31 3 / 2014

Soo….I know it has been a long time since I last posted. Yes, I am back in America after 26 months abroad. It has been over two months since I landed. I have some things to say and, as you could decipher from the title of this post, this is also my farewell. My Peace Corps journey is done, but before I sign off indefinitely, let’s talk about leaving, my COS trip and how being back has been.

Leaving Guinea

In my last post, I talked about leaving Siguiri. With some perspective and distance from that day now, I am still happy about how I left. It felt like a normal, good day. I really didn’t want to make it this giant spectacle, so I was pretty happy with my graceful exit. I am happy that I left my family about 85% of the things I owned. They more than deserve to have all of those clothes, kitchen stuff, etc. They were completely shocked by this giant gift to them (it did take up a nice chunk of their living room for a couple of days). I hope they are getting some good use out of all of those things-especially those more American tools like my headlamp (which they always loved because of how bright it was) and the vegetable peeler ( my host moms are going to get a kick out of that). I am happy that the new volunteer is living in my same room, with the same family. I hope he will love my family as much as I do. I hope that he also enjoys the things I left behind for him and uses that mat to sleep outside when it’s too hot. That is not something I miss- the heat. It is dry season right now and, I have Siguiri weather on my phone and today, it is like 104 degrees there. Sometimes, I can’t believe I lived in such a hard, harsh environment for TWO years. I must be crazy and maybe even a little sadistic…ha ha ha.  

Anyway, my last week in Guinea was spent in Conakry and was really fun. Conakry to me always equaled fun because of the big, nice house, more amenities and seeing people I don’t normally get to see. In that week, we cooked some good food, had more than a few drinks, went to the islands and hung out with a nice chunk of my group before leaving. The islands we (a group of 8 of us) went to was across from Conakry. So, we piled into a boat for a 30 minute ride, met up with our friends who had spent the night at the hotel on the island and soaked up some sun and sand for a couple of hours. The day concluded at this little shack of a restaurant, where we ate just-caught fish and drank some beers. It is so mind-boggling to me that these islands could exist just in front of such a chaotic and messy city like Conakry.  I say this a lot, but I really think that Guinea has the potential to become such a productive leader of West Africa, if it could just get their affairs in order. It just makes me sad that things move so slowly (or sometimes regress) towards progress.

The last night that we were in Conakry felt like an outer body experience for me. The whole day I was filling pretty jittery, like if I had drank a couple of cups of coffee. As nighttime approached, and I packed up my suitcases, it only got worse. I remember I started to get some serious butterflies like three hours before we left the house. Luckily, a lot of the fellow PCVs that were also COS-ing around the time we did were there, so we got the chance to say goodbye. I remember I couldn’t stand still. I was crazy nervous as the clock ticked down. Most of the time when PCVs leave the country, they get some tearful goodbyes and hugs and then head out the door and into a taxi for the airport and that is that. That is the end.  But, thankfully, Kenny, Amanda and My goodbye was different and, it was perfect. When I say perfect, I mean perfect. I could not have imagined going out a better way. With about 20 minutes left until our taxi was to pick us up, almost everyone in the house (there were a lot of people in that house) gathered around our kitchen/dining room area as the three of us rolled our suitcases to the front door. In my mind, I thought our goodbye would be quick and simple; just a couple of “see you laters” to everyone and head out the door. I was completely shocked that everyone gathered around the dining room table (considering also that our flight was at 4 am and we left around midnight) and started playing music. With about 10 minutes until we left, our friends asked us what we would like our “last song” to be. I said, in tribute to my Haute life, “Let’s Go” by Lil John and the Eastside Boys. The music started blaring through the speakers and everyone went crazy. Everyone was dancing and a couple of brave souls started dancing on the table and bookcases. It was exactly the type of thing that we, Guinea PCVs, love to do-just be silly. When the song ended, I knew I wanted to say something to everyone who had so nicely gathered around to see us off. I gave a little “speech” (it was more some cracking in my voice and a few tears with some words in between) and thanked everyone for being part of this experience with me. A few moments later, the taxi guy called and, we hugged everyone goodbye and got into the taxi. It wasn’t until we were seated on the plane that I realized that I was really done. That was it. I was officially a RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer) and on my way to Morocco. The butterflies began to subside and excitement kicked in.

Le Maroc

MOROCCO! Oh Morocco. Let me just start off by saying that I could not have imagined traveling with people that aren’t PCVs for this trip. That may sound snobby, but it’s true. You will not find people more laid-back and go with the flow than PCVs. Kenny, Amanda and my motto throughout the trip was “well, we’ll see where this takes us.” This might as well be the slogan for Peace Corps as a whole. Anyway, in the 11 days we were in Morocco, we went to Fez, Chefchaouen and Marrakech. We started off our trip by landing in Casablanca and taking a 3/4 hour train to Fez. Fez was my favorite city. Fez is known for the tanneries, where leather goods are made (look at the photos below to see), other artisan goods and the medina, which is like one giant labyrinth. I liked Fez because it felt like the authentic Moroccan experience. I enjoyed exploring the medina and taking different twists and turns and seeing new shops and stores. I found out from Moroccans that most people in Fez don’t know all the medina, which was reassuring, because I could be there a month and still not know how to get back to the hostel we were staying at ( thank god for Kenny and his excellent orientation skills). It is true what they say about Moroccan artisanal items, they are gorgeous. Kenny, Amanda and I said that we most definitely had to come back when we actually had money and buy everything we saw. I was able to buy a few things for myself and my friends and family, but not nearly enough! At one point, the three of us checked out a rug/carpet shop and, if it weren’t for my stubbornness, I am pretty sure those two would have bought themselves some rugs. Warning to those going to Morocco, beware those rug shops. They are good at convincing you that you need a rug. They will shower you with beautiful rugs in every color, shape and size, tell you stories of their origins (which were pretty interesting) and once you are in love and intoxicated by the rugs, you willingly will hand over your cash or credit card. You need to have a crazy amount of self-control. I realized that we needed to get out of that shop when the salesman was trying to convince us that going up the stairs was the way to get out, not going down. I quickly grabbed Kenny and Amanda and headed for the door. There were some last-minute negotiations, but at the end, nothing was bought, not because the rugs weren’t lovely, or even because of the conniving manner of the salespeople, but mostly because we just didn’t have enough money to buy a $800 rug. Our Morocco trip turned into a lot of shopping, but really, how can you resist? We mostly spent our days walking around the cities and exploring the mazes of shops and restaurants. Speaking of food, Moroccan food is delicious. I suggest everyone try tagine (a stew-like plate filled with vegetables and a protein like chicken, beef and a million of awesome spices), Moroccan salad (it’s basically pico de gallo), Harira (Moroccan soup) and mint tea, my personal favorite. I think I drank mint tea at almost every meal…delicious. It is crazy how cheap, delicious and amazing the food was. One of my favorite moments during the trip was when we were lost in the Fez medina and got to the real Moroccan market where all the fruits and vegetables were lined up like in Guinea. There were similar little shops filled with hardware, shoes and clothes. The difference that I noticed between Fez’s market and those of Guinea were the size of the produces. One tomato in Fez was like 5 in Guinea. Amanda and I mentioned that it was peculiar that with only a few countries between Guinea and Morocco, life here could be so different from there. The hostel we stayed at in Fez was pretty awesome. While the weather in Morocco was pretty cold for us coming from Guinea, we did the best we could by buying some warmer clothes in Conakry and buying even more warm socks and pants in Morocco. Anyway, my point, was that the hostel in Fez didn’t really have a heater or hot water for us, so we had to shower less and bundle ourselves under like three blankets (I may or may not have stolen a blanket from one of the beds that weren’t booked in our room). In my trips to Spain and Morocco, I have to say that one of the best things about staying at hostels are the people you meet. In Fez, we hung out one night with the guy who was in charge of the lobby desk. He ordered some mint tea for us and we talked for a couple of hours about Morocco- from the government to the education system to family life. It was pretty great to get an idea of what life was like beyond what we tourists see.

After Fez, we headed north on a 4-hour bus ride to Chefchaouen, the mountain town of blue and white buildings. Unfortunately, the whole time we were in Chef, it rained. It actually, more or less, poured the whole time, but we didn’t let that get the best of us. Basically, two things saved us during those couple of days- the excellent restaurant that was literally 2 minutes from our hostel and the hostel we stayed at, which was the nicest of the three. It was more like a beautiful and well-decorated inn. We had the room of three for ourselves, with a heater and a bathroom with much-needed hot water. Could we really ask for more? When we were in Chef, we did a little exploring when it wasn’t pouring and then when it was raining too much to walk around, we would all cozy up in a bed and catch up on movies with the fast Wi-Fi. It was pretty wonderful. I was bummed, however, that we didn’t get a chance to do any hiking in the mountains. But, what can you do when the weather is less than desirable? Amanda and I did stumble across a wonderful café with the most delicious chocolate desserts, and I did buy some beautiful fabric pillow/beanbags, so I would say it was successful nonetheless. Our last stop was the very popular Marrakech. We took an early morning 8-hour train from Fez to Marrakech and arrived after dark at the hostel that we had booked in Conakry. I have to say that I have heard horror stories about hostels before, but have always been pretty lucky. They have always been pretty clean and with friendly, competent staff. This wasn’t the case with our hostel in Marrakech- correction: our first hostel in Marrakech. We arrived and we all had the same thought- “this place looks like a brothel in one of those Taken-type movies.” As we looked around the hostel, we only realized more and more how shitty the place was. The staff wasn’t helpful at all, it smelt like cigarette smoke all over, and we were pretty sure that the bed sheets had bed bugs and hadn’t been changed in forever. Now, I know what you are thinking, but you guys lived in West Africa for two years?! I know, but if we traveled in Guinea, we usually stayed at each other’s pretty clean homes and come on, after two years of perpetual dirt on our skin, didn’t we deserve more than bed bug-ridden beds? We thought so. We needed to make up a plan. So, we gathered in little corner of our 12-person room and decided to start looking up new hostels to stay at for the following next three nights. We all agreed on one, so we ventured out to eat dinner and look for it (which turned out, because Marrakesh is basically another maze of streets, to be pretty difficult, but again, thank god for Kenny). Anyway, we came back to the first hostel resigned to the fact that we had to stay one night because it was already almost midnight. That was when things got more interesting. Once we got back to the hostel, we decided we should go to bed, so we could get up extra early to head to the other hostel we had just booked earlier. The downstairs bathroom was taken, so I headed upstairs with all of my clothes and toiletries. That one was also taken, so I waited patiently for about 10 minutes, when I looked downstairs and saw that Kenny and Amanda were having a serious conversation with one of the men who ran the hostel. I could see that something was up. I shouted down to them to see what was going on and they said we had to probably leave because they had overbooked us. This both sucked and was a godsend. It sucked because it was about 1 am at this point and three Spanish girls, us and the guy running the place were all in this tiny room discussing who was going to actually sleep in these beds and, we were pretty exhausted from traveling and walking. The godsend part was that we decided this was the best thing that could have happened to us, got all our money back and didn’t have to spend one single night at that disgusting place. I couldn’t pack my bags fast enough. I was ready to go before we had even made that decision. We climbed into a taxi at about 1:30 am, got dropped off as far as the taxi would take us and walked through the medina at 2 am until we reached heaven, AKA our new hostel. Once we got into our new room and saw the clean, white linens and felt the hot water in the bathroom, we knew we had struck gold. We all couldn’t stop laughing about our ordeal. See why I say traveling with PCVs is great? We made the best of our crappy situation and ended up in a much better hostel and with all of our money back. It was an interesting start to our time in Marrakesh.

Marrakesh is much more of a tourist town. They have the snake charmers and less artisan things than Fez, but we still were able to find some good things. The best restaurant we ate was in Marrakech. I think we ate there all four days. We did more walking, sightseeing and even took a cooking class to learn how to make tagine. Two of the cooks at the hostel taught us, even though they spoke no French. These ladies were very patient with us and after about an hour and a half, we were able to eat the fruits of our labor. It was delicious.  On one of the last days in Morocco, we decided to ride camels. It was crazy! I had never actually seen a camel up close, so it was a little intimidating to see how big they are in real life. The three of us got an hour-long ride on the camels (mine was named Scooby) and got some pictures taken with them as well. While getting up on them wasn’t too scary for me, I wasn’t prepared to descend. I got a nice shock to my system when Scooby decided to let me off. Sadly, before we knew it, our trip was over. Amanda and I headed to Casablanca on a 3-hour train where I would catch a flight back home and Amanda would the following day and Kenny stayed an extra day in Marrakech. My time in Africa was officially over.

One extra note on Morocco if anyone plans to visit: always be bargaining and negotiating. People in Morocco are so used to tourists that they will take advantage of you if you don’t know prices or aren’t willing to bargain- for everything, seriously. People tried to rip us off all the time from everything from food to clothes to the prices of transportation. Speaking of transportation, taxis in the cities are the WORST. If you are a tourist, they refuse to turn the meter on because they know they can take tourist for three times more. It is ridiculous and one of the most unpleasant things about traveling in Morocco. We knew that any time we had to go basically anywhere that wasn’t walking distance, we were going to probably stand in the cold for 20 minutes for a taxi that would, at the very least, go down a little in price. There was a lot of arguing between Amanda and taxi men. There isn’t any foolproof plan where you can prevent this from happening, but just be aware.

Coming Home

I waited two months to write this post not only to torture you by the length of it, but also to be able to more fully write about how it has been being back. I will say that I got a little coughed up in separate occasions. I got teary-eyed leaving Amanda at the Casablanca train station because I realized that this would be the last time in a while that I would see any of my PC friends and also, the last time I would see in person someone who would understand all the changes going on in my life in the next few months. Also, in a more poetic sense, it was coming full circle. Amanda was the first person I met in Philadelphia leaving for Guinea and 26 months later, she was the last person I saw in Africa. I couldn’t plan these things if I tried. I also got teary-eyed landing in Orlando for, again, multiple reasons. I was exhausted from traveling, and having missed my first flight to Orlando and a disastrous experience at JFK in NYC, was just grateful to finally be home. I also realized that I was going to see my family again in a matter of minutes after not seeing them for over a year. Anyway, I landed and nearly collapsed from exhaustion, had 24 hours of glory and then got sick for like a week. Like I have told my friends, my first month back was not the best to say the least. I got pretty sick and found out I had pretty bad anemia (thus the end of my vegetarianism for now). Our family dog was put to sleep after 12 years and some other personal issues arose as well, all in my first month back. See? Not really the amazing first month I was hoping for. Anyhow, that’s life, right? In a weird way, it doesn’t even feel like I left. My parents’ house, with the expectations of a few things, is exactly the same. The neighborhood is exactly the same. My friends are still the same people they were before.

In some ways I feel like I am still the same girl who left and in others, I realize I have changed. I still have the same personality I had before I think, but as some of my family’s friends have said, I just seem stronger. My parents say I am quieter than before. Everyone has been trying to figure me out since coming back, so I have decided to consolidate all of those “most asked” questions and answer them here:

1)       How have you changed? / What did you learn?

My answer to this question has always been that I have just gained more perspective and perception on things. I am more compassionate and understanding. I think I am better at seeing things from other points of view beside my own. I am a calmer, more adventurous person. I used to be a more afraid and careful person when it came to basically everything in my life. Now, I am just doing things for myself and willing to think bigger. I realized that I lived through something that only a small percentage of people will ever fully understand, so I am going to take those lessons and try to apply them every day for the rest of my life. I would be doing a great disservice to myself if I didn’t take this experience and use its benefits for the years to come. I also have slowly been realizing that I do want to share my stories and thoughts with people. I always heard from PC and other RPCVs that people would only be interested in Peace Corps stories for a minute or two, but I am here to tell you that that isn’t necessary true for everyone. I was surprised by how many friends and their family wanted to hear what I went through and not just for 5 minutes, but for an hour or two. It has been one of the most rewarding things about being back. I have also been surprised by how much I know about Guinea, which may sound silly. But, in speaking with people who know nothing about Guinea, I realize I know quite a lot.

2)       Do you miss Guinea?

Yes and No. I miss my family in Siguiri. Most of all, I miss Sanaba, Amara and Papa. I will think about those kids for the rest of my life. I miss not being able to see them grow up. I called back recently, and it seems like everyone back in Siguiri is doing well, which makes me very happy. However, I don’t miss the heat, doing everything by hand (washing machines are truly a miracle), dust, traveling in Guinea and lack of diversity of food. On the other hand though, I do miss the comradery between fellow PCVs. I miss those fun and carefree times at the Kankan house. I have not met a group of people as loving and dynamic as Peace Corps volunteers.  

3)       How would you describe your service?

Tough, difficult, challenging. I want to make sure that everyone I talk to here in America knows that yes, it was truly an amazing experience, but it was also extremely challenging as well. I don’t want to think about my experience with just rose-colored glasses. I think it is just as important to remember the high points as well as the low points.

4)       What have you seen that has changed here?

Everything is high-tech now! Everyone has an iPhone! Everyone’s eyes are concentrated on that iPhone all day and never do people lift their heads up to say hi. I am not used to that, nor do I really want to get used to that. I am also not a fan of crop tops. Why wear a baby t-shirt? But, that is a rant for another day.

5)       What is next for you?

This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? For now, I am looking for a job up north, preferably in nonprofit/NGO communications. And, from there? We’ll see. As they say, only time will tell.

So, there you go. Those are the most frequently asked questions answered. I am enjoying being around my old friends and family and all the luxuries that the US has (hot showers, Netflix, fast internet, comfortable beds and delicious food). After two months, I am getting into a routine and feel more at home here. I have yet to have a freak-out moment at a Wal-Mart over the variety of shampoos that exist, but I did cry at a movie called “Mary & Martha”, which was about malaria. I saw the African kids playing and women wearing African fabric, and I, more or less, lost it. It was bound to happen. I have noticed that certain causes are more important to me than ever. I still think the global education of children should be THE most important issue for all world leaders and governments. I appreciate nature and climate more than ever and always bring cloth bags with me everywhere, recycle and basically feel terrible anytime I drive anywhere, even if I am driving a hybrid.  I think my PC experience has made me hyper-conscious of how important and precious this world and the lives in it are. I would be remiss if I didn’t do my part to help preserve it. While, I am still getting used to driving on the highway again (it still makes me nervous), restaurant menus (there is just too much to choose from!) and all these new apps, social media and whatnot (do you really need three different sites to post photos of your breakfast?), I know I will get there because I agree my family friends, I am stronger.

Lastly, if there are any potential PC applicants or future Guinea PCVs reading this, go for it. Come into Peace Corps with an open mind and heart and you will both give and learn a lot. Like I said, it won’t be without its hardships, but I truly believe this experience will make you a better person, mostly because you will discover things you dislike and need to improve about yourself. It will make you examine yourself in ways you never had to before. Most importantly, you will walk away with more great friends and adopted family members than you ever thought possible. You will see humankind differently. You will realize that in the end, we are all just people. We all just want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones. So, as they say in Guinea, du courage et bon chance!

Finally! That’s it for me. I apologize for the long post. I want to thank those that not only read this absurdly long post, but have also read this blog for the past two years and have encouraged and supported me. I may not have answered your comments or kept in contact very well, but I really appreciate your consistency. It really has meant a lot to me. Thank you all.

Wontanara (an expression in Guinea that means “we are in this together”),

Carolina 

25 3 / 2014

Morocco was awesome! 

Top: Tanneries in Fes

Bottom:  Mountain town lined with blue buildings, Chefchaouen

10 1 / 2014

Happy 2014 everyone! With kind of some perfect timing, the beginning of 2014 is going to be all about transitioning for me. My two-year service in Guinea is up, and I am getting ready to head stateside very soon. It has been kind of a short-lived last two months since I last posted. Christmas and New Years passed, and I left Siguiri for good as well. I finished up my projects and spoke on the phone with the new volunteer who will be replacing me. Much like life itself, my time has come to bow out and welcome in the new.

Christmas and New Years were great this year. I have been somewhere different the past three holiday seasons, which has been both really exciting and exhausting all at the same time. Needless to say, I will be happy to spend the next one in America…finally. Anyway, I spent Christmas in Kankan with 8 other volunteers. It was really a fantastic time. We exchanged gifts, cooked a Christmas eve dinner, watched movies on a projector all day on Christmas Day and baked way too many sweet treats. By the end, I was in a serious sugar coma. Probably one of my personal favorite things though was the extensive amount of decorating Stacy, Laroca and I did. Laroca made all 8 of us amazing stockings using local fabric. They came out so well! The three of us all painted on large pieces of paper a large fireplace to accompany the stockings and a pretty large Christmas tree too (check out the photos below).  I was lucky to have spent Christmas with some good friends, most of which I won’t see again for a while. New Year’s wasn’t a letdown either. In fact, I was able to find fireworks, or as they are called in Siguiri “fire”. So, Chris, I and about 20 neighborhood kids went crazy lighting them and watching the kids go crazy and laugh every time there were bursts of color or loud sounds coming from the “fire”. After the fireworks display, Chris and I did one final tour of Siguiri’s bars and clubs. We had a great time hanging out at some our favorite places from the past two years one last time. While New Years can be a letdown more often than not, the introduction to 2014 definitely wasn’t. Hopefully, that will be a good sign of things to come.

Workwise, I finished up my last entrepreneurship training. A total of 10 women finished up the training. I was so proud! I know attending and participating in this training when they were always busy with something wasn’t the easiest thing, so major kudos to them. I am also happy to have trained the head of CECOJE and my university student friend on how to give the training, in the hopes that they will continue to give it to others. I know for certain that CECOJE-Siguiri is interested in giving the training to their peer educators and other youths in the city. I won’t be around for that, but I will have to check in every now and then to see what they are up to.  Speaking of not being around, I left Siguiri. I don’t think that the full extent of what that means has fully hit me yet. I think the fact that I am leaving Guinea and leaving Africa won’t actually hit me until I am at the JFK airport surrounded by Starbucks, iPhones and crowds of people speaking English, not French. I am pretty sure that the moment I touch American soil, I will feel overwhelmed, but happy to be back. 

Before I left Siguiri though, my work threw me one giant going away party. I was told it was going to be a small together with co-workers, but they surprised me with giant speakers, a good meal, some lovely speeches and a nice gift of a dress made out of local indigo fabric. They said some really great things about me…it was very touching. I too gave a little speech and thanked them all for their hospitality. We took advantage of the speakers and danced a little too. My host sisters were down to dance, but my brother tried to hide. After a few minutes, he was won over and danced with me. The whole night was one of those iconic and ideal Peace Corps moments. It was one of those nights that made me feel like it was all worth it.

A few days after the party, I finished packing up my things and left Siguiri. I had imagined that moment at least a million times. Would I cry? Would I break down? Would I experience something profound? The answer to all of those questions is No. I didn’t cry or break down. And, I didn’t experience anything profound. I guess it is one of those things. You can’t make yourself have some clarifying, final moment. Those kinds of moments or lessons can’t happen on command. I am sure down the road, probably when I am already in America, I will able to think about leaving and my whole service with some more clarity. All I can say now is that I was glad that my last day was completely normal, and I left having said goodbye to everyone I wanted to. I had no expectations for my last day, so I left on a good note. Not, a sad and unhappy one.

I also think that it was time. There is a reason why Peace Corps is 2 years. After 27 months of living abroad in a very difficult country, it is just time to go home. It is hard to explain to Guineans that no matter how long I stay in Guinea, it will never be my home. I have given everything I had to give to Siguiri and Guinea, so now I am tired and ready for a change. As for the future and my plans after Peace Corps, only time will tell. I am going to Morocco for 11 days with my PCV friends Kenny and Amanda, and then heading home. I guess from there I will figure it out. I don’t have any definite plans as of right now, so I am keeping my options open. As far as the future of Siguiri, I am happy to report that two new volunteers will be there starting in February. One will be with my organization and the other with my friends at CECOJE. I think both of them will do really well in Siguiri, and I hope I can keep up with their projects.

Right now, I am in Conakry with just a few days left before flying out. Tomorrow, a bunch of us will head to the islands that are in front of the city for a day of sun and sand. It is the perfect way to end my adventures in Guinea.

A bientôt Amérique!

Carolina

08 1 / 2014

My going away party

08 1 / 2014

Top: Christmas in Kankan Bottom: Pumping water!

23 12 / 2013

Chaos with motos

Chaos with motos

23 12 / 2013

My women’s entrepreneurship training

29 11 / 2013

It’s Thanksgiving weekend! Like last year, it was decided that we would celebrate T-giving the Saturday after in order to accommodate everyone since, obviously, Thanksgiving is not a holiday here in Guinea. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and it’s great that I can celebrate it with so many other Americans under the same roof in Kankan. November has been a crazy month of traveling. I literally felt like it went by in a flash. The longest I have been in Siguiri this month is 4 days. I have literally traveled from one side of the country to the other this month. All of this traveling has left me sick with a cold, but it has also been a super exciting month. Let’s start from the beginning…

Kamsar & Conakry (Nov 1-13)

The beginning of November was met with an 18-hour car ride from Kankan to Conakry and the world’s slowest car accident. No exaggeration. It was the world’s slowest car accident. Let me explain. As a city, I don’t particularly enjoy Conakry. It is the definition of a clusterfuck. It is messy, disorganized and needlessly complex with a complete lack of city planning. Since the whole city is basically on an island and every car has to use the same lines, getting in and out of the city is basically impossible. Not to mention, it is normal to have to pass up to 3 security checkpoints, just to reach the outskirts. It’s bananas and one of the many reasons why I only visit Conakry twice a year at most. Once you are in the city, traffic can have you stuck for upwards of 2 hours, which is when we got into the car accident. We were warned early on that traffic was going to extra bad in the city, but we didn’t know that meant that cars weren’t moving at all. Cars were literally parked bummer to bummer without moving and any time cars would move an inch, another car would cut them off or would pull into reverse and because there are no stop lights or road signs of any kind, the drivers of the 2 cars would get out and yell at each other in the middle of the road, thus stalling everyone else. See what I mean by dysfunctional? Anyway, it was at one of these intersections that the taxi was supposed to turn, but another car was trying to get its nose in front and, in a ridiculous game of chicken, the taxi was t-boned by the other car…at 4 mph. The car accident happened so slowly that all of us in the taxi made the same “ohhhhhh” sound for a good 10 seconds. And of course, both drivers got out of the car and started yelling at each other, while the rest of us in the taxi yelled at our driver to get back in the car and continue driving.

Finally, though, after about 2 and a half hour of traffic, we made it to the Peace Corps offices and volunteer house and were greeted by our friends, pizza, a hot shower and a shot of tequila…all of which were needed. A day later, all 22 of us in G21 were packed in the PC bus (which most of us hadn’t been in since PST) and we traveled up north towards Guinea-Bissau to Kamsar, the site of our COS (close of service) conference. The conference itself was held in a hotel and was overall a great time. The best way to describe it is that is not unlike any other event in a PC service because it is basically a mini vacation. Things are more relaxed since it isn’t a training. It is usually held somewhere nicer and the general work day is just shorter with just a couple of sessions a day instead of what feels like a million during PST, IST and Reconnect (I know, we have a lot of trainings). The best part of the whole COS conference was the pool! The hotel had a functioning pool!

 G21 took full advantage of that pool-morning, day and night. We were definitely spring breaking it. The pool was vital because without it, I am not sure what we would have done about the scorching humidity in Kamsar. Siguiri is hot, but at least it’s hot and dry. Kamsar and the general Basse Cote area is more of Florida weather- hot and humid. Anyway, I think the conference was an overall success. As a group, we went over how readjustment will be like back in America, our successes during our service, reviewed and evaluated PC Guinea and most importantly, at least for me, learned the whole process of “COS-ing”. “COS-ing” is the term we use to mean the process of completing all of medical and admin paperwork we have to do before leaving. There’s a lot of it. We need a medical exam, fill out a booklet of paperwork and write basically a summary of all the work I did in PC that they keep on file. Because there is so much to do before leaving, it’s a good idea to spend at least 4 days in Conakry, in order to get it all done. After Kamsar, we took a day trip to Bel-air, one of the only swimmable beaches in Guinea (most are covered with garbage and aren’t safe to swim in). It was a nice enough beach, but nothing special. Grant it, I am from Florida and I am used to awesome beaches. But, I am comparing Guinea’s beaches to those of Sierra Leone, which is like comparing apples to oranges. Back in Conakry, the haute crew and I stayed a couple extra days in the capital hanging out and enjoying the hot showers and air-conditioning. We mostly stayed because we figured that since it technically could have taken us up to 6 days to travel from Kankan to Kamsar and back, we needed to make that 18-hour ride worth it by staying more days. Thus, we hung around and ate pizza and Chinese food.

I can teach entrepreneurship in my sleep (Nov 18-  )

This month has been the month of YETP (youth entrepreneurship training program). That has been 100% of my focus. From Nov 18-22, I once again traveled to Kankan to take part in Kenny’s YETP conference at the University of Kankan (Look at the photos below!). In the four-day workshop, Kenny, Amanda and I gave sessions on entrepreneurship to university professors, who we hope will use parts or not all of the sessions in their university classes.  I had 2 sessions on feasibility study and accounting. Although I was battling the beginnings of a cold, I got up in front of 43 professors and spoke to them about strengths and weakness, supply and demand and how to keep an accurate accounting system all in French. It was a proud moment for me. I wasn’t sure if that would have ever been possible in my 2 years. The best part was that I sincerely believe that they understood all the concepts and ideas I was sharing with them. It was definitely a highlight for me of my Peace Corp service. Plus, I did the whole conference with three of my best friends in country, and, at no point, did we want to kill ourselves or each other. Major plus. 

                My second entrepreneurship project is with a group of 20 women in Siguiri. Using the same YETP program, my friend who taught the program to RAFOC and my friend at CECOJE are teaching the 20 women the same marketing, feasibility study and accounting principles. Because the program was a success with my organization and in Kankan, I was very confident that it would be as successful with the women as well. That hasn’t been the case really. I would say that it was been much more difficult with them. Grant it, we have only done 2 of the 11 sessions, but we are already facing issues. One of the toughest things to begin with is getting the women there. Because there is no official thing that binds the women together like an organization or association or university, getting them all to show up on time or at all is really hard. The first day, all of the women showed up, but most of them late by over an hour and some over an hour and a half. Punctuality is not an issue here in Guinea, so this can be frustrating.  That being said, I do understand why the women are often late. Like I have mentioned before, Guinea is an uneven and unequal society. Women have the brunt of the work and little time to improve themselves, thus making it very hard on them to attend anything for their own self-improvement. Time is something they don’t have nearly enough of (I think mothers everywhere can sympathy with that). Second, the entrepreneurship sessions, I learned, must be taken at a slower pace because of the level of comprehension that the women have about entrepreneurship. I was surprised to learn that the majority of the women at the training had no idea why they were there or what the word entrepreneurship meant. This is all fine. The women are there because they want to learn, so I am going to give it my all so they do. I have told my two trainers to, as my mother would say, to fill themselves with patience. This is going to be a tough 4 weeks for them, but that’s fine. I don’t expect every woman to end up finishing the training for different reasons, but I am hoping that at least a couple of them leave with the knowledge they need to start their own business. This past Sunday, we got to the part of the program where each woman had to share their business idea. I was impressed by one quiet woman, who said she wanted to start her own daycare. It isn’t something that is really done here, so I thought it was so wonderful that she wanted to, not only do something unique and creative, but also something that would benefit her neighbors as well.

I have talked a little bit about what it’s like for women here, but I am not sure how to fully express how difficult it really is. Oprah once said that girls who are born in the United States already are the luckiest girls in the world. That’s true. Girls here are expected to marry young and have children. They are expected to provide childcare, while also cooking and maintain the household. My two mothers in Siguiri also hold down jobs at the market or just outside the house selling grocery items. Most will tell you it isn’t an easy life. I agree, it really isn’t. The thing that angers me the most here though is the very obvious disrespect that men have for women. How very much they are second-class citizens and, as many men here will tell you, are at the mercy of their husbands. I remember having a conversation with my organization’s director about American women. He asked me if it was against the law to hit women in America. I told him absolutely. He then asked me, “Well, what if they do something wrong? What if they make a bad meal?” I told him that if he touched one hair on a woman’s hair in America, he would go to jail. It’s a crime, I told him. This took him a minute to process before he said, “really?” How can this not anger me? Hitting here is just another way to control. The director then asked, “What about sex? What if the husband wants it, but the wife doesn’t? What happens then?” I told him that if the wife didn’t want to have sex, that was that, no sex. This baffled him as well. He then said, “Well, here in Guinea, if the husband wants it, then it’s the wife’s duty and obligation to have sex.” I shook my head. “Nope, not in America. If a man forces a woman to have sex with him, that’s rape and the man will go to jail” I said. He took in what I said, before saying, “Well, you guys in America have a lot of laws.” To which I responded, “ We just believe in an equal society. No one is at the mercy of anyone else.” Now this conversation wasn’t an argument,  and I wasn’t necessary annoyed by it because I know the director was more curious than anything, but if the mentality of men here are that of the director’s, Guinea has a long way to go. Like I said, being a woman in Guinea is not easy, even for me, as a “white” woman who is seen as well-educated. I still face men who have look down at me or challenge me at every turn. I am, after 2 years, harassed on a more-or-less daily basis by men who are looking to date a white woman for alternative reasons (green card, status, etc.). Men here have made me cold and cynical right off the bat when I met someone new because I assume they look at me like a piece of meat for sell. At least, I can say no because I am not tied down by culture or family pressure, but Guinean women don’t have that option. So, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for being me; a woman who was raised in a country that believes that I can do and become anyone I want to be and for having a family and friends that encourage me to do so.

Wishing everyone back home a very happy Thanksgiving,

Carolina