Wednesday, January 24 7:00 a.m.
I realize looking back that I didn’t write very much in Dalaba even though I was there for six nights. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that my rhythm was disrupted. I was accustomed to going to bed fairly early, waking up early (and well rested), then carving out a couple morning hours for writing. But the Tangama Hotel and the sudden influx of good company meant staying up later and talking. I still got up early (because for some reason I had trouble sleeping) and fired up my stove for writing coffee as usual but Jason was also an early riser and after breakfast at the Tangama he would join me outside my room and we would naturally get to talking and entire days passed that way. And finally I suppose I didn’t write much because our conversations and my experiences in Dalaba had little to do with being in Guinea. We continued our discussion of cycling and camping gear and the rest of the time we talked about Jason’s experiences around the world with first the UNHCR and then MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and OXFAM.
It was clear that Jason had come up to Dalaba for a break from the stress of his work and didn’t really want to talk about it. I respected that and didn’t grill him but on our walk to the Gariya waterfalls I did ask him how he got started in this work.
It’s a topic that interests me greatly whether people choose their lives deliberately or whether they drift into them by chance. I’ve found there is a tendency in people to drift but then in telling the story of their lives they tell it as if everything unfolded according to a deliberate plan. And being a continual doubter and second guesser and a person who always looks back with regret (a typical person from my generation I find) I have a personal interest in hearing how people leading what appear to be meaningful and satisfying lives view it themselves.
He got started on his current path back in 1992. He was teaching English in Hong Kong (a less than meaningful experience as I can attest) and one day he asked himself what he thought he was doing with his life. What he called his “humanitarian impulses” took over and he dropped off his resume at a variety of relief agencies who were working in the refugee camps of what were called the Vietnamese boat people, then a big problem in Hong Kong. A few weeks later he got a call from the UNHCR and found himself one of many young people working in the camps.
Jason calls it being in the right place at the right time in the sense that there was a large emergency requiring a lot of people quickly and experience wasn’t a big factor. Now he says things have changed and relief work has gotten much more professional and organized and it would be complicated to follow his path. But Jason also had the skills and personality for the work. And after his time with the UNHCR he decided to specialize in water (a key issue in refugee camps), completed a master’s degree in that field, and has since been involved in many of the emergencies around the world that for most of us are just headlines and CNN special reports. It makes for amusing conversation.
We were sitting in my favorite ‘feh de manioc’ place in the Dalaba market when Jason started a story with, “When I was digging trenches at a Serbian refugee camp with French NATO forces…” Coming from anyone else it would sound incredibly pretentious and I had to laugh. For Jason it’s an occupational hazard because he can’t join in a conversation or tell any story without saying things like that. “Last year during the flooding in Mozambique… ” Any group of people on the road is going to eventually start trading toilet tales, scorpion and snake stories, and weather stories but in Jason’s case they’re complicated by “Polasario rebels” and “French NATO forces.”
Jason and I left Dalaba the same morning, me on my bike to Ditinn and he by ‘taxi brousse’ to Mamou and then Conakry. At least that was the plan. The last I saw of him he was still in the Dalaba market area surrounded by a group of perhaps fifty shouting men yelling and arguing about the things they always yell and argue about, things that I can never understand. From my Western point of view it was simple enough: one passenger with one backpack wanting transportation to Mamou. But every time the passenger is a foreigner it opens up a vast pit of issues and problems.
In a perverse way I was glad to see that these things happen not just to me but also someone like Jason who has experience all around the world in very hairy and complex situations. He’d already been in the market for over an hour with several potential seats in taxis appearing, then vanishing. He’d even walked down to the “goudron” to see if he could hitch a ride with a passing MSF truck. (They were currently conducting a massive yellow fever vaccination effort and had borrowed every vehicle they could find and slapped an MSF sticker on it. Cycling into Dalaba I’d been passed by convoys of up to fifteen MSF vehicles.) But the roads were empty. He’d come back and was sitting out front of a small cafe with his pack when I saw him. We chatted a bit and suddenly there was another man in front of him jingling car keys. He asked if Jason was looking for transportation to Mamou. The tone of the exchange, as always, was urgent. There is space in his taxi. But we have to go now, right now, let’s go, hurry.
Jason tried to find out first how much this ride would cost and when he was leaving. The price was acceptable and he was leaving right away. “Let’s go, go, go, go!”
I said goodbye to Jason again and went to a shop to stock up on hot chocolate, coffee, cheese, and spaghetti (I already had my other three essentials bread, bananas, and kerosene). When I finished I emerged to see the huge crowd that had gathered around Jason and the open trunk of the car containing his backpack.
“We have a ‘situation,'” Jason said to me, using his favorite Guinean French expression.
I’d gotten so relaxed in Dalaba that I momentarily forget where I was and took out my camera to take a picture of Jason and his ‘situation.’ Unfortunately I didn’t have a young Guinean woman in blue jeans to vouch for me and there was instant bedlam. Four men rushed at me shouting and waving their arms. The leader, a man in a white coat, was blowing a whistle as loud as he could while waving his arms at me and pointing at the camera.
Now we had two mobs, one around Jason and his backpack (which had been hauled out of the trunk of the car and was being carried to another car leaving Jason little choice but to follow) and one converging on me. I had to assume that Jason’s mob was trying to help him while mine was angry and on the verge of attacking me but it was hard to tell the difference. The shouting and angry cries and hands raised as if to strike a blow were the same in both.
The difference was that my mob had a whistle-blowing leader who planted himself right in front of me and kept blowing on the whistle till I wanted to ram it down his throat. I understood that Guineans didn’t like cameras and I had been wrong (not to mention stupid) to produce mine in public like that but all this whistle-blowing seemed a bit of overkill. I tried (as politely as I could manage) to explain this to him but he dismissed me with a flip of his hand and rudely told me to “bouge.”
I found the “bouge” and the hand flip equally objectionable but there was nothing to be done about either. One does not argue with a mob. I quickly put my camera away and cycled out of the crowd calling out a final goodbye to Jason as I passed. He raised his hand in farewell and then was lost in the swirling mass of people.