Friday, December 15 11:15 a.m.
I changed my pattern today and went out into Taouyah before my morning coffee. It was still cool and I wanted to take a look at the Taouyah market. Silly me I thought I’d already seen it – the row of stalls lining the main road. But yesterday Sundar sent the young boy who works at his shop off to the market to buy me a pair of bathroom slippers. This boy, a sixteen year old Fulani seemingly weak and tired from Ramadan fasting, slowly shuffled his way across the road from Sundar’s shop and then vanished. I looked for any kind of shop selling slippers but there were none. The boy had simply disappeared. A moment later as if by magic he reappeared, slippers in hand. Getting the right size took two more trips. I tried to follow him with my eyes but at the critical moments I was distracted and when next I looked for him he was gone.
When I left Sundar I crossed the road and began pacing off the shops like one of the Hardy Boys knocking on walls looking for the smugglers’ secret passage. Each shop seemed perfectly ordinary except one which didn’t seem to have a back wall. Upon closer examination I saw it wasn’t a shop at all but a series of tiny stalls ranged down a tunnel leading into a vast interior open air market.
This morning I ventured down this tunnel and into the market which in every way was identical to a child’s maze found in countless magazines. I could have walked down the street for weeks without discovering the secret entrance if I hadn’t decided I wanted a pair of slippers.
I stayed only a brief time and probably saw only a small portion of the market. Immediately to the right was the produce department. Potatoes and onions were there in abundance along with a leafy green vegetable which the women held in tight bunches and then deftly cut and diced into large buckets. I hit a wall and another secret entrance/exit to a different street and turned left where a couple dozen men and women operated manual sewing machines. I wandered through an area of spices and then into household goods before popping back out into the street exactly where I’d entered.
I bought a small notebook simply to give myself a reason for having “gone to market” and spoke with yet another Sierra Leonian refugee who had a small table, perhaps 2.5 feet wide, along which he’d ranged shampoos and soaps. He purchased these items at the Madina, Conakry’s largest market, and resold them here eking out whatever small profit he could manage. His space at the market cost him 5,000 Guinean francs per month up front plus 100 francs per day. On top of that he spends 1500 francs per day on food. This last bit of information came unprompted and was clearly meant to impress on me how difficult it was for him to make a living.
Sundar’s recommended diet of bananas, plain rice and yoghurt appears to have done the trick and my health has been restored. But now I’m addicted to this sweet yoghurt and when I emerged from the market I visited Sundar’s shop for my second hit of the day. I was also eager to hear if there was any news about his search for a room to rent on my behalf. I was excited to learn that there might be such a place at the house where Sundar’s brother’s girlfriend lived.
She is a very beautiful Sierra Leonian girl named Marie who speaks English very well. Even so I had to ask Sundar to translate for me. I think I have the least talented ears on the planet. But it wasn’t just her manner of speaking but the story she told. There were things involved with the rooms for rent that were well outside my cultural frame of reference and even when I’d heard certain words clearly I doubted I’d heard them correctly.
There were two possibilities. One was a large room with an attached bath going for 40,000 Guinean francs a month (as opposed to the 35,000 I’m currently paying per day). The problem here was that a woman was currently living there. She was willing to vacate only if she was reimbursed for the 250,000 francs she’d paid to have the bathroom tiled. The owner of the house refused to pay but if I paid her the 250,000 she would move out, which she wanted to do anyway. If not, she was going to take a hammer and smash every tile before leaving. It hardly seemed a good situation to get in the middle of.
Luckily there was another possibility. This was part of the same house but consisted of two rooms, a bathroom, a balcony and even a car port. The price for this per month was 100,000 francs but considering the 250,000 for the tiles in the cheaper room the two room place was in fact a better deal and was currently vacant. Sundar and Marie both are plumping for this option. They argued that it was much nicer, was more secure, particularly since the car port doors could be locked as well as the interior doors, and was overall much nicer.
I haven’t seen the inside of either place yet since the people with keys were not to be found but I did see Marie’s room which, except for the tiles, is supposed to be identical.
The house is just off the main street, one block down a side street. There’s a large wall surrounding the house with a big compound around it. There were six or seven people lounging on the front verandah and I could already tell that to figure out who was who, how many apartments and rooms there were, how many people lived there and the thousand other details of daily life would be a challenge.
Marie led me down a hallway and opened a door on the right where she lived with her daughter, her sister, and probably other people. There were two large mattresses in the room one on a frame and the other on the floor. A woman who was sleeping on one of the beds rolled over to say bonjour and then went back to sleep. The room was simple but fairly well furnished with a nice TV, large radio and a floor fan.
I could tell that Marie, her sister and daughter were very happy to meet me and eager to have me take the two room place and become their neighbor, but they were also nervous. I think my reserved manner put them off and I tried to smile and laugh more than I normally do to put them at their ease. Just as I’m totally at sea in terms of understanding people here they couldn’t read my body language nor pick up on the meaning of sounds I made.
When leaving I looked at the big car port doors and gave a little “humph” of amusement. They thought my “humph” was disapproval and hastened to assure me that inside it was very big and very nice. I tried to explain that I “humphed” because I could hardly believe my situation. Here I was in Guinea, West Africa, talking about renting my own little room when two months ago like most people in Canada I couldn’t have said with certainty where Guinea was. I was happy, entertained and not entirely sure of what I was doing and humphing at the strangeness of things.
The decision to look for such a room to rent was prompted purely by economic considerations but a moment’s reflection brings out lots more advantages not the least of which it would distance me from Conde, a man who continues to sour the entire atmoshpere around me.
I wish it was possible to clear the air with him but he takes advantage of every contact, whether direct, or indirect through the hotel staff and even through Bob, to threaten and make vague and frustrating claims. He is still clamouring for a “cadeaux” and I would certainly give him something if I could be sure of what he wants. I dislike being taken advantage of as much as the next guy but would give him money if I felt sure that would be the end of it and if he would let even one day go by without doing something to renew my annoyance with him.
Sundar has had a lot of experience in this area and would surely caution me to be careful and prudent. He says it is better not to pay bribes because the person will return again and again and again as long as there is money to be had. He said that Guineans can smell weakness and will become bolder and bolder if you show anything but lighthearted amusement.
I have seen Sundar operate and he is surely a master. Police and “health inspectors” hover around his shop looking for the smallest pretext to make trouble and get bribes. Sundar rushes to them as to an old friend and puts his hand on their back and laughs and jokes and jollies them along. Back with me he swears and curses about those “damn shit” men and expands on his profound contempt for the average Guinean. According to Sundar such duplicity is necessary for survival but so far I can’t help but think it is unfortunate. I hope I don’t fall into that pattern and can distinguish between the likes of Conde and the Guinean people as a whole.
On the way to see the rooms I ran into Bob who said that things with Conde were getting serious and I had better do something or he would as Sundar puts it “one day fuck you.” I feel bad that Bob has been affected by this. In many ways Bob is nicer than I am and has more patience and so every day Conde bends his ears with stories about me.
I still have no clear idea who Conde is. That is part of the problem and I wouldn’t even devote this much thought to him except I wonder how much power he wields and what kind of trouble he could make for me. Sundar thinks he’s nothing more than a private tourist guide/hustler, that he is in no way connected with the government or the airport except having an office there. And how do I know it’s even his office? He sat behind the desk but so did other people. And yesterday I was told that Conde’s brother owns Les Hotels Mantisse, another thing he failed to be honest about. I learned this after I investigated what Conde had said about my hotel bill. I asked at the front desk if there was a problem with my bill and they said no. I said I would likely stay another two days and would pay for the week then. They said that was no problem but two hours later I was called out of my room. Conde’s brother, the boss, “le patron,” wished to speak with me. It appeared I was now considered a hard case and the big guns had been brought in. He was a big, imposing man dressed in a flowing white robe. He held my “dossier” and after some pleasantries brought up the matter of my bill. They were, he said, a small hotel and faced cash flow problems. I was secretly happy to notice the surprise on his face when I promptly paid in full. All somebody had to do was ask, I said. I had originally been told to pay when I checked out and I had been taking them at their word.