Thursday, December 13, 2007

Guinea at last!

December 5, 2007

Bonjour a tous,

Well, I'm finally here. Yesterday I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at the airport at 6pm in Conakry, the capital of the small country of Guinea in French West Africa, and was immediately greeted with a blast of hot, humid air. My Peace Corps group ("G-15"), comprised of 36 other Americans, mostly 20-somethings but with a smattering of other folks (including a 64 year old dude named Jim who was my roommate in Philly), all milled around, starstruck, for a few minutes before a shuttle pulled up and we all piled on to head over to the terminal.

The terminal was unlike any airport I have ever seen. It is tiny, with basically three large rooms-- a room to check in, a room for customs, and a room for baggage claim. After being greeted by Ousmane, our Guinean Security Director, and close to a dozen other Peace Corps staff, who collected our passports and WHO forms, we then moved into the baggage claim room where a hundred Guineans who were on our flight were busily crowding around the one conveyor belt that held our luggage. It was a wild, surreal scene-- tons of noise, no real order, Guineans everywhere. Most were dressed in Western clothing, yet there were some men who wore bubus, traditional long almost dress-like things, and many women who wore long colorful dresses with headscarves.

Great news-- all our luggage arrived! I was shocked to hear it, yet pleasantly surprised. We grabbed our stuff, piled it onto carts, and peddled it out into the parking lot, where several white Peace Corps vehicles awaited us. It was also just wild. Guinean men just stood around, some chatting, others only staring at this strange group of white people who just crashed their capital.

We piled into a couple of PC buses, each of us just wide-eyed, taking it all in (no one in my group had been to Guinea before) (many to Africa, but none to Guinea). We pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main highway in Guinea (a wide two-lane road), and rode 20 minutes to the Peace Corps compound. I don't know how exactly to describe it all, to tell the truth. It was dark at this point, which made all this unfamiliar stuff seem a bit scarier and more surreal. My first glimpse of Conakry left me speechless. People, people, people were all over the place, standing around, sitting in front of their homes, talking, running, walking in the streets. Conakry has decent power--the best in the country by far-- yet I would say only half the homes I saw seemed to have electricity. Most of the buildings lining each side of the road would, by American standards, be considered shacks-- concrete buildings, probably one or two rooms, with one naked light bulb shedding a little light (if that). I saw dozens of people sitting at tables lit by kerosene lamps, just chilling, really. No one seemed to be in much of a hurry, that's for sure. I saw dozens of men and boys wearing soccer jerseys (Ronaldinho, Zidane, Eto'o seemed to be popular), and not a few women carrying bowls on their heads (it really does happen). The night lended the whole affair an eerie feeling, and more than once I remember thinking how glad I was that we were in Peace Corps buses and not walking around. I didn't see a single white person. Driving through Conakry is something I will never forget.

Well, hopefully that'll give you a bit of a picture of this city and this country in which I've just landed. It's been an absolute whirlwind couple of days, starting Saturday morning (was it just Saturday I was in Ohio!?!?) when I flew to Philly for pre-departure orientation ("staging"). I met my group there--37 total-- and got about as comprehensive an introduction to the Peace Corps that was humanly possible in two days time. Then, we flew to Conakry, as I've mentioned, by way of JFK, Brussels, and Dakar.

We are all currently staying at the Peace Corps headquarters in Conakry. It is a huge compound: imagine a space of land, probably several acres large, with three pretty large, multi-story buildings. The HQ is pretty posh, to be honest. Much nicer than I expected. There is air conditioning in some of the buildings, computers in most offices, working toilets and showers, and even a pool behind the Guinea director's house. We are here til Saturday, when we go to Forecariah, the town south of here where we will be training for the next 9 weeks.

I don't have time to go into detail about all the training we have received thus far and all we will receive. I will say this-- the Peace Corps seems very professional, and the staff really seem to know what they are doing. Around 50 of the staff are Guinean, with maybe 5 or 6 Americans (including the director, who's American). There are doctors, tranining coorindators, language teachers, cross-cultural training specialists, security guards, housekeepers even, and almost all are Guinean.

I have quickly gotten back into my French-- many Guineans who work here speak some english, but for most, French is the stronger language and so I have gotten the opportunity to talk to almost all of them in French. Tomorrow we have language exams, where we meet with the language teachers and they assess how far along we are in our language skills and what class to put us into. The intensive training will begin Saturday, in Forecariah, where we will also be living with host families (and thus being forced to speak as much French as we can handle!) (and some Susu as well perhaps ;).

I need to wrap this up, but there a few important things I want to mention. Wow-- there is so much more to talk about! I feel wildly inadequate trying to describe this experience, which thus far has been unlike anything else I have ever done. Hopefully the above can at least give you a snapshot of what I've experienced these last few days.

A few important pieces of info:
-- I will not have regular email access virtually ever during my time here. My house in Forecariah will almost certainly have no electricity, and there is not a large PC HQ there like in Conakry. I am told that there will be occasions, from time to time, when I can access the internet, but those times will be few and far between. As a result, I have worked out a deal with my mom where I will write out a mass email to everyone by hand, and send it to her, and she will type it up and send it out to you guys. I really want to be in touch, and feel strongly that communicating to everyone about my experiences here is one of my main purposes of being in Guinea, so I will do my best to write home regularly.
-- That said, the mail system here is not like the US. It is inefficient and often plagued by corrupt officials. I've heard that mail often takes two weeks to arrive from the States, and sometimes doesn't get here. This is rare, I've been told, yet it does happen. A former PC volunteer from Guinea who is here was telling me today that some local mail officials, when they see a nice postcard from the US, will just take it and put it up on their wall! Others will open packages and take what they want, then close it up and send it off to its destination. This rarely happens, again, yet it does happen. Thus, what I want to tell you, is to please number the letters you send. Please send letters--really!-- but number them so I know if one has gone missing. Thanks!

I will try and get off one more email before I leave Conakry, if possible. Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I adjust to life in hot, humid, beautiful, crazy, noisy Guinea.

Much, much love,

P.S. Oh-- check this out. The beach is literally right outside of our compound here, so this afternoon, after our last session, a few other trainees and me went there, and guess what: There were like 9 different soccer games going on! It was crazy, absolutely crazy. The ball would go in the ocean-- play on. Random people would walk right through the middle of the game-- play on. The one big game was grands versus petits-- bigs versus smalls-- and of course, I asked a couple guys if I could play and they said sure. I was the only white dude in the game, and, clutching my camera in my hand because I didn't want to leave it anywhere, I got officially schooled by 9 year olds wearing Ronaldinho jerseys. It was absolutely wild. So fun. Anyway, just thought I'd share that.
P.P.S. Only a few big spiders so far, but they weren't that much bigger than dock spiders in Maine. No tarantulas yet, although I hear they love thatched roof mud huts, one of which I will most likely be living for two years. Fun fun!

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