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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Holiday Escape Part 3: M'Bour

After living it up in the big city of Dakar we took some nice "R&R" days in M'Bour. It's a small beach town just south of Dakar. Pulling into M'Bour was a bit misleading because all we could see was a bunch of empty shops and no sign of water, not what we signed up for. Then we got to the hotel and found heaven. This place was gorgeous! We were away from the street, right on the beach, and had a small hotel with nice quiet people around us. Being used to traveling with my family (constant plans, adventures and the feeling of "what're we doing today kids?!"......which I love), this trip showed me what a relaxing vacation was. We would wake up, have a simple coffee and toast breakfast as the sun was coming up then spend the rest of the day deciding what spot would find that perfect balance of sun to shade.

I feel like this should be a longer post because it was 3 days of my vacation but really there's not much to say. It was pretty. I slept a lot. Done. I'm really impressed that it was possible to find such an oasis for a Christmas vacation. I was so relaxed that for a bit I forgot I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. If that isn't the point of a vacation, I don't know what is.

On the way back home, which took another many hours of traveling, I made some nice rest stops to break up the trip. For New Years, I was in the regional capital called Labe. Really nice to see some volunteers that I hadn't seen in awhile and good way to ease back into Guinean life. After a few nights in Labe I went to another city called Mamou to help out with a training session for the new group of volunteers in country. All in all I spent 16 days away from my site and with the mixture of guilt and excitement I was itching to get back. I'm feeling refreshed and ready to get back into teaching. I know I've been having some troubles at site but I think with the advice of other volunteers and a renewed energy level I have hope that things will be on the up. I hope everyone's holiday season was great and, unlike mine, filled with snow!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Holiday Escape Part 2: Dakar

The real vacation begins. No more travel and no more Guinea. Just great food, cold beers and good liquor. Dakar has all of those and is pretty much the opposite of Wonkifong is those respects. 

For making a choice based on a Lonely Planet guide from 2005, we got pretty lucky and the hotel we stayed at ended up being nice and affordable. Although, coming from Guinea, our standards of "nice" meant running water and consistent electricity. The hotel was a simple little place that's sort of hidden off of the busy roads. It half reminded me of a hotel my family stayed at in Rome once but solely based on the layout of the hotel. There was a little restaurant and bar connected where we were able to sit and use endless internet. This was a really great amenity because I got to Skype with my family multiple times and see some friends' faces for a change. Even with the temptation of the internet we managed to get out of the hotel to check out Dakar the first afternoon. 

Sajel and I eating ice cream at N'ice Cream, delicious!
Despite our low standards, on any scale Dakar is an amazing city. It's truly impressive to see a city that resembles large European cities in West Africa. Our hotel was conveniently placed near the center of downtown Dakar thus we spent the first night wandering the mildly busy streets with big eyes and repeating the phrase "that's awesome!" We sat down in the lobby of a huge nice hotel and got some drinks before heading out in search of food. Our first choice was a Thai place but it was closed. We checked a couple of other places without success until we sat down in a cheesy looking place called "Ciao Italia!" I can't describe how good it felt to eat spaghetti bolognese, eggplant parmesan, and a filet of beef covered in a four cheese sauce. I think my memory  of the dinner is enough evidence to show how it left its mark on my life. With encouragement from my family, my friends had taken it upon themselves to make sure I ate as much as I could this whole trip in an attempt to replace some of the weight I've been losing at site. This first dinner was a great first step. I left stuffed and satisfied. 

That night we met up with the group of Senegal volunteers that we drove in with and they showed us some bars near downtown. We ended the night at a dance club called "Texas" where I felt it was a safe enough environment to let out all of the hip-hop dance I have been suppressing for the last few months. I'm confident that I scared some Senegalese people and probably the volunteers too, but my vacation goggles told me to keep going. In retrospect, I'm really happy I went all-out that night because the rest of the vacation has been much calmer for it. 

Tree. Stockings. Lights. It's Christmas!
The next day my Christmas gift arrived in the form of Sajel! She made it to our hotel around 12 and it was honestly so amazing to see her. My friend's here are great people and I couldn't see myself spending this African Christmas with anyone else but having Sajel there as well just made it that much closer to being with family this holiday season.  It was especially great to be able to Skype mine and her family as a team. 

So now our little group is 5 and thus we do what most African adventurers would do in a new city: we went to the mall. There is a huge mall in Dakar that is next to a bowling alley and has a massive spa inside it so there's was something so everybody. Wandering around the mall, gawking at the stores and pretty much everything else was so much fun. That night, Sajel and I attended a type of Christmas mass at a church she had been to before during here time here for study abroad. There was some singing and even a little play but really it was nice to be in a church for Christmas Eve since I knew I wouldn't be attending the traditional midnight mass with the family. After the brief sermon, Sajel and I found a little restaurant near the hotel and spent the whole meal catching up. Again, Sajel was recruited to the "get Dante to a normal weight" team so I ate a ton. 

Christmas day was a sadly a bit reserved for me. I had the unfortunate timing of being sick all Christmas day with a stomach flu. So instead of going out to see the Isle de Goree with the others, I sat in and re-watched the entire 7th season of How I Met You Mother, and if you know me then you know that it was still a Merry Christmas!  

Family Christmas Photo
The day after Christmas was spa day for two of the girls, so Sajel took Shadassa and me to meet her old host family. We ate the most amazing rice and sauce I've had in Africa and that has nothing to do with the fact I was starving from not eating much the day before. After lunch, we went over to see the monument of the African Renaissance which  frankly sends some mixed messages but I'll leave the artistic interpretation up to you. It was a beautiful day and we got to watch the sunset on the coast before grabbing a burger and heading back to the hotel. 
Dakar was a really nice place and it really should be on your list of places I should see for any mildly adventurous traveler. It's a nice, but manageable, break from European cities and you can mark one more off on "Continent Bingo". Next stop: M'Bour and the prettiest (also the first) B&B I've ever seen!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Holiday Escape Part 1: Travel

Happy Holidays! It took our whole group, advice from Senegal volunteers and two dedicated mothers with internet access to plan the trip, but my time in Senegal was worth every headache. The last few months of frustrations and challenges at site have been magically erased by a weeks worth of comfort food, sun and great friends. I know it seems odd to dedicate a whole post to the travel part of my vacation but when the traveling takes as long as it does in Guinea, it's part of the adventure.

I left for the beginning of my vacation on the 21st to arrive in Dakar on the 23rd. If you can't count I'll save you the trouble: that's three days of travel. Three days, eight different cars, and two (planned) rest stops to be exact. Leaving Wonkifong I was a bit nervous, knowing I'd be gone for 16 days and leaving the dog with a neighbor family, but I still wanted to get an early start to my much needed vacation. Day One of travel was the least smooth. I had found a nice car, driven by a guy delivering medications, to take me to meet up with the other volunteers in Labe. Not far into the trip the car breaks down and then I spend four hours waiting around until I get to a new form of transportation. In the end my trip that was supposed to take around 8 hours took closer to 14 hours. The best part of that day was my light at the end of the tunnel: seeing friends that I hadn't seen since training. Seems a bit clingy but we went from spending everyday together for three months to phone calls everyso often for the last three so needless to say there were big hugs, lots of jumping around, and whatever the two girls did to greet each other.

After one night in the Peace Corps regional house in Labe we planned to head out early in the morning to head for the border. Normally, the car we were in would hold 6 people but we decided it's vacation and we deserve one seat per person. Our driver shows up three hours late so we scrambled into the car and told him to step on it. Quick detail- it takes around 8 hours to get from Labe to the border, we left around 10:30, and the border closes at 6 PM. Again, I'll do the math for you: that puts our arrival time at the border at bueno. The reason the trip takes 8 hours has nothing to do with the distance but the road quality. Five of the eight hours are driving through the mountains that occupy north-central Guinea. The views were gorgeous but the road was as ugly as the bowl cut I had in the 4th grade. Whilst traveling I thought I could explain the terrain best through a new ratio I plan to use in Guinea: Cow to Cars. On this road we saw about 68 cows for every 1.5 cars, that's the ballpark estimate.

The most stressful part of the voyage came as we approached the border crossing. The driver pulled over to a random office where we had to get out and show our passports. The officer copied down our names, passport numbers and visa information into the trapper-keeper that counts as a customs log-book. One would assume this to be the border, right? Wrong. We had to repeat this process another 7 times before we saw a sign that said we were in Senegal. That night we got in late to a city in east Senegal where there is a Peace Corps regional house that was open for us to stay the night (it's called Tambacounda for those referencing google maps as they read).

At the house we got lucky and met 3 very nice Senegal volunteers who were headed to Dakar the next day as well so we were able to fill a 7 seater taxi and get on our way early the next day. Normally, we would have had to wait for the taxi to fill up or buy the empty spaces before departing so meeting them was kinda perfect. With the luxury of decent cement roads in Senegal, we were able to make it to Dakar by midday on the 23rd. After a brief scare of our taxi driver reversing on the highway on ramp, we made it to our hotel safe and sound.

Pulling into Dakar I remembered the point in the planning stages of the trip where I thought I might be making this journey alone, and reflecting back on it now I'm really glad I had friends (some new ones) to share the ride with- plus, I know my mom slept better for it. Now, that the journey was out of the way we were ready to start a new adventure in a new city!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Moments to Make Me Smile

One of the reasons to go outside.

As much as I pretend that the world is in a two year pause outside of Guinea, time moves on. Before I could even notice I've been in Guinea for about 5 months now. That knocks off the intimidating 27 month service to a manageable 22. I'm no math teacher but that's less than two years. The funny thing about a two year program is that its pretty short. After high school and college, both being four years long, doing a program for just two years seems quick! It's like having just the freshman year and senior year. First time around, everything is new and exciting. Second time around and I already am wearing graduation googles saying how much I'll miss it and overusing the phrase "This'll be the last time I..." It's a mundane thought, but it keeps me going. At times I really need those small positive thoughts to get me to leave my house on a Saturday when its tempting to hole up in my room for 24 hours. Hell, there are days where the highlight is crossing off the previous day on my oversized calendar. That's why the little things in a day that make me genuinely laugh are all that more important. Like these little tidbits:

Sitting on the porch with my puppy, Monkey.

After school one day, I was spending my afternoon the normal way: sitting on my porch with a student doing nothing. This was one of my better students who is a nice kid and I don't mind his company so I figured I'd humor him and play him some music so I brought out my iPod and a speaker. After jumping around a bunch songs like Rihanna, Lil Wayne and Akon, the only American singers he knows and the people I have the least of. Then I just made a random pick and landed on "Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster" by the unforgettable Geto Boys. I didn't think much of it when I put it on but when it got to the chorus I had to laugh at my situation. It was me- wearing my FIJI frat tank top, my student- wearing an oversized, dirty polo, and my puppy in his lap listenting to the chorus about prosititutes and drugs. I laughed to myself as I thought that this had to be the most ironic timing of this song since it was used in Office Space.

A different day at school, I was giving a lesson to the 8th grade about solutions between two liquids. If you recall from middle school, water and gas, much like water and oil, do not mix. My example was just going to be using oil but my principal, being a former chemistry teacher himself, really wanted to use gas. So he invites himself into my class to perform an experiment where he burns off the gas in the mixture to leave just the water. He takes a small metal can by the peeled back lid and lights the gas on fire while he explains that the gas will burn faster when mixed with water. He disregards the fact that its burning in his hand and slightly dripping flaming liquid off the sides. When he starts to feel the heat on his hand he bends down to set it on the floor but drops it about 2 feet from the ground sending flamming liquid all over the front of the class. Everyone jumps backward as he stands there with a triumphant grin of a true chemist.Not exactly the funniest thing of my day, just one of those things that make you think "this would never happen in an American classroom".

As a general rule, my english class with the 10th graders has become pretty funny. I don't really put on the tough guy face with them and I joke around with them more so there's lots of moments that are a little "out there". During my lesson of adjectives, I had to explain the word flamboyant. You try acting out the word flamboyant and not look ridiculous. Just yesterday we were talking about the parts of the body. Don't ever ask 10th graders what parts of the body they want to know in English.

On the whole, I'm happy to report that I think that most things are on the up slope. School is going smoother, my health is more consistent, and my integration into the community is shown by the decrease in "fote!" and the constant yelling of "Issiaga!" I'm really excited about heading off to Senegal for Christmas. It will be a really nice vacation from site and a nice trip with fellow volunteers. My christmas present: getting to see Sajel on the other side of the world in a country neither of us live in. Merry Christmas everyone!

Christmas spirit in Guinea! Thanks Boon!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The World is Small

First off, happy Thanksgiving to all my friends and family back home. I came across the unique opportunity to explain this holiday to many Guineans this past week. Not going to lie, its a tough sell. Even the Swiss guy who speaks great English looked at me with suspicion after my brief explanation. I'm currently enjoying Western comforts (internet, mostly consistent electricity, running water, and beers) in Conakry to celebrate Thanksgiving with some friends. As much of a big day as Thanksgiving is, I am going to use this blogpost to celebrate another day of importance to me: Michigan vs. Ohio State game day. I will commemorate this day with a touching story about an adventure I had back in the first weekend I moved to Wonkifong.

I was getting settled after the first few days of moving pains and feeling a bit restless. I figured that it was a good time to head out of my house and do a little exploring. I got on my bike with the intention of just seeing if I can get lost a little. I started riding away from Coyah, down a cement road for awhile. I really didn't see all that much heading this way. Most interesting thing I ran into was a bunch of kids who set up their own toll system. They hold a  makeshift rope across the road and hold it up like they're trying to trip Tom as he chases after Jerry. They get this idea from the military here in Guinea who use the same technique but up their game with large guns. After a while I just turned right around and headed towards Coyah.

I got to Coyah and realized quickly that being near the market on my bike is the worst idea in the world. A bunch of people selling things off the top of their heads swarm me and make it impossible to move forward without hitting them. I knew I needed to get out of there quick, so I bought some cookies and some cheese (neither of which I went their for) and high tailed it out of there with the plan of just heading home.

New friend Alain in front of his hotel!

On the trip back I know I would be passing some hotels. I always see them through the taxi windows but never really gave them a second thought, except for one. One of the hotels on the road between Coyah and Wonkifong is a lovely little place called "Hotel Le Michigan". Yes, no lies here, its named after the prettiest state in union, which if you're a Guinean student then its one out of 52 states. So, I knew I had to stop by to investigate to the source of this namesake. Luckily, when I pulled up there were two guys sitting out front. After the normal lengthy salutations they invite me to sit down. I waste no time and ask the owner why he chose the name "Hotel Le Michgian"? He tells me he has family in Michigan. No way! He says his cousin plays football there....That's crazy!....for the University of Michigan! Get the hell out of here, this is incredible!!!! I couldn't believe it. I definitely know the name of his cousin and he graduated the same year as I did, but I will refrain from mentioning his name because he was dismissed from the team during his tenure. That's not the point of the story, the point is that I love how small the world is. I'm outside of a small town outside of a kind of  big town in Guinea and I find someone to talk Michigan football with.

Little did I know but this was the gentle start to my adventurous afternoon. This part of the story isn't as blog friendly, but I spent the rest of the day with my new best friend. He offered to show me around a bit and I, dumbfounded, agreed. We followed his friend to see his new house. During our conversation in french he turns to me and asks in perfect English "What do you think?" Come to find out his friend is the son of a former Guinean UN Representative. Next stop on this unexpected tour was another hotel called Hotel Le Basfond. Things got a bit weird here after meeting the captain and the commissioner of the police force with their assorted guests. A Guinean woman wearing a camo shirt and a hairstyle TLC would be proud of brings me a beer. She sits back down and picks up her cigarette. This sets off an alarm for me because we've been told that women who smoke are assumed to be prostitutes. Contemplating this fact, I sit back to enjoy my beer, I did after all go for a bike ride. A new guest arrives and greets the table. He oddly grabs the face of one of the women. Then as he's talking to another girl she gets up and walks him towards the hotel rooms....ummm. The whole table notices, subtly laughs and continues drinking. I decide then that I'm at a table with corrupt cops and their "ladies on the side." I'm contemplating my polite escape. The story does continue for quite a long time but it's not that exciting. Mostly just me trying to get out of there and meeting more people: a French guy, two Canadians, more police and more girls.


I get home and can't believe the day I had when I started with the simple intention of going for a bike ride. The results were meeting a fellow Michigan fan and parts of the Coyah mafia. Quite the crazy ride for my first weekend at site. Well for now I'm off to see if I can find some way to keep track of the game this afternoon. GO BLUE!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Third Time's the Charm

With the school year two weeks old, I finally had my first full classes during the third week. This means classes ranging from 45 to 80+. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be due to the fact that all the kids are squeezed into such a small classroom, no one is really that far away from me to be able to get away with being a bad student. I’m still working on establishing the discipline in my classroom but constant threats to leave if they don’t stop talking is doing pretty good. Also if there is ever a real problem with just one student I don’t even have to be the bad guy. They have a guy on staff whose sole responsibility is to punish the bad kids.

Yes! I managed a photo!!!!

Our school actually just got a new one of these guys too. He shows up one day on his moto wearing gray slacks, a white dress shirt, an overly-large American flag tie and brown-tinted Aviator sized glasses. He looked more “American” than I’ve ever looked in my life. This outfit, which I assumed was his best, was quickly out shown by his appearance the next morning. I arrive at school to find him in the middle of yelling at some students. I have to laugh because I can’t believe what he’s wearing and that amazingly the students are able to take him seriously from behind his porn star glasses which are accessory to his metallic silver suit! He glimmered in the morning sun like a newly polished Mustang corvette. I shook his hand to say good morning with a genuine smile of my face. I walked to my class shaking my head wondering, one, how could I get a picture of him in that, and two, why do I work with the Silver Surfer.
He is just one of many characters I see on a daily basis. It’s hell trying to memorize the students names because it’s pretty often they have the same first name and 80% of the students have one of four last names (Bangoura, Soumah, Sylla, Camara). This results in many doubles and so in one class I have four Bangaly Camara’s and each is numbered one to four. I have thus settled on giving as many nicknames as possible, even if it’s just for me. There’s the look-a-likes: Tina Turner, Seal and Wanda Sykes. There’s the pop-culture references: Ninja-Turtle, Rizzo (from the movie Grease), and Captain Guinea (like Captain America). The nicknames keep coming and I would love to be able to provide photo evidence of each but I’m not sure how professional that would be.
Sadly, no big plans this weekend. Saturday is now laundry time, yes I need the whole day for it. Go home and appreciate your washing machine, do it for me.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Let's Give it a Second Try

After the “first” day of school was a disappointment, I was ready to see if the reassurance of student attendance would be fulfilled during our second week of school. This time around we get about half of the students to show up, which still makes for a pretty large class. I felt ready to teach and got started with my “introductions” lesson plan. It included simple stuff like: who am I, who are you, name cards and classroom rules. The main activity of the lesson was to write down your name, your village, your grade, your favorite subject and a dream for the future. I, being na├»ve to the Guinean thought process, figured all of this would be pretty straight forward.  Sadly, the last question about their futures turned into the hardest question of the week. The most common answer being something about studying. I did my best to encourage them to consider things for a career or at the very least after school. They couldn’t do it. It’s the biggest problem I face every day in school. The language barrier does slow us down but the fact that they can’t answer a simple open question or form an opinion of their own accord is the most frustrating. It’s sad really because these students have been beaten (sometimes literally) into the rote system of learning and at this age have trouble changing that thought process. I’ve been doing my best each class to give critical thinking questions but easing into them. If anyone has any good critical thinking games, I would love to hear about them.

The yard at my school.

My second week of school was also highlighted by the appearance of my principal. I’ve neglected mentioning that since August when I was assigned to the College in Wonkifong the principal had been suspended. This is a new principal and he’s bringing lots of changes, which is great to see someone working to better the situation. He’s even trying to get them to show up a half hour before school, we’ll see how long that lasts.
Two weeks of school have now passed and I still haven’t really taught anything. They have a schedule like a college in America so they only have chemistry once a week. Overall the schedule is pretty weird because they only have two or three classes a day between 8AM and 2PM but the school week is Monday to Saturday. I’m no logistician but I’m seeing some flaws here.
 Hope everyone is doing good at home. I hear that I’m missing lots of sports excitement at home so email me updates! Oh, and I guess I want to hear about your day too.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Back to School

So long Issiaga Diallo, enter Monsieur Issiaga Bangoura. I changed last names to match the popular name in my village; literally close to 60% of the families are Bangoura. They clap when I say my name and it’s the only one they know because my American name is a secret, per the advice from other volunteers. The week between my arrival and the first day of school flies by and before I know it I’m heading towards the school with nerves and energy to teach all 350 students.
 My excitement was met with a lackluster attendance of 10 students and less than half of the teachers. I’ve never heard of a country where the first day of school is taken so nonchalantly. After the first 20 minutes of awkward discussions about the lack of presence from anyone, my assistant principal sent home the other teachers and told me to go ahead and teach the class of 10 students who decided to show. So ironic to my enthusiasm to teach the whole school, I actually did teach the whole school.
Being a mix of all the grade levels, a chemistry lesson was out of the question so I was a bit lost at what to do. I started with an introduction of myself and why I’m there. After this brief 15 minute lecture, I offered that we should play some games. My brain scrambling to choose a good game for 10 students and I landed on the classroom classic, Heads-Up, 7-Up. After several rounds (one in which I cheat) of perfect guesses I decide that they are all cheating and that I should up the ante a bit. I then propose the game beloved by high school conference goers and Christian Youth groups alike: Mafia. I proceed to explain the rules multiple times, slowly. With hesitant faces, we start the game. A few rounds pass with a few people “dying” off, when I reiterate that the job of detective that he is supposed to find the “assassin”. He sends me a look of realization and very decidedly points to the proposed “assassin”. He is, of course, correct, and the game comes to an anti-climactic finish. I try to get them excited about winning when one student leans over to me and says “I don’t think we get it.” Defeatedly, I offer that I could start an English lesson. To my surprise, this idea is met with cheers and so last few days of the “first week of school” were filled with off –the-cuff English lessons.

View during a random bike ride.

It was nice to have such a small class and also really funny to hear students attempt to say “What’s up?” Unfortunately, I know that this won’t last long being as my projected classes range between 45 and 80. I guess it’s nice that I’m prepared (at least lesson planned) for the next week! Going to see some volunteers and a huge waterfall again this weekend! Love the mountain views!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Hitting the Ground Running

…and we’re off.  I’m living alone in an African village. It’s a hell of a thing when you think about it, still a shock when I stop to think about it. It happened pretty quick. The night before leaving, as evidenced by my late night blog post, I didn’t sleep much. I slept for most of the car ride to my site. After a brief meeting with a few officials I was unloading my belongings in front of my house. Next thing I know my Program Director (essentially my boss for the next two years) says good luck and goes in for what was an extremely awkward hug between two men who barely know each other. Lucky for me it was followed by some encouraging words and tight embraces from 3 other volunteers who would then have to pile back into the car and head off for the rest of an 8 hour journey. It really was the band-aid technique. Do it quick and deal with it!

Some of welcoming party.

Things went a lot smoother than I expected they would for the first week. It was the first time that I truly appreciated the slow pace of Guinean life because that means I had plenty of time to settle in on my own schedule. Outside of having to greet random neighbors when they stop by I had most the time to myself to set up my house. With the few things that I have it really didn’t take all that long but moving is stressful in the States so multiply that by Guinea and the task gets a little larger.
I also didn’t have to wait long to have my first visitors. The first Sunday I was at site another volunteer stopped by to see how I was adjusting. It was nice to see another American so quick after getting there as the feeling of abandon was setting in. I got to play tour guide as I showed off the village that was entirely new to me too but she politely followed along as I pointed out obvious landmarks. My second visitor was a friend named Cisse. He is the only person I can honestly say is my Guinean friend. He’s really great about my inconsistent French and is able to have arguments in French or English. It was really nice to have him visit because he unknowingly helped me celebrate my birthday. I know I’m getting to the point where birthdays can pass without needing too much of notice but it was nice to not be alone.
Coming up much sooner than expected is the first day of school. I haven’t had a first day of school (syllabus week doesn’t count) in so long but I can still remember the jitters of the first day. Fresh notebooks, newly sharpened pencils and planning (and pretending you didn’t) your outfit. I feel like I’m going back to middle school, which I technically am, but this time I’m a teacher and the students are Guineans- who are sometimes older than me. Wish me luck!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hold Your Breath. Now Dive.

It’s been about two years. I got rejected from 3 major job opportunities. I worked in manual labor. I moved…. multiple times.  My road to being a Peace Corps volunteer has been a long and bumpy one. Tomorrow, I will finally get the chance to take the literal long and bumpy road to my site to start my official service as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

Swearing-In Ceremony!
It’s an odd thing to explain to friends and family back home but I haven’t even begun my Peace Corps service. The past 11 weeks have been what we call “training”. Language classes, tech classes, and classes about teaching classes. I’ve learned a lot of great lessons within sessions and organized lessons but I’d wager that what I learned outside of these is worth way more. My host family and some new friends, that will last a lifetime, have taught me how to live in this whole new world (Disney reference intended).

Learning by doing has always been the best way for me to learn things and I’ve been using that to get me through my time in Guinea thus far. The key ingredient that made this all work was the people around me. When you have so many people around you who want you to succeed, it’s pretty tough to fail. It's how I got through college, how I got to Chicago and how I got to Guinea. So now I go, with the same support system but at an even greater distance, to Wonkifong.

Enjoying fun times.
Wonkifong. No matter how many times I say it, write it, or read it I can’t believe: 1. It’s a real name 2. It’s now where I live. I know that I’ve been there before but the whole place is a mystery to me. I’ve been staying in the capital for the past week and enjoying western comforts before going back to the Guinean way of life (without power and with lots of rice). We really have had way better of a time than I ever thought was possible in Guinea. I played pool at a bar, well the table was slanted and The Matrix: Revolutions was on the one TV. I got to swim in pool, well it was secluded in the compound of the Country Director and had a sketchy lack of chemicals. Finally, I got to eat pizza, well it was pizza-esque with an onion sauce, no tomatoes. So overall it really was an amazing week of comforts but still relative to Guinea.
For the first time, I’m going to say that I’m doing better than Guinea-Good, I’m feeling Guinea-Great. So I'm taking a refreshed attitude and a full-belly (finally) to Wonkifong.

So I did cut my hair like this for a bit. Loved it, but my boss not so much. Already buzzed the rest.
I know there wasn’t much action or stories in this post but I wanted to let everyone know that this is when the stories get real. Also wanted to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my one and only big sister! Hope you had a great day.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Monsieur MOI!!!

Age-old advice says that you have to fall on your face before you can
run or something like that, I might be paraphrasing. Either way, I’ve
reached that part in my training process we so cleverly call “Practice
School.” Up to this point I’ve taught to a group of 4 of peers and to
a group of 5 avid Guinean students. So when I was told that I’d be
teaching a 7th grade class of 80 kids, I put up my hands to brace
myself as I would surely fall on my face. Lucky for me Guinean
classes, especially optional ones, aren’t exactly highly attended. My
anticipated class of 80 turned into a manageable 46, so much

I went into my first classes with high hopes and ready to take the
practice part of “Practice School” quite literally. I was scheduled to
start with an easy class of about 15 or 20 10th graders which wasn’t
any more of a comfort because these kids made it this far in school by
actually knowing French so I knew I had to be on my A-game. As advised
I stood in the doorway of the classroom until all the students rose
from their seats before I entered the class fully. An odd standoff
took place for what felt like hours but my glance of “levez-vous”
(with key use of eyebrow) eventually won them over.  I let fate take
the reins for the rest of the class because before I realized it, it
was over.  I actually had to stop and think if I had actually given
then entire lesson in French or whether I had slipped back into
English in my fluster. My worries were calmed as the students copied
notes and even asked me more questions. After a few questions answered
in broken French I walked out of the classroom with scenes of Dead
Poet’s Society (or Good Willl Hunting, or A Beautiful Mind, or Stand
and Deliver) flashing in my head. I was a teacher, vraiment!

My petty victory over the 10th grade class was short lived as I had an
hour before I had to teach the 7th graders. I knew that I had to win
them over quick so I had planned a lesson full of experiments where I
get to burn things. Guinean or American, little kids love flames,
explosions and chances for their teacher to get hurt.  I entered the
class the same way as my morning class but 46 7th graders are a lot
different of an audience, but to my surprise they all rose and even
recited some little phrase that I assumed was a pledge of allegiance
or something of the sort. For the most part the kids were better than
expected with only a few disruptive students. I had more participation
than one teacher can handle for every one of my questions. Each time I
asked for someone to read from the blackboard, my question was
answered with a loud chorus of “Monsieur MOI! Monsieur! MONSIEUR!
MOI!” and snaps to get my attention, all normal in Guinean classes. It
felt good to really control such a large class, guess all I could hope
for was that they understood what I was saying.

At the end of each week of practice school we have to give an exam to
each class we taught over the week and as any teacher can tell you:
when there’s a test, there’s cheating. Cheating isn’t anything new,
but the level these students take it to is. Blatant passing of notes,
using cheat sheets and even giving each other the answer verbally was
seen in every classroom. I did my best to be a stickler and even used
an A and a B form for my big class to deter cheaters, or at least make
it easier for me to see who cheated.

As the class slowly dwindled and students left after finishing, I
noticed that one student in particular had barely started copying down
any of the questions let alone answering them. I recognized him right
away as one of my problem students: loud, disruptive, pudgy with a
huge smile and dimples to match his overall careless behavior. I had
already taken a piece of chalk from him because he was writing on his
face as well as moved him multiple times so he had no excuse of not
Mamadou and Me!

being able to see. The second to last student left and he was leftalone. I could have stopped him right there because he had already run out of time but there wasn’t another class after this so instead I sat down next to him and left him to his work. After a bit he realized I wasn’t going anywhere and decided he would try the fourth of four problems with a little extra direction from me. He finished answering
the 4 part true or false question and did his best to avoid my eye contact. Before he got up to leave I stopped him to ask why he didn’t try the rest of the test. He answered, seeming shy for the first time, “Je ne sais pas.” I saw he had the same last name as my host family and I told him that I was named after a former French professor who used to teach at the same school.  Then I let him run off, hoping that my mini inspirational speech with guilt-trip undertones got to him in some way. Little Mamadou Diallo isn’t going to be the star pupil anytime soon but he loves to say hi to me now and he seems extra proud to show me he’s in class, whether he’s listening or not.

Littlest Host Sister....tough kid.

Practice school really has been the best learning tool so far in my Peace Corps training. I can tell my French is getting much better, I’m feeling more a part of the community and I like returning home a little more now. One day my littlest sister/cousin/general family member, who always comes running to meet me in the yard with the rest of the kids, was coming at me a little too fast. She decided to go for the trust-fall type of hug at my knees without me watching. I never broke stride and then turned around to find her getting up brushing off her bottom. I’ve adjusted back to the school schedule quite easily and I really enjoy being in the classroom so far. I can’t believe I’m
about to lose the training wheels (pun intended) and hope I can keep the positive vibe going as I get closer to my move to Wonkifong.

A beautiful night at the Training Compound. I'm not actually at a resort just had a beautiful sunset.

Hope all is going good for everyone back home. Football updates are necessary!


Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Brief Look Forward

For me, having internet is a lucky day and having strong enough internet to post to the blog ....jackpot.

My counterpart and his kids, Richard and Antwaun
For the most part I'm doing good these days but I had a hell of a week and a half before this. It all started with leaving Dubreka for Mamou to attend our counterpart workshop. Essentially just a few days and a bunch of presentations while we meet someone from the school I will be working at. I will be at the College of Wonkifong. *DISCLAIMER* college in french terms refers to middle school. The best part about this little trip was the simple fact that I got to get out of Dubreka. I'd really been feeling a little stir crazy so any trip past the market was a breath of fresh air. The trip out to Mamou was beautiful! It's pretty amazing to see such lush green forests on top of mountains with a spackling of waterfalls every so often. Unfortunately the "Lion King" aura gets broken pretty quickly when the bus has to swerve huge pot holes or cows while another car is flying by. It's pretty easy to see why transportation is the most dangerous thing about Guinea. Lucky for me, my future site, Wonkifong, is a quick trip from the capital meaning I won't have to be out on the main highways too often. After a 4 day stay in what could be a tropical resort destination I headed off to see my house in Wonkifong.

Overall my trip to Wonkifong was......just plain awkward. The guy with the keys to my house wasn't in town so we broke into my house with a crowbar (already have new locks). Then I had to deal with the moving in feeling when you just want everyone else to go away but in broken French and Sussu (the local language in my region). I got "settled" to the point of having at least a bed to sleep on and we were off to meet some people in the village. The most important thing to do was to meet all the higher ups in the village. Lots of shaking hands, smiling as old men talk about me, and expressing how excited I was to be there.

Me and Monson. Cutest kid in my village.
The whole trip I really was just looking for a way to be a little independent. The "baby-ing  the foreigner" bit is getting really old. The first chance I saw to take a chance on my own was when I was going back to Wonkifong from Coyah the big city nearby. I looked at my counterpart with confidence said I could go it alone and sent him on his way with a nice wink and a fingergun. All I had to do was wait in the cab and it would take me to my village. Thing about cabs in Guinea is that they don't leave until they are full. Full means there are 4 adults in the backseat, 2 people sitting shotgun, the driver, and an optional person sitting on top of the gearshift or roof. In this cab I was sitting in the back middle seat next to a woman with two kids on her lap. One sitting on her knees and the other breast feeding. Just before the cab is about to take off the kid on her knees pukes. Just down the seat, all on his pants making a small puddle on the floor of the cab. Mom "cleans" up the mess with a towel and we're ready to roll. Luckily this cab had a flat so we moved cars and I was free of the puke smell. Now we're waiting longer for a new driver to get moving. I notice a guy who's kinda yelling a lot and I just hope he's not my driver. Same guy gets in a fist fight right outside the car I'm sitting in, I really hope that's not my driver. People break up the fight and push one of the fighters into the driver seat. He's my driver. Bleeding, pissed and still yelling at the other guy we finally depart for my village.

Visiting my site had lots of ups and downs but I've been able to decompress at the capital now and I'm feeling refreshed to finish training. I have to teach real students next week so I really should be on my A-game.

Personal update: after fasting for the month of Ramadan I feel a lot closer to my host family. I lost 25 pounds since I've been here and I give so much props to my Muslim friends back home for fasting every year. It's not fun. I'm alive and well........well for the most part.

I know I won't get to post again before next weekend so I'll leave with this. GO BLUE!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Adventure Time Needs Adventure Shorts

Although I am first and foremost in this country for work, I do get to play a lot. The second weekend we were in Dubreka, Peace Corps had an outing planned to go to “Les Cascades”, pretty vague but that was actually their name. It was as touristy a place as you can find in Guinea, which isn’t saying much. To add to the adventure and to get some much needed exercise we decided to bike the 25 km to the waterfalls. Lots of up and down but it was mostly road biking. We rode on what is the national highway of Guinea, which really wasn’t that busy but when you see a beaten down semi truck flying towards you, it adds a degree of difficulty to the trip. 

As the phrase goes, “the juice was worth the squeeze.” We made it to this beautiful natural waterfall complete with adjacent restaurant owned by a Lebanese man who knows how to make some hummus. So we got to enjoy some swimming, some pita and to top it all off a cold beer. The best part about going to see a waterfall in Guinea is the lack of supervision. There weren’t really any rules or regulations meaning we could swim right up to and climb the waterfall, which made for the best shower I’ve had in this country thus far.  This really was the best thing to have after our first week of adjusting to living in Dubreka, host families, and getting back into classes.

After a full afternoon of sitting in the water and drinking beers at the restaurant we weren’t dedicated enough to bike back so we threw the bikes on top of the Peace Corps bus and headed home in style. The ride home was cramped as usual but we lightened the mood with some tunes which inevitably ended up on Disney songs. Don’t worry, I held back…..for the most part.


This past weekend was highlighted by my second adventure: mountain hike. It had been a long week and I was mentally exhausted from the stress of finding out our sites and getting into some more intense French lessons. So a few of us decided it was the perfect weekend to climb the mountain that looms in the distance not far from Dubreka’s large market simply called “Kilometre Cinqe” (because it’s 5 km away).   We found out that it’s name is “Le Chien qui Fume” or The Smoking Dog.  Probably due to the fact it looks like a dog lying down and always has clouds rolling over it.  Lucky for me, another volunteer’s brothers (Abdoulaye, Boubacar, and Barbo) are the Guinean equivalent to Bear Grils. They were our guides on this adventure and they couldn’t have been more badass. 

To start the day we take a quick taxi over to K5 and convince the driver to take us just a bit farther towards the mountain. At what looked like some random point in the road our guides tell the driver to stop and we get out in the middle of a dirt road next to a river. Looking across the river we can see a definite trail but there’s no bridge. They tell us that usually it’s easy to cross but after so much rain the last few days the river was about 3 feet deep and moving really fast. We moved upstream a bit and found a thick vine to cut and use as a rope to assist us across the river. Like I said, these guys are badass. 

From there on out it was pretty smooth sailing to the top. We followed a well-made trail for about half way up the mountain, passing two small children headed towards the raging river and a random family living fairly high up. This is a picture of them. I wasn’t even paying attention to them and then one of the guides yells to me in French that they wanted me to take their photo. Look over and they are Kodak ready. So odd.  As I took the picture I could almost hear the voice of a certain photographer I know saying that it would have been better if it was an action shot….preferably from a crazy angle too. 

The rest of the way up was much more rugged with more foliage and a hardly defined trail. Lucky for us we had our trusty guides to help us along. After a while the magic thought of “they know the mountain like Pocahontas” went away because we discovered that what we thought was just trash on the trail was the markers. A common item to sell is small bags of purified Coyah water and people would stab them onto branches to mark the path. Although this wasn’t foolproof, resulting in us yelling “Ou est les Coyahs?!” many times. Our guides never doubted the trail and took us straight to the top even though they admittedly doubted we would make it that far. 

Although we had been lucky with the weather all day, cloudy and not hot at all, it backfired once we got to the top. Cloud cover is great for hiking but terrible for sightseeing. We had made good time so we took our time enjoying our success. We all had a good laugh when we noticed that the three Guineans who looked so comfortable the whole walk up, even in plastic soccer cleats and basketball shorts, were freezing in the cool wind of the summit.  Being a bit lazy turned out to be the best choice because every so often the clouds would break and we would get a beautiful view of Dubreka. 

Trip down is always less exciting but walking with good friends made it great. I’m so happy we did it. There might even be a return trip in the works. I know there is a lot of other more important stuff I could be writing about but it’s not all about work! Hope everyone is doing great back home. Been missing home and friends a lot lately. Especially, now that my sister has gotten engaged! Congrats to you both, I love you and I will cheers my nalgene full of filtered and slightly chlorinated water to you two crazy lovebirds. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

“Ce n’est pas grave” is Guinea’s “NBD”

It’s been a few weeks now since I last posted, but to put it lightly it feels like its been months. With so much that has been happening I can’t believe I’ve been in Guinea for what will be close to a month now, but I’ll save the emotional release essay for those of you I email, here’s the big stuff:

I’m in a new town. I have been living with my host family in Dubreka for just over three weeks. The first day I met them was one of the most awkward things I have ever been through. It was called an “Adoption Ceremony” and before I knew it I was hugging some random old lady, taking pictures and holding a baby.  Weirdest part is that of the first 4 people I met who I thought were my family, only one lives with me. I have seen the other 3 maybe once or twice since then. Ce n’est pas grave.

Moving past the initial shock of having a new white brother in the family all went back to normal fairly quick. I was given my host father’s name of Issiaga Diallo, which comes with a lot of pressure because he is deceased and was a great French teacher back in the day. The rest of the family is great. I have a 22 year old brother named Mohamed who is great to hang with and talk to. A 23 year old sister who likes to stare just a little bit too long when we talk but she is fun to talk with. Recently we have been debating dance styles because they dance really boring here and I tell her that they gotta spice it up a bit. Two sisters ages 3 and 7 both named Aissatou (seen in the photo), yeah confusing. To round out the family (at least the ones who are around most consistently) there’s Almamy and Yussif, the funniest little dudes ever. Almamy likes to pop-and-lock. Yussif is most comfortable after a shower when he throws his towel off like a pro wrestler entering the ring and follows it up with a few laps of the living room. Ce n’est pas grave.

Overall life with the Diallo’s has been really great. Been out at night with both my sister and my brother. They don’t mind too much when I stay out a little late. Nay-nay (mom in Pulaar) is a decent cook. I felt really close to them the night my brother got his results back from his college entrance exams (the Brevet). It’s an intense night because they publicly announce everyone’s scores to a mass of people. Also to put it in perspective just about 30% of the country passes, 10-15% of Dubreka candidates. Ce n’est pas grave. The air was thick and was only broken by an occasional yelp of successful or gut wrenching cries of failure. Needless to say I was quite nervous for my brother. Good thing is, he’s a genius. Totally nailed it. Going to college. Great night, and very emotional night, for my family given my host-father’s passion for education. I’m glad I was a part of it.

This past week or so I have been fasting for the month of Ramadan. Islam is the major religion in Guinea and my family is all fasting so I figured I would give it a shot and try to get closer to my new host family. It hasn’t been easy but it’s definitely been worth it thus far. Worst part is that you can’t drink either: hot sun = no beuno for Dante. They have this practice of waking up at 4AM to get in one more meal before the sun rises so I’m up for that too. This also means I get to try and fall back asleep while I can hear the prayer calls from 3 different Mosques. I’m beginning to adjust to the sounds but its essentially slow droning sounds of a half received AM radio station. Ce n’est pas grave.

Schools good. Learning lots. French…….mediocre. Getting there. Ce n’est pas grave.

PS: I shaved off the beard recently. Not a lot of mirrors in Guinea so when I catch my reflection I freak out. Plan is to just let it grow back again, shave it, repeat. Ce n’est pas grave.

PPS: We received our sites for the next two years and I will be living in Wonkifong. Yes, it’s a town in Guinea. More info on this to come post site-visit.

Friday, July 6, 2012


So, I'm in Guinea. It's real. Not exactly what The Lion King shows but I'll deal. It's so funny that even when I was in the middle of 36 hours of travel I still had no clue what I was headed for. For the first few days we have been in Conakry which is the capital. We are staying in the Peace Corps house so think gross European hostile which by Guinea standards is rolling like a big shot. Running water, check it. The night we arrived it was raining and apparently we didn't get enough cuz it happens everyday. Last nights storm was massive but cool to watch from the covered roof.

Fourth of July was hilarious for me. We went to someone close to an Ambassador's house for a picnic.....but it was raining. We stood under tents while Guineans cooked hamburgers, played good ol' blues music, kids swimming in pools, and loaded up on potato salad. I was shocked to see that this house that looked like it belongs in Rochester Hills was in the middle of Guinea. The streets flood and garbage is everywhere but if you're in an American's house you can get damn good gin and tonic. Seemed a bit terrible to me but then I remembered I'm the one here to do humanitarian work, they are here to be diplomatic. Pretty different.

Most of our time in Conakry is spent doing orientation stuff. Lots of classes and new information. They gave us notebooks and I made some trades to switch from a "Sean Paul/Rihanna" note book to one with Formula 1 on the cover. I know someone back home is proud of me (who is Mark Webber?). Later today we're heading to Dubreka where I will be going through an adoption ceremony for my host family. Kinda pumped to have an African name/family but as you can guess there is a lot of problems I'm predicting.

I'll have decent access to internet so feel free to email/facebook me. It helps. Checking facebook today was a huge morale boost. I can't thank you enough for the support. When I hear people say things like "you're the type of person who can do this" helps me feel that way as I constantly doubt my endurance for this trip.

****Sidenote: not sure if the video blog idea will work but stay tuned. ****

Saturday, June 30, 2012

First Attempt

The beginning. That's what tomorrow is, the beginning of my two year adventure in Guinea. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't feeling nervous, scared or anxious. Truth be told I'm all those and more. For the year and a half build that was the application process I wasn't nervous at all. It was almost like I was playing chicken with myself to see how far I would take this. Well, it starts tomorrow and I'm not flinching.....yet.

This past month has been amazing. My mini "farewell tour" consisted of five cities and many loved ones. I started in DC seeing one of my best friends in the world. People who know both of us asked me if it was hard to say goodbye. It was hard to leave but we never said goodbye. That's how it is with best friends, that extra second of what we ironically call a "homie hug" says it all. I know. He knows. To him I say thanks and good luck on the academic adventure he's putting himself through for the next two years. 

The next weekend wasn't any easier. I headed out to San Francisco to visit my sister and her boyfriend. This weekend meant a lot to me because I knew that she wouldn't be able to make it back home before I flew out. She showed me her side of the city and how beautiful it is. We got a lot of time to talk and it felt good to just hang around the house which we don't get to do very often anymore. I miss her more than she knows and hope that she knows that I'm only going across the ocean to one up her on being the farthest away from home. I love you. 

After my last flight back into O'Hare it was weird to think that I was leaving Chicago in a week after working hard just to find a place to stay a few months earlier. Those 9 months flew by and my Chicago adventure taught me a lot. It showed me that be independent doesn't mean you're alone. I made some amazing friends that I will never forget and some stories that I can't quite remember. Seeing so many people on the weekend before I left was exactly what I needed, made it even harder to leave but solidified my accomplishments in Chicago. I can't wait to pick up where I left off in Chicago upon returning. Thank you Chef, I'll miss you. 

Two weeks ago I finally made it back home to Michigan. Then I didn't hesitate to leave home again to visit some friends in Ann Arbor. I packed a lot into two nights in best city in Michigan. Kayaked in the Huron with some amazing people. Had dinner with a close friend. Danced like a fool at Rick's. It was great. I hope the best for you all and I will try to stay on beat in Africa. funKtion on 3.....

Finally, I'm home. Looking back I needed more than a week to collect my stuff and prepare for real but since when have I been early on anything. Figured I'd go for consistency. I've spent the entire week shopping, seeing movies, having drinks with friends and spending time with family. The last two nights have been some really tough goodbyes. A girl who I will never forget. Friends who mean the world to me. Family I'll miss every time I sit down for a meal. 

There's more to come tonight. These goodbyes tonight will be the hardest of all. Just don't know how to look my mom in the face and say goodbye. Guess I'll have something to write about real soon though. Thanks for reading. One of my good friends in Chicago and someone who's strength I won't truly appreciate until I'm abroad once said to me when I told him I was afraid to leave 

"The people who care now, will care in two years and those are the ones worth caring about."

So all I can ask as I leave: don't forget me and always know I'm thinking about you. 

Love Dante