Hey guys... *ahem* it's been ahwile, I know... sorry bout that. But I'm back! In woolof they say "there was a river since i've seen you"- gej na la gis! And it's this instant guilt trip- because it's one of the pillars of society here to check in with everyone you know about every other day, let em know where the home people are(they are there only, with peace obly), where the kids are(there only, thanks be to God), and how your afternoon is (here only, with only peace, praising God, thanks be to God). There are many volunteers, and I'm gonna say particularly the guys, who get so amazingly good at these back-and-forth greeting rituals, going at acutioneer-speed, asking about the children and the health and praising Gods even when I'm pretty sure they're self-proclaimed athesists... ah but it's just impressive. I usually just rattle off a string of lazy "peace only"s.
So anyway, I just got back from Guinea! Guinea Konakary, not Guinea Bissau, since there's two of them, which I didn't know until I got here. There were seven us, leaving from the very eastern town of Basse, at around midnight. We're taking a European version of the Subaru, and we rent out the last 3 spots so that we don't have to Gambi-pack like sardines for what is to be this 28-hr-ride (granted, many hours spent outside the car, for a variety of fun reasons). They go through the elaborate ritual of shuffling our bags around on top, strapping em down with miles of rope, testing this and that, men everywhere with flashlights... and finally the driver gives us the sign and we pile into our wagon- thinking the red and silver sparkly shag covering the seats is nothing but a good omen. WRONG! There's no head lights, and even though the driver is sure that he can make it down the wretched road without them, we demand a new car. When we finally do take off again, with headlights, we are all shocked at just. how. wretched. the road is... our driver is barreling in-between, and through, the swimming pool-sized pot holes so fast though that we just gape in admiration... and wonder if he is escapeing the police? Anyway, we barrel through Gambia, then Senegal, and then sometime in the wee hours of the morning we camp on the border between Senegal and Guniea, in between huge 18-wheelers. In the morning we're off again... the car breaks, twice, which surprises us not at all considering Omar-the-driver and his mad man rally-car-driver ways. The shocks on our old car suffered, and so now we're sitting in a small Guinean village not at all stoned from the joints Omar smokes, eating mangos and staring back at the locals while we wait for... get this... the town welder to FORGE a new piece for the poor shock. OK. Eventually we do get there, into Pita, around 3 AM. Our ride was bumpy and sleepless but pretty fun, considering all the mangos (not yet ripe in the Gambia) and the ipod's bumpin through my little travel speakers. We stay the night in this semi-city at a tourist hotel for less than 4 dollars and the next morning we are OFF! to Dookie (that's right), a tiny village where a tiny man with a big nose, heart, personality, and penchant for abbreciations, meets us. "Hello!Hello Bonjour! I just got back with these two SG's (super girls!) from a K.A.H (kick ass hike)!!" He says. Everything he says comes with abbreviations and exclamation marks. The two SG's are cool girls working in Guinea, one from America and one from France, but they leave the next day and the week is ours to be led around by the man, Hassan Bah. He gives us bananas, rice with leaf sauce and palm oil, eucalyputs tea or nescafe with local honey... and more bananas, many more. He gives us 3 round beautiful Guinean-style huts with grass roofs, and he gives us hiking tours of his paradaise with a whole lotta love. Turns out a Peace Corps volunteer helped Hassan get this little tourist lodge together back in the 90's and it's been going well ever since... his guest book shows hundreds of PCV's and European tourists who have discovered this sweet getaway. The seven of us have a booze-free (Ok, well. the 2 boxes of wine that Karissa brought don't last long) and waterfall-soaked 4 days in the canyons and forests of the Fouta D'Jalan (that's the big raised plateau that we're on, the one that broke Omar's car to climb up). It's the dry season, the very end of the dry season, but still the place is lush. We, coming from the parched and scorched Gambia, are baffled and we commence Gambia-bashing and Guniea-PCV-envying from the minute we arrive. There are coffee trees, cola nut trees, banana trees, just TREES! And waterfalls, seemingly around every bend. There are baboons, and green mambas, and bush pigs (like wart hogs), and we are told there are deer and mountain cats... We're all led up and down this plateau by Hassan, often just bushwhacking (I taught him that word one morning as I was sliding and stumbling over his choice of "trail"). And we're trailed by Ebrima (arabic for Abraham), Hassan's super-cool aprentis. Of the 7 of us, Cam and Alex are the only ones who speak Fula, the primary language in Guinea. I speak Woolof and Karissa, Rob and Beth speak Mandika, the least popular language here. Ebrima speaks Pular and Woolof, and French, of course, of which very few of us speak very little. Ebrima is sweet tho, he just hangs back as we hike and we chat with him in woolof and fula and when we say something true or good he says "Thank YOU!." His other English word he says, when we get to a sketchy part of the non-trail, is "TRY!." In those difficult moments climbing a boulder or downed log, Hassan favors "PRESS!" PRESS and TRY and EASY EASY! All very good advice, and good as a combo. As we laugh and joke around in English, we hear Ebrima giggling along too, just from the contagiousness of laughing cuz he's just a good dude like that. He's fun, and he takes us to meet his mom and dad one day on the way back from a hike, and brings us 7 avacados on our last day. Yay for cool people, really. Hassan's wife is another one of those, she cooks amazingly and does our laundry. His brother is another, he offers to go to the Wed. market and set up a car for us all the way back to the Gambia. His kids too, a handful of 5 year olds trying so hard to stay out of the guests' way but unable to resist greeting us 100 times a day in French and Fula. At Hassan's promting, we all take billions of pictures at this overlook or atop that random arch-shaped rock, and we will post them all on facebook for you who want to see. At night we hang out, conversing and debating, predicting each other's life paths and the future of our world... One night we camp out on flat rocks overlooking a great canyon. Hassan leads us out there, sits down and does not roll a joint of not marijuana and not out of brown paper bag paper. He thanks us and walks away "to sit still for 20 minutes before HBH (heading back home)" We thank him for the amazing spot and sit chatting about how the moon orbits the sun and how exactly does it pull on the tides again? and other important things. We sleep out on sleeping bags and I get up early the next morning morning and find a secluded perch on a flat grey rock... ahh... it's overlooking green green forests and I can hear a rushing waterfall below... oh man.
Friday morning we leave in our pre-arranged car, which takes us to Labe. Here, Rob, Alex, and Beth leave me, Cam and Karissa cuz they're Peace Corps vacation days have run out. But first we wander around the maze of a market and buy stuff, like Guinean rocks. I ask the lady what they're for and she responds by picking up a large chunk of slate and biting into like its a bar of dark chocolate. Sold! I buy three little bags of rocks for my pregnant village friends to eat(it's the Guinean calcium vitamin!). The 4 of us get off ok, and it's sad to see them go, and then there are 3 and we find a little hotel to stay in and eat really good pizza. The next morning, the 3 of us head to a bordertown, Maliville, and precede to HIKE to Senegal! That's right, we hike! We have no guide book, but Cam remembers an ex-Gambian PCV telling him this was not only a possible border crossing, but also way faster than in a car, and pretty. Cam thinks he can promise me and Karissa that's it's all down hill, and Guineans enthusiastically confirm these ideas.... so ok, we say. A man in Mali-ville leads us to a little shop where some thin women with big bags are sort of fluttering around, preparing for the same trek. They are porters, paid to trek the 21 miles down this plateu (3500 ft down, by cam-estimate) carrying heavy stuff on their heads and backs and everyone wants us to wait for them and go with them but we are impatient so we go ahead... we camp that night after just two hours of the hike and the next day we catch up with them. They are wisely sitting out the hot part of the day (it's around 105- 110 F)and smiling at us as we gulp down the water at this kind compound. We move on (we win by the way, beating those little women down the mountain, but only cuz we're stupid whities willing to dehydrate ourselves and hike in the heat of the day). All in all, its a fun hike and we end up in Senegal, with dark colored pee but a nice memory of Guinea. Now we go see our friend Sara Lee, an ex-Gambian PCV who extended for a year to Senegal. She lives in a big town now, with electricity and 4 kinds of beer and 2 other volunteers and everyone speaks French... compared to her old village just a 15 k from mine, where there was no water much less electricity. She's my hero... Here Cam departs (another one fallen to finished PC vacation days) and Karissa and I hang out, eating lots of amazing food (wart hog sandwiches anyone?), watching grey's anatomy (could that show be any better? i cry twice per episode, maybe just because I miss it), drinking cold water and sleeping with a fan. Finally we leave Senegal to go home, with Sara too, whose going back to her old Gambian village for a wedding ceremony. We travel all day, packed into the back of a covered pick up truck. The three of us white girls argue with the 3 Sengalese women as to whose big butts are taking up more of the really uncomfortable bench. We see so many baboons, and some wart hogs, sorry bout the sandwiches... 3 kilometers from our Gambian stop, our car breaks for good and we allhave to walk. We get swooped up by a Gambian driver/white knight and his big white van... and finally we are home.
Good vacation. At the end, we have a list of what the Gambia IS good at, and what it DOES have, compared to the snazzy, developed countries of Guinea and Senegal. We can better bean sandwiches. We have more mahoghanys. We have cuter grade 1-6 school uniforms. We have a better APCD (our boss). More baobob trees, more donkeys, more desert, more little kids screaming Tou-BAAAWWWWBBB!!!" Their little kids just politely call us Portuguese, and don't even demand that we give them candy or our bikes. And their young men don't hiss at us like in the Gambia. And the Gambia only packs 12 people into a 7-seater subaru, Guinea puts 14 and two on the roof. Pshaw. Although, when I call her Sengalese posting "Posh Corps" not "Peace Corps" Sara Lee snorts "Here?" She says, looking around, past the street lights to the barefoot begging boys and the way-too-thin young men sitting around because they have no work.. "OK. Not posh. But still..."
The best news? I still have 15 vacation days left!!