Friday, June 27
Dakar, Senegal

The cell phone business continued today when I attempted to buy credits — it’s a pay-as-you-go system — from a kid on the street. It was in such a hurry to make sure he charged me the proper amount and get my money back in my bag that I didn’t realize until I returned to my hotel room that he hadn’t given me a card of credits at all, but some other card that was useless to me. Duped.

You laugh. I laugh, too. Imagine trying to buy something when you don’t know how it should work or what it should look like, it’s a challenge to speak the language, the currency is new to you, and you’re surrounded by men watching you handle your money. Now think it could have happened to you?

The next time around, I got someone from the hotel to buy a card for me and watched her do it.

That, I see, is how I need to learn everything, by watching the Senegalese and mimicking them. I’ve already put this to practice to cross the street safely, and I feel quite accomplished having not gotten hit by a car.

A good friend and reader of this blog reminded me I should tell you a bit about Dakar. It’s the capital of Senegal and right on the coast, an ocean city, beautiful view. The city, which seems to be a melange of western and African culture, is overwhelming. The streets are congested with traffic and people navigating through it; there are sidewalks and crosswalks here but they seem to be a lost cause. It makes NYC look organized.

Just walking the streets has been draining; everyone wants me to buy whatever they’re selling or put money in their empty pockets. But look past the harassment and the locals are friendly and eager to help me learn about their culture.

Today, for example, a bus supervisor talked to me for an hour as we sat on a bench near the center of town, ground zero for the craziness. He explained how he tracks the buses as they run their evening rush-hour route, taught me a bit of the local language, Wolof, and quizzed me about — who else — Obama.

I’ve been here for only two days and already had a handful of conversations about the presidential candidate. Everyone wants to know the same thing: Does he really have a chance at winning?

It was a good question for me to ponder last night as I laid awake in my bed. I was actually scared. Not for any good reason, since my hotel seemed quite safe, simply because I was in a strange place by myself, wondering if I could really do this for six months.

I think I’ll stay here in Dakar for a few days, then venture up north to Saint-Louis, another coastal city I’ve heard is more affordable and less of a whirlwind. It looks like I’ll have a friend to stay with there, a Senegalese woman who used to work with a friend of mine in Houston.

For now, off to taste a bit more of Dakar.

** Thanks, everybody, for all the comments. It made me feel at home reading them just now!