Thursday, November 23

Escaping Guinea – A Trip to Senegal

After over 10 months in Guinea, I needed a vacation. I needed to pamper myself for a few days. I needed to eat well, feel clean, and explore a new place. Finally, last week Reid and I went on our much-needed trip to Senegal. Dakar seemed like the developed world to us, and although we had not left the continent, I felt far away from the Africa I have grown to know. We flew from Conakry to Dakar for an 8 day trip to heaven. It was an amazing trip, and I could have stayed there forever, but now that I am back in Guinea, I feel refreshed and ready to face another few months.

When we arrived in Dakar on Tuesday night, chaos was there to greet us. We exited the airport with the plan to find the #8 bus into town (yes, there's public transport!), but that was obviously easier said than done. We saw a #8 bus and its engine was on, but it was empty and everyone swore to Allah that it wasn’t going to leave. Ever. And no more were coming. This left us only one option they told us – their expensive taxi. We have learned to never believe an African when they are trying to sell you something, so we decided to stick it out and wait to see if another #8 bus came.

While waiting, a man came up to us and tried to sell me euros, shiny euros at that. I just arriving in Dakar – I don’t need EUROS! He offered me CFAs, the currency of Senegal (and some other West African countries, but not Guinea), and I jokingly said “ok, I would like to buy CFAs. With which currency? I have Guinean Francs – want those?” He looked horrified and turned around and left, obviously not getting the joke. You see, the Guinean franc is worthless outside of Guinea. It’s a “soft” currency, only to be used in Guinea. The rest of the world won’t touch it, as it literally devalues every day. So me offering someone Guinean francs outside Guinea is ridiculous, even if they are a money changer. That’s how we Peace Corps volunteers joke around in West Africa.

Anyway, the bus arrived and we got on board to head downtown. Having no small change and being clueless as to where we were going, we were a bus driver’s nightmare. But he was a friendly man who took pity on us and found us change and let us know when to get off with a smile and a nod. Dakar was a great place – everyone was friendly and helpful throughout the trip. It makes traveling by the seat of your pants a lot easier and more enjoyable.

Picture Below: View from our Bungalow, Toubab Dialaw
The next morning, after a wonderful pastry breakfast unlike anything in Guinea, we took an hour long cab ride down the beach to a town called Toubab Dialaw, an old fishing village with rocky beaches and a burgeoning European population. We spent three nights there, in a bungalow overlooking the ocean. The hotel was breathtaking, offering a beautiful tranquil environment - perfect for a romantic vacation with your honey! We spent our days there taking walks on the beach, watching sunsets, swimming in the ocean (without getting staph infections), listening to Wolof drumming, and eating well. What the locals say about Toubab Dialaw is true – it is Paradise.

Heading back to Dakar on Saturday, I was sad to leave the beach but excited to see the city life. In Dakar, we ate even better (see Reid’s description below), listened to more music, and enjoyed shopping and seeing the sites. We spent our days wandering the city and becoming familiar with the culture and people.


Why I Love Dakar by Reid MacHarg

The best marker of Senegal's lead on Guinea is that people have disposable income, which provides a market for finer things. As a result, Amy and I ate so well! In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I feel it's not totally inappropriate to spell out the decadence. Honestly, I'm still recovering and readjusting to the Guinean diet. We totally indulged in much missed calamari cooked in curry or with green peppercorns; duck a l'orange; cheap but decent white, red, and rose half liter carafes of wine; Cape Verdean cuisine; Vietnamese; impeccable Thai; Senegalese beer called Gazelle, which comes in 63cL bottles; exotic cocktails with lychee, ginger, sake, grapefruit, etc.; a West African tea called Ataya prepared in its time consuming traditional manner with mashed mint; espresso; croque monsieurs; panini; grilled prawns; fresh salads sitting at a cafe on the island ile de Goree containing tuna, grapefruit, lettuce, avocado, shrimp and corn; orangina; three cheese pizza with mozzarella, roquefort, and gruyere; Parisian pastry chops and chocalatiers; prosciutto with either goat or blue chees sandwiches on fresh baguette; ice cream; chawarmas and kaftas; a fish and shrimp melange in saffron sauce; yassa; and grilled fish on the beach. When we weren't relaxing on the beach, we were eating the smiling in front of mouth-watering meals. There were few moments when I wasn't full.

Before I move on from this subject, I have to give adequate acclaim to the Thai restaurant Amy and I went to on my birthday. It's the most beautiful restaurant I've ever been to. There was a thai garden outside complete with ponds, fish, waterfalls, and beautiful lighting. Most impressive was the giant jade face affixed to the wall with water flowing over it making it a fountain. I was already blown away by the ambience, but the food knocked me over. Seriously, have you ever had that first bite from your plate that is so good it makes you feel light-headed? I had to put down my fork and steady myself with a hand on each arm of the chair- that good. I ordered slow-roasted duck in a light thai curry with white asparagus and vermicelli. Amy got red curry and coconut prawns kicked with keffir lime leaf. I had a bite and it made my eyes roll back in my head. We figured we were on a roll, so we threw economy out the window and embraced hedonism: We asked for the dessert menu. It was easily the best nine dollars I've spent in life. I got lychee sorbet with lychee fruit, caramalized ginger, and a sprig of mint. I almost cried when it was gone. For those of you who don't know what lychee is, I highly recommend it. It's often in cocktails and desserts. It's light and slightly sweet with a texture a little more structured than watermelon. Amy ordered fried bananas with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. Hers was good, but I was really happy to have mine. It was so good that when she was done with hers, racing the rapidly melting ice-cream, we demolished what was left of mine together. Romantic? I think so.
As we sat there with a melody of flavors massaging our senses, we began to notice that we had closed down the restaurant. Every one else had left, and the waiters had started their clean-up duty. I guess the adage held true that time flies when you're having fun. We had spent three hours there in revelry. We got the check, paid the bill, and meandered out.


photo below: buying silver jewelry in Goree

I don't think I could describe it much better than Reid. The food in Dakar was amazing. We ate at this amazing Cape Verdean / Portuguese / African restaurant called Chez Loutcha 4 times, always wanting to go back again the next day. For anyone headed to Dakar anytime soon, let me know, I will give you directions! Nobody will be disappointed by the range of choice and the quality of food and service in Dakar - not even those from the developed world!

We spent our last day out on Isle de Gorée, drinking beers, relaxing, and taking in the atmosphere. It's only a 20 minute ferry ride from the port of Dakar, but it felt like another world. There are artists selling the work all over the island, and it is impossible to leave the island without buying jewelry (you all know me - it's impossible for me to leave anywhere without a new story-worthy piece!).

While wandering the island, we happened upon a gorgeous tree with a huge sheep standing nearby. The sheep seemed friendly, friendly enough to pet. But when I went to sit down on a branch and take a picture, the giant evil sheep stormed towards me and head-butted me in the leg and stepped on my toe. Now, it hurt, but not enough to not laugh about it. I think it was by far the funniest thing on the trip. Luckily, as Reid was preparing to take a picture of me, he caught the Evil Sheep Attack on camera! It was hilarious, and it made our day at Isle de Goree even better. Returning to Dakar by ferry at sunset, our last day in Senegal was spent perfectly.

Overall, it was an amazing trip, a much needed one, that couldn’t have worked out better. I can’t wait to go back to Senegal (at COS time, when we are talking about over landing up to Spain), and experience more of the country. Anyone interested in meeting me there in April 2008 - let me know - it's AMAZING!

Thankgiving, Conakry Style

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! This is only my second Thanksgiving spent internationally, but it’s definitely not as sad as the first. Sara, Chris, Josh, and Heather – do you remember our Thanksgiving in Freiburg? Do you remember having class that morning? Do you remember arguing over the last of the mashed potatoes? Do you remember how much we all missed our families? I sure do. This year isn’t as bad though.

Nadia and Chris at Thanksgiving 2001, Freiburg, Germany

First of all, it doesn’t really feel like Thanksgiving. It’s hot and humid, and there is certainly no talk of snow in the high-country. Second of all, there is no sign of Christmas yet. Nor do I think there will be here in my mostly Muslim home. It’s a strange feeling, although I am glad it leaves me a bit disconnected from the holiday spirit – it’s a little less painful this way.

I will, however, eat some turkey and stuffing tonight. We are having a HUGE Thanksgving dinner in the capital, Conakry, at the Country Director's house. I am really excited to eat Patience's amazing cooking and spend time with my adopted family - Peace Corps Guinea.

In the true spirit of this holiday, I do want to remember how thankful I am for my friends and family. Since I have moved to Guinea, I have become even more aware of how important you all are to me. I couldn’t be doing this without you. The support you have given me over the last year has been amazing, and I don’t even know where to begin to properly thank you.

Today, on Thanksgiving, I received two packages, again reminding me of how great my friends and family are. Just seeing the return addresses on the packages made me jump up and down – literally. Koumba and Aunt Lisa! Seeing those two names made my day – it didn’t even matter what was inside those boxes. Thank you, Schneiders and Koumba. I love you and miss you.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I love and miss you. I will write more soon.

Sunday, November 12


So, I find myself in Conakry once again with free internet, so I figured a blog update was due. It’s been a hectic couple of months – traveling a lot and tiring myself out. Let me start back in October with the update….

I went back to Pita after I last wrote to spend a few more days with Reid doing nothing. We celebrated my birthday with a box of wine and a chicken. Guess who killed the chicken. ME! Finally, I did it and didn’t chicken out. (Wow, that was a bad joke). It was harder than I thought it would be – I learned every animal has a real desire to stay alive. But I wasn’t too traumatized to eat the tasty chicken.

My Birthday Chicken

I then went back to site before my mailrun day (see previous entry for travel stories), and I spent my real birthday in Siguiri. I was pretty scared to spend my birthday alone at site. Nothing feels more lonely than being alone on your birthday, I’d imagine, but my friend, Ibrahima took me our for a really fancy dinner at Djoma, the nicest restaurant in town on the top of a hill. It was really sweet, and I got to eat delicious meat brochettes and a salad and drink a coke. What a treat!

Then, the next day, I celebrated once again with the missionaries in town. It was their son’s birthday also, so I shared a cake with a 5 year old. It was really sweet of them to invite me over to celebrate with them – it made me feel at home… well, not quite. But it definitely made me feel less far. And that’s all you can ask for here in Africa sometimes.

So, after a joyous birthday, Reid arrived in Siguiri a few days later. Although he got sick from Haute, we had a great time swimming in the pool out at the gold mines, drinking beers, and meeting my people. Everyone was excited to finally meet the man I had talked about for months, and they welcomed him with gifts of rice, coffee, a hat from Mali, and fruit. We ate a lot of ice cream and Reid found me a meat man to buy brochettes at night. It’s funny – I go to Pita and find him a bean lady, and he comes to Siguiri an finds me a meat man. Reid was a bit overwhelmed by the Malinke energy, but he got along well with most of my family and my friends, especially my kids. We played monkey in the middle and had tickle fights and my kids fell in love with him. Everyone was sad to see him go, but we had to head down to Kankan for the Halloween party!!!

Halloween was a blast – I was an angel, and Reid dressed up as Bob Dake, a fellow volunteer that is more like a caricature than a real person. I love Bob Dake, and I love Reid, but in very different ways. I didn’t know who to kiss all night! It was a great night of dancing and drinking – you have to love a party in Haute! To see pics, visit my page over there-->

Bob Dake and His Angel

Unfortunately, Reid got a phone call while in Kankan that his house had been broken into and he had to run back to Pita with Peace Corps to assess the damage. Most things of value were taken, including a solar battery charger, CDs, protein powder, mayonnaise – everything. So, Reid is now planning to move sites, although we don’t know where yet. I will keep you posted.

After that, we all met in Mamou for Life Skills, a training on HIV/AIDS for volunteers and a counterpart from site. I brought my friend, Moussa, because he talks so much and loves to be the center of attention, so I figured he would spread the knowledge well. He is energetic and loves to be right, so I thought he should go around spewing true information if he is going to be going around spewing something. I didn’t really think it out though. I didn’t take into account my own sanity during the conference. His loud, aggressive character definitely got on everyone’s nerves. In the end though, he proved to be a great counterpart, performing well in our skits and writing songs about condoms and such. It was great by the end, and I do plan to return to site and work with him to educate the population on HIV/AIDS.

Me and Moussa, my Counterpart for LifeSkills

After Life Skills was finally over, I came down to Conakry to hang out for a few days before flying to Dakar for a beach and city vacation with Reid. It’s going to be great – I can’t wait! In a few days, I will be sipping cold drinks and eating wonderful developed world food on the beach! Yes, Senegal is the developed world to me now…. It’s sad.

I will be sure to write more after the trip.

Friday, November 10

On the Road Again

[written on October 10 by hand in Siguiri, but typed up today]

Getting back to Kankan this time was again an ordeal. So you remember on my way to Pita, I arrived in Mamou at 3am and slept on a table until sunrise? That journey is a strong contender for the title "#1 reason Guinea sucks, but you just have to laugh about it." Can you believe that my return trip also put up a fight for that prize?

It all started in Pita when Reid and I left his house at 8am to walk (uphill 20 minutes) to the gare. I was placed in a beautiful, clean, well-running car to Mamou. I actually said to Reid, "well, maybe today won't suck like I expected it to..." Hah.

I arrived in Mamou safely in record time without pushing any cars. I bought a ticket for the Kankan car when they said was full and we would be leaving "tout de suite, " which of course means "right away" in french, but something more like "maybe before Tuesday" in Guinean. They also said the car was a Mercedes. "What luck I have today," I thought, "A Mercedes leaving rigth away!"

Well, tout de suite turned into a 6 hour wait and the Mercedes was in fact a Mercedes, but the man who put his daughter's name on his cars (that's the story right?) would have been furious that THIS was still called a Mercedes. Hey, at least it was a nice sea-foam green...

We finally get in the road, right before sunset, and I think, "ok, at least we're moving and I'm not too squished with 4 adults and 3 kids in the back seat." At sunset we stopped in Dounet to pray and break the Ramadan fast. We also picked up 2 more people going to Kankan whose car had broken down.

Alas, that was not my decision to make, so they climbed on in and "not too squished" turned nito me sitting in the front with 2 people in the driver's seat, 2 in the passengers, and 1 on the middle console facing backwards. Great. But it gets better......

At 2am, the "Mercedes" decided to not want to change gears. If we pushed the car fast enough, the driver could get into 3rd gear only and we could stay in 3rd and coast. Fine. I was pushing a car again. What's new? Stupid Guinea. But this time I have to jump into a moving car at 2am and be super squished in the front only to have to get out and push again 20 or 30 minutes later. Really stupid Guinea. Anyway, I arrived in Kankan at 4:30, made it to the hotel by 5am, slept for 2 hours, then rose again to go to the gare to get to Siguiri (via dilapidated minibus) before Conde arrived with my monthly mail visit from Peace Corps.

To end this great journey, upon arriving in Siguiri, as they were unloading my baggage from the top of the bus, I saw the Peace Corps car driving in the direction OUT OF TOWN! I had missed the mailrun, the only reason I had rushed home!

So, how does that sound? Worthy of the "#1 reason Guinea sucks, but you just have to laugh about it" prize? Stupid Guinea, but it's all an adventure, right?!

ps - Luckily I called our regional coordinator and he radioed Conde to return to Siguiri later that day with my mail, adding nealry 200 extra kilometers onto Conde's Siguiri mailrun day. Thanks Conde!