Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On the Road

First off, my apologies for not keeping a regularly updated blog... still new at this, plus internet is hard to come by. But this is going to change because I made a New Year's resolution that it would, and it may be a month late but it change seems to be the word of the day in the headlines. (My heart goes out the people in so many Middle Eastern and African countries taking charge of their future and their governance this week.)

Brief Summary of the Past Two Months: One month ospent away from my all too new site for  All Volunteer Conference, In-Service Training and Christmas in Dakar. While the temptations of Dakar and Thies are delightful - namely ice cream, hamburgers, and other hard to find food products - they are also a touch expensive given a limited village allowance. New Years found me happily make in the village, ready to take on a slew of project ideas formulated with other volunteers in between and over snack breaks. But I was quickly swept away to the (small) city of Kolda to discussion our regional startegy as volunteers. Further armed with vague plans and ideas, I returned to the village 5 days later. The past two weeks some of those ideas are being put into motion: organizing a girls club and leadership conference in Kounkane, planting guava trees, getting the Master Farmer demonstration plot ready for tree pepiniere trainings, writing grants for douches (aka hole-in-the-ground cement slab style toilets), translating short stories into Pulaar to promote literacy, and Moringa leaf powder for growing babies. The ball is just beginning to roll on these projects and I got a few more up my sleeve, not to mention I still have half the village to get to know.

Unfortunately and fortunately, February has filled out with trainings away from site, postponing some of these projects until the end of the month. Well it is frustrating to be pulled away yet again, I am truly interested in learning how to construct peanut shellers and pumps for wells, to get more information on fruit tree diseases and raising poultry, and most importantly to trade tree seeds so I can really get started with Agroforestry projects.

All these trainings all over Senegal have meant a lot of travel, and a lot of different modes of transportation. Transportation in Senegal is organized and chaotic all at once and always colorfully decorated with ribbons and prayers to Allah. "Sept-places," converted station wagons with, as their name suggested, seven places for passengers, have strictly enforced capacity for the most part. Buses between cities also usually usually enforce the one person-one seat rule. Bigger minivans, or bush taxis or Alhams or whatever name you want to give them, however are more of a free for all; people are crammed 5 or 6 to a row with random babies on random laps and chickens below the seats, no less than 3 apprentices and other guys hanging off the back, and a top heavy cargo on top. Need I remind you that most of these vehicles have miraculously navigated the potholes, rocks, and sand so characteristic of West African roads for upwards of twenty years?

The drivers are amazing... traveling top speed with worn brakes (at best), dodging the above mentioned obstacles plus livestock and rebels in the Casamance, repairing inevitable flat tires in record time, they some how beat the odds 9 times out of 10 and get their passengers to their destination. Every trip is an adventure spent sweating up against and engaging your neighbor in small talk. Oddly enough, it seems that every trip I find myself equally felling asleep and grasping onto something- anything- bracing myself for the worst when the driver swerves a bit too fast, the back tire explodes and we go carening of the road, or the faulty brakes burn rubber before bringing us to a halting stop. Now that I have probably terrified my mother, I must reiterate my confidence in the skills of these drivers, who have fearlessly guided me and my fellow passengers out of every sticky situation so far, knock on wood and cross your fingers too, just to be sure.

On today's journey to Tambacounda, en route to the pump and sheller technology training in Kedegou, I found my mind wandering to possible escape routes out of the Alham/bush taxis and sept-place I took. The first bush taxi was going remarkably fast and really swerving around potholes, so the application of such an emergency evacuation plan seemed plausible. Luckily, the vehicle was largely empty, which would illiminate the need for crawling over people; unluckily, the window I was seated next to did not open. Best chance would be the back door, meaning a climb over the seat bakc, which I would be capabable of as long as I did not sustain any injuries to the head. Feeling largely confident with this plan, I settled down to gaze lazily out the window and let my mind wander in a half-sleep stupor.

This relatively enjoyable ride ended when the driver decided he didn't have enough passengers and pulled over to kick us out, so we could board the minivan just ahead of us and he could turn back and look for more profit. The next bush taxi was overcrowded and top heavy, but slower. I deduced that a roll over after a pothole/cattle swerve maneuver would be the most likely scenario calling for an escape plan. Seated in the back cabin, I had easy access to the back door. However, it could mean a fight through the crowd to go out the door. And if the apprentices and random dudes hanging off the back didn't leap from the bumper to save themselves, they could block the doors and entrap the rest of us inside. Really, it would all depend on which way the car would tip.

Finally in Velingara, we nabbed a sept-place to Tamba. My seat number landed me a place in the backseat next to another on openning window. My escape options were the middle seat door and/or window or kicking open the trunk. Waiting for the car to fill, the trunk filled open, leaving the middle seat door as the only option. Sept-places have a set number of people as I've mentioned, so it all would hang on the hang on the motivation and agility of the people in the middle seat, one of whom was my Peace Corps neighbor... Until the diva, ceeb (Senegalese style-fried rice) mamas insisted she take a back seat because they were too corpulent to squeeze in the back. The argument continued aggressively for a while and we finally caved to their demands in the interest of time. Given the physical nature and personalities that our traveling companions had displayed, I resigned myself to accepting a painful non-escape in the event of an emergency, cracked open a book, doozed off, and left my life in the hands of the driver and Allah. And here I am, safe at last, and with internet! in Tambacounda.

Greetings to friends and family; hope you all had happy holiday and new year celebrations! Special shout outs the my parents, my aunt and uncle, and cousins for the awesome Christmas packages I found at the post office today - I cannot even begin to describe how happy a letter, card, or package can make a volunteer far from home. Thanks for all the love and support!