Rollercoaster

Trip Start Dec 01, 2007
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Trip End Mar 27, 2010


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Flag of Guinea  ,
Saturday, June 20, 2009

Life really is a rollercoaster of good and bad. What holds us on the track? I feel it's a combination of the people in our lives and our faith. Peace Corps magnifies this rollercoaster. The ups are higher, the downs feel much lower. Our relationships are intensified and you make your best friends and worst enemies, sometimes both are found in one person. And your faith in everything is tested. It can be made stronger by the fire or melt completely and then reform.
The last two weeks have been a microcosm of the rollercoaster of which I speak. On the 8th of June I left my village with the Peace Corps mail run car that drops off my mail once a month. After an uneventful 3 hour ride it left me Koumban, David's site. He came and visited last June to help me plant my moringa garden. Instead of completely that project he cared for me with my giardia as I was too weak to cross my hut alone. So in accordance with Peace Corps norms I owed him a visit. The night I arrived I fell ill...again. But I was still able to function, so the next day we climbed the mountain overlooking his village after he'd biked me on his luggage rack the 7 kilometers. We crossed the mountain to the make-shift gold mine. Guinea is blessed with many natural resources; one of the more plentiful being gold. Mining companies have set up around the country but Guineans have also made their own mines which involve large unsupported holes dug straight down and then across. They routinely collapse burying everyone inside. They've taken to leaving their shoes outside the mine so family members know who's been killed if/when the mine collapses. This is what David has outside his village. Women and men leave their fields to themselves and go looking for a quick buck. They rarely find it; instead they have no gold and no crops.
The following day, Koumban's market day, David and I went to his Health Center. I brought a wooden penis, a box of Prudence condoms and a bunch of brochures showing the proper usage of a condom. The head of the Health Center had basically kidnapped 20 women for my presentation. They came from surrounding villages for vaccinations and consultations and were not allowed to leave. With the help of a translator I gave an hour presentation on the importance and methods of family planning. It went really well. The women participated and even contradicted me which was great. Population Service International (PSI) the group that makes Guinea's condoms, birth control pill and Depo, feel that most Guinean women will not remember to take their pill everyday so they've pumped it full of hormones and it can really wreck the menstrual cycle of the woman taking it. They mentioned their 15 day long periods and unusually heavy bleeding. I recommended more condoms but there's always the chance their husbands will not allow condoms (they feel like less of a man). Life is incredibly difficult as a Guinean woman.
After this meeting David and I took a mini-bus the 30 km to Kankan. I spent 3 days there. A large portion of that time was spent on a mattress I'd laid on the porch under a mosquito net. I was eating fine but I was getting sick several times a day and the sulfur burps were worse when I stood up. But I made several important decisions while in Kankan. First, I'd be willing to do a 3rd year with Peace Corps if I could work with the World Health Organization. Second, I'm applying to Johns Hopkins, Emory U., U. of Washington-Seattle and U. of South Florida for my MPH. Only 7 months left in Guinea. Kankan gave me time and people to bounce ideas off of. Where I'll go from here is anyone's guess.
My next stop was Labe. I was supposed to start a peer educator group with Kim in her village. But fate and it turned out good fortune, got in the way. I couldn't get a car to Labe and the only other car leaving was going to Conakry. So I took that car. We left Kankan at 9AM. My stomach remained settled the whole trip which could be because I only ate half a mayonnaise sandwich. Four hours into the ride we bounced through a large pot hole and pooped 3 of our ties. We're 100 km from the closest city in the middle of the African savannah with only scrub brush for shade. There we waited for 2 hours while the driver commandeered a passing moto, drove to the last village we passed through and bought 2 new tires and put them on another taxi to bring to us. It was hot but the time went fairly quickly as I read "A Thousand Splendid Suns" (great book). Other than that the 17 hour ride went by without problems. The military didn't hassle me too much at the check points and when my taxi dropped me off on the street in Conakry at 2AM I got another right away to take me to our transit house, where I immediately fell into an exhausted sleep.
The next morning I went to the doctor and it turns out I have giardia again. But whereas last year I had it for 1 month and lost 15lbs, this year I just had it for 2 weeks and have only lost 5lbs. But I didn't get the diagnosis until the next day after I'd left Conakry so I wasn't able to get the medicine.
After just one day in Conakry, 7 AM found me piled in a Peugeot taxi with 8 other people going to Douki for our 2 day hiking trip. Zach, Alex, Caleb and Justin were the other PCVs. Reilly, Zach's brother, Ryan, Alex's friend and Justin's parents were the "Americans" embarking on their first cross-country bush taxi ride. We didn't break down once and we made it to Douki in only 7 hours. It was really lucky that I went to Conakry and got this ride. I was planning on meeting them there from Labe and now that I see how far in the bush it is, I might never have made it.
Douki is a village overlooking Guinea's "Grand Canyon". It rests on a plateau overlooking a valley surrounded by other plateaus. A Guinean names Hassan has set up his home in Douki. This 47 year old speaks idiomatic English, French, Spanish and a little German as well as the major tribal languages of Guinea. He's brimming with energy and enthusiasm and he was our host and guide. For 100.000GNF, approx. $20 a day we got a hut (he has 3 with bunk beds), 3 meals a day (of which dinner was the only satisfying one) and Hassan as our guide for whichever and however many hikes we could complete each day. Hassan never tires because he always walks sideways...at least that's what he claims. The first full day after breakfast of bread, avocado and honey we split up. Hassan's brother took Justin and his parents on some tame hikes. The remaining 6 of us embarked on what was to be an all day hike. I brought my over-the-shoulder purse full of water, my camera, my first aid kit and sunscreen because in my foolishness I left my camelbak backpack in my village. The first 4 hours were spent descending the mountain. Every few feet Hassan would point out a rock formation. "There's the elephant" he would ay. "There's the pregnant woman," then to the rock, "Where's your husband? How long have your been pregnant?" Then looking into the jungled valley he would make his monkey call by forming his lips into an O and then clapped before his mouth creating an echo. On reaching the valley floor we stopped by a waterfall that ran into a cool deep pool for an avocado and sardine sandwich lunch. I put my sore dirty feet into the pool and they were immediately attacked by a hundred hungry minnows. It tickled but I persevered to allow them to clean off my feet. We rested for an hour by the pool's edge and then continued our trek, this time in the upward direction. It began gradually then became steeper. I was reminded of my climb up Table Mountain in Cape Town. It wasn't scary steep but just steep enough to make it tough and have sweat soak through t-shirts and drip from bandanas into eyes. Then we came to our first ladder. I use the word ladder loosely. It was a bunch of sticks tied together with woven cord. Hand and footholds were twigs broken off at the base. This fist ladder spanned a waterfall at a 60 degree angle. Fine. I could definitely do this. The next ladder was further in the crevice created by the waterfall between two plateaus. We began going up the side of a cliff, each new ladder bringing us to another ledge. The waterfall got closer as the crevice narrowed and spray coated the rocks and our stick ladders. The further we climbed, the slipperier our hold became, the shakier my muscles were, the harder it was to climb. Any wrong step or hand slip would have plummeted me and the 3 boys following me to our deaths hundreds of feet below. The second to last ladder I could hardly climb because my knees were shaking to badly any step put me at risk. No ropes or harness. No ambulances or emergency medical teams. If you don't die immediately it would be a slow, painful process. But I made it through the ladders only to be confronted by a slippery cliff face. Instead of climbing stick ladders we began real rock climbing finding finger and toe holds in small rock crevices praying we wouldn't disturb a scorpion or black mamba. Gradually we were able to stoop to hold on to the rock face instead of crawling on our bellies and then we could stand fully upright. And that is when the clouds began rolling in. From across the valley we saw them and heard the rumble of thunder. Just as we reached the top of the plateau where all was flat with no protection in site we felt the first rain drops. Then the heavens unleashed their full fury on our 7 bare heads. Rain poured, lightning flashed and the thunder rolled. All I wished for was the fear I'd had on the ladders because this was nothing less than terrifying. I practically ran in a crouch, even though I was already a head shorter than all my companions. I made "Please don't let me get hit" into a mantra and then to calm my fluttering heart I say snatched of every hymn I could remember until I came to "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" which is a very soothing song but I did not want that sweet chariot to swing low at that moment. This continued for over an hour before we arrived back at our huts drenched, exhausted but exhilarated at how awesome we were. We completed the 9 hour hike in 7 1/2 and thanks to an energy shot my aunt had sent me I had kept up with 5 boys and 1 untiring Guinean without collapsing or falling to my death. And I had giardia! What an amazing adventure.
The following morning we did a tamer 5 hour hike with Justin and his parents. We walked through incredible rock formations, saw a fist size snail and some monkeys, crawled through caves and waded through a pool at the bottom of a gorgeous waterfall. If you ever come to Guinea (which you should to visit me because I'm one of the only volunteers who hasn't had a visitor and it's very sad) Douki is a must-do.
We left that afternoon and reached Mamou for the night. Now I'm back in my village. The rollercoaster has leveled out. I'm working on an AIDS mural with Riley, studying for the GRE, planning a budget for my girls' soccer camps and anticipating the 4th of July celebration.
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