The Guinea Journal
Sunday, December 10 2:30 a.m. Conakry
It’s early in the morning or late at night depending on how you look at it. I went to bed around midnight but couldn’t sleep. My mind was reeling with the images and activities of not just today but the previous couple of days. It’s a sensation unlike any I’ve had before. It felt like a physical assault and I had to try and construct mental barriers to keep the waves of thought at bay.
The first night in Guinea, the night of my arrival, was the same and in my mind I built a giant paint sprayer. I let the rush of images and pictures fill the canvas of my mind and then triggered the paint sprayer which I swept across the canvas blowing a fine spray of white paint leaving it clean and pure. But even before the sprayer would reach the far side of the canvas the near side would begin to fill again with a jumble of emotions and thoughts and pictures. It was all quite overwhelming and I kept that sprayer working for what felt like hours till I finally lost myself in sleep.
Tonight for some strange reason I had a mental image of my right rear pannier bag (what I call my survival kit) held aloft as a shield to fend off the onslaught. Then in my mind I began to sing the ABC song over and over again in an attempt to derail my brain, soothe it with the rhythm and somehow get to sleep, an attempt which failed.
So here I am at 3:00 in the morning thinking about all that has occurred in the past two days. Perhaps if I can purge myself of these events I can get some sleep.
The plane landed around eight at night. It was dark. I didn’t know where I would stay or even what I would do. My preference was to assemble my bike right at the airport, load up the pannier bags and cycle off into Conakry and look for a hotel. But there were a few problems with that idea. For one thing I wanted to keep my bicycle box and use it again when I flew out. Plus I had more stuff than I could reasonably carry all at once. The extra gear I planned on storing for future use while I cycled around. And it was dark. I decided therefore to find a taxi, load up everything and find a hotel, any hotel, any port in a storm.
I was nervous flying in and it didn’t help that the Guineans to whom I spoke on the plane were aghast that I was alone, had no one to meet me, knew no one in the entire country and worst of all, did not have a reservation at Novotel, the modern $120/night hotel to which in their eyes all tourists should run and probably never leave.
I expected a blast of heat to hit when I stepped out of the jet but it didn’t materialize. It was hot and humid but nothing like the steam bath I was expecting. The jet had simply parked on the tarmac and we walked down the steps and found ourselves standing outside the small airport building. Instantly I had the sensation that everyone around me knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going. Everyone moved with such purpose and I felt very apart because I seemed the only one without a clue as to what to do or where to go. And there was no buffer zone. The airport was not a modern structure, separate from the chaos of the country as in many places. Guinea spilled over the airport and surrounded me right from the first. There were people everywhere clamouring for my attention. None were in uniform or carrying official insignia. Go here, they said. Go there. You need hotel? Taxi?
I tried to assume a posture that indicated I needed no help, that I knew what I was doing. I felt the full weight of paranoia descend on my shoulders. Who could I trust? I was totally out of my element and utterly exhausted. I perceived the world as if through three panes of smoky glass. Sound was muffled. I’d prepared myself mentally as much as I could for this moment but I still felt horribly exposed and confused and helpless, like a piece of driftwood in a flooding river.
There were three channels to choose from and I walked down the last one which read “Arrivee.” People crowded me and I was pushed past a large woman in uniform who shouted after me to come back. I’d made my first mistake. She demanded to see my passport and yellow vaccination booklet. I tried desperately to focus and pay attention. I knew these first few hours and days are not only the most dangerous but also the most vivid and I wanted to remember everything. I wanted to take it slow and methodical. My goal of course was to make it through the formalities of immigration and customs, retrieve my luggage and get it all safely to a hotel but more than that I wanted to be aware of everything going on around me and I resented the fatigue the long flight had forced on me and I resented the unrelenting chaos surrounding me. Men and women were on all sides reaching out to me, touching me, pushing me along, talking to me.
Immigration was surprisingly informal. There was only one booth, a small wooden affair with a glass window, and everyone rushed it simultaneously. It did not look official at all and so many non passengers were surging back and forth that many new arrivals walked right past it and had to be shouted back. Some walked all the way into the luggage claim area and into Guinea. People had to be dispatched after them to bring them back.
I joined the crowd in front of the window and waited. There was no line, no order. People shouted at me to get my attention and then told me to give my passport to immigration. Yes, I nodded, I know. I was slowly pushing forward in the crush, moving towards the window but people weren’t happy with my progress. They made thrusting motions with their arms. “Push,” they were telling me. “Get in there!” I felt like I had my own cheerleading squad.
When my turn came (when the immigration official took my passport from my hand, one of half a dozen hands thrust through his tiny window and waving in front of his face) he was clearly unhappy. My passport was fine, the visa apparently acceptable, my vaccinations up to date. What he didn’t like was my face. He didn’t believe the picture was me and looked back and forth from my face to the photo. He kept shaking his head and making little unhappy frowns. I realized I was wearing my glasses and in my passport photo I didn’t have any on. I took off my glasses and smiled dopily at him. “C’est moi,” I said and pointed at the passport then at me.
Then, without saying a word he stamped my passport and handed it back. I was in.
The crowd ejected me and I was pushed forward to where a line of women held up placards with names written on them. They looked hopefully at me but I shook my head. None of the names were mine. Other women held large laminated pictures of various luxury hotels for my approval. They seemed so sad when one by one I told them I couldn’t afford their hotels. They gave a little pout, lowered their cards, and walked away.
Immediately outside passport control was luggage claim. Here too I was besieged by people with what seemed like very important things to say. I listened as best I could but had no idea what they were saying. A conveyor belt came out of the far wall and snaked around the room. The wall was glass and I could see where the luggage would be off loaded. It seemed fairly straightforward to me. Stand here and wait for your luggage to appear. But to judge by the number of people pouring information into my ear they felt it was more complicated than that.
One man in particular had a lot to say and was the most incomprehensible. This was Sekou Conde, head of tourism at the airport. He stood in front of me speaking rapid-fire French and showing me his identity card. I think he was accustomed to foreigners arriving totally shell shocked and disbelieving everyone. So were the porters who crowded around and told me over and over again that Conde was not only a good man, but a big man, an important man.
In retrospect I think I may have been better off running as far and fast from Conde as I could but in fact there was no chance of doing that. Conde did not offer his services. He forced them, and as I’ve learned, slowly constructed a web of deceits to tighten his hold, all carefully disguised as helping me. But at the time he seemed a helpful ally and it was his job to assist tourists.
In fact the very concept of tourism had a special place. People in uniform approached me again and again but Conde waved his arms and appeared to be shouting, “Tourist! I’ve got a tourist here! Stand back! Tourism happening here!” It appeared I was a dangerous organism and if provoked might suddenly start taking pictures or begin touring right on the spot.
People were standing five or six deep around the conveyor belt. Luggage carts slammed into ankles and pushing matches erupted everywhere. Conde assigned a man to me with his own luggage cart. He pushed forward into the crowd and urged me to follow. I tried to explain that my luggage was in fact a large bicycle box and an equally unmistakeable ugly green duffel bag. There would be no mistaking it and it would likely be off-loaded last but he was having none of it.
“Regardez,” he shouted at me while pointing from my eyes to the conveyor belt. “Watch for your bags.”
I nodded but I guess my nod wasn’t affirmative enough and he shouted angrily, “Regardez bien, monsieur!” and pointed vigorously at the as yet unmoving conveyor belt. I assumed a military posture and nodded more strongly. Yes, I will watch every second. I won’t look away for even a moment because heaven knows I wouldn’t want my luggage to go around that belt even once without being retrieved.
My porter must have sensed my lack of enthusiasm for the mission and kept urging me to come forward and insert myself into the melee. While I stood and waited I couldn’t help but let my eyes wander around the room and each time he caught me at it he shouted “regardez” again and pointed at the belt. His frown deepened each time and he began to shake his head, wondering why he got stuck with all the stupid tourists instead of the smart ones who knew how important it was to fight and push and shove even when there was nothing to be gained.
The luggage started to arrive and I watched with amazement the struggles that occurred. The men off loading the bags seemed to have been hired based on the severity of their hatred for luggage. Each bag had not only to be thrown from as great a height as possible but then beaten into submission.
There was plenty of room for people to move but everyone pressed themselves as close together as possible. Luggage carts jammed and people shouted fiercely at each other, no one willing to give an inch. By this time my porter had given up on me in disgust and only occasionally looked my way to make sure I was paying at least a little attention.
In the meantime I was speaking to Conde trying to see if in fact he could help me or not. My instincts, like the instincts of most new arrivals, was to mistrust everyone. I brushed aside all those forcing their services on me saying I didn’t need help, that I wanted to do things on my own. But I realized that attitude could only get me so far. Eventually I was going to need somebody’s help if only to the extent of a taxi driver to get me into town and help me find a hotel. At some point you have to let your paranoia go and as Mercenary Bob was to say later, “give someone your heart.”
Conde was probably the wrong person to start with but I can’t be sure of that. The story of Conde is far from over and since he works at the airport I will have to deal with him again when it comes time to leave. I can only hope it isn’t quite as traumatic as arriving.
I waited for a long time as the crowd thinned. Container after container emptied while my porter got more and more excited. Where was my luggage? He figured it must be here and I just wasn’t paying enough attention. “Regardez! Regardez bien!” He pointed to the few remaining bags going around the belt. Is this yours? This? It must be this.
I shook my head at all the offered bags and tried to explain again that my luggage was a box, unmistakably big and heavy and probably had been set aside in a special place.
Then the rumors began. That, it appeared, was the last container and therefore my bike had not arrived. It had been lost. I was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. The long-term problem of having no bike with which to continue my journey seemed unimportant next to the idea that I could go out of the airport with just my one carry-on bag, light and free with no immense box to worry about. But no, said someone else, there is another container and it is on the way now. Another report was to the effect that the entire container with not just my bicycle but the luggage of many other people had been stolen, taken from the airport in a truck. By this time I’d realized there were many other people milling around looking for their luggage. From them I learned that the plane had been too full (this I could readily believe) and much of the luggage had been left behind. It was coming on a different flight in an hour. The final story, and the one I chose to believe, was that there had been a baggage handlers strike in Paris and the missing luggage would be on the next day’s Air France flight.
It was impossible to know what was to happen next. Could I simply leave the airport and come back the next day to pick up my bike? I doubted it. In my experience once you leave an airport it’s very difficult to get back in and locate lost luggage. I pictured coming back and no one anywhere claiming to know anything about luggage gone missing. Shouldn’t I talk to someone? Make a report? Make a claim?
Yes, Conde said, a report must be made and he dragged me over to a small room where a single man sat pecking at a typewriter while a dozen people shouted at him waving baggage check stickers and tickets. It appeared it was going to take a long time. Conde was in full flight and didn’t even try to answer my questions. “Give me ticket,” he demanded and I handed him my ticket with the baggage stickers attached. He thrust it over the counter and added his voice to the throng. Ten seconds later he handed it back to me. A report had been made, he said. I had had a clear view of the man with the typewriter and knew that nothing of the kind had happened but I shrugged and let it go. When in Rome.
“What happens now?” I asked Conde. He didn’t reply but pulled me down a hallway to his office. “Make way! Make way! Tourist coming through!”
His office actually had a sign outside identifying it as an official office of National Tourism. We went inside and I signed a registry book and we further discussed my need for a hotel. My plan was to simply take a bus to the downtown commercial district and search out a cheap hotel though such things were supposed to be rare in Conakry. But with my bike missing and no clue as to what was going to happen I felt it wouldn’t hurt to hear what Conde had to say.
I told him a bit about my plans and what I wanted a small, cheap hotel, preferably family run and right downtown. He said he knew of many such places and the one he recommended was called the Mantisse. I went through my list of requirements again and Conde confirmed that the Mantisse fit them all.
Outside the airport (we walked straight out without any further paperwork) I was surprised when Conde who by now was presenting himself as practically the national minister for tourism, climbed into the taxi with me. “Nous allons ensemble?” I asked. “We’re going together?” “Oui,” he said. I was pleased at the time thinking I was getting service above and beyond the call of duty. Perhaps I was. I still don’t know. Things are far murkier than I thought they’d be.
I mentioned that I didn’t have any Guinean francs and Conde said that was no problem. We could change money on the street just outside the airport. In coming to Guinea I’d done very little research (being lazy and wanting things to be a surprise) and before I left Canada hadn’t found out what the current exchange rate might be. On the jet, however, I asked a Guinean woman and she wasn’t entirely sure since she was married to a British oil worker and now lived in Ghana, but through her husband we worked out it was around 1,500 to the U.S. dollar.
We pulled up just outside the airport where a couple of women sat with small piles of fruit. I was freaking out with the newness of it all and try as I might couldn’t focus through my fatigue. I think if I was alone and a free agent I would have been much more edgy and sharp and keen to protect my interests. But with the national minister for tourism running point for me I couldn’t help but relax and my fatigue took over more and more. Plus the whole situation was unclear as to who was in charge. Clearly in a sense I was because it was my money that was being changed but information was power and Conde knew where the money changers were. I didn’t. And I reasoned that surely he had my best interests at heart. This was a man who had gone far out of his way to help me in the airport (I thought) and was now personally escorting me to the hotel of my dreams (I hoped) and at great inconvenience to himself (I assumed). Plus he had an office and an identity. In the vernacular “I knew where he lived.” Even if he hoped to gain some financial advantage from me he surely wouldn’t screw me within my first two minutes inside Guinea proper. That would be shooting himself in the foot. I knew nothing, less than nothing, about life in Guinea. What I knew about life in Guinea made nothing look like a very great deal. My introduction and training was about to begin.
Conde opened the taxi door and called into the darkness. Instantly a barefoot boy wearing nothing but rags appeared and an earnest conversation began. I assumed the language was French but I couldn’t make out a single word and was so tired I could barely concentrate anyway. The odd thing was I thought I was concentrating. The entire situation – the darkness, the fact I was in Guinea and my bike which I had agonized over in Canada was missing, that I was alone in Africa with men I’d never even dreamed existed but one hour earlier, and was talking to a ragamuffin about a currency exchange – all this was so extraordinary I felt on fire and aware. But like a man who doesn’t know he’s drunk, like a deep-sea diver with nitrogen narcosis, I had no idea just how out of it I was. If only Conde had known he could have stripped me naked and put me on a beach and I would have thought he was doing me a favor. I was a menace to myself and should have been locked up till I’d had at least forty-eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The exchange rate, Conde said, was 1,500 Guinean francs to one U.S. dollar. Is that okay?
What could I say but yes? It seemed right to me and I figured if anyone knew, Conde would. He had his own office for Pete’s sake.
How much did I want to change Conde asked me. If I was anything but an idiot I would have said $20 or even $40. But for some reason whatever small bills I had were packed inside my bag, not inaccessible but in the dark, in that situation, a bit of trouble. In my neck pouch, however, I had a couple hundred dollar bills.
Even I knew it was stupid to change that much but strangely enough I was reluctant to make Conde feel I distrusted him. And I was also feeling a bit reckless. It’s a rule of thumb that you always get ripped off the first day or two in a new country. How can it be otherwise? You’re tired, you just want to fall into bed. And if it isn’t the money changer who gets you it’s the taxi driver. If not the taxi driver it’s the hotel owner. If none of those you’re sure to have your pocket picked. And in my case it was all of them plus the national minister for tourism.
“$200,” I said to Conde and fumbled the two bills out of my neck pouch, examining them carefully in the dashboard lights to see what I had. I passed them over my shoulder to Conde since he was handling the whole transaction. I was puzzled for an instant to see him give the boy (who was now in the taxi with the door closed) one of the bills but keep the second in his hand. I saw a flicker of something on his face but then it passed and he gave the boy the second bill as well. A couple minutes later I had a stack of Guinean 5,000 franc notes in my lap. I raised them to my nose for some perverse reason and nearly knocked myself unconscious. The notes were old and damp, bundled in groups of ten with one note folded over the other nine. Six bundles of 50,000 francs equals 300,000 francs or $200 U.S. at 1,500 per dollar. Seems simple but at that time my brain couldn’t even handle that simple arithmetic. I went through the motions of counting it but was so mentally muddled had no idea what I was doing. I even let the taxi driver lift the money out of my lap and begin to count it himself. I knew this was a bad idea but couldn’t summon the energy to do anything about it. And I honestly felt that Conde was looking out for me, that he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me. He was my friend. Heck, this whole money changing operation had been spearheaded by him because he was concerned that I not be inconvenienced by not having local currency on my first night.
It was not till the following night, walking with my new friend Mercenary Bob and Conde that I learned how I had been taken for a ride. I had received the right amount of money. My bundle of extremely smelly notes still totalled 300,000 francs but Mercenary Bob walked into a local shop run by a man from India named Sundar and changed money at the real rate, 1,900 francs to the dollar.
Conde was with us but he showed no shame or chagrin at being found out. He did, however, seem oddly anxious to take me away and show me a place which sold “kwacker” (Quaker Oats) while Bob changed money. Conde must have known that I would eventually find out the real rate and wonder about what happened. And it’s beyond question that a large share of the 80,000 franc profit found its way into Conde’s pocket for his role in setting me up. But as I was learning there was a very unusual morality regarding money in Guinea and upon reflection I remembered a strange thing that Conde said that night. I remembered it because it was strange but also because it was one of the few things he said in English. It was when we were talking about the 1500 to 1 exchange rate and he asked me if it was okay. “Remember,” he said, “you said it was okay.”
My evening, however, was not yet over. After changing the money I tried to throw myself into the excitement of being in Africa, an excitement I was too tired to really experience. In fact what I saw dimly illuminated at the sides of the roads frightened me more than excited me. That’s not to say there was anything particularly dangerous out there. It was just normal street traffic, buying and selling, and people going about their lives. But having no idea where I was going and all of it being new combined to present a strange and therefore frightening face.
I tried to follow the turns we took and the streets we followed but with no reference points I was soon lost. Then, to add to my confusion I somehow mentally moved a decimal point in my idea of the exchange. I knew I’d gotten 300,000 Guinean francs for my $200 but in my state I somehow began to think the exchange rate was 15,000 to 1. So when the taxi driver demanded 15,000 francs for the ride I cheerfully paid it thinking it was only $1.
The Mantisse was nowhere near the simple family run operation I’d wanted. The room I was shown had a TV (the last thing in the world I wanted to be around), air conditioning, a private bathroom with hot water, even a telephone, none of which I needed or wanted. But I was there and didn’t want to go wandering around in the dark looking for a different place. And in my delusionary state I translated the price of 35,000 francs into not much more than $2, not the $23 it actually cost per night. $23/night is not an outrageous price but was more than I could afford, far more if I wanted to stay in Guinea for the full six months my visa allowed.
When Conde made noises about leaving I delicately approached the topic of giving him a tip for his help. How, after all, do you give a tip to (practically) the national minister for tourism without insulting him? (I hadn’t learned yet that giving anyone in Guinea money was never a problem.) Conde said that a tip wasn’t necessary but 5,000 francs for taxi fare would be much appreciated since he lived far away. (I learned later his house was roughly three blocks from the hotel.) Ten minutes later I sat down to get my bearings and with a calculator realized my decimal point error.