Thursday, December 14 9:00 a.m.
My first bike ride was a success in every way and I feel like the arrival portion of my journey is coming to a close. My Guinea has suddenly increased in size from the few blocks in my neighborhood which I’ve learned is called Taouyah to all of Conakry 1, 2 and 3 which covers about ten kilometres of the end of the peninsula.
Whatever nervousness I felt about taking my bike out (and getting lost) disappeared the moment I put my feet on the pedals outside the hotel. The rocky back roads which had been tripping up my feet were nothing for my bike to handle and I felt a surge of freedom.
Even before I reached the Route de Donka, the main north south artery I’d follow to get downtown, I realized that cycling would be safer than walking. On foot in this neighborhood I felt constantly at risk since there is nowhere to walk and cars come from all directions and at all speeds. The drivers give the impression that all things being equal they’ll steer to pass by you but if it’s a question of making time they’re willing to sacrifice a few pedestrians. On a bike I could maintain the same speed as the traffic and often go much faster. In addition I was far more manoeuvrable, could cycle down the center of the side roads and with my mirrors could monitor the traffic coming up behind me, something that’s difficult to do on foot. And pedestrians, to my surprise, accorded me as much attention as cars. Those walking along the side of the road would move to allow me to pass by long before I reached them.
My train of thought just got interrupted. Conde appeared at my table and immediately started on his slow and laborious process of getting money. I don’t mind the money so much but I wish he could be more direct and less murky. This time he started talking about the bill at the hotel. He wanted to know something about whether it had been paid. I feigned ignorance till it was clear he knew that no one at the hotel had approached me about settling the bill. He, for some reason, was goosing me along to pay up. At first he approached me as an acquaintance would, casually wondering if there was any problem with the hotel and had I paid yet? When I didn’t volunteer anything he became more direct and said that the hotel had asked him to come and tell me it was time to pay. That didn’t strike me as probable nor good and tried to point out that if the hotel staff had something to say to me they could approach me. Further, I said that my hotel bill, my plans, indeed my life, were my business, not his.
The problem with Conde is that reasoning and discussion don’t work. He’s extremely tenacious and the more you talk with him the further he pulls you in. He uses everything you say to draw you further into some scheme of his own design, the ultimate form of which perhaps only Sherlock Holmes’ arch enemy Moriarty could truly appreciate. His technique, whether conscious or not, is to confuse and complicate with details of all kinds. As he talks I can feel my eyes glaze over. I feel like a mouse being hypnotized by a cobra and my only escape is to be far more blunt than I like to be, as in this case when I very clearly told him he wasn’t welcome in my life anymore.
At this point Conde apologized and I couldn’t help but soften the blow by saying something placatory. Mistake. Rather than leave the table he took my peace offering and launched into more discussions about the bill, the payment, the room, even Bob’s room and how “Monsieur Bob” pays every day. I know for a fact that Bob pays a week in advance and pays only 20,000/night as opposed to my 35,000/night which I agreed to in the decimal shifted psychosis of my first night.
I finally told Conde clearly that I was busy and I would be much happier if he would go away. He stood up, hesitated, then asked me for some money, “un cadeaux” for all the services he’s rendered. “What services?” I wanted to say. So far his services have put me in a hotel I can’t afford, cost me 80,000 francs in a currency exchange scam, and caused a near riot at the airport in retrieving my luggage. The one true thing he did was include me in a dinner invitation to his home which he’d extended to Bob. (I can date my current sickness from that meal and Bob was asked to pay for it.)
Without Bob I’d still be totally in the dark about how all these things, the bribes, the cadeaux, the “port au vin” work. In this case I assume what’s going on is that Conde hasn’t received his commission for bringing me to this hotel. They probably have told Conde that they’ll pay him when I pay the hotel. So it’s in his interest to push me along.
My real lesson came the night after the fiasco of retrieving my lost bicycle from the airport. At that time I was still reeling and didn’t understand anything of what happened. I wasn’t upset about any of it but I definitely wanted to understand. I tried to get this across to Conde that I really didn’t care about the money, that I wasn’t trying to chisel him out of whatever profit he could make off me (within reasonable limits). All I really wanted was the story. Even him pretending to be looking out for my interests and then taking advantage of my arrival shock to con me out of 80,000 francs is okay because it makes a good story. But Conde, for obvious reasons, didn’t grasp that point of view and hadn’t as yet explained anything.
But that night I was sitting in the courtyard of the hotel with Bob as he ate his daily watermelon when Conde showed up. Bob speaks and understands French far better than I do and using him as an interpreter I questioned Conde about some details. Whether what he said was true or not is anybody’s guess.
The main issue it appeared was the newness of the bike. In fact it’s three years old but through the gaping tear of the box the airport officials saw gleaming spokes and grease free components. That’ll teach me to clean and tune up my bike. Better to leave it dirty.
But of course whether the bike was deemed new or not was immaterial. That was just the excuse to come up with the $400 duty or “tax” used in turn to lever out as much bribe money as possible. The 50,000 francs I gave Conde were distributed (Conde said) to a total of twelve people. I also learned that Conde had gone back to the porter and taken away most of the 5,000 francs I’d given him since this was too much. There was an understood pecking order and a porter for example could not be given more than a man with a gun who in turn could not get more than a customs official. (I let it slip that I’d given 5,000 francs to two men, not just one. I guess Conde doesn’t know everything because his eyes widened with surprise and his mouth tightened in disapproval.) And finally I learned that the reason we’d parked illegally while Conde ran back was because he’d spotted a young Frenchman who’d just arrived for a two year volunteer work placement and Conde got 4,000 francs from him to sort out some debts that his arrival had caused.
My real education began when Conde had left and I was alone with Bob to mull over the story. I told Bob that I was still puzzled over two things, two big things. One, I didn’t understand why the fighting and screaming was so extreme, and two, I didn’t understand why Conde had taken me all the way to the hotel, then returned to the airport with the 50,000 francs. Why didn’t we just pay the bribes right at the airport?
The obvious explanation was that Conde hadn’t distributed the 50,000 francs as bribe money at all and simply pocketed it. But that didn’t ring true. Conde really does have an official position at the airport and has to work with those people every day. There was far too much extreme fighting going on for Conde not to have to pay.
The answer Bob came up with feels right. We didn’t pay at the airport because Conde was trying to do exactly what he did do keep me all to himself. He became the middleman. And the fighting was so extreme because the giving and taking of bribe money has become so common as to be institutionalized. It’s thought of as a right and in fact is part of their social status. This white man not paying a bribe would mean they’d lose the money but it would also be a personal insult, an affront to their position in the power and therefore bribeworthy hierarchy.
I think the customs officials were so adamant because they wanted an iron clad guarantee that Conde would return with the “port au vin.” But they also knew that they could never be sure of what Conde told them. Conde could come back and say this white man, this blanc, was a tough cookie, a real hard bargainer, and this 50,000 was all I could get, while in truth the customs officials could never be sure that Conde hadn’t gotten dollars out of me, maybe hundreds of dollars.
In the end Bob said that there is no question that Conde did keep a large portion of the 50,000 for himself. I agree with him but I think there is more going on than even that, something simple yet subtle. I think Conde worked so hard to get me out of the airport right away without paying on the spot bribes as part of an overall strategy to keep me isolated. Who knew what the customs officials would do or say once they had me in a room for a quiet discussion? Perhaps, I would say certainly, they would have filled my head with warnings about Conde and led me to distrust him. Perhaps they had their own taxi drivers they had deals with, hotels they would steer me towards for kickbacks.
That Conde’s overall strategy was to isolate me is supported by how he later kept appearing like a disapproving genie each time Bob or I was found talking to someone else, anyone else, whether a Sierra Leonian, Liberian or another Guinean. It puts me in mind of the way a pimp or hustler might operate in keeping a young girl, a new arrival in the big city, under his thumb. Cut off the flow of information, fill her head with fear and suspicion and convince her that you are her only friend, her sole protector, the only one she can trust.
Conde is particularly harsh in his comments about Sundar, the Indian shopkeeper that I’ve become friendly with. Conde is nervous about Sundar and well he should be. So far Sundar has proven himself to be nothing but an ordinary guy, a very nice ordinary guy, honest and friendly and helpful in every way. Conde whispers that Sundar is not to be trusted, is only pretending to be friendly and helpful for nefarious purposes of his own. Conde could be describing himself.
The cloak and dagger routine over the telephone was repeated last night and this time successfully. Around 7:30 I got a call at the hotel. It was Sundar and he delivered our prearranged code words, “Mr. Douglas, you forgot something at my shop.” His contact had come through and would deliver the phone card at 9:00 that night. The eagle had landed.
I found Sundar sitting outside his shop with Bob who was going to share the phone with me. Twenty minutes later I was standing on Sundar’s balcony looking down over the dark streets of Conakry with a clandestine telephone in my hand. Inside the phone was an illegal card containing some kind of circuit or code that accessed a phone line for unlimited calling anywhere in the world. I talked to my parents and friends in Canada for over an hour and they told me about the foot and a half of snow that had fallen there. I pictured it with a half smile which turned into a big grin as I contemplated the utter contrast with the sultry night around me and the tingling of the light sunburn on my face and forearms.
Thursday, December 14th, 9:00 p.m.
After I got rid of Conde this morning I stepped out into the world making my first stop Sundar’s shop. During the night I had fretted about the cost of Les Hotels Mantisse and how it was eating into my budget and was determined to make some steps towards a more sensible life here in Conakry. To that end I wanted to see what Sundar’s brother, Ashok, had said about the idea of my moving into their third spare bedroom, something Sundar and I discussed earlier.
Sundar was there with a friendly smile and handshake as always. I’d brought a large poster of Canada’s Yukon Territory to give to him as thanks for helping with the phone. His dirty but friendly white cat jumped into my lap to stick his nose into my yoghurt.
He’d spoken to Ashok but it turns out they had a cousin from India arriving on Sunday who needed their spare room. I said to Sundar that if that was the case then I’d probably head out on my bicycle in the next day or two. If I could find cheaper accommodation I might stay in Conakry for another week or even two. I feel that I want to get to know this neighborhood better. Plus I want to make sure my digestive system is adjusting before I leave for the Fouta Djalon in the north. And there is the situation with the rebels to consider. My information still consists mainly of rumour and gossip but on my bike ride yesterday I did pick up a local paper. Right on the front page was a full color photograph of a pile of corpses sitting at the side of the road, the road I’ll have to cycle down to get to the eastern part of Guinea. The accompanying articles were all opinion with little fact but it’s now beyond question that there is rebel activity around Kissidougou. Rumour has the rebels taking town after town. Some even claim the rebels are one hundred kilometres away from Conakry. This is highly doubtful. The most believable story is that the rebels had attacked some small places around Kissidougou and up to a hundred people had been killed. But since I have time it wouldn’t hurt to stay in Conakry another week and let the dust settle. At the very least it would allow the soldiers manning the roadblocks on the road out of Conakry to calm down.
Sundar suggested that he might be able to help me locate a single room in the house of someone else in the neighbourhood. I gratefully accepted his offer of help especially when he said that such a room could be rented for as little as 30,000 francs a month. It’s totally unclear how much time I’ll spend in Conakry, perhaps as little as a week now and a week before I fly out, but I could rent the room for months and it would still cost less than a week at Les Hotels Mantisse and it would give me a place to store my bicycle box and extra stuff while I travel around. And more, it would feel better. The luxury of Les Hotels Mantisse isolates me from the neighborhood.
I have high hopes for this and tried to leave Sundar with a clear impression of how eager I was to find such a place to live. At one fell stroke it would open up avenues into the life of Taouyah, avenues that might remain totally closed while staying at the hotel.
One impression yesterday’s bike ride left me with was that there were far worse places to live in Conakry than Taouyah. In fact, Taouyah is in most ways exactly the kind of area I’d deliberately seek out given a choice. The downtown core (an area of perhaps one hundred city blocks) consists of taller buildings and heavier traffic, like most downtowns, and probably offers many things to do but I didn’t get the comfortable friendly feeling that I do here. Conde, whatever his personal agenda, had done me a favor by dumping me here right next to a narrow bustling street filled with small restaurants and shops and one of the city’s most interesting markets.
To get downtown I cycled along the Boulevard Belle vue which turned into the Route de Donka before joining up with Ave Fidel Castro which disappeared into the myriad tiny streets of the core. At each intersection and roundabout I stopped and memorized landmarks so that I could find my way back. It didn’t matter in any event because as long as I kept in a general southerly direction going there and in a northerly one coming back the narrow peninsula would not let me go too far astray.
My only other African experience, my seven months in Ethiopia, had left me totally shell shocked and I cycled out into Conakry with all my defences up and my radar on full, expecting the same kind of torrent of attention that I received there. But nothing happened. The first time I stopped pedalling to get my bearings I tensed up, fully prepared to immediately pedal away if the crowds got hostile or overly friendly (in Ethiopia it was hard to tell the difference). But no crowd gathered. Hardly anyone even looked at me. Some men made kissing sounds to get my attention but only smiled and waved when I looked their way. A couple others offered to buy my bicycle but accepted my answer of “no” and were happy to pass the time of day in small talk.
There was certainly heavy and at times fast moving traffic and I really had to be on my toes. But within a short time I had the rhythm down and felt perfectly safe, even energized as I navigated the main streets and explored the side roads.
Away from the central streets of the Ave de la Republique and the Route du Niger I found the downtown core quiet and peaceful and followed a meandering course around its edges passing the docks and stopping to look at some islands, the Illes de Los, a few kilometres to the south.
I’d chosen as a random destination the luxury hotel Novotel situated on the furthest point of the peninsula looking out over the shallow mud flats. Again with Ethiopia as my only point of reference I expected trouble if not downright refusal as I attempted to cycle into the compound but the man at the gate didn’t even look up. A second man patiently waiting for customers at the tennis courts locked gazes with me in that open and searching way that Guineans have and then smiled a reply at my mangled “Bonjour! Ca va?”
Just outside the front doors there were large cement posts holding up a roof and I started to lock up my bicycle, moving slowly and deliberately, waiting for the shouts, the angry gestures, the orders to take that most evil of contrivances, a bicycle, away. But the men who approached were laughing with delight at my bicycle and the long heavy cable I used to lock it up. They turned to each other and explained the merits.
“Look! It’s so good. He puts this cable here and voila, it is safe. He leaves it and goes inside. Such a powerful bike also. And look here this is for a light and here a place for a small computer. Ah, c’est tres bien. To go slow up a hill he puts the chain here on the big ring. To go fast the chain goes here.”
Two men in hotel uniforms pointed to their eyes and to the bicycle to say it was safe here with them. Believing such a thing in Ethiopia would have meant returning to a bike with mangled gears and twisted brake cables. Here I believed them and returned an hour later to find my bike just as I left it, and a new circle of friendly men wanting to know from what country each piece of the bicycle came. The greatest oohs of appreciation were reserved for any component I said came from the U.S.A.
The Novotel seemed nothing terribly special inside and I left after buying some post cards, a city map in booklet form and a t shirt with a brilliant map of Guinea emblazoned on the front, a shirt that so far has garnered much favorable comment.