Monday, February 25, 2013

Conakry Life

There is just WAY too much to say...
We arrived at Keita’s sister’s house the first night, to be welcomed by a boney fish and onion salad dinner. Keita is a drummer friend of Kees’ who is originally from Conakry and years ago was able to flee the country as a hidden stowaway in a boat headed for Europe. His life is a book in itself.

Everyone was excited to have Aboubacar Keita home again. Keita is actually his last name but he uses it in Holland as his first. As soon as we landed back in his homeland and mother tongue of Sousou his name was once again Aboubacar.

Running on only airplane food and one hour of sleep in 36 hours, we were all more than ready to crash. We were taken to Keita’s “petite’s” house where he was still rummaging and grabbing handfuls of his belongings to clear the room for us. In this culture, they have “grand” and “petite” (big and small), which describes your rank by age. With respect such a big part of the culture here, it is easy for them to get the “little guys” to do their “dirty work”.

Our room was great! From the broken, trash filled street we passed through a metal door which is placed between two of the tightly-crammed-together, one-story brick houses. The short, narrow walkway is open to the smoggy sky above and on either side there are sharp metal roofs which come down exactly to Kees’ neck. If he wasn’t careful I’d be bringing home his decapitated head.

This walkway opens into a small courtyard with a big, leafy tree in the centre of a concrete block decorated with mosaics and used as a seat.

This small courtyard centers a small community with several rusty old doors opening into people’s homes. As was everyone else’s, our new abode was literally a square room which looked and felt more like a prison cell. A drastic change from the 4 star resorts I’d been treated to in the past few years,since the family trip. After a few minutes I embraced the filth and the claustrophobic little home as my own. Using our t-shirts as pillow cases we covered the two lumpy, “goat teeth” pillows. All that separated our flesh from the sweaty, stained mattress was a thin, grey sheet. The first couple of nights we had only that, and in our sleep we ended up between the springy mattress and sheet. I did say we embraced it, didn’t I?

Outside our room around the corner, past more sharp, low roofs we found the toilet which was easier found by smell than by flashlight. In a small structure there were three doors down an extremely narrow shoulder-squeezing passage. Kees could barely get through without shimmying down sideways and collecting cobwebs. Past the first two dark shower rooms was the toilet which reeked of African sewage. It’s actually quite amazing how distinct the smell is and how it’s definitely different than, let’s say, Asian sewage. It took me quite a while but I think I finally pin-pointed what the smell derives from. Onions! They serve onions like crazy here and after a week, I started to smell the effects.

Normally these kinds of toilets are tolerable with a big gulp of air and a quick squat, but the problem here was they never showed us where to retrieve water to flush. This can create quite a dilemma. Luckily for me I have had lots of experience in controlling my body in that department and managed to avoid ever taking a dump at our lovely dwelling. The other small problem was that when you squat you should face outwards to align the two holes, if you know what I mean, but when just peeing it was so shallow that it would splash out onto my feet. The solution was to turn around and aim the stream directly into the hole, but this left my nose only two inches from the stained, sweaty wall.

I know many would call me crazy, but honestly the compound where we stayed was impressively clean. Every morning the women are out busy as bees preparing huge meals for their families, doing laundry and scrubbing the patio with hand brooms and soapy water. I’m inclined to say the clothing here is cleaner than what we get out of a regular washing machine and the whites are abnormally white, especially for the dirty, dusty conditions of their surroundings.

I loved filming and watching the local chores of the women in our compound, grinding the meals in carved out wooden bowls, cooking cassava in metal pots on small charcoal fires or scrubbing laundry on washboards in a soapy bucket which are then wrung out and hung in trees, on the roofs or laid out on straw mats on the broken sidewalks. The country has a large Muslim population, though you wouldn’t really know except for the “Allah Akbar” call to prayer drifting through our barred up window five times a day and the big Friday prayer in the streets. Women wear traditional colorful dresses and are comfortable letting their massive, long breasts hang out when they bathe or dress. In the heat, it’s nice to be able to wear what you want, though of course I would never, out of respect, go walking in short shorts or anything too revealing. The men do not give me a bad feeling and are respectful, they don’t even stare. I feel completely safe and happy in our neighbourhood. I think a huge part of what I love about Conakry is the lack of harassment. Nobody is clinging or grabbing me wherever they please(compared to other countries that I have been too). There are very few beggars and my pathetic, little butt surely can’t be of any interest with the massive, round one’s that are bouncing down the streets.

The families in our little community were extremely friendly and we were always greeted with big smiles and a happy “bonjour”. I’ve been craving to get back out and experience the world and other cultures, not just hide behind the comfortable, safe bubble of resorts and packaged tours. I was more than ready to go on an adventure. This was not in the same league as the backpacking I did with the family but it was exactly what I needed! It has been a trip with the perfect balance of cultural immersion, interaction with locals, getting dirty and back to basics but with the freedom to buy comforts such as sitting in a restaurant and eating freshly prepare food, instead of tinned sardines or spam on bread or paying for a private boat instead of piling in with 50 locals and waiting 3 hours to leave. Yes, part of me feels shame and mixed after all the time and effort we spent to save those fifty cents. But this is only a 2-week trip and Kees and I value time more than money this time.

Money changing has been done with the guys walking the streets with their backpacks full of money. A 50-euro note is quickly changed from the car window into a thick wad of decaying, pirate-like Guinea Francs. Taking pictures has been a conflict. Some people, like those in our compound, are excited and begging for us to take photos of and with them, but on the streets it can be complicated. On the first day exploring Conakry a guy started pointing and yelling at us about Kees’ camera. Not understanding what he was saying we were grateful for Keita who stepped in.
This turned into a huge, sweat flying battle which drew a big crowd. The guy, who turned out to be the captain of Interpol, secret police, promptly threatened to take us to the station. Keita was shaking with rage, screaming defensively like a cat cornered by dogs. Returning the favor, Keita threatened the captain and two uniformed police, to call his friend the colonel as he reached for his phone. Of course, this was a bluff but seemed to work. Luckily from experience I know these fights nearly always defuse as quickly as they escalate. At the end of this heated shouting match, the captain gave Keita his number, in case of an emergency to bail him out. Not even 24 hours on the continent and we’re already getting threatened to be thrown in jail. Having seen this episode more than my fair share before, it was really nice to confirm that it wasn’t always my crazy family causing scenes and “picking fights”. Witnessing another incident a couple days later of a big argument at the harbour was a good lesson for me. Perhaps those times when I felt we were being reckless in our travels wasn't so bad as yelling is not taken in the same way here as it would be at home. It is just the way things are done here, one second there’s a huge argument, the next the guys are trading numbers and shaking hands. The circumstances are just completely different.
We have been fortunate with Keita as our guide because he speaks the language, sorts all of our needs and drives us from place to place in Kees’ old jeep that couldn’t pass its yearly road test in Holland anymore. Keita bought the jeep from him and shipped it from Holland to Guinea. The European junker upgraded his value as it is a status symbol in Conakry.

Kids of all ages make teams for soccer in the streets, half deflated balls fly in front of traffic and players dash out in front of cars. Such sights as kids rolling tires across the road with a stick on the inner rim or dads crossing the street with his son’s hand in one hand, an upturned duck in the other are not uncommon.

The market in our neighbourhood is big and beautiful with all its colors though I think we only managed a couple of sneaky photos before everyone completely turned against us. We most often eat chicken or fish with french-fries and a mainly onion based salad BUT the wonderful thing is they are big on vinegar. The salad dressing one of the nights was so potent I don’t think anyone outside of my immediate family would have been physically capable of eating it. After being deprived of vinegar in Holland, where they eat mayo on fries, I doused everything with the vinegar bottle on the table until it was empty almost every time.


After a few days in Conakry, we decided to take a boat and stay 3-4 day days on our beautiful, laid-back island Kassa. Oh ya, I still have a lot to explain!!!


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Blast from the Past

Author Note: Kees is pronounced Case. Rhymes with bookcase and suitcase.
After all of the passport struggles of the week before, I started to doubt our Africa trip would pull through. In truth, I even started to lose interest in it. With all the setbacks and barricades in our path our plane was surely going to crash, right? I guess life isn’t always that easy to predict. If we did make it I feared going back to the area of the world which was the most testing of my entire life and the emotions I’d face. How would I feel? How would I react? Could I handle it? It’s been just over 4 years since I abandoned our family trip. Two years of which had been spent living day to day eating, sleeping and traveling with and like locals as we circumnavigated the entire African continent.
Lately I have been absorbing myself in our photos for the second book. It is hard to believe we really went through all those experiences, especially as a family. Sometimes it’s hard for me to even comprehend the extent of what we did and how we did it. Am I really capable of those things? So naturally, going back to one of the poorest countries in all of Africa, not on a safari, resort or something protected and shielded from the local lifestyle, intimidated me. After losing my passport, all the setbacks and trying to see how it could possibly be a sihpromatum, the only satisfying reason was that we were being prevented from a disaster, so the closer we came to getting on the plane the more scared I became.

We didn’t know until the last hours before our departure if we were actually going to make it. My temporary passport had miraculously processed in record time, and I had it in my hands the day before. At 3:30 a.m. Kieta and a friend drove us to Belgium so we could be on the doorsteps of the Guinean Embassy the moment it opened. Halfway to Brussels I realized I’d forgotten my visa photos for the application, making me even more certain some kind of “force” was preventing our departure. Expecting the embassy to open at 8a.m. we started to stress when 9a.m. rolled by and the embassy still hadn’t opened; our plane only 4 hours now from takeoff. Luckily at 9:15 the officials arrived with us following them in on their heels. Luck on our side, after playing stupid, I was simply told to bring visa photos next time and ten minutes later Kees, Keita and I were in the car driving to Brussels International Airport. Going through customs I got a few strange looks and hesitant glares as they observed my white “TEMPORARY PASSPORT” with only 8 pages. I’m completely disappointed that once I return from this trip I am not allowed to keep it as a souvenir!

8.5 hours later, including a 1.5 hour stopover in Banjul, The Gambia, we landed in the black night of Africa. Keita’s brother met us and took our luggage in his car while we caught a taxi to his sister’s house.
Though I’ve been to Guinea before, this was my first time in the capital city, Conakry, and the atmosphere here was no different than I’d experienced hundreds of times before.I was completely overwhelmed the instant I set foot outside. Wow. No number of words, metaphors or descriptions can express the emotions that flooded in. The so familiar, yet forgotten scents and flavors of African pollution, burning street fires and kerosene in the hot night air hit me. It was like finding a familiar yet lost piece of my childhood.
Driving in the pitch black without street lights, the honking horns, smoke and dodging other cars, I had to hold back the tears. Not because of fear, discomfort or anything of that sort, but coming back to a place that was so much a part of my life and my history. I was transported into the past but my world had changed so drastically not having my family by my side and the dirty backpacks in the trunk.
“But I’m your family too, sweet,” Kees said, his strong arm around me. Before arriving I thought I would never again experience that pure shock of a first timer. I did not have the shock that would normally come from such a drastic change in scenery and culture. These surroundings felt comfortable, like I had just discovered an old tree house I’d made as a child and I instantly adapted.
For me, Africa never truly felt like a holiday or vacation, it was simply a part of my growing up. I spent almost my entire teenage years living as a nomad exploring from place to place. I was transported back to a place and time that was both incredible and terrible, where I discovered the pains and joys of heartbreak and falling in love. I’d been challenged and rewarded with the ups and the downs of life. I don’t think any amount of words can bring these emotions to life for my readers, but I can tell you it was one of my most meditating, wowing moments that brought tears to my eyes.
It amazes me how much has changed in my life in the past 4 years and to see how it all worked out. Last time I was in Guinea, 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to wish for a more perfect future. If I could only have told myself what lay ahead when I was struggling so much, I wonder how much of a difference it would have made or if I’d even have believed it.
I have a wonderful guy who surprises me and makes me laugh every day. I get to continue exploring the globe with my sweetheart who shares the same passion for travel as I do. He takes such good care of me and makes me feel like a real princess. After years together it’s still hard to look at him because his face gives me butterflies. The book I dreamed of for years truly exists and the support and success I feel with that is a dream come true. Life is full of potential and opportunities and I’m so excited to see what the future will bring.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Crazy Idea

As some of the Canadians out there probably know, Amazing Race is coming to Canada for the first time this spring. Bre and I had joked, years ago, that we'd be a great team to compete on the show. So it may come as no surprise that somehow, despite my knee (which is very slowly improving but still not great), I've been talked into making an application to be on the show.
To do so you need to make an audition video of max 3 minutes and submit it along with a few other random requirements. The video is the biggest part. It was kind of fun to goof off and film again but it reminded me how much I miss Rhiis... It's a long shot but it would be fun to do and the whole thing will be decided quite quickly so it won't be too much agonizing suspense waiting to see if we'd be selected.

Speaking of agonizing waits, I still am waiting for a 2nd interview for air traffic control. I've been told they are doing some interviews now, but they may not interview everyone right away and it could be a wait until as long as this summer. So I need something else to do in the meantime I guess.
I have been mostly laying low. My eye surgery went well. It was weird and having machines sucking on my eyeballs isn't my idea of fun, so hopefully I won't have to ever do it again. It's a surprisingly fast recovery though, with the only real problem being dried out eyes and having to use a lot of eye drops. Waking up in the morning is the worst time and my vision gets blurry from time to time still (when I get tired or forget the drops) but I can tell that my vision is better for sure. I think it was a much better choice than dealing with contacts or glasses all the time.
So wish us luck on the Amazing Race application and I'll keep you guys updated on anything interesting that happens over here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Going to Africa!

Okay, so the first of two requested miracles has happened. My passport came through! I still can’t believe they pulled it off. So now I am running around like a crazy women packing and trying to prepare to leave tonight/early morning at 4am to drive down to Brussels to get a visa as soon as the Guinea embassy opens then speed to the Brussels airport.
It’s looking like it’ll be a LONG two days but it’s looking VERY positive again. Unbelievable. Thank you for all of your prayers out there. Just waiting for the old passport to show up. My new one is only temporary and really strange because it’s WHITE, with only 8 pages total. Unfortunately, as soon as I get back I have to trade it in for my new real passport and I can’t claim I lost it because I’m already in trouble for letting the last one get stolen.

It’s been over 4 years since I was last in Africa and did any real “hardcore” travel unprotected by 4-star hotel fences and luxuries. I am excited for the adventures but would be lying if I said I wasn’t completely scared and have NO idea what to expect. Last time I was in Guinea, it was one of the hardest, most challenging times of my life so it’ll be weird to go back and face that part of my life again. Will it be just as I remembered it? Will it be better or worse than I’m expecting? I can’t quite comprehend that I really did what I did for those 4 years backpacking with the family. It’s blowing my mind. I feel like it’s such a huge part of my life and who I am, but now going back I feel like I have grown into a completely different person. Was I really that girl who survived all those doorless squatties, bucket showers and the African slums? I’d really set in my mind that we weren’t going anymore and am completely unprepared now. We don’t even have sunscreen! Luckily we did get the malaria tablets. I’m hoping I’ll feel some inspiration from this trip. I’m not sure if there’s going to be electricity, internet or any of those luxuries I’ve become used to again. I’m slightly afraid of abandoning the internet and my book promotions through social media… BUT, we’ll see. It’ll probably be good for me to let my mind rest a bit.
I do like the idea of leaving the snow behind, for a hot 31C sunny weather though :)


Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Worst That Could Happen

Yes, it is true. A traveler’s worst nightmare and it happened to me.
Kees and I need to be on an airplane flying to Guinea, West Africa in less than a week. A few days ago we decided we would entrust Kees’ good friend Kieta with our passports to go down to Brussels, Belgium to get our visas. Keita is originally from Guinea and is also going with us on the trip to be our guide and visit family. Kees trusts him fully.
When I saw Kees yesterday he told me he was having a terrible morning. He came to pick me up as usual but was clearly uncomfortable and something had gone wrong, but it was clear he wasn’t about to tell me. In the car I asked him if I could guess what was wrong and he insisted I shouldn’t.
“Keita lost our passports.”
He looked away and that was answer enough.
“He did, didn’t he?”
A scared nod. Luckily, somewhere in the five minutes between seeing his face and leaving the house, I already knew. It was a sure feeling I had which amazingly came with a calm realization. That was that and there was nothing I could do. I suppose I may have been in a state of shock because I received the news well, no tears, not even a pounding heart.
Aside from my journals, my passports have been my most treasured possessions for the past 8 years. Carefully picking each spot where the next stamp will be, leaning over the counter to tell the border guards exactly where it needs to be on which page, treasuring each and every stamp and visa and the stories they represent. Keeping it safe, every five minutes checking that I had it safe in my pocket or backpack whenever and wherever I travelled. To have it stolen while completely out of my protection kills me.
But of course, these were things I could not bear to think of or I was sure to break down in a sobbing baby fit.
Keita had driven down to Brussels and stopped at a hotel restaurant to get a bite to eat before heading to the embassy. He left the passports, money, and his camera in the car unattended and the window was smashed and everything taken. It’s a loss only a passionate traveler can truly appreciate/understand. The thing which really put a rock in my soul was thinking of Ammon, Mom and Bree and having to tell them.
I don’t know how to explain the feeling. It would be the equivalent if each of the LOTR’s hobbits had a ring to represent their journey and one got lost. Or like one of the Ninja Turtles losing their shells. I’ve lost an irreplaceable part of my life but also a puzzle piece within our group that will never again be complete.
There are many regrets I can list in this story. I feel angry at myself for not listening to my instincts that I should take photos of each page just in case it doesn’t come back, to which Kees says “If you have that kind of feeling you shouldn’t hand it over!” I regret so carelessly handing over my treasure without even putting the effort to tell Keita how important it was to me and to be extra careful.
When I came home and was talking to dad, he said, “Sihpromatum?”
I had to pause a moment to consider. At this point it was hard to see how it could possibly be considered a sihpromatum. I’d actually already asked myself this question and it did help. Perhaps, if we’d gone to Africa something would have happened (though this is scary to think because we’re going to try up to the last minute to get on that flight). It could be a lesson in carelessness and to not take things for granted. Or maybe we’re in the midst of a miracle happening and it’s all just a test of my faith.
Maybe, maybe not. But I prefer to think that there is a good reason behind it, and I’m content that I may never know and choose to be grateful.
“Sometimes miracles happen,” I said.
“Ya. We’re just going to have to force one,” Kees replied.
On Kees’ insistence, we drove down to Brussels that very night with Keita and his car to leave it in the same spot it was broken into with signs in both Dutch and French saying “PASSPORT stolen. 500 Euro reward. No questions asked” with a telephone number and email address.
Keita is fully aware of the general impressions Europeans have of his African culture, that they are lazy and untrustworthy. For this reason Keita always strives to do his very best and tries to prove that that is not the case. So for him to have to admit this fault, he was feeling pretty awful too. His passport was also stolen along with his camera and his window broken, yet he wanted to do everything to help me.
We arrived in Brussels at midnight. The flickering florescent lights of the Hotel De France casting a blue light on the wet pavement of the side alley tucked in next to the highway separated by a dark hedge. There was construction on the building next door. Yellow and black striped tape rattled in the nippy wind, like chains on an old abandoned swing set. Red and white pieces wrapped and fraying around a dirty old no parking sign. This wasn’t comforting since we hoped to leave the car for a few days.
As soon as the boys stepped out of the cars they were approached by a guy, “hey, hey you want to buy this phone. Galaxy. Good phone.” No doubt stolen. This was a good sign that at least the thief was likely to be doing rounds here again and may see our signs. My heart did clench a bit at the idea of leaving my passport alone in the car on a street like this. Something which, if it had been under my protection would never have happened, and I can only blame myself. I had not realized that for most people, a passport is simply a document, a few pieces of paper with a picture. Most people don’t have the same kind of connection with their passports.
Watching all of the sketchy guys walking by, Kees said, “I just hope this crazy idiot comes and collects his 500.”

“This is one of the ultimate painful stories.” I complained.
“Which one? The one were living?” Kees said. “I think the passports are still around, Sweet. There is a chance with all those little scavenger thieves around here. They aren't just going to chuck ‘em.”
So at 2am Keita was running around making signs, taping them up in the street and in his car in the freezing cold. He was doing a great job and really trying his best to fix it. There was another African guy Keita had brought along. When Kees asked “what was your friend’s name again?” Keita responded, “He’s not my friend. He’s my petite.” It’s hard to explain what this means, but funny to see the difference in cultural mindsets.
We asked the hotel receptionist if we could leave our car and he informed us that they would not tow the car, but would fine it twice a day for 17 euro. Having come so far, Kees told Keita he would pay the fines to leave it there for the next few days. Keita drove back with the snow coming down and covering the world in white, while Kees and I slept in the back with a pile of blankets and pillows I’d brought along. We arrived home at 5:30am.
There is only hope and prayer left, but they can be powerful.
So on top of this, it is now a big question mark whether or not we will make it onto our plane on Wednesday. I’m praying we’ll get the passports back. In the meantime we are just going to have to try our best to get temporary passports. For the Dutch passports that should be possible within a couple days, but my problem is that I need proof of my Canadian citizenship before they’re going to issue me a new passport. My proof is a birth certificate which right now is sitting in my grandma’s drawer in North Vancouver, Canada. Holding our breath we hope the express mail will come and we’ll rush to put it in the embassy in Den Hague by Friday, cross our fingers that it’s done on Monday or Tuesday, race down to Belgium to get our Guinea visa then pack our bags and be on a plane the following morning. It seems like a long shot at this point but we have to try. I feel terrible for Kees that this could be the second year in a row he’ll have to rip up his Guinea ticket. I told him that he needs to just go without me if my passport isn’t done in time, but he refuses to listen to that option. “Sweet, I’m not going anywhere without you.”
It's a lesson to follow your instincts. I knew it when they were gone. It was the same calm feeling that I should take pictures of the pages. But I didn't. I can live without it. There are worse things to happen, but I'm still devastated.
I’m going to end this story with a twist and tell you that I so enjoyed spending 3 hours with my Kees talking in the car on the way down to Brussels, having an adventure together in the Belgian “slums”, eating shwarma’s on the go at 2am and snuggling in the back of our van piled in with blankets and pillows and falling even more in love with him than ever. Perhaps, it was a sihpromatum? After all what is more powerful and important than love?

Though it’s a devastating loss for me, I know can live without it. There are much worse things that could happen.
Ps. Dutch cheese is freaking to die for. AAAAA-mazing!!!!