West Africa

Transport Problems

Due to political unrest, not many people travel to the Guineas, locally known as Guinea- Bissau and Guinea-Conakry. Another main issue is transport. I entered Bissau after seeing two fights at the bus station and waiting one and half hours for enough people to fill up the minivan. The first began with one of the seamlessly endless entrepreneurs in Africa, a woman selling mangos at the gare routiere, sweeping away litter and leaves on her little track of land to make it more attractive. She had a shabby broom to sweep away the garbage, whose handle had been broken a couple of times. A man made fun of the broom and this large woman busted the broom over his head which might explain why the broom was in such poor shape. The second was just a couple men, one tall and thin the other a Rasta guy, I actually thought it was the man who was previously trying to sell me pot or prostitutes for malaria medicine. Initially, they appeared to be friends and to be just joking but it quickly turned into an ugly fight.     

My trip into Guinea was the first time our young driver ventured into Bissau thus the police saw him as “new meat” and often asked him for bribes. Generally, when you pay the fare the bribes are built in, so the driver will be asked for bribes but generally not the passengers. They asked him many questions about the functionality of his car, such as making him honk his horn and turn on his windshield wipers. When the left directional did not work, he was fined 7000 (about $13) which was a good portion of his profits. He was also later fined because the hatch door didn’t open and one more time because the luggage was too high and he couldn’t see out properly. Experienced drivers would have simply bribed the officer but as a rookie he didn’t. The other people in the car were angry at the driver because he did stop for the checkpoints; most drivers ignore the police and drive by. Especially angry was the old man in the front seat who told him to just drive by the police and he would wave at the police and everyone would be happy. The driver claimed it was because he had Senegal plates on but the passengers disagreed.

Entering Bissau, one feels the political corruption but also the warmth of the people. There was a coup three months before I arrived but one of the good things the president did before they overthrew and killed him was build bridges which drastically cut transport time as people no longer had to wait for ferries. Staying in the capital of Bissau for a few minutes was long enough to get the car for Gabu. Helping me was a local man, Sean Paul, and another welcoming guy who was trying to sell me a T-shirt I did not want. I was more anonymous here which I liked but there aren’t many tourists here so they were actually interested in you and not your money. I also had a small lunch of peanut sauce on rice before leaving for Gabu.

Gabu is a good place to sample local small town life including kids playing soccer or dancing, a bicycle repair shop, a girl pumping water from the village well, a child selling and pouring coffee and unofficial “gas stations” selling one gallon or five gallons at a time. The bicycle repair shop must be busy as the roads put a real strain on the shocks. The village pump extracts water by people jumping onto something that looks like a small teeter totter which then pulls the water to the surface and into dirty five gallon pales. The gas stations sells gallons of petrol in glass jars placed on a table at the side of the road with a cloth put over the mouth of the jar to strain impurities before being dumped into the vehicles. Payment seems to be done on the honor system. Heading out of town many people wanted to say hello and touch my hair or have their picture taken which I obliged. Of note are the scars usually on the side of the face which depicts what ethnic group they belong. As the trip went along I was able to match these scars to groups. Also, the terrain was hillier, greener and the temperature slightly cooler which made for a welcoming stay.

The trip to the central region of Guinea-Conakry was long due to bad roads as opposed to distance. Gabu to the Bissau border was fine and the border guards were tolerable. We waited about an hour and half until the bush taxi was full and ready to leave. This gave me an opportunity to looking at the different cars and how they are adorned. One had a picture of 1980’s Madonna, Osama bin Laden, a Muslim cleric and the stars and stripes; a strange combination. While waiting two teenagers had invited me over to share the rice and cassava they had just bought. It was in a rather large bowl and too much for them, so they scooped it into my cupped hands and I leaned forward and stuck the rice into my mouth. The sixth and seventh person arrived so we could leave and the driver asked where’s the white guy?  Two people pointed downhill at me eating the rice with the locals. The driver smiled and motioned for me to come. He told me I was becoming an African and I entered the car.

On the trip there were two tall Muslim men who were father and son, the father thin with a gray grizzle beard who looked very wise and was calm and the son tall and think who liked very strong and was more animated. In addition there were two unfriendly women who worked at the border and then the two teenagers that shared their rice with me. The women who worked for the government at the border got their pick of seats. At the border, the Muslim father escorted me into a small booth with the border guard and helped translate from French. He nodded when I answered the guard’s questions and then calmly translated into French. Even though I had all my papers in order it was reassuring to have him give assistance.

More difficult was the trip to Koundara, via Sareboido, in a burnt out seven seater (we fit 13 with two staying of the roof), basically a station wagon that really appeared to have been on fire at one time. The driver was in a position of power as it was late afternoon and he knew it would be the last taxi of the day. He overcharged several of us for our luggage and overcharged me for the fare. What followed was an ugly argument in which a village “mediator” who had no knowledge of what I paid and what others paid, would decide my fate. I knew I was going to lose and be overcharged by this “impartial mediator” but I wanted to at least defend myself and I was happy that the two Muslim men stayed and fought for me as well. The two Muslim men didn’t like the driver either as during the trip we stopped for a break and they decided to pray in a. mosque. The driver found two more passengers and was going to leave with the Muslim men’s luggage but leave without them. Luckily, other passengers said no and pushed the two potential passengers away.  Even though the driver got the money everyone in the argument, including the mediator, knew the driver was wrong, knew he was dishonest and knew why.

As it was late, I stayed in the nearby Hotel Gangan, which had basic accommodations and an enjoyable, funny owner which made me forget about the disgusting driver. More small town life can be witnessed including people grinding rice, attending the big mosque and, of course, getting swarmed by small children who wanted to touch my skin and fine fair. Again, it seemed like every child wanted their picture taken and then to see themselves on the camera screen. I was afraid to give the children my camera not because I thought it would be stolen but because they would all grab for it and I was afraid it would be dropped and trampled. The most aggressive was a girl who was the only that had a headdress, which was black and had two loose ends that draped down past her ears. She had a rather dull brown and white dress, which didn’t fit her vibrant personality and colorful words.  I also saw the two Muslim men who had helped and they apologized for the driver and asked how I was doing. I told them that I’ve calmed down, taken a shower and ate so I felt much better. The city was dusty, full of liter and full of mud brick houses topped with grass roofs. It was more conservative than Gabu and the mosque seemed to be the center of village life. It was a good stopover before proceeding to Labe, but I didn’t get a good night’s sleep due to the neighbor playing his radio loud, a thin mattress which exposed a 2 by 4 to my aching back and a wide variety of bed bugs with painful, piercing bites.

The trip to Labe was to take eight hours but ended up taking fifteen due to car malfunctions.  Our driver was aggressive and drove fast but his car was old and slow. We had three flat tires and the engine overheated about every half hour which required us to dump water over the radiator and engine. So the same cars that our driver practically ran off the road passing then passed us when our car broke down. I remember waiving to the two Muslims who in the end had wisely taken another car that left later but I imagine arrived earlier. After a couple hours of this, the driver pointed to a white car near the side of the road but mostly in the ditch and then made a slashing sign by his throat. He spoke a few more sentences and then no one in the car spoke. I thought the slashing sign was that our car was going to die just like the white car. However, a man with thick glasses who I was talking with throughout the trip, told me that we went through an area where the rebels had opened fire on three cars and killed all the people in the cars. Based on the reaction of the other passengers and the fact that the overturned car was still on the road, the murders seemed to have occurred fairly recently.

Despite the murders in the white car, I was for whatever reason more concerned with our car and our trip (the murders didn’t really sink in until that night). There were more car problems and more flat tires. Out of spare tires, the driver walked to the next village to get them fixed and the passengers tried to stay cool, both from the heat and the frustration of the trip. The driver had an extra muffler and radiator grill as well as a jack but didn't have a lug wrench to take off the lug nuts. Eventually a car passed that had a wrench. After our fourth or fifth breakdown, the large woman next to me who spoke some English turned to me, “You wanted to see Africa, this is Africa”.

It’s amazing how calm and cooperative the people were considering the circumstances. Of course there was frustration at the beginning of the trip but the amazing resiliency of the African people showed through as after the initial frustration each breakdown was met with acceptance and then eventually humor. On multiple occasions passengers’ hands were smashed as the car door was closed. As it so cramped in the car, passengers have to hold on and they often grab the car frame which is conducive to smashed hands. The driver showed resilience as well; I’m not sure how our car actually could run but the driver found a way. I also liked the spirit of the large women next to me. She had a brown and white dress on was large, all over large. She did not have a purse rather stored everything in her large cleavage including  napkins, money, keys and a variety of food including hard-boiled eggs. (With the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of Africans, I thought she should invent and sell cleavage purses.) She was traveling with her granddaughter and her son who was a military man in camouflage uniform and a beret. The woman was certainly looking after me; at a police stop the officer was asking me for a bribe and she immediately went on a five minute tirade. The police officer was actually scared and with hands extended to indicate to her to be calm; he nervously backed away from our car. When the car broke down, the son would walk around and somehow scavenge food, usually bread and tuna, for the people in the car. He gave me a tuna sandwich and I started eating; he reminded me that he wanted some too.    

By now it was getting dark and we had one major problem; the car had no headlights. It’s not that the headlights didn’t work; it’s that there were no headlights on the car. I gave the driver my headlamp so he could see. He used it for a brief time but then gave it back to me. I think he didn’t like it because it was unfashionable, a couple female passengers were laughing at him so he took it off but it would have made the trip safer. The driver’s plan B was to buy a couple flashlights at the next village and to use them as headlights. A couple male passengers volunteered to be roped onto the roof of the car. They both had two flashlights and lying flat with arms extended their flashlights became our headlights. We could see oncoming traffic but others, including a semi that ran us off the road which led to a broken axel, couldn't see us. Staying by the side of the road looking at the June bugs was enjoyable, but I really didn’t want to sleep at the crash site.

The large women approached me and told me it’s not good for me here and offered to flag down a moto taxi so I could reach Labe. Fortunately, within an hour, she flagged down a car that had room for her, her son, granddaughter and me and we all went to Labe in the new car. She was definitely in control of the situation. She defiled the driver when he tried to overcharge me, barked instructions to me “come here, sit down, put baggage there.” I was not going to argue with her because she was intimidating and I didn’t know what else she had in her cleavage. But the main reason was because she was really looking out for me and I knew she was an honest, good person. She made sure I got to the hotel I wanted in Labe as the driver just wanted to drop me off at the edge of town. She asked me where I was staying and I told her the Hotel de l’ Independence and showed her on the map of my travel book where the hotel it was. She then asked how much it was and I told her the price which was $20 cheaper than where they were going to stay. They decided to stay at my hotel thus saving money. I felt good that I was able to help them considering what they did for me. Mercifully arriving at 10:30 at night, it felt as though I was an endangered species and they were protecting me.

Despite being exhausted, I woke up early the next day due to the sounds of the gare routiere and being a little cold. I attempted to e-mail home and to get money from an ATM. It was Sunday so the internet cafes were closed and finding a functioning ATM was a struggle. The military son asked locals were the ATMs were and after finding one that worked I returned to the hotel. I saw him on the street with his mother and he asked if I found one. I said yes and he smiled and clinched his two hands together and shook them to the right of his head as if to give victory sign. It was the last I saw of my guardian angels. 

Near Labe are the hills of Guinea, Fouta Djalon, with scenic hiking trails as well as stunning waterfalls, most notably Chute de Kinkon, accessible from the small city of Dalaba. Many people gave me free rides to and from the falls, the first a couple men with an air conditioned SUV who got me to the junction for access to the waterfall. Nearly immediately a person told me to jump on his moped which got me close to the falls and after he dropped me off another person told me to jump on his scoter and got me the rest of the way. I offered each money but they all refused. So due to the hospitality it was easy to get to the hiking trails and falls. A couple French people were near the falls as well. They had asked where I was from and after I said the US, they made a snide remark so I went on my way. Later they were lost and asked me for directions, but based on the earlier conversation, I didn’t help them. The falls were attractive and there is also a hydroelectric power plant that can be viewed. I was to take a moto taxi back but the driver quoted my 3000 and I said I’d walk and then he ended up just driving me back for free.

Returning to Dalaba, I experienced the food and drink of West Africa. Walking aimlessly through town, I was motioned into a building by a man with horrible teeth.  The large wood building was open, no furniture and was barren except for a few men lying on the floor. They had a bottle of palm wine which they handed to me. My toothless guide told me it was palm wine and that I should drink it. Palm wine is milky-white and as the name implies is squeezed from palm leaves. I braced myself because I heard from others that palm wine is an acquired taste and those people were right. Squinting, I took a swig and passed it along. My guide didn’t speak much English but indicated his brother was a big man and gave me a Skol beer, which nicely offset the taste of palm wine. I would have like to talk to them more but it was too much of a language barrier so I moved on and a decided to get something to eat. I had steak and onions and dry cob on the corn which was a welcome departure from rice at a chop chop and ate a real restaurant with tables where I could sit as opposed to squatting.

The hotel I stayed at, Hotel Tangama, was located in a forested area in the hilly area which beautifully augmented the mist and the clouds when it was rainy. The hotel had a courtyard with a lot of vegetation, especially flowers growing wild. It had a fireplace in the lounge, tin roof and brick and mortar building connected with walkways. It still had bucket showers and sporadic electricity but overall I approved. The hotel also had a dance club where they played music extremely loud but luckily the generator stopped working at about 9 pm so the music died. The club also attracted working ladies. Upon return to the hotel, the front desk person told me “I do business, you want to do business.” I passed and instead curled up with the attractive hibiscus in the courtyard.

Dalaba has a helpful little tourist office which explained many of the nearby attractions.  One is the decrepit house of Professor Chevalier, a French professor who moved to Guinea in 1908. The instructions from the tourist office where get a ride to the fork in the road, walk towards Labe, take a right at the first service station, then take a left after the small footbridge not large one, etc. In the end I asked a man in purple, Katana, who said the house, was just before his village so we walked together. I took pictures and video and made note of large markers such as a cell phone tower so I could make my way back. Walking the dirt and then mud roads along the pine trees with Katana, we found the professor’s house or at least the walls and chimney of what was a house. It’s in the middle of nowhere now; it would have been even more secluded in 1908. He tried to prove that West European vegetation could also grow in West Africa such as cauliflowers, peppers and tomatoes. The gardens are still functioning.  I weathered a 45 minute downpour as it is the rainy season. The rain seems to bounce off the dirt here like Teflon, not much rain appears to sink into a ground thus it becomes slippery. Finding cover under a section of the house that still had a roof. I saw people doing laundry and talked to a couple other people that were taking shelter as well. I then ventured back using my pictures and videos as a guide. In addition, I listened for the cars on the road and just kept heading in that direction on the way back. Reaching the road, I began what would have been a long walk to Dalaba. Fortunately, the “I do business” man who worked at the hotel was driving past on his motor scooter and drove me back to the hotel. 

In Dalaba, the Villa Sili is the old governor’s palace and the more interesting Case de Palabres which had a local tribe’s (Fula) artifacts in an old meeting hall. The governor’s palace had thatched roof like a cut but the rest was cement. The guides, who only spoke French, tried to explain more but due to language issues couldn’t. He did show me some shrinking heads, which I believe could have been bought as a souvenir. I was also stopped by a lazy police officer who asked me for my passport and then either asked me where I was going or I was from. He flipped through my passport which he couldn’t read and pretended like there was a problem with my visa. I didn’t play along, so he gave the passport and motioned I could go like he was doing me a favor. We parted with great disdain for each other.

I attempted to go through the Williams-Bah Museum, which also had an area for internet which I wanted to use. The owner, Ad Allah, attempted to get the internet to work but couldn't. He also said the museum is only open Thursdays. I walked back to the tourist office and they called around for me and said the electricity will back on at 6 and that I could visit the museum then. I sat outside the museum and waited a couple hours, passing my time by watching some people play a game like chess and cards combined but it was on a bigger board and a permanent structure. There was still no electricity at 6 so I went to eat at a restaurant, but it took a while to prepare without electricity. The last couple days they had had 24 hour electricity but then everyone turned on their lights and now it is intermittent electricity. It would have been nice to have electricity as it was dark by the time dinner was over and I forgot my head torch. I found my way back to the hotel which was a challenge without street lights and dim house lights via candles.

The trip to Conakry was part transport, part ambulance ride. The shared taxi included a passenger in the backseat with his wife that we picked up at the hospital. His family didn’t want the taxi to leave because they realized he probably wasn’t coming back. He was sweating profusely and breathing heavily and after we hit each bump he let out a labored groan so he was in dire straits. It was a horrible trip for everyone, but fairly common way to transport seriously ill people as it much cheaper than a taxi.

The shared taxi reached the edge of town, where I transferred to another shared taxi to downtown at which point a couple passengers motioned to another person to share a taxi which stopped one block from my hotel, another by the hour establishment. There were still cleaning my room because the previous customers had just got done so I raced to the Cote d’ Ivoire Embassy for the Visa Touristique Entente (VTE) which is a special visa good for 5 different West African countries with multiple entries. The embassy worker was one of the more pleasant one’s I dealt. He was a big, jovial man who laughed at nearly everything I said. He said because I was a nice guy he would give me two months for the price of one. He asked when I wanted it done and I asked if it could be done by tomorrow, but even better today. Expedited service can be very at an embassy but he said the price was the same no matter what.  He may have actually stayed late and got it for me the same day. The VTE was a relatively new agreement so there was some debate in my mind whether it would work for all 5 but I was willing to take the chance as it could be a big time and money saver as it cost only $95.

 

In Conakry, the National Museum has an old mosque, old statues, fertility masks which is common in museums in West Africa and a temporary exhibition of Chinese art. Along the Atlantic Ocean are beautiful views of the water and ugly views of trash seemingly everywhere. At the eastern tip of the city is a bar called The Point that had some lively African music. From this vantage point, it’s easy to see life on the ocean. The big dugout canoes, pirogues, can be seen drifting by, fisherman repairing their nets or else pulling in there catch and also see Club Obama which had more live music. Venturing back into the city center, I sampled some street food (liver and onions on an open grill over basically a burn barrel served with bread), finally after a week got on the internet, walked past the stadium and presidential palace, taking a picture of the palace. Security almost immediately pounced on me and wanted to confiscate my camera. I quickly showed him the picture, not letting the camera out of my hands and he was satisfied that the picture barely included the palace so he told me to leave the area but I kept my camera.

Leaving Conakry was another pitiful travel adventure. I had planned on leaving in the morning and getting to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the afternoon as it takes about seven hours for the trip. The driver of the minibus kept loading supplies on top of the minivan because although the bus fares are set, he makes money based on the baggage he transports. Although we had enough passengers to leave by nine in the morning, we didn't leave until 1:30 in the afternoon. By this time, the driver was drunk as he was buying beer with the money he made from the baggage. We finally departed and drove a short distance before a downpour with heavy winds began.  Since the bus was so top-heavy, he stopped at a bar and drank some more. Exiting the bar, he fell flat on his face into a large pool of water. Unable to get the keys in the ignition, a passenger helped him and we took off again. The driver rear ended a taxi, side swiped another van before the police stopped him at a roundabout, nearly running over the police officer. We yelled out the window to the officer that the driver was drunk and he shouldn’t be driving. The officer accused him of being drunk and told him he couldn’t drive but the driver told him to shut up and then he drove off and the police officer was only able to grab his hat as he left. 

A mile down the road our driver stopped and in his drunken stupor realized he no longer had his hat. He stopped the van in the middle of the road and walked back to the police to get his hat.  As we were waiting in the middle of the road vehicles driving by, I told the women next to me that if our driver keeps driving we will die in a crash. The driver was so stupid drunk that he left minivan keys that he had left in the ignition. She was young, thin and attractive and initially I thought she might be a little meek but she proved me wrong. I told her she should take the keys, she said she couldn’t she was a woman in Africa and that I should do it. I told her I couldn’t I was a white guy in Africa and that she should one of her brothers to. She turned to the man next to her and told him were going to die of the driver continues and that he must take the keys. He was apprehensive so the woman laid into him and really challenged his manhood; I was impressed. When our drunk driver returned, with his hat, he tried to turn the key. It took him awhile to realize the key was gone. Enough passengers were persuaded to dissuade the driver from continuing the journey. An argument ensued, we knew it would last long enough for him to sober up or we would get his teenage assistant drive. We got his sober assistant to drive but by the late afternoon, the officers at the police checkpoints are drunker and more aggressive so we had to pay bribes.

It was now too late to cross the Sierra Leone border, so we had to sleep on wooden benches at a restaurant at the border. Groggy from nearly no sleep, I woke up at dusk protected by a couple of locals who had made sure nothing bad happened to me. I saw a silhouette of a woman and man sitting at a wooden bench near me.

“I was in that field over there yesterday.” The woman pointed to a nearby field. “I had blood all over my head and that’s when I lost consciousness. When I rise up I crawled to this bench and feel me head. I think I was shot.”

The man calmly responded with, “You go to doctor, ya.” As if getting shot in the head was as common as the common cold.

“Ya, me go doctor today”, the woman responded in Krio. A fitting end to the Guineas. It was yet another horrendous trip. The political tension was apparent as well (Guinea Conakry had a coup a couple months after I left as well). But, in the Guineas the people helped me through these problems. 

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