Saturday, November 29, 2008

Guinea: An Unforgetable West-African Adventure

November 10th I set out from Basse with five good friends as we rented out a car and a driver and excitedly started our 28 hour(ish) drive to our destination of Dukie, Guinea. Five full days of hiking, waterfalls, a good time with friends and a well-deserved break from Gambia lie ahead!

50 hours later, with still no definate end to our drive in sight, but with tempers reaching a critical point, emotions running high, a driver ready to abandon us, hundreds of kilometers of never-ending craters...generously called a road, and a group of 6 young travelers ready to abandon the driver, --- the journey had certainly become what I like to call, simply, memorable.

In respect to you, my devout readers, I will not delve into what could be the equivalent of a 25-page, day-to-day play-by-play of what was truly an adventure, full of random twists and turns, and enough 11th hour revelations to fill a John Grisham book. But it is worth pointing out the more lively points of our memorable "vacation." (Come to think of it, even traveling with the Griswalds coundn't have been more interesting.)

(DISCLAIMER: To all those wishing or planning to visit Guinea, your vacation does NOT have to be like this. No no. This trip was certainly so many respects. Yet unfortunately not all THAT unique...since, after all, this is West Africa. So then again, maybe this disclaimer doesn't really have any merit to it after all.)

*We get off to a great start, leaving the parking lot with the wind (and dust) in our faces!

*2 hours in we had our first (of many) break-downs.

*Immigration officials are great a wasting time and power-tripping.

*The first day in the car goes by really well. We are all fresh, excited and think the driver knows where he is supposed to be taking us. (That assumption, that just because the driver SAID they knew where we wanted to go and how to get there, and we believed him, was our first great mistake.)

*We try sleeping as the driver pushes through the night, but on a "road" with more craters than the moon. Sleeping is met unsuccessfully.

*Surprise! The car is infested with cockroaches!

*The sun rises to reveal we are at a ferry crossing. After a cup of roadside coffee, we are excited to keep moving. "Hiking by sunset" is on our minds.

*We enter Guinea and it's GORGEOUS!! The first forests, and yes, even mountains we have seen in over a year!

*We stop to refuel (our stomachs and the gas tank) in the city of Labe. It's fun to get to speak Pulaar outside Gambia. There's a definate dialect, but we get by alright for our own needs.

*While in Labe, an elderly woman who was either extremely enthusiastic or, well... anyway, she was covered in small placards and buttons with pictures of Barack Obama and she gave us all multiple hugs... before begging us for money.

*As the sun is setting and we approach our FIRST 28 hours in the car, the forested mountains turn into rolling plains.

*At about 10pm the driver told us we were there... to Tugay. Too bad we should habe been to DUKEY about 4 hours ago.

*We somehow manage to come across Robert, the one man in Tugay who can speak English enough to help us convey to the driver our problem of Tugay vs. Dukey.

*Spent the night in a random hotel. No light, water or food. But don't worry, plenty of cockroaches to cuddle with.

*Off to another good start, sure that THIS TIME the driver knew where to take us. We were so naieve...

*2pm rolls around and we reach the PROVINCE/DISTRICT of DUNKEY. Again, NOT the TOWN of DUKEY.

*Somehow this too is "peacefully" resolved and we reach Dukey that evening around 8, after a mere 56 (yes, fifty-six) hours on the road. (Not that we were counting by then any more. It just wasn't fun to keep adding hours after 28 of them had already passed...apparently in the wrong direction.)

*The lodge, run by a great guy named Hassan Bah, is awesome and gorgeous! Truly postcard picturesque.

*Short hikes. Long hikes. Absolutely gorgeous hikes!

*Great Guinean food!

*Good times with friends surrounded by truly awesome scenery.

*Swimming under waterfalls in fresh water springs.

*Relaxing in natural whirlpools.

*Picking and eating oranges right off the trees.

*Oh yeah, one of the tour guides tries hitting on two of the young women in our group. (You can escape Gambia, but not West Africa.)

*Nice, lazy afternoons lounging, reading and sleeping in hammocks.

*Good weather.

*Good health.

*Great hikes!

*Push my limits with my fear of heights.

*Fear of heights NOT successfully overcome.

*Rock climbing.

*Vine swinging.

*Dropped my camera in the stream while vine swinging on our last hike. Memory card is alright. Might be time for a new camera though... (one where you can't hear sand moving around when you bring the zoom in and out)

*Met some fun, recently completed Peace Corps Volunteers from Togo and Morocco.

*Decided not to follow in their footsteps of backpacking West Africa upon completion of my two years of service.

*Our drive ACTUALLY came back to get us at the scheduled time! (We had been wondering over the days if he would actually come back and spend another 28... or 56 hours with us.)

*Another bumpy ride.

*Immigration officials still power-tripping.

But a mere 28 hours later we were back in Basse, Gambia! (Boy does time fly by when it's not 56!) (Over an entire "work-week" spent sitting in a car... just on the way there.)

It truly was a great trip. Not everything went according to plan, but really, what does in West Africa? Surely we could have planned better. Maybe we could have/ should have even brought along a map of Guinea to refrence. (Yeah, my dad and aunt Janis are going to literally rake me over the coals for not having a map of the hundreds of kilometers of roads we were traveling.)

But it was fun and memorable! A truly "once-in-a-lifetime" adventure. Except of course for next summer when I plan to take a similar trip for backpacking and hiking in Mali...with a map of Mali. I know, I'm just asking for it.

But for the record, I never lost my temper or composure on the trip. I'm not saying anyone did, just that I, personally, did not. On the contrary, I was the perpetual optimist! (not always appreciated) But I was well stocked with candy, pixie-sticks, fruit-roll-ups, gummy candies and countdown-callendar "Bush-isms" to help keep the mood light, tempers at bay, and a mellowing sugar coma all around.

So the trip wasn't exactly smooth (quite literally!), or even slightly predictable. But it really was a ALOT of fun. But oddly enough, I was glad to be back in Gambia when it was over. Flat, bland, "give me mintie" Gambia. It's somehow refreshing to be back. To be back "home." I guess my heart is really in it here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

'Tis the Season...For Elections...

Hey Everyone!

I am in town for the election and thought you might enjoy a quick update with my life as of late.

First and foremost, Khiva is still doing well. She has gotten quite big (thanks in part to many dog treats that have made it over here in gift-packages). She's my baby, and she's doing fine.

I'm also doing really well! I'm excited to be going to Guinea this weekend! I am going with 5 friends. We will leave from the town of Basse at the very eastern edge of Gambia, and hopefully reach the place we're staying after about a 36hour car ride... a long, bumpy car ride. We will be there for about 6 days, mostly spending our time hiking and swimming. I mean, it's not easy to hike all day through mountains and jungles and then go swimming in natural streams and waterfalls... but someone has to do it. I'm really excited to finally have a bit of a vacation. Actually, this will be my first real vacation since coming to Gambia over a year ago! I mean, trips into Kombo and to the beach are nice, but I'm still in the perpetual Peace Corps fish-bowl. This will just be a nice break.

After I get back from Guinea I will be mainly just hanging out in village until Thanksgiving, when I will be coming back to Kombo for the annual all-volunteer conference. That should only just last about two days. Then in early December I will be helping out a bit with training the new Ag-Fo and Health volunteers! They get in on the 6th of this month, but I won't really be working with their training until December. I think I will be discussing local farming practices with them. Mainly I will be helping them try to gain a good understanding of what to expect before they get to village in terms of how their host-families and communities approach farming, and also help them think about some ways where maybe they can work to improve farming practices during the next planting season, such as inter-cropping, as well as ideas for fertilizers and pesticides. Kind of crazy that I'm now in the older group. It's been odd to see the volunteers from the year ahead of me packing up and getting ready to go back to the States. Time really does go by quickly!

And I can honestly say that over these past few months I've reached an appreciation and enjoyment with my service here that I didn't actually think possible. I'm not just enjoying it as an interesting and educational experience, or as a great way to get overseas experience. But I'm actually really loving it here. The relationships and friendships I have been fortunate to build with the people around me is unexplainably refreshing and rewarding. You can be sure that not every day is "great," but I truly am having a great time. I'm having the time of my life and truly loving it here.

Last week we had a bee-keeping training in my village. The main focus was on building sustainable bee-hives out of grasses and other local materials. We also spent quite a bit of time discussing the life-style of bees, trying to help them gain an understanding of bee communities and how they work. There were about 30 people who attended from about 8 different villages. In the coming months it will be their responsibility to actually build bee-hives, bait them and set them out in areas likely to attract bees. In a few months time we will have a follow-up training to discuss harvesting, processing and marketing.

(Bah-Fodi using his new training to make a grass bee-hive.)

I'm really excited about the potential for this project. It's something I think the people in my area could really get into, and really benefit from. Check out my pictures for more shots from the training!

With the corn, coos and rice harvested, now all that's left is the groundnuts. This year's rainy season was pretty good. (Even a bit longer than expected.) So now we have been using the mornings to plow up the groundnuts and group them. Next we will thrash them to seperate the nuts from the hay. Then we will collect the nuts for eating/selling, and then collect the groundnut hay for the horses and donkeys to eat through the dry season. The whole process is a bit labor-intensive and will finally finish up mid-December.

Mid-December will be their Tobaski holiday again, which will be fun to celebrate once more. And shortly after that I will be heading up to Dakar to fly back! Several of us are going up to Dakar on the 22nd. Two of us are flying back to the States, and the others just think it sounds more fun to celebrate Christmas in a different place for a nice change. It should be a fun few days!

Then (weather permitting) I should be home for Christmas! I'm sure it will be a bit of a whirlwind during the first few days, but as long as there is coffee I should be ok!

Oh, and a fun random story. Just about a week ago I came back to my compound around 10pm after spending some time chatting with some friends in village. When I walked in I thought it was funny that a bunch of people were walking around the compound garden area with flashlights. I knew something exciting must be going on, and I was pretty sure what it was. To my un-surprise, Lawo had spotted a snake moving around in the compound. A BIG snake! Of course I jumped into the action with my flashlight and machete, scouting out the perimiter of the garden, looking for anything resembling a big snake.

There were about 10 of us looking around until about midnight, but with none of us seing anything, we were pretty sure it was too scared to come out of the garden area. So, figuring we had it trapped, we left the dogs to keep scouting around the garden and went to bed. The next morning we went back to work, trying to find the snake. I asked Lawo how he could be sure it didn't leave during the night, and he explained to me that the snake was coming to try to eat the chickens or ducks, and wouldn't give up too easily. And he was right! Just a little bit later one of the guys scouting the garden fence saw it. The guys jumped into action, and shortly after the snake, which turned out to be a python, wasn't a threat to the chickens or ducks any longer.

It was a fun experience to be a part of. Truly a "Peace Corps West Africa" memory in the making! (And mom, now you don't have to be afraid of snakes around my compound, because we got rid of it!)

Well, that said I should probably get going. But yeah, in a nut-shell: promoting bee-keeping, python in the compound, Obama '08!, Guinea, Thanksgiving, groundnut harvesting, Tobaski and then I'll be home for Christmas!!

I hope you are all doing well and enjoying the November weather. It has been cooling down here, too. We are getting closer back into the cold season. It's getting down into the 70s at night. And yes, I've started wearing jeans and long-sleeved shirts when it drops down into the 70s. So this year I'll probably be huddling around the fire with everyone else. And the Iowa December weather may be a bit of a shock!

I hope this finds you all doing well. Until next time, take care!

Obama '08! History in the Making!

(My host-family, friends and actually most of the village are all VERY excited about the prospects of an Obama victory!)

Several of you have emailed or written me asking if I will be able to vote in this year's election. You can be sure that I proudly voted absentee for Barack Obama to become the next President of the United States!

(my hut showing pride for Obama. my sign and flag have actually lead to some great political discussions, a great means for cross-cultural understanding and education)

This truly is an historic election, and I thought you would enjoy some pictures of Obama support coming from the West African bush!

(even Bah-Fodi is showing his Muslim prayer beads to show just how seriously the rest of the world takes the outcome of this U.S. election)

Go OBAMA! Obama '08!