I bought a book to take home with me. It’s a kind of tourism book for Guinea with lots of pictures but also a bit of history and some practical information. It was originally written in French and then translated into English. I hope the French original is better because the English version reads horribly. But it may have cleared up a mystery for me.
In it there is a photograph of two foreigners on basic mountain bikes cycling down a dirt road. The caption says they are tourists and are cycling from Mali to Siguiri in Guinea. When they arrive at their destination the caption goes on to say, they are going to donate their bikes “to others less fortunate than they.”
I slapped the page when I read this and thought to myself, “So, that’s it.” That’s why every single person in Guinea put in a claim on my bicycle. At some point these two tourists (and for all I know dozens or hundreds more) chose to leave their bicycles behind rather than go through the hassle of taking them out of the country. This story got around and now every time a Guinean sees a foreigner on a bicycle they assume the bicycle will be given to the “less fortunate” at journey’s end. And however the Guineans view themselves they all see themselves most definitely as one of the less fortunate.
I was a bit worried that this book would lay bare all the mysteries of Guinea and I’d realize that if only I’d purchased it at the beginning of my trip I would have experienced none of the problems I’d encountered. But I was saved that final humiliation. The authors offered no information, hints, or tips that would have helped me. Indeed since their market was considerably more upscale than I, their descriptions of Guinea were sometimes harsher than my own. They didn’t even consider the dives I’d stayed in worth mentioning and basically said that outside Conakry there were no hotels at all. Of restaurants, too, they said little.
And as to the rest they echoed my own thoughts but in a much more positive light. They talked about how the Guineans were hospitable to the point of a village chief giving up his own hut for a visitor. There was no talk of hospitality prisons. They also said Guineans, unlike Westerners, did not worry about things that had not happened. They were not preoccupied with worries of a future that they could not predict or control. To me this is just a weak attempt at putting a positive spin on an inability to plan, to reason, to see patterns, and create systems. The author to my mind could just as easily have said that no matter what dealings you have with a Guinean it will always feel like the first time they’ve ever done it.
Saturday, March 17 8:22 p.m.
I’m on board the jet, sitting on the tarmac and, as common sense would dictate, far from the clutches of the Evil Conde and his ilk. But I won’t be happy till we’re in the air and Conde is 30,000 feet below me.
This is a night flight and eight hours from now I should be in Paris. I spent the day at the hotel essentially doing nothing. My bicycle had already been broken down, the parts placed carefully in a box and that box carefully, even excessively padded, taped, and then roped. My other bag was also packed and ready to go. Even my good luck “Guinea Conakry” t shirt had been freshly laundered and was ready to be worn. There was nothing to do but consume all the leftover milk and orange sitting nicely chilled in the fridge.
I almost went on the relatively long and hot walk to the carrefoure to secure a taxi myself but at the last second wondered why I should bother. I’d spent long enough daily doing things against the grain in Guinea. Instead I tapped into the small boy network and a taxi was gotten for me while I waited in non sweaty splendour in my room.
I’d hoped the airport would present a less crazy face for a departure than an arrival and I suppose ultimately it did but at the beginning I had my doubts.
Instead of stopping someplace where a dumb white guy could unload his luggage, get his bearings, and get organized in peace we drove straight into a maelstrom of people smack in the middle of the two tiny lanes that go in front of the airport building. There are a few strange ramps there and even a sign or two that say comforting airport things like “Arrivals” and “Departures” but none of it means anything or goes together in any sensible way.
My bicycle box and bag were both hauled out of the taxi practically before we’d even come to a complete stop. The usual clamouring crowd surrounded me including a man pushing a cart on which my luggage was then placed. I didn’t mind him and had already set aside some accessible cash to pay him when the time came. I didn’t need him to push the cart but without him I didn’t know how I could even get hold of a cart.
But there was another man who crouched down at the end of my bag and quickly hooked up a couple of small padlocks, handed me the keys and demanded 5,000 FG. I might even have given him a thousand or two but my bag was such that the locks he’d put on did nothing at all in terms of securing it closed. I gave him nothing and he had no choice but to unlock the padlocks or lose them as I moved away.
I had no idea where we were supposed to enter the terminal I could barely see the terminal through the crowds but assumed the fellow pushing my cart did. Then I got the shock of my life. I heard my name, looked up, and there was the Evil Conde smiling and larger than life. If it was a movie this is the moment the soundtrack would give a burst of noise and the audience would jump, the moment in Jaws when the severed head rolled into view, the moment in a hundred others when the monster leaped out of the shadows.
Conde immediately put his hand on the bicycle box and signalled to some MIU’s and said “Gardez ca!” I don’t really know what he meant by that but I assumed he’d been waiting for me all this time, planning and preparing his trap and now he was going to “garder” the bike keep it, confiscate it, hold it for ransom, and otherwise torment me.
I looked around desperately, not believing that this was how my trip to Guinea was going to end, right back at the beginning caught once more in Conde’s web of corruption. I tried to think what to do but came up blank. Conde was not a man that you can talk to and reason with. I knew any attempt on my part would be used by him to just draw me in and tighten his hold. I suppose I could have done what all my experience in Guinea had taught me to do open my wallet and fling money at him. But something deep inside me wouldn’t let me do that. I didn’t want to buy into this system that had appalled me so. And I knew that the game had gone too far for that. Conde was not going to be satisfied with a few notes from my wallet. From that gleam in his eye I knew he intended to get me into a room with some MIU’s and take everything I had. And even then who knew if I’d be allowed to leave with my bike? I was still in his world and he could make up the rules as we went along.
It’s curious that I was at such a loss. I’d been in Guinea for months after all and had had dozens upon dozens of similar encounters. I’d thought about it endlessly and talked about it at length with Mercenary Bob and Sundar and others. You’d think that by now I’d know how the system worked, would know my place in it, would know, like Sundar, how to walk along this tightrope of corruption and keep my balance. But I didn’t. I was as clueless as I had been the night I arrived and wandered through the airport looking for my lost bicycle. Here I was leaving and it looked very like I was going to lose it again. Only this time permanently.
The problem it seems to me is that even though I was physically in Guinea I had stayed in my world mentally. It’s not that I couldn’t adjust to the rough and tumble of life in Guinea but I just didn’t want to. And that’s how a man like Conde could capture me so easily. I was in his world but had never been willing to go all the way. I was in his world but still clung to the rules and mores of my own.
Most of the time that hadn’t been a problem. I had approached the barrages and the MIU’s as something of a game, not taking them seriously. And I got away with it because the penalties were not that high. I didn’t play by the rules with the Weasel and it had cost me, but only $8. I didn’t take Pontius Pilate seriously and I got in trouble but only to the tune of losing a couple of cycling hours. And way back at the beginning with my Christmas Escape from Conakry I’d more or less flung Conde’s world right in his face and told him that I refused to accept it. I was going to cycle around Guinea and do it on my terms. I would respect authority when I thought that authority deserved respect and that wasn’t Conde.
But now it looked like the chickens had come home to roost. Authority was going to go head to head with me one last time and the penalty for refusing to play the game according to their rules was looking like a lot more than I wanted to pay. This game as I saw it was to acknowledge Conde’s right to extort money from me (assuming that the power to do something is the same as the right to do it) and enter into some long, drawn out confrontation in which my goal would be to get on that plane while paying as little in bribes as possible. One of the rules of this game, and the one that I seemed incapable of accepting, is that we all had to pretend that this wasn’t really extortion. I don’t think of myself as a particularly moral person but somehow the hypocrisy of that bothered me immensely. If you’re going to rob me then put a gun to my head and rob me. But I’m not going to cooperate and let you rob me and pretend that you’re not, pretend that the money I’m handing over is an official “tax.”
At least that’s what I’d said till now. In this case I had a feeling that if I challenged Conde to put a gun to my head and rob me he probably would and I’d end up losing everything including, maybe even especially, the bundle of journals I had in my carry on bag.
There was, however, one other option and whether I had this conscious thought or not this was the option I took. And this was to stay entirely in my own world. In my world and according to my view Conde was nothing but a thief. It’s true the MIU’s heading in my direction in response to his signal wore the uniforms and carried the guns of authority but in my world they weren’t true authority. They were just Conde’s lackeys. And when dealing with a thief one didn’t obey their commands and meekly go with them. One fought them and if the opportunity presented itself one ran like hell. And that’s what I did.
I grabbed the handles of the cart and pushed past Conde before he had a chance to stop me. Luckily the ramp was extremely narrow and nobody could get ahead of me and block the way. I raced to the top not daring to look behind me to see if Conde had sent the soldiers after me. I flashed my ticket at the single soldier standing at the door and lunged through. To my relief I was in a large room with an Air France check in counter immediately on my right. Air France personnel in precise uniforms were everywhere. There were no burly Guinean soldiers carrying guns, no crowds, no screaming, just an orderly line of people checking in. I joined the queue and within a few minutes my bike box and other bag was tagged and taken away.
I wasn’t entirely confident that was the end of the affair and I was even less confident when I turned to see Conde standing at the doorway looking in. It appeared his powers ended at that door but just to make sure I called over an Air France security guard. I pointed out Conde to him (making very sure Conde saw me) and told him that that man had been causing me trouble and I was worried that he might try to steal my bicycle and other luggage. The security guard assured me that once checked in my luggage was safe and would go straight onto the airplane. I didn’t quite believe him but there was nothing else that could be done and when next I looked at the doorway Conde was gone.
I didn’t wait around, however, and congratulate myself on my final escape. I went straight over to the immigration desk to start the process that would officially get me out of the country. The immigration official looked at my passport and then asked if I would be returning to Guinea. I panicked for a brief second not understanding why he would ask that (Come back to Guinea?) but then I remembered that I had a multiple entry visa. He was wondering if I would be using the visa again or if he could void it. I nodded slowly as if thinking it over and then with a smile told him that he could go ahead and void it.