Saturday, January 27 4:00 a.m. Diaga
I dislike writing in my tent and I don’t know how long my back will hold out but I have no choice. There probably isn’t a single solitary table and chair for sixty kilometres in any direction. And certainly at this time of the morning there is no other option. I just hope that neither the Director nor the Garbled Talker see the flashlight in the tent and come over to investigate. But more about them later.
It turned out that my assumption that the Kinkon was the only player in the ‘logement’ game in Pita was false. I cycled around the outskirts of Pita in the afternoon and upon my return stopped off at the “Centre d’Accueil.” I had no idea what “Accueil” meant and cycled in to find out. I didn’t become any the wiser about “Accueil” but I did learn that they had “chambres.” A man showed me a nice, clean room with private bath and running water inside the main building. Then he showed me a disgusting room complete with the usual spiders in one of the many separate bungalows.
I had already paid for another night at the post apocalyptic survivalist community and told this man I’d likely come there the next day. But when I returned to the Kinkon I found they’d discovered the joys of television and the shrieking sound was delivered straight into my room and into my brain. The thought of putting up with that all evening and the “dancing” all night was too much and without pausing for breath I loaded up the panniers on the bike, bid the Joads goodbye, and cycled back to the Centre d’Accuel. Of course I decided on one of the disgusting bungalows. Not because it was cheaper but because it had easier access and lots of convenient places to set up my stove.
I was still searching for the key to unlock Pita’s charm and I was hoping that my bungalow would help. Pita was clearly an attractive town. On my bike ride I had discovered that it spread over all the surrounding hills and the mosques perched here and there in the dense covering of trees were very picturesque. Rough roads went out in all directions to what I assumed were villages in the countryside around. I thought if I could establish a comfortable home base I could spend a few days exploring the area.
But it wasn’t to be. Right from the first when I arrived on market day the cards were stacked against the place. Every time I cycled down the main street I was chased by the town lunatic who shouted and screamed and clapped his hands. I found one place that served food but every time I arrived there was the same giant circus as if they’d never served a meal before. I tried to find one place, one haven where I could sit in relative peace and comfort but I couldn’t find it. Each time I went into town I felt on edge, like a rabbit too far from its burrow.
And then I met the MIU’s. It was bad news from the start. Near Pita are “Les Chutes de Kinkon” (waterfalls). Very touristique and a must for every passing porto. The catch is that there is a dam nearby and all visitors must first go to the police, the “commissariat,” and get a pass, a “laissez passer.” I was inclined to give the whole thing a miss since in visiting La Voile de la Mariee (the falls near Kindia), Gariya, and Les Chutes de Ditinn I felt I’d done my bit for the local waterfall industry. But since the road to Telimele went right past the access road to the falls I thought it would be wise to get a “lazy pass” whether I intended to go see the falls or not. I suspected that for a tourist to pass by and not go see the falls was a concept nobody would believe.
My first visit to the commissariat was absurd. There were three doors, all closed and locked. Two bird like women sat on chairs in front of one of the doors and assured me that there was absolutely no one there.
“Well, except for him,” and they pointed to a scruffy fellow sprawled on a wooden bench. They shouted at him whereupon he opened one eye, took me in, and went back to sleep.
My second visit was unpleasant and no less absurd. The commissariat was emptier than before. Even the scruffy napper was gone. But outside I heard someone shouting. I looked up to see a group of MIU’s sitting across the street playing checkers in the shade.
My reception was a mirror image of so many movie scenes where the local bigoted sheriff was giving some black man a hard time.
“Well boy, just what do you think you were doing at the police station?” the MIU in charge seemed to be saying.
I went into my song and dance about being a tourist and… He cut me off right there.
“Don’t you think you’d better get yourself a place to sleep then, and get off my nice, clean streets?” He thought I’d just arrived.
I explained I already had a place to stay. It was… He cut me off right there.
“Les Chutes de Kinkon. Ever hear about’em?”
Yes. In fact I…
“You can’t just go there, you know. You need a pass from the police.”
Yes, I know. In fact I…
“Give me your dossier,” he demanded.
I produced my Ontario driver’s license.
“Well, Mr. Ontario, don’t you have a passport?”
Actually my name isn’t Ontario… He cut me off right there.
“Make with the passport, boy, and be quick.”
I realized I wasn’t going to have much input into the situation and gave him my passport and kept quiet after that.
An MIU still sitting jerked a thumb at my interrogator and said he was the chief, the big cheese, the Big Kahuna. I raised my eyebrows as if I was impressed.
“Now, here’s what you’re gonna do,” the Big Kahuna said, “Mr. Ontario, Mr. Big Shot ‘Oh, look at my pretty bike’ Tourist. You’re gonna get yourself a room at the fine establishment we call the Kinkon Hotel and then at 10:00 a.m. sharp you’re going to go to the police station to ask for permission to go look at the falls. Then you’re gonna go look at’em and take pictures of’em. Is that clear, boy?”
For about a millionth of a second I thought about pointing out that I was already at the police station and could perhaps get my lazy pass now. For a millionth of a second. Instead I got out of there vowing that nothing was going to get me within even telephoto lens distance of “Les Chutes de Kinkon,” and for good measure I was going to leave Pita the next morning, long before the Big Kahuna has even lost his first game of checkers.
On any other day the village of Diaga (pronounced ‘Jaga’) would look like nothing at all. You’d pass it by with a grimace and the thought, “Man, I’m glad I don’t live there.” But this was market day and the roads were filled with people heading home. And in a wide field I saw a large whirlwhind rise from the dust and split into two conical cyclinders. These twin dust devils moved sedately to opposite ends of the field and then came back together in the middle. I watched them, entranced, and took their dance as an omen. There might be something to this place after all.
The market was still in full swing as I pulled into the main square. The narrow roads were crammed and a convoy of broken down trucks and cars were being loaded to the point of implosion. I wondered if this were the true source of black holes, Guinean trucks so overloaded the increased gravity caused them to collapse in on themselves.
I first asked various men how far it was to Dongol Touma, the next town up the road. The answers I got averaged out to twenty kilometres and I was in no mood to add twenty to the sixty that was the day’s total so far. I decided to take the plunge and ask after “logement.”
What I really wanted was simply permission to set up my tent and camp. At first I thought I’d gotten lucky. The man I was speaking to was the director of the local school and I thought he was saying I could camp on the school grounds. I followed him with my bike but we went past the school and through a narrow gate into a tiny compound outside a house. He motioned me to move my bike right into his house where there was a room with a motorbike on one side and his wife on her knees on a prayer mat on the other. I put the brakes on instead and decided to check things out before I was committed any further. I was quickly descending into the murky waters of the hospitality prisoner, exactly where I didn’t want to go.
The problem was I’d already accepted his offer of hospitality, of “logement.” Now how could I question the form it took or otherwise make my own desires known without insulting him?
While still in Canada I’d contacted an ex PCV who had been in Guinea and asked her about this very thing, what exactly Guineans would think of a foreigner showing up on a bike and then camping in their midst? She told me what I suspected, that they would think it very strange. But I wasn’t sure if they would find it strange to the point of insulting, whether camping would be viewed as rejection of their hospitality, or whether it would just be considered strange, period. I was willing to be viewed as eccentric if it meant I had some control over my life and destiny.
I tried to find out from the Director exactly what he had planned for me but I got no answers, just a vague idea that I would be sleeping on the floor of the motorcycle room. The family, consisting of I had no idea how many people slept together on various mattresses in the next room and that, as far as I could tell, was the extent of the house. I was startled to learn though that just eight months previously he had hosted three other cyclists in just this way. And not just three cyclists but three French cyclists with a dog. He pantomimed with amusement the three of them zipping themselves up into their sleeping bags.
I said in as many ways as I could think of that I wanted to sleep in my tent but he either chose to ignore me or simply didn’t understand. He gave me the now patented tour of the market and I pointed out several ideal spots for my tent but that too was to no avail. I could choose between giving myself up to the hospitality prison or simply taking the drastic step of setting up my tent in a spot of my choosing and seeing what the reaction was. In the end I opted for diplomacy and decided to wait things out.
And wait I did. It was the Shell station in Tamagaly all over again. I think when it comes to Guinean hospitality the spirit is there but the experience isn’t, certainly not the experience from a Western perspective. I would have loved a quick wash, at least a chance to get out of my smelly cycling clothes, but no one suggested it and I wasn’t sure how to bring up the topic without appearing to be giving orders: Bring water! Set up the bucket bath cubicle! Everyone leave the motorcycle room so I can strip and change! I wouldn’t have minded knowing where the toilet was either but I didn’t want to bring it up in case there wasn’t one or there was and I was brought there by a hundred parading people who would then wait for me to finish while shouting encouragement and advice. I was also incredibly thirsty and anticipating a major liquid deficit from the day’s cycling I wanted to find some water and filter a few litres. Failing all of this I just desperately needed to rest, ideally to lie flat and relax my back and mind.
But instead I sat in the chair of honor in the motorcycle room and stewed. I comforted myself with thoughts of the time that must inevitably come when I could prepare my bed and lie down. I couldn’t do that myself because the floor was taken up a giant prayer mat and I didn’t dare suggest moving it. I was trapped.
I did eventually assert myself to the point of obtaining water. That was a necessity and it did as I feared it would turn into a circus. The pump was locked and it took six men in relays to locate the man with the key. I wondered how Guineans managed to live through all the problems I encountered and I got my answer in a way a few minutes later. Two young boys carrying large water containers showed up. They saw the lock on the pump and pump gate, shrugged, and walked away. I guess when the pump was locked they just did without.
The key was eventually produced and I got my water and returned to the chair of honor. I was resigned by this point to my prisoner state and settled back to enjoy the ebb and flow of the household. Friends of the family came by to meet the foreigner. One of them, another teacher, took me on a second tour of the market. He brought me to all the same places I’d already been, introduced me to all the people (the radio repairman, the carpenter, the butcher) I’d already met. Everyone (except my new guide who didn’t know what was so amusing) thought it was quite funny. I guessed that this fellow wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. He spoke in a garbled nasal way and I could understand nothing of what he said. Undeterred he talked non stop till pretending to listen and understand became a real strain for me and I was glad when the tour ended and the men of the neighborhood gathered for a cutthroat game of Crazy 8’s in the fading evening light. When it became too dark to play anymore we sat and talked. I tried to steer the conversation to the Director’s work, his family and his life. He tried to steer the conversation to money, money, money, and immigrating to Canada to get money.
I hadn’t noticed but the Director had become very cold and suddenly couldn’t take it anymore and bundled me inside the motorcycle room. This was also their dining room and within a short time his wife brought out a pot of rice and spooned some feh de manioc on top. She placed it on the floor and everyone crowded around, sitting either on low stools or on their haunches. Everyone ate with their hands but they insisted I use a spoon. I didn’t resist because I didn’t relish trying to eat that sticky mess with my hands, particularly in the way that they did, using the whole hand. I don’t think I could ever accustom myself to this method of balling the food up in the palm and then more or less shovelling it in.
I was very curious to know if the meal we were eating was typical of all their meals but didn’t know how to ask without being indelicate. I was curious because there wasn’t nearly enough food for everyone and the whole process appeared to me to be unnecessarily awkward and uncomfortable. At the very least the pot of rice could have been placed an inch or two off the floor to keep the giant winged ants (which swarmed everywhere) from climbing into the pot. The Director’s youngest daughter was eating with us and amused herself by crushing these insects against the oily, dirty ground, then plunging her tiny hand back into the rice and stirring it around.
I was just about at the end of my energy. My back was in agony. My mind was shutting down. I was all too aware of my smelly body and clothes. All I wanted was the tiniest indication of which patch of oily, ant covered ground in the motorcycle room was mine so I could collapse into sleep. But it wasn’t to be.
Something had changed. I had no idea what, but it seemed I was now going to be sleeping somewhere else, most likely at the home of the Garbled Talker, the man whose French I couldn’t understand at all and who wouldn’t stop talking. I was so tired I didn’t really care one way or the other but I started to care when they tried to bundle me outside without my bicycle or any of the luggage on it. I didn’t need any of it, they said, and I could come back and get it in the morning.
The dumb white guy had finally had enough and I stood my ground insisting that there were things on my bike I needed. Things like water, my sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and my flashlight not to mention all my money. Trust is all well and good but I had only met these people a few hours earlier and I thought they were being a bit unreasonable to expect me to simply walk out into the darkness without a clue where I was going and leaving behind everything I had in the world.
They argued that it was too late and too dark to bother with my bike and gear. My French wasn’t up to this discussion but my body was clearly not going anywhere so they relented and said that I should grab the bags but leave the bike. I tried to explain that it would be far easier to simply roll the bike wherever we were going. The bags aren’t designed for easy carrying. And I couldn’t just grab one bag. The things I might need were spread out over several bags.
But it seemed that though the Garbled Talker’s house was close there was a barrier of some kind and it would be difficult to lift the bike over it. There was a way without barriers but it was longer.
“How long could it be?” I thought. Diaga was not exactly a metropolis. They finally realized I wasn’t going anywhere without the bike and we began the reverse of the process of getting the bike into their compound and house but this time in the dark. I felt guilty about causing so much trouble but reflected that none of this would have happened if they’d listened to me earlier or we’d had this discussion when I’d arrived and it was still light out.
For whatever reason the Garbled Talker took the shortcut while the Director came with me on the ‘long’ route. I soon wished he hadn’t because he complained the whole way. It wasn’t more than half a kilometre down wide roads but he moaned over and over again about how long this way was and how short the other way was.
I finally snapped. I spoke loudly in French, telling him all the thoughts in my head whether they came out intelligibly or not. I told him that none of this was my fault. All I wanted was a bit of ground for my tent. He was the one who forced me into the motorcycle room and sat me there in limbo for hours. If it wasn’t appropriate for me to sleep there then why did he offer it? If it was better to sleep at the Garbled Talker’s house why didn’t he bring that up hours ago when it was still daylight?
I probably would have held my tongue in the name of cross cultural diplomacy but it was clear he couldn’t understand a word I was saying and he wasn’t even listening anyway. I don’t think he was even aware I was angry. So I switched to English and just kept rambling to get it out of my system.
When we arrived at the Garbled Talker’s house and I was pushed inside I realized he expected us to sleep together in his bed. “Not a chance,” I thought. I’d spent the whole day getting accustomed to the Director and his family and the motorcycle room. There was no way I was now going to climb into bed with this guy and have him ramble at me all night long.
Then it dawned on me that we were on the outskirts of Diaga. All around me in the starlight I could see trees and open fields.
“I’m sleeping in my tent,” I announced and without even waiting for a reaction rolled my bike under the nearest tree and started unhooking pannier bags. Within minutes my tent was up, my bags were inside, my bed was made, and I bid the Garbled Talker and the Director goodnight and climbed inside.
“But why didn’t you tell me you didn’t need a bed?” asked the Director. “You could have put your tent on the school grounds.”