Guinea 049

Friday February 2 6:47 a.m.

I tried to continue my journal last night but I was far too tired. I’m still tired this morning but I’m hoping a cup of coffee or two will perk me up.

I’m sitting on a tiny stool outside a small Fula hut where I slept last night. It’s odd being down here on the valley floor with the cliffs rising above me. I’m not accustomed to having horizons like that. Douki is flat and from the Fula Hut there you can’t see the cliff edges and therefore get an idea of how far up you are.

The sky is lightening though the sun hasn’t come up over the cliffs yet. I’m just now able to see my notebook and turned off my flashlight. A couple of roosters are crowing but most of them seem to have taken the early morning shift off. Most of the people have too except for one fellow in a set of strangely colored “street” clothes. I’m not sure but I think this might be his hut that I’m in. The decor forty empty cigarette packs suspended by a ribbon of torn out cassette tape certainly fits. His sudden appearance wasn’t entirely welcome since I’m not prepared to be the polite and happy foreign visitor yet. I need an hour or two to myself before the Mastermind shows up. (“Chutes and ladders! Chutes and ladders!”)

I suppose I wouldn’t be so touchy except I haven’t had a spare minute to enjoy being here and get my bearings. Last night was strictly for getting some rice and peanut sauce into my stomach and then collapsing into bed. You’ll note I didn’t say “sleep.” Not a lot of that went on last night. I was too worked up to sleep easily and I’m pretty certain the Marquis de Sade would have approved of this bed. The Mastermind was pretty excited about getting me into this bed because it had pillows. I guess that’s rare here. But the pillows are not exactly soft. Let’s just say that I’m using one of them now as a writing table.

It must seem that I’m complaining a lot but it’s not that really. I don’t expect to find four star comfort in a remote village. In fact as villages go these Fula villages with their elaborate mud moulded construction are incredibly comfortable. And the existence of any bed at all seems to me kind of incredible. I’m just inclined to complain because at heart it’s all so funny. The Mastermind as well as all the other Guineans I’ve met (such as the Director at Jaga) try so desperately hard to accommodate me and make me happy but without a clue as to how to do it they succeed only in making me uncomfortable, certainly far less comfortable and happy than if they just absorbed me into normal Guinean life or on the other hand let me take care of myself.

A good example are the potatoes. I arrived in Douki when the Mastermind was gone and I mentioned before that his brother greeted me and went off to prepare some sweet potatoes. He returned with this immense plate of fried sweet potatoes literally dripping in excess oil. There was a half inch layer of oil in the bottom of the pan. It was truly awful, something only a bachelor would prepare. It isn’t a typical Guinean dish and he’d prepared it especially for the foreign guest. To be polite I ate it.

For dinner there were more potatoes this time with fried bananas. For lunch the next day more of the same. And each time it was served up with great fanfare. It was clear they’d gone to considerable trouble and some expense to make me these fried potato dishes. So even while desperately trying to stem the tide of fried potatoes and convince them I really did like feh de manioc I manfully stuffed them down. Till of course my system rebelled and I became sick. I had no choice then but to stop eating the potatoes. But how to do that without telling my hosts their food had made me sick? I told the brother I was going to make my own lunch. He told me they’d already started preparing my potatoes. I tried to be as clear as I could that whatever happened I wasn’t going to be eating any more potatoes. I started some spaghetti. But not much later the potatoes showed up again. I moved them around in the bowl to create the illusion that I ate some but I didn’t touch a single morsel. I couldn’t even stand the smell of them.

But the effect of the potatoes has stuck with me and on the hike down into the valley I was bloated and ill which made the whole thing that much more difficult. The Mastermind thought each time I stopped that I was admiring the latest grand view. But they weren’t so much Kodak moments as sphincter clenching moments. A painting of the scene would be entitled “waiting for the spasm to pass.”

We left from Douki at 8:45 when it was still cool and the walking easy. We started off in the direction of the rock grotto then turned to follow the descending land past Hyena Rock and into the valley. The plan as I understood it was to hike down to the Kokoulo River, check out a typical vine bridge, perhaps have a swim to cool off, then spend the night in one of the mushroom field villages I’d seen from the cliffs. The Mastermind had an aunt living there. She was going to feed us and there were a couple empty huts to sleep in.

The hiking was four hours and I pictured myself lazing around my new hut all afternoon, sipping coffee and hot chocolate while the sun set and the cliffs darkened then turned to black ridges against a starry sky.

At first nothing appeared to interfere with this fantasy. In fact there was far more of interest in this hike than the Mastermind had bothered to tell me about. I wondered at the time and still wonder why he didn’t mention the specifics of this hike. There were certainly some features that were well worth mentioning not only to look forward to but to plan for. It’s not that he was sensitive enough to allow me to discover them for myself. He did little of that, instead pointing out every single feature of interest and every rock formation that he felt looked like something else. He was a master of pointing out the obvious and it got so tedious I tried in small ways to tell him that I could see the tree, the cow, the rock, without his having to point them all out.

The landscape still confuses me somewhat. I keep mixing up ridges and valleys and continually think I’m somewhere I’m not. I thought the small valley where the Hyena Rock was located would merge gently with the Kokoulo River Valley. I assumed the cliff system simply opened up at that point and we would stroll and stumble all the way down. But it turns out all these small valleys that contain Hyena Rock and the Stone Cathedral end quite suddenly at the cliffs that define the main valley. The drops there can range from two to six hundred meters straight down. It’s another amazing feature of this valley that make it in my mind such a lost world. Coming at it from any direction you have no idea it’s there until you literally step off into space. At the far eastern end it pinches off and has no road access to the Dalaba Labe road. (It’s there in those cliffs that the Kinkon Falls are located.) To the west the valley widens till it disappears altogether into the surrounding flat land but the only road there is a rough, barely used road coming down from Lei Miro. Only rough trails reach from this road into the valley. I’m told these trails are passable by tough vehicles in the dry season but in the rainy season they’re impassable. In any event they aren’t marked on the map.

The descent from the Hyena Rock valley comes quite suddenly. The trail simply ends at the cliff and you walk down a precipitous trail that hugs the cliff face. At a couple of places the trail almost disappears and the valley people who use this route to get out to the markets in Jaga and Pita have built up traverses with logs and branches. It all appears fairly solid but the Mastermind advised me to step on whatever rock was available just in case.

Halfway down the trail joins up with a stream and it’s slow going (the dumb white guy on all fours again) over slippery rock. I had to be careful to place my feet where the water wasn’t too deep.

We stopped for the Mastermind’s “cancer stick” at a flat expanse of stone called the Mali Stage. The Mastermind danced around playing air guitar, a ludicrous sight that made me laugh.

The water from the stream cut sharply away from the cliff just before the Mali Stage and created a picture perfect waterfall. Once again I started looking around for the Disneyworld designers. It seemed too picturesque to be natural.

Much later from the bottom of the valley I was astonished to see how small a portion of the actual cliff we’d descended. Here rocks had fallen from the cliff and the land had built up and risen gently almost to the top. The portion of actual cliff we’d descended was clearly visible as three giant steps carved into the stone and covered in lush jungle growth like a green carpet. With Hassan’s binoculars I could just make out the waterfall.

It was about here that my life started to spiral out of control. We turned left at the very bottom when we reached the first of the villages. (We’d descended 800 meters from Douki.) What I didn’t know was that the vine bridge we were heading towards was nearly two hours away. My legs were trembling and weak from the jarring descent. It was around noon, the sun was at its hottest and the temperature was soaring. I also didn’t know that the place where we’d be staying was in the other direction to the right, downstream. Which meant that we’d have to backtrack after the bridge to this point and then continue on for another hour which was going to put us at the Aunt’s house just as it was getting dark. I also didn’t know that the “vine bridge” was no such thing. A traditional vine bridge is quite an impressive structure. It is built entirely out of vines of various thicknesses. There is a thick central cord on which you place your feet. Raised up on either side are two other vine ropes at arm level. Hundreds of small vines connect them making a v shape.

The bridge we were heading towards was a caricature of that, a horrible mess of old and new cables, steel bars and wires twisted together in an unholy mess. Its only natural portions were bundles of bamboo placed at the bottom of the “v” to give your feet a wider purchase.

It was a fun bridge to cross and kind of funky but it was not a classic vine bridge nor worth the gruelling march to get there especially since I now discovered there was still three hours of marching before we came to the place we would be sleeping. And seventy-five percent of that would be back tracking. The irony overshadowing the whole affair was that on the way we were passing so much that was of interest to me including a group of women who were cutting and peeling manioc. They called out to me to join them and take their picture. “When we come back!” shouted the Mastermind.

We also passed a large group making the mud bricks used to build the huts. The Mastermind rushed us past with barely a pause. His pace was now supersonic. I saw another group of villagers under a tree. Several boys were in white robes. I asked about that later and the Mastermind said it was a traditional circumcision. “Very interesting,” said the Mastermind. But not interesting enough apparently for us to halt our mad rush in the blazing sun.

We finally arrived at his Aunt’s village but that didn’t mean my troubles were over. First there was the eternal question of “the key.” There was a hut but first we had to find the man who had the key. In the meantime we were at a different hut. Waiting. I couldn’t be sure but it appeared this hut was also available. “Couldn’t we just stay here?” I asked the Mastermind. No, the other hut was much nicer. It had pillows. As the time stretched out and I realized I was once again in limbo I thought I might as well have some hot chocolate while I waited. Making hot chocolate has become my way of controlling my destiny in some small way.

The Mastermind came and went with stories of the search for the key and other things that made no sense. Once more I yearned for my tent and the escape it offered from the hospitality prison. But this time my tent was eight hundred meters above me and several hours away.

I tried to find out from the Mastermind why the hut I was sitting in front of was no good and not getting a satisfactory answer I pushed to simply stay there. My stuff was there. My stove was set up. My water bag was full and hanging from a nearby mango tree. It was now dark and I didn’t want to traipse all over the village going who knows where just for pillows. I pushed hard. I asked the Mastermind, “Would it make any difference, any difference at all if I stayed in this Mango Tree Hut as opposed to the Pillow Hut?” “No,” he declared. No difference at all.

That was settled then and I told him I was staying in the Mango Tree Hut. All I wanted after that hard day was to have a home, a base, a place to lay my head. It didn’t matter where. I went into the Mango Tree Hut to put up my mosquito net and prepare my bed. But suddenly it appeared there was a difference. Now the Mastermind said that if I wanted to stay in this hut it would have to be “prepared.” He was going to get some women from the village to come clean it, sweep it. He was going to get clean sheets, a mattress, pillows!

I could have wept. I could have fallen to my knees and wept. I could have slapped the Mastermind silly. “You’re killing me with kindness,” I wanted to wail. I tried to pin him down. “Is the other hut ready? Ready right now?” He said it was and I said okay, let’s go and broke down my stove and put everything away and off we went into the darkness.

The Pillow Hut turned out to be occupied but the owner was going to go dancing all night and so I could sleep there. Four men stood around talking about all these things as well as the lock on the door which was a traditional hand carved wooden lock and a bit tricky. I tried to urge everyone along so I could collapse and die in peace. I was too tired even to eat and planned on going straight to sleep. But there was one urgent (very urgent) thing: Where was the latrine?

The Mastermind’s face puckered. “It’s down,” he said. “It’s a little far.”

My heart sank but my body brooked no argument. I was going to need that latrine before the night was through. The Mastermind led the way. It was ridiculous. We went over a dozen fences, through a dozen compounds, down a dizzying array of trails. There was no way I could find my way on my own. We arrived at a big compound with a large family sitting around a fire.

“We will get the key here,” said the Mastermind.

Another key!? My mind rebelled at the thought, crawled off into a corner and died. My body was on its own.

The whole family got involved in the latrine discussion about where the key would be and how I would obtain it. They showed me the latrine, a proud little hut. The padlock came off with a flourish and they opened the door to show me the little cement footsteps and the hole in the ground.

None of this made any sense to me. There was no way the whole village used this one latrine. In any event I wasn’t going to use it. There was no way I could find it. And what was I going to do about the key? Wake up the whole family at 3:00 a.m.?

Back at the Pillow Hut I told the Mastermind that I wouldn’t be able to find the latrine on my own and wasn’t there an alternative? Where, for example, does the guy who lives in the Pillow Hut take care of the calls of nature?

“Oh, over there,” said the Mastermind pointing to some trees.

I could have punched him. Why didn’t he just say so earlier? But I guess he took me literally. I didn’t ask where I could take a dump. I had asked where THE latrine was. And as it turned out there was one actual latrine in the whole valley. It really was THE latrine, built by a man that the Mastermind said was very hygienic.



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