Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Peace Corps in review

Click here to view this photo book larger

You'll love Shutterflys award-winning photo books. Try it today.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


It's been over a month since I last posted and I feel a little guilty. In our defense though, we've been a little busy. I'll post more in detail when we have more time and internet at our disposal, but wanted to give you something.

We've been traveling now for a little over a month. We will be back in the states next week. Its a little crazy to think about, so I try not to.

We've been making our transition back to the developed world in stages: from Guinea to Mali, from Mali to Morocco, from Morocco to Spain. Each stop along the way has been progressively more developed, and with that, more expensive unfortunately.

Mali out-does Guinea by having (besides a recognized government and not having a military that rapes and kills its citizens...) advances like paved roads and electricity in most big cities. A good indicator of their development in my mind is that there is a seemingly good-sized middle class that can afford 'luxury' items like prepackaged goods and eating out. Another random advancement: animal rather than child labor. (ie: using donkey or horses to plow fields and pull carts of goods rather than children.)

Morocco was an even larger step up. We were actually quite blown away by the vast differences and the fact that it is still considered a 'developing nation.' They still rely on basics like donkeys (what else can get a load of cement through the narrow market roads? really, sometimes basic is better.) and life in the village, I'm sure, is quite different than the life I saw in the cities. But Morocco has McDonald's and a shopping mall with Versace. Yet there are still Peace Corps Volunteers there... hmmm...

Spain is developed. And extremely cold.  And extremely expensive. We spent more than a weeks wage on our dinner last night. (Granted, we were only making about $240 a month...) It's shocking to see the differences and expense in ways of life.  But we're having fun.

Here are some picture highlights of our trip so far:

Taking a 3 day boat trip up the Niger to Timbuktu.  We slept on the deck with people who were transporting their produce upriver.

We bought some turbans for desert travel.

Riding out into the Sahara on camels.

Sleeping out in the desert

Trying new foods -- this night it was snail soup and sheep head.
A cooking class in Marrakesh.  We learned to make a Moroccan salad and a chicken tajine with lemon.  mmmmm....

So much delicious food!  I think I would come back to Morocco just for the food...

Amazing produce and selection of foods.  Here is an olive shop in the Marrakesh market.

We'll post more when we can!


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

And we're off!

Well, if you've been following the news, Peace Corps officially suspended the volunteer program in Guinea due to all the political unrest.  Press release is here: Peace Corps Suspends Volunteer Program in Guinea

What does that mean for us?  As of Sunday, we are no longer volunteers.  We are unemployed, homeless, moneyless...  So what are we going to do?  Travel.

We're heading out tomorrow for a trip around Mali.  We figured that while we're here and so close that we should take advantage of the sites here.  We're planning on taking a boat up the Niger river to Timbuktu then head over to an area called Dogon country.  Do a google search for pictures if you're interested.  Pretty cool.  It may take a while before ours will make it on the blog...

We fly out of Bamako on November 9th to Casablanca.  We'll spend about 2 weeks touring Morocco, then fly to Spain and the Canary Islands.  We won't be having any turkey this thanksgiving.  Instead, we'll be scuba diving at the Canary Islands.  I think that's a fair exchange.  Don't worry.  We'll take lots of pictures.

After that, we'll head back down to Casablanca and fly to New York and eventually end up in Utah December 4th. 

After 2 years, I am excited and scared all at the same time to come home.  I don't know how re-entry into US life will be.  What have I missed?  Last time I left the country, I came back and there was this crazy new obsession with something called American Idol...  What will be new after the last 2 years?  Does Cafe Rio really still taste as amazing as I fantasize about?  Do such places as Target and Walmart really exist?  What will it be like to drive a car after so long and after living in a place that doesn't have recognized traffic regulations?  And snow???  I haven't worn shoes in 22 months.  That's going to be a problem.

But I know it'll be amazing and wonderful to see everyone again and be among people that understand me and where I'm coming from.  Just be gentle with me. 

See you on the other side!

Thursday, October 15, 2009


First an Update:
Well, we're still here waiting in Bamako, Mali.  They haven't made any decisions as far as what to do with us.  We're in a holding pattern.  At least we're living it up with electricity, running water, internet.  At this point, with almost 100  volunteers all together, some are going a bit stir crazy, but we're dealing.  Peace Corps Volunteers are professionals in patience.  We'll wait because, well, that's our job.

I mentioned that we brought Charlie, our parrot with us when we were evacuated.  Fortunately for us, last month we had just found a pet carrier for him, so it wasn't a problem at all with him in the car.  We even had one of our neighbors who is a tailor make a little cover for it. 

When we got here, we also decided to try something new: taking him outside. We were a little scared that he would try to fly off, but it went very well. He was actually so spooked by all the new things around him that he didn't dare leave us.  He's such a little chicken.  But luckily he's become pretty bonded with us over this last year too.  He loves and trusts us.

Behind me you can see the huts that we're staying in here. Dan and I are sharing one near the back of the compound. They call it a 'simulated village' here. Sure.

Here he is checking out the trees.

We put some branches in our window for him to chill in, since we don't want him to stay in the carrier the whole time. He likes sitting there and watching the world go by.

Here's a view from the outside.

We're currently going through quite a bit of headache trying to figure out if we can still bring him home. It was pretty complicated before when we were just in Guinea, and now it seems nearly impossible. It'll be a miracle if we can actually get him home, but I will be so sad if I have to leave him behind at this point.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

We're out

Well, for those of you who haven't heard, things are not going well in Guinea right now.  Bad enough that it even makes the front of the NYTimes?  Maybe it was just a slow news day...

In a Guinea Seized by Violence, Women Are Prey - Front page NYTimes article

Guinea’s Capital Fades Into a Ghost Town After Soldiers’ Rampage - Another good summary article from the NYTimes

Eyewitness Report - BBC report

People are calling the events a massacre.  It shocked everyone.

Considering all the political trauma and difficulties, they pulled out all of us Peace Corps volunteers.  We were brought to Bamako, Mali to consolidate and wait.   Even so, after the incidents of last week, things have been calm outside of Conakry.  It was life as normal where we were.  Not unsafe at all.  Everyone was just a little tense about what was going to happen.  (Gas stations closed, black market gas price skyrocketed and some shops had little in stock.)  But for now it is mainly political, not safety issues that they're worried about.  Either way, it was difficult to have to rush off as you watch everyone going about their daily routine.  Everyone said they understood why we had to go, but I know they were questioning why.  And none of our Guinean friends have the option to leave like we did...

We're not really sure whats going to happen next.  They told us we are going to wait here in Bamako for 2 to 4 weeks to see how things play out.  Unfortunately for us, we were supposed to be out in two months any way.  Even if they give us the all clear to go back soon, we don't think it will be worth it for us.  We had already started packing our bags.  Literally.  Going back at this point for a month would just be painful in more ways than I think we could handle.  It was hard getting ripped out the way we did, without real closure and goodbyes, but going back just to rush out again wouldn't make it easier.

Leaving itself was... well.. crazy and exhausting.  A Peace Corps car came to pick us up early Tuesday morning and we were off.  We had 27 hours of traveling over two days, even though it was only about 750 miles.  I had a GPS on, so I'll post the stats later so you can see our voyage.  It could have been worse.  No real problems, just the typical African headaches of terrible roads, crammed cars (11 people in a Toyota Land Cruiser...), police roadblocks, miscommunication, tedious 3 hours of ordeals at the border, etc, etc, etc.  We brought Charlie our parrot through it all too.  He was a trooper.  If we actually get him back to the US, its going to be a miracle. 

We'll wait around here for as long as they let us and then probably travel for a bit.  Maybe a couple weeks here in Mali, maybe other neighboring countries, then a bit in Morocco, then home by the beginning of December?  We'll see.  It's all up in the air.  We'll keep you updated as we figure it out.

We're staying in a pretty nice place (ok... nice for our new standards... picture summer camp.)  But we've got running water, electricity, ceiling fans in our huts, good food, wifi... all a hard-up PCV could want.  We're going to the American club today for swimming and cheeseburgers.  Amazing.  Museum and a Mali vs Sudan soccer game on Sunday.  Should be fun times.  It's almost kind of an all expense paid vacation by Peace Corps.  Even though its a terribly crappy situation, they're making it the best they can for us.  In any case, we'll have daily internet access, so I'd love to hear from all of you.  I'll write more later and post some pics, so keep in touch!

*pictures from the BBC and NYT articles

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Road Conditions

Road conditions in Guinea are iffy at best. We're lucky because the road to our town from the capital is paved... mostly. Two of the five hour drive is like what you see in this video. Even though it is technically "paved," it is so potholed and beat up that you spend all of your time swerving between holes, driving on the wrong side of the road, or, as in this video, driving completely off the road on the shoulder since the road isn't worth the trouble. I get motion sick sometimes, especially when I'm in a car that's going too fast or when the windows are up and it gets too stuffy in the over crowded cars. Even so, we're lucky compared to the road situations most of the other volunteers have to put up with.

This was in our nice Peace Corps car coming down to Conakry. Since it's Ramadan, they don't listen to music. What you hear is a tape of someone reading the Koran. Try listening to that for 5 hours straight. (My heart goes out to the volunteers who make 14+ hour trips listening to nothing but this... I guess that's what ipods are for though, right?)

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Banks in Guinea

Raven and Dan counting Guinean francs for girls' conference--less than $2,000.
Like a lot of things in less-developed countries, certain things we notice aren't necessarily bad, but they do strike us as strange or different. The banking system definitely took some getting used to, but it works in this milieu.

One thing that is nice about the bank is that it is one of the only public places that has electricity and air conditioning whenever it is open. It is really spacious with high ceilings and looks relatively modern and clean.

The first thing you notice is that there are no designated lines--none of those roped off areas to keep the clientele organized. It is absolute madness--everyone rushes the reception desk and gathers around pushing their way to be the next person helped. So, needless to say, there is absolutely no privacy. Everyone around you knows exactly how much you have in your account and how much you want to withdraw. They don't even try to keep it quiet--they practically yell the information to you over the noise.

Also, do you remember those large metal trunks you use at scout camp or in the army? That is what they use as a safe in a separate, but still open room--not even behind the counter. The original bank in our town actually burned down a couple of years ago due to an electrical fire so maybe it had an actual safe, but I doubt it.

So, after you write a check to yourself or have the "teller" write one for you, you sign it in ten different places. Then you go to the money window which is also madness as everyone gathers around waiting for their money. The bank teller there is wearing a bio safety protection mask--I think you can imagine all the crazy germs you'll find on the money here. You sign the check again and they do their obligatory count in front of you.

You get your large wad of cash--and it will always be a brick because their largest bill is worth about $2. So, when you take out a couple hundred dollars it adds up. They put them in neat stacks of 10 bills with the 10th bill folded in half around the other 9 and then they put those stacks into groups of ten rubber banded together for a total of a hundred bills. Then you do your obligatory recount to make sure nothing was snagged or miscounted, which always takes forever with so many bills. They rarely deal in coins since their only coin is only worth about 5 cents.

The bank network we use has one ATM in country in downtown Conakry. I actually got a personal checkbook so I could write checks to myself. Recently, I tried to close a bank account and I ended up going to three different branches to close it, since you have to go the bank where you originally created it. Peace Corps opened the account for me, so I had no idea. But it was a fun walk around Conakry. But overall, messing with the bank hasn't been that bad. Luckily, I only have to go every couple of months, but I'm still on a first-name basis with the tellers. I don't think you get that in the States very often.

West African Flooding

Guinea isn't the only country in West Africa battling the rains right now.  Here are a couple good BBC articles about the current flooding happening all over West Africa:

Senegal battles rising tides
By Will Ross, BBC News, Dakar

Getting to bed is a nightly assault course for Mamadou Mbaye and his family in the Senegalese capital. Their home in Dakar's Guediawaye suburb is under water and piles of precariously balanced rocks form stepping stones between the flooded rooms.
"There is nothing we can do. We just have to live with the water," says Mr Mbaye, adding that they do not sleep alone as they now have plenty of mosquitoes for company.
"This has been happening for the past few years. But we are poor and we can't do anything about it.
"I've lived here for 49 years. We were born here and we brought up our children here so we don't want to leave."

Climate change
The recent heavy rain in Dakar has been too much for the city's drainage systems which are often inadequate, blocked or non-existent.
At times roads have become impassable and people in flash saloon cars look jealously as the more practical horse and cart clip-clops, or more accurately splish-splashes, past.
Residents of Dakar point out that the quantity of rain that has fallen during the past five or six years has been far higher than before.
Analysts suggest climate change is having an impact but it is not the only cause of the flooding.
As people have rushed from the villages to live in Senegal's mushrooming capital, many have built on land which is unsuitable and is susceptible to flooding.
Residents in Guediawaye say that even if they pump the water out of their homes, the rooms quickly fill up again as water comes straight up through the ground - so high is the level of the groundwater.
"This is a very hard place to live. Because of the water everybody is sick - the old and the young," says 28-year-old Elimane Diop.
"We are not helped by our government - all we get is words but they don't do anything.
"They come near here by car and then announce that they have visited the area but we want them to help the people living here. If people want to move they should be helped and if they want to stay they should also get help."
Exaggerated impact?
Many residents in the flood-affected areas have directed their anger at the government which stayed remarkably quiet about the floods until President Abdoulaye Wade returned from his month-long vacation in France.
The government then appealed for help as it announced that more than 250,000 were affected - a figure which the United Nations repeated but had little means of verifying.
Some observers suggest the government figures are a little on the high side and could be part of an effort to attract aid to make some political gains in a city where the opposition swept to victory in local elections earlier this year.
In 2007 Ghanaian officials were accused of a similar tactic when they said entire villages in the north of the country had been wiped off the map by floods.
It turned out to be a gross exaggeration.
When governments are shouting for help and aid agencies are shouting for funding, it can at times be hard for journalists to be sure they are being presented with an accurate assessment.
Whatever the figures, for the people battling with the floods, the sight of more heavy clouds is a great worry.
In mainly Muslim Senegal, this has been a difficult holy month of Ramadan.
People have been pounded by rain and have also been plunged into darkness after the national electricity company, Senelec, failed to pay the bill to import fuel for the power plants.
Across the region, the UN says 600,000 people have been affected by the floods since June.
This is a cumulative figure and therefore is not a snapshot of the current situation.
The UN says "affected" refers to people who have been displaced as well as those who are not able to get on with their lives as normal - for example cooking and studying.
The UN says 100 people have died in the floods, most of them in Sierra Leone. Burkina Faso has also been hard hit.
"It is not as bad as two years ago when 800,000 people were affected but it is worrisome as we have a few more weeks to go of the rainy season," said Yvon Edoumou a spokesman for the UN's humanitarian agency, OCHA.
And while West Africa has been hit by floods, the east of the continent is suffering from a drought - twin battles which analysts say will become more common as a result of climate change.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Swept Away

Here is a video of someone's water jugs getting swept away in the flash flood. Everyone watching was quite entertained by the spectacle.

Luckily with a little help the woman was able to retrieve all the jugs before they got completely swept away.

Why nothing gets done in the rainy season...

It's the rainy season in Guinea now. People live at the mercy of the elements here. Yesterday I got caught in a flash flood while trying to go to one of the neighborhood markets in Conakry. When I left the house, there was no rain. By the time I got to the market, it was sprinkling. I stopped by a tailor to drop off some fabric and by the time I was ready to go, it was pouring. I thought I'd wait for it to ease up, but instead, the situation got worse.

Unfortunately, cities are not prepared for large downpours. There are some ditches for runoff, but unfortunately, they usually get filled with trash and eroded dirt, making the water spill over. And in a case such as a major downpour like today, there is just nowhere for that quantity of water to go. It just overflows the ditches and streets like a raging river, flowing down in the quickest path towards the ocean it can. Since there are no real sewer and advanced plumbing systems either, this means everything gets swept up. Raging rivers of sheer filth.

The rain started letting up, but the river still raged. It was strong enough at its peak to push grown men off their feet. Traffic was a gridlock. After waiting for over an hour and a half, you could start to see the road again under the river. Cars and people started to tentatively move. I made a break for it, grabbed a few things from the corner store for lunch, and wadded back to the house. Once back, I immediately took a shower and tried to disinfect the lower half of my body...