10 Reasons To Go To Senegal

I went to Senegal for a few weeks with the lovely Kim in December/January. I’m a bit of a jaded traveller, but Senegal was a great combo of adventure, hanging with locals and a brief window of seeing life differently.

If you’re thinking of heading to Senegal, here are my personal 10 Reasons To Go To Senegal:

1.  It’s Africa. I’ve travelled and lived on every other continent but Africa. Senegal is totally African from the clusters of huts/compounds that folks outside the cities live in to being invited by a stranger to eat fish and rice from a communal bowl together. We were walking down an dirt alley in St. Louis and came across a local drum and dance party with dueling vocalists – we were invited to join the circle right away. It’s a different way of living that you can experience as a visitor if you want.

2. Senegalese people are awesome.  I’m sure there are loads of exceptions, but I enjoyed every conversation I had with Senegalese men, women and children.  We continually had strangers help us out and I can’t think of a single time that I regretted starting a conversation or felt like someone was taking advantage.

3.  Local transport is fun. We travelled the way Senegalese travel. We took Sept Places (7-seater Puegot station wagons) between cities, motorcycle taxis into the bush for short trips, hitch hiked on the highway (favorite ride was an ancient fish truck), crammed into garish rickety buses inside cities (inshallah) and walked loads. Transport is easy to figure out, cheap and you meet Senegalese people (see #2).

4. Clothes. For most Senegalese there seem to be two options: a) picking out a bolt of cloth in the market and having it tailored into traditional clothes to fit or b) buying used/new western clothes. A large number of Senegalese still go the traditional way. Kim spent a few afternoons at the enormous H.L.M Market in Dakar picking out  fabrics, then taking them to the army of tailors to be made into dresses, clothes, etc. The patterns/cloth are amazing and seeing clothes going from bolt to custom garment was much cooler than shopping off the rack.

5. Belief. Senegal is a religous place, but it’s not in your face and appears to be moderate. Still, signs of belief and certainty about how life should be lived are all around. There is remarkably little booze, cigarettes or other vices Muslims aren’t supposed to enjoy and the call to prayer shuts things down nicely. I tend to view religion with suspicion, but I had some really interesting conversations about  belief in Islam. One was with a guy I met at a roadside Fried Omelette Sandwich stand (marginally tastier than it sounds) who took 10 minutes to tell me the story of Abraham (the guy’s name is Ibrahim). He must have used the word ‘faith’ 50 times in the telling.  I’m sure that are negative aspects – some of which we came across – but you gotta admire the power of belief.

6. Food.  If you like simple, healthy food you’ll like Senegal, at least for a while. We stayed away from touristy and European places which left us with market/roadside stalls serving fish & rice, fruit stands, fast food places serving kebabs and meat and local restaurants with things on a skewer or chicken. We didn’t get much variety, but we did get tasty meals for as little as 500 CFA and good conversations with locals. Local juices are great: bissap (hibiscus), baobab (can’t remember local name) and ginger drinks are cheap and refreshing.

7. Beaches. We spent a few relaxing, fun days on the beach in M’Bour (pronounced something like Bool) and loved it. It’s small, full of fisherman, has amazing clean beaches and isn’t touristy. We heard that the Casamance beach is nice, but there was a conflict flaring up down there and we didn’t want to go to Saly because we’d heard it was touristy.

8. Disconnect. Most people we came across had mobiles, but Senegal in general is still at the SMS stage and Angry Birds hasn’t hit yet. Internet cafes are around but connections crawl and they’re not on every corner.  I’m an Internet addict and it was great to disconnect for a few weeks without  suffering constant phone/Internet envy.

9. Safe. Senegal is really safe. This one’s probably a sign I’m getting old. My problem with unsafe places is less the danger and more that  it’s difficult to get to know local people when you’re constantly afraid they’re about to rob or attack you. There are the usual developing country things that wouldn’t pass UK health and safety – my ears are still ringing from fireworks battles in Dakar’s Independence Square on new years eve. I’m sure Senegalese have loads of reasons to be upset (poverty, politics, etc.) but they weren’t during the time we were there.

10. It’s not Gambia. We arrived in Banjul and left from Banjul and that’s all I have to say about Gambia. And no, random Gambian guy, I don’t remember you from the hotel ;)

Drop a comment if you have any questions or if you can correct/improve on the small bit I learned about Senegal in my weeks there.

Eulogy for Rachel Kane 99/10? June 21, 2010

Note: I’ve edited this a few times. It’s just about the hardest thing I’ve ever written.

Har Hamenuchot, Jerusalem

For the ten years before she died, I visited my savta whenever I was in LA to sit quietly with her and enjoy her calm strength.

She couldn’t say it, but I always felt she was deeply satisfied to have me sitting next to her. It was physical proof that she’d won. Her family was safe, secure and growing.

She was the model in many ways for who I’ve tried to become. I never told her and I wish I had.

She was a kind, smart and intellectual person that spoke five languages. I saw her approach life with intense pragmatism and deep morality. She was optimistic and cheery even when she had no reason to be. She always seemed to know what was right and what was wrong. She knew what she wanted.

She didn’t get what she wanted much though.

She didn’t get to grow old around her close family. She lost them, her first husband, her baby and everything she knew in a few short years. She didn’t get to move to Israel after the holocaust. When she finally made it to Israel in the 90s she was soon chased out by SCUD missiles. My grandfather was a good man but a poor match for her.

I sat down to record her life story when I was in my teens. I’ve lost or taped over the cassette but remember many of her words. It makes me cringe to think that I might have traded her story for a Thompson Twins album!

I remember her telling me about how much she loved her father who was her idol.

I remember her telling me that her main complaint about the russian occupation of her village were the mandatory communal dances around a bonfire. I was just getting into clubbing and thought it actually sounded pretty cool.

I remember her eyes lighting up as she talked passionately about the first husband she had loved and connected with deeply.

I remember her mentioning that her papers were faked because she had to take someone else’s identity after the war. She said that she was really was a few years older than we thought.

I remember how she segued matter-of-factly from escaping a line of her family members being marched off to telling me – in great detail – about a good looking fellow partisan in the forest that played a mean violin.

Finding the bright side of years as a partisan in a forest was her in a nutshell.

She had an unconditional way about her that always made me feel loved and special even when I was being an idiot.

When I was 18 and telling her about hanging out in Europe, I insisted that Switzerland was in Northern Europe and full of sexy blond girls. She finally looked at me and said with an affectionate smile ‘I know where Switzerland is. I went through it when I walked from Poland to Italy’.

I regularly see her values and legacy in the way I live my life.

I’m certain that she influenced my love of adventures, living around the world and a good story.

I’ve tried to do the right thing for people like her that have lost their home in helping illegal aliens in the US and Japan and now working with refugees in London.

I’ve taken strength from her in dealing with otherwise crushing experiences.

And I’ve tried not to take life too seriously. I learned from her that shit can happen and you still have to find your own happiness.

This last bit of my savta’s legacy is the part that matters most. It’d be easy to get caught up in my savta as hard-core survivor and miss her sweetness.

It’s a sweetness I saw every time she took five minutes at her door to say goodbye with a strong ‘Be Helty and Heppy’. Survive and thrive.

Every time I think of her it reminds me how fortunate I’ve been to have so much goodness in my life and how much of it I owe to her.

Eulogy for June Meyers December 20, 2009

Grandma, I always made sure to visit you to deliver at least a half an hour of quality teasing every time I came through Los Angeles from wherever else I was living.

It’s weird for me to come to LA and for this to be our time together. The last time.

My first memory of you is when you came by our house in Granada Hills when I was around 6 and you didn’t want to touch me because I had a cold.

I remember better times after that staying over with you enjoying 5 PM dinners at Sizzler, playing with cool electronic things Uncle Steve left behind, rocking out on your organ and hanging around in the kitchen drinking ginger ale while you made tuna for lunch. I felt comfortable at your place.

I also remember deciding when I was 12 or so that I shouldn’t accept money from you. You started talking about your will for some reason and I told you firmly that I wanted you to ‘write me out of it’. After that yearly Chai (and later double-chai) september birthday checks went uncashed and the annual tradition of you asking me around july whether you should call the bank and cancel the check kicked off!

I didn’t want to have money screw up our relationship as it did so many of your other relationships

My next series of memories are from high school years when I often wished you were a different kind of grandmother – more affectionate, more supportive, I guess someone I could go live with if things got really rough!

After I moved out of LA when I was 18 and over the next twenty years or so my experiences with you were a series of snapshots where I was lucky enough to get to know you better each time and to have a great time every visit to your apartment.

Thinking back and given your enjoyment of a good dust-up, it still amazes me that we never had a disagreement, were usually laughing and, I think, both looked forward to each, admittedly brief, visit.

On one trip to LA about ten years ago, I remember driving you back to your place from some Ventura Blvd. restuarant in my flashy Jaguar and you telling me about some dapper guy you’d gone out with on a few dates 20 years before that also drove a Jaguar. We talked about how you’d never really wanted another man after grandpa sol died and you told me how much he’d meant to you.

After you had your first stroke, I got to see independent grandma – the fiesty one that saw being dependent as a mortal sin. I respected the hell out of you for overcoming disability after disability. Sicknesses that I’m sure have beaten down less formidable and ornery grandmothers.

As I continued to see you on my ocassional swings through LA I finally cracked the code on the perfect grandma visit.

Teasing.

The visits got more hilarious each time as we followed the formula.

First, you’d complain about health issues past and present. I’d commiserate.

Next, I’d catch you up on what I was doing somewhere pretty distant. It didn’t matter much if it was Tokyo,  Mexico City or San Diego – it felt like I was giving you dispatches from exotic places. I always did admire how you didn’t want or need anything beyond the world bounded by the San Fernando Valley and memories of Chicago.

Then the teasing would start. At first it was mostly me with high comedy like the one-ply toilet paper bit, riffing on creatively edited versions of different TV soaps as seen in a two-inch horizontal strip on your always broken TV and best of all, a growing collection of fine walker jokes. All good for a laugh. A few years ago, when you started to tease back, I started to see you as a friendly voice for the first time – someone I had a real relationship with.

A few nights ago when I got the email from Dad that you were dying I wasn’t surprised and my first thought was to wish you could go out the way you wanted – independent until the end.

I was still crushed though and cried for a long time.

I cried for everything you were to me, to my father and to others.

I cried for the everything you weren’t that I wanted you to be.

Most of all I cried because I love you and always knew you loved me, in your way.

Goodbye.

Google Maps won’t work with Firefox 3.0.x

I upgraded to Firefox 3.0 recently and Google Maps stopped working soon after. Most of the page would load but the map portion would stay blank. I went through all the usual steps (clear cache, nuke cookie, check about:config settings) with no dice until I started to disable Add-on Extensions (Tools->Add-ons->Extensions). By semi-pseudo-scientific process of elimination I think I fingered the Skype extension for Firefox as the problem. Give it a try if you have the same problem. Hope it helps.

I Broke My Shoulder/Humerus in Tijuana

Last July 4th  weekend (about eight weeks ago) I went to Tijuana with my cousin Nate to grab a bite at one of my favorite restaurants. Sadly, no donkeys or tequila were harmed in the breaking of my shoulder. Don’t take this as a TJ-bashing story. Although there is a narco-twist, I lived in Mexico for years without anything remotely bad happening. I do hope to provide a glimpse of what’s ahead for other folks that have similar injuries. If you’ve just had a similar injury, get ready for a life changing event (at least for the next few months) and you’ll find there’s not much on the interwebs about it.

I was walking back to the border with Nate and came to one of the huge TJ roundabouts. I didn’t see any cars coming and started to cross. About a 1/3 of the way in I heard an engine rev, looked up and saw a narco looking 4×4 accelerating towards me and jerking his wheel back and forth. Seeing that this is a fight I would lose, I turned  back to the curb, promptly slipped on something and went down on my outstretched right hand. Immediately, I knew that I had blown the shoulder – those of you that have been in shock know what’s it’s like to be beyond pain. Somehow I rolled to the side of the road, didn’t get run over and made a sling out of my jacket. Doctors told me a few times after that I must have hit the arm with massive energy to cause that level of damage. So, after being offerred aspirin by at least ten friendly Mexicans and a few introductions to brothers-in-law that are good with bones I made it back to the border and on to a US emergency room. That’s where the real fun started.

Bone doctors don’t seem to hang around in emergency rooms waiting for patients, particularly at midnight on Saturdays. So, they have to call them in. If you’ve got a badly broken shoulder waiting is pure agony. In my case it took a few hours for the orthopedic intern to show up. His key decision was whether to operate right away or have me see an orthopedist on Monday. He ordered up a set of x-rays to see if the shoulder was displaced and the position of the bone. His read was that I had a comminuted three or four-part fracture in the ball of the shoulder  with a proximal fracture of the humerus. The humerus is the long bone that goes from the shoulder ball/socket down to the elbow. Comminuted means the bone is in multiple pieces and proximal means that the the ball part of the humerus is broken off from the forearm part at the neck.

So here’s what they saw when they took x-rays:

Since the shoulder wasn’t dislocated and the break was bad but not too out of place, an emergency operation wasn’t needed and he sent me home and told me to see my orthopedist on Monday. He also gave me a cheapie sling with instructions to immobilize the shoulder. By this time, the entire arm from the shoulder blade down to my elbow was swollen and painful. He also gave me some heavy-duty painkillers which I never took.

The next few days waiting to see my orthopedist I didn’t do much and discovered quickly a few aids to proximal fracture living:

-Hygiene: Showering was really painful so I didn’t take one for a week (yuck). Changing shirts is painful too so I wore the same shirt for a few days. When it was too nasty for me I just cut it off and switched to a XL button-up rather than moving the shoulder.

-Sleeping Nest: Pillows are really helpful to supporting a somewhat upright position for sleeping and supporting the broken shoulder arm. I never got less than six hours of sleep during the first month.

-Ice: I got a few wrap around the shoulder icepacks. They killed the pain enough that I got to avoid being stoned on painkillers (ignore if this is a beni!).

-Wardrobe: Nothing is more painful than getting into a pullover long-sleeve shirt. I got a new wardrobe (you may have these types of clothes but I didn’t) of loose shorts, button-up short-sleeve shirts and loose socks. I got a few XL shirts as well that I could wear on top of the sling because initially I didn’t want to move the shoulder socket at all. Changing what I wore seems simple but it was one of the largest pain/hassle reducers.

-Diet: I have NO scientific basis for this part but it seemed to work for me and I healed much more quickly than expected. I drank loads of water, stopped anything with caffeine or alcohol and went on a high-protein high-vitamin diet. All of the doctors I saw told me that anything I did diet-wise was meaningless but I really do think it helped. At the very least I lost weight rather than gained during the low-activity period.

So, I went to see orthopedic surgeons on Monday and Tuesday (2 and 3 days post) and heard the same thing from both. Essentially, I had the best type of the worst fracture possible. The proximal fracture with multiple pieces is nasty because the shoulder is a tough healer with lots of possible complications. On the positive side, the pieces were mostly in the right area. Both doctors said that they could operate and might have to replace the shoulder, but if they watched it there was a 50% chance that the shoulder would not fall apart (the pieces getting less together) and it would heal on its own. Even if it did not fall apart, there was also a smaller chance of non-union where the peices don’t heal together with a good fit. They could only do pin/plate/etc. surgery for a few weeks so I would come back every week for x-rays to see if the bones had shifted in a nasty way. My expectations were set that any way it goes it would be a 1-2 year recovery including physical therapy.

So I settled in for a wait and made a few more lifestyle changes:

-Dual-Sling Strategy: The orthopod gave me a nifty Ultrasling to replace my cheap-o-sling. As a note, make sure you take time at the office to learn how to adjust the sling. I found pretty quickly that each sling has its use. The Ultrasling is great at stabilization so I used it most of the time while sleeping or walking

around. I did need (desperately) to take a shower though and needed a waterproof, fast-drying and lightweight sling for the task. The lighter nylon cheapie sling they gave me at the emergency room was perfect for stabilizing my arm during a shower. Key skills here is switching between the slings.

[January 15, 2012] So it’s many years in the future and I figure it’s time for shoulder fracture blog post closure ;) Here’s how it all turned out.

I did loads more research and found a study by some UK researchers that said that the outcome in injuries like mine was at least as good without surgery. It was a classic moment when I brought the study to my US orthopod and he said something like ‘those british national health people will do anything not to operate’. In any case, I decided that I’d skip surgery unless the shoulder fell apart and deal with non-union if it happened. Fortunately, the shoulder didn’t fall apart and the last x-ray in the US even showed evidence of getting ‘sticky’, which means that a soft callous that forms the basis for bones re-joining was developing. I started arm movement exercises about this time doing fun things like swinging my arm like an elephant trunk and stretching the arm back. Seriously painful but I think moving it early and often really helped.

As the shoulder was merely painful rather than in danger of falling apart at this point, the UK National Health Service (guess they read their own research) took several months to connect me with an orthopod and physical therapist.

So I devised my own regime and started light weight training and daily stretching in a sauna as soon as I could control the shoulder a bit – about 3 weeks after the injury. I’d read a bunch about bone healing and most of what I read said that you have to stress bone for it to heal properly. The risk is of course that you break the bone and soft tissue apart and harm healing. Basically, I don’t recommend that anyone stress their injury the way I did and I’m sure the results could have been nasty. But they weren’t.

The shoulder started to get stronger quickly and I stopped using the sling completely at 6 weeks or so and had loads of range of motion, control and use improvement at two months.

I finally got an appointment with a really competent consultant orthopod in the UK a few months later – UK health care rationing in action! He reported that my shoulder was well tweaked inside, but that the injury was healing well and I’d had a great outcome for the level of damage. I eventually also got in to see a physical therapist who gave me stretchy rubber bands and a series of exercises that I rarely did. I kept going to the gym, stressing the bone the right amount, gaining strength and range of motion and rarely had pain after six months.

It was pretty scary when it happened, but a few years later the shoulder is stronger that it was the day I broke it. I’ve gotten much better at taking care of myself physically, am somewhat ambidextrous and I have full range of motion – or something close enough that I can’t tell the difference. I don’t bore strangers with random facts about bone healing anymore, but know I retain the positive outlook that comes from the simple appreciation of just how cool it is to have a complete set of working arms and legs.