Wednesday, February 21 2:00 p.m. Kouroussa
If I was yearning for the hot plains I got my wish and then some. At first though I didn’t think it was going to happen. I left Dabola so loaded down with water I felt like a camel. But then I felt silly because the land was heavily populated, very pleasant, and after an hour or two and the sun was beginning to climb I came across a brand new Mobil gas station. I cycled into the gas station and bought a cold Fanta and chatted with the young fellows running the place. From them I learned that in Malinke the standard greeting was ‘Isoma’ (ee so mah). It was a question of the ‘how are you?’ variety and one replies ‘fine’ with ‘Tana masi.’ They also told me that there was a hotel in a town called Cissella. If this were true it would be perfect for me giving me a 70 kilometre day and then 90 kilometres on the second day to Kouroussa where I was nearly certain there was logement. But if it wasn’t true it meant I’d be camping in the bush. I’d plan then on a longish day of one hundred kilometres leaving an easy 60 kilometre day to Kouroussa. So I questioned them closely and they were pretty sure of their facts. It was a hotel of the ‘hotel with rooms’ genre. It was brand new and was directly across the road from the gas station. I liked the name Cissella and cycled away happy with how the day was shaping up a lesson in greetings, a cold drink, and logement all before 9:00 in the morning.
But if I’ve learned anything it’s not to trust Guineans when it comes to information. I could hope these guys had their facts straight but I’d be a fool to count on it and I didn’t do anything foolish like dump excess water.
The road stayed pleasant after the Mobil station, heading steadily northeast through picturesque villages. I started to see fields of the large yellow gourds that are cut in half, dried, and used as bowls and other utensils. They’re an ideal kind of plant. One only has to harvest early to get cups, a little later for bowls, and wait till they mature completely for big serving vats. Their skin is thin and smooth, impervious to water, and very lightweight. They can also be decorated very easily and when broken replaced by a trip into the field to get another. The local people sold them for cash and in the towns I saw long stacks of them wrapped in wicker for transport to market. They were either a hot commodity or a little delicate because most of the fields were enclosed with fairly serious fences. These fields were pretty comic because the plant that produces these gourds apparently doesn’t have much vegetation and the gourds just sat on the ground like someone had scattered around a set of yellow bowling balls.
The last two ridges of the Fouta Djalon stayed with me for a time, one on each side like arms enclosing me. But as I cycled they began to drift away, get smaller, and eventually at a point where the road made a sudden curve to the south east (for no reason that I could see) they disappeared entirely and I was truly in Haute Guinee. It was also here that the road crossed a bridge over the Tinkisso river. There had been bridges before this but the stream beds were stone dry. The Tinkisso, however, was flowing and I pulled out a bike bottle and sent a jet of water over the side, sending it on its way to Timbuctoo and then the ocean 4,000 kilometres away. It wasn’t Holy Water but it was purified and for my purposes it amounted to the same thing.
I stopped at the town of Kouroukoto, a prosperous looking place, for another cold drink. The proprietor of the cafe had passed me on the road on his bike and urged me to stop at his place for a drink. It was another place where “all the cyclists” stop and he told me about another man on a bike who had spent the night there. This man was going across all of Africa and his wife went ahead of him with a support vehicle. It struck me that this was the only good argument in favor of marriage I’d ever heard.
The owner of this cafe, however, wasn’t sure about this hotel in Cissella business. He asked everyone who came to sit with the Two Bob including the local Imam, a portly gentleman with a long beard, but no one knew a thing about it and I cycled off into the unknown.
The landscape after Kouroukoto changed dramatically. The villages and cultivated fields disappeared entirely and for a very long time afterward my only companions were trees and cows. I talked to the cows but they were an uncommunicative bunch. Many stood facing away from me and upon hearing my voice would turn their heads to look. And with their head turned they figured they might as well do a bit of licking back there. The tail would arch and I’d be presented with a classic “talk to the butt” expression.
Cissella it turned out was a couple kilometres from the road and the only thing I saw was a gas station and across from it a cluster of half constructed buildings baking in the hot sun. I pulled into the station to confirm what I already knew there was no hotel in Cissella. The gas station boys, however, were inclined to dispute this. They tried to defend the honor of their fellow gas station boys at the other station and said there was indeed a hotel in Cissella. There it was right across the road. Call me literal minded but I argued that that wasn’t a hotel but a hotel under construction a very important distinction I thought. They shrugged. It’s going to be a hotel when it’s finished, they said. What’s the difference?
I wasn’t too disappointed. Even if the hotel were finished I’d have been inclined to continue cycling. The hotel buildings just sat there in the middle of nowhere with a view of nothing but the gas station. I’d already exhausted the two basic topics of conversation with the guys who hung out at the station no, you can’t have the bike and no, you can’t come with me to Canada and there was still 90 kilometres of this sun blasted savannah between me and Kouroussa. Every kilometre I covered today would be a kilometre I wouldn’t have to cover the next day. I restocked what water I’d already consumed from my reserves and headed back out into the blinding heat.
As I rode I belted out what scraps of lyrics to what songs I could remember. The savannah animals (birds, cows, and a few monkeys) were probably puzzled by my repertoire hymns (largely Christmas carols), a couple folk ballads, some Peter, Paul and Mary, and then the bizarre things that just stick in your mind for some reason like Terry Jack’s “Seasons in the Sun.” When I ran out of those I switched to “The Ants Go Marching” and then “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” but still the savannah and the sun went on and on.
I kept my eye open for camp sites and in this region there was at least no lack of those, at least from the privacy angle nothing but bush and trees on all sides of me. But apart from that there was no inducement to stop. I could sit in the bush, cowering in the dim shade of a scrawny tree or sit on my bike and pedal along.
When after what felt like an eternity had passed and I saw my first people I was even less inclined to stop. These were men hired to cut back the elephant grass that towered at the road sides cutting off visibility. My heart went out to these poor men working at such a hard task in this brutal sun and probably at very poor wages. Each of them had old shirts, scraps of mosquito netting, and whatever else they could find wrapped around their heads to fend off the clouds of savage black flies that swarmed them. These little flies had made an appearance from time to time in Guinea but only when I stopped cycling and never in the numbers that I saw here. Two minutes under that torment and I’d be a screaming madman. Even these normally stoic Guineans were waving their arms around and uttering what had to be curses. I felt even more sympathy when I saw their bikes further on up the road. They’d had to cycle to this work from who knew how far and I saw in yellow jugs the only water they had with them.
I’d had my own trial by fire like this planting trees in the remote northern wilderness of Alberta. We were tormented even worse than these men by black flies, mosquitos, deer fly, and the invisible but utterly merciless “noseeums.” But we at least were well supplied with water and all of the food we could eat with blessedly bug free tents to dive into when the day was over. And of course if you weren’t totally useless at tree planting (which unfortunately I turned out to be) you at least stood a chance of making some money. These men by contrast seemed to be in hell and any dumb white guy on a bike who chose to sleep in the bush would end up joining them there.
My one respite came in the town of Saraya. I was just about finished as far as cycling went and was overjoyed to see a group of people at a town pump. I had enough water for a night but I would be happier with more than enough and rode up to the pump and topped off my various containers. They seemed proud of the quality of this water. They called it “eau de forage.” I don’t know what that means but of course in my mad cyclist’s mind it immediately became high quality cheese water.
I thought I’d also have a Fanta or two if the town’s amenities went that far but I found the door of every building locked up tight. I was also surprised at the festive mood on the streets and the way everyone was busily rubbing their upper arms. The mystery was solved when I saw the “Medecins Sans Frontieres” truck and a butt to belly lineup that extended across a couple of town blocks. MSF was here as part of its yellow fever vaccination program and everyone in town had locked their doors, stopped whatever they were doing, and come running to get jabbed. I’m not sure how clear their thinking was about yellow fever and what this vaccine did but it was very clear that they were happy to get it. There was no encouragement necessary and the lineup was tight and taut with babble and excitement.
The elders of the village thought I was part of the vaccination program and all rushed over to shake my hand inbetween rubbing their arms and comparing bumps. I didn’t even try to dissuade them. Why else would a white guy, “le blanc,” (“That’s Monsieur Leblanc to you,” I’d say to the little kids) be in Saraya? And the bicycle and “Guinea Conakry” T shirt? Eh, who knew what Two Bobs would do?
After Saraya I became serious about finding a camp site. My Two Bob butt had passed the point of cycling comfort and I’d come far enough that no matter what the next day’s leg to Kouroussa wouldn’t be a hardship. The total bush setting had dissipated somewhat and there were people around now but I still saw camping sites and figured it was only a matter of choosing one. One problem occurred to me though, something that I hadn’t thought of till then. Grass fires. The villagers were in the habit of setting fire to the bush to keep the elephant grass in check. (Perhaps there were other reasons but I don’t know what they could be.) Some of the land around me had been set on fire and some hadn’t. I naturally dismissed the burned land as a camp site. Who wanted to set up a tent in a field of soot and ash? But, it occurred to me, perhaps that was the preferred alternative. I’d certainly hate to pitch my tent in a perfect grassy meadow only to wake up surrounded by a raging fire.
The site I found was a good compromise. I’d reached a point where there appeared to be two good alternatives a grouping of thick tree on both sides of the road. I had to outwait a local cyclist who was determined to engage in that most popular of local sports “Let’s Watch the Two Bob” but he eventually continued on. I looked in both directions along the road, saw no one, and dove for the bush. I followed a bush trail for about half a kilometre and then went cross country deeper and deeper into the bush till I felt I was well screened from all sides. The ground was black with soot, indicating a recent fire but it wasn’t very thick since the ground was made up of some kind of rock or sandstone and didn’t support much growth. Indeed when I moved some larger rocks to make a flat spot for my tent they made a hollow booming sound as if there were caves underneath me. There was nothing attractive about this place even the trees were too scrawny to block much of the sun’s rays but this was just survival camping and I decided this was my home for the night.
I got out my stove and fired it up for the necessary hot chocolate. By the time the water boiled the bugs had found me and I spent the next two hours in torment, cursing the flies and their perversity. Why, for example, did they find ears so attractive? I had all this exposed skin on my arms but they insisted on eating my ears where their infernal buzzing had the most maddening effects. And why didn’t they land, bite me, and then go away? Why this incessant hovering? Why? Why? Why? Anyone who thinks that humans rule this planet should go spend one night in the bush. Insects rule and don’t you forget it. I reflected that maybe that was the message these flies were sent to transmit. “Hey, human race, you’re nothing. Just a flash in the pan. We were here before you, we outnumber you about six hundred and ninety two billion to one and we’ll be here long after you’ve turned to dust.” Whatever their message it was all I could do to keep sanity together long enough to cook a meal, set up my tent, and run for cover. I lay back on my Thermarest totally naked, sweating, and breathing hard. Wild sex? No, just camping in the African bush.
I’m getting the hang of this sleeping in my tent business because even with my regular Tuesday dose of nightmare inducing Larium I slept like a log and barely surfaced once before 5:00 a.m. when it was time to break camp and hit the road. I was amazed that other than a near thing with two village boys collecting firewood I’d gone undetected. I broke camp, downed a loaf of bread and a can of condensed milk, and struggled in the dark back to the road, giggling all the time at my coup.
It was only fifty kilometres to Kouroussa and it should have been a walk in the park but it felt just like a continuation of the previous day’s 110 and I struggled with it. The only event of note was a chance I had to help out a fellow on a motorcycle. I often see people with bicycle problems but I can’t help them. All the tools and spare parts I have don’t match their Made In China bikes. But motorbike tubes at least have the same valves as my bike tubes and when I found this poor fellow stranded with a slow leak in his rear tire I used my pump to put enough air in his tire to get him to Kouroussa.
Kouroussa itself seems a pleasant place. There are lots of trees and a village atmosphere. There is also a hotel though for my tastes it is too far from the center of town and quite characterless. I rode around looking for another option I’d heard of at least three other hotels but they’d either closed up or couldn’t afford signs and I’ve ended up here at the Tando Plus.
I stopped for forty minutes or so at a local place and chatted with a group of men. Two of them were vocal to say the least and eagerly talked with me. One of them had recently seen a portable DVD player that a Canadian working in Guinea had with him. This event had profoundly affected him as it drove home just how unutterably vast was the technological gap separating Guinea and the industrialized world. He tried to describe this unit and the quality of its picture and sound to his friends but it was clear they weren’t getting it. So he was happy that I could confirm his story. He’d also seen a laptop computer with full CD Rom and DVD and music playing capability. He had never imagined such a thing and I got the impression that he was angry that living in Guinea he was denied all these things, as if by living here he was living only a pale copy of what was going on in the rest of the world.