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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!