Tuesday, January 2 9:00 a.m.
The police checkpoints on the road continue to be a pleasant surprise. Each time I crest a rise and see the telltale cluster of vehicles and old rope pulled across the road my heart sinks and I brace myself for the worst. But so far I haven’t had any problems. At most of them I’ve been completely ignored. I slowly pedal up to the rope, not looking around but not trying to hide either, and the gendarme has usually lowered the rope, allowed me to pass, and then raised it again. At one roadblock I was questioned about where I was going but it wasn’t clear that they were even official questions. Only at one checkpoint about ten kilometres outside of Kindia was I dealt with in any official way.
I cycled up to the rope expecting it to be lowered but instead I was waved over to the side where an officer sat on a bench looking utterly bored. Perhaps it’s all my imagination but I thought I saw him think for a second about the possibility of getting money out of me. It’s almost like he knew he should try. He’s a policeman after all. It’s what they do. But it was all so much work. He finally roused himself for a bit of an effort and focused on the one thing that occurred to him. Had my bike been cleared by customs? I thought back to the riot at the airport and said that yes it had. (Well, sort of.) And what about the baggage? Yes, that too.
Humph, he said and ran out of steam.
I chatted for a while with the other gendarmes, in particular with a large woman who slapped me on the shoulder and laughed at everything I said. The officer looked slightly annoyed at that. How can he be expected to do his job of extortion with all that “Hail good fellow, well met” bonhomie going on? He flicked his hand at me in defeat and told me to move on.
When it comes to the police inside the towns I’m still feeling my way. Ali was at first pretty convinced that it was necessary for me to register with the police in each town. On my final afternoon in Coyah he was even going to write down a set of flowery sentences to be used in dealing with the police. But when I saw him he said that he’d changed his mind. He was lying on his bed trying to take a nap and he thought to himself, “Why is it necessary for Douglas to report to the police?” Why, as he explained it, should I go out of my way looking for trouble?
It made perfect sense to me and was the advice I wanted to hear, particularly after the circus of trying to register in Coyah. So when I left Coyah I didn’t bother going back to the Commissariat at 8:00 as had been arranged. I feel it was the right thing to do. Things don’t happen early in Guinea and I don’t think the Commissariat would even have been open. If I’d gone there I’d still be there waiting for them to find the ledger, find a pen, and then complete the upward spiral of rank.
In Mambiya the local mayor was produced and a big show was made about my ‘papers’ and identity card (my expired Ontario driver’s license) but I was asked to produce neither. My word that I had such documents was enough and the mayor seemed relieved that he wasn’t going to be required to do anything. He was, he told me, a very busy man.
And here in Kindia I doubt I’ll do anything at all. I was not required to leave an identity card at reception and no one has said anything about going to the local Commissariat. I’m certainly not going to suggest it. I will, as Ali suggested, wait for them to find me. And if they don’t find me that’s even better. People seem content to believe that somewhere in Guinea there is a vast machine of permits and papers and that for me to have gotten even this far into Guinea I must have been thoroughly vetted and all the relevant documents submitted to the proper authorities whoever they might be.
Where there is doubt I appear to be protected by this bizarre aura surrounding the concept of tourism. I still hear the word quite often on the street and it’s said with a knowing nod, as if it’s something quite special. I don’t think many people have a clear idea about what tourism is but they appear to view tourists as somewhat akin to an infant, something helpless and newborn, unable to fend for itself.
As far as the rest of my journey through Guinea goes I’m still thinking in terms of going slowly and even reducing the number of regions I’ll visit. I suppose the main reason for this is my mood. I find that when I spread out my map of Guinea and look at all the roads, instead of getting excited which is my usual response I just feel tired. But I am enjoying my time in each of these towns, even Kindia though as yet I haven’t had the chance to go exploring.
Circumstances also are conspiring to keep my travels limited. The Forest Region will probably remain unsafe. The BBC reported yesterday the comments of a group of nuns who had left the Forest Region and just arrived in Conakry. They reported that hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced by the fighting and that there was a serious risk of famine and massacres. The mood of the story was very pessimistic leaving me with the impression that the situation there was getting out of control. The nuns reported many people killed and that many thousands of the Sierra Leonian refugees seeing no other option were actually going back into Sierra Leone. It’s unlikely the rebels will welcome them with open arms. But with no relief coming into the camps and no crops being harvested it was a case of a choice between two evils.
And it appears the rumours I’d dismissed in Conakry about rebels approaching Kindia had some basis in fact. There is a large waterfall near Kindia called La Voile de la Mariee (where all the tourists are expected to go). I planned on stopping there and spending the night on my way to Mamou but people in Kindia say that’s not possible. The falls are several kilometres off the main road towards the Sierra Leone border and there were rebel attacks nearby. It was possible to visit the falls during the day but no one is allowed to spend the night and the hotel there isn’t functioning anyway. To camp they say would be very dangerous and not just because of the rebels but because their presence has created a certain lawlessness and local people in border areas are turning to banditry.
When I arrived in Kindia I got firsthand evidence of banditry in Guinea and from a surprising source – two Belgian women just completing a cycling trip in Guinea. (Actually I got the impression that they weren’t so much completing their journey as abandoning it.)
I was sitting in the shade at a gas station having a cold Coke when a bush taxi drove up to get gas. I was surprised to see two white faces in the back seat and even more surprised to see two dismantled bicycles on the roof. They were equally surprised to see me and emerged looking a little worse for wear. They obviously wanted to dump a hundred horror stories on my head but they didn’t want to discourage me. Instead they dropped hints.
“Guinea is a very strange country,” one of them said.
They mentioned some other West African countries they’d visited like Ghana, Benin and the Ivory Coast, all of which they’d loved. But Guinea…
We didn’t have much time to talk but they did tell me a couple of things. For one thing they said that the roads were extremely bad, so bad and steep that they were reduced quite often to pushing their bicycles. They mentioned one time pushing their bikes from an elevation of fifty meters to a thousand meters. One of the women looked at my grossly overloaded bike wanting to say something but she held her tongue.
I didn’t take this warning too seriously since I suspected they had a different type of bicycle, more of a road bike. In my experience a fully loaded touring bike is actually much more difficult to push than to ride. Even the hills I’d climbed to get to Kindia were too steep for me to have pushed my bike up them. But the gearing ratio is such that I could ride up all of them without even getting out of the seat. For it to have been easier for them to push their bikes than ride them they must not have had a proper gear ratio for off pavement riding. I smugly assumed that there wasn’t a road out there that I couldn’t ride up. If Guinea had such a road I wanted to see it.
Their other story was much more serious. They asked me if I planned on cycling along the coast. I said that I’d thought of cycling along the coast and then looping up into the Fouta Djalon but at the last minute had changed my mind. Ironically this is the route they had followed and wished they hadn’t. They had been attacked and robbed there. There wasn’t time to get the whole story unfortunately since their taxi was ready to leave but they said it had been a very serious attack and the men had been armed.
The fact that they had been robbed on the coast did not mean that I would have been robbed if I’d gone there nor did it mean the coast was more dangerous than anywhere else. But such a story would have given anyone pause. These two women represented as far as I was aware 100% of the tourist population, excluding me. So 100% of the tourists in Guinea had been robbed in a serious incident. Not a comforting statistic.
This incident represented for me something of a worst case scenario. It’s possible to protect yourself against pickpockets and sneak thieves. It’s even possible to fight back against an unarmed robber or two. But what can you do in the face of armed men in the middle of nowhere? You can hide your money and valuables as carefully as you like but if they take everything it doesn’t do you any good. It’s not like they won’t know about money belts. And hiding money deep in a concealed pocket of a pannier bag does no good if they take the whole bag.
It was actually this aspect of their story which intrigued me most and I wished there had been more time to talk to them. Even after they were robbed they continued their journey so obviously the bandits didn’t get everything. I have to wonder why. If I were to rob a cycling tourist I imagine I’d take everything including the bike. The crime has been committed. You might as well take everything they’ve got. Enough people in Guinea have admired my sneakers that I feel sure that if I was the victim of an armed robbery I’d not only be walking back to Conakry but walking barefoot.
My own experiences cycling have so far been so utterly different from that of the Belgian women that meeting them has also confirmed the rightness of my growing inclination to move really slowly. I don’t think I’m particularly superstitious but I do find I look for omens these days and I like to keep my ear to the ground to see what the country wants me to do. “Why go looking for trouble?” asked Ali. Why indeed? And to stack against their story of the robbery I’ve got a little experience of my own, a small one but in its way a powerful omen.
It occurred yesterday morning, not long into my day of cycling from Mambiya to Kindia. The day began early after a night of surprisingly deep and undisturbed sleep. In Guinea, particularly after a day of cycling, I’ve been experiencing a profound rest that goes right to my bones, making my limbs feel encased in lead. It takes time to shake this sleep but when I do I feel awake and alive.
I found the small shack that served as a toilet and accidentally ripped the wooden frame right off the sheet metal door. I tried to fix it but the wood was so rotten it just crumbled in my hands.
Someone heard me moving around in my room and packing and must have sent off runners because both Waterfall Boy and the resident Sierra Leonian refugee were clamouring at my door before I’d even come fully awake.
I shouldn’t, I know, be so flip about these refugees from Sierra Leone who have endured so much but it’s a difficult thing to absorb. This man in Mambiya barely finished shaking my hand before announcing apropos of nothing that his mother, father, and both his children had been killed and his house burned to the ground, forcing him to flee.
“By whom?” I asked.
“By the rebels.”
“Why did they do it? Why did they kill women and children?”
“For no reason,” he replied. “They’re rebels.”
I’d heard the same story a dozen times already and it always led up to a plea for help. They want me to wave the magic wand they think I possess and transport them to a happier and better place. But of course there is little I can do.
I covered the 4 kilometres to the Carrefoure very quickly but immediately afterwards the road began to climb and despite the early morning temperatures the sweat began to soak my shirt and pants. The road levelled off at the top of a ridge and then wound through a series of pretty little places rising and falling over the hills. Families were out in the cooking areas huddled over the kitchen pots and called out the customary greetings as I passed.
I kept my eyes open for a convenient place to stop and have my breakfast and found it in a small bamboo bench under a shady tree. I pulled over with great anticipation and assembled what was easily the greatest banana and margarine sandwich ever made. That’s one of the side-benefits of a cycling journey. Appetites get sharpened and simply eating and drinking can feel like the ultimate in pleasure.
After my sandwich I cycled even slower if that was possible and waved to all the children and returned greetings like a conquering hero in a parade. Then, not too far in the distance I saw a massive tree rising up into the air. It towered over everything around it, sending out a mammoth round canopy of branches and leaves, perfectly circular, a dome of vegetation a hundred feet high at least.
It was that most classic of jungle images, of African images, a baobab tree, what they call here a Conde tree. I’d only ever seen trees like that in pictures and movies. What springs to mind is the scene in “Apocalypse Now” when Chef decides to leave the boat and go into the jungle and get some mangoes. He and Martin Sheen’s character walk through the jungle and at one point have to physically climb up and over the massive roots of a baobab tree, 5-foot curtains of rock hard wood.
This tree was exactly like that and I got off my bike to examine it more closely. The root closest to the road stood at least five feet high and was about a foot thick where it disappeared into the ground. Including the section that was underground this root could have been anywhere around 10-15 feet high. I couldn’t even guess at its length. To support the immensity of branches and trunks above me, most thicker than a family car, they’d have to go very deep indeed.
I clambered over this root to find on the other side a maze of such roots looping and curving around, some of them falling back towards the main trunk and then arcing off to trace beautiful circles. Families from the nearby huts came over to watch with interest and amusement as I walked around the tree, running my hands along its surface and peering into the deep tubes created by the turning twisting roots. I thought that such places would be ideal for animal and even human burroughs. I could see myself curling up inside one of these loops, totally encircled by the massively strong arms of what I was calling in my mind a Grandfather Tree.
As if reading my mind one of the little girls took me by the hand and led me over to the far side of the tree. Walking around it was like walking around a house. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to show me until she urged me to look over one of the roots and into the curved space hidden from view. I looked over and saw a litter of about fifteen puppies. I reached in and they clamoured around unsteadily, whimpering and trying to suck on my fingers.