Oh, Boy!

Deep breath.

Here we go.

Just over three weeks ago thirty or so volunteers arrived at ENATEF, a forestry school and hotel slash conference center, for a two week IST (In Service Training). That Sunday was our three month reunion since first arriving at site. It had been that whole time since I last saw half of people I crossed the Atlantic with. The two weeks that followed were full of days that dragged on endlessly and nights that were never long enough. We were in session seven hours a day, sitting, minds engaged only half the time and day dreaming the remainder. It was a completely different type of thinking than what I do at site, requiring a concentration I hadn’t exercised in three months. How I made it through high school and college? I don’t know.

Those two weeks were exhausting; seventeen days exactly, the last three all in French. We studied local languages, gave abbreviated business skills training, learned how to write grants, to design projects and to evaluate them. We visited a pineapple farm, drank beers, went dancing, and played Four Chair (a game inspired by Steve and his Frisbee buddies, thanks Steve!). I think there might have been a day or two where we did a majority of those things. We lived in a dorm setting, sharing rooms, showers, bathrooms, and meals. By the end of those two weeks I was ready to go home, back to Dabola. I learned a lot, and was reminded of even more. Most importantly, I was reminded of why I’m here. If I ever forget, I only have to look to the thirty other Americans that shared a flight from JFK to Conakry six months ago.

SIX MONTHS!

Holy time machine, Batman! Time must move faster closer to the Equator. It damn well doesn’t feel like it’s been six whole months. December, January, February, March, April, May. One, two, three, four, five, six. Yup, that’s six month, alright. And from what I hear the first six months are the slowest. At this rate I’ll be stateside in no time flat.

Sooner, actually. Jesse, whatever do you mean? My dad was going to come visit me, but for several reasons that is no longer happening. So, what is happening…? Don’t worry; I’ll feed you, baby birds.

Drumroll…

Extended silence… (you know, to build suspense.)

I’M COMING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS!!!!

AND NEW YEAR’S!!!!

Ok, now calm down. Breath. In, out. In, out. That’s it.

Oh, boy! I can’t wait for some In N’ Out and an It’s It (or a dozen).

Here’s the scoop (mmmm… ice cream), since my dad won’t be making the trip to Guinea my parents have generously offered to co-finance a trip home for the holidays. Yeah, my parents kick ass. The itinerary for said trip has yet to be solidified, but the initial estimate is for me to be in N.CA for roughly three weeks starting a few days before Christmas. The tickets haven’t been bought yet. We are waiting to see if things clear up in Mali over the next month or so. If they do, I’ll be flying out of Bamako, which is cheaper and easier for me to travel to. If not, I’ll make the pothole laden trek to Conakry and fly from there.

Stand by, with sharpie in hand, to mark the dates on your calendars. :)

So… there’s this girl… I guess she’s kinda cool in a thoughtful, beautiful, dorky, sassy, I-can’t-stop-thinking-about-her sort of way. We met at the end of March when all the volunteers in Haute met in Kankan for our monthly dance fest. A month later she was in Dabola celebrating Cinqo de Mayo with the small group of volunteers I had over for the weekend. We hit it off and things have progressed from there. I was lucky enough that she had to visit ENATEF a couple times during our IST and afterward I spent some time at her site. I didn’t come to Peace Corps with this sort of thing in mind, but if Guinea has taught me anything these last six months it’s that you just never know exactly what is going to happen. Suffice it to say, I’m smitten.

While at her site we helped a volunteer in a nearby village with a project. With three other volunteers and dozens of young Guineans we climbed the not-so-high-but-rather-steep Mount Sebery to plant a bunch of trees at the very tip-top. I can now say with complete certainty that scaling a mountain with two seedlings in each hand is not so easy. However, I believe it is easier than scaling that same mountain with a flat of seedlings balanced on your head, as the Guinean in front of me did. I was quite impressed. We planted the trees, enjoyed the view, and climbed back down to town just in time to avoid a downpour. There are four tiny trees on top of that mountain that were planted by a certain young man from Northern California.

Her site is the home of an enchanted place… a pine forest. A WHAT?! A pine forest. Oh, and there are also eucalyptus trees! It was like walking through Hillsborough at times. We took a small hike through the pine forest and the smell took me right back to my dad’s cabin in Arnold. There is a creek that runs through the pine trees that is lazy and cold and speaks in a gurgling whisper. Small and medium gardens spot the hills where the pines don’t grow or have been cleared. It was a whole other world. I had to keep reminding myself that I was in Africa.

In her town a wide dirt road runs down a hill until it meets with the main paved road which descends down a hill of its own. Power lines drape on rusted poles that are centered in the wide divider bisecting the road. Trees line the way down and on the distant hills are houses with red roofs. From a certain vantage point and with a bit of imagination a similarity can be found between this setting and driving north into San Francisco on 280. A fellow Californian agrees with me, though she is from LA and so her opinion can only be considered marginally viable. hehehe

Now, here I am, back in Dabola and full of ideas for projects. I can’t wait to get started, but getting things done in Guinea is a slow process. Little by little, as they say here, though they say in in French so it sounds more like petite á petite.

Oh, I nearly forgot! As you know from a previous update all the PC volunteers in Mali were evacuated because of the coup d’état. Well, some went home and some transferred to other PC countries. Guinea is the proud recipient of two lovely ex-Malian volunteers. One will be a public health volunteer in or near Conakry, the other will be based in Dabola as an agroforestry volunteer. *does a little shuffle* Soon there will be three white-folk in Dabola: myself, Rob the Brit, and Rebecca the tree planter. Come on, say it with me. SITEMATE!

Something wonderful happened the weekend before IST: four lovely packages arrived at my doorstep. Ben’s had my rain coat in it and was stuff to the brim with all my favorite treats (mmmm… rosemary and olive oil Triscuits). Jill’s was direct from the magnificent aisles of Trader Joe’s (seriously, who doesn’t love that store. If you don’t, we can’t be friends. It’s like Snack Central, USA.) Mom’s had seeds to jump start a garden, drink mixes, toys for the kids, redneck cookies, and a much needed fly swatter. And then there was the package from Matt & Co., a team effort that included magazines, newspapers, handwritten notes, and enough goodies to ensure diabetes. Thank you all so much for the time and money and love you put into those packages. They mean more than you know. Alba, I’m still waiting on yours, but rumor has it that I have a package in Conakry and my guess is that your name is on the return address.

This last month has been phenomenal.

This past weekend I attended a Guinean wedding… sort of. It was definitely a Guinean wedding, but the bride and groom being married were only honorary Guineans. They were both PCVs in Guinea from 2001 to 2003 and returned here in 2011, he as a Fulbright scholar studying music and she as a Response Volunteer. During their eight years stateside they were married and they wanted to share that experience with the families they came to love during their two years spent in Guinea. It was an abbreviated set of the normal Guinean wedding events given the time constraints, but it was still quite a bit of fun. We piled into a van and headed 40K off the main highway, along a dirt road, until we reached the bride’s former site. Her host family knew some toubabous would be joining the celebration but, since there is no cell coverage in this small town of 300 people, we weren’t able to warn them that there were twelve of us. In typical Guinean hospitality they vacated the nicest house in town for us, having the occupants sleep two nights with other families in the village so we could have the place to ourselves. For the ceremony we prayed in the mosque, had a reception, ate, and danced until midnight. Mostly Guinean music was played but we were able to sneak in a few American songs as well. It was wonderful seeing and experiencing the mixture of culture that took place in those 48 hours.

Last weekend also held in its timeline an event that will always be remembered by those in attendance. The wedding was beautiful, but its candle burns dim compared to the bonfire of another moment. A term was coined, a name given to a certain type of child seen often in Guinea. It was a magical moment.

The short hike to the river started modestly on the overcast afternoon we arrived au village. The twelve of us walked casually along a single-track path that cut through the dry grass. We were all at once being lead, followed, and watched by thirty children. The conversation covered many topics but landed instinctually on one of the children in our entourage. He couldn’t have been more than three, give or take several years. He waddled along with us but grew tired and had to be carried by one of the older kids. Most important to this story, he wasn’t wearing any pants. His parents had seen to it that half his modesty, albeit the wrong half, was kept intact by putting a shirt on him. And so the name Donald Duck was given to this young visionary of fashion (let me know when it catches on in the California!)

Since then I’ve had multiple occasions to use this wonderful code name. Just yesterday I was walking to the market to eat when I saw a Donald Duck taking advantage of a convenience afforded by not wearing pants. He was just standing there…peeing. He saw me and waved. I waved back after hesitating a moment. I was stunned at the brilliance of this young Turing. This particular Donald Duck had improved on the argument men have used for centuries to support the hypothesis that having differing chromosomes is better than two of the same. He wasn’t just peeing standing up, he was peeing standing up and doing it without ever having to unzip. Genius! Men, I think we just clenched the victory. Ladies, good game, you put up a good fight. :)

Last week was the first time it rained. The rain was accompanied by lightning and thunder and I saw it coming in from the south. I was in my hammock reading when the first flash lit up my peripheral. Soon a crackling sound followed to let me know the storm wasn’t far off. The time between light and sound diminished as the storm approached and soon rain was falling on the tin roof of the CAFODEC office. The water crashing on the metal gave me the impression that I would soon be experiencing a Noah-like adventure, but when I went and stood in the courtyard the rain was falling moderately at best. The stormed cooled the night and I didn’t sweat all that much as I slept. It was a welcome reprieve. Even with the cool night, the best part of the storm was the next morning.

The smell of rain woke me before my alarm had its chance. The cool air aided the decision to skip my run in favor of resting in bed a little longer. At 7:30 I got up and began my day. My walk to buy bread and bananas for breakfast was sleepy and the damp dirt and gravel crunched under my sandaled feet. The sky was overcast. Everything seemed slower and more deliberate. The world was quieter as if the wet ground absorbed some of the sounds. The motorcycle taxis were muffled. The school children said less. I imagined that if I spoke too loudly one of the passing children would hush me. A calmness comes when your environment is half-muted and it seems as if all the world has misplaced half of its sound. It was beautiful.

By the next morning the ground had dried and released all the noise and dust it had captured. The taxis roared again as plumes of dust trailed their rear tires and children returned to yelling toubabou when I passed. Now I await the rainy season not only so the weather cools, but also because that morning was perfect and I want to experience that calmness again. Last autumn in Davis was unusually dry and summer never brings much rain to Northern California, so my last year has been mostly a drought. You wouldn’t find me complaining. When your primary form of transportation is a bike you learn to loath two things above all else: wind and rain. At best, I found rain cumbersome, limiting. But during that one perfect morning, I couldn’t have appreciated anything more.

Sing it with me!

“I bless the rains down in Africa.”

Knowledge is a wonderful thing. The universe is filled with an unimaginable array of information. Any one individual can only ever hope to grasp a minuscule slice of that pie. The more I read and the more I learn, the more aware I become of how much I don’t know and the more intrigued I become in how the world works.

Today I was cutting a pineapple and as I performed this always humbling (my edible yield is always quite depressing) yet always rewarding task I started to think about the evolutionary process of this round and pointy fruit.

I believe in evolution as I believe in gravity but I can’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. The extent of my knowledge of evolution is a rough collage of facts and ideas copied and pasted from the few pages of some textbook I read in middle school, the conversations involved with befriending an ecologist, and having dated a girl who would have stalked Charles Darwin had she been lucky enough to be waiting on the dock when The Beagle returned home. In short, I don’t know much.

Despite my lack of understanding of the subtleties of the evolutionary process, as I tried to salvage as much of my pineapple as possible I was pretty certain pineapples hadn’t evolved for human consumption. As I’m sure you are now, I started wondering about the exact evolutionary path pineapples took to end up on my counter, frustrating me with its needless complexity (for my purposes at least). With the internet not at hand and my knowledge based only on a few likely out-of-date pages and a dozen half-forgotten conversations I wasn’t able to develop any ground-breaking theories of pineapplean evolution.

But that is the great thing about knowledge! Someone, somewhere out there knows the evolutionary process that pineapples took, and if nobody does, there is likely someone who at least has a theory or someone who is trying to figure it out.

When I think about all the knowledge that is out there to learn I sometimes get overwhelmed. Think about all the things you’ll likely never know: how many grains of sand in a teaspoon, the exact material composition of tile, how CERN gets those particles moving so damned fast (magnets are involve…right?…wrong?). And on top of that when we do learn we are apt to forget. I’m sure most of you at one point knew the atomic number of iron or the quadratic equation or the birthday of your second boyfriend or girlfriend only to now have forgotten (don’t know, don’t know, June 14th…booya, memory! 1 for 3 ain’t bad).

But as my memory proves, we remember the important things, the things that matter to us. I don’t have much need to know iron’s atomic number or the quadratic equation, but I’m still friends with my second girlfriend and I want to remember to call her and wish her a happy birthday when the middle of June rolls around. I read recently that the more we study a subject the more likely we are to remember new information about that topic. Maybe that’s why I did better in my economics classes than I did in my general education classes (maybe I’m just more interested in economics than Caribbean literature). When it comes down to it I didn’t enjoy the pitiful amount of edible product I wrestled from the grasps of my withholding pineapple any less because the specifics of its evolution remained a mystery. (I’ve been told pineapple grow on bushes that only ever fruit once… though I can’t confirm that claim enough to promote it beyond mere hearsay.)

So, we’ve covered two of the subjects in the title and I’m sure your itching for the third: changes. I briefly mentioned in my last update that there is a chance I could be moving. I’ll stay in the same town, but I’ll be moving houses. That’s still likely to happen though there has been no progression toward the actual move. The other big change that has happened is that my counterpart Sekouba is being transferred to another CAFODEC office in Guinea. He’s leaving this week and will be replaced by a supervisor from another town. I’ve met this new guy a couple times now and I can’t say quite yet whether the change will be for the best or not, but I’m maintaining a positive attitude. That’s not to say that these changes haven’t been frustrating or stressful, just that I’m trying to remain flexible and open-minded during the transition.

Stay posted for more soon… :)

miniscule

The malaria medication I take doesn’t just have the amusing side effect of fun dreams. It also has the tendency to make me slightly nauseous the few hours and drowsy for a couple days after that. I take the nasty, little pill every Tuesday night and Wednesdays tend to feel like I’m fighting low blood sugar all day, Thursdays are better and by Friday I’m normal again. For those of you who know me well, you know that when I’m hungry and need to eat I become grumpy and lethargic (yet another area where I take after my father). Wednesdays are not good days for me to be moody since that happens to be the busy day for the Dabola ASF (Association de Service Fanaciares… I’ll explain in depth how these work in another post). Last Wednesday it took all my self-control not to get up and walk out of the building.

I’m still learning all the processes of the how CAFODEC and their ASFs operate and so I don’t feel completely comfortable making any suggestions quite yet as to how they organize things. That said, I know there is a better way to manage all the paperwork they deal with. We’ll spend no less than ten minutes searching for a paper and then find it in a binder it had no business being in. As you all know, I hate inefficiencies, especially ones that can be avoided. So, you can imagine me working for six hours in an office that is rife with inefficiencies and redundancies doing tasks that take much longer than they should. Add the sluggish grumpiness from the malaria medication and you’ve got yourself an explosive situation.

I’ve managed to make it through Wednesdays so far but they are far from enjoyable and so I called the PC doctor (PCMO) to talk to him about the possibility of taking a different medication that might work better for me. He suggested taking half a pill twice a week rather than a full pill once a week. I’ll be experimenting with that this week as well as moving the day I take the half-pill to Monday nights and Friday mornings. If this backfires and makes me drowsy the next day both times I can’t guarantee that I won’t be smacking the PCMO.

The inefficiencies and redundancies in many areas of work here, I imagine, stem from the way Guineans are taught in school. Critical thinking is not at all encouraged and is ignored in favor of rote memorization. I’ve harped on this before, but it’s an important barrier to development in Guinea in every sense of the word. Students are asked to memorize what the teacher writes on the board and then tested on their ability to reproduce exactly what they memorized. Only the smartest students ever make a connection between what they are told to memorize and how it applies to similar situations. And those students are hardly encouraged to explore those connections.

A side-effect of rote memorization is the need for something to be exact in order for it to be understood. If you ask a Guinean for the time you will never get the answer “a quarter to five” or “almost three.” The answer will always be “four, forty-four” or “two, fifty-eight.” During training my language trainer asked me what time it was and I responded with “10 o’clock,” she happened to see my watch and let me know that “no, it’s 10:02.” Approximations are not given here. In some instances exactness is necessary, but it becomes a problem when exactness becomes paramount over clarity of meaning. The education volunteers are here to promote critical thinking in the middle and high schools. I hope to supplement their efforts by working with the youth in Dabola outside of school, in social forums, to further encourage critical thinking.

New topic… Everything may be bigger in Texas, but things are harder to kill in Africa. Has it ever taken you four smacks of a weighty sandal and crushing in a paper towel to kill the cricket hiding behind your bookshelf and that has kept you up all night and is much louder than you would have predicted given its size? I didn’t think so, my American (and one Swedish) friends.

My APCD, Kristine, recently visited half of the CED volunteers in Guinea. She spent a week on the road and concluded her visits here with me in Dabola (she’s a firm believer in saving the best for last). We met at one of the two hotel restaurants and she bought me a wonderful and expensive meal of chicken and French fries (talk about fancy!). We chit and chatted for a couple hours and watched some of the footage of the riots in Spain.

(It was about damn time that those Spaniards got pissed about the 20% unemployment rate that has been plaguing their country for way too long. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that things became violent; look at the evidence from the Spanish Inquisition. I’m actually only speculating as to what started the riots and to the extent of the violence and damage. The news was in French and the lady talking was gorgeous, give me a break.) 

The next day Kristine and I met with the staff at CAFODEC and that was when I found out that our office building may be moving. This could possibly mean I’ll be moving to another place in Dabola, but I’m not sure as to all the specifics quite yet. I like my set up and would like to stay here. Most importantly my place now is near the edge of town and when I run I only have to deal with people watching me for a half mile. I would miss that little bit of privacy.

 

Kristine isn’t the only one who has visited me in Dabola. I’m the acting halfway house for volunteers travelling from one side of the country to the other. Recently I had an education volunteer stay here and this week I’ll be hosting one of my favorite CEDers for a couple nights as she makes her way to a youth conference in Guinea’s second largest city, Kindia. I like the company and so far I’ve ended up with a house guest a bit less than once a week. If nothing else it forces me to clean and pick up all the crap I’ve left lying around (I get that from my mother).

I have a lot of little things to share but don’t want to allot them their own paragraphs since they are really just snip-its. So, here is a spattering of topics jumbled into one unorganized paragraph: I have a cookie lady who comes by my place a few times a week to sell me these wonderful shortbread-type cookies. She’s the only lady I’ve found that makes them and she always gives me a free one. I’m cat sitting for Betsy and Jack is still a kitten. I remembered cats being more fun and less annoying when I grew up with them. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned a certain promise I made a few months back at Swearing In to one of the other volunteers, but I, a little less than soberly, committed myself to growing out a ponytail. I figure, what the hell, now is the only time I imagine I’ll be able to accomplish this feat without constant berating from friends and family. So, here goes nothing. My British friend has Typhoid Fever. Suffice it to say, I haven’t seen him in a few days. He’s feeling much better now but we had to cancel some plans we had made to visit a nearby town together. I’ll probably still go. Mangos and avocados are now super cheap! I eat a mango or two every day and enjoy an avocado from time to time. I’m getting better at making tortillas. My last batch was near perfect. With so many avocadoes about the only natural progression is to try to make chips and guacamole! The new taxi station in town has been slow to attract travellers. Everyone continues to go to the center of town to get a taxi. That leaves the folks who use the new station waiting hours for a car to fill and leave. I hate to be part of the problem, but I will not be waiting at the new station unless I’m travelling with a larger group or until more people start using it.

Happy April to all you lovely people and to your friends and families as well!

Love&Hugs!

Jesse

Welcome to this unspecified-amount-of-time’s edition of the Jesse Gubert’s Peace Corps Update. I’m your host and title character Jesse Gubert. Thanks for joining us.

First on the docket, FAMILY BUSINESS…

I’M GOING TO BE AN UNCLE!! I’ve always thought that being an uncle would be a thousand times better than having my own kids. I’ll get to teach himinnocently offensive phrases and feed him spoonfuls of caffeine without having to berate him when she call a stranger a “monkey turd” or attempt to calm him down as he sprints around the living room. He will be almost a year and a half old when I return from Guinea, which is great. I’m not good with babies and he’ll be the perfect age to teach all the fun stuff.

I’ve already put a lot of thought into what sort of uncle I’m going to be. Yes, of course I’ll be “Uncle Jesse” (it’s not lost on me), but I’ll also be the uncle that always has cookies (I love cookies and dammit my nephew will too!). I also may have started a list of odd facts that I’ll have on mental file to tell him each time I see him (did you know that : the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight is 1.98×1014, Descartes was attracted to cross-eyed women, and Voltaire praised vegetarianism but himself ate meat). If I’m putting this much thought into the arrival the kid, how much are my brother and his girlfriend thinking about it? Do you think they’re so tired of thinking that they’ll let me name it?! No matter the name they decide, I’m calling him toubabou.

Next up is our oldest segment, THIS AFRICAN LIFE…

My life here has started to develop a sense of normalcy. That’s not saying my schedule is set, very far from it. What I mean is I see and experience things that would have surprised me a few months ago and now they seem normal. It’s normal for me to wait for people to show up late. It’s normal to be followed around town by young kids. And it’s seems normal to me to spend more time greeting someone than the following conversation takes. There are good and bad aspects of what is normal for me here, but overall I’m enjoying it quite a bit. How could I not enjoy when it becomes normal to be offered food a dozen times as I walk into town? That’s right, I couldn’t.

But you’re probably wondering what part of my new normal I like the best. So, what’s the best part of my African normal? Easy: my daily naps. If you know me well, you know I’m very fond of naps. They rank just below cookies and show tunes and just above hugs and iced tea in the Jesse’s Favorite Things Rankings. Guineans usually rest after lunch every afternoon for about two hours to avoid being outside during the hottest part of the day. I can’t nap that long if I want to fall asleep come bedtime, so I limit my naps to forty perfect minutes. It’s gotten to the point that I start feeling sleepy around 2:00, which is lunchtime here. It’s amazing our much our bodies respond to conditioning.

Also, people wake up early here and so I’ve been getting up around 6:00 or 6:30 every day. Sleeping in now means waking up at 8:00. There have been days where I wake up and I’m curtain it’s 10:00 at the earliest; I look at the clock and it’s 7:45. This last weekend I went to a wedding dance with Sekouba and I didn’t get to bed until 1:30; still woke up at 6:30. No way was I getting up, so rested in bed until I fell back to sleep. I woke up again at 7:30 and started my day. I love sleep; in the states if I was out that late I would have easily been in bed until 10:00. This place is changing me, and I’m not sure for the better. ;)

And now for the newest portion of our show, THE DREAM DESK…

Every PCV in Guinea is required to take a malaria medication either daily or weekly. Mine is weekly and is the one that can cause some interesting dreams. A lot of the volunteers have been having great dreams and I have been disappointed by their absence during my sleepy time. I don’t normally dream a lot but in the last month I’ve finally had some fun dreams, four to be exact. I’d like to summarize a few of them and then describe one in detail.

The first dream involved the baking of cookies in underwear and despite the possibility for an unpleasant accident the cookies turned out amazingly. The second was brief but I managed to save the life of my best friend by divining that a mole was cancerous. The third I’ll describe in a bit. And the fourth was a far ranging epic that included a beach, small, medium and large waves, a teddy-dog chasing a teddy-chicken along a power line, an urgent need for me to explain to a mother and son where all the UC campuses are, and the mom making the outrageous assumption that the only hospitals in California are UC Medical Centers. That was a fun one and I’m not even sure how it all fits together.

As for that third dream… A lot of us new volunteers were gathered and meeting some of the volunteers who had been in country and asking them questions about their experiences. I didn’t consciously recognize anyone but I was comfortable with them and apparently knew them well. One of my fellow new volunteers (we’ll call him David) and I were chatting with a middle-aged volunteer (we’ll call him Stanley) who was in Guinea for a second round of Peace Corps having served in Benin a few years earlier.

“Which do you like better: Guinea or Benin?” David asked innocently.

I pulled David aside and whispered harshly, “don’t ask him to compare things!” David’s was baffled by my reaction and his eyes widened apologetically. I wasn’t sure why but the question had sent me into a panic. I was shocked that he would ask such an insensitive question and I was furious. Somehow, I instinctually knew the question was off limits and that David had stepped over the line in asking it.

As confused as David was about why Stanley shouldn’t be asked to make comparisons, I was in no position to provide him with an answer. So, we did the only logical thing and turned to regard our new friend, who I was sure we had just offended. He looked at us and understood our confusion about the situation. He lifted up his arms to show us that he had no hands.

That was it. He had no hands! I got so upset because I both knew and didn’t know that he was handless and, for some reason, I thought the only way anyone could compare things was to say “on the one hand… but on the other hand.”

And then the dream ended.

If dreams really do mean something and let us glimpse at our semi-conscious selves, then I can only guess at what these dreams mean. It’s no secret that I love cookies and underwear is fun I guess. You can call me a hero but I think anyone who knows their best friend’s mole is life-threatening would recommend seeing a doctor. And maybe I miss the beach and stuffed animals and California, though I though ice cream, hugs, and napkins would have ranked higher than the beach and teddy bears. I’m not sure I should even take a crack at the significance of the handless PCV.

Thank you for tuning in for this edition of Jesse Gubert’s Peace Corps Update. We’ll see you again this time, later.

Loves&Hugs!

Jesse

*roll credits*

By now the idea has landed that things are different in Africa: the roads are less paved, the food is bizarre by American standards but still tasty, copyright laws are ignored as are traffic laws (if there are any). But some things bridge the cultural gap, independently evolving in both places: twins are dressed the same, kids fake-cry to get attention, women’s sports are just as boring to watch. I’ll explain.

On the way into town I pass a house that is a favorite of mine. There’s the fat dog flopped on the porch breathing heavily and seeming to smile. There’s the dad that speaks “small, small English” like every Guinean who took the language in high school and remembers that and “how are you.” And there are the twin girls, no more than four-years-old, always dressed in matching outfits. I imagine this is because you can only buy fabric in bulk. They are adorable and always excited to see me. One is a little shyer than the other and so I only just recently shook her hand. I stopped to chat with the dad and as we talked the less shy one rubbed the hair on my arm. Guineans aren’t used to seeing hair like ours and the kids like to touch it. The dad told her to stop and she did. A minute later she was lifting my pant leg to see if the hair was the same there. It is.

Kids hate baths here. They scream death when their mothers wash them. Naturally, they also cry when they fall and scrap their knee or when another kid hits them. Today I ate lunch at one of my favorite places that serves rice and soup. As I was eating a young child tripped and fell and began shrieking. Everyone did a fantastic job ignoring him. Then he looked at me. I waved and he stopped crying to consider me. When he remembered he was supposed to be hurt he started his screaming again. You see that in the States all the time, hell, I did that when I was this kid’s age.

Last week I went to the stadium in Dabola with Sekouba to watch a soccer match between the prefectural team and the military team. The prefectural team won 3-0, scoring all three goals in the second half. It was a good time and so I decided to go again the next day. This time the match was between the women’s teams from the two high schools in town, the private versus the public. I haven’t been so bored since Lexi and Ben dragged me to watch the UC Davis women’s basketball team play. At least the UCD team had the fundamentals down. Ok, it wasn’t that bad. It was partially entertaining during the first half to watch the nearly six-foot girl dominate and score three goals (one from near midfield). After 45 minutes of watching the girls (except the tall one) fumble over the ball and anticipating another 45 minutes of that, I wasn’t too disappointed when Sekouba said he was hunger and wanted to go eat.

This hints at a different issue. Really, the problem lies with the difference in the allocation of time between the genders. Men sit around most the day making tea, chatting, and playing soccer at least once a day when it’s not too hot. Women, when they aren’t cleaning or making food or taking care of the children, are usually studying. I’ve noticed that women value time much more than men. I think it has to do with them having less free time and so when they get some they use it doing useful things like studying and not playing soccer for hours each day. I don’t doubt that if these girls practiced as much as the guys they would be damn good (especially that tall one).

It’s Sunday morning and I had plans to enjoy another lovely hike with Betsy and Momo. I had to cancel because CAFODEC in Dabola was supposed to have a meeting this morning to discuss some of the changes the organization is going through. It was planned for nine. It’s now past noon and only one person has shown up and then he left. I’ve been passing the time reading, watching How I Met Your Mother, and organizing my photos in Picassa 3. Time not wasted. The meeting ended up happening at 4pm; not too late by Guinean norms.

Last night Betsy and Momo stayed with me and we made a Mexican feast! We had fish, tortillas, beans, rice, and guacamole. You guessed it: fish tacos! We bought the beans and rice in town. I had my first attempt at fileting a fish and with a Swiss Army knife. Not easy, and quite messy. Betsy cut up the tomatoes, lettuce, and onions to put on the tacos. Momo made the tortillas and they were almost as good as the ones Matt and I would buy from Nugget. But what really made the meal perfect was the taco seasoning that Jill sent me (thanks Jill).

We listened to some salsa music to set the atmosphere for this wonderful dining experience. We invited Sekouba (my counterpart) and the guard and his wife. We sat around the table, sharing plates because we didn’t have enough, and enjoyed the food. The Guineans loved it and were surprised to find out that none of us were Mexican. It was a lovely evening.

Good food was just the thing I needed to brighten my mood. The Community Economic Development (CED, my sector) APCD (boss lady) called me to let me know some disappointing news. Peace Corps/Washington, in an effort to save money, told Peace Corps/Guinea that we would have to cut one of our four sectors (Education, Public Health, Agroforestry, and CED). CED is the newest and least established in Guinea and so the axe fell on us.

This doesn’t mean fewer volunteers for Guinea; the future volunteers that would have been CED will be redistributed among the other three sectors. Since they aren’t cutting back on the number of volunteers the Peace Corps will only be saving on costs associated with CED-specific training and support. These costs include the pay (during nine weeks of training) of the two CED technical trainers and the yearly salary of the APCD. Those are the three CED-specific employees. Peace Corps won’t be helping the budget much by axing a single sector in Guinea, but other countries will be losing sectors as well and the aggregate savings are likely to be substantial.

The fifteen of us CED volunteers already in country will finish our time in Guinea continuing to work within the CED framework, but there will be no one replacing us when we leave. We are the first and last CED volunteers in Guinea. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this means. As a sector, we’ll continue to discuss the impact this will have our service and I’ll keep you all posted.

Until now updates to this blog have not been happening. The internet at the Peace Corps office in the training city of Dubreka was depressingly slow and WordPress didn’t load well enough to post regular updates. I kept my family and friends in the loop with email updates. Those updates were more detailed than what you are seeing here; I’ve gone through and copied the most relevant parts of those emails. The following posts are some o the highlights from my first few months in Guinea. The last two posts are the full versions of my most recent updates. Enjoy :)

 

Travelling

November 29, 2011

Our travels started in Philadelphia where we boarded a bus bound for JFK in New York. This two hour drive extended to three-plus hours because the bridge we needed was closed and so we drove through all of Brooklyn, where we stopped for a half-hour as we were checked for bombs by the transit authority. We made it to JFK with time to spare and waited around for our flight to Brussels.

 

The flight to Belgium was great, for me at least. I had a window seat and an empty seat next to me. I slept for all but an hour. Our layover in Brussels was uneventful until we all boarded and found out that two of the girls’ tickets had either been cancelled or never paid for. With empty seats on the plane and it being clear thirty-four of us were travelling together I anticipated the airline to let them on anyway. They didn’t. Those two had to stay in Brussels as the rest of us headed off to Guinea. They were able to get ahold of the necessary people and arrived only a day late.  I would imagine the girls were really stressed, but one of them knows French pretty well and they made it here alright.

 

We landed in Conakry and were met by the Country Director (CD) and the Safety and Security Coordinator (SSD). We loaded the PC cars full of our baggage and boarded a bus build for far fewer than our thirty-two (remember, we lost two!) and headed to the PC compound.

 

G-21 Volunteers

November 30, 2011

The group I’ll be training with is made up of thirty-four young men and women. We are a young set of Peace Corps Trainees (PSTs) with the oldest at 27-years-old with the majority of us 22 to 24. Most training groups have retired PSTs and some even middle-aged, married couples. Our average age is low due to Guinea being one of the Peace Corps countries where service still resembles what most expect when they hear Peace Corps. There are many health issues that arise here as well as a requirement to be physically active; we’ll be riding PC-issued mountain bikes over rocky and dirt roads.

 

We have people from all over the country. There are five of us from California (Monterey, Palo Alto, 2 from LA, and myself), three of us are from the Twin Cities area, a few are from PA and a couple from NC. Georgia is represented with a couple PSTs from Atlanta and one from the Athens area. We have a UF Gator and a VT Hokie. Chicago, Seattle, Buffalo, Montreal and Boston all have PSTs here. Hawaii is in the picture, as are Tennessee and Wisconsin. G21 really is a nation-wide effort.

 

Beach Dancing

December 2, 2011

Yesterday we celebrated the first birthday in our training group! After a day of training and a delicious dinner (all the food has been amazing, more on this in a future post) the majority of us decided to head to the beach bar. There are always a ton of local Guineans at the beach playing soccer, dancing and generally filling time.

 

There was music playing at the bar and we sat down in plastic chairs on the beach. Not long after we ordered our beers a small man in workout clothes started dancing not too far from us. Some of the more outgoing of us started to dance with him and soon all but a few of the PSTs were dancing in a circle with a dozen local Guineans! More locals joined us (even the waitresses!) and we took turns dancing in the center of the circle as the rest kept the beat by clapping. The energetic, small man spent the most time in the circle and pulled many of us in to dance. He was particularly fond of the tall, blonde-haired Minnesotan, who was called to dance half a dozen times.

 

My Host Family

December, 9, 2011

We’ve been with our host families for nearly a week now. My French is already progressing, no surprise there since there’s a necessity for me to learn it in order to communicate with my family (when I talk about my family from here out it means my Guinean family).  There are a lot of them. My dad’s name is Momo, mom is Rama. I have eight brother and sisters: Odad, Djenab, Fatoumata, Salimatou, Mariama, Aminata, Aboubacar and Abass. The family name is Damba and they’ve given me a Guinean name. My name is Mohamed Damba. As this is primarily a Muslim nation Mohamed is a very popular name. In fact, my nephews name is Mohamed. Sometimes he is being called and I turn around also.

 

My brother Odad speaks the best French so I spend most of my time talking with him. My mom and dad both know a good amount of French but I don’t think either is literate. Odad is a student at the university and studying cultural administration. I’m not sure what that means. I still don’t know what my dad does for a living but I only see him in the morning and at night. Pretty much I say good morning and goodnight to him. My host mom loves to feed me, but I am their 7th volunteer so they are good about not pushing me to the point of bursting. They are also great about giving me my privacy.

 

Hygeine

December, 11, 2011

Now that I am living with a Guinean family I no longer have the luxury of a shower. I’m already pretty darn good at bucket baths (toot toot!). I get about two baths out of a single bucket. There is a small concrete building with a tin roof outside the main house where we take turns bathing. I prefer bathing at night before bed, while most of the family prefers washing in the morning. It’s been working out well that I don’t have to wait to use the bathing room. The first few times I took a bucket bath it took me quite a while to feel clean. Now I’m in and out in about ten minutes. I have a system all worked out. If you need to know how to bucket bathe, I’m the guy you’ll want to talk to! Not having warm water hasn’t been an issue because it’s so damn hot and humid that all I do is sweat. I love the cold baths before climbing in bed.

 

Shaving has been a bit of a hassle since arriving here in Guinea. I’ve decided to beard it up for a while (sorry, Brendan). It’s much easier to maintain a beard than to stay clean shaven. A few of the other volunteers have decided the same thing.

 

Difficult Cultural Differences

December 16, 2011

There is a large gender gap here. Imagine classical gender roles and then balloon those tenfold. Women do ALL the housework: laundry, dishes, food preparation, cleaning. The men spend most the day sitting around arguing about the recent Real Madrid/Barcelona soccer match. Some girls are lucky to go to school but the boys get first priority. My family is pretty well off and all the kids attend school. My sister is studying math at the local university, my brother is studying art, and another is in high school still. The vendors at the markets who are selling food and produce are all women, while the men sell finished goods and electronics.

 

Everyone is late. Always. It may even me a national mandate that you may never be on time. As a very punctual person I’ve been having a hard time with this. I don’t mind the waiting. What gets to me is that I’m used to considering tardiness as disrespecting my time. That’s not the case here, people are just late. It has nothing to do with the people involved. I’m slowly getting used to it. I carry a book with me now.

 

Site Announcements

December 23, 2011

Yesterday was site and organization announcements. I know where I’m going to be living the next two years! The town… DABOLA!! The organization… CAFODEC !!

 

Dabola is a medium-sized city (about 18,500 people) and is considered a “cross-roads city.” Dabola is in the exact center of the country and the largest highway in the country runs along it’s outskirts. I’m about nine hours away from the capital and four hours from the next major city. There is a dam near the town and so I’ll get somewhat regular electricity and rumor has it that there is an internet café. The next closest volunteers are both education volunteers and one CED volunteer; all are one to two hours away. There is a “national park” just north of the city and a large river to the south. Apparently there is also a waterfall nearby!!

 

CAFODEC is a microfinance and development institution that is in the process of a major transition. It will be my job to help facilitate the transition. There is a youth house in the city that I’ll have the chance to work with. And there is an agricultural co-op that is looking to work with a volunteer as well. I’ll have a lot of options for things to do and projects to start.

 

Christmas Eve

December 24, 2011

It’s Christmas Eve. What?! It doesn’t feel anything like Christmas. I haven’t been cold for weeks and I haven’t felt a drop of rain since leaving Davis (though there have been ashes falling because people burn their trash here). This isn’t the sort of winter I’m used to. Winter— what a foreign concept at the moment! Guinea doesn’t have a winter. There are two seasons: the rainy and the dry, and it’s hot all the damn time.

 

For Christmas all the trainees are in Conakry for the weekend. We are pooling money and coming up with a pretty impressive feast. White elephant gifting will ensue. I found some amazing home-made, shortbread cookies at the market today that I will be putting in as my gift.

 

Though not a scrooge, I’ve never been especially excited about Christmas. Now that it’s not surrounding me, I find myself missing it. My thoughts turn to the people back home and I’m imagining everyone in the States gearing up for tomorrow. I don’t miss the stands of light or the indoor trees. I don’t miss the music or the mistletoe. I miss the people. I miss my friends getting excited about it. My indifference for the holiday itself was always apparent, how much I enjoy others enjoying it wasn’t. I guess that’s my little bit of Christmas: happiness in the happiness of others.  I never thought coming to Africa would give me a new appreciation for Christmas; it has.

 

A New Year’s Reflection

December 31, 2011

“The last day of the year.” It’s a foreign thought. This holiday season has been so very different what I’m accustomed to and it hardly seems to be happening. There are two hours left in 2011 and this is the first occasion I’ve put any real thought into all that has happened this past year. It was a defining year for me, and not only because it culminated with me in Africa. I learned many things this year and I was taught even more things. I learned about myself and about others. Aspects of me were illuminated, aspects I don’t like and am working on changing. And I discovered parts of me that I love, parts I hope never to loose.  I took strides this year in friendships and relationships that changed me in ways I needed to change. Mistakes were made, debts incurred and time lost. I’m learning from each, taking a bit of good from the moments that slipped away and the people who were hurt. New friendships were forged and old relationships strengthened; chances were taken and opportunities grasped. I said yes more often. It is a fantastic word that leads to so many experiences, both good and bad, which you grow from. 2011 is the year I evolved the most, the year I made the greatest progress toward the person I strive to be. I’m not there yet, but because of many marvelous people (a few in particular) I know where I want to end up and I’m making my way in that direction. I type these thoughts and I’m missing those people, those friends.

 

There are times when I miss home, times when I’m in bed, with the lights off, watching an episode of Scrubs on my computer and I forget that I’m in Africa. I look up from the screen and see my mosquito net hanging around me, tucked in between the mattress and the bed frame. With the glare from the screen and nothing but darkness beyond the moustiquaire I can’t see much past the net. I can almost pretend that I’m in my bed at home. But the net itself and the people outside speaking a language I don’t understand are reminders that I’m not. My first thought is always one of excitement and disbelief: “I’m in Africa?!” and the second is always a little poignant: “for two years.”

 

It’s starting to dawn on me what two years means. I’ll miss new music, new movies, new web comics: pop culture limbo. I’ll miss birthdays, celebrations, maybe a wedding or two: social purgatory. But two years is most daunting when I think of the little bits of peoples’ lives I’ll miss, the small moments of triumph and excitement, a midterm passed or a shared frozen yogurt, the tiny moments of fear and apprehension, a nearly avoided accident or a dark walk home. These are the unnoticed pieces of life whose aggregate builds relationships.

 

You can’t pause a friendship. You can’t pick up where you left off because people aren’t stagnant, we evolve and flow. “We do and do not step into the same river.” I can return to that spot but the waters that ran past yesterday won’t be the same tomorrow. I’ll return two years from now to find that the friends I left are the same and they are different. Two years of experiences will change people, maybe not a lot, but subtly. Recognizing those tiny variations and loving them is what allows a friendship to sustain. I have no doubt I’ll love those changes in my friends, but I will miss being a part of those minute evolutions.

 

Site Visit

January 15, 2012

We climb in taxis and head to our sites. Taxis are different here. Picture this: a hatch-back designed to comfortably sit five modified to uncomfortably sit ten, not counting the small children that sort of float around the car, taking turns on each person’s lap, strangers included. The only person who isn’t making friends through osmosis is the driver. We traveled on roads that made 101 seem like heaven. Despite the sardine-like taxi and the pothole-filled road, I made it to Dabola safely with nothing more to complain about than half of a numb body. Twenty minutes after limping out of the taxi I was in my room.

 

Here are some characteristics of ma chambre: tile floor, a bathroom (with sink, western toilet, bathtub and running water), glass windows, regular electricity (except in the mornings), and an A/C unit (which works when I have electricity). I also have a king-size bed. I’ve only ever owned a twin and so I have no idea what to do with all that space. My first night I rolled from one end of the bed to the other and it took me two rolls!

 

My room is inside the office of CAFODEC. There is a huge common room, complete with couches and chairs and a very large conference table, and there is a small kitchen area with an electric water kettle and PC will give me a gas stove. The employees of CAFODEC are only at the office from 9-4 on weekdays, so I get the whole place to myself at night and all weekend. :)

 

This living situation is far better than I ever dared to hope it might be. I was all set to live in a hut, take bucket baths, and squat to pooh for the next two years. Part of me kind of wishes for that “true Peace Corps experience,” but it’s difficult to hear that part when the rest of me is celebrating and shouting “WOOHOO!! A/C BITCHES!!”

 

After four days in Dabola, being paraded around as the lone white dude in town, I made my way to the regional capital of Kankan (the second largest city in Guinea, je pense).  At each of the three regional Peace Corps capitals there is a Volunteer House where we stay when visiting the city. All of the volunteers and trainees who live or will be living in Haute Guinea (Upper Guinea, the western part of the country) met at the house in Kankan and relaxed for three days. Those three days were filled with little bits of home: I drank a cold Sprite (!), ate a hamburger (!!) and devoured some ice cream (!!!). We made fries one night and had a toga party the next. I was able to get a run in; I ran along the Niger River!

 

End of Training

January 25, 2012

A week from now training will be over. We’ll say good-bye to our host families, we’ll dawn the outfits we had made from traditional fabric, the guys will all trim our mustaches (that’s right, mustaches for Sweating In), and we’ll be sworn in as volunteers. This couldn’t have come at a better time. All of the trainees have been struggling through this past week of training. We’ve had so much information pass through our brains in the past two months: French, local language, cultural awareness, business analysis, community assessments, feasibility studies, more French, income generating activities, economic overviews, value chain assessments, agribusiness, savings and loans, safety and security, (inhale), health, AIDS/HIV, Malaria, some more French, a different local language, Peace Corps Policy, emergency action plans, code words, code phrases, code texts?, youth and women development, volunteerism, food security and more (I feel like an infomercial). I’ve been given enough manuals to fill a dump truck.

 

Long Update

February 25, 2012

Friends, thank you for your patience as you sleeplessly awaited my next update. You can give that refresh button a rest and return to your normal sleep habits. Here it is, a medley of jumbled topics:

 

I’m awesome. The proof: everyone in Dabola wants to be my friend. Yes, this could be because I’m the only white dude in town but I maintain it’s a consequence of my awesometude. I eat lunch in town each day and in doing so I make new friends. There are dozens of hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Dabola as is a “crossroads” town. It’s halfway to and from anywhere in Guinea and so it evolved to have many places to sit and gobble some grub. I’ve visited many of the restaurants and I have my favorites. There’s a lady who makes a killer peanut sauce, and there’s a guy who makes beans more addictive than cocaine.

 

The other day I was enjoying a cold Sprite (found it!) and I met a man (Alkaly Tall) who runs an NGO here in Dabola that makes a concentrated chlorine solution used to purify water for bathing and drinking and washing food (it’s used like bleach). He invited me to visit their office to see the process. The next morning I was in the office watching him make two huge bins of the stuff. They mix quantities of pump water (cleaner than the well water) and cooking salt then run electric current through the mixture with a special electrode. Some chemical reaction ensues, the specifics of which I have about as curious to know as who batted second for the losing team in the 1982 NL Championship. After four hours of shock therapy the solution is tested for the correct concentration, some stabilizer is added, and then it’s bottled to be sold. The NGO is funded by UNICEF and PSI and so they are able to sell the solution at a loss. The lack of safe drinking water is a huge issue in Guinea and this group is doing good work to improve the situation. I look forward to working with them.

 

The visit to the NGO provided me another fun story. I rode my bike to their office and parked it in the shade under a lovely tree. How was I to know that the tree was harboring African Killer Bees?! Within minutes my bike was swarming with the devils. They clustered up around the handles, seat and helmet. Alkaly told me it’s because they smell my pheromones (luckily, it’s the same word in French) on those areas. We rushed inside and Nounké (the assistant) donned a bee suit (apparently they knew the hive was there, though they didn’t find it convenient to pass that information on). He lit some jeans on fire (why jeans? Je ne sais pas) to smoke them away. After they left he grabbed the bike and removed it from under the deceiving tree. During the fiasco I learned from Alkaly that bees don’t cause a problem when it’s cool out, but once it gets warm they become aggressive. That’s a good thing to know if I ever find myself stranded and craving some honey.

 

Being the only white guy has its perks. I have lots of friends. I’m safe; everyone watches me so if anything were to happen there would be a dozen and a half witnesses. Once in a while I get free tea or a free meal if I stop and chat with the shop owner for a bit. They’ll call me over and I’ll mosey up and say hi. The conversation usually consists of them asking me how I’m doing, me asking them how they are doing, them asking me how work is, me asking them how work is, them asking me how my health is, me asking them how their health is, them asking me how my family is, me asking them… you understand. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?

 

Constantly being watched is a double-edged sword; it adds to my safety but subtracts from my freedom. I’ve never had a lesser sense of anonymity. It’s going to take some adjusting to. When I walk down through town I feel like Ren from Footloose. Sometimes I quietly sing to myself “somebody’s eyes are watching/somebody’s eyes are seeing you come and go/somebody’s out there waiting for the show/you’ve got no disguise from somebody’s eyes!” I’m just waiting to be kicked off the wrestling team and fired from the hardware store.

 

I’ve always enjoyed being on the fringe of ordinary, mildly flamboyant, different but not ostentatious. I like walking that line by balancing social norms with my own personality. I try to avoid the pitfalls of each but occasionally I slip into one of those snares. That is my learning method; that is how I discover who I am and who I want to be. But here I’m different and always will be. It’s a lesson on being the minority. I’m not quite sure what I’ll end up taking away from this, but I’m sure it will be valuable and lasting.

 

People don’t even try to hide that they are staring at me. I’ll walk by along the road and I’ll wave at people sitting on their porches and they’ll return the gesture quicker than CERN can shoot a proton. I’m having fun with it. I’ve created a game (as of yet unnamed) where, when I sense a group of people watching me, I wave. The first to wave back gets a point. So far there’s no continued tallying of points because I still don’t recognize everyone I see. After I know everyone I’ll start tallying points. Maybe I’ll bring the winner each week a small prize.

 

I gave myself a prize recently in the form of store-bought cookies. Why? I fixed the leak in my sink. And what did lesson did I take from this manual labor? I’m a man! If you require further evidence, as most of you know, I grew a killer mustache for swearing in. There are pictures on Facebook if you’re curious. Peoples’ reactions were nearly unanimous. Guys loved it (except for the lame few) and girls hated it (except for the awesome few). Here’s my appeal to the ladies: just think, twenty-five years from now, when I’m the father of our teenage girl and she brings a boy home for us to meet, that mustache will pair fabulously with the shotgun I’ll be loading. No. I don’t like guns. A crossbow would have a much more vivid effect anyway. Isn’t that what women look for in a man: the ability to scare potential suitors and medieval weapons?

 

After crossbows, travelling is the biggest danger to volunteers in Guinea. I understand now why that is: exhaust. The other day I rode my bike on the main road for the first time. Up until this point I had always travelled this road by car and walked along the less busy roads on my way into town. This was my first experience with an open-air ride along the main road. I’m not a hypochondriac but I’m certain I have Black Lung. I’m also certain that not a single vehicle in Guinea has once passed a smog check.

 

I returned home, soot-covered, from my journey along the smogway to find that I was locked out. The guard had left to pray and had locked the gate into the office compound. Flexibility is the most important characteristic of a PCV and so I decided to go on a bike ride into the hills behind my house. I had been meaning to explore that region and this was the perfect chance.

 

I knew there was a reason I never became excited about mountain biking: I wanted to have kids one day. Sorry mom, but grandchildren may not be possible from my end; that was a rough trip.

 

Despite my newfound sterility, the first row seat to the nutcracker did afford me a wonderful view of the show. The hills to the south are magnificent. A runner’s paradise. There is two miles worth of flat land before you reach the first of the rolling hills, soon after it becomes steeper and perfect for hill repeats. But the best part? There is no one out there in the morning! After the first mile there are only fields, trees, a creek, and miles of path. It’s a reprieve from always being watched. It has become my daily bubble of anonymity and independence.

 

I live in a valley and have only explored a fraction of the area around me. The south I explored by bike and run, but the weekend before last I hiked into the northern hills with a couple other volunteers from a nearby town. We hiked all morning and afternoon. I especially liked the part when we sat down for a water break and the teenagers that we had passed recently came inching back up the path to take a picture. The one charged with the task slowly came closer, and closer, one step at a time, as if he were approaching a rare bird he didn’t want to scare away. After a few minutes we grew tired of waiting and walked toward him, posed, and then continued our hike.

 

The two volunteers are education volunteers; one teaches physics and the other math, so you would think we would talk science-y stuff. Nope we spent the entire morning and afternoon talking about America. That’s what happens when you get volunteers together. Without fail the conversation slipped back to home. It was nice to talk about the States with people who know it (even if they are from the less awesome parts of the country). Betsy is from Alabama and has a southern drawl that is more noticeable when she is flustered and digging rocks from out of her Chaco’s. Momo is a quiet guy from Nebraska who showed up for the hike in flip-flops and knows disappointingly little about corn.

 

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