Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Championship Soccer Match

There is something about a championship game - in any sport - that creates a ring of energy around its venue.  Whether it's the Super Bowl, a high school tennis match or Christians vs. Lions, the atmosphere is charged.  Instinctively, some people begin speaking like How-ard Co-sell (look him up, kids!)

And so it was, with the local favorite Jaraaf team taking on Casa Sport for a 6:00pm championship game.  There are no reserved seats, so even if you pay top price to sit in the good section (about $10) the best you'll do is a moveable aluminum chair.  Therefore, our driver suggested we arrive early (say, 3:30pm) to watch the opening game: a "Class B" championship match between two teams no one seemed to know.

I should take a break here for a moment and explain my view of soccer. Soccer is the most boring sport in the world. I watched all of two minutes of the World Cup, and that was just so I could say I heard those annoying plastic horns that everyone seemed to be talking about. And - of course - we have 18 channels of television dedicated to nothing but soccer on our cable television.  Even ESPN's African feed shows soccer instead of SportsCenter.  But, this promised to be different...

Casa Sport is from the Casamance region of Senegal.  This particular area has been fighting for Independence and has - as recently as March, 2010 - been the only region of Senegal where the sound of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard.  This wasn't just any championship soccer match:  it really was war.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was a sea of green and white moving and singing in rhythm to the beat of a dozen drummers, real brass horns and other assorted local instruments thrown for melody.  The Casamance fans had arrived by the busload and were already partying at full speed.  It is at least a full day's drive from Casamance to Dakar, so these people had no intention of going to work the next day.

One person would dance as fast as he or she could to the music, to be replaced by the next fan in line, while the rest of the fans were doing some variation of the "Iggy Shuffle" (you might have to look that one up, too!) and waiting for their turn.  It was 86 degrees outside, and the sun was shining directly upon them.  How long could they keep up that pace?

The first championship game is what gives soccer its reputation.  Final score: 0 to 0.  That's right.  We sat for over two hours and basically watched grown men play "Keep Away" with a ball.  Over two hours?  That's because of "extra time".  For those not familiar with extra time, sometimes the referees think one team might have been stalling.  So - to punish the fans - he can assign "extra time" for us to sit and watch them stall even longer. 

To decide this championship, they had a shootout.  Suddenly, EVERYONE seems to be able to score.  The shootout lasted for another 30 minutes as players would queue up and take 90 seconds between shots.  The blue team won, their 26 fans went wild and my butt was already molded into the shape of an aluminum chair.  Meanwhile, the fans from Casamance kept pounding away at the drums, dancing at full speed and singing whatever song it was they were singing.

By this time, the Jaraaf fans had also shown up.  They were separated from the Casamance fans by a ten foot wide aisle - and several armed guards.  They brought their drums, their horns and their singing legion of support.  It was a duel for the ages.

Jaraaf got on the board quickly for a 1-0 lead.  Finally, someone scored a real goal!  And the only idiot in the entire stadium with a plastic horn was celebrating - directly in front of me.  At that point, I knew I was a Casamance fan and I wanted nothing more than to see that region become Independent by 8:00 pm...

Then, Jaraaf's goalie was called for interference (or some other stupid penalty) and was given "the red card".  It's a whole lot more exciting to watch a baseball umpire throw a manager out of a game than it is to watch some idiot - wearing a safety orange outfit - stand at attention holding a red card. 

Speaking of stupid penalties, soccer has a penalty called "offsides".  This rule states that if the fastest man on offense beats the defense down the field, the offense gets a penalty.  It doesn't matter where it is on the field, it's a penalty.  Let's put that in perspective for you real sports fans, with Gil Santos as the call...

Brady drops back to pass.  He sees Randy Moss down the sideline and throws toward the end zone.  Moss beats the defender for a touchdo!... Whoa!  Penalty on Moss. The defender slowed down, so it doesn't count.  Bring the ball back.

So, we watched several times as the defense actually RAN THE OTHER WAY when it saw the offense and the ball coming.  There's a great concept!  Soccer really needs to work on its marketing plan.

Anyway, Casa Sport tied the game on a penalty kick and their fans went even more wild than could be imagined.  I looked down and hoped my shirt was turning green and white. 

For the next hour or so after that score, nothing happened.  At about this point, the fights started to break out in the stands - even though no alcohol was being served at the game.  I have figured out why fights break out at soccer games: because even the most loyal of fans gets bored stupid sitting for an hour watching grown men play "Keep Away" with a ball.  They need something to do! Except for the sea of green and white, which kept on dancing, singing and moving to their own beat.

With about 5 minutes to play, Casa Sport scored again to take a 2-1 lead and their audience went wild.  The players all ran over to that section of the stadium and - they too! - began doing their "Iggy Shuffle."  I would have done it also, had I not been surrounded by a bunch of dour looking Jaraaf fans.  Casa Sport held on to win the game and their celebration with their faithful lasted for about 30 minutes.  At 10:00 pm, we left the stadium.  It was still 86 degrees outside and the continued beat of drums, harmonic singing and full speed partying by the fans from Casamance - who never once sat in their seats - continued.

Later in the week, I spoke with a high ranking government official in Dakar.  He told me the region of Casamance took an entire week off from work to celebrate the victory.  Imagine what the party would look like if they actually won Independence? 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Taste of the "Real" Africa

Let me start by saying Dakar is a very metropolitan city.  It's about as 3rd World as Storrow Drive in Boston or the Eastern Promenade in Portland.  Sure, you can find a penniless man sleeping next to a bridge, but that bridge is next to an expensive home over looking the water and the man is probably just looking for a quiet night's sleep. 

But, that's not the Africa anyone wants to see.  I wanted something a bit more dangerous!  I wanted to go on a safari!  I wanted to see "The Big 5"!  And thus far the only five dangerous, wild animals I had seen in Dakar were:
1.) The Stray Cat
2.) The Very Fast Lizard
3.) The Annoying Little Chirpy Bird outside my window
4.) The Mob of Cretins waiting for me at the airport and...
5.) The very large woman with dreadlocks who moved here from the U.S. 10 years ago and now gives tours of Dakar

So, today it was off to the Bandia Nature Reserve - a game park located about an hour outside of Dakar.  To describe Bandia is pretty simple:  It's like Busch Gardens in Tampa without the roller coaster, tram ride and childrens' petting zoo.  These are trained tourist animals who pose and smile when they see a camera.  In fact, except for the monkeys and a certain species of antelope, all the critters in the place were imported from somewhere else in Africa.

Four of us arrived in the Suffolk University 4WD campus cruiser.  In case anyone from Suffolk is reading, this was obviously a business trip.  Once we arrived, we had to hire an expert tour guide for 4,000 CFA Francs (about 8 bucks U.S.).  When you consider $8 is all the guy is going to earn for the day, it was worth renting him just for his expert knowledge of how to navigate the mud and ruts in the road.  But I digress...

The real story here is that the guide needs to sit in the front seat to tell the driver where to go.  Which means someone from our party of four had the pleasure of riding in that "third row SUV seat" for about 2 hours. You know that seat.  There's no open window or air conditioning vent.  It has all the legroom and comfort that you'd expect to find in the bathroom of an economy class flight.  And it's usually folded down so you can fit smelly soccer gear in the back, so who knows what condition it will be in when turned upright.

We did the fair thing and - after a rousing game of "rock, paper, scissors" the loser was... our 70-year old department chairman.  Hey, fair is fair.  Besides, he's seen the Nature Reserve before and I didn't come halfway across the globe to kiss his butt or try to get a promotion.  I wanted to see wild animals!

Indeed, I saw a mama giraffe with her newborn (seven days old!), water buffaloes, warthogs and a herd of impalas.  I saw monkeys, hyenas and plenty of colorful birds.  I even saw crocodiles and giant lizards.  But, the most dangerous and wild animal anyone ever has seen is a 70-year old man climbing out of the third seat of an SUV after two hours of bouncing around on dirt roads. 

I did get to see the cities of Rufisque and Thies; viewed the coastal towns of Mbour and Saly; and rode through small villages at points in between.  I saw hundreds of baobob trees (some estimated to be 1,000 years old!!!).  I saw a main street that was once a proud French outpost turned into a slum, thriving market places where you could buy one blue platform-heeled shoe (right foot) as well as various other unmatched pairs, mucky streets impassable by car being expertly navigated by horse and wagon, children playing soccer on gravel fields and even a sign for a junkyard that read, "Paradise Auto Pieces" written in perfect English.  But, that's the Africa the non-profits want you to see so you'll send more money.

Now back to my search for the real Africa...  where did we leave the old guy, anyway?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Arrival in Dakar

I arrived in Dakar on Sunday the 5th after a refreshing 8 hour direct flight out of D.C.  For the geographically challenged - Senegal is the western most point of Africa.  It's closer to New York than South Africa (which would be another 8 hour flight) or the middle east (14-20 hours).  In fact, I'm much closer to Spain or Portugal and can pretty easily escape for a long weekend in Morocco.  Of course, if you're geographically challenged, you are probably still trying to find New York on your map right now.

I know I'm somewhat of a celebrity, but even I couldn't believe the hundreds of people gathered at the airport anxiously awaiting my arrival.  After I cleared customs (thank you, Arlo Guthrie, for the advice), I was greeted by a throng of smiling faces.  Almost every one of them offered to help take my luggage.  Where they planned on taking my luggage was no business of mine, but just the simple act of politely declining these well wishers took me a considerable amount of time.

After locating my personal driver and paying a $2 tip to the nice gentlemen with the official airport vest who helped me wade through the crowd of my adoring fans, we headed off down the Ouest Corniche toward my lodging.  Dakar is an odd city for driving.  The standard right of way is "first come, first served" and the car horn is actually part of the local dialect, which translates loosely as, "I can see you."

One out of every five vehicles driving on the Corniche is a Mercedes Benz.  And one out of every five vehicles is taxi cab - usually a 1970's-era European compact sedan painted yellow with black fenders to more easily disguise the damage to every corner of the car.  Each taxi also has a dangling side view mirror and a broken windshield - which are obviously mandatory components of the vehicle inspection laws for livery vehicles here.  I didn't take the public transportation, but have attached a photo of their bus as my signature stamp to your right.  Those who have seen my brightly colored wardrobe will quickly realize that I will blend in just fine around here in Senegal as "The Whitest Guy in West Africa"...