Senegal, Nov 1-8, 2009

I’ve never had a first impression of a country quite like when I arrived in Senegal. Towering over the capital city of Dakar is the African Renaissance Monument, a 160-foot statue depicting a man rising triumphantly from a volcano with his outstretched arms wrapped around his wife and child. The monument, designed by a Senegalese artist but constructed by North Korean workers, is a symbol of Africa’s rise from centuries of intolerance and racism. It is set to be officially dedicated on December 12. Apparently, I got to Senegal a month too soon.

Like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument, this bronze statue is sure to serve as a regular background in photos of smiling tourists for decades to come. The site has exhibition, multimedia, and conference rooms, and a top-floor viewing platform. And since Dakar is the westernmost point of Africa, it’s only a 7.5-hour plane ride from Washington D.C. now that South African Airways flies directly there.

But there is criticism. Some Senegalese have complained of its communist-era design. Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Senegal’s population, take issue because of Islamic prohibitions on representations of the human form. Others say that the £17 million ($28 million) could have been used for more important things, like helping the poor. Worst of all, Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, insists that he deserves 35 percent of tourist revenue it brings in due to “intellectual rights.” Oh, and Senegal doesn’t have a volcano.

The critics make good points, but what’s done is done and come December 12, tourists and residents alike will have the world’s latest and well-meaning statue to admire. And with a new airport on the way, along with the potential for South Africa-to-U.S. visitors dropping by, Senegal and its residents should benefit from this new addition to the Dakar cityscape for years to come.

Editor’s note: The statue was unveiled later than the date provided when this article was researched.


An interesting conversation about love and marriage.



In Search of the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Having planned activities for a trip makes sense, but don’t neglect opportunities to get out and have a little unexpected adventure. It certainly paid off for me on a recent trip to Kauai, Hawaii.

Enjoying the beach with a good book and cold beverage is a perfectly satisfying way to pass the time on Kauai. But I also had the urge to experience something, well, uniquely Hawaiian.

“You should go see the Hawaiian monk seals,” said a woman who worked at the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation, where I was staying.

The what? I thought, with an image in my head of a religious sea lion of Polynesian decent wearing a brown, wide-sleeved robe with a rope belt and chanting in Latin.

Turns out that Hawaiian monk seals are a primitive species of seal, having separated from more modern seals about 15 million years ago. Its name is said to derive from its round head covered with short hairs, giving it the appearance of a medieval friar. So I guess my mental image was a little off, but I had the general idea.

Predominantly residing on the Northwestern islands, the seals’ numbers are rapidly dwindling. As of 2008, an estimated 1,200 remained. Lack of food, marine debris, human disturbances, and habitat losses threaten them with extinction.

The woman at the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation pointed on a map to the right of the town of Po’ipu, where the resort is located. The place by her finger looked blank. “Maha’ulepu Beach,” she said.

Maha’ule-who?

Feeling adventurous, I got into my rental car and drove, past the Grand Hyatt, past Shipwreck Beach, until I came to the end of the paved road. Sitting before me was an open gate with a sign that said “NO TRESPASSING.”

This must be it, I thought. Ignoring the sign, I continued on the dirt road, seemingly hitting every pothole along the way, dirtying up my rental car, wondering if Hawaii 5-0 was going to bust me for trespassing.

I drove for miles with no other cars in site. I was increasingly determined to find these monk seals. After making the right guess at a fork in the road, I was finally able to relax when I saw other cars parked along a wooded area.

But what I didn’t see were seals. I got out of my car, hiked through the woods, and found a beautiful white-sand beach. I looked to the right and saw rocks. I looked to the left and saw…more beach. I continued my hike. I was on a mission: I had to find the monk seals.

After 30 minutes of kicking around, finally, in the distance, I could see people standing around on the beach. I approached, cautiously optimistic.

“Hey, are the monk seals here?” I asked.

“Yup, the mother and pup are coming to shore now,” an older gentleman said. I noticed an orange temporary fence set up, a buffer zone for the seals.

And there they were, a mother and pup. They slowly inched their way along the sand, taking many breaks, until they finally found a comfortable place to rest before the mother turned over and nursed her pup. With a little good fortune, that pup could live for 30 years. Maybe I’ll see that seal again some day if I’m graced with a little good fortune, too.

*Note: Hawaiian monk seals are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Hawaii state laws. Sightings on Kauai can be reported by calling 808-651-7668.