Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Shaken and stirred

It's something of a cliche to say that travel in developing countries
makes you appreciate things you had previously taken for granted, but
it's said so often becaus eit happens to be true. Clean water.
Internet access. Roads with more flat surface than pothole. The road
to Dakar had so many potholes in that leaving it altogether and
driving cross country would probably have been a smoother.

I went to Dakar in search of solvents - another thing that I have come
to appreciate is things turning up when people say they're going to
turn up, as the six litres of hexane I had ordered a month before
coming had somehow failed to materialise at MRC Fajara. Such things
aren't available in The Gambia so I got to see two west African
countries for the price of one and head to the Senegalese capital
Dakar, where The Professor remembered a shop selling lab supplies and
reagents. I found this quite remarkably as I don't think there's
anywhere in London where you could just walk in off the street and buy
a couple of litres of analar grade solvent.

I'm still accompanied by one of the world's leading experts on
trachoma, over whom I fortunately failed to vomit on the flight. I'd
met him in the UK before and found him rather shy and awkward, but the
transformation here is amazing - he seems far more at home in The
Gambia than he did in London. Everyone here calls him Professor. At
first I assumed that they called all white people that, but I have
since realised that he does actually know every single person in The
Gambia personally. So I'm calling him The Professor in this blog too,
mostly so he never finds out that I called him shy and awkward.

Dakar appears to be one huge traffic jam with a city wrapped around
it. The locals see this as a business opportunity rather than an
inconvenience though, attempting to flog sim cards and cheap watches
to the vehicles' captive occupants. We arrived at twelve to discover
that Fermon, the lab supplies shop, didn't open until three, so went
for some lunch. We got chatting to the restaurant owner, who asked
where I was from. She was very surprised when I said I was from
Britain, and said she'd never have known I was English from my accent.
I felt very flattered that my French was so good until she added "I
thought you were German".

Dakar is a curious blend of French elegance, vibrant African
streetlife and abject squalor. We visited an air conditioned, marble
tiled patisserie that wouldn't have looked out of place in Paris and
were served by elegant women in crisp uniforms, then stepped out on to
a street lined with beggars, most of whom seemed to be missing at
least one appendage. My headscarf, which had worked like a charm in
The Gambia, suddenly meant I got the worst of it.

I've been wearing a headscarf since I got here, not only because it's
a Muslim country but because it keeps the sun off my ears and neck. I
put it on at the airport and it was like flicking a switch,
immediately stopping men from hassling me. It's also gone down very
well with the local staff, who The Professor says are very impressed -
certainly everyone's gone out of their way to help me. There are
downsides though, I'm tying my scarf the Arabic way rather than the
West African way just because that's the only way I know how to do it
but I've discovered that here wearing it this way apparently means
that I've been to Mecca. The Professor finds this hilarious and tells
anyone who asks that I have indeed been - I'm dreading the day when I
meet someone who speaks enough English to ask what it was like. There
are also certain things that the local people would forgive a "toubab"
for, but expect a "Muslim" to know better - I got a filthy look off a
woman for handing her the hat she had dropped with my left hand. And
in Dakar the beggars expected more charity from a "Muslim" than from
the others, following me down the street tugging at my headscarf and
shouting at me to remember my obligations.

We returned to Fermon at three, and over cold Fantas purchased a
bottle of solvent for the equivalent of seventy pounds, more than
twice what we would have paid in the UK. I hugged it on my lap like a
baby all through the bone-rattling ride home.

No comments: