Long letters from travelers to Guinea

Letter 1

Erik, our younger daughter Jenny, and I just returned from our trip to Guinea and Senegal. Our PCV, Elinor (Eli), appreciated it so much and we were able to share the amazing experiences as well as the difficulties of daily life. Just spending time with Eli was the best part. Also loved learning about the various cultures, development issues in this part of Africa, and day-to-day adventures.

We flew on Royal Air Maroc from DC (Delta codeshare) to NYC to Casablanca then took Paramount Air Guinea Dakar to Labe. Price for Royal Air Maroc was about $1166. Roundtrip Dakar-Labe was between $180 and $200. Since Royal Air Maroc had a long layover on way to Dakar, we took an extra day and went from Casablanca to Marrakech to get a chance to experience Morocco. Although Marrakech involved some extra travel, friends assured us that Casablanca was just another modern city, whereas Marrakech was beautiful and had more historic and cultural sights. We stayed at a lovely, small guesthouse, Riad Dar Pangal, in the Casbah and hired licensed a day guide to take us through the old city and market. Next day we hired a taxi to shuttle us around to the lovely gardens before catching plane to Dakar. The sights and smells of Marrakech were so inviting: Flowers everywhere. Buildings painted red – the color of the city. Snake charmers, fortune tellers, story tellers in the plaza. Wonderful food. Smell of aromatic spices filled the air.


We decided to skip Conakry, so flew from Dakar to Labe on the old Soviet plane others have described (was glad the flight crew was Ukrainian and looked like they had been flying these things for years – seats were held together by duct tape, but take off and landing were smooth and no luggage was lost). We called ahead to reserve a place on flight, but had to go to their office and pay in cash to get a ticket. At the Labe house we met lots of PCVs / I tried to write list of names of everyone we met (all looked well and seemed to be doing fine and happy to have some R&R in Labe) — here’s my best attempt to reconstuct the list, including some COS (Close of Service) PCVs :Stephanie (actually met her in Dakar at the central market – word had spread to Labe by the time we got there that Elinor’s parents were on their way), Leslie, Tina, Cheryl, Duncan, Megan, Elise, Andreas, Derrick, Rachel, Jason, Chandra, Jeanette, Travis, Chris, Amy & Nick, Jessamyn, Martha, Susanna, Dana, Jessie, Virginia, Kelli. Also crossed paths and had dinner with Phil’s parents (Maggie and Scoot) who were also visiting – it felt like a small town.

We joined in at breakfast and pizza dinners with several of the PCVs at the Hotel Tata a couple of blocks from PC house (they get vouchers to stay there when they are in Labe for PC related reasons. We stayed in a circular “case” (bungalow) with thatched roof that had two bedrooms and private bathrooms and cost about $20 a nite — PC rate is cheaper. Lights and hot water were available from about 7:00 PM to 8:00 AM. Other guests are mostly foreigners and NGO staff.) A couple pf PCVs joined us on trip to the market and helped us bargain in Pular for cloth and bracelets as we got into the rhythm of bargaining as a way of life. It was fascinasting to hear how hard if was to get to Labe from some of their villages – taxi only once or twice a week. Some found it easier to bicycle in. Each of their experiences was so unique. Learned about local health care programs, what trees and plants that grow well in the region and just life in general. Was amazed at how many babies we saw and how young many of the girls marry (7th or 8th grade). The Labe house reminded me of group houses I lived in at back in the 60s and 70s in college towns like Madison, Wisc and Berkely, Ca. They have a living room, dining room, kitchen, sick room, indoor bathroom, outside latrine, medical supplies area, mail box area with box for each PCV in Labe region, garage for the PCV SUV, purified water, running water when it works, electricity when it works, a PCV hired guard at the front gate, and a lot of books, tapes, and generally friendly feeling. Duncan, 3rd year PC staff is just wonderful, caring, competent and works so hard to keep things on track. Will be sorry to see him leave next month to return home.

We also got to see what the short wave check-ins were like. Regional house staff keep track of who is supposed to be calling in and log the calls. They are very serious about making sure that everyone’s whereabouts and well-being are monitored. We also experienced first hand, how infrequently the electricity, water, and phones really work. While were were there it seemed par for the course — life just goes on — very different than sitting at our phone in the US, dialing for a couple of hours wondering why we can’t get through.

We brought over some videos (DVD – no CD-ROM player available), including “Spaceballs” and were welcomed with cheers. Chocolate seemed to be another big hit, as were magazines ranging from the New Yorker to Cosmo. Interestingly enough the mail run had just come in (early June) and the package we had sent in early January had just arrived – post office mice had eaten much of the dried fruit, but a a few items remained unscathed. Anything you send that is a sweet treat will be greatly appreciated at the house (e.g., Snickers, M&Ms and just about any kind of chocolate seemed popular).

We spent about 4 days at Elinor’s site, Lafou, on dirt the road from Labe o Senegal. It was fascinating experiencing the various aspect of life at site. Saw the differences between the “functionnaires (e.g. teachers, doctors — all of whom speak French and get government salaries) and ordinary villagers (speak local language and were a little more outgoing in welcoming us – gave us eggs / avacados / mangos / baskets. Experienced the limited number of items, especially vegetables, that could be bought at local market; sexual division of labor (girls and women do most of the work); large number of seventh and eighth grade girls getting married. Families with some money bought goats, sheep, cows – all of which are considered a form of wealth. These animals roam freely, eating the garbage that people throw in the street or yards. Non organic trash is burned. Plastic bags, batteries, and the like remain on the ground. Cars (even the old Renaults they use in Guinea) remain supreme, meaning that walkers and bicyclists must yield the smoothest part of the road to any oncoming cars. Cars to, however, yield to the large numbers of cows, sheep, and goats on the roads (and everywhere else). Nothing is wasted — even plastic buckets are stiched together when they tear and patchec when they develop holes. But everyone seemed well nourished.

We also visited Doucki, an ecorourism resort with a wonderful guide, Hassan, who took us on hikes, including one to a rainforest type area as well at the “Grand Canyon of Guinea”. Wished we had stayed another day to try the “shutes and ladders” 9 hour hike via vine bridges. If you visit, Douki is a must. Went on to Dalaba, a colonial city in the Fouta. It was high up and slightly cooler. Stayed at the Hotel Tangama, in two rooms, each with double bed and bath. Were pleased that the lights were brighter than at Hotel Tata. Visited a leather co-op, center that provided training in basic education to girls as well as vocational training to women, and the lovely tourist bureau, with guides available for hikes to nearby waterfalls and old French governor’s house.

We took Elinor with us for a week in Senegal. Since we stayed with friends State Department friends who live in a nice part of town outside of the city center in Dakar, we don’t have specific hotel recommendations. There are some hotels downtown and some near the airport in Ngor, where there is a beach and it is much quiter. Taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap if you have your PCV bargain (fascinating what skills they have learned). Elinor was thrilled at the hot showers, washer and dryer, and other amenities at our friends’ house. Her favorite downtown shops included a cafe that sold gelato and a store catering to the French population that had multiple cheese selections. Quite a contrast to foods available in her village. Even Yassa Poulet (Senegalese rice with chicken and onions and spices) was a pleasant change from rice with manioc leaf sauce. We visited the Goree Island, where slaves were shipped off the America and downtown markets (found it a big contrast from Guinea where we were able to wander around without being hassled – had trouble shaking the Dakar guys who wanted to “help” us). Final treat, was a trip to St. Louis – north on the coast, famed for it’s jazz festival which we had missed by a month. Stayed at the lovely Resid Hotel Diamarek (Wolof for “peace”), in a cottage on the beach with 2 bedrooms, kitchen, patio, and even an airconditioner. Took taxi to village center, shopped in market for some Senegalese cloth, had a Vietnamese dinner, stopped by the French Cultural Center, and just walked around. Spent the mornings walking on the beach, then jumped into the lovely pool. Nearby Hotel Mermoz had horses for hire for $10 an hour and trail was the beach. Was wonderful R&R. We hired drivers and cars to get there and back to Daka. Trip there was arranged through a local NGO and including a stop at the famed Lac Rose. Trip back was arranged by hotel and cost much less.

Some travel tips follow: — Only drink purified water from the PC house and your PCV’s house. Bring a water purifier or tablets to use when traveling elsewhere. We bought a Katyadyn purifier at REI. We ate only fruits that could be peeled (washed them before peeling). We continually washed our hands either with soap, Purel, or Wet Ones. Although we craved salads, we passed anywhere we couldn’t vouch that the vegetables had been soaked in bleach. And we managed to avoid getting La Turista.

— Plan on using cash, rather than credit cards or travellers checks in Guinea. Let your PCV change the money into Guinean Francs. In Senegal we were able to use our Bank Card (Cirrus/Plus network) to get cash from ATM machines rather than waiting on long lines at bank to change money.

— Rainy season had just started, so there weren’t lots of mosquitos in the Fouta — nevertheless since mosquitoes love me over anyone else within a mile, I used 100% DEET purchased at REI (appplied at dawn and dusk) and remained relatively free of mosquito bites. Claritin and/or chewable children’s Benadryl worked well for the couple of days I had bites.

— Have your PCV prepare a back-up plan for arrival. We planned on arriving in Labe via Air Guinea (aka Paramount Air), and instructions on what to do if Elinor wasn’t there. Since she wasn’t there, we began negotiations with cab drivers (unsuccessfully). Lucikly she arrived, late since she figured that no planes land on time. We also had a contingency in case Air Guinea cancelled our flight or it was overbooked — would have flown to Conakry, stayed at the hotel near PC house and gotten bush taxi to Labe.

— Bring comfortable shoes (dirt road and paths have lots of rocks) that you don’t mind getting muddy or full of red dust. Same holds for clothing.

— Getting Guinean visa was painless and relatively quick, although expensive ($100 in cash or money order). We sent an email to DC Peace Corps office including dates of travel to get letter of invitation that we sent along with Guinean visa application. No visa is required for Senegal.

— We used Malarone as anti-Malaria protection. After spending a lot of time on CDC and other web sites, we decided it had the least side effects, it was easier to remember to take a pill once a day than once a week, and cost was covered by our health plan.

— Lots of shots are needed (check CDC web site for complete list), including Yellow Fever (only given at special travel clinics), current tetanus, polio booster, meningitis, hepatitis A and B, t;yphoid, etc. If they are not covered on your health plan, budget a few hundred dollars per person.

— If possible, when travelling from town to town, “deplacer” a taxi (i.e., buy all the seats). Otherwise you’ll be stuffed in (4 in the back seat and to 4 4 in the front 2 bucket seats). Since travel is slow and tiring, don’t try to pack too many different sites into the trip. In general, we broke up taxi trips so that none were more than 4 hours.

— If you get a chance, visit Doucki — the only ecotourism spot in the area — near Pita. Hassan speaks English, French, Pulaar, and other African languages. His hobby is hiking. He built some “cases” (round houses with thached roofs) and leads the best narrated hikes ever to great canyons, rainforests, and waterfalls. It was physically challenging, but Hassan sizes you up before selecting the hike. He provides good food, tea, and wonderful hospitality in a breathtaking part of the Fouta. Ask him to make the “green banana dish (one of the best dishes we had in Guinea and a treat for vegetarians).

— Be prepared to bargain, then let your PCV do the bargaining. We mostly bought cloth in Labe and a couple of traditional bracelets. There are several tailors nearby. It’s best to bring a garment that you like the style of and ask them to duplicate it with the cloth you buy. In Senegal, we found a store that sold boutique bedspreads that are really lovely — took our PCV an hour to get the price down.

— Be prepared to have the women do all the work at your PCVs site. Girls and women do all the things like carry water from well, wash clothes, tend to growing things in plots close to house, gather firewood, cook, etc. When I helped Elinor carry water in the bidon from the well, locals chided us — daughter shouldn’t let mother carry the water — usually it’s a job reserved for the younger sister. Men are generally not seen doing washing, cooking, carrying water, etc.

— May/June turned out to be a good time to visit. It was end of dry season and beginning of rainy season in the Fouta. This meant that the countryside was turning green, mango, avocado and banana were in full bloom and delicious, the small rains kept the red dust in check but the pot holes and mosquitoes had not yet taken over.

Carol Mermey
Parent of Elinor – G6 / July ’03 math teacher

Letter 2

My wife and I returned to Dakar on Sunday, January 11th after 28 hours of traveling. We initially flew into Dakar and my son, Christopher met us the airport. The Dakar airport is very modern for Africa. Once you obtain your luggage, which is a real mess, you then enter the terminal where you are accosted by numerable people offering to change money, be a guide, get you a taxi, or carry your luggage. It is wise to just keep your luggage to yourself and not use any of their services. Fortunately, Christopher met us at the gate and had already arranged to have money changed and obtain a taxi. Dakar is an excellent transition area to Guinea. If it’s your first time in the third world, it will be a good start prior to going to Guinea. We stayed in a hotel called the Al Afifa. It was clean and rates were reasonable, approximately $50 per night. That also included some breakfast and it actually had a small pretty clean swimming pool.

It was our plan to fly to Labe which was about three or four hours from Christopher’s site. Unfortunately, Guinea Express canceled the flight to Labe. We then flew on January 30th to Conakry. Fortunately, our papers were in order which included the Visa and allowed us to get through customs. The picking up of your luggage is a madhouse. While picking up the luggage, we were continuously accosted by men in uniform with guns who wanted to assist us. One of them then showed us through customs and demanded a healthy fee. Over Christopher’s objections, I agreed. I find that large people with guns are usually in the right. We then took the taxi, which overcharged us to the hotel which is about 200 yards from the Peace Corps headquarters. I cannot remember the name, but it begins with an “M” and allegedly has three stars. It was not very clean or very comfortable. Again, it was a good transition into Guinea. However, the drive from the airport to the Peace Corps headquarters, approximately ten miles, is somewhat horrifying. You see endless poverty the entire way.

We took a bush taxi from Conakry to Chris’s site which was approximately nine hours away. This cost $70. Chris negotiated it with the help of one of the guards at the Peace Corps headquarters. It was very important to confirm that the taxi has all of his necessary papers and permits. This is because you run into a number of road blocks with soldiers along the way. If the papers are not properly done, it could result in all kinds of problems.

We then spent the following six days in Chris’s village. We were able to watch him teach on one of the days. The first day or two is pretty rough getting used to living without electricity or running water and eating rice and sauce. After a few days, you get into the swing of the village and things become much more comfortable. The people are wonderful and treat you like a visiting dignitary. We constantly had people come to greet us.

At the end of the six days, we went to Labe. We were fortunate to get a ride with in a Peace Corps vehicle, although the road was incredibly rough for the first two and a half hours. At Labe, we stayed at the best hotel which is called, Tatas. I can only describe it as being about four stars below a Motel 6. There is electricity, although it runs on and off. There is running hot water.

From Labe, we flew Guinea Express back to Dakar and spent the last three days there. The plane from Labe to Dakar was at best extremely unsafe. It was an old Russian prop which shook and rattled most of the trip and we were surprised it actually landed safely. Upon return to Dakar, we stayed at the Sofitel Hotel which I believe is also called Turanga. This is off the Plaza Independencia. Because we got the Peace Corps rate, we paid half of the normal rate which made it about the same price as the Al Afifa. The hotel was extremely clean and well run. One suggestion is don’t eat breakfast there as there is an overcharge for the breakfast, approximately $20 each, but everything else was very reasonable and generally well done. The pool was excellent and right adjacent to the beach. There were also some excellent restaurants within a quarter mile of the hotel along the beachfront.