About Rachael Cullins

Rachael Cullins

Rachael Cullins is a twentysomething American girl living in Dakar, Senegal, with her husband and two dogs. She blogs about her adventures in Senegal and travels elsewhere in West Africa. She will reside in Dakar until summer 2013, when she and her family will move to another foreign post as part of her husband's career with the U.S. government. In addition to West Africa, she has traveled to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Costa Rica and plans to continually add to that list.

Latest Posts by Rachael Cullins

Tips on Flying Pets From the States to West Africa

March 26, 2013 by  


My two chiens mean the world to me. I happen to think they’re pretty adorable.

Sending the dogs to and from Dakar was by FAR the most stressful part of our African adventure. None of our belongings mattered compared to these two. Here is some brief information of how we brought them along, just so you can hear it from another pet owner. Consult with your airline and their cargo company and ask a million questions, since information often changes.

The best direct flight for pets from D.C. to Dakar is with South African Airways. Dogs are sent as cargo, but are kept in a climate-controlled area. Caution: if you’re flying in the summer months, still be careful. I was annoyingly persistent with the SAA cargo team and insisted on knowing where my dogs would be when. A dear friend in Dakar experienced the loss of her dog when her plane unexpectedly sat on the tarmac in D.C. for three hours in the hot summer sun. “Climate-controlled” might not mean at all times. Ask questions and be assertive and avoid flying your pets during the hot months if at all possible.

It’s not cheap to send pets here. Greta and Perry cost $1,700 on the way down and $1,200 on the way back (unsure why the price changed for the return flight). Costs with South African are calculated by volume weight. Try to let customs in Dakar know ahead of time that you are bringing two live animals. We weren’t aware of this and waited THREE HOURS to claim our dogs at the Dakar airport. Not fun, but because Senegal isn’t a strict country, we were allowed to take them out of their crates for potty breaks and give them water.

Health entrance requirements for pets coming to Senegal are relatively lax. Have a valid rabies certificate, microchip and vaccination record and you should be ok. Again, check current regulations before you fly. For returning to the States, you’ll need a rabies certificate issued more than 30 days but less than one year before your flight, and a simple health certificate issued within 10 days of travel. Dr. Serigne Cisse is the preferred vet in Dakar, at least for the pet owners I know. He does all routine vet services and got us the travel paperwork we needed.

Keep copies of everything and take it in your carry-on luggage. Be prepared to pay a few thousand CFA to get your dogs through customs in Dakar. Ask questions and don’t worry about being “that guy” at the airport. Your pets are worth it.

SPAIN: Into the Mountains Beyond Barcelona

September 14, 2012 by  


Our trip to Barcelona included a one-night jaunt to Andorra, the tiny little country situated between Spain and France at the foot of the Pyrenees. We rented a car, zipped through the Spanish countryside and stayed in an Andorran hotel with balcony views of the mountains.

We wore robes. We drank two bottles of wine. It was glorious.

The highlight of the Andorra excursion, though, was stopping anywhere and everywhere on the way back to Barcelona.

On our way to Andorra, I saw so many things out the car window that made me say, “Look! What is that?” We decided to visit these random locales and take our sweet time getting back to the city. 

One of our first stops was this lake, for which I never saw a sign with a name. The picture doesn’t accurately capture the blueness of the water. We pulled off an exit and hopped in – or Josh did, because the mud around the edge of the lake was extremely suck-y and sticky and I got scared. Of what, I’m really not sure.

Our second stop was this old church, Saint Marti de Puig-Reig, which we could see from the highway on the tippy-top of a hill.

The church was first documented as early as the 900s and completed in the 1100s. According to the sign attached to the structure, the Knights Templar held meetings here.

The next stop was the Castle of Balsareny, another hilltop structure we spied then veered off the highway to see.

The drive to and from Andorra was full of random castles and churches perched over everything. I highly recommend this method of sporadic tourism, by the way. It was so fun to just randomly pull off the road and explore.

I noted names of places on my iPad then did further reading on each spot when we got back to Barcelona.)

The castle wasn’t open when we stopped in, but the views from the hilltop were AWESOME, even if the windy little road leading up to it gave me a heart attack because I don’t trust Josh’s driving (I’m sorry, I love you).

This castle was built  in the 14th century. Its style is unique; not many castles have what I call the “Super Mario Brothers” look – square and very “regular.”


A Look at Montserrat

September 13, 2012 by  


Our last random exploration of the day was more of an adventure than we bargained for (and living in Africa, I knows my bargaining). I spotted a sign on the interstate (do we call them “interstates” in Europe?) with a drawing of some huge structure and the words “Montserrat.” Our little Ford rental couldn’t get to the exit fast enough.

A few wrong turns later, we’d arrived at a parking garage for Montserrat, still a bit unsure what it was. But what it was was (whoa) a huge monastery and village perched in the very, very top of the Pyrenees.

We bought tickets for our second funicular tram of the trip and headed up, up, up. If the views at Balsareny were good, these were fantastic.

I used many descriptors for these mountains. Melted candles. Phallic. Fingers. All of the above.

The earliest history of the inhabitants of Montserrat is a bit cloudy, but the monastery was founded around the 11th century – and has since been rebuilt and refurbished, due to time and various wars. Today, it houses a rare black Madonna and a printing press that dates back to the late 1400s. The basilica was beautiful; it was quite dark and ominous, especially compared to the interior of the church at Tibidabo we’d seen a few days before.

After walking around a bit and murdering a Spanish omelette sandwich, we hiked up the mountain even higher. I could see a cross in the far distance, sort of across a canyon. There was a path leading up there. So up we went, naturally. The views were rewarding.

The cross didn’t specify who it honored, but it jutted out over the mountains. I had tired hill-climbing legs and fresh air and gorgeous scenery and no responsibilities other than to take it all in. I could have burst into a thrilled pile of glitter.

One last photo of the monastery. If you’re near Barcelona, go to Montserrat. We drove, but you can take a train from Barcelona. The price of the funicular tram was around $10-15 each and the monastery was free. Wear tennis shoes and a ponytail and hike your tail up the mountain to the faraway cross in the distance, viewable from the square outside the basilica.

Barcelona’s Tibidabo is Spectacular

September 3, 2012 by  


When we landed in Barcelona, we could see a far-away church on a big hill – maybe we can even call it a mountain – overlooking the city. Josh said, “There. That is what I want to visit.” I said aye-aye, captain.

A big of quick Googling to find where we were going and how to get there and enter Tibidabo, one of my new favorite places. We took an old trolley then a funicular (we put the fun in funicular) tram that chunk-chunked its way up the steep incline to Tibidabo. The church, Sacred Heart, was lovely, outside and in.

Ever seen Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Remember the amusement park they visit? It was here, in Tibidabo. I’m a schmuck for many things, but Woody Allen films and rollercoasters are near the top of the list, as are old-timey things. The Tibidabo amusement park combined all three. We rode the little red plane in this photo. It went ’round three times, very slowly, and gave great views of the city.

The views from the church were great, too. If you go to Barcelona, take a few hours and visit Tibidabo. Take the subway to Plaza de John Kennedy, then look for signs right near the metro station for the red or blue tram. That’ll take you to the funicular tram, where you can buy a round-trip ticket to Tibidabo.

Barcelona in Pictures…

August 28, 2012 by  


I’m like a cat or an infant when it comes to lights and shiny things. Bling draws me in. Walking to the art museum at night post-dinner was a given. Ah, those Spaniards know how to suck in the simple-minded.

Example two of my propensity for bright things: a carnival that happened to be right outside our hotel door. Josh tried to play a game where you kick a soccer ball toward bowling pins. He hit a box holding the soccer balls, way off to the side of the miniature bowling lane. Then I ate a cone full of chocolate-y waffle thingies, which is way more important than anything Josh did.

We walked to and through Parc Montjuic, winding our way toward the Montjuic Castle. By “winding,” I mean “climbing.” The entire city of Barcelona is magically uphill. Go toward the park? Uphill. Leave the park? Uphill. You know that old man who claims he walked to school uphill both ways? Turns out he’s from Barcelona. The park was lovely, though, as was the weather. It was warm, around 80 degrees, but not stifling. Dakar humidity has been at in-the-shower levels recently, so comparatively Barcelona was Balmy-a-lona. Or something.

More rewarding views from Parc de Montjuic. Barcelona is a great city if you’re looking for a combination of beach and not-beach. The Mediterranean is right there if you need sand time, but the town’s of course chock-full of other things to do.

Said an obligatory hello to Gaudi. The Sagrada Familia was only about a quarter of the way done when Gaudi died in 1926 and the goal is to finish the structure on the centennial of his death, in 2026. Today’s builders just crossed the halfway point in 2010! What have they been doing all this time, you ask? My guess is halting construction to wait for daily miles-long lines of tourists. We opted to snap photos from the outside instead of spending hours in the queue. We only had three days in Barcelona, so we had to prioritize a bit. (Wine and tapas are high priorities, FYI. On vacation, ya’ll.) Seriously, though, La Sagrada Familia is intricate and beautiful.

Senegalese Names: Fun Tongue Twisters…

August 15, 2012 by  


Step 1: See work is closed on Wednesday for Assumption Day, whatever that is. Step 2: Begin to form plan in head. Step 3: Inform your husband about 19 seconds later you’re going to take vacation days Thursday and Friday, piggybacking on the random Wednesday off, and jet to Spain.

Barcelona, here we come in about T-minus four hours! We’re also going to drive up to the little country of Andorra for a day. I will have a balcony, booze and a boy. And a Pyrenees mountain to stare at. The only way it could be better is if the sky suddenly started raining Runts.

Here’s a subject jump that has no connection: I love Senegalese names. They’re pretty and fun to say – and some are downright funny. Here are a few favorites I’ve collected during the past year.

  • Lotta Gaye (yes, Gaye is pronounced “gay”)
  • Soda (a woman’s name)
  • Daddy Jack (this guy was actually from the Gambia, but close enough)
  • Pape Diop (the di- sound in Senegal sounds like a J – so, for my unconditioned toubab tongue, this name becomes Pop Jop)
  • Boobs (phonetic spelling), a shortened version of Bubacar
  • Everything ending in -ou: Abou, Abdou, Hapsitou, Apsitou, Fatou, Bintou
Also, common names are really common. Think a lot of people have the last name Smith? That’s beans compared to Diallo. Or Jalloh. Or Jallow. All said the same way. At work, we have an entire filing cabinet drawer dedicated to Diallo alone. Every third man seems to be named Mohamed or Mamadou. And sometimes siblings will have the same first name but go by different middle names, such as sisters named Ndeye Awa and Ndeye Yacine.
Got more favorites to add? Comment below!

Senegal Has 38 Athletes in the 2012 Olympics

July 30, 2012 by  


Curiosity struck me today: how’s Senegal looking at the 30th Olympiad? Here’s a good roundup from Wikipedia on Senegal’s participation in London. There are 38 athletes competing in eight different sports.

From Dakar, we’re lucky enough to have a DirecTV log-in, so we can stream all the events live. Woo! I have a slight Summer Games obsession. I cheered out loud during women’s road cycling today.

As I said in my Facebook status, I might explode into a pile of glitter during the running events next weekend.

Eighteen of the athletes comprise the soccer team – see below. I hope some of the individual performers make the finals in their events; I’d love to watch them compete in the final rounds..

Above, athletes from Senegal wave their flag and march in a parade during the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 27, 2012, in London.

Below Moussa Konate celebrates after cancelling out Team GB’s lead.










Photo credit: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey. Second photo: Getty Images. 

Senegal: There are Zebras in West Africa but they Ship ‘em in!

July 27, 2012 by  


I know what you’re thinking: This chick is a liar. She always says there aren’t stereotypical “African animals” in Senegal, and now she’s showing us a picture of zebras.

While you’re certainly correct this is a picture of zebras (that part was easy), and it is indeed in Senegal, this was taken at Bandia, the nature reserve about an hour and a half outside Dakar. Animals like this? They ship ‘em in.

I think the meaning of life is hidden in this question: Are they black with white stripes or white with black stripes?


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