Sunday, February 11 6:30 a.m. Lelouma
I’d like to go back in time, visit every one of my informants about the road from Telimele to Lelouma, and give them each a sharp little slap. And that includes the PCV’s in Telimele. Jessica and Greg told me the road was pretty steep in parts. They also told me there were deep ruts on those steep pitches and they’d been filled in with loose rock. I got the impression a cyclist could take a path between them or on the sides.
But either they’ve never ridden a bike in their life or they didn’t see very much of that road because it’s essentially uncyclable. I ended up pushing the bike for two days. I never would have done such a thing except that the road was so bad, so far beyond anything I’d ever call a road that I kept thinking it couldn’t last, that there’s no way it could remain this way the entire distance to Lelouma. And to be fair it didn’t. Once in a while the jagged exposed rock that formed the surface of the road would disappear and with a sigh I’d get on the bike and start pedalling. “This is more like it,” I’d say. But it was just a big tease and one hundred meters later it was back to business as usual and pushing the bike. Or should I say carrying the bike? Because the road was so bad even pushing the bike wasn’t really possible. I was hauling it, heaving it, throwing my entire body weight and strength into inching it along. And this was on the flat stretches. On the climbs I started to wish I had a block and tackle. But hope springs eternal and I stuck with it assuming it was just a bad stretch and the road would improve, had to improve. And eventually when it appeared the road would never change I’d already gone so far that I was committed. Going back was as difficult as going forward.
Of course now that I’m in Lelouma it has all changed. “That road?” people in Lelouma say. “That road is completement gati. It’s impossible to ride a bike on that road. Everybody knows that.”
Everybody, apparently, except all the people I asked. From them I always got the same answer.
“How is the road from here to Lelouma?”
“Lelouma? C’est tres loin.”
“Yes, but the road itself, how bad is it?”
“C’est tres loin.”
The same thing when I asked for directions.
“Which road goes to Lelouma?”
“Lelouma? C’est tres loin.”
“Ah, thank you.”
The journey began promising enough. The first sixteen kilometres followed the same road I’d taken to the prehistoric caves. On the way I met many of the same people I’d seen on my first trip including the doctor. He admired the bike and asked me to ship it to him when I finished my journey. At least he was willing to let me finish my journey. The ten other people who’d asked for my bike that morning (“Donnez moi le velo”) didn’t even want to wait that long. Actually I was lucky to leave Telimele with even my stove. I’d stopped at the gas station to buy some kerosene and when the fuel bottle was full the attendant at first refused to give it back. “Donne moi! Un souvenir.” I had to pry it loose from his grip whereupon he grabbed my wrist. “Donne moi le monte.” I explained it was the only watch I had and couldn’t give it to him. “Well, give me something,” he said, quite exasperated with me. I said I would give him the money to pay for the kerosene. He didn’t think that was very funny.
On my way to the caves I’d already found out where the turn off for the road to Lelouma was. I’ve gotten into the habit, however, of asking the same question over and over again to make sure I’m getting something resembling the truth. I stopped beside a young man to get confirmation that this was indeed the road to Lelouma.
“Is this the road to Lelouma?”
“Lelouma?” he said. “C’est loin.”
“Yes, I know. But is Lelouma in this direction?”
Ah, thank you.
The road didn’t go very far before it took a sharp vertical turn. I took this to be one of the steep parts Jessica told me about and indeed there were two deep ruts filled with rocks and as I suspected I could cycle between or around them. I had an audience and tackled this first climb with energy. There was purchase for my tires and the only question was one of strength. I almost made it to the top but the ruts pinched together suddenly and joined up with some other rain gulleys to make an impassable barrier. I stopped pedalling to manhandle the bike through the ruts intending to cycle on the other side but when I stopped I realized how much that climb had taken out of me. My breath was coming in ragged gasps that tore at my throat. Sweat poured off my body and my legs and arms were wobbly. It was clear that there was no way I could keep up that kind of pace or energy output. I’d be dead long before I reached Lelouma or at least it would be a repeat of my near death experience upon arriving in Telimele.
“I’m not too proud to push my bike,” I said as I began to push my bike up the hill, little realizing that I’d be pushing it for another sixty or seventy kilometres.
At the top of this first climb the pitch flattened out a fair bit but the lava rock that was to be the problem for the next two days began to emerge and even when the pitch was cyclable the road surface was so bad that I still had to push the bike. This wasn’t easy to do as I knew it wouldn’t be. The pannier bags on a bike stick out and so you can’t walk behind the bike very easily. You are forced out to the side and pushing on the handlebars from that angle the tires have a tendency to slip out from under the bike. Add to that the bike’s top heavy nature and it’s a difficult brute to push. The alternative is to stand upright right beside the pedals and sort of jam your elbow into your stomach and put your hand on the handlebar. This is what I had to do. It gives you very little leverage and you have to move very slowly with tiny steps but it’s feasible. Only on the steepest portions did I have to move back, bend over at the waist, and really throw my body into it, like pushing a car to a gas station. To keep the wheels from sliding out from under I’d have to run the bike along an incline, usually on the far right hand side of the road while walking on an opposite incline, forming an angle like a shallow letter “A.”
I arrived at the village of Bourowal around lunchtime. I knew there was a Peace Corps Volunteer placed at the school there but didn’t seek her out. Instead I sat down under a big shade tree and munched on a loaf of bread and cheese. I had an audience of a hundred or so children and felt sure word would filter back to the PCV that a strange porto on a bike was sitting under a tree and that if she missed English conversation she’d come find me.
The PCV never emerged but the local MIU did, much to my annoyance. He sauntered over and proceeded to grill me about who I was, where I was going, whether I had all the proper papers, and most importantly where I might be thinking about spending the night. Like the sous prefect I would meet in Heriko the next day he clearly viewed me as a problem and would be much happier if I kept moving down the road and became someone else’s problem. They were both very relieved when I asked them how far it was to the next town or village. Neither had any idea about distances but they were very sure that this place down the road, “that way” (emphatic pointing), was a much better place than here. Much better. And suddenly every place was transformed from “C’est tres loin” to “Ce n’est pas loin.” I felt like Rambo getting a lift from the helpful sheriff to the town limits of course.
Part of the problem I think was the overall Guinean inexperience with tourism. They had only the vaguest idea of what a tourist was but they definitely had the idea that the natural and proper habitat for a tourist was a hotel. And here in Bourowal and in Heriko there clearly were no hotels. “And so,” they’d question, “if you really are a tourist what are you doing here?” It was like they’d seen a fish in the desert. “Now, you say you’re a fish and I ain’t calling you a liar but it seems to me that fish live in water. I’m looking around me and I don’t see any water. Now, how do you explain that, Mr. Fish?”
After Bourowal the road defied reality and actually got worse, much worse. Even the tiny stretches that I’d cycled before disappeared almost entirely and I trudged along amusing myself with trying to pick out the least savage lines through the rock. At this point I was still hung up a little bit on this idea of cycling (I’ve got a bike, shouldn’t I be riding it?) and I rode the bike when the road went down. Actually it would be tough to call that riding. It was more like controlled falling. A good comparison would be riding down a dry rocky river bed or waterfall from which this road was indistinguishable.
I also amused myself with a little joke that was very successful with the locals that I met. I’d look up into expressions of disbelief and astonishment on their faces and after the ritual greetings I’d quip, “Ce n’est pas un goudron.” They found this, for whatever reason, to be hysterically funny and I used it all day and the next. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’ve been a great crowd. Next show’s at 2:00.”
I got the impression that in local terms Heriko was something of a large town and it was the obvious place to aim for by day’s end. But ten kilometres shy of Heriko I stumbled into a pleasant kind of village where I could stock up on water (a concern on this plateau where there appeared to be no streams of any kind). It was Friday and the town was alive with men strolling and sitting in their best traditional clothes. They were very friendly and what’s more important quite relaxed and I toyed with the idea of setting up my tent there. But I resisted the impulse and instead filled up my ten litre water bag and trundled away determined to camp at the first likely looking place.
Such a place wasn’t easy to find, however. The road followed a narrow and high plateau with deep valleys on both sides. (If it weren’t so hazy the views might have been stunning.) At this point the ridge was particularly narrow and the land rocky and featureless on both sides till it reached the few trees at the edge. I made a couple forays into this region but children and local men would appear as if by magic and the ensuing ruckus made it unlikely I could camp there in peace. They weren’t unfriendly but I was in the mood for some privacy. I didn’t want to cook and set up my tent with an eager audience.
After a lot of trial and error I suddenly found myself on a stretch of road with no people visible anywhere. And on my right was a bit of bush. It wasn’t much and no one would call it scenic but it looked like the best I could find. I quickly scouted it out and then rolled my bike into an area that was the most screened from the road. There was a trail but it didn’t look heavily used and with luck I thought I might be able to go unnoticed at least until the sun went down. And I almost made it too.
I didn’t set up my tent right away. It is too colorful and easily seen. I was going to wait for dusk to do that. But I hunkered down on a protruding chunk of lava rock and leaving all the pannier bags on the bike for a quick getaway I broke out the stove to feed my growing addiction to hot chocolate and my latest discovery corned beef spaghetti.
It wasn’t the ideal setting. I would have preferred by far a spot further removed from the road and totally secluded. As it was I hardly dared move or make a sound and behaved, if anyone was watching in secret, in a very suspicious manner. (“Ah ha! I knew you weren’t a fish!”) Some people passed on the road and I was dismayed that I could actually see them a little bit through the bush. But it was too late to move and there was no guarantee there was a better spot out there. I didn’t have long to wait until sunset and the hardest part making and eating dinner was over. But to my horror I suddenly heard the unmistakeable sound of a soccer ball. As the number of children’s voices grew and grew I began to wonder what in the world I’d done. Had I, mastermind that I am, camped in secret right in the middle of a playground? Was there a teeming metropolis just on the other side of those trees? I was paralysed at the thought and hardly dared breathe. Sitting hunched over my rock, unmoving, my legs stuck out in front of me I was the “beast on the mountain” from “Lord of the Flies,” waiting only to be discovered.
The discovery came soon enough. I heard the crunch of footsteps on dry grass and the snapping of twigs. I looked and saw a boy about ten years old slowly making his way through an adjoining clearing. He was gathering kindling and his attention was on the ground. He moved closer and closer, then suddenly stopped. He saw something through the trees, something that shouldn’t be there. He didn’t know what it was but something about it made the hairs on the back of his neck tingle. He moved closer, careful now, for a better look. When I knew the gig was up I raised my body up and presented him with my “ruined face.” I swear I didn’t see him go. He was so frightened and ran so fast he literally vanished. One second his eyes widened in terror and then he was gone.
I speculated idly about what my fate now would be. If there was an MIU in what must be a nearby village I was finished. Or perhaps he’d ring the alarm and the men from the village would return to burn me out. A stick sharpened on both ends. Perhaps he’d only tell the other children what he’d seen but for a man who’s read “Lord of the Flies” as many times as I have that was small comfort. I could already hear the chant. “Kill the porto. Spill his blood.” At least Ralph had a plan and a chance of escape, if only temporary up a tree or into the bush. I didn’t even have that. There was nowhere for me to go. Nothing for me to do but wait for the inevitable.
I was surprised at how long it took but after fifteen or twenty minutes I heard movement in the bush all around me and then saw heads moving about. Little’uns for the most part with only two big’uns. They all stayed under cover, none daring to show themselves or speak to me. They talked urgently among themselves till I thought I’d better do something before they went off for some adults.
“Ondjaarama,” I called out in the direction of the two big’uns.
“Ondjaarama,” they called back and emboldened by my mastery of Fular they emerged. The tension was gone and about sixty children rushed out of hiding and into the clearing to surround me.
I was friendly but not too friendly. If they suspected that I might still be a little dangerous they might yet leave me in peace. But if I behaved like some kind of Barney with a bicycle I knew I’d never get a moment’s peace the whole night. I was also careful not to do anything interesting. Luckily I’d already finished dinner and had put everything away. I didn’t write or look at my maps or set up my tent. I didn’t in fact do anything and spoke only when spoken to. I just sat on the rock, a porto with a bicycle, in the Fouta Djalon. I imagined them telling their friends the next day and not being believed. “I’m telling you, it was a white guy with a bicycle. By himself. And he was just sitting there. He wasn’t doing anything.”
For the next thirty minutes or so the children came in wave after wave but to my relief no MIU’s showed up and no village elders. The two big’uns put up a half hearted effort to convince me to stay in the village but I told them I was sleeping right there in the clearing.
“Here?” they said incredulously.
But I stood my ground and as the sun set I saw the last of the little heads disappear into the bush and I passed a wonderful night watching the stars emerge and then the moon make its way across the sky.
I didn’t know much when I set out the next morning in the moonlight an hour before sunrise. I didn’t know what the condition of the road would be. I didn’t know if I’d be going up and down or staying level. I didn’t know exactly how far Lelouma was or if I’d get there in one day, two, or three. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to replenish my food stores which I’d let drop a bit low, especially if I had three days of pushing my bike ahead of me.
But I did know one thing. There was a hotel in Lelouma. Everyone said so. The Mastermind of Douki told me there was a hotel. The owner of the hotel in Telimele told me there was a hotel in Lelouma. I’d asked everyone I’d met and they all said they didn’t know or that there was one.
This was an important fact because hotels are few and far between in Guinea and if I know there’s a hotel in a town I’m willing to cycle, or in this case walk, a bit longer knowing there was some kind of refuge at the end of it, a place to mentally and physically regroup. I was calculating distances and if as I suspected the road improved when it descended off the plateau and went to Lelouma it might be feasible to do the remaining distance in one day. But it would be a long, hard day and I would only attempt it if I knew there was a hotel at the end. If not I’d plan on camping a few kilometres short of Lelouma and leapfrog over it the next day, stopping only for breakfast.
I wasn’t going to count on getting to Lelouma, however. Just plod along and see what happened. In Heriko I got lucky and found a place where I got not only a big plate of rice and peanut sauce but also a cafe au lait. Heriko was actually a lot bigger than I expected and it, as well as all the villages from there to Lelouma, seemed more prosperous. The clearest sign of this were the houses which were large structures of cement blocks and tin roofing with vast expanses of actual fencing surrounding them.
The behavior of the children also started to change. For the first time in Guinea I saw them teasing animals, throwing rocks at dogs and cows. They’d also hold out a half eaten orange to a cow. When it approached they’d suddenly draw back their arm and smash the orange against the cow’s head. The real clowns would hold two oranges and as the cow took the one from one hand they’d jam the other orange on the tip of the cow’s horm. I saw cows everywhere with oranges perched on the tips of their horns like Christmas ornaments. Others had long orange peels wrapped around their horns and neck giving them a very festive appearance.
The children also for the first time made a game of running behind the porto (when he was cycling that is) and asking for money. They didn’t throw stones or jam oranges on my handlebars but that didn’t seem too far away. It was altogether not a welcome change and I hoped it was behavior limited to that one road.
The road didn’t improve and even threw one or two long descents and climbs into the mix. Leaving the town of Sagale the road became so bad as to be a sick joke and I finally took pity on my bike and walked it even going down. The pounding it was taking was so extreme I began to worry about it mechanically as well as the things inside my pannier bags.
The answers I got to my questions about how far away Lelouma was, however, began to change and it became a real possibility to get there before dark. Then without warning the road smoothed out to a normal rough but cyclable dirt and rock road. It also plunged straight down for several kilometres through high rocky cliffs and I roared along with the brakes on full. It was exhilarating after so many long hours of pushing the bike.
The existence of the hotel in Lelouma was confirmed by a group of well dressed men working on an overheated 4X4 and I blazed on with high hopes. The road did have to climb back up over a final high ridge and I was reduced to pushing the bike once again but I was used to it by then.
It was Lelouma’s market day and the roads were full of villagers walking home with their purchases on their heads so I knew Lelouma was close. Then I could actually see it and there was no final killer climb like at Telimele. I stopped to inquire after the hotel and was directed “en ville.” My final informant told me to go to the carrefoure, turn left and I’ll see a sign for the hotel. I turned left at the carrefoure, scanned the area eagerly but saw nothing. I asked a number of people and got the same horrible, awful reply.
“Hotel? There’s no hotel in Lelouma.”
I don’t know what was worse, learning that there was no hotel or being unable to communicate my utter and total disbelief. When I tried to tell people how everyone said there was a hotel here, that I had counted on it, that in two gruelling days it was the only thing I knew for sure, they simply smiled and said there was no hotel in Lelouma.
I ended up at the back door of the prefect’s villa trying to persuade a nice woman and one extremely annoying man (he kept demanding to know what my “objectif” in coming to Guinea was) to let me set up my tent under some nearby trees. But they weren’t even listening to me. Instead they were going to help me. Runners from the small boy network, “les petites,” were dispatched to find someone who could find me some logement. The game was afoot.
As with the road, however, it could have been worse. A smiling man appeared in about forty minutes. I was made to understand that I should go with him. There was a frightening moment when he left me to go in search of “the key” but he returned in ten minutes. I was interested to see that the change in the children had continued and unlike anywhere else in Guinea they gathered around me in a tight circle of a hundred and just stared. They also followed us down the road when the key was found and we set off to what I learned was this man’s home.
It’s a big concrete affair with a tin roof and brutally hot, not like my cool Fula Hut. There are four bedrooms. The man tried to give me his room and he was going to move into a big empty room with two beds. But I insisted that I would prefer the unoccupied room. I was pretty happy just to find out that there was “logement” and it was produced within an hour. To have my own room almost but not quite made up for the absence of a hotel. The man and his friends would have loved to talk to me for hours about immigrating to Canada but even they could see how tired I was and they let me settle in, take a blessed bucket bath and even cook spaghetti while the man disappeared somewhere. I did the cooking outside and greeted the dozens of people who walked through the yard. Just like in the villages there is little sense of private property. That makes sense since the wells are communal. And the latrine the man uses is outside his property, down the road and used by the whole neighborhood. I made a visit there last night and had to steel myself to actually go into the tiny cement cubicle. The walls were a living carpet of two inch cockroaches. I turned off my flashlight but that just made it worse as my imagination took over and I turned it back on. The light at least created a little pool of cockroach free territory and I concentrated on that.
It took me some time to recover from the disappointment of not finding a hotel here but there was little I could do and at least I slept fairly well. There is no ceiling so I can hear everything in the other rooms and in honor of that I broke out a brand new set of earplugs and went to sleep early. I had plans to just spend the night and cycle to Labe today but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen. It’s noon now and I could still leave and spend the night in my tent partway to Labe but I think my host would like to spend some time with me. I don’t even know his name nor what he does for a living and today I should have the energy to be more social.
Whoever I’m currently staying with he has been gone the entire morning. I roused myself finally to go outside and walked up the hill to “en ville.” Lelouma has an entirely different look now that the market is gone. The wide roads that made such an appealing impression yesterday now look empty and desolate. The doors on every building are firmly closed and the few people around have been driven under various verandas by the sun, made more intense by the expanses of exposed rock. I didn’t make it past the carrefoure but ducked inside “the” restaurant which my host had pointedly shown me yesterday. Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that the only thing available to eat is the local version of spaghetti fried and with a dollop of mayonnaise in the center. There is probably a place tucked away somewhere with a woman tending bubbling pots of rice and sauce but I haven’t the energy to go looking.
In the meantime I can entertain myself with trivia. I like the signs that appear everywhere in Guinea telling people that there is “Pas de credit. Payez avant de consommer.” There are three of them taped to the walls here but I have never, not once, seen anyone “pay before consuming.” Perhaps this only applies to the “dancing” a phenomenon that so far I haven’t experienced much of. Across the road there is a park of sorts called “Place de Martyrs.” It has a large sign with two flaming torches both of which clearly appear to be giving me the finger. On the headboard of my bed there was a stack of a dozen old and battered photographs. They were identical in every way to the family photographs I’ve seen everywhere in Guinea and showed a tall man, sometimes with a woman, sometimes alone, standing or sitting with the same stunned, formal expression on his face. In one photo there’s a large menu on the wall behind him and I wondered what event this was, what milestone in his life this night on the town represented. And where did he go on this occasion? Labe? Kindia? Or even to the big city Conakry? But I see now it was taken here in “the” restaurant and the wall menu is the same one I see in front of me. For some reason that makes me unutterably sad. Is it really so sad in Guinea or am I being influenced by the desperate pleas from everyone to help them get out? (Even the woman who served me rice in Heriko asked if I would take her to Canada with me.) Whatever the reason I find I recoil in horror when someone asks me if I’m going to go on and visit more of Guinea, the Forest Region or the coast? I can’t imagine going on much longer in Guinea seeing more and more towns like this. The starkness and barrenness and sameness of the life here would eventually get to me.
Another bit of trivia that amuses me is the fanatical way in which the people in this profoundly dirty country protect open bottles of beer or soft drinks. The server etiquette is to open the drink in front of you and then carefully leave the cap in place. The drinker will replace the cap between sips and look on with grave concern as I with foolhardy bravado leave my cap off. This concern becomes rampant when they watch me use my stove because I have lids for neither of my two pots. In Telimele one of the women cooking in the courtyard came over when I was boiling some water for coffee. She tsk tsked the lack of a lid, then peered into the water and told me “c’est pas propre” and made me throw it out and pour in fresh water. This was very amusing coming from her because she was surrounded by up to a half dozen large vultures at all times while she cooked. The vultures hopped around like pets and begged for scraps. The problem as I saw it was not having vultures for pets I’ve gotten to like the ugly things but the way they perched on the roof and in nearby trees and then swooped down to ground level. Their five to six-foot wing spans kicked up boiling clouds of dirt like the down draft of helicopter rotors, dirt which fell over and into everything including their vats of fresh chicken carcasses.
I know it’s hardly a deep cultural thought but to add to the parade of trivia I have to say that I still find Guinean toilet habits a mystery. Personally I find I need access to some kind of toilet be it a latrine or a bush on a fairly regular basis. The Guineans never do. Or if they do it’s not apparent. There are very few toilets about and those I do find are hardly convenient of access. The one here at “the” restaurant is a typical example. Using it involves the usual hunt for the key. The padlock on the door was suitable for Fort Knox and it was all I could do to dislodge the substantial latch. And once inside of course there was no way to close the door. I guessed all the cash had been spent on the impressive hardware to keep people out and nothing was left over to buy even a simple hook and eye latch to provide some privacy for those who make it in. Perhaps that’s because no one ever does make it in – a real possibility – but then where and when do they go? I don’t see piles of shit everywhere and being a largely Muslim country there are no pigs to eat the shit like in other places. So what gives? A nation of chronic constipation?
Flipping through my journal just now I came across a sheet of “Lost In Space” Guinean stamps that had amused me so much I kept them as a souvenir rather than use them on post cards or letters. They reminded me of a trivial but telling event in Telimele. While there I spent a fair amount of time with Mr. Barry. He dropped by regularly and we sat on my little porch and drank cold beer and talked. Sometimes it was a strained conversation but with two fast beers on an empty stomach my tongue loosened and I spoke and told stories as if speaking to another Westerner. I don’t think Mr. Barry quite got the point of most of what I said but he enjoyed seeing me animated and as he said really valued the chance to practice his English. On one of these occasions I flipped open my journal and showed him the stamps. Not surprisingly he knew nothing about the “Lost in Space” TV show and therefore didn’t understand why I found them so amusing (though I thought the goofy pictures spoke for themselves). But he did pick up on something else that hadn’t really occurred to me and illustrates the minefield waiting for those who aren’t careful in cross cultural situations. He pointed to the value of one of the stamps and asked if it was really worth 750 FG. I had eight of them pasted on the page and a quick calculation put their total value at 6,000 FG. 6,000 FG that from Mr. Barry’s point of view I had just thrown away without a thought. 6,000 FG would buy twelve meals of feh de manioc, was probably a week’s wages for the man who worked in the yard, was perhaps a day’s wage for Mr. Barry.