Friday, April 15, 2011

Le Grand Depart

I get on the plane tonight in just a couple hours, to leave Africa until…! Eep! I wrote this a few days ago:

It’s my last week at post, I leave little Dabola in five days. More so than the goodbyes, it’s the return to America that has me mildly intimidated. In the two times that I’ve been back to the States during these last three and a half years, it’s always just been a quick trip, and then back overseas. But this is it now: the American Big Time. Time to get a big-girl job with a real salary and wear some respectable clothing. And buy a hairbrush! (Yessss, I just use my fingers here.)

I’m nervous as to how people are going to react to me when I can’t stop starting every sentence with, “When I was in Africa…” or the funny looks people will give me when I insist on wearing my African moomoos in public, and am generally clueless about things currently American. And job hunting??! Enough said!

But I’m excited at the same time. Mostly to be close to the comforts of my family and friends, which is the number one reason I am coming home. :)

I’ve found myself extra sentimental these last few days. Little things Guineans say or do just really touch me and break my heart a little. (I know, that’s sappy.) But the idea that I get to go back to big shiny America, where things mostly work the way people say they are going to work, where rampant corruption and extreme poverty are not a daily way of life. So many people here have been kind to me, generous, thoughtful, and funny, even in the face of poverty and a world of inconveniences, and I sometimes wonder what I have done to deserve their kindness and good humor, or how I could thank them. And I’m at a loss. I just hope that one day, in my turn I can be as giving and hospitable to others as Guineans and Cameroonians have been to me.

One last image comes to mind. I was whizzing down the road on my bike earlier today. It’s a road I’ve been down many times, but I’m looking at everything a little harder now, trying to soak it all up and not forget anything. I passed a little boy who was walking from a nearby well, carrying a bucket of water on his head. He was small enough that his arms were completely extended upward to grasp the rim of the bucket. He caught me looking, smiling at him and shyly smiled back and hesitated a moment, making the water splash out of his bucket and all over him, which made us both smile even more. Little moments like that—how easy it can be to connect with someone here, and how incredibly much people appreciate the simplest gestures. I'm not sure I have the capacity to give such joy so easily in the States—that’s what I’ll miss. In fact, I’m already missing it, and I’m not even gone…

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Busted flat in Dabola

Or, ruins everywhere...

Just because I think this is fascinating, I wanted to share one other thing I’ve noticed about Guinea, unique little country that this is, from my travels. Ruins are everywhere, in ways I have not seen in any other country—French houses dating from before independence, depots, and train stations. Most impressive is the colonial-era railway, running like a backbone, the spine of this country’s skeleton that has not yet decayed. I mentioned Camara Laye in my last blog entry, and one of the most evocative descriptions in his book L’Enfant Noir is of taking the train from Kouroussa in Upper Guinea across the country to Conakry, on the coast.

Well, that train is certainly no more. The ties have been ripped up and sold for metal. The remains of the stations stand out because they are surrounded by old mango trees, planted by French colonialists who liked shade (I don’t blame ‘em!) It seems almost any time you spot tall, aged mango trees, you know the French were lurking there in the past. The decaying train station in Dabola, my town, is my favorite. A few photos, courtesy of my friend David.

On the platform.

“Busted flat in Dabola, waitin’ for a train, and I’m feeling just as faded as my gray pants…”

You just keeping waiting for that train to come, David.

Remaining colonial-era houses and depots surrounding the train station. You can even see the mangoes, like little green Christmas ornaments, hanging in the trees in this one.

Cartwheels on the platform, just cause :)

One big-ass tree, a silk cotton. (That’s me in the roots!)

Since the train station faces away from town and the main market, all you see is fields. It’s calm and quiet, and for a minute you’d think you are somewhere else—maybe rural France fifty years ago—as it seems so different from anything else I’ve seen in Guinea.

The station masters’ huge house, dripping with dilapidated colonialism and wrap-around porches, is a surreal past-meets-present mix, where people have set up shop and an impromptu café, moved in, and are cooking meals under the trees. I’m glad to see that at least it’s being used!

During our travels to another town, Dalaba, we saw the old French governor’s house. It was beautiful and spacious, situated on the edge of the mountains of the Fouta Jallon. I could imagine long-ago soirees, pre-electricity; the magnificent huge room lit up by candles, women swishing around in ball gowns, and men talking about the colonial government. Windows stretch to the ceiling and give a view of the mountains fading into the distance. Now, paint is peeling and there’s a table with souvenir bracelets laid out for tourists’ perusal, but the view is still stunning. I like the lack of maintenance, it feels more authentic. It seems in most places, when a new group comes to power, they quickly take as their own the fancy buildings and relics of others who have come before them. Maybe it’s a statement of how Guinea felt about the French (and I can’t blame them!) that the Guineans have almost completely turned their backs on buildings/infrastructure/anything French. (Likewise, the French and all their architects, engineers and technicians completely abandoned Guinea after it took its independence.) Throughout Dalaba I saw other buildings that seemed once grand, and were now just shells, ever-present reminders of Guinea’s one-of-kind history.

Friday, April 8, 2011

You never know what you’ll find when you travel…

Or, hold on to your toes.

My time in Guinea is quickly coming to an end, so I decided to get out and see what all the fuss is about—because Guinea is supposedly a marvelously beautiful country. The fuss was right on—Guinea is pretty nice. Here’s a little summary, and a few photos.

Is so hot. I do not know how people live there, actually, and am grateful that I do not. Wow. Guineans are tough! It’s the second or third largest city in Guinea and it has no electricity. Would that be like Los Angeles or Chicago with no lights? Any power comes from small privately-owned generators. And no electricity means no fans, means one does not fall asleep until about three in the morning!

I got to see a couple of fellow PCVs in Kankan, one of whom, Darline, does some amazing things with hibiscus. Did you know you can make a nice wine out of that? Darline did! You boil the hibiscus petals in water, throw the resulting juice in a bucket, add sugar and yeast, cover the bucket, and then serve all your friends who come to visit until they can barely walk straight. :) Navigating the city’s streets after a night of hibiscus wine with your equally intoxicated PCV friends and no lights to guide you—always a good time in Kankan! Bonus points for not landing in one of the ditches on the side of Kankan’s nice paved roads. My hat goes off to Darline!

Then, feeling inspired by weather that must have been under 95 degrees (woohoo!) a fellow PCV David and I decided to bike from Kankan to his village. Almost four hours of chit chat and biking later, we arrived chez lui, an awesome little village called Baro eight kilometers off the paved road, and hometown of our newly-elected president, Alpha Condé. (The town used to be on the national highway, but Condé’s nemesis, then-President Conté, did not like Condé so decided to say a big booyah by redirecting the national highway so that it no longer passed through Condé’s village. And that is what Guinea’s infrastructure dollars are used for, as opposed to say, electrifying Kankan.)

The biking.

Note that fancy paved road. It's a small part of the national highway, and about the only bit of road like it in the country. I am also aware that my 80-cent Guinean sunglasses make me look a little bug-eyed. Helpful for scaring off small children.

So anyway, David does a lot of work in agriculture, so I biked with him off to a neighboring village where he was demonstrating to some local ladies how to make natural insecticides. (For the curious, you mix the right combo of some certain ground-up leaves, water, peppers, and a little soap, which makes the whole mixture stick to the leaves of the crop that you are trying to protect.)

My friends are seemingly quite adept at preparing toxic brews.

Here, the ladies are grinding up the plants that are to be a part of the insecticide concoction.

At work in the garden.

One guy takes a momentary break in the wheelbarrow.

On the way home from David’s, I had to change bush taxis in Kouroussa. Kouroussa holds a bit of intrigue for me, being the hometown of Camara Laye, one of West Africa’s great authors. (If you want to read about pre-independence Guinea, read L’Enfant Noir!) As the car passed herds of cute small boys parading to school in their uniforms, I kept imagining little Camara Laye, that age, circa 1937. Kouroussa is not quite as thrilling as I hoped, largely cause I got stuck waiting eight hours for a car, and then took said car for a trip of 85 miles—only six hours on the semi-paved main national highway! (Our road-side stops included one flat tire, at which we all piled out of the car and sat on the shoulder in the moonlight waiting for it to be repaired, two engine checks, one fiddling with the headlights to make sure that those wires stay connected and our headlights keep shining—not necessarily a given among Guinean vehicles—a prayer break, a detour for some lady to drop off a package, and a pee break. Remember, this trip includes thirteen people packed in a station wagon designed for seven. I am grateful that my bush taxi days will soon be over is all I have to say, and again, hats off to the Guineans who endure this every time they leave their town!)

Barely after getting back to Dabola, I bust off again, this time to the Fouta Jallon region, also known as Middle Guinea. The best thing about the Fouta is that it’s COLD!! Probably in the steady 80’s, which is a praise-Jesus beautiful temperature range if I ever saw one. The Fouta is thick with the Peuls—the cousins of Cameroon’s Fulbé. One thing I can say about both Upper Guinea (Kankan area) and Middle Guinea (the Fouta) is that I appreciated the clarity of knowing which language to speak. In Upper Guinea it’s always Malinké, and in Middle Guinea it’s always Pulaar (and boy, are the Peuls insistent about your speaking their language! Not knowing Pulaar is hardly an option—they’ll just keep firing away at you in Pulaar until you crumble or stare blankly enough at them that it becomes clear that you do not understand! And then they scoff at you.) But at least it’s none of this guessing that you’re required to do in Dabola, which sits right in the middle of the two regions, where you never know where one is from or what language they speak. Knowing which language to use just to greet someone is really a relief!

In addition to cool air and lots of Peuls, Middle Guinea is known for some beautiful hiking and waterfalls. My friend Christiana, the fellow expat of Dabola, and I were traveling together and we got to splash around in lots of waterfalls, and stand on the edge of many in ways that would never be allowed in America! (Protective barriers are not yet all the rage here.)

This is near the little village of Doucki. (And once upon a time, that shirt was white, back when I bought it in eighth grade.)

The hut where we stayed while hiking.

This is Christiana and our guide going down a waterfall. One thing I learned from this hike is that just because there seems to be no possible pathway, you can still climb on/up/over things and get into places you did not think people were supposed to go! Goats, yes, but humans? I think I achieved new levels of nimble.

We met some wildlife along the hike in the form of a hungry cow.

Then it was time to hike back up a waterfall! Eek. The crafty villagers in the area had constructed make-shift ladders from bunches of sticks tied together, to facilitate the ascent up the rocky waterfalls. About once a year, they replace the ladders.

Guess whose butt that is:

Here you can see three more of the ladders that make up part of the trail on the left and the waterfall on the right.

I think the coolest thing about this hike is that it would just never happen in America. Rules, regulations and lawsuits probably don’t mix well with home-made stick ladders.

That is a mid-hike, I-am-very-tired face.

Again, villagers taking care of each other—they leave that yellow half of a jug and purple plastic cup on the rocks at all times so it can collect waterfall water and any passers-by can drink it. I should note that while we tourists are paying lots of francs to troop around and get blisters and hike in the waterfalls, the local villagers use this path as a part of their daily life--reminds me how easy we have it in America--no stick ladders required to get to my grocery store!

Each night after hiking it was bucket baths under the stars, and local rice and sauce for supper. All very lovely although sometimes I do question just how clean I get with a bucket bath. Christiana, however, did not complain of any unpleasant odors. (Thanks, dear!)

Near Labé, we crawled down some more waterfalls, the Chutes de Sala. Unlike bucket baths, playing in waterfalls, akin to frolicking under a high-powered hose, will get you clean!

If you happen to notice my legs in this picture, it is true that I have now lived in Africa/the Tropics for three and a half years and have still not obtained a tan. Now that takes something special.

What the hell
I’ll finish this blog entry by mentioning that on this trip I had a couple of interesting and unexpected encounters. The first was while Christiana and I were hiking. Our guide had just pointed out a thick red line of ants crossing the pathway in front of us. I was admiring the ants when I heard a rustle in the bushes just off the path to the right. The rustle turned into a flapping, and the flapping turned into a very hard FWACK against my head! Stunned, I looked as the creature flew off. Christiana had been right behind me and seen it all. “Did that bat just fly into your head?” she asked in her proper British accent. “Was that a bat? Holy shit!” Not only was that a bat, it left a little bat cadeau too—a nice sticky trail down my arm. Mmmm, bat poop. Wow. I scared the shit out of a bat! What are they doing out in the middle of the day anyway??!! No lasting, vampire-esque damage done, however, and my ear stopped ringing from the impact about twenty minutes later.

The next up-close and personal encounter was while Christiana and I were waiting at the car park for a bush taxi out of Labé, heading homeward. She had wandered off in search of a bathroom while I was sitting on a curb in the shade, reading a book. I’d slipped off my sandals and just had my feet resting on top of them. I was enjoying my book when I felt a curious pulling at my big toe. I look up from my book, down at my feet, and see a crazy man bent over, releasing my toe, and smiling up at me as though pulling the white girl’s toe at the car park is just as natural as picking daisies in the spring time. He stands back up again, the transaction complete, and contentedly walks away. I just stare after him, so surprised, and thinking he’ll at least turn around, look at me, maybe thank me for a pleasant toe-pull, but he just moseys off! I can’t help but start laughing! I’m not even sure if anyone else noticed it!

As the hours wore on and we waited for a car, I saw the crazy guy wander around a few more times, and felt myself instinctively pull my feet up under me and my eyes follow him. What was he going to go after next? A bunion? My nose?! All told, we left Labé with no further harassment, but of all the parts of my body that have ever been admired, I believe this was a first for my big toe.

So, just a couple more entries is probably all you’ll here from me! The Grand Depart from Guinea is next week, with a brief detour in Europe before arriving on terra firma, aux Etats Unis on May 13!
My love to all! :)