Saturday, January 13 1:38 p.m.
The turtle lives. I moved a scant twenty kilometres down the road from Linsan before I decided to call it a day. I thought I was in Konkoure, the only town on my map between Linsan and Mamou, but in fact I’m in Tamagaly. (Though of course that depends on who you ask and how you ask. I could be in ten different places.)
I decided to stop here because of a variety of circumstances. For one thing I just like the look of the place. It’s a large strip like truck stop with a village wrapped around it. I’m pretty sure it was a village first, and a village with a fairly nice setting. It’s ringed by low mountains (or high hills) to the north and is pleasantly set on rolling ground so that one gets a feel for what the place looks like. As you walk around you can see village huts perched on high bits of ground.
The truck stop portion developed with the road. Tamagaly apparently is the perfect distance on this road for people to stop and break their journeys. Why that is and why they wouldn’t just drive the remaining thirty kilometres to Mamou or the ten kilometres to Konkoure (where the sous prefect resides) I don’t know. It also appears to be part of a pattern. In explaining where I actually was a local man told me it’s just like Linsan and Sogueta. The sous prefect lives in Sogueta but it’s a sleepy place and all the action is in Linsan. And in this neck of the woods the sous prefect is in Konkoure but the action is in Tamagaly. It’s a 24 hour a day place and they’re quite proud of that.
When I arrived I stopped at the Shell station at the edge of town where I met a couple of friendly well-spoken men. Ibrahim is the manager of the station. The other fellow is the secretary which appears to be the sous prefect’s representative here. By meeting him I’d ipso facto completed all the formalities necessary to spend the night and I sounded them out about “logement,” “chambres,” “un place pour dormir.” They said that lodging was easily available and I decided to stay here for the day and night.
These gas stations (Elf and Shell) have become an interesting part of my experience here. In Ethiopia I learned to go to the pharmacy and the local school to meet men who spoke English, were eager to meet foreigners and who could help me accomplish the little things I needed to do. But here it’s the gas stations. They’re the one place that has electricity when no one else does (hence cold drinks and maybe even yoghurt). And they can be relied on to have a few plastic chairs, a table and sometimes even a shade umbrella. It’s a little haven where a wandering foreigner can sit down in relative comfort with a bit of space and gather his wits. I did a tour of the dozens of little shops, cafes, and restaurants that make up the town and there wasn’t a single proper table in the bunch.
When the logement was mentioned I’d hoped we could settle the issue right away. I could settle into my temporary home be it house, hut, or tent and then explore the area but it hasn’t worked out that way. I don’t know why but even though this logement is out there waiting for me we couldn’t go to it. Instead my bags were put inside the gas station. The secretary had to go to Mamou to get his motorbike fixed. When he returns we’ll fix up the logement.
I spent an hour with the gas station manager. We walked the strip from one end to the other and then stopped for a cafe au lait (that’s butter on the bread and coffee in the coffee, thank you). Tamagaly really is a strange little place and I’ll probably end up glad I stopped here. The strip of shops and cafes are well stocked and well organized by Guinean standards and form almost a false front like on a Hollywood set. Immediately behind this thin band of shops is village life.
I did find, however, that I’m still totally out of step with the way things work in Guinea. I suggested the cafe au lait and though this was eleven in the morning we had trouble finding it. Ibrahim explained that everything happens here at night. At night the street is packed with vehicles from one end to the other and there are people (and presumably cafe au laits) everywhere. But during the day everyone was sleeping.
I’m also still having trouble with the hot middle of the afternoon part of the day. It doesn’t make sense to cycle during that time but it doesn’t make sense to do anything else either. The sun is just too damn hot. Guineans sensibly go into their huts, under a tree, or anywhere else there’s cool shade and lie down. But what’s a homeless fote to do? The one option I have is the one I’m exercising now – writing in my journal under the shade of a Shell Coca Cola umbrella.
I did manage one little exploratory ride, my first one into real back country. I didn’t go far, perhaps three kilometres, but in Guinea that’s a long way. Ten feet from the strip down a side trail and I was in a traditional village. One hundred feet and I was surrounded by a baked, lava rock wilderness. One thousand feet and I was in the “brousse,” the jungle, looking for cobras, lions, rebels, and bandits at every turn. I never did come across a village or even see one in the distance. I knew they were out there, however, because women kept appearing out of the bush carrying goods towards Tamagaly. They spoiled somewhat my delicious fantasy of jungle danger because they were very friendly and bid me cheery bon soirs. In the end it wasn’t legions of venom spitting mambas that turned me back but the intensity of the sun and the knowledge that it hardly made sense to get lost in the bush looking for a village to explore when there was a perfectly serviceable one back at the “goudron” the good road.
If, as Stephen King appears to believe, every small town has its dirty secret, I found Tamagaly’s. I went directly across the road from the Shell station and pointed my bike down one of the walking paths that run higgeldy piggeldy all around the huts. (I did the same thing when I cycled to the south because this meant I could bypass the checkpoint with all its MIU’s that stands between the Shell station and Tamagaly’s en ville district. I went past it twice with Ibrahim without a problem he just called out “tourist,” a label that even with MIU’s cancels out a lot of sins but it still annoys me to have to pass it and I avoid it when I can. I could see, however, that the MIU’s were wondering how the dumb white guy on a bike kept appearing from the east without ever going past them to the west.)
I like walking or cycling around small places like Tamagaly but I did feel a bit awkward. The huts were packed close together and the grounds around them were neatly kept with lava rock built up around nicely gravelled sections almost like front porches and front yards. The trails were foot paths and went right through these areas where women were pounding corn, roasting peanuts over small fires, or braiding each other’s hair. No one minded that I walked my bike, sometimes rode it, through what was to my mind private property. Everyone in Tamagaly did. The trails were made in such a way that you had no choice. But I still felt intrusive as I rode past and practically through the huts.
Quite often the trail would appear to dead end and I’d have to stop for some time scanning the area to pick up where the network of trails began again. I was careful to resist my natural Western tendency to head for ravines, cliffs, and small river valleys. To a Westerner these are scenic lookout points but to villagers more often than not they are convenient latrines (shit rolls down) and people don’t enjoy being surprised.
In this way I was forced to follow a path that paralleled the main road and I soon found myself directly behind the false front of the strip. I would have turned out of that area and onto the main road again but the back of the strip presented a solid face and I saw no way through. I wanted out because this area was a vast and indiscriminate garbage dump, Tamagaly’s dirty little secret. All the garbage produced by the strip was simply tossed out the back doors in wide arcs and was now threatening to drown the village huts which were still there. The contrast with the neat grounds of the huts outside the strip couldn’t have been stronger and I wondered why they didn’t do something about it, at least sweep it into a central pile. But I realized that if it was swept up into piles they would probably set fire to it just as they did in Coyah. Perhaps all those tens of thousands of plastic bags and containers were better left in this wide carpet of debris than turned into toxic fumes doing who knew what to the lungs of the villagers. (A report on the BBC today indicated that this invasion of plastic bags is a new phenomenon in West Africa and the burning of them has introduced new respiratory tract ailments to the litany of illnesses here.)
I wended my way through the garbage (the trails continued even here) shooing crowds of vultures out of my way, until I saw a glimmer of an opening and popped out onto the main road. I thought about cycling out of the far end of Tamagaly to see what was there but experience has taught me this isn’t always a wise thing to do. There could be another checkpoint there and it’s difficult to explain that you aren’t “going” anywhere, just having a look around. (“Tourist here! Stand back everybody. Tourism happening here!”) Cycling till you see a checkpoint and then turning back is an even worse idea. It looks very suspicious and is even harder to explain. Better to deal with the devil I knew and cycle back to the Shell station. The MIU’s were puzzled to see me coming from that direction but they didn’t make a stink. They did shout at me but that was only to stop me from cycling on the shoulder around the barricade. Etiquette demanded someone raise the pole and I cycle under it. When on foot I could walk around it but when on wheels I’ve got to stay on the pavement. I’m glad they didn’t know I’d gone several kilometres into the jungle behind their backs.
At the Shell station I settled into my accustomed chair after another futile attempt to get Ibrahim to define this “logement” a bit better. The problem was that I couldn’t be as forceful as I wanted and needed to be. I was their guest and couldn’t dictate terms. But even so I thought that even Ibrahim could see that anyone, not just a fote, would get a bit uncomfortable after seven hours in a gas station parking lot. I told him I had a tent, food, water, was fully self supporting and only needed a patch of ground, anything, but I wasn’t getting through. I had to wait for the secretary to get back from Mamou.
Around 6:00 Ibrahim started to feel sorry for me (or he was starting to feel the hundred daggers I’d thrown into his back with my eyes) and asked if I’d be interested in logement. (Biting back sarcastic replies, etc) The logement in question was a room at his house just across the road. I jumped at his offer and saw myself comfortably ensconced in a tiny room, master of my destiny once more. An hour later I was still “attendre.” Waiting. I was really getting upset by this point. Being a polite guest aside there comes a time when enough is enough. But I held my temper. I’d waited this long and could wait a bit longer. And who knew? Perhaps there really was a good reason for all this.
I’d given up all hope thinking I’d have to sleep in that plastic chair when Ibrahim appeared and said it was time to go. He was surprised that I wanted to retrieve my luggage from the gas station lock up. That he was surprised spoke volumes about the kind of gap of understanding that separated us. How could he not think I’d want my luggage? It contained my clothes, my sleeping sheet and bag not to mention toothbrush and flashlight and candle surely necessities even in his world. It made me wonder what he thought of me sitting there in that chair. I thought I was patiently waiting all day. But what did he think I was doing? What had happened today in his eyes?
To reach his house we followed the very same path I’d cycled. His house was a large square building with blue walls surrounded by the traditional round huts with thatch roofs. I noted that there was lots of flat ground around where I could have pitched my tent if only we’d been able to communicate. It’s not like being in a room inside his house offered any advantages. He had no running water, no electricity, and no toilet. He and his family used the toilets at the gas station as all his employees and their families did. The room he showed me was in fact several steps down from my tent in terms of comfort, cleanliness, and convenience. The corrugated tin roof had made it oven hot. The walls and floor were dirty with spiders lurking everywhere. It was dark and the steel window he slammed open threw but a dim light.
There were two hard straw mattresses on the floor and personal possessions evident everywhere. I asked Ibrahim whose room it was, worried that I’d end up having to share it with thirty-seven people. It belonged to employees at the gas station, the night shift. That is why it hadn’t been available till so late. The night shift had just woken up and gone to work thus vacating the room for me to use. (One mystery solved though it didn’t explain why Ibrahim couldn’t have told me this earlier. And of course it didn’t explain what had happened to the secretary and his logement or why all my queries about tents and camping had been steadfastly ignored.)
In the fast disappearing light I set to making the room my home. Then I sat outside the house and set up my stove to make some hot chocolate a moment I had been lusting after. The sun was setting and all around me the women at each hut had a fire going. Other women walked past with containers of water balanced on their heads. None seemed terribly surprised to see me. All smiled and said ‘bon soir.’ Those few minutes were worth all the frustrations of the long wait.
I was about to fire up my stove for a second cup when the secretary appeared. He was dressed in traditional clothes and at first I didn’t recognize him. He apologized for abandoning me but he’d been very busy in Mamou. He was here now and clearly wanted us to do something together. I was spent, exhausted and loath to leave my sanctuary now that I’d finally found it. But I couldn’t refuse. The secretary had been clearly delighted to meet me and had been looking forward all day to showing me the strip by night. And he’d gotten all dressed up. With a sigh I packed up my stove and hot chocolate and left with the secretary. I did, after all, really want to see the famous strip at night and I was hungry. But I hadn’t counted on Ibrahim who we met near the gas station. The two of them talked. It was all very complicated. The result was that Ibrahim wanted to join us. But he had a bit of work to do yet. So the secretary would take his motorbike home and meet us somewhere on the strip. Ibrahim would finish up his work. And me? “Attendre.” Back in my chair. I could have screamed. Maybe I did scream. I certainly vowed to never let a situation like this develop again while in Guinea. Cross cultural sensitivity be damned. I won’t stop trying to stay in little places that didn’t have hotels but I’ll never again give up control of my destiny. Next time once I have permission to stay I’ll just start setting up my tent. If they have a problem with that or a better suggestion then they can say something but I’m going to take the initiative.
Which isn’t to say I regret the day or the decision to stay in Tamagaly. Hanging out at a Shell station in Africa with occasional trips into the countryside may not appear soon on travel brochures but it appeals to my sense of the absurd. Much of the rhythm of daily life in Guinea is centered on the bush taxis and it was enjoyable to watch them pull in, loaded to bursting and/or tipping over, gas up and head out, pushed to get started by passengers. Army trucks came to get gas, the senior officer on board saluting everyone like crazy and paying with stacks of 10,000 FG coupons, guaranteed by the armed forces and the government. I got on a smiling and nodding acquaintance with a local boy without use of his legs who got around on one of the three wheeled hand propelled bikes I see everywhere. I learned through him that these special bikes were not made in Guinea but were made in France and distributed free of charge by the French embassy. A man with a pet bird on his arm kept me company for a while. Another mysterious individual handed me a note written on the tin foil paper of a cigarette package. In the note he said that he had a chimpanzee for sale if I was interested. I was not. And the trip to see the strip at night though accomplished in a haze of fatigue was a fitting cap to the day.
Ibrahim and I walked in together in the pitch black when he was finished with his work. I’d had rice with manioc sauce that afternoon and now wanted something different potatoes perhaps. Ibrahim came through finally and he and I and the secretary who joined us after a while found a place that made a wonderful Guinean version of potato salad to which we added lots of “brochettes,” skewers of roasted meat.
The secretary was eager to show me around and we went into a local bar for a drink, watched a large wedding celebration, toured a couple of dance bars and even went to the local video house to see what was playing. The feature that night was a Chinese martial arts movie and it was a big draw. The room could hold more than two hundred people and it was almost full already though the movie hadn’t started yet. The front half of the room was filled with children enthralled by the Guinean music videos playing on the single flickering TV screen. The secretary wanted to know what I thought of the music videos but there was no way I could have expressed my true reaction. I’d seen Guinean music videos before and the dancing which I’d labelled “choo choo train” dancing usually sent me into fits of giggles.