Monday, March 18, 2013

Don't Lose Sight

Author Note: Kees is pronounced Case, rhymes with race.

It’s extremely important that awareness is brought towards the suffering of those less fortunate and to try in every way possible to help those in need.  But it’s easy to confuse the main stream media coverage of hunger crisis with the average African population.  There are 54 countries in Africa and I don’t feel it is one giant continent of fear, misery or suffering. Within the 37 African countries I’ve visited, the majority of people were friendly, hospitable and joked amongst each other.

Honestly, there are parts of their lives that I am jealous of, one of the main things being their huge families and respect for elders. Everyone has a hundred friends in the street, they know their neighbours and trust their community to protect them. Not once have I felt threatened or unsafe walking the streets in the day or at night. I feel less protected with my cellphone and “911” in Europe than I do with all the women and children outside running around, drinking tea, playing board games and sharing meals at night here. Kieta fled his African homeland with the preconceived notion that he was going to “the land of wealth and happiness” but instead found bitter cold; the hospitality and warm friendship he was used to was suddenly gone. Once our houses are built, I don’t doubt for a second that he will be moving back to Africa. 

Traveling has taught me that we do not need all of those materialistic things we think are so important. As long as the essentials are provided, people are more than capable of finding happiness in simplicity. People’s opinions of themselves are often mirrored by what others say and think about them, which is why it’s hard not to compete in a materialistic world. 

Competing with our families to be bigger and better should never happen. We should be helping each other up and standing together; we already have way more than we need. As far as I’m concerned, that is a fact. I know it’s unrealistic to expect people to suddenly downgrade their houses, flush their iPhones and sell their cars, but if there is just one message I can get across it’s to look at what you do have and at least be grateful. Don’t take for granted or lose touch with what is truly important in your life.
It’s impossible to be grateful 24/7 (unless you’re Mom, of course) and I constantly struggle with it, perhaps because I, of all people, should know better. I’m guilty of getting caught up in this circle again and losing sight of what's truly important. This life has been a gift for me and to forget that would be an insult. I strive to be better and try to remember how it is when living a simpler life, especially after a trip like this. 

Savannah Grace


Saturday, March 09, 2013

Steak for Breakfast

Warning: Graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised.

A simple morning stroll to find breakfast in our neighbourhood came with an exciting surprise. A beaten up taxi with a half-disintegrated couch tied to the roof racks above caught our attention, even before we realized what lay inside. A small, beige cow was flipped helplessly and awkwardly on its side, crammed in the back seat.

We asked permission to document the cow, always careful now when taking photos in the city after our previous encounter with the secret police.

“OUI, OUI!” they said, waving an open hand towards the scene.
When the men started to tear him out of the back seat by the horns, Kees suggested, “C’mon sweet, let’s go. We don’t want them to take him out of the car for our photo.”

When traveling, the locals tend to want to do everything to please you. They often go over the top to do things you didn’t even want to begin with, much like in India when venders pull their entire fabric shop apart to show you something you were only looking at. 

Despite our insistence that we didn’t need the cow to come out, they continued to tug at his horns and legs. Dropping him on his back they began unraveling the ropes around his ankles. Once he was free from the vehicle, they whacked him until he righted himself and they shooed him through metal doors into a walled compound. Curiosity getting the better of us, we followed them into a dusty enclosure in the middle of the city. I immediately knew what we were about to witness and how I was going to react.

It was a big yard, where another cow of the same kind was tied up on the ground. I couldn’t help but wonder if this cow #1 had just come out of the same little taxi. I wouldn’t put it past them to stack two cows on top of each other. I couldn’t imagine the hours of suffering these poor cows had already been put through before they came to this inevitable end. I knew for sure cow #2, that had just stumbled into the compound, had been shoved and pulled into a tiny car upside down with the blood flowing into his brain, the pressure behind his eyeballs forcing them out of their sockets. Sheer terror showed in the bulging whites of his eyes as he desperately tried to see what was happening. After spending who knows how long upside down and overheating in the car, even his pink anus was bulging out from the strain. Perhaps the weight of cow #1 being on top of him would explain that! They were both in the worst position a cow could possibly find himself in. Not even a Hollywood film could invent a way to get them out of this one.

They stretched and twisted #1’s neck unnaturally to use his horns as an anchor to keep the skin tight. My stomach started to twist in the same fashion. Even with horns dug into the earth, he kept watching with those terrified eyes. Clouds of dirt formed around his nostrils as he exhaled his last laboured breaths. An African boy sharpened two small knives before repetitively slapping the tightly stretched neck. Two men braced the cow for the deep, lethal incision.

Kees was only a few feet away on his knees filming every move while I kept my distance and turned my head before the killing, only allowing a few glances.

I couldn’t watch as they made the first slice, opening the thick skin and persistently sawing back and forth. The cow let out a loud “MOO!” and continued to groan as the knife cut through the flesh. Even without watching, purposely directing my focus downwards to the trash strewn earth I could hear the blood gushing out in a strong, steady stream.
As much as I tried to overpower my mind and be in control, I had no chance. I felt both lightheaded and sick, the putrid smells around me, empty stomach and smouldering heat, weren’t on my side. I didn’t know if puking or fainting would come first.

While the first was still gurgling and dying, they turned their attention towards cow #2. After just witnessing what was about to happen to him, they pulled him by horn and tail, not hesitating a second before slitting his throat too.

I hoped that as soon as we left the scene I would instantly recover but the smells and sounds were still so fresh and the edges of my vision started to go, forcing me to admit, “Kees, I feel really dizzy,” and reach for his arm to gain support.

“Sweet, what’s happening? Is it the heat? Or the cow? Or both?”

“I just feel dizzy,” I said, ashamed to admit I was really fainting over this. He held me securely, making sure I didn’t wander into traffic. I focussed in on a big, old tree in the centre of the sidewalk which had burst through the concrete years ago and made a break for it. I immediately turned, slid with my back against it and dropped to the ground.

So stupid! I’m so stupid, stupid, stupid.

I felt completely embarrassed that I wasn’t able to control this reaction but knew if I hadn’t stopped I would’ve passed out. I just cannot get over the fact that I was already prepared for it, yet it made absolutely no difference. It’s incredible that something visual and audible can make you react so physically.

Naturally this silly, little white girl dropping in the street drew a crowd. I could hear the alarm of the French voices anxious to help. My right ear was humming, making the voices sound distant. As Kees tried to explain everything was alright, they brought chairs and water for me but I insisted on staying put in the dirt with my back firm against the tree.

So stupid!

After a quick, cold Sprite, I gained some strength back and we made it to breakfast. I decided to eat French fries and salad that day and left out the chicken. It took a few hours before I felt perfectly okay again and a bit longer before I was inclined to eat meat. It doesn’t give me a good feeling that I consume it every day and yet can’t stomach the necessary act of slaughter. It made me question if I am even worthy of eating meat.


P.S. Later in the day we passed by the yard again and saw that they had cut the cows down into a few buckets of meat and two wet, slimy skins.

To veiw the very graphic video of this story click here.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Guinea Island Project:

Guinea Island Project: 25/02/2013 Author Note: Kees is pronounced Case. Rhymes with bookcase. Remember that little comment I made about Kees surprising me every day? Well one of those surprises was a few years ago when I first heard he’d bought a piece of land on Kassa, an island off the coast of Guinea. I admit I shook my head at him, especially when I found out it was only a 15-20 minute boat ride from the chaotic capital city. What kind of absurd idea is this!? It didn’t make much sense to me. I considered the work ethics, reliability and corruption in Africa but the bigger question was, who on earth GOES to Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world?! I’d been on an island not far from there called Bolama just off the coast of Guinea Bissau which is the country north of Guinea. Although it was a nice experience and had its charm, it wasn’t what I would call a good investment or a “holiday excursion”.

This little project of Kees’ was only a couple thousand euro gamble so I figured, “let him have his fun”. Despite my reservations, when I heard he was going to fly there in February I was too scared to be left out of a good adventure, so I jumped aboard. Plus, I like to stay close to him. The last time Kees saw the island was nearly a decade ago when he first talked about buying land there with his Guinean friend Keita. Though we’ve technically owned the land for 3 years already, this was the first time either of us would actually see what he’d bought. Whenever I told someone the reason behind our trip to Guinea, I shrugged my shoulders, just as confused as them. Well, BOY WAS I WRONG! I seriously love our island! Yes, notice how I’ve snuck that our word in there.

From the narrow, concrete pier of Conakry’s bustling harbor, Keita helped to arrange a private boat to Kassa. With the honking, shouting and many indistinguishable smells fading behind us, I set eyes on the island ahead as it got bigger and bigger. I immediately felt excited as the palm trees and sands got closer. The sun was shining down warming my back, a wonderful change from the slushy, cold rains in Holland.

It was a super short trip, only 15-20 minutes from the capital city, yet it seemed a million miles from it. You could probably get there in 7 minutes with a good boat and motor, but they tend to go at a snail pace to save money on fuel. It’s surprising that despite being so close to civilization, the island feels very remote and untouched. With such easy access to this beautiful island, how come it hadn’t been claimed or built up sooner?

Landing, we walked across the width of the island directly to our piece of land in less than 5 minutes! Keita showed us the way and I was absolutely blown away when I set eyes on our home away from home. It is much bigger than I expected and already there are three of ten huts in the process of being built and we have our first well which Keita started on a previous trip, but this trip was about getting our hut built.

The entire property which is owned by Keita is 5,000m2, 10% of which we own. With this we already have big plans. I immediately went from thinking Kees was crazy to believing him when he said, “This place is going to be in the Lonely Planet”.

A beautiful rocky area covered by palm trees and banana plants will be the future bar/restaurant. We’ve got lots of beach front property which with some work will be great! We can build a pier and get a boat. Checking the perimeters, Kees pointed out the spot where he wanted his hut to be, just in front of the big baobab tree, with a stunning view of the ocean.

I immediately saw the great potential in this property and am so excited to see it all happen. I absolutely loved it and couldn’t stop thinking about mom and how much she would have absolutely loved this whole experience. After seeing the island, our property and choosing the spot, we took a boat back to Conakry to get to the drawing board. In about 15 minutes, Kees drew the sketch of our future house. You could say he got carried away just a little, as our little hut turned into a giant platform with two larger huts, including an entire storage floor underneath.

The next morning the architect came to our local compound to see Kees’ drawing. After Kees’d explained his sketch the guy left, and came back later that day with the real blueprints. Wow, a dream takes the first step! Next, we needed to meet with the builder. In the meantime Kees and I had moved over to stay on the island at a nice place which mainly attracts French military and serves as a getaway for charity workers, etc. in the country. Though there are few actual tourists/backpackers at this point, there are definitely more whiteys or as they call us, “footays”, than I’d expected. Crazy as it sounds, with tourism spreading down from Morocco to The Gambia, I can actually see Guinea becoming a tourist destination in the next ten years. We met with our builder, and showed him the blue prints and our chosen location. With a measuring tape and his crew, he jumped into the bushes to get his thing together. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing as these topless “bushmen” immediately got to work, dealing with the most rural, basic conditions. I was immediately impressed by them! Being the only girl among at least a dozen guys, I watched as they made a small sample idea in sand with sticks and twigs. The builder drew up a list of the material we needed to arrange and bring to the island before he could start.

Keita, Kees and our builder (left photo: topless on the left), stepped to the side to discuss in private the conditions, price and schedule. When Kees came back and filled me in, my jaw fell off when he ended it with “and he promises he can get the house up and finished in two months!”. And so it begins!!! As Kees and I stayed and enjoyed a tropical holiday in one of two resort/hotels on the island, Keita fought the heat and stress of Conakry as he arranged wood, iron, wheelbarrows and cement to be transported by boat over the following days. A dream starts to take shape! We watched each and every step with excitement that week.

Two boats arrived the first day with what seemed an endless amount of supplies being loaded onto the worker’s heads. Load after load of 50k sacks of cement were put on the heads of shirtless guys with muscles that could put washboards out of business in Africa. In just flip-flops they balanced through the muddy shores and climbed the bank, making a chain like ants across the island to our tropical paradise.

While the material was being hauled, the builder was busy taking measurements, making notes, clearing the land of bush and trees. Each day we were greeted either with respectful handshakes from the workers, and/or Kees being called “patron” or “master” and me “Madame”. Each time we visited, the frame was becoming more and more of a reality as we watched them cut out entire boulders, pour cement and build wooden boxes for the pillars. Sweat poured off chocolate skin in the heat of the day. With shirts wrapped around their heads, muscles shined with the gleam of their sweat. Though at times it felt a bit weird being the “Madame”, for reasons I don’t think I need to explain, I know that realistically they are more than capable of this hard, physical labour and I had to think of the sherpas in Nepal. They must be thrilled to have secure employment for the next two months.

The boss builder was funny when we arrived, he’d yell at the guys taking a break in the shade of the palms, anxious for us to see them in action. I did feel bad if they had just sat down for a breather.

I kept thinking of Mom and how much she would have loved to join us on this trip. Last year when Kees tried to go to Guinea, he insisted it wouldn’t be worth it for her to come because it wasn’t a “holiday” trip. Next time she HAS to go because I know she will love it. In the shade of the palms down the slope from our small construction site, the temperature was purely perfect with a slight breeze coming in from the ocean, birds singing overhead and the workers picking fresh mangoes and coconuts for us from our own trees! Kees was right that it wasn’t a relaxing holiday, it was so much more. It was a trip that had all my senses screaming at me, fighting for the next note to be written. Though sometimes I was sunburnt, felt exhausted, and had to shower with cold bucket water after hours of dust sticking to my sweaty skin, I experienced something new and wouldn’t trade that for anything. What is more beautiful on this earth than watching a dream become a reality?

I even started to insist that I would stay on Kassa and watch the entire building process. Though, even if I was serious he would never let me because, “What would I tell your mom? I left you here in Africa? Ya, right!” And he’d made it quite clear I had no choice when I tested, “but I could stay if I REALLY wanted.” “No you couldn’t.” “Why not?!” “Because of these,” He said, flashing his bicep. “LOL. Okay, okay, you win.”

I feel privileged to have been part of this and to see the start of such a project. We could never have done any of this without the help of Keita who spent days running around arranging everything. It was so exciting to see the progress each day. I love the atmosphere of our “Little Holland”, which the locals have started referring it to as. What started as a fun little idea has turned into a big project that I think, with time, could be a hot spot for backpackers. We envision round huts, palm leaf walled toilets where you can gaze at the stars while you shower, suspension bridges crossing between trees, torch lit pathways to individual huts and a small but lively bar. A little getaway to the tropics with a special atmosphere. Whatever happens though, we know we at least have a house being built for us that we will definitely be able to enjoy. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought I’d have a topical holiday home in Guinea let alone AFRICA. Life continues to surprise me. I know I have already and can NOT wait to see how Kees’ 15 minute drawing looks in REAL life, overlooking that big, sparkly ocean...


Take the step forward, follow that dream !