Friday, January 26 8:53 a.m. Pita
The last day and a half has been a series of mysteries solved, discoveries made, and lessons learned.
The first mystery was why “feh de manioc” was a bright slimy green while manioc itself is white. This had been bothering me since the first day in Linsan when the pot lid was lifted to reveal the disgusting but tasty goo inside. Even the flavor didn’t seem right. Cooked manioc was somewhat tasteless while raw manioc had a chalky kind of flavor. “Feh de manioc” meanwhile tasted to me a bit like peanuts. Whatever its actual taste (my palate is not very good) it at least does have a flavour. I solved the mystery in Ditinn. I stepped outside the hotel to go in search of a meal when I saw a young man sitting on a bench turning the handle of a big grinder. Into the mouth of the grinder he was stuffing handfuls of green leaves which he pulled out of a large white bucket. Out of the other end of the grinder came bright green pellets of mushed leaves.
The owner of the hotel was sitting nearby and he answered the question in my eyes.
“Feh de manioc,” he said while pointing at the bowl of green pellets.
That explained two things. “Feh de manioc” was green because it was made with the leaves of the manioc plant, not the roots. And I guessed that it also explained the name. The “feh” which still sounded to my ears like an expression of disgust probably wasn’t ‘feh’ at all but an unusual pronunciation of the French word “fueilles” which of course means “leaves.” Leaves of the manioc plant.
The next mystery solved concerned the epic route I followed to get from Ditinn to Pita. The route took me from Ditinn down a back road to Kabali where I was to turn left and follow a second road which eventually joined up with the “goudron” at a town called Bomboli (a name which amused me greatly). This second road was marked on my map with a bright yellow line bordered with black. It looked to be a very substantial kind of road and the mystery was that no one knew anything about it.
The first person I questioned was a PCV in Dalaba named Tory. He had been in Guinea for a long time but when I pointed out on my map how I planned to cycle he said he doubted that road existed. In Ditinn I met another PVC named Mike. He’d been in Ditinn for a year and a half (“5 months to go!”) and talked about cycling over that entire region just west of the Fouta Djalon. But that Yellow Brick Road to Bamboli?
“I’ve never even heard of anyone going that way,” he said.
“How could that be?” I thought. It looked to be the obvious way to get to Pita and looked on my map to be a better road than the one I had followed to Ditinn.
Mike had a Guinean friend with him named Moustapha. Moustapha at least knew about this road but his information didn’t appear correct to me either. He said it was a very bad road. He held his hand six inches apart to indicate how narrow the bridges across the rivers were. This made no sense to me especially since he also talked about large trucks going down the road. How would such trucks cross bridges only six inches wide? With that discrepancy I threw out his advice, took my own counsel, and early the next morning loaded up my bike. (It’s just like a horse,” said the hotel owner as he watched me attach my pannier bags) and set off for the amusing Bomboli.
It was market day in Ditinn and the road to Kabali was full of people (full by sparsely populated Guinean standards) heading in that direction. The land continued flat and the road was wide and smooth and I zoomed along keeping a sharp eye open for lions crouching in the bush. (There are no lions but a cyclist’s mind tends to wander a bit.) I passed a few isolated family compounds and one or two burned out and roofless cement block houses, remnants of the French colonial era.
I reached Kabali with the sun still low in the sky and under the influence of the cool air I thought it a pleasant, picturesque place. At the intersection with my Yellow Brick Road I stopped to read the faded names and distances written on a cement block planted right in the center.
Something wasn’t quite right. Rather than a T intersection as indicated on my map the road I was on more or less continued on in the same direction, just curved off to the right. And in another direction looking much like all the pathways in Kabali village was what everyone assured me was the road to the amusing Bomboli. If anything it looked like the road sign had been switched. But since it was a solid block of concrete embedded in the ground that was unlikely. Such a Halloween prank would have required earth movers and cranes.
The road presented its first challenge almost instantly. It forked the first of many, many forks. I dealt with this first fork as I did with all the ones that followed in bewildering succession. I guessed. First I chose the path that appeared to be the most used. Failing that I chose the one that went in a more or less westerly direction. When neither condition fit I just flipped a mental coin. It wasn’t a bad strategy as things turned out. Many of the forks weren’t true forks but simply a point where the road split to go around a small village or a family compound a bush by pass as it were. Before I’d even have a chance to wonder if I’d chosen wisely the road I hadn’t taken would appear off to the right or left and veer back and rejoin the one I was on. Other times the apparent fork was simply a point where an impassable quagmire had developed during the rainy season and what traffic there was had detoured around it, creating a new road. Again which I chose made no difference. The rare times when I think the fork represented a brand new road going who knew where, my strategy of going west proved successful. I figured I had to eventually hit the “goudron” which blocked any passage to the west. I wasn’t even that worried about getting lost. The distances were not that large and no matter what happened there was no chance of getting lost in wilderness. There were “roads” and villages and towns all around. I may not end up where I wanted to be but I’d end up somewhere.
And the road didn’t lend itself to a worried state of mind it was too much fun. I think the last time a vehicle with four wheels had gone down it was a long time ago. The last time it had been graded was even further back in memory and the rains had played havoc with its surface. But it was flat and I motored along at twenty km/hr threading my way through narrow paths having to choose in split seconds which way to go.
The first bridge I came to made me laugh aloud in delight and the mystery of Moustapha’s six inch hand spread was solved. To cross the rivers the road builders had simply laid steel I beams across them. Each one was about six inches wide and enough of them were put together to make a bridge for each wheel of a car or truck. Crossing would simply be a matter of moving slowly and carefully.
In my transported state of mind (“I’m cycling down a bush road in Africa!”) I hit the first one without stopping or even slowing and roared across. After that sanity returned and I crossed the others slowly and even walking the bike. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred you’d keep the wheels centered and get across safely. That hundredth time though would be a spectacular crash.
There were quite a few other cyclists on this first stretch and they jingled their bells at me merrily as we crossed paths. Women (who are always on foot never riding a bike or motorbike except as passengers) appeared singly or in groups looking like flocks of brilliant tropical birds. One woman made a particular impression. She was dressed all in white in a cloth that had a silvery luminosity and from a distance was a ghostly apparition, a vision. Some other women I passed startled me with lips painted a garish bright red and faces heavily made up. At the time I thought there must have been a small group of non Fula people living there in one of the villages but I learned later that they were Fula and simply thought this make up was attractive.
There eventually came a time when the road announced that the honeymoon was over. It started to climb and the surface went from hardpacked mud to loose sand and gravel with exposed lumps of lava rock. The sun was higher and the sweat started to flow. The landscape also became much harsher and drier and people disappeared entirely. I began to wonder if my earlier optimism had been misguided. I was reassured though by the continual presence of the Fouta Djalon mountains on my left, towards which I was slowly working. Even if my watch compass failed I knew the “goudron” was there coming down out of those mountains from Dalaba and I only had to keep moving in that direction.
I reached the largest village on this road, almost a town, and immediately afterwards the road began to climb seriously. I worked my way up the hills using all the strength in my legs, pumping them hard one by one like doing leg presses, and in jerky movements inched my way up. I couldn’t stand on the pedals because the moment I took my body weight off the seat the rear wheel lost its traction and spun out from under me. In this way I came to a sudden halt several times and wondered if this road was going to make a liar out of me and like the Belgian women I’d have to push my bike the rest of the way. But a quick experiment proved that to be impossible anyway. The loose gravel spun out from under my feet and there was no way to push the bike. All I could do was stay in the saddle, keep all my weight over the rear wheel, and leg press my way up.
Luckily these really steep pitches lasted for only short distances and the rest of the time I was still climbing but well within the bounds of hard but not impossible cycling. It occurred to me that this area would be ideal for supported cycling where your gear was transported by vehicle and not on the bike itself.
Once the climbing was all but finished I was following the ridge of some hills that curved around and I really started to wonder if, like Bugs Bunny, I’d made a wrong turn at Albuquerque. The familiar mountains were now lost to view. I was about to declare myself officially lost (the road had gotten so bad I didn’t think it could possibly be going anywhere) when in a classic case of it never being darker than just before the dawn I saw an empty village market area, some houses, some chickens, and in the distance a tiny patch of black tarmac the “goudron.”
“Good road,” I said.
I stopped in front of a set of buildings. A man lounged in a chair while children climbed all around and a woman tended some pots cooking over a fire. The man asked where I had come from and almost refused to believe I’d come from Ditinn.
“En velo?” he asked, pointing at the bike.
“Aujourdhui?!!” He couldn’t believe I’d left just that morning. “C’est une route secondaire, tres mauvais.”
I had to agree with him about it being a secondary road (more like tertiary) but for a riding experience it was much more a “good road” than the “goudron” itself, something I discovered in the twelve kilometres of pavement riding between the amusing Bomboli and Pita. It was smooth and easy and fast but by comparison with my Bomboli road it struck me as utterly boring and almost without interest. I yearned for the bush path with its I beam bridges.
While chatting with the man I asked if the amusing Bomboli had a restaurant. Bush paths work up an appetite. There was no restaurant but the man said his wife could prepare a meal of riz sauce for me. I accepted gratefully and collapsed into the chair of honor placed on the shady front porch.
As his wife busied herself around the pots she added another layer to the third mystery solved that day and a half (the first being green manioc, the second being maps that can be very wrong). She kept apologizing, saying that the food was not cold, “pas glacee.” I thought I misheard because I couldn’t see why hot food had to be apologized for. Or perhaps she was also preparing a drink and this wasn’t cold.
In any event the rice and fish sauce was hot and delicious and I tucked in with appetite, marvelling at the easy hospitality the people were showing to a wayward porto.
As I ate, it brought back memories of the many meals of rice and fish sauce I’d eaten in Kindia with Ashaki and her team. These meals were almost always stone cold and because of that difficult for me to eat. (The fish flavor was a bit much.) And in Ditinn the one place in the market I found that served any food at all also served up their rice and sauce cold. I found it unpleasant and hard to eat.
All of this added up to the mystery of the cold food. It was a mystery because no one seemed to know what I was talking about when I commented that this or that dish was okay but cold, assuming that cold was bad. But I think I’ve solved the mystery of the cold food Guineans like it, or at least don’t mind it that way. This woman’s apology that the food was “pas glacee” was one clue but the clincher occurred much later in the day in Pita when I settled down to a big plate of delicious and steaming hot rice and meat sauce. I was in a restaurant seated not only in the chair of honor but all by myself in back in the room of honor. The plate of steaming food was put on a chair in front of me (the lack of tables is a mystery still unsolved) but I couldn’t get at it with my spoon. The woman who’d served it also apologized that the food was hot and stood there and fanned it vigorously with an empty plate. (If I’d leaned in to get a morsel I’d have been knocked unconscious her fanning was so energetic.) Finally she left and I got a spoonful or two into my mouth. It was melt in your mouth hot and delicious. But each time she passed she stopped to fan my plate for a few more seconds till I told her I liked it hot. The hotter the better. She shrugged in that “crazy porto” way and left. In Guinea cold food is good. Go figure.
The amusing Bomboli was also the site of perhaps not a mystery solved but at least a small discovery concerning the griots who have so puzzled me. I was just finishing the meal when a man with a guitar came walking up the road. He wasn’t playing it but I heard a distinct drumming. His hand wasn’t hitting the body of the guitar but I still heard the drumming. Then a second man appeared. This one wore jeans, a jean jacket, “cool” sunglasses, and was playing expertly on a drum hung around his neck. He played all the way to the porch and finished with a flourish and put the drum down. He then climbed onto the porch, bowed, pulled out a flute, and began to dance and play. The children were ecstatic and began to stomp around with their short legs beside him. Their tattered shorts, barely held in place by string, fell to their ankles but this didn’t stop them. They kicked them aside and continued to dance.
The discovery for me was to learn that there really was a musical basis to griots. All the ones I’d seen simply screamed and shouted and were annoying more extortion than entertainment. But this man was skilled on the drums and flute and his playing was enjoyable and pleasing. Judging the time right I took out a 500-FG note and held it out to him. He brought the tune to an end, bowed again and accepted the money with thanks.
The end of the day, the finish of my epic journey from Ditinn to Pita via the amusing Bomboli brought with it the final discovery, in this case what you might call a lesson learned. This lesson was that if I expected to be riding on any more such rough roads and wanted anything on my bike to survive I’d better pack a bit more carefully. I do have a system developed on other cycling trips but I haven’t fine tuned it in Guinea. In fact I’ve been packing rather haphazardly. I suppose that’s because very few days so far have been spent on the road and those days have been on smooth tarmac for the most part. Yesterday was the first day of tough, bumpy riding and when I finally located the bizarre Kinkon Hotel in Pita and began to unpack there were a few surprises waiting for me.
One problem I was happy to see I’d anticipated. I’d put a small tub of margarine into a Ziplock bag. I was very glad I’d done so because during the day the heat and the shocks had liquified it and I pulled out a bag of melted margarine, margarine that could have gone over everything in the pannier bag. I shudder to think about it.
Another problem I hadn’t anticipated. I’d done so on previous trips but on this one I just hadn’t bothered. This involved my pot set. On impulse (a bad impulse it turned out) I’d stuffed all my powders in Ziplock bags (hot chocolate, milk powder, coffee and cereal) into the small pot which nests inside the large pot. But I’d neglected to put any cushioning between the two. I usually used a tea towel but somehow the tea towel ended up under a bungee cord on my front rack and I used it to wipe sweat out of my eyes. So for several hours the heavily laden small pot had rattled around inside the big pot. This had not only burst every Ziplock bag, creating a royal powdery mess but had beaten my large pot into a nice oval shape. None of the damage was serious or unfixable but it’s a lesson in the importance of anticipating the severe shocks the luggage on a bike is subjected to. I could just have easily smashed my camera to pieces or damaged the bike through other thoughtless and careless acts.
The last food related problem was the result of not a poor system but simple forgetfulness. I had three bananas left when I woke up in Ditinn. Two of them I ate with my breakfast and the third I stuffed into a pocket alongside my shortwave radio. I didn’t intend to leave it there long. Even I knew that a banana was not the best thing to pack. I figured I’d eat it when I reached the edges of Ditinn. But I completely forgot about it and the result as I discovered when it came time to listen to the BBC’s Focus on Africa was a shortwave radio banana pudding. I haven’t been able to get all the banana mush out and now the antennae extends with only a great deal of effort and much creaking and groaning. I imagine it will be a good daily reminder to pack more carefully.
Physically I’m glad to say I’m holding up well. My knees haven’t gone wonky on me. My skin is nicely and darkly tanned and not burned to a crisp. My butt is not bruised and in agony (thanks to my new high tech Trek Comfort Zone seat). My hands have not gone numb thanks to additional cushioning on both the handlebar and bar ends. The only problem I’ve encountered is that my lips have again dried out and split. (Biting into the orange at Motorcycle Brother’s mother’s place resulted in a wee bit of sudden pain.) But in a pharmacy in Pita I managed to find a tube of lip balm which should solve that.
And one problem from previous trips I’ve solved on this one. This was something that came out of my long talks with Jason in Dalaba about cycling and camping gear. I mentioned to Jason that a serious problem with loaded touring bikes is the lack of a parking brake. Stopping on hills to get out your camera or look at a map involves a complicated ballet of bike and limbs as you desperately try to keep the bike under control. The obvious solution is to keep one hand on a brake lever but if you need two hands (for example to hold the camera) you have to do something else. Sometimes I’d let the bike go backwards till a pedal rests against a shin and hold it in place that way. But this is painful and when the bike twists away the pedal rips the skin. Letting the handlebar stem come back against your crotch is another possible method but I don’t recommend it. Getting off the bike and flipping down the kickstand is possible but here too the front wheel will twist, roll, and the whole bike goes crashing down. A loaded touring bike can be an unwieldy beast.
The solution that Jason and I came up with is elegant, simple and 100% effective. It has made my cycling far easier and I joked to Jason that I’m going to market our bike parking brake and make a fortune. (Unfortunately the market for such a thing is limited to those few crazy types who put a hundred pounds of gear on a bike and think it’s great fun to ride up and down mountains.)
What we did is take a heavy duty elastic (this one is meant to hold your pant leg against your ankle so it won’t get caught in the chain but anything stretchy will do even an old inner tube) and wrap it around the handlebar. Onto the elastic we attached a metal key ring. Now when I stop I simply apply the front brake, put a thumb through the ring and hook it over the brake lever. Instant parking brake. This prevents not only the bike from rolling backwards (or forwards) while you straddle it but it also prevents the front wheel from spinning out from under you when you park it. The handlebars and wheel will still turn sideways but since the wheel can’t revolve it stays perfectly in place no matter how uneven the ground. I went to the market in Pita yesterday and was amazed at how effective the brake was and at what a difference it made in terms of convenience. No longer did it take two minutes of fidgeting and careful placing to make sure the bike didn’t topple over whenever I stopped. A flick of the thumb and the bike was rock solid. (This was a godsend on the steep sections yesterday when I stopped to get my heart rate down under 8,000/minute.) I realized halfway through my shopping that the parking brake also increased security. There is always the chance that even when you are standing three feet away from the bike someone could jump on it and pedal away before you can react. With the parking brake applied anyone who jumps on the bike will get a nasty surprise of the crotch meets handlebar stem variety and won’t be going too far.
The parking brake has also made working on the bike and cleaning it far easier. And finally I discovered it has made the daily process of attaching the pannier bags twice as easy. A good pannier bag is designed to attach firmly so it won’t pop off when you go over a bump. But this also means it takes some muscle power to attach it. As you apply the muscle power the bike of course wants to roll away. That’s what a bike is designed to do roll easily. A rough analogy would be trying to saddle up and mount a horse that keeps shying away. In the movies it’s always good for a slapstick moment but when a bike does that it’s rarely funny and sends you to cursing (and reaching for bandaids) not laughing. With the parking brake applied I can use as much force as necessary to mount the pannier bags and the bike does not roll away.
I arrived in Pita on market day which for me is a bit unfortunate. I find market days in large towns overwhelming for a first impression. And Pita is larger than I’d anticipated. It tends towards city while Dalaba tended more towards village. By the time I’d cycled through it I was a bit frazzled and glad to find an Elf station with a cold drink. I had seen no hotels or signs for hotels and asked a friendly Elf if he could point me towards some ‘logement.’
He said there was logement at the Kinkon Hotel and if I wanted he would summon a “petite” (an emissary from the small boy network) to show me the way. He must have forgotten the spell because no petite emerged and I cycled off on my own. It didn’t matter though because the Kinkon was very near and I tapped into the small boy network in my own way. There was a group of petites sitting on top of the skeleton of a stripped down dump truck and from that elevation they corrected my movements till I arrived at the Kinkon.
In typical Guinean fashion the Kinkon is totally unrecognizable as a hotel, certainly unrecognizable as a functioning hotel. What’s left of it is a grouping of big rambling buildings with all doors and windows boarded up. Without the urgent cries from the petites I would have cycled right past it. But with their encouragement I cycled up to a small family group squatting on the porch of one of the buildings. “Squatting” is an appropriate word because they looked like they had broken into this thrice condemned building and squatted there. From the garbage strewn around, the clutter of dirty pots, and the state of their clothes they looked like the Joads on a bad day.
The man presented me with a pushed in and strangely shaped face and demanded to know what I wanted. Not very hopefully I said I was trying to find the Kinkon Hotel. I was astonished when he said I’d found it and even more astonished when it became clear he was the manager.
I couldn’t help myself and waved a hand at the dilapidated building and said, “It’s open?”
Inside the one building that still functioned I was surprised to see a large room with a bar and lounge chairs. And the room he showed me had a bed with sheets, blankets, and even a mosquito net. There was an attached shower with a sink and both had running cold water. I looked in some of the other rooms and they were all in bad repair or occupied by the usual assortment of friends and family and the gaggle of people whose relationships I can never figure out. This one room, just like Room 8 at the Marianne, is the last surviving piece of the hotel. I don’t know why they bother keeping the one room unless of course the small income it generates from the occasional mad cyclist somehow supports the family.
If there was a chance of another place I would have kept looking but I think Room 2 at the Kinkon is it as far as accommodation in Pita goes. It’s not my ideal kind of place because the room opens onto a hallway and there’s no convenient place for me to cook. There are lots of children crying and screaming and the crowds of people moving around make me feel like an intruder in some bizarre post apocalyptic community. I was even less pleased to realize that one of the falling apart buildings had been converted to a “dancing,” a dance bar, and the awful, awful music went on till past 2:00 a.m. and the screaming and shouting in the hall till past 3:00. I fully intended to look hard for another place today but the day has passed in pleasant journal keeping and now it’s too late. I’ll have to break out a brand new set of earplugs tonight and deal with the thumpa thumpa as best I can. Of course I’m fully aware of the entertainment value of a place like this. Yesterday I was quite amused to see the “Prudence” condom travelling salesmen who live here loading up their truck and preparing for their rounds. Their truck was a giant advertisement for Prudence condoms. They weren’t embarrassed by that though. Quite the contrary. “Prudence” was emblazoned across their caps and t shirts. “Because Life is Precious” said the company mascot, a giant smiling condom flying across the sky in superman fashion.