Monday, February 19 4:49 a.m.
I’m awake even a bit early for me. That’s because my bed finally collapsed at about 4:00 a.m. It was giving way bit by bit the whole night. Boards fell away here and there and I just kept twisting my body to avoid the bigger holes. It was odd but the bed actually became more comfortable as a form fitting cocoon took shape. But then the entire thing let go and there was nothing to do but ease myself out of the rubble and see if I could rebuild it. But once out of bed and standing I didn’t have the energy to tackle such a major project. This mood was helped by the dozen FAHBB’s (Fat and Happy Bed Bugs) clambering around on my mosquito net. I didn’t feel like getting back onto that mattress after that. Who knew how many more had purchased tickets for the All You Can Eat Porto Buffet and were waiting their turn?
I’d mention where I am but I simply don’t know. I’m a hundred and five kilometres from Mamou and forty-five kilometres short of Dabola and I’m at a carrefoure. But beyond that I haven’t a clue. Most of the towns and villages I passed yesterday were not on my map. And where I was didn’t make any difference when I stopped. All I cared about was that there appeared to be some kind of hotel at this carrefoure. I’d been trying to find a suitable camping spot for the previous hour and a half without much luck and I was happy to find any place to stay, even one with lots of FAHBB’s and at a carrefoure.
As carrefoures go it’s a particularly depressing one. I certainly would have cycled on by if it wasn’t for the hotel sign. I stopped at a roadside coffee type place to ask about this hotel. (Is this the kind of hotel with rooms or the kind without? The real kind or the mythical?) The man there to my surprise spoke English quite well and urged me to sit down and take a refreshment.
“All the cyclists do,” he said.
All the cyclists?
He produced a name card from a Frenchman billing himself as a “Cyclo Voyageur.” The voyageur, he said, had come through six months ago and two months ago there was a group of five cyclists. Three men and two women. He spoke as if I knew these people, as if we were all part of some kind of organization or club. I thought about this and realized I’d stumbled across some kind of African cyclist superhighway. None of these other cyclists had begun in Conakry like I had but had started off in Senegal and were engaged in tours through West Africa or even Africa as a whole. Starting in Dakar, Senegal, there are two obvious routes one into Mali heading to Bamako and the other through the Fouta Djalon of Guinea and continuing down this road that I’m on.
I thought that by this time I’d be finished with the Fouta Djalon. I assumed that out of Mamou the road would drop down out of the highlands and I’d be on the hot plains. Dabola is one hundred and fifty kilometres from Mamou and I’d even entertained thoughts of covering that distance in one day. I normally wouldn’t even try but I’m in the mood to cover some ground and I’ve got reliable information that there are hotels in Dabola. I thought that if the road was flat and I had a boost of a long downhill out of the Fouta I could make it in a long day. But once more my information was totally wrong.
The Fouta Djalon, the man at the coffee place told me, doesn’t really end till you reach Dabola. And in fact as I painfully learned yesterday almost the entire 150 kilometre distance consists of steep hills and therefore steep climbs. Instead of dropping rapidly below Mamou’s 690 meter altitude I’m 105 kilometres away and still over 600 meters. The road actually climbed above 690 meters, even over 800 meters at several points. It was at least an interesting and fun ride. It was market day in Timbo, there were plenty of people about on foot and on bicycles and on one 150 metre downhill I narrowly, very narrowly, missed a collision with a cow that darted out onto the road in front of me. Yes, cows can dart. They’re fast and agile when startled. A cyclist soon learns to give them a wide berth even when they’re just standing bovinely chewing their cud and looking too fat to move.
When it became clear I had no chance of making Dabola by dark I started thinking about camping. The problem was water. I had enough for cycling to Dabola but not nearly enough for a night. I’ve learned that a cyclist in these parts builds up a water deficit. I drink all day and I don’t feel terribly thirsty but about an hour after I finish cycling a terrible thirst kicks in and I drink almost non stop for hours. I put water into my stomach as fast as my body can absorb it and it takes several litres to even begin to redress the deficit.
But where I was there was not only no water but practically no villages. There’s no question in Guinea of the idyllic camping spot beside a fast moving stream. Even the Guineans won’t drink the water from what streams there are. And it’s no wonder when you see the buzz of activity on their shores.
My only other option therefore was to find a place to fill up my ten litre water bag and then as soon as possible after that locate a place to pitch my tent. I tried at a few places but couldn’t find any water. The villagers got their water from springs that were miles away and no one had any to spare. When I finally found a place with a pump and got my water I was suddenly back in a populated area and couldn’t find a private place for my tent. For such a large country with only seven million people they sure manage to hide behind every tree.
I cycled along for kilometre after kilometre really feeling the weight of that water until I finally cycled into this carrefoure and found my home for the night. I thought I was lucky to come across this English speaking fellow and he was nice enough but I was far too tired to put up with much more than fifteen minutes of the “grand inquisition.” The questions were blunt and personal and when he didn’t like my answers (I was too tired to even make up culturally sensitive white lies) he tried to tell me I was wrong and should live this way or that way. He wasn’t being unfriendly but I found it all a bit much. He told me his goal was to go to journalism school in Canada. He once had the address of such a school but had lost it and with it his dream. I didn’t even have the energy to pretend to believe his story nor to be very diplomatic to the half dozen men lounging on the makeshift benches. One of them had his scabby and dirty feet up on a table and a stained hat pulled low over his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t moved for days. He asked me to bring him to Canada. He would take any job. He would even wash dogs if it would get him out of Africa.
I had my dinner of rice and feh de manioc at a little roadside stall and tried to fend off the depressed feeling this carrefoure brought out in me. Two men and a boy who had all three lost their minds hovered around me as I ate and every one thought that was hilarious. A drunk soldier came and sat beside me and bombarded me with “ca va?’s” and a stream of words in a language I didn’t understand. It was time to retreat and I went back to my hotel room, such as it was.
It’s still dark outside as I write and not too far away I can hear strains of wild drumming and singing and shrieking. It’s unlikely they’ve started this early so it’s probably been going on all night long. I have no idea what the drumming is all about. It’s a side to Guinea that I haven’t encountered only heard from a distance. I’ve asked about this drumming but everyone is either pretending not to know what I’m talking about or doesn’t understand my question. Perhaps someday I’ll get an answer. (“Oh, you mean THAT drumming.”) Or I’ll have the chance to find out on my own.
It’s time to bid farewell to my “Porto” alter ego and say hello to my new identity. I can’t say I’m unhappy to see Porto go. It’s begun to sound more and more like “Fatso” every day. And my new alter ego in Malinke is much more friendly: Tubabu (Two Bah Boo). Sometimes it comes out as Tubab (Two Bob for those days when one Bob is not enough). And as I rode around the streets of Dabola I even heard a diminutive that made me look over my shoulder for a short, gentle, and bald Indian man: Babu.
Greetings have also changed though not their frequency. Everyone, men and women, skips the preliminaries and goes straight for the “ca va”. I’m not clear yet on how this is supposed to go. Is “ca va” a question or a statement? Do I reply or simply throw a “ca va” back? It doesn’t really matter because I don’t think most of the local people know either. They lose themselves in a repetition of “ca va” without any idea of when to wind it up. The Mandingo children also love to make me say “bonjour.” I said it so many times on my way to Dabola I started singing it and chanting it just so I wouldn’t die of boredom. When it became overwhelming I started restricting myself to one “bonjour” per group of children. I found that the bravest child in a group would “bonjour” me when I came up even with them. When I replied the other children realized what fun it could be and called out “bonjour,” one at a time to my retreating back. I replied to them all till I discovered that sometimes, like a child returning for extra sweets, one child would be parroting “bonjour” over and over again, then laughing himself silly. Two Bob wised up at that point and instituted the ‘one bonjour per group’ policy.
I’ve actually been in Mandingo land since yesterday afternoon. A double bridge over the Bafing River not long before where I spent the night marked the end of Fula land. And as I predicted, the hills didn’t end till I arrived in Dabola at a hot 400 meters of altitude. The landscape, however, was one of the prettiest I’ve seen in Guinea, in its way far more pleasant than the higher regions around Dalaba. This was because the land was heavily populated with clusters of attractive huts lining both sides of the road and even some agriculture.
This lack of cultivated fields (or at least recognizably cultivated fields) is one of the mysteries of Guinea. Their main food is rice and yet I’ve seen no rice farming. All the rice I’ve seen and eaten has come from far flung lands like China and Vietnam. Guineans at least get hundreds of big sacks out of the deal which they use for everything from bread to charcoal but you’ve got to think it’s an economic hardship to import their staple food.
The same goes for wheat. Everyone eats bread every day but I’ve seen no fields of wheat waving in the wind. And there are other food items that are available and ubiquitous but I have no idea what they do with them. The best examples are the tiny cans of imported tomato paste and the cans of condensed milk. One sees little stacks of these everywhere but I never see a Guinean family settling down to a spaghetti dinner. And even so, why these tiny little cans? They’re perfect for the wandering Two Bob and his camp stove but no housewife anywhere in the world would buy these uneconomic tiny cans.
The same goes for the condensed milk. That time in Coyah when the man mixed a can of milk with orange Fanta was the first and last time I’ve seen such a can of milk purchased or consumed. And yet they’re everywhere. Every little kid with a stall at the side of the road has a stack of these things. It’s great for the cycling Two Bob with a milk addiction but who else drinks this stuff? In a normal day I don’t see too many Guineans who would (or could) shell out 600 FG for 159 ml of milk when a filling meal of (imported) rice costs 500 FG.
Dabola under other circumstances could be an interesting town to hang out in. What I mean is it would be interesting for someone who hasn’t already seen lots of similar towns. It’s small enough that one can get everywhere easily and large enough to offer the amenities a Two Bob might want. It also has a striking Badlands setting with a ridge of bare rock to the north. I particularly like the abandoned French built railroad buildings. And the market area looks interesting with lots of women tending the big pots that the Two Bob ‘in the know’ knows contain good food. (Ignore the “restaurant” signs and head straight for the pots.)
There is of course the usual “logement” problem. There are two hotels here (two more than in most places in Guinea) but both are fairly upscale and a fair walking distance from downtown. There is a grouping of broken down bungalows (the Tinkisso Annex) going for quite a bit less but they’re even further away. If I was staying a while I’d go for the bungalows but I’m here for only one night and went for the luxury, which I’m enjoying immensely. I’ve got both the air conditioner and fan going. I’ve already had a hot shower and a shave and since my course of antibiotics is complete I’m on my second cold beer. I don’t think I’ll be going for a third. With every beer the 3 D photo of the two fluffy kittens is getting more and more frightening. And in the restaurant/bar they have not only a similar kitten photo (looking at a goldfish in a champagne glass) but a big poster of a very buff Jean Claude Van Damm and for no reason that I can think of, a 3 foot blow up goose. With two bottles of Skol “International Beer” in my system I don’t think I could face that goose again.
Tomorrow is the day that I thought I would be having out of Mamou the day I head out into the hot plains of Haute Guinee. My first goal is Kouroussa, 160 kilometres away and right on the Niger River. Kankan is another 92 kilometres from there and Nzerekore a further 382 kilometres due south.
Tomorrow is also a red letter day in the sense that all the rivers I’ll be crossing will in some fashion or another empty into the Niger heading towards Timbuctoo. Till now all the rivers including the Bafing have been part of the Senegal River system. Even this hotel, the Tinkisso, is named after a river which defines a vast area to the north of the road I’ll be cycling on. I have to view that as an omen, a propitious one.