Happy 2023 and year of the Rabbit! I am sad to say my holidays were marred by an illness of unknown cause, a risk of travelling to any new geography where one’s own immune system is naïve to the local microbes. However, I’m bouncing back and getting my new year groove. My first tourist visit for the year was to Le Musée des civilisations noires, and now I’m here to share it with you.
If I could describe the Museum of Black Civilizations after my visit in one word, it would be: aspirational. The museum itself is an enormous building with — as one might say to a child who’s pants need to be rolled up — room to grow. I was initially disappointed with the experience because it has so much hype, but after doing some follow up research online about the history, I’m a little more impressed, and a lot more sad.
It opened in late 2018 with a substantial contribution from China to the tune of $34 million (an especially revealing number since the estimated construction costs were 30mil?) and was built with over 150,000 ft2(14,000m2) of space over 4 floors to display more than 18,000 exhibits (I have no idea how they reach that number given the varity of size and display needs, but that’s what they say). In 2019 it was hailed on TIME’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Places.
The museum was built in large part to give a big middle finger to the French (and other colonial countries that … I tried to find a nicer word, but … r*ped the continent). For context, there’s a lot of pushback from European museums about returning the looted treasures and artworks of colonized African cultures. They argue that without sufficient quality display areas like climate controlled museums that it would be irresponsible to return the fragile artworks to the countries they were stolen from. This is a real hot-button issue with lots of discussion about what constitutes ownership and stewardship, especially when discussing artifacts that affect all of humanity like early hominid remains or artifacts that were looted by rival tribes/kingdoms well before they were stolen by colonial masters, but the way I see it, if you just took that thing from someone’s great-grandpa less than 200 years ago and his family is still there, it really should not be a debate.
Regardless, the construction of Museum of Black Civilizations was meant to allay all the concerns that the artifacts would not be properly cared for or displayed in Senegalese stewardship, and France made some conciliatory noises that they would work on giving stuff back. Then before that could be finalized, “ohhhh global pandemic, hands are tied, guess we can’t now”. Fast forward to 2023 and that museum is like a grocery store after a storm alert – empty.
The Ground Floor
The first thing you see (aside from the vast empty space) is “The Saga of the Baobab,” a metallic tree by the Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié in the center of a display about the cradle of humanity aka the “Out of Africa” hypothesis which shows strong evidence that modern day humans evolved in and migrated from the African continent something like 300,000 years ago. There’s debate about this too (I don’t mean creationism) because some fossil evidence has been shown that other versions of humans existed in other places around the world as much as 1.8m years ago. I get a headache when I try to follow the scientific debate because all the versions of hominid are based on bone fragments and mitochondrial DNA. I don’t blame the museum for sticking to a single scientific hypothesis in their presentation, but I was a little let down by the presentation itself.
The vast majority of the exhibit is printouts and blocks of text (French only!) on the walls with a few scraps of skeletal remains under glass. I strongly doubt that these are actual remains since it is the standard practice of museums everywhere to put replicas on display because of the delicate nature of the bones. It’s a cool story to tell, from the origin of the first bipedal apes through “Lucy” and on to the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, but it didn’t seem especially unique. One thing I was really fascinated by was this Neanderthal skull because it clearly shows that the front teeth are rounded instead of edged. I remember being taught that our front teeth were made for cutting (cone shaped teeth are for puncturing, gripping, tearing hence why all the carnivores have them) and our molars which are more square are for grinding. It made me really curious about the unique tooth shape of the Neanderthal and what that means about their diet. It was neat to see up close.
The other feature(?) of the first floor was the contribution of African cultures to science and technology. When the greeter at the door told me about this I was really excited. I feel like this is a very under-taught area of global history, and I strongly hoped to learn some things. Even after this, I still hope there are things to learn. However, the exhibit was a real let down. While the cradle of humanity section was maybe 60% wall of text and photos, the “science and technology” section was easily 99%. In addition, other than the origin of smelting iron (a huge contribution to human culture, no doubt) most of the rest of it was limited to Egyptian contributions which could be argued to be a part of the Greek Classical world. I stan negritude and black excellence, but I want to see more than “Egypt did a lot of cool stuff” when we talk about the history of African contributions! Also a museum heralded as one of the best in the world and maybe the best on the continent needs more 3d models. Printing a Wikipedia page on the wall does not a museum exhibit make.
The Next Floor
The elevator lets you out at a room full of recovered pan-African artifacts. Which is… cool? I guess? I know it’s the museum of “black civilizations” so all of Africa and the diaspora included, but I am curious as to how many of the countries whose artifacts are on display gave them willingly? With all the controversy about France putting stolen Senegalese artifacts on display in their museums, I expected more Senegalese focus here. I also would have liked to see some “graciously donated by…” or “on loan from…” signs on those foreign artifacts to reflect the value of only displaying other culture’s property with permission. I was also let down by the lack of context for the items on display. Most of them only came with a card saying something like “mask from Nigeria” with the materials and size listed. Nothing about when it was made, what it was used for, how it related to the culture at the time or now or anything. It was fun to look at, but it left me with a bit of an empty feeling.
The next section was called “Les Appropriations 2022-2023” and was about the presence of monotheism (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in Africa. I am interested in this kind of thing, but it was hard for me to get through when again 70%+ of the display is a printed a Wikipedia article on the wall in French. The most interesting part of the exhibit on Judaism was a photo of African (black) men in yarmulkes. Christianity was mostly about Egypt (the Coptics) with a few references to the African officiants appointed by the Catholic Church. I was most interested in the Islam section since I know sub-Saharan Islam is quite different from Arabic/North African Islam. I even captured all the French text to peruse at my leisure later with Translate to help me, but it was still really basic. I actually think the Wikipedia entry on Sufism has more information. Also, since Islam is pretty iconoclastic there was an even higher ratio of wall-text to object display in that section. There was a whole wall dedicated to the teachings of Sheik Ahmadou Bamba who is a really fascinating historical figure in the fight for Senegalese independence, but if I had not known that about him before going to the museum, I wouldn’t have figured it out from the display.
The next section was the highlight of my experience at the museum. However disappointing the first floor was, the modern art section made up for it in spades. The “Africa Now 2022-2023” exhibit was stunning. Everything I dreamed of for a beautiful modern African art exhibit was turning it out. Art that really made me feel things and think things and go WOOOOOW.
The very first painting at the entry was just a punch in the gut, but so beautifully done.
I enjoyed a range of colors, materials, styles and subject matters, and as with all modern art, I didn’t “get” all of it. I tried to capture a few of the ones that either reached out to me or just were photogenic. The huge wall mural was only ‘meh’ to me until I got up close and realized it was made of a mix of African print fabric scraps and garbage, which made it suddenly a huge statement about the trash problem I’ve been noticing literally every time I walk outside. Trash isn’t only a local problem. A lot of the “developed” aka rich countries in the world export their trash to poor countries, so basically there are places around the world being paid (not much) to become our landfills. The practice is slowing down mostly because the countries receiving the garbage are saying “no more”.
There was also a field of oversized cotton made of metal and … cotton. I know it’s oversized because I used to live in a place where I drove through cotton fields on the regular, I know how tall it grows. This cotton was enormous and I think the choice of size and material really spoke to the impact of the cotton industry on the slave trade and the decimation of Africa as well as to the diaspora.
If there is ONE artist you look up after reading this let it be Malaika Dotou Sankofa. I don’t know why these jumped into my soul the way they did, but these photographs are amazing. The juxtaposition of African prints and western clothes, the angel in broken and shabby environments, and sure the model is easy on the eyes too.
The last section of the museum was a corner dedicated to environmental awareness called l’incivisme or “incivility” that opened in December of 2022. It had informative displays and photos about environmental preservation projects like the great green wall (a multinational effort to plant trees and ground cover along the border of the Sahara desert to keep it from expanding). There were displays about pollution, garbage, over harvesting lumber, lack of clean water, traffic congestion, noise pollution, and public hygiene. It suggested a strong sense of self-reflection and a desire to improve living conditions in Senegal and on the continent in general. It makes me happy to know that there’s a local movement about it, but also a bit sad that it’s relegated to a tiny space at the top corner of the displays.
I also went up to the third floor just to see if I could. It looked like maybe it was used for meetings or celebrations. It was quite empty, but I could see a stage and risers as well as a lot of blank walls that hoped to receive more art someday. There was a nice balcony with a cute view, but it felt very surreal being in this vast space that remained totally unused 4+ years after the museum opened.
Like most of Dakar, Senegal, and West Africa that I’ve experienced so far, the museum of black civilizations was a mixed bag – I’m glad to have the experience, but most of the feelings I come away with are difficult and heavy. I’ve been to a lot of museums in my life from the Smithsonian to tiny hole-in-the-wall unairconditioned rooms in the backwaters. I know that money can go a long way, but in the end the displays need to be unique, interesting, and educational. I am glad that Dakar has this building because it’s the first step in the reclamation of their historical treasures, but right now, the museum is more a testament about what black civilizations have lost rather than a display of their achievements. Hopefully it will live up to it’s aspirations someday.
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.
honeymoon – “everything is awesome” or at least quaint, charming, or some other positive adjective
rejection – “everything sucks”
adjustment – “maybe I can make this work”
adaptation – “I got this”
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 Anagonyea 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.
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.
There’s a lot about living here that is very different and difficult for a foreigner and non-Francophile (my French is awful, but slowly improving). There are some expat groups on Facebook which can make things easier, but there was still a lot to learn and a very steep learning curve. I don’t often write instructive “how to” blogs because usually I find there’s already a bunch out there, but I didn’t find much for Senegal or Dakar, at least not in English, so I’m writing what I have learned so far, and maybe someone else will have an easier time adjusting to living here.
The SIM Card
My phone data plan is a high priority when I arrive in a new country. I feel like I can’t do much else without it, and in Senegal you really need that local number to use ride shares, delivery, and digital wallets. There’s a reason it’s first on my list. Pre-departure research led me to believe that Orange would be my best bet, and the Embassy had scheduled a “get your sim card” event in the orientation, so I had not undertaken to get one on my own, but it’s not that hard, especially if you can speak a little French.
Finding the right store: Orange is both a phone/internet company and a money service. Not every Orange store does both, so it’s important to find the correct location. We went here: AGENCE ORANGE DES ALMADIES Of course, you need an unlocked phone, and you’ll need your passport to register your new phone number with the gov’t (I swear this is normal everywhere except America). The SIM card cost 500CFA (about 75cents US) and comes with a few days of data/minutes.
Finding your phone number is a little tricky because it doesn’t just show up in your “settings > about phone”. Instead, dial #237# and hit the call button, you’ll get a screen message showing your new Senegalese phone number. I took a screenshot of mine.
Setting your Orange Money PIN: When you get your SIM card, ask the clerk to help you set up your password (mot de passe). You can change or reset the 4 digit pin by dialing #144# then choosing option 7 (options) and then 3 to modify or 6 to reset. If you’re struggling with all the French, take a screenshot and port it into Google Translate (select the camera icon, then click on the image icon in at the bottom of the screen to access your screenshots).
Be sure you know your phone number and your secret PIN before you leave the store!
Topping up your phone plan: All phone plans in Senegal are prepaid. There are two apps you’ll want to use: Orange et Moi and Orange Money and they are only in French, sorry. Also, be sure you choose the Senegal versions since Orange is popular in a LOT of countries. Orange et Moi is the app for charging up your phone, but before you do that, you have to add money to your account.
Install Orange et Moi Senegal(careful you get the right country) and follow the steps to set up your account. You’ll need to enter your new Senegalese number and choose a password for the app.
Visit any Orange Money kiosk and deposit money into your account – cash only. I started out with just 10k (about 15$). You just say “dépôt orange” and give them the phone number. You should be able to see your new balance right away, but make sure it shows up before you leave the shop! (Image Credit: Minette Lontsie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
I had to put in 200k in order to get the new work laptop and it was nerve wracking walking into a tiny hole in the wall shop with that much cash. Some kiosks are just huts the size of an outhouse, but they are guarded since the worker inside has a lot of cash. Thankfully for my nerves, the guy in the little shop added money to my account before taking the cash which made me feel better. It’s SO different from everything I’m used to and I’m working on finding a way to transfer money into my Orange account digitally because cash makes me nervous. There seems to be a way to do it if you have an African bank account, but the “add money by credit card” function on the app may or may not be permanently unavailable.
Your Pre-Pay Plan Will Expire! It’s important to note that this isn’t the kind of prepay that hangs around until you use it. There are time limits. Some plans are good for a day, some for a week, and the longest for a month. So don’t put a bunch of money on there thinking you can just top up when you use it all. I personally futzed around with the settings until I found the least amount I could add to get the 30 days, figuring if I used it up, I could add more which would be better than overpaying and losing it. I did not use it all.
How to Top Up in the App: The plans change from month to month, so I can’t suggest the best one, but some steps should stay the same: Acheter = buy and will take you to the menu of plan options. Illimix or Illiflex are the best options that mix data and phone (flex lets you choose how much data v phone you get for your money). It will ask you “choix du beneficiare” and you can choose your own phone number or enter someone elses, which if you are travelling with friends/family might make the whole thing easier. Make sure you get something that will last … avoid “jour” (day) and choose “semaine” (week) or “mois” (month). After you buy, you can see your remaining data/sms/minutes in the app by choosing “Conso”.
Money, Money, Money
Cash & GAB: Senegal is a cash based economy. Very few places take cards, especially foreign cards. When I got here, the only way for me to access my US money was to go to a local ATM (or GAB since ATM isn’t a word here). The Embassy also warned us against using any ATM on the street (while also somehow NOT telling us they were called GAB). If they had their way, I’d be schlepping over to the Embassy every time I wanted cash to use their ATM inside. Not a practical solution. I also mentioned in my previous post that not all banks have GAB and Google Maps definitely doesn’t have a complete or accurate list, so it’s a good idea to figure out where your closest safe indoor GAB is before you need the money.
Why indoors? Apparently putting card skimmers on the machines is a thing here and the indoor ones all have security guards who keep more than one person per machine from going in at a time and CCTV (maybe?) to make sure no one does anything nefarious. It’s also easier to put your cash away inside than on the street. You don’t want to have a wad of cash in your wallet or bag. Only keep what you need in a day in reach. People don’t get mugged often here, and then mostly only at night alone, so it’s not a huge risk, but there’s no point in tempting fate.
However, cash is a pain, not only because it’s a germ vector and requires us to open our purse or wallet to get to, but local people ALL want you to have exact change, and no one wants to GIVE change. (to ask to have a bill broken ask: “as-tu de la monnaie”; to ask if someone has change when you are buying something ask: “as-tu la monnaie”) Even at the grocery store where they have a full register of change they don’t want to part with it. I had to pop into a corner store to get a 1k bill broken into 2 500bills to pay my driver the other day. I have no idea how to keep myself topped up with enough change to satisfy drivers and street vendors. If I ever find out, I’ll update this post.
Digital Wallet: In the mean time, I’m happy to report that Senegal is working on going cash free in a leap-frog way. (leapfrogging is when a culture skips a developmental step, in this case, going directly from cash to digital wallets without bank cards in between). Google Wallet and Venmo aren’t here in Senegal yet, but QR code based digital payment options Orange Money and Wave are. Orange Money comes built in with the phone package, and the only way to top up (without a local bank account) is to visit a kiosk and fork over the cash. It’s fairly easy to do and there are kiosks everywhere, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to go to the ATM all the time. Wave, however, has a partner app called SendWave that allows you to send money to a Wave user (including yourself) from a foreign bank account with no fees!
Getting SendWave: Set up is a bit of an ordeal. You have to install the app, sign up, upload your passport photo and bank card then try (and fail) to send some money, and wait for someone to call you back. I hear your concerns and objections to uploading ID and bank card details, but it’s a reputable service. A big part of why it’s such a hassle to set up is that they have security measures in place to make sure no one is being scammed or stolen from. Trying to make your first payment starts the process. You can set up your wave account (separate app) and try and send it to yourself, or you can send it to a friend who already has their account set up. I’d start with just 1$, it’s going to get cancelled anyway.
When they call, they speak English quite well, which is nice. They verified me and checked to see that I really did know the person I was sending money to, then they asked me to submit a copy of my visa stamp to prove I was actually in Senegal since I’m sending money to myself here. I assume for people who are living outside the country sending money to family back home, it is different, but for us expats, they want proof we are really here. I uploaded a photo of my visa, and that turned out to not be sufficient. The entry stamp in my passport was so faded I had to run it through some strong filters to make it visible, but eventually I got a version they accepted. The whole process takes a few days, but once it is set up, the money transfers are instant.
Pay with Wave: Shops that accept Wave payment have the Wave Penguin with their QR code ID. You just scan the code, enter the amount you want to pay, and boom. Some retailers want to see your screen to verify, some get a message on their own phones right away. When paying at shops, there’s no fee to use Wave.
The Sendwave/Wave combo not only saves me from excessive GAB visits and foreign transaction charges, it also saves me from the problem of exact change. I ordered delivery the other day and the guy didn’t have change. It was 12 and I had a 10 and a 5, so I gave him the 10 and sent the other 2 by Wave. Same thing happened in a Heetch car when the driver couldn’t break my 5. I kept my cash and paid him the full amount by Wave. This is a little trickier, since the drivers and delivery folx are not “vendors” they’re just people. In that case you pay a 1% fee to transfer, so you have to take that into account when entering the amount to pay and check the amount they receive. At first I thought they should take the hit when they don’t carry change, but then I remembered my place of privilege and paid the pennies myself.
There’s a way to buy Orange phone plans with your Wave account, but it only applies to your phone/data plan and does NOT appear in your regular Orange Money account, so don’t send a bunch of money to your Orange account thinking you can spend it through Orange Money. In fact, don’t use these services for large amounts of money until you’ve tested them on small amounts and feel comfortable with them, because if you mess up and you don’t speak French, it’s going to be hard to get help resolving it.
UPDATE: I discovered this week that there’s a limit on both the amount you can have in your Wave wallet at a time AND the monthly amount you can receive. This almost turned into a fiasco because I am planning to pay my driver for the conference weekend using Wave and I spent 2 days trying to understand why my transfers weren’t going through while being told it was just a system error before I finally got someone to tell me the real problem. Thankfully, the fix is fairly easy, but it would have been devastating to find this out when I was trying to pay for something instead of just planning.
To increase the limit in your WAVE (not Sendwave) account, you have to upload a photo of your ID in the Wave App and visit a Wave agent in person (the app also has a list with Google Map links to the nearest agents). The ID was accepted very quickly, and I went to the corner agent this morning. Much like the Orange agents, it’s just booths in corner stores here, but he was able to log in and up my limit. If you want to use Wave for more than 200,000CFA in a 30 day period, you’ll need to do this too.
Woyofal is the electric company and there’s a link to them in both Orange Money and Wave apps. Like all things here, electricity is pre-paid. When your credit runs out, your power goes off. There’s a little meter that plugs into an outlet (which is really annoying since the outlets here already only have one plug instead of two) and you can see how many kwh you have left. The little light goes from green to red when you’re running low, and starts flashing just before you get cut off.
The tiny text at the top is all the codes you can enter to get various information. To top up your credit, you first need your unique account number, which you get by entering 804 + the blue button and waiting to see the number. It’s long and takes two screens, so be patient. I took photos of mine to keep it in an easy to find place. Once you have your number, you can go to your Wave or Orange Money app and follow the directions to pay bills, and open Woyofal. It should ask for the account number and the amount you want to add. When it goes through, you get a message with another really long string of numbers that is your confirmation code which you then go back to the little box plugged into your wall and painstakingly type in, followed by the blue button.
It sometimes takes a moment to catch up to itself. If the green light doesn’t come back, try typing 805+ the blue button to prompt it to display your remaining credit. It forces the machine to send and receive the signal. As far as I know, you can put as much as you want on there and unlike the phone minutes, it doesn’t expire. I have so far only put 10k on mine because I just got here and I wanted to test it out before doing a larger amount of money just in case I made a mistake in the process while learning. Again, with all these digital wallet things, do stuff in small amounts until you’re comfortable with it so you don’t lose much if something goes awry.
This isn’t tourist shopping at the souk advice, it’s daily life stuff. There’s actually plenty of “how to shop at the market” advice out there (also I haven’t tried it yet), but not so much on “how to buy a new pillow and a coffee pot for your apartment”.
I’ve been using Dakar Food Delivery, but there’s also Bring Me and Yassir (I have not tried this last one yet). The hardest part of this is that apps are stuck in French (unlike websites which you can run through Google Chrome to auto translate) and that there are no addresses. Also the exact change thing. Some restaurants have online ordering through Google or their own website, so if the French is too much of an obstacle you can try that way, but you will still have to speak to the driver. Every driver is a new challenge. Somehow even though I live across the street from a pharmacy (which are excellent landmarks here because they all have unique names) my driver the other day ended up at the supermarket down the street, then said I didn’t speak French very well (which ok, yeah I don’t, but “pharmacie” and “supermarche” are not words I mix up).
Grocery Delivery: You can get basic stuff at most corner stores, but sometimes you don’t want to cart heavy stuff home and sometimes you want stuff that’s not at the corner store. Bring Me has grocery delivery for the same day, but a fairly small selection. I am now using Club Tiossane which has to be scheduled for the next day (or more for some items) but is really easy to use and the delivery guy only had one question about my written directions, he wanted to know if I was to the left or right out of the elevator. They even called to follow up on my first order to make sure everything went well! I know Auchan also has a delivery option on their website, but I haven’t tried it yet.
Home Goods: The larger grocery stores have some (as do the grocery delivery apps), but I had a bit of a search to figure out where to get new pillows since there’s no box stores here (Target, Wal-Mart, E-Mart, HomePlus, etc). Part of me is really happy there’s no Pottery Barn because I love small business, but it does make things harder. I ended up at a store called Orca which was definitely overpriced.
For anything you’re willing to get used, I’d say go back to the expat community. People are always going in and out so there’s plenty of stuff on offer. I was going to buy a used washing machine that way before my landlady decided she’d rather buy a new one herself. The Dakarium (ex DakarCraigslist) group on Facebook seems to be the place for it. I just … don’t want used pillows, you know?
Finally, there’s Jumia, the “Amazon” of Africa (make sure you go to Jumia Senegal because the different countries have different Jumia sites). I suspect I could have ordered my pillows from there, but I wanted them that day (I was not sleeping well in the new bed on flat pillows). I have successfully used it to order some electronics for my office and more recently to order more henna and a coffee pot. Jumia is a bit complicated, like everything here. When you order, you can choose to have it delivered to your home or to a pick up point (so far, like Amazon, right?). Unless you have someone to receive the package when it arrives, home is not the best idea. My very first order, I chose the cash on delivery payment option and then realized that the delivery window was “sometime in the next 3 days”. Thankfully, it worked out, but I don’t want to do that again.
My second I chose the nearest pick up point, which is about 1km from me at the post office. There was no cash at pick up payment option so I had to schlep over to an Orange Money Kiosk to deposit the cash there in order to pay for the order on the website…I feel like Jumia would be perfect if it partnered with Wave instead of or in addition to Orange since you can digitally top up a Wave account, but you can only refill Orange Money by physically taking cash to the kiosk. However, the delivery worked just fine. They sent a text when it was ready to pick up and I walked on over, showed the text message as proof of purchase and got my new laptop.
My third order was almost bad, but ends up being a reassuring story. I found a coffee maker for much cheaper than the ones at Orca, ordered it to the pick up point, submitted my Orange payment, and then something went awry. The money left my Orange account and I got a payment confirmation text from Orange, but Jumia denied receiving it! I tried to call the help line, but either the connection was bad or they just couldn’t deal with the language barrier because they hung up. I sent a message through the online help instead and waited. They called back again the next day, but by the time I found the TV remote to mute my show so I could hear them, they had hung up again. All this was over the weekend, and I was planning to get a friend who speaks better French to help me on Monday, but before I could, I got a message saying my items had shipped. When I logged back into the website, I saw that the items were still in my cart but also that duplicate items were listed as in process. I’m not sure if the website sorted itself out, or if someone read my message and fixed it manually on their end, but it got fixed, which is the important thing.
Taxis are everywhere, but they are not metered in Dakar. I heard this isn’t a problem in other parts of Senegal, but I don’t have this luxury. So, you flag down a taxi and DO NOT GET IN. Instead, standing a bit back from the window for safety, you tell them where you want to go and ask how much and then haggle because they are trying to overcharge you. To make this more fun, there are no addresses, so you have to tell taxis where to go by landmark and be prepared to tell them more details when you get closer. Oh, and they don’t speak English. In fact, many of them don’t even speak French well. They are often poor and undereducated coming in from the countryside to work… or coming from other countries, because it’s a desirable place to live in Africa, and like any large city, there’s a big migrant and immigrant population. (Image Credit: Boydiop2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The buses are wild. As in untamed. There are buses, I’ve seen them. They are stuffed to the brim. I’ve taken uncomfortable and crowded public transit before, but I think I’m going to follow the Embassy advice and not do it here. Not only are they very uncomfortable, but you have to have exact change, and know where you want to get off because there’s no marked stops. Even if you speak French or Wolof well enough to ask the driver about the route, you are not likely to be able to get to him for the crowd. Plus, with so many people packed in, it’s a prime place for pickpocketing. I might try the bus one day, when I can leave everything valuable at home or tuck it into my traveler’s belt under my shirt, just so I can see what it’s like first hand, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to rely on to get a place. (Image Credit: Dr. Alexey Yakovlev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Ride share services have recently launched here! The only two services in Senegal are Russian owned Yango, and French owned Heetch. There’s no Uber or Lyft, I’m afraid. Yango launched in December 2021 and Heetch launched in January of 2022, so this is really new. You will need to register with a phone number, and as yet there’s no way to add a digital payment option inside the app (although if you don’t have right cash, you can probably use Wave with the driver). It took me several tries to get Yango to work, so if that happens, just uninstall and reinstall the apps and try again. Stuff doesn’t always work here. Yango and Heetch cars are significantly nicer than the taxis. The drivers are less likely to be harrassy, more likely to speak French or even some English, and more likely (but not guaranteed) to have change than taxi drivers. There’s also a way to complain to the company if there’s a problem.
The ride share apps allow you to enter your location by searching for a business name or selecting a location on the map. This is really great since there are no addresses, but it’s not something most drivers are used to yet. No matter what you put in, they still call and ask where you are and where you’re going after they accept your ride request. I actually turned on the “don’t call me unless its an emergency” option in Yango and it made zero difference. I’m hoping this will improve over time, but honestly, I had taxis in Korea who couldn’t use GPS either, so …. Anyway, be prepared to explain it in French to a very impatient driver. I find I often can’t understand them on the phone either because of background noise or bad connection or just because they are talking too fast or with slang. In that case you can send a text message, a WhatsApp message or message through the app itself, allowing you to use the translating app of your choice. Most of the app drivers have a minimum level of tech ability and literacy that allows them to deal with the text messages. (side note, people actually prefer calling to texting here, and even in the text based app WhatsApp they will record and send voice messages rather than type. I love talking on the phone to my friends, but it’s a solid nightmare to try and do it in another language)
Things here are changing rapidly. I learned all this by asking and searching on Google, but there are expats embedded here and even locals that don’t know some of this because many of the more convenient digital/online services just launched in the last year or two and they stopped looking for better ways to do things. If you don’t know how to do a thing or where to buy a thing, ask and keep asking until you find a solution that works for you. If I’d listened to the people who were supposed to help me, I’d be in much worse shape, living in a way less nice apartment and overpaying for most things or just doing without. Instead, I found a couple of Americans who had been here for long enough to share what they had learned and compiled everyone’s knowledge gems into one place. I hope this guide is helpful to someone. I know I would have loved to know these things before I landed here, but even if the details become obsolete, the basic advice of “keep asking” will always be true.
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I knew when I was drifting through the cortisol laden depths of anxiety and despair that getting my own space to live in was going to make a huge difference in my outlook and wellbeing, and wow I was right. As of November 22, I finally got my very own place to live! It’s made a huge difference in the way I feel and my ability to tackle other challenges of living here. After 6 weeks of living in Dakar, I’m so pleased to finally be able to start sharing something good.
Good News, Good Vibes
I know my first three posts about Dakar were very rough, but it’s so here’s some other fun things/achievements I’ve gotten to do.
Every other Thursday there’s English language trivia at a bar by the sea. The bar is called Kraken and it’s in a tourist/expat part of town, so there’s a lot of people leaning in and trying to sell us stuff over the railing. They have a decent selection of drinks, but I tried a local beer with Picon added in. I had never heard of this before, but apparently Picon is the French version of Amaro and has a bitter orange botanical flavor. Picon beer is a thing. It was nice and added a lot of depth of flavor to the otherwise cheap local beer. The theme that night was FIFA which did not go well for us, but I had fun anyway, and I plan to keep going.
One of the ETAs I temporarily lived with hosted her very first Thanksgiving (first as hostess) and went full out with it. The ETAs from orientation came back into town and we had a nice evening sharing food and conversation. She made chicken instead of turkey (I helped because she’s vegetarian and didn’t know how to tell if it was done) plus mac and cheese, cornbread, cornbread stuffing, green beans, roasted root vegetables, mashed potatoes, a zhuzhed up canned cranberry sauce, and three pies: pumpkin, apple, and peanut with both vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. It was wonderfully homey to have a group of good people to share the holiday and meal with, too.
Loman Art Gallery
I didn’t realize it at the time we went, but it turns out there’s a gallery very close to my apartment. It’s an Airbnb and artist residence with a rooftop bar/restaurant. They had a lovely Ethiopian buffet the night we went. The art installations weren’t fully up inside, but the rooftop was gorgeous and we sat in the most elaborate gazebo-esque table to enjoy the food. I ordered a house wine and was pleasantly surprised (I guess the French influence extends that far) and I got some fresh roasted coffee afterward. The barista brought the pan over to the able to show us how she was roasting the beans small batch!
I had a fun day out at the Sea Plaza shopping mall. There’s a disproportionate number of handbags and shoes for sale there, but I found a cute café and more importantly the large version of the Casino grocery store that I visited in my second week here. I don’t want to have to go there every week to shop, but it is nice to know what’s there in case I get a craving. There’s also a plethora of import food shops for different ethnicities around town. My friends found a Chinese shop, and I spotted a Korean grocery from a taxi the other day. It’s really nice to have regular access to variety!
I went to the first official day of the English Club at my university. I was pleased to be able to help the student led club get a real faculty sponsor and a classroom to use. I’m not real faculty, but I sent some messages out to people in charge and asked for them to get what they needed, and my voice carried more weight than the students alone. They meet on Saturdays, and I’m busy every Saturday in December, so I definitely wanted to visit before November ended. It was a lot of fun to see the students engaged in practicing English by debating veterinary medicine hot topics and I’m looking forward to going back in January.
PO Box / BP
I went to the post office to get my PO Box (boite postal) set up in order to get mail and packages. I was deeply entertained by the fact that they wanted to know my address … buddy if I knew my address I wouldn’t need a BP? Eventually they just wrote the general area along with my phone number and email. They made a copy of my passport, and collected my 5k (about 7.50$) which pays for a full year of service (it’s usually 10, but they were having a reduced rate special, Thanksgiving may only be in America but Black Friday is global). Then we searched through a box of about 100 keys, everything from 24000-24099. The three of us (me and the two postal workers) had a little race to see who would find my number first. They gave me one copy of my key and showed me where to go to find the box. I’m not sure how well this will work, or how long it will take things to get to me here, but I have a way to get mail now.
I finally got a place to live!
What I Learned About Finding Housing in Dakar
This was not supposed to be a thing I had to do on my own. You can read the stories in my other Dakar posts, but it turned out to be one more thing I needed to do for myself while here and what I learned is: the best thing you can do to find a place to live here is ASK OTHER EXPATS. There are real estate agents (required for official rentals) and even some websites where you can search and view apartments, but it’s a minefield. The real resource is fellow foreigners.
If you’re coming here for more than a week, I’d say book something very reputable (high ratings, good reviews) for the first few nights you’re in town so you can touch down in comfort and safety, then move to a cheaper place after you arrive and can go see it in person before you book, and finally, find your long term stay by reaching out to the expat community. If you are moving here for the long haul (5+ years), you might want to get an unfurnished place and fill it yourself. The deposits are murder (4 months of rent!) and furnishing will be a hassle, but the rent is much cheaper on unfurnished units. If, like me, you are planning to be here less than 2 years, you might want a pre-furnished place.
For any length of stay, look before you pay! If you have to book a place sight unseen, check the reviews, make sure there are verified reviews that are recent and not just the landlord’s friends and family. I saw a lot of places on Airbnb that were total lies. The ones that were true to photo were mostly other expats. Ask about everything. Don’t assume a thing works because it’s there. Check it yourself. Make sure all the appliances, wifi, electric, hot water, a/c etc work. Imagine your apartment is a used car you are buying from a sketchy used car salesman. Kick the metaphorical tires. It will be exhausting, but worth it in the end.
There are tons of people “renting” furnished apartments by the night who are entirely willing to make monthly discounts. The place I’m in was going for 25k/night (would be 750k/month) but I got it for 600k (local currency). I found it because one of the ETAs who has been here longer was able to reach out to her WhatsApp group to ask if anyone had something. There’s also a FB group called Dakarium Turfs & Cribs that people can post what they are looking for on and get replies from people who have places to rent. I didn’t use that method because I was not really sure how it would go with total strangers, but I think if you don’t know any expats from your work or whatever brings you here that it might be a better bet than trying to go through a Senegalese agent.
Another reason to go through expats is the language/culture barrier. It’s much harder to get repairs done from Senegalese landlords in part because you are as unlikely as I to speak Wolof, and in remainder because things just aren’t urgent here. My American landlady understands my American urge to have things fixed ASAP, so anything she can fix, she has done right away. There are things she’s stuck waiting on some locals for, but she communicates about it with me. Meanwhile, my friends renting from a local were washing dishes in the bathroom for several days while waiting for their landlord to get a plumber into the kitchen sink. Thankfully, they got it fixed before Thanksgiving!
Home Sweet Home
After 5 weeks of stress, I have moved into a nice furnished apartment in Mamelles (which is a neighborhood that means “boobs” in French because the French colonizers saw the two hills and were 12 yr old boys about it). The building is shared with some businesses on the ground floor and has a fairly new elevator (less than 2 years old) which speaks with a very interesting (not remotely African sounding) accent. There’s a lot of people around and the building manager is friendly and helpful, so I feel safe and welcome. The lady renting to me is also American, and usually rents the apartment out by the night on Airbnb but is happy to have me in for a long term rental since it means a steady income and probably less breakage of furniture.
There’s a small kitchen which we made smaller by installing a washing machine. I think it’s worth it to be able to wash my own clothes at home and not in the sink. It’s got a dorm fridge, so I guess I don’t get to keep pints of ice cream at home, and the “stove” is a propane hot plate on a wooden countertop. The main room is a living/dining area, but I’ve shoved some of the furniture aside to make a space for me to VR dance in. I’ve also installed my Chromecast and switch on the TV. The bedroom is a bit sparse, but the bed is comfy and the bathroom has ALL THE HOT WATER. I didn’t really realize how much I missed that until my first shower in here where the water came out steamy and stayed that way the whole long shower… my first really good long hot shower since arriving in Senegal, btw.
It came furnished, including a towel and 2 sets of sheets, but I got some new pillows for myself. It also comes with a cleaner, which is something I may never get used to. The places I lived in Jinan (China) and in Tabuk (Saudi) had cleaners, but the one in China only came once a week, and the one in Tabuk was in a hotel, so they came when I asked, but I didn’t ask often, and I always pre-cleaned because all I really need help with is floors and bathroom scrubbing, and I don’t really *need* that, because I lived without a cleaner the whole time I was in Korea and did not drown in dirt. This lady comes 3x a week. Her service is included in the rent. It definitely makes me think about not leaving my undies on the floor or my dishes on the sofa.
It’s in a very residential area, which has pros and cons, but overall is probably for the best because it’s quieter and safer. The roads are made of dirt, and there’s a larger than average number of horse drawn carts. There’s not as many restaurants and no big grocery stores, but the manager at the corner grocery store was really kind to me when I came in, and showed me where to find the stuff I was looking for and welcomed me to the neighborhood. There’s a bakery, and some fruit sellers around too. Plus, it’s a much easier area to describe in this addressless land when I get stuff delivered. I don’t have a private terrace, but there’s rooftop access and there’s a beautiful view that includes both the lighthouse and the Renaissance Monument.
I literally cannot say enough how much better my life is now that I have this place to live. Nothing feels too big or too broken or too overwhelming anymore. Even when I went to see the English club only to discover that my new laptop didn’t connect to the projector, and also for some reason had the wrong country plug (even though I bought it here), and that the cleaning crew had disconnected my office desktop from power (which I was able to fix) and apparently also the internet (which I was not), I wasn’t particularly upset. I was just like, oh, ok, I’ll take the laptop back home and figure out the problem, I have an adapter there, too. My latest online order had a problem where they took my money and then said the order didn’t go through and I couldn’t speak to a rep because language barrier, but I was ok with figuring it out later, and it was ok, two days later the website had resolved the issue itself and my stuff is on the way.
I’ve been exploring, walking, taking photos, taking…. Well not risks, but getting comfortable living more normally. I finally got to dye and cut my hair and I have high hopes that being able to have a regular bed means a regular bedtime skincare routine and my hands and feet might be able to recover from the DRY. I was able to start working on stuff like minor sewing repairs and LAUNDRY. I have a space to disinfect my produce and can finally have fresh fruit/veg snacks again. It’s SO nice not to be living with the weight of stress and anxiety and just be able to enjoy living here. I’m astonished it took so long, but I’m glad that I was right when I promised myself that I’d get to this point.
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.
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.
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.
The human element is something that I got less and less of during the pandemic, but will be a big part of my next adventure.Although interminable paperwork is the hallmark of any international and/or academic project, the English Language Fellowship application also requires multiple interviews, and the pre-departure process benefits from making early contacts.
Almost as soon as I got the application fully submitted, and my last reference completed their essays, I got an email inviting me to a video interview. It happened much faster than I thought possible. The email gave me a basic overview of what to expect in the interview and three date/time slots to choose from.
The time allotted was 30-minute for the Zoom interview. I was told it would focus on “behavioral competencies which have been identified as important to the success of Fellows working overseas in challenging environments” including: Flexibility, Resourcefulness and problem solving, Leadership, Cultural adaptability, and Working with others. For each behavioral competency, I then had to address three aspects: (1) the situation or task in which you displayed the behavior, (2) the actions you took, and (3) the results of those actions. A recording of my answers, I was told, would then be added to my application.
I agonized the entire time between receiving this email and having the interview. I had to take a later date because I had already planned my trip to the ski resort, so I used the time to brainstorm ideas and bounce them off my friends. I wrote down multiple possible situation/tasks for each competency and thought through the actions and results. I got one friend who was skilled in education and one who was more skilled in presentations and projects, and I asked them for time to listen to my options and help me choose. I am so glad that I did this. Although I was nervous, after really discussing each competency and how my examples highlighted them, I felt truly prepared. I also decided to tell my situations as stories, which, again, if you’re here on the blog, you know is something I love to do.
It was a great decision. The interviewer loved my storytelling! He really complimented my presentation style and said it was something that would serve me well in the fellowship. After participating in the pre-departure orientation, I realized why – there are a lot of videos and presentations where fellows tell stories from their fellowship as a way to share their experiences and help promote cultural exchange.
The first interview was just to gather my answers so I could be placed in the matching pool. The day after my zoom call, I got the email that I was officially in the applicant pool and could receive my 2nd interview anywhere from a week to 5 months. This process is not for people who can’t live with uncertainty, but again, they are looking for flexibility in candidates. I was putting off giving notice at my university until the absolute last moment I could responsibly and professionally do so, which is 90 days for me by the way. February was still early enough in the semester that I wasn’t too worried about a delay, but I was anxious in that kids before Christmas way because this was by far the best opportunity I had encountered in my search, and I really really wanted it.
It took me most February to find my future HVF Dr., and in the mean time I was still doing my online classes and applying for other jobs, not knowing how serious the “not a guarantee of placement” the disclaimers were. Finally, on April 21 I got a match with the program in Turkey. This was a little startling, as I had just declined a job offer in Ankara, Turkey in March (that university didn’t think I would have any time to explore the country because of my work hours, which was a pretty big red flag). The Fellowship position was in Nevsehir, which is a little remote, but not any worse than my current town in Korea, and I’ve never been to Turkey, so it would be something new.
Unfortunately, the interview was a bit underwhelming. Before my interview, I was sent a pdf guide that outlined questions we might be asked and might want to ask, which was a very thoughtful tool. But, when I was given the chance to ask questions back to them, they seemed entirely unprepared. I asked some fairly basic ones, like “what do you like most about your town?” (the tourist attraction “fairy chimneys” was the unanimous answer, and I believe they are beautiful, but I have been living in a beautiful but boring town for 4 years now, so if the locals don’t have anything else to say about it, hmmmm).
I asked some things about the school, and teaching styles, which got some cookie cutter answers, and I asked why they wanted me, why they were in the program. That was the hardest, because the answer was basically, “We want an American because our students never see one.” And, I totally understand that getting students to speak to native speakers is great, and that this town wanted more tourism and needed to get people used to seeing Americans. But, I have played token foreigner before, it’s an unfulfilling role. Like being a character in a theme park. It can be fun when you’re out at the big tourist destinations, but it stops being fun when you just want to do your shopping. I don’t think there’s anything objectively wrong with what they want from the program, I just worried that I was not going to be as fulfilled by it as I had hoped.
I left the interview with a lot of mixed feelings. I really wanted to be in the program, and to get out of my current situation, and to have a new adventure. I had applied to the other job in Turkey because I though that since flights are crazy with COVID, maybe living someplace where I could do a little extra travel by train would be nice (Korea has great trains, but you can’t get to another country from there overland). Turkey has a lot of cool neighbors, and it seemed like I could get a lot of adventure from there. Conversely, it seemed like plenty of schools in Turkey hired English teachers directly, so why go through this particular program to this particular school if I felt safe, comfortable and competent to get a position in Turkey on my own?
I decided that I would accept the match if it was offered. I worried that turning it down would boot me or at least make me less desirable to future matches. To be very clear, I would not have accepted any position that was not an improvement on my current circumstances. This wasn’t me settling for less. I had some very high hopes for the ELP after everything they told us about remote and unusual locations, but I was already looking at a position in Turkey (just one with a better work-life balance than my March interview). I didn’t think I would be unhappy in Nevsehir, and I was dreaming of how to help locals make English language AirBnB experiences to meet their tourism goals, and looking at local activities, photos, and blogs that very night to think about the cool things I could do.
I woke up the next day to see that the host university declined the match. I was a little bit sad, but mostly relieved. I was back in the pool, which meant more limbo waiting, but it also meant a chance a match that could be more in line with my ideals.
In the mean time, I was still applying for other schools and conducting other interviews this whole time because the DoS kept saying “no guarantee you’ll be placed”. One such was in Taiwan. Although Taiwan has the same ‘fly to leave’ problem as Korea, it was still on my list of desirable countries because a) I speak Chinese better than Korean, and b) I really like Chinese culture, but didn’t see myself going back to the mainland c) Taiwan is the most liberal and forward thinking democracy in Asia, and d) the food.
I had an earlier interview with one university whose representative was extremely enthusiastic about my demo video (a real video of one of my real classes that I edited for highlights). I was awaiting a secondary interview with them when I got the match for Senegal. Although my interview for Dakar was May 4, and on May 5 I was offered the post, nothing was official until that health form and all the other intake paperwork was complete and approved, so I wasn’t quite willing to put all my eggs in one basket yet. As a result, I accepted their invitation for a second interview when it came.
Despite the fact that they were quite enthusiastic about my resume and demo, they were very demanding as well. Part of that was entirely understandable, they needed to be sure I had all the required documents to meet the governments visa rules. The other part was more red flag, or at least a yellow card. There was desk warming, and micro-management, and pretty much zero flexibility. It wasn’t bad enough for me to walk away from (no worse than EPIK), but it wasn’t awesome either. Plus they were REALLY pushing me for a multi-year commitment. They were only hiring because their last English teacher didn’t meet the new updated visa requirements. I said that if things went well, I was happy to stay 2-4 years, but that I wouldn’t know until I got there. They did not like that answer.
Just a week after the interview for Nevsehir, I got my next potential match for Dakar, Senegal. The overview of the job struck me as a little strange since it was for a veterinary school, but without any additional details, I assumed their English program would focus on international standards for participating in study abroad, international conferences, and publications (spoiler alert, there IS no English department!). I was far more excited at the prospect of Dakar than I had been about Nevsehir. For one, I have wanted to experience sub-Saharan Africa for years with no real opportunity to do so. Tourism in Africa is actually both difficult and expensive, while jobs for English teachers are thin on the ground, the only ones I’d found before were either volunteer, pay to volunteer, or required French fluency.
For another, Dakar is a big urban space on the sea, which is definitely one of my favorite combinations. Senegal is a very stable African country, and Dakar is a cultural hotspot. I could live and work in Africa with support and security, be based in an urban center, but have reasons and ability to travel to the countryside and villages. 10/10 on the adventure scale more than made up for whatever obstacles I could imagine encountering teaching English at a veterinary school. I had to wait some more, there were some holidays in Senegal at the time, so my actual interview was May 4.
The interview process was night and day different from the one with Nevsehir. The first match interview was a group zoom with the Embassy representative and three English teachers form the local university. I was obviously there to talk to the teachers, and the Embassy rep was trying to facilitate. It felt a lot like a traditional job interview for any university program. The zoom call with the folks in Dakar was 2 people from the Embassy, the very American white guy and a local woman who had worked in the Embassy for many years (oh, and the American guy has since relocated, so I get a new boss!). There was no one from the university involved. Additionally, the mood of the interview was more causal, laid back and easygoing, where the one for Turkey felt very stilted and performative.
We chatted about expectations and obstacles. I think they understood how challenging West Africa is for Americans to adjust to with rolling blackouts, unreliable water supplies, and a general lack of teaching supplies in most schools. I told some stories from my own life (pre-Korea, cause let’s face it, it’s really soft there), and I told them the one and only time I’ve had to leave due to such issues, and they seemed quite shocked that I had lasted as long a I did at that particular place, and assured me they did not expect anything quite so bad in Dakar. Once we reassured each other that I could take the problems they anticipated and they wouldn’t expect me to put up with conditions I knew I would not, we had a really lovely chat.
They did briefly address the lack of any concrete plan for me or English classes, but in the end, I told them quite honestly that I was so excited by the chance to live and work in this part of the world with a support network and safety net, that there was very little they could say to dampen my enthusiasm. I got the official offer the next day. (despite the many surprises that I have encountered since accepting and the mounting pile of confusion and uncertainty, I am still very enthusiastic).
Although I got the offer May 5, I didn’t get my actual contract until June 25th. Experience has taught me that it’s not real until the contract is signed. In the case of life-after-COVID, a signed contract is still dependent on travel conditions and government restrictions, but it’s as reliable as I can expect. During this very long wait, I had a lot of thoughts and anxieties, not the least the political unrest in Dakar over the summer about the elections. My brain started having tiny little panic attacks about the idea of giving up my safety and comfort. Was I being totally irresponsible to wander off on a short term project in a pandemic and a brewing European war impacting travel, the economy, and the job market?
The Taiwan school had yet to make me an official offer, but had made their interest very apparent. They were pressuring me all this time for a commitment, and I kept trying to tell them that I was interviewing at other places, but that IF they offered me a job and I accepted, I wouldn’t back out. They kept saying I had to commit before they made the offer. It seemed like neither one of us wanted to be the first to say yes.
I told the story about Taiwan because at this point in the process I had a come-to-Disney moment (it’s like a come-to-Jesus moment, but Disney). I got Pocahontas’ first song stuck in my head. I don’t even like that movie very much, but I know all the songs because it was one of the ones my little sister watched daily for about a year. I still like the song about rivers because I want an adventure life too. It’s the same reason I love Belle’s song about “adventure in the great wide somewhere”, though I’m not as into Ariel’s “part of your world”. My Disney Princess Moment was experienced while sitting on my balcony I realized that the job in Taiwan was more stable: they wanted a long term commitment, Taiwan just launched a “bilingual by 2030” initiative so job stability was in. I already knew I could communicate, and get around having visited back in 2019 on my own. It would be new enough to be exciting but also familiar enough to be safe. Then it hit me: Taiwan was Kocoum.
(In this metaphor, Senegal is NOT John Smith, I really prefer the no-prince spate of recent Disney movies to the romance minded and culturally problematic movies of my own childhood, but in the context of the song, it’s Kocoum vs Adventure. I prefer more “Moana choosing the sea” as a metaphor, but I never memorized the lyrics to that song, so it doesn’t pop into my head unbidden in moments of existential crisis).
Both Feet In:
I got the agreement June 25, signed it and sent it back, checking the online portal to see the last piece of paperwork approved, and it didn’t come. It turns out that there had been a glitch in the internet when I hit send, and it went into my drafts folder instead of to the program. Thankfully, they checked on me, and I found and fixed the mistake, and the final approval was granted on July 6. It took me a few days to realize that the school in Taiwan was not going to take a subtle hint, so on July 10 I finally sent a very clear, “thanks but no thanks” email. They didn’t reply.
Once I was committed, I started the work of preparing my necessary travel vaccines. Unlike with the HVF, living in Korea was actually an advantage this time. I could see that my required vaccines were up to date, but there was a laundry list of other recommended vaccines and one that might be required for me because I had been in Korea. Korean citizens are required to get the Yellow Fever vaccine before going to Senegal while Americans are merely recommended to do so, but that’s about location and exposure, and I didn’t want to take any chances that they’d see my Korean visa and turn me away. In the end, I got 6 vaccines – 2 boosters and 4 new. The yellow fever vaccine was the worst in terms of side effects because it’s a live vaccine, but rabies vaccine required 3 shots over 4 weeks.
Maybe I won’t need any of these, Dakar is a very cosmopolitan place, the risk of exposure is low there. However I will be spending a lot of time at a veterinary school and animals are vectors for a lot of disease, plus I hope to get opportunities to travel into the countryside where unfortunately risk of exposure is higher. The vaccines help me feel like I can do all that without worrying too much, and in Korea they are 3-4x cheaper than in the US where most of them aren’t even covered by health insurance. I don’t think I would have gotten them all if I had to pay US prices. My year supply of anti-malarials was also 1/4 the cost of the same medicine in America. If I was in America, I probably would have bought a 90 day supply in advance and then acquired more when I got to Dakar, but it’s one less thing to worry about. Yay Korean healthcare!
The Community of Practice:
Since that time, I’ve zoom calls and WhatsApp chats with former Senegal fellows, the new RELO, and the COP (community of practice) for both the fellowship orientation and the Training of Trainers course. It’s so different from any other job or program I’ve been a part of because I’ve been working on it in one way or another all year and it hasn’t even started yet. It’s also different in that peer & mentor support are everywhere! Whether I’m getting reassurance from a more experienced mentor or reassuring a peer who has less international experience than me, it’s truly marvelous to be a part of a supportive community, and I look forward to meeting even more folks face to face when I arrive including the embassy staff, the Fulbright scholars, and my host institution professors.
I’m currently in the US, busily having fun with friends and family so, I haven’t written as much about the TOT (training of trainers) course as I would have liked. It’s a lot of work, and wrapping my brain around new ideas, but I feel like I’m elevating to a whole new level in my career! Also, my start date in Dakar was pushed back to October 18, so keep an eye out for the “Welcome to Dakar” post around Halloween. Thanks for reading!
I gave no small amount of thought into how to organize this 10 month long process from application to arrival. It’s a lot, both in terms of time and in details. I’ve started with a division between the paper and the people, and I’m hoping to get some of the orientation and training process recorded as well. It’s been a long time since I wrote a bureaucracy post, but it is a tradition here. I hope that reading about it is more fun than doing it, that it sheds some light on what goes on behind the scenes of a glamorous globetrotting life, and that it might help anyone in the future who is struggling to navigate a similar sea of red tape.
I was doing general job searches over the winter break, you can read about my decision to leave Korea in the “안녕히계세요 Korea” series. Most of the world starts the school year in the fall, so if I wanted to transition out of Korea, I would need to start looking in the winter/spring, and even though most schools only hire a few months in advance, looking for work over the winter gave me a sense of control my life was sorely lacking.
In January, I saw the ad for the English Language Fellowship and vaguely remembered trying to apply for it years ago. Back in 2015, I didn’t realize it was a program for more experienced English teachers, I had only 2 years of experience back then, so I wasn’t quite eligible yet. In January 2022, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had committed to applying to any position that was cooler than my current one. I was on winter break, so a lengthy and detailed application process was not as daunting as it might have been during classes.
The online application process is fairly similar to most in that you have to enter all your information, and relevant work history and skills. It’s a little different in the amount of detail you are expected to provide, including that each skill you claim requires specific examples. There are also a lot of essays. It more resembles an application for an academic program than for a job, which makes sense. In addition to the statement of purpose, you have to answer essay questions with specific examples from your past about:
It’s a lot of writing, which as you may guess wasn’t too onerous for me, but the really hard part was that I had to get my three references (at least one from my current job) to log into the portal and write their recommendations directly into the application (the program sends them a link via email, but I did personal outreach before adding them to the mailing list). It was awkward to contact my current team leader and break the news that I was looking to leave by asking for a recommendation. Thankfully, he thought it was a great opportunity and was very quick to get his positive assessment in.
In my early working life (age 16-25) I didn’t encounter letters of recommendation. Every job application had a space for references contact information, but I didn’t really see behind the curtain of what went on during those phone calls. Later, I was introduced to the concept of letters of recommendation. The way I was taught was that I request a letter when I’m leaving a job or school and then keep it on file for future applications. I didn’t start getting them at all until I was applying for grad school, after which I tried to remember to ask at the end of a job or project because it’s really hard to get one years later. I was also told that it’s common practice to write the letter about myself that they would then sign. All of this was very intimidating to young me, and it took me years to get decent at asking for letters and writing them for myself and for other people.
This was the first time I encountered an application that wouldn’t even be considered until all three references responded with essay answers containing unique and specific details about me (basically the same questions I had to write essays about) with real world examples. It’s a lot to ask for a reference. One of the original three people I asked wasn’t up to it when she realized how different it was from a regular letter, and so I had to find a back-up. I’m really grateful to the people who were willing to put in the work for me, especially after I realized how much work it actually was! If I could do it again, I’d offer to help them brainstorm examples. Many people who give references may think they need to keep them private from the applicant, but if you can co-author your reference, I think it will help you get what you need and be a little easier on the person you are asking to help you.
I suspect part of the reason they want these three detailed reference essays is because this fellowship requires a certain amount of networking, and relying on other people (inspiring other people to be willing to do things on your behalf). I had always hated the idea that my goals or even survival could depend on other people (who might flake out or stab me in the back), but I know now that is just the voice of my past trauma. Humans are team-based social creatures and our ability to thrive depends on our social connections. The fact that I succeeded in getting three wonderful, talented, and accomplished people to want to take the time and effort to write nice things about me and our work together so that I could partake in this opportunity shows me how far I’ve come and how much I mean to others.
Almost immediately after my last reference was completed, I got an invitation to my first interview and was subsequently placed in the applicant pool by early February. I was told my match and second interview could happen anytime from 1 week to 6 months, and in the mean time, there was more paperwork.
One of the other complicated piles of paperwork participants have to complete is the Health Verification Form or HVF, and it must be done under the care of a physician. They need to make sure that everyone going is healthy enough to live in a place with … intermittently reliable healthcare. Although I personally think Americans have an incorrect perception of the quality of healthcare abroad, believing it to be substandard or inferior when actually it’s just cheaper, there is something to be said for the fact that in some cases, fellows will go to remote locations that are far from urban centers and hospitals. In addition, very few countries offer the disability and mobility accommodations that America is required to have by law.
None of this is to say that people with extra health care needs or disabilities can’t or shouldn’t travel. I think everyone should travel. There are lots of places you can visit with good, reliable, cheap healthcare, though mobility may require a companion to help navigate difficult spaces. They just don’t want the liability of sending someone with known severe health issues that could result in hospitalization or death if they are unable to receive the same level of care that would have access to with comparable insurance within America.
In addition, the form has to be completed within 15 days of when you receive your official offer, which I had not yet, and would not until I had a match and my second interview and was accepted by the local coordinator of the program. For people in the US, this would be fairly easy. I looked at the sample form and although it’s rather long, most of it is medical history and personal planning. There’s a short part that is an actual exam. The exam is comprehensive (full body) but basic (no blood work or other bodily samples involved, unlike many visa health checks). In America, I could imagine just going in to my GPs office and discussing the history and plan, then getting a quick once over and a sign off. Two weeks is not unreasonable.
In Korea, there are no GPs. Once every year or two (depending on your job and health plan) you get a full body work up for free! You go to the testing center and it’s like 8 doctors all in one area so you all the preventative medicine checks at once (really, everything). Then if there’s an abnormality in your results, they tell you what kind of doctor you need to see to follow up. In between these work ups, if you have a problem that you need a doctor for, you go directly from the reception desk to the specialist that the intake nurse thinks best fits your reported symptoms. If your back and your knee hurt, you’re likely going to see two different doctors. The good news is they are all right there together and it’s very easy to go between doctors and testing facilities in one visit. The bad news is that no one doctor was likely to file this whole body form.
I knew it was going to take me longer than the allotted time to find a place I could go, so I started the hunt early. I also made a much more comprehensive version of the history and plan than I would have done with an American doctor, since I knew the Korean doctor was unlikely to be comfortable with writing that much English themselves, and I wanted to offer something they could cut and paste, editing as needed. Most places that spoke enough English to take on a form like this flat up said no. A couple places said they could do it, but that it would be billed as a pre-employment health screening, which included a ton of tests and scans that I didn’t need, bringing the price tag up to about 500$ (which is crazy in Korea). One hospital in Seoul said they could do it for less, but still about 200$. I was feeling really disheartened. I knew in the US this would be a 25$ co-pay for other applicants and it just felt like such an extreme barrier.
At the end of February, I got a reply from a nurse in the International Office of Hyoseong Hospital in Daegu. When I arranged to talk with her on the phone, I was so relieved to learn that this hospital had many accommodations for foreigners due to the fact that they worked closely with the US military in the area. I emailed her a copy of the form and a few days later she said not only could they do it, but that it would be cost of a regular doctor visit (10-20$) or at the absolute most 40$ if the doctor decided he needed to run any extra tests. I also talked to her about the time requirements and that I would need the form within two weeks of an as yet unknown date sometime in the next couple of months. She said she would make a note about my situation so that she could remember the details when I called back at go time.
The Intake Paperwork, Georgetown U, and the Portal:
After rounds of waiting and interviewing and more waiting, I got my official offer on May 5th and the race was on to file all the paperwork. The PORTAL is the central data collection for everything you need to be a fellow. The first “step” is the onboarding to-do list. Some of the items on this list are fast and easy like your contact information, others like the Health Verification form and the Supplier ID require multiple steps in and of themselves. I had check off everything you see here to get my agreement finalized. The visa remains unchecked because at the time I took this screenshot, I was still waiting to get mine, although I really hope that by the time this pre-scheduled post drops, I have it. Most of this isn’t actually difficult, it’s just tedious, but I had one major hurdle to jump.
Getting the HVF
When I got my official offer on May 5th, and my acceptance package on May 7th which started the 15 (business days) countdown. I realize they sent the email on their Friday 6th, but Korea is in the future, so I couldn’t do anything about it. I contacted the nurse at Hyoseong the following Monday 9. Then it transpired that the nurse I needed to help me was in COVID quarantine! (She was not too sick, but couldn’t go into the office with a positive test). I had to wait until Monday 16 to try again. On top of that, my school had scheduled me in such a way that it was impossible for me to get to a hospital in another city without cancelling and rescheduling at least one class, limiting the possible days of the week I could hope to go. I got an appointment for Friday 20 (the easiest class to reschedule) which would just give me enough time for a re-do the following week if anything went wrong.
Thankfully, I’d done all my prep work months before and I was able to copy and paste my answers into the form and print off some hard copies for the doctor to sign. Once I arrived, the nurse did most of the work (as nurses so often do), making sure the information I couldn’t write in advance was added in and double checking some details. Then she went off to talk to the doctor while I sat in the waiting room. When I went in to see the doctor, he asked me a couple of basic health questions, offered to refill my inhaler, and signed off. Months of stress, and it was the easiest thing. I know if I’d shown up with a blank form, it would not have been so easy, but one of the many knots of low grade anxiety in my guts unwound a little.
While I didn’t need to have my visa in hand to complete the onboarding checklist, I did have to know the visa requirements to enter Senegal. While everything with the hospital was going on, I also contacted the Senegalese Embassies in DC and in Seoul. There was confusion about the visa process and requirements. I didn’t need a work visa, since I would not be working for a Senegalese company, but was it a business visa? or something else? Online research turned up a very complex process that required piles paperwork, a French translation of my birth certificate, and regular in person renewals for a residency permit that would be granted after I arrived, but that seemed like something for immigrants, people moving to Senegal. Americans can visit Senegal for up to 90 days with no visa, and there’s student and work visas, but none of that applied to me.
I explained to the Senegalese embassy here in Korea that I was American (not Korean) and needed a visa, but they informed me that it wasn’t possible to get the visa in advance. It took me longer to get in touch with someone from the DC embassy, but when I did, she was very helpful and once she understood my situation, said that I could get a 1 year visa in advance and helped me get a list of all the documents I’d need and where to send it. At the time of writing this (August), I’m still in in Korea and won’t be able to ship off my passport to DC until after I arrive in the US in September. Hopefully, by the time this publishes, I’ll have good news on the visa front.
Wrapping Up the Pre-Departure Paperwork
I got my supplier ID accepted on May 19, my HVF form approved on May 24, and my completed onboarding accepted June 4, the same day I received pre-departure orientation schedule.
June 10 was the day I finally let myself believe it was real, and that the bureaucracy was safely appeased and declined my simultaneous job offer (yes, I was so nervous I would be rejected on technical grounds, new COVID spike, or other bureaucratic nightmare that I was still entertaining other opportunities even after I got the offer). I still didn’t have my actual contract/agreement in early June, but that was the day I finally jumped with both feet. Is there a story here? Why yes, there is, thanks for asking, but it’s in the “people” part of this series.
June 25 was the day I got my agreement to print, sign, and scan, but an internet glitch meant that instead of sending, my return email went into drafts and it wasn’t until after the deadline that the office sent me a reminder. Thankfully they understand about computer error (or at least accepted my excuse) and my final signed agreement was added to my PORTAL on July 6.
Just about 7 months after I first decided to apply, and 3 months before I was scheduled to arrive, the Starter Pack Bureaucracy was finally complete. There is plenty more paperwork to look forward to. No government funded project could possibly avoid it, but it makes me pointedly aware of the privileged position I’m in. It wasn’t that long ago in my life that the idea of spending 7 months to prepare for a job would have been unthinkable. The closest experience I had was applying to grad school, which I had to do about 9-10 months in advance of the fall semester, but as difficult as that application was at the time, it was basic compared to this and took far fewer overall hours. My application process to get into Saudi was challenging, especially that visa, but it also wasn’t as long or as many hours. My process to get into Korea was the closest in terms of complexity, but took less time (by more than half).
I had stable if undesirable job all of those times. I made the application process into something between homework and a really boring hobby. But how often is someone in the position where they can financially afford to wait 7-10 months from when they apply to when they start? How many people can be working full time and dedicate the needed hours and brainpower to complete pages and pages of complex and detailed essays and forms? How many people can have a good enough job to give them the financial and mental stability to do all this, while also being able to leave that job for 1-2 years or forever?
In order to apply for, get, and participate in this fellowship, a person has to have education, experience, financial stability, a good professional network, decently good health, and a reasonable expectation that they won’t lose all of that after 1-2 years in another country. When I think back to the version of myself that stood in line at the food bank in order to eat, who almost ended up living in her car when she lost her home (but for the grace of some friends with an attic), who struggled to keep a bank balance out of overdraft and didn’t always succeed… it seems so unreal that I came from that and arrived here. I feel shocked and amazed, surprised and lucky. I can’t even really make sense of it yet, I just know I need to recognize that this is rare and amazing, and I didn’t get here alone. Gratitude.
In one month, I’m leaving Korea, finally, and probably for good? It’s nice here, there’s a high quality of life and a low cost of living. The summer is brutal, but the aircon works, and the country is beautiful… plus it’s central to a lot of cool travel destinations. It’s a good place to be an American so, who knows, maybe I’ll come back some day. However, I’ve resigned from my position at the university, and I’m packing up, donating, selling, or throwing away my entire life until I’m back down to two suitcases and a carry on. The countdown begins.
What Have I Been Doing All This Time?
Since my arrival in 2016, I’ve written about 50 posts about my life in Korea, if you are bored or have a special interest in the worklife, you can see them all under the South Korea menu on the homepage, or you can scroll through some highlights here.
I stopped writing about Korea in 2020. I stopped writing about travel in 2020. I very nearly stopped writing.
Looking back through this blog, I can see that I did some updating about 2020 in these three posts: Life a Little Upsidedown, The World Is Temporarily Closed, and Who can even, right now? The last one was October 5th, 2020. I talked about covid life, stress, online teaching, whatever hobbies I was doing at the moment because I couldn’t bake sourdough, but I wasn’t able to celebrate my travel experiences. I was so sad that I couldn’t travel, even writing about it was unbearable. That seems really “first world white people” problems I know, but everyone has something they do that defines who they are, how they see themselves in the world and get out of bed on difficult days. I know my travel is a privilege, and yet it had become a core part of my sense of self worth. When covid took that away, I lost a large part of my self. I wish I could say that I found something else to give my life meaning, but the truth is, I’m only able to write again now because I’m about to start a new adventure, and it gives me strength, purpose, and hope.
The Rest of 2020
October 2020 was surprisingly good. I finally visited the famous pink muhly grass here in Gyeongju, a great chance for flower closeup photos. There’s a stellar observatory here in Gyeongju called Cheomseongdae, and it’s a famous tourism spot. The park it resides in is regularly replanted with seasonal flowers and filled with picnickers and kite fliers. I have no idea how the structure functioned as an astronomical observatory, but it’s a pretty park. The pink muhly is a type of grass that is, well, pink. There were workers around to make sure everyone wore masks when not posing for photos, and the paths were clearly marked out. People in Korea were as usual very considerate of others taking photos in the area. It was a beautiful day.
I took a trip with a good friend up to Seoul to celebrate Halloween at Everland where the whole park was decorated for the holiday. The daily case count was under 100 at the time, so we felt safe and had a good time. I even incorporated a spooky mask into my makeup for a full on monster face. There was a parade, and a zoo with a penguin feeding show, new baby pandas (only viewable via cctv video), fennec foxes and many more. We mostly looked at decorations, and then we stood in line for like 2 hours to ride the T-Express rollercoaster which was actually entirely worth it. The park offered mask compatible face makeup, so after a while we weren’t the only two in Halloween masks, and after dark the décor swapped from cute to creepy. Some of the photos made it to my Insta, but I never got around to writing about it.
My D&D group had a potluck thanksgiving and a New Years dinner too, we sat in my friend’s apartment eating homecooked comfort food and trying to keep the dog from getting anything that would make him sick. It may not have been a grand adventure felt really nice to spend my holidays in a way that was more reminiscent of my formative experiences. Also, trying to get ingredients for my traditional American holiday recipes was definitely a grand adventure.
In 2021 my blog posts turned entirely into therapy book reviews because I felt like that was the biggest thing happening to me, but it was far from the only thing. I had some moles removed, and failed to write about the Korean dermatology clinic experience. I moved, which was such a huge relief, and failed to write Renting in a Foreign Language Part 2. I had another year of cherry blossoms that seemed so small compared to my grand adventures in Jinhae that I didn’t write about that either. I played an inexcusable amount of Animal Crossing. So much Animal Crossing, I actually created a second Instagram account just for my ACNH pics. (@gallivantrix_crossing)
I went to the beach and we got the police called on us for existing while foreign. I made new friends. I got an oven and started baking. I had my first Pumpkin Spice Latte since 2015. I went back to Nami Island & Seoraksan. There were so many adorable bunnies! I joined a Korean class. I ordered new Ben Nye makeup for Halloween and I’m really proud of that makeup (it’s on my Insta) and attended a party at my friend’s bar.
I went to TWO thanksgivings, a potluck held by my Egyptian friends who own an American themed bar where I was the only American. I made so many deviled eggs, and was scared no one would like them, no one had ever had them before, but they were a huge hit and all gone by the end of the night. The other dinner was on the Jinhae naval base where my coworker and D&D player had moved with her navy husband after they tied the knot. I made tiny pies because I could only find frozen tart crusts here, no 9″ rounds. Mini-America was quite an experience. It was so surreal to be entirely surrounded by Americans, in a little replica of suburban America with American food, and American …everything. Someone deep fried the turkey, and all had whisky and cigars on the back porch after. The next day they took me to the commissary and got as much unique American food as I could carry back on the bus.
I got new Christmas decorations, I had a real birthday party (even though the curfew was 9pm) where my friends got me cake and sang to me. I hugged an Arabic Santa at Christmas and fed my foreign friends homemade Christmas cookies. New Years Eve we tried to countdown at 8pm (midnight in New Zealand) because we had to close at 9. I shipped frozen homemade cheesecake to my friends on the base because they couldn’t join us during the lockdown.
2022 to Present
In 2022, I went to a wedding to celebrate the love of two of my friends. I visited a dog café, I went on a snow trip to Nami Island, Garden of the Morning Calm, and Yongpyeong ski resort in Pyeongchang (home of the 2017 winter Olympics). I caught COVID at a birthday party. I bade farewell to a dear friend who returned to the US.
I had a stunningly gorgeous final cherry blossom season in Korea that more than made up for the last 2 lousy years. I didn’t make any plans at all, I just went outside one Saturday and the weather was perfect. I decided to to the only part of Gyeonju I hadn’t seen the cherry blossoms from, back near the Cheomseongdae observatory. The taxi couldn’t get even remotely close, but it worked out for the best, because the walk from where he dropped me off was a deeply tree lined road, and may have been a better destination than the park.
I went to a butterfly festival on my own (I had been travelling with the tour group during COVID because they could handle the restrictions and rules for me). This was my first time to go on my own to a new part of Korea in years, and it made me think about the very first time I did that with the Taean Tulip Festival and how lost we got. I did not get lost this time. I have mastered the Korean public transit system. The butterfly park was beautiful and the spring weather was sunny but not too hot. My favorite part though, was the giant greenhouse filled to the brim with fluttering wings.
I started the agonizing process of looking for a new career or failing that a new adventure: a way to not only leave Korea, but go towards something that would fulfill me. I turned down offers that seemed too soul sucking, which was scary but liberating. I made a back up plan to go live in France on a student visa at a reasonably priced intensive language program while teaching private English classes on the side because I’ve always wanted to live in France for a year and just eat French food, and drink French wine, and go to museums, and maybe take an art class. Giving myself permission to just do that was very freeing. In the end, I got an amazing career opportunity that is also a new adventure, and I am beyond excited to share it with you soon.
Just last month, I went to Pride in Seoul, the Korea Queer Culture Festival, one more time as the COVID bans on large gatherings were lifted allowing 10s of 1000s of queers and allies to gather in support of love and equality. I went to this event in 2016 & 17, but missed out on 18 & 19 because I was travelling. It was cancelled in 20 & 21 like every other large event, but there was a concern that the homophobes who work to block the event every year would finally succeed in killing it, using COVID as an excuse. Love wins.
We all wore masks even outside (this was after the outdoor mask mandate was lifted) because we didn’t want any spike to be linked to us. We were warned to keep the clothing modest because the new government officials were looking to use public indecency as a way to ban future events. I met Hurricane Kimchi, and I donated to my two favorite queer in Korea causes, DdingDong, a youth crisis center, and the movement to protect queer and trans soldiers in the Korean military (the only place it’s illegal in Korea to be gay, but all young AMABs must serve). The monsoons came down just as we started the parade march, but it didn’t stop us, it only sent the haters running for shelter, and we danced in the rain as drag queens on floats tried to keep their wigs dry. I was tired, and sore, and oh so happy to have been able to go one last time.
I have done a lot during the pandemic, but I didn’t write about any of it because I couldn’t process it as worthy of the blog. It was either repetitive (been there, done that) or it was all so small compared to what I wanted to be writing about, so personal, banal and mundane. I looked at my photos on the cloud at the time and thought, did I do anything at all? And now I know that was some HARD CORE DEPRESSION talking. Seriously, look at this thing I wrote:
I’ve had no good days. There have been ok days, bad days, and HORRIBLE days. Horrible days involve involuntary non-stop crying, panic/anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, and total isolation. Bad days, I can get through the bare minimum of “eat/hydrate/teach” and then have to sink into dissociative distractions like video games, binge watching Netflix, or reading pop-YA fiction to keep it from becoming a horrible day. Ok days I might actually experience fleeting moments of “that’s nice” before the ennui sets back in. And from what I understand, this is pretty much the new normal for almost everybody I know.
Who Can Even, Right Now? – Gallivantrix
I was deep down in a black oubliette, so far gone I couldn’t even imagine seeing the light again. I was dying, and now I know I’m not because I look at those photos today and I think, “what beautiful memories we made through hard times”.
Now, I’m in the process of untangling my life from Korea, getting all the paperwork filed, the apartment emptied (it is amazing how much stuff a person accumulates in 6 years), the banking, the utilities, the phone, the job… It’s the very first time as an adult that I’ve left a place after having lived for so long and not expected to return. It’s the first time I will be fully without a “home base”. I know my friends and family in the states will not let me fall on my face or be homeless, but it is a strange feeling knowing that I’ll walk out the door for the last time. I have had a safe and comfortable life here, and I am grateful to Korea for many things, but my adventure has turned into my comfort zone, and that may be the biggest reason it’s time to go.