Wednesday, February 14 5:47 a.m.
The electricity in Labe stays on most of the time but it surges and drops off so constantly that the light in my room is more like a strobe light. I find it’s better to turn the light off and use a candle instead. Sometimes no electricity at all is better than just a little bit. I shudder to think what this power grid would do to sensitive electrical items like a computer.
This unreliability has become something of a theme for Labe and a depressing one. It started with my search for tubes. I thought by some miracle I might find one shop in Labe that carried better quality tubes and cycling gear. The French, after all, are renowned cyclists and make high quality components. But as I was to learn I had a choice between poor quality Indian tubes and absolutely crappy Chinese tubes. I initially bought two of the Chinese tubes, one to replace my other “thorn proof” tube and the second to serve as a spare. I bought them at a market stall to which a deaf boy who works at the hotel had brought me. I was assured these were not only the best tubes available but the only tubes. They didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence especially when upon testing them I found the rubber that served as the valve’s heart and soul was already disintegrating and torn, straight from the factory. That might be fine if you’re cycling within city limits and it’s no big deal to have to replace valves and pump up your tires on a regular basis. But I wanted something more reliable and went back out into the city to conduct my own search. The best I could come up with were tubes made in India. The valve was slightly better constructed and used a more reliable system. (Though the Guineans tried to tell me the Chinese tubes were better. They thought this because the valve stem was thicker. I’ve found in general that this faith in the appearance of a thing is much stronger than any other evidence used in Guinea.)
I asked after tubes of a different make tubes made in France or the US but in Guinea unlike in other places I’ve visited in the world such things simply aren’t available. Even if you have the money to pay for better quality items they simply can’t be found. Not in Labe. Not in Conakry. Not anywhere.
I find this an astonishing fact. An entire country where the only level of quality available for practically every manufactured item is the lowest and cheapest in the world. You can buy Sunny radios but not Sonys. You can buy JEC but not JVC, Banasonic but not Panasonic. These knock off brands can be found everywhere in the world but tucked away somewhere there is always a shop that caters to the rich of that country and carries high quality goods. But not here.
It sounds a trivial thing perhaps but it isn’t. While searching for my tubes I also dropped by every stall selling music cassettes (I have seen no CD’s or CD players for sale anywhere). The cassettes on display at any one tiny table in Labe represents the selection of music available in the entire country. They carry a dozen Guinean artists, perhaps a dozen other African performers, and then the rest of the world throughout all of recorded history is represented by Celine Dione, Bob Marley, Madonna, a country and western singer named Don Williams, and a few other performers on compilation tapes with names like “Super Hit Ballads” and “Super 2000 Hits.” I was happy to see a copy of Tracy Chapman’s first album. It’s always been a favorite of mine. I bought it but then was horrified at how poor the recording was. It sounds like a tenth generation tape, and each generation was made on more broken-down equipment. One entire side is barely even discernible as the songs I remember.
Later in the evening the deaf boy knocked on my door and handed me a note in English that asked me to give him 5,000 FG “for me completed one affair the your please.” I was going to refuse outright and I started to explain to him (he reads lips) why. I explained that not only had his help produced two defective tubes I couldn’t use but I’d since learned I’d been charged double the going rate for those tubes. But it quickly became apparent he wasn’t understanding my point. He indicated that I could just exchange the tubes for non defective ones. That gave me an idea and I simply gave him the tubes. If he could get a refund for them then he could keep the money. He was happy and I was just going to leave the tubes behind anyway.