Monday, December 25 8:30 a.m.
Christmas Day in Guinea begins with the usual long, involved discussion about breakfast of which I understood nothing. Part of the problem is my poor understanding of spoken French but most has to do with something I still don’t understand. The way I’m perceived as a foreigner perhaps. Or a Guinean habit of mentioning things that don’t need to be mentioned, of pointing out unimportant things, of repetition. I hear these things and assume they have relevance and try to make out what it could be. But my attempts get me nowhere and the result is always the same. I wait till the waiter says something that sounds definite and I say, “Bien,” in an attempt to end the discussion. The waiter goes off and does whatever he wanted to do in the first place. I could have saved myself the trouble of even trying to figure things out.
On an abstract sort of level my problem stems from the fact that I still have my feet in both worlds one foot in Guinea and the other in the foreigner’s world. For example I’m in a restaurant called “City Friends” which has tables and chairs and a menu. I’m sitting on a balcony waiting for a cup of coffee and watching the street life (or listening to it actually the cacophony of horns, kissing sounds and shouts of “en ville, en ville” is both deafening and maddening). To eat breakfast in this kind of place is not natural for a Guinean and it was not my preference either. But I can find nowhere else. I’d much prefer sitting in a market somewhere and getting a big plate of “riz sauce” for 1,000 francs to sitting here by myself waiting for some paltry display of eggs and toast for five times as much but I don’t know where Guineans eat. In Taouyah over two weeks I ferreted out places that served Guinean food at normal prices but I still wasn’t convinced my eating habits followed those of the locals. The lives of the locals remain mysterious.
I made an experiment in my room last night and fired up my MSR Dragonfly stove to make myself a cup of coffee. I was curious if the pleasure of the coffee was worth the hassle. The Dragonfly can burn essentially all fuels including kerosene but it requires assembly, pumping, and priming and gives off a noise like a jet engine. In the end it took me twenty minutes to make a cup of coffee but it was sheer bliss and added to the enjoyable aura of my candlelight Christmas Eve in Conakry. To get a cup of coffee outside (even at places like this where three different types of coffee are listed on a menu) is far more troublesome and would take longer and the result would inevitably be tasteless and cold.
The street below me is a main transportation route and this particular spot is a place where the vans that form the mass transportation system meet to pick up and drop off goods and passengers. To anyone who has experience of a place like this the scene hardly needs describing. It’s the same all over this part of the world. To those who haven’t witnessed it for themselves the chaos and confusion would hardly be credible. The loads inside and out reach weights you wouldn’t think supportable and heights you wouldn’t think possible. In Taouyah I saw a program on French television of Chinese acrobats and contortionists who bend themselves into pretzels and climb piles of chairs to the ceiling. They travel the world and perform at fancy dinners for the elite. Here in Conakry they do this every day as a matter of course just getting to work and bringing goods to market.
The inevitable has just happened. A car clipped the back end of a van. Both vehicles were driving erratically and were on the wrong side of the road. That means nothing of course since all driving is erratic and the road which at times has four vehicles passing simultaneously is realistically only wide enough for one lane.
The shouting match has gone on now for fifteen minutes with traffic almost totally blocked in both directions. Drivers, passengers, and pedestrians all have something to say.
I don’t want to dwell on negative things just now but to produce an honest account of this journey I have to admit that my spirits are low this morning and it is only with great difficulty that I can remember at all why I came here and I think of today’s first day of actual cycling out of Conakry with apprehension and even distaste. Part of it I’m sure has to do with Conde and my experiences so far in Conakry. But it’s an overall feeling of being where I don’t belong, doing something that doesn’t make sense in the context of this country. Being alone, though my preferred mode of travel, doesn’t help. A companion would give the support contained in the idea of two against the world. The cure for this ill mood as I well know is to load up my bicycle and start moving.
Monday, December 25 3:00 p.m.
It has been a short day of cycling but more than long enough for me. I’ve had trouble with my knees before and know better than to strain them unnecessarily. And I am in no particular hurry. How could I be when I don’t even have a destination?
The sun was out in full force and created some unexpected difficulties. My hands for example were so slick with sweat that I couldn’t operate the grip shifts to change gears. My hands just slid around them and no matter how much force I applied I couldn’t change gears. In my attempts I ripped my hands raw so now I can barely hold a pen. My project for tonight is to somehow wrap some cloth around the rubber grips to give me something to hold onto.
The road was paved (I think it’s paved all the way to Labe if I go in that direction first which now looks likely) but very narrow and the traffic heavy and dangerous. It unnerves me a bit to think that it would only take one driver to miscalculate to turn me into roadkill and I don’t have great confidence that these drivers are concentrating very hard.
I cycled for twenty kilometres but never left the urban sprawl of Conakry. I passed through places that had their own names but they’re essentially all part of the same expanse of city and the row of buildings, markets, and taxi stands along the road never stopped.
I seemed to spend most of the day climbing very slowly, back at my old friend seven km/hr. A welcome change from Ethiopia continues to be that no one throws stones at me, no one swears at me, and the children don’t hound me incessantly. In fact I spent most of my time replying to the polite civilities thrown my way, the “bonjours,” the “bon journees,” the “comment ca vas,” and even the occasional “joyeux noel.” My favorite comment came from a young woman who stood at the side of the road, spread her hands to encompass me and my bike and said, “Ca, qu’est ce que c’est ca?” with real puzzlement.
I stopped for a break and perhaps a meal at a combination hotel and restaurant. There was the usual baffling conversation. I asked if they had food and they said something I didn’t understand. I asked after rice but they said they had no rice. Did I want fish? I said no. A plate with a fish on it wasn’t appealing at all. But you’re sure you don’t have rice? They were sure. So I bid them goodbye and started to climb on my bike again. Stop, they said. Why don’t you join us in having some rice for lunch? I said that sounded pretty good.
The rooms here are basic and cost 10,000 francs a night. I told them I’d take one but when I began to move in they demanded 17,000 francs. It appears that “night” doesn’t start till 7:00 p.m. To have the room for the afternoon would cost an extra 7,000. This wasn’t a scam as I saw by the register. The rooms really were rented out for 4,000 francs for an hour and a half throughout the day. I stuck to my guns, however, since there were at least seven rooms and all of them were empty and said I would pay only 10,000 and wanted the room from now till morning. It took some doing but paying in advance swayed them.
We also got stuck at the issue of my passport which they wanted to keep. I refused unconditionally and it appeared I would have to find another place to stay. But then I remembered I was carrying an old expired driver’s license photo ID thinking of offering it in just such circumstances. I took it out and they loved it. It actually looks more official, more of a “carte d’identite” than a passport.
A tiny mouse of a man befriended me throughout all this and after eating the non existent rice with sauce we set out for a stroll around the neighborhood. We didn’t get very far. A soldier or policeman of some kind emerged from a group of trees and shouted at us to come over. The Mouse’s face fell and I knew I was about to have my first experience of the dreaded shakedown.
The soldier led us under the trees where there was quite a circus going on. About ten heavily armed men sat on chairs and benches ranged in comfort in the shade. Around them stood several ragged groups of men either being verbally berated or pleading desperately. An unlucky few were already prisoners and moped on benches inside an armoured vehicle parked nearby. I wondered if the Mouse and I were soon to join them and would shortly see the Evil Conde’s laughing face on the other side of iron bars.
Much of the other activity ceased when I arrived and the soldiers all turned their attention on me. A single man took up my interrogation and shouted at me loudly in French. I didn’t have to pretend not to understand because I really didn’t and could only smile politely and apologize that I didn’t understand his questions. He was disgusted with me but to my surprise switched to simple and slow French, something that no one in Guinea had been able to do till that point.
Through a series of barked questions and my quiet replies we established that I was a Canadian and was walking down the road because as a tourist I wished to see and experience life in Guinea. I saw a glimmer of hope when an obviously higher ranking man put in a “bon” and a thumbs up.
Eventually we came around to what they wanted which was something called a “carte consulaire.” That I didn’t know what this was added to the man’s disgust. I let this go on for a bit and then offered up my passport as a suitable replacement for this “carte consulaire.” After shouting at me for quite some time about the paltry little stamps on the pages of my passport (they were all for countries other than Guinea) he finally came to my Guinean visa which is clearly recognizable as such. They appeared to be impressed with it, particularly that it was valid for six months, though I don’t know why they should be.
Next he wanted my vaccination booklet and here he had finally triumphed and tripped me up because I wasn’t in the habit of carrying it around and didn’t have it.
“You don’t have it?” he screamed. “Why not?”
As any child knows there is no answer to this question when an adult stands over you and demands to know “why” you did this or that thing. There is no why. You just did it. And I didn’t have my vaccination booklet.
“Why not?” he shouted over and over again. And finally, “Where is it?”
“In my hotel room,” I replied.
“In your hotel room,” he said. “What is it doing there? Why don’t you have it here, with you? It’s important isn’t it?”
He had me there and I had to admit it was important. But I had some weapons at my disposal too, namely my general air of befuddlement and bland innocence and I explained how I’d gotten vaccinated for cholera and typhoid and hepatitis and yellow fever and it was all written down there in my vaccination book because keeping good records is so important, don’t you think? And I was taking malaria medication because of all the mosquitos. We have mosquitoes in Canada, too, by the way, but not right now because it was winter and it was very cold. Not like here in Guinea where it’s hot. It’s hot today isn’t it? But it’s nice here under the trees.
And so on.
He appeared to have no answer to this tactic of mine and the high ranking guy chuckled, gave me back my passport and told me to get the hell out of there and go back to the hotel which suited me fine.
The Mouse was not so lucky. He wasn’t carrying an identity card (and he knew better) nor could he use my strategy of pretending not to know that the soldiers wanted money. He was escorted under armed guard back to the hotel where he borrowed 2,000 francs from the hotel owner to give to the soldier.
It’s likely that such scenes will be repeated several times tomorrow between here and Coyah. The 36 kilometre point is supposed to be particularly bad. And the Mouse tells me that because of the current political instability I can expect to encounter roadblocks in large numbers all the way to Labe and then constant problems like this one while inside the towns. It’s hardly an encouraging prospect.
One thing I find odd is that I saw no obvious opening for offering money. I went into my befuddled innocence act not because I’m so desperate to avoid paying two or five thousand francs to these soldiers but because I didn’t know what else to do. They became very abrupt when I spoke so how could I bring the conversation around to the money they wanted? And they never even came close to asking for money. They simply shouted questions and cut off my replies by shouting again.
Sundar and Papa and Ashok all gave me advice saying that the roadblocks were a nuisance but you pay them some money and off you go. But when it comes down to it how do you hand over money when no one asks for it (even in code) and there is no opportunity to draw someone aside for a whispered exchange? I can’t imagine that it would have gone down well had I simply whipped out my wallet and handed over 5,000 francs to my interrogator in full view of everybody. And in the end they simply let me go anyway.
As a final twist to the story the Mouse appeared at my door and dropped some very broad hints that since I hadn’t had to pay anything that I should reimburse him for the amount the soldiers extorted. The amount? 5,000 francs said the Mouse. If I’d given it to him (which I didn’t) the Mouse would have made a 3,000 franc profit. Such is the mentality Sundar might have said.