Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Travels to Guinea

Back in November, we used the last of our vacation time as volunteers to travel to Guinea.  We traveled with 4 other volunteers overland from Gambia, through Senegal to the mountainous region of Guinea.  It was great.  Guinea is a beautiful country with green hills and waterfalls everywhere.  The people that live there are Pular which are also in the Gambia but slightly different.  Traveling in West Africa is difficult, especially for white people.  In this area of Africa it is not at all dangerous, except for the cars and roads.  We started the trip in Basse, an upcountry town in Gambia where there is a transit house we could all stay at.  We tried to negotiate a car for the next morning and thought we had secured one for a reasonable price.  We arrived at the car park the morning of at 6:30 to get a head start, however, no one was around.  We waited for an hour or so and found someone who was in charge of the Basse – Guinea cars (there were all of 2).  They did not remember the previous nights negotiations.  After extensive re-negotiations and walking away twice, we agreed on a price (that was not a great deal for us) and set off on the long journey.   

Our driver did not speak any English, and our French was pretty rusty and our pular is non-existent.  We made it through the borders and ferry crossing in record time and reached the city we were going to, Labe, in a mere 15 hours.  The road from to Labe, Guinea is probably one of the worst roads in West Africa.  They are winding dirt roads that are just mudd during the rains with wooden rickety bridges to cross, complete with a ‘wind up’ old ferry at one river crossing.  The only cars that travel there are huge trucks and station wagons that are supposed to carry 7 people but actually are carrying 11 inside the car and as many as can fit on top. It is a crazy thing to witness.  When we arrived in Labe, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, really cold, and we had no idea where we were or where we should go.  So we call a Peace Corps volunteer in Labe at 3 o’clock in the morning, as a long shot.  She answers, and has her host brother drive her over to us and take us all in his car to a hotel.  Incredible!  We sleep and the next day we head out to the village Doucki, a small pular village in the mountains where we stayed at Hassan Bah’s camp.  Highly recommended!
Pular Villages in the mountains

Vulture's Rock

Hassan Bah himself!

Our lodging at the camp

The Guinean Grand Canyon




Walking around Doucki

Swimming at Vultures Rock

The whole group with Hassan

The Deter!

Climbing down mountains with waterfalls

Hassan Bah is a fantastic guide, born in Guinea but moved to Sierra Leon where he learned English and went to school.  He spent his younger days on a Spanish shipping boat with Chinese men so he picked up Spanish and some Chinese as well!  He moved back to his mother’s property in Douki and started his ‘camp’ which is actually visited by a lot of people from everywhere, and a lot of peace corps volunteers.  He is funny, entertaining, and gives you a hiking experience you won’t ever forget.  The area is beautiful and we stayed there for 4 days exploring his many trails.  Here is a link to his website that Guinea Pc Volunteer made for him (he has actually never seen it): 

While at Hassan’s camp, we met an interesting Belgium man named Deter who went on all the hikes with us and even came with us to our next town that we went to.  At first we were a little annoyed at him as he didn’t really ask us if he could join us, but then he redeemed himself by buying us all cokes – the way to a volunteers heart, free anything made in America.  The hike that was particularly memorable to us was called ‘chutes and ladders’.  This hike consisted of hiking up locally made ladders through waterfalls.  It was incredibly scary, and awesome!  It was a long 8 hour hike and at one point in the valley portion of the hike we stepped in about 4 different ant swarms at separate times.  Those Guinean ants were relentless!!  It was not fun, but watching everyone run away through the bush was pretty funny.  At Hassan’s we hiked for 4 days straight with some hikes being around 18 kilometers! 
Indiana Jones

traditional Pula Putas

On the way back we drove 15 hours with a motorcycle on top of our car

After Hassan’s camp we went to Dalaba and hung out with a couple of Guinea volunteers.  We were able to see the town and this volunteer’s house which was really nice, in the mountains, and completely different from lifestyles in the Gambia.  In Dalaba we went to see more waterfalls and just toured the small mountain town where rich Guineans build their houses in the hills – nice houses.  Like America nice.  It is kinda strange, but beautiful.  We left Dalaba and drove down to a big city outside of Conakry called Kindia.  There, we went to an artisanal fair on a palm tree farm.  The owner is named Chico and he has established an organic farm that he hopes will attract tourists.  He lived in America for about 20 years but is Guinean.  He was so nice!  When we arrived he gave us free crepes, banana chips, lunch, drinks, showed us around the farm and later asked us to stay for a free dinner of bbq chicken and palm wine surrounding a bonfire.  
Afterwards we went back to Labe to secure a car for our ride back to the Gambia.  Our ride back to the Gambia took a little longer.  We made it through the mountain pass to the Guinea – Senegal border to find that it was closed until morning.  At this point, everyone was out of money so we couldn’t really get a room, and the taxi driver refused to take us there anyway so we didn’t really try.  Instead, we slept on hammocks by the border, inside the car, next to the car, and ya – anywhere we could find.  Ben and I slept on hammocks and then I got too cold and moved inside our car where I slept sitting up.  The next morning  at 6:30 our driver woke us up and hurried us through the border crossings.   And shortly after we arrived back in the Gambia.  All things considered, a great and memorable trip! 

COS Conference

We made it – to our ‘Close of Service’ Conference!  COS conference is the last Peace Corps conference of our service where the administration discusses things you need to do to in order to end your service and prepare to leave the Gambia.  It is only for the volunteers leaving in the next 3 months so it was almost all the same people we came into the country with, which made it really fun.  We discussed the highs and lows of our services, gave tips to how to improve Peace Corps Gambia and discussed writing our ‘Description of Service’, resumes, etc.  Peace Corps brings in a panel of ‘returned volunteers’ to discuss re-adjusting to life in America and we were given the opportunity to ask questions and listen to their stories.  They all said it was a little overwhelming in the beginning and that upon their return they talked about their experiences as peace corps volunteers a lot more than anyone in America wants to hear about! It was a good conference and it was nice to hang out with all of our friends that we began our service with.  Peace Corps threw us a nice dinner party where a lot of staff got the opportunity to come and give out completion certificates. 

 We had a great Christmas Eve at the Ambassador's house! Christmas Day we ate bacon and breakfast tacos and spent the day on the beach! Christmas dinner we had a peace corps party and ate cheeseburgers :).

At COS conference we set our official leave date too.  We will be leaving the Gambia on February 14!  It will be awhile before we make it to America however.  We are traveling to Dakar – Morocco – Spain – Portugal – London and taking a transatlantic cruise from London to NYC!  From NYC we’ll fly back to Texas sometime in Mid-May!!! We are excitedly planning our trip and are equally as excited to finally make it home (although it still seems like a long ways away still). Family and friends we cannot wait to see you again and thanks for being patient with our absence and gypsy-ness :)!