Greetings, Bleatings, and Baobabs

I’m sitting on a rooftop deck, above a row of bougainvilleas, below an enthusiastic blue sky, to the left of a cacophonous chorus of goats. My laptop screen is flapping in the wind, my hair is blowing into my eyes. Everything up here, including me, wears a coat of desert dust.

This is Dakar, the capital of Senegal. I’m loving it.

Thanks to a happy alignment of stars, this will be my home for the next semester. The happily aligned stars:

  • The company my boyfriend Ben works for is based here.
  • I’m getting a fellowship towards work on my dissertation, which means I don’t have to be teaching.
  • I got special permission from my department to be away from campus for a semester.

So this is a business trip, and I’m planning to spend a sizeable chunk of it on research. But that leaves plenty of time for exploration. I hope to chronicle that exploration here, in a fortnightly¹ series of blog posts called “Dakar Coddiwomples.”

Urban Dictionary tells us:

Coddiwomple (v.) To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.

The entry is only one year old, and there are no citations. It’s a made-up word — but then all words are. Doubly made up: I’ve nouned the verb.

Coddiwompling is deciding to move to a far-off country before you’d even identified it on the map (it’s the C-shaped one that forms the westernmost tip of Africa, by the way). It’s (I hope) meandering through a series of blog posts about your miscellaneous adventures in this country. And writing a PhD thesis… well, that’s one hell of a coddiwomple too.

First Impressions

Out of the airplane window, a wide glowing glory of a sunrise. The desert sand diffuses the light, carries it to the north and south, painting a broad band across the horizon. Ben tells me this is common here. I don’t dare to believe him.

Our taxi’s trunk is held shut with a promise and a bit of string. When I reach for the seatbelt, Ben shoots me an amused look. I adjust my expectations, and when I close my door and a centimeter-wide gap remains between it and the side of the car, I keep quiet.

Outside, fields of red dust give way to grasses. Trash is omnipresent, from colorful bits of plastic through abandoned cars. We pass several smoking trucks. They smell like they’re actually on fire.

The driver turns towards us. “Dakar no problem. Dakar nice.”

The grassland sprouts trees, with dense, crisply-cut, dark-green leaves. And then I spot ones with trunks like houses and scraggly, scrawny, squirmy branches. Awe-inspiring baobabs. (No photos for now, since I’m squeamish about taking pictures when observed e.g. by taxi drivers.)

Half an hour through the trip, the driver leans back and slams shut that half-open door.

Jet-Lag Woes

Sometimes it’s a prolonged one-chord, single-pitch WAAAAAH. Sometimes it’s a duet: a high plaintive cry followed by a deep desparate rumble. Mostly it’s just an insistent, persistent series of screams.

This is how you welcome the coming dawn — if you’re a goat.

This is what you hear at 5 am, after an endless 3 hours of tossing and turning— if you’re me.

For the first four days in Dakar, I would consistently collapse in bed around 9–10 pm, only to wake with a start at 2 am.

This didn’t make any sense — 2 am is 9 pm Boston-time, just about late enough for me to be able to fall asleep. Why would I have no trouble sleeping at Bostonian 4 pm, only to startle awake just when you’d think it would be possible to fall asleep?

On the worst, goat-filled night, I gave up at 5, and got up to spend two hours writing nonsense masquerading as philosophy. Then, of course, I collapsed, and slept like a baby till noon.


Take San Diego, replace half of the palm trees with baobabs and 80% of the dogs with goats, and you basically have Dakar. (And make the people way poorer, I know.) The forecast is 70 F/20 C and sunny… for the next six months.

And there’s surfing. I spent some 8 months in San Diego and never got around to trying this quintessential SoCal sport. Here, we took a class on our second day.

Allez! Allez! Allez!/ Go! Go! Go!

The instructors at Malika Surf Camp cheered every time one of us managed to stand up on the surfboards.

I hit my face with the surfboard at a point, but mostly I was a graceful first-time surfer. The water was warm and turquoise, the waves — beginner-friendly. I felt exquisitely balanced. As I walked my surfboard back for another push from the instructor, I looked at my surfing companions, then out towards the horizon.

Maybe I’d never had a year quite as good as this one.

Next surfing class: tomorrow.

[1] I was going to say “biweekly,” but apparently that’s ambiguous between “every two weeks” and “twice a week”… Also, if I stay super excited about Dakar and blogging, I might end up writing more frequently. No promises, though!

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Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at

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