cultural rhythm

High Heels vs Chickens: The Lives we Lead


Yeah, I know it's an odd title for a post, and no I'm not seeking some weird morbid revenge on the rooster that attacked me. I've been thinking about high heels and chickens because the time has come when Jon and I are thinking of our return home, what that will look like and what our lives will be like. Inevitably the return will involve going back to a day-to-day job and that (for me, not Jon) will probably involve high heels. But in my day to day here where I'm wondering how the new baby chicks are doing - I begin to think of all the various ways we can choose to use the time we have during our lives; and all the kinds of life we can lead. For me, I find myself at a crossroads of the different versions of my life and am as curious as anyone to see where life will take me next. Now that I've explained my bizarre train of thought, let me continue. This trip has offered an opportunity to "be" many things. I've been a traveler, a teacher, an actress (at camp), a consultant, a housesitter, a web developer, a farmer and most recently a window repair person. But is this "me"? Isn't all of it me? When we go back to Portland, will I "be" whatever my job title is - high heels or not? It's so easy for us, especially in America where our culture is career driven, to be defined by what we do for work. But if there's one thing I've learned over the last 9 months, it's that the  activities I do during my time on earth don't define me, I think they're absorbed into what creates my character.

What do you think?

Certainly moving away from a career-driving lifestyle offers perspective on where we think we're going with that drive. This time in Italy has shown me how wonderful a slower-paced, tied-to-the-land kind of life can be. And I do like the chickens, even if one of the roosters doesn't like me. They give the most wonderful eggs and the little chicks are fluffy and cute.

A different perspective

Jon has a different take on all of this, which I welcome. While my mind goes directly towards, "what will I do for work?" when thinking of "home," Jon thinks first of what makes home home: friends, family, food, lifestyle etc. Work is just the thing you do to make "home" possible. I know there are a lot of arguments against this: "Oh you should enjoy the way you spend  those 8 hours a day!" But I have to admire the guy for not being concerned with how the income is made, as long as you're happy and you live the lifestyle you want.

When we don the high heels (or the suit or whatever 'costume' your job requires) does it change you? I have mixed feelings about this, because the lines between my personal and professional life are often blurred, whereas Jon creates more rigid boundaries in his work life. I enjoy knowing the people I work with and often want to know more about them than just who they are at the office.

Going Home, Taking the World With Us

Regardless of what our work lives will bring us, this trip has afforded us glimpses into many different lifestyles, which we've enjoyed, been confused by, surprised by, loved and wanted to take with us. We both agree that taking the time to travel in the way we have, to be in places long enough to understand the cultures a bit has allowed us to learn how people all over the world live their lives, and how it's not better or worse, but how there are so many options for how people can use their time on earth. I like that. I like knowing that we can "be" one thing for a time and then "be" something else (of course I understand very well the privileged position I hold in being able to say that, and that there are many many people in the world who don't have the option to change their situation). In the end it makes me feel like I do not have to be defined solely by how I earn income, but that I can choose to be defined by other things: the relationships in my life, service to my community, and sure for me, the energy I put into work and how that effects those around me. Maybe I'm giving this more of a simplistic view than it deserves, but being able to "be" many things in a short time has opened our eyes. Life is long (incha'allah - god willing) and I hope that I have the courage to define my life by the experiences I have and how I share those with others. Whether that involves high heels or chickens, or both, I suppose it will be up to me to make it good.

What are your thoughts about work, life, and how you create your life? Is it based on what you do for a living? Or something else? As you ponder, enjoy these photos from our visits to the beautiful villages and towns of Umbria - they are stunning (the towns, probably not the photos so much).

Senegalese Taranga to Mauritanian Spirit

I’ve been trying to come up with a clever phrase to describe the experience we’ve had in the last week – and it’s been a challenge. Rifs on the movie title Extremely Loud Incredibly Close come to mind – extremely hot, incredibly dusty; extremely kind, incredibly strange – but the one that seems to fit the best is one that the writers of Rough Guide: Morocoo coined: impressively bleak. St. Louis, Senegal to Dakhla, Morocco has certainly been one of the more curious experiences I’ve had in my (short) life. I’ve divided this into 2 posts because it was just getting so long. The first part is Senegal to Mauritania. The Second is Mauritania and into Morocco. Enjoy!

Dakar -> St. Louis

We woke up early after only a couple hours of sleep on Feb. 10 after going dancing in Dakar with our hosts Dieyna and Abdou and the two LC students who are studying in Dakar, the same as I did 10 years ago. Senegalese night clubs don’t get going until 2am so we didn’t get home until about 5am. It was a fun night, but exhausting – nonetheless I was happy to get my fix of live mbalax and people watching.

We headed by taxi to the Gare Routière Pompière to take a bush taxi to St. Louis. The 150km ride was long but not horrible (I am SO tired of sitting on the middle bump!) and we arrived at the St. Louis Gare Routière in the late afternoon. We took another taxi 12km to the Zebrabar – a campement outside of the city that’s beachy and is right on the River Senegal in the Parc Nationale de la Langue de Barbarie. The accommodations were cheap, but the meals were outrageously expensive. Bummer.

2 days later we headed to St. Louis to stay in the heart of Ile Nord – the old colonial center of St. Louis (which was the colonial capital of all of west Africa in the 18th – 19th centuries). I think I’ve decided to rename St. Louis to Stinky Louis because frankly, this town is rank. The combination of fishing village, trash, river and ocean, not to mention very old plumbing is well – really smelly. If it weren’t for the decidedly charming city center, great bars, actual coffee and friendly people – I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in St. Louis.

Another 2 days later we prepared to say goodbye to Senegal. Although we were ready, Senegal left us with its best. Our last night we had a fantastic meal at a tiny restaurant aptly called Restaurant Taranga, where we ate for a total of 4000cfa ($8) with beverages. Nothing fancy about this place, but the owner was over and above kind. A good laugh at a local boutique, and a nice chat with the door guard for the hotel left a smile on my face and a thought of ‘oh geez, I do love this country.’

St. Louis -> Rosso Border Crossing

I will not lie in saying that given the lonely planet thorn tree forum reviews of this place, I was downright nervous. But before I could act on my nerves, we had to wait almost 2 hours before leaving. We were convinced to take a Ndiaye Ndiaye (big white bus – 25 seats) to Rosso instead of a sept places. We realized as soon as we bought our ticket and boarded that there was no way the bus was leaving ‘toute de suite’ (right away). I knew that these buses didn’t leave until filled, but for some reason I let the driver convince me that we’d leave right away, when really, ‘toute de suite’ in African transportation lingo means ‘sometime today.’ Awesome.

Travel Tip: Don’t confuse Rosso with Ross-Berthio. They are different. When we stopped in Ross-Berthio I was concerned we should get out and I asked the gentleman sitting next to me if this was our stop for going to Mauritania. He said no, and that he was going in the same direction. Ahh, we should share a car! I said. Best. Move. Ever. Our new friend Thierno Ba, gave us one last parting gift of Senegalese Taranga and essentially took us under his wing for the rest of our journey. Not only did he make sure no one took advantage of us, made sure we were always headed in the right direction, and he paid for all our fares, which was incredibly generous.

I can see why people have trouble at Rosso. There are certainly grifters waiting for anyone looking the slightest bit confused, and there are no signs or any indications of how to get from the Gare Routière to the pirogue; or how much it should cost. The single best tool (aside from the fiche) was a sincere and hearty “Asalaam Malekum” coupled with a smile to greet anyone looking official. This and any wolof you might know does wonders for softening officials; and people trying to grift you for that matter. Aside from the extreme heat, all in all it wasn’t a bad experience. The river is a scene, with kids diving and playing in the seafoam green water. It’s a nice last display of the Senegal that’s all out in the open and in your face; the Senegal that teases, and vexes, that’s easy and hard all the same; the Senegal that’s continually fascinating. I smiled as we crossed the River and I looked back to say goodbye, not sure of the next return, if ever.

If you’re reading this and preparing to cross the border, see our lonely planet post for details. Border Travel Tips.


I knew we had arrived into an even more arid place, when dust and sand billowed from the taxi seat as we got in to connect with the bush taxis to Nouakchott. Our cab driver was especially proud that the passenger door was held together by a rope – “C’est uniquement comme ca en Afrique!” he exclaimed with a big smile (It’s unique in Africa!). It’s things like this that you just have to laugh at and call it good. I couldn’t even be worried that I would fall out if the door swung open – there’s a rope there of course it will catch me!

The kindness of our new friend, Thierno, was overhelming in that without having someone speak Arabic or Wolof, connecting from the Rosso Gare Routière to Nouakchott would be difficult. The drivers of the various modes of transport descended on him like vultures, all tugging and pulling. This is a culture of in-your-face dealings. Thierno says they all just want money – perhaps it’s true? People at the border seemed really kind. Getting a coke, we were overpriced, even though there’s a fixed price for everything. Boo. We finally decided to take a 4-seat Mercedes car instead of a shared taxi – more expensive but much more comfortable. We paid for all 4 seats (even though were 3), and then the driver decided to take another passenger. Awesome. This should be interesting.

Next stop: Nouakchott.


Note: more photos coming soon. A practicality of Mali - the internet is soooo sloooowww. ------

It’s an interesting time to be in Mali. Ok, it’s always an interesting time to be in Mali, just because Mali is always interesting. But especially now, at this time, the situation up north, which has quickly become a war, makes things unusual. I had planned to write solely about the daily flow of life in Bamako, but I think that some explanation of our current situation is due.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Mali is engaged in driving an Al-Qaeda cell, Ansare Dine, out of the northern region of the country. The North represents a vast Saharan desert, a lawless land, which has allowed for religious fundamentalists to traffic drugs and arms in order to fund jihad. Beginning in April 2012, these islamists began taking over this expansive land, imposing sharia law. Cities including Gao, Konna, Douentza and the fabled Timbuktu have all been overrun by these people. However, the clear line of divide between islamist-controlled north and government-controlled south remains just north of the town of Mopti, over 400miles from the capital city of Bamako (my geography was not correct in the last post).

Just Wednesday, the islamists made a bold move to the south, pushing closer to Mopti. The French government quickly responded by sending troupes to aid the Malian army and have been conducting air raids since Wednesday evening. This kind of action is good, and has been needed for a long time. There are also pan-African troops that will begin arriving. France has also sent an envoy of soldiers to Bamako to help with security and to supposedly protect the 6,000 French expats living here.

So what does that mean for us? We’re watching the situation, and keeping a close eye on how the islamists retaliate. We will visit the US Embassy tomorrow and see if we should leave. We aren’t venturing too much outside of Bamako, although we will make a visit to nearby Soni Tieni, which is about 1 hour south of Bamako. This small village is home to the schools that Ko-Falen built, and has a strong relationship with our hosts. If we need to leave we will. For now, I actually feel safer than in the States, where apparently there have been more shootings?

But we don’t want to leave. Today we spent the day experiencing a regular dimanche a Bamako (Sunday in Bamako). If you don’t go to a wedding, which are typically on Sundays, you spend the day with friends, relaxing and listening to music. And that’s what we did. If you didn’t know that war was happening in the North, you would never guess that anything was different. The people are as jovial and kind as ever, the music plays, tea is made, a large bowl of food is shared eating by hand, the cows meander by eating trash, lizards chase each other, and people enjoy one anothers company before the start of another work week. It was perfect.

Practically speaking, we can’t understand 90% of the conversation. You’d think this gets boring (well sometimes it does I guess), but simply observing the animated conversations is entertaining enough. It sounds like people are yelling at each other, or engaged in a completely deep conversation – hands flying in the air, voices raised, but that’s just Mali, and how people converse. Animated is the perfect word for it, and it’s really enjoyable. Do people mind us just sitting there? Nope, it means a lot to people that we are here, especially in a difficult situation, and just by us joining in on the scene, we are showing our respect. Nothing seems to be an imposition on these people, everything is based on respect.

Other practicalities of Mali. Tea or attaaya. Tea is taken several times a day and is really just the activity one does while passing time with friends. We make tea mid-morning, after lunch and then again at night. Attaaya is just green gunpowder tea, brewed super strong over a coal stove, sweetened with sugar and with mint. I love it. I love everything about it. The process, the exurbanite amount of time it takes, the conversation, and the tea itself. Up to three rounds are brewed at a time. The first (le premier) is bitter, like life they say. The second (le deuxieme) is refreshing like the rain. The third (le troisieme) is sweet like love. My Senegalese friends used to say I was a bitter woman because I always brew my premier to strong. Oh well.

Practicality: our names. Names are a very important part of life. There are 4 original Bambara names in Mali: Diakite, Sangare, Diallo and Coulibaly. When you greet people the 2nd or 3rd question they ask is “Ne togo?” (what’s your name?). By the way, my African name is Safiatou, or Safi for short. Jon’s is Adama. We’re Diakite thank you very much. This is great actually because instead of getting “Toubab!!” (white person!) around the neighborhood, everyone knows our Malian names now, especially the kids. A common refrain when walking about is, “Safi! Safi!! Saffiiiaaatouu!!!!” Until I say, “Bonjour! Ini chey (hello).” The response is nothing but giggles and smiles. Ahhh Mali.

What else. Kids & Elders. Probably my favorite aspect of Malian culture, the relationship between generations. Anyone older than you is your elder and therefore has your respect – period. Anyone younger than you is your responsibility to help raise and take care of. Therefore, all children are everyone’s children, and all elders are everyone’s to take care of. This also means that one can ask anyone younger than you to go do something and out of respect, they must – aha! Benefits of age. It also means that I get to play with totally adorable African babies, because I’m part of the community that helps raise them.

Practicality. Communications. Internet is extremely expensive here. The Center had wireless, but apparently unlimited wireless costs $300…per month. No complaints about your cell phone bill now! I purchased a USB wireless key for convenience. $100 (50,000cfa wow!) buys me the hardware and about 4GB of data. For perspective, $150 is what we’re paying for all our water and electricity for the entire month we’re in Mali. To also put this in perspective, we’re spending 10,000cfa ($20) to have someone come 4 days a week and cook lunch (which often yields leftovers for dinner). These daily meals feed Jon, Wague and me, plus about 4-8 people who are always around, working, socializing or doing whatever. Wague is trading weeks with Jon and me, so really in a month I’m only spending the $20. $20 for 8 days of meals vs $100 for 4GB of internet. You can understand why people mostly just send text messages here.

Finally, dirt. Orange dirt. We've been washing the floor almost every day (that NEVER happened at home). You would too if everything was covered in a fine layer of orange dust. I don't mind. It's Africa, and it means more coldish showers to cool off.

I hope this has painted somewhat of a picture of Malian life. There are so many more details to share! I guess you’ll just have to visit (but not during wartime)!


We have internet!!!!


We arrived in Mali at like 1:30 AM, de-boarded the plane and then took a bus maybe 50 feet to the terminal; yes, 50 feet. Why could we not have walked the 50 feet instead of queuing for a bus?…no idea, that’s Africa.  This was an apt introduction to a concept that you just need to get used to in Mali from what I gather: It is that way because it is. Why do we ride the bus 50 feet? That is what is done; conversing on the topic beyond that is really just conjecture. Mali is dusty, but full of rich smells. There is a smell of earth and life that is new to me…smoke, desert, humans, trash, long standing water, rich stews with African peppers, livestock, but mostly there is just a deep smell of something indescribable.

To a Westerner, the overwhelming thought while driving into Bamako is that this is a poor nation. Buildings are low, warn and filled with people; the roads dirt until Chinese made bridges driven mostly by dying Mercedes cabs, motos and well warn feet. The town is an impossible maze of streets and buildings/structures. Families live in large walled structures, usually with a small courtyard for pets/animals and making tea. This is really all one would get at 2 AM.

Come morning, the town comes alive with voices, cars, laughing, working and generally an overwhelming sound of many people living together. Malians are loud and very social; if not for knowing Wague and hearing Malians talk before, I would think that people were screaming at one another with demands. Nope, that’s just talking. At any time someone may yell your name from any hearable distance; you acknowledge them and if appropriate come together and talk.

*Side note* As I write this there are two horned cows eating garbage across the street and a small group of people just wandered by; I doubt they remarked on this. A herd of cattle wanders the street in town.

Beyond the looks and smells, there is one driving force to life in Bamako: The people here. These are the most open, straight-forward, happy people I have ever known. Everything seems to revolve around relationships new and old. We are lucky to be staying with a well respected member of the community and last night walked to several houses meeting friends of Wague. People just kind of walk the streets, checking in on old friends and distant relatives (there is a joke told with almost every encounter about familial relations, with one party asking us to take their family names and us stubbornly saying we are Diakete, Wague’s family; this always elicits laughter), or you sit in your courtyard and have people come see you.

I’m trying to learn some pleasantries in Bambara as I have no French, which can be frustrating and involves a lot of smiling and staring dumbly. People are really nice about it though. We laugh as they ask why I have no French.  Surrounded in what we would call squalor, in a place where no one understands me and we are the only White people for miles, I have not once felt unsafe or unwelcome.

*Side note* A woman just threw garbage off her roof into the small “stream” outside the complex…a cow moans in the distance…the wind blows…there is the call to prayer.

In about 36 hours you stop caring what you look like. Maybe this is just me, but we stand out here so much it really doesn’t make any sense to worry about my hair or a small mark of dirt on my sleeve. Most of our day is spent just sitting around; reading, talking, eating the food that is made for us which is mostly stews made from bouillon, a small bit of meat and some veggies, and put on white rice.

Jess and I were able to switch our $1100 US into CFA today…we were handed like 500,000 CFA. This should last us at least the entire month we are here. When asked, Wague said that most people here make about $50 monthly, but he is always quick to point out that the quality of life here is really not about the money. The cynic in me thinks that this is exactly what is easiest said by those without money, but in reality he is correct: A great many people here exist day-to-day not in desperation, but as a life style gauged in terms of success by how you are thought of in your community. Wague is by no means the richest man here…far from it, but his generosity and dedication make people sing songs to him (literally, oral historians sing him praises and place him admirably with his ancestors). In three days, I have yet to spend a single CFA.

3 days in and Jess and I are still the only Westerners we have seen. You get used to people staring at you pretty quickly. I made tea today and people seemed to like it. The ritual of Atiya, green tea brewed and consumed very slowly amongst a group, happens throughout the day. We also went to the market, which was interesting. The market is kinda gross and smells pretty bad, but there was any number of random things to buy there. It was BUSY and maze-like so I am glad we had an escort (the wife of Wague’s brother). Everything was pretty much local, or at least I assume this as most stalls sold the same fish, veggies, and spices. I was in the market for some flip-flops for the shower, which I purchased for 500 CFA (or one US dollar).

*Side note* I’m sitting here with my computer writing this and the woman who cleans the center, Nana, is wiping down the mats around me. I resist the urge to get up and out of her way and my feeling bad that she is cleaning around me. She hums and keeps going. She cleans all day; every single surface every single day. She lives with Wague’s brother as she does not have family in the area. She is soft-spoken, gentle, and always smiles. She seems wise for her relatively few years, or maybe she is just content. I really like her…but have never had a conversation beyond some Bambara niceties because I cannot speak her language.

Unlike in Cairo or some other large markets, Malians are not aggressive sellers so the only hard thing is just staying out of the way of busy people. I guess in the city center the sales get a little more aggressive. We had planned to go today or tomorrow but Wague said there are large protest today with students clashing with police…throwing eggs and rotten food and the like. So, another day at the center which is not too bad at all.

Belgian Food continues...

As you can read in Jess' last post, Ghent in quite spectacular. There are buildings and things...and FOOD. Unfortunately, we apparently have no idea how to eat here! We have often gone in search of food based upon lots of research only to find the restaurant closed. This is an extremely frustrating time of year to be visiting. Restaurants are ALWAYS closed...some on the weekend, some on Sunday and Monday, some on Wednesday and Thursday, people leave for extended holidays, etc. All of the mom and pop type places I want to eat are unavailable...kinda sucks.

In general, there is a rhythm to eating and going out here and Jess and I don't get it...but there is also the New Year messing everything up. I imagine we'll get it just in time to leave :)

Of the food we did eat, I was most satisfied. We have had a large sampling of "frites" or chips with mayo and various sauces and I am officially a fan. The mayo is different here, more subtle and tasty and somehow less dense. Fries are basically fries; the only difference seems to be quality of oil and freshness. All are previously frozen, minus the skin and a little thinker than the average American French fry.

The Ghent "noses", a candy Jess describes in her last post arer really quite amazing. They are floral in a way that is surprising and quite addictive.

I finally had the Brussels style waffle with chocolate sauce, which is slightly larger and lighter than the Liege waffles we have been getting from carts. The chocolate sauce was quite watery; the waffle I think less tasty than the more dense and sweet Liege waffles.

I will also tell you that I have tried the best beer in the land (based upon an ever growing sample size :), and it ain't Dues (tried that in Brugges...excellent and interesting, but I don't need it again). The winner by a land slide is the Belgium made beer Delirium Tremens. This is a subtle, lighter colored beer that sits at about 8.5%. The nose is fantastic, body much lighter than expected, and the drink-ability quite high...I could drink these things all night if not for the high AC. Look for the white bottle with pink elephants. At 3.5 Euro per go in a pub, you CANNOT go wrong.

Last but not least, the famous Moules Frites. These are the quite expensive Belgian mussels served in broth, wine, or a cream sauce. They run from about 20-30 Euro a plate and come with a side of the ubiquitous fries. After researching places, we found one that was finally open; the result...truly spectacular! For one, the portion was very large. They serve the dish in a large steamer bowl with a lid. I chose the wine and broth. These mussels are tender, creamy, and lightly taste of the sea. Gone is the rather metallic taste that I find in most American mussels. I cannot afford it again, but I'm definitely glad I made room for the expense. These mussels were at Bridge, a Brasserie by the Bellfor.