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Starting June 1, 2011 I embarked on a 27 month journey with the Peace Corps to Sierra Leone where I taught Math. Starting this fall of 2014 my wife and I are moving to Casablanca, Morocco to teach again!..this is the journal of one rambling man in Africa.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Mythical Picathartes

April 30th, 2012

Last Thursday, after a long bout with Giardia and a heavy dose of meds, I scrambled myself together for what would end up being one of my greatest adventures. I had received a call from Kenneth Gbengba, a local Sierra Leonean guide and bird enthusiast, informing me that there was a small group heading into the Gola Rainforest in search of the mythical Picathartes. The Picathartes, or Bald Headed Rock Crow, is a unique looking bird that builds mud nests off the side of large rock faces, and is endemic to West Africa. I gladly accepted.
            I quickly hopped into a taxi to Kenema, the nearest big city and home to the Gola Rainforest, to go to the bank and try to meet Kenneth in person. I met him at an Indian supermarket and discussed prices and logistics. Kenneth turned out to be a decently tall and hefty man from Kono district that spoke with perfect English, and proved to be very intelligent and opinionated. He took me to his good friends house around the side of the Gola office to where I we would be spending the night. Our departure was very early so I needed to stay nearby. After a few hours of chatting and entertaining children with my crazy white man antics, I retired to my tent in the middle of the compound. To my astonishment and annoyance I found rocks jutting every which way under my sleeping bag. It was going to be a long night.
            After endlessly tossing around in fragments of sleep on what felt like a skeleton, I awoke around six am to get my stuff together and meet the couple I would be joining. After being described as a British couple going bird watching for the girl’s birthday, I expected to walk into an older couple of dorks, but was surprised to find two young whipper-snappers like myself. Katie, who would be turning twenty five, was from Scotland and easily six feet tall. Her boyfriend Grant hailed from South Africa, and was probably five feet and a few inches. Initially I had a hard time understanding them but as time went on and the morning wore off of me it became easier. We shared a breakfast of bread with butter and coffee in a bowl. As soon as we finished getting acquainted we set off.
We had a twenty five mile journey ahead of us to Lalehun, and the only way to get there is via okada (motorcycle).  It took around an hour and a half and was the most beautiful ride of my life, and also mildly terrifying. The dirt road went up and down the rolling green jungle hills scattered with the occasional village. We stopped a few times to observe birds, including a Palm Nut Vulture and a Snake Buzzard. My kind of a group! We eventually made it to Lalehun around ten am, off loaded, met our guide and our porter, and eventually went into the forest. Our local guide Golihun or Moses was a ratchity fifty something year old man with a few teeth and a constant smile. Our porter was a young strapping fellow with a crazy leprechaun laugh named Mohammed. Great people.
            After trekking for about an hour through the dark green foliage, occasionally crossing rickety bridges made of vines, we stopped and the guides made a delicious lunch of fish and potato with onion sauce. Pretty good! I was surprised by the ability and ingenuity of the guys to make a coal fire and cook a hot meal in the jungle. After lunch we packed up and made our way to our base camp about one to two hours away. We eventually got to our site around three pm and were relieved to be able to dip our sweat soaked bodies into the tiny cold pools provide by a nearby stream. At four we walked up the hill a few hundred feet to a giant boulder to meet our birds. The Picathartes, we were told, usually come home around five pm. After two hours of quietly and uncomfortably  shifting around we caught glimpse of one as it came home and left again after all of five seconds. Sadly, it was all we would see of our bird. Still really cool to see it.
            As the sky darkened, we gave up and went back down the hill to meet our dinner of peanut soup with chicken. Also delicious. After dinner we shared a little Glenfiddich whiskey and the Africans passed a joint, while we listened to the locusts, bugs, and tree frogs. It was very relaxing and everyone made good company. Grant and Katie were great and fun to talk to as they checked off birds in their book. I’m not alone in this nerdy bird world! Both were happy I had come and not annoyed by my tagging along, which I had feared. I eventually went to my tent, read some James Herriot, and tried to fall asleep on what again felt like a bag of bones underneath me. 
            We woke up early again hoping to catch another glimpse of the Picathartes but were unsuccessful. We considered our five second look a blessing and retreated to our breakfast which was some kind of banana cake/ pancake thing with bread. What followed for the rest of the afternoon consisted of slowly trekking back to the village and watching birds the whole way. Back at the village we ate tuna and hung out waiting for the heat of the day to leave so we could get some last minute birding in. During this time waiting I found some monkeys and then mimicked them by climbing a tree and eating fresh picked mango with some local children. It was a great time in my life. Grant eventually got annoyed that he had paid for two full days and was sitting around, so we got up and tried to find some nearby birds. It slowly started to pour, as it does in rainy season, so I ran back to the overhang where we were sitting and literally clothes-lined myself right across the nose, leaving a cool scab between the eyes. 
            After the rain let up we walked to the main part of town and got soaked in another downpour. We shared some drinks and smokes and a few African smiles. I was eventually taken back to site to meet my okada driver, said my goodbyes and was off. I was already soaked and cold so it wasn’t too terrible. However the road was muddy and rocky, the driver uncomfortable and shifting/moving his hands off of the handlebars too much, and the sky was filled with flying ant things that kept going into our eyes. My life flashed before my eyes at several points. It was however still gorgeous and somehow enjoyable as I gripped for dear life and occasionally said small small to the driver. I’ll never forget looking back over my shoulder and seeing the misty emerald hills as the sky painted yet another miracle. I was too tired to make my driver stop and dig my camera out to take a photo, but I’ll never forget the way it looked. Second only to Ivy. Somehow I made it safely back to Kenema just after dark. Got home, called Ivy, took a warm bucket bath, and made ramen soup.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

To Soak A Thief

       We awoke on Sunday morning slowly. No big hurry . My wife, Ivy, and I were staying downtown Freetown in a decent little hotel in the heart of the city, and had nothing to do today. After a hard boiled egg sandwich, some instant coffee, and a little two person Rummy on the second story balcony, we decided to do a little "junks" shopping around the area. "Junks" is what the Sierra Leoneans call the second hand clothing they receive from abroad. Places like America, Europe,and Australia. Places where people buy something brand new, wear it once, and throw it away or donate it. It then gets packaged and shipped to the third world where people buy it in bulk, wash it, sew it, make it look new, sell it, and feed themselves. The receiver of the item takes it home and takes better care of it than any original owner could comprehend, wearing it to pieces and then sewing the pieces back together.
 Sunday is usually the slow day for sellers and most of the big shops are closed. We headed for the clothing area, turning down a small side street where there is about a four foot space between the stalls. Every stall full of used clothing, and the seller waiting patiently for people to pass by. Sellers usually have one area of clothing, either jeans, or tshirts, or women's dresses, or children's clothing. The stalls made of sticks and tarps mostly. Every shop, one after the other, barely distinguishable from the one before. Every shop owner desperate for a sale. Especially when they see white people. "Good friend, good friend! Come and look. I have fine clothes" This is usually mixed with "White man!" or "What do you want?" or "Come buy" or "You have fine woman, can you give me?" Most people are usually really friendly, though some seem annoyed by our want to browse and look at things,  often holding up things for us and asking "How about this? This is very fine for you." and the nearby stall owners all agreeing that it is indeed fine for us.
        When we find something we actually want we begin the bargaining process. Everything usually starts out at about two times as much as it would for a fellow Sierra Leonean. Make a face, act like its ridiculous, and laugh. Then they will usually ask "How much do you want to pay?" Offer half. This goes on for a while until you either get a price you like or you walk away. Many times, seeing the sale going away, they will say ok and take the money. One stall after another we went down, occasionally buying something, and sometimes having small talk with the locals about why were here, where were from, or answering a dozen random questions. They love it when we talk about things that prove we know anything about their country, and really love it when we talk to them in Krio or Temne or Mende. They laugh at us when we tell them our local names, Morlai and Zainab. Everyone interested and happy to talk to us. Most say they want to go to America and ask if we can take them back with us. Sorry guys.
        After about an hour of the heat, humidity, and bargaining we start to head out of the maze of identical stalls. We arrive at one area, and one after another the stall keepers warn us to watch our belongings and our pockets, warning that there are alot of bad boys up ahead. I think to myself "They wont get me, I'm too alert right now." I thank the shop keepers and continue on with my wife next to me. Sure enough we get to the area, and just like magic, two or three young guys walk our way, squeeze tight, and work together to distract us or bump us and reach into our pockets or bags. I felt a tug at my pocket but luckily i stuffed it with a plastic bag and a shirt.  My wife yelled at one and we got away theft free. About another fifty feet and another three guys walk our way. Resembling the first group with poor looking clothing, usually a handkerchief or black plastic bag in one hand. This time I just stop and stare at the one coming right at me, giving him a dirty look. I didn't feel anything but I hear Ivy yell behind me. I turn around quick and see her push one guy away, accidentally pouring water from her bag of drinking water all over him. The guy had successfully opened the zipper on her travel purse but failed to get anything out before getting attacked with water. The people around did little but watch, but who could blame them. They cannot do anything to them and they gave us fair warning. We walked away and took a breather, hearts pumping with adrenalin, discussing what had just taken place. No theft today. Just another day being pegged for having lots of money. All white people have money they say.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mendeo and Temniet

Having just passed the one year mark, I have passed a lot of time in reflection of my time here lately. Not to mention changed my concept of time completely.  I’ve lost weight, had ringworm a lot, giardia, bacterial diarrhea, and plenty of fresh colds.  I am blessed to have not gotten malaria, boils, or any of the other serious illness threats posed here. Almost walked on a cobra, seen lots of really cool birds, thoroughly enjoyed my bush walks, spent time on the most beautiful beaches and camped in the most amazing jungles.  I’ve made a lot of lifelong friends, been adopted by two African families, taught four hundred eager smiling faces, and integrated into a small African town. I feel truly lucky to have been placed in such a beautiful country, in an amazing town, surrounded by wonderful people. Most important of all though, I found Ivy, my best friend and my life. My partner in crime, my travel buddy, my inspiration, not to mention my perfect dance partner.
                It seems only right that we met doing the last thing we really had planned for ourselves in life; joining the Peace Corps and running off to Africa for two years. We quickly became fast friends as she took the bus seat across from mine and nervously organized her purse while exchanging small talk with me. “My mom says we’re going to be best friends” she says and smiles. Crush crush crush. Luck would have it that we would be placed two rooms apart for the first week in Freetown, spending every night talking till two in the morning, climbing over rooftops, and instantly becoming support for each other. Things would slowly unravel over the next two months in a way that can only be described as fated. Any small change in events and we might not have come to be. Placed in related host families, taking our meals on the floor of the training site together, sitting in the back of training together; sharing walks, headphones, and pb&j sandwiches. At one point, unsure of relationships, Ivy is forced by her host mother to leave the house and bring me fruit. At another point, some silly gossip upsets us and would have been the end if not for her liking the way I handled it. The list goes on, assuring us both that we were meant to spend our forevers together. So in January 2012, never more certain of anything, I proposed on our favorite beach after nervously carrying the rings around for hours waiting for the courage and the perfect moment.
                After spending our first year at our separate sites, six hours apart, taking cramped and dangerous transport back and forth every weekend, we decided we can last through anything. We decided we both have the same ideas about how life is, how life should be, and what we want to do with it. We decided to get married in Africa!!! So on July 21st, 2012 we are going to wed on a West African beach among fellow PC volunteers and staff, our school’s staff, our host families, all the friends we have made over the past year, and a few family members from both sides . After much searching and discussing, we found the perfect place to promise each other that we want nothing more in life than to spend it together. It is a huge covered outdoors area, open to the elements, fun and quirky with its giant playground, and has lots of little deer running around.  It hasn’t been easy planning a wedding in a foreign country by ourselves, but with some fantastic help, and each other’s support and commitment, we have gotten ourselves a little shindig planned. Found a good group of women that are going to cater for us, a tasty cake maker, a designer and tailor that made our matching African style attire, had a fun and successful bachelor/bachelorette party, and figured out how to legally wed in Sierra Leone. Still working on finding a band/DJ but we have a few good leads. Busy planning fun music mixes, silly games to play, making leis, planning a scavenger hunt, and getting things together for a photo booth. All is coming together nicely, though we’re being open minded and expecting Africa to throw us a few curve balls, and looking forward to meeting our new family members.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Wont you be my neighbor...

One huge part of my life that I have yet to mention and cannot be fully captured in my photos, is the people i see daily. Just a stones throw away from my house is another compound composing of three buildings. This is where I do most of my socializing and where I "chop" my meals. One of the buildings is mostly storage for wood and coal.  There is a small shack in the middle that serves as a sort of kitchen, meaning it is where they stack their pots on three large stones set around a wood fire. The woman I have cook for me provides food for about 13+ people.  I pay her 25,000 Le a week or about 6$ for two meals a day. Everyone calls her Auntie as a sign of respect much like sir or mam in the States.  She lives in the first side of one duplex with her two children, her grandson and grandsons mother, and a few other random distant relatives that stay with her. So there are about 10 people that stay in two concrete floor rooms on straw mattresses.
On the other side of the duplex is my principal and his wife, their two children, niece, and a few here and there. In his "custody" are about 5 or 6 young boys, all my students, that stay in the compound with us. A mix of friends of family and a few brighter students he is trying to keep around. On the next side of the compound stays another Auntie, with her 70+ year old mother, granddaughter, son, and a random relative. One of the new teachers stays in a room attached to the same building.
Ive never seen so many people working so hard to get by day to day and looking out for each-other. Everyone in the families here seems to have equal roles and responsibilities. Sons, daughters, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, ect all make up one family. Not sure about everyone's reasons for being here but a lot are here because the school opportunity here is better, and alot of the smaller children's parents are unable to take care of them so they stay with their uncles and aunts that can. Some im sure are also orphaned by the high death rates here and the war. They treat me wonderfully and entertain me plenty. Having 20+ children aged 2-22 here is plenty of company and they love helping me clean, and brook, and pump water, and love it even more when I give them glowsticks and candy.
So a last few closing remarks and observations include
 1) the children here know how to work and they never complain

2) The female to male ratio is uneven. The male role models other than my principal are non existent. It is a compound and society supported strongly by hard working women and children.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Bus Bus Baby

I'm at my town's junction waiting for a vehicle to take me to Bo, where I can get vehicles to take me further down the way. Today is my lucky day. A government bus pulls up as I am waiting for my car to fill up. Not only is it cheaper and safer, they can take me as far as Freetown so I wont have to transfer cars in Bo. I hop on and take one of the few remaining seats next to a woman and her two small children. The seats on the bus are arranged for maximum capacity so all the rows are extremely close together. Even sitting completely straight, my knees crush into the seat in front of me. For now I can sit with my legs open, until another person takes the seat between us. What initially looked like a blessing, slowly turned into a curse. Usually these buses fill up with passengers all going to Freetown so there isn't much stopping, but for some reason this bus is stopping at almost every town, letting people off and trying to get more passengers. This is going to be a long ride. Oh well I think. I could be alot worse. I move my legs to get comfortable and pray at every stop that no one comes to claim the seat next to me. I politely smile as the toddler next to me, covered in big mole/wart like bumps, drools on my pants and occasionally touches me. I watch as the two of them devour plantain chips and crackers, leaving a powder wasteland of crumbs over everything like a sandstorm in the desert. The mother occasionally whips boob out for the young one and doesn't pay any attention to me. I try not to look startled or get caught observing, as my own culture is not quite so open about nudity.

An hour passes. I arrive in Bo. To my disappointment, a third of the bus gets off, leaving us at the station to wait for it to fill back up. I decide that Ive already paid and that another taxi might take just as long to fill up, so i wait and watch, sweating on the poorly ventilated bus. After a little while there is a commotion outside and most of the remaining people on the bus start to watch. I cant tell whats going on but it appears to be some kind of argument. Its hard for me to tell sometimes thought because even normal conversations here are usually done at yelling volume. Outsiders coming here to visit might get the impression that everyone is fighting and arguing but in reality the culture here just really likes to talk loudly. Yelling you might even say. So the commotion outside starts to look more happy so I'm confused. I watch as women hold up a lappa at the entrance of a small "bar", not allowing people to go inside. I think to myself, maybe there is a club meeting, or maybe they are dispersing food, or maybe holding a thief, or maybe someone fainted. My minds spins. I lean across the walkway and ask a young man that seems to speak good English. I ask. He tells.

A woman on the bus was pregnant traveling to Freetown. She is giving birth! It seems that there is a blessing inside this curse disguised as a blessing. I now can put together what I am seeing as all the women crowded around look happy, hopeful, and excited. Birth here is highly regarded. As a woman its one of the greatest achievements you can hope for her. All the young girls already have the number of children they want to have and can probably successfully raise a child as soon as they are able to reproduce. Finally the bus is full again. It takes a few minutes for people to all find seats and then it seems we are waiting for the woman and her newborn. She can possibly get back on the bus I think to myself. I watch as one of the ladies that helped deliver, supposedly a nurse, brings a tiny bundle on board and holds it up. Smiles and cheers. I feel like baby Simba is being displayed over the valley. Eventually the mother slowly gets back on the bus and is given the front seat, where upon she is handed her new baby. Off we go. I cant believe this woman was traveling in labor, hopped off and pushed out a baby, only to get back on the bus and continue her 4+ hours on to Freetown. No pain meds, no doctors. Only cold concrete floor and a bunch of women immersed in a world of giving birth. I sit back, tilt my body to the aisle at a weird angle to allow my legs space, and ponder on the wonders of the world.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A walk in the bush....

The other day, I ran into a man in the bush. He told me about the giant concrete tub he was standing next to and how they use it to process palm oil. He told me to come back tomorrow around 2pm. Perfect! Right at the end of school. I left school the next day and hiked behind my house again into the bush. The man was nowhere to be found, but instead I found four women and around twelve children obviously hanging out and making palm oil. The big concrete tub, that looks more like an ancient stone ruin, is filled to the top with a frothy reddish green liquid. Next to it are two big oil drums filled with more red liquid bubbling and oozing from the fires beneath them. Most of the women and children only speak Mende, and after we get through the greetings, dont talk much. A few of them speak enough Krio to explain that I just missed most of the process, including the men mashing the palm fruit with their feet much like people used to do to make wine from grapes. They explain that they are now boiling the oil that they have collected from the palm fruit to get the last little bit of water out and then pouring it into big gallon containers to sell it at the market. It goes for about 1,500 Leones a pint or about 35 cents. I sat around for a little over an hour watching these women who barely make ends meet, process palm fruit into oil to cook with, getting pestered and climbed on by their half dressed children with big bulging belly buttons and dirty feet and hands. They find me fascinating, and I of course enjoy making faces at them, poking them, and allowing them to drop flying insects on my arm as they burst into laughter. My arm hair intrigues them. My head hair is a soft savannah that they cant stop rubbing. I am easy going. I take it with a smile. After I see enough I decide to head home and say my best Mende goodbye. Halfway home, the children catch up to me with a cocoa pod, which looks like a green and yellow bumpy eggplant. I accept with a smile, thank them, and continue on, wondering what i'm going to do with it. Little do I know that my neighbor children know how to open it and that the inside is filled with gooey delicious seeds. I had previously only seen the dried cacao so I never imagined this white translucent fruity goodness surrounding each bean, almost like a pomegranate. Life here, like fruit, is delicious.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Monkey Monkey, Come Down!

Im writing to you as a failure. The monkey song did not bring the monkeys out of the trees. We were told it was going to work. We even did the dance! Oh well. At least we got to peep some. I am freshly returned from Tiwai Island. It was amazing. I highly recommend it to allveryone. But let me start at the beginning….

December 13th marked the day I traveled to Bo. From then till the 22nd we were having IST ( In Service Training), which included sessions on writing grants and setting up libraries, debriefing about our sites, a little history here, and a little language there. Our whole group, which is now down to 45, was all there and it was nice to see everyone again after a long first term of school at our sites. Bo is second largest city in Salone and quite possibly my favorite. It was nice to spend some time there getting to know it. One night we got to enjoy a live reggae band!!! My first music experience here with actual instruments, so I was pretty excited. We stayed at the Pastoral Center in Bo which was a pretty run down, hostel-like experience…..but we had electricity at night and ceiling fans!!! Overall not bad. No problem.

From there I traveled to Tiwai Island. After a 3 hour cramped car ride we arrived at the Moa river. The river splits at a fork and joins a few other small tributaries to create a little 6 by 12 kilometer island known at Tiwai. Im not sure if it’s a national park or protected land, but it is supposedly one of the top ten biodiversity hotspots in the world.One of the last remaining places for Pygmy Hippos, among other animals. We saw barrels of monkeys including the Diana monkey, the Lesser Spot-nosed monkey, the black and white Colobus monkey, the Red Colobus monkey, and some amazing birds including the Great Blue Turaco, the Yellow and Black Casqued Hornbill, Drogons, and two other types of hornbills. It was incredible and I had a hard time leaving. The island has a really nice campsite for tourists, which includes a bunch of concrete floored gazebos with tents set up with mattresses inside. There was a cook there that pretty much handled all of the business, and yes he also handled the food. The first few meals we let him cook us African food, but for the last few meals we gave him what cans of beans we had brought and had some interesting concoctions for Christmas Eve dinner. We had an early morning arranged hike with tour-guide, a 3 hour boat tour, and many guideless wanderings in the bush. It was awesome. Giant trees, huge vines, beautiful rivers, sandy beaches, huge bamboo groves, and footpaths criss-crossing all over the island.Anyone that comes to visit WILL be taken there.

“Monkey monkey come down. Monkey monkey come down. You see me fine wes (butt), you see me fine bo bee (breasts) O!”