Individual reactions to different levels of stress and trauma are, you guessed it, individual. One person may respond to the same trauma or challenge different ways at different times in their lives. Two people may experience the same exact traumatic event and react totally differently based on their own past experiences and states-of-being at the time it happened. I have comparatively more resilience for dealing with culture shock and unexpected international adventure related obstacles than a person who hasn’t got my experience. I have comparatively less resilience in dealing with Dakar, Senegal than locals or expats who have lived here for years. All of our experiences relating to the challenges of living here are valid. So I don’t ascribe to “you think this is hard for you? the locals deal with worse conditions every day of their lives, so you can suck it up for 10 months”. I follow a “This is hard for me and wow, the locals deal with worse conditions every day of their lives, that is also terrible, no one should have to in these conditions” kind of mentality. No Pain Olympics here.

The Last Disclaimer: I am relatively safe and healthy here. I have not been without food, water, or shelter in the time since I arrived. I have simply had to focus far more of my mind, time, and energy on them than at almost any other point in my life. I still have an enormous privilege as an educated, white, American that I can afford to just book myself a hotel room and pay for the taxi to move my belongings. I can order delivery food or take a taxi to the grocery store. I do not have to walk around after dark in unsafe neighborhoods when the car breaks down. This hasn’t been about my needs not getting met at all, it’s about the fact that as said privileged, educated, white American I spend 95%+ percent of my life never even having to give more than a passing thought to how to get those needs met and for the last three weeks, it’s almost all I’ve thought about. I acknowledge that it is echoes of “poor little rich girl” (though I’m actually poor by US economic standards, I am definitely seen as wealthy out here in Senegal). It’s more than a little cringe in that respect, but don’t look away. This is how we learn and grow.

When Last We Saw Our Intrepid Writer

At the time of my last post (Monday, October 31), I was in hotel #2: a complex of furnished apartments that billed itself as a hotel. I was supposed to move from the unit I was in with the broken shower to another unit when it was emptied out on November 5, but shenanigans. I told you in my last post that the shower was fixed, I was incorrect. The building manager took the shower head away and cleaned it and put it back and showed me that water was coming out of it and then left. When I was just taking quick rinses to get the sweat and dust off me, I didn’t notice, but the next time I went to shampoo my hair, two problems arose almost immediately. One was the lack of hot water. (I’m starting to learn that hot water is actually a rare thing here, and mostly probably not a big deal because it’s hot all the time. I just really like hot showers.) But worse, the newly cleaned shower head projected water all over the bathroom. Enclosed showers are not actually common in many parts of the world. I haven’t had one in ages. Not even a curtain. The shower is just in the bathroom, there’s a drain in the floor. Some set ups are better for keeping your toilet paper dry than others. This one was sending so much water to the far end of the room that there were puddles on the counter between the sink and the wall. Nothing was staying dry.

I don’t know if the shower alone would have been enough to send me packing, probably not TBH, I could have worked around it. There’s more. The weekend 1-5am disco/nightclub that I mentioned in my last post continued on past the weekend and crept up its start time earlier and earlier until it was going from 8pm. The volume wasn’t just heard, it was felt. I was waking up so many times a night there’s no way I was getting a full REM cycle. I’m dealing with dust, and bugs, and cheap flimsy breaking stuff, but I gotta be able to sleep (tier1!)*.

At the point I realized that I was not going to be able to stay in that building, I was able to get in contact with a local realtor through the Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants). One of them had stayed in Dakar earlier in the year and her host mom was also a realtor. In many parts of the world, realtors are needed for rental agreements as well as property purchases. It was the same in Korea. Anyway, she had contacted me over the weekend to say there was a potential place that seemed perfect for my needs and budget in the same building where her parents lived (reassuring). At the time, I thought I’d get to see it on Monday or Tuesday. This was not to be.

Tuesday: When I Realized Things Had to Change

I was going not-so-quietly insane from sleep dep by the time Tuesday, November 1st rolled around. There was a program wide zoom meeting* with any Fellows who could attend and a few program coordinators in DC. They asked us how things were going, and I replied that there were some struggles for me. When they asked me to elaborate, I tried my best to be “oh haha, isn’t it funny, culture shock and new experiences” about it, but around the point where they realized I wasn’t getting sleep, they had a kind but firm “not ok” response. This alone was a bit shocking as my complaints about not being able to sleep in the room due to power outages the week before had been greeted with crickets by both my contact at the university and the Senegalese deputy RELO at the Embassy. It was a solid relief to have someone validate me about the housing problems for the first time since I arrived. They encouraged me to move as soon as I could, to contact the Embassy again, and said that they would also send a message about it.

By Tuesday afternoon, I got news that the realtor was at the hospital visiting family, but had no timeline on when she would be available or whether the apartment she proposed was still on offer. I went home from my meeting and started the search to move. I was only looking for something short-term, thinking once more (possibly with foolish optimism) that I was days away from a real apartment. My social sponsor (aka university contact) wrote me from South Africa to say that I could either move to a floor above the nightclub (he knows I can’t do that because of the stairs) or take the unfurnished apartment, and I again reminded him why that wasn’t possible (see previous post for details) and asked him to plan to help me start looking again when he got back to Senegal.

Wednesday: The Longest Day

Wednesday morning I awoke to find a response from the deputy RELO at the Embassy giving me approval to move to a new place and with some actual suggestions for how I might take the long-term housing into my own hands. Unfortunately one of the suggestions was the realtor I was impatiently waiting to hear back from already, and the other was a place that would not be available until January. I quickly logged back into Booking and Airbnb to search for a new place. I resolved to find a location where I could be safe and comfortable for a week while we kept on home-hunting. It’s increasingly difficult to find reliably good places online. Shocked Pikachu Face: people lie. People especially lie when money is involved. Desperate people really really lie when money is involved. So, Booking and Airbnb are full of places with fake photos and reviews by their own friends. You have to actually read what’s written to make sure it’s authentic and not a bot or a buddy. I’ve gotten good at this over the years, I’ve learned how to pick out places that will be ok for me and avoid the places that are likely to have problems. Years of detailed international vacation planning on a budget has prepared me for this very moment. I found a good looking place with an 8.9 rating on booking, a plethora of good authentic reviews, and confirmation of a functional elevator, but it was only available for 4 days. I needed to go, though, so I booked it starting that very day, hoping that an extension or a move to a nearby room might be possible after I arrived.

The complicated thing about moving in Dakar is that there are no addresses. When I arrived at the airport, the hotel sent a driver for me who knew where that hotel was. When I moved from hotel #1 to hotel #2, my social sponsor got a friend and a truck and drove me there. Now, I had move to hotel #3 all on my own. To make matters more fun, it was not a named hotel. It was a furnished apartment in a building on a main road, but didn’t list the name of the building on the booking site. There was no way for me to know which building, or what floor, or any specific information on where to go by website alone. I messaged the manager who gave me some cursory directions, said to have the taxi driver call him for more detail, and agreed to have someone meet me to help with my luggage.

Next, I went to check out of hotel #2*, and the lady at the front desk was rather sad about it. I think they liked having me because I didn’t make a mess or noise, and also didn’t need the cleaners in every single day. I told her about the nightclub music, because that was really the deal breaker, and the offer was once again … more stairs. I used my translating app to let her know that I had a health issue that made stairs difficult for me, and to her credit, she was amazingly sweet about it. She worked to minimize my time on the stairs when she was helping me with my bags, which shows that there is at least some cultural awareness of invisible mobility/disability issues.

She also helped me negotiate with a taxi to get all my bags to the new place. I have been largely avoiding taxis, because the expat ladies of Senegal tell me that their taxi experiences here are not unlike the ones I had in Saudi (for those new, or who don’t recall, there was some very gross and skeezy stuff). I have installed and used a car share app called Heetch (similar to Lyft or Uber) because there’s no haggling over price, you can put your pick up and drop off locations in the GPS, and there’s an added layer of security because they are registered with the company so if they sexually harass me, I can report them more easily.

This taxi driver was not bad. He wanted to chat in French, but he used simple language and spoke slowly with me. He did ask if I was married, but when I said I was (yes, I lie for safety and comfort) he didn’t try to get me to cheat on my “husband” (yes, that happens more often than you think). He helped me get my bags from hotel #2 and when we got to hotel #3, he didn’t just drop me and my luggage on the sidewalk, he waited with me while I got the hotel to send the promised luggage assistance to us. That was a harrowing few minutes because I have more luggage than one person can move at this point (it has expanded since I got off the plane) and I was trying to keep an eye on the taxi, the porter, and all my bags in two locations on a very busy sidewalk. Thankfully, I and all my bags made it inside in one piece.

The apartment was beautiful, but the power was out. Not in the building, electricity is unit by unit, so the elevator worked and we got the bags up ok. After some awkward internet translations, the guy told me he was going to get the power back on, and it should just be 5 minutes (in reality over an hour)*. When the power was up and running I couldn’t find the remote to the A/C in my room. I sent another message to the management about it and the general helper guy (porter, cleaner, electrician, but NOT the owner) came back over. He found a remote for me, but then something very strange happened. He was messing with the breaker box and the power for the place went out again. He spent the next 15-20 minutes flipping switches and turning the power on and off. There was a French speaking foreign woman with him who seemed pretty upset, but I couldn’t understand enough of the conversation to say why. I was too hot and tired to try, so I just lay on the bed thinking cool thoughts until it was fixed. It worked immaculately the rest of my stay.

I honestly think it was the best place I stayed. The building had an elevator, the apartment was spacious with a shared kitchen, living room, and balcony (great view over the city), the bedroom had it’s own key and a private bathroom, some amount of hot water and reasonable water pressure, good wifi. The owner even came to check in on me personally that evening. It will be hard to live up to.

I tried to order delivery again, but after 30 minutes of not having my order confirmed, I decided to walk up to the local shopping center before it got dark. There was a really nice grocery store and a mini mall. I got some staple groceries and it turned out the place I placed my delivery order from was in the mall food court. They called me while I was there, so I just went over and talked to them. They actually hadn’t meant to be on the app because they weren’t fully up and running, but offered to cook me the food anyway since I was there and gave me a complimentary peach iced tea while I waited.

I slept so well.

Thursday: Adventures in ATM

The day I checked in, the guy who was dealing with luggage and electricity also brought me my bill. I wasn’t really prepared to pay at check in, so I asked if I could pay the next day after I had a chance to find a bank. There were three banks under hotel #3 building so I thought that would be easy. But no. There are no ATMs in those banks. Culture shock is not knowing banks can exist without having ATMs inside. I asked the security guard at my building where I could find one, and somehow ended up being directed across town, like all the way across 30 minute taxi ride, and I was so flustered and confused that I just came back into the room to have a cry because culture shock is also having wild emotional swings! After I cooled off and washed my face, I started Googling a solution to my problem. I eventually figured out that ATM is the name of a home goods store here, so when the helpful humans were trying to show me where to go on the map, they were showing me a shop, not an automatic teller machine*.

After using Google Maps (yes, I know it’s an addiction, they should pay me a sponsor fee) to locate ATMs in the area, I went back to the mall to find one. The security guard there pointed me to a bank across the parking lot. The ATM inside didn’t work, but the bank security guard stood respectfully by while I used the one outside. There are security guards everywhere. Saftey tip: say hello to all of them every time you pass. Cash safely tucked in my bra (yes, ew, but I’m not risking hundreds of dollars in my bag which might get snatched off me by a motorcycle thief) I went back into the mall for ice cream. On my way out, I saw an ATM inside the mall right next to the grocery store entrance. *Sigh.

The realtor wanted to meet me after she finished work to go and look at an apartment I was pretty sure I didn’t want and couldn’t afford but I needed to show willing. I took a Heetch car over to her office and waited awkwardly on the street outside for her. I’m slowly getting more comfortable walking around on my own, but lone woman standing on the street is not ideal in pretty much any urban setting. Eventually she came out drove me over to pick up the landlord and then we looked at the place. I say that sentence like it wasn’t 30 minutes of traffic and phone calls trying to find the landlord, then trying to find the person who had the key, then getting the key, then getting to the place. Nothing is fast or simple here.

The apartment they wanted to show me was very far from the school. Not walkable at all. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it is a factor. It was on the ground floor (no stairs, yay) with good security doors/walls/bars, but because of that very little light. There was no A/C in the living room which is fairly standard, but less than ideal because as I had already found out it means I won’t use the living room when the weather is hot, and although they tell me it cools down in December/January That’s still me not being able to use the living room more than half the time I’m here. Again, not a deal breaker, but a factor. Here’s the deal breaker: you had to walk outside across a mini courtyard to get to the kitchen. Outside. To get to the fridge. They wanted 700,000 CFA for this. That is $1,067 USD. I once lived in a studio where the shower was in the kitchen and the bathroom was down the hall (that’s the building hall, studios don’t have halls inside them). That was only 425$ a month, and I was a broke-a$$ college student*.

I politely declined.

When I got back to hotel #3 for the evening, I went to see another apartment in the same building up on the 10th floor. I had gotten the go ahead to find a long term Airbnb stay because the week by week hotel hopping was too much. It was listed on Airbnb but had no rating or reviews. I was unwilling to book anything sight unseen after all the experiences I had so far, but I figured it was in the same building as my very nice room, so if it was a little less nice than the one I’m in now that would still be ok. Nope. The pictures on the website were some other place. Most of the amenities listed were not present, and the “furnished” room had no bed. I don’t wanna be the picky privileged white girl, but I feel like “bed” is definitely a key component of “furnished”. I went to sleep feeling even more hopeless than before because I was in a good space but knew I’d have only 2 days left to enjoy it before I had to launch into an as yet unknown #4. I still slept better than any night in #2.

Friday: Stopgap Solutions, Meet the RELO, and a Broken Down Taxi

Friday morning I arranged with the younger teachers here to stay in their spare room for a couple weeks while the quest continued. I messaged more places on Airbnb and scheduled a viewing for later in the day. I wrote another email about my progress (or lack thereof) to the people “in charge”, and my American RELO* asked me to call her.

Despite her own circumstances*, she said she understood my needs (a/c and minimal stairs) especially since she herself works all day in the nice, air-conditioned, clean and beautiful embassy. I’m still a bit worried for her, because I feel like she should also have at least A/C to sleep with in this weather but she said it’s ok for her. She doesn’t expect me to do the same just because she is, since our needs and daily circumstances are different, which is nice. She also said that if I got stable housing by December that would be a win. So. Ugh. At least no one is pushing me to work full time (or you know at all) while this is going on*.

In the evening, I went to view another Airbnb. It’s a beautiful house occupied by a Spanish expat with excellent English skills. She’s in her 60s and renting out her daughter’s room who’s gone off to study. The house is huge with a garden courtyard, and it’s walkable to the school and shops. The bedroom is up a flight of stairs and the bathroom up there is shared with one other girl, which is less than ideal but should be ok for a month or so. The real sticking point was that the empty room doesn’t have A/C. I explained why it was important to me, and I offered to pay the offset for the electric bill while I was there, so she said she would look into what it would take to have A/C available to me*.

Saturday – Now: Breathing Room

Over the weekend I moved in with the Fulbright ETAs spare bedroom where I’ll be staying for the next 2 weeks*. There was a whirlwind of stressful emails and text messages that I don’t have the strength to recount blow by blow, but the upshot of all of it was that I got some breathing room. I received word from the Spanish Airbnb hostess that A/C would be possible and I got the required approval to book that room for a full month (through Dec 21). I got in touch with another ETA who is leaving in December and I have made arrangements to go and see her apartment on Thursday of this week. Hopefully it’s going to work. She says it’s 1.5 flights of stairs and has A/C in the bedrooms and living room, but there are some “things” about it she wants me to know before I live there. It’s vaguely ominous, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough. If that place works, the Airbnb hostess says I can extend until Jan 1 when that apartment becomes available, meaning I’ll get my housing a mere 2.5 months after my arrival.

Despite the fact that it still isn’t fully resolved, I feel a sense of relief to see a light at the end of the tunnel even if that light is 6 weeks away. I feel like the giant knot in the bottom of my stomach and top of my spine have unwound ever so slightly, enough to be able to look up for the first time possibly since I arrived here. There’s this phenomenon that happens when things slowly get worse/harder/more painful that we know it’s not good, but we don’t really know how BAD it is until it stops. That happened to me with my sleep and the night club noise, and it happened with my whole cognitive self and the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Pyramid.

I am so profoundly excited for the opportunity to live and work here in Senegal, but I was 100% not able to engage with that excitement or adventure for more than a few seconds at a time while my brain was consumed with thoughts of being able to get food and water that wouldn’t make me sick and a place where I could sleep and feel safe for more than a couple days at a time. There’s a lot to unpack in the space between an intellectual and visceral understanding of how that hierarchy of needs works, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s important to remember to be gentle with yourself and others whenever those bottom two tiers are in a state of flux or uncertainty because even the most capable and resilient among us can sucked under when circumstances change.


Life in Dakar: Week 3 Part 2 – Side Adventures & Footnotes

The blog was too long when I tried to put everything that happened to me that week together, so here’s the stuff I cut out of the first post that wasn’t directly related to Maslow, but might still be interesting.

When Last We Saw: More Tier 1 Struggles

The first post about week 3 is almost entirely about housing. The other tier 1 concerns of food/water/climate were a ‘manageable struggle’. I had not yet figured out water delivery and was thinking to put it off until after I got my “permanent” home, but I was able to boil water on the stove in a saucepan and create a reserve of clean, safe water that way. I had only a small saucepan which took a long time to heat up and had to be watched and checked on so it didn’t boil dry either. Then had to be covered while it cooled down and transferred to another container once it was cool enough. This had to be done multiple times a day. I have now purchased an electric kettle which boils 1.7L in a couple of minutes and turns itself off. I set up a cycle where I fill my water bottle from the bottle in the fridge, refill the fridge bottle from the water in the kettle, and boil a fresh pot that will have time to cool off before the next cycle. Also, the cord on the kettle is so short that I can’t plug it in anywhere in the kitchen, so it’s in my bedroom. Because I go through 3L or more a day here, this method still requires far more thought, time, and energy than “tap to glass”, but it’s a huge upgrade.

Food had to be ordered or I had to go out to purchase it at least every other day. I didn’t have the resources to clean produce safely in the room, nor to store and cook things like fresh meat. I had bread, peanut butter, oatmeal, rice and yogurt (yay traveler’s tummy troubles), but I had to negotiate with a delivery driver to get food most days (remember, no addresses). I know, it sounds like a privilege problem, but I didn’t HAVE the ability to prepare much for myself, so delivery was how I got food. In habitation #4, I have access to a better kitchen and slightly less concern about having to move anything I don’t eat in a few days, but we still don’t have produce sanitizing set up here (the ETAs have only been in this apartment about a week longer than I have) and I’m not settling in to buy staples like cooking oil. They are mostly living on pasta, and while I’m more comfortable eating cheese or peanut butter sandwiches here than other places, that’s about the extent of my food prep, so I’m still heavily reliant on delivery. The main difference is that one of the ETAs speaks both French and the local dialect Wolof and can direct the drivers much better than I can.

The A/C has worked pretty well everywhere I’ve been so far. In hot enough weather, A/C isn’t a luxury for anyone and I’m one of the unlucky people with a condition known as “heat intolerance” which is just doctor for “you get sick from being hot faster than baseline”. Everyone gets sick from being too hot. It’s called heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I just get sick faster than most. My core temp rises above 100F/37.7C quite fast in hot weather, so I need better access to climate control aids. Habitation #4 is the first place I’ve been with A/C in the living room, which has meant I can venture out of my bed and do some work at the table or sitting on the sofa which may seem minor, but there are big mental health bonuses to separating your sleep and work spaces. When I was teaching online classes from my bed in Korea at the beginning of the pandemic, it fueled my depression hardcore and made getting a desk/workspace a top priority for that move in 2021.

Tuesday Nov 1: Unexpected Holiday

That day, I got myself together and dressed and headed over to the university to show my face because that’s what I was asked to do while I don’t have any other duties, classes, or even enough data to start building towards those things. (I wanna be working, I really do, but every time I ask I get told “later”.) Anyway, I got to the university and it was a ghost town. My contact was in South Africa for a conference, and I sent a message to the person who had my office key to find out what was going on. There’s some kind of “one key” policy here so the cleaners can’t get into my office if I have a key? But I can’t get into my office if I leave it for the cleaners? I still don’t know how this is actually going to work long term. In the mean time, I took photos of the animals laying around and got totally startled by the existence of random cows. I had to hop on my zoom meeting from my phone standing outside my office so I could use the Wi-Fi. At least the hallways have good ventilation even though there’s no A/C. It turns out that All Saint’s Day is a non-working holiday in this Muslim majority country.

Wednesday Nov 2: Still the Longest Day

Hotel #2 check out – What’s up with expense reports anyway?
I have to get pre-approval and receipts to claim my “settling in” expenses, which cool, but I didn’t book hotel #2. I didn’t sign any agreements or log in as a guest. I think maybe they made a copy of my passport when I got there? But also maybe just looked at it because I don’t think they had a copy machine. I also had to pay for that room in cash. The bigger hotels and shops here do take Visa/Mastercard but it’s not very common. The lady helping me to check out said that the manager would bring me a printed receipt to the school the next day, and while I don’t under any imaginary circumstances think that she was being deceitful, I just had no faith in the reality of that manifesting due to cultural experiences I’ve had in the past. It’s not a scam or anything, I paid the agreed price. I just wouldn’t be able to claim my reimbursement without a receipt. I managed to talk her into giving me a handwritten one that day. I still haven’t seen the “official” receipt, btw, and ended up submitting my expense report with the handwritten one.

Hotel #3 check in – The Case of the Forgotten Medicine:
The power was out when I arrived at hotel #3, but there was a good breeze in the living room, so I settled in to wait. Just then it hit me: I had left my medicine at the other apartment/hotel! Due to the heat, I’d been keeping it in the fridge and I had a crystalline memory of taking it out of the fridge and not putting it in the bag with the groceries because I wanted to put it in my backpack (less possibility of it falling out in transit, the irony).

The good news was that the two hotels were actually just over 1km apart. I only needed the taxi to deal with the bags. I took off down the main street and frantically tried to figure out how to send a message to hotel #2 to let them know I was on my way. I didn’t book that place. I didn’t have any contact info for them. They weren’t in Google. I got my social sponsor to send me the phone number and sent a text message in French but got no reply. I was left to hope that the cleaners hadn’t just thrown it away before I could get back. As I came in the bottom entry, I ran into the helpful and kind lady who had managed my departure and, in very broken French, tried to convey that I’d left medicine behind. She knew exactly what I was talking about and bid me to wait (she remembered about the stairs <3) while she went to get it. So grateful!

Medicine in hand, it occurred to me that without the added adrenaline, I was too hot and tired to make the walk back just then, so I got out my ride share app and summoned a car. It took about 20 minutes to arrive, but he did call and warn me about the wait, and I was sitting on the stairs in the shade with a decent breeze, so I was ok. Better than walking in the blazing sun. The car, when it turned up, was newer than most taxis and had actual running A/C. The driver didn’t have the appropriate change, so I ended up paying 500cfa extra, but later I discovered that I could claim that on the app as a credit, so I’m giving that a shot to see if it works.

Thursday November 3: ATMs & Budgets

ATM in French:
No, I don’t assume everyone uses English all the time, but ATM is a very common loan word in many other countries and even where it isn’t a lot of people know what it is because they want the tourists to get access to more spending cash. It should not have surprised me that French was having nothing to do with our tawdry English acronym. Google Translate gives the translation of ATM as AU M.

Google Search turned up the expression “distributeur automatique de billets” and further Googling showed that maybe some people use DAB as an acronym but it wasn’t common. The linguist in me was skeptical about this answer because humans don’t like to use long words or expressions when short ones will do. We like to abbreviate. There had to be a short form equivalent of ATM, but no amount of searching on my part was yielding results that day, so I went back out into the world armed with “distributeur automatique de billets”. People looked at me funny, but at least it worked.

I have since learned this is, as I suspected, wrong. The machines are properly called “guichet automatique bancaire” (sometimes guichet automatique de banque and guichet automaique de billet) and abbreviated as GAB (pronounced “gab” not gee-ay-bee). Google Translate knows full well how to translate these terms from French into English, by the way. Just goes to show we can’t rely on the Oracle for everything.

Apartment Hunting & Budget Allowance:
After the repeated failed apartment viewings, much conversation has ensued between myself and both my social sponsor and realtor about the problem of my budget, which I have no control over. The US Government promised in my contract that I would have a furnished room with private bathroom/bedroom + kitchen access and good security, although they themselves do not provide the housing, they will intervene to make sure the minimum standards are met. They also decided that it should cost no more than 700$ US a month to rent this dream. I’m willing to pay a little over budget out of my own pocket for a good place, especially because of the issue with stairs and a/c, and I’m not attached to being walking distance from the school, no matter how bad my social sponsor makes it sound. The ETAs and the RELO don’t walk to work and they are fine. But it’s increasingly obvious that 700$ US a month is not actually enough even to meet the minimum standards laid out in my contract. What to do?

Friday November 4: Bureaucracy

My American RELO:
Normally, these projects are overseen by a Regional English Language Officer, or RELO for short. Unlike the project managers in Washington DC, the RELO is in the physical location of the project and therefore able to oversee arrangements, claims and conditions before the Fellow (that’s me) arrives. The one and only Fellow in Dakar before me came in late 2019 and left early because of COVID. They never really had a chance to settle in and besides, a lot changed during the pandemic. The former RELO in Dakar left earlier this year, back in the spring sometime, basically right after doing my interview. The new RELO just arrived in town a week or so after me. Things did not get done in an ideal manner during the intervening months. The deputy RELO (a local Senegalese woman) was, I’m sure, doing her best, but it’s a LOT for one person, especially one person whose job it actually isn’t, so no blame attaches. This is not a blame or fault sort of situation, it’s more of a Lemony Snickett situation.

Our conversation that morning was very surreal because it turned out her housing situation is actually worse than mine. The place she’s supposed to live is still being built and the place the embassy stuffed her is apparently a concrete box with no a/c where her husband is doing laundry in a bucket, so… I had to rather awkwardly inform her that air-conditioning is not that rare here (not ubiquitous like Korea but it’s at least been in the bedrooms of almost every place I’ve looked at) and that washing machines do exist. She actually asked if they had washing machines here and I still don’t know if she was being ‘Merican or sarcastic…

The Reports Never End: Working for Uncle Sam
I filed another round of expense reports that day as well for the last 2 hotels and a qwerty keyboard for the office at the school (the one my contact at the university said would take 3-5 weeks to get and I got in 2 days). Expense reports involve an excel spreadsheet with the items, descriptions, local and US costs; copies of the pre-purchase approval, copies of the receipts, and a screenshot of the daily exchange rate using Oanda all bundled up in a single pdf file. It isn’t hard work, but it is tedious and time consuming. I also wrote my post-arrival report which I had been putting off in the vain hopes that I’d have more solutions to report than problems, but since the report is due mid November and no one expects anything to change before then, I figured I might as well. It could be argued that things have changed because I have better options, but the questions they were asking were about my permanent housing and about my primary project at the host university, neither of which I expect to have up and going before Christmas.

Broken Down After Dark:
By the time I finished chatting with the hostess of the Airbnb, it was getting late so I went into a nearby restaurant to order take out with plans to use the ride app to get back to my room because dark was descending and I’m not supposed to walk alone after dark. Much like the first time I used the app, the driver messaged me to say it was going to take a while because traffic, but I was ok to wait inside the restaurant until he got there. I suppose that’s going to be the trade off for taxi vs ride share: waiting without haggling or haggling but less waiting.

The car seemed nice, and we drove most of the way with no problem other than traffic. Then just as we get to the busiest roundabout the car died. Dead. No amount of prayer was getting the engine going again. Cars were going around us three deep with motorcycles and pedestrians weaving in between. The open air market and the bus stop are right there. If it was daylight, I’d have walked the short distance back to the room, but it was full dark and we were in the busiest and most crowded spot.

The driver was obviously embarrassed but very polite and professional. He arranged a taxi for me, haggled for the price, didn’t take any money from me for the part of the ride I did with him, and escorted me through the traffic and crowds into the taxi safely. Of course I left him a good review.

The Weekend: Resting Day & Moving Day

I did as little as possible Saturday. It was glorious. I lazed about in the air-conditioning eating leftover takeout food and drinking the last of my bottled water because I didn’t want to carry it on moving day. I didn’t even post on Facebook.

Sunday, the Fulbright ETAs came over and very efficiently helped me get all my bags down the elevator and into a taxi, then with similar efficiency back up two flights of stairs to their own apartment where I will live for the next two weeks. I feel like the most backward adult, having to ask two ladies in their early 20s if I can crash with them because I have no place to live. I suppose I could have found another hotel, but the problem of the “moving in” budget which I described in arrival post still loomed large. I felt like it was a horrible waste of money to keep living in hotels. Plus, kitchen! The ETAs have a nice 3 bedroom apartment with a/c in every bedroom and the living room. Aside from the fact that I feel silly living with people young enough to be my children (if I had children), they are hosting out of town folks for Thanksgiving and getting a third roommate in Dec/Jan, so it has to be temporary. Nonetheless, I overflow with gratitude at being able to know where I would lay my head for 2 weeks in a row and for being able to finally have the time/space/energy to go through my luggage and rearrange the suitcases so I could stop wearing the same 3 outfits. I’m still mainly living out of the “carry on” size one, but at least now the 3 bags are more suitably arranged for daily access, occasional access and storage.

I offered to pay rent and utilities of course, but then found out later that it might have been disallowed because of conflicting expense reports. Between you and me, I would have paid them out of my own pocket if the expense had been disallowed because I’m the frickin’ adult here, not a freeloading broke-a$$ college student (no matter how much I still feel like one sometimes). Adults pay for things when they are with the youngers. That’s the social contract. I also bought them Indian food for dinner as a thank you for not just letting me stay, but helping with the move. It’s a slight step up from pizza and beer that accompanies most broke-a$$ college student moving days.

Monday: Mo Money Mo Problems?

I received word that the budget for my housing has been increased! Apparently between my searches and the deputy RELO’s searches, the RELO had enough data to make a case for an increased budget. I’ve told both my social sponsor (who is supposed to be the person helping me secure housing) and the realtor I contacted through the ETAs about the increase to help in the search, but so far the social sponsor gave me a single thumbs up emoji, and the realtor tried to show me a place that was even more expensive than the last one (and still way outside even the increased budget allowance).

For one horrible moment, it looked like the RELO wanted me to do a shorter stay at the Airbnb because she thought we could find real housing faster with the increase, but I pointed out that after living at 4 places in 3 weeks with that hope, I really needed some stability and she agreed.

Looking Forward

It’s relevant to note that no matter how much I’m complaining, all my solutions are “stay here and make it work” oriented. I’m not interested in giving up. I’m also not exclusively having bad experiences. It’s harder for me to write about the good ones because they are small and wedged in between the difficult ones.

Now that I’m not spending every waking moment on food/water/sleep needs, I can hopefully start to focus on other things. I still have a long way to go to get the project at my host university going, and I am hoping to make some progress on my secondary project as well in November. In addition, I’ve received an invitation to submit for a presentation at a conference in December, so I now have the bandwidth to work on that as well.

I have to acknowledge the lack of photos, too. It’s very difficult to remember to get out my phone to snap a pic in many of these situations. I want to take more photos because I like having those memories to look back on, but it turns out you have to feel secure and well rested before photography makes it into the picture, so to speak. Once I’ve been in a neighborhood long enough to know what feels safe and what feels sketchy, I’ll be more confident in holding my phone in my hand to take those pictures, but a very real concern of having my phone snatched or of taking a photo of the wrong person and causing a problem has kept me from doing so even when the thought has managed to pierce the veil of stress.

Finally, I’m still glad to be on this crazy adventure. I’m enjoying seeing the different parts of the city. I’m plotting places I want to explore more when I have my basic needs met and the weather cools off. I’m seeing beautiful clothes, and interesting street food, and random butterflies and flowers and trees that make me smile.

I’m holding on to the fact that my future self will treasure the positive parts of this journey while downplaying the crying because that’s what’s happened to me literally every other time.

As always, thanks for reading along with my crazy adventures even, and possibly especially, when they get difficult.

Je Suis Arrivé: Senegal First Impressions

I’ve been in Senegal for 2 weeks. I’m about to lay down some solid developing nation meets first world privilege complaining, but despite all that, I’m still glad I came here. It’s been a REALLY long time since I had to adjust to a new country to live in (vacation is not the same, because you get to stay in temporary housing and explore and have fun while knowing your safe and comfy bed is waiting for you at the end of the trip), and besides – no vacations during COVID! More than that, adjusting to Korea was very different than here, it was almost all culture and language barrier based because the standard quality of life in Korea is overall quite high. This reminds me more of learning to adjust to China or Saudi, the main 2 differences now are: I’m over 40 and I crave a basic level of creature comforts that younger me was more willing to do without in the name of sparkly new adventure – and this is objectively less developed than either of those places. It may in fact be the least developed part of the world I’ve traveled to, and that’s not an insult, it just means as a white American lady I didn’t have this perspective. It’s good for me, stretching me outside of my complacency and comfort zone (again), so I don’t regret it. I’m not mad about the conditions here, nor am I demanding unreasonable levels of comfort (clean, safe & accommodating my health). I just want to be honest about what I’m experiencing here, and how it makes me feel.

Getting There Is Half the Battle?

Arriving was not actually difficult. A long flight – 3 flights – but nothing a regular international traveler can’t handle. Flying in over the Sahara was fascinating. I could see the landscape change from endless sand to green farmland. There’s the jet lag package (fatigue, dehydration, swollen feet, etc), but I had a whole day in my hotel to rest before orientation. I had arranged an airport pickup with the hotel as well. So far, so good. The program is covering all those costs (assuming my expense report is accepted). The drive from the airport was looooooong, almost 2 hours. The main highways here are fairly well kept, but once you get off the main drag, the roads are not just dirt, but the dirt that remains after badly laid asphalt has cracked and eroded from flooding. There were potholes that could be kiddie pools on the road my hotel was on and I have to say it surprised me to see that this was the norm in the ritzy part of town, and made me wonder what the rest of the city looked like.

The hotel was nice, but I had forgotten to think about things like a mini fridge or a kettle, and there were no shops nearby anyway, just beachfront restaurants and an American imported goods store because I was staying in the fancy part of town near the Embassy. I thankfully have had experience with finding and using local delivery apps and quickly got my first meal delivered to my room (Dakar Food Delivery if anyone needs it). I was also a bit sticker shocked by the prices, but it seems only the expensive restaurants can afford to do delivery. A meal was costing me 10,000-13,000 CFA or 15-20$ USD. I know Americans think that’s a good deal for delivery food, but it’s wildly cognitively dissonant to be in a place that is so underdeveloped and also costs that much. Plus, I have a lingering “former poor” brain function that gets activated when I’m under stress so it feels insanely opulent to eat delivery food 2x a day for a week, which is basically what I did minus 2 lunches at the Embassy. For comparison, my Embassy cafeteria lunch was 4,000 CFA about 6$ US. I survived by reassuring myself that I was still well within the average daily food/transit allowance that is included in my budget, though I now better understand that a person eating at Western style restaurants and taking a taxi (buses are not recommended for expats for safety as well as comfort reasons) could actually use the full budget allotted to us. I expect when I’m comfortable enough to actually start taking taxis to explore other parts of the city, I’ll need that budget, too.

Post Arrival Orientation

We were hosted at the US Embassy for a 3 day orientation from Wednesday Oct 18-Friday 19. The orientation was a good way to introduce us to Senegalese culture because nothing started on time or went according to plan. (I said there would be complaining, but it’s not helpful to think of cultural differences like this as better or worse. I honestly think the number of cultures that place a high value on timetables and deadlines is much smaller than those that are more … flexible. It’s just frustrating to be raised in one style and have to live and work in the other). The policy on Embassy provided drivers changed but no one told our coordinator until the first morning, so while I could have easily walked the distance to the Embassy from my hotel, she had me ask the hotel to call a taxi and then also called the hotel herself to confirm. I have to say that while I found the whole process frustrating and confusing at the time, I do appreciate the lengths she went to that morning to make sure we were all safe and comfortable. It’s not her fault that my comfort level is directly linked to my ability to control my own environment (yay trauma responses!) so waiting around for ages and relying on other people to tell me what to do or how to do it or even do it for me is deeply anxiety inducing to me. I walked the remaining 2 days.

Getting into the Embassy is an ordeal if you don’t work there. One at a time, we handed over our passports in a little secure bank teller style window and got a visitor badge in return. Then again one at a time, we entered the security screening room where we handed over all electronics (including charging cables!) and for some reason also my nail clippers and umbrella. Even the TSA lets umbrellas through security. All our banned things were placed in a numbered box, we were given a token with the number on it and then a fairly standard x-ray for the bags and metal detector portal for us. Then we walked across a courtyard into another building where we again had to pass through a metal detector, have our bags visually examined and record the number from our token on a visitor log. We were also limited to only the front area (the American Center, the meeting room, and the restrooms) unless we had an escort, and our coordinator could only escort 4 people at a time, so had to get help when it was time to take us to the cafeteria. Somehow the free English language program that they run here is inside all this security, and local Senegalese people who want to participate have to go through an application process and pass through this kind of security every time they want to come to a class or event. It does make me kind of glad that it’s not my primary base of operations, though I am sure I’ll go back to do a guest lesson or something.

I enjoyed meeting everyone in the orientation. There were only 2 of us Fellows (we are the older, more experienced teachers… grizzled veterans of expat life) and 6 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) who are all adorable 22 year old Gifted Children™ that just graduated from their BAs and all speak fluent French. Only myself and 2 of the ETAs are stationed here in Dakar, the rest are scattered around St. Louis and Thies. There were also a metric ton of presenters, but since there was zero printed or electronic materials (beyond the schedule which as I mentioned was not followed), I don’t really know who all of them were and remember even less about the details of the programs they talked about. I’m trying to get it in written form, but it’s hard especially as our full time Regional English Language Officer (RELO) isn’t here yet and the deputy (our faithful coordinator) is trying to do all the work on her own.

People I remember well – the press officer and cultural officer were both fun to talk with mostly because they were also new to Senegal and more relatable to me in terms of common background and interests; the HR person who gave us our cultural lesson was awesome (Betty Hubbard, which sounds SO white, but she’s really an African woman with a lot of experience in the US and several African countries, and was delightful, I wish I had a good photo of her, but I only have what the embassy emailed me, which is mostly us). The guy who runs the largest English Club network made a good impression simply by virtue of his enthusiasm, but I was a bit sad that I probably won’t do much with their organization (although he has ‘threatened’ to invite me to come and give a guest lesson) since it is for k-12 ages and I’m going to be spending most of my time with the University. Other presenters were … not used to presenting. Several had classic “read the slides verbatim” or monotone voices. Almost all the Senegalese spoke so quietly that even at the other end of a small conference table, I struggled to hear them. It made me want to create a workshop just for them to be better presenters, an idea I may pitch to the Embassy later on.

Health & Safety

There was a security briefing, which we also got in the EPIK orientation in Korea, and those are almost always extreme, but here I’m not so sure. Things like ‘motorcycle thieves’ people who ride double on a motorcycle so the passenger can snatch bags off pedestrians and the driver speeds away are apparently very real here, such that even locals have warned me to wear my backpack on both arms or at very least, move it to the side away from the road. Don’t carry more than your money and empty shopping back into open air markets (regular brick and mortar shops are ok). Don’t walk after dark alone. Don’t hold your cell phone too loosely or someone might snatch it (motorcycle thief style). Don’t use ATMs on the street, only inside a guarded building. But also, say hello to everyone in your neighborhood, greetings and inquiring after wellbeing are crucial to being recognized by the people who might help you if you’re ever in trouble. People who keep to themselves are left that way.

There was also a health briefing from a nurse who instilled in us the very real fear of Senegalese water if nothing else. They also talked about soaking any fruits or veg you don’t peel in a diluted bleach solution and rinsing with bottled or boiled water. I’m actually not sure what her policy on dish washing is, but I’m using the tap so far, just make sure it’s all the way dry before I put food on it? I have already mentioned my extensive vaccination regimen and of course my weekly anti-malaria pills, so I was fairly well prepared. I figured out how to get smaller (1.5L) water bottles delivered to my hotel, but I’m still working on proper water delivery. I’m going through 2-3 liters of water a day here, so it’s thing. Maybe when I get my “real” housing I’ll be able to do a night boil for the next day’s water, but so far that’s been fairly impossible. The nurse also said that we would all definitely get diarrhea (yeah ok, gross, but this is a very real issue travelling to places with massively different bacteria). The ETAs kind of laughed it off until the older of us were like, no, she’s right, this isn’t a thing you avoid, it’s a thing you minimize and prepare for.

I hoped my globe trotting stomach was well equipped but I still had some antibiotics my pharmacist prescribed to me before I left the US for this exact reason. I have only had bad travelers diarrhea once in my adult life, and that was my first visit to Egypt when I got so sick I could not even keep down water. I remain hopeful that was a once in a lifetime event. My issues in Dakar were comparatively very mild. The first bout passed in a day, and I thought I was free and clear, but then it came back and lasted and lasted. Part of the problem was a lack of ability to eat gentle food. I tried to order things like a labneh (similar to yogurt) on pide (like a pizza dough but oblong) and plain rice or plain chicken, but it was difficult. I only got to go to a grocery store when I moved to a new “hotel” after my first week. Then I ate yogurt, bread, bananas, rice and oatmeal for 2 days before I gave up and went to the pharmacy for some Imodium.

Phone: Connection, Translation, Maps and More

I don’t know how I lived in China and Saudi without a smartphone. I know I did it, but for the life of me, I am baffled. I walked literally everywhere in China with my little pocket dictionary and took months to learn how to properly use the public transit system on my own. I used Wi-Fi on a tablet to pull up maps in Saudi, but mostly I only had a company driver to take me places. During my travels from 2015 on, it seems like having access to a local Sim card and internet was essential to getting around, navigating language barriers, public transit, shopping and everything else really. I like having data as soon as I land. I often get it in the airport or at a shop near my accommodation on the very first day. In this case I had deliberately not taken care of getting my own SIM card because it was on the schedule for the first day of orientation that we would do it as a group. I decided to go with the group because maybe they will be more help than I could have been on my own. No.

First we went to an Orange kiosk (Orange is a telecommunications company in this part of the world), which did not sell SIM cards (I feel like this could have been ascertained ahead of time). When we finally got to the store itself, they collected all our passports and had us wait. The store actually closed with us inside it, and finally they said that they had no SIM cards that day, and we should come back tomorrow. When we returned the following day, we had a better idea of what to expect, but we still got a bit of runaround, being told to go out to a different location to get the SIMs. I suspect they simply didn’t want to deal with a large group at the end of the day. Which, I sympathize with. I can think of several ways to have done this which would have made life easier for everyone including the shop employees, but it’s a learning experience. 

In addition to our fearless deputy RELO (a local who has worked at the Embassy for many many years), several of the French speaking ETAs got involved in trying to solve the issue, which also resulted in crossed wires. We went out, we came back, we waited. Finally they began to issue us SIM cards. They cost 500CFA (75cents US) and are connected to our passports, but that’s normal in most countries that aren’t America. It took a while to get everything sorted out, finding our numbers, loading the Orange app, etc. It was hot (no AC in the store) and stressful (language barrier and multiple mixed messages), but once I got back to my hotel and could examine the system on my own in cool air, it was easy enough. We also went back the kiosk from day 1 to learn how to add money to an Orange account. Phones are all pay as you go and there’s no way to add money online, so you have to physically take cash to an Orange kiosk. Fortunately they are everywhere. The minutes and data that came with my SIM expired after one week after which I found that the minimum purchase for a 30 day period was 2200CFA or about 3.30$. I chose a flex plan and started with 2 hours of talk time, 500 text messages, and 1.5G of data at that price point. I don’t know how much of that I’ll actually use in 30 days. Since I’m on Wi-Fi at the hotel and at school, and I only use the phone to talk to delivery drivers, I think it will last. All this could change if I go somewhere without decent Wi-Fi, but for now, it seems like the phone plans (unlike the housing and restaurants) are DEAD CHEAP, which is nice because it means more locals (students) are likely to have access.

Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat?

Housing has been a source of some great stress. I discovered as I was preparing to leave Korea that having safe stable comfortable home base is very critical to managing my anxiety levels and my willingness to do new adventurous things. My friends in the US did a magnificent job of making me feel safe stable and comfortable while I was in their home, but it’s their home. Here in Senegal, I knew that we would search for apartments after I arrived (frustrating but ok it’s probably better to see them in person), but I did not expect the reality. No amount of looking at apartments online could even slightly prepare a person for the reality. The day after our orientation finished (Saturday) my social sponsor (the only professor at my uni who speaks English and therefore got stuck with this job) picked me up to go house hunting. I had spoken with him at length in advance about the budget needs (monthly rent + finding a pre-furnished apartment) & my health requirements which include the need for air-conditioning & my inability to navigate stairs. He said he understood, but when the day came, it was obvious he did not.

Side note about stairs and health: a lot of people judge me because I’m overweight, they assume it’s laziness, and that if I’d just eat less and exercise more I’d be healthy! Nope. I’m a member of the invisible disability club “But You Don’t Look Sick”. Sometimes I am well enough to climb multiple flights of stairs, but not always. Heat makes it worse. If I’ve already walked a lot, it will be harder. It’s hot AF here and I walk everywhere. I’m going to be hoarding my spoons the whole time I’m here. (spoon theory) I don’t believe that people with chronic illness or disabilities should just NOT do things. We know what we need to accommodate ourselves. I can’t do as much. I need to rest more. I need AC for my health not just my comfort. And I need stairs to be a choice as often as possible.

The first apartment we stopped at was inside a restaurant. I mean, the entrance was at least. There were 2 ways to access it, but fundamentally the stairwell was inside a restaurant. Ok, hey, easy access to prepared food at least? However after we completed the first flight of stairs and began the second, I stopped and reminded my sponsor that I could not live in a place with that many stairs. I think he thought I was just being a lazy American when I told him about it in email, but thankfully(?) my edema was bad enough on that day that I could show him the physical effects. I hate that people have to see a health problem before they believe it’s real, but here we are.

The second place we went to was under construction and slightly underground. They told me things could be cleared away and cleaned up, but there was no AC, no kitchen, and very little in the way of natural light. Plus it was under some stairs and had a canted ceiling which gave the whole thing a Harry-Potter-at-the-Dursley’s feeling. In that case, not only would I have had to wait until it was finished and cleaned up, but I would have had to arrange to furnish it with literally every appliance and stick of furniture. I’m only here for 10 months! And even if I was up for all that, the place was tiny and dim, and I remembered how depressed I was in my shoebox in Gyeongju vs how much better I was with a more open space and a view. Another no.

The third place had a ground floor entrance, but only the living room was on the ground floor. The bedroom and kitchen were up a flight of stairs. Having to continuously explain your needs and not be listened to over and over is exhausting and demoralizing. They showed me another room in the same complex that was so tiny that the bed almost completely blocked the entrance to the kitchen. Like, you had to side scoot around the bed to get into the kitchen. Plus, no place to do any work besides the bed (again, a thing I knew from my first Gyeongju apartment during COVID was a recipe for depression). I began to suspect that they deliberately took me to some sketchy places so that the mediocre place they actually wanted me to live would seem great by comparison.

The 4th place we visited was actually a very nice building. Concierge at the front desk, and an elevator! The unit we viewed was only one floor up, but still, not having to do stairs with heavy groceries or on a bad day is always wonderful. The unit however, was unfurnished (though at least had AC installed already). I do have a budget that would allow for buying necessary furnishings, but it takes time and expense reports, and then what do I do with it when I leave? Despite all this, I almost went with this unit because it was the nicest by far. However, they demanded 4 months rent up front, and it became apparent that 3 of those months would never be returned. 1 was just an agency fee, and 2 were a security deposit that by all accounts would vanish and I would have no real recourse after leaving the country to get it back.

The 5th place, and the place they clearly want me to end up living, is the building I’m staying in now. It’s called a hotel, but is in reality a series of furnished apartments rented out by the day. My social sponsor has negotiated a monthly rate, but the apartment we viewed will not be ready until November 5 or 6, so I’m in a different room paying the day rate for 2 weeks, I guess. More expense reports.

This room is … unideal. It had a lot of flies when I moved in, but it seems since I killed them, no new ones have appeared. It only has AC in the bedroom, so I’m not inclined to use the other room. The TVs don’t work so I’m back to watching Netflix on my laptop. There was a washing machine which I was able to get the staff to help me use, and that was nice, being able to do laundry after a week of sweating. However, the shower was 80% broken, water came out of the seams around the shower head, and there was some kind of a leak around the toilet that made the floor always wet. I was not supposed to be in that room at all. I was supposed to go to a different room while we figured out the long term housing, but the person leaving that room hadn’t left by the time we arrived. Then I was supposed to be in this room for only one day, and I waited around the entire second day for someone to tell me where I was moving to, only to learn at the end of the day that I’d be there until Saturday (29th). Now I know I’m staying in this room until my monthly room is ready. I got the bathroom fixed at least.

I desperately want a room that I can know will be mine for at least a few months. I need to unpack, and settle .Twice now, I’ve woken up at 4am to discover the power in ONLY my room is out and had to get dressed enough (Alhamdulillah I still have my abaya, socially suitable to put over PJs in any country) to go the front desk to ask (in sleepy French) for the power to come back. By then, I’m too hot and agitated to go back to sleep well. The weekend brought the exciting discovery that somewhere above me someone is trying to run a nightclub from 1-5am with extreme bass. I mostly can’t hear it with my headphones in, but it was not conducive to good sleep. Aside from my comfort level, there’s finances to consider. My contract covers RENT, not hotels (it does cover hotels for a short while at the beginning, but at one point one of the people helping us look for apartments thought it would be reasonable to stay in a hotel for a whole month while we figured out housing!) And the even crazier part is that my “moving in” budget comes from the same pool of money for any projects I want to do that benefit my host country, so the longer they make me stay in hotels, the less money I have to spend on materials, supplies, or even micro-scholarships for them. I need to be in a monthly rent agreement place for so many reasons both personal and project based.

In a very recent development, a new option appears. One of the other ladies here on the Fulbright program had already done a homestay last spring, and her host mother turned out to be a realtor. In many countries, realtors help you find and rent apartments. I had that arrangement in Korea, too. The realtor my social sponsor arranged was the one who picked out all the sketchy apartments. Anyway, they got her in touch with me, so now I have a thread of hope that a better apartment may be forthcoming.

The School – Veterinarians

Ah, my “job”. I keep telling people this isn’t a job like other jobs. It’s a fellowship (yeah like Frodo!, no not really) and a project. My primary goal is the university I’m assigned to, but I’m also supposed to have side projects and other cultural whatsits to be involved in. I’ve already put out some good feelers for a side project which I’ll write more about if anything comes of it, and I’ve been invited to come and speak at some nebulous future date at at least 2 venues. Secondary projects abound, and I can take, leave or redefine them fairly easily. The challenge is my host university.

I was placed with the Ecole Inter-Etats des Sciences et Médecine Vétérinaires, and even if you don’t speak French, some of those words will be familiar science, medicine, veterinary… It is a veterinary school located inside the Cheik Anta Diop Univeristy here in Dakar. They aren’t into the humanities. They don’t have an existing English department, and for reasons I’m not clear on, they can’t just send their students over to the school of foreign languages next door to take some English, they are in fact trying to create their very own curriculum.

There is really only one guy who speaks English well enough to be comfortable talking to me, and he’s (self described) low on the totem pole, so doesn’t have a lot of the answers to my questions about the details of what they want and what resources they have for this. I finally got their curriculum proposal (in French, but Google Translate is better than nothing) which is only half written and clearly by people who have no clue how language acquisition works. I also had a brief meeting with the gentleman in charge of scheduling details, but can’t get any answers about things like instruction hours. I clearly don’t know how the semesters are structured here. It’s been explained that it’s not like a liberal arts style class where you go at the same time every week for 10-16 weeks (quarter vs semester), but that students rotate through very short and very intensive courses of study (2-3 weeks at a time?). I’m still trying to figure out if I need to design English classes on that time scale or if it’s even possible to have students regularly show up 2x a week. So far I’ve written a 4 page counter memo explaining the overambitious nature of their dream and the crushing weight of compromising with reality, but I don’t know who to give it to.

They also want clinic workshops which are much easier to create and run, but less effective for overall language acquisition. Since I have next to no data or guidance, and everyone who could speak to me about it is apparently out of town or busy for the next two weeks, I’ve decided to spend some time on YouTube and TikTok looking for videos by vets that are: a) educational, b) funny, c) both — in order to design some short one-shot workshops around those. However, since I can’t design anything until I have some idea of the students actual English level, implementing a widespread level assessment test is the first goal.

But that’s not all! They want the faculty, admin, and IT staff to have English lessons relevant to their needs! While I was cleaning 3 years of dust off the pre-COVID Fellow’s desk (now my desk) I found a schedule which had him doing 18 hours of classes a week! That is a high amount even if it’s your only job because on average, 2 hours outside of class for every hour in class is a good balance for adequate lesson prep and homework/assessment grading and feedback on a new course. Once you’ve done a course a time or two, you can drop that down to 1:1 because the lessons are basically made and you’ve developed some tricks to grading the assignments, but considering I’ll be designing the curriculum and either finding or creating all the materials, and I’m expected to have outside projects, that’s INSANE.

What Am I Doing Here?

So, here I am, wandering between my shabby hotel apartment and the local café, writing in my blog and diving down a veterinary rabbit hole on YouTube because I have no qwerty keyboard at my office and no access to the curriculum material or student information, and my social sponsor is out of town.

I wish I could tell you about the city, and the food, and culture, but honestly, I’ve been fairly mono-focused on my base level Maslow’s needs here, contending with vaguely poor health while having to negotiate in a foreign language daily for things like food, water, and shelter. I’ve talked before about culture shock, and the fact that even simple tasks take more energy in a foreign place/language. It’s no joke, and it hasn’t left me with much energy for adventure type exploring. I’ve walked around some. The sidewalks are used for parked cars leaving pedestrians to walk in traffic (yay). There are lots of vendors on the street that I look forward to investigating soon. I have downloaded the recommended ride share apps that should allow me to avoid haggling with taxi drivers, but I probably won’t do much “touristing” until December when the weather is less aggressive and I can be outside for more than an hour or two without getting dizzy.

Welcome to Senegal.

Letters From China (Second Semester 2008)

The winter breaks are long in China and I managed to get back to visit folks in Seattle from January 10 to February 20th. Returning to China after that visit home was one of the hardest things I ever did, and it was a hard road to emotional recovery in the bitter cold afterwards. In the last few years abroad, my sense of “home” has changed a lot. I love my friends and family in the US, but now when I visit, it’s more like a vacation, and getting back to my host country is “going home”. I’ll never stop loving them, but looking back on these letters, I am glad that this level of homesickness and culture shock depression is a rarity in my life today. But don’t worry, next time there will be flowers.


Feb 23, 2008 at 12:28pm

It’s Saturday morning here and I’m about halfway unpacked. I’m getting some laundry done and I’ve managed a trip to the store for the basic essentials, food for me and the bunny and new dvds.

I have my class schedule and my books (though I haven’t looked at the new books yet). The students I handed out as pen pals will be my students again this semester, along with some new ones as well. Classes start on Monday, so I’m going to spend a chunk of time this weekend looking over the books and filing out paperwork (yay bureaucracy!).

535240_10150779820031646_1213254039_nThe bunny is well, however we’re going to the vet soon anyway because I got a really enthusiastic greeting when I got home and I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is indeed a boy bunny.

The sofa is not as bad as I’d feared. The hole seems to be underneath the sofa, so the bunny crawls up inside it and vanishes.

It’s kind of wierd being back. Everything is familiar yet strange. The smells especially, not all bad ones, just unique to China and to my apartment here. The weather is ok, its sunny and cold (not quite as cold as when I left, I think we’re above freezing now) its even pleasant if you stand in the sun and the wind isn’t blowing.

Alot of the anxiety I felt over returning is gone (leaving again was the hard part, now that I’m here I guess its easier). Its strange that this place somehow feels more stable than Seattle. I loved seeing everyone, but the whole time I felt out of place, and not sure what to expect from anyone or anything. I think that would change if I had a job and an apartment of my own, but still, its strange.

It was really awesome to be home for a while, although I have to try not to think about it too hard right now. I hope you’ll all continue to visit the board and chat on IM. It sounds cheesy beyond belief, but I can’t stress enough how much it helps me to have you all as my friends and my support structure while I’m way out here.

Love and Hugs

Feb 24, 2008 at 6:43pm

Day 3, and I’m already going insane…

The weather is still evilly cold, especially when the wind blows, so its hard to make myself go outside for anything non-essential.

The party Friday and game Saturday have led to a really slow g-talk for the last couple days, so try to check in soon.

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The bunny had a little conniption fit and knocked over his litter boxes (not for the first time), so I finally went out and bought a full size covered cat box. The lid is off while he gets adjusted, but the sides are quite high, and it is (I hope) too heavy for bunny to overturn. I’ve left the lid on the floor to see what he thinks of it, I’m still not sure if I’ll use it on the box, or just keep it as a bunny hideout elsewhere in the room.

Classes start tomorrow at 8am. I’ve written my syllabi and now there’s nothing but the waiting.

I checked around a few websites for job listings, I may try to get something as a proofreader/editor to fill in the extra time and earn a bit more.

I’m going to try to figure out my new camera this week, too so I can upload some pics of the sofa damage everyone keeps asking about, and of course of the bunny, which has grown more into his ears now.

And I think I’m out of things to report just now. ttfn.

Feb 29, 2008 at 5:33pm

The first week is over. I just got back from my last class on Friday afternoon.

All in all, it’s going well. I didn’t venture into the city this week, mostly allowing myself time to get adjusted and to get a feel for what my free time is like during the week.

I’ve decided that since I have classes that end before noon on Tuesday and Wednesday that I’m going to attempt to install myself at a cafe with free wi-fi in Beijing on those afternoons so I can maybe have a strong enough connection to upload pics and maybe even *gasp* watch Youtube!

I’ve joined Facebook, many of you have noticed.

I’ve found a neat website called thebeijinger, which has lots of classifieds for jobs and events so I’m looking there for something interesting to do in my spare time/weekends. So far I’ve put out feelers for a position as a blues singer at a club and for a Saturday afternoons meeting “culture club” that features hands on activities of Korean and Chinese culture and language. More on those as it progresses.

Classes were uneventful. My schedule this semester is a little strange though. I have my favorite classes again (the ones I put up pics of), 3 groups that each meet 1x a week, I also have the same group for advanced conversation that meets 2x per week, and a new group for “American Newspapers and Magazines” reading course that meets 1x a week. For all of these classes our first day was just catching up from the break, or in the case of the new class, getting acquainted, and we won’t really get into lessons till the next meeting.

The wierd part is that I am a “guest teacher” for another set of classes. There’s 8 classes of about 80 students each that are all taking the same course (at different times of course). Now, I have one week with each of these 8 groups of students, at 3x a week. There are, however, 20 weeks in a semester, so for 8 of those weeks I have 3 more classes than the other 12…. oh, and since its 8 groups all learning the same thing, I have to teach the same 3 chapters from the same book 8x… joy.

In other news, I’m learning how incredibly hard writing a good professional CV actually is… anyone who has some experience in this that wants to help, I’d love it. I can’t believe I’ve made it to my age and never really had to write one, but as it turns out I’ve always either been trying for really low level jobs that wanted applications instead of resumes, or got hired by recommendation from within and only had to hand over a resume for “the files” rather than actual competitive job seeking.

Stay tuned for updates on the extra curricular life and of course the bunny… I hope to make it to a cafe this weekend, but if not, it’ll be Tuesday (your Monday) before I finally get some pics up.

TTFN!

Mar 4, 2008 at 6:45pm

IMG_0150.jpgI wasn’t online all day today because I decided to try to go to the wi-fi cafe I mentioned earlier. It turned out to be REALLY hard to find, and I spent almost an hour wandering around the part of town its in before I was able to get comprehensible directions from someone. This was in part because no one knew where the place I was trying to find was, and in part because those who knew were far enough away and I was unfamiliar with the streets and landmarks that anything past “go that way a while” was more than I could follow. But I found it, and the weather was nice and sunny today, so it wasn’t too bad to be walking outside.

Its cute, and though it was after the lunch rush when I found it, it didn’t seem crowded, only a couple other people. Unfortunately, the plugs were all 2 prong or Chinese standard 3 prong, so I couldn’t plug my computer in.

Being tired from my journey, I decided to sit and check out the menu anyway. I got a banana/ginger/orange smoothie, which was nummy, and I had a chance to peruse their menu and prices, which are both highly western and reasonably priced. Sure its more expensive than eating at the cheapo diners or the street vendors, but the average seems to be about 50 Kuai for a meal and drink, and there were lots of specials that were less. (remember that 50 kuai is still only about 7$ US), and the menu had several things that looked tasty and Kaine friendly.

I only stayed about an hour, then on my way back I decided to try to catch the bus at a different station, since several people had told me the lines were shorter. The line may have been shorter, but the walk from the subway was much longer and the wait between buses was also longer, so I doubt I’ll be using that again.

The upshot is that I spent about 4 hrs in transit and 1 hr at the cafe today, and I’m beat. However, now I know where it is, and that I need to bring a converter, so I’ll be better prepared when I go back, which will hopefully be tomorrow, as I’d like to try to go Tuesday and Wednesday most weeks.

I think the upscale environment and regular access to affordable western food will do me some good, and assuming the wi-fi works, I’ll be able to get more photos uploaded while there, including, of course, photos of the neighborhood its in…. if it weren’t for the writing I wouldn’t have taken it for part of China. It’s so CLEAN, people were even washing the trashcans on the sidewalks!

Ok, that’s my ramble, catch up to you all soon!

Mar 11, 2008 at 8:29pm

Long, Long Day

It started with me waking up at 5am, restless, because I actually caught up on sleep last weekend, and wasn’t exhausted, then tossing and turning for 2 hrs in and out of sleep and the weirdest dream that i was fighting Lord Voldemort… but it turned out to really be Raif, and the whole thing was a movie set… yeah

Then, in my early morning bleary haze, as I chow down my oatmeal and try to remember what I’m teaching today, there is a pounding on my door… notice I do not say knocking… which continues virtually nonstop till I open it, only to find an out of breath Chinese woman I’ve never seen before who explains in broken English that she has now come to my apartment 4 times looking for me because she needs an English teacher for her school on Saturday mornings. “No thank you, I really don’t have time”, some how takes more than 5 minutes of me and my oatmeal getting cold as I stand there with the door open at 7:30 in the morning. She leaves, I go back to checking my email. 2 seconds later, more pounding. She is back to ask me if I can ask my friends if they are interested in teaching. I try to tell her, because I know for a fact, that none of the other teachers have time or want more work. I finally even resorted to loudly explaining this in Chinese, in case she wasn’t getting it in English. she asks, what about my other friends, and I say they’re all in America. And I can’t get her to leave me alone until I agree to take her phone number anyway! worse than Jehovah’s witnesses, I swear.

So, now I’m late, because this woman… grr… anyway, I’m rushing off to my 8 am class, trying not to glower at the morning gray smogginess, when all of a sudden, a bright patch of yellow catches my eye, and I see FLOWERS! beautiful tiny yellow flowers on a bush that kind of looks like someone pulled a willow tree down till only its branches were above ground. I’m told they’re called spring greeting flowers here. So, better.

Class, yay, class, more class, ok they aren’t really that exciting, though they are better than last semester.

Then a quick lunch and off to the bank.

 

Abbey agreed to go with me today, to help out, but she fobbed me off on Wang Meng, a very sweet, but totally backwater Chinese man, with much less English than Abbey has. (and since I wanted Abbey for difficult translations that occur in international banking issues, you can imagine my frustration). Wang Meng is also from a small town, and this is his first job, and he just started last fall, about 2 weeks before I did. I was actually guiding HIM through Beijing to get to where we needed to be.

Leave the apt at 1pm, miss the close bus, so we walk to the far stop and end up waiting till the next bus that would have picked us up at the close stop shows up. Traffic jam.

Finally get to Beijing, and I have to go first to change the money to USD, since this process at the bank can be somewhere between difficult and impossible, and usually expensive.  Then go BACK to the place we got off the bus, get to the bank, only to discover that they apparently have their entire English speaking staff working today, and Wang Meng has nearly nothing to do, other than to write the address in Chinese for me.

Wait

Wait

Wait

Wait

Wait

I have no idea why bank lines in China last so long… got my form all filled out holding on to my number…

Wait

Wait

Wait

Almost 5pm, my number pops up. The actual process with the teller is short and easy, and hopefully in a few days, I’ll have money in my US account to pay bills with.

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I part ways with Wang Meng, and wander into Walmart to get a bunny carrier and maybe something tasty, like cheese. The bunny carrier is actually a doggie carrier, those little things that look like oversize handbags that women carry their little dogs around in, and its BRIGHT lime green and cost about 25 usd… *sigh, but not only do I need it to take the bunny in to the vet, as the weather gets nicer, I have plans to take the bunny to parks as well, so it’ll get used.

Then to Starbucks. I made the mistake of getting a soy latte instead of just coffee, never again. I don’t know if they used real milk or if the soy milk they use is just weird, but it had THE strangest after taste, almost like someone had melted butter into my coffee… I didn’t drink most of it.

Loooong bus ride home, and here I am at 7:30pm, finishing up my day online with sore feet and a considerably lighter wallet.

Oh, AND I found out that the culture club I wanted to go to on Saturdays is CLEAR on the northwest side of the city, (I‘m on the south east) and probably 2-3 hrs ride including bus, 3 subway lines and a taxi… so, no. sad. I’ll just have to keep looking.

Mar 12, 2008 at 8:02pm

I finally made it here (Zoe’s Bistro) with a proper adapter for the computer and got online. I have pics from the bus ride to show what a transition it is from Yanjiao to here, but Photobucket is being temperamental.

The cafe is nice, clean, quiet. I had a niciose salad which was actually canned tuna, but nice greens and an excellent dressing. Got some coffee, and a fruit smoothie for dessert. Its more expensive than my normal day, but I’ve been here 5 hrs, and had a good non-Chinese feeling day, even all the writing in here is in English, so I figure I can afford to do this once a week or so, as long as I don’t go crazy.

It may also be a week between photo postings, because my internet at home doesn’t make it easy to upload, but I’ll eventually catch up.

TTFN


The internet at my apartment was enough for email and chat messengers, but it was terrible for uploading photos or streaming video. Lucky me there was a bootleg DVD shop operating out of a disused post office across the street and he kept a steady supply of English language shows and movies in stock just for us teachers, so I was not short of things to watch.

Zoe’s Bistro turned into my weekly haven of sanity during a time of negative culture shock, and I went there regularly to get good internet and feel “Western” for a few hours at a go. Nowadays I have great internet at home, and I’m not sure if it’s because Busan is a large city (where Yanjiao was tiny) or if Korean culture is easier on me than Chinese, or if I’ve just gotten used to some quintessentially Asian things that used to make me uncomfortable, but I haven’t felt the need to sit in a western style cafe since I’ve been here, and I only go to Starbucks to sample the unique seasonal drinks that aren’t on offer in other countries. It doesn’t hurt that Korea has a coffee culture that keeps me in lattes and americanos on every street corner. Good coffee always tastes like home. 😉

Letters From China (Fall 2007)

Looking at these entries from my time in China, I’m struck by the extremes of emotion that living abroad can engender. “I hate this!”, “I love this!”, “I’m dying!”, “I feel awesome!” It seems some things don’t change even after 10 years. I’m no longer surprised by these swings, but they certainly still happen. Despite this, I wouldn’t trade my life for another, and even on the downfalls I am grateful I got back up and kept on trying. Sadly, there are no beautiful photos accompanying these letters, but I hope the stories of the Best Pizza Ever and the Amazing Coat Bargain will nonetheless amuse.


Oct 29, 2007 at 6:35pm

Today my class read a chapter called “East Meets West” and it dealt in part with culture shock, and described 4 phases, honeymoon, hostility, humor and home. I’m not really sure I had a honeymoon phase this trip, mainly cause I think my entire 2 months in China in 2005 was that phase, I was just so excited to be there, nothing else mattered. I was still happy to be here when I arrived, but nothing so over the top giddy as my first trip.

I think I was mostly in a humor phase, just finding my feet and being more amused than angry at the differences. Plus I was meeting the new teachers and in many ways helping them to adjust to China for the first time, I was getting instruction about my job and how to get about town, so I was occupied and involved.

Recently I’ve been pretty depressed, and trying to figure out why. I know that at least part of it is a frustration with the culture. The fact that it took me WEEKS to get the bank stuff sorted out even though I had the help of one of the school administrators, the fact that I feel like i’m on display half the time I’m in public and the fact that people keep bugging me to teach their kids or practice with them in the guise of friendship have all been really aggravating. There are things I know are just cultural differences, but knowing is not keeping me from being upset.

I tried looking up different ways to deal with this kind of thing, and a lot of it hinges on stuff like arts and crafts, exploring the area or reading about the culture, stuff you do alone… and I don’t think that’s really going to help me much. I need more interaction.

I love my classes, often they’re the best part of my day, well the part I feel best during, anyway, but because of the student teacher relationship, the age difference and more importantly because of the cultural differences, I don’t feel like I can have more than casual conversations and interactions with them outside of class, and hardly anyone who’s not a student speaks any English and my Chinese is just about enough to get around and buy stuff, but not to have deep conversations in.

Even the other Chinese people closer to my age who work here don’t really fit in the peer group category, I often feel like I have to avoid them or they will ask me to do more work, tutor someone else’s kid or something…

There’s other foriegn teachers, but I don’t see them all that often because our schedules are at such odds.

Its getting really cold, so going out wandering is getting unpleasant for more reasons than just being stared at, talked over or pawed at.

I was trying to watch some Buffy while grading papers and the disc stopped working and it was just too much. It’s so stupid, and I hate that its affecting me like this. This is why I wanted someone to come with me. I think I could deal with the culture shock OR the isolation, but I don’t know what to do with both. I haven’t had a hug since I left Seattle and I think all the one’s you gave me at the party wore off finally.

I’m sorry, I guess, for unloading here, but I’m lost. I’m supposed to be tougher than this, but so much of my strength comes from the support of others and I feel so cut off from that now.

I’ve tried to talk to a few people individually about it, but I don’t feel like I’m really getting it across well enough, or fast enough or whatever enough.

We don’t have to have anything specific to talk about, but there’s this whole free talking thing with gtalk, and just being able to hear your voices, even if we’re just on while surfing the web or whatever to be able to talk like we’re in the same room…. I told you all before that you would be my life line here, and while I believe what you’ve told me, that I’ve not been forgotten, thinking about me doesn’t help if you don’t say something too.

I have 10 more weeks till the break, and then another 25 after it. (hopefully there’s still a may trip to China in the offing for some of you at least).

I don’t even know how many people read this anymore, only a handful respond. I can’t do this alone.

*2017 update* Culture shock and homesickness are the bane of the expat life. Over the years I’ve found more ways of dealing with culture shock, but the things I identified here stayed true. Social interaction is a big deal for me, even though I’ve gotten good at going out and exploring alone, I still do best when I can share my life with other people. On the other hand, I’m not sure I have anything like “homesickness” left after so long. I miss some feelings, or the ability to just head over to a friend’s house, but when I think of “going home” it just means my cozy little apartment here in Busan, and I think when I move, my sense of home will move with me.

Of course, as you keep reading you’ll see why I call culture shock an emotional roller coaster… that still hasn’t changed.

Nov 4, 2007 at 9:24pm

I’ve been posting a lot about feeling bad, and I want to let you all know, that there are good times too. Today, in fact, was a really nice day.

First I slept in, which is always a good way to start a day. Plus since my lil bedroom space heater had done its thing it was nice and toasty.

I needed to get food for the bunny, so I got dressed and set out for the pet store. The weather was wonderful, sunny and not too smoggy and actually not too cold. The walking street was packed, and there were so many kinds of foods. I had to pass thru the whole street to get to the pet shop, so I took note of all the foodses and picked up several tasties on the way back home.

I got a cool breakfasty thing, there’s a thin crepe with an egg cracked onto it and also spread thin, with sauce and green onions and some kind of crackly pork rind thing all folded up together. I got a kind of fried sweet potato pankakey thing. And I got what looked alot like rice crispy treats, but turn out to have less flavor.

I came back and watched some tv and surfed the web for good ecards for my mom’s bday (which is today by the way, so wish mom a happy bday).

Around 3pm 4 of us got together to go to Beijing to check out a Pizza restaurant, and oh my god, I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy pizza and beer so much. I may pay for it tomorrow with the wheat thing, but OOOOHHHHH it was SOOOOOO good.

Just walking into the restaurant was amazing, it was like we’d left China. The decor was all dark hardwoods and stone, it had a pizzaria atmosphere without being faux Italian. There was American rock music playing in the background and the SMELL was wonderful.

We ordered 3 pizzas, since I really only intended to have a small taste. Everyone ordered mediums, which turned out to be 15 inches across! They got a veggie, a meat, and a supreme (called Garbage Pail) and they were seriously the best pizzas I think I’ve ever had.

I’ve always known food was linked to the limbic system, but I don’t think there have been very many occasions when food has caused that much enjoyment.

We told the waitress to compliment the cook for us, and he turned out to be the owner. He came up to see us. The owner is an American, looked very west coast, bleach blonde, lots of tattoos (kinda cute too), and very nice.

There was, of course, much good conversation over dinner, and a general happiness that infused the whole group. Pizza, beer and rock music… it was a little piece of American heaven… and I hope I’ll never take these wonderful things for granted again.

We headed home somewhat reluctantly, but the bus was warm and we all found seats (not as common as you might think), and I got to have a nice birthday morning convo with mom, and now I’m off to a warm shower and a soft bed.

It was a good day.

*2017 update* Although I no longer rely on pizza to alleviate my need for Western food (which still happens, but I think I just like variety), that little crepe thing I found in the street market remains my all time favorite street food to this day. I can’t find it anywhere but China and so haven’t had it in 5 years, but if you ever get the chance, eat one.

Nov 9, 2007 at 10:12pm

So, I went shopping today at the Silk Market. I tell you three hours of shopping should not be so tiring but wow I’m pooped.

I got some nice things, gifts for some of you and a new winter jacket for myself. But I want to share the joy of shopping in China.

So for hair clips, the starting price was usually about 120, followed by me laughing and saying no way. Then they ask for a price, and I say 15 (followed by common humorous 50/15 confusion), followed by them laughing and saying ‘no way’. Then they offer 80, I say no and begin to wander away slowly. They say 60, and I just shake my head and wander a little further (the trick is not to get out of range too fast), they say give me a better offer, and I say 20, they try in vain for 40, and I leave the stall (still moving slow) then they call me back and say ‘ok ok your price’.

This varies some, but seemed to be the standard.

The COAT was hilarious. I went looking for a coat last for just this reason. By the time I found a nice coat, I only had 300 left in my purse. And here’s the fun. She says, normally I charge this (showing me a calculator reading 4800) but since you live in China of course I give you special price (shows calculator with 2200). Now the coat is nice, but there’s no way I’d pay that even if I had it, and she knows that, there is the art of lying in that we know we’re lying to each other, but since we both know, its like a little ritual act.

So I say, no I can’t do that price, and she says give me your best price, and I type in 200. She whines a while, oh my factory doesn’t even sell it to me for this! I can’t sell it for 200. She counters with 1800. I counter with 400 (I honestly thought I still had 400 on me). And the ‘oh its too low’ begins again, whereupon I tell her that’s all I’ve got. She says I can use a Visa card, I tell her I don’t have one, which took some convincing, but was true at the time, no way I’d bring a credit card in that place. Then to prove I only have 400, I open my purse to show her, and it turns out I only have 300. Now, she really doesn’t want to believe me, so I end up basically emptying out my purse to show her its all the money I have on me. I’m sorry, I say, but i just don’t have any more. And as I collect my things to leave the stall, she breaks down and says, ok since you only have 300, I will sell it to you for that, protesting all the way that she shouldn’t and what a deal I’m getting and I have to tell my friends to come back, but tell them I paid more so they won’t expect such a low price, etc. which of course I promise to do (remember the lying ritual), and we go away happy.

Of course all prices are RMB, so for USD divide by 7.5…. I love this place!

Dec 3, 2007 at 3:37pm

Some of you know by now that I’ve been sick for a while. Last Wed. I woke up and felt like crap, and I’ve kinda been icky ever since.

Its a lovely nausea, which is mostly gone if I hold still with an empty stomach, it rises with a vengeance if I move too much or eat.

I missed class Wed and Thurs morning. Thursday evening I told one of the people in the dept that I might need to go to a doctor, and she went with me to a pharmacy and picked out some Chinese medicine for me, which not only didn’t really help the nausea, but made me horribly gassy.

Friday I went to the hospital, there is no other way to see a doctor here. Wow.

We got there by taxi, I had to check in and pay a 3 kuai registration fee. Then I went to the doctor who asked some questions, mostly about diarrhea, and decided it was probably food poisoning (translated as “dirty food”), but that he wanted me to have a blood test anyway.

I take the doctors paper to the cashier to pay for the blood test (20 kuai) then go to have my blood taken in a whole other part of the building, by nurses who use iodine as a sterilizer, and the tubes for blood collection weren’t vacuum sealed, so they drew my blood with a syringe then squirted it into an open plastic test tube (did i mention they weren’t wearing gloves?)… GAH!

Anyway the test turns out to be a general blood analysis and the results sheet shows my levels and the acceptable range for each level, thus ensuring that the doctor doesn’t actually have to know how to interpret the results, only to see if they’re in the right range.

They are, and I take the results BACK to the doctor who says that my illness is not serious, and offers me amoxicillin. Well, first he says an IV transfusion of “medicine”, and it was only after lots of asking on my part that they finally admitted what the medicine was.

Amoxicillin is an antibiotic, a pretty strong one, the main side effects of which are nausea and diarrhea… so not to good for an upset tummy. They also tried to tell me the “medicine” would kill a virus, which is not possible.

After lots of arguing in which I tried to explain that I was not going to take amoxicillin unless I was MUCH sicker, they finally offered to give me “something to protect the stomach lining”, my best guess is an antacid of some kind. And they all thought I was crazy for refusing the antibiotics.

Now, just to be clear, an IV of amoxicillin is standard for any illness here. My students told me that an IV transfusion of medicine is what’s done regardless of what you have, so I not only don’t have any great feeling that I’m missing something the doctor knows about mysterious Chinese stomach ailments, I left the hospital feeling like I knew more than the doctor.

Oh, the mystery alternate medicine turned out to be 75 kuai and I didn’t end up buying it, so we’ll see if I can kick this on my own.

I’m slowly able to eat more, now, and I got a cheap blender to be able to make tofu banana smoothies. I’ll be doing ginger infusions and generally taking it easy, and avoiding Chinese medicine.

I haven’t found a place to buy western medicine yet, Wal-Mart proved a bust.

*2017 update* That mystery stomach ailment lasted a while.  I survived on tofu smoothies, orange juice and snickers bars… I think it might have been a reaction to the oil in the Chinese food (sooooo much oil) and even when the nausea passed I still had to take regular breaks from Chinese food or it would come back.


It’s fall here in Korea these days too, and it seems that health issues are the theme. It’s nothing serious (I think), but I’m going to a doctor or dentist 1-3 times a week and it’s taking all my time, energy, and spare income. Looking at my photo journals, I feel like I am doing so little adventuring in comparison to last year or years before, but sometimes we just have to buckle down and take care of the necessities. Currently that’s teeth, body, and a new job hunt (which will likely mean a new country, or at least a new city after February).

There’s still plenty I love about Korea, but right now I’m loving the affordable and efficient health care system more than the festivals. Less fun, but whenever I see one of my US friends post a gofundme for medical bills or complain about fighting an insurance company for coverage they paid for, I get seriously grateful that if I have to spend the better part of a year getting poked and prodded by medical/dental professionals, at least I can afford it and never have to argue over my national health coverage. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy more stories from my very first year abroad in China! Thanks for reading ❤

In the Merry Month of May

As the fine spring weather draws to a close, and the deeply oppressive heat and humidity of Korean summer loom on the horizon,  I tried to make the most of my final outdoor shenanigans before I’m consigned to the AC or at least the after dark until October. This May, I visited 3 festivals and a historical theme park. The later truly deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll come back to it another time. For now, let me share a few of the marvelous spring festivals I made it to this year.


May 13th: Gamcheon Culture Village and Festival

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Gamcheon is a famous little neighborhood in Busan that has been on my bucket list of things to visit while living here, and somehow I made it a whole year without going! Lucky for me they decided to hold a festival this spring, which I found out about a whopping 2 days before it was set to take place. It is referred to (by the Korean tourism industry) as the “Machu Pichu of Korea”, but actually dates back to the Korean war.

20170513_141043During the war, Busan was the only city in Korea that was not taken over at some point by the invading northern army. While elsewhere all over the peninsula, whole towns were being leveled to the ground, Busan was becoming a haven for refugees as well as US and other foreign aid troops. The population crisis caused the unique housing style of Busan, which involves building houses and apartments right up the side of the mountains that weave in and out of the city.

I’ve often found this blend of urban and natural to be beautiful and a great improvement over flat concrete, but nowhere is it more on display than in Gamcheon. According to the sign, “The virtue of building a house so that it does not block the view of the house behind it demonstrates how this village preserves traditions of national culture in which people care about one another and live together in close proximity and intimacy.”

20170513_135839The houses are painted a cheerful array of bright colors that make for a stunning view from the ridge above. However, once you descend into the neighborhood, there is no end of quaint surprises in the form of beautiful murals, surprising statues, and wandering flower planters. The neighborhood is not only adorable, it’s become a hot spot for bohemian culture, local artists, musicians and other experimental creations.

As we walked down the main road, we were surrounded at once by the festival tents and lanterns overhead. Soldiers in uniform were having a blast dancing along to a local live music performance while shops offered multicolored balloons and delicious iced treats. There were about a million places for kids to try their hand at various types of arts and crafts. A section of the festival showcased historical culture with backdrops, costumes and traditional games. At the top of the hill, the local school kids put on a talent show, and a wandering parade of traditional dancers could be heard wending around the twisting and narrow roads.

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There were famous photo op stops where we took turns waiting to get the best view, or take a picture with the famous landmark. My friend and I went into the mock up lighthouse, but decided the line to sit next to the statue of Little Prince was just too long for such a hot day. Instead we wandered around admiring the variety of murals and other decorations. My favorites included a flight of stairs painted to look like a stack of books, some old pants that had been turned into a walking flowerpot, and the very creepy baby faced birds that watched us from up on the rooftops.

I realized I put off visiting Gamcheon for so long because I thought it was just a bunch of colorful buildings on the mountainside. Everyone says it’s a must see, but not enough people talk about what’s inside those buildings. I found Gamcheon to be a wonderfully unique neighborhood, not only because of it’s architectural design, but also it’s dedication to art and freedom of expression. Certainly a must see for both long term residents and short term vacationers.

Follow this link for more photos from Gamcheon.

May 20th: Busan Global Gathering

This was another last minute arrival. As good as the tourism websites are in Korea, there is so much going on, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to create a single comprehensive list. Even my native Korean co-workers are astonished that I know about all these events they’ve never heard of. At least I know it’s not just a language barrier?

20160521_194154I went to this festival last year when it was held at the citizen’s park, which a beautiful grassy park with trees, a beach, and a big fountain. I had a great time visiting all the booths from other countries and sampling goodies they brought. There was a large space in the middle of all the tents where we could flop down in the grass when we needed a rest and I ran into lots of fun people (most of whom have since returned to their own countries) and sat on the lawn drinking the German beer and Spanish sangria until the sun went down.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t even write about this event last year because it was so small compared to the other things going on around me last spring. Despite my lack of blog-love, I did have fond memories of the event and was looking forward to going when I heard it was being put on again this year. For unknown reasons, the organizers decided to put the festival in a different location this year. A location of dirt. Gaze upon the contrasting images of last year and this. One looks like a great day out at the park, while the other looks like a flea market in an abandoned sandlot.

Appearances and lack of picnic space aside, the festival was still fun. There was a new twist this year of stamp collecting. We got our guide pamphlets when we arrived and were told that a few booths around the festival were offering stamps. If we collected 5, we could register for the raffle. The booths giving stamps require us to complete some mini-quest. At the first one, we put on mittens with Korean letters and lined up to make a sentence that we read out one syllable at a time. Israel’s booth implored us all to put on a yarmulke and have our photo taken. It seemed a bit odd, since I don’t think women usually wear those, but presumably someone in the booth was from the Israeli cultural delegation, soooo…. not offensive?

Another booth required us to take a try on a stationary bike to generate electricity used to power the blender making the smoothies. The Indonesian booth was giving out prizes for a plastic archery game. I managed to score the second ring from center. I went back to the Spanish booth for more sangria and got talked into adding on some amazing seafood paella. When I came back by to compliment the chef and take some photos, he came out to meet me. It turns out he’s a teacher at the the culinary department of Yonsan University, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious.

After perusing all the booths, which seemed to be more numerous and more varied than the event last year, we wandered a ways away to find some grass to sit on while we waited for the raffle drawing. We’d been told the drawing was at 4, however around 3:30 they started calling numbers from the stage, and we didn’t even notice for ages because it was all in Korean and the grass was so far away. By the time we got back to the stage, there were only a few more numbers before the raffle ended and we decided to head back to the main road in search of some Sulbing. Then as we were leaving, we heard more numbers being called! The raffle was fairly strict about winners claiming their prize within only a few seconds of being called, so we knew there was no point in heading back, but it was still rough.

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On the whole, I think the Global Gathering is a wonderful event and I hope the city keeps doing it, but it would be more enjoyable with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the food on offer or just take a rest as well as a more reliable time table for advertised events like performances or raffles.

Follow this link for more photos from Global Gatherings 2016 & 2017.

Haeundae Sandsculpture Festival

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I don’t know if I’m feeling jaded because it’s my second year in Busan or if the festivals this spring really were not as awesome as last year. Expectations can ruin just about anything, and maybe it was a good thing I didn’t try to recreate my entire itinerary from last year. One of the things I did revisit was the Sandsculpture festival at Haeundae Beach. Not only is a day at the beach a nice way to greet the summer, the main attraction of the festival, the sandsculptures, would be all new works of art made fresh for this event.

I also wanted an excuse to go back to the fancy secret bar in Haeundae that I discovered at the sand festival last year. My friends and I agreed to meet in the late afternoon for a leisurely stroll up the beach to take in the sculptures before having dinner in one of Haeundae’s multitude of foreign cuisine restaurants, only to stroll back down the beach at night at take in the night-lit sculptures before changing shoes and heading back inland for craft cocktails.

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There’s no way to be disappointed by giant sand sculptures. The amount of effort and planning required to create this beautiful and transient artform is impressive no matter what the subject matter is. Last year the theme was nautical liturature, and sculptures from stories like the Odessey (above), Gulliver’s Travel’s, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader among others were scattered around the beach like very artsy mountains. Many of the sand mounds were covered in art all the way around, with hidden gems that made us want to explore every inch.

20170527_170816This year… I’m not really sure what the theme was. Each mound only had art on one side, yet despite the fact that there was a temporary walkway between the two rows of mounds (because walking in sand is hard), the art all faced the shorefront buildings, leaving only half facing the walkway and the other half showing their backs. The backs of the mounds remained smooth but for a single word that was presumably the inspiration for the art on the front.

In no way do I wish to denegrate the work of the artists. There were several very impressive sculptures. Merely that unlike last year, the art did not seem especially cohesive, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. As I meandered in and out of the mountains of sand, trying to capture everything with my phone, I found one very special piece about travel. Amid the representations of world famous landmarks and the couple taking a selfie (of course I took a selfie with the statue taking a selfie, what kind of person do you take me for?), there was a giant postcard expressing greetings from Busan and sent to Seattle, WA (which, as the city I have spent more years in than any other this life is the one I tend to call “home”).

I also enjoyed the “couple” piece, which was of an elderly pair expressing the growing old together dream, as well as the “rest” piece which was simply a mosaic of sleeping and dreaming (some of my favorite things).

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There were far fewer works this year, since not only were there fewer sand mounds, but each one bore art on one side only. I still had a lovely time, but we finished much faster than expected and spent some time just chilling out with cool drinks before leaving the beach in search of dinner.

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Even though it didn’t offer the stunning art display I was hoping for, the day still managed to give a one-two punch for my brain. Part one was the shock and reminder that other white people exist in such large numbers. I’m the only foreigner at my job, and I can spend days not seeing another one while commuting between home and work and doing regular errands. Sometimes I go out and I’ll see a handful at whatever expat bar I go to, but since most 7627aab3b42cac8b205bb627a6521eaeof the festivals I go to are Korean, I’m still in the minority almost wherever I go. Almost. I don’t know what Haeundae looks like on a regular day because it’s so far from me that I usually go to Gwangan when I need a beach fix. On this day, it was like that scene from Lilo and Stitch where Lilo goes down to the beach to stare at pale tourists. Only most of them were fairly fit being recent college grads or military folks on leave. But so much white people!

The restaurants were full of us, too. Which brings me to part two of the brain punch: just because I’m suddenly in the minority here, doesn’t mean the struggle to stop my privileged thinking is over. The place with a menu that my whole group could agree on told us there was a 30 minute wait… not to be seated, just to order. We took up seats around a table and pontificated on what could lead to a restaurant having enough tables to seat but not serve everyone. At which point, my lifelong Americanness reared it’s head. We have some bizarre cultural assumptions about the service industry I’m still trying to break free of. They told 5745331-customer-service-memeus the wait ahead of time, and we agreed. That should be enough, but part of me was still, “how did they not staff more people on a festival day, the restaurant should be doing something to make up for this inconvenience”… Woah, ‘Murica brain. You didn’t have to come here. They did everything reasonable to make sure you knew what was going on. Check your entitlement! PS. There’s no tipping here, so when waitstaff are nice to you it’s just their job and not because they’re livelihood depends on the whims of customer satisfaction.

Living abroad is a non-stop self-evaluation and learning process.

20170527_214612After dinner, we headed over to The Back Room, a secret speakeasy style bar that I visited last year and loved. I had an old favorite (real whiskey sour), and tried a brand new concoction tried an Aviation, which is gin based cocktail with creme de violet, lemon and cherry. Fancy and delicious. We stayed out way too late drinking and chatting, which only served to remind me that every event can be made special with friends.

Check here to read about last year’s Sandsculpture festival and TBR visit, and to see the sand castle pics from last year and this year.


I had some hard times in the hot weather last summer, and again this year in the heat of SE Asia. It seems however much the heart is willing, the flesh is not down with heat+humidity. I’ll be putting up one more Korean spring adventure (for the Gaya Theme Park), and of course working to finish the stories from the Malay Peninsula. However, I plan to use the summer to work on a new project about teaching (the other part of my life). Even if you’re not an English teacher, I hope to give some insight into what it is we do out here for the curious and those considering the career. And don’t worry, I’ve already got a fall trip to the Philippines planned, so the travel stories aren’t stopping any time soon. As always, thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 10: When Things Go Wrong

It’s popular for people on social media and blogs to focus exclusively on the best experiences (unless it’s Yelp, then complain away). Sometimes I look at other people’s travel blogs or photos and think they must have the most perfect lives. And, then I wonder if anyone thinks that about me. My life *is* fairly magical, and I think the vacation to New Zealand was supernaturally blessed, but I would hate for anyone to think that it’s all perfect. Stuff goes wrong, sometimes catastrophically, and how we deal with that will impact the days, months and years that follow.


A Good Start

In the morning, I headed out extra early to catch that next bus and managed to get a few snaps of the famous street art on my way to the ferry terminal.

Amid the ferry terminal’s endless tiny shops selling convenience food and cheap souvenirs,  my eye was drawn to one stall that had what appeared to be handmade goodies displayed on a table. The stand was run by a husband and wife team, and the husband happily talked about his wife’s cooking until I picked out three goodies to try for breakfast. One was a flavorful potato pastry with delectable spices and what could have been pieces of dried fruit. 20170123_080706One was a glutinous rice ball wrapped in a leaf and filled with some kind of sweet coconut. The golden brown goodie was the one the husband most highly recommended: a spicy coconut bun in a wheat pastry (as opposed to rice) with a coconut filling similar in texture to the rice bun, but with a spicy kick. The coconut fillings were unique to my palate. It seemed like the coconut had gone through a ricer instead of a shredder. It was similar to vermicelli but also dried enough to be chewy without being crispy. The entire experience was delightful and I wish I’d bought 3 more!

A Scorpion in my Cocoapuffs

I left myself extra time to get to the bus station. Missing the bus would have entirely spoiled my day (although now that just seems ironic). As a consequence, I had nothing to do for about 45 minutes. The bus station in Butterworth seems well organized, but I suspect it’s a cleverly crafted illusion. As the time for my bus drew closer and closer with no sign of the bus anywhere, I began to get worried. When a bus pulled into the gate that I had been told by the ticket counter was my departure point, I got excited until the driver told me it was a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Definitely not where I was trying to go. The departure time on my ticket crept up and then past. I kept trying to get anyone to help me find my bus, but no one seemed fussed and said it should show up eventually. I spotted another traveler (the skin tone and giant backpack were clues) with a ticket that looked like mine. Trying to be friendly, I asked if she was trying to get to Kuala Perlis (my destination) too.

Allow me to do an aside on the expat/backpacker community for those who have not experienced it. It’s a tribe. And like all tribes, when we see each other out in the world there is a feeling of  “ah, one of mine”. The extent to which we aid one another or spend time with one another can vary from person to person, but most of the time when I greet another traveler, the response is friendly. Maybe they need help, maybe they can give it, maybe we’re just going to play a game of Uno or chat over a beer. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve taken great joy in meeting both locals and fellow travelers. I’ve shared meals, cabs, directions, taken and given tips on what to do or how to get places, translated or been translated for, exchanged stories and when one or the other of us is ready to part, there’s no pressure, we just wish each other well because we all know that’s how it goes. So when I met a backpacker who was angry and mean it was like finding a scorpion in my cocoa-puffs. I was expecting something nice and got stung instead.

She looked at me sharply and asked in clipped tones where I was going. I replied that I was headed to Kuala Perlis, but before I could finish my sentence, she pointed back at the building and snapped, “ticket office”. Yes, I said, I already have a ticket, I just — again she cut me off with the single invective, “information” pointing once more at the main building. This was no linguistic barrier, her accent was natural and her tone and body language adequately communicated hostility. I was completely shocked and decided to stop trying and walked as far away from her as I could while still being able to see the bus stops to watch for mine.

I want to believe that something was going on with this woman that made her so grumpy, but the fact is, I approached her to share information (namely that the bus she was standing in front of was not the one listed on her ticket, and that the gate we wanted had changed, but was not announced yet) and she shut me down like…I have trouble even finding a metaphor of when it’s appropriate to treat another person like that. Everything I can think of is some kind of gtfo response to racism or misogyny. Even knowing now what I do about the trials and frustrations involved in traveling SE Asia, and having lived through my own travel induced emotional meltdown, it’s still hard for me to imagine what put her in the mindset that caused her to treat me so. Regardless of whether her mood was justified, it was demeaning and hurtful to be treated like that by another human being. It was made worse by the fact that I had no defenses up at all when it happened. It completely destroyed my emotional well being in that moment and for possibly the rest of the day.

The Transportation Worsens

The bus was nothing like the nice buses I’d taken up to this point. The seats were narrow and much less comfortable. The front of the bus was “normal” two seats on each side of the central aisle, but the back was divided into three single seats with two aisles between them so that passengers travelling alone didn’t have to rub elbows with strangers. I sat in my middle single seat and tried to bring my emotions back to center.

My destination that day was the island of Langkawi. I had decided after much reading on the internet that I was better off taking a bus to Kuala Perlis followed by the shorter (90min) boat ride from there rather than trying to take the 3hr boat from Penang. Initially, the idea of a 3 hr boat ride was appealing to me because I like the ocean and boats. But it turns out that all the boats here are kind of enlarged speed boats where passengers sit in assigned seating rather like an airplane and there is no access to the deck or other outdoor spaces. Since going out on deck is the number one thing to do if you get seasick, that didn’t sound great. Instead I think I just learned that the only comfortable way to travel north of Penang is airplane.

Bad Decision for a Good Reason

Nevertheless, when I got off the bus I met a couple more backpackers who made some headway toward restoring my faith in the tribe. They had opted for the bus/ferry route to save money. They were out for the whole summer taking a break from university and needed to stretch every cent. We got some lunch together and had some nice conversation, shared the ferry ride, and I was enjoying their company so I let them talk me into walking from the ferry port to our respective hotels in Langkawi. I have to say, I admire the packers who can walk themselves around with all the gear especially in that weather. I am not one of you. I should not have tried. It’s not that I can’t walk or carry gear even, but there is something horrible that happens to me in hot/humid weather. One day I will learn my lesson, and surely this experience was some very compelling evidence.

My feet were swelling from the weather, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I simply could not keep up the pace of my lunchtime companions. They never once complained about my slowness, but I still felt guilty. Then it started raining. You would think rain would be a relief in hot weather, but that is a lie. The rain doesn’t cool things down, it only increases the general humidity and makes you damper. Could this whole experience have been better if I had a different attitude? No doubt. It can be hard to maintain positivity in the face of certain obstacles – the angry lady in the morning had set my nerves on edge. The heat, humidity, and pain in my feet was eating away at what goodwill I had left. When the rain began and I realized that the ONLY event in Langkawi that I had planned to do would not be accessible, it pushed me straight over the edge into genuine misery and self-pity.

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Google lied about the distance to my hotel. When my GPS indicated I had arrived, yet I could not see the hotel, it suddenly reset to a location another 15 minutes away. This was after I’d already been walking for 45, which was longer than the original Google estimate of 30. When I decided to go on foot, I figured I could just about tolerate 30 minutes of walking to the hotel in the heat. What I got was an hour in the heat and rain. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I discovered a man sleeping on the only bench in the tiny lobby, so I couldn’t even sit down while I waited for the clerk to show up and check me in. And he was snoring so loudly! It seemed to take forever to get checked in and get to my room where I promptly rid myself of my soaked clothes and basked in the air conditioning while I had a serious think about my options.

The Langkawi Taxi Lockdown

I do not like giving in to despair. I do not like nurturing negative emotions. I did not want to sit there and feel sorry for myself, damnit. I only planned to spend a half day in Langkawi in any case. The very next morning I was scheduled to take another boat out to the tiny tropical paradise island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had looked at how to avoid Langkawi altogether but it seemed like any way to go from Penang or even Ipoh directly to Koh Lipe would have involved a very long overland travel and another land border crossing, I thought at the time that shorter journeys would be better and that every place I was stopping at must have something interesting. However, I failed to take into account that Langkawi has the most bizarre taxi lock out in the world. There is not only no Uber or any other rideshare on the island, the taxis don’t stop on the street, or use meters, or bargain. They all have a set rate chart that tells them the fare from one place to another. And unlike Georgetown with it’s free bus and easily walkable areas of interest, Langkawi seems designed for package tours and resort dwellers. In my first plan I was going to spend 2 days in Langkawi and only overnight in Koh Lipe but research led me to a different notion and I had decided the most interesting thing to me was the cable car and skywalk, which being high in the mountains and made of metal would not be accessible or safe in a thunderstorm.

Give in to Self Care

As I lay in the hotel, resting and cooling off, I looked on the web to see if there was anything near by that seemed interesting, or anything even within a reasonable distance. I had wasted all my energy walking to the hotel when I didn’t need to and could not bring myself to be excited about any of the hiking or cycling options. I had no desire to go shopping since I’d taken care of my needs the day before. I didn’t want to visit a zoo or aquarium. In fact, nothing at all sounded fun, and while I was grumpy about the fact that I’d just “lost” a day of vacation, it struck me that the best thing I could do for myself was nothing at all.

Sometimes stuff happens to us on holiday and we just have to stop. I remember in Egypt I got horrible food poisoning that completely took me out of commission for about a day and half and left me weak for a long while even after I returned home. It’s not fun when you get sick on vacation, but it’s still important to practice self care. Sick doesn’t always look like a cold or an upset stomach, sometimes it can be an overdose of culture shock, heat edema, and physical exhaustion. So I took a shower, put on some clean clothes and walked all the way to next door to have some dinner and then spent the rest of the night reading in bed. I have only one picture from my entire time on Langkawi, and that was a food pic I took of that dinner for Instagram.

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Worst Day?

I told myself that every vacation has to have a “worst day” and that I was on my way to a tiny island paradise where I would see coral reefs and swim with glowing plankton and sleep on a hut on the beach and at least two of those things turned out to be true.


When I look back on my time on the Malay Peninsula, this is not one of the stories that stands out to me. At the time, it was horrible, and potentially vacation ruining, but Daniel Khaneman talks about “the remembering self” in his research, and using memory to create happiness. I choose to memorialize this day not to focus on the suffering, but as a way of reminding myself that what seemed so horrible at the time, cannot evoke strong emotion in me even 4 months later when I review and revise the experience, yet my positive experiences still bring a smile to my face. Plus, now I know what not to do the next time I travel to Koh Lipe.