a male lesbian?

Much as I love Morocco, it is one of the worst countries for hassle of foreign women, especially blonde ones, and I did have to disentangle myself from one over-enthusiastic male during my time wandering around the medina in Fes.  So when an Italian man (albeit with a Moroccan father), who told me from the start that he was gay, was keen to have someone to talk to, I was happy to oblige.

He asked me if I was happy talking to him, if I liked gay men, and I responded with a laugh, that "of course I like gay men - all women do - we feel safe with you as we know there is no hidden agenda".  It was an interesting conversation as he went on to explain that he was actually a transvestite (or an 'androgynous man' as he called it, but we established that this is 'more or less' another term for transvestite), and was only dressed in male clothing out of respect for the Moroccan culture and to avoid trouble - at home in Milan he would be wearing heels, a dress, make-up, and his feminine hair style would not be hidden under a baseball cap.

We talked for quite a while, and finally he suggested we go to his nearby family holiday apartment for a beer.  Once there he was, as I'd anticipated, keen to change into his more usual clothes, to which I said I had no problem.  To be honest I was being a bit voyeuristic - was curious to see he become she ...

The red lipstick, the earrings and the floppy hair actually looked rather good, but I was disappointed by the satin mini slip dress, with the red bra peeking through, and the long scarf round the neck twirled coquettishly.  No woman I have ever met would dress like that - this was not a woman but rather a caricature of a woman.  Still, he (now she) was happy and so I expressed my appreciation.

We talked for a while and shared a bit of food, but then she wanted to dance - to express herself and her happiness - and put on some schmaltzy music.  She asked me to dance too, so rather reluctantly I did.  But then was surprised to feel her hands not just around my back but trying to make their way up inside my Tshirt!  I put a stop to this very quickly, and we talked some more.  I asked why on earth a gay man would want to put their hands up a woman's Tshirt, and (s)he explained that she was a lesbian...

I made my way back to my hostel to mull this over, but more than a week later I am still trying to get my head around the concept of a male transvestite lesbian.  However, I met someone a couple of days later who deals with a lot of people from the LGBTIQ community in her work, and I asked her opinion about this.  She told me that (male) transvestite lesbians are not uncommon, and that those falling into the trans categories are often quite confused about their sexual orientation.

Confused (and confusing) or not, I must say that my encounter in Morocco was a fascinating one.  I always enjoy getting a window into other cultures and other ways of life, and whilst not what I had anticipatedf rom a three day trip to Morocco, this was no different!

Festival of World Sacred Music

Our annual conference was scheduled to begin the week after the Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes, which I had long wanted to attend, so I was very happy to discover that the cheapest way to get to the UK was on Royal Air Maroc, meaning a change of plane in Casablanca - and that there was no additional cost if I took a few days' stopover there.  Inexplicably, I decided to spend only three days at the festival (why??) - three days that were so good that I will almost certainly have to go back another year to see and hear more, even if I have to pay for my own flight next time.

This festival covers sacred music from all over the world, but I missed contributions from places such as Bolivia and Iran.  Nor did I get to see the late night performances of Moroccan sufi music as my 3am start to get to Morocco, and my 4am start to leave three days later, did restrict me somewhat.  However I attended a concert in the Jnan Sbil gardens by 3Ma (photo above), a trio of musicians from Mali (Ballake Sissoko), Madagascar (Rajery) and Morocco (Driss al Maloumi), each playing a traditional instrument from their country.  This one I knew I would like (I have a CD of theirs in my collection).  I was less certain about Mystical Breaths, a concert in the same gardens taking in Gregorian chants accompanied by harp and Indian flutes, but it was also very enjoyable.

The best of all, however, was a concert entitled "In the Heart of Sufi Africa", encompassing sufi musicians from Egypt, Zanzibar, Morocco and Senegal, that took place in the large walled Bab al Makina.  The music was beautiful, as I'd expected, but the spectacular light show was a big surprise.  Here are three shots of some of the different lighting effects behind the musicians:

Really breathtaking.

Of course I also had some time to explore the city - somewhere I hadn't been for more than twenty years.  There is rather more hassle of tourists (especially blonde, female tourists) than I would like, but still I really love this city.  It is unlike anywhere else, with the ninth century medina of some 9,000 alleyways (apparently), its only traffic being donkey- or horse-led carts, as well as countless other ancient walls, gates and palaces throughout the city.  A place where you can just wander aimlessly but know you will be rewarded. 

I did though re-visit the famous tanneries,

where leather (from cows, goats and camels) from throughout the country is treated.  Firstly in the limestone pits to the left of the picture, where pigeon droppings are the main ingredient in the solution that removes all flesh and other unwanted elements from the leather, and then secondly in the pits to the right, used for various dyes to give the leather its colour.

Apparently they still do not use any chemical inputs, with all dyes coming from natural ingredients such as poppies (for the red) and safron (for the yellow), although the latter is dabbed on sparingly on rooftops, rather than in the pits given its cost.  All the pits are owned by different families, so the work passes from generation to generation.  Tough work, by the looks of it. 

Of course the pressure to buy something made of leather afterwards is quite strong, but I already knew that I wanted a leather bum bag (following the recent attempted robbery), and was reasonably happy to get it for less than half the price the sellers started at.  Especially as my hostel in the old medina was costing me only 8 euros a night including breakfast!

motorcycle snatch thieves

When I left Senegal in 2013, a new phenomenon had just appeared - motorcycle snatch thieves.  They weren't common, but were being talked about and I did hear indirectly of one victim.  It was disappointing when I returned to be warned about this, as somehow I had hoped that it had just been something short-lived.

I'm still not sure how common it is, but I'd only been in the country two months whe I got first-hand experience of it.  It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon, and I'd gone out to search for a couple of chairs I could buy for my balcony.  I was walking along the main coastal road - not much used on a Sunday so very few people about - when a man who'd obviously run quietly up behind me grabbed my shoulder bag to run back behind me where he obviously hoped to jump on the back of a waiting motorcycle.  However, I had managed to hold on to the shoulder strap so as he ran back along the road I ran (or was dragged) after him, pulling on the strap and screaming for help as loudly as I could.  A couple of older men appeared from behind doorways, and I saw a taxi stopped up ahead, and suddenly my bac was released and the would-be thief and his accomplice had gone.

So I was unharmed, my bag still with me and still in one piece, and I suppose the whole experience had lasted less than ten seconds - but it was a bit of a shock.  I suppose the adrenaline had kicked in (there was NO WAY they were going to get my bag, which had my keys, telephone and enough money in it to buy balcony furniture!), as I could hardly move my shoulders or arms for the next few days as the muscles recovered, even though I'd not felt physical discomfort at the time of the attack.

Colleagues told me that the road I'd been on is particularly vulnerable to such attack on quiet Sundays, and that there is always a spike in crime during the run-up to big festivals that people need money to finance (this was the week before the Korite festival marking the end of Ramadan).

I must say that it was a good experience in a way, awareness-raising without any negative consequences and I shall certainly be more alert in future.

To end on a good note - I found the chairs I was looking for, and here they are on the balcony!

the 'not turning up when they promise' rule

Perhaps I should start this post by mentioning the exception to what seems to be the rule here.  The exception being that my boxes of stuff took only six weeks to get here from Panama.  Absolutely astonishing when you recall that it took six months to transport them in the other direction.

But then the rule kicked in.  Having told us that they had the stuff, the shipping receipt company then couldn't deliver it because they didn't have transportation of their own (really?) and so had to hire a vehicle.  Ten days later they found a suitable vehicle for hire, and somehow this managed to coincide with the apartment I'd found being ready for me to move into, so I took a taxi there on the Saturday with all the possessions I'd brought with me on the plane, and my ever helpful colleague Oumar was already there waiting for me.  The container with my boxes inside arrived shortly afterwards.  They'd forgotten to ask someone from Customs to attend - and only Customs officers can open containers - but it seemed that could be sorted out provided we paid the taxi fare for a Customs officer to get to the apartment from the port.

There was another problem, however - the driver had come alone, without anyone to help unload the boxes and get them up to my third floor apartment.  He asked my colleague for cash, which he intended to use to pay random men from the street to come and help with the delivery...  We refused this suggestion and instructed them to come back as soon as possible - which would be Monday.  The container was left parked outside for the weekend - the pic above.

I spotted that the electricity counter was flashing red, meaning I was about to be cut off, so we took the time to go out searching for a place to add credit to the meter.  We tried five places, all of which either had no printer (so the receipt I would require for my reimbursement from the office was not available), or no functioning internet connection so the credit could not be processed.  At this stage we gave up and I meandered dejectedly back to the old temporary apartment carrying essential toiletries and food so as to spend another two nights there.

On the Monday the electricity problem was sorted out, a dozen men turned up, and the forty boxes were quickly brought up to the apartment (no Customs officer in sight, but really, it wasn't my problem as to how they managed to open the container in his absence).  Now I just wait for the promised removal of the empty wooden crate that my more fragile masks had been transported in, for a carpenter to put a shelf in one of the kitchen cupboards (in the absence of one single drawer!) to give me somewhere to store cutlery trays and the like (currently sitting on a chair), for someone to come and explain why the brand new washing machine shows no sign of life even though it is plugged in, and for someone else to sort out the TV connection.  Many of these things have already been organised but inevitably that rule kicks in and I hear two hours after the promised arrival time (and even then, only after some chasing) that they cannot make it so will rearrange.

Meanwhile, when not waiting around for someone to (fail to) turn up, I make seemingly endless trips to different stores searching for all the little things I need, like hooks to hang hand towels from, soap dishes (failed with that one so far), a saucepan lid, a chopping board, a rack to drain dishes in (also failed so far to find one of those) ... whilst I've learned to live with the fact that my photo albums and half my CD collection will have to remain in boxes for the duration of this contract as I really cannot face the hassle of trying to find, agree a price for, and transport, sets of shelving.

What I will buy though is a chair or two for my little balcony so that I can sit outside and enjoy the occasional breeze, but the constant waiting in for people to turn up has so far provided sufficient excuses for me not to have to face that price negotiation process that I so hate.

the art of negotiation

I'd forgotten about the need to bargain for everything in Senegal.  But then I realised that I was paying far more for fruit and veg at the roadside stall than the same stuff cost in the supermarket, and began to suspect that either (depending on which way you look at it) I was being ripped off because of the common assumption that everyone white is rich, or I was overpaying because I'd accepted the first price offered me instead of making a counteroffer.  But having been using that stall for three weeks, it would be difficult now to start arguing about the prices, so I spent a hot hour of the Ascension public holiday walking to a large fruit and veg market, where I hoped to be able to compare prices on different stalls and get more of an idea of what the 'real' prices were.  But they were all quoting the same (starting) price so I started the long walk home feeling none the wiser.

On the way back I passed a little shop selling stationery, and went in to buy some envelopes (for all those 'change of address' letters to banks and so on).  I asked the price for a dozen small envelopes and he told me 1,200 francs (some $2), at which point I changed my mind and decided I'd wait for my next trip to the UK, explaining politely to him that it was okay, I didn't want the envelopes.  OK, then 1,000 francs he said.  "No, thank you" I replied, "they are cheaper in England".  At which point he tapped something into his calculator and showed me the screen - now 600 francs.  So I bought the envelopes, half of me pleasantly surprised that the price had come down (having not realised that you could/should bargain in a stationery store), the other half annoyed that he'd initially tried to charge me double - to rip me off.  I relayed the story to a Senegalese colleague, who said she also hated the whole bargaining thing, but that you should never accept the first price given anywhere other than the handful of shops where the price is marked on the items (principally the supermarkets).

For someone as uncomfortable bargaining as I am, this had started to have the effect of stopping me from buying things that I wanted, just to avoid having to bargain.  But I'd seen a local kind of chair that I really want for my balcony.  I looked at them, I sat on one, but there was no price marked and the seller was not going to give me any clue as to the price unless I asked.  & I already knew that asking the price is the first step in the negotiation process, it being very bad form to then walk away without making a purchase.  So how to find out the price of these chairs?

I went into the site of a facebook group I have found here, primarily dedicated to sharing information on places to buy local crafts and textiles, but my question, "how do I deal with this bargaining thing?" elicited a great deal of discussion.  The most liked response was from a long-term resident expat, who said the thing to always remember is that  "you never overpaid for something that was worth the price to you at the time you bought it" (ie don't get upset if you later hear that someone else got one cheaper).  It was generally agreed that there is no need to worry about not being able to compare prices from different vendors as all will have similar costs and thus a similar minimum price that they will accept.  Fundamentally, shopping here requires a shift in attitude, from making a decision on whether you want something based in part on its price, to making a decision up-front on how much you are preapred to pay for something you like, that will then enable you to start the negotiation process.  Because there is no 'real price for the majority of things here, the only price is the one negotiated between the buyer and the seller.

But thankfully on this occasion someone in the facebook group was able to direct me to an earlier post about exactly this kind of chair I was asking about, which gave the price the person had paid for them - less than I would have expected (so I'd have settled for something higher had I not known) so I now feel armed with the information and attitude I need to go back to that chair stall and ask the price.  Although I did manage to find an excuse to put it off until next weekend...

things move slowly

Things move slowly here.  I've asked so many times if I can view some houses or apartments, so as to find somewhere to live, and the answer is always the same (that they will contact the agent and get something set up for today), as is the result (nothing happens).

Maybe I shouldn't push it.  After all, for as long as I am in temporary accommodation, my employer pays for my bills, my food, my TV and internet subscription ... but clearly it wouldn't be right to collude in the delays for that reason.  Also, the apartment they have put me in is noisy, and has so little water pressure that I am required to shower out of a bucket most days.  So I keep asking.

I did view one apartment in the building I lived in for my last year here, but it was really dark and uninviting.  Finally last weekend, the day before I flew off to Bissau on my first assignment, I got two viewings.  The first a small, dingy place, with no kitchen to speak of, and in the middle of a building site.  The second, however, was much better - in a brand new building and with plenty of light - I said I'd take it.  Now back from Bissau it seems that nothing has moved forward, but the place is already furnished so should be ready to move into as soon as the paperwork has been signed.

With that worry off my mind, I decided to go out on Sunday, to go bird-watching.  Not so much for the birds, as the site has mainly waders in their non-breeding plumage (ie lots of brown and grey birds...), but to see if I could actually get there.  As ever, I try to avoid staying in a protected bubble, preferring to be part of the regular life - so public transport, not taxis.  I had stumbled upon a website that provides information on bus routes in Dakar, and was very proud of myself for travelling the 12km out to the suburbs on the number 46 bus and then finding my way into the Technopole site where the birds are.

It's a bit of wasteland really, with brackish water surrounded by mud, and with a cold wind blowing (I sell it well, I know...), and the birds are really skittish so it is hard to get close enough to even see what they are.

But the birds were there - gulls and terns and sandpipers and stilts, a small distant flock of Greater Flamingoes with a spoonbill hiding behind them, and this group of Pink-backed Pelicans.

As I was on my way out, trying to find a dry route back to the road, this Little Bee-eater flew in to welcome me back to Senegal:

back in Senegal

Going back to a place that you loved should be something you feel really positive about, right?  So this return to Dakar has been very strange, and it's been impossible to articulate the reasons why I have felt so conflicted and nervous about it.  There was a part of me that did want to come back, of course, but the other part of me has felt a strange foreboding, a sense that it wouldn't work.

But there was no other realistic option, so I am here.

& (sorry Mum - she will hate this, my starting one sentence with 'but', the next with 'and'!!) I've started to understand a little better the phrase "going back".  That "back" does not just refer to the geography, but also to time.  & no, you cannot go back in time.  On Saturday I wandered round to the road that was my home for my first five years here - to find that the little bungalow I'd lived in is no more, the land now occupied by a four-storey block of flats.  From there I went to the restaurant and live music venue Just4U to request a copy of their programme - to be faced by a building site.  Even the very few people I still know here (in the office) look older and tired - as I'm sure I must do too.

I am not saying that I am unhappy to be back, but I am not jumping for joy either.

It will take time to find my feet here, knowing that I can't just slip back into what was here before (I did check on the flat I lived in for my last year, but it is occupied).  It will take me a little time to leave behind Latin America too (no dried cranberries in the supermarket here, no 60mbps internet download speeds), especially on weekends like the one we've just had where I was glued to internet news sites reporting on the terrible goings-on in Nicaragua.

But it will come.  Slowly.  Yesterday I found a website listing events in Dakar - I'd just missed a wine-tasting on Friday evening and an Orchestra Baobab concert Saturday night.  So there will be places to go where I can meet people, and establish a new social life here and build a new set of memories.  I just have to be patient.