Monday, June 30, 2014

Life in Senegal, Four Years In

Summer in Senegal has officially arrived. Though it doesn't dip much below 70 degrees all year, this season is still quite distinct. The dry heat descends on Dakar, gusts of sand and dust dirty the floors, and too soon humidity infiltrates the air, mold sprouting in closets and cupboards. The trash on the side of the road, the unfinished construction, the peeling paint... it is all more arresting against this backdrop. Tropical storms will soon paralyze the city for hours at a time, muddy the roads, and bring chaos to poorly planned neighborhoods.

With the heat come unexplained power outages, unexpected water cuts, and too many cockroaches. It also makes it vey difficult to live without an air conditioned (#expatproblems... my version of #firstworldproblems). The upside? The ocean is warm and I'd be happy to spend all my days at the beach! And... that's about it. (Or, I can refer to this Top Ten list to comfort myself.)

Recently, I've been reflecting on life in Senegal almost four years in - August 10th will mark the official anniversary! Many people ask me if I see myself living here forever, and I'm not shy with my answer: No, I don't. But I do know I will have a lifelong connection to this country, visiting regularly and maybe returning to live here for some time later in life.

I think back on the days leading up to my first departure in 2008 after studying abroad for the semester; I sobbed uncontrollably for days on end while my host family looked on with a mixture of horror and curiosity. Convinced I would never return to Senegal, I was filled with such tangible despair. I wish I could adequately describe the depth of wholeness I felt in belonging somewhere outside of my own culture, and the fear I had of losing this connection.

Then I cringe at the thought that now I may be perceived as one of those weirdo expats who can only find her place as an outsider, as other, an outcast in her own country. I certainly don't feel that way about myself, but I have lived here for four years. Cue the identity crisis! I like to think I am just very adaptable - plus I was conditioned to be this way given that both my parents have been/are expats and my identity was split between continents from the very beginning.

Though my departure is by no means imminent, it is on our minds, a distant forecast, very (very) slowly approaching. I am one of those weirdos who embraces change; I live on planning the future, or my home decor ;) It panics me to think of all the parallel lives I am missing out on... living in a major American city in my twenties, exploring new European cities - Madrid, London, Paris (for a second try), or travel to other regions. There are so many lives I long to live!

Apparently, summertime in Senegal has a way of triggering reflection, wanderlust, and nostalgia, even for things I haven't experienced yet. It's a trend.

All this reflecting also had me thinking on cultural quirks in Senegal that still surprise me after four years. But given my inability to stay concise, I will share those tomorrow, lest this become a true novel!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

South African Sojourn: Planning for Cape Town (Part I)

Alright, friendsicles. I am finally tackling a series of posts on my "recent" trip to South Africa in April. I spent the entire journey narrating blog posts in my head (you don't do that, too?) so I must put those thoughts, countless hours spent planning, and hundreds of photos to good use! I also found blog posts to be invaluable in my planning process (see here and here), so I hope to add to the wealth :)

In a nutshell, South Africa (particularly Cape Town) was amazing. Truly stunning. The country and city blew me away and offered such a dramatic contrast to Dakar it was almost depressing. But also amazing.

Let me start from the beginning.

Oh, hey, mountains in the middle of a city.

GETTING TO SOUTH AFRICA (plus a sweet travel tip)

My mom absolutely loves nature and wildlife and has always dreamed of going on a safari in Africa. With me living on the continent for the past four years (!!!), it would seem logical for us to plan such a trip, but alas, there are no safaris in Senegal and travel within Africa is very expensive.

Here comes a major insider secret for anyone living in or already traveling to Dakar. I normally fly on South African Airways when I make trips back to the U.S.; there is a very competitively priced direct flight from Dakar to Washington, D.C. that originates in Johannesburg. I knew I would be flying to the U.S. in May for my best friend's wedding, so per usual, I looked up flights to D.C.

Let's say the Dakar - D.C. ticket cost $1250 (which was the price at the time, I think). On a whim, I added a leg to South Africa before the trip to the U.S. so the itinerary would look like this: Dakar - SA, SA - D.C. - Dakar. Total price? $1500.

That means the trip to South Africa cost only $250!!! Tickets from Dakar to South Africa alone currently cost $1215. That is a saving of nine hundred and sixty five dollars. You better believe I snatched that deal up QUICK!

$250 for this?? Yes, please. On top of Table Mountain.

As a disclaimer, it took multiple searches for me to find that price - I had to play around with the dates and the airports quite a bit, the ticket often came up for between $5000 and $7000. Persevere - its so worth it. Also, we flew on to Cape Town which cost another $200. But still! $450 vs. $1215 for an 8 hour plus flight?!? No brainer!

In conclusion, if you are ever planning to come to Senegal or if you live here already... LOOK INTO THIS OPTION. You won't regret it.

(Sidenote: look into these deals any time a flight comes from or goes on to another destination... this type of crazy deal applied for a trip I took to Morocco as well! It was cheaper to go onto Spain, with a layover in Casablanca, then to fly only to Casablanca. Craziness!)


Onto the fun stuff :) I love planning trips and this adventure was no exception! I relied heavily on TripAdvisor, other blogs posts about South Africa (again, see here and here), and advice from dear friends. We really lucked out because Megan had traveled to SA in December and saved brochures for us, plus another one of my best friends in Dakar lived in Cape Town for two years. She was a wealth of knowledge and really helped flesh out our plans and figure out how to manage our time most wisely. G even teared up when she was telling me about the flora, fauna, and scenic views! I knew then I was in for an amazing trip ;)

With eight days to work with (not enough!), we settled on the following itinerary:

  • Arrive in Cape Town on Saturday morning. (2.5 days in Cape Town)
  • Fly to Port Elizabeth and drive to Addo Elephant park on Monday afternoon (2 days at Addo)
  • Return to Cape Town on Wednesday night. (2.5 more days in Cape Town)
  • Leave Cape Town on Saturday. K leaves on Sunday afternoon. (I got an extra afternoon in Kalk Bay ;)

My mom was absolutely intent on visiting a game park (and I'm so glad she insisted!), so my friend G suggested we fly to Addo Elephant Park, the nearest major game park, via PE so as not to waste valuable time in Cape Town. With more time, we would have loved to drive along the Garden Route and through wine country, but such is life!

With this itinerary in mind, I set out to learn more about Cape Town and the must sees (and where to stay, that is for another post ;). Wow - there is so. much. do. in Cape Town. You could easily spend all 8 days, or more, in the city! G and Megan provided a lot of super helpful information and opinions on what to do and I made sure to write it all down, based on neighborhood.

My mom and I decided these were our TOP TEN must sees, in no particular order:
  1. V&A Waterfront and Robben Island Tour
  2. Bo Kaap and Long Street
  3. Table Mountain (Cableway) and Lion's Head
  4. Clifton Beach and/or Camps Bay
  5. Chapman's Peak Scenic Drive
  6. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
  7. Constantia Wine Valley (wine vineyards in the city!)
  8. Kalk Bay and/or Hout Bay
  9. Simon's Town and Boulders PENGUIN Colony
  10. Cape of Good Hope
I used googlemaps to map out these spots, as well as restaurant and site recommendations from Gina and blog posts. Visualizing the city's hot spots also helped us determine in which neighborhoods we wanted to stay. Mapping everything was essential to me, and I definitely recommend this step to the avid trip planner! Or, you could just use mine ;)

(If you're interested in using this map, I suggest viewing it via this link... it is easier to view and manipulate directly in GoogleMaps!)

We decided to start our trip based in the City Bowl (northern part of the city), and then return to a B&B in Kalk Bay to explore southern Cape Town after our trip to Addo Elephant Park. I highly recommend this strategy of breaking up the city, especially if you don't rent a car - we were afraid to drive on the left side of the road in a major city....not for the faint of heart! I enjoyed the opportunity to explore two different neighborhoods and will share the pros and cons in upcoming posts. However, it isn't that difficult to get around, especially if you utilize the amazing City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off bus system, which I also highly, highly recommend.

I compiled all of this information, the map, links, telephone numbers, prices, and so on in a shared google doc with my mom which made it much easier for us to plan together despite the distance. Right before our trip, I downloaded a pdf version of the document so I could reference it on my phone with or without internet access. So glad I did this!

In the end, we set off for South Africa and Cape Town without a set daily itinerary, just our must sees and a clear idea of timing and geographic placement. Once we arrived, we used this knowledge to plan our days somewhat spontaneously and with freedom to explore, while making sure to hit all the necessary spots. Given the plethora of things to do in Cape Town, I am so grateful I researched this city in advance because I don't feel like we missed out on anything too amazing! Or so I hope...

Next up, our first few days in Cape Town's City Bowl!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dakar Nest: Living Room Updates and African Textiles

I stumbled upon the chic, bohemian abode of Brooke Baker last week and swooned (first saw it here). The textiles, the plants, the copper, the light.... I love it. It just oozes that effortless, worldy sophistication I am striving for in our apartment. I would move in here in a heartbeat. First, behold this inspirational space (unfortunately not my apartment!):

More images here, here, and here. Please check them out... it was so hard to only post three!

So. lovely.

But how to achieve a similar level of sophistication in our Dakar Nest (before photos of the living room HERE)?? With limited access to quality furniture and an insatiable penchant for bright, adolescent colors... I haven't quite hit the mark. But, we've certainly been trying these past few weeks and I am pleased with the progress!

The biggest challenge lately has been sticking to a very strict budget - or rather, no budget at all :( I bought a few new things in South Africa and the U.S... and now I've decided no more spending money until I get back to a steadier income. Sigh.

As result, our progress has unfolded somewhat unexpectedly, using pieces we already owned in ways I hadn't imagined. For example, I knew I wanted a gallery wall and imagined framing ($$$) several of my prints in white and wood frames. I was resigned to waiting for more cash flow before hanging anything on the wall. But as I sifted through my frames on hand, I noticed I already had several black frames in different sizes. I'd written some off as too nicked or broken, but a new vision started to take shape.

I have admired this three dimensional gallery wall for months now, and referred to it for inspiration:

Here is our version! Not perfect, and with plenty of room to expand... but a nice start :) I hope to add some hanging elements in the future...

Our living room is large with a looooot of white wall. How to fill it?? I saw an African wax textile I LOVED last weekend and was intent on tracking it down at the fabric market to hang on the wall. But with a looming housewarming party and limited funds, I settled on hanging my Malian mud cloth instead (besides, why leave it sitting in a drawer unused??). Using a bathroom tension rod (still need to disguise the ends), some string, and two nails... up it went. And then I looked to my pile of textiles and layered a blue weaving from Senegal on top. I think the combo works! Thoughts?

P.S. The coffee table top still irks me. Must find a cheap solution.

See below a few more detail shots from around the room. The curtains I bought at Ikea have made a HUGE difference in pulling the room together. Eventually, I'd like to add a colorful trim.

The canvas baobab collage above made by yours truly on a crafting mission a couple of years ago ;)

And what has come along as planned are my new African wax pillows that just arrived from the tailor! I'm in love :) The quality is great and I LOVE the bright colors (per usual). I especially adore the hand woven fabric pillow in bright coral. I have more sizes and colors for sale if anyone is interested - hit me up for first dibs, and they'll be on Etsy soonish! I wasn't sure how the textiles would work together, but I'm very pleased for the time being (see the couch picture above as well!). I want to add more sizes and a few neutrals, but I love where we've started.

Snatched up this colorful rug in South Africa, though its actually made in India from used saris.

Well, there you have it... our most recent updates. I'm still figuring out how to up the "sophistication ante." More neutrals? Plants? Statement pieces? We shall see! I'm just happy to be at a comfortable stage where I don't walk in here itching to get things done; I can sit, enjoy some coffee, and feel peaceful at home!

And just to show the tangible progress :)

P.S. The natural light in our living room is nonexistent. I've come to terms with this (with the help of my new Ikea lamp and its gloriously warm light), but it is just not conducive to pretty photos. What can I do (besides spending wayyy too long editing the photos)??
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