Monday, March 5 8:39 a.m. Nzerekore
When I left from Beyla I had no intention of getting to Nzerekore in one day. I’d gotten distance estimates ranging from one hundred and thirty-five kilometres to one hundred and eighty kilometres and with no idea of the road conditions even the low end of those estimates was beyond me. But cycle it in one day I did with a grand total of one hundred and thirty-five kilometres door to door.
I’m not sure why I bothered. There is no time pressure and I could easily have camped out in the forest that grew thicker and thicker as I moved south. And the friendly reception I got in every village (fuelled by lots of palm wine) meant I could have spent the night anywhere. But right from the start my feet had wings and as the kilometres clicked by I got into the swing of moving fast. I realized that at that rate I could make it to Nzerekore before sunset and the harder I rode the hotter, sweatier, and dustier I became and the less appealing the thought of camping out became and the more appealing the thought of Nzerekore’s hotels became.
Luckily I’d started quite early, not with the idea of getting a jump on the day but simply because I woke up early and decided to take advantage of as many cool morning hours as possible. I didn’t bother cooking oatmeal as I often did or even make coffee but went straight from my bed to a bucket bath to loading up the bike. It was still pitch dark and everyone was asleep so I was careful to make no noise. The hitch in my plan came at the main gates which were firmly locked with a heavy chain and one of the ten-lb padlocks. I noticed that the last link in the chain was broken and rather than wake someone up and begin the long “search for the key” I tried to pry it open with my needlenose pliers but it was too thick. I thought about climbing the wall but there was a substantial drop on the other side and besides I figured if someone spotted me I’d either get shot or arrested as a thief. I was almost resigned to the “search for the key” when a closer examination revealed that the other end of the heavy chain wasn’t welded into place as I thought but attached with a single thin wire. A quick twist with the pliers to snap it and I was free, picking my way carefully through Beyla’s streets by the light of my headlamp.
The barrage leading out of Beyla was the usual combination of stern treatment and laughable ease. A group of ten young soldiers crouched in a circle around a large bonfire. There was a brief panic as I approached because I look unlike and make a noise unlike anything else on the Guinean roads. But once they realized something of my identity (just a dumb white guy on a bike) they relaxed and guns were put down. We chatted about papers for a while. They were finally satisfied by the visas for various Asian countries in my passport, not flipping far enough ahead to see my Guinean visa. I’m convinced, however, that it was my “Guinea Conakry” t shirt that finally made them relent on their threats to take me back to Beyla for a visit to the police station. I’ve worn this same t shirt emblazoned with a map of Guinea every single day of cycling and it has become something of a good luck charm. If anything gets me through Macenta and flattened Guekedou it’ll be this t shirt.
The air was noticeably moister and my pannier bags literally began to drip with water collected from the air. My clothes also became soaked through. When the sun rose and broke through the clouds on the horizon the temperature rocketed upwards and with the humid air the sweat poured off my body like somebody was overturning a bucket of water over my head every fourth or fifth kilometre. And yet it was a kind of heat that was much easier to deal with than that of Haute Guinee. Cycling from Dabola to Kankan and then Beyla the heat sucked the life out of me physically and mentally. This wet heat though physically even more brutal didn’t affect me the same way. The dry heat of the sun-blasted savannah spoke of death and desiccation. This wet heat didn’t have that same threat. And I was overjoyed to find that in leaving behind the dry grassland I’d also left behind the ferocious black flies. As with most annoying things suddenly absent I didn’t notice it for quite a while. I’d stopped for my third or fourth downing of a litre of water and it occurred to me that I was relaxed, drinking easily, and even taking my time and scanning the horizon. This felt good but strangely unfamiliar. Then I realized what it was the flies were totally gone. I had one bad moment when a massive and massively ugly multi colored fly landed on my sleeping bag strapped to my front pannier rack (flies often hitched a ride that way). This was the kind of fly that wouldn’t be satisfied with a sip of salty sweat and a little nibble of flesh. This was the kind of creature that would savage you to the bone, and I thought if hordes of these guys were going to replace the tiny black flies I was in serious trouble. But happily this was the only such fly that I saw and it was bug free cycling.
South of Boola, fifty or sixty kilometres from Beyla, the real transformation to Guinee Forestiere began to take place. As each element fell into place I laughed with delight. I’m not sure why but it had something to do with the idea of confirmation. I’d read about all the ways that the Forest Region differed from the rest of Guinea and so the idea was there in my head and in books. But books are not reality and it was great fun to see around me the physical reality of what till then were just words on paper.
The first change I’d already begun to notice in Beyla with the sound of church bells. It was Sunday and I passed small churches that were packed with people. Out the open doors poured a sound that was very un Islamic an uproar of beating drums, other percussion instruments, and voices raised in song.
The next three changes occurred quite suddenly in the same village. I crossed over a small bridge at the village’s edge and there they were frolicking in a giant mud hole having the time of their lives four extremely dirty, hairy but very happy pigs. From that point on no garbage pile was complete without a hairy snout rooting around and snuffling up piggy treasures.
I’d barely recovered from the shock of seeing the pigs when upon entering the village itself the forest suddenly made its presence known. I couldn’t help myself but kept muttering “wow” over and over as I looked at each of the massive trees soaring skyward. Their branches joined together a hundred feet above my head creating a friendly green canopy. “Now, that’s what I call a BFT (Big F****** Tree)” I said to no one in particular as each tree seemed bigger than the last.
The final and ultimately most profound change occurred in the people themselves. The reserve I’d become accustomed to fell away and the people reacted to me with an animation and liveliness I’d seen nowhere else. Laughter rang out everywhere and when I stopped I was inundated with men and women who gathered for an eager handshake. They pushed past each other and tore my hand away from each other to shake it talking and laughing all the while. They were also much shorter than other Guineans I’d seen and had noticeably different facial features. I was quite taken aback, however, to see that many of the people had covered their faces in a white clay of some kind. This decoration like all masks gave the wearer a power, a presence and I was riveted by their gaze as they approached or stared at me from a distance. I regretted that I was passing through this area at the end of my Guinea experience instead of at the beginning. I think it would be great fun and very rewarding to explore this area but I simply don’t have the energy for it anymore. The meaning of the white clay and other things may just remain mysteries as I’m focused on moving along.
Just before the village of Kabieta there was a long descent down a ridge. Here the forest closed in again and the road changed from the red ribbon to which I’d become accustomed to a long cave or tunnel through thick growth.
I raced down this tunnel marvelling at the dense growth around and above. The road was uneven in parts but perfect for a bike since the unevenness was made up of long rolling swells and waves and not the jarring rock of the Fouta Djalon. There and further on when the forest again closed in the people were like magicians appearing and disappearing with disconcerting speed. This illusion was created by the many trails that were invisible in the bush at a distance. I’d see a person ahead of me on the road but a half second later they’d be gone and I doubted I’d ever seen them. A single step off the road onto a trail and they were lost to view in the forest as if they were never there. (I took advantage of this disappearing act myself one time when it became necessary to change my underwear which had soaked completely with sweat and was chafing miserably. I re emerged with wet underwear in hand to the considerable astonishment of a man just then passing on the road.)
At Kabieta I stopped at a small store to see if they had anything to drink. I needed a sugar fix. There was an awning with a few chairs and a group of men lounged there as I pulled up. I felt more than a little silly under their steady gaze because I was drenched with sweat. I looked like I’d just fallen into a river. The temperature under the sheet metal roof felt even higher than that out in the sun and my body continued to sweat the entire time I sat there, thick rivulets running down my face and chin.
These men continued to stare in astonishment not quite understanding what they were seeing. Then after learning I was cycling to Nzerekore they offered the usual Guinean version of helpful advice.
“Nzerekore? C’est loin,” one said.
I know, I replied.
A beat, then a second man joined in.
“C’est tres loin.”
The others nodded their agreement.
“Il fait chaud,” the first added.
“Tres chaud,” echoed the second.
They looked at me to see what I made of this helpful bit of information.
I know, I said.
After Nzerekore, then what? they wanted to know.
Then back to Conakry I said.
Yes, by bicycle.
“Conakry,” said the first shaking his head. “C’est loin, eh?”
“Tres loin,” said the second.
“Et les montagnes,” chimed in a third.
“Beaucoup de montagnes,” confirmed the second.
“Fatiguant,” the first informed me.
Yes, I know.
The next town, Goueke, was the focus of much “logement” debate. I had been told there was a hotel there. Maybe. Others said there was no hotel but only “chambres de passage.” This was a new one on me and I wondered if perhaps this was the key phrase I should have been using all along. Perhaps if I’d asked after “chambres de passage” in such places as Kerouane I would have broken through the logement barrier.
I kept my eyes open as I entered Goueke. If I was going to break the journey anywhere it would be here. But not only did I not see anything resembling logement I saw nothing that would induce me to stay. I stopped at a set of small shacks at the beginning of the town to see what was cooking in the pots. They had rice and a sauce that didn’t have floating body parts but they also had a group of men well-sloshed on palm wine. They gathered around me and breathed on me talking about all manner of incomprehensible things. The common theme, however, was palm wine. They insisted that I join them in knocking back a few bottles. The point seemed to be not hospitality but that they needed somebody to pay for it.
The town itself was hot and dusty with little to recommend it and I cycled through it and out the other side as fast as I could, pursued by the men with bad breath still raving about palm wine.
The final forty kilometres to Nzerekore were a lot tougher than any that came before. The downhill portion had ended and I was now going much slower on my tiring legs. But even though I knew it was going to be close I knew I’d make it to Nzerekore before the sun set. I settled into a rhythm and passed the time counting pigs and enjoying the music and dancing I saw in a number of small places. It seemed a group of DJ’s were on tour. I also enjoyed the sudden appearance of bright and colorful bars. Many had murals painted on the outside walls showing pairs of men clinking bottles of beer.
At the barrage outside Nzerekore I received a warm reception. A row of trucks were stopped and the drivers were being grilled over all kinds of papers and documents. I saw money surreptitiously changing hands. But I was called into the shade under a thatch roof by a round and friendly man wearing large glasses, a permanent smile, and a constant laugh. I saw men in all manner of different uniforms throwing coveting looks in my direction but I appeared to be under the laughing man’s protection. He made it clear that I was totally free to move on. This was just a friendly chat. And to prove it he presented me with a bunch of bananas. I sounded him out about the situation along the border but he knew no more than I did. He said it was calm right now and I shouldn’t have any problems. But as he said he just gets his information from the radio like everyone else.