Adventures in Guinea as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Do it yourself safari....Don't do it!

At the time it all seemed rational. I was told that I (in Magori) was less than 2 hours away from the Masai Mara national park, the costs I was given were about the same as the arranged safaris and most of all, I was just too sick of African travel to go back to Nairobi, drive to Masia then back to Nairobi then to Tanzania.

The morning of the safari I should have known that self safaris are not the way to go when I was ready to go at 6:30AM our promised departure time and was told we had to go get the car fixed. Apparently, the back windows were stuck down. My host mentioned the need to just get them fixed so they would stay up and we would be fine. Some stroke of genius came to me and I pointed out that if I was going to see animals then I needed to roll down the tinted windows. With a little luck, the only of the day, the problem somehow worked its way out as we toured town before our departure. During the tour there was a lot of confusion as to who was going. My host's plan was to ditch the driver to save costs since he did not know that I had invited another friend (who does not know how to drive). The only reason I invited the other friend was because my host never committed to going and I did not want to be alone with the driver who did not speak English. So finally, we have the driver, my hosts and my friend all in the car and we are off BUT my host insists on driving the first part!

After about 2 hours, we arrive at what we are told is the closest town to the park. We sit down and have a cup of tea and a small pastry. We decide that in order to save on entrance fees we will leave the driver in the town and he will search town for our lodging. Just as we leave town, we run into a police barrage which my host manages well considering he does not have a drivers license. We call the driver after passing the barrage and the driver comes and gives my host his license. After another hour of swerving in and out to avoid rocks and various other obstacles, we reach signs of the park. I read in the guidebook that if you are going to a rather remote gate, which we are, you should try and bribe the park official to save on the $40USD entrance fee for foreigners. Not sure if this is a good idea or not, I decided to give my host the entrance fee for all three of us as if we were all residents, only about 7USD per person. The worker demands that we pay the full amount for me and that he will return some of it on our way out. Almost 100% positive this is an empty promise, we drive into the park. I am just glad that I did not get arrested or reprimanded for my tactics, very poor form but hey, it's Africa.

My host is exhausted from all the driving so me being the only other person that knows how to drive in the car, I take the wheel. This is a huge park and we are clueless as to where to go in our small GrandAm-esque car. Luckily we spot a safari vehicle so we follow this massive 4x4 land cruiser up and down the plaines in search of animals. I have now resorted to freeloading a safari. With a little luck and a bunch of different tour operators, we manage to spot, zebras, wildebeests, antelopes, wild boar, hypos, crocodiles and even some giraffes. After driving around for about 3 hours, my host realizes that we don't have much fuel left. The park is the only place to buy fuel before we get home. As we finish fueling up, my host says to me did you pay? I say that I gave him the money for the car yesterday and that covers it, right? His response is no and that I owe him for the fuel that he bought that morning. This was not a part of the deal that I understood yesterday when it was explained to me. Who knows, maybe the problem is that he pronounces fuel as foil and I use the word gas so neither of us understands each other. Quickly realizing I missed other things about this safari, I decided to ask more questions. My impression was that we were staying only minutes from the park and could do an early evening safari and early morning safari when all the animals were present. The light bulb went on and I knew this was not what I bargained for or did not bargain well enough for.

Realizing the costs were getting way out of my budget, I asked if we could go back to his town that night. We determined the best course of action was to start our voyage back to pick up the driver. As we exited the park, my host stopped to pick up the money they promised to return. As expected, he walks out with a ticket saying I paid 40USD which is true at this point. So irritated by Africa, I step into his office and emerge within minutes with a large portion of my money! My host takes over the wheel and the green flag drops. What took us nearly 1hour20 minutes to get to turned into a 30 minute race. Highlights included skidding off the road and barely missing a huge rock. At one point, he asks me if I am scared. I had resorted to curling up in a ball in the back, closing my eyes and saying Hail Marys (1st time since Catholic Grade school). Somehow, we managed to arrive in one piece to pick up the driver who has already booked and paid for the rooms. In true African fashion, we wait for them to get the lady for 40 minutes that can give back our money.

It's now 4.30 PM and time to go. The driver takes the wheel and we head off hoping to make it before dark. Our hopes were dashed as about 3 minutes out of town, I hear a huge crash and look up in time to see the cloud of rock dust that has entered our car and the person in the passengers seat (which is actually our driver's side in the US) bouncing up and down. The car slowly skips to a stop and the engine dies. This is no surprise as we have been opening the hood and pushing the battery wires together all day in order to get the car to start. BUT this time there is a streak of oil running gushing down the road and a big metal piece that has been bent beyond recognition back near the rock that me managed to unearth and even break a few large pieces off of.

We send the driver to go back to town to get a mechanic. He arrives about 20 minutes later in a car that barely runs and with a wrench as his only weapon. Within minutes the whole town is out to see what happened. To make it even more exciting, now they have a reason to stare at the white women on the side of the road. AND she cannot escape. Hours later, they determine that they will weld the piece back and maybe we can drive the thing. I sit with the children in the grass, playing soccer, trying to juggle, anything to pass some time. We watch the sunset and still no sign of the driver and the welder. At around 7PM they come back in the same car that does not even go in reverse and this man told us was a gear shift problem...boy are we out of luck if he does not even fix the gears on his car. At this time I am so sure we are staying in town, the road is scary, its dark and how will we know if the car is really fixed with the red super glue they were using. There is only one other town about 1/2 way home.

By the grace of God or some prophet the man gets out from under the car about 4 hours into the operation and he cranks it and it starts. My host yells at me to get in the car and we are off. He will not let the driver touch the car. I hold my breath the whole way home. Each time we gently or no so gently scrape a rock, I know its over. Finally, at 10.30PM and still trying to operate off our morning meal of a pastry, we roll into a Kenyan dinner in my host’s hometown! I have never praised the lord so much in my life!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Unobservations from Kenya

Here are a few highlights from the last 15 days in Kenya. I have spent 2 days in Nairobi and the rest in a smaller town called Magori in Southwestern Kenya with family friends.

*Bikes are the major source of transportation in the town of Magori. They also serve as a furniture delivery service for oversized couches.

*Kenyan churches are so charged with energy and volume that I mistook the service for an exercise class complete with uppercuts, right hooks and even a kickboxing component that nearly sent the lone plant on the alter flying across the room.

*The live music scene is so hopping that you can hear the music from blocks away. The people that come to enjoy these scene are so confident that even younger men looking to hook up wear T-shirts that read "I'm the daddy".

*The staple food of the region where I am staying looks like a big white blob. It's called Ugali which is made of corn flour and water. It has 2 redeeming qualities; you are expected to eat it with your right hand and to know if its finished cooking you should throw it against the wall. If you have a new wall decoration, it's done.

*Nairobi is not even little America, it's a big America complete with American prices or higher. However, it also helped me to add the cultural part of Africa that I have been missing...a museum!

*My gracious hosts in Magori have put me up in their house. With this comes the experience of living with a baby less than 5 months old. I had my first few experiences of being peed on by a boy. What is the appeal of golden showers?

*I have come to know the preacher inside of me when I was asked to introduce myself briefly at church and somehow ended up praising the lord and giving glory to god with almost as energy as the preacher.

*During a visit to the small village near lake Victoria it was assumed by a village man that I did not know how to ride a bike, swim, run for shelter during a rain storm or carry a bench. He was surprised to learn that this women could do all of those things.

*I was told by a Kenyan friend that I could survive anything after this. Unsure what he was referring to as "this" I asked for some clarification. As it turns out, it is my ability to eat any kind of food they put in front of me. As the female PCVs say in Madagascar, fat girls gotta eat.

*The gracious mother of my host was so elated to have a white woman over for dinner in her compound that she was determined not to let me leave without giving me a souvenir. Not being particularly well-off she wanted to give me something that she had available. A BIG WHITE HEN! It took 1/2 hour to explain that I could not take the hen on the airplane to the United States. We settled on the solution that I would take a picture of the hen and she would give it to me the next time I came to visit.

Kenya is so politically charged with the presidential election coming in December that the last 3 Sundays have been dedicated to the watching each candidate launch their campaign on TV. The people of the region that I am staying in are staunch supporters of an opposition candidate that come from the area. Every meeting, church event or gathering ends with some spiel about voting for the Orange Democratic Movement candidate not to be confused with the Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya candidate.

*My favorite comment on the Kenya political system was while in a small village meeting after the obligatory political speech a women of about 50years stood up and proclaimed that she would vote this year even if she did not get paid by any of the candidates!

*Not sure how Americans did it but we have managed to take over Kenya TV programming with classics like different strokes, the Jefferson’s and even a bit of WWE professional wrestling. One of my favorite topics is explaining that the wrestling is NOT real. No wonder these Kenyans have crazy views of America.

*After living in Africa for almost 2 years I am so surprised to report that I have never been as highly pursued as by one gentleman as in Magori. The best part of the experience is that his tactics include gospel songs, humor, beer and sexists comments. Quite a combination!

*The largest lake in Africa, Lake Victoria, that flows through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda lost some of its glamour the other day. As I arrived on foot, I was greeted by a herd of cattle drinking from the lake and a herd of people armed with soap getting ready to bathe.

*Kenya corruption hit most recently in the form of electricity or lack there of. Two bribes in two weeks and still they cut it off again in search of their weekly allowance. The worst part is that my host is not in the wrong and has been paying the bills as registered on the meter but is still forced to bribe. Even more humorous is that the standing president is running is campaign under the platform that there is no corruption in this country!

Stay turned for more observations of East Africa

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Another Chapter Complete/Hold the Packages

It is with both sadness and joy that I write this blog. I guess you could say that I saw it coming but it does not make it any easier. After 27 days of homelessness and idle wandering it was determined that the best course of action was to complete my service early. The country director, my program director and I have considered and/or tried EVERYTHING to make it work but unfortunately, it as not meant to be.

When I came to Peace Corps in January 2006, I thought this experience would allow me to define what I wanted to do with my life. When I got evacuated in February 2007, I knew my Peace Corps experience was not complete. In addition, I still had not come to my life altering realization and the defined next steps. Sadly, as I COS after 22 months of service, the answer is that I still don’t know what is next.

What I do know, is that I will be traveling around Africa until I no longer find it enjoyable. My current plan is to leave Madagascar on Wednesday, October 3rd for Kenya. If the rainy season is not too unkind to me, I will be working my way down to my friends in Zambia through Uganda and Tanzania. Then if energy, enthusiasm and money are still part of my repertoire, I will continue up to West Africa to visit many of my fellow Guinea evacuees and possibly Guinea itself. If you have any contacts in any of these areas that might be willing to chat and give a bit of advice to a lone traveler, I would greatly accept their contact information. Also, please continue to check my blog as I will now be writing about the adventures post US government employment.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Customer Service Madagascar Style

The homeless travels have now landed me in Diego; my regional capital. Carelessly walking to my usual internet café, I meandered inside a few places advertising excursions. Out of curiosity, I went in to find out how much it costs to get to Zambia. One place tells me that you cannot get there from Madagascar. The next place recommends going through Bangkok. Seriously, they are sending me to another continent just to get across the Mozambique Channel. Unbothered, I continue into the internet café to email the PC travel agent. Immediately, I see a fellow PCV and make fun of her for being on display and the token white girl doing visual advertising for the place. It seems she has picked the only computer in the middle of the room facing the door. If only I had been so smart!

I check out a few computers but they were not on so I ended up settling on one in the back. I sit down for a few minutes but the lady working does not see me or attempt to start my internet connection. Therefore, I go up to the front and she finally acknowledges me and gives me the nod. I wander back to my seat tripping over a big wood stopper and plunge my way into my seat while plugging in the jump drive. Suddenly, I smell something horrible, worse than burning trash, maybe during electronics! My eyes are wandering the room to identify the source when to much dismay they land on my jump drive which is now on fire and smoking. I immediately grab the hot metal and pull it out but not before a big hole has been burned in my plastic casing and of course demolishing all the important electronic pieces.

I grab the lady working and show her the jump drive lying nearly demolished on the floor. Even though it is still hot, she examines it and attempts to put it back together. Even if her futile attempts would put all the pieces together, the device would never work again. This is then followed by hundreds of questions about why my jump drive destroyed their computer. I explain to her that I have used the thing in various computers and nothing even close to this has happened before. It is the computer that malfunctioned rather than my jump drive that caused this. Next, she pulls a new jump drive out and slides it into the guilty port. Of course it does not work either. She concludes her investigation by saying she is really sorry. I demand a new jump drive and declare a stakeout until I can at least speak with the owner. After an hour of staring into her face waiting, the phone rings and the owner starts yelling at me for destroying his computer. Twenty minutes later, all that has been accomplished through this “dispute” is that he will not give me a new jump drive but through his generosity will give me a great deal on one with ¼ of the capacity my old one had.

Tourist Extravaganza and Pig Heaven

A question I am asking myself is what the heck have I done with the last 27 days of homelessness in Madagascar. To start with, I dabbled into the expat life in Madagascar. The 9 PCVs in the north put on a 4 day camp for high school students in Nosy Be, the mecca island for tourism. While the camp, “Good Choices”, was quite a hit, my choices following the camp were not. I spent my days drinking at the expat pub pretending I understood the rules to Rugby and really cared who won the World Championship, riding around in the back of a pickup trucks to different beautiful beaches and most dangerously eating my daily dose of meat on a stick cooked on the side of the road (because that was all I could afford). After these 11 fabulous days, my body and wallet told me it was time to go.

Next stop, off to the village to visit a friend. Life changed drastically in just a few 100 kilometers of road. We jump into a taxi/pickup truck in the regional capital and started on our short 22 kilometer journey. The first stop a monastery. Erin and I were both under the impression that we were going to pick up maybe a priest or nun that we would probably need to give up our spots in the front cab. I guess you can say luck was on our side as we drove around back to the barn area. Everyone jumped out and went to watch the spectacle. The taxi assistant went over to a stall and all we heard was screeches, screams and squalls. Fifteen minutes later, two men emerged carrying a 250lb skyward pig with ropes attached to each leg. The pig was placed next to the truck as he waited for his friend. These unlucky pigs were tossed into the back of the pickup truck while the people filed in right behind them to become their new “stall mates”. For the next 45mintues of our ride, we listened to the sweet melody of the pig squeals.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

White Worms

Where did they come from? But most importantly, why did they choose to attack one of my most personal items? No matter how close you are with your family and friends you would never share a toothbrush with your brother, sister, mother, father or even best friend. Yet, these maggots decided that their new home would be my toothbrush.

Groggily, stumbling around trying to get ready for the day, I pulled my toothbrush out of its protective case. Luckily, I looked down before I started smearing white toothpaste all over the white squirmy object on my toothbrush. Upon further investigation, this “protective case” has become a home and breading ground for dozens of maggots.

Before you begin to question my sanitary habits, let me tell you that I have been working at a camp in Nosy Be. While this beautiful island has an Italian equivalent of Club Med, cold beer and good pizza, is home to 10 lakes and obviously surrounded on all sides by water, there has been a water shortage. However, sanitation must go on. I did not give up the habit of brushing my teeth but I did not always completely wash it off when I finished. To make matters worse, my approach has been to forcefully suck the toothbrush free of the toothpaste. Questions are racing my head. Have I been sucking maggot eggs into my mouth after every meal? How long does it take for maggots to hatch? When will they hatch inside of me? What will the results of these actions be? I will keep you posted.

Where in Madagascar Is Andrea Going to Live?

The morning after the 9 hour joyride, I biked out to my new site accompanied by another MCA field agent. The 30 minute ride was full of mountains in the distance, a flowing river and cleaner air. I was so happy to move out of the city into a small village.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the president of the village who showed me my new house. Lucy, my PC boss, had sent me a picture of the house via email. It is true that all the houses are made out of small sticks stacked up in a row and have banana leaf roofs. Going out a limb, I figured out that the picture of the house was not the same one that I was currently being show. For one, this house already had someone living there. I was told that I could live in the “kitchen” and she would live in her bedroom.

These generous people were working to accommodate me so I decided that it would fine to share this house for a bit. The detail that I was overlooking was that my double bed would not fit in my new room. Possibly sensing my pushed enthusiasm, the villager informed me that they would be building me a new house and they would start in 2 days. Much to my surprise they determined that it could be completed in 5 days. Reinvigorated but not quite sure where they were planning on putting the new house since there seemed to be no extra space, I agreed to return in 2 days to help build the house.

On Saturday, I returned to the village to see that they in fact put up the shell of the house, 4 poles and 4 more logs for the frame of the roof. The missing piece however, was that there were no other working materials. In addition, the whole of my house could be covered in 2 ½ large strides by 3 ½ large strides. Unphased by the state of things, we spoke to the president of the area who then asked for 120,000 Ariary ($60USD) to complete the house. (Pretty cheap for a house but under PC standards the community shows its commitment to the volunteer by providing the house.) Now, a bit confused and frustrated, I asked why I was not living in the house my boss had seen during her visit but there seemed to be no understandable response; oh, language barriers! I told them I was going to do a camp all next week, needed to talk to my boss and would get back to them.

Nonetheless, I really wanted to meet some of the other community members in my new village. Neither the president nor MCA agent budged upon my request, so I went up and greeted the various people who had been staring at me for the last 20 minutes. During the last visit, I had noticed that my “temporary” shared house had 3 beers and palm wine on the porch. This time, I got to meet the people drinking it on my porch as they stumbled drunkenly through a greeting at 8:30 in the morning.

Heading off to camp in Nosy Be for the week, I decided to get in touch with my PC boss. Her plan was to come visit me and work out the situation. As a result of her visit my status has shifted from no house, no work, and no community to a possible work position that should be defined in the next week or so and definitely requires another move. Thus, the housing drama continues. Nonetheless, one mystery was solved during her visit. I was never shown the original house or visited the community that Lucy arranged because specific members of that community determined that as an outsider, I would try to colonize them and steal their land as the French had done. The challenges of being an American Peace Corps volunteer!

What did you bring me?

This entry begins with a big sigh and Malagasy culture note. When someone returns from a vacation the natural question is “what did you bring me?” This request is definitely not based on need; it will come from the director and the guardian. Some of the more cleaver answers are my health, or what did you save for me. Unfortunately, I was not feeling very cleaver after my 9 hour joyride and being bombarded by requests from all staff members. Even the ones I only see once a month and surely forgot to buy something for where so happy to see me.

I pride myself on honesty with the Malagasy community. Many women tell their community they are married because they don’t want to deal with marriage proposal within the first 5 minutes of meeting any young (or old) man. I prefer to let them know its okay to be 29 and single and not need their company. Anyway, nobody’s perfect. When I left I told them I was going on a destinationless vacation. However, when my PC boss came to Ambanja during my vacation to find a new site for me, she let it slip that I was in the states. This of course raised the stakes of the gifts.

“My bags are lost”; “My bags are still in Tana” both of these statements are true but not simultaneously. However, they seem to hold off the crowd. Yes, my bags did get lost in Paris but I got them back before I left Tana. However due to weight limits on national flights, I was not able to pack everything back to my site. One lady from the office even had the nerve to say, “Your bags are not here now, but when they get here, you have to give me a gift.” Thank you development workers who have been giving things away for years. Still dreading Christmas day when my bags arrive.

120 Miles, Great Road….9 HOURS!

The travel woes continue. Dozens of times I have traveled the paved road from Diego to Ambanja in about 4-5 hours. The route is the commencement of the longest infrastructural development project in Madagascar running the entire length of the 4th largest island in the world. Back in my beloved Northern niche of the island, soaking up the heat, understanding the grunts and idiosyncrasies of my dialect, I jumped into a taxi brousse with renewed energy ready to face the challenge of visiting my new site and moving in the following day with any luck. Expertly hailing a taxi to take me to the Ambanja taxi station, I was beaming with excitement. I made it back and things were going to be new and exciting yet again! Upon arrival at the Ambanja station ten boys/men came sprinting towards my taxi, opening the truck and attempting to grab my bags and screaming at me in various languages that they thought I might speak. I calmly picked up my bags and parted the sea. No taxis to speak of just drivers waiting for their lackeys to pick up people around town to fill up the car. I got in the first taxi that arrived. VITAL MISTAKE!

Driving down the same stretch of the road for literally 1 ½ hours, screaming out the window to transit looking people with bags or other paraphernalia “Ambanja, Lets go”! The route was the same, back to the station to see if any new victims arrived and down the stretch again. Almost becoming an accomplice to a murder towering high in the front seat, our driver decided he would dominate the boys/men running to the arriving taxi by simply slamming his foot on the gas landing his minibus alarmingly close to the arriving women. Clearly the lady would have no other choice but to get into his taxi. Wrong again…she simply got out of her car, shot him a dirty look and walked to another nearby taxi joining different gang of desperate travelers.

The minibus was finally overfilled with its minimum 14 passengers and on its way. Early on I became wise to the ways of the driver; multi-tasking was not a particular strength of his. While speaking to me the car would slow to a painful 40km/hr and while using his cell phone a snails pace of 30km/hr but while driving we were puttering along at a respectable 80km/hr.

His lack of multi-tasking skills was very disappointing as one of my favorite parts of the trip is watching my usual driver perform his morning routine. First, the razor is slid shyly out of the glove box followed by 15-20 minutes of running a dry bic over his face with frequent glances in the mirror. Next, 30 minutes of toothpick chewing, pushing and sucking. Only to be followed by a quick arm pit check. Shirt pulled up, hands under pits directly to nose. Total estimated time of activities…1 hour.

Yearning for the usual experience after 5 hours in the car and only 100km complete, we finally arrive at the ½ way point of the voyage. Praying the driver lied to me this time (as they usually do trying to pick passengers up) and was not really going all the way to Ambanja, I got up the nerve to ask him. Luck and time were not on my side. As usual most of the passengers got out and the search for more continues. The driver leaves the mini-bus in the care of his lackeys from this town. Our search beings with the van rolling backwards all the way down the hill we were parked on. There is a reason these guys are not yet drivers. After 2 hours of driving around town, picking up people and then their luggage we are off again. The point of tears came when 4 of us jumped in the front seat; the woman next to the driver appeared to be his next love interest. Naturally, he positioned her in the seat next to him straddling the gear shift. Not jealous of the position but yet another huge distraction for Mr. ADD, I let out a huge sigh. After 9 hours, various stops and puttering along we finally arrived in Ambanja. When I asked him his name and where he lives he asked me why. I told him it took him 9 hours to get here. His new found love responded, “Well, it’s far”. I just walked away and reminded myself this is not America.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New Again

It feels so strange to be starting all over again. Would one person with a bit of sanity request a transfer to a site that they have never seen to finish out the last 6 months of their already chaotic Peace Corps Service? The answer is a resounding, echoing, reverberating NO but yours truly is about to embark on this adventure. I assure you this is not a ploy to make my mark in PC history for most sites lived in during a 2 year PC service. Before my vacation to the states, the transition seemed almost sensible, a way to get back to my ideal peace corps experience by living in a smaller village, living a simpler life less complicated by the inventions of modern man (or not so modern anymore) such as electricity and running water.

As of tomorrow, I may feel the curse of my unsettled spirit that has again uprooted me from my perfectly stable life and mansion in the city. What will it take to quell this? Maybe trying to squeeze my double bed (a single did not seem like it would do at the time of purchase) into my new 3.5x4.0meter house in the cocoa fields. Maybe trying to coordinate the movement of all my worldly items from the office to my house myself (while I was in the states and it was determined that I would move, my house was packed up and all items were relocated to my office) because PC does not have resources to help me at this point. Maybe carrying around a small notebook for months at a time to write down people’s names and tearing your mind apart to remember who they are, where they live and exactly who they are related to when asked point blank, don’t you remember me? Maybe working diligently to quelling the suspicions among the villagers that a PCV is NOT in fact a US spy, not there to steal their business (for those business development volunteers) and most importantly not an ATM machine.

Maybe I am a transition freak! The unknown, the challenges, the possibilities, maybe this is my “runner’s high”. Stay posted for the adventures of my new village.

As an important side note, all mail should still be sent to my Ambanja address. Also, reports are that I will have limited cell service in my new village. Looking forward to hearing from you.