Sunday, December 24 9:00 a.m.
To my horror Conde wormed his way back into my life and into my thoughts yesterday. It was spectacularly bad timing because I had plans to leave Conakry this morning. I’d had my laundry done. I was saying my goodbyes to Sundar, Bob, and the family at La Vina, and I was looking forward to a pleasant afternoon of tinkering with my bike and looking at maps, psyching myself up.
I walked into the compound and there was Conde sitting with Bob at an outside table. My stomach churned. I felt a surge of annoyance with Bob for bringing him here to my sanctuary but that was nonsense. Conde knew where I was anyway and could have come at any time. That he came the day before my departure when I needed all my energy and optimism was very bad luck.
I had no choice but to join them at the table and Conde instantly launched into his stories. There was no preamble, no statement of intent or purpose. The issue of course was the official letter for “IVAN John DOUGLAS” which I’d returned with a polite thanks but no thanks and no 52,800 francs. But, and herein I think lies Conde’s genius, he didn’t say exactly what the point of all this was. He didn’t come right out and say that this letter was official and I must pay 52,800 francs for it. That would close off too many other potentially profitable avenues. Instead he told his stories. Stories about tourists of all nationalities, some who embraced Conde as a good friend and found all of Guinea open to them, and many, many others who did not accept his “help” and came to bad ends. One group of four Dutch tourists on bicycles (or were they Belgian or perhaps Quebecois? the story kept changing) rejected his help and found they couldn’t get past the roadblocks out of Conakry (the stick). They were arrested and put in jail and only their good friend Conde saved them from worse fates (the carrot). His stories had no limit and few made any sense at all. My favorite was his claim that there was a special tourist tax levied particularly to trace the movements of tourists. No matter where we went the hotel had to report our presence, to him, to Conde, and this procedure meant telephone calls and taxi fares. There were expenses and this tax covered them. But Conde had waived the tax for me and Bob because he was such a good friend.
The stories were senseless and boundless but that they had no real point was the point. It was like a debating tactic that drew an opponent into logical dead ends over trivialities and red herrings. They were intended to keep me confused and off balance and in his world. The longer I remained there the more opportunities there would be for more “taxi fares,” “official letters,” “permits,” and “taxes.”
My only response was, I thought, simple and to the point. I was tired of the monotonous flow of words and did not want to call Conde on any of the illogic of his claims. I simply said, through Bob, that none of this matters. I said that any relationship, even this one, was based on trust and how could I possibly trust Conde based on his record? I mentioned as an example how within two hours of meeting me he had cheated me out of 80,000 francs in changing money – he, an official employee of the ministry of tourism. I said that from that moment all trust was gone.
“Merci,” said Conde. “Merci.” I assumed he was thanking me for being so direct and therefore giving him a chance to clear the air. And clear the air he did. He claimed total innocence. He was assured that the rate of exchange I’d received was the best rate possible. He’d fought hard for me. I had been cheated and lied to but the money changer had lied to Conde as well and cheated him of my trust, an even worse crime. He called out to Allah as a witness and said that as a good Muslim he was far too frightened of offending Allah to ever think of cheating me.
It was a performance worthy of an Oscar and to my amazement actually won Bob over who then told me as part of the translation that he thought Conde was starting to make sense and that perhaps I should listen to him. (I later called Bob on this and he admitted that if there is one person in the country who knows the exchange rate to the franc it’s Conde. I suspect Conde is hard wired to the central bank and can monitor currency fluctuations by the hour.) That Bob was taken in by Conde’s feigned sincerity in the face of all evidence to the contrary is a testament to how good a con man he can be.
There finally came a point when I was tired of it all and I tried to speak directly to Conde to bring the discussion to some kind of point and closure. But he would not speak to me nor stop talking. Every breath he drew launched him on another tangent. Bob was also tired of the whole situation and blamed me for being indecisive. “Have you come to a decision, Doug?” he asked.
I was speechless for a second. “Decision about what?” I asked. If Conde would stop talking for just two seconds or make some kind of point or ask a question or present an option I could make a decision.
At one point I could feel myself losing my temper and I got up with the excuse of going to get a drink of water. I found Papa sitting on the verandah and made the mistake of telling him what was going on. Papa was sympathetic but it was clear he was a little upset with me for bringing Conde to his home and for getting involved with Conde in the first place. I tried to defend myself by explaining the sequence of events that brought me to this point. Papa pursed his lips and said that he thought Canadians had more sense than to tell so much about themselves to a man like Conde.
I felt like a man sinking in quicksand. I’d unwisely told Papa that Conde had made noises about my being a spy. “What made him think that?” Papa asked. I told him that Conde had seen me writing in notebooks. Papa said that I’d been in his home for almost a week and he’d never seen me writing. How had Conde seen me? He felt that I’d been foolishly open. I tried to explain that Conde saw me writing because he simply pops in everywhere, at restaurants, and into my room. But now the writing had made even Papa suspicious. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Where there’s an accusation there must be some cause. Blame the victim. It’s this that provides the room for malicious people like Conde to operate.
I returned, hopefully to finish off the discussion with Conde. I’d decided to give the discussion a point and then finish the point. I got Conde’s attention and said in French my piece. I tried once more to use honeyed words and blatant lies as Papa had advised me to. I said that if Conde wanted to help me by providing an official letter identifying me as a tourist that was wonderful. Thank you very much. And to show my appreciation and in the spirit of a Christmas present I would like to give him a “cadeaux” in the amount of 52,800 francs, a remarkable coincidence that it just happens to be the same amount he was asking for. My point of view was that it was worth that much to me just to get rid of Conde. I felt sure the letter was of no consequence. Before coming to Guinea I’d spoken with a few ex Peace Corps Volunteers (or PCV’s) who’d been stationed in Guinea. They said that in order to smooth the way for their volunteers the Peace Corps had provided them with more and more official documentation. But no matter how many documents they had the police at the checkpoints always demanded more. And no matter how faultless the papers the police would invent an irregularity. All in the name of a small cadeaux. It was better, it could be argued, to approach such checkpoints with nothing but your passport. Presenting Conde’s letter as a sort of “get out of jail free” card would probably backfire as it would give the police something to sink their teeth into, to debate, to investigate, and to question. It might actually create problems where there were none before because they would have no clear idea what that letter represented. There is certainly no regulation that tourists in Guinea must carry such a letter. They might get in trouble over accepting this letter. The point is that (particularly with Conde as the sole source of information) there is no way to be sure of anything.
Papa supported my ideas. He’s had enough experience here to know that papers mean nothing. He told me that you could have all the papers in the universe but it would do no good when some policeman wanted his two or ten or fifty thousand francs. Papa told me that he was very good friends with the Deputy Commissioner of Police (the 2nd highest position) and through his influence had gotten permission to keep Sierra Leonian plates on his car for the three months it took to get Guinean plates. He was stopped one day by some police on the street who didn’t like his Sierra Leonian plates. He immediately called his friend the Deputy Commissioner on his cell phone.
“Who stopped you?” asked the DC.
“Some policemen on the street,” replied Papa.
“I’m sorry. I can do nothing for you. You will have to deal with them,” said the DC and he hung up.
Papa called him back and the DC explained that he had no power over the activities of these street police. If they wanted some money then Papa would have to pay them, which he did.
But I had misjudged the situation once again and now Conde was offended that I’d said the 52,800 francs was a cadeaux. This was an insult to his honor. He went on at great length to describe just how official this 52,800-franc fee was. (We’d just have to ignore the fact that there was no receipt, no forms, no office, and that this letter without my passport number or even proper name was hand delivered as Conde personally tracked me from hotel to hotel.)
I suppose I could have given in on this point. If I was willing to give in to this extortion what harm was there in playing the game fully and referring to the money as a fee? But I was disgusted with myself and annoyed with Conde and I wanted him to admit at least a little bit that it was extortion. To buy into his whole story and hand over yet another 50,000 francs without some concession from him would have made me feel too much of an idiot. But Conde refused to budge and stuck to his guns that he was insulted and that I was only willing to pay the money to get rid of him, that I did not believe he was telling the truth.
And that was where we left it except of course that even though Conde would not say it in words, the draw of the money was too much and he made noises about getting the letter retyped with my proper name. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be ready for four days.
I didn’t tell him I had plans to leave the next morning and didn’t truly know if I would follow through on those plans with this latest wrinkle. That decision would have to wait until a council of war with Papa and later with Bob.
There was no need for such councils except that I still had doubts about Conde. There was no doubt in my mind that he was of no possible help to me. He was a con man who used his official position to intimidate and fleece tourists. But I did have doubts about how far he would go to hurt me if I didn’t pay him at least some of the money he kept demanding. I imagined him telephoning the police and arranging that I be stopped and not allowed to leave Conakry. I imagined him causing problems up to and including the confiscation of my bike when I tried to leave the country. I also imagined him believing his own paranoid fantasies and going so far as to have me actually arrested as a spy.
This last particularly bothered me especially because Papa took it so seriously. During our council of war he called over a man who worked for him and who spoke French. He’d eavesdropped on Bob and Conde while they spoke at La Vina’s gates, out of my hearing. He reported that Conde was convinced I was a spy working for some nameless enemy of Guinea and that he was going to go out of his way to make this fact known to the government and police. Papa said this man was very dangerous and I should be careful. The absurdity of such a charge he said would not matter. In the current uneasy atmosphere and in a country with such low educational levels and literacy rates they would believe anything. They were looking for scapegoats and a white guy on a bicycle who writes all the time is bizarre enough in their eyes to justify any charge.
There was an amusing irony in all this which Papa wasn’t aware of and which I couldn’t tell him. The irony was that Conde, so outraged at my suspicious journal keeping, so vocal to Bob about spies etc, was himself in deep negotiations with real live white mercenaries. Bob himself in translating had stumbled over this irony. The danger, Conde said, was that in travelling alone I ran the risk of people becoming suspicious of me. They might even suspect, silly as it was, that I was a white mercenary. This was delivered in an amused tone of voice as if to say, “White mercenaries! Whoever heard of such a thing!” Then Bob stopped and laughed. “Actually, I’m a white mercenary,” he said.
Papa’s advice, in seeming contrast to his “be very careful” speech, was that I simply ditch Conde and go. His plan had the attraction of logic. The new and improved letter (if it ever materialized) wouldn’t be available until Tuesday at the earliest. That gave me at least two days to test the waters. I could cycle out of Conakry and see how far I got. If I navigated all the police checkpoints on my own and no one stopped me then I’d just keep going. I’d know that Conde’s “letter” was just bullshit.
If on the other hand I got stopped and was turned back I could simply cycle back and wait for this letter and try again. Conde need never know that I’d even left the city. As far as he was concerned I’d just say I’d changed hotels.
Papa said the risk of upsetting Conde was slim. He just wanted money and if I succeeded in my Christmas escape from Conakry I could easily placate him when I returned, with cash.
My council of war with Bob over a plate of riz sauce at the Senegalese restaurant was less satisfactory. I sensed that he was annoyed with me for losing my temper with Conde and making the situation confrontational. He’d expected me to be smarter than that, more diplomatic. He was already stuck mediating between John and Conde and John had the tact of a howitzer and an ethical system that made Conde look like a saint. He wasn’t happy that my dealings with Conde were becoming equally problematic.
His displeasure never came out into the open but if it had I would have argued that though I’m not comfortable with John’s manner of speech or behavior he at least had Conde’s number. Bob didn’t think or see things so clearly at times and was far too trusting. I’m sure he was the nicest and most trusting mercenary in the world. If all soldiers were like him wars would be settled over tea. He had the makings of a true diplomat. He said himself (and I witnessed it) that the hotter the situation became the cooler he got.
Since it was to be my last night in Conakry Sundar invited me to his house for dinner. A simple thing but it too got so convoluted that I truly started to wonder what could have possessed me to come here with my bicycle.
It started when after the invitation was given I walked down the alleyways to refresh my memory as to where Sundar’s house was. I’d be going in the dark and wanted to make sure I remembered where it was. A man in uniform saw me walk, stop, turn around, and come back in his eyes very suspicious behavior.
He accosted me in French and demanded to know where I was going and what I was doing. The truth turned out to be very difficult to explain in French and only made him more suspicious. And he was upset that I had walked right past him without greeting him (I hadn’t even seen him). I initially made the situation worse by apologizing and saying I was new to Guinea and did not yet understand the forms of etiquette, that in Canada it was not customary to greet every stranger on the street. He didn’t want to hear about Canada apparently and made it clear I was on his turf now. He eventually let me go with the stern warning that the next time I walked past him I’d better say “bon soir.”
When I returned at 9:00 that night for the dinner I kept my eyes open and spotted him and made up for my earlier rudeness. I summoned the cheeriest ‘bon soir’ I had in me and nearly shook his arm out of its socket. I left him only after I was totally satisfied that he was ‘ca va’, his wife was ‘ca va’, his children were ‘ca va’, and even his dog was ‘ca va.’
I was relieved to see Sundar on his balcony keeping watch for my arrival. This would prevent my having to bang on the door and get the dog barking and the neighbors watching. Sundar was very sensitive to the possible problems he could face in Guinea once suspicions were aroused. Because of Conde and my acquaintance with Bob the Mercenary I brought a certain amount of negative aura with me
Bob was included in the invitation but I hadn’t been able to find him and could only leave a note at Les Hotels Mantisse. This immediately set Sundar’s antennae quivering and he grilled me on exactly what I had said in the note and with whom I had left it. I had an immediate “Oh, come on!” reaction. Can’t we even have dinner together without the cloak and dagger? I didn’t express this but told Sundar word for word what I’d written and he relaxed after I told him I hadn’t left the note with anyone but had slipped it under his door. Sundar still wasn’t happy, though. It appeared I’d made another mistake. He was concerned that the note would be found by someone else and Bob wouldn’t have a chance to destroy. “Destroy?” I thought. If Sundar wasn’t so dead serious I would have asked him if he’d watched “Mission Impossible” one too many times. Did he have a bottle of invisible ink? “This message will self destruct in ten seconds.” We were eating rice with chick peas for goodness’ sake. What could be more innocent than chick peas?
The delicate overtones continued when we discussed my cardboard bicycle box which he’d agreed to store for me while I was gone. He was glad I hadn’t brought it with me as planned. He also didn’t want me to bring it to his store in the morning which was Plan B. It was better if I wasn’t seen delivering any kind of box. He told me to leave it at La Vina, tell only Angie about it, and he would send a boy (in the dead of night I presumed) to retrieve it.
The Guineans, he explained, upon seeing two foreigners with a box will immediately jump to conclusions. What could be in the box? Diamonds? Gold? Guns?
“This is the mentality,” said Sundar for the hundredth time while pointing to his head.
I wasn’t happy being forced back into this strange political world even while just having chick peas with a friend but Sundar was helping me a great deal and I had to respect his opinions.
Sunday, December 24 8:00 p.m.
Christmas Eve. I’m in a large hotel, the Residence Kaporo, only a few kilometres north of Taouyah, the part of Conakry that was my home for the past almost two weeks. The ocean is just across the road though represented by the same mud flats that I’ve seen everywhere around Conakry.
The Residence Kaporo is a large place of unappealing cement construction. It is four storeys high with more than thirty rooms but as far as I can tell I am the only guest here. In fact I think I am the only human in the entire complex. Just a few minutes ago I came back from dinner to find all the doors but one locked and the place deserted. Even Assatou Barry, the flirtatious girl who checked me in, is nowhere to be seen. There currently is no electricity and I’m writing in my cavernous room by the dim light of a single candle. Buildings all around me have electricity. Why this one was singled out for a mini power outage I can’t guess. Flirtatious Assatou did not tell me about the lack of power until after I had paid for the room and moved my bicycle inside. Of course. She judged correctly that I was the kind of person who would not make a big deal out of it.
I didn’t leave from La Vina until nearly midday. I’m finally getting the hang of Conakry, this hotbed of intrigue, my own little Casablanca, and told no one what my plans were. Not Papa, not Mammy, not Angie, not even Sundar. (I got the distinct impression that Sundar would have clapped his hands over his ears had I tried to tell him.) In truth I didn’t have any plans except to load up the bike and cycle away. Away from Taouyah. Away from “that is the mentality.” Away from mercenaries. And most of all, away from the Evil Conde. I even considered simply cycling around the corner and ducking into the Hotel Cesar, a place I’d discovered the previous day, but I doubted I could keep my presence there a secret for even one night. All I really wanted, for whatever perverse reason, was to disappear, to regain some anonymity, in a way to have a chance to mentally wipe the slate clean and begin this trip again, to touch Guinea on my own, fresh, wherever, for even one night. I wanted to shake myself free of the pall of Conde’s world and then go upcountry.
And so, after just a few kilometres when I saw the Residence Kaporo I pulled up and moved in. My bike carried the full touring load without my wheels buckling. Nothing snapped and nothing fell off.
In the afternoon I came across a bizarre restaurant that called itself The Crocodile. Inside was a pool with a waterfall and eight juvenile crocodiles.
The heavily muscled Guinean at the gate told me that it was a private French club but since I had white skin and (presumably) money I could go in. He, on the other hand, with his black skin could not go in. He seemed absolutely furious about this. My question about whether I could get a cup of coffee there was an innocent one. I never expected such an emotional reply. I thought he was going to go for my throat but instead he opened the gate and escorted me inside, asking polite questions about the bike. The fury had come and gone like the attack of a crocodile.
The restaurant was priced far out of my reach but for Christmas I treated myself to a chocolate banana split and a beer while the crocodiles yawned and the waiter asked me how he could go about emigrating to Canada.