Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Double R

My Peace Corps Service began when I arrived in West Africa in March 2011, and today I officially completed my Close-of-Service (COS) and am getting ready to head back to the United States of America as a Returned Peace Corps Response Volunteer (RPCRV).

Three stops, two plane changes, 9,500 miles (15,200 km)

Finishing with my Peace Corps service and leaving West Africa is bittersweet, but I'm also really looking forward to seeing family and friends back home. My paperwork is done, my flights are booked, my good-byes have been said, I'm mostly packed, and I feel ready to go.

Adieu, Peace Corps ~
And now I'm somewhat at a loss as how to wrap things up. I feel grateful to have so many wonderful and supportive people in my life, and could devote an entire blog to thanking everyone - relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, drivers, host families, Volunteers, complete strangers - who has helped me out, mailed me things, fed me, given me gifts, sent me messages, kept me company, or wished me well. So many thank-yous.

For now, I'll just say that I hope you enjoyed the blog, and I wish you and your family good health, good luck, safe travels, and a very happy year. À la prochaine!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Orange Dresses and Fancy Shampoo

When I left Kankan my friend Halimatou and her family gave me a party dress made of orange "wax" fabric printed with a money-and-squiggles pattern. I've been meaning to put it on and take some pictures so that I can send them some thank-you photos showing how well it fits and how much I enjoy the the shoulder ruffles. It turned out that Chelsea, one of the other PCVs in Conakry for Close-of-Service, also had an outfit that she wanted to document, so yesterday we got dressed up and took some Guinean-style glamour shots in the yard behind the Peace Corps office. (Except that we smiled a lot. Guineans often avoid smiling in photographs.) It was fun, and some of the pictures turned out pretty well, even though all the bright green foliage gave many of the poses a very I'm-trying-to-sell-you-some-fancy-hydrating-shampoo look to them.

Natural Essences for Natural Shine! 


Also, awhile back we were advised  to make a list of the things we like about living here (so that we don't just remember the rough parts) and also of the things that we dislike (lest nostalgia trick us into forgetting the rough parts). This is what I have so far:

Things I Will Not Miss 
Trash fires, really terrible roads, worse bush taxis, blatant and unapologetic sexism, inflexible gender roles, appalling homophobia, how people just toss trash on the floor, fetid sewage puddles when it rains, being caked in dust when it stops raining, terrible beer, animal cruelty, being called toubab/fote/chinois/la blanche/le blanc when I go out, being told that in America everyone is rich and perfect, being crammed two to a seat in cars, worrying that there will not be any competent doctors nearby if I get sick or injured, everything starting two hours late...

Things I Will Totally Miss 
How far out of their way total strangers will go just to help me out, occasionally seeing monkeys in the wild, neighbors who are totally happy to consider me part of the family, having same-name tokora friends, delighting people with my little bit of local language, super green hills, being able to plan my own day, being part of the PCV community, never worrying about who will pay for my medical care if I get sick or injured, having clothes tailored, good peanut sauce, shopping for fabric, people handing me babies, always being invited over for lunch, T9 texting (I am so good at it now), picking ripe mangoes right off the tree, speaking in PC jargon, different kinds of bananas, constantly being seeing new things, the little old ladies who spent 20 minutes helping me find a squash, really feeling great appreciation for vegetables, hot showers, fast internet and other luxuries...

Welcome to the Peace Corps Palace!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Roadtrips!

I hadn't been looking forward to making the two-day trek from Kankan to Conakry by myself with all my luggage, so I was delighted to hear that PCV Alana and her dad (who was visiting from America) were planning on hiring a car and were open to hop-ons. People usually make the trip in two parts: Day 1 is Kankan to Mamou, and then Day 2 is Mamou to Conakry. 

We left pretty early on Day 1, and PCVs Adrienne and Andrew rode along for most of the way to Mamou. Alana's dad took the front seat and the four of us rode in the back seat, which was one fewer passenger than usual - Guinean bush taxis generally put two people in the front seat, and occasionally two people in the driver's seat, which is excessive by pretty much anyone's standards but still happens sometimes. 


On Day 2 it was just the three of us, so it was a very comfortable and spacious ride the rest of the way. Here are a couple pictures of traditional medicine supplies, all laid out for sale at one of the gas stations along the way. 

Now I'm at the Peace Corps office in Conakry, catching up on e-mail and working through my Close-of-Service (COS) stuff. I'm done with the medical stuff - they check for everything from tuberculosis to HIV to tapeworms to anemia, so far so good - and this coming week I'll turn in my final reports, close out my bank account, have my exit interviews, and wrap up any other loose ends before I officially "get my R" and become a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, or in my case, a Returned Peace Corps Response Volunteer. Double R!


Speaking of cars and driving, newly-minted RPCVs Michelle, Chris M., Chris A., Zach, Clara, Brittany, and their friend Molly all just embarked on an epic West Africa roadtrip. They're calling themselves the Grey Goose Gaggle and they have a blog: "Armed with only our Peugeot 806, laughable hygienic standards and mad local-language skillz, we plan on taking West Africa by storm. Stay tuned to watch us embark on the greatest COS trip of all time."

The night before last PCV Wiatta and I got up at 5 in the morning to see them off as they packed up and left Conakry. As they pulled away we talked about how we wished we were going with them because they are awesome and we like hanging out with them, but when we think about the realities of the whole seven-people-six-weeks-one-car deal we start to reconsider... They're a good group though, very resourceful, and I hope they have an amazing time out there on the bumpy, dusty roads of West Africa.

"How exactly will all of this fit?"

The Grey Goose Gaggle!

Update (via Michelle): "Got a flat tire, the undercarriage fell off, exhaust pipe broke in half, our one belt broke, and our battery died. But we made it to Kankan! Bamako tomorrow..."

Kankan Farewells

 My last round of good-byes in Kankan started with PCV Michelle's going-away party. Ethan, her replacement, happened to be in town for his site visit, so it was really more of a Farewell-Michelle-and-Welcome-Ethan celebration, and, because Michelle's host family and work partners really love her, it was really good party. Three were chubby babies, ladies singing and dancing, plates of meat and bread and fried potatoes, and lots of amusing photos of how Michelle is very petite and Ethan is very tall.




There was also this little kid (one of Michelle's host brothers) who was really, really into arranging and re-arranging all the rented plastic chairs, and we thought it was great when he lined them all up in the courtyard, so we took photos and told him how cool he was. He was very pleased; it was adorable.



 

A few days after Michelle left Kankan, it was time for me to say my own good-byes. I gave my nicest buckets and little decorative coffee mugs to the lunch lady down the street who has always been kind to me, and gave most of my clothes and sheet and towels to the ladies next door who washed most of my laundry. I brought my stove and gas tank and things over to the Peace Corps house for one of the new Public Health Volunteers, and I gave most of the rest of my things to the guards at the Save the Children office. Finally, I bought tea, sugar and kola nuts for the office staff and the guards, as a little farewell gift.

On the day that I moved out of my rooms I put on my best complet outfit, made from indigo fabric given to me by my Senegalese host family, and posed for photos with pretty much everyone at the office. There were a couple guards who weren't in that day, and I realized too late that I don't have any pictures of them, which makes me sad - they were really great, always helped me out with whatever I was trying to find or fix or move.

Adama, Adama, and Fatoumata


Save the Children, Kankan, Guinea
Everyone repeatedly complimented my outfit and told me that I should dress like this all the time, and said they were happy to see me looking like "a real Guinean." On behalf of the office Fatoumata and Adama presented me with a bunch of fabric and wished me all the best, saying that they hoped that I would be blessed with safe travels, good health, much happiness, and a handsome husband. (Adama said that last part and then she giggled a lot.)

Fun fact about indigo: It turns your skin quite blue when you sweat. Like Smurf-blue, and you really have to scrub to get it off.

Once I'd said my office good-byes I went over to the neighbors' house, where my friend Halimatou lives. They've fed me, helped me find tailors, and always been happy to have me over to hang out, so they're the closest thing that I had to a host family in Kankan. They fed me rice with Guinean leaf sauce (not my favorite - look at all that orange palm oil! - but I appreciated the gesture) and we took a bunch of photos and they told me to call when I get to America and it was all very bittersweet.








Pular Ladies in Kankan
Halimatou said that they had a good-bye gift for me but that it wasn't ready, so she'd bring it by the Peace Corps house later. The gift turned out to be more fabric and a really cool orange dress that, miraculously, fits perfectly, and I will try to get some photos of that up soon. 

New Year's Eve

Here are some photos of New Year's Eve! A bunch of Peace Corps went dancing, and we met up with my neighbor Halimatou and her friends, and even though the DJ was terrible it was really fun.

PCVs Michelle and LaRocha

PCVs Yé and Kenny and LaRocha

My neighbor Aissatou and I 

Me and Halimatou

Halimatou and Friends
Happy 2014 everybody! 

Weekend Update: Sunday

Here's a blog post that I wrote last summer but has been sitting around in my draft folder ever since:

On Saturday evening it started raining, and it rained all night long. By Sunday morning the thunder and lightning had subsided but it was still raining steadily and so laid around reading, took my time making breakfast, and then puttered around, watching TV and going through the newsletters and paperwork that Peace Corps sent out and wondering if it was just going to rain all day long.

It did stop raining by late morning, so I finally got dressed and sunscreened, picked up some tea and sugar, and headed over to visit Halimatou, a young woman who invited me over last week. I've seen her a few times, hanging out with the ladies who sit on the corner, selling roasted peanuts, fried plantain, fried fish, and shiny little packets of cookies. I stop by there pretty regularly to buy roasted peanuts, and occasionally some plantains, and a few of the women speak Pulaar. My Pulaar isn't that great, but Halimatou  was sufficiently impressed/entertained and so she pointed out her house and told me to come by on Sunday for lunch, so I did. I brought some tea and sugar with me, we hung out on the porch, chatting about this and that in Pulaar (and, when I was stumbling with my words, in French) and drinking sachets of extremely cold water and watching the little kids enthusiastically but inefficiently draw water from the family's well-maintained pump. Sarah, the other Response Volunteer in Kankan, came over too, and stayed for what turned out to be an extremely delicious lunch.

Me and Halimatou
They gave us a ridiculously large plate of steamed rice and a small vat of amazing peanut sauce - the kind that's rich and savory and full of vegetables and fried fish balls. The fish balls were the good kind, too, made from fresh fish pounded with peanut meal, onions, garlic and spices and, best of all, completely free of the wiry little bones that most people don't bother to pick out before pounding everything up. It was the best peanut sauce I've had since I arrived in Guinea, and I happily accepted an invitation to come back again next week.

White Elephant Wallet

Since I'm catching up on photo uploads, this is the wallet that I got from Michelle at our Kankan Christmas White Elephant gift exchange. 



It wasn't a real White Elephant - there was no stealing and swapping of gifts - because no one wanted to take gifts away from people who seemed really happy with what they chose, like I was with this wallet. Michelle had it made by one of the local artisans, and it has that little map of Guinea. So cool!