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Monday, September 30, 2013

A New Kind of Boot Camp

When getting ready to leave for the Peace Corps over a year ago, I found myself talking with service men and women pretty often. It was always pretty awkward for me to hear a military veteran compare his/her service to what I was planning to do. Then, in a twist I never saw coming, I can say that during my service I've been through Boot Camp....I guess the serviceman's analogy wasn't too far off.

So as not to confuse anyone, I'll give some back story. If you've diligently read my blogs so far, in April I wrote that the largest health concern in Guinea, by far and away, is malaria. Guinea is not alone in this battle; throughout the entire continent, malaria weighs a heavy burden on men, women and children alike. One of the first goals that the Peace Corps was founded on was the fight against malaria, but it's only in the past few years that this fight has found a great new weapon. Peace Corps service takes many forms but a new program is creating a new type of volunteer. Through continent-wide trainings of selected volunteers, Stomp Out Malaria, an initiative-based program, is helping PCV's collaborate and synchronize their public health efforts. They reason that many small separate events are a nice effort and lightly effective but more large scale events connected by a common brand and message create a movement.

And thus, I'm now in on the movement. I'm hooked. I'm motivated. I'm encouraged. I'm empowered. All thanks to Stomp Out Malaria's Boot Camp. Two weeks in Thies, Senegal with a group of 32 PCV's has entirely refocused my service and maybe even my career path.

I was selected to attend the Malaria Boot Camp after a brief application process in June/July. I had heard great stories from other volunteers who had already been, so I was really excited to be apart of the team. My flight leaving Guinea was a bit in question due to the upcoming elections, so I arrived at the airport at 4PM for a 9PM flight. After 4 hours waiting in the lobby, I found out my flight was delayed to 1AM which then became 3:30AM. Great start.

I landed in Senegal around 5AM and got my finger prints taken for the biometric VISA. The poor chauffeur waiting for me woke up from his cozy front sear sleep and brought me to a hotel where I promptly passed out. Waking up a few short hours later was tough but I didn't want to the “that” guy who missed the bus. Imagine my sleep-deprived stupor being broken by the sight of an old college friend! I couldn't believe my luck finding a friend in a hotel in Dakar, not to mention he was going to the same training! My morning was saved and I handed decision powers over Dan. The ride to Thies, Senegal seemed quite familiar. Despite being in a new country with people I had just met, boarding a large bus, identical to the one we use in Guinea, packed in with bags and other visiting volunteers just felt like normal Peace Corps.

Sleep under your nets kids.
The following two weeks were some of the best of my service so far. The training, in general, was so well run that I forgot it was a Peace Corps training. That is to say that, an air-conditioned conference room equipped with Wi-Fi strong enough to Skype the U.S. from a Mac with a wireless keyboard, doesn't come standard for most PC functions. We talked about malaria, public health, and development from all angles giving me a full view of the global malaria situation. I could go on for much longer explaining the actually intriguing sessions on mosquitoes or the fun and active sessions using soccer to teach people about malaria, but I'll save you the time and say it was impressive.

Wherever you go, GO BLUE!
Outside of the training itself, the PCV's there with me made this training stand out. We chalk it up to the environment, affectionately called the Peace Corps Effect, but after just 3 days together, we all felt like longtime friends. Three days Peace Corps time is like 6 months back home. I got to meet PCV's from all over Africa, from South Africa to Ethiopia to Senegal. This also means I've been schemeing to find a way to visit a lot more countries. Anyone want to meet me in Malawi? Cameroon? Kenya? Madagascar? Benin? Liberia? I've already mentioned that I saw a fellow Wolverine but 4 Wolverines in the same place in West Africa....amazing!

Nearing the end of the training I got a message telling me I had a choice to make: leave in the next 10 minutes or stay in Dakar for an extra week and a half. This dilemma caught me off guard but was caused by the mounting tensions in Conakry over the impending elections. Not wanting to miss any of the training, I chose the long-stay option. And thus, I prepared to spend another week in Dakar. The last night before everyone else left we went out for a nice dinner and some dancing. Then, for the first day of my extended stay, I sat on the beach all afternoon. Rough. My luck continued when I found out my COS'ed friends from Guinea, who I thought I had said goodbye to already, were still in Dakar. The next week was looking pretty great now. Unfortunately, I found out early the next morning that I'd be taking the a flight that evening. It was bittersweet news because it meant that things were calm in Guinea but it also meant that I wouldn't be spending my birthday in Dakar at a bowling alley. So I went downtown, had some Korean food, ate some ice cream, saw my friends then ran off to the airport.
Surprise last visit with Shane and Syd!

I've now been to Senegal twice. Both times were amazing and unforgettable adventures. Going to Malaria Boot Camp had a large impact on my professional and personal life. I don't know how, but I hope the rest of my second year will be this a guy can dream, can't he?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dante est retourné!

For the non-french readers, the above title means “Dante has returned”. It seems an odd statement to use for a title but it works in context. The current president of Guinea, Alpha Conde, ran using the slogan “GuinĂ©e is back”, just like English. Not sure what campaign manager told him to use English but hey he's president isn't he?! As educational as this tangent is, I'll continue.

I'm back! Back in Guinea, back to “la vie volontaire”, back to constant (and terrible) Franglais, back to daily fishy rice, back to sitting 2 in the front and 4 in the back. That last one is in no way a euphemism and instead refers to the real packing strategy that is public transportation in Guinea. Throughout my entire trip back home all my concerned friends and family would test my staying power and constantly ask the question “are you ready to go back?”, or something to that effect. I described in my last post the odd feeling of boarding the plane and how the feeling was so different. It was like that arriving too. For as different as my two worlds are, it was entirely natural to get back into Guinea life. I didn't show up expecting that Guinea had magically installed electricity and super markets while I was gone. I got off the plane and saw just what I expected. Things were the same and that much was comforting.

I spent most of my first day back in bed catching up on the sleep that I neglected in favor of watching movies on the plane. Power-napping my way through jet-lag was a necessary step if I was going to make it through the next month. August was a jam packed month with travel, vacation and fun, but now I was looking at September which was just as packed but with travel, work and fun. I went straight from Conakry to Dubreka, the location of my training, a whole year beforehand. This time I was going to Dubreka as a trainer and not as a trainee. Being in Dubreka is a bit of a flashback each time I go back. I see my old host family and walk around where I spent my first three months of my Guinean life. The new group of PCV's arrived in July but this would be the first time that I was going to see them as a trainer. 
Helping out at Practice School.

Being as the trainees were nearing the end of PST, they were already in the middle of practice school by the time I got there. It was really cool to see how far they all had come already. Helping out with practice school was really easy and the trainees were looking really strong. The best part of being a trainer is the chance to meet all the new volunteers, which was awesome. Thankfully, I've now been joined by another fellow Michigan Wolverine. Needless to say, we were fast friends.

That weekend was the planned trip for G24 to go shopping in Conakry, so as quick as I left I was headed back. There really wasn't much work to do that weekend besides playing tour guide for Conakry and drawing the occasional treasure map to finding the hidden gems of pseudo-American products. It was a lucky weekend to be in Conakry because of all the other unexpected guests. A good friend who was weeks away from the end of his service was there and thus, the celebration weekend began. We took full advantage of our last party together in Guinea and pulled out all the stops: decent beer, Jameson, live-streaming the U of M game, and cigars on the roof at 4 AM (after the U of M victory!). It was honestly the best way I could send off a good friend and the end of his time being a Peace Corps Volunteer and a damn good one at that.

Village skies seem bigger.
The last full week of training is pretty light, mostly filled with surveys, tests and ceremonies. I enjoyed the week hanging out with some old friends from my stage and making new friends in the new stage. I was sitting around talking with the Training Manager one afternoon when he mentioned he was in my village recently. I wasn't too surprised since Ousmane knows just about everyone in Guinea but I was a bit disconcerted when he told me he was there for a funeral. He then told me that an old man in village passed away. I immediately knew which old man it was. It was the man who would smile and wave at me every morning on my walk to school. I can honestly say he saw me 97% of the days, I've lived in Wonkifong. He was a staple to me. It hit me pretty hard that I wasn't there to say goodbye and made me realize how much I miss my village. For as much as I complain about them on the whole, there are certain people in my village that I have a true fondness for. We may not sit down and chat about life for hours on end, but we talk everyday and I like that. I'll miss that old man every time I walk by his house and remember his impressively long, white beard and genuine smile as he squeaked out a “Bonjour!” I moved on with the rest of my week and made sure to stop by the village one afternoon, if only for a few hours.

The last days of PST were so much fun for me and I was determined to help G24 have a good time too. By that time in PST, you are quite comfortable with your host family, your living arrangement and Dubreka in general so things are really manageable, leaving extra time for fun stuff. So with our free time we took one more trip to the beautiful waterfall near Dubreka. 

In a bittersweet ending to my time as a trainer, I had to run off before the real swearing-in ceremony so I could make it to the second leg of my work/fun filled September: Malaria Boot Camp in Thies, Senegal. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Vacation Back Home

It's only been quite recently that I've understood the relativity of the term: vacation. I've grown up thinking that it's not a break from routine until you drive multiple hours on the highway, usually in a general north direction. This summer was the first time that my vacation took me back home and not farther away. I grew up using summers to get away from home but now I see that in the real world, one uses vacation days to get back there.

Everyone, myself included, was a little nervous about my return to America, land of the plenty, land of running water, land of “HOLY CRAP it smells good here!” Much to my surprise, things were....well oddly natural. It was like I was hyper sensitive to noticing the little luxuries that make a typical day in the States darn near magical. But at the end of the day, it's still my home. It's getting back to normal and that's always easy. Seeing my family wasn't movie epic and I didn't have to reintroduce myself to my friends. I was home, we hugged tight, we fell into old habits. I'd make a pop culture reference (albeit a bit obsolete) and my sister's would roll their eyes and my attempt at wit. I'd make stupid joke (sometimes Africa specific) and my friends would still high five me with sarcastic enthusiasm. Getting home and seeing that things don't change all that dramatically was quite comforting.

Looking back it's a bit remarkable at how much I fit into a 20 day vacation. Starting at home my friend's wasted no time in keeping me up past my bedtime as I staved off jet lag. The arrival of my older sister, her then-soon-to-be-husband, and a large portion of the San Marinese kept the pace moving. The third night was highlighted by an amazing dinner with our best friend family. The next stop on this tour of awesome was my parent's gorgeous cottage and more family time. We took a little time to be real tourists with the visiting family, and I was so happy I got to spend time with my little cousin who I'm convinced could actually grow up to be Spider-Man.
Welcome to the family sir!
It took awhile but we finally got to the real reason for the expensive trip home: my big sister's big day. I know I'm young and I haven't attended too many weddings yet but the bar was set high by this one and the rest can try to keep up. My sister's wedding was so fun and full of love that I'm considering not getting married now. I don't want to handle the pressure of having to follow that up! So many friends and family that came from so far. The whole weekend was just perfect. I couldn't be happier to have a new brother-in-law along with a larger extended family, and I can't wait to see them all again!

The past month has given me a second chance that I'd never really considered: I left for the Peace Corps......again. If you've been following my blog since the beginning, or at least read the first one, you'll know that leaving the first time around was beyond tough and grossly emotional. I unintentionally skipped over that part this time around because I wasn't leaving my mom, dad, and sister at the airport, I just got on the “L” and said goodbye to a good friend where the paths to our terminals diverged. Sitting in the airport waiting to start 16 hours of flying, I thought about how much easier it was than the first time. It's not because my dad's semi-teary eyes weren't there to watch me go, it was easy because I knew where I was going. I left the first time only able to comprehend the next ten steps in front of me. This time I knew where I was going, who waited for my return, what I was going to do, and why I wanted to continue.
This has been going on a long time.

I can't thank you enough. My amazingly, large and supportive family. My best friends who know that 2 years is a drop in the bucket that will get washed away after the first beer. My sister for perfectly timing her wedding (partial credit to her husband of course). From the distance I write this at, I can only hope that these few words can help to express my gratitude for an unforgettable vacation and for all the support.