July 2012


I am coming to realize that perhaps no matter how many tricks I learn with my camera and how much I try to optimize the settings, there is no substitute for not enough light, especially when photographing people, who rarely sit as still as posters do. I’ve spent the last two days photographing the boot camp and trying to record interviews with participants. I’m now wishing I’d taken a crash course in doing public affairs on a shoestring! It was also interesting watching everyone wear headphones to understand the translation between French and English. I’m glad we picked a Francophone country; the U.S. tends to mostly focus on former British colonies to avoid a language barrier.

The event has had more participation than we dreamed with over 150 entrepreneurs on the first day. Our local partner is amazing, and there is such energy and appreciation of the program. Our local and U.S. mentors are hailed as marvelous. Perhaps because of jetlag, the only time I’ve been really animated beyond talking with participants has been when I’ve discussed ideas with our partner on how to change the format from lectures to an interactive format. Yes, I really am a teacher at heart.

Still, one of the best things as we shuffle around rooms and try to remember things is that we can hear the ocean crash against the rocks below from just about everywhere at the hotel if doors are open. The weather is much cooler than it was in D.C. last week and the change is welcome. However, the rooms aren’t really air conditioned, so our formal American business attire has been stifling. Jeff and I will start out with blazers that are quickly set aside by late morning.

At the closing of our event, each of the U.S. mentors spoke and said the same thing. They had decided to come to Senegal because they had never been before and wanted to see what was happening here although they didn’t expect much. Then they talked about how impressed they were with everyone’s startups and ideas and the level of advancement that was already here. While I understood where these men were coming from, I internally cringed at the language. I’m so grateful they had had a transformative experience but their ignorance didn’t necessarily need to be shared with all participants. To my ears it sounded degrading, but then, I was the only American who had traveled to Africa before. I had seen amazing local projects in Zimbabwe and Ghana. I had read books and articles about Africa; I knew the people were strong and resilient and inventive: you couldn’t survive here otherwise.

Which lead me to my own internal struggle with my I wasn’t feeling better about being back in Africa. Yes the airport wasn’t air conditioned and wasn’t as high tech as you’d expect in the Middle East or U.S. Still, that had never bothered me on my other trips. Was I still just tried from the five day loss of electricity fiasco last week in Arlington? Then I realized that every time I had been to Africa, I had been during that country’s winter. Apparently all my acclimation to the heat during my year in Israel has finally worn off completely. Then again, I expect Algiers to be quite toasty but welcoming without the humidity of D.C. or Dakar.

This line of thinking leads me back to what I thought during the Arlington power outage last week: that we have gotten very weak indeed. We can’t stand much fluctuation of temperature; we must have dehumidifiers, central heating and air conditioning, WiFi 24/7, and jobs that require only moving our fingers over keyboards for eight hours. Coming from someone with terrible allergies, it may sound ironic, but I think it has value.

I’m also reading The Blue Sweater, about an American who goes to Africa to work on microfinancing for women. It’s well worth reading.

 

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Brussels

Today I finally did another travel trick I’ve been dying to try: leaving the airport for the city during a long layover. I had a seven hour layover in Brussels, and I reasoned that it was ridiculous to spend all that time in an airport, especially with a layover during daylight hours. I went through customs, left my bag at the left luggage lockers on Level 0, and bought a train ticket to Brussels Central station. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the sheer cost of this adventure. In the end, it cost the same for each one way train ticket as it did to store my bag: 7€50. Still, when was I going to have the chance to explore Brussels again?

I forgot to ask for a map when I went to information. I met a nice family from Toronto while I was waiting for the train. I shared my “To Do” list and they let me look at their map. However, once I got to the station and turned in the direction of the cathedral, I allowed myself to get lost. I marveled at a cathedral whose stain glass reflected more kings getting crowned than stories in the Bible. I wandered trying to follow the signs to the Grand Place and ended up along the St. Hubert shopping center with its luxuriously overpriced goods. I wandered into the square housing the beautiful theater building and tried to re-steer myself in the direction fo the Grand Place. Then somehow in looking for an ATM (because I had almost no money left), I managed to get to the St. Catherine area of downtown with its gorgeous Fontaine Anspach and the Eglise du Beguinage. I did manage to follow the signs to the Stock Exchange building, next to the St. Nicholas church. From there I walked into a chocolate store called Elizabeth before walking up just a bit further to the stunning Grand Place. I hadn’t had time to look at photos of Brussels, but I knew that finally I had found the right place. It was a large square where every surrounding building had great detail stone sculpturing and gilded highlights. Even under a grey sky, the place seemed magical.

I sat at a café sipping a warming cup of tea and taking in the atmosphere. There was a small shop selling the famous, detailed Brussels lace. Another several were selling Belgium chocolate. I learned that the very popular snack is in fact the Belgium waffle, which you can get for 1€ with chocolate syrup at a corner stand or for more at any of the restaurants. There are even “butter waffles” which are more like shortbread cookies in a waffle mold available at the specialty stores. I lamented that it was too early for anyone to serve fries, which were created in Belgium, and thought of my friends who would no doubt have loved to sample the Belgium beers.

As I stood up, I realized it was time to head back to the train station. Without issue, I boarded a train, collected my bags at the station, and easily made my flight. Sitting down for another six hour flight, I was suddenly glad that I’d been unable to make the direct flight to Dakar.

 

 

 

Dakar

When I arrived on Monday night, I was picked up at the airport as planned and arrived at the Hotel Sokhamon, which has a very nice African feel while still being a very high quality hotel. Even in the dark, I could tell we were right on the water; the waves crashed against rocks and a cool breeze never stopped coming onto the shore.

I dashed off a line to say I’d arrived to family before heading out to meet the team for dinner at Lagon 1, which is right on the water with excellent food and ambiance. The team of organizers and mentors for the West Africa GIST boot camp were just starting to eat dinner when I arrived. Our table was outside on the dock and as we ate chicken kebabs, we could hear and see the waves crashing below us.

Already I’m using my French, and I’ve realized I’m no longer shy about saying things incorrectly. The only frustration is reaching for words to discover I’d forgotten them. After the Middle East, it’s so thrilling to be able to communicate my needs and basic ideas.

The overnight boat somehow did not agree with me, likely it was the sheer lack of sleep I endured, which meant that once I landed in Piraeus the original plan of chucking my luggage in the lockers and spending the day in Hydra had lost its appeal. Or at least it did when I found out the roundtrip ticket was 50€. I would have liked to think that now that I had a real job and a real salary, I would be less concerned with money than I had been when traveling with Ceci in 2004. This did not prove to be the case. After almost a week of paying for hotels rooms and real meals, I was just tired of how little it seemed I could get for the awing cost of 50€.

Instead, noting my extreme exhaustion, I headed into the heart of Athens, figuring that after checking out the Acropolis at some point during the day, I would be able to enjoy Hydra tomorrow, my last day in Greece. Alighting from the Acropolis metro stop, I endured my first real disappointment with my adventure of not booking ahead: the desired Hotel Phaedra was full. I didn’t have an alternative having heard from my Taiwanese friend that the hostel I had written down was also full. I wandered around the neighborhood for a bit before locating Hotel Byron—old, slightly rundown, but relatively clean. My room even had a view of the Acropolis…if you kinda turned a bit while looking out the window.

After a morning snooze, I walked just a few blocks to the Acropolis. I walked in the hot sun around the site while listening to the Rick Steve’s guide I’d downloaded on my eReader before leaving the States. The marble was quite slick in places, and I held my breath a bit when seeing an older woman struggling to manage with her cane. Perhaps more stunning for me than the Parthenon’s ruins was the view of the city. I knew 1/3 of all Greeks lived in Athens, but somehow I had not expected it to stretch almost as far as the eye could see in every direction. The architectural style of the homes reminded me of Haifa, except with a few more red tile roofs. In the distance I could see the Aegean Sea and hazy blue mountains that reminded me of home.

The Acropolis itself was impressive, and I spent a good hour at the site. Unfortunately, being off season I stayed too long—at 2:30 all the other sites, like the Agora, had closed. When I left the Acropolis at three, there was nowhere else to go. Sitting on some rocks, I agreed to take an Aussie’s photo; the woman was close to my mother’s age. We parted ways only to find each other about five minutes later down the road. We got to talking and ended up spending the rest of the day together.

Turns out she’s Greek, and she had a firm idea that she wanted to drink a cup of coffee while gazing up at the Acropolis. It sounded like an easy enough task, but trying to find the viewpoint took us all over town. In the meantime, we bought fresh cherries and strawberries from street vendors, then fresh bread, and had a little picnic on a random table in the middle of a street. We were kicked out by its owner, a tobacconist, who apparently had set it up for hookah, and he finally got a customer. Eventually, we did find the perfect outdoor café, but first we stumbled upon lots of gated areas with ruins in the middle of neighborhoods and upon all types of neighborhoods too.

Her flight was in the morning, and so I made my way back to the hotel alone. On the way, I saw a cute little taverna with live music. Realizing it was only two blocks from my hotel, I rushed home, dumped my bag, changed into something nice, and returned to treat myself to local music and good Greek food. The bouzouki is a Greek instrument and resembles a banjo in style and heritage but is much more elegant. I loved gazing up at the Acropolis as the sun went down, eating my food and losing myself in the local music. As the night was closing for me, I decided to ask the American couple near me if they would like the rest of my spicy cheese dip. It was good but too rich for one person to finish. The three of us got to talking and the husband, it turns out had been here the night before singing with the guitar and bouzouki. Sure enough his friends called him to play soon afterwards. When he started on a folk song, I went up and joined in. We sang bluegrass and Elvis and rock with the Greeks and everyone loved it. I stayed much longer than I’d planned. It was a magical night.

The next day, I was eating breakfast and debating if I wanted to try out Hydra even though I’d slept in till about 9. However, an invitation from a nice guy who was checking out of the hotel was all I needed to decide that the National Archeological Museum deserved my attention more than another island. We talked so much about tangential things, it took over an hour for us to make it down one hallway. Forty minutes later, we’d managed to conquer another one. Finally, looking at my watch, I realized if I wanted to get the Agora, I needed to book it through the rest of the museum, and that’s what I did. When I arrived at the Agora, I had just about half an hour to look around before we were all herded out. I managed a trip to the national gardens where I learned that the fastest way to get hit on my middle-aged Greek men is to sit on a bench and try to read a book. That evening found me back at the taverna, singing with the band I had met the night before.

Considering how much everyone said I wouldn’t like Athens, I was surprised to realize I had been happy spending two days there.  The neighborhood I explored, the Plaka, was delightful in shops, people, and architecture. As I boarded the plane to go home, I rather wished I didn’t have to return so soon.