Sunday, January 24, 2010

Senegal & Gambia Winter 2009-2010

I was invited again to be assistant trip leader on the Sene-Gambia Winter 2009-2010 by Dr. Emil Nagengast, but as part of my acceptance I negotiated that Ange could come with me on her very first trip to Africa! He agreed and we were off!

Now last year I when I went I did some more extensive blogging, but since this is my second trip I don't have as much to say. I'll go through the highlights and if you want more detailed info, and if my darling partner Ange does any personal blogging I'll link to her site.

We got up early on December 30th and set off on our trip. Ange was over the moon with excitement and anticipation! After a quick layover in Detroit we landed in New York and met up with the rest of the Juniata crew. We set out that evening for Madrid where we would have a 12 hour layover. Ange was not able to sleep on the 8+ hour flight and was pretty tired when we got to Madrid. We metroed to downtown, but unfortunately it was raining and a little chilly (50's maybe?) and since Ange was exhausted from not sleeping we pondered what to do. We hit a little cafe to plan our attack and have a nice warm coffee and croissant. We decided that we wanted to see Madrid but were tired and didn't want to be wet so we decided to expend a little of our funds and hop on one of the sightseeing buses. It was a little crowded because apparently others had the same idea but eventually we got some seats by the fogged up windows. After riding around for an hour and listening to the city tour we decided we'd hop off, grab lunch and head back to the airport so Ange could lay down and hopefully sleep. Even through her delirium she spied a sign that said "Vegetarian" and we walked over to check it out. Turned out it was a yummy little vegetarian falafel place! With full bellies we headed back to the airport where Ange was able to crash out a bit on the floor and catch a little nap. The funniest part was how many people stared at her sleeping on the floor. This happened again on the way back so I think that Spaniards just aren't used to seeing people crashed out sleeping in airports. Apparently Americans are slovenly and the Europeans are much better able to remain composed. Whatevs.

We finally boarded our flight and arrived in Dakar a short 5 hours later! Arriving in Dakar always seems to be chaotic and this time was no exception. I told everyone not to let "porters" take their bags because they were just people who were hanging out looking for tips but as I suspected might happen they were not forceful enough in their "No thank yous" and I looked back and every single one of them had someone pushing their luggage cart. Sigh. When we got to the bus an airport security dude came out and scared them all away so they didn't get their tips anyway. We loaded up the bus, headed to The Fana Hotel and checked in. We got a nice fireworks show on the roof of the hotel and then headed to bed.

The next morning we loaded up early and hit the road for The Gambia. Luckily since it was early and New Year's Day there was no traffic leaving Dakar (a rarity) and we zipped along for a few hours. Then the usual: a blown our tire. We spent about 45 minutes on the side of a road near a little village. Within 10 minutes nearly the entire village was standing there staring at us. I mean, how often do you think a bus full of foreigners break down near this village? The kids of course loved it and thought it was the best thing ever. We finally got back on the road, stopped in disgusting Kaolack (dirtiest city ever) for lunch, and finally got to The Gambia that evening. We got the students settled at Mohamed's house (Nigerian guy who lives in The Gambia and has basically turned his house into a guest house that Juniata uses for students) and headed to Emil's apartment. Emil is spending the entire spring semester on sabbatical in The Gambia and his wife and son are coming over for the semester as well so he had to find a nice place for them. Wow, was it nice! We got there and no joke, one of the nicest places I've ever stayed in Africa. It was a very gorgeous and modern 2 bedroom apartment. We were so lucky! Although I have to say, this set a standard for the trip that really made it "Africa-Lite" for Ange. But since I plan to drag her all over the world we'll have plenty of time to rough it later and she'll be able to place it in perspective later.

The next day we did a city tour of Banjul, including their insane market, had lunch and then spent some free time in the afternoon at the beach.

On the 3rd we went to the Bijilo Monkey Forest in the morning. Very cool with lots of monkeys running around. One of the students was ill when we left the US and couldn't seem to shake it. But, unlike some students, she didn't want to miss out so she kept pushing herself to join in the activities. About 20 minutes into the monkey walk she started feeling really bad so we broke off from the group and ended up walking back to the van. She rested and eventually the other students caught up with us. We then headed to the crocodile pond (Katchikally), the Bakau Market (my favorite shopping & craft market), and then had some more free time. Ange and I broke off from the group and headed off to sneak in to the fancy resort hotels and spent some time pretending we're fancy schmancy. Headed back to clean up at the apartment and have dinner with the students.

On Monday we went to the Embassy in the morning and then to GAMCOTRAP. We then had lunch and the afternoon off. Ange had a touch of "Banjul Belly" so we decided to take the afternoon off and she napped while I set up the internet in the apartment and surfed the web. This is when I found out my cousin had died and we decided to spend the rest of the night in because I just didn't feel like socializing that evening.

The next day we went to the Gambian Press Union to talk about press freedom and visited The Point newspaper. We had lunch and then had some free time. Ange still wasn't feeling that great so we did some wandering around and then just took it easy back at the apartment.

The next day (6th) we went back to the Gambia is Good Farm, which is my favorite place in The Gambia. It took us about a thousand years to get there because the President of Senegal was in town and President Jammeh was taking him back to the airport (which is just past GIG Farm) and we got stopped by the insane motorcade forever. Finally got there, had the tour, and ate delicious lunch. I had a few hours to rest and then my big lecture sponsored by the US embassy. The lecture went very well, had a number of people attending and several press representatives.

On Thursday we headed up-country to Tendaba Nature Camp. On the way we got to stop at this really awesome hospital (my second favorite thing to do in Africa) that was all solar powered. I was in heaven looking at their awesome technology. We got to Tendaba, took a nap and had a lovely dinner. During the middle of dinner my lecture was featured on the Gambian national news (they only have one television station) for several minutes. It was pretty cool. All the students were like "LINDSAY! You're on tv!!!" and the other tourists there were all looking at me and were like "Seriously, that's you?" probably wondering how the hell I was on tv and also in this random nature camp the next day. Funny stuff.

The next day we went on a walking tour of Tendaba, Ange had a bowel attack in the middle of the walk and had to have a moment out in the bushes, we took a nap that afternoon, watched the locals challenge the JC students to a soccer match (ended in a 3-3 tie--not too shabby!), had dinner and went to bed.

On Saturday we got up at a leisurely time while many of the students went on a nature walk or fishing. We headed out and stopped at our driver Yabo's family home and then at a school that a Gambian ex-pat living in the UK was fixing up with money and volunteers from his foundation. We drove back to Banjul after a quick stop at Kanilai (where I was recognized by a hotel staffer--"Hey! Were you on tv the other night???"). We had some free time at the beach when we got back, grabbed dinner and headed back to the luxury apartment.

Sunday was our last day in Banjul before we headed back to Senegal for a few days before we left. Ange and I decided to camp out at the beach. We woke up around 9, got ready, headed to the beach, had tapalapas for breakfast, laid on the beach for hours, played in the surf a few times, had some fresh squeezed juice, ate lunch and eventually headed back to the apartment to start packing stuff up. Took a break for dinner and then finished packing and went to bed.

The next day we packed everything up and headed to Senegal. 12 hours later and a few stops we finally arrived at Pink Lake. Students hung out and smoked hookah and we went to bed early.

On Tuesday we got up and went on the WW2 jeeps for a tour of Pink Lake, a visit to a Fulani village, rough and tumble over the sand dunes, a stop at the beach, then back to the resort for lunch. We then spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool and watched the students ride camels. Had dinner at the resort and headed back to Dakar for the night.

Got up fairly early, took a driving tour of Dakar, stopped at the lighthouse and saw the nearly finished Statue to the African Renaissance, headed to the ferry and waited for a little over an hour in a very crowded waiting area, took the ferry to Gorree Island, bombarded by the aggressive sellers on Goree, found the tapestry we were looking for, had lunch, nearly got in a fight with some bitchy market lady, got back to Dakar, relaxed and showered at the hotel and headed to the airport!

Flew at night and landed in Madrid at 5 am. Decided to not go in to Madrid and sleep in the airport instead. More staring. Felt much more rested. Got on the never-ending flight home, arrived NYC in the evening, headed to our hotel, slept well.

Friday the 15th we wandered around NYC doing nothing much. Almost missed our flight because we got slightly lost and traffic, made it home.

So I know that was the express version, but even that took me over an hour to write. If you want a pictorial of the trip we loaded all of our pics of the trip on and Shutterfly lets you build a little webshare site for all your pics. We have them all uploaded and are working on captioning all of the photos. Wait a few more days if you want to read all the captions, or if you are impatient you can check them out now:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Death

The end of 2009 brought three deaths into my world and each of them affected me in unique ways.

First was the death of the father of one of my elementary through high school best friends. Christy and I became good friends when we were in 5th grade and continued until I went away to college. Although we are not as close now, we are still in touch and when her dad was diagnosed with cancer I was saddened to hear the news. I am friends with Christy, her mom, and her half sister on Facebook so I was able to keep up with news about Len through the past year and a half. Things took a very bad turn for the worse this fall and it seemed imminent that his death was near. He died a few weeks before Thanksgiving and Ange and Heather and I went to the calling to support Christy and her family. After chatting with her for a bit we walked around to look at the picture memorials they had put together around the mortuary. At the first picture I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming sense of sadness. Of course it was sad that a friend's father had died but at that moment I was reminded of how close in age her father and my father are. When you are a kid much of your "hanging out" with friends revolves around being at home with someone's parents and depending on them to get you where you need to go since you can't drive. I have lots of memories of Christy's dad and find a lot of similarities between them. His death made me realized that I've entered the point in my life where I have to start worrying about the health of my parents and other older family members and that is not something I am prepared to deal with. Her dad's death affected me much more than I expected and I very nearly lost it when I looked at that first mural of pictures. Luckily I was able to pull it together and not be a total wreck mess, but it was something that stuck with me for quite some time.

In early December my "grandfather" died. I use quotes because although technically/biologically he was my mother's father which makes him my grandfather, I did not have a grandfatherly relationship with him. I'd probably only seen him a handful of times in the last 20+ years and the last time I saw him (several years ago) he called me by my cousin's name the entire time. When I got the news he died the only feeling I had was one of apathy, which I thought was interesting. I literally didn't feel anything. Not happy, not sad, not mad, not anything. How do you grieve for someone you have no relationship with or no attachment to? I felt like I should feel something, but honestly, I didn't. It was like reading a news story of a stranger's death. And to make it even stranger, the night that he died I had a very creepy dream about him that woke me up with a start. I looked at the clock (4 am) and thought to myself "If he died tonight I am going to be so freaked out" and went back to bed. The next morning when my mom called I nearly passed out when she said he had died in the middle of the night. I am NOT into supernatural/other worldly things, so I still don't know what to think of it, but I've tried not to dwell on it because it gives me the hee-bee-jee-bees.

Finally, whilst I was gone to Africa for two weeks my 17-year old cousin died in his sleep. This was the most disturbing to me of all of the deaths. First of all, the entire situation was terrible. Dominic was a completely healthy teenage boy and his death came as a very unexpected shock. He died peacefully in his sleep and 3 weeks later they still don't have any idea why he died. Of all of the people who died, I felt closest to his death, because although we were not close, I have spent some time with him, and more importantly my aunt. We were Facebook friends and I was more peripherally involved in his life than the other two. On top of the death itself, the manner in which I found out created a very strange situation I've never had to deal with.

We have a generally unspoken rule that when I am traveling outside of the country and fairly inaccessible, all bad news should be held until my return. We figure, why make me worry when there is nothing I can do about it? I had called my mom to let her know we arrived safe and sound and apparently about a half an hour later is when she received the call about my cousin. She debated calling me back but didn't want this news to worry me while I was in Africa. Now, here comes the strange part. Normally when I am in Africa I don't have much (if any) access to technology. However, Dr. Nagengast (the man who I was assisting on the Africa trip) is on sabbatical this semester and is spending the semester teaching at The University of The Gambia and therefore needed to find a place to live for 6 months. Also his wife and son are coming to live with him for the semester so it needed to be a fairly decent place. The apartment turned out to be very nice and included wireless internet. He had brought his laptop along and asked me to set up his network since he is not very technologically savvy. I said no problem but we were pretty busy for the first few days and didn't think much about it.

Finally we had an afternoon off and Ange fell asleep on the couch so I decided to set up the computer and once I had it all up and running I was cruising around the net and checking email and Facebook. When I opened up Facebook and was browsing my updates I saw one from my aunt that said she was proud of her daughter for going back to school knowing that so many would be grieving her brother. I literally could not comprehend what the hell she was talking about and it never crossed my mind that my cousin would actually be dead. I clicked on my aunt's page and started scrolling down through all of the sympathy posts and comments from everyone until I got to the status update from my aunt announcing that my cousin had died in his sleep on December 31st. I don't think I have ever literally been in such stunned shock before. For about 10 minutes I sat staring at the page just trying to wrap my mind around this new fact. I started scrolling through the comments and other posts on her page as it sunk in that this terrible news was very real. I called my mom just to see what in the hell was going on and she confirmed that yes it was true and she didn't think that I would have internet access and was going to tell me when I got home (as mentioned above about our unspoken rule). After I got off the phone I just broke down crying. I was so shocked and saddened and I just felt so helpless being so far away from my family. Ange woke up and of course was like "What the hell?" and we spent the rest of the evening in the apartment because I didn't have the energy to go hang out with the students for dinner.

The news of his death stuck with me the entire trip. Because I now had internet access I was able to follow the news from home (almost obsessively) and at the same time that it made me feel connected to home it also reminded me of how far removed from everything I was. It was probably one of the most difficult things I've had to face...knowing that my family was gathering half way around the world and I was in lala land trying to go on with my day to day activities while still having this immense news weighing in the back of my head the entire time.

I realized how technology had impacted my life in so many ways. Without Facebook I would have never known this information but I also wouldn't have been able to go through the grieving process semi-connected to my family. The whole thing was very surreal and I'm still processing it all.

2009 ended on a very sad note, and though these three deaths allowed me to grow and reflect on my life I hope that 2010 will be better and less filled with sadness. RIP Len Cressman, Dale Gatlin, and Dominic Riolo.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Scary Crap

I know it has been a hot minute since I've blogged but I had a ton of stuff that piled up at the end of the semester (grant applications, finals, etc.) and then I jetted off to Africa for two weeks and just now am getting caught back up. I have some other blogs in the works so hopefully I'll start the year off strong and my adoring fans will be happy again :)

Unfortunately the first post of the year is not shiny & happy but since I'm obsessed with my dogs it is very necessary.

About a month and a half ago Ange woke up and notice that Caramel was acting strange kind of like she had had a stroke. She was stumbling around and her legs weren't working very well. She was worried but was waiting to see if she'd snap out of it. Caramel likes to sleep under the covers and really close to our bodies. Ange thought maybe she'd slept on Caramel and her legs were just asleep. She said she looked like she had a stroke but recovered a few minutes later so she wasn't too worried. We hadn't thought about it since then.

However, this morning around 4:15 am I woke up because I could feel some commotion going on by my feet. In the few brief seconds when I was trying to orient myself I felt one of the dogs crashing into my legs so I immediately sat up and turned on the light. Caramel was shaking pretty violently and trying to walk but her legs weren't working well. She had this glassy eyed look on her face and was clearly scared. I grabbed her and put her in between Ange and I and was trying to figure out what the heck was going on. There was clearly something wrong so I jumped up to go put my contacts in and get some sweats on so we could run her to the Emergency Vet near our house. Ange stayed in bed and held her while I was getting ready. She said this was very similar to what happened the previous month except not as severe. By the time I was ready to go she had stopped shaking and was looking normal again. We were sitting on the bed with her and she was her happy self. It was weird. We let the dogs outside and she was running around like normal. Ange thought maybe she got tangled under the blankets and maybe her oxygen got cut off and that's why she was acting like that, and then when she was out of the covers and breathing it went back to normal. So we decided to hold off on the vet visit.

Ange had to work at 6am so she just decided to go ahead and get ready ahead of schedule. I was going to go back to bed but since I was pretty wide awake I thought I'd turn on CNN for a bit and wait until Ange left to go back to sleep. Ange got out of the shower and we were chatting when all of a sudden Caramel's legs started twitching and contracting into her body and she started thrashing around again. I pulled her onto my lap and was loosely holding her while petting her and talking to her to try and keep her calm. At this point I started to think she was having seizures. After a few minutes she was back to normal again. So weird! I decided that since she'd had two seizures in 45 minutes I didn't want to wait until our vet opened at 8 and decided to take her to the Emergency Vet (even though I knew it may cost a fortune!). So I got dressed again and we headed out to the vet while Ange went to work.

I got to the vet and let them know what happened and they said it sounded like she may have epilepsy but they wanted to do some blood tests to rule out other things first. Apparently in dogs it's pretty hard to diagnose epilepsy. Basically they look for all other possible causes of seizures and if they don't find anything else that's the default diagnosis. So they took her back to get her blood and the doctor decided to give her a shot of valium to calm her down a bit as a preventative. As he was walking her back to the exam room she started having trouble walking again and I could hear her crashing into the wall. I opened the exam room door and dropped to the ground to comfort her. The doc wasn't sure if it was a seizure or a result of the valium. He said some dogs have weird reactions to valium although this looked like it was also a seizure. We thought is might be due to both because her leg weakness lasted longer than the other two even though her other behavior returned to normal. Carmie and I chilled on the floor of the exam room and snuggled while we waited on her blood tests. Everything came back completely normal so that basically ruled out all other causes (brain tumors, diabetes, etc.). Since she'd had 3 seizures in an hour and a half he thought it would be best to give her an injection of phenobarbital and a two week prescription of pill phenobarbital. We have to follow up with our regular vet in two weeks to check her phenobarbital levels and see what plan of care our vet recommends.

We got home and she was pretty drowsy, but overall doing better. The doctor said that the small seizures weren't too worrisome--they were scary but they wouldn't hurt her. But the bigger concern would be if she had a massive seizure that she didn't come naturally out of it could cause brain damage. Since Ange & Brian have work and school all week I didn't want to risk leaving her alone for long periods of time while we are in this transition and regulation phase. I got ready for Bloomington and at 8am called my mom and Dale to see if it would be ok to bring Caramel with me to Bloomington. Dale is off work right now and I thought that when I am at class this week he could keep an eye on her and that way we won't have to worry about her having a massive seizure and having no one around to help her. Luckily my mom and Dale are awesome and said no problem.

We came down to Bloomington and I went to my office for a while. Luckily my office is chill so no one minded having Carmie around. I did a few hours of work and then came to my mom's to hang out with her, Dale and my sister who came down for a visit. Carmie's been doing well all day. A little tired and loopy but no more seizures (knock on wood). She is mostly sleepy and a little loopy but all in all much better than she was this morning. She has an appointment at our regular vet in two weeks so we'll see what happens then. I'm just worried about my little angel and tentatively glad that she is doing better!