Sunday, December 10 Le Club Altesse, Conakry
I must skip ahead in my story here. This is the first time I have ventured out by myself. It seems a small thing but it is not. It’s 2:45 in the afternoon and the full heat of the day is beating down. It stuns me to think that in a very few days I will be out there on a bicycle, cycling in this heat. It seems impossible now.
My Guinea so far consists of my hotel, the surrounding two or three alleyways and rocky back roads and the one main road with a market. As yet I have no idea where I am in Conakry. I arrived in the dark and have been so busy I haven’t expanded my world beyond these few streets. I tried once to get Conde to pinpoint my location on my one crude map of Conakry but he couldn’t do it.
I doubt my ability to convey what it feels like to walk down these few roads at this time in my journey. Just outside the door of my hotel is a rough road, more alley than road, surfaced with irregular red rock that so far is constantly tripping me up and making me stumble. My brain is barely coping with the input of sensations and has nothing left with which to guide my limbs. Last night in the dark I tripped and stumbled like a drunk man, barely keeping myself from falling into ditches and knocking over braziers of hot coals cooking meat. Mercenary Bob’s incredibly strong hand on my shoulder was the only thing that kept me once from stepping fully into a deep open sewer in the dark.
There are no hills anywhere in sight and no buildings above one storey in height. This lack of perspective adds considerably to my feeling of being totally lost, completely nowhere. And yet the small things of the street, the stunning women (there is no other suitable word) in their sensuous and vivid colors, the children running about with rivulets of sweat streaming down their glistening black skin, the green of the foreign trees so rich it hurts my eyes, and the hundreds of human activities going on around me that I understand little or not at all, combine with potent force to sound in my brain the one sentence that fits at all: this is real and you are here.
I am still so new that I’m nervous about getting lost. My arrival has so overwhelmed me and disrupted my usual careful and deliberate style that I couldn’t even tell someone the name of my hotel. One corner taken the wrong way, one quick spin that gets me disoriented and I would be unable to find my way back. I carefully log the clues that will lead me back, the things I use for my bread crumbs. Turn right at the door and walk to the cement culvert with the sewage smell. Nostrils slam shut. Right again and follow the culvert to a road with patchy tarmac. Left down this road. Nod to the men sitting on low chairs in front of large vehicle doors. “Ca va? Ca va bien,” over and over again. Wonder again who they are, why they are sitting there. Security? Log the question for future answers. Watch for the abandoned yellow cement mixer on the left at the corner. Turn right. At each corner the road gets busier. This road is lined with rough-looking shops, restaurants, and small businesses. This is where you get your toilet paper, have a pair of pants sewn, send a fax, buy a skewer of roasted meat or, as every single available male appears to be doing, grab a chair in any one of dozens of small restaurants and get absorbed in the spectacle of the televised Sunday afternoon soccer game. Today it’s Egypt against Cameroon. It’s a championship or at least a very important game. I had to look in several places before I could find a spot at the back where I could squeeze in.
The Guineans so far provide a very comfortable atmosphere for the lone tourist with the strange pannier bag slung over one shoulder. No crowds follow him. The children, to his surprise and relief, afford him but a glance before going back to their games. The people with whom he has to deal to get his cafe au lait or cafe noire do not panic and run away upon seeing a white man, “un blanc.” They work patiently with him and his execrable French till some communication is made. One notable characteristic is the way everyone he passes makes eye contact and looks deep and long into his eyes till it feels like they are seeing right to the back of his skull. It’s an odd thing to do from a Western perspective, normally a prelude to an introduction, an approach. But after the long intense eye contact they pass by. The blanc shakes his head to focus on the street again only to find himself locked into a strong gaze, almost a lover’s gaze, with the next person approaching. It prompts an urge to say ‘hello’ in the blanc which, added to his normal uncertainty, makes him greet everybody he sees. He is a new addition to the assortment of known local half wits. He’s the new guy, the blanc who wanders the streets saying hello to everyone.
I know that a time will come when what I see on these streets will appear normal. I won’t “see” it as intensely as I do now on day two in Guinea. So I want to look and look and savour it.
Sunday, December 10 – 8:30 p.m.
When Conde left clutching one of my smelly 5,000-franc notes he left me with only a vague understanding of what had to happen for me to be reunited with my bicycle. As Bob was to explain to me later, Conde had the habit of making the smallest things extremely complicated. He would talk and talk and talk till you are convinced what he is saying is of the utmost importance and you desperately apply yourself to understanding only to discover he’s saying, “it’s hot today” or “see you tomorrow.” In this case Conde produced a sheet of paper with a list of daily flights in and out of Guinea. He ran his finger through the list jumping from day to day and talking at length. Another paper emerged and he borrowed my pen to write things down and draw arrows. He talked about the taxi driver and telephones. I thought he said that the bicycle might arrive late the next day. If that was the case he’d telephone the taxi driver who would pick me up and take me to the airport. At least that’s what I hoped he’d said. It was the only thing that made sense out of the huge production of his.
But as it happened he appeared the next morning at the hotel and joined Mercenary Bob (who I’d just met) and myself at a table. He apparently had nothing to do and no job to go to for he sat with us for over two hours and then accompanied us to lunch. Conde didn’t eat since it was Ramadan (till December 28) and he would not eat until the evening.
Had Bob and I been alone we would have gotten a plate of “riz sauce”, rice with a meat and vegetable sauce, the standard fare of Guinea, within two minutes. But with Conde’s “help” the order became hopelessly muddled with new problems arising every few minutes. We sat and waited for the longest time till Bob had finally had enough and took over. He saw the waiter serving plates of another Guinean standard, “riz gras,” to a table of four men who’d just sat down.
“Is that meal ready?” he asked the waiter in French. “Bien sur,” replied the waiter. “Then give us two plates,” he said. And that was that. This instance and many more within a short period where Conde’s help was extreme hindrance makes me wonder if the money changing fiasco was in fact an intentional rip off on Conde’s part or just a result of mind boggling ineptitude.
The food was basic and simple, filling and cheap (1,000 francs or fifty cents a plate), perfect fuel for a cyclist. But I had done no cycling as yet and was still stressed out so had little appetite. Conde got upset with me for eating so slowly and not enough. He attempted to play the grand host again and order more food for both of us but Bob stopped him dead. He wagged his finger at him and urged him closer. “Ecoute moi bien,” he said, right in Conde’s ear. “Je suis plein.” When Bob wants to make a point he knows how to go about it. I had already been on the receiving end of a few speeches where Bob had demonstrated to me what he’d said to a person who’d pissed him off. He leaned across the table and spoke to me as if to that person and scared the life out of me. Bob is 57 years old and not tall but you couldn’t find an ounce of fat on him with tweezers and his rock-hard biceps look like he’s had tree trunks strapped to his arms.
I, however, am not imposing in the least and my quiet manner is often interpreted as weakness and Conde continued to harass me to eat more and faster. He sat on the edge of his chair and fidgeted giving the clear impression that I was keeping him from important business even though no one had asked him for help or even to come along. He’d said twice that he must go to the airport but made no move to leave.
When we finished lunch Bob went to a local gym for his daily workout. I went along just to see some more of the neighborhood and Conde went with us. I tried to go back to the hotel alone but Conde stuck to me like glue. He finally left after another wild and incomprehensible account of the flights and how he would stay on top of everything till I was satisfied.
I settled into my room in the afternoon to try and rest, and wait for this taxi driver to appear. My eyes were just starting to droop around 4:00 when the phone in my room rang. My taxi driver was here. I went to the front desk and tried to glean from the driver what was going on. Had my bike arrived? Had Conde called him to come get me? No answer.
At the airport we found Conde sound asleep in his office, clearly surprised to see me, and not a little annoyed. On the wall was a flight schedule, very clear and straightforward: a Sabina flight and then Air France Flight 764 both arriving around 6:00 p.m. I was hours early. Knowing it was hopeless but having to try I questioned Conde about what all this was about and why he’d made everything so complicated. No answer. He started to talk again, covering the same old ground till I switched off my mind and stopped listening.
When the Sabina flight arrived I left Conde’s office to watch the new arrivals. It was profoundly interesting to me to see enacted, just like a nightly performance of a play, the exact same sequence of events that had happened when I arrived the night before. There were the same crowds of airport hangers on who simply walked out onto the tarmac to stand around and confuse the new arrivals. There were the same women in the same clothes holding the same placards for the Riviera Hotel, Novotel and other places. (They in fact hung out and slept on the couch in the tourism office where I also waited.) There were the taxi drivers and porters manoeuvring for position on the other side of the rope barrier. And all around, cruising like sharks in shallow water, the men and women in uniform licking their chops in anticipation of the bribes to be gotten.
The new arrivals crowded into the two channels, the white faces with people on all sides shouting at them and nipping at their heels like hyenas on the hunt, deliberately provoking the herd to cut out and isolate the weak and vulnerable. The same milling shouting crowd jammed up in front of the tiny immigration window. Confused passengers walked right past it never imagining such chaos would be allowed to occur at something so official as an immigration procedure. The same people were dispatched to grab them and drag them back.
The far channel, the one reserved for returning Guineans which I’d not paid any attention to on my own arrival, was even more out of control. Here the Guinean officials were pressing their compatriots even more than they pressed the foreigners. There traffic was all but stalled and screams and shouts of anger filled the air. I couldn’t begin to imagine how order would be restored to such chaos, nor why the official would not deal with people one at a time. It looked like the entire crowd was being treated as a single unit waving fifty sets of papers.
I looked into the faces of the arriving white people but to my chagrin I saw none of the panic and barely controlled gibbering that I’m sure was plain as day on my face when I arrived. Not for the first time I wondered if I was the only one who experienced the world in this way or do people look at me and also see control and composure when there is none?
The next flight to arrive was Air France and represented Act 2 of my own arrival experience which was not yet over. I had entered the country but my luggage, a far more serious affair I was to learn, hadn’t.
The plane hadn’t even landed before the porter Conde had assigned to me was in my face shouting and pushing me forward into the crazy crowd. It appeared all the luggage that had been left off the previous flight was to be set aside and treated differently. The crowd was up against the glass right on the other side of which the containers were unloaded. There wasn’t a container in sight and I could still hear the jet circling above but already cries of pain filled the air as luggage carts slammed into ankles. Shouting and pushing began. “Madame! Madame!” as a man strove to make his point clear. “Monsieur! Monsieur!” screamed a woman as fist pounded into palm.
It hardly seemed possible but the riot intensified and got worse when the containers began to arrive. “Regardez bien,” shouted my porter at me again. Fingers to my eyes and then to the luggage. “Regardez!” I shrugged and sighed.
No one knew what was to happen next. Some felt bags could be taken by the owners. Others felt all the bags from the previous day’s flight should be assembled and taken to the room where reports waited to be made. A cart was pushed forward for this purpose. The bags began to be flung through the tiny opening, properly beaten, and were seized and placed on the cart. The cart, made for two suitcases, was soon overwhelmed, buried and lost to sight.
“Regardez!” pleaded my porter, at his wits’ end with my apparent lack of interest in the games of the day. Some bags were taken from the pile by overzealous porters or passengers. They were soon tackled and dragged back. Were any of these people airport officials? Was there a report to be made? For that matter was there even a customs department? All I saw was the luggage conveyor belt and an open door leading to the outside. Neither that day nor when I arrived had I seen any bags being opened or examined by anyone.
My surge of pleasure at seeing my bicycle box emerge was short lived as I saw it was ripped open down one side and battered almost beyond recognition. What did Air France do? Tie it to the fuselage with a rope and drag it across the Sahara?
The Guinean baggage handlers simply let it topple out of the container and smash on its edge. There it was seized by many hands and to my astonishment laid on its side and jammed through the small opening. More hands grabbed it and hurled it onto the top of the pile where it tilted precariously then slid down the far side and crashed to the floor taking a woman with it. It weighed 70 lbs after all.
My porter was still staring intently at the container, waiting perhaps for the other bicycle boxes. I leaned into the seething mass of people and tapped him on the shoulder. He whipped around, eager for battle, and I pointed to the bicycle box now at risk of being stepped on.
The box and my large green duffle bag were placed on a cart and we fought our way through the crowd. The cart suddenly had a life of its own with as many as five people pushing it forward with another five holding it back and indirect crowd pressure sending it spinning around the room.
What slim grasp I had on what was going on disappeared and I simply walked behind the cart, my hands behind my back, a harmless blank expression on my mug. Conde had joined us by now and became the center of activity. The cart moved first towards “the room where reports are to be made.” There it stalled, the subject of an intense screaming match. Conde did not try and explain anything to me but stood arms akimbo, sweat pouring down his face, shouting at a variety of uniformed sharks who moved around taking a victim here and a victim there. At times the balance would appear to shift in Conde’s favor and the nose of the cart would begin to turn towards the open door and the light beyond. Then momentum would shift, more sharks, fatter sharks, appear and the cart slammed back.
There were many more people claiming their luggage but I seemed to be the only one at the center of such a raging controversy. I will never know for sure but I suspect this was all the result of Conde’s help.
I don’t know what was said or agreed to but after a time the cart turned in the direction of the door and freedom. The same shifting crowd of people was holding the cart back but with less force and inch by inch we made progress. Just at the door, however, within two steps of freedom the enemy got a new and powerful ally, the head shark, the Capitaine du Douanes, a stout woman in uniform who probably tipped the scales at two hundred pounds. She didn’t throw her weight against the cart but her presence stiffened the spines of the opposing team who now were largely men in uniform and the cart stopped dead for another long and even more intense argument which to my surprise Conde again seemed to win. Then we were outside and moving down a ramp towards the parking lot and the waiting taxi.
With our goal in view the tension level palpably increased. The distance seemed to grow and narrow like the binocular effect used in horror movies as people try futilely to outrun the monster down a hallway or cave.
The bicycle box was placed inside the taxi by lowering the back seats and my bag was thrown inside. The hatch was about to be shut when the Capitaine du Douanes suddenly appeared with reinforcements. She wasn’t through with us. She cleverly positioned herself so that her shoulder was right under the hatch door making it impossible to close. With a snap of her fingers I felt sure the uniformed men would step forward, take out the bike box and carry it back into the airport. Once more into the breach. Conde faced the shark, shouting and sweating just as much as before but this time clearly on the defensive.
“Madame! Madame!” Conde shouted over and over again to focus her attention. “Guarantie! Guarantie Madame!” he said with complete and total firmness.
Whatever “guarantie” meant in this context it appeared to do the trick and the shark, though clearly not happy, stepped from under the hatch and allowed it to be closed. We appeared to be getting out of the airport, bruised and battered and utterly spent, but out. I turned to my porter and another man who had acted as anchor man on my side of the tug of war and gave them each 5,000 francs and shook their hands.
I started to climb into the taxi but Conde pulled me back. For some reason we weren’t allowed to drive out of the parking lot. We had to walk and meet up with the taxi outside. As we walked Conde had me open my wallet and we handed 1000 and 500 franc notes to everyone in uniform we passed. I took advantage of the moment to ask Conde what exactly all the trouble had been about and in particular what had been guaranteed at the end. I could make little out of what he said (Conde was as incapable of slowing his French down as he was of saying something with three words when three thousand would do just as well) but the words “tax” and “quatre cent dollaires” came out clearly. My heart stopped at the figure of four hundred dollars.
Conde and I climbed into the front seat of the taxi, me right over the gear shift and we pulled away. But we hadn’t gone fifty yards before Conde told the taxi driver to pull over right in the center of a roundabout. The driver panicked and pleaded with Conde to allow us to just drive on. It was illegal to park there and there were police everywhere. Conde assured him that his brother was a police chief so it won’t be a problem and he opened the door and ran back towards the airport, telling us to wait. It won’t be a problem for him I thought but what about for us?
My fears were justified when a few seconds later an immensely tall and fat policeman with thumbs hooked insolently over a wide leather belt filled the window. “Donnez moi cinq mille francs,” he mumbled through rubbery and cruel looking lips. Give me five thousand francs. His hands were like hams and he appeared one second away from reaching in and tearing my head off like a geek killing a chicken. I squirmed deeper into my seat and squeaked “Je ne comprends pas.” I don’t understand. I looked at the taxi driver for help but his eyes were firmly forward. In Guinea when it came to the police it was every man for himself and good luck to you.
“Cinq mille francs,” the policeman said again and one of the huge hands appeared in front of my face. I stared at it mesmerized then raised my eyes to his face. I put on my best dumb tourist smile and repeated “Je ne comprends pas.” He stared at me for a moment then to my inexpressible relief withdrew his hand and went off in search of smarter prey.
When Conde had returned and we were on our way I tried again to elicit some of the story. In French that would curdle your blood I tried to clarify the one point over which I was concerned.
“Conde, le tax que vous avez dit, le quatre cent dollaires, ce n’est pas necessaire payer ca, ce n’est pas? Vous avez dit no a le tax.”
“Oh no,” said Conde, “you still have to pay the tax.”
“What?” I said. “Are you serious?”
I felt a wave of anger so strong it shut me up. I sat between Conde and the taxi driver and seethed, trying to fight down the irritation and anger. I didn’t dare speak and decided to just wait and see how things went. It was quite likely I was misunderstanding what he’d said. And in any event I wasn’t paying anyone $400 no matter what happened. I wouldn’t even unpack the bike but just fly to another country or back home before I’d do that.
At the hotel I paid the usual extortionate fare to the taxi driver thanks to Conde’s “help” and we carried everything into my room. This was where I was going to make my final stand and get some answers from Conde if I had to sit on his chest and keep him there.
I asked him right off about this tax business but couldn’t quite get it straight. The only thing clear was that he wanted money right now because he had to get back to the airport and bring the money. This, it appeared, was the mysterious “guarantie.” They’d let us go only on the condition that he guarantee personally that I will pony up.
My control slipped and I let my anger show a bit. I wasn’t angry about the $400 per se but that he thought I was so stupid that I would actually pay it. And I was annoyed at the way he kept jumping in to “help” me but then never kept me informed. His “helping” always ended with me being worse off than before.
I told him in English in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t happy and he had a lot of explaining to do. This he was happy to do and he launched off on one of his long speeches that left me no wiser than before. But I did notice that he never once mentioned the $400 figure.
I took a page out of Bob’s play book and said slowly, “Conde, ecoutez moi bien. Qu’est ce que vouz voulez exactement?” What exactly do you want?
“D’argent,” he said. Money.
Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere.
“Pourquoi?” I asked. Why?
Conde’s newly found skill at brevity deserted him here but I gathered that he was listing a bunch of people at the airport who needed to be bribed.
Not for tax then?
No, Conde affirmed. No tax.
So the $400 tax bill had vanished just like that. Now came the final question and hopefully the end of this drama.
“Combien d’argent?” How much money?
“Cinquante mille.” 50,000 Guinean francs.
I couldn’t believe it and nearly collapsed on the bed in surprise. All that screaming and yelling, pushing and shoving, blood, sweat and tears, for $26 U.S.