Friday, March 2 7:22 a.m.
My hands aren’t much better this morning. Even simple tasks like shaving and opening a zipper are difficult. Pushing the play button on my walkman was almost too much for me and I had to use two hands. This is unusual and I suspect that it has something to do with how I positioned my bar ends. I tried something new outside of Kouroussa and I think I’ll have to put them back to how they were before. The previous three days of cycling were tough but not so tough as to warrant this kind of damage.
If my hands aren’t better at least my mind is much improved. It was in equally rough shape upon my arrival. But after a marathon sleep session I feel capable of coping with life in Guinea once more. I didn’t feel at all capable yesterday which is one of the reasons I reacted so strongly to where Beyla sits on the map. For a guy nearly at the end of his rope I was sitting far away from anywhere smack in the middle of nowhere with lots more Guinea inbetween me and Conakry and my flight home. In fact by going to Nzerekore I’ll actually be going even further away from Conakry. Nzerekore is closer to Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, than it is to Conakry.
I don’t think I would have had the strength or will to come this way at all except while in Kankan I tricked myself. I found out from the Ghanian man Charles that there was a twice-weekly bus running from Nzerekore all the way to Conakry. I told myself I would cycle the 400 kilometres to Nzerekore and there end my journey and “get on the bus.” It made sense because as far as I understood the situation it was still not possible to cycle through the border region. I asked the owner of the Bate’s Hotel and she pursed her lips in disapproval and said it wasn’t “prudent” to go anywhere near that part of the country. I also spoke briefly with a resident American, a member of the Protestant Mission. She said that friends of hers in the NGO community had recently driven that road and said that Guekedou was totally flattened. She said the rebels would take the town for a while and then the army would take it back. This was news to me. I hadn’t heard anything so extreme before and certainly nothing about towns being “flattened.” I know little about it but I assumed towns were only flattened when heavy artillery was used and in the border fighting I’d heard nothing about anything larger than machine guns.
But true or not it certainly didn’t sound good for a cyclist, not even a mad one and I left Kankan geared up for a hard week and then a bus ride back to the big city. I’m finding though that the closer I get to the actual epicentre of all the fighting the more casual people are becoming about it all. I’ve questioned a number of soldiers carefully, people you’d think would know about these things, but it actually takes some effort on my part to get them to understand what I’m talking about. They tell me that the road is paved and good for cycling and that there are some vine bridges on the way all “tres, tres touristique.” But they say nothing at all about fighting or rebel armies.
I’m hesitant to be too direct in my questioning because I don’t think it’s wise to appear too knowledgeable about the rebels or be too inquisitive. (One soldier suspected I was carrying guns in my pannier bags, that I was one of the dreaded white mercenaries. Another accused me of being some kind of marauding thief and said my bags could be filled with the booty of my crimes, confirming once again that soldiers at checkpoints are not placed there for their remarkable common sense or rationality.) But I would ask about security and whether it was safe for a tourist. Finally the light bulb would go off. “Oh, you mean the rebellion! Don’t worry, it’s calm right now.” As far as they’re concerned it’s business as usual.
So of course now that I’m 250 kilometres closer to Nzerekore and what I told myself was the end of my cycling I’m now thinking of cycling all the way back to Conakry, another 900 kilometres from Nzerekore, a good chunk of that through what could be a war zone. Crazy? Perhaps, but certainly no crazier than cycling from Kankan to here.
When I left Kankan I really had no idea what I was heading into. I had a vague idea that Guinee Forestiere was different from Haute Guinee. There were highlands there and of course forest. I also knew that the people of that area had resisted the influx of Islam and retained much of their traditional beliefs. But what I didn’t know was where this new geographical region began and therefore how much more of this sun-blasted dry savannah I had to cycle through. Nor did I know what the road conditions were, whether this was smooth eighty km/day dirt road or savage, rocky forty km/day hell.
Logement was also a big question mark as was the availability of food and water and I stocked up in Kankan on more food and water than was wise for either my bike to carry or my legs to move. But happily my very first stop in the early morning proved that Guinea wasn’t going to let me down in the silliness department. I was at a barrage encircled by a cluster of young and old soldiers. There was the usual chaos and confusion as they searched for the right tone in dealing with me. The youngsters were all for demanding my papers and proof that I was a tourist. (I’m still puzzling over that one. I’ve never been asked to prove I was a tourist before. How does one do that?) But the senior man, the chief, was a gentle fellow wearing a Gilligan’s hat and puffing on an evidently very satisfying morning pipe. He shooed away the youngsters and in a cloud of friendly pipe smoke admired my bicycle and oohed and aahed at all the mysterious bags. I asked him what the name of this village was and he said it was called Dabadou. I suppose it was inevitable. In a country where names like Kissidougou and Moussadou abound it was only a matter of time before I found myself in Dabadou. But it still took me unawares. “Dabadou?” I wanted to ask. “As in Yabba?”
After Dabadou the tone of the next three days established itself. People and villages all but disappeared, the sun rose and began to fry my brain, and the dust clogged my every pore. I got out my map and took stock. The only town where I’d even heard rumours of logement was Kerouane, 144 kilometres away. Between me and Kerouane were the marked villages of Bissandougou, Bodogou, Komodou, Diaradou, and Komandou. I thought I could just about deal with those village names without spiralling into mad fits of the giggles. But who knew how many more nasty surprises waited for me that weren’t on the map? The wise thing would have been to simply not ask people what their villages were called but I knew I wouldn’t do that. I always liked to know the worst. (Most of the names I learned along the way I can’t remember. My brain simply refused to admit them into even short term memory. But I have vague horrible memories of places like Freeamanadougou and Whatthehellareyoudoinghereadougou?)
I find that most of that first day is lost in a hazy memory of a searing sun and an endless horizon of burnt grass and baked earth. I do remember stopping for a cafe au lait Guinean style in the village of Bissandougou. The resident Sierra Leonian refugee told me he hadn’t anyone in the world to help him and would I mind taking him to Canada? He also reminded me that Bissandougou was actually an historical town.
Almamy Samory Toure, a leader and fighter who caused the French all manner of trouble in the 19th Century, was based here and then later in Kerouane. I remembered reading that Toure used “scorched earth” tactics in fighting the French. I have to wonder about the veracity of that report. The only thing to burn around there was the tall and abundant elephant grass and this the villagers set ablaze anyway. All around me the countryside was either black with soot or burning merrily sending clouds of smoke skyward. When I got closer to Kerouane and the Tourou and Going mountains the fires became even more prominent. It appeared to me that Toure was alive and well, still setting the land afire.
I knew that I hadn’t a prayer of reaching Kerouane in one day and settled on just doing the lion’s share of the 144 kilometres leaving an easy day to cycle to Kerouane. The countryside was empty enough that I wouldn’t have any trouble camping out.
Or so I thought. It’s true the countryside was empty but the conditions were so harsh, even harsher than on the Dabola Kankan stretch, that camping was going to be even more survivalist in tone. I couldn’t stop the bike for more than a minute or two before the savage little black flies drove me into motion again. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to cook any of the food I carefully brought with me. All I could manage might be the ten to fifteen minutes it would take to set up my tent, put my gear inside and dive in after it. But with the sun still in the sky that was also clearly not feasible. There was no shade and the temperature in the tent would soar past endurable in no time. I realized that if conditions remained the same I could do nothing but cycle all day till sunset. That wasn’t a rosy prospect and as the brutal hours marched on I really began to wonder what the point of this was. I was in no mood for an exercise in pain and endurance which this ride was turning into. But I saw no option except flagging down one of the occasional trucks that passed and I didn’t want to do that. I say that I’m not a masochistic cyclist but at the same time loading my bike into a truck would feel like giving up and giving in. And with my luck the minute I gave up I knew the landscape would suddenly change and I’d be in perfect, scenic, cycling country. So I plodded on.
As if sensing my defeatist mood my bike also had a moment of weakness and I was suddenly riding on a flat tire. This amazed me, especially when I found the culprit a small finishing nail. My tires, behemoths that they were, were not supposed to succumb to such things as punctures and broken spokes. I traced the path of the puncture and saw that the nail had gone into a thick part of the tire and had probably been embedded for quite some time. It had hit the kevlar barrier and not gone through it but over time had slowly pushed it to the side. Then on one of these unexpected rocky edges with my heavy load the tire had compressed enough to allow the point of the nail to nick the tube. Had it been the thick thorn proof tube I’d left behind in Labe it wouldn’t have punctured even then. But this was a normal tube and had a needle like hole.
Fixing the puncture was routine and when I got back on the bike I found I felt better. Even that activity was refreshing compared to the monotony of that road.
One piece of luck was that Komodou was a happening kind of town, a village that had turned into a truck stop reminiscent of Tamagaly. I reached Komodou quite late in the afternoon and realized that I could eat there which would mean I wouldn’t have to spend the night hungry in my tent. I could grab a meal, maybe buy some bread and then keep cycling till just before sunset and then pitch my tent and, most probably, collapse.
The main drag of Komodou looked promising with about twenty women in a long row tending these immense three legged bulbous vats. I stopped at the first one and she obligingly lifted the lid of the vat. I looked inside and saw a slaughterhouse. It looked like she’d taken five or six small mammals, a couple birds, and one large fish, put them all on the ground, chopped them up with a machete and then shovelled the whole mess into the pot and boiled it. As she stirred it with a big spoon various bits of animal floated to the surface and I saw heads, legs, and what to my horror looked like little hands. In my present state hot, sweaty, trembling, covered in grime and dust there was no way I could face gnawing away on bone and gristle. I asked after peanut sauce or feh de manioc but this was all she had. The next woman had the same sauce. She lifted out a big fish head to entice me but I could only grimace. The next woman also had this same animal gruel and the next and the next.
Spectators watching me move down the line tried to tell me that this was the only rice sauce available. I refused to believe it. It seemed impossible that there could be so many women tending so many pots and they all sold the exact same dish, and a dish so unimaginative and unappetizing. But it was true and when I got to the last woman, my last hope, she lifted the lid to reveal the same jumble of all too recognizable body parts. It took some effort but with the help of a young man who spoke French (most of the women didn’t) I convinced this woman to give me a dish of plain rice. No, no heads, no legs, no feet. Yes, that’s a lovely hunk of meat and shattered bone but I’ll just have rice, thank you very much.
If I’d had my choice I would have spent the night in Komodou but there were still two or three hours of daylight left and it was difficult to see how I could pass the time. To sit on the bench and watch the woman stir her pot of dismembered animals was not appealing. And there was nowhere else to go that I could see. I would have loved to camp on the grounds of the health center but did not know who to approach about that. In the end I decided to cycle on. It wouldn’t be any more uncomfortable than staying where I was.
Sunset found me in a relatively uninhabited area and I quickly scouted out a place where I thought I could get some at least partial cover between me and the road. To my dismay, however, I realized that the entire area through which I’d walked and then pushed my bike had been burned in such a way as to leave black soot on tall thick stocks. These had left me black from head to foot. I had intense tiger stripes all up and down my pants and shirt and these quickly smudged and ran and got all over my face and arms.
I’d also misjudged how long the light would linger in the sky and had to sit beside my bike swatting flies for an uncomfortably long time before I felt my tent wouldn’t be spotted from the road by any potential banditos. The cows, however, kept me company and one small herd in particular seemed to take a liking to me. They stood in a protective circle taking turns to come in and sniff me all over. I’m sure they were just curious and wanted to make sure I wasn’t dangerous but I pretended they were my friends and were checking to make sure I was okay.
When it was too dark to be seen I startled the cows badly by getting to my feet and setting up my tent. I left the fly off and when I was settled in I could lay there and watch the stars and a crescent moon through the largely mosquito net roof of my tent.
I planned on being on the road early in the morning, long before dawn but somehow I managed to sleep in and the sky was already starting to lighten when I opened my eyes. I was annoyed with myself and broke camp in a foul mood. I tried to get to the road without getting covered in soot again but it was hopeless and I slammed my bike through the last bit of bush and onto the road once more totally black and already sweating and swatting flies without having covered a single kilometre.
I decided that if I was going to make it through this day I was going to have to break out the big guns my walkman. I hadn’t listened to music while riding in Guinea because it would have interfered with my ability to hear all the greetings and respond. But on this empty savannah that wasn’t a problem and I needed the mood lift that music could provide.
It was market day in Kerouane and there were lots of people about. That didn’t help me, however, in my search for logement. I’ve decided that hotels in Guinea are a lot like sub atomic particles you can’t know everything about them. You can know that they exist but then you can’t know where they are. Or you can be told their exact location but then find out they don’t exist.
I liked the Kerouane and the setting was pleasing with the Going Ridge towering directly to the west. I would have stayed but as my questioning about where this hotel was continued to get nothing but vague shrugs I resigned myself to another night in the bush. I comforted myself by reflecting that by continuing on I would make the next day’s leg to Beyla that much shorter. My goal became the carrefoure town of Konsankoro where a road branched off to Macenta and I made it there with relative ease.
Konsankoro was also a lively place and it’s remarkable to me that such a busy town serving a surprising number of trucks would have no accommodation of any kind, not even of the most dismal and dingy variety. I was probably reaching but I wondered if this was a clue to understanding the Guinean psyche. They seemed to have an all or nothing mentality. It simply hasn’t occurred to anyone to provide the service of simple lodging because in their mind a HOTEL is a place with a restaurant, a bar, electricity, running water, and bathrooms. They can’t build one of those and simply don’t bother not realizing that a hotel can be as simple as four walls and a mattress on the floor.
And when it comes to the hundreds of other things that can be done, the thousands of improvements and innovations they could make, they strike me as football players who have psyched themselves out before the big game. (Forgive the sports analogy but the one thing I found to read in English lately was an old Sports Illustrated in Dalaba which I read from cover to cover.) They seem to have given up hope. Once or twice when the subject of Liberia and Sierra Leone has come up I’ve sparked a bit of national pride and they lean forward claiming that foreigners are attacking Guinea because Guinea is so rich. They are jealous, they say, and want our gold and diamonds and bauxite. But then the fire goes out of their eyes and they sink back onto the bench. “Ah, this country’s screwed,” they’ll say. “Can you take me to Canada?”
Beyond Konsankoro the road began to climb and without warning I was in a totally new environment of jungly growth and thick forest. It was a feast for my eyes and mind and gave my legs the burst of energy they needed to make the climb on what was now a very rough road surface. Off to my left I could hear and just barely see a steep falling stream. If there was a way down to it it would have been a perfect place to camp but look as I might I couldn’t see a way down.
This search for a camping spot began to get serious as the sun sank lower in the sky and the number and size of the grass fires increased. The grass here was extremely tall and I think these fires were the first of the season. They burned ferociously sending up great sheets of orange flame that moved steadily up the hillsides. Up close they sounded like jet engines revving for takeoff and from a distance like Niagara Falls. Once I had a fire on both sides of the road and the heat and smoke was intense. I had to ride carefully down the exact center of the road and not swerve too far to the left or right. I wondered how the villagers controlled these fires and ensured that their huts didn’t accidentally go up with them. I also began to wonder how I was going to find a place to camp that was safe from these fires.
Time and again I parked the bike and dashed off into the bush only to find a fire uncomfortably close to the area I thought would be suitable. One fire in particular was extremely large and no matter how far I cycled on that twisting and turning road I could still hear it just as loud as before like a pursuing fiery demon. I had to draw on whatever reserves I had and cycle as hard as I could to put as much distance as possible between the fires and me. It was a race against the setting sun.
Two more potential camping sites were a bust but a third one was more promising and I decided to chance it. It was either that or soon be caught on the road in the dark and I didn’t relish that at all.
A large ditch ran alongside the road and it was only with great difficulty that I heaved my bike across it then up the first part of the trail. The growth was thick and I had no choice but to go through it like a tank making enough noise to wake the dead. If there were any villagers or bandits nearby I was announcing my presence loud and clear.
The trail turned out better than I thought. It was clear enough to allow me to go deep into the bush but not so large as to indicate a big nearby settlement. And it brought me close to a couple of small clearings just large enough for my tent and a bike. I chose one and quickly set up my tent. It was a difficult business with the tree branches everywhere and the flies drawn from miles around by the odour of my sweat. Meanwhile I could still hear the rumble and roar of the fires. I judged, however, that I was far enough away to be safe. Plus the last of the really big fires had been on the other side of the road and to reach me would have to cross over. And even if the fires came my way I felt I’d have ample warning. I’d heard of forest fires moving at incredible speeds but these grass fires were relatively slow moving. It wouldn’t be pleasant to have to move quickly to the road in the dark in the middle of the night but I could do it.
I was disturbed though when the last of the sun’s light was gone to see that the entire eastern sky was lit a dull red. It was as if the sun had set then zoomed around the planet in seconds and was now rising. I took a flashlight and followed the trail as far as I dared in the dark till I reached the top of the ridge and could look down. It was an impressive sight but I would have appreciated it more if I was 100% sure none of those fires could reach me instead of only 90% sure.
When I was finally settled in my tent and the last of the giant ant invaders had been killed I lay back watching the flickering sky and listening to the surge of the fires as they consumed choice bunches of grass and then died down. I fought down my fear by logically going through all the reasons I was perfectly safe. And I was safe. I wouldn’t have pitched my tent there if I didn’t think so. But there was that red glow and that annoying roar. They made it difficult to sleep. In an act of foolish bravado I stuck in ear plugs, closed my eyes, turned over, and went to sleep. If those fires were going to burn all night they’d just have to do it without me.
I woke up this time long before dawn as I planned and noted with satisfaction that neither the tent nor I had been reduced to cinders. In fact the night was quiet and the sky a thick black. Evidently the fires had all burned themselves out probably just as the villagers had planned. Like I told myself the night before the villagers had been doing this for generations and presumably other than Samory Toure didn’t go around setting fires that would get out of control and ravage entire mountainsides indiscriminately.
I ate a simple breakfast of bread and a couple tins of condensed milk while I broke camp. As I rolled the bike down the trail I wondered what a local person would think if they just happened to see me as I burst out of the bush and onto the road. They’d probably have a heart attack. But luckily just like every morning I’ve done this the roads were empty. A few minutes of oiling the chain, cleaning the mirrors and my sunglasses and I was back on the road pedalling as if I’d never left it.
The road was very entertaining rocky and uneven as it moved up and down a long series of low hills. Each descent ended at a bridge over a stream, some running fast, others just a thick sludge of greenery and mud. At one bridge I surprised a six foot bright green snake. He reared his head like a frightened horse then flew across the road. He hit the bush on the other side and vanished.
A number of times as on the previous day I came across a group of hunters carrying an odd assortment of makeshift rifles and shotguns. I knew they were hunters but I still had a few butterflies in my stomach each time I saw them. Sure, they were hunters. I knew that. But they were also a group of strange men standing in the middle of a jungle road carrying guns. They didn’t seem to be having much luck except for one man who had a large bloody monkey carcass hanging from a pole. I thought about the little hands I saw in the stew pots and looked away.
As I approached Beyla the hills and the forest disappeared and I was back on hot savannah. That disappointed me but from my map I think this savannah continues only the forty-three kilometres to Boola where the hills begin again.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon now on my rest day in Beyla. The cool of the morning has long since disappeared and the temperature in my room has been steadily climbing. There’s little to be done but strip down, lie on the bed, and gasp for breath what I’ve been doing most of the afternoon. I’d take a quick bucket shower but water is not in great supply at this hotel and what little I have I need to flush the toilet. I imagine there is water somewhere but as usual in Guinea I can’t find anyone connected with the hotel to tell me where it is. If I worked for Guinea tourism that’s a poster image I would use a poor foreigner lost in a broken down hotel, an empty bucket in his hand a water beggar.
There’s no electricity in Beyla either but in what they affectionately call the lounge of this hotel there’s an old freezer with a case of Fanta and Coca Cola. I’d love to get a couple of those or a bottle of beer. But as the man told me when I arrived the beer was “finit” and the freezer is locked with the usual oversized padlock. And the key? Who can tell? I consider myself lucky that before everyone disappeared yesterday I got someone to fill my water bag with potable water so I’m not dying of thirst.
I had the interesting experience this morning of waking up to the sound of church bells. It made for a change from the usual Muslim call to prayer and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The bells had a cheerful, joyful sound qualities that I find lacking in Guinea. I wonder how much of that is just me and how much part of Guinea. Certainly Islam here is not an oppressive presence. I’ve seen very few women with the full head to toe clothing. Indeed, topless women are a very common sight. Even those wearing tops wear only loose items or often just a black bra. And yet I still have the feeling of Islam sitting there brooding. It doesn’t seem a welcoming faith but more a faith of rules and routine. There’s a feeling of being excluded and perhaps this is the source of the discontent I’ve felt here right from the beginning.
I remember an email I got from an ex PCV who mentioned that she would go to the Forest Region sometimes for a break from the Muslim atmosphere of her village in the Fouta Djalon. These church bells are the first taste of what she might have been talking about and I wonder what other differences I’ll notice as I go deeper into Guinee Forestiere.