Tuesday, December 19 10:00 a.m.
A deep fatigue settled over me yesterday. I stayed in bed till ten in the morning and then did very little throughout the day, returning often to La Vina to lie on my bed and search the shortwave bands for intelligible sounds. And last night I slept deep and hard. It could be the heat, a cold that I feel coming on, or mild culture shock, of which fatigue and a desire to stay in bed are common symptoms.
Culture shock is a slippery concept. It is supposed to be the body and mind’s reaction to the profound injury of suddenly being dumped into a foreign and strange land, a land with new sights, sounds and smells, a new language, new food, different water and more, a different rhythm of life, night and day, love and hate.
A person suffering from culture shock is tired, wants to stay in bed, is often depressed, wants to isolate himself and is very irritable. But isn’t this a complicated way of saying nothing at all? Given all that arrival in a new country like this entails who wouldn’t be a bit tired and irritable?
For one thing life suddenly gets very complicated. All the dozens of daily events that are accomplished on auto pilot in your home country and are done in no time at all suddenly loom very large and take up your whole day. Life gets reduced to its barest essentials the search for food, water, and shelter. You’ve gone from 21st Century technological man to a hunter gatherer. And to complicate the matter you’ve regressed to the linguistic level of a toddler. Helpless, hungry and lost, a toddler communicates in the only way he can he gets a bit cranky.
Humour is always a good antidote to cross cultural crankiness and humour at least is never far away. I flushed the toilet at La Vina yesterday and from the back yard I heard a sudden cry of “Seki! Seki! Seki!” Later on I used the toilet again (too much coffee), pulled the flush cord, and heard the same cry, “Seki! Seki! Seki!” Some kind of Guinean ritual celebration of bodily functions? Was I expected to reply? Send my own ululation skyward?
Much later, a third flush and “Seki! Seki! Seki!” and Angie appeared at the door breathless. “Ah! It’s you Mr. Douglas. I was worried. Once I heard sounds and it was a stranger who stole a bottle of liquor.” I thought about this for a minute and then the light bulb went off. It wasn’t “Seki” but “C’est qui?” Who is it? Who’s there?
My room at La Vina is not quite the deal I thought it was. It is significantly cheaper with a nicer atmosphere but the air conditioner is strictly rationed. This was not discussed beforehand but after my first night Angie sat me down for a talk and told me how expensive electricity is here. She said that one air conditioner in use for an hour costs 25,000 francs in electricity. This didn’t make sense to me because air conditioning is extremely common here and at Les Hotels Mantisse runs in every room for several hours every day. The bill would be astronomical.
Angie said that would be true if they didn’t have an illegal power hook up. She said that no one pays the meter price. Palms are greased and meters are bypassed. But for reasons I couldn’t understand La Vina was the last business in Conakry still paying according to the meter. The upshot was that I couldn’t use the air conditioner at all during the day and only for a few minutes at night to take the edge off the heat. (Oddly enough there is a sudden spike in heat and humidity when the sun goes down. Bob says this is a common phenomenon in the tropics.) The irony here is that I could function quite happily without an air conditioner. But to lie there sweating and panting with an air conditioner right there, but be unable to switch it on, is psychologically unbearable. It drives me crazy and I find it impossible to relax. If there was no air conditioner at all I’d be happier.
I did not see Bob at all yesterday so I don’t know how the first day of meetings went. He and John were to meet with government officials to try and secure a contract for their mercenary services. To say that I’m still out of my depth in talking to them is an understatement. I’m still being polite and maintaining the fiction that their work is terribly hush hush and so not asking questions. But they clearly want to talk about it
My hesitancy about asking questions does not come from any idea that their work is top secret but my own reluctance to listen to any bullshit. I don’t want to be put in a position where I’m pretending to believe cock and bull stories. I suppose it’s possible I’m wrong. After all, I doubted the existence of John Telkin and here he is in the flesh. So I have to assume his company exists.
If I was to ask questions I certainly had my chance the other night during John’s three hour monologue. He tossed in as off hand comments little titbits to do with the torture of enemy soldiers, the effect of different types of bullets on test baboons and his father’s slaughtering of SS personnel in World War II. His favorite story concerns a letter his father received from the SS accusing him of excessive brutality.
He is clearly obsessed with his father. He describes him as a genius, the kind of man that appears once in a century, a man who thinks in twelve dimensional mathematics as a hobby and pastime, a man who if he wasn’t so totally dedicated to soldiery would have been the greatest mind of the 20th Century. Luckily for John his father was also wise and good and did not overwhelm his son, did not belittle John’s talents in comparison to his own, talents and accomplishments that John refers to as only the cherry on his father’s sundae.
John sees himself as the latest genius in a long line of supermen going back to at least the 17th Century when records started to be kept. He carries his arrogance as a trophy and shield. “Every hour I say to myself that I’m so happy to be me.” A more deeply disturbed man I don’t think I’ve ever met.
The adventure of the day was to be a trip through the large Madina market and I’m currently half way through it. I knew a bicycle wouldn’t be able to navigate the interior of the market (I find it difficult if not impossible to even walk through the narrow confines of such markets) but I figured I could cycle around its edges and get a taste.
I plotted a route on my map and promptly got lost. I thought I was on track since I find Conakry relatively easy to figure out. They say that it’s difficult because the streets for the most part have no names. But each street has an identifying number which corresponds well with my map. I stop from time to time to consult my map and thus find my way. Ironically it’s the big streets that confuse me because though they do have names I can’t find them posted anywhere.
I stopped on a bridge to watch the activity of a small port where thousands of fence posts were being unloaded. Small children up to their knees in black sludge smiled and waved, delighted when I waved back. On a main road I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss my bicycle. This odd urge occurred near a transportation center where a dozen broken down trucks, large and small, were being loaded up with passengers and goods for trips out of Conakry. I thought I’d seen vehicles overloaded with people and stuff before but I guess I hadn’t because I’d never seen anything like this. Underneath the loads the trucks were barely visible and yet still they waited for more people, for more things to pile on top. The thought of riding in one of those vehicles was horrifying. I think I would walk before I did so and I felt nothing but sympathy for the local people at the mercy of this kind of transportation horror.
The back streets were easier then the main roads except near schools where a few children saw me as a figure of fun. But I could only laugh. These children thought they were so tough and yet next to my experiences in Ethiopia these kids were the rankest of amateurs. And most of them were genuinely friendly and polite, giving me a cheery “Bonjour! Ca va?” as I rode past.
The market area was densely crowded with traffic and people and I moved through it slowly all my senses turned way down. Without that the honking alone would have driven me mad. I only skimmed along one side of it and don’t really know where I am but it’s clear the market is a large one and has all the goods for sale that a reasonable human being could want. It really isn’t the kind of place, however, where you should carry anything of value, let alone ride a bike with pannier bag attached. I put my bag on my front wheel so I could keep an eye on it but even so there was so much confusion and crowding it would have been better to have been on foot carrying nothing but a few thousand francs.
Sundar I know will lecture me on the foolishness of coming here alone and on my bike but Sundar’s world of suspicion and caution is a heavy burden to bear and I don’t want to carry it myself. A few nights ago I was looking forward to having a couple of drinks with Sundar after he closed up his shop. But to my disappointment he refused to go to any of the hole in the wall bars in the neighborhood. He said that if we went there the Guineans would bother us all night long to give them money. And yesterday he told me one too many times about the bad character of Guineans and simply to rebel against his fatherly advice I popped into the “Cafe Touba,” a place consisting of two benches, a single low table and a bamboo and thatch roof. The two men running the place were Guinean (if they speak English they’re likely Sierra Leonian or Liberian and if they speak only French they’re likely Guinean) and made me welcome. I wasn’t exactly sure what they served from the big thermoses on the table but I asked for a cup of whatever it was. A man poured a half a glass of a thick, black coffee into a plastic tumbler. He then poured it back and forth in a long, controlled arc from the plastic tumbler to a glass one till the coffee was creamy and smooth. It was a powerful drink and unlike anything I’d had before. The mix of spices in it (including a lot of pepper) grabbed my throat and seemed to tear it open as it went down. I had trouble finishing it and when later on my throat really started to hurt I wondered if it was this drink or the beginning of the cold I’m now getting.
I mentioned my Cafe Touba adventure to the man at La Vina and he immediately chastised me saying I should be more careful about eating and drinking on the street. Just to spite him I immediately turned around and went out to the bar where I’d gone with Marie the other night, and sat by myself over a beer watching bad television with everyone else.
I’ve seen Marie only one time since the night she helped me look into that apartment with its own private garbage fire. She was carrying a small suitcase and cheerfully announced she was going to Dabola to link up with the Australian of the expensive perfumes. Sundar confirmed what I had already guessed, that she was a call girl. Sundar used the hand sign for call girl when talking about Marie, a wriggling of the hand like a salmon swimming upstream.