Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Kelly Quatre-Quatre (4x4) - Pronounced 'Kelly Cat Cat'

Nothing but desert ahead.

I could feel the blood rushing into my face as the car engine strained and then cut out. The entire Valdmanis Team Africa was suddenly stuck in a desert, seated comfortably inside our new Kia Sportage, which had become a virtual solar oven. It was over 100 degrees outside. I turned the key to restart the car, checked the four-wheel-drive was engaged, shifted into first and gunned it. Again the engine strained, but the wheels wouldn't turn and we stalled. I imagined lightly roasted Valdmanii as I looked around at the sand, a tall dune on either side of us, I wondered how we'd survive this latest adventure.

We were doing a day-trip from Dakar to Lac Rose, a lagoon so salty that when the sun catches it right, it appears pink -- hence the name. Apparently, it's 5 times more salty than the sea. On the south side of the lake, artisinal harvesters tend to mountains of the salt dredged from the lake bed, loading it up onto trucks bound for the markets of Dakar and Thies. On the north side, a lonely dirt track leads to a few quiet inns, horse stables and restaurants. We had just finished lunch at one of these restaurants, run by a French chef, and had inquired whether it was possible to circumnavigate the lake.

"If you have four wheel drive, it should be possible," was the response.

I was now regreting our choice to try. We'd followed the track, which quickly disappeared into abroad expanse of sand. We managed to climb a first large dune and slide down its side into a low area, and we were now imprisoned by hills of deep, thick sand all around us. I imagined Kelly and I having to carry Laird and Dylan under the opressive sun to go find help. I imagined the trouble we'd need to go through to find a truck tough enough to drag us out. Would we be stuck here for the night? For days? That's when Kelly Quatre-Quatre arrived like a super hero, occupying the body of my lovely wife.

"Calm down, you'll upset the boys," she said in a relaxed tone. "I'll take care of this, let me drive."

I got out of the car and Kelly Quatre-Quatre (Quatre-Quatre is four-by-four in French, and is pronounced "Cat-Cat") got into the driver's seat. She put the car into reverse and backed up 100 yards along the dune to the top.

"Reverse is the strongest gear," she informed as a wave of relief came over me.
We could now easily roll down the dune to the more solid dirt road and return to Dakar the wat we came, I thought. At that moment, two men from the village appeared and suggested that, instead of retreating down the dune like wimps, we should deflate our tires a bit and continue on the rest of the way.

"It should be possible," they said. "You just need to deflate your tires."

I was dubious, but Kelly Quatre-Quatre was full of confidence. She was certainly ready for a challenge. We allowed some air out of the tires, cranked up the car and waved our goodbyes to the encouraging villagers.
Kelly Quatre-Quatre gunned it down the dune and started plowing through the desert like a pro, the car rim-deep in sand. The steering wheel was cranked all the way to the right, yet we were going straight. The farther we went, the more nervous I felt. We were leaving help, water, a real road in our wake. A large dune loomed ahead. Kelly Quatre-Quatre downshifted and started the climb. At a snail's pace, the car rose up the hill and, impossibly, reached the top. Another descent, another hill. My heart was beating, as Laird and Dylan cooed in the back, clearly feeling the excitement.

"This is awesome," Kelly Quatre-Quatre whispered with excitement.
"Who are you?" I thought to myself.

A kilometer or two through the sand and we spotted some vegetation, and then, in the distance, evidence of a building, which surely meant a road. The engine continued to strain. We climbed the last sand hill and then dipped between some palm trees and cactuses and onto a potholed dirt track, home free.
"There, that's how its done," Kelly Quatre-Quatre said as we high-fived. "Now you drive."

I got into the driver's seat, and my lovely wife hopped in beside me.

Two of the locals letting air out of the tires.

Look how deep these wheels are buried!

And of course, camels...after all, it was the desert.

Laird looking out at the Salt Lake at the restaurant.

Dylan asleep with his beloved new Senegalese plane.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Writing a letter & threatening protests = 2-5 years in jail

An emergency message for the embassy:

'This message is to inform U.S. citizens in Senegal that the outcome of the trial of an opposition party member which occurred today that could result in civil disorder and demonstrations in and around Dakar. On October 10th, 2011, Malick Noel Seck, leader of a minor political youth group, signed and delivered an open letter to the President of the Constitutional Court threatening him with violence if the Court validates President Wade’s candidacy for a third term in office. He was arrested and faced a maximum sentence of five years in jail. This morning the court in Dakar sentenced Mr. Seck to two years in prison. Mr. Seck’s supporters threatened demonstrations and previously called on their members to "burn" the country if the accused was sentenced to jail. Counter-protests may also be likely, which could further destabilize the situation. U.S. citizens are urged to use caution in the coming days should protests be called as a result of this decision and to avoid demonstrations should they come upon them.

While most demonstrations in Senegal are non-violent, the potential for violence exists, particularly in this period prior to the planned Presidential elections in February 2012.'

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Another attempt

Tabaski is fast approaching...a sacred muslim holiday. Families put all their money into purchasing a goat for the holiday celebration meal. The type of goat and price is often a reflection of status; the more expensive the goat, the better. (Yet it all tastes the same, doesn't it?)

A few nights ago, we had another break in attempt.

Rich and I bolted out of bed to the sound of a guard's whistle frantically blowing and then several voices yelling in Wolof.

I wish I had the ability to properly describe the feeling of what it is like to go from sleeping deeply, to running down the hall as fast as you can, armed with mace, a siren, a hockey stick, and telephone to Laird and Dylan's room. Words you don't understand are being shouted from every direction and echoing throughout the house.

Was the robber inside the house? Was he on the balcony? On the roof? WHERE? Are my children okay?

I am trying to make peace with the evenings events by looking at it as though it were a success on our part. We learned A LOT from our last robbery. We made a lot of interior and exterior changes, as well as stepping up security from 1 guard to 4. Our team of guards did a great job.

Needless to say, the robber climbed a wall to gain access to our property and attempted to climb a nearby mango tree to gain access to the balcony. A guard saw the robber, blew his whistle to wake us, as well as to alert other guards to come lend a hand. Guards threw rocks at the robber and chased him away.

**Note: As I was writing this entry, the doorbell rang. 40 meters of barbed wire will be installed next week.

2 times in 7 months. Not very good stats, if you ask me.

But, we are ready. We will not get sloppy. We will check and recheck every door and window every night. This last attempt was a reminder to stay on our toes.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to clean up trash in Dakar...

The owner of the construction site next to our house told us workers would be cleaning up salvage construction materials and the trash today. We were excited. Until we saw this:

The sight and smell of burning plastic is awful, not to mention what this is doing to the environment and physical health. This is how getting rid of trash is done here.
Hard to believe though, that Africa represents only a small fraction, 3.6%, out of the total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year, yet 14% of the population of the world lives here.

Guess who's #1?