Friday, February 23 3:10 p.m. Kankan
I have a room at Bate’s Hotel in Kankan. First impressions matched the name and I immediately dubbed the fellow who showed me the pitch black rooms “Norman.” I knew I’d end up taking the room (the options in Kankan aren’t exactly overwhelming in number it was either rooming with Norman or a place at the Uni Hotel with a television and air conditioning) but I wasn’t very happy and wanted to share my unhappiness. I told Norman the room was like a prison but since I didn’t have a choice I’d take it. Part of the reason I was being so awful was that Norman and the girl in charge of the keys (asleep on a couch) moaned and groaned as if doing their job was a huge hassle.
But now that I’ve had a shower and sent one beer’s worth of alcohol into my veins and found that the Bate’s Hotel had a second story outdoor balcony I’m feeling much more well disposed to the place. I’m sure once the sun dips a bit more in the sky (from “nuke” to the “warm” setting) I’ll be even happier and I think I might even grow to be fond of the place. I’d have to think back but I think this is the very first “logement” in Guinea that’s actually in the downtown section of the town I was visiting. Normally the hotels have all been situated quite a distance from whatever ‘action’ the town has to offer. Certainly to sit outside, in the shade with a breeze blowing, in a chair at a wobbly table with a bird’s-eye view of not only the large hotel courtyard but three of Kankan’s busiest streets is unheard of in my experience of Guinea.
The reason I was so ill disposed to the town and hotel at first was the savagely empty, brutally hot, unbelievably boring, and difficult final forty-five kilometres of cycling to get here. The first forty kilometres by contrast were wonderful. This was the little adventure that I was looking forward to yesterday.
The “dancing” at the hotel in Kouroussa went off as usual last night but I found that a second pillow jammed over my head along with my ear plugs allowed me to sleep for at least an hour at a time. Then when the horrible music stopped I slept through for a couple more hours till the mosquitos finally called it quits for the night and I got up. I rode across the railroad bridge enjoying the clanking of the steel plates under my wheels. The trail on the far side was smooth and easy for a long time and I raced along knowing that this was as good as it was going to get for the whole day. This was the perfect time with the air cool, the mosquitoes settling into slumber, and the flies still sluggish.
The trail occasionally slipped into the rocky pattern familiar from the toughest of the Fouta Djalon roads but for the most part stayed smooth and sandy. No vehicle with four wheels had been this way in many years. The trail sometimes forked and offered options but these were easily sorted out and I followed the rising sun. I passed through two large villages just waking up and was moved by the experience. I thought by this time I’d have a blase reaction (“Oh look, another African hut”) but the existence of these villages with their tight clusters of grass roofed huts means something though I’d be hard pressed to say what. I’m glad though that I saw them, that I know they’re out there on the hot savannah between Kouroussa and Kankan, far from any road.
The only complication came when I approached the Niandan River and the trails got more complicated and lost in a couple small villages. But the small boy network sorted me out and I rode through a dry river bed and then over another railway bridge with the shallow but wide and pleasing river below. The town of Baro came shortly after that and an elder of the town stood me to a cup of coffee on behalf of the people of Baro. “Do you accept?” he asked me formally. “Certainly,” I replied. “Avec plaisir.”
But as I’ve indicated things got tougher after that. For eight kilometres after Baro the road held a bit of interest. It was gravel and there were people around. Then I reached the new paved road and saw by the first sign that I had forty kilometres to cover to reach Kankan city limits. Now, forty kilometres isn’t very much but after my forty kilometres of cross country savannah I found it very hard. Physically I was falling apart. I’d been cycling for many days in a row with only the one day off in Kouroussa and my butt was bruised. And mentally I was in even worse shape. I was bored with turning the pedals and very bored with this landscape empty of villages, people, or anything of interest. And I was tired of the wind. I don’t know if this is the harmattan wind but I’ve been fighting it ever since leaving Mamou. And today it was particularly strong and constant and hot. It never gave me a break and mentally I fell apart. I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it to Kankan. I couldn’t see the point. What was I doing, I asked myself, out here in the middle of the hot plains of Guinea cycling along all by myself? That it was hard work was obvious. But where was the reward? What was the point?
These were my thoughts as I approached Kankan. If Kankan was an African version of Maui it would still have had a hard task to turn the tables on my mood. And of course Kankan is no Maui. I reached the city limits sign and saw nothing to justify its reputation as a city that “knocked spots off every other Guinean town.” I rode for what felt like forever after reaching the town limits and still saw no city center, no ambience, nothing. I finally reached the university and the Uni Hotel. That’s where they tried to rent me a room with TV for 40,000 FG/night. I opted instead for the Hitchcockian flavor of the Bate’s Hotel for half that and now we’ll see what we will see.
My cycling and early hours has meant that I’ve seen very little of nighttime in Guinea. But it’s also because not very much beyond a karate flick and a “dancing” ever happens and Kankan is no exception. This hotel turns out to be a little beacon of light and activity in an otherwise dark city because it has its own generator (placed conveniently right beside my room of course maybe that means my room gets a better quality current). There is a group of NGO types sitting around tables in the courtyard drinking bottled water. I feel like buttonholing one of these guys and asking him if it would kill his organization to buy a 4X4 that wasn’t white? Maybe a nice blue one just to take a walk on the wild side? There is another group of guys clustered around the tiny TV in a room off the bar. They’ve all paid three hundred FG on the promise of non stop action in the 9:00 p.m. video. Another group of guys is sitting in the bar listening to a mixture of Guinean choo choo train dancing music and American rap where the rappers are engaged in a competition of ego, stupidity, and the frequency of using the f word. Up here on the balcony it’s just me and three women. They seemed very friendly and all wanted me to join them at their table or at least let them buy me a beer. But the dumb white guy on a bike isn’t quite as dumb as he used to be and politely declined all their offers. Instead he got his own beer and after wiping away as much of the harmattan dust and grime as possible sat down at his own wobbly table. From the balcony I can see that all of Kankan is dark except for the Bate’s Hotel. The street outside the hotel gates is still showing a bit of life, the night owls drawn to the spill-over of electric light like moths to a flame. Two shops remain open hopeful of a Bate’s Hotel customer or two looking for cigarettes or a can of tomato paste or condensed milk.
It’s an interesting street corner mainly because of the many two story buildings, remnants of the “epoque colonial”. I didn’t explore much before the city shut down. I went down one street far enough to find a place to eat where the number of flies in the air didn’t actually outnumber the number of grains of rice in your plate. In the other direction I hit the Super Grand Marche and walked up and down the aisles marvelling at the display of canned goods and other merchandise that would not be out of place in my post apocalyptic Guinean theme. Certainly in any other place the thickness of the layer of dust over everything would indicate a shop whose doors hadn’t opened in a very long time. I expected Mad Max to force open the door and start restocking the emptying larder in the trunk of his Mach 1 Mustang. Succumbing to impulse I bought a smashed and sad-looking box of corn flakes and a box of sterilized last forever milk. I was delighted to find they had a cooler with some plastic containers of yoghurt. In memory of Sundar and hoping to replace some of the friendly bacteria in my system that the antibiotics had killed off I bought a container. I assumed it would be inedible since it came all the way from Conakry but it was delicious and I’ll be back bright and early tomorrow morning for more.
“Sophie” at the next table, the only other occupied table, has now switched tactics and has been pressuring me to buy her a beer. But the dumb white guy is up to that ploy as well and simply short circuited the whole business by letting it be known I was content over here on my dusty chair all by myself.
The best thing about this balcony is a huge tree that totally dominates the sky to the northwest. It’s in full foliage and lit up by the lights of the hotel stands out against the black sky and its stars. The occasional giant fruit bat wings past and tilts its wings to flash whitely against the same lights.
The people here, the Malinke, have a totally different manner than the Susu and Fula I’ve encountered to date. I started noticing the change clearly in Kouroussa with the volatile and passionate verbal exchanges that went on around me. In the villages of my early morning cross country ride I noticed the same thing. In each one I witnessed a confrontation, in one a man shouting strongly in protest, debate, and anger at some other men and in the second a woman screaming at the top of her voice and chasing a man down the street with an upraised pot. The Malinke seem to like to argue, to express themselves, to get emotional in a way that I never saw amongst the Susu of Conakry or the Fula of the highlands. The change is most apparent in the women. Sophie and her beer drinking, cigarette smoking, and tight black lace dress wearing friends are a good example. I’ve also seen lots of women here riding bicycles and motorbikes. Most have flattened and straightened their hair and wear it in long braids. There’s an assurance to them, an “I own the road” manner that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Guinea.
An NGO type has appeared on the balcony and after hovering has now pulled up a chair at the table of Sophie and her friends. These women know their psychology. With him they’re totally different, keeping him out of their circle, making him feel excluded. They know he’s not going anywhere.