Finding My Voice as a Travel Blogger

When I originally decided to start this site, I visited some other travel blogs to see what they were like.   I needed to create some kind of online journal as part of my job responsibility for the month I spent in Senegal with the IBM Corporate Service Corps. IBM lets participants decide what specific approach to take, so long as we create something.  I chose to use this as a starting point for a more general travel blog that would talk about not only my month in Senegal, but also other places I visit.

Observations

I noticed that most of the blogs I looked at fell into one of these categories:

  • “Here’s what I did on my vacation” stories accompanied by selfies and anecdotes.
  • Showcase for hobbyist or professional photographers’ travel photos.
  • Guidebook approach:  suggesting things to do and providing a little background information about the place, along with logistical information such as address, how to get there, cost to get in, hours open, etc.
  • Monetized blogs that promote mediocre products which will generate payouts to the blog owner via affiliate programs.

I gave some thought to where I wanted to fit in, and proceeded accordingly.

African Renaissance Monument
The African Renaissance Monument stands at Dakar, Senegal.

First Steps

I started by posting photos of things I had seen with some narrative about the content of the photos. It was a good place to start, but it felt a bit superficial to me. I wanted to offer more of a back story that would show why I thought the topic of the photo was interesting enough to write about.

I experimented with adding my personal impressions and experiences to tell a story, but didn’t want to go too far down the path of centering myself in a story about somebody else’s homeland. Also, I want to be respectful in how I talk about the people I meet and their culture, so I think carefully before writing about my personal reactions to things.  I try to imagine how one of the people I’m writing about would feel if they were to read it.  Something that looks like a funny story to me might look insulting to people whose homeland I’m writing about.

At this point in time, I have not monetized my blog and I don’t have any plans to.  I suppose it could happen in the future, it’s just not where my priorities lie today.  I do know this – if I do monetize the blog, I will include only affiliate links for products I have personally tried and liked.

My Current Thinking

Now that I have been doing this for 8 months, I’m feeling comfortable that I have found my voice as a travel blogger.

Wedding Procession
Performers lead a wedding procession in this tableau at the Agricultural Museum in Cairo, Egypt.

I like taking photos and sharing them, so I’ll keep doing that.  I like exploring only one topic per blog entry, featuring multiple photos related to that topic. For example, I created a post about the Agricultural Museum in Cairo specifically centered around the diorama showing a rural wedding celebration. There are many other exhibits in the museum, but I wanted to keep that post focused on the topic of the wedding.  I may decide to post other photos of other exhibits from that museum in the future.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved. Performers in a tannoura show in Cairo, Egypt.

I have decided I want to try to include background about the subject of the photo that will go a little deeper than what a typical guidebook might tell you, especially with respect to history and culture.  For example, when I posted my blog entry about the tannoura whirling shows in Cairo, I offered a bit of background about the history behind Sufi whirling and the form it takes in Egypt.

A Terror Threat Warning

In my travels over the years, I’ve visited many places that had experienced issues with terrorism, including London and Paris. I live in a country, the U.S., which has experienced many terror incidents as well.

When I received word that my IBM Corporate Service Corps assignment would be in Senegal, my husband immediately jumped online to investigate safety and security issues. He found that in Senegal, petty crime such as pickpocketing provided reason to be cautious, but violent crime was not a serious problem there.

I felt comfortable with the idea of going to Senegal.  I expected it to be a wonderful adventure.  (And it was!) Still, it was somewhat disconcerting when a terror threat warning was issued while I was there.

Our First Inkling of a Possible Issue

Logo for U.S. Department of State

On October 19, the U.S. government issued a travel warning for citizens visiting Senegal:

The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens to be vigilant when visiting establishments and staying at hotels frequented by Westerners due to a credible threat related to potential terrorist activity in Dakar.

U.S. Embassy personnel are not permitted to stay at seaside hotels in Dakar until the first week of December. U.S. citizens should expect to encounter increased levels of security screening while traveling around Dakar.

Review your personal security plans, remain aware of your surroundings, including local events, and monitor local news stations for updates. Be vigilant and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.

The warning was issued while our group was at dinner, and at the time we didn’t have any way of knowing about it.  When we returned to our hotel, we noticed that the security measures for entering the hotel compound had been heightened, and we thought it odd, but we didn’t know why.  Once we were inside with wi-fi access and checked email,  those of us from the U.S.  received the above email notification from the U.S. Department of State.  Okay, now we understood why hotel security had tightened.

I was concerned, of course, but not frightened.  The tone of the alert suggested people should exercise a practical level of caution, but didn’t sound alarming.

Receiving Additional Detail

The next day, we learned a little more. There were unconfirmed reports that security forces had thwarted an alleged extremist plot to target a seafront hotel in the city of Dakar. The reports alleged that three suspects linked to this plot with ties to Al-Qaeda had been arrested in an unnamed country near the Senegalese border, and were being held at an undisclosed location.

These new details did not appear on the U.S. Department of State’s web site, nor was I able to find anything about it in web searches of English-language media. The only articles I could find in web searches of English media were reports saying the U.S. government had issued the ambiguous warning I quoted above and the Canadians had shared it.

It was a bit concerning to learn that the thwarted terrorists had planned to target a seafront hotel, considering the fact that we were staying at a seafront hotel!  We sent a note to IBM’s program manager for Corporate Service Corps to ask for an opinion about this, and waited for a response.

What We Did About It

The next day, IBM assembled us for a meeting.  IBM Security told us that they had assessed the situation, and had determined that we were not in immediate danger. We would be allowed to stay in Senegal and continue working on our projects.  However, we were required to move from our seafront hotel to a different place that was more inland and offered tighter security.  We were given only an hour to pack.

IBM Security told us that we could not go to restaurants along the beach, nor could we go shopping at the Sea Plaza mall, which is seafront.

At the time, we were forbidden to tell anyone outside of our group that we were moving, not even the staff at our original hotel.  For security reasons, we were also told not to disclose what the contents of our briefing were.

The Lost Weekend

A couple of outings we had planned for the weekend of October 21-22 were canceled for security reasons.  I now think of this as The Lost Weekend.

This did affect our morale.  We felt kind of imprisoned at our new hotel, since our weekend plans had been canceled.  We still had each other, and we tried to make the best of it by hanging out together and working on our job assignments.   We enjoyed each other’s company, but we would have preferred to enjoy it having adventures together!  We started to explore the neighborhood near our new hotel, and found some restaurants with good food.

Some of us told our families about the terror threat, while others didn’t want to worry them.  I did tell my husband.  I felt it would be best that he hear about it from me, rather than stumbling across the articles in the international news media. It seemed best to let him know that I was aware, and that IBM Security was involved.

Hotel Stuff

Our original hotel had been a beautiful seafront property with its own private beach.  The new one was a dump. The hallways of the new one smelled bad, and the carpets were old. In my room, there was a stain on the floor about two feet long and one foot wide.

The new place’s conference rooms were already fully booked for another group’s meetings, so there were no conference rooms available for our use to work on our projects.  We tried working in the hotel bar, which was very noisy and distracting. We tried working in the hotel’s “gold club” lounge, which was not air conditioned, and was noisy. All in all, this new hotel provided a poor environment for doing the work we were in Senegal to do.

And After That…

After a week, IBM Security decided to let us go on outings that met their safety criteria.

I was so happy we received the approval to visit Pink Lake, Gorée Island, and Bandia Reserve.  Read about our trip to amazing Pink Lake and our photo safari at Bandia Reserve elsewhere here on my blog.  I’ll post about Gorée Island soon….

A nearby, nicer hotel became available after a large event finished and its attendees left. IBM Security approved moving us to this place, which also greatly improved our morale.  I appreciated having a guest room that smelled clean and didn’t have a large stain on the floor.  It was much easier to work on our project in the new place’s well-equipped, air-conditioned conference room after dealing with the second hotel’s problems. The third hotel’s security provisions were similar to the second place, but it was a much better environment, both to work and to live in for the remainder of our trip.

Although this newer hotel was not seafront, it was close enough to the ocean to provide this beautiful view of the sunrise.

The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean at Dakar, Senegal.

Closing Thoughts

It was strange finding ourselves in the midst of a terror alert.  I was concerned, which I think was a sensible response, but I was not fearful. I felt that if the threat was truly serious, IBM Security would have decided to send us home immediately. IBM Security conducts  reviews of Corporate Service Corps locations before approving an assignment, and they tend to be very cautious about our safety while we’re deployed.

Of course, Dakar is a large city, and it’s always important to  be mindful of personal safety when in a large, unfamiliar city.  I took the same precautions there that I would take in San Francisco or Chicago.  I felt safer in Dakar than I have in certain U.S. cities.

Would I consider going back to Senegal for a visit in the future? Absolutely. And yes, I would consider staying at a seafront hotel again.  According to a November 2017 article in The Telegraph, Senegal still is considered to have a low level of risk compared to the United States and many European countries.

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here:  http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

Visiting the Children at L’Empire des Enfants

As part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, we try to arrange at least one “community service” activity.  Our local facilitator, Tidiane Gueye, offered us a couple of options, and we decided to do BOTH.  The first one that we did was a visit to L’Empire des Enfants.

L’Empire Des Enfants

About L’Empire des Enfants

L’Empire des Enfants is a rehabilitation and transition center in Dakar, Senegal for boys ages 6-14 who have been street children.  The primary goal is to reunite these children with their parents, while providing them with a safe place to live until that can happen.  There are various reasons these boys end up on the streets.  The most common is that a devious adult visits a village and persuades the parents to send their child to the big city of Dakar with him.  Sometimes the promise is that the child will be taken to a madrasa (Quranic school) to be educated, other times the promise is that the child will be taught a trade and become wealthy in the big city.  Either way, these are lies.  Once the child arrives in Dakar, he is sent out on the streets to beg for money.  If he fails to bring in enough on a given day, he is beaten.

L’Empire des Enfants accepts children who come to their door 24×7.  If the child is a boy in the age groups that L’Empire is equipped to work with, they’ll take him in.  If it’s a girl, or if it’s a boy outside their age ranges, they do what they can to find help for the child elsewhere.

As of our visit, L’Empire housed about 30 boys. The number varies greatly from day to day. In this photo, the boys pose with the woman who founded the home and serves as its director.

At first when children arrive at L’Empire des Enfants, they are suspicious of the adults because of the bad treatment they have already received from adults in their young lives.  For that reason, the boys who already live at L’Empire take charge of teaching the newcomers how things work there and how to fit in.  By mentoring newcomers, the boys learn how to take on leadership roles, and how to guide other people.

When a child arrives at L’Empire, he receives food, clothing, and shelter.  There are certain rules, such as “you must attend the classes”.  The boys learn these rules from their peers, and their peers are the ones who urge them to comply.

One of the classrooms at L’Empire Des Enfants.

The boys are taught to read and write (if they don’t already know how).  They also attend classes in life skills such as Tae Kwon Do.  The aim is to teach them to take care of themselves, so that when they return to their families they can help make a living and help take care of the rest of the family.

Often, boys who come to L’Empire are unwilling at first to provide information about who their parents are, or where they come from.  The adults who manage the facility realize that it can take time to build trust, and they exercise the necessary patience.  Eventually, when a child is willing to open up, they’ll work with him to learn who his family is.  They try to discern through the interviews whether returning to the family would be a safe thing for the boy to do.   They won’t knowingly send him back to a situation where he’d be abused.

About 90% of the boys are eventually reunited with their families.  Very few of those return to the streets or to L’Empire des Enfants.  If they do return, L’Empire recognizes that it may have missed something important about their home situation in the interview process, and will allow them to stay.

L’Empire can accommodate up to 60 boys.  The day we visited, there were about 30.  It changes from day to day.  They hope to build a new, larger facility in the not-so-distant future that will allow them to help more children, including girls.

About Our Visit

The primary purpose of our visit was to provide the boys with exposure to foreigners.  There were 14 of us representing 7 different countries – Brazil, Mexico, India, Japan, China, the U.S., and Canada.  My colleague Gopal from India brought his guitar, and my colleague Marcel from Brazil brought his soccer ball.

Tidiane timed our visit to have us arrive in the afternoon at the time the children were praying, so we could see them do that.  Afterward, it was time to eat, and we were served supper after the children received theirs.  We ate the same thing as the children, and it was a nutritious meal.  While the children ate, the director gave us a talk about the facility and the work they do there.

After that, it was time for us to interact with the children.  Our Brazilian team members, Mauricio and Marcel, organized a soccer game.

L’Empire’s boys play soccer with the Brazilian men from our group.

After that, Gopal played some Bollywood songs that involved yodeling – I had no idea that there was an Indian artist who yodeled!  While he played, some members of our group got the children started dancing.  There was much laughter and smiles all around.  We had an opportunity to tour the place and see the classrooms.

Children at L'Empire des Enfants
Several of the children stick out their tongues for the camera. I guess kids all over the world love to do silly poses for photos! In the back, Gopal shows his guitar to some boys and lets them pluck at the strings.

After a couple of hours, it was time for us to head out.  Those who wished to donate funds to the operation gave them to Tidiane, who consolidated all the donations and give the lump sum to L’Empire’s director.

I was glad to see the work that L’Empire was doing to offer boys hope for a better life, and I hope they’ll achieve their dream of building a new, bigger place that can help more children.

Why I Was in Senegal

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

Why I Went to Senegal: IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC)

Many people have asked me questions about my trip to Senegal – why I went, what I did there, etc.  Here are my answers to those frequently-asked questions!

I work for IBM, which sponsors a program called the Corporate Service Corps (CSC). It’s a corporate responsibility initiative, in which IBM sends teams of its employees on 4-week assignments to perform pro bono (no-charge) consulting engagements.  Every spring, IBM invites its employees to submit applications to be part of such a team.  Those chosen take a 4-week hiatus from their “real” jobs to do one of these assignments.   Upon completion of the assignment, we return to our normal jobs.

Q:  How many people are chosen to participate in CSC?

A:  Each year, about 5,000 people apply, and about 1,500 are selected.  Each year IBM deploys a total of about 100 teams, each consisting of 12-15 people.  I applied in May 2016, and received my acceptance notice in July 2016.  However, I did not actually get assigned to a team until October 2017. So there can be a lag between acceptance and deployment.

Q: How does IBM decide whom to accept?

A:  There are several criteria.  Our managers need to write a recommendation saying they support our candidacy and are willing to let us be away from our jobs for 4 weeks. We need to show a history of favorable performance evaluations. We need to have been employed by IBM at least 2 years.  The application process requires us to respond to several essay questions.  Our volunteerism in our local communities is also considered.  IBM welcomes applications from all over the world, but all participants must be fluent enough with English to use it in performing the assignment.

Q: Did your husband go with you?

A:  No, this is not a vacation.  It is a business trip.  We are expected to leave our families at home, to avoid being distracted by their presence.

Of course, if we use vacation time at the end of our engagement to do some touring, the families could come for that.  But during the 4-week assignment, IBM expects us to stay focused on completing our assigned projects.

Q:  How many people did IBM send to Senegal?

A:  I was part of a team of 14 IBM employees, from 7 different countries.  Our group included people from Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, India, and the U.S.  We were the 4th team to be assigned to an engagement in Senegal; others had been there in previous years.

Q: Where is Senegal?

A: Senegal lies at the westernmost tip of Africa. See the map at the top of this page. I went to its capital city of Dakar.

Q:  What did you do there?

A:  We were divided into 4 smaller sub-teams.  Two of those consisted of three people each, and the other two consisted of 4 people each.   Each of us was assigned our own project. In addition, we were encouraged to assist each other with advice/input as needed.  Our groups’ assignments included:

  1. A non-governmental organization called African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) that was looking for technology solutions to use in training midwives.
  2. A non-governmental organization called Plan International which was seeking assistance in using technology to help youth groups throughout the country share ideas, best practices, and schedules with one another.
  3. Centre de Suivi Ecologique (CSE), which was needing assistance with collecting environmental data from many diverse sources and gathering it all into a format that could be used for analysis.
  4. A team that worked with a Senegal government agency to help with a project to build a technology park.  This is the team I was assigned to.

Q: How did you know what to do when you got there?

A:  For each country where CSC is doing a project, IBM works with a non-governmental organization to identify appropriate clients for our team to work with, and to coordinate all the logistics.  The one that our team worked with in Senegal was PYXERA Global.  I found the PYXERA team to be very professional, a real pleasure to work with.

Each of our four sub-groups was given a draft statement of work a week or so before we left our home countries.  Then, once we arrived in Senegal, we worked with our local sponsoring organizations to interview stakeholders, refine our understanding of the needs, and revise the document to create a final version that both parties agreed on.  We then spent the balance of our engagements doing the work.  We often worked evenings and weekends.  With only 4 weeks to complete a project, it was important to stay focused.

Q: Where Can I Learn More About IBM’s Corporate Service Corps?

A:  Here are some interesting links with more information: