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Monday, March 19, 2012

Life Au Village

I learned the other day that Guinea is one of 11 "hardship" countries
for Marines to be posted to - up there with Afghanistan and Baghdad
and other war-torn countries. Guinea itself isn't war-torn, and it's
certainly not a dangerous place to be. But the level of infrastructure
is so vastly different from what we're used to in the States that just
being posted to this country is considered a hardship for military
personnel (and perhaps for others, as well.) I'll admit that I forget
sometimes just how extreme of a jump I've made from life aux Etats
Unis to here. My cellphone and ipod get charged off someone's
generator every 4th day or so, when the sun goes down I have a tin can
that I knifed into a candle holder, during the day I often spend hours
at a time sitting on cardboard boxes swatting at flies and chatting
with a friend, and every 3 weeks or so I splurge and take a 2 hour
taxi ride to a place with Internet just good enough to check email and
see what you all have been doing on Facebook.

Thinking of my life back in the States, and all the things available
at my fingertips, I feel sick sometimes thinking of what we take for
granted. Did you know highlighters don't exist in this country? My
director gave me her only highlighter, which is several years old but
still going strong. We even discussed how to use it to stretch the ink
to its farthest capabilities. Remember when it was just a matter of
going to the grocery store or the student bookstore and buying a
3-pack for $2? I've been abusing my parents and their willingness to
send me things, but the truth is that daily life really is harder to
get through when you don't have cinnamon.

Despite the slower pace of life, I'm bursting at the seams with ideas
to keep myself busy. I came in to the capitol, Conakry, for the
weekend so that I could work on some projects (and party for St.
Patrick's day, of course!) I picked up a handful of moringa seeds
(Guinea's wonder tree! so much nutritional value, and grows like a
weed! If I take care of these seeds, I can have 20 ft tall trees by
this time next year). Got a new water filter - up to #4 now, here's
hoping this last one doesn't have any problems! Got a bunch of
official paperwork filled out and ready to turn it. And all weekend
I've been typing up and editing a manual for future volunteers when
they first get to site, offering Martha Stewart house cleaning tips,
jokes, and general support as they get through those very trying first
few weeks out of the bubble. It's called Pas du Panique, and is part
of a larger peer support network that another volunteer and I are
trying to resuscitate. Our opportunities, even within just the Peace
Corps bubble, are endless here since the program's just been
restarted. We're basically picking up the scraps of the old program
and patching together a brand new Peace Corps Guinea.

One unfortunate change to the PCG program that none of us were
expecting - my sector, CED, has been shut down. Since the program in
our country is rather small, the directions came from DC that we had
to narrow down our focus and train volunteers to very specific
strengths. So really, it's more like the objectives and activities of
the CED program have been absorbed by the agroforestry program, which
will become more of an agribusiness sector now. The next stage of
extension volunteers (that's me! along with public health and agfo)
will only have PH and Agro volunteers, but luckily, it doesn't effect
any of the work that I'll be doing. I barely sneaked in past the
cut-off, the same way I got admitted to college in the days before
Western asked for an application essay!

Still mountain biking like crazy. The other day my sitemate and I took
our bikes across the river and went adventuring on an island. When we
get tired of biking, we headed out to the beach and rested our pasty
hides on a white sand beach, eating mangos and watching the tide roll
out. Site can be stressful, adjusting to this life in Guinea is
sometimes near impossible, but fortunately I have numerous "escapes"
within easy reach to help me refresh and readjust my perspective.

Oh, should probably mention that I don't have a cat anymore. He ran
away/ never came home about 2 weeks ago. Yes, I cried when I realized
he wasn't coming home. No, I won't be getting another.

Miss you all! I'm slowly duct taping all the photos I brought with me
to the walls of my house, so your smiling faces encourage and support
me at all hours of the day.

One Week Into Site

*** Typed this up well over a month ago, all excited for my first trip
to an internet cafe and to finally update my blog. Well, it was a
bust. Now I'm in Conakry for the weekend, using Peace Corps internet,
so here's a two-for-one special!***

It feels like forever since we last talked! And rightly so. When I was
back home and molding away stateside, months at a time could pass with
little to show for themselves. I'm still not entirely sure that those
last few months at my parents' even happened – thinking back on it
now, everything feels like it happened through a fog. But I guess
that's exactly what it was. I'd reached my breaking point and was
going through life as if asleep. Africa woke me up.
The other day I spruced up my mountain bike and headed off to the
beach. Kitikata is beautiful, but it's not easy to get to (which in
itself is great, because there's rarely anyone there!) It's either a
45 minute walk by one route, or nearly an hour's ride by another. I
prefer the bike ride because it's more fun to fly down pitted and
washed out dirt roads than to mosey along on foot. (Note to self: take
up mountain biking when back in the states!) Whichever route you take,
you meander through rice paddies and across streams, scaring herons
and working up a healthy sweat under the African sun. By the time you
reach Kitikata, you've definitely earned yourself a refreshing dip in
the Atlantic! And it's nice that even if the ocean has changed, I'm
still oriented on the West coast.
Within 24 hours of getting to site, I got a kitten! I named him after
the thing I think of and miss the most from back home: Super Mario's
Taco Truck. Mario's a pretty easy name for Guineans to say, too, so
now when we go through our extensive greetings, I ask after my
neighbor's kids by name right about the same time they ask about my
cat. However. Super Mario has proved himself to be less Italian, more
asshole. Thursday he got himself stuck in the house that's being built
next door. He'd been gone exploring for an unusually long time, and
when I went out looking for him, he was crying behind a locked metal
door. I had to climb through an unfinished window and hunt him down by
headlamp, earning lots of commentary from my neighbors along the way.
And so Mario earned his French name! Canaille: scoundrel, or riffraff.
I'm imagining it shares the same Latin root with conniving.
"What's hard to catch is daily life. This is what I think rarely gets
written down, or even remembered by those who did it – what you did on
the days when you did the ordinary things, how it felt doing it, the
small variations time and again, until years have passed. A matter of
repetitions, or almost-repetitions. Nothing, in other words, that
could easily be encoded in the usual forms of emplotment, not dharma
or chaos, or even tragedy or comedy. Just… habit." – The Years of Rice
and Salt
A typical trip to the market used to take about 30-45 minutes. Now
that I know my neighbors, it can take upwards of an hour just to get
to the market. At any house where I know someone, I risk being pulled
aside and getting fed or hanging out for a chat. (One day I was
actually physically taken out of the market by hand so that my Madame
friend could feed me at her house.) But I'm okay with it – it's part
of my job, after all!
Friday, for example: I stopped by the tailor's to check on the pants I
was getting made. They looked great! But the fit was off, so we talked
about how to fix them and I continued on my way, agreeing to come back
that evening. I got pulled aside at a house a little further down, and
next thing you know I've got a 16-year old girl asleep with her head
in my lap while I take her braids out with a wooden comb. Next I head
to the fabric-seller's stall. She and I usually sit and chat for an
hour or so each day. Today we covered everything from wedding gift
protocol to how much interest my workplace charges on loans. (While
I'm there she also gave me a bunch of bananas and a pair of flipflops.
Guineans love giving me things, it turns out.) After a couple hours I
moved on. Bought some smoked fish for the cat. Stopped by my Sierra
Leonean friend's house for a bit of English conversation and to check
up on my 4-month old fiancée. We made plans to go out dancing for
Saturday night (tonight!) and she walked me home as far as the
tailor's. Picked up my pants (which I should have tried on again! They
definitely don't fit right. It's pretty obvious that Guinean tailors
only make pants for men.) The last stop before I head home is a
compound of three families, with women my age who love to feed me. One
in particular has been forcing me to take meals home with me these
last few days. Her husband jokes that their family of three has grown
to four faster than he expected! I've tried telling Djenab that she's
offering too much, but she insists that it's her decision to give it
to me. So now the last leg always includes juggling a hot plate of
rice and sauce home, and Friday I made it home a mere 5 hours after I
left! The kitten came running up as soon as I got on my porch, covered
in burrs and, oddly enough, palm oil.
The pace of life is definitely slower out here, but I like it.