Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Guinean Style Winter Break

An Interview

Guinean students have a Christmas break?

Being a 90% Muslim country, they don’t call it a Christmas break; however, December 23 was the last day of class before the week long winter break. They don’t celebrate Christmas, but they do have a holiday called Tabaski where a lot of animals get “sacrificed” and eaten in tribute to God saving Abraham’s son, Issac, from being sacrificed.

When was your last class and did you have plans for the break?

On the 21st of December I spent 2 hours teaching chemistry to 7th graders. We were learning about the composition of air so we spent an hour working on 20 fraction multiplication problems like 1/5x20 or 4/5x20 since in 5 liters of air there is 20% oxygen and 80% nitrogen. Then for the next hour we did word problems ending with an exciting game of whoever is left standing wins. Each student had to sit down if they got a multiplication question wrong, 2x2, 12x12, ect...

For the break I planned on spending Christmas in Labe and then go on a bike tour with friends. Because communication is so difficult in this country, we made general plans during Thanksgiving to meet in Labe during the weekend of Christmas. One has to be flexible in Guinea and give plans a wide window of leeway.

My friend, Kyan, was going to the Forest region the week before Christmas and you never know what might prevent her from getting back to Labe. We do not have personal cell phones to call each other if plans change. The last time I saw my other friend, Brian, was 3 weeks ago. He was going down to Conakry for medical reasons. He had no way to communicate with me au village to say whether or not he would be well enough to go on the bike tour.

So you just went to Labe hoping to meet up with your friends?

Yep! Friday, the 22nd, I got up at 6 am and hopped on my bike to beat Africa’s sun for at least a little while. It was a 60-70 km ride which I did at a leisurely pace for 6 hours.

Was anyone waiting for you in Labe?

The Peace Corps Labe house had two volunteers who were leaving to go other places, but I did have 3 notes: 1) Call Geoffrey and Christine. They are in the region and would like to come see some Fouta villages being that they are in he southern part of Guinea near Sierra Leon. 2) I’m well enough for the bike tour and will be there. Wait for me. Brian. 3) I’m leaving Conakry the 23rd for Labe. Kyan.

I sent a note with one of the volunteers who just so happened to be going down to Dukei where Geoffrey and Christine were supposedly vacationing, writing them my tentative plans: Leaving Labe for Kyan’s site the 26th likely spending Tabaski and New Year’s at my site. The note they had sent was from ages ago and the numbers they left were from their village. They were not au village. They were somewhere in Guinea without cell phones. My note was our only link. Would they get it though?

Did it feel like Christmas and what did you do to celebrate?

I wrote a short piece titled

Christmas is here, or is it?

I have not bought a gift.
I have not sent a card.
The season of giving
doesn’t feel like it exists here.
The pressure of buying has been lifted.
It feels kind of nice.

I spent Christmas Eve, making sugar coated peanuts and baking about 10 dozen chocolate chip cookies with cheap chocolate that tastes horrible alone, but awesome in cookies.

There were six of us in Labe for Christmas. Geoffrey and Christine never showed up. Many of the volunteers had travelled down to Conakry. We heard though that Conakry was a mess, no water, no internet, and not enough beds for all the volunteers who had trekked down to the capitol for Christmas.

In Labe we had a lovely Christmas dinner of fried fish, cabbage stir-fry, honey-glazed sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and a squash pie.

Did you go on you bike tour?

Hell yeah! It was awesome. The day after Christmas I got up at 5 am to make a spaghetti breakfast. We wanted to leave early because Kyan’s village was at least 80 km from Labe and Kyan hadn’t biked since the beginning of November. We would go at a leisurely pace with lots of breaks, the best way to see Guinea.

How was the ride?

It was long! We had to carry all of our water because there were only iffy wells along the route. We fueled up with cookies, sugar coated peanuts, oranges, fried gateaus, sardine/egg sandwiches, and peanut butter honey banana sandwiches. Without Cliff bars or Power bars I was surprised I never hit a wall.

For the first 5 hours, it was pretty smooth riding even though we were on dirt. At the half way mark we hit a sand twister that looked so pretty and small yet was so powerful, whipping tiny pebbles making us stop so not to be pushed off the road with its strong currents, dismounting to protect our faces.

It was a sign of the winds to come.

We pushed against a wind up and down never ending hills that were not steep just small grades up for what seemed like forever, spinning in our lowest gears never getting there.

At 7/8th of the journey, resting in the knooks of knobbly roots of a beautiful tree trying to find a comfortable position for our tushes, Brian made the observation, “This is a long ride.”

We rode into a unique town that reminded me of a frontier town like one in Colorado or Nevada just like in a western. Outside the center, huts and houses were scattered. Land was protected by tightly packed woven tree limb fences.

We stopped at the sole gas pump where Kyan told us to meet her. It was right in the center of town, a block of sandy road bordered by little shops. I felt like a cowboy coming into town, a stranger everyone pausing to look at, dismounting our horses and walking up to the saloon for beer. It was almost like that. We walked up to a little store and bought 20 cold little baggies of red sweetened hibiscus juice, bisap, tearing the corners off to suck out the goodness.

10 hours and 30 minutes later, 85 km under our belts, we handed Kyan a cold one when she finally rode up. “Never again,” she said, as she dismounted.

We pushed our bikes up the steep hill that she lives on into a shaded, fenced-in courtyard where her round 5 room cute cottage sat. We then had to hike 2 football fields to a foot pump where we gathered water into bidons and then carried those 50 lb weights back to her house. After washing off the layers of dirt with a chilly outdoor bucket bath we commented on our fatigue:

Jennifer: I’m tired, yet giddy from the chemicals of extreme sports.
Kyan: I’m not tired. I’m just sore all over.
Brian: I’m tired. She’s claiming she’s not tired, but I think that’s bullshit. She did the same thing we did.

We all laughed.

After such a long ride, what did you have for dinner?

Lucky for us Kyan lives in a pretty big town with about 8,000 people. We went to a rice bar and ate a peanut sauce on rice, the fast food of Guinea. The bad thing though, we learned that her gas tank was empty. No hot tea for us in the cool chilly evening.

What did you do in Kyan’s village?

Well after a night of sleeping on a hard straw mattress and I on a prayer mat on the concrete floor, we ate baguettes with sweetened condensed milk. Then one of Kyan’s students Bilo took us to a waterfall, supposedly 3 km away, but must have been longer because it took us an hour and a half to get there. The waterfall was pretty dry.

Bilo asked if we could visit his grandparents, so off we went our bodies tired, the sun hot for a short walk to a farm. There we were given 30 oranges, 30 bananas, and 10 cassava roots, by his generous happy relatives. Bilo carried the sack of gifts back over grassy hills, over fences, and up Kyan’s hill for us. Thank goodness.

We ate lunch at a rice bar, rice covered with a green leaf sauce, and then we bough eggplant, eggs, and an avocado for dinner, sushi rolls. Kyan’s family included sushi wraps in a care package and she was going to share.

We took a nap on a prayer mat outside under her trees on her rock covered courtyard and afterwards ate oranges throwing the remains over the fence for the goats and cows. It was getting close to dinner time.

We gathered our ingredients and headed back down her hill into the valley to the other side of the hill toward what looked like a trailer park from our side of the hill, 3 rows of 5-8 white houses symmetrically arranged on the opposite hillside. Kyan has a Peace Corps site mate who was currently not in the village. Her site mate was vacationing somewhere else. Kyan knew who had the key to her house though. We planned on using Kyan’s site mate’s gas to cook dinner. After a 20 minute walk we learned that the guy with the key was 17 km away in another village for a wedding.

Tired and hungry we headed down the hill and up Kyan’s hill thinking, “Man is this an omen of things to come?” Getting close to her cottage our attention was drawn toward a balcony of noisemakers hidden by some trees. Who in this country knows the song”We wish you a Merry Christmas,” and why were they being obnoxious singing it at the top of their voices? Out peered a white face, a stranger and a fleeting thought went through my brain, “Oh no. We have to entertain American tourists. I am tired, not up for socializing.” But then Geoffrey’s head peered through the trees and my spirit was jumping from joy- Geoffrey, Christine, plus Geoffrey’s visiting brother. Yay!

They had gotten my note and were hoping to catch up with us by taxi and lo and behold they did. We ate a lovely meal of egg, onions, beef, mayo sandwiches around a campfire and turned in early, four of us on the floor, 2 on the straw mattress.

What did you do the next day?

We all got up at 6 am. The three without bikes went to find a taxi to my village. Thankfully it was Thursday, a neighboring village’s market day so transport was easily available between Kyan’s and my village. Brian, Kyan, and I headed off on bike.

After mounting a hill we named the Lambchop hill, “This is a hill that never ends. It goes on and on my friend. Someone started climbing it not knowing what it was...” 4.5 hours later, and 55 km under our belts we arrived at the market. I went searching in the shoulder to shoulder crowds for the 3 other Americans who took a taxi, greeting my students, getting settle hints by hand gestures where to go, finally sneaking up on the three who had just arrived. It is amazing how we all left the house at the same time 3 by bike, 3 by taxi and we all arrived at our destination at about the same time.

After buying 2 days worth of food supplies, 3 walked and 3 biked the 5 km to my little village. With a community effort, the six of us Americans, we washed clothes, cooked a pasta dinner, cleaned up, and settled in for the night- 3 on the floor cushioned by a foam mattress and 3 on the straw mattress- filling my 2 room house to full capacity.

What did you do in your village on Friday?

I had to teach a 10 th grade chemistry review class in the morning. It was doubtful whether or not any kids would show, but I had an amazing turnout of 17 students.

Christine, Forest, and Geoffrey went on a 4 hour hike in the surrounding hills. Kyan and Brian took naps. I searched the village for flour walking from one household to the next finally finding a merchant who hadn’t sold out of the commodity. When we all convened back at the house, we sat in the shade peeling and eating oranges. It was a relaxing day.

For dinner, we slit the throats, plucked the feathers, and gutted two chickens for a soup. Under candlelight each with a spoon, sitting Indian style upon the concrete porch around a big pot, we gobbled up that meat a luxury rarely found in the village. Our vegetarian had a lovely tomato lentil soup. Dishes were done in the dark because the next morning, early, we would be on the move again.

Where did you go?

We all left at 7 am. The three without bikes hiked 10 km to a village which hopefully had taxis. The bikers headed for Labe, a 60-70 km ride. Surprisingly or maybe not really, we ALL, whether by foot and taxi or by bike, arrived at the Peace Corps house around the same time, 8 hours later.

And New Year’s?

Together as a well-oiled working unit, the six of us prepared a Pan-Asian meal of Tom Yum soup, sushi, and a cabbage stir-fry with chocolate chip cookies and a papaya for dessert. We welcomed 2007 with rounds of hugs and good wishes.

It was truly a wonderful winter break, 7 days travelling around the Fouta region Guinean style. I am riding back to the village today, back to teaching.

My two New Year’s goals are to start local language classes and to learn all of my students’ names.

At the end of January I have Peace Corps In-service training for a week and will be back online. See you then.