Thursday, January 18 7:39 a.m. Dalaba
The dreaded cold that everyone warned me about has so far turned out to be more myth than fact. I find it quite mild this morning. Mamou felt much colder. Of course that could be just a question of the difference between a cold bucket bath and an actual hot water shower. And the Tangama Hotel is based on courtyards with high walls. Perhaps heat has somehow been trapped and contained while below me in Dalaba proper everyone is chipping ice off the windshields.
I almost didn’t leave Mamou yesterday morning even though I was fully packed and prepared. I had no particular reason to stay but had this nagging sensation that I wasn’t done with Mamou or Mamou wasn’t done with me. That sensation was somewhat confirmed by the young “Directeur du Jardin D’enfants,” Francis Mamy, who seemed heartbroken to see me go. He rushed off to write down his address for me and pleaded for mine. The school was just getting ready for another day and dozens of the two foot high munchkins with their bright green and yellow uniforms surrounded me and blocked the narrow passage through the gate. Their school was dedicated in name to a foreigner named Pierre Blouquet (perhaps funded by him as well). Every time I stuck my head around the corner when school was in session class was disrupted as the kids broke into a loud chant of “Pierre Blouquet, Pierre Blouquet, Pierre Blouquet.”
The plan was to take two days to cycle the fifty to sixty kilometres to Dalaba, stopping off at Bouliwel on the way. I had been told there was a small hotel at Bouliwel and that after Bouliwel the road “steepens.” I’m never quite sure what words mean in relation to Guinea but the casual tone of “steepens” made me nervous, particularly since Dalaba sits at an altitude of 1200 meters and Mamou was at about 690. These Fouta Djalon mountains may not be very high in absolute terms but I have noticed that Guineans are rather fond of steep grades. Why get to the top of a ridge using six kilometres of asphalt when you can make it steeper and use only three? Certainly a couple of short, sharp gradients I’ve encountered make me think that perhaps the two Belgian cyclists had good reason to push their bikes from time to time.
During the stretch from Mamou to Bouliwel I was taken by a fit of near euphoria a common side effect of cycling I find. (Endorphines maybe?) The road went up and down but very gradually and I stayed at an almost constant altitude of 690 meters. It was quite cold and I felt it through my t shirt but it invigorated me and I returned the bonjours and ondjaaramas (Fula for ‘How are you?’) with gusto.
The one barrage at the intersection with the road leading to Timbo and Dabola (not to be confused with Dalaba) was a matter of a wave and the instructions that Dalaba was “tout droite” and I should have courage. Not long after that I crossed a small stream that was part of the headwaters of the Senegal River. I stopped to pour out a bit of water from a bike bottle to send the few ounces off on a thousand kilometre journey to the ocean.
I had high hopes for Bouliwel as I approached it. From the other side of the valley, high up, I could see it all laid out and thought it an attractive place. The road raced down into Bouliwel and I coasted in at over fifty km/hr which feels like warp speed on a loaded touring bike. But once inside Bouliwel it lost whatever appeal it had from afar. There was an intersection (the other end of a loop of road that went Mamou Timbo Bouliwel) and clustered there was a sad little collection of stalls selling fly covered fish and canned tomato paste. I cycled around looking in vain for pots of bubbling rice and “feh de manioc.” I couldn’t even find the ubiquitous bread. I inquired after it and even threw in a half hearted question about a cafe au lait. None of this let alone a hotel existed in Bouliwel. I could have gone to be hypnotized by the sous prefect or his local representative and set up my tent but I don’t think I’d have been able to find him. And if I did I couldn’t imagine how I would occupy my time in Bouliwel. I wasn’t getting good vibes.
I hesitated for a few minutes while munching on the one food source I could find bananas. It was only twenty kilometres to Dalaba but it was now the hottest part of the day and this is when the road was supposed to “steepen.” But I already knew I’d be cycling on. Even if the twenty kilometres were difficult I felt Dalaba would make up for it. At least I knew for sure a hotel of some variety, and probably a very nice one, was waiting for me.
As if mocking me the road about a kilometre beyond Bouliwel didn’t just steepen but went vertical. The switchback curve was so tight they didn’t even use asphalt but laid down blocks of concrete as if building steps, not a road. But this section lasted only a couple hundred meters before the road went back to a steep but sane pitch.
From that point I climbed almost steadily for the entire twenty kilometres with the final ridge before the Dalaba valley as steep and heart pounding as that first curve. The sun beat down the entire time and I had to stop often to wipe the stinging sweat from my eyes. I kept expecting the landscape to suddenly change, become more rugged and beautiful but it never did. Even Dalaba at first glance was a disappointment. The valley was pretty and the large mosque in its nest of conifer trees was striking but it didn’t live up to the expectations the tourism blurbs had built up. In my mind I pictured something like the Swiss Alps.
My disappointment didn’t last long, however. After settling into my room at the Tangama Hotel I rode the kilometre and a half back into Dalaba proper and went shopping. The roads around the mosque and market were just the way I like them rough and irregular which means only the most intrepid drivers take them and then at a bone jarring five km/hr. The market was small enough that I felt immediately at home and I made a social occasion out of each purchase. The market women spoke just enough French to tell me prices but had to call over men from neighbouring stalls to deal with my questions, invented just for the sake of prolonging the transaction.
“What are these exactly?”
“Ah, peanuts,” I said as if never having seen peanuts before. “They’re good to eat, are they?”
“Sure. Here, try some.”
“Very good. I’ll take one can.”
When the woman filled the can the man tsked tsked her and grabbed a handful of peanuts and topped it off to a more generous portion.
At another small booth I asked the young man where I might be able to find a meal. A look of panic came over his face and he stood on the street obviously torn between his desire to lead me to a place he knew and his need to stay by the store.
“C’est pas grave,” I told him. I can find it on my own.
And to my surprise I could. I’ve been learning more and more. I’ve certainly learned that following signs that say “restaurant” is a waste of time. I don’t know what they think “restaurant” means in small town Guinea but whatever it is it has nothing to do with food. I tried the strategy I’d learned at the famous carrefoure in Mambiya and looked for pots but this time that didn’t work as I saw no pots at all in the market. Then a breeze picked up and I caught a whiff of wood smoke. Where your eyes fail, follow your nose. I tracked the smell to the end of the market and around the corner and found the source of the smoke a tiny place that had just finished a huge vat of rice and my staple “feh de manioc.” For the first time I managed to finish the entire portion they served me. The fifty-seven kilometres from Mamou to Dalaba had built up a considerable food and liquid deficit in my body. And it helped I think that both the rice and manioc sauce were served piping hot. (This feh de manioc tastes good but it does have an unfortunate resemblance to some very nasty substances green baby vomit is one of the nicer comparisons I’ve heard.)
My neighbor at the Tangama is a nice surprise. His name is Jason. He’s about my age, from Britain, and on a week’s R&R from his job with Oxfam. When back in early January I heard a story of 20,000 refugees being discovered living in dismal conditions in a single school, Jason was part of the group that discovered them.
We found common ground in my MSR cookstove (Jason had had an earlier model MSR stove years ago and had fond memories of its versatility and jet engine roar. “It could burn anything from diesel to camel piss,” he said.) and in my mountain bike. For him what I’m doing, just traipsing around freely with no meetings, no obligations, and no hassles is very attractive. He yearns for two free months where he could go to East Africa and climb Kilimanjaro and Meru. In a classic case of the grass being greener I envy him his job, his being part of a large organization doing meaningful work.
We sat over a beer in the Tangama’s bar listening to jazz till after 10:00 p.m., a late night for both of us in Guinea. We compared travel experiences. I told him about trekking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal and he raved about his weeks getting certified and then scuba diving in the crystal clear waters off the Philippine island of Cebu. We got out maps of Guinea and I fed off his energy and tentatively threw my net a bit wider again and thought about my original plans to cycle to Kankan in the east and loop back to Conakry through Nzerekore and Faranah.
Meeting Jason is very propitious from that point of view because he is the first reliable source of information I’ve come across about the conditions in the east and the Forest Region. Unfortunately he told me that the area around Guekedou and Macenta and the chunk of land they call the Parrot’s Beak (because of the way it juts into Sierra Leone) is totally off limits because of the danger. He said that the army likely wouldn’t allow me to go there anyway. (And I have no reason to doubt him. The latest BBC report contained witness reports about severed heads of suspected rebels which had been placed in strategic positions around Guekedou.) But there is no reason I couldn’t cycle to Kankan and see what happens from there.