In Praise of Mini-Retirements & How YOU can go on one too

I first read about this idea of mini-retirements in Tim Ferris’ book called the 4-hour work week. The idea stuck and I’ve been taking breaks between work contracts to travel and volunteer ever since. I for one do not want to wait until I’m 65 to enjoy discovering different activities and parts of the world that I wouldn’t normally have the chance to do and see!

The result has been amusing and educational. And, incidentally, I also get to spend a lot of time with older people (because they are actually retired). Positive because:
1. I can question them on their life decisions and what they feel they did well, or not so well – aka, garner new wisdom
and
2. they are chill older people, much like me, so no pressure to drink/party etc. I like my dancing but I’m not much of a night-clubber.

There are numerous ways to plan a mini-retirement for yourself. You can plan it around one of your hobbies/passions (aka. you’ve just discovered salsa dancing and you’re heading to Colombia to immerse yourself in this for the next 3 months) or around a great, new place you’ve been meaning to discover.

How?
Check out websites such as WWOOFing networks (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) where in exchange for room and board you help out farmers with their various organic farming activities (this has led to rather random and funny situations in my own life, such as my temporary hiring of Bolivian soldiers who weeded the garden story) and Work Away (workaway.info) as well which works much like WWOOFing but involves a whole myriad of work and volunteer activities that go far beyond farming. I really enjoyed my first workaway trip where I got to teach yoga in Morocco back in 2018.

Side note: for anyone reading this who has children – YES many WWOOF and WorkAway hosts will welcome in families to stay and volunteer with them too.

Then we always have couchsurfing, AirBnB and WarmShowers network (for you cyclists out there)…

and you ALSO have friends who can take you along on a fun cruise or trip (or you can invite yourself to them).. then by all means bike along the Danube or check out an Ashram in India and go on an Ayurvedic cleanse. Thank you friends !!

Of course there are all of the allures of being a global nomad and finding freelance work, such as using the platform upwork.com – you can also take some time off between major work contracts and have a bit of a side hustle on the side – either to keep yourself and your mind busy and engaged, or to make some extra cash, or both.

Either way, for the sake of leading interesting, diverse and balanced lives, why on Earth (if we can allow ourselves this luxury) would we immediately jump from work contract to work contract? I advocate for taking some downtime, but ultimately what I see in myself and in others is that down-time does not necessarily mean doing nothing and lying belly-up on the beach (sometimes needed, but not always), but rather it means changing drastically what you’re doing and where you are.  Mentally, it feels like more of a holiday. Taking some distance from your normal life and activities can give you a breather, change your perspective and rest the parts of your mind which are preoccupied with those activities. I don’t think we necessarily need to stop being active BUT we do sometimes need a change of scene and change what we are doing.

FYI – there are other benefits to this also.
Being cross-disciplinary and poking your nose into other worlds that you previously knew nothing about (ex. organic farming, goat-cheese making, natural horsemanship, woodworking, etc.) can be very beneficial to your core work and to your brain:

  • builds creativity and fires up your imagination
  • is literally healthy for your brain (Thank you medium.com, and I quote “your brain needs novelty to grow”)
  • can bring in great new inspiration and ideas (in fact, according to Harvard Business Review, some of the best ideas come from outside of our own industries)
  • not to mention travelling to a part of the world where you can brush up on the foreign language you’re learning

Three cheers for the diverse life and the life-long learners!!!

(and after you’re done cheering, please feel free to leave your thoughts and feedback below) <– especially if you’re a practitioner of mini-retirements too!

I went looking for purpose… but did I find it ? (part 1)

So, here we go. I’m attempting it. A three part blog post on looking for purpose.
Here’s the topic for part 1: “suffering is a universal, human condition. Its forms and depth vary.

I will now explain what I mean.

It’s 2014, and I’m living and working in the Caribbean. It’s November, and it’s hot. I’ve left snowy Canada with a suitcase filled with skirts and shorts. To the outside world my life is milk and honey. I’m 25, young, healthy and curious, and on a Canadian-funded internship in Haiti where I’m meant to help out local farmers better market their fair-trade coffee. Sounds fun, right? For the first month we young interns (there are 2 other Canadian girls there with me) are meant to integrate into village life and learn Creole. We all speak French, but the villagers don’t. It’s warm, the local coffee is yum and we spend our hours meandering about the Haitian bush attempting to chat with other young women while munching on sugar cane. Chew, chew and spit out the cane. Sweetness in my mouth. Except that further inside, I’m not OK. Actually, I’m deeply disturbed by what I’m experiencing. I’ve never been to a place this poor before. It feels like I’m in a parallel universe. I keep telling myself that it’s the 21st century and the people around me are often illiterate and pumping water from a well in the village square daily. Their houses are comprised of mud bricks and metal sheets. Their loos are holes in the ground behind the houses. Dusty half-dressed kids run about and are fascinated by our white skin and unkinky hair. Beautiful palm trees sway in the breeze, and the drive down the mountain from the village into Cap-Haitian is lovely (if you divert your gaze from the piles of trash lining the road..). Everywhere people sit about gazing at us and I get the distinct impression that they are waiting for hand outs. I’ve never been this far out of my comfort zone, and it’s agonizing. I have no idea how to sit with any of the paradoxes that I’m experiencing. How can a place be so similar to paradise and to hell all in the same breath? I’m feeling the next layers of my own naivety stripped away. For the first few months I cry myself to sleep at night while attempting to learn as much about Haiti and her history by day. The other girls have international development degrees and some experiences in Africa already under their belt, and they don’t look to me to be so affected by where we are. I’m either at a disadvantage with my cushy business degree, highly-sensitive, over-analytical or a combination of all of the above. I mostly feel isolated and alone. My supervisor at the Quebec NGO who we are meant to report to about our well-being chortles when I tell him that I need my own room because I have no where to practice meditation. I’m thinking that I’m going insane inside of my own head from trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible while he thinks I’m foolish to try to get any peace in hot, mosquito-swatting and villagers-hanging-about-everywhere village environment. He tells me to just relax and let it be. He might as well have told me to sit sit on hot coals. I actually contemplate ditching the whole project 3 months in (unheard of contemplation from the hitherto undaunted Katalina), but out of pure grit I choose to stay and see it through to the end of the 6 months.

Early on I meet a young Haitian man. He is someone unique and he also has something very precious to me. He has something that I want tremendously. He makes me aware of a need I didn’t even know I had.

He has purpose.

I have a degree. By then, I had travelled pretty extensively throughout Europe and North America. I have loving parents and good friends. I have opportunity. But I sure as hell have no idea what to do with my life.

He and I strike up a friendship. A deep friendship. While my privileged story unfolds (for regardless of being a Polish first-generation immigrant in Canada, I still consider myself a participant in the privileged layer of society) he makes me aware of things hitherto unknown to me. I learn about the third passport I had no idea I had: my white skin. I see that I am treated differently because of it everywhere I go in Haiti. This preferential sort of racism disgusts me most of the time although I’m the first to admit that it is occasionally highly useful (jumping the line at the Cuban medical clinic when I get typhoid or getting a seat in a busy restaurant). We chat, we get to know each other. He’s young too, but he knows “the other world” well, he has spent over 8 years already in Montreal, only to return to Haiti to pursue his purpose – building business and bettering his home country. A deep envy grows inside of me, for despite all of my privilege, despite all of my education, travel and advantages in life this profound sense of direction and usefulness to the world eludes me. I want purpose, I desire it with all of my being. I begin to wonder whether I’ll ever find it. There are so many choices. I’m not clear on what my talents are. But what I do see, what I do recognize, is that there is great need everywhere around me. Maybe I can make myself useful here. Maybe Haiti is my purpose.

For a while, I dive into a better understanding of the visible village life around me. Not having enough money, enough to eat, or a decent home to live in are certainly very uncomfortable states of being. The local medical clinic is terribly under-equipped and understaffed. I hear of stories of women about to give birth who have no other choice than to get on the back of a local moto-taxi and make a 90 minute journey to the nearest hospital to give birth. What an ordeal. Our village doesn’t even have electricity yet, and only those with extra means can afford generators and the gasoline to power them. And yet I observe the people to be generally calm, pleasant and smiling. They have each other, and no one is ever alone. There are even 2 or 3 “village crazies” as we call them, mentally sick individuals, who meander the streets often talking to themselves or shouting. They are mostly left alone although they are not excluded. They receive food from neighbours and they are even respected – local superstitions often link their altered mental states to those of the Spirit world. There are no asylums here. How curious. Oftentimes in the morning I can hear the teacher next door expound very basic lessons to her young charges comprised or repeating Christian prayers and French verbs, it all seems quite useless from an educational standpoint, but the kids are happy and laughing and playing together. No one is excluded or bullied or left alone in a moment of sadness. There is a sense of relaxation, peace and togetherness in that village which, in some ways, makes it feel like the safest place on Earth.

While I stay in touch with the “developed” world and my friends and family in Canada, USA and Europe, I start seeing the contrasts in what people are struggling with. These are the so-called “first world problems” we laugh at. They are trivialities such as a slow high-speed Internet and the wrong type of cheese when you order your fancy meal at a five-star restaurant. I scoff at these problems. But I don’t scoff at the mentions of depression and isolation. So many people are deeply sad, and they feel caught up in a painful, money-powered system that they can’t get out of. So many people, much like myself, have lost the something intangible, beautiful and nurturing – that sense of purpose. They aren’t even sure they ever had it to begin with.

***

Fast forward 2 months later, and I’m in our NGOs office in Cap-Haitian enjoying a local coffee and chatting to our gardener. He’s a bright, middle-aged fellow and eager to exchange with the “blancos”, as we are often called there. As so many Haitians do, he begins our conversation with asking me how I like Haiti. I tell him that I like it very much, at which point he says, again in typical Haitian fashion, shaking his head in sadness “ah yes, but there is so much misère“. I pause, for something inside of me is urging me to steer this conversation into a different direction than usual. I nod once, looking at him. “I don’t deny that there are many problems in Haiti”, I tell him, and I take a deep breath and plow on “but please understand that we also have many problems in the West”. He gazes at me, and I continue. “In the West we don’t generally have the same kind of problems. Many people have enough water, and electricity and food. But many people also feel lost and sad and isolated a lot of the time. There is a problem called depression, like a long-standing, deep sadness, which is on the rise.”, I explain to him, and I add for emphasis, “we also have some people who are so sad and feel so hopeless that they commit suicide.” He gazes at me, the eyebrows rising. “Suicide almost never happens here.” he states, and then he asks me “why are your people so sad if they have so much?” I smile to myself at the simplicity and depth of this question. “I think it’s because we are overwhelmed by choices – because we can do everything, we are unsure of what to choose, of what is best for us and our families. It’s very difficult to know what to choose.” and I continue, scanning the courtyard strewn with sunshine and flowers as though searching for my own answers, “and I think we feel isolated because we are taught to value our own individual success and so we easily feel separate from others.” I finish. The gardener nods wisely and reflects. Then he adds: “Here we have big families and always there is someone to talk over your problems with. You never feel alone.” he smiles at me. and I tell him that I too have noticed this and I value it very much. I also thank him for taking a moment to chat with me about this.

While this conversation took place over 6 years ago, I have often thought of it.

While it is a beautiful pursuit to improve the lives of those who do not have enough material means, I no longer think that it is a nobler or better pursuit than other pursuits. Ultimately, suffering exists everywhere, only its form varies slightly. Ultimately, intentional kindness and service to others brings value whether we are feeding bellies or we are feeding souls. We humans need to intake nutrients on many levels, and we need it regularly.

I went to the “third world” searching for my purpose and while I don’t regret a single minute spent in either Haiti or in Senegal, I no longer see my purpose as being tied to a place or to an action. I see it now as tied to a meaning – and for me that means healing and opening human hearts, everywhere and in every which way. The “how”of how that happens is secondary. At least I found my Why.

Inshallah-ing my way through life

I’ve been reprogrammed. I recognize it and.. I like it! At least this one specific program which has been rewired within me.

And the root of this wisdom lies in the Arabic term of “Inshallah”.
Literally translated it means “If God wills it”.
Translated to life it means that you can do everything right, you can be the best you can be and yet.. and still.. you have no guarantee that you’ll get what you want.
You may end up where you want to go or you may not. You may even end up in a very nasty situation despite your best intentions and efforts. Aha, you say: “C’est la Vie”..
aha, I say.. “Ça… ça c’est l’Esprit”

Please allow me to explain the rewiring process.

It began in Haiti with the Creole expression, one of the first I learned back in 2014 and it goes something like this: “Si dye vle”. It means, once again, “If God wills it”.

Naturally, as so much of what is beautiful and pure on this planet this wisdom has been abused. Myself, like most Westerners working in Haiti, found it incredibly frustrating to hear from a team member “Si Dye Vle” as an answer to a seemingly basic question: “Are we having the meeting tomorrow at 10:00” or “will you be here for the presentation next week”. A simple “yes” or “no” would suffice.. we would say to ourselves angrily. Referring to God’s will when your own will seems to be enough looked to me like a fancy excuse. No one ever said “I never made it to that meeting because God did not will it” and yet that’s how we were meant to interpret a no-show?.. Oh my…

Many developing countries function in survival mode and insecurities around everything from politics to the economy run high. The Western world however lends itself to the illusion of control over one’s own life and destiny (great organization and functioning systems can do that to you!). “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up” and variations on this theme are expounded to us daily, especially in America. While I’m all for self-actualization, I also recognize the deep Mystery and Spirit that pervades all and that has a schedule far different and far greater than our small self-centered understanding of our lives. I once heard a quote that goes something like this “Woe and misery come to the one who gets everything that he wished for”. Analyze it for just a second and you’ll see that there is so much truth to that. I have countless examples from my own life when I thought I knew what I wanted and something far different, and far better, came my way. Thank goodness! – said I. Thank goodness there is a wisdom and a Spirit far wiser than my own limited mind that cares for me always and carries me forward.
Side note: I now do my best to remember to wish upon others (and myself) all manner of goodness and blessings, but not necessarily what they think is best for them but what is truly in their Highest Benefit.

Which is why “Inshallah” is now a consciously added element to my own intention setting.

After 3.5 years in Senegal I’ve heard it used and abused quite as often, if not more, than the “Si dye vle” in Haiti. Then again, I have also seen it used wisely, by deliberate, intelligent people who have plans and a strategy to their lives. They move forward with purpose, they find the information and the contacts they need in order to succeed. And yet, through all of this, they remain humble. They state a project and a plan and follow it with a gentle… Inshallah. They take time to acknowledge that which is powerful and that pervades all – the ether, the Spirit, the Mystery within all that ultimately, plan or no plan, strategy or no strategy, will determine whether the tree bears fruit this year and whether your plans will come to harvest.

This rewiring of my own Western programming by spending significant time in more God-fearing lands such as Haiti and Senegal is a strength to me, a sobering element within me that reminds me as always that there is much beyond our control. It allows me to see beyond the systems designed for our comfort, and to continue to see just how much all of life hangs by a string. So fragile, so temporary, so fleeting. Most importantly it drives the message home that despite our best intentions things don’t always turn out as we thought (or do they ever?).

And you.. what is your version of “Inshallah“? How do you make sense of the unpredictability of life? How do you feel you are being guided forward by that which is truly best for you?

***

Image courtesy of Urban Howl.

Sundays in Dakar

Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip the horses’ hooves made echoing noises on the pavement as the thin man with his tired nag trotted smartly forward, pulling a simple wooden platform piled high with cement bricks. The horse-drawn cart was more audible than usual because the neighbourhood was quieter than usual, but that’s because it was Sunday. The most wonderful day of the week.

Practically every day is a day of the sun in Senegal, but Sundays in Dakar in particular were her favourite days. All week long the Senegalese and the expats battled laziness and the heat to move projects forward. For things did move forward here even if they moved forward slowly and sluggishly and with great attention to salutations, politeness and gentle speech. Things moved forward diplomatically, and there was great pride in the local people for their great skill of peaceful, unhurried living.

«You have wrist watches, and we have time» Africans were quick to chide Westerners. And yet the dark continent is far from immune to the capitalistic drums of progress. All week long offices filled, countless emails were sent and the relentless traffic expounded fumes and frustration. Civilization always felt like an improvised dance in Senegal; haphazard beige buildings reflected neither good architecture or Arab aesthetics but attempted to imitate both, with no more than square cement bricks and sweating, thin black bodies to erect them. The too narrow roads were shared by lorries, horse-drawn carts, motorcycles and cars alike with the occasional herd of cattle passing through. Dakar was like a village. Actually, it was like multiple villages that happened to come together and call themselves a city. Once the French administration brought in their language, bureaucracy and paperwork they then began to call it a capital.

Sundays in Dakar felt to her like a respite from the pretense of looking busy. The sheep bleeted as they always do, and at this time of the year, approaching a major Muslim holiday, there were several living on her neighbour’s rooftop terrace. The stupid, helpless «baaaahhh» sounds they coughed up carried therefore even better on the gentle breeze. She wondered how long they had to live before their throats were deftly slit and the meat divided among family and friends. They did this at the shore by times and little rivers of blood would merge with the waves.

The ocean was only a few hundred feet away, in fact, they were surrounded by it on many sides. It gave her the sensation that she too was like one of the many falcons soaring above and come to perch for a rest just inside the shore. She had come to stay for a while, to find refuge in the warmth, the sand and the easy-going smiles there. She ruffled her feathers and sank a little deeper into her perch with a gentle sigh.

«Kraawww, krawww» huge ravens circled together with the ravens on the terrace just one story above. From where she was sitting on her balcony, her feet on a small wooden table and her knees curled up to her chest she admired the scene. The clip-clop of the horse going by was a regular addition to the symphony of sound. Only two stories separated her from the music. Men and women, but mostly women, moved up and down the street this morning, heading towards one of the small boutiques perhaps to buy some bread slathered with a bit of mayonnaise from a huge container or some Kinkeliba herbal drink doused with sugar, or both. They called «Salam Aleekum»s and «Na nga def»s to each other as was custom here. With amusement she would perk up her ears and observe two people walking towards each other on the street below. They would begin with the preliminary hellos as mentioned while still across from each other, and then they would pass, without missing a beat in their conversation, and continue walking forward, away from each other while asking more questions and sharing greetings «Naka waa ker gi» (how are things at home) and «Yann gi si jamm» («are you in peace» translating to another way of saying «how are you») with replies of «jamm rekk» («only peace» essentially meaning «I am fine»). The distance now grew greater between these friendly exchanges, their voices slightly rising. This seamless action of moving, flowing, speaking and greeting was unhurried and uninterrupted. There was a satisfaction in speaking, in making sound, in adding ones voice to the ambient noises already present. It was a confirmation that one was, one was present, one had risen, one had been reborn from sleep to see another day. Alhamdoulillah! As the falcons screeched, the sheep bleeted, and the horses clip-clopped, the people added their own throaty Wolof to the mix. A car engine brought a punctuation as the vehicle turned into the pavement in a cloud of sand. A man below had begun to chant Muslim prayers and his strong voice carried far. This was the unhurried babble of a Sunday morning.

Her other senses thus nourished, a sumptuous breakfast added now to the satisfaction of her stomach. Fried eggs, fresh baguette and a tomato salad were rounded off with a big cup of coffee and a pain au chocolat. She had fetched the pastry for herself in the morning glad as always to slip on her sandals and take a walk in the warm, sandy streets and admire the blooming flowers and bougainvilles. Stray cats and dogs meandered about the low-rise buildings and small villas in a detached, friendly fashion. She took the side ways which meant little to no honks from passing taxis trying to catch a fare and no begging children approaching her with outstretched hands. That, in itself, was respite.

Her breakfast finished, she checked the time. It was a little past 10:00am and the neighbourhood was slowly waking up around her. She wondered with satisfaction if indeed all that was needed for a moment of happiness was a full belly and warmth in her body. Reaching for a good book and the cup of coffee she thought to herself that life really was quite comfortable, quite enjoyable, and that clichés about people and places were very silly. «We certainly have the good life here» she thought to herself and settled into her chair just an inch deeper. «But best we not spread the word about it too far and wide» she added to herself with a playful half-smile.. «otherwise they’ll flood this place with tourists and we’ll have no more peace on a Sunday.»

Clip-clop, clip-clop another horse trotted up the street once again, this time with more oomph and purpose to her step. The people were up and the day had begun.

***

Image courtesy of Talk Foreign to Me.

The Pancha-what? First trip to an Indian Ashram.

How does one summarize 2 weeks  experience of a first-time in India, first-time in an Ashram and first-time doing a Panchakarma program?
With a first-rate smile, I hope.

First, let’s define the terms we’ll be referring to:

1. India, in this case the deep south-west, the province of Kerala. After flying into Trivanandrum (also known as Thiruvananthapuram – I dare you to say that 10 times fast) we take a one hour taxi ride to a village where there is a Sivananda Ashram sitting next to a gigantic river that looks like a lake and where apparently crocodiles abound and tigers can be heard roaring in the surrounding lush greenery. Inside the Ashram everything is peaceful, safe and very orderly. Schedules are set and almost everything is repeated twice daily – morning and evening satsang (which includes meditation, chanting, lectures and more chanting), morning and evening meals, and morning and afternoon yoga (asana) practice. In between our Ashram schedule our group follows the Panchakarma treatments. The Pancha-what? Pour yourself some warm drinking water and read on.

2. Panchakarma, is an Ayurvedic (a sister-science to yoga, Ayurveda is India’s branch of traditional medicine) detoxification program which goes in 3 steps. First, for 5-7 days, you go through a series of daily massages, scrubs and steam-bath treatments all meant to drive toxins into your GI tract for further elimination. Starting from Day 1 we all go on a twice daily calorie-limited, veggies and rice dominant, gentle meal plan. We drink herbal teas twice daily, and in between meals, if you’re like me, you feel empty, light and hungry. Which is fine because you meander your way over to yoga practice, attempt a headstand, do some meditation, have a scrub and then lie down for a nap. After the first week starts the elimination of toxins from the GI tract and this is achieved primarily through: one day of drinking castor oil + medicine (easily the most disgusting thing I have ever swallowed in my life) which cleans your gut out thoroughly, followed by several days intermittent small-oil enemas and larger-herbal enemas. Yup, that’s right, this involves having various fluids put up your bum and running quickly to the loo. The third part of the cleanse happens outside of the clinic (and in our case, the Ashram) as you follow up the treatment by keeping to a restricted veggie diet, and do your best to avoid coffee, wine, cheese, bread and all of the other culinary joys that life holds for at least 2 weeks to a month*.

3. The Ashram. Is a place of peace and spiritual retreat. They also run a tight ship with a strict schedule. See point no. 1 for the general schedule.

We were lucky in that several days after our arrival there was a separate dormitory space designated for us Panchakarma ladies, and since many of our fellow detoxifiers had private rooms, these dorms were pretty empty and peaceful and just for us. That put me at ease for the shitty part of our program because at least in this way I didn’t have to disturb my fellow yoga vacationers with my personal orchestra of sounds and smells.

I would recommend spending time at an Ashram for anyone looking for a place of retreat far from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Requirements: adaptability to a strict schedule, open-mindedness to questions of religion and faith (if you’re singing “Jaya Ganesha, Shree Ganesha, Siva Guru etc.” and feeling at odds with the God of your own religion, then this is not the place for you) and a general good, positive attitude. The Internet is limited, the lush-greenness ever present and the opportunities for meditation and reflection abundant. You’ll also need to get used to doing yoga in loose-fitting clothing since tights and what we in the West would normally classify as yoga clothes are not allowed.

I loved being there and soaking in the meditative vibes (except for the evening satsang and meditation which was misery for me as I would consistently fall asleep!) and some of the realities of the Ashram life were also quite amusing:

– while at morning meditation, in my attempts to practice Ahimsa (non-violence) I transformed myself into a living mosquito buffet as I was besieged by our buzzing brothers. They went for many of us seated there that morning, undiscriminating in their choice of breakfast. Initially, I hesitated to slap and squelch. While my survival instinct is strong I admit there was something that felt very sacrilegious about killing anything in an ashram temple surrounded by the smiling images of the divine (wave hello to Krishna!). So I grinned and bore it, that first time, and 40 mosquito bites later I abandoned all pretense at meditation. Every time after that I doused myself in deep forest mosquito repellent beforehand in order to save my exhausted mind from early morning philosophical dilemmas

– our Ayurveda doctors strictly forbade the consumption of sugar and caffeine, a restriction that was made troublesome by the offering of morning post-meditation masala chai tea (oh heavenly beverage!) and crunchy cookies and other goodies coming fresh from blessings at the alter, then offered to the participants. Many a time we would go up for our cookie and receive raised eyebrows in return since some of the staff knew that we were following a Panchakarma program. We would then have to convince them to hand the cookie over while reassuring them that we were fully aware that the cookie was not allowed. I savoured every little morsel of that forbidden sweetness! I’ve never felt less guilty about breaking the rules since I considered this treat my reward for waking up so darn early.

– while attempting a dynamic sun-salutation during asana practice and tripping over my loose-fitting pants between lunges. I’ve found a new appreciation for my lululemon leggings which, alas, were obliged to lay peacefully in my backpack for the duration of the trip.

In other news, here’s a snarky tidbit written during our flight back to Paris while enjoying airplane insomnia:

Ah, the wonders of yoga. I knew it would have practical, real-life applications. Ever mindful of my sleeping neighbours, squished as I am in my seat between dozing Indians somewhere between 4 and 5 am flying above Saudi Arabia, I tap a friend in the seat diagonally up and left of mine so that he evacuates his spot. I then am free to perform feats of flexibility as I crawl above seats and sleeping passengers to release myself from my human sandwich and go pee. And Stretch. I’ve been watching an excellent French comedy and while I’ve been chortling at the ludicrous situations the movie characters are playing out I’m reflecting on the past two weeks and seeing my own hilarity much more clearly. Panchakarma, the Ashram and all of our personalities combined have written quite the screenplay.

I hear a tinkle of glasses in the elite class in front of the plane and imagine the Champagne pouring. Good thing we’re not flying business after all since we are not allowed to drink a drop of alcohol for at least a month after our Panchakarma detoxifying program. The Panchakarma treatment is quite restrictive in what we can and can not eat and do. Mostly they recommend lots of rest and napping. Once you digest the instructions you start to wonder at the irony of actually paying to travel to India in order to:

– eat bland ayurvedic food instead of delicious Indian cuisine (just kidding, it really wasn’t that bad, but just a bit repetitive)

– avoid the sunshine and sunbathing (not allowed in Panchakarma). Five extra points to us for travelling to India during rainy season.

– avoid swimming in cold water and taking cold showers (well, quite frankly, I wasn’t too sure of the local crocodile population in the river anyhow, so…)

– have medically induced diarrhea

(yes, you read correctly, I traveled thousands of miles to a tropical country to pay a doctor in order to get the runs, on purpose). 

The lip-curling, ironic parts of this trip are dripping like honey on my coconut chapati. I actually burst out laughing a few times startling my fellow airplane passengers out of their sleep. Oops.

As I watch the minutes count down to our descent into Paris I wonder just how well our group will do with keeping to the doctor’s orders of no-meat, no-alcohol, no-caffeine and no-bread. I remember nodding keenly during our final consultation and swearing fidelity to the program for the 14-days following our stay in India, as prescribed. But with every minute we speed towards the land of savoury wines, fresh baguettes and over 1000 varieties of cheese. How on Earth will we see our Panchakarma through to the end? Since Pancha means five, in sanscrit, and karma means action, once we land I’m counting to five and taking action at the first boulangerie that I see*!

* It’s 6 days post-Ashram and I’m happy to report that our entire group has failed spectacularly in this last step. Sorry Doctor Vishnu, but the realities and temptations of France were too much to handle! Nevertheless, for me personally, keeping a mostly caffeine and meat free diet and continuing with daily yoga and meditation still keeps my mind and body feeling very good.

Disconnect to Reconnect: about Wifi’s fuzzy reminder

“We invest our time and energy into who and what we value.” Morning meditation and conversations at the Offline House can go real deep, real quick.

I’ve been happily resting and rejuvenating my body, soul and mind with surfing, nature, yoga and great books at a concept-Hostel in the south of Portugal called the Offline House. The concept is simple: we put our smartphones and computers away in lockers and lock them up. We then enjoy experiencing life without our gadgets. “Disconnect to Reconnect” becomes our daily mantra.

Turning off the Internet and data functions of my phone is not difficult for me. I happily put my iPhone in airplane mode during my work days and weekends too. Any time I want to have some time 100% for myself I do not hesitate to close off the Internet bridge connecting me to the outside world. I imagine a sentinel on that bridge blocking the way for those trying to get through. The various demands, shares, likes and questions sent via Whatsapp, iMessages, emails and social media quietly and peacefully line up and accumulate before the sentinel until it (I) decide that it is OK to let them through again – and there they flow, in an even tempo of beeps and vibrations – right to my phone when airplane mode is shut off again.

What I didn’t realize before and what has been a kind of revelation to me during my first week at the Offline House is the trade-off that I make every time that I look at and use my smartphone in my “regular” daily life. The trade-off is simple yet profound: I am trading the present moment for an interaction with my phone.

“Ah – gah – stop!” you may cry out. You will argue that you are not interacting with your phone, you may very well be interacting with another person, with a friend or a family member! Or you may be working on a new blog post! (haha, how ironic ;-). Well yes, but the medium of communication is still cold metal in a place where I have living, breathing human beings around me, not to mention beautiful nature, the breath in my lungs and my ever present heart beat. I’m choosing a device over living life…and that is totally OK…as long as I’m aware of what I’m doing.

It turns out there is nothing more valuable than the present moment. As someone who has spent plenty of time in my head musing and thinking about the past and wondering about the future I can assure you that I’ve tried to find peace and happiness in moments outside of right now. At best I have found neutrality. At worst I have found great confusion and many fears. The best feeling ever – the feeling of being fully alive – I have only ever found in the here and now.

I shan’t bore you with more Here and Now talk – this is a subject discussed and re-discussed and re-played many times these days. Simply, I wanted to share that I recently found this trade-off with the usage of my smartphone.

There are ofcourse many positive aspects of the Internet and of technology. When we are wise users of these tools I believe that we have the opportunity to become brighter, better communicating and wiser people. The problem is that this tech and Internet connectivity is all quite new for everyone, so that few of us actually know how to use these tools in a way that is good and healthy. Coupled with our minds’ tendencies for addiction and obsessiveness and tools like email and social media can quickly become a problem to manage, an annoying mosquito buzzing in our ears night and day never allowing us a moment’s peace.

I have a small hammer in my home in Dakar. I’m a pretty handy gal (or so I like to think) but I tried and tried and couldn’t hammer in a simple nail into the concrete wall of my living room. The carpenter happened to stop by and quickly picked up the hammer and put the nail in its place. It’s the same tool, but we obviously have very different capacities with it. What’s more, used wrong, a hammer could easily smash my finger and hurt me. A hammer is a tool, albeit a very simple one. The Smartphone is also a tool, albeit a highly complex one. Both have the capacity to serve us when used correctly or to hurt us when misused. It’s up to us to make the difference or to call on someone who does know how to use it right.

In my two weeks of Internet and smartphone-free days I’ve realized that I use notifications and notes way too much. It’s almost like I’ve distrusted my own capacity to remember basic things to the degree that I set up daily, weekly and monthly reminders for every little thing. It’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but in my opinion if this kind of behaviour comes from a belief that I’m not able to remember and manage my life and the direction I want it to take on my own then it’s potentially a problem.

In general:

If the Internet fulfills the same function for us as a bridge would for a city, our connection to the outside world, the question is what is the healthy relationship to have to this bridge? For starters, is the bridge an extension of the city? Can the city be defined on its own terms without the bridge? The paradox is that the city and the bridge co-exist and without each other have no real purpose. What’s the point of a bridge leading from somewhere to nowhere? What use (or joy) can we find for a city disconnected from the world? When I think of the smartphone and the Internet as the bridge I can see that all of us, at one point or another, have stopped on this bridge and have become so engrossed in the shiny lights and bright jewels encrusted into its fancy woodwork that we’ve forgotten about where we come from and where we are going. I’m all for pretty bridges, and God knows some of those beautiful pictures and engaging Apps are really fun, but once I nudge the imbalance and realize that I’m using the bridge with no real objective in mind…I take a step aside and re-evaluate. You can choose to hang out on a bridge with no real agenda if you want to, but I intend to keep using it for its primary purpose which is to get from one place to another. It’s in the real places where I find real people and real moments and real life which I want to engage in.

Call me old-school but I still feel that it’s rude to sit down for a face-to-face conversation with someone and check your phone and messages at the same time. Especially if you only have a short period of time to share with this person. It sends a clear message “I value more what other people, known or unknown to me, are communicating to me now than I value this one-one-one time with you”. Yes, I get it that we are busy and we have many priorities that we need to juggle at the same time. I also think that having so many people making demands on our time forces us (in a good way) to evaluate our priorities and stay very honest with what we do and do not value in our lives and what we allow and do not allow into our space. “I don’t have enough time” is a sad excuse, not a reality. We all have the same 24 hours and guided by what we prioritize in life we choose how to spend that time. The responsibility is ours. The capacity for misuse and wasted time is tremendous. The trade-off is extremely significant: an exchange of the present moment for an interaction with a device. By all means, let’s continue using (and learning how to properly use) these great tools. But for goodness sake let’s not just talk about how much is gained. Let’s not forget the real value of what we are giving up.

*Cover photo credit to Offline Portugal

I’m happy to share that although we enjoy Internet-free time at the Offline House we are also accompanied by the house dog named Wifi. It makes me smile every time to hear a guest ask “Where’s Wifi?” or to hear someone looking for and calling out for the pooch. If they ever get a speckled dog I’m keeping my fingers crossed he or she will be called Spotify 🙂

The Courage to Disappoint

Keep it real, I say to myself, as I’m writing this post. Keep it very real. “I’ve been plenty humbled these past few days”, I can hear my pride is trying to negotiate with me, “do we have to publish this failure on the web?”

Yes, we do, I argue. Firstly because I do not want to fear failure. Secondly, if I struggle with accepting failure maybe other people struggle with it too? We could open up the dialogue to see what this is all about. Perhaps silly Failure is just Adaptation’s ugly brother whom no one likes? He gets a bad wrap, but he shows up to all our parties anyways. He certainly showed up to mine.

Let’s consider the following:

1. If you ordered a yummy desert that you remember liking three years ago and then tasted it to find out that it was

no longer your favourite: what would you do?

2. If you felt some kind of obligation to finish a beloved art project started before and found that you no longer enjoyed creating it, would you feel bad if you stopped?

Three years ago, together with my mom, I set out on the frequented pilgrimage in Northern Spain: the Camino de Santiago. We walked about 150km of the Way. Since that time I’ve often thought that I would complete the journey. This month of May was dedicated to that purpose: I had calculated that if I started where mom and I had left off walking about 20km a day I would make it in about 30 days to Santiago de Compostella. My math skills are good, however, my gear and walk-planning and, more importantly, a lucid evaluation of my own motivations and attitudes for this pilgrimage, were far less skilled.

Firstly, gear. Big mistake: wrong shoes (runners rarely work while trekking or hiking boots do work). Within two days (16km day 1 and 23km on day 2) I had developed blisters all around and under my toes.

(my feet and legs on Day 4)

I chose to take others’ advice and popped the blisters and wrapped them up tight in tape. This allows you to continue walking with bearable pain, although in my case I had already had the time to develop hip pain and shin-splints and, what was even more unfortunate, blisters on top of blisters underneath my tape bandages. I knew I had to place my feet normally and ignore the pain otherwise I would be putting awkward stress on another body part, like ankles or knees, which could cause other injuries. Rest would solve my problem but, problem number 2, I had not accounted for any rest days in my trek. If I rested I would not be able to finish anyways. So I walked on Day 3 and 4, and I walked in a lot of pain. I walked, and I wondered what to do next.

I stopped for a moment to contemplate this pain. You see, I’ve been there before. Especially back in 2012 during my fundraiser and solo bike ride across Europe I was in a great deal of physical pain (during first 2-3 weeks of ride) and I was so determined not to disappoint my family and friends following me on my ride and those supporting the fundraiser that I muscled through all possible pain never once considering defeat. I could not let anyone down, least of all myself.

Back then it was an important lesson to learn. I needed to feel this in my body. I needed to push my limits to understand better where they are and to experience the deep satisfaction of a fight well fought and, ultimately, won. I’ll also add that, happily, no lasting physical damage was done. It was a gamble, and I got lucky.

Now, I don’t see things quite the same way. I respect my body and her limits in a different way. I am not so willing to gamble with my health. I no longer think it is a good idea to push and push until I can no longer bear the pain. In fact, I no longer see the value in unnecessary pain. I used to think that it builds character 🙂 now I feel that it is simply unnecessary. Besides, how can I be fully present for others when I am so absorbed in my own pain?

Now, the all important spiel concerning motivations and attitudes.

I feel that I went into this experience way too self-assured. What’s a few hours walking when you’re used to spending your weeks jogging, doing yoga, swimming and surfing? I was so sure I would be fine. I got a big dose of humility and reality check in answer to my over-confidence. This is a lot harder than it looks. Many pilgrims do the Camino section by section over the course of many years. Many end up taking buses to move ahead on the stages and/or take rest days to manage their foot/hip/body pain. Many, like myself, never get half as far as they had initially planned.

To add to this confidence was my sense of obligation and duty to finish what I had begun 3 years ago. If the Camino is a metaphor for life which, in many cases, it can be, this has been a poignant life lesson for me. Simply put, projects undertaken from a cold emotional space of duty allow little room for pleasure and excitement and set me up for…failure. I’m not sure why I felt such a sense of duty to finish the Camino, but I did. What I learned is that Duty doesn’t add juice and flavour to my days while lightness, flow and enjoyment do!

I could go on, but for now I’ll stop here. It has been a fascinating 5 days on the Camino. I really love walking, and Spain is as beautiful as I always remember her. It has been a short time packed with great insights. I’ve really enjoyed interacting with the pilgrims, young and old. But, for now, it’s done. The Camino (the trek) is done, while The Camino (my life) is in full bloom 🙂 Tomorrow I head back to Madrid to properly rest and heal my feet and then I’ll go to…I don’t yet know where.

(photo: enjoying beauty of Camino sunrise)

I am ultimately proud of myself for having the courage to change plans, adapt and yes, to disappoint myself and others. This wasn’t the outcome I was expecting, but it’s the outcome that happened. It’s the outcome that I chose. On the bright side I have a ton of gear, planning and life experience that will come in handy if I ever want to take up the Camino again.

I am wishing you also plenty of adaptability and capacity to let go and to go with the flow of what comes to you in your life 🙂

With blessings, from the Camino!

⁃ your tired, foot-sore, forever learning life-Pilgrim

A Timeless run around the Pink Lake

It’s not usual that I’m up at 6:30 on a Saturday, and on the highway to the Pink Lake (“Lac Rose”) by 8am. We’re headed for the first 10km race around the lake – heading there not to race so much as to enjoy the jogging and walking around the unique pink waters of the salt lake lying a short distance away from Dakar. It’s only a 40 minute drive, we assure ourselves as J. and I zoom out of the city in my newly repaired car. I hop out a few times along the way to make sure the engine isn’t overheating and the new pump working properly. To add to these mechanical checks we blunder through small villages as we take the wrong exit off of the highway on our way to the lake. We stop, impatiently asking directions in a mixture of French and Wolof and get redirected a few times until we finally get to the edges of the pink waters… only it’s 9:20 and so we’re 20 minutes past the start img_7438time. We jump out of the car quickly arranging water bottles on our backs and strapping music devices to our bodies eagerly looking up to the organizers with half apologetic-half hopeful faces. They are not impressed that we are late and inform us that the last trucks taking the runners to the starting line have already left and no one is going to come back for another trip.  We can’t even get our paper numbers pinned to our shirts since the keeper of numbers has left the area… voices falter and the organizers are about to shrug their shoulders in surrender when I exclaim that we will happily do the race without our numbers and in the opposite direction if we have to. All we can see before us is the finish line anyways, the starting point hidden behind a small village and trees a few kilometers away. “But we won’t be able to measure your time!” the French organizer exclaims at which point I assure him that the objective of our coming to run around the lake has little to do with knowing how quickly we can do it. Privately, I’m amazed that anything at all has actually started on time in Senegal! Just my luck that this time it’s me that’s late. I had been looking forward to running together with a big group of people yet evidently my run today is to be a solitary, meditative one. I’m glad to accept the change in plans. I happily tighten my running shoe laces and start off at a light jog away from the finish line backwards along the course towards the start line.  J. will be walking the trail instead. The dusty, grey road next to the gigantic piles of salt extracted from the lake is all ours…just like on the promotional poster for the race – a lone woman running off into the distant sand dunes, only her and the sun on the horizon. My favourite tunes are playing from my phone and my spirits are high. I can’t remember the last time I ran as far as 10km, yet something tells me that it will be effortless today.  And it is.

Once at the finish line, still numberless, I join the other runners enjoying their rest. I pick up my t-shirt, goody bag, water and mandarines and chat with friends. J. joins me after her walk of the lake, content and full of new photos, videos and encounters from the road, not to mention a free artistic souvenir from one of the artisans. We watch some of the awards ceremony to the fastest runners and decide to leave the hot sun for a tour in the village. We meander from hotel to hotel among palm trees, sometimes stopping for a fresh local baobab-fruit juice, sometimes chatting with local sellers. I find beautiful new, leather flip-flops. J. films some more videos in Polish, part of our own promotional materials (see YouTube channel here) encouraging our fellow Polaks to join us in Senegal for tourism and retreats. We’re becoming more selective with our video settings – should we choose to film inside of a colourful fishing boat, or near a pretty little fresh-water pond complete with frogs? Either way the relentlessly hot sun is high in the sky and thoughts turn to shade and to rest. We stop by to buy more mandarin oranges, papaya and watermelon and settle in the car for a fruit snack. Meanwhile one of the French officers (it turns out the event is organized by members of the French military based in Dakar) approaches us and asks us if we are the ladies who ran without our numbers today. Why yes we are.. well, he informs me, one of you has won a phone in the raffle! I spell out both of our strange sounding Polish last names to the gentleman as we ascertain that indeed it’s my complicated name that has won the draw. I received my prize gratefully, amused and thrilled at my good luck while joking that for someone who arrived late to the event and also ran without a number it’s pretty ironic that I should win a phone. At least it is well equipped with clock and chronometer! The main event organizer is there to award me the prize while we can also congratulate him on his tenacity and a whole year’s effort of bringing together sponsors and organizers for the race around the lake.

img_7439I help organize monthly events for Internations, I explain to him.. even that small taste of event planning in Senegal allows me to personally sympathize with his efforts. Still on the high of the morning’s excitement he tells me that they’ll soon begin planning for next year’s event. May we have an enjoyable run around the lake like this every year, we say…may it be so… Inshallah

Bandia Wild Animal Park

Somewhere in the divine timing of right-after-rainy-season (when the foliage is still nice and green) and before-the-ostriches-get-aggressive (and visiting the park gets a wee bit more dangerous)… we visited the wild animal park of Bandia.

Here’s sharing some of our visit with you through images.

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Heading out.

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First sighting, the largest antelope in the world, the Giant Eland, originally of West Africa. Amazing curved horns.

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Close up.

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A first look at the “horse” antelope.

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Close-up 2.

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My favourite horse of all.

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In the distance, a 1-week old baby giraffe.

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Mama giraffe.

 

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Papa Giraffe : ) (his colouring is darker)

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Papa giraffe.. showing off the right flank this time 😉

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Rhino explanations part i. White rhinos are not actually white.

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Rhino explanation part ii. “White” is a mistranslation of the dutch word “Wijd” meaning wide. Truth be told this guy is wide.. and weighs more than 2 metric tons.

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Looks docile but can get riled up if needed.

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Water buffalo. Also looking docile, also can get riled up.

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Ostrich dance 1.

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Ostrich dance 2.

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Ostrich dance 3.

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Oooh look over there! (more beautiful gazelles).

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All ladies in this group, with one gentlemen gazelle to accompany them.

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He enjoys herding the ladies that go too far from the group back to the group.

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There they go!

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Baby giraffes part ii. The cutest most graceful baby animals imaginable.

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Stripes are always in style 🙂

Aïd el-Fitr (la Korité) festivities in Medina – the images

Celebrating the end of Ramadan in Medina, typical African neighbourhood of Dakar – in images. Peeking in on the women in the hair salons, the children in the streets and the beautiful, festive wear for the occasion.

Includes spontaneous bike tricks from passing youth.

…and, our fair dose of what I like to call “lounge photography” where, in essence, we sit on chairs and wait for the subjects to come to us. Luckily, on a street in Medina there is always plenty going on.

Enjoy!!

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Greetings from two months in

Me: Salam aleekum.
Taxi Driver: Malekum Salam.
(conversation around destination and taxi price ensues, in (my) patchy Wolof)
Taxi Driver: How long have you been here?

(a trickle of sweat slips down my back)
Me: Two months. Ñaari wer.…Two months, and a bit.
Taxi Driver: You are Senegalese now.
Me (to myself): It’s time I write something about Senegal now.

(replaces sunglasses back on nose after getting settled in taxi).

Dakar is located on the Western-most point of Africa, on a peninsula called Cap-Vert which is across from the islands of Cape Verde, not to be confused, please.
In many ways I feel we are far West from much of what goes on in Sub-Saharan Africa. But then again…what would I know. I’ve never been anywhere else except Abidjan on a one week work trip spent at the office, port and in a fancy hotel. I can only imagine, and listen to what others have to say. Supposedly – so the people say – elsewhere the beaches are not as abundant, the food less good, the people less friendly. Here, life is good here, real good. I’d say I’m smitten with Senegal (it slides off the tongue nice).. but I’m more like really jiving with it.

It doesn’t matter how short or long the work day, I come home satisfied. Perhaps it’s the lengthy greetings and taking many minutes with each person to ask them about their family and everyone’s well-being, I enjoy it. I’m satisfied to be in the warmth
and sun and to never worry about its lack when I’m inside with papers and computers. We have excess sun and heat here. Here, take some, there is plenty to share.

The dust is plenty too. The colours so near the Sahara, faded. The colours the women wear in the bright African textiles – bright. The music, Mbalax, a different lilt. Hard to describe. My current anthem ft. Akon (who is of Senegalese origins, by the way) – see if you like it.
Plenty. Life is slower, this is true, I like to think it’s more deliberate and less rushed. Nothing works anyways if you rush here. Doubly true if you get angry about the lack of rush. I find it’s hard to get angry when you’re warm and well fed, but hey, some people are persistent. Granted, in some ways, hustle is sought after. Ask Taha. Then again, if you’re OK to mosey along at your own deliberate pace then Senegal is happy to mosey alongside you.

Sooner or later, you’ll get hungry after all your mosing and nosing about. Personally, I’m addicted to the mangos. Ripe, golden flesh – I enjoy quality time with mangos in private so as to allow the juice to properly drip down my chin. Very attractive.

Other meals, these must be enjoyed with people. Key ingredients: abundant rice, seafood, vegetables, onion sauce, spicy sauce. Add generous helpings of conversation on many topics followed by a sprinkle of Ataya, traditional green-tea-mint infused with kilograms of sugar. Delicious. The Senegalese are talkers. We chat about everything, while drinking tea, while finding shade, while working, while hailing taxis, while negotiating.

Big cars, small cars drive next to horse-drawn buggies. The horses hooves slip and look for traction where there is none on the smooth asphalt. You turn one way, you see the coast. An airplane above. You turn the other way, you see the ocean. High in the air, above the water, falcons circle. Below, colourful fishermen’s boats brave the many breaking waves. Everywhere I look, there it is. Goats bleat. Motorcycles zoom by. Horns honk.

Plans change, energy moves. Ocean, dust, air, spirit and the burning sun…perched on the edge of black Africa.

Café Dakar with Stefania Zimmer

Café Dakar shares interviews with real people living in Dakar, Senegal. We talk about life here in West Africa’s francophone capital. The ups, the downs, what we love and what we could do without. Café Dakar is all about diversity and tolerance; it’s about work, life, fun and whatever we feel people should know about this unique corner of Africa.

K.S.: Let’s go! [pause]
K.S.: Name, Last name. Date of birth and Social Security Number! [laughing]
K.S. Stefania…Zimmer.
S.Z.: Mhm.
K.S.: In Dakar since?
S.Z.: Fall, 2012.
K.S.: Occupation?
S.Z.: Now, I take care of the children.
K.S.: So, you’re a stay at home mom.
S.Z.: Mhm
K.S.: It’s a noble profession! Between us, I think it’s a very important job.
(…)
K.S.: Tell me about your first impressions of Dakar.
S.Z.: First impressions. Well, they were a bit [in German]. My first impressions were somewhat influenced by what my husband told me. He grew up in the Congo, and he knew what was waiting for us.
K.S. What do you mean? What did he tell you?
S.Z.: In terms of the people on the streets. About not making eye contact because this grabs their attention and they immediately go up to you, they beg for money. So at the beginning I was quite afraid.
K.S.: So you were ready that there would be many people in the streets and they would want something from you.. is that right?
S.Z.: Well no, I wasn’t. Not to that degree.
K.S.: So it surprised you?
S.Z.: Well it wasn’t so much shocking as it was new.
(…)
K.S. So your husband grew up in the Congo, yes? Which Congo…there are a few Congos yes?
S.Z. In Kinshasa.
(…)
S.Z. Yes he grew up there with his parents so he knew this life from there.
K.S. Your husband is an Austrian, yes?
S.Z. Yes. So he told me some things and perhaps I took it all too much to heart, so yes, I was somewhat afraid coming here, of what was waiting for me. What’s more, I came here in the 8th month of pregnancy. The motherly feelings and all.
K.S. Your first time being a mother.
S.Z. I was worried that if something happened I wouldn’t know how to defend myself.
K.S. Yes, I understand.
S.Z. Generally, it was OK. But in the beginning, the amount of people, when you drive the car, and the handicapped people on the wheelchairs lined up on the sides of the road. This terrified me.
K.S. Yes.
[pause]
K.S. Had you lived previously in a developing country? Or poor country… or I’m not even sure how to refer to it.
S.Z. No. Well – I had lived in Poland! [laughing]
K.S. [laughing] Well… perhaps Poland isn’t G8 but it’s a very developed country, relatively speaking. You start to appreciate that the more you travel, I find.
S.Z. Exactly. But yeah, otherwise no. I did go once on holiday to Mauritius.
K.S. Ooh yes, that’s over there, the Ocean…
S.Z. Near Madagascar, yes.
K.S. Awesome, how was it?
S.Z. Fantastic. So, yeah some things I didn’t understand then because I was on holiday. And when I arrived here I started getting a better idea of what’s going on and how it all works.
K.S. [sharing some of own experience of living in Haiti]
K.S. There’s more political stability here.
S.Z. Yes, but everywhere there are groups or individuals halting development. Here there is also something that makes me so angry. I worked in that infant child care centre.
(…)
S.Z. I felt such helplessness. I was volunteering at the infant child centre and I felt like I was getting nowhere. Nothing is ever going to change.
K.S. Yes, I’ve certainly heard those same theories. That poverty will be around forever.
S.Z. Yes, but why? Mentality, yes. But at the most important aspect: education. You know when I was teaching those young women sowing (the young women who live in a safe-house that is also part of the infant care centre).
K.S. Yes, how was that?
S.Z. It was hard. Firstly because they had no motivation. Completely disinterested. And the worst thing was that they didn’t know the most basic things. They didn’t know how to hold scissors or cut material or paper. They would take the scissors, “Go ahead, cut that piece”, she would press down and rip through the fabric. These kinds of things that we (Westerners) learn in kindergarten, things like drawing a line using a ruler. They don’t have that kind of education.
K.S. So trying to teach sowing must have been very challenging.
S.Z. Exactly, and the idea was that the girls learn to sow so that they can make some money and help in the upkeep of the infant care centre. And to show that they can also be economically active.
K.S. You know they (the centre) most likely have donors, and those donors supporting them financially most likely want proofs that the centre is making money for its own upkeep too. So there is a lot of pressure from above.
S.Z. In the first year I really struggled there.
K.S. How long were you there for?
S.Z. In total about 2.5 years.
K.S. That’s quite a long time. So you would go a few times a week for a few hours at a time..or?
S.Z. I initially was teaching cooking and sowing.
K.S. Was cooking easier to teach than sowing? Did the girls know more?
S.Z. [pause] They were more open.
K.S. Interesting. And after how long did you feel at home in Dakar?
(…)
S.Z. It took about a year and a half. It took so long because I had a small infant at home. So I was quite tied down. I was able to relax and enjoy Dakar more after having my second child. So it’s not really related to being here, more with my own situation. Because I was set on going to Africa to start a family!
K.S. Aha, so this was your intention coming here?
S.Z. Yeah. I figured I wouldn’t be working, I don’t speak French, and so I would focus on my new family, on my children.
K.S. Yeah, I understand. So right now you’re in a time in your life when you’re taking care of your children.
(…)
K.S. What did you do professionally before you became a mom?
S.Z. I worked as a massage therapist, finished my training to become a cosmetician. Then I went to Austria, I worked as a nanny, learned German, completed studies in translation. In the meantime I did lots of jobs like waitress, hostess while I was studying.
K.S. Tell me about your best work day as a stay-at-home and your best work day working professionally before. One of those days when you go to bed and before falling asleep you think to yourself – wow – that was a truly exceptional day. Let’s start with your life now, as a mom.
S.Z. When my kids are healthy! I wake up in the morning, none of the kids are sick. Nothing is broken at home, and I don’t have to supervise anyone who is trying to fix something that’s broken. A day when I can go out for a coffee, have some time for myself.
K.S. Very much like today then! You’re suggesting that today is a great day [laughing]
S.Z. Absolutely!
K.S. I’m very glad.
S.Z. So yeah, in addition it would be a day when I can workout a bit. But really the most important thing is that the children are all alright.
K.S. OK, so describe your best work day before becoming a mom.
S.Z. It would be a day when I don’t have to commute from place to place. Like on a weekend, perhaps a lot of stress, but I was feeling fulfilled at the end of the day, like I got something done.
K.S. Feeling accomplished.
S.Z. Yes.
K.S. Tell me what is your favourite thing about Dakar. If you were to leave tomorrow, or in a week, what would you miss most.
S.Z. The stores with the African materials.
K.S. Ah yes.. textile. Stores… you mean the stands at the market.
S.Z. Yeah.
K.S. You mentioned that you love sowing and you sow a great deal and oftentimes for presents for others. I have it on good account (from Sister Grazyna at the Infant Care Centre) that you are a master seamstress! [laughing]
S.Z. Don’t listen to her, she’s lying! [laughing]
K.S. Sorry, but in this case I’m more likely to believe her! [laughing]
K.S. I imagine you’ve spent quite a bit of time in those stands where they sell materials, “wax”.
(… discussing prices of African materials…)
K.S. So what is your least favourite things? What would you gladly change?
S.Z. You know what else I love. Those cafés along the beach on Almady. They are wonderful.
K.S. Oooh yes, I know exactly what you mean.
S.Z. What really bothers me is the heat. When it comes. The rain comes.
K.S. Like now?
S.Z. Right now it’s OK! It gets really bad. It gets hot and humid and I hate that feeling that everything is sticking to your body. Nonstop. You can’t control it.
K.S. All you can do is surrender to it.
S.Z. What I don’t like, in the people, is when they try to take advantage of me. Trick me or cheat me. They think that they can trick me. That they are intelligent enough to get the better of me… and that’s when I get really angry.
(…)
K.S. I’d like to talk a bit about Islam. You mentioned that this is the first time you’re living in a predominantly Muslim country. What is that like for you? As a woman, or as a Western woman?
S.Z. I’ve never had any issues with it, as a woman. I’ve never felt like someone is looking down on me or judging me. I never felt like I’m being treated worse because I’m not Muslim. Never.
K.S. Did you study Islam a bit, does it interest you?
S.Z. Never studied it, but yes I am curious. You know I have learned a bit from the Polish women here, those that are married to Senegalese men. I wonder do they have troubles in a mixed-culture marriage or not. It’s not easy, but it’s not as if in a mono-cultural marriage it’s easy!
K.S. Right. I feel like as long as the marriage is founded on love and respect, I figure it has as much chance of surviving as the next marriage. There are so many variables! Who knows which way it may go! [both laughing]
S.Z. You know when I really started feeling at home here. I just remembered this. It’s when I come back from my holiday. I’m usually absent about 2 months. And the people on the street, you know around my home, the seller at the shop, people in the neighborhood – they are all genuinely happy to see me when I come back, they are so happy. In Poland no one greets me in this way! They really show happiness when they see you again. You know I’ve never given them anything. They are just happy to see me.
K.S. Well yes, it is such a heart-warming feeling. I also experienced this in Haiti.
S.Z. It’s amazing. You immediately feel right at home.
S.Z. Coming back to Islam now. You know what drives me mad. The calls to prayer from the mosques. For the first 6 months I couldn’t sleep, it’s all I could hear. I think my brain got used to it though because now I don’t hear it anymore.
K.S. It’s so interesting. Everything is a question of familiarity. I was speaking with a Moroccan friend who was telling me that when he travels and stays in Europe (in non-Muslim countries) where there is no call to prayer he feels as though the city is non fully turned on, or it’s sleeping, as if someone had hit “pause” and life has stopped…despite everyone in the streets and shops going about their business. He says he misses hearing the call to prayer very much.
(…)
K.S. So you’re leaving Senegal soon.
S.Z. In one year. More or less, in one year.
K.S. And you’re planning a return to Austria. It’s going to be so different.
S.Z. With big changes like that you have to take a break. To take time to adapt, and gather your strength so that you have the energy to fight again.
K.S. Your kids speak Polish, yes?
S.Z. Yes, they are trilingual. Polish, German and French.
K.S. Do they speak Wolof?
S.Z. No. Because white children usually learn Wolof from their nanny, but our nanny is from Togo so she doesn’t speak in Wolof.
(…)
K.S. Would you like to come back here in the future on holiday or do you really see this as a closing of a chapter and you want to focus on what’s coming next.
S.Z. Yes, more so the end of a chapter. Perhaps when my children are older they will want to travel here to discover the country where they were born. They were both born in Senegal. But then maybe they would come on their own.
K.S. And when someone from Poland, or from the West, who has never been to Africa speaks to you about this, or shares their opinion of what they think Senegal or Africa is like.. what do they say? Do you correct them on the stereotypes they share?
S.Z. Yes everyone is horrified and I’m perceived as incredibly adventurous for being here and that I have had children here and that I live here and manage here. They cannot conceive of it.
K.S. What do you think they imagine?
S.Z. Well I think they imagine the reality, part of the reality, but it’s not the reality we deal with. Because we don’t live in the slums. The slums are outside. This is their image of things, and it’s not false, it’s just that we white people, we are not part of that.
K.S. There are different social spheres that are created because of it. Also a sign of development, in my opinion, that foreigners can come and live in relative comfort. We do contribute to bringing money, business and development, after all.
S.Z. Yes, and you know there are quite a few rich Senegalese also. I remembered how surprised I was when my first child went to the nursery, at the age of 18 months, and I saw very young, Senegalese children there and their rich parents had dressed them in designer clothes. Ralph Lauren belt, stylish, shirt from Tommy Hilfiger, very small children. Our European children looked poor and neglected next to them!
K.S. Complexes of poverty, I think. Once you cross over to the other side and actually make money, you have to go out of your way to show it to others.
S.Z. They invest a lot in clothing. You have to look good out on the street. And I remember seeing this in Russia and Belarus. The people there really go out of their way to dress fancy, overly fancy. They overdo it, it ends up looking tacky.
K.S. Tacky, for sure.
S.Z. Thankfully here it’s not tacky, they do have their “wax”, their African materials, it does look good.
K.S. Anything else you’d like to add, about Senegal?
S.Z. The peanuts are delicious. When I take them to Poland, and the cashews, people cannot believe that it can really taste that good.
K.S. And if you could say something to Senegal, if Senegal could be personified, what would you tell that person? Anything goes.
S.Z.: Get yourself organized. Don’t wait for someone’s help, just do it on your own.
K.S.: And if you were to thank this person (for your stay here)?
S.Z.: Well yes the previous one was advice. And to thank? I would thank that person for the sincerity and warm welcome and hospitality. What I said before – that people see you on the streets and they are genuinely happy to see you. This openness and sincerity. And I would say “Do not lose this!”…”Do not lose this on your way to the top!”.
K.S.: The Taranga.
S.Z.: Yes.
K.S.: Thank you.

Post-interview selfies

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For original interview recording (in Polish):

A Sunday stroll on the beach in Yoff

Today is an important day for Muslims as they make their way to the Yoff Mosque to listen to a well-known Marabout speak. Everyone is dressed in white. Why? A young woman tells us this is so “you cannot tell the difference between the rich and the poor”.

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Then, a walk along the beach turning here and there with my camera trying to capture some of the action. Birds (falcons, I think!), horse-drawn carts, police on horse-back, kids, more kids, kids playing soccer, passersby and so many young people asking to have their picture taken!

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And my favourite shot of the day. So much to take in here!

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And a few more, of the colourful fishing boats and horse carts.

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Oh, the strange and not-so-strange things we can find on the beach. There were dead puffer fish too, some full of air like full balloons lying in the sand, some looked punctured.

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I would love to see how these fishing boats are painted! Or, better yet, participate in the painting.

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I love authentic smiles and natural, un-posed photos.

Near the water it looks like the goats are pilgrim-aging to the mosque as well. Some of them are even dressed in white.

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She was a bit camera-shy at first.

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Near my home I can hear both the airplanes taking off and the horse’s carts trotting along the street. Sometimes, all at once.

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Question, argue, negotiate, discuss, fuss, fuss, fuss, something pops…and you get your answer

“Jàmm rekk.”

Only peace.

After my fourth class of Wolof I can barely count to 4, although I can say hello, how are you (in 5 different ways) and ask about the health and wellbeing of every single member of your family. Wolof also makes a distinction in the way of questioning and answering based on whether or not you are located at that person’s home (where the family lives) or whether you meet in another location. This makes me want to get invited to someone’s home just so I can have the pleasure of correctly using this greeting nuance in real life. Instead, we practice in the classroom. Repeating, re-reading, muttering under our breaths and trying to hear the difference between a strong, accentuated “A!” and a less accentuated yet still forceful “a!”. Umm…be careful, the teacher warns us:

  • “Làkk” means to speak a language
  • “Lakk” means to burn.

Too bad I can’t hear the difference.

Kind of how my francophone colleagues say “sheep” instead of “ship” (bless them, my ear can barely discriminate between “roue” and “rue“!) and how I thought for the past 2 months that one of the vessels we were surveying is called “Sister Endurance” when in fact it is called “Seastar Endurance”. Ahh.. well, yes. For a cargo freighter, Seastar does make a bit more sense than Sister.

So wooly boats, streets and wheels aside, whatever it is that I’m stuttering out right now I feel closer to burning Wolof (sorry!) than to actually speaking it.

The classes are great opportunities to nitpick at every little linguistic detail I and my classmates can think of. I have noticed 2 general trends when it comes to getting our answers. First, one of us makes a remark about one of the phrases in the lesson’s dialogue. We get fussy about why an article is like this or why a preposition is like that. We’re 9 people, from 4 continents, likely holding a dozen distinct languages between us…conversations get interesting, fast. So far, a deeper questioning-of-Wolof situation has evolved in one of 2 ways:

Option 1: 

1. The teacher tells us to calm down (N’dank, n’dank!) and stop trying to understand things so soon. Foolish us. He recommends we fully accept certain things as they are, at least for now. He promises that we will learn what we want to know at some time in the future.

To summarize for your notes: The answer to your question is: you are not meant to know yet.

Option 2:

2. Our question sparks other questions and spirals into a small argument. We fuel the spontaneous blaze as everyone raises their own voice to repeat what they think they have learned and confirm this new learning with the teacher. Noise follows. We take a breath, noise dies down. The teacher shows us that in French there are arbitrary grammar rules too. This is meant to encourage acceptance of Wolof’s oddities (thus saving him from the explaining). Then, he translates his French grammar lesson to English because half of the class does not speak French (blank stares). Then, finally, with surprising clarity he gives the answer we have been waiting for. This is because of that because it belongs in that other category. Oh! We exclaim. Oh! Oh! Well that is exactly what we wanted to know! How straight-forward it all seems now.

Point #2, to summarize for your notes: The way to receive the clear answer to your question seems to be: Question, argue, negotiate, discuss, fuss, fuss, fuss, something pops…and you get your answer.

Actually, that summarizes my first few weeks in Senegal pretty well! Life, work and Wolof bumble along, in its own sauce of blissful surrender and ruckus of negotiation and insistency. At least, I think, I’m starting to get some answers.

Featured image: View on Dakar

It’s not really about the tea

After so many inspections of rice in warehouses comes the invitation to eat and drink. Everyone hovers around a big, metal bowl filled with spicy rice and fish elaborated with colours of boiled carrot and cassava and pokes a spoon in eagerly. It is delicious. I’m pretty sure we’re sharing spoons. Everyone crouches flat-footed on the dusty warehouse floor while I am offered a chair. I try to refuse the meal; it is brushed off quickly. I am hungry; I was only going through my own cultural rituals of politeness after all. Would I like an after meal tea? Why of course, the Ataya. I know the word, they are glad that I am learning. I am glad that I am learning too.

It is so sweet this tea, and I’m pretty sure we’re sharing glasses too. Bottoms up. Principles of hygiene aside, the hospitality here is, in a way, so matter of fact. As if well, obviously, the only way to be, is to share what one has with those one is with. Back at the office, I peek into my tin of my special brew of roasted-grain beverage that I brought with me from Europe. A taste of a luxury that will be difficult (or impossible) to find here. It has been looked into by another, the powder is less than half of what it was when I saw it last. I say nothing. They have shared with me. Obviously, there is an unspoken rule that if I leave things lying around it is assumed to be sharable with others. I hope it was enjoyed by whoever enjoyed it. I step out to buy fruit and ask my colleagues what they would like; bananas, mangoes, oranges and tiny Gala apples spread their colours out on the table and we share some more. This is how it is here, I am learning. I feel the belt that is my strict, Western concept of property and fairness loosen a notch. It feels more comfortable this way anyways.