Knock knock

When you work for an African NGO in a small town where all of your colleagues are your only social circle and thankfully there are a few who you actually want to be friends with.

I hear a tentative knock-knock on my bedroom door around 10pm. Sure we have been roommates now for close to a month but we keep to our privacy. To our semblance of a normal life. We try to keep our crazy laughter and endless discussions to the kitchen and the living room. This bedroom knock knock is a first.

I invite her in throwing a casual “I don’t bite” in French to encourage her tentative entry. She holds out a neatly pair of folded thongs. My own thongs. She tells me “I found these in my laundry”.

Peels of laughter ensue. N. continues. “Actually, I found them one time, but then I put them away and when the cleaning lady returned she put them in my laundry again. So I took this as a sign that she thinks they belong in this house. So I figured they must be yours.”

Me, in my head, thinking to myself that the only other roommates we have had here have been men, the CTO and a Development Manager, folks who come and stay for a week or so at a time. They certainly don’t wear pale blue with white speckles thongs. At least I hope they don’t.

P.S. I’m also secretly relieved that it’s my pretty panties she’s found not the faded, grey grannie bloomers that I also like to wear on an I’m-feeling-icky day. Phew.

Two silent minutes ensue.

Knock-knock I hear again on my door. I ask N. what the trouble is this time.

“I’m wondering if perhaps you have any of my panties?”

Considering she’s a specialist in data quality and audit it makes perfect sense that she found one anomaly in our laundry stacks and then prudently checked to see if the reverse might be true also. But I had to find my breath again after our laugh attack before arriving at that intelligent conclusion.

I make sure that my colleague does in fact have clean underwear for tomorrow (sometimes I find that I push my HR duties just a little too far), and I let her know that I haven’t yet found clothes or underclothes in my laundry that don’t belong to me.

I’m not fussed, as long as no one gets their knickers in a knot.

Sweat and Smile more: it’s October in Senegal

It’s that month of the year in Senegal when we all secretly wish we could exit the country – it’s October. It’s our month when we endure the heat and humidity of the rainy season but without the welcome breaks that come with the coolness of the rains. In short, it’s hot and humid all the time, no exceptions. Average daily bathing frequency increases to 2-3 times although considering that your skin is constantly sticky it’s hard to tell the difference between wet-just-came-out-of-the-shower and wet-I-just-woke-up-in-the-morning. I’ve always admired the people who look cool and collected during this time, as I myself feel like a soggy sponge. I can only assume these cool people live in a universe of air-conditioners while the rest of us have to make-do as best we can. You can fight it or you can embrace it. Here is a handy 6-step guide on how to meet the heat head-on: just sweat more.

1. Are you of Eastern European origins (aka. Polish, Russian) and/or you love drinking hot tea every day regardless of the season? Well, you’re in luck. Someone, somewhere once said that drinking hot beverages in hot weather actually cools you down (ummm.. ok..) but while that theory remains questionable rest assured you will sweat more with a mug of hot tea between your hands and in your belly. You’ll pay for your tea addiction however with a follow-up shower.

2. Turns out in fact just eating and drinking alone is enough to make you sweat more. Are you hungry? Option one is to bring a towel to mop up your face as you tuck into your breakfast. Isn’t it fascinating how you can literally feel the droplets of sweat appear on your skin as your metabolism churns and burns and extracts all of the lovely caloric energy from what you ingest? Yay for you. Just don’t lean in too far over the breakfast table and drip sweat from your chin into your coffee mug. Option two: fast. You can always tell people you’re making up a few of your fasting days that you missed during Ramadan.

3. Are you without A/C at night and eager to feel a fan’s gentle breeze on your naked body as you lie down in a subtle pool of your own sweat? Unless you’ve found that wonderful, silent fan (which every time I call the sellers in Dakar they tell me is sold out…) equip yourself with ear plugs if you’re not used to the fan noise. But, rest assured, you can always turn it off and splash along happily and silently in your sweat as you attempt to get some shut-eye. Waking up with a cold, tired, clammy feeling on the back of your neck and in your hair is a unique, character-building experience that should be lived by everyone at least once.

4. Do you love working out? Me too. and it just so happens that the best time to work out right now is at noon or 1pm when the sun and heat reach their zenith. Bring a towel (or 3) with you to the gym as you mop up your face, arms, and any exposed skin regularly every 30 seconds. You may even want to bring a second set of workout clothes as your first set will quickly be wet to the last stitch. Going pee between cardio and weight-lifting never took so long as you unroll your tight work-out pants down your thighs, do your thing, and then roll the soggy material back up  your body. It’s so sexy. Also, make sure you consume several liters of water while you workout to make sure you’re not drying up on the inside.

5. Get used to giving and receiving sweaty hugs with your friends. If sweaty hugs make you embarrassed you might even sweat a little more. Yay!

6. Do you love yoga? So do I! The great thing about October in Senegal is that Bikram yoga is free and it’s everywhere (and some might say it’s somewhat unavoidable). Enjoy your scorching rooftop yoga practice as you slip and slide around on your mat. Hold that side plank for 3 breaths now. Don’t mind your downward facing dog if your hands and feet slip beyond the edges of your sloppy mat. Never practiced Bikram before? Me either. But they tell me it’s done in 35-38 degrees Celcius conditions which sounds really cool and refreshing right now.

Cheer up folks. Sweat is 99% water (and 1% other stuff?) so as long as you stay hydrated and humble you’ll move through this phase of living in a wet and humid world gracefully. It’s a special time, so let’s enjoy it. Cold showers never felt so good. Face towels will save your face (literally and socially speaking) and shaving your head if you’re a woman sounds really appealing right now. Just keep your patience and your hair on, and this too shall pass.

Making inside of yourself a safe place to be

As I embark soon on a new adventure to a new place, one which is very likely to be less comfortable and entertaining from a Western perspective than my previous home base, I feel completely at peace with my decision. Driving around Calgary yesterday morning I imagined chatting with a local teenager about my choice and explaining to them the amenities that I will soon be without as I settle into typical town life in a West African country. There will be no shopping malls, no cinema, very little diversity in restaurant food and certainly no luxuries such as Apple Stores and Cirque du Soleil. I’m visualizing instead sunlight, warmth, a simple home with a simple office and some dusty roads to get from one to the other*. These images brings ease to my heart. I could imagine however that it would make my hypothetical teenager cringe in distaste. She would then turn to me, bewildered, asking “How the hell are you going to survive out there ?!?” wondering why on Earth I would choose to move to a place like this, and do it willingly.

When I think of the many forms of entertainment and distractions that my Canadian reality currently offers me, I consider why they exist in the first place. For some reason, ever since I’ve arrived back here from Africa earlier this summer, the topic of mental health here in Canada has often been on my mind and shared in discussions. I am told that after an economic downturn when Calgarians were earning the big bucks working for oil & gas firms there has been a slump, many lay-offs and consequently many people moving from a place of personal financial power to what can be seen as a fall in the ranks. They are dealing with life’s ups and downs, as we all do, and some are letting go of how things used to be with less grace than others. Depression and its extreme cousin, suicide, have already been present for a long time, and now, or so I am told, they are finding a stronger foothold. Calgary has been an economic powerhouse for many Canadians (and many immigrants) and has drawn people from outside of the province for a long time. Migration for the chance of better economic conditions happens all the time and everywhere, and it can also bring with it a lacking sense of community and belonging. If so many of us are from somewhere else and we have all essentially gathered here in the pursuit of the dollar, does this common purpose actually bring us together in any real, community-building way?

Human beings desire meaningful and lasting relationships with other human beings. No amount of facebooks, instagrams or facetimes can ever substitute our basic human needs as the social creatures that we are. If you think they can then I think that you are kidding yourself. Yes the online tools can be useful in so far as we can share basic communication and ideas with those who are far away, and with those who are nearby, at least in my humble opinion, they can serve to plan an actual face to face meeting.

Art, literature, entertainment, great food and beautiful shows can add richness and beauty to our lives, yet whether or not they can be a part of our long-term happiness depends on why we reach for them in the first place. Our own emotions and experiences of life can feel so overwhelming at times that all we want to do is to escape, and for that, I am unhappy to report, we have already found a million and one solutions. Consider every addiction ever heard of and every experience where we are stimulated and lose all sense of time – and therein we have found an escape. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying we need to be aware of it, and to be aware of why we are doing it. Escape once, escape twice and continue reaching for something to numb that which is alive and real in you and you are in many ways cheating yourself. This can be a calculated cheating and please believe me when I express my heartfelt empathy for all those facing huge losses and traumas in their lives. Nevertheless, my attention comes back to whether or not what are doing is done with awareness and if, with that awareness, we can begin to glimpse the consequences of these escapes. The less we feel safe with what is present now in life, the less that we can trust in a mysterious unfolding of events that so often we can not comprehend, the less we feel safe within ourselves.

What I felt like saying yesterday in this conversation with the Canadian teenager in my head, is that what allows me to live in places devoid of what some people might consider good living and good entertainment is that I have created – and I continue to create – safety within myself to be with myself. I realize now that any practice I have ever practiced in being gentle with myself, in being kind and considerate with myself in any struggle that I am facing has created a place of softness and relaxation within me. This softness allows me to breathe, if even just a little or for just one second more, and to be with myself as I am and to be in peace. If a situation still feels overwhelming I can choose to escape into a movie, a book, take a trip or grab a bottle of red and go dancing (yup, sometimes it’s the best solution!) then I do so consciously and not without acknowledging that I have taken the time, sometimes nothing more than a short minute, to practice finding safety within myself first. Practice, practice and practice more and what unfolds is a mind and an internal universe which is a place of comfort. It is a place where I happily go and I visit it not to judge, hurt and scream at myself but instead it is where I retreat inside to find understanding, to connect with peace and, as is often the case, simply to breathe, accept and to let it be. This place has become sacred and, over time, even enjoyable so that when I’m done connecting within and I’m reaching for entertainment I reach much more often now for that which will add beauty to this internal universe as opposed to reaching for something or someone who will help me to escape it.

Up to now I never fully considered what all of the readings and teachings in buddhism, yoga and meditation – everything that I learn and practice which rings so true in my heart about surrender, acceptance, non-violence and non-stealing – would really mean when put together. What I have recently discovered is that this trust in the Divine, the trust that I have in my own path and the understanding of how things truly are coming together to form an internal place of safety and light that serves me in any time and through any storm. And because this special place is within myself and always present I take it with me everywhere that I go.

I can only add that I would wish such a place of safety would be uncovered and accessible inside each and every person.

**

*That’s not to say that markets and musical concerts and shows in my African town don’t exist, because they do, but they certainly won’t be presented in the same way as we would expect it in Canada. This makes them interesting, yes, but rarely restful.

Image: practicing a 3-legged dog at yoga teacher training in Canada, summer of 2018. Photo credit to Inspired Yoga Institute

Look up, look deep and tell me what you see

I’m fixing up my résumé, and it’s not for the first or the last time. I also realize that what I want to write is not necessarily what I should write. They tell me that I’m meant to list, yet again, my education and work experiences. I want to write the whole truth. I want to show that the capacity to dream, to visualize and to see what is not really there is what has seen me through every change, every move and every downfall. That when I see the uplifted wings of a bird in flight in a passing cloud and I draw inspiration from it, and when I feel the wind in my soul that to you is only rustling the leaves of this birch in front of us, it is then that I realize that this lifelong friendship that I have cultivated with my imagination is my greatest ally. This faithful companion of all of my travels, real and imagined, can take up the space of the whole Universe and also fits easily, light as a feather, into my pocket or in the cusp of my hand. This breath that brings a smile to my lips when no smiles are warranted is the real reason for anything that I have the right to call my success.

I wish I could tell them that.

I wish I could explain that to them. That it didn’t matter so much that I was in a remote village then with no one to trust because I had white paper and my stories to write. And yes, there were also the mountains and sunrise climbs up to the top (because, obviously, mountain tops are even better for dreaming). That later on when I got home-sick I could go to the island and paint a maple leaf on a canvas. That in every colleague and every employee and every person what I first see is pure light and potential. That with near religious observance I dedicate at least several hours to my every Sunday for simply gazing into the deep blue sky and dreaming.

My imagination is my salvation.

The attitudes of all of the characters of all of the books and movies that I have ever loved live together there. And we romp alongside those people I love and who the world tells me are “real”. Tigers can backpack through Africa and grizzly bears are free to roam India. The elderly dare rock-climbing while toddlers ponder philosophy. Nonsense can be common sense if I want it to be. What is impossible in this world is an every-day cup of tea in mine.

I would describe how lonely I could feel except that I never do. Because with a deep breath and a look up I again connect with everything I see and everything that you can not. I could try to explain it to you but you see how crude it looks just by reading this post. Perhaps you see and you feel your own magic, I don’t know since I’m not living in your skin. Then again some of the time I’m absent from my own since this capacity to go so far beyond the body allows me to travel when I’m traveling and when I’m not.
They tell me that there are people who only see the here and now and the crude realities. My own imagination balks at the very idea; stops dead in its tracks. It and I are so close that it’s hard for us to imagine that other families can be broken.

With a blink and my intention I can also easily come back to this seat and the firmness of the laptop. Imagination is the least demanding of all of my loved ones, never asking for more than I need.

In my résumé I would quote Imagination as my education and also as my most influential and supportive work partner in all of my professional experiences. I would work its ideas and colour into every line of my whole life history. I would sit back, smile and admire my own daring. Then, in my final act of impudence, I would replace it for my street address and see if they understand my understanding of home.

***

Image source: http://wallpapercraze.com/wallpaper/Imagination-Realm/

The day that I became a Millionaire

“To get the price in Euros, take the local price and remove the last three zeros and then multiply the remaining number by 1.5”, it was my first day in Dakar and my boss was sharing some Dakar life tips with me. Like most people who first arrive in Senegal it was initially sluggish work converting the local currency of CFA French francs to a more familiar currency like Euros or Dollars. His mathematical trick was very useful and relatively accurate too. I considered the room rentals I had seen for 100,000 Francs and realized it was equivalent to about 150 Euros. I practiced too with our current taxi fare: I took 4,000 Francs and arrived at 6 Euros. With some more practice during the next few days I was quickly seeing through the numerous zeros to values more readily understandable to me.

With the passing months in Senegal I enjoyed new meetings with expats and locals some of which developed into great friendships. We lived in the same neighbourhoods close to each other and would often meet for surfing or drinks at the local beach. Dakar being more like an overgrown village than a city you can easily bump into people you know without ever using your phone to message or call them. While observing and enjoying our colourful, African surroundings one Sunday afternoon a friend and I began musing on wealth. It clearly isn’t just about financial comfort. What good is money flow in an environment devoid of the pleasures of life, namely friendships, peace, sunshine and free-time ? What does wealth mean to me ?

We both agreed that living in Senegal we felt very wealthy in regards to human relationships, for friendships and for the sense of community. In Dakar you can easily be with people and engaging with people and surrounded by people all of the time. If you want your private and alone time you can carve it out for yourself (or learn surfing like I did and hang out alone in the peace of the ocean!) and when you’re ready you can go back to the people. In a tropical climate we spend more time outside anyways, so we’re constantly  seeing each other. We were seeing the same smiling faces and growing in our sense of community. This difficult to measure feeling of belonging and unity was real and present. I was mentally counting all of my good friendships, like gently shifting precious jewels in a vault, and feeling very wealthy indeed. And I was rarely considering the realm of Facebook “friends” measured not by true friendship’s real weight in gold but by the penny hundreds. Few of these were close friends, many more were simply acquaintances. Facebook friendships converted to real-life friendship in a similar way as the local Francs shifted in my mind to Euros.

We counted among our other measures of wealth our physical good health and the abundant warmth and sunshine, these last undoubtedly adding to our mental health and happiness. I looked to a new painting I had created a few weeks earlier and considered my artistic wealth. I had done my morning practice of yoga and meditation that day and felt abundant in peace of mind. We dove into a delicious dish of fresh fish and rice and our bellies rumbled their own feelings of wealth and contentment.

It wasn’t until I considered the abysmally low Senegalese wages that I converted my own salary in Euros to Francs and realized with a start that I was in fact a millionaire. Ha! I had some savings and together with my monthly income I was quite literally rolling in the millions! I could take this a step further and consider my access to credit in Canada which would bump me up into the category of multi-millionaire. Of course these were millions of Francs and not millions of Euros and we already know how these two relate to each other. It gave me a giggle all the same and half in jest, half in earnest, I wrote down on my daily to-do list that day “become a millionaire”, and then crossed it off. In that moment it wasn’t about the financial disparities shared between the relatively poor and the relatively rich in Senegal (that would require a separate blog post/novel of its own!)…it was about an additional break-down of the so-called Western and capitalist values. “Make my first million” is on the minds and the milestones of many entrepreneurs these days. If I were to play by their rules then my mission was accomplished. Without meaning to, I had arrived. I observed another facade shatter. With a laugh and a sigh we went back to our lunch and our sunshine and greeted a new friend come to join us for the meal.

The day that I fully realized all of the measures of my wealth was the same day that I stopped converting the currency of my own values to those of another world.

***cover photo: Praya de Arrifana, Algarve coast, Portugal

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

Oh those darned things Grandmothers say

We while away the time by cooking and eating. My grandma cooks, and I eat. Before and after our copious meals we talk. It turns out that my grandma’s preserves and roast turkey hock also come with a rich accompaniment of home-cooked Polish expressions. Like idioms, just no one else has ever heard of them. I ask if we two are expecting company for lunch because the quantity of food prepared could easily feed a hungry family of six. “Narobiłam tego wszystkiego jak głupi piwa” (I cooked as much food as an idiot brewing insane amounts of beer) which, when I think about it, is a very colourful turn of phrase for any unnecessary excess.

***

Life discussions commence and we arrive at the conclusion that there is always more than one solution to any problem. To quote grannie: “świat nie torba – z każdego wyjścia są dwa wyjścia” (the world is not a handbag – for every way out there are atleast two exits”)

***

In regards to several noted Polish politicians: “Ciemny jak tabaka w rogu” (he’s as dark as the snuff in the corner). Read: very stupid.

***

Me: Grandma, do you feel that your mom and dad really loved each other?

Grandma: Energetically: “Well yes, of course they loved each other.”

Her voice begins trailing…

Me: “Why the hesitation?”

Grandma: “My father really loved my mother. My mother loved him too, but she also had a lot of other ideas in her head.”

***

Grandma continues on the topic of love.

Grandma: “I don’t understand those głupie baby (stupid women) who fawn all over men and fall apart when things go wrong, yet again, and their poor hearts are broken.” She sighs heavily. “What the hell is their problem? An intelligent women checks to see if the man is in love with her first before falling in love herself.”

Me: Half laughing, half amazed. “Let me write that down”.

***

Grandma: “Really, life is made up of a lot of small, quirky details. “Drobne rzeczy uwierają jak ciasny but.” (The small things can wear you down step by step like an ill-fitting shoe).

***

Grandma tells about her first husband’s (my grandpa’s) field work in the forests of Poland circa 1950s and 1960s aka. back in communist times. He studied biology and forestry. He wasn’t a very organized fellow. He was also an artysta and liked to paint and write poetry in his free time.

Grandma: “He came home from the field work with his mapa sztabowa (a kind of military map) of some of the forests of Poland. He and his team had spent many months working out the exact details of the terrain. Every last tree and mushroom were outlined on this map. Marian lost the map. He lost the map at the train station. I nearly lost my mind from worry. The general public is not meant to see these maps; they were considered top secret military information. We could have gone to jail for leaving a document like that lying about.”

Me: “So what did you do?”

Grandma: “I dropped everything and immediately went to the train station to look for it. I hunted high and low at every bench and nook and cranny and I found no trace of the map. Marian went back to the office that winter to rework the map with his team from scratch. Luckily no one ever got upset with us for that first one which got lost.”

She was holding her breath and slowly lets it go.

***

Grandma continues to dish out her marital advice and I eagerly take notes. I’m not married, but I might be one day, so I’m eager to learn.

Grandma: “One of my cleaning ladies, well she told me about her sister, who got into some fuss with her husband. The man started drinking more and more and even became violent and started hitting her. She tried to put up with it and then to find a solution but to no avail. She left the man. The trouble is that now her grandmother is angry at her and tells her that she should go back to her husband! She goes on and on about how marriage is for life and that she should stick to her husband for better and for worse and so on.”

I’m in shock, and irritated with that other grandmother for being so painfully old-fashioned.

Grandma: “Last time she was here (the cleaning lady), she was very upset about her sister and this situation with their grandmother so she told me about it. I recommended that her sister come and see me and we can have a chat and she can talk to a grandma who is more modern and certainly won’t try to talk her into going back into a bad relationship.”

Me: “That’s it?”

Grandma: “Well, no. In all honesty, I’d like to tell her: “Pani Helenko: niech Pani weźmie coś ciężkiego i mu przyłoży, to z niego gówno i buty zostaną.” (Dear Ms. Helen, please take a heavy object and apply it to your idiot of a husband and all that will be left of him is his shit and shoes).

***

We are pulling her small Fiat out of grannie’s garage and someone has awkwardly parked their large van in front of the gate blocking our way.

Grandma: “Krowa na pastwisku lepiej się zaparkuje niż niejeden chłop” (A cow in a field knows how to park herself better than many a man).

Me: “But Grandma, we can’t even see the driver. You don’t know if it’s a man or not.”

Sure enough, we pull up to the gate and we see a man behind the wheel.

Grandma: “Oh my dear”, she says to me in a knowing way “No woman would be stupid enough to park like that.”

***

After lunch, grandma and I like to turn on the T.V. and watch silly programs (by silly programs I mean cop shows, sit-coms or Polish politics, but between you and me there isn’t much difference between any of them). One of the sitcoms is called “School” and portrays teenagers in a typical, Polish high-school. It’s complete with elaborate romantic dramas of the many youths and their unstable emotions. Today the students are sharing about their sexual experiences and one of the girls is desperate to find a guy, any guy, who she can sleep with just so that she can lose her virginity. She feels left behind since everyone else is “doing it”.

Grandma: “What the hell is wrong with the young fry today. They have sex like I used to go sledding. Some school friend would come by the house in the winter and it didn’t matter whether I liked him or not, if he invited me to go sledding, I would go.”

***

Me: “Grandma, yesterday I received a text message from you, but it only contained the letter “B”. Just that single letter, nothing more.

I’ve been texting my grandma every day while I’m in town and when I see her she lets me know that she has received my messages. She never texts me back though.

I was therefore very surprised to receive a message, and a peculiar one at that.

Grandma: “Yes that was me, I sent you a text message.”

Me: “Does the “B” stand for Babcia*?”

Grandma: “Yes, my finger slipped.”

She had hit send before she could write the rest of her message 🙂

*Babcia, meaning grandmother in Polish.

The so-called Universal Currency

“What time shall we have the meeting” I interrupt M., as he politely blinks up at me from his computer screen. “Whenever you like, whenever you like.” is his automatic reply. After nearly two years of working side-by-side with the head of our team in Senegal I’ve grown wise in his ways and I know he’s likely to slip out of the office, into his car and drive away at any moment. Whether he simply feels like leaving the endless barrage of questions presented to him by his employees, or there’s some kind of urgent rice cargo crisis to deal with at the Port of Dakar, I don’t always know why he leaves and where he goes. “You plan to stay here all morning?” I double check with him trying to keep my voice level. It’s hard to hide the fact that this meeting is important to me, and so infrequent are our meetings, between the movement of all of our bodies seeking the office, port, warehouses and lunch, that I’ll consider it close to a miracle if we are actually able to gather the 4 secretaries, myself and M. all together in one room for 10 minutes this morning. I’m also daring to dream for no cell-phone interruptions during that time. “Does 10:00am work for you?” as I glance at my phone which states 9:30. I wince internally at this display of OCD (from an African perspective) and regular-time-management (Western perspective). To some degree it really doesn’t matter how many books you read and how many people you talk to about our different concepts of time because when push comes to shove and when your nerves are rattled you’ll inevitably default to the culture which is most deeply ingrained in you. I’ve physically experienced the zombie-like state of waiting hours for a bus to fill before it leaves to your destination (in Haiti) numerous times, so you might say, on a deeper level, I really do understand the maxim “the bus leaves when there are enough bodies to fill it” as the very logical and reasonable answer to the question offered by the white woman “Please sir, when is this bus scheduled to leave?” I feel that if not for M.’s distraction while he tries to send photos of discharged merchandise, correct a survey report and answer an email all at the same time (while invigorating himself with a smack of his desktop PC and grumbling that he’s having technical problems again).. he really would tell me that the meeting will simply take place at the time when everyone gathers in the same place to have the meeting. Sigh. My exhausted Western psyche gives up on the questions of time, for the time being. In my last attempt at organization I tackle the question of location. I decide to make life easier for M. and to simply inform him in which room we will meet instead of asking him about it. I can tell that he is inwardly grateful and I leave him to his work for another 30 minutes. My own brain is quickly calculating what kind of work I can actually get done in this time frame. I sigh again realizing that the obsessive pursuit of efficiency is another pernicious Western quality that I’m gladly weeding out of myself with calm, calculated movements. That particular weed is obviously far from all-out, I realize. My nerves are tense and I feel like a cold, iron fist is closing around my heart. I know I won’t be able to get any real work done in this state. I also know that I’m doing the right thing and that it’s time to leave here, but that doesn’t make today’s meeting any simpler. How do you tell the kind, calm people (read: Senegalese) who have put up with your crazy moods and antics for two whole years that your time together has come to an end? In fact, it’s for this, for their patience and tolerance (especially for M.’s patience!) of my strange behaviours that I am most grateful. They’ve seen their boss weeping from exhaustion and frustration (I’m not very good at hiding my emotional break-downs and well, seriously, dealing with European clients when you work in Senegal is not easy) and heard me raising my voice at employees as I would get increasingly irritated that for the third time in the same week they’re explaining to me how they don’t have enough phone credit to call their colleague in such and such warehouse, in essence to properly DO THEIR JOB. Wow, my nerves still get rattled when I think of that. The point is, after every occasional outburst when I would start breathing again, I’d see that great cultural divide again, what looks in my mind’s eye more like the chasm of the Grand Canyon, between us and them and our different concepts of everything. And through it all, when I would come to my senses again, they were present there for me and smiling, and reassuring me, reminding me that I always had tomorrow to try it again.

It’s as though Western mind has so thoroughly bought into the ideas that time and money are to be dominated and controlled by us and buried it so deep in our thought process that we allow ourselves to forget that it is all an invention in the first place. Instead we discuss investment strategies and the benefits of morning yoga practices acting as though we are the Lords of Everything. An African observes Time, like a neighbour passing by, and doesn’t seek to respect it, while he pulls out the crumpled paper money from a dark hole, smooths it out, and considers it for using it as kindling to help along the small fire cooking his fresh fish. It is paper, after all. Trouble is, his mind has been warped with ideas of modern society as well, and whether he knows it or not he’s slave to the money dance now too. He’ll pocket the bill and try to find more. Besides, if local superstition is right his 1,000Francs note with careful prayer and attention may yet become a 10,000Francs note. Yet, superstitions aside, I feel his eyes will see paper first and currency later, as our eyes, if we care to see deeper, must make the opposite journey. Money then is defined not only by different currencies our nations use but by a different appreciation of what the paper-bill actually is and what it can do for you. Meanwhile Time, the so-called universal currency, bows to the African not unlike a slave to his master. It is glad to be molded by humans and not the other way around or otherwise, if it is too hot or we are feeling too lazy, it is equally happy to move on by.

Somewhere around a quarter past 10:00, I shepherd the secretaries, myself and M. into one of the office rooms, trying to ignore the bleating of the sheep outside, to begin our short meeting.

***

A month later, in early April, I receive a small, sweet taste of reverse culture shock. My mother and I have been visiting the historic centre of Warsaw all day and we’re feeling sleepy as we step back inside our flat at around 4:00pm. It’s a sunny, bright day and my eyelids droop as I head to my father’s office, temporarily my bedroom, for an afternoon nap. Few things feel as delicious on a Sunday (and on a holiday) as a sluggish cat-nap in the afternoon warmth and light. I snuggle in to the warm blankets I’ve laid out on the floor and sleep for atleast an hour. When I awake my thoughts are hazy and lazy. I do however perceive a small, nudge inside my skull reminding me that I have some kind of meeting at 6:00pm. Oh yes, the parents of a dear friend in Dakar are coming over for tea, I remind myself. Glancing at my phone it reads 17:40 at which point two parallel thoughts spring to life in my mind. Firstly, I think happily that I have plenty of time to take a shower, get dressed and have a bite to eat (haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast and my belly is rumbling) since no one shows up for a meeting like this on time anyways, so I can easily interpret 6:00pm as 6:30 or 7:00pm at the earliest. I sink in to happy visions of a warm shower and delicious sourkrout for dinner. I shake myself a little bit more awake though since I realize it’s a very Dakar-esque thought that I’m having and I am no longer there so perhaps it is not suited to be here. This is when the second though bounces in joyfully to remind me that although I am meeting this couple for the first time I should remember that Polish people are extremely punctual and so I can expect them to be here at exactly 6:00pm. Which also means that I have basically no time to do anything that I wanted to do before they arrive. Darn. That thought also reminds me about some idea of respecting-other-peoples-time being an importance concept in our societies and so on. I feel like I’m relearning basic concepts from my elementary textbooks while I nod sleepily, and somewhat guiltily, like the student in the back of the hot classroom who has been pretending to pay attention but has actually been doodling in their notebook and dozing this whole time. I mentally close the doodle-book, click my phone off and drag myself out of my pile of blankets laughing at this internal dialogue. The funniest thing is that thought number two is running around the room trying to get me to panic, aka. to stress me out. I acknowledge thought number two because it’s probably right in facts alone, and pat thought number one on the head since it’s way of being, its relaxed and calm manner, is much more to my taste than irritating, spastic number two. With ten minutes still at my disposal I move slowly and calmly to the kitchen to make myself a small coffee and then back to my room to change clothes. A face-wash and deodorant check will have to replace the delayed shower, and I plan to have my food while our guests have their tea. There, I smile, it’s 17:59, the doorbell rings and it’s time to begin.

The sole of the matter

I’m welcomed in to Djiby’s atelier a place on the work bench, cushion included, has been made for me. Today I’ll be taking notes and photographing the process. My mission: to learn how shoes are made, from start to finish.

We’re with Djiby’s assistant, Pape, and the two men will be working in parallel for the next two hours to create a pair of ballerina flats, size 45 for an African client. She has provided the woodin material (a tough, pure cotton material that comes in many colourful designs) and instructions that the flats come with a brown bow ties too. The shoe-makers get right to work.

The power is out in the neighbourhood this morning so we work in silence which is unusual for Djiby and Pape. I’ve been here already many times and I know that they usually have the television going with many programs on, from soap operas to nature programmes. The Senegalese in general like music and movement. I however am very grateful for the quiet as it’s helping me to concentrate and take notes. We also have a helpful draft coming in through the open doors in the front and back so the fumes from the glue are hardly felt.

Cutting brown woodin material for the edging

I’m asked to cut the material for the edging.  That’s pretty much the end of my hands on experience today as I need to first understand the process step by step and see how it’s all done !

cutting the woodin material which will show up on the outside

The cardboard piece used to cut the shape is called a “gabarit”, a pattern (used for sowing). Shoemakers have many of these, for different types and sizes of shoes. This one is size 45, as needed for this pair of flats.

This is the interior piece of leather which acts as backing for the exterior woodin material

The inner lining, la “doublure” is cut to the same size. It will act as support and lining for the exterior woodin material.

super power glue

making sure the inside piece of leather matches up with the woodin material

This is Djiby’s ancient looking and yet very efficient sowing machine. Run by a foot pedal and in the midst of our cutting and gluing I feel quite unaffected by this morning’s power cut.

Friends and men from the neighbourhood come in, some to say hello only, and some come to sit and chat for a while. The atelier resounds in a choir of “aleekum salaam”s as we respond to their greetings.

The material and lining are gently glued together and then properly sown together.

exterior with inner lining of leather and border are ready

Djiby’s atelier is a collection of dozens of materials and tools used in shoemaking as well as this one painting.

This material, like a harder foam, is used for the base of the shoe. It will be cut to the right size and covered with the same leather as used in the inner lining.

Adding some glue to finish the brown border, which will be bent over on the inside

Base pieces for the flats are ready.

These are the shoe forms (size 45). The base pieces are attached to the bottom using two nails.

The borders are ready !

and resown over the glue

We can now start placing the sides and tops of the flats over the form and attaching it to the base.

This is another form which has been used many times. The tiny holes from the small nails are visible everywhere.

While work continues on the pair of flats Djiby fixes a leather bag for another client. He’s adding a neat little clasp that comes with a tiny key.

Superfluous bits of material are removed.

 

 

 

 

It takes precision and practice to properly pull the leather and material over the bottom of the shoe. The folds that result are then cut away.

 

 

 

 

 

We also prepare the rubber soles. Of course first we take out the two nails attaching the base to the form for the shoe 😉

 

Due to our power outage we can’t use an electric machine to nicely round the edges of the rubber sole. So, as it was before we had electricity, this too is done by hand.

The heel in this case is flat. An additional piece of rubber attached to the end of the sole.

The family next door.

Rounding the rubber edges of the soles to make them smooth takes significant time.

Now, the fun part at the end. We are making the bow-ties.

The finishing touches are happening. That surprising moment when all the pieces come together and we have a ready shoe. More men from the neighbourhood come in to talk. The Attaya (traditional Senegalese tea made from green tea, mint and sugar) is not yet served, but will be soon. One young man is speaking loudly in Wolof; he is clearly upset about something.

 

The sole is glued and the shoe is finished.

The final effect. And I am honoured by being the one to place this beautiful new pair of flats into their plastic bag. They are ready to be picked up and enjoyed.

Tomorrow I will be trying my own hand at the art of shoe-making!

Blood stream

It’s nighttime and past my bedtime but for a day like today it’s worth sacrificing a little bit of sleep time. A perfect day. One of so many perfect days in Dakar. I like to practice managing annoyances wisely. Many hours sitting in car traffic equals a growing appreciation of audiobooks. My current audio lecture on Buddhism is so good that I’m pretty sure all the cars and horse-carts in Africa could come to a halt and I wouldn’t care. I’d be happy sitting in my car while listening and nodding my agreement. Humanity is the same everywhere. We get peeved, we get excited, we feel love pressing at the insides of our hearts wanting to get out. I’m pressing in the shea butter now inside a tiny wound that is healing on my ankle. It was disinfected by the ocean. It was caused by the loose leash of a surfboard. The very fact I’m surfing has given me strength I’ve never felt before. As I rub in the shea I think of a friend who mentioned that sacred shea here claims to have special properties. And that it also absorbs fully into the skin and even goes into the blood stream. Newborn babies are rubbed all over with Shea here.

I wonder what else is in my blood now after nearly two years of dust and ocean baths in Dakar. Patience, have I practiced it enough ? Is it part of me more

now ? Being a manager here I feel like I lose my temper much too often. How many excuses can I listen to ? But then we burst out laughing and my Senegalese team teases me and I them and we remind each other of how much we care about each other. Today a colleague mentioned in one breath “You know how fond we are of you”. Candlelight flickers next to my electric lamp. I guess that if the power were to suddenly go out, I wouldn’t mind so very much. Perhaps that’s half my secret to happiness right there, and it’s encapsulated in wax and earphones: have a Plan B. Have an audiobook ready when you hit traffic and keep the candles burning bright. Have a joke up your sleeve and memorize a witty idiom in Wolof to use as an icebreaker. Carry an extra t-shirt with you on the hot days. Hog change. Always have a pot of pure shae butter by your bed. Don’t refuse Attaya. And rub in every part of Dakar into your wounds and into your healthy bits as you let it absorb right down into your blood stream.

A pretty blouse, another tear masked

Stories about appearances.

A year ago, in my day-job in Dakar, we were having a horrible time coming to terms with a jumble of various damaged rice bags belonging to different receivers. Imagine thousands upon thousands of bags, some in containers, rotting, others thrown into warehouse corners covered in cobwebs their colourful logos faded with dust and water, containing caked, dirty, wet and dusty rice in various degrees of unfit-for-human-consumption. As insurance surveyor it was my responsibility to try to determine what was what, belonged to who, and to propose depreciation rates at which the damaged goods might be sold. So far we were having limited cooperation from the handling company. Granted, I’m sure the sight of me in their warehouses drawling on about how poorly they had sorted and kept the merchandise to arrive at such a level of mess was enough to make anyone resent the sight of me. But they didn’t…they couldn’t help but like me. As the warehouses coordinator herself exclaimed the first time she met me in person, after many months of email exchanges centered around our unhappiness with mixed-up and damaged merchandise..she could not believe that her mind now had to associate the curt and cold emails my work demands of me with the young, friendly, smiling woman before her. Yet it wasn’t until I arrived in their office on a Friday morning many weeks later, dressed beautifully in a long dress of blue African material that I fully understood the importance of appearances and being well groomed. Everyone who I knew from the field was pleased to see me. Until then we had only interacted in the warehouses where I’d be wearing jeans, t-shirts and sandals, given that I’d often need to climb on top of dirty piles of rice to estimate quantities and check for additional damages. It was my practical attire for the messy field-work. Covered in dust, my hair astray, I would then cheerfully ask for the handling company’s inventory lists and be kindly refused. Of course by “refused” I mean that they would say “Yes” to everything, after which I would in reality receive nothing. That Friday, my office and well-groomed self kindly requested stock lists and received them instantly. I stepped out into the sunlight of Plateau, papers gladly in hand, a moment of business victory mine, and I marveled at the power of appearances.

Humans are such visual creatures, as predators our eyes set firmly forward, like those of a lion or tiger, a biological sign of relying so much, too much perhaps, by what we see before us. We need forward vision to hunt, to achieve, to move through the world. Knowing that we observe and are so observed by others we step out our front door and, whether or not we realize it, we tell a story of who we are today.

I wonder if this may even be more true of women than it is of men.

Six years ago I was teaching French in an elementary school and living in Granada, Spain when my long-time boyfriend and I broke up. Not for the first or the last time I’ll add since our long-distance relationship went through many ups and downs before ultimately collapsing. At the time of course I took it hard. Undying romantic that I am, I was hurt and I felt it was a clear ending to a life chapter. What better way to begin a new chapter, I reasoned, than by showing through my appearance my internal, emotional evolution. So I cut off all my hair. It had been quite long and now it was very short (I was inspired by Emma Watson who had finished filming the Harry Potter series and had cut off all of her hair too). I had left school as myself on a regular Tuesday afternoon and arrived on the Wednesday morning someone new amid shocked looks from my 10 and 11-year old students. The boys gaped and then got back to their activities. The girls just gawked at me.

I’ll add that short-hair styles for women in Spain, at least at that time, were a no-no. I can confidently say that I was one of very few white women in Granada with boy short-hair. My students’ varied reactions were unforgettable. Their beloved teacher had clearly gone mad. Some were shocked while others were impressed. “Why did you do it?” they asked me, “your hair was so beautiful”. “I wanted a change” I said. Some of the girls shook their heads and told me they did not like it. One girl, named Africa, came up to me at the end of our class and told me in whispered confidence, “Madame, je pense que vous êtes très courageuse. Et ça vous va très bien les cheveux courts”. I remember the gleam in her eyes, the look that says : do what is right for you who cares what others think. She thought me strong, courageous. Inside I was quite a mess because I missed my man. But at least the outside world had taken notice that I had turned a new page.

Last week, I chatted with one of our Senegalese secretaries about this very thing. She complemented me on a nice ensemble I was wearing. I smiled, thanked her and remarked that although it was not the case this time, it was often when I was feeling my worst inside that I dressed my best. With my hair and make-up done I could more easily access my courage to face the day. She said, a wide smile spreading across her face, “You know when I wear a simple dress and less make-up and you look at me concerned, and ask if all is well”, she asked. I nodded. I was so used to her beautiful clothes and elaborate make-up (Senegalese women in general dress beautifully and take great pride in their appearance) that I wondered if a more sober look meant that she was feeling ill or unhappy. She laughed saying that oftentimes the days of her more humble attire were the days when she felt her happiest and her best.

We women are emotional creatures. It’s easy to get caught in an internal struggle of wanting to be seen in our truth, in our depth of feeling and so too in our vulnerability…and the strong need to build walls and to protect ourselves from those who would use our openness against us. We play with appearances. We change our outfits, our hair, our colours in order to communicate something to others about our values, about who we are or how we are feeling. The feminine exists to feel. So too it makes sense we want to share some of that feeling with others too. The trick is not to get too caught up by what your eyes alone can see..

Dakar to me, like many women, is a city of appearances. I often need to look at something or someone for a long time, and closely, before starting to see its truth. Beautiful villas hide behind high, grey and rough cement walls. Just like pretty exteriors may open up to messy, uninteresting interiors. In so many ways, things are simply not as they first appear to be.

A story for a Senegalese friend

The phone rang on a Friday afternoon several weeks ago from a woman I knew from work. She is Senegalese, a manager in a logistics firm responsible for handling a large part of the rice imports (and other soft commodities) into the country, and I’m the rep of a French survey firm contracted by the insurance companies insuring that merchandise. The nature of my job puts us oftentimes in antagonistic positions…it is my duty to call her and let her know when merchandise is improperly handled, calls which are often followed by the formalities of emails and official letters of protest. It is easy to dislike me in that role, understandably so, yet despite all of this a friendship had kindled between this manager and I from the very start. We were able to quickly see beyond our work responsibilities and to look directly at the women that we are. She is friendly, curious and open-minded just like me and we speak the common language of generally happy, young people interested in the world and finding our place in it.

As a foreigner in Senegal I get asked every single day (many times a day!) about my experience of living in Dakar as the people around me want to hear of my positive experiences of their homeland. Ironically, I am almost never questioned about my experiences in Canada (or in Haiti, Spain or Poland where I have also lived) and how things work over there. Considering that the majority of the Senegalese population harbours the dream to leave their country, to build a “better” life in Europe or the Americas…I find it surprising that they don’t want more information of the outside world when meeting a foreigner. I imagine there are many reasons for this; nevertheless, I find it strange. In over a year’s time living and working in Senegal, no local had asked me to detail what I know or understand of other places to them. At least, not yet.

I answered the phone that Friday afternoon expecting a business call, as had been our habit with this manager so far as we had known each other.

“Hello, Katalina? I’m wondering if you can spare a few minutes. I have a few questions for you… it’s nothing related to work this time.” She sounded eager and excited on the other end of the line.

I was intrigued. I had the time for the call. Friday afternoons (especially after the men get back from afternoon prayer at the Mosques) are generally relaxed in the office in Dakar. I agreed, and she promised to call me back in a few minutes for our chat.

She proceeded to tell me that her husband, who works as a lawyer in Dakar, had found a way via his personal connections to get both himself and his wife work in Quebec, in Canada. She confirmed what I already know to be the frustrating reality of many, that their current jobs pay very little (consider a generous monthly wage in Senegal to be around 300 Euros) and with their two young children they felt pigeon-holed into a reality that allows them to survive month to month and do little more beyond that. She was concerned about their children’s future, their education, and her own opportunities for growth. She asked me what so few ask me in Dakar, she asked me about my experience of Canada and my opinion on her moving there – if not for forever, at least she would go there with her family for a certain time.

My first thought was that I too am an immigrant to Canada, as my family is Polish and I was born in Poland*. I laughed with her over the phone over how ludicrous it is that I could be categorized at the same time as an immigrant (in Canada) and as an expatriate (in Senegal), all based on economic status (perceived or actual) and the reasons for migrating.

Canada is a clean, well-organized country much more receptive and accommodating to immigrants than Western Europe. We talked about this for a while. The Americas in large part are based on people of various backgrounds leaving their homelands to build a better life in the New World – immigration is the backbone of society. This is not at all the case in Europe which has been settled and fought over for many centuries already; it’s a contributing factor to their ongoing problems with immigration in my opinion. I told her how much I love my second, adopted country especially the diversity of people living and working together in peace and relative prosperity. It’s a pretty harmonious mishmash of races, religions and backgrounds which no other country that I know of can parallel. I count myself as one of the luckiest on this planet given the amazing childhood and education I received. I had flashbacks of school field trips to the forest to draw and study the birds and trees and the large, open spaces we have in Alberta: my elementary school has a lawn and sports area the size of a professional football field.

Then she paused in our conversation to voice a question that I’m sure has been on her mind since the day she met me…”But what on Earth are you doing in Senegal…if Canada is such a great place to be???”

Great question.

You see, I’m on a personal mission to understand the world, and myself, just a little bit better. The truth that I discovered is that there is no such thing as a “developing” and a “developed” country. Developed, in the past tense, as a thing accomplished and completed, does not exist**. The economically wealthy countries we deem “developed” have plenty of problems too. I’m not going to get into details here about issues like climate change, corruption in politics and corporations and religious extremist groups threatening security. What immediately came to mind are my peers in Canada. I look at the young people who are dealing with depression and suicides, and who are lost and confused and drowning in an avalanche of choices that seem impossible to make. Young people want purpose and self-actualization in their lives and at work and yet the quick-fix culture and the Internet make it difficult for many to commit, to be patient, to work hard and make their dreams come true. We live in the information age, yet many forget that wisdom is just as difficult to come by as always. We live in such levels of material comfort that we take it all too often for granted. I too shared my part in this confusion and spending time and working in countries like Haiti and Senegal shook me awake in many healthy ways out of my own self-pity and into a far deeper gratitude and sense of responsibility for my own life and the true impact my actions can have on others.
Much of this went through my mind as I answered her in a more succinct manner: “It is important for me to travel, to experience people different from myself and to see the world. It helps me to understand myself and who I am. It also helps me to appreciate Canada in a whole new way.”

Besides, I continued, my reality in Senegal (for better or for worse…) is very different from the Senegalese people in Senegal. As an expat I have an expat’s salary which is comparable to the salaries my peers earn in Europe or Canada. This paired with the fact that I am single and do not yet have any children, means that I have the time and the funds to invest in my hobbies and passions and to rest and relax. I live very well and comfortably in Dakar.

She murmured her agreement.

Try to remember that there is no such thing as an ideal place. There is also no such thing as an ideal person or a perfect well, anything. Since nothing is perfect and everything has its good and bad sides then what matters most are our own values and the experiences we choose to have in our lives. My Senegalese friend had mentioned that the work contract in Quebec required her husband and herself to come first to Canada without their children (who they could leave in the care of their grandparents in Dakar) for the duration of 6 months to a year. That could prove difficult to manage. Yet even if you are together as a family you face the reality of leaving your home country, the culture, people, customs and habits you know and understand for a whole set of new variables. It’s easy to underestimate how overwhelming this can be, yet the truth is that everything from a visit to the doctor’s office to going to the bakery will, at first, be new and unfamiliar.
I advised her to take the time for honest reflection on her own values and what is most important to her and to her husband before making up their minds. She mentioned several times that they both saw it as a temporary solution – an opportunity to earn better wages and improve their skills while planning a likely return to Senegal after several years. Perhaps afterwards they would then start their own business in Dakar.

My friend’s question and her incredulity that as a Canadian I should choose to spend so much of my time in Africa spurred me to greater reflection. I realized that a year and a half after moving to Senegal I am a different person. Time and life alone work their magic on us regardless of geography, of that I am certain…yet Senegal has played her part in my formation. There is a strength in the elements that I experience in Dakar which is new and inspiring to me, and a connection with the Earth, the sun and the ocean in all of her moods which move me to my core***. The colours of the African fabrics, the entrepreneurship and drive of the Senegalese people have sparked a whole new level of creativity. I also enjoy the experience of living in a collectivist culture…even if it sometimes drives me crazy that the locals don’t understand my need for privacy and for time alone! I also need the sun, heat and carpe diem attitude to balance out my workaholic, over-intellectualized upbringing**** 🙂 Senegal balances me, humanizes me, lights me up and hugs me close to my own truth every single day.

My friend had paused over the phone listening to me sharing my experiences with her.

“Whether or not any of this is relevant to you and to your family, I cannot say”, I told her, “It’s all such a personal journey.”

Nevertheless, she was grateful for our conversation and she ended by reminding me how much she appreciates my openness and friendliness. She had felt intuitively that it was OK to call me about this and ask her questions. “It’s a Canadian trait to be this friendly.” I told her, laughing to myself, before hanging up the phone.

On the beach near the Mosquée de la Divinité, Dakar 09/2017 (photography: Nathalie GUIRONNET)

*Another missive on this : https://katarzyna-maria.com/2014/10/17/la-polonaise-canadienne/

**As a side note, my father informed me this morning that Poland, according to some kind of American economy ranking, has now officially been recognized as a “developed” country – Ha!

***More on the elements here : https://katarzyna-maria.com/2016/07/06/greetings-from-two-months-in/

****yes, mom, that was a somewhat sarcastic comment 😉

On est ensemble

The people, the people. The city is dirty, dusty, polluted, and without the people: blatantly insignificant. The people, the people here and there and skirting the moving traffic. Flowing, wrapped in the colourful fabrics, draped in traditional robes, sitting, sipping, standing, being always everywhere there are people. I left my car keys with the guy who runs a make-shift parking spot near the heart of the city. I had never seen him before in my life and yet he was familiar. Only parking spot available, and I’m to hand a perfect stranger the keys to my car? I did, because we do that here, and because it’s OK like that.

“Madame, shall we wash the car while you are away on your errand?” Why yes, yes please. “You are quite sure it is OK?” I ask not because I think it’s not OK but to show them that I’m new at this still, and that I’m choosing to trust them. They laugh, settle into plastic chairs a bit deeper. “Don’t you worry pretty gazelle, it’s just fine”. “On est ensemble”, we are together. We are all together. A huge network of people, knowing people, sitting with people, next to people, dodging traffic until parked in a parking spot again, only to hand the keys to a stranger who is somehow not a stranger since surely less than that supposed global six-degrees-of-seperation separate us here where everyone knows everyone and everyone is people. In Africa there are fewer degrees perhaps, to compensate for the hotter temperatures.

How do you explain to someone who has never experienced it that my favourite taxi driver, the kind of taxi driver whom everyone asks if he worked other jobs because his degrees of professionalism and optimism far outweigh those of his fellow taxi-men… well this very taxi-driver, my very favourite, happened – oh, just happened – to be driving my dear friend who had come for a visit to Dakar for 2 weeks. She mentions Poland, he mentions me, they both exclaim my name and he calls me on the phone. I answer, I am astonished, of the hundreds of taxis in this bustling city that these two should meet is beyond wonder. They arrive, we extend handshakes. He holds my hand and simply says “You, me, this is not about you or me, there is a higher plan here.”

Here I enjoy lessons in humanity from taxi-men, from parking agents, from all of the people. We are together. On est ensemble. The people, they are my first and my last reason for calling any place or time here significant to me.

Image: courtesy of www.raid-latecoere.com

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