Monday, October 12, 2009
I'm handwriting the first draft of this entry sitting outside of our house to the tune of the radio (maana, maana!), Catholics singing hymns next door and one of the biggest games of the football season happening at the stadium across from us. My host family is fluttering around me, moving mattresses and bedding outside to prepare for sleep and avoid the heat of the house, stopping occasionally to attempt to decode these English scribbles over my shoulder. It has been a long time since I've updated: life has been busy with road trips, school work and long walks around every corner of the city. I have had many adventures and many average days performing my all-too-easily made routine. I'll try to recap as best I can.
Two weekends ago, I went with a big group of Toubabs to the Lac Rose, Senegal's premiere tourist attraction: a pink lake about an hour outside of the city. We hired cabs for the day (a flat rate of just 20 CFA or about $40) and went out in a big caravan. To our disappointment, the lake wasn't pink at all! Apparently, it was too soon after l'hivernage (the rainy season that ended in September) for the lake to turn pink. Either way, it was nice to get out of the city. We still got to see the piles of salt they're extracting, take a nice walk along the shore, swim and float on the water, and some students even rode camels over the makeshift sand dunes.
The day before, my host family invited Morgane (the fellow exchange student that lives next door) and his hostbrother to have lunch with our family. My family prepared his favourite--this delicious Senegalese vermicelli with dates and raisins--and then we sat around for the rest of the day eating multiple desserts, drinking atayelle (the traditional super sweet mint green tea) and bissab juice. It was both delicious and painful. Luckily, that afternoon we played some basketball at a neighborhood court and went dancing in the night. It was my first time really going to a club and it was fun, although not my favourite thing. The club felt a little mafia-front esque with a lot of guys in suits and weird light up fuzzy wall paper on the walls, but the air-conditioning made the cover more than worth it.
The day before that, on Friday, I had a day literally worthy of the Amazing Race game show. I had received a package to pick up at the main post and decided to head down there after class, not at all knowing where it was or how to get there, but figuring I could just ask for directions along the way. As it turns out, I was doomed from the start: I miscommunicated with the first person that gave me directions and took the wrong bus. Not realizing it, I kept asking the bus driver to tell me when we reached a stop that wasn’t even on the line. He was really nice though and gave me a list of buses I could take to get there. I, however, disregarded them, because I wanted to walk. My trek then turned into me asking dozens of people. No one knew though, so in turn kept giving me directions to places/ people they thought would know. In an hour, I visited the British embassy, Ministre de L’interior, National Assembly, Musee de Dakar, and was led through the streets by a crippled man, only to find out I had been led to the wrong place: la poste financiere. Someone there offered to give me a ride (don’t worry—I wouldn’t have taken it), but was then informed that, because it was a Friday afternoon, the poste had closed at 1 in the afternoon. Given that it was 4:40, we were a bit too late.
It was probably one of my favorite days here so far though. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the Centre Ville. I happened across a beautiful cathedral, its fence lined with women selling Virgin Mary pendants, passed an international school with children of every colour dotting its sidewalk, French gliding off their tongues and totally oblivious to their differences. I even went to the Marche Sandaga (the biggest market in the city) and managed to not be harassed by over eager merchants. Now, you’ll be happy to know, I got my package. On Monday, I set out with a map and walked for about an hour, too stubborn to take a taxi or bus, through one of the liveliest neighborhoods of Dakar I’ve seen so far, the Medina. The sidewalks were crammed with vendors to the point that you had to walk in the streets and every intersection had a memorial for something or statue of someone chipped and missing limbs, a reminder of colonialism. It is also the neighborhood with the Grande Mosquee, an absolutely beautiful green and white mosque that takes up a block.
The weekend prior, I went on my mid-class phase field trip to Toubacouta with the other students in the program. Toubacouta is a small village very close to the Gambian border, so about 9 hours from Dakar. We set out on the unpaved roads in two buses, passing through many of the cities and towns where many of the people in the program will complete their internships. In Toubacouta we stayed at this nice eco-tourism hotel made up of thatched-roof huts, with monkeys climbing in the trees around the hotel and a POOL! We spent the five days we were there traveling around the area, visiting women’s microfinance groups, government officials, a public radio station, local health clinics, and listening to presentations about the environmental problems of the area. We planted mangroves, having to walk through mud up to our knees or higher. We visited a local village in the night and saw a dance and listened to traditional drumming in our honor. It was a great trip and so nice to get out of Dakar and learn that there is so much more to Senegal than the make-up of Dakar.
Oh, I also visited the Gambia!!
Well, considering it’s taken me so long to post this, another weekend has come and gone. I will post more when I have more time and access to the net. Take care!
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
It is a Tuesday afternoon, my first and only day of class this week and the third day of a new moon, an occasion that usually passes without acknowledgement, but that carries special importance this particular time. Sunday was the Muslim holiday Korité, which marked the end of Ramadan. Korité always follows the sighting of a new moon, which was Saturday night. There was a lot of controversy over whether the moon was sighted or not, but most families went ahead and celebrated on Sunday, more than ready for fasting to be through. We students were just as eager, having heard about what an occasion la fete de Korité is and eager to see how city life changes when people aren’t fasting.
Sunday morning, the day of the party, started with a breakfast of Laax (sp?). It is hard to explain exactly what this is and it has been known to make many a Toubab sick, but is pretty much a grain porridge with a curdled milk sauce and sugar mixed in. Yummy! It was also the first time here I got to eat with my host family before sunset. After a big breakfast, I helped cook our lunchtime feast. I spent the morning peeling potatoes and onions, after undergoing a long tutorial from my host aunt about the correct way to peel a potato. I also learned why all the women here are so buff—they prepare all of their spice and garlic mixtures by mashing them by hand in these giant pots, pounding and pounding with all of their upper-body strength. Throughout the morning, men also stopped by to visit the family after having gone to the mosque, because it is a very family-oriented holiday. They would stop in, shake hands and say “Baal ma aq” (forgive me my sins), to which we replied “Baal naa la” (I forgive them). I then changed into my Korité outfit, which was met with a lot of oohing and ahing—everyone here loves, loves, loves when you wear a local outfit. It’s became a great way to boost your self-confidence for all of the students here. We ate lunch—pommes frites, chicken and a cucumber tomato salad—a pretty typical Korité dish and then drank the traditional sweet dark tea served in rounds and went around the neighborhood, because the afternoon was the time for the women to visit family and friends. My host sister and I visited the other exchange student and his family and also the closest siblings of my host mom. When we got to our family’s house, my host mom’s older sister showed me a picture of her mother, my Senegalese namesake, and gave me these beautiful silver bracelets as a sign of her respect for me. It was such a nice moment.
The holiday was relaxing and so much like holidays I celebrate with my own family because of that. I certainly learned a lot this weekend about the importance of family, tradition and hospitality central to Senegalese culture. It was a weekend that involved me having no idea of what the right thing to do at any given moment was, but feeling comforted by how welcoming everyone was, nonetheless. A few days ago, the host father of one of the exchange students passed away. On Saturday, a large group of us gathered to go visit the family and pay our respects. Culturally, it was interesting to observe how people respond to death here: communally (women and men gathered in separate rooms, sitting close together and spending hours on end talking), conservatively (the amount of clothing seemed to matter more than the colour) and, once again, in a very hospitable way, which was what surprised me most. Those that were grieving the most were also the ones playing host, inviting us to return to a dinner they were preparing and passing out sugar and millet balls as a sign of thank you for coming. Personally, visiting the family was an emotional experience and left me reminded of so many of the cultural gaps that exist between me and my own family, how I would not know how to behave or what to expect if I was in Eritrea. Here, however, I always have the excuse of being an exchange student, whereas I am Eritrean and not knowing the many facets of this identity is starting to feel more and more like a betrayal to the cultural I carry.
Monday, I woke up early and went on a walk/run to a neighborhood I hadn’t been to yet, the HLM. Coincidentally, I was there at the time the men (Mourides, who believed the rightful day for Korite was the day after my family and most families celebrated) were beginning to gather at mosques to welcome in their new year. I turned a corner to find nearly a hundred men sitting on their rugs, outside of a mosque. When I looked up, I was greeted with a stream of men and boys dressed in their long robes and neatly pressed pants walking to the mosque, boys carrying mats twice their size across their shoulders and men turning prayer beads in their palms. It was one of the most incredible images I have seen here yet and it completely caught me off-guard—how something so serene and spiritual could be happening on the trash-lined streets made dusty by cars and buses whishing by. For the rest of the walk home, I was thinking about how traveling always leaves me feeling very conscious of how large the world is and how so many things are happening completely separate of each other, but simultaneously. I imagined myself in this place I never dreamed of ever visiting—a back road in a random neighborhood in Dakar, a microcosm on a giant map of a continent whose many intricacies will probably always remain a mystery to me. Somehow, I ended up here, painfully aware of everything I gave up to come and everything I’m gaining by staying, on the Western most tip of a continent accidently drawn in the center of the world: in Africa.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
I’m sorry that I’m not good at this whole constant updating thing. It’s not that internet is that scarce, but rather that there is a long process of coming to terms with everything here—needing to figure it out for myself before I write it for the world. This process, however, is nowhere near through, but I decided it was about time I sat down to share a little of what I’ve been through these past two weeks.
I’m now in my second week of school, enjoying a light load relative to Macalester. I have four classes—International Development Theory, Country Analysis (including a French language component), Public Health and Social Services, and Wolof. The classes are good, but are scheduled for large chunks of time, which leaves random mornings/afternoons/evenings free. So far, I am enjoying my Wolof class immensely. I didn’t think I would be so interested in learning this language, but it is a fascinating language and contradicts so many facets of language we take to be self-evident coming from a Latin based language background. For example, in Wolof, you don’t conjugate the verb; you conjugate the pronoun for different tenses. They also don’t have adjectives, but rather verbs to describe states of being. Also, it’s really interesting to learn about the influences Senegal has undergone. Like how with technology-terms, most languages share the same word: radio, computer, internet…But in Wolof, even the word “table” was borrowed from French: taabal. Being here has also made improving my French seem like a smaller priority while here: it really isn’t the language of the country, the people or the cultures. So for now, Wolof is where the heart is.
I found out where my internship for the second portion of the semester will be. I will be living in Touba, which is the holiest city in the country and the home to the largest Senegalese Muslim brotherhood, the Mourides. You should google it; because it is a beautiful city from what I can see. I’ll be working with an organization called ASCODE. I don’t know much about what they do yet, but do know that they help refugees abroad in addition to helping to build infrastructure in communities here. I’m really excited to see what it’s like and among all of the students here, there is definitely excitement building about what it will be like to be really immersed in Senegalese culture, away from the other American students, our air-conditioned classrooms and internet access.
Aside from school, I had a very exciting past weekend. On Saturday, I went to the centre-ville with a few friends to visit the largest market in the city. We spent the day wondering around the city feeling totally overwhelmed by all of the vendors shoving things in our faces and trying to guilt us into buying their products. We also visited the oldest market left over from colonial times, where they sold fish, vegetables and Asian foods. It’s strange, but there is actually a large Chinese population here and their foods seem to be integrated into household meals here. After hours of walking, we went to the most beautiful cove on the edge of downtown. Aside from the really dirty water, it was picturesque: canoes lining the shore, kids jumping off of a boulder in the water, women preparing food in front of their houses overlooking the water. It was a good end to the day and then my host family had Indian food for dinner and watched the Indian soap operas that are popular here, which was an even better end to the day.
On Sunday, I visited my host sister’s sister with her. She lives in Grand Dakar, which is the neighborhood bordering my own, but is a neighborhood that has a completely different feel. The streets are unpaved, every woman is carrying baskets on her head and the streets are filled with music streaming in from doorways covered by only a sheet. I felt a little like a kid sitting in on an adult conversation about taxes; only understanding a Wolof word here and there. Then, later that afternoon, I went back with my friend on a three hour walk that uncovered 5 or 6 neighborhoods of the city. We sat in on a church service and passed others as it was a Sunday afternoon, passed what looked like a Chinese mansion, watched basketball and football games…It was a day of discovery and seeing the city from another perspective, one that has existed under my nose for two weeks now.
This morning, Melinda and I went to a market by my house and to a tailor to pick up a dress I had made and drop off fabric she got to have an outfit made. It was a fun experience and the first time I really maneuvered the city on my own, trying to get from one exact location to the next without a local person with me. We managed to meet up in a location we hadn’t been to before, go to a market (any only get called Toubab (white person) by a few kids), find the tailor and the way back to my home with no problems. The whole time, I couldn’t help but think about how just two weeks ago I didn’t imagine ever being able to remember the route to and from school, not to mention how to get around multiple neighborhoods in my vicinity. I still have a long way to go before understanding this city and country, but petit a petit—little by little.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
I have certainly gained much more out of my week here than the relative comfort I gave up. I will start from the beginning: After arriving in Dakar on Monday morning (at 6 am!), we spent the day (my birthday!) kicking off orientation. The students that had just arrived met up with those that had been here for the month long pre-session. We ate Senegalese food for the first time, danced, talked and got a quick introduction to what to expect in the coming week. The day felt like a few days in one, what with jetlag and sensory overload.
The next day, we moved in with our host families. I was kind of shocked that it was happening so fast, but now I am very thankful to have jumped right in. My host family is composed of a 75-year-old woman who doesn’t look a day over forty (I hope I can age like the Senegalese!). She is a very calm woman, asks you “ca va?” every other sentence and always matches her sunglasses to her scarves, which also match her dresses perfectly. We don’t have the easiest time understanding each other, but we are slowly getting to know one another. I also have a “Tata” (aunt) who works a lot, but whom I see most evenings. Her grandchild is staying with us for a few weeks and he is seriously the most adorable kid I’ve ever seen. He’s four ¼ and considering his age and the fact that neither of us speaks the other’s language, we talk in funny faces and lots of stuck out tongues. My host mom’s brother also lives with us, but he is very sick and stays in his room all the time, so I haven’t really talked with him yet. I would really like to make more of an effort to get to know him, but I don’t know how to go about it. Also, in Senegalese culture, most families have a girl living with them whose job it is to take care of the house and cook, but who also becomes integrated into the family. The girl that lives with my family has been working here for 18 years (she came when she was 11). It’s insane, but taking girls out of villages to support their families at a young age seems to be one of the solutions to rural poverty people have found here.
My family lives in the Liberte 2 neighborhood, which is about a 45 minute walk from school and about the median distance from school as far as where the other students live. Our house is very nice and I have my own room and bathroom (which is quite the luxury I am learning). So far, my daily routine includes being woken up by my host mother who yells my Senegalese name, Maymuna, throughout the house until I yell back loudly enough, eating a breakfast of baguette and tea, then walking to school with another exchange student who lives less than a block from me. Together, we navigate the busy streets, cracked sidewalks and piles of sand, dodge cars (honestly, I will probably get hit before I leave this country), pass the dozens of children begging on the streets and usually run into a few other Americans doing the same thing on their way to school. Last week we had orientation, which was conducted in a very Senegalese way—slowly, very confusing and with a lot of time to relax in between sessions. We took a trip out of the city to Goree Island, which was the largest port for the slave trade. It was a very emotional experience to see the reality of what we had only read about in history textbooks. On this trip, we also visited the women’s history museum and the beach! Our other excursion was a tour of the city, stopping at the most significant sites, like the Presidential Palace, the largest bronze sculpture in the world that is currently being constructed, the most Western point of Africa, the Mosquee de la Divinite and the downtown market, among other sites. Other than these two trips, we spent a lot of time at WARC, which is our host institution.
In the evening I will walk back home in time to break the fast with my family. They are observing Ramadan and the tradition is to drink a sweet beverage and eat a little bread at exactly sunset. After this, they pray and we eat dinner. Dinner is always delicious and always eaten with our hands. There is a real technique to it that involves balling the rice in your palm and scooting into your mouth. I have quite mastered it yet, so they make me eat with a huge napkin over my lap. One day though, I will be good enough at it to teach you all, inshallah!
Well, there are endless things to write, but also a long time to do so. I’m starting to feel guilty for the procrastination, so until next time…
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
On Sunday I leave for Senegal. I am already dreading the rude alarm clock awakening for my 6 a.m. flight, but I am both excited and curious for my semester in Senegal. To give you all a glimpse of my upcoming year, here is a rough itinerary (to be detailed after the fact):
August 30 to Mid-October: I will be in Dakar (Senegal's capitol), taking classes in French about development, Senegal and the Wolof language. I will live with a host family and study with the thirty-some other MSID (Minnesota Studies in International Development) students.
Mid-October to early December: I move to a rural location in Senegal, where I will spend six weeks completing an internship with a local non-profit. I will live with another host family and will be apart from the other students.
Early December to December 11: Our final week of the program is spent back in Dakar, where we write a paper and wrap up the program.
December 13 to January 2: I will have a real Parisian adventure! Melinda and I are spending about a week in Paris, seeing how our African French holds up. Then, I will head to Germany (I'm so happy to be going back!), where I will spend Christmas with some family friends.
January 2 to June 6: My semester as part of the Macalester Program in Globalization from a Comparative Perspective begins with a month long seminar led by Macalester faculty and staff, during which we will visit the Hague, Brussels and Amsterdam (!!!). Then, I will take classes at the University of Maastricht, live in international student dorms with the other participants (there are six of us together) and work on a big research paper I will have started researching in Senegal.
There is an Arabic word that should follow all of this: Inshallah, or hopefully, God-willing. Until my ultimate road trip of sorts begins, I have a lot to fit in. From the State Fair and visits to my favorite neighborhoods to sharing food with good friends and family to saying good-byes to people and places I only just said hello to, I will try to make the most of my last few days in this city. You probably won't hear from me until I have touched down in Senegal. Like in Tunisia, I will try to post as regularly as I can, but I have no idea what that will mean for this trip.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
--Five times a day, I hear the call to prayer—a lulling Muslim prayer sung through a raspy intercom. It echoes throughout Tunisian towns and from my house (where I can see ten mosques from the roof), I hear the prayer loudly and with words easily defined. From school in Sidi Bou Said, however, the prayer is distant and easily mistaken for slight hum of a radio.
--Greetings in Tunisian dialect are very simple: just like the French say Ca vas?, which is both a question and a reply, the Tunisians say La bess? However, these two little words can often lead to a cycle of repeating the phrase over and over again, because Tunisian dialect loves to use repetition, leaving you unaware of whether your question has been answered or if you’ve been asked. This confusion will lead me to keep repeating the phrase and by the end of an interaction, La bess has probably been said 10 times by each of us.
And now, it's into the final week. For the rest of our studies, we will not be learning any new material, but rather reviewing. We've completed 15 chapters of my thickest textbook to date in a program that has covered what some colleges consider two year of Arabic instruction. Needless to say, I'm exhausted, but will still try to savour this last week to the best of my ability.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
This has been an eventful week filled with a lot of cultural excursions in the Tunis area. As for the wedding I mentioned in my last post, I ended up attending two of the wedding ceremonies. In Tunisia, weddings are multiple day long parties that include a separate party for both the bride and groom, a party for the signing of the contract, multiple dinners with the entire family and, finally, the actual wedding party. On Sunday night (as in 2 Sundays ago now), I attended the party for the groom a couple of blocks from my house. Practically the entire bunch of us Americans were there as everyone in al Marsa knows each other and they all go to about twenty weddings a week in the summer. The party was mostly just sitting and listening to music blare, but the really neat part was when the groom debuted. He came out appearing frail and unable to walk with his entire family behind him. This was to symbolize the support of the family. The procession walked this way from his home to the party with red and green flags (the colors of weddings) waving and everyone chanting and drumming. Once at the party, the groom got a dot of henna applied to his pinky and everyone gathered around him to give him money and good wishes.
On Tuesday, I attended the actual wedding party. It was pretty similar in that everyone sat and listened to music, except it was held in an ornate wedding hall rather than outside. The bride was also present (of course) and she wore the most elaborately beautiful dress. The two of them sat in thrones in the front of the audience while a cameraman filmed close-ups of them relentlessly that were channeled to a big screen TV in the front of the room. Weddings here follow a complicated traditional process of dancing at certain times, sitting at others, watching the bride dance then the groom, dancing with the couple...I didn't quite get the hang of it, so I just danced, sat and stood awkwardly wondering if I was doing the right thing at the right time, but it was a fun experience.
Thursday, all of the women in the group went to a hammam, which is a Turkish bath. Two of the girls in the program are getting married shortly after we return to the U.S., so this was like a bridal shower for them, because it is customary for women to gather in hammams to begin the wedding ceremony. We entered the hammam banging barbuka drums and singing and, once inside, we lit candles and danced before going into the actual baths. The baths were much different than what I had expected—they were slabs of tile that you could sit on in three different rooms of varying heat. In the central room, you could pay a woman to scrub you down or to get a full body mask or massage. It sounds weird, I know, but in the context of the hammam, it was all very normal. We spent hours in there and then left the baths to have another celebration in the foyer. The two brides-to-be got henna applied and wore some of the traditional wedding accessories, like ornate metal shoes and special gloves while the henna dried.
On Friday we had our weekly test and afterwards I was in need of some major non-Arabic time. So, I had a night out with the girls--very classic summer, but with a Tunisian twist. We “did Bousalsla,” which is the street that most of us live on or off of and it gets kind of hopping on a Friday night. We went to a cafe for pizza and the pizza cost 1 dinar (about 75 cents) for each person to get their own small pizza! Then we went back to one of the girls in the program's house with the intention of baking a cake, except her host family wasn't there and we couldn't figure out how to light the oven. So instead of baking a cake, we fried a cake! Considering that Tunisian cooking has everything slathered in oil, it was very traditional of us--cake pancakes are actually good!
After I got home late that night, I had the most epic conversation with my hostfather about the Congo, his home country. He told me all about the history, the culture, the languages, etc of the country. What was so funny to me was that our entire conversation seemed like a dialogue taken from my French 204 book--using vocab about immigration and assimilation, languages, and foreign aid/globalization and development. At the time we were learning that in school, it seemed useless to know the word for "indigenous language" before I felt truly comfortable holding a basic conversation. What I've learned, however, is that the in-between vocab and comfort starts to come naturally and I'm actually really thankful that we spent so much time learning what felt like impractical vocab. Now, I just hope that my Arabic vocabulary will come in just as handy (although I have a little less hope for our vocab words like humidity and overcrowdedness).
After the talent show and lunch in Dougga, we headed deeper into the Northwest to what is arguably my favorite town in Tunisia, Ain Draham. It is the cutest village nestled in the woods and it reminded me very much of the parts of East Germany known for their woodwork, because the big attraction of the town was its fine woodwork made from olive trees. We only had a short stop here and I think everyone was sad to move on, but it was an especially interesting because the director of our program is from there and she had a lot to tell us about the area, including showing us her old madrasa. This is also the area whose main export is cork. Driving through the forest, we saw tons of trees with the bark half scraped off and we passed the world’s largest cork manufacturing factory—another world’s largest I can cross off my list!
That night, we stayed in Tabarka at a 5 star hotel that definitely deserved the rating. We had a beach front view and could literally throw a stone into the sea from our balcony! The evening was nothing short of relaxing—a delicious buffet dinner and late night chatting with some friends over platefuls of desert. I then spent the morning at the beach. After lunch we began the journey back to Tunis with stops along the way. We passed a town known for its high number of storks and they really were everywhere—nests covering the roofs of houses, flying in swarms over our heads. Apparently in Tunisia storks do not bring children, but rather the Tunisian fable is about an owl that takes children away. Our final stop was Bizerte, often called the “Venice of Tunisia.” It is a town sitting on a channel filled with boats. We were there for the sunset and it was a really nice way to end the mini vacation.
This finally brings me to a more recent time. The theme of this week at school is music. On Monday, a very famous group of classical Tunisian musicians performed for us at our school. The music was absolutely incredible and they played a lot of covers and I was surprised to recognize so many of the songs. Then, yesterday, I attended the International Carthage Music Festival with the program and heard the Moroccan and Tunisian symphony perform. The Carthage Festival is a huge deal and brings people from across the country and the world and it is held in the ancient theatre I saw two weekends ago. They have a very eclectic bunch of performers from Bollywood to orchestras to Tunisian, American and French pop singers. The symphony last night was interesting because it was a classical orchestra, but included traditional North African drumming.
Now, it is bed time for me. To make up for the concert going so late last night (until 12:30) we only had three hours of class today. But tomorrow, it’s back to the gritty 4 hours, so I need my beauty sleep.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
After a picnic in the park overlooking governmental buildings to one side and the souks to the other, we headed back to al Marsa exhausted and dehydrated. I did, however, discover that there is a bus to and From downtown Tunis that stops less than a block from my house. Score! After a much needed shower, I then spent the afternoon at a friend's house, eating fresh almonds and Mars bars that his host mom gave us--we thought it was random, too. That night, we went down to the al Marsa beach and hung out under the stars, amongst the craziness that is al Marsa on a Saturday night. After 1 in the morning, there were still whole families complete with young children out and about. But it was nice to know that we're living in such a bustling place full of life--who needs Tunis when you have al Marsa?!
Today, after my sorry attempt at doing homework in the morning, I went to Carthage. It is a place I didn't know a lot about before visiting (or after visiting due to a lack of signage anywhere--I think I was in Carthage, anyway), but I did know that it was a must-see. I wondered the city for about four hours with a friend. The ruins are scattered around the city and you pay for a pass to access them all. Of course, it is impossible to see it all in one day, but we managed to visit four sites--the museum, the Roman baths, the theatre, and the old villas. Seeing only the crumbling dust-colored ruins of the town, it was hard to imagine a whole different world existed on the same soil. I was lucky enough to be with an archeologist (this program really brings such a sprinkling of people together) who had really interesting things to say about the tombs we were able to see and the artifacts they had excavated. We also accidently walked past the president's palace and had some scary experiences with the guards there, their guns flopping in every direction.
And now, I'm back at home with my family, already nostalgic about the great weekend and looking forward to more adventures (...I think I'm going to my first Tunisian wedding tomorrow!).
Thursday, July 2, 2009
e very top of the tree barefoot and without protection to collect the fruit. Impressive. He made it look so easy that some of the Americans tried. Needless to say, their attempts did not turn out as smoothly.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Following the Great Mosque, we went to a smaller Berbere mosque. You can notice how beautiful the tiles of the mosque were. But once we entered the courtyard, I looked through an open window of the prayer room and saw a little boy being circumsized right in the open. Then, he walked out with his father and all of the Tunisians on the trip wished him Mabrook! (Congratulations) and the father preceeded to lift the little boy's gown and show us all. I have to say, I think that was the first time I've experienced such blunt culture shock.
We then had lunch in Kairouan and went on a tour of the Medina. We learned about this great custom Tunisians have, where you can just walk into a pastry shop and stick your hand into the plates of cookies and sample anything you want--my kind of country! We also passed some incredible shops selling traditional pottery, rugs and shelves and shelves of spices, including harissa, a spicy powder Tunisians put in everything they cook. I'm starting to get tired of it now, but I'm sure I'll miss it when I'm back in the US.
After another 3 hour bus ride away from the "Key to the South," we found ourselves in Tozeur. We had a free evening to relax, swim, eat a huge buffet dinner and, of course, shop! I spent the evening walking the main road with some friends, making friends with the different shop keepers and getting mistaken for Italian tourists.
I'm going to stop here, because I'm at school and we're about to have a lecture on Women and Gender in Tunisia. I'll finish the post later, but as you can already tell--we did a lot! So far, I've only mentioned the details of one day, but by the end of the trip we'd visted 14 of Tunisia's 24 states. Needless to say, today has been a long day at school!
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Saturday, June 20, 2009
As for the day of discovery: After the test, I walked up the hill in Sidi Bou Said to grab some gelato with some friends (you may be sensing a common theme by now—my love of gelato). The walk up uncovered a whole side of Sidi Bou that I had never seen before. The cobble stone street was lined with all sorts of vendors selling jewelry, clothing, post cards, pottery and everything else you would want for your home. It was clearly the touristy area of the city and the reason why so many tourists come to Sidi Bou--it was absolutely picturesque. Apparently there is also a great view overlooking the Mediterranean a little farther up the hill, so I'll have to explore more (and bring my camera). After that, we had a film night at the Center and watched this truly bizarre Tunisian film about a boy coming of age, called Halfouine. It was interesting because, although the bare plot was the same as other American films of its kind, it was intertwined with a lot of cultural significance. For instance, the boy's brother's circumcision was the main event of the film, about half of the setting was a Turkish bath and it was a twist on a Tunisian myth (which will make a great ghost story the next time I go camping).
After the film, I discovered another side of Sidi Bou that stands in stark contrast to the side I mentioned above. We went to the lac, which is an area near the aeroport that used to be a lake until it was cleared and commercialized by the city. The main road through the area was the closest thing I've seen to a highway in Tunisia so far and it was surrounded by an amusement park and hundreds of neon signs. We also found a Chinese restaurant and all sorts of other cuisines you wouldn't expect to see here. We ate leblebi, which is a traditional Tunisian dish of chickpeas and spices and eaten with bread. It is delicious! Afterwards, we had tea in a cafe sitting on what remains of the lake. We only managed to find the area because we were with three of the young Arabic teachers. Although it was all very commercial, it didn't seem like an area that many tourists frequent. The night was just what I needed though! It was a time to forget about being a student and homework--it felt like summer!
Come to think of it, I've spent most of my evenings this week in new places (which, I suppose, isn't that hard to do here). On Thursday, we had our weekly language socialization class and went in groups of four to a market in La Goulette, about 20 minutes from Sidi Bou. We went to this particular market because it is one of the oldest. Fish, fruits and vegetables are sold there, along with spices and random trinkets. Needless to say, the fish market reeked and was full of fishermen shoving fish in our faces. Once I got past the stench and my not regret for not wearing close-toed shoes, it was a great experience. The fruit vendors in particular were very nice and let us sample their different fruits. We also wondered around the city and got a chance to go to the beach.
The day before, I was in Tunis for my weekly pottery class. The class is held in an old building with a giant courtyard in what is now an artist’s colony. Our instructor is a Moroccan man who specializes in tiles. On Wednesday, we just became familiar with the area where we’ll be working and made pinch pots. Middle school came flashing back before my eyes and, unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve improved much since then. I hope to be able to redeem my pot next week when we paint.
And now it is a much needed weekend. I’ve already slept half the day away, well until 10:30. I have some plans to do more exploring--we’ll see how they play out.
Monday, June 15, 2009
A view down the street from my school. Just so you know, it's really hard to do Sidi Bou Said justice with a camera.
Some houses we passed on our way down to the beach after school the other day.
If you squint, you can see the Mediterranean in the background!
Saturday, June 13, 2009
My Tunisian life has officially begun—I moved in with my host family on Sunday and they are absolutely lovely! I live in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis that is about a fifteen minute bus ride from my school in Sidi Bou Said. There are also a lot of other students with the program in that area, so we can take the bus together and meet up easily. The family is a mother, father and two girls, one 17 and one 22. They are very laid back, which has been the case with most of the host families—they work hard during the day and in the evening just relax, watch television and eat a late dinner (we didn’t eat until 11:30 on Sunday!). The father’s been making the rest of the family suffer through Al-Jazeera English the past few evenings, so that I can make sure to stay up-to-date on the news and understand it all. It’s kind of cute, but puts them all to sleep. And the father comes from the Congo, so he’s actually more comfortable with French—I think he can understand Arabic, but he always responds in French. The program warned us at the start to say that we didn’t speak any French, because that would force us to use our Arabic more. On the first day, my family and I were all trying to just speak Arabic, but after I told them where I’m from and a few sentences about my family, it was obvious that that wasn’t going to get us far and when they all started speaking French, I couldn’t lie and act like I didn’t understand. So, I think my French is improving, or at least I’m starting to become more comfortable with conversational French.
The next day, Monday, my Arabic classes started. The 32 of us are divided into 3 groups and each have two teachers—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We have two hours of class in the morning (8:30-10:30) followed by a half-hour break and another two hours of lessons. We are mostly learning Modern Standard Arabic, but have 40 minutes of Tunisian dialect every day, too. So far, we’ve studied the alphabet. It’s coming along well, but I think it will take a long time until we can easily see a word and recognize it without having to spend time playing with the sound of each syllable. After class, we’re free to go out to lunch in the area and can come back and work at SIT in the afternoon and the Arabic teachers are available then. In the evenings we’ll have different things to do. This week, we’ve had another Tunisian dialect lesson everyday from 5-6. We’ll also have a Tunisian cultural class every week. People can choose which to take and I’m signed up to take pottery—something I’ve always wanted to learn!
Yesterday, I took advantage of how beautiful Sidi Bou Said is and walked down to the beach with some people in the program after our evening class. We walked past the president’s palace and giant cliffs I didn’t know existed in Sidi Bou Said. Once at the beach, we stumbled across a pier-esque sort of attraction with cafes and souvenir shops. I’m just constantly surprised at how easy Tunisia has been to maneuver. I was so nervous about figuring out how to get home from where we walked to, but then the right bus kept falling into my lap. At one point I even started to run to the bus stop a block away when the bus I needed was coming up behind me, but then it just stopped and allowed me to board even though I was nowhere near the stop. That never happens in Louisville! Aside from their hospitality, Tunisians have also won me over with their food. I thought being a vegetarian would be a total pain, but everywhere I go, people are willing to work around it and it’s not even that hard, because they eat so many fresh fruits and vegetables here. Everything is very spicy though!
So, I left for D.C. on Wednesday morning, arrived Wednesday evening and had orientation on Thursday and Friday before leaving Friday night. I flew AirFrance (which was kind of scary given the recent crash) and the program even flew me first class! I was so caught off guard—somehow I hadn’t noticed the “Affaires” stamped on my tickets, so I had champagne to celebrate and watched this hilarious movie called “New in Town” with Renee Zellwiger. Normally I wouldn’t mention the movie, but the whole thing was practically a roasting of Minnesotans, so I could wholly relate and have had so many of the same experiences when I first moved up to the Great Midwest. The first day of orientation was spent at the Main State office. We had briefings about the contract we were to sign, the different components of the fellowship and were walked through the different clearances we’re going to have to get. We then went on a tour of the “Watch” office, which is a 24-hour office that reports on all the most important late-breaking news stories to different government officials. We were even on the same floor as Hillary Clinton’s office. That evening, there was a big reception for all of the Pickering Fellows (20 undergrad and 20 grad), as well as the Rangel Fellows. It would have been really fun, except I had the worst migraine ever. But still, ambassadors were there and all sorts of interesting people to talk to.
The next day was spent at the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia, where Foreign Service Officers are trained. We learned that for every post we’ll be assigned whose language we don’t speak proficiently, we’ll be taught the language—a 3 month training for average languages, 6 months for world languages and 1 to 2 years for critical languages (like Arabic). One of the Foreign Service language schools for Arabic is actually right here in Tunisia and one of the teachers for this summer program teaches there, too. For most of Friday we had various panels about the different cones of the Foreign Service, which are management, political, econ, public diplomacy and consular. They are just more specific job titles we’ll have to choose once we’re in the Service. I’m leaning towards political, which includes doing research on the political climate of the host country and writing reports. The political officers are the ones that publish the annual human rights reports. We also had lunch with Pickering Fellows who are currently in grad school or in the Foreign Service, so we got to learn more about the actuality of the fellowship and life in the Service.
And now, I'm back in Tunisia. I was worried about how it would be coming back here, whether or not I would regret reboarding the flight to come back after the reminder of what America is like. But as soon as I walked in and kissed my family hello, everything kind of fell into place again. The food at lunch tasted right, the cheesy leopard print sheets on my bed looked right and the lack of air conditioning almost feels right, too.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
About 10 of us went to the game, decked out in mini Tunisian banners tied around our foreheads and waving plastic flags some little kids had handed to us. It was a great time to learn about subtle cultural differences--like how Tunisians dance to their national anthem, while we Americans stand stiffly and how they drink tea at the games, not beer. Everyone sitting around us was also very welcoming. They continuously offered us food, explained the chants, and exchanged high fives when we scored. It was just really fun to watch my favorite sport in a huge stadium with tons of fans, but even more meaningful to share in all of the nationalism and unity that football creates.
This evening has been spent studying Arabic. We have a bunch of homework to complete before Monday's classes and we're, of course, starting with the alphabet. I'm actually learning to write!! It's fun and the whole language seems a little less intimidating now that I'm learning to distinguish the different letters in written Arabic, knowing where one starts and another begins and the different sounds they make. My handwriting is so little-kid big though, taking up a few lines to feel like I've drawn all the details of the letter. The same book with the exercises even has throat exercises we're suppose to do to allow our throat to produce all the glottal stops! It's strenuous and definitely takes some humility to sit for what feels like forever trying to make a sound that just never comes out right.
And tomorrow we move to Sidi Bou Said to live with host families. Today, we had a lecture about family life, expectations and responsibilities in Tunisia. Of course, you can only talk about generalizations in a lecture like that, but it's gotten me anxious about what to expect...