Wednesday, December 20 10:25 a.m.
My cold has arrived full force and I spent a difficult night dealing with a runny nose, a hotter-than-normal night, and a sudden increase in the mosquito population. Actually I don’t think there were more of them but being awake and miserable I tended to notice them. They’re a fast breed of mosquito, impossible to slap against the wall, totally silent and masters of a delicate touch that doesn’t trigger the nerves of my body hair. Bob said the same thing the other night, that he hasn’t noticed the mosquitos because they’re so quiet, light, and fast. I haven’t heard anyone comment on malaria in Conakry but I’m taking mefloquine anyway and last night hung my mosquito net over the bed.
The rest of my trip to the Madina was somewhat uneventful. I rode around it to the Corniche Sud, the road that runs along the eastern side of the peninsula, and circled the market. I tried to penetrate it three or four times but each time the road pinched off into a mass of people and stalls that I couldn’t get through, not even walking my bike. Taxis (lost taxis I imagine) would also attempt these roads and upon realizing their mistake desperately try to back up. But it was often too late as other taxis and the overflow from the market cut them off and sealed them in. On one such road there were fifteen taxis, stuck, empty, and abandoned, no way to go forward or retreat, tiny islands of steel in a sea of flesh.
I cycled through the gates of a couple of places right on the water that seemed to be hotels of some kind. There is no advantage to being on the ocean in Conakry. In fact these places had tried to seal off the view with high cement walls. When I climbed up them to look over I saw why. The shore was a horrific mix of rocks, mud, and garbage of all kinds.
There appears to be a continuous garbage crisis in Conakry. There is a collection service of some kind but it’s very ad hoc and has chosen very public places (what otherwise you’d think would make nice parks) at which to collect the loads, sort it and I assume bring it somewhere else. In the back alleys the garbage is simply pushed into a pile and set on fire. I’ve had to walk through several of the resulting clouds of smoke and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more defiled. My system reacts with a body-wide gag response and I can’t get through it fast enough. It’s a thick smoke, however, and stays close to the ground covering a wide area. Perhaps this is a function of the strange air that a Swedish music student told me about. He’s here for six months on a music research project and insists that sound in Guinea is different than anywhere else. He says the unusual consistency of the air means sound travels differently and it’s difficult to tell from what direction sound is emanating. I don’t believe a word of it but I’ll take any excuse to explain why I still can’t understand a word anyone says whether in French or English.
La Vina restaurant has been very quiet, so quiet that I’ve begun to wonder how they manage to stay in business. Angie explained that it was always this quiet during Ramadan and anyway they make their money not from individual customers but groups who rent the entire restaurant for catered meals. Angie warned me that they had a group of eighteen people from the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) coming for dinner that night. The staff spent the whole day getting ready and set up tables outside under the trees where it was cooler. Around 6:00 white Toyota land cruisers (which the UN and NGO’s seem to be required by law to use) began to show up till the street outside looked like a Toyota dealership.
Angie served me a small plate of the same fish dinner she had made for the group. I’m not much for seafood (especially when the head, tail, bones and eyeballs are still firmly in place) and I made sure no one was looking when I grabbed the fish by the snout and flipped him over to eat his other side. I must have looked like someone doing something very distasteful rather than a man enjoying a good meal in a posh restaurant.
I sat on the porch afterwards drinking beer, one eye on the banqueting UNDP types and the other on Angie as she danced and sang her way past carrying plates and glasses. She’s fond of both West African pop and American country and western. Taken up with the mood of the night I sang along under my breath with Don Williams. I repeated particularly apropos lines to Angie and she would rush inside to repeat what I’d said to the cooking staff. Angie asked me once if Don Williams was still alive. I said that country and western singers never die, a line I didn’t think particularly funny but which Angie found hysterically amusing and she startled the diners by shouting it to the sky. “Country and western singers never die!”
In fact I’ve never liked country and western music but last night I found the corny lyrics and foot stomping beat just right, suitable, a good match for Guinea and my mood here in Taouyah. It was good travelling music, too, as the poor man kept finding his woman in the arms of another man. “It’s hello blues and down the road I go,” he sang.
Le Club Altesse disappointed me this morning and again just now. They have no cafe au lait. It’s a puzzle. The ingredients are in any shop you could point to, and there are dozens of those on this street alone. It’s almost as if these bars, cafes, and restaurants don’t want customers. They do nothing to keep available the things they advertise and nothing extra to attract customers. They serve me reluctantly.
The place I’ve chosen instead is called Le Samedi Soir (Saturday Night). I’m sitting on a hard bench at the window to take advantage of any breeze but still the sweat is pouring down my face and my shirt is sticking to my back. They too have no coffee of any kind so I asked for a Skol, Guinea’s “International” beer, which I don’t really want. I’m just renting bench space. The beer he gave me was his entire stock. Another man asked for a Skol and was told I had the last one. No one, customer or proprietor, seemed to think this was odd.
The same problem occurs with change which no one ever has though I’ve looked into it and it’s possible to request small bills at the bank. I had my usual ragout and handed over a 5,000 franc note for my 2,000 franc meal. Fifteen minutes later I was still waiting for my change and the boy had crossed in front of the restaurant a full six times in that slow, shuffling gait I’ve already come to dislike. He was moving so slowly that I had to fight down the urge to get up and go find the change myself.
I met a Guinean man today, perhaps the first non official Guinean I’ve gotten to know. He was in Le Club Altesse and I asked him where he’d gotten the newspaper he was reading. I’d seen people reading newspapers but never seen anybody or place selling them. We got involved in a long discussion about my getting a newspaper but at the end of it I was nowhere nearer finding out where I could buy one except for a mysterious place known only as SPG.
I was very happy when this man, Sundyata Fode, asked if I wanted to come see where he lived. I was happy because this time I’d initiated the exchange and I felt sure he was just a nice, normal guy without any kind of hidden agenda.
Sundyata was in his forties, solidly built, and lived in a large house a couple of alleyways behind the main road. There was a car sitting in the compound and two young women sprawled on couches watching TV in the living room. I sat with Sundyata in the bare kitchen and worked my way through a large plate of rice and spicy meat sauce, keeping an eye on the hordes of ants which swarmed over everything. There were some large red ones in particular that I wanted to keep off my person.
My French was far better than his English (a common occurrence here, though it doesn’t mean much since amongst Guineans English might as well be Chinese or Martian) and we communicated with difficulty. I had the same feeling I always do, that I’m quite out of my depth here, as if all this stuff going on on the surface means nothing without understanding the deeper rhythms, rhythms that are beyond me.
He said that he used to work for the government in the customs department but was laid off in 1998 and has been unemployed ever since. His brother had been assassinated by the government and ever since then his brother’s family had been living in Canada as refugees. I assumed this was during the “terror” under Sekou Toure but with our language difficulties couldn’t understand more than the bare statement of fact.
That statement alone, however, was enough over a plate of rice. It was delivered without any lead up and not even a ‘therefore’ afterwards. I instinctively felt that there was lots more to be said (about his brother and the circumstances surrounding his assassination) but Sundyata didn’t think so and we passed on to the weather and then to my travel plans.
It was clear that even though he was an educated man he’d never seen a detailed map of Guinea before. I had to help him find the towns he wanted to point out. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to cycle clockwise out of Conakry along the coast and then inland through the mountains or head directly into the Fouta Djalon. Sundyata surprised me with an interesting perspective. He recommended that I go straight into the mountains from Conakry and get past the crossroads town of Mamou. Thus if the rebel army takes Mamou it won’t matter because I’d already have been there. I had to admit I hadn’t thought of my alternatives in quite that way.