Thursday, January 11 12:00 Noon
For the first night in my tent in Guinea (lying on top of it in Mambiya doesn’t count) it was pretty successful. I didn’t sleep the whole night through but didn’t mind drifting in and out of sleep as I searched for comfortable positions. Each time I awoke I could listen to the night sounds. The ground where I’d pitched my tent was covered in dry leaves and the various lizards that scurried through them sounded like elephants.
The two doctors at the hospital and some of the other staff also lived at the hospital but for some reason they gave me a wide berth and I didn’t see much of them in the evening. At night I didn’t hear a sound to indicate they were around.
It got fairly cold after midnight and I was glad to have my sleeping bag. Without it I don’t think I could have slept. I checked the thermometer on my watch around 3:00 and it read seventeen degrees.
I planned only on cycling the twenty-five kilometres to Linsan and took my time when I woke up. I made oatmeal and coffee and checked over the bike. Even so it was barely 8:00 when I set off down the road to begin the morning’s round of bonjours and ca vas. One of the doctors was around and he shook my hand vigorously saying “merci” over and over again as if by camping in his backyard I’d done him a huge favor. I don’t feel as if I’ve properly thanked anyone in Guinea who has been kind to me. I say “thank you” but instead of accepting my thanks and saying “you’re welcome” or “it was nothing” or “think nothing of it” they one-up me and say, “No, thank YOU.” I know it’s just the custom here but I always end up feeling slightly ridiculous like I’m the straight man in a vaudeville act.
“No, thank YOU.”
“No, no, no, thank YOU.”
“No, no, no, no, thank YOU.”
The presence or absence of the sun has a profound influence on my impressions of roadside Guinea. In the full heat of afternoon I find it all a bit much. But in the cool morning with a red sun just visible over the horizon I enjoy myself immensely as I cycle along. Certainly the never ending salutations and civilities have something to do with it but it’s also the very traditional lifestyle evident in the houses and villages through which I pass.
If I saw a photograph of any of these places and was told it was a village two hundred miles from any road I’d believe it. This has come as something of a surprise. I expected, as I think anyone would, that the towns and houses on the road would be quite urban and that as you moved away from the road you’d encounter villages in a more traditional style. But not fifteen feet on either side of the tarmac are picture perfect scenes I may have seen in countless documentaries on Africa. The huts are made of mud with thatch roofing. There are cooking pots here and there perched on three stones over small wood fires. Women stand in circles around tall pestles and slam wooden sticks into them in rhythm. It could all very well be a film except that upon seeing me the women invariably stop pounding, laugh, wave, and call out “bonjour.” Many call out “fote” (white man) but it doesn’t have the negative and labelling effect that it has in other countries. It’s said like a personal name and with what sounds to my ears like affection. Sometimes they put an “Ah” in front of it. “Ah fote,” they say with a falling intonation as if shaking their heads at the latest mischief their favorite pet has gotten up to. “Ah fote, now you’re riding a bicycle. What will you come up with next?”
Not far out of Sogueta the road started to go down very steeply into a river valley. The temptation on these descents is to never touch the brakes and roar through the hairpin turns. But I like to draw them out as long as possible. I know I’ll be at the bottom soon enough and facing the long climb back up the other side. And it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. A loaded touring bike is not at all the same as a normal bike with all its manoeuvrability. The weight carries a lot of inertia and you can’t change direction suddenly. Adjustments to the handlebars have to be done smoothly or you’ll soon be weaving all over the road, over correcting each time till you find yourself with the choice between smashing into the mountain or going over the cliff.
These thoughts were more appropriate than I knew because not long into the descent I came across a series of cut branches on the road, a signal that there was a broken down vehicle ahead. One look at the smashed up truck was enough to tell me what happened and the driver confirmed it.
His brakes had failed, he told me, and he was coming down the road out of control. He had a choice. He could either deliberately smash the truck into the mountainside or go off the cliff. It was an easy choice to make and he waited till he reached a spot with a bit of a ditch and some thick jungle and drove straight into it. The truck had finally come to a stop against a tree which had smashed the front end and the windshield. From the looks of the repair work going on the front axle had also been damaged. It was a real mess and I felt sorry for these men as I did for all the Guineans I saw sitting forlornly at the side of the road, empty sardine tins and engine parts strewn around them.
There were two more major wrecks on that one hill. One of them was quite recent with smoke still coming out of a flipped over transport. A man was beside it comfortably installed in a hammock which he’d strung between the truck and a tree. I called out a sympathetic word or two and he just raised his arms and eyebrows as if to say, “Hey, what are you gonna do?”
I cycled very slowly up the other side acting the Pied Piper to first a group of sheep who fell in behind me at the trot and then a group of women carrying firewood who picked up their pace to see if they could keep up. I stopped often to admire the view which opened up behind me, much to the amusement of the various passengers riding on top of passing trucks.
“Etes vous fatiguez?” called out one.
I shook my head no.
“Il faut commencer,” he shouted back making pedalling motions with his hands.
Another man, obviously a sports fan, wanted to know if I was a participant in the Paris Dakar rally which was currently under way (a participant I gather who has gone considerably astray and lost his engine to boot).
I more than reclaimed all the altitude I lost going down into the valley and the road flattened out for a final easy coast into Linsan. I haven’t seen the town yet, having stopped at the Hotel Mariador on my way in, but from a distance it looks extensive.
The Hotel Mariador is a luxurious place and quite a jolt after my experiences of the past couple of weeks. I rented my own little bungalow at poolside (a pool, however, with green water) for 25,000 FG (Francs Guineens). There is no electricity but if there were I could use the air conditioner, hot water heater, and even a bedside lamp. I have my own bathroom which actually has running water. I took advantage of that to wash the dirt and dust out of some clothing. There is a sign in my room announcing that ping pong is available to guests, assuming of course there are other guests out of which to choose an opponent, which as far as I can tell, there aren’t.
I wondered if the Hotel Mariador was another self bargaining hotel and hemmed and hawed, waiting, after looking at a room and then a bungalow. But they didn’t reduce the price of 25,000 for a room and 30,000 for a bungalow. I finally offered 15,000 for a room. I was surprised to see a pained and embarrassed look come over the woman’s face. I figured it was de rigueur to bargain but perhaps not at the Mariador. She eventually countered with 20,000 which I agreed to. It wasn’t the price that prompted me to bargain after all but the feeling that it was expected of me. In the end I changed my mind and offered 25,000 for a bungalow. It has a wonderful porch on which I fired up my stove to make coffee.
I find it interesting that since there is a hotel in Linsan there is no talk of mysterious sous prefects, tree toad or otherwise. So it follows that if someone decided to open a small hotel in Sogueta or Kolenten one would suddenly not have to “see” the sous prefect in order to spend the night. I’d like to try this bit of logic about hotels dictating municipal policy on a Guinean but I think it would be a lost cause. I’m sure there are enough windmills for me to tilt at in Guinea without going out of my way to invent them. “Pourquoi creer problems?” as Solomon so wisely asked.