Monday, May 5, 2014

Carnaval in Cape Verde

Our trip to Cape Verde started off really well, with us being held prisoner in the Dakar airport for two days.  Luckily, I had bought over two pounds of cheese and ham in Abidjan, so I didn't starve.  I would go into more detail about this, but have done a pretty good job of forgetting it so suffice it to say that the airline was incompetent, the cops were corrupt, and there were feral cats in the departure lounge.

We eventually made it to Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, the day before Mardi Gras.  For those of you not in the know, Cape Verde is a collection of ten islands about 350 miles from the coast of Senegal.  It was a Portugeuse colony, so most people are very catholic and speak Portuguese.  They also show their knees (!), which after two years in Guinea kind of blew me away.  And like other past Portuguese colonies, they celebrate Carnaval, a month long celebration of feathered costumes and masks culminating on Mardi Gras.

This was our reason for being in Cape Verde, attending the giant party known as Mardi Gras.  We weren't on Sao Vincente, the island famed for its Carnaval celebration, but we figured the capital island would have comparable festivities. Plus we didn't want to take yet another flight to another island, considering our recent flying experience.  Mardi Gras in America is known for parades, beads, and dionysian shenanigans.  While there was a fantastic parade, the other familiar signs of Mardi Gras were nowhere to be found.  We found this out after spending the morning celebrating American style, but nothing improves a parade better than rum.  There were drum lines, feathered dancers styled like peacocks, and huge floats, depicting anything from a sun king to renewable energy.

The next day, we took a mini-bus at much too fast a speed on much too windy a road to Tarrafal, a beach town on the opposite side of the island.  Fortunately, the island is only 75 km long, so it wasn't as long a journey as it sounds.  Tarrafal has one of the only white sand beaches on Santiago, the island we were on.  Cape Verde is made up of volcanic islands, so most of its coastline is dramatic cliffs and jagged rock.  The beach was hidden in a sort of cove and definitely held some pirate booty at one time or another.

The ride back followed volcanic ridge lines and took us through the agricultural heartland.  The countryside was an interesting mix of tropical West African life and Portuguese style villages.  There were breathtaking rock formations and rich green landscapes as fas as the eye could see, until I had to close my own eyes due to car sickness.  Everyone was thankful when we hit the cobblestone and were forced to slowdown.

Besides its delicious seafood (tuna steak was standard fare) and the Carnaval celebration, Cape Verde is also known for its music, which is in the Afro-Carribeean style.  There was an excellent live music place in Praia that had live music everynight, so we went a couple of times.  It was also the only place really open after dark, as Praia, and Tarrafal too, turned into seaside ghost towns after dusk.

"Sodade" by Cesaria Evora, one of the most celebrated Cape Verdian musicians

The laidback vibe of Cape Verde, and the fact there were grocery stores with apples, was a perfect transition as I made my way back, slowly, to the states.  It helped that I had two great travel partners, Chris and Brittany, who could combine Spanish and French to make a Portuguese sounding language and were always up for wearing sparkling masks.  

After our couple days, I headed to Paris with Brittany and found myself extremely unprepared for how cold it is north of 20 degrees latitude.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Where in the world is Michelle?

For those of you that weren't following the Grey Goose Gaggle blog, here's some highlights of our tour of West Africa (photos to come later).  On second thought, this may even serve those of you that followed our blog, seeing as we updated it a grand total of 5 times. But hey, we were busy living life.


  • loading all our baggage directly onto the roof and hoping it wouldn't collapse onto us
  • literally rolling our car into Jesse's compound
  • Chris and Zach joining Mansa Koulibaly's band for the night
  • having our car belt break again after going 25 km out of Bamako and getting stuck for the day. And eating Cheetos to cheer us up
  • serving as apprentice cobbler while Clara bought everything the market had to offer
  • sneaking into a hotel after no one would let us put four people in a room (Peace Corps volunteers are as cheap as they come)
Burkina Faso
  • walking on top of giant water pipes from a rock formation to the waterfalls
  • Happy Hour with other PCVs in Ouagadougou
  • playing soccer at the stadium in Banfora
  • catching the Festival au Desert and hearing amazing touareg musicians
  • Pendjari National Park, where we saw lions eating breakfast and a group of elephants waved at us with their trunks
  • flying the Grey Goose into a bus
  • hyperventilating when they put a snake around my neck at the python temple
Yeah, it was kind of like that. (Photo credit: Chris Austin)
  • getting schooled by Lebanese car importers in pool
  • spending two hours motoing all over Lome with Clara in search of grilled fish and plantains.  Then finally eating it!
  • running berserk all over a playground that serves as a restaurant at night and still finding sand in my pockets
  • ramen! pancakes! sausages!
  • going to Accra mall to see the Hunger Games movie, and then being so disappointed when it wasn't showing that day
  • visiting Cape Coast castle, a departure point for millions of slaves during the 1700 and 1800s
  • surfing in Busua
  • using benedictions and blessings to get out of police checkpoints
Cote D'Ivoire
  • almost seeing P Squared at a club
  • eating so much loco (fried plantains) at Allocodrome, basically the capital of loco
  • being bosses at a club and drinking champagne
  • cold cut champions!
  • selling the Grey Goose
It was an amazing trip and I still can't believe it happened. There were times during it where we thought we might not make it.  We fought (sometimes literally) car trouble, visa delays, corrupt cops, labyrinths of border crossings, horrible roads and conmen sock sellers.  It even rained once.  Luckily our two years in Guinea had trained us well and we were able to talk, "MacGyver", and wait our way out of most situations.  

For anyone thinking of an overland West Africa trip, I highly recommend it.  Besides visas, lodging and food is very affordable if you like camping and eating local dishes.  There are so many different things to see: mountains to beaches to historical sights to giant night clubs.  Here is some advice I can offer to those of you contemplating this grand adventure (also check our our trip's blog, where we are supposed to be putting information about all the logistics of driving through borders).
  • Do your research ahead of time.  I realize there's not much info out there, but it we had known that Ghana required drivers to wear closed toed shoes, it would have saved us a lot of time.
  • Allow 3-4 days to get visas.  Someone is always out of the office or there is a holiday or they don't have the stamp they need to do visas.  As a note, most embassies require you to drop off passports in the morning and pick them up in the evening. Or just get them ahead of time if you're in your country of residence and save yourself all the hassle.
  • DUCT TAPE. And lots of it.
  • Spend the extra money on a better car.  The headaches it will save you is worth it.  Or import your own.  Cars in West Africa are three to four times the price you would pay in Europe or America and you can ship a car for about $1000 plus customs fees.  Of course then you have to deal with the bureaucracy that is francophone customs officials.
  • Have at least three copies of the Lonely Planet guidebook with you.
  • Find Peace Corps volunteers to tell you all the backstreet places to go.
  • Always have snack with you, preferably cold cuts.
  • Never, never take Senegal Airlines.
***Next up - Cape Verde: Where is everyone?***

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Greatest COS Tradition of All

So starting January 23rd, I will officially no longer be a Peace Corps volunteer.  And I will be embarking on a crazy adventure of a road trip.

We will be visiting eight countries over about 6 weeks.

In this car:

So here is our  (rough) itinerary:

January 23: Conakry - Kankan
January 24: Kankan - Bamako
January 25-28: Bamako
January 28: Bamako - Bobo (there are baby elephants here!)
January 29: Bobo
Janurary 30: Bobo - Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)
February 4: W Park (Benin)
February 5-7: Northern Benin, where there are lots of national parks and houses that look like castles
February 8-12: Porto Novo and Cotonou (Benin), visiting a village on stilits, the home of voodoo, and beaches
February 13-15: Lome (Togo), honestly don't know what we're doing here yet, but they are said to have the best national beer in West Africa
February 16-19: Accra (Ghana)
February 20-22: Cape Coast, beautiful beaches and english speakers
February 22-March 1: Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire)
March 1 - March 7: Carnival at Cape Verde, daiquiris, feathered costumes and snorkling!

Or course, these dates will probably change as we find cooler things to do in other places or if we get flat tires.  If you want to follow the trip's official blog, you can find it here:

And now, off to Bamako!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Two Years in Guinea : The Highs and the Lows

Well my Peace Corps service is almost over and I am about to embark on a great adventure across West Africa, but first some highlights (and lowlights) of my time in Guinea.

That Time I Felt Like a Stereotypical Peace Corps Volunteer: On one visit to Balandou, where I did a big reforestation project in 2012, the farmer we were working with gave me a live chicken.  I had biked there, loading my bike into a wobbly canoe to cross a river, but it would have been rude to not accept the chicken.  So I took it, threw its tied legs over my handlebars and biked back through the villages, holding it in my lap as we paddled across the river.  And yes, I did eventually eat it, and it was delicious.

That Time I Forgot I Was in Guinea: Going out to eat at a fancy restaurant in Conakry.  You can eat a burger, have a drink that is truly cold, and listen to live music.  Also, basically the whole time I was in Dakar.  That place is literally Little Europe.

They even have trampolines in Dakar
One of My Best Days: Going to visit my host family’s maternal village for someone’s village wedding.  It rained all day and we had to ford several rivers, so we were soaked through when we arrived.  But everyone there treated me like a member of the family, even though we had never met, welcoming me into their huts with open arms.  And not a single child screamed “Toubabou” at me.

One of My Worst Days: One of my first days living in Kankan.  I didn’t have a gas stove yet, so was cooking over charcoal outside, which isn’t bad in itself, except everyone in the whole neighborhood comes to watch the toubabou cook.  And they have no problem telling you that you are doing it wrong or just reaching their hands right into your food to add a whole handful of hot peppers.  Eventually I had had enough of being a show for everyone, and at this point I was hungry and frustrated, so I shouted at them all to go away, screaming the few Malinke words I knew.  Then I felt guilty for acting so rashly and, even worse, the food wasn’t very good.  How was I going to live in this country if I couldn’t even make lunch? Luckily, since then I have developed a tough enough skin that people can shout at me and stare all they want and I can just ignore it, or deal with it more tactfully (i.e. tickling all the kids until they run away).

One of My Best Bush Taxi Rides: That time I was lucky enough to catch a ride with the professor of the study abroad program in Kankan.  We made it to Conakry in 16 hours and I had a whole bench to myself!

One of My Worst Bush Taxi Rides: Basically every ride going to or from Mamou, my own personal transportation hell.  Returning from our In-Service Training, there were enough PCVs to rent out a whole car, but there were no cars at the station.  Eventually one came and we left by 2 pm, but had to stop by the garage on the way out because it turned out the gas tank was leaking.  They removed it from the car and ran off into the woods with it.  Two hours later they were back with a “repaired” gas tank and we were off.  Then we got flat tire after flat tire, eventually forgetting our jack at a pit stop.  And that repaired gas tank was not doing so well, so our driver patched it up with a paste of instant coffee and soap.  All that in mind, we were making pretty good time until it was reaching midnight and we kept getting flat tire after flat tire, always waiting for a sympathetic passerby to lend us their jack and a ride into town to patch the tire.  Running on fumes, we finally made it to Kankan, where we promptly ran out of gas about 3 km from our destination.  The only saving grace was I had all my friends to keep me company.  And a cat.

That Time My Project Was a Success: Watching the development Green Hand Action, the NGO I work with, has made over the two years.  The first year we did our reforestation project, I felt like I had to hold their hand at every step and there were so many logistical problems.  This year, after I helped with the preparations, all I had to do was show up and they organized themselves into work groups and managed all the details on their own.

The boys of Green Hand Action 
That Time My Project Failed: Let me paint a not so hypothetical picture. When planting trees in an urban area, there are so many things that can go wrong.  Children can come play soccer on top of your seedlings, so you meet with them and tell them about the importance of trees.  Then a fire comes, burning them all to crisp, so you remove all the weeds and dried brush surrounding the trees.  Then a herd of sheep arrives, munching all your trees down to a short stump, so you put up fencing, keeping all the herbivores out.  Then, in the middle of the night, a mysterious someone comes and steals all your fencing, trampling the trees in the process.  Then you give up and think maybe planting trees there wasn’t such a good idea after all.

A Thing I Will Never Accept in Guinea: The crying baby ringtone.  I had a neighbor who had no music on his phone, so would just listen to this on repeat, the loudest most jarring cry I have ever heard.  Isn’t everyone supposed to instinctively hate this sound?

A Thing I Got Over Pretty Quickly:  The water method.  Suffice it to say that sometimes you are visiting a village or your car breaks down and you desperately need the bathroom, but you have no toilet paper.  Luckily water is always available.  Please at least use soap afterwards though.

Worst Meeting I Ever Attended: During the first week of pre-service training, we attended a meeting at the local office of environment.  The official didn’t seem to be informed we were coming and proceeded to give veiled, defensive answers to all our questions.  Added to the fact that few of us understood French at that point and the room was uncomfortably hot, I would venture to say at least half of us, including our trainer, dozed off.

Best Meeting I Ever Attended:  A meeting put on for all the local gardening associations by a group that offers pest control training.  They used powerpoint to show graphs of the attendance of each group and the increase in their earnings and projected future activities.  Most of the crowd was illiterate, so they explained the meaning of every image in the local language, and you could see the appreciation these old ladies felt in being treated as equals.  Plus, it started on time and we got lunch.

Thing I Use Everyday Day: Feel free to judge me, but it’s my smartphone.  I can GPS my farmer’s land, look up proper spacing for watermelon mounds, and check my e-mail, all from the field.

Thing I Never Use: A watch.  Most things start late anyways, so wearing a watch just makes you anxious about the fact that it is two hours after the start time and only five people are there.

Guinean Skill I Have Mastered: The social joking that gets everything done here, from scheduling a meeting to buying tomatoes.  I call all Traores thieves and ask everyone coming from a trip where my gift is.  I even manage a laugh when all those old men say they will marry me, although I usually tell them they will have to be my fourth husband and do all my laundry, which shuts them up pretty fast.

Guinean Skill I Still Fail At: Carrying water on my head.  I have to fill all my buckets up only 4/5 of the way or it splashes all over me.  Luckily I live very close to the well, so I can carry the buckets by my side and stay dry.

Favorite Town In Guinea: Besides Kankan, which I really believe is the best, I would have to say Lola, which is where we stayed before hiking Mt. Nimba.  The people are polite and speak great French.  It is at the start of the mountains, surrounded by forested countryside.  Plus, because it is a Christian village, there is pork and palm wine everywhere.
A vine bridge near Lola
Least Favorite Town In Guinea: Linsan, the truck stop between Kindia and Mamou.  This town located along the main road is always full of traffic because people will park their cars along the side of the road, turning a national highway into one lane.  There are hundreds of vultures and a disproportionate amount of beggars and general crazy people, making the whole scene like something out of a horror movie.

Hottest I’ve Ever Been: Anytime during hot season in Kankan.  Most days, I would come home after lunch, strip down and pour a whole bucket of water over me, then lay on the floor fanning myself until the temperature dropped enough to be a real person again.

Coldest I’ve Ever Been: Coming back from the forest, which is much colder than the rest of Guinea, in winter in our taxi with the windows down.  It may have only been 60 degrees out, but wearing a tank top and having the wind in your face for three hours made it feel like 30.

Favorite Child: I know you’re not supposed to choose favorites, but mine is definitely Le Vieux, the youngest child in my family.  We eat breakfast together every morning and chat as we both speak about the same level of Malinke.  Since he is the baby of the family, he has everyone else wrapped around his finger and gets away with everything and totally knows it too.

Least Favorite Child: Just kidding, that would be too mean. Although those kids that bang on my door at 6 in the morning are pretty close.

Best Thing I’ve Eaten: This really has two categories.  One is all the amazing things the Kankan volunteers make for our weekly dinners: cinnamon rolls, fried cheese, onion rings, egg rolls, pizza, lime pound cakes, smoothies.  The other category of Guinean food would have to be the pork we got special ordered for New Years in the Forest region.  It was grilled and came with plantains and pineapple.

Worst Thing I’ve Eaten: Toh. This is ball of play-doh consistency usually made from rice, corn, or manioc flour mixed with water.  It is not the toh itself, I dislike, but the sauce it comes with, made with okra and usually dried fish.  The okra makes it slimey and green, and as everyone eats it with their hands, you can’t help but be reminded of snot.

(EDIT: It seems unsavory to end my blog post with the word "snot", so here's some more highlights)

Some of my Best Memories: Squatting in the garden, planting onions next to my host mom.  Dancing with the members of my gardening groupement.wearing our matching outfits.  Digging up a wild yam with my master farmer and roasting it over a fire in the middle of the woods.  Dancing in the first rain of the season with all the kids in my compound.  Selling my family's produce in the market, bartering with all the market mamas.  Biking at night and looking up to see the whole milky way turning around me. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Going To Church

Call me a bad Christian, but after nearly 2 years in Guinea, I have finally gone to church for the first time.  I probably should have gone for Christmas last year, when I was in a Christian region, but drinking palm wine with the locals was more appealing than a 6 hour service in a language I didn’t understand. 
Guinea is a majority Muslim country, the actual statistic escapes me, but I imagine it’s around 80%.  Christians are sprinkled all over the country, but most live in the Forest region to the south.  Even in Kankan, almost all the Christians are Forestière (their families come from the Forest Region).
There are two churches in Kankan: catholic and protestant, which are the two sects of Christianity found in Guinea.  We chose to go to the protestant one because that is where one of our old guards goes.  We arrived at 9:30 and the service had already started, but luckily you can never be late in Guinea.  An usher with an orange-blue-red bandana around his neck like a boy scout seated us.  We were a group of four and arriving later, there weren’t many seats left, so it was a tight fit.
The service followed a similar program as in America.  There was singing, readings from the gospel, the Lord’s prayer, the exchange of the Peace.  Everything was said in French, and then repeated in Malinké.  The music was accompanied by a keyboard, djembe drum, and a koran (a gourd surrounded by a net of beads that has a maraca-like sound).  It wasn’t southern gospel church intensity, but there were some raised hands, exclamations of “Hallelujah” and “Amen”, and the music had more rhythm than your average Anglican hymn.
About thirty minutes after we arrived, we realized the church was divided into men and women and my male site mate was sitting on the wrong side.  No one said anything, so I guess it wasn’t a big deal and the gender separation was done more out of habit than enforced by the church.  Was kind of awkward for a second though.  What surprised me the most was the absence of crying babies.  Outside the church, there are crying babies everywhere, so the calming of them during the service is a true act of god.
The sermon was about serving god in different ways, based on that reading about individuals being different parts of the body (hands, feet, head) that together make up the metaphorical body of Christ.  It wasn’t horribly long, which was a pleasant surprise considering most Guinean’s penchant for grandstanding.  During the sermon, the Boy Scout ushers patrolled the pews, waking up any dozing followers.
Next came communion, which was prefaced by a scolding by the reverend about who is allowed to take communion.  Among the excluded: the unbaptized, sinners, casual churchgoers, those who covet, people with any doubts about their faith.  Then he called the congregation to take communion, but after that reprimanding no one stood.  Gradually, they started to line up to take their bread and wine.  We Americans refrained since based on the recently listed qualifications of a good Christian, we didn’t’ seem to fit the bill.  Plus that bright pink “wine” looked too much like kool-aid, and, as a rule, I don’t drink kool-aid in an organized fashion. 
The service ended at noon and everyone milled about outside, chatting with friends.  It was interesting to see how community ties were formed around the church, compared to the mosques that tend to be more of a place to pray than a community center.  The whole experience was surprisingly similar to church in America.  However we all agreed that the biggest thing missing was a nearby restaurant for after-church brunch.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Peace Corps Alphabet Part II

M is for maggi, a bouillon type cube that is used in literally all foods.  It is full of MSG and therefore delicious.

N is for Néré, a local tree with bean-like fruits that we eat twice.  First, the yellow powder surrounding the seeds in the pod that acts as an appetite suppressant.  Then the seeds themselves are prepared to make sumbara powder, basically a local maggi.

O is for Oser Reposer (dare to relax) because you have more free time than you know what to do with as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Many use this time productively: to reread Harry Potter, learn the harmonica, unsuccessfully brew various wines, build a brick oven, or, in my case, learn to snap (but only with my left hand).

P is for the Peugeot 405, perhaps the most durable automobile ever built.  We use the several decades old station wagons from Europe as nine-person bush taxis. Or ten. Or eleven.

Q is for Quinn, my first cat (RIP), who like to sneak into neighbors’ huts and jump on their faces while they slept.

R is for rice and sauce, the staple, and often only, food in Guinea.  Sauce choices are usually one of the following three: 1) soup sauce, which is like a less hearty beef or fish stew; 2) peanut sauce, which is like a watery peanut butter and 3) leaf sauce, which is reminiscent of creamed spinach.  I will have eaten at least 400 bowls of this by the time I leave Guinea. 

S is for Sarata, the best club in Kankan.  Where the beers are cold and the dance floor is hotter than my tin roof in April.

T is for toubabu, or ‘white person’ in Malinke.  This, along with its variations of toubabumuso (white woman) and toubabumusonin (small white woman), is the ever playing soundtrack to my life.

U is for my own little USA, e.g. all the other volunteers who keep me sane after yet another passenger in a taxi throws up into my hair. (Yes, I realize this one is kind of a stretch, but ‘U’ is a difficult letter.)

V is for my velo (‘bike’ in French) that takes me everywhere.  Kankan-centre is about 6 km across, not counting the extra belt of ‘suburbs’ that surrounds it, and I spend the majority of my day biking from place to place.

W is for waiting, which I spend around 30% of my time doing.  I used to get mad, now I just get a lot of reading done.

X is for XXL, the green apple flavored energy drink that basically takes the place of beer in this Muslim country.  When everyone goes out, it’s this that fuels the hours of sweaty dancing.

Y is for yogurt, which is cultured in buckets in peoples’ houses and sold out of plastic bags or plastic cups.  It is delicious though and if you’re lucky, cold and with tiny millet balls or tapioca mixed in.

Z is for the Zagat’s Guide to Ice Cream in Kankan, a dream project of my site mates and I to rate all the soft serve machines in Kankan.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Planting Trees and Getting Connected

I cannot believe my time here is almost up.  Well, relatively, at least.  The wonderful Lily Schorr is coming to visit, then it is Tabaski and Halloween, then G21’s Close of Service (COS) conference, then my parents visit, Thanksgiving, Christmas/New years, and suddenly it’s January and I leave to embark on an awesome COS trip.  Plus, in between all of that I need to finish up some projects and ensure that others will continue after I’m gone.  It always amazes me how time here is so fluid.  Some days I feel like I have absolutely nothing to do, then I think of the next couple months and feel overwhelmed by work and want to start it all now.  Something Peace Corps has taught me is that, in Guinea at least, you really can’t force things to happen and it’s better to just enjoy your downtime while you have it.  When you over-prepare here, chances are it will change the day of and all your preparations will have been for naught.  It does teach you to think on your toes though.


I started the summer with a World Environment Day conference, put on by Green Hand Action.  The morning was a presentation and debate on the biodiversity of a local lake, led by a professor at the university.  We invited all the stakeholders: the ministry of fishing, the prefect, and the local group is charged with the conservation and management of the lake.  It was a rare opportunity for all these groups to get together and have a frank discussion. 

Green Hand Action members at World Environment Day

Once the discussion was opened, claims started flying around that NGOs only work to get projects so they can graft the money.  This in turn prompted the NGOs to shoot back that the government does the same thing and, what’s more, doesn’t even support those civil societies who are actually working to improve their communities.  These accusations from both sides are, at times, true, but I have also worked with NGOs and government officials who are doing genuinely good work.  I hope that this conference has encouraged these positive deviants to work together and not get discouraged by those just in it for the kickbacks.

* * *

Condé and I have been leading a weekly SRI course at the agricultural school that we started in July.  We’ve had over 50 participants and have been able to create and introduce a new appropriate technology, a hand-pushed weeder/aerator.

Condé pushing our sarcleuse

The only problem is some mysterious animal or pest that is eating our rice stalks down to the ground.  Our demonstration plot is right next to the student dorms and one student recently told me he saw the animal eating the rice when he came back from the dance club late one Saturday night.  We think it is some sort of wild rodent and have set up a trap nearby, so hopefully I will be eating bush rat stew sometime soon and our rice will be growing tall. 

* * *

Mid-July through Mid-August was Ramadan.  I decided not to fast this year and it was a completely different experience than last year.  For one, I didn’t sleep 18 hours a day.  Even though I’m not Muslim and therefore not required to fast, I felt guilty every time I ate and tried to do it in secret.  There was still unprepared food in the market, but all the street meat, snacks, and rice bars were gone from the sides of the roads.  Luckily, there is a Christian Togolese lady who runs a restaurant that become the lunchtime haven of Forestières (of whom the majority are Christian) and expats (ie PCVs and other West Africans).  Some days, I fasted accidentally simply because I was too lazy to search out food.  Other days, I did so purposefully because I was tired of feeling excluded.  My family still let me eat the break fast meal with them regardless, but that rice porridge tasted so much better when I knew that I had earned it.  Because I didn’t spend most of my days in a hunger nap this year, I was able to see just how much people secretly cheat.  If only I had known that last year.

* * *

The timing of Ramadan forced us to push Green Hand Action’s annual cashew reforestation project back to late August, the very end of the ideal planting time for trees in this region.  It is hard enough to get people to work when they’re eating, so I can only imagine the struggle we would have faced had we done the project during Ramadan.  Our group was smaller than last year and therefore easier to manage and, since this was their second year of the project, I was able to take more of a back seat and just be another volunteer.  This was easier said than done.  Watching four people do a job that could have been more easily by one, it was difficult to not take the reins. 

In the end, we planted 6 hectares (about 15 acres) of cashew trees in less than a week with a minimal amount of intra-team bickering.  I did have to take a quick session on the best way to give constructive criticism (some tips: don’t call the receiver stupid and yell in their face) and offer friendly reminders to keep good notes, always get receipts, and maybe not buy several pounds of candy because it would make everyone happy.  At times, it felt like I was chaperoning a high school service trip, which, in effect, I was, since most of the members of Green Hand Action are high school students.  Fortunately, we were greatly helped this year by Mr. Sanoh, my Pioneer Farmer partner and the owner of the land on which we were planting.  He is a cashew expert and did the work of five of my high school students, even during a torrential downpour.

I’m really proud of all the members for managing the project themselves this year and I think that they are too.  It gives me confidence that the NGO will continue to function after I leave in February, which is really the goal of all my projects: forward progress that can and will be continued.

* * *

The biggest thing going on in Guinea right now are the legislative elections.  BBC has a kind of “everything you need to know” site  and this article by a fellow American inConakry gives a more detailed backdrop for the current situation.  Basically, after the election of the President in 2010, legislative elections were meant to be held, but for various reasons (mostly logistics and the innate inability of political parties to agree) they kept getting pushed back.  They were most recently scheduled for September 24th, now the 28th (which incidentally is the anniversary of the stadium massacre in Conakry).

This is the closest we’ve come to the elections actually happening since I’ve been in country, which is exciting because it means the official campaign has started.  According to campaign rules, candidates can only campaign starting from 30 days before the election.  In Kankan, at least, the campaign is pretty fun and mostly chaotic.  Everyone wears their party colors and ties bandanas on their motos/cars/bikes/babies.  Posters are plastered on cars, shops, and cars.  One party even has a 6-foot wide beach ball with a picture of the candidate’s face on it.  Then every day, outside each parties’ headquarters, there are actual parties, with speakers, DJs, and dancing.

The most chaotic parts (and frightening, if you happen to bike through them accidentally) are the huge motorcades.  Hundreds of party supporters hop on their motorcycles, usually with another 2-3 people on the back and race through town at 50 mph, sounding horns, popping wheelies, swerving madly from side-to-side, and generally disrupting traffic.  The scariest I’ve seen was a van doing unbelievably tight donuts with fifteen people on the roof.  At one point, two wheels were off the ground and I nearly had a heart attack thinking I was about to witness a gruesome accident.  Besides the need to bike more cautiously, the upcoming elections haven’t affected life in Kankan too much, which makes me hopeful there will be no need for Peace Corps to disrupt its program due to political instability or violence.

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Starting this summer, Orange, one of Guinea’s main cell phone carriers, lowered the costs of its data plan and started promoting mobile connections, whether with a phone or an internet USB stick.  This has been great for me because I can receive e-mail everyday for less than $3 a month.  The network does go out for hours or days at a time, but I don’t even have reliable electricity, so that is the least of my problems. 

Simultaneously, there has been a big push in smart phones from Chinese manufacturers.  I would estimate that in urban areas at least 1 out of every 5 new phones purchased is internet capable.  This has opened internet access up to a whole new group of Guineans, especially the youth.  Kids who have never used a computer are now posting pictures on Facebook from their phone.  The lady who runs the rice bar I go to was updating her status while spooning out bowls of rice and sauce.  I’ve been opening e-mail and Facebook accounts for people almost daily and it is amazing to see how fast it has spread.  While a lot of new users are just posing selfies everyday (picture MySpace circa 2005), others are using the internet to become more informed about world and national news.  For a country with an isolationist history, this is a big change and I personally am excited to see how this IT revolution can help Guinea in the future.  Okay, we may not be at the revolution stage just yet, but for the moment at least everyone can watch this Nicolas Cage/Miley Cyrus parody:

And isn’t that what free information and open access is all about?