My trip to Niger was the most wonderful experience I could have asked for. I was blessed to spend so much time with my dear friend, Juliet, who I'd only seen for a few days since graduation (when she visited me in London) and who I have no idea when we'll next see each other in person. I also felt privileged to share her Peace Corps life for a couple of weeks, meeting the fantastic other volunteers and spending time with her Nigerien friends. After my trip to Kenya & Tanzania, I was so frustrated because we never had a chance to spend any real time with any regular people who weren't somehow involved in the tourist industry. Here, the two of us spent time chilling with Juliet's friends, visiting their houses, playing cards, trying to teach each other languages, eating, and "talking." We also used regular transportation instead of BIG WHITE TANK BUS OF DOOOOOOM, which was alternatively hysterical, hot, uncomfortable, exciting, dusty, scenic, and fun. I do think Jules was making up the giraffes, though, to get me to look out the window (which was happily not the one that fell into the bus)! In all, it was the best trip I could have imagined and I'm so glad that I went! Put Niger on your must-travel list, everyone!
I started writing about the trip for my e-mail list, but realized that people weren't going to get a very good sense of what we did and what it was really like from a day by day regurgitate of my trip. I think snapshots might be better, paired with actual photos, as I've uploaded my favorites already. I need to post some more, like the ones that will give people a glimpse of Juliet's lifestyle in Guidimouni (her town), but this will be a good start.
First of all, Niger is beautiful or at least it was now, just at the end of the rainy season. It was sort of red toward Niamey and sandier in Guidimouni. Generally, there were lots of scrubby bushes and little trees (although Guidimouni has a lake and gardens, and they're like a little tropical forest in the middle of everything). Here are two sunset photos (with which I am particularly pleased):
Juliet's friends, both Nigerien and American are fantastic. The PCVs made me laugh so, so hard with their stories about their lives in the villages, their attempts to do projects, and adventures in Hausa. The Nigeriens I met were so welcoming and friendly and never stopped encouraging me to learn Hausa. Proudly, I picked up a little, some from a bunch of random guys while waiting for Juliet to get back to the autogare for our bush taxi ride out to Guidimouni. The other thing that amazed me about Niger was how safe I felt at all times. I shouldn't generalize, of course, but I felt like I needed to be on my guard most of the time when I was in Kenya & Tanzania and it always felt like things were a little bit shady. Niger, especially when we were outside of Niamey, just didn't seem that way.
We spent four days (I think) in Zinder, her regional hub that's 12-14 hours east of Niamey (Niger's capital). Highlights include adventures in riding on the back of a kabu-kabu (motorcycle taxis), power outages (me: Jules, why is the sky so cloudy? Jules: Because, dear, that's the milky way. me: NO WAY! YOU CAN SEE IT?!?), watching movies at the hostel, shopping for our amazing matching panya outfits in the market and having them made, hearing the almost continuous prayers from the loudspeakers at the mosques all over the city, sleeping outside where it was cold enough to need a blanket at night, making ice cream and just some general exploring. It was also a chance for me to get used to the weather. Here are my favorite photos of Zinder (note the kabu-kabus):
After Zinder, it was time to take the 2ish hour bush taxi ride to her town. We were there for a week, the first day of which was both market day and Sallah...the end of Ramadan. Everyone was dressed up and wearing new panyas when we wandered around the market. There were political panyas and used Western clothes for sale, people fixing radios and exchanging money, all kinds of street food, some fruits and vegetable and cookware, and a big animal market. We had to scoot out of the way of a cow cart race at one point. And five other volunteers had come to the market, including two of Jules' really close friends whom I was delighted to meet. And once again, I spent the whole afternoon laughing. Everyone called Juliet a hajia (a woman who's gone on Hajj and is, therefore, rich) because of the number of bags that she'd brought back from Zinder!
I have to say that my favorite thing about Guidimouni was spending so much quality time with Jules. We just talked and talked and talked and it was such a relief for both of us to be able to discuss things with someone who knew us really, really well. We both have close friends in London or Niger, but it isn't the same when you haven't spent four years together. I met Juliet's best friend in the village, the Nigelec representative and he arranged for us to ride a horse (when asked what I liked best so far, I quickly answered "the camels!" and I think it was only because camels were harder and our protests that we didn't end up doing that, too). You know, to small Nigerien children, anasarias (white girls) on a horse is just as funny as snakes on a plane. You really couldn't take yourself too seriously and survive in that country. Another day we went boating on Lake Guidimouni and explored the gardens that are the byproduct of the lake; we spent a morning at the middle school where Jules works (I took lots of books for the library she's building) and it was neat to see and meet her director; and we rode bikes to her friend's village 7k away where we met some of her friends, I pounded millet (for, you know, 2 minutes), hiked up a tiny hill, talked, and watched the Nigeriens drawing water (which is unusual, because they're usually staring at the white people). And, one night, Jules got out her telescope and we looked at the sky. The moon was incredible and we could just barely see the Andromeda Galaxy, which made Jules really excited!
It was hard to take pictures in Guidimouni, because of the inevitable kids & mobs, but here are a few from our time there:
That's the two of us at the town's sign, my one shot of the village, everyone dressed in their new panyas on market day, and a very cute little girl who is the daughter of the PCV we visited's best friend in her village.
We spent the last two days of the trip in Niamey, the capital. See, Jules' plan was that when I came in from London, Niamey wouldn't seem so great. After a week in the bush, it was far more impressive. We stayed with a Persian Baha'i family who run a private school and ate the most amazing Persian food. They even had internet, air conditioning, AND a full sized fridge (after a year in England, these things are impressive)...it was mindblowing. We spent quite a lot of time wandering around Niamey's two main markets, the Grande & Petit Marches. I really wanted to get some more clothing made, so we shopped for cloth and bought more panya. I love panya shopping almost as much as I love panya spotting (me: "Jules! Look! Spraypaint panya! Alka-seltzer panya!" Because these things are far funnier when people are actually wearing them). We also went back to Score, the country's ONE western style grocery store and bought decadent ice lollys. Mmmmm, Magnum bars. I have to say, I also loved taking cabs everywhere. They cost 15p/30cents and I felt so decadent. Here are some photos of the petit marche and a panya store (although most of the time these are sold at stalls, not proper stores, but it was really hard to take photos...again):
Then, at midnight, I flew home, but Niger had one last surprise. We noticed lots of police along the street as we drove there (Juliet's friend took us) and wondered why. While I checked in, they found out that it was because the President of Niger was also flying out that night. Now, whether he was on our flight or his own plane, I'm not sure, but it was still pretty cool.
It was sad to say goodbye to Jules, but it was also the most wonderful trip. I have such a better idea of what her life is like in the Peace Corps and what I want for my own Peace Corps experience. And there's nothing like seeing one of your closest friends who you've barely been able to e-mail for a year! I was really lucky. And, hey, I've got the shots for almost anywhere that PC wants to send me!
Oh, and as always, if you want the rest of the photos that I've gotten online, go visit my Flickr account!