The snow began to fall the day of our departure. When I checked JFK’s website for flight info, I saw that almost all the flights leaving between the one-hour time frame as mine were canceled….except my flight! With fingers crossed and a cell-phone text alert engaged, we piled into my aunt and uncle’s SUV with our small city of luggage. Only 2 suitcases held personal belongings. The rest were packed full of the donation of soccer uniforms, deflated soccer balls, as well as an accumulation of shoes, clothes, and school supplies that we’d been buying the previous months.
The hour and a half drive from Connecticut to JFK took more than four hours. Once at the airport, we breezed easily through security and sat at the gate waiting, and waiting, and waiting. After a few hours, our plane was doused with what looked like anti-freeze and we took off for Morocco. Upon landing, I had been hoping to leave and explore Casablanca during our 10 hour layover. We were not able to leave the airport, though, and the airline comped us a small, surreal hotel on site saying that we couldn’t wait in the airport for such a long layover. The hotel had narrow, lavender hallways and music from the movie Casablanca pumped in just a tad too loud. Between naps, we snacked on small cups of strong coffee and lamb chops served up with argon oil, olives, and local goat cheese. Eventually our layover ended and we sat at the gate next to two ladies from Guinea – one in a dark black burka and the other with no head covering, and a gaggle of 7 children between them. The kids climbed over our luggage, ate our potato chips, and looked at us with wide eyes. Despite being from Guinea, they spoke Arabic and not Susu or French. Once on the plance, the flight from Casablanca to Conakry, Guinea left on time and landed early. After gathering our bulk of baggage and loading it into a hatch back car (!!), we found ourselves driving through the dark Conakry night.
Even though it was well past 3 am, the dirty roads were crowded with people and noise. A nightclub had people coming and going, the smell of grilled goat wafted through the air, blending with the more acrid stench of gasoline and dust. Our group decided it was too late to make the four hour drive to Port Kamsar, so we hunted out a hotel. A friendly local girl jumped in our car to give us directions to first one, then another, and finally a third hotel before we found one that had somebody on site awake. I slept like the dead in the room provided while the boys – my boyfriend and his brothers – passed the early morning with the night guard sharing beers and catching up.
Africa seems much like Nicaragua on the surface in that both are developing countries. Many of the homes are small, square concrete or adobe with tin roofs, although here in Guinea, these are peppered with even smaller round mud huts with grass roofs. There is also trash everywhere, a sad fact I also observed in Nicaragua, which here is the result of having no trash collection system – at least none that I’ve seen. The markets also look very similar, selling a familiar array of large carrots, onions, and plastic wares made in China. The bananas here are bright green on the outside and ripe and sweet on the inside. Oranges are sold with the hard, green outer skin already peeled and piled high in plastic bins carried on the head of the seller. The okra are large and the size of my hand, and the mango tree in front of the house I’m living in holds the promise of deliciousness to come, with small, green mangos dangling temptingly throughout, and one larger ripe one way out of reach at the top.
The women in the markets are dressed in a bright, beautiful array of colors. The material is a type of batik and printed from wax, yet with colors that look as fresh as the day there was painted. I am in the minority when I don’t have my head covered. In this Muslim country, there are a few women walking around in burkas, yet more have beautiful African fabrics wound around their heads to match their outfits and lend some protection from the sun. The women carry baskets on their heads filled with fresh bread, ice, or whatever else they may be selling, and many have fat, healthy babies tied to their backs. Everybody I’ve encountered is friendly and helpful, laughing at my shaky language skills and eager to help me learn more.
I’ve been enjoying home cooked meals served with sauces made from the endless supply of fish mixed with peanut butter, sweet potato leaves, tomato paste, and onions all served over a bed of white rice. Coffee is less common here than I prefer. When encountered, it’s Nescafe served over a generous supply of sweetened condensed milk. What is more prevalent is a strong tea called Atayah, which is served very sweet and hot in small shot glasses. The men are constantly cooking this up, gathered in groups around a small charcoal stove and each waiting their turn for the one or two shot glasses going around.
The poverty here in Guinea is profound. Guinea is ranked 178th of 187 countries on the United Nations Development Program. Poverty is more prevalent in the rural areas, and I am in a city right now, which means that what I’m seeing is the wealthier area. Even here, many homes have little to no furniture or other possessions. Electricity comes on in the neighborhoods for 3-6 hours each evening. That lack of access to electricity means that people do not have refrigerators or rely on anything electric to make their lives easier. Laundry is done in a bucket and hung out to dry, meals are cooked over charcoal, and showers are taken with a bucket. When the electric comes on, their is a rush by everyone to charge their cell phones. With only one electric strip on hand, everyone shares the supply to ensure that each phone, or more rarely camera, is charged in the small window of time the electricity is flowing.
http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/country/home/tags/guinea (link to the bold text above)
The donations of soccer clothes and soccer balls were received with BIG smiles and excitement! For days, our room was a flurry of activity as people dug through the treasures to find their size and favorite style of soccer clothes. The local soccer team came by after a game playing plastic horns and carrying the large trophy they had just won. Everybody wanted to shake hands, pose for pictures, and say THANK YOU!! Thanks to those who made donations of cash to help with the baggage fees – they were much appreciated!
Other gifts of clothes, shoes, and school supplies have also been distributed. Notebooks were especially appreciated, as most kids simply use scrap paper stapled together. Also met with welcome smiles were new shoes and fresh clothes without holes in them. I am only sad that we don’t have even more to give. The need here is significant, and it feels like a whole shipping container of shoes, clothes, and notebooks still wouldn’t be enough to fill the need.
Guinea comes with new language challenges as English is extremely rare and Spanish non-existent. That means that I again find myself in the humble position of learning from scratch. I began studying French and learning phrases in Susu before I left the country and am grateful that I did. Now just over a week into my stay, I can hold a very basic conversation in both languages and I am learning more words each day. I’m very excited at how much I can understand, both due to what I’ve learned so far and because of language similarities between French and Spanish.
I spent much of yesterday with the group of women who live in the compound here. We made videos of them dancing while the young children tried to photo bomb the shots. They also helped as I worked the Peace Corp manual for the Susu language. The manual is incomplete, meant to be part of a larger training with a teacher, so the ladies were helping me fill in the blanks. That means that I am again falling back on sign language to get my point across. It works, and gives plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding and laughter.
I will keep you all updated as I am able! The lack of electricity makes internet use challenging. The café I am in now is the only one in town. It takes 45 minutes just to get gmail to load! I am grateful that my sister has offered to keep La Adventura updated for me!
For now, au revoir!